General Bullets Third Attempt to relieve Ladysmith—The Second Crossing of the Tugela at Potgeiter’s Drift, February 3—The Disposition of the Boer Forces on February 4—General Wynne's 'Demonstration' against Brakfontein and General Clery’a Attack on Vaal Krantz, February 5—Three Days’ Fighting on Vaal Krantz ridge—Note on Field Hospital Work—A General Retirement is ordered at 9 p.m., February 6.
On January 29, after the engagement round Spion Kop, General Buller addressed his troops at Spearman’s Camp, and told them that their efforts, though unsuccessful on that occasion, had found for him the key of the Ladysmith road. During the dark days of the Spion Kop fighting the General had learned to estimate at its full value the extraordinary tenacity of British infantry, and the manoeuvring power that tenacity gave him, and thoughts of a possible chance at Hlangwane doubtless occurred to him. But before leaving the Upper Tugela our leader resolved to try an attack on Vaal Krantz, as it was evident that, if he could succeed in advancing on Ladysmith from the west, such a success would be far more disastrous to the enemy than anything that could be effected by an advance from the east. The Vaal Krantz position, according to General Buller’s information at the time, offered a fair prospect of success, and, moreover, he hoped that, even if he did not succeed, he should, by an attack near Doom Kloof, and by leaving a force behind at Springfield, be able to tie a very considerable number of the enemy to the Upper Tugela This was absolutely essential, and had the General not moved to Vaal Krantz, Ladysmith would probably have fallen, for he received information of a premeditated Boer attack on the garrison to take place on February 7, and General White’s troops could not have borne the repetition of another January 6].
On January 25, as already mentioned, General Buller withdrew his force from the west of Spion Kop. While this was being done, the enemy had very considerably strengthened their right, so that any attempt to advance our left would probably have been unsuccessful; they had also taken advantage of our failure on Spion Kop, and had strengthened the position there also, so as to hinder any fresh attempt to advance our right The General commenced preparations for a trial by the Vaal Krantz route. These preparations involved the formation of a road to the top of a very precipitous hill, and the occupation of its summit by guns. Unfortunately, the weather was very unpropitious, and seriously retarded this work; it was begun on January 27, and was completed by the evening of February 3. About one and a half miles of road through a very difficult country had had to be made up a steep hillside, and six naval 12-pounders, two 15-pounders, Royal Field Artillery, and six mountain battery Royal Field Artillery guns, had been brought to the top. The Naval Brigade, Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and the Royal Scots Fusiliers worked at this arduous duty; while Colonel Parsons, C.R.A., advised General Buller as to the best positions for the various guns at his disposal. The weather was too bad to admit of our getting up the two 5-inch guns, which we had hoped to have mounted there.
By February 2 it was noticeable that the enemy were anticipating General Buller’s new move: we could see them digging hard along their positions, which faced Potgeiters Drift, from Spion Kop on the west to Vaal Krantz Hill on the east. The road to Ladysmith from Potgeiters, crossing Brakfontein, had been dug up by the Boers in many places, to make its passage by transport difficult; they had also dug several trenches across it, connecting the dongas at the foot of the hills on each side, and were reported as having laid several mines along the track.
At 5 a.m. on February 3 General Wynne’s Eleventh Brigade (lately commanded by Major-General Wood-gate) marched from its bivouac at Hatting’s Farm, near Spearman’s Camp, towards the Tugela. The route taken passed down a steep valley—a picturesque gorge of mimosa and cacti, the latter in full scarlet bloom, which abutted on the winding Tugela below Mount Alice. The erratically winding road passed between Mount Alice and Spearman’s Hill, both of which eminences completely command the Tugela below. On the summits of these hills our heavy naval guns had been mounted, each gun being artfully hidden away behind bushes. We reached the Tugela at 9.30 a.m., and, after crossing a pontoon bridge which had been laid down there, bivouacked on the banks of the river. From an early hour until nightfall a constant stream of troops, guns, and transport poured out of Spearman’s Camp into the Vaal Krantz Valley. During the day the enemy fired from the hills on a few squadrons of Bethune’s Mounted Infantry who were out reconnoitring, but caused no casualties; they also set fire to the grass on the left of Mount Alice, with a view to destroying cover, and enabling them to distinguish the khaki of our troops should they advance, as its light colour shows up very plainly against a dark background.
On Sunday, the 4th, the remainder of General Wynne’s Brigade crossed the pontoon at Potgeiter’s and relieved General Lyttelton’s Brigade, which had been occupying the advanced kopjes facing Brakfontein. The day passed quietly; the chaplains had their usual church services, and everybody had a rest while waiting for the remainder of the army to come up. In the afternoon the Commanding Officers of units were made acquainted with the outline of the plan of action to be followed in the next day’s engagement. If the reader will refer to the battle plan, it will become apparent that the Boer position from Spion Kop to Doom Kloof can be roughly represented by a large curve, with its concavity facing the British. General Buller’s new attempt was aimed at this curve, his general scheme being to seize the Vaal Krantz Hill, which formed the left of the enemy’s position, and 'roll him up’ from left to right.
On Sunday night the enemy, who had been watching our movements from the hills, began to suspect a new attack. General Botha had gone to visit his family in Pretoria after the Spion Kop operations, leaving General Schalk Burger in charge of the commandos from Acton Homes to Munger’s Drift, officered by Commandants Tobias Smuts of Ermelo, Ben Viljoen and Andries Cronje, while General Lukas Meyer was left in command at Colenso. As the enemy’s patrols reported the British to be massing behind Mount Alice and Schwartz Kop, cycle despatch riders were sent out to all their positions east and west of Burger’s Laager, at Brakfontein, and telegrams were sent to Louis Botha at Pretoria and Lukas Meyer at Colenso, summarizing the situation and asking for assistance, General Botha being urgently requested to return.
At daylight on February 5 the cavalry brigades broke up their bivouacs behind Spearman’s Hill, and took up their positions to guard the flanks and rear of the army, who were on this day about to commence their third attempt to relieve Ladysmith. At 7 a.m. one of the 47 naval guns on Spearman’s Hill opened the engagement, directing its fire on Brakfontein. Several field batteries—the 7th, 19th, 28th, 63rd, 73rd, 78th, and 61st Howitzer Battery—followed suit by opening fire at nine minutes past seven, and General Wynne’s Eleventh Brigade, comprising the South Lancashires, York and Lancasters, and Royal Lancasters, with the Lancashire Fusiliers in support, opened out and went forward in skirmishing order towards Brakfontein, which was held by the Senekal and other commandos, the advance of the infantry being covered by a vigorous artillery fire from all our guns. As the infantry went on, a large number of the enemy were seen to emerge from behind the eastern spurs of Spion Kop; and, by taking a circuitous route, they reached the back of the Brakfontein Hills, which were heavily entrenched, and disappeared.
The lines of infantry were halted some distance from the base of the hills, on which they kept up a heavy fire, which was unanswered