Mafeking, December 27th, 1899.
Barely had the celebration of Christmas Day passed in Mafeking when the order to prepare for immediate action was sent out from Headquarters, and in the early hours of Boxing Day two dismounted squadrons began to move to the front. We had spent a pleasant holiday that day, which of all days brings glad tidings and goodwill throughout the civilised and Christian world; but when, hereafter, we come to speak of the Christmas season of 1899, our stories will be impressed with the sinister memories of the tragic events which have for us marked the time as one of lamentation. Nothing could have been in more complete contrast to the happiness of Christmas Day, imbued with much real meaning to beleaguered Mafeking, than those early morning preparations which were made as the day closed. For some little time we have been desirous to attack the enemy's position at Game Tree, and in my last letter I mentioned the fact that, in anticipation of such an event, I had camped one night recently with Captain Vernon at his western outpost. That attack, however, did not take place, and, although the town and garrison were disappointed, there was a very strong feeling that it would not be long before they were compensated for their disappointment.
Game Tree, against which our force moved, is a strongly fortified position of the enemy, about two miles from the town, and it has been from this spot that our front to the north-west has been subjected to a persistent rifle and artillery fire during many weeks. The attack was ordered for the purpose of breaking the cordon around Mafeking, with a view to ultimately reopening our communications to the north. D and C Squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment, under the Imperial Service officers, Captain Vernon, of the King's Royal Rifles, and Captain Fitzclarence, of the Royal Fusiliers, were detailed to carry out the attack from the east, under the protection of the armoured train, and Captain Williams and twenty men of the British South Africa Police, with a one-pounder Hotchkiss and Maxim. This right flank was further supported by Captain Cowan and seventy men of the Bechuanaland Rifles, the whole of the wing being under the command of Major Godley. The left wing comprised three seven-pounders, one cavalry Maxim, and a troop of the Protectorate Regiment under Major Panzera; Captain Lord Charles Bentinck with two troops of A Squadron holding the reserve. The entire operations from this side were conducted by Colonel Hore. Colonel Baden-Powell and his staff—Major Lord Edward Cecil, Chief Staff Officer, Captain Wilson, A.D.C., and Lieutenant the Hon. A. H. C. Hanbury-Tracy—watched the progress of the fight from Dummie Fort.
Our guns moved into position during the night, throwing up emplacements for the attack, and as soon as they could see, Major Panzera opened fire. It was yet dark, although there came a faint glimmer of light from the east, but not sufficient to prevent the flashes from the muzzles of the guns and the glow of the bursting shells from being plainly visible. Until that moment there had been no sign of any living thing about the veldt between us and the Boer lines, and there was no sound. We had seen C and D Squadrons creeping to their positions under the guidance of the scout Cooke. Captain Lord Charles Bentinck had deployed across the front of the Boer position, taking up his place upon the left of the line. Close to him and but little in advance, the gunners had ensconced themselves behind a few sods of earth and sacks of sand. These operations marked the preliminary of the fight, from which, as the armoured train steamed to its post, completing the units in our attack, nothing had been omitted which might increase our chances of success.
