AFTER OSPRUIT—SOME TRIBUTES TO MAJOR SHOWERS AND OTHER HEROES
Unsympathetic critics may discover a lack of due proportion in the space that has been devoted to this affair at Ospruit, seeing that it was but an episode in a long chain of operations, the whole of which are dealt with in a single paragraph of the Commander-in-Chief’s despatches. But the same argument might be urged against any enlargement in monograph on the official version of Brigadier-General Mahon’s brilliant march for relieving Mafeking, to which no writer has done full justice yet, though there is evidence that the Boers regarded it as the first ‘slim thing’ achieved by a British commander, and as a stroke of daring leadership by which they were completely outwitted. Many similar examples, not so conspicuous perhaps, but all material in their bearing on the greater issues of a campaign, and therefore worthy of elaborate treatment in detail, might be quoted. The Editor can at any rate plead that this is a history of Lumsden’s Horse, and not an essay in perspective. For that reason he has chosen to reproduce impressions of the different incidents, not as they might have presented themselves to the mind of a divisional general or an unemotional spectator, but as they burnt themselves in upon the brains of men actually fighting for their lives, and to use as nearly as possible each writer’s own words. It may seem strange that through all these narratives, from the Colonel’s purposely restrained and undemonstrative summary to the details that are told with most convincing force, we can trace no signs of depression resulting from the fact that Lumsden’s Horse in their first fight were forced to retire instead of taking part in a victorious advance. This is a touch happily characteristic of British soldiers. Conscious of having done their duty manfully, they were content to let the issue be what it might, so long as they had not lost confidence in themselves or in their leaders. There was nothing of the beaten soldier about them; no demoralisation, no sullen discontent, no sham heroics covering a sense of discomfiture. Whether they had to come back from their sacrifices because the enemy was in superior force, or simply because the object of a reconnaissance ‘had been achieved,’ mattered little to them. As Tommy would have phrased it in his expressive way, ‘it was all in the day’s work.’ Victory is sweet, no doubt, and men from whose lips that cup has been dashed cannot but feel a little bitterness in their hearts, but it is only the bitterness of a wholesome tonic. For soldiers who have suffered so there is always consolation in the knowledge that their sacrifices were not borne in vain. And Lumsden’s Horse may take satisfaction from the thought that their first fight, with all its sad and glorious consequence, was not brought about by any useless demonstration without plan or purpose. Though none of them could know it at the time, they had been engaged with De la Rey’s force, by which General Ian Hamilton’s left flank was being seriously threatened along the Brandfort ridges, and their action, which seemed to them indecisive, had so far relieved the pressure that Sir Ian was able the next day to deliver his attack on Houtnek and drive the Boers from it in some confusion. The apparent failure of General Maxwell’s brigade to carry out the mission assigned to it in the flanking movement mentioned by Colonel Lumsden may be accounted for by the fact that some of the Brandfort commandos, finding themselves in danger of being cut off, had drawn back from the contemplated movement against Ian Hamilton and thrown themselves into the fight that was then raging about the spurs and kopjes of the range from which Ospruit springs. Thus they outnumbered many times the mounted troops under Colonel Henry, who, having achieved his object, wisely retired from the left, leaving the Boers in occupation of the ground they had won, but leaving them also held firmly in check there by Infantry brigades, whose presence prevented any further demonstration from Brandfort against Ian Hamilton’s left. When Lumsden’s Horse marched back to their camp that night, therefore, they might have congratulated themselves—though they didn’t—on having done remarkably good service by something more than a reconnaissance in force. The immediate result may be summed up in a few words. General Hamilton, reinforced by another Infantry brigade and by General Broadwood’s Cavalry, who rejoined him from Thaba ’Nchu way during the night, was enabled to advance early on May 1 and strike a strong blow by which, as Lord Roberts said in his despatch, ‘the enemy was signally defeated at Houtnek with comparatively small loss on our side, thanks to the admirable dispositions made by Major-General Ian Hamilton.’ To this comment Lord Roberts adds an expression of regret that the troops employed at Dewetsdorp and Wepener had been unable to cut off the enemy’s retreat and capture his guns; but during these operations the Boers, being evidently prepared for retreat whenever their safety might be threatened, moved with very little baggage, each fighting man carrying his blankets and food on a led horse. It followed, therefore, that they could escape without suffering any loss beyond that inflicted by our troops in dislodging them from their positions. This was practically the official explanation, to which one may add that Cavalry alone could not follow up effectively the retreat of Mounted Infantry every man of which knew the country and how to utilise its peculiarities for checking pursuit. By his masterly stroke at Houtnek, however, General Hamilton had achieved something more than the capture of a Boer stronghold. At the end of that action his troops were astride of the most formidable defensive position between Bloemfontein and Vaal River, and an unopposed advance two days later to Isabellafontein not only took the enemy’s entrenchments on that side of Brandfort completely in reverse, but also effectually prevented De Wet from co-operating with De la Rey or Botha, and thus opened a way for the general movement towards Pretoria. Thus the fight at Ospruit, though it ended in a retirement against which some of the more adventurous spirits chafed, was a demonstration that helped materially towards the development of more important schemes; and to Lumsden’s Horse belongs the honour of having given to this affair an imperishable distinction by sacrifices that may have been unnecessary but were certainly not inglorious. The men who risked their lives and liberty, as Firth, Macdonald, and Williams did, in gallant efforts to rescue their wounded officer from a position which he had attempted to hold too long, are as worthy to be remembered as those who met their deaths in the fighting line. To the fallen, monuments have already been raised. Above the grave of young Harry Lumsden, who was buried beside Daubney and Case on the battlefield, a cross was put up by the Boers themselves, who, finding letters in his pocket, mistook him for the Colonel commanding Lumsden’s Horse, and buried him with the respect that they considered due to a brave enemy and leader of men. In the old camp at Spytfontein, to which the body of Major Showers was borne the next day, another simple memorial, pathetically distinguished by its loneliness, was raised by the comrades who paid their sorrowing tribute to him there, but brought away memories of his soldierly qualities, which they have honoured since by a more sumptuous monument in Bengal. The old soldier would probably have wished for no higher honour than the esteem of comrades whom he had trained in times of peace, and among whom he fell in their first fight. How sincere that esteem was may be gathered from simple narratives sent home by officers and men of Lumsden’s Horse, whose letters give incidental glimpses of heroic actions that might otherwise have passed into oblivion.
Lieutenant-Colonel W.R. Walker, officiating commandant, issued the following regimental order from the headquarters of the Surma Valley Light Horse, Silchar, dated July 10, 1900:
As everybody connected with the corps will no doubt wish to hear details of the death in action of our late Commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Eden C. Showers, I publish for information below particulars from a letter received by the Adjutant from Captain Chamney, of Lumsden’s Horse, written the day after the action in which Colonel Showers lost his life.
Captain Chamney says: Our corps were given the honour of the advance, the S.V.L.H. the honour of the first of that, and with Lumsden and old Showers at our head we occupied the kopje that was said to be the key of the whole position, but were instantly subjected to a heavy musketry fire. We lost one man and horse scouting, and then got settled down among some sangars, but the old Major scorned all cover, watching, absolutely regardless of the bullets, the enemy’s advance up a spruit on our right flank. Everyone had asked him to get down, but he always said, ‘Oh, I’m all right,’ and walked from one end of the line to the other. When all the rest had begun to retire, and we got no word, the Boers worked up closer and closer. I had only just said to him (he was but three or four yards behind me), ‘For God’s sake, Major, get under cover,’ when I heard the sing of bullets over my head and ‘plint,’ and, looking round, I saw he was hit. I said, ‘Are you hit, Major?’ and he replied, ‘Oh, nothing much, only my arm; send back for Dr. Powell.’ I crawled back on my belly to him and got his belts and things opened, and found also a big hole, just above the heart, which was bleeding copiously. Then Dr. Powell and two assistants came up, and we bandaged him as well as we could for bullets flying around, and, still on our bellies, pulled and lifted the old chap out of the range of fire. He was suffering evidently a good deal from suffocation; blood in his lungs, I suppose. I stayed with him as long as he was conscious—not many minutes—and had then to return to the men. I found him as we retired a little later there under the tree where we had laid him, and where we had to leave him and another man to the Boers. The ‘Retire’ came before he died, and Dr. Powell, making up his mind to stay with him, fixed his handkerchief to a stick to get what protection he could from it. However, the old chap dropped off, and, covering him with a blanket and closing his eyes, the Doctor left him to his rest and bolted, but, looking back, he saw the white flag, and saying, ‘What would the old man say if he knew he was taken, even dead, with a white flag over him?’ returned and took it down, and so we left him. The Boers took nothing but his spurs and badges. Dr. Powell returned at night under a Red Cross and got permission to remove the body to-day and we bury the old man this afternoon. It is a terrible loss to the corps, and all so utterly sad.
There is something almost Homeric in that incident of the white flag being taken from beside the dead warrior’s body under fire.
The ‘Times of India’ of May 9, 1900, contains the following appreciation of the gallant Major Showers:
Among those of Lumsden’s Horse killed in the fighting in the Orange Free State on the 30th ult. was Major Eden Showers. He was until recently the Commandant of the Surma Valley Light Horse, and by his example exercised a wonderful influence over all ranks. He was a son of General Showers, who did splendid work in the Mutiny days, and made his name famous by his courageous leading of the assault at Delhi on September 13, 1857. Major Showers was educated at Wellington College, and entered the Army through Sandhurst in 1865. He served in the Dublin Fusiliers, the two battalions of which are now in Natal, one having been in Ladysmith and the other with the relieving force under General Buller. After serving with the regiment for nearly seven years the deceased officer left it with the rank of Adjutant, and joined the 2nd Life Guards, with which he remained for three years. After ten years’ service he left the army to take up tea-planting. He worked for some years at Katalguri under Messrs. Macniell & Co., but at the close of the season 1881-82 joined Messrs. Octavius Steel & Co., and was Superintendent of their Cherra Gardens up to the time he resigned to join Lumsden’s Horse. He was elected by his brother planters to command the Surma Valley Light Horse in March 1895, in succession to Colonel Milne, C.I.E., and his nomination was ratified by the Government. The selection proved that the Government had put the right man in the right place. While in command he worked the Light Horse up to a high degree of efficiency, as was shown by the approval of General Sir George Luck, who at the inspection in December last gave them unstinted praise. Among other things, the General stated that he could honestly say that the regiment could hold its own with the best Yeomanry corps at home, which was saying a great deal. Shortly after his resignation of the command of the Surma Valley Light Horse, Colonel Showers joined Lumsden’s Horse as Second-in-Command, with the rank of Major, serving under his old friend and former subordinate, Colonel Lumsden. His death is a severe loss to the corps, and is deeply deplored by a very large circle of friends, who found in him a man of sterling merit, splendid character, and a credit to the military profession he was so keen in following.
The following appears in the ‘Assam Gazette’:
The Officiating Chief Commissioner expresses the general feeling of the Province in deploring the death in action of Major E.C. Showers, Second-in-Command of the Indian Mounted Infantry Corps (Lumsden’s Horse) now serving in South Africa. As Commandant of the Surma Valley Light Horse for nearly five years he brought that body to a high state of efficiency by his soldierly qualities, his untiring devotion to the interests of the corps, and by his personal popularity among its members. His untimely death is a serious loss to Assam, and will be mourned by the officers and men of the corps. He was loved by all who knew him.
The Hon. H.J.S. Cotton, Chief Commissioner of Assam (now Sir Henry Cotton, K.C.S.I.), presiding at the Assam Dinner in London in June 1900, paid the following tribute to Major Showers:
Another gentleman had been pathetically alluded to both by Colonel Kirwan and Colonel MacLaughlin, and the mention of his name recalled a recent public dinner at Cachar, given as a send-off to Colonel Showers and other Volunteers. The admiration which all the Volunteers of Assam had for Colonel Showers was, indeed, a thing to have witnessed. When he rose to propose Colonel Showers’s health the cheering was vociferous and so continuous that it was at least ten minutes before he could get any hearing. He had never been present at a scene of such extraordinary enthusiasm, and he believed it was thoroughly well deserved. Colonel Showers was an exceptional man; thoroughly straightforward and practical, and a born leader of men. What was said of Jim Bludso might with equal truth be said of Colonel Showers:
‘A keerless man in his talk was Jim, And an awkward hand in a row; But he never funked and he never lied: I reckon he never know’d how.’