At 4.15 a.m. our first shells were thrown upon the enemy's position, the shells bursting short and beyond Game Tree with no very striking effect. Upon the left of Game Tree and extending to the receding wall of the fort, some sixty yards distant, there was a heavy overgrowth of bushes, upon which, as the enemy seemed to be firing from concealed pits in their midst, the cavalry Maxim concentrated its fire. Away to the right there was the automatic rattle of the Maxim in the armoured train, and the sharp crack of the Hotchkiss. For the first three-quarters of an hour the attack was left to Major Panzera, who, it was hoped, would effect a breach in the parapet through the agency of his guns. But, unfortunately, the damage inflicted upon the fort did not materially aid the charge which our men were so soon and so very gallantly to make, and which, when completed, revealed the fact that Colonel Baden-Powell had also organised a frontal attack upon an entrenched and impregnable position, with most lamentable results. A few of the enemy were put out of action by our shrapnel shells bursting in such a manner as to search out the interior of the fort with their sharp-edged segments, but the strength of the fort was so great and had been so increased during the night, that the artillery which was available was not sufficiently heavy for our purpose, while the wisdom of using the guns at all is eminently questionable. The character of our attack needed a movement which was quietly delivered, and which was in the nature of a surprise. So far as the fact is of value, in appreciating the appalling disaster which upon that morning befell our arms, our gunfire simply warned the garrison in the fort to stand to their arms. There is no doubt that the employment of the guns was a blunder in keeping with the conception of the attack. Colonel Baden-Powell, one has to say regretfully, upon this occasion was instrumental in bringing about quite needless loss of life. Presently, as we watched, we could see the signal being given to the armoured train "to cease fire," and a moment afterwards the base notes of the steam whistle boomed forth, when, as though waiting for this signal, "Big Ben," whose emplacement was some 6,000 yards to the south-east in the rear, began to shell the armoured train. As the echoes of the big gun died away, a roll of musketry from our own line and from the fort swept across the veldt, and for a few brief moments the hail of bullets was like the opening shower of a tropical deluge. Upon the east Captain Vernon with C and D Squadrons had begun the charge. Their position at this moment was in echelon—Captain Sandford with a troop of C Squadron was upon the right extremity, with Captain Vernon in the centre, and Captain Fitzclarence upon his left. As Captain Vernon gave the word to charge they opened out into skirmishing order, maintaining the while successive volleys with perfect accuracy. The advance was well carried out; indeed, its order and style were worthy of the best traditions of our army, and received tributes of admiration from all the commanding officers present. As they advanced the fire of the enemy was principally delivered from the front of the fort and the rifle intrenchments in the scrub. For a moment it seemed as though the face opposed to the rush of Captain Vernon and Captain Sandford was a mere wall requiring only to be scaled for the fort to be captured. But, when the men approached within three hundred yards of the fort, rifles rang out from every possible point, and the ground was swept by Mauser and Martini bullets. The men who charged through this zone of fire suffered terribly, and the conclusion must have forced itself upon their minds that they were going to their death. As each face of the fort became engaged the fire of the enemy began to have a telling effect upon our charging line. Captain Sandford was the first to fall, mortally wounded with a bullet in the spine. He fell down, calling to his men to continue the charge; but where he had fallen, he died. Our men now began to drop rather rapidly, and Captain Fitzclarence was disabled with a bullet in the thigh. His place was taken by Lieutenant Swinburne, who at once continued the charge, that officer and Lieutenant Bridges, of the same squadron, being among the nine who, upon the termination of the fight, were unwounded. The ground around the fort was becoming dotted with the figures of our wounded men, who, although they were but an irregular soldiery, followed their officers with the pluck and dogged determination of veterans. The brunt of the fight now fell upon the companies under the immediate command of Captain Vernon, who, undaunted by the impossibility of his task, steadily fought his way forward. As they approached still nearer, his men, undisturbed by the shower of bullets which fell about them, cheered repeatedly, the echo of those cheers, giving rise to the impression that the capture of the position was imminent. The steady rush of our men, undeflected by the worst that the enemy could do, was rapidly demoralising those who were firing from behind the loopholes in the fort, and it may have been that, had we not had our responsible officers shot or killed before we reached the walls of the fort, a different story might have to be told. As it happened, when Captain Vernon, with whom was Lieutenant Paton, steadied his men for the wild impetuosity of the last charge, a bullet struck him in the body. For a brief interval he stopped, but, refusing the entreaty of Lieutenant Paton that he should fall out, he joined that officer once more in taking the lead. From the point which they had gained the character of the fort was seen, and the heavy fire under which it was defended showed it to be impregnable. It rose some seven feet from the ground, from the edges of a ditch with sides that it was almost impossible to climb. It was certain death which stared them in the face within twenty-five yards, but not a man was dismayed. They continued. The ditch was before them, the fort above them, and through double tiers of loopholes came the enemy's fire. Our men from one side of the ditch fired point-blank at an enemy who, from behind his loophole, fired point-blank at him. Here those who had survived until now were either killed or wounded, and it was here that Captain Vernon was hit again, as he, with Lieutenant Paton and the scout Cooke, whose tunic at the end of the engagement was found to be riddled with bullets, endeavoured to clamber into the fort. Captain Vernon and Lieutenant Paton managed by superhuman efforts to reach the loopholes, into which they emptied their revolvers. Their example was eagerly followed by the few who remained, and who were shot down as they plied their bayonets through the apertures. Here Captain Vernon, Lieutenant Paton, Corporal Pickard, Sergeant Ross, and many others were killed. Captain Vernon was shot in the head, the third wound which he had received within two hundred yards. Lieutenant Paton was shot in the region of the heart. Bugler Morgan, who was the first to ply his bayonet, was shot in three places, but it is believed that he will live. Then a mighty roar rose up, and we who had not taken part in the charge, again thought that the position had been carried. But it was the triumphant shout of the Boers, who, from the quick manner in which they followed us in hoisting up the Red Cross flag, would seem to have been partially demoralised by the keenness of our attack. With the dead and dying about them, and the area of the wounded encircling the fort, those of our men who were left fell back savagely and sullenly, with a contempt of the enemy's fire and the desire to renew the attack. Further assault was impossible, and, though we continued to fire upon the position until stretcher-parties were sent out, the fight was practically over upon our retirement. When they fell in again, out of the sixty men that had been engaged in the charge only nine were unwounded. Our killed were twenty-one; our wounded thirty, of whom four have since died. There were also three who were prisoners in the hands of the enemy.