That was the type of man that Colonel Showers was—a simple-minded Englishman, true and staunch as steel, and courageous to the backbone. As Colonel Kirwan had told them, he died, as he would have wished to die, a soldier’s death. He was a soldier in his youth and became a soldier in his prime, and died for Queen and country. They were all proud of Lumsden’s Horse and of Colonel Showers, who died at the head of his men in the first battle in which they were engaged.
From these extracts, and especially from the episode in which Dr. Powell played such a gallant part, we may know that the Surma Valley Light Horse were worthy of the Colonel who had volunteered to serve in a subordinate capacity that he might be with them in their first campaign and whose memory they still revere. That all Assam may bear in mind how he had endeared himself to those who served with him, the men of that corps have caused a handsome monument to be wrought in red Aberdeen granite for erection in the country where they first enlisted as Volunteers under his command. Its gabled base forms a Gothic cross surmounted by an octagonal spire, and in one panel under a cusped arch is the following inscription:
TO THE MEMORY
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL EDEN CURRIE SHOWERS,
LATE COMMANDANT SURMA VALLEY LIGHT HORSE; KILLED AT HOUTNEK, SOUTH AFRICA, 30TH APRIL, 1900.
Erected by the Members of his Corps.
Before this monument was shipped from Glasgow to Calcutta in September 1902 a sketch of it was sent by Mr. Peters, who had taken charge of all arrangements, to Lord Roberts. In acknowledgment the Commander-in-Chief wrote:
I have received with much pleasure your letter of the 16th instant, enclosing a drawing of the obelisk that is being erected by the members of the Surma Valley Light Horse in memory of their late gallant commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Showers, and I am much obliged to you for sending it to me. I am glad the memorial is being erected, as I feel sure it will go far towards preserving and promoting that esprit de corps which is so important a factor in all units of the forces of the British Empire.
It was esprit de corps, as Colonel Lumsden expressed it in the regimental motto, ‘Play the Game,’ that brought officers and troopers with distinction through their first fight, and the firmness with which it had taken hold of all ranks may be traced in tributes that show the finest spirit of comradeship.
The following letter, received by Colonel A.W. Rendell, commanding the East Indian Railway Volunteer Rifles, from Captain B.W. Holmes, who went with the Maxim gun of the E.I.R.V. Rifles attached to Lumsden’s Horse, is full of the sentiment from which mutual confidence springs:
Spytfontein, May 1.
DEAR COLONEL RENDELL,—I am writing to give you an account of the first action the gun has been in, and to tell you how admirably the men behaved in what were really very trying circumstances. When we left Calcutta I had the gun arranged to go on pack saddles on horses; but when we arrived here we found this would not do, as our animals were not properly trained, and in jumping about they were always knocking pieces of skin off and otherwise damaging themselves. We therefore fitted up one of our transport carts as a carriage, and with two mules as wheelers and four horses in front we get along pretty well. The first day we went out to fight we saw nothing, although there was a little firing about two miles from us. On the way we came to a very nasty piece of ground, and we succeeded in turning the gun head over heels down the side of a kopje. By a miracle it was not injured in the least, and I felt sure it must be going to do some work. Yesterday we went out again, and had only gone about four miles when firing began all along the line. We were on the right, next to a pom-pom; the Boer guns very soon found out the latter, and it had to be moved out of action. In the meanwhile I had been having a go at the Boer gunners at about 3,000 yards. No sooner had the pom-pom gone than a shell missed my head by about a foot, fell twenty yards behind me and burst, wounding four of my horses slightly. This wasn’t quite good enough and I got out of action as soon as I could, but not before they had sent two more shells right among us, or too close to be pleasant; the last one killed two horses and blew a trooper’s foot to pieces.
The Boers outnumbered us by about four to one, and shortly after this we received an order to retire with the rest, which we did. We had gone about half a mile, with rifle bullets sprinkling around us, when I was ordered to come into action behind a few stones that were lying on the plain. There wasn’t an atom of cover for my horses or the men holding them, although the gun was partly protected. I opened fire on the Boers at 1,000 yards, had fired about 250 rounds of rapid traversing fire when they began to retire. I fired about another 230, when the gun jammed, and at the same moment an officer came dashing up to tell me to retire immediately. We did so under a perfect hail of bullets, and although I had six horses wounded out of ten, not one of them was so badly injured as to be unable to go on, and not a single man of us was touched. After going about half a mile I gave my horse to Corbett to lead, and got into the cart and managed to get the gun into action again. We lost three belts and boxes in our hasty retirement, but that of course could not be helped. The men with me were Sergeant Bale, of Jubbulpur; Private Booth, of Howrah; Privates Dowd, Dickens, Corbett, and Burnand, of Jamalpur; and Private Bolst, of Asonsole; Private Burnand is my driver. There was one other man of Lumsden’s Horse with me, named Mercer, who was helping to hold horses. Sergeant Dale, Privates Booth, Corbett, and Bolst, and myself were on the gun. Colonel Ross, who was in charge of our brigade, expressed pleasure at the work done by the gun, and said that we knocked over several of the enemy, which was distinctly satisfactory. Our casualties were heavy. We lost our Second-in-Command (Major Showers) killed, Lieutenant Crane missing and wounded, and one private known to be killed, and probably one or two others of the wounded have since died, our killed, wounded, and missing being seventeen in all.
How our team escaped injury is to me little short of a miracle. The men behaved splendidly, and if ever we get into as tight a place again I have perfect confidence in their standing by me and the gun. Our ambulance is out now looking for wounded, but the Boers have probably attended to them long ago—at any rate, I hope so. Our men have certainly had their baptism of fire, and I for one should not object if we never got it as hot again.
You would hardly recognise the gun now, I fancy; it is a dirty khaki colour, with the paint knocked off it in, places and smothered with dirt and stuff outside. But the inside is, I think, quite as clean as when at Jamalpur; anyhow, it still knows how to work.
Yours very sincerely,
From the personal experiences of a non-commissioned officer who was wounded and captured by the Boers we get side-lights that help more than anything else towards a clear understanding of the temper and actions of men on the battlefield. To some extent this story touches on ground that has already been covered by previous descriptions. Partly for that reason, but mainly because it is a complete picture of one incident the nobility of which would have been lost if woven into the continuous narrative, it has been kept distinct, so that the writer’s impressions may be reproduced here with all the minor touches and bits of local colour that made them vivid at the time of occurrence. He begins with the march out of camp at 3 o’clock that memorable morning:
We fell in punctually and moved off to the rendezvous, the moon shining brightly and making wonderful black shadows among the surrounding kopjes-pronounced ‘koppies,’ by the way. The cold was intense, and numbed our fingers so that our reins could scarce be felt; The order to trot was received with satisfaction, for we were all shivering, men and horses alike. A few minutes later we joined company with a pom-pom battery of two guns, and a body of Mounted Infantry composed of Australians and details from various regiments. Our strength in all was, we have since heard, some 800, while the opposing Boers numbered three or four thousand, with several big guns. When our little band was complete, the order was given to trot, and we proceeded at a sharp pace for about a mile. Daylight was then breaking and a halt was called, the order being given to dismount and charge magazines—a sign of business received with much satisfaction. Thereafter we moved forward in extended order, with scouts in advance for three or four miles, when stray shots in front showed us that we were coming into touch with the enemy.
Before us the country lay in ridges running parallel with each other, and at right angles to our line of advance. As we surmounted each rising we expected to view the enemy, but the order to dismount came without our being vouchsafed any visible sign of their presence. Before us lay some 800 yards of rising ground, and we swarmed up in a long open line, fully expecting a volley ere we reached the top. However, our hour of trial had not yet come, though the scattered shots heard to our front as we advanced had increased to a sharp fusillade on our left front. The order then came to extend away into a narrow valley running at right angles and crossing the ends of the succession of ridges we had covered. Thus, lying on the slope, we could see behind for a mile or so, and in the opposite direction, up the valley, right into the country which the enemy were known to occupy.
Shortly afterwards the music began in earnest. A mile up the valley a Boer big gun appeared and opened fire on troops advancing on the hill from our left rear. Then out came one of our pom-poms and, galloping into position, replied from the opposite end of the valley at a range of some 3,000 yards. The duel between the two lasted for about ten minutes, the pom-pom firing briskly as is its wont, the more ponderous Boer gun replying every two minutes. Lying on the slope as we were, in full view of the valley and within a hundred yards of the line of fire of the opposing guns, we had a splendid, not to say realistic, illustration of artillery fire. The singing of the big shells as they tore through the air was magnificent to our unaccustomed ears. It was curious, too, to observe the sequence in which indications of discharge and report reached us. The first sign that the Boer big gun had been fired was the little cloud of smoke floating near the muzzle. Next we heard the singing of the shell passing up the valley. This was followed by the dust raised by the explosion of the shell in bursting, and not until these evidences of a shot having been fired did we hear the actual report, which was closely followed by that of the bursting shell itself.