Soon after the commencement of operations the chief staff officer gave me permission to move forward from Dummie Fort, and I therefore rode over to the position occupied by Captain Lord Charles Bentinck, and afterwards to Game Tree, joining Surgeon-Major Anderson, when the Red Cross flag was hoisted on the scene of the engagement. The heavy vapour from the shells still impregnated the air, and hanging loosely over the veldt were masses of grey-black and brown-yellow smoke clouds. Boers on horseback and on foot were moving quickly in all directions, and mounted detachments were seen advancing at a gallop from the big laager upon the eastern front, with their rifles swung loosely across their knees. They had been proceeding to reinforce Game Tree Fort, upon an order from Field Cornet Steinekamp, when the cessation of hostilities had taken place under the provisions of the Red Cross. Game Tree Fort presented an animated picture. The enemy thronged its walls, held noisy conversation in scattered groups, that, breaking up in one spot, congregated the next moment in some other. The bushes about the fort were alive with men who, with their rifles in their hands and a few loose cartridges at their side, were prepared at any moment to resume hostilities. The fort itself showed no traces of the shelling, although it were impossible, from the seventy-five yards limit, up to which we were permitted to approach, to examine it very thoroughly. It has been claimed that the fort was strengthened during the night, but signs were absent by which one could detect traces of the new work, and, in view of this fact, one is disinclined to impugn the statement of Commandant Botha, who told me that he had been expecting the attack for the past two weeks. From where we were the strength of the fort was very apparent, seeming altogether unnecessary for the requirements of such a post, unless definite information had been carried to the enemy about our plans. It may be that the night attack which Captain Fitzclarence had led against the Boer trenches upon the east of the town earlier in the siege had prompted the enemy to strengthen all their positions. The fort itself had been given a head covering of wooden beams, earth, and corrugated iron; the entrance in the rear was blocked, and in every other way it appeared impregnable. When the order came for our men to retire, Dr. Hamilton proceeded from the armoured train with the Red Cross flag, making his way to the wounded in the face of a heavy fire. But as soon as it was recognised by the enemy that he was desirous of helping the sufferers the firing was at once stopped, and Commandant Botha himself apologised. The field around the Boer position at once became dotted with similar emblems, for the character of the charge and the severity of the fire had confined our losses within a very small radius of the position. The scene here was intensely pathetic, and everywhere there were dead or dying men. The Boers moved out from their trenches and swarmed around with idle curiosity to inspect the injuries which they had inflicted upon their foe, while a constant procession came from the immediate precincts of the fort, bearing those of our men who had fallen within its actual circumference. In their way they assisted us, although for some time they would not permit the waggons of the ambulance to approach nearer than half a mile, nor at first would they entertain our proposal that the services of the armoured train should be employed to facilitate the conveyance of casualties to the base.