For some five minutes the duel proceeded, no evidence of the effect of the pom-pom fire being visible to our eyes, though it became evident that the Boers were finding the range, for each shell seemed to land nearer, until, as it seemed to us, one burst right in the middle of our gun. At that moment those of us on the slope heard rifle fire immediately behind. It proved to be our own regiment’s Maxim taking sighting shots at the Boer gun. This certainly made things livelier, but there was no comfort in realising that we lay right in the line of fire, and that replies from the enemy would probably land among us. However, the Boers took no notice of the Maxim, though it spat out bullets at a tremendous rate, but continued to devote their attention to the pom-pom. The greater weight of the Boer metal soon made matters too hot for Captain Rotton’s little gun, and it shortly afterwards retired behind the hill, having lost several horses. Then our turn came, and the officious little Maxim, which had been kicking up a great shindy in our rear, drew the Boer fire. The first shot whizzed unpleasantly close to our heads and burst between us and the Maxim, which, undismayed, continued to pour out a hot fire. Number two was aimed slightly higher and travelled beyond the gun, killing two horses and wounding one man. The Maxim stuck it out pluckily for one more shell, but that fell so close that to have delayed any longer would have only been folly. On the retreat of our machine gun the Boer gun retired behind a kopje, and we were left in peace for a time, though the firing on our left had now greatly increased, and showed that a brisk fight was going on.
About 10 o’clock orders were received for part of my section to extend to the right, and six of us, in command of Sergeant Walter Walker, went right down into the valley. In our new position we were sheltered by a low rocky ridge on the left, but the ground was open in every other direction. The ridge referred to cut us off entirely from what was going on on our left, and this accounts for the misfortunes which followed.
Meanwhile the firing that had begun on our left earlier in the morning had increased tremendously. Bullets began to come our way very frequently, but as we were under the lee of a ridge they passed over our heads, evidently nearly spent, for the sharp ping of a newly-sped shot had changed with them into the melancholy wail of spirits that had lived and lived in vain. So great had the noise become that shouting to each other was ineffectual, not a word reaching even one’s next neighbour. So we lay and waited.
Suddenly it struck us that the chain of fire extending in a line to our left seemed to be swinging towards our left rear, and a few minutes’ attention confirmed an idea that the position of the opposing forces must have altered considerably. As we listened the firing seemed to increase in fierceness and sounded still further to the rear. The position had become uncomfortable, for our horses were 800 yards in our direct rear. To lose them would be fatal to our safety; the six of us, therefore, got up and began to retire slowly, wondering that no orders had reached us.
A shower of bullets swept past, singing in our ears with spiteful distinctness. Looking round I saw, barely fifty yards away, two-score Boers kneeling and firing away for all they were worth. A second look was unnecessary, and we ran like deer, the bullets whizzing by thick as hail. It was amazing that none of us was hit. Bullets seemed to me to be pouring between my legs and under my feet. A little rising gave us momentary protection, but the Boers came on again until within fifty yards, and poured a hot fire into us. Two hundred yards away we could see our horses and near them the rest of the section, which had got earlier notice of the repulse of our troops, galloping away. Each man got to his horse, but they shouted to me that mine had been killed by a shell. It was not a pleasant predicament, but before I had time to realise that the Boers must either shoot or capture me, Bugler Mackenzie galloped up and offered me a lift behind him. I was dead beat with running and quite unequal to violent effort. I put my foot in the stirrup he released, and tried to climb up. But my bandolier, haversack, and water-bottle all bunched in front and caught the blanket tied on at the pommel of the high military saddle. Back I flopped on to the ground. Another effort, and I nearly pulled Mackenzie, who was a light boy, out of the saddle. The firing all the time was very hot, and, fearing to bring disaster on all of us, I ordered Mackenzie off. But he would not budge until Saunders and Parkes between them helped me up behind the first-named. What a relief it was to feel the ground slipping past and to know we were getting out of such a desperate scrape! The Boer fire had slackened for a little, but the reason was that they had mounted and galloped up to within close range. Again they opened, and once more the ground all around was dusted up and the air alive with singing bullets. It was too much to hope for escape a second time, and sure enough, before we had gone a hundred yards, the gallant gee with his double load fell heavily to earth, a bullet having struck him. Being perched high up, I reached the ground first with a thud I hope never to experience again. Saunders then fell on top of me, and the horse crashed heavily across both of us, kicking me on the shoulder as he rolled over.
I must have been stunned for a moment, but soon recovered my senses and realised that I had broken nothing nor been hit by a bullet. Saunders lay very still within ten feet of me, and I feared he was dead. But cautious inquiry elicited a reply. He was all right, but complained of being unable to move one arm, and we assumed it was broken. All this time the firing continued, evidently directed at our retreating section. Judge of my astonishment, on looking up to see why it should suddenly have increased in our immediate neighbourhood, to observe Parkes riding back to us. He had pulled up as quickly as he could when he noticed our disaster. Seeing Saunders lying quiet, he offered to take me on his horse, but I shouted to him to clear off, as he was endangering his own life as well as drawing the fire on us. I could not have left Saunders after his having stopped to take me up, and for Parkes and myself to have helped him away in the midst of such a murderous fire would have been folly. Very reluctantly Parkes galloped off. His horse shortly afterwards was shot under him, but he managed to get away by running. As for myself, I was so shaken I could not have gone far on foot, besides which I was already exhausted by running. In any case, to have got up and attempted escape with the enemy in such force and at such close range would have been madness. I accordingly lay very still and called to Saunders to do likewise. Immediately afterwards a party of Boers some 300 strong swept past us on horseback, evidently in pursuit of our retiring troops, and then began a very trying part of our experience. The Boers were some hundreds of yards in front lying on the face of a slope, and we got the full benefit of a very hot fire directed against them. Three shells from our own guns burst all around, and the fire of a pom-pom sighted a little too high tore up the ground close on our left. Bullets fell all around us and between us; so embarrassing was the situation that I began to look about for cover. But turning round I saw a Boer some hundred yards away steadily looking at us from under the lee of a rock. Whenever he saw me turn he dropped on to his knee and levelled his rifle. Quickly I lay like one dead, and whispered hoarsely to Saunders not to move for his life. It was an anxious wait. No bullet came, and the Boer, seeing us remain still, stole cautiously up to where he could see our faces. Realising we were helpless, he dropped his rifle and came up, assuring us he would not harm us. He rolled Saunders round, took a valuable set of glasses from him, as well as belt, purse, knife, water-bottle, and everything worth having. He was about to commence operations on me, and I was wondering if it would be worth while to make a dash for his rifle, when he got up and cleared off. The cause was the approach of a Boer doctor, who came up and most kindly inquired if we were wounded. Finding nothing seriously the matter with us, he explained that he must move on to more dangerous cases, but promised to come back and attend to us later on. Then a large party of Boers suddenly surrounded us. They stripped me of my belt, to which was attached a fine knife and a good compass; also bandolier, ammunition, and water-bottle, the latter evidently a much appreciated prize. I begged to have my knife back, as it was a present from a dear friend. To my astonishment, it was handed back to me. Then one offered to buy it, but was quashed by the others, who said it was a shame to want from me what I valued so much. Then we were helped up and marched off towards the ambulance, Saunders suffering considerably from his arm, I feeling sound enough but very sick and giddy. Round the ambulance cart was a large crowd of Boers, evidently enjoying the shelter of the Red Cross. They looked curiously at us, and the bolder asked for our spurs and badges. We parted with these, but protested at a request to give up our leathern gaiters. A doctor bound up Saunders’s arm, and we were sent off in charge of three guards to the Boer laager which lay over the hill to the north. After a bit one of the Boers, observing me to move very groggily, put me on his horse. But Saunders, though his arm pained him a good deal, had to walk.
In their first fight, and on many occasions afterwards, Lumsden’s Horse bore testimony to the sportsmanlike qualities and humanity of their enemies, especially towards men who were lying wounded and helpless on the field. Writing many months afterwards, Colonel Lumsden gave some affecting instances by way of illustration, and several of these were connected with the affair at Houtnek, though their interesting sequels were not known in some cases until near the close of the campaign. These may be given in Colonel Lumsden’s words. He writes:
‘One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.’ Many kindly actions on the part of the Boers have gone unrecorded in the present campaign. I cannot, however, allow one or two which came under my special notice to pass without mention.
On April 30, 1900, when we were engaged with that clever General De la Rey, my scouts, while reconnoitring under Lieutenant Pugh, far in advance of the main body, came suddenly upon a well-concealed Boer outpost, who opened fire on them, wounding poor Franks severely. Pugh stuck to him gallantly, making for where he considered our leading column would be. Franks, however, got so weak that Lieutenant Pugh and the other two scouts had to dismount him and leave him on the veldt. Later in the day, when the enemy’s fire slackened, some friends of Franks were able to go out and carry him in and place him in the hands of Dr. Powell, who did all that was possible for him in the circumstances. We were holding an untenable position, and when the order came to retire early in the afternoon, poor Franks had to be left until an ambulance might be got to carry him back to our headquarters camp at Spytfontein. Shortly after our retirement from the spot where he lay the Boers occupied the ground we had left, and, finding Franks, treated him with every kindness and attention. It was the last we saw of him. Some five days later, at the fight near Brandfort, a Boer ambulance containing several wounded Boers and with Doctor Everard in charge fell into our hands. On my riding up to interview the latter, he asked if we were not Lumsden’s Horse, and on my replying in the affirmative he said, ‘One of your men, named Franks, fell into our hands on April 30, and was under my care. I did all I could for him, but the poor fellow died.’ Then producing a small note-book from his pocket he said, ‘In this I have noted when and where he was buried. I also found on his person two sovereigns and two rings.’ These the doctor handed to me with a request that I would be good enough to forward them to the boy’s mother. I thanked him most gratefully for what he had done on behalf of my late comrade, and in due course was able to forward, through Trooper Preston, the relics handed to me to Mrs. Franks, of The Chase, Clapham Common, London.
On the same day (April 30), Lieutenant Crane, with a small detachment of my corps, was sent by Colonel Ross, our commanding officer, to occupy a low-lying kopje on our left front. They were attacked by an overwhelming number of the enemy, and nearly the whole of the little lot were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, as they maintained their position to the last. Lieutenant Crane himself, being badly shot in the groin, was lying in an exposed position unseen by us, and under fire of our own Maxim gun, which was playing on the kopje now occupied by the Boers, and in imminent risk of being killed by our own fire. Suddenly one of the Boers came forward amidst a hail of bullets, lifted up Lieutenant Crane, and carried him to a place of safety. Many a V.C. has been gained by doing a similar action. This story was subsequently corroborated by Lieutenant Crane, who told me that the man who behaved so gallantly towards him was named Meyers.
Strange to relate, in the following September when that ideal Cavalry leader, General French, made his brilliant dash on Barberton—a feature of the campaign on which I think too little has been said, and not sufficient credit given to the leadership and pluck of the gallant General—Lumsden’s Horse comprised his rearguard, under the command of General Mahon, of Mafeking fame. As we rode up the heights prior to following General French’s force into the Barberton Valley, we came across several Boer families living in tents and grazing their cattle on the veldt. I rode up to one of the tents and was chatting with a stalwart Boer and his family. He immediately spotted what corps we were and said, ‘Oh, we fought against you at Houtnek.’ I asked his name, and he said Meyers. I then shook hands with him gratefully and said, ‘You are the man who carried my subaltern, Crane, at the risk of your life into a place of safety on that day.’ He brought me a cup of coffee, and while I was chatting pleasantly with his wife and family he said, ‘Have you got a man with you of the name of McGillivray? I remember him well, a big Scotchman. We took him prisoner that day, and on our way to Pretoria I had the pleasure of dividing a couple of bottles of whisky between him and one or two of his comrades also in our hands.’ As this Boer was living quietly on the veldt, and not in the fighting line, I had the pleasure of getting a pass for himself and his family by way of showing some practical gratitude for his kind and plucky treatment of my comrades.
Franks was left afterwards on the kopje, where he had been placed by Colonel Lumsden, and the Boers took him to hospital, where he died at midnight.—ED.
More than two-thirds.—ED.