As Surgeon-Major Anderson proceeded with his work, assisted by Dr. T. Hayes, Dr. Hamilton and a staff of dressers, the character of the wounds which our men had suffered gave rise to the impression that the enemy had used explosive bullets, although it is perhaps possible that Martini rifles fired at close range would account for the wide area of injury on those who had been wounded. In one case a bullet in the head had blown off rather more than half the skull; in another a small puncture in the thigh had completely pulverised the limb; while in a third, in which the bullet had struck just above the knee-cap, it had raised a mass of shattered flesh and bone into a pulpy mound. With these fearful injuries before one it was scarcely possible to believe that the wounds inflicted had originated through the impact of Mauser or Martini bullets. The Field Cornet, with whom I conversed at some length, upon being shown the dreadful condition of the wounds, admitted that at one time explosive bullets had been served out, but that it was not possible that they could have been used that morning, since he was convinced that that particular ammunition had already been expended. He then produced a bandolier filled with Dum-dum bullets, and suggested that since so much of the Mark IV. ammunition had been taken by them from us, our men had been hit by bullets which we ourselves had manufactured. I pointed out that this particular ammunition had been recalled, so far as Mafeking was concerned, since it had been found to strip in the barrel of the rifle. The Field Cornet then said that he and his men were already aware of the uselessness of this particular pattern of bullet, since upon many occasions they had been hit by some curious missile from which it was evident that the casing had stripped, and from which no injury had been sustained. It was a strange conversation to have with a man against whom the moment before we had been fighting, but from time to time, as we were waiting for the wounded to be brought up, the conversation was reopened between us.
The attitude of the Boers around us was one of stolid composure, not altogether unmixed with sympathy. At one time almost one hundred had assembled around those who were dressing the wounded. With their rifles upon their backs and two bandoliers crossing each other upon their chests, they appeared a stalwart body of men; for the most part they were big and burly, broad in their shoulders, ponderous in their gait, and uncouth in their appearance, combining a somewhat soiled and tattered appearance with an air of triumph. Their clothing was an ill-assorted array of patterns and materials, altogether incongruous and out of keeping with the campaign upon which they were then engaged. Some of them, with quite unnecessary brutality, had doffed their own rifles and bandoliers, in order that they might show and swing somewhat aggressively before our notice, the spoils of the battlefield. In this manner they sported Lee-Metford rifles and bandoliers containing Mark II. and Mark IV. ammunition. But for the most part they behaved with a certain decorum, and it may be that the weapon which they bore was the silent confirmation of the Field Cornet's words. Here and there they made some attempt to rob the wounded and despoil the dead, but when I remonstrated with the Field Cornet he expressed, with every appearance of sincerity, his very keen regret, ordering the transgressors from the field, and explaining that he was unable to accept the responsibility for such acts, since, although they had instructions to respect the dead, the younger men were so unruly as to be beyond his control. The Field Cornet proceeded to assert that the acts of his men were neither so barbarous nor so inhuman as those which our own soldiers had committed after the battle of Elandslaagte, where, he said, Imperial troops had stripped the body of General de Koch, leaving him to lie upon the field wounded and naked, and adding that we were morally responsible, and held as such by every right-minded person in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, for the subsequent death of the Boer general. This opinion was loudly endorsed by a number of the enemy, who had collected around us, one of whom stated that he had received orders from Commandant Botha to take possession of any effects which were found upon the bodies of the wounded or dead. I referred this man's statement to the Field Cornet, when quite a lively altercation in Dutch ensued. The Field Cornet denied that any such order had been given by Commandant Botha, and that, had any orders at all been given, they referred merely to papers and to the removal of side arms and ammunition. I pointed out to him the bodies of five of our men whose pockets had been turned inside out, and who were at that moment being brought up under an escort of the enemy. He was also confronted with three wounded who declared that they had had their personal effects stolen as they lay about the Boer trenches, their rings taken from their fingers, and their money taken from their pockets. The Field Cornet then promised that if any man who had done such a thing could be identified he would be immediately punished, while the more reputable of those who gathered round us guaranteed, if not the restitution of the property, summary conviction for the offenders. And in this connection it must be said that during the course of the afternoon a Boer orderly came in, under a flag of truce, to our lines to restore to Bugler Morgan his silver watch and £3, which had been taken from him as he lay, shot through each thigh, in the trenches of the enemy.
Very striking was the tone of harmony which characterised this temporary intercourse upon the field of battle between Boer and Briton. People who had been pitted against each other in mortal combat the moment before were now fraternising with every outward sign of decency and amity. This is doubtless due in some measure to the strange composition of the two contending forces, since so many upon the one side have friends and even relatives fighting against them that it seems the most natural thing in the world for any mutual acquaintance of one particular individual to make inquiries about his welfare. These greetings impressed the scene with a note of pleasantness and good feeling which was in most happy contrast to the surroundings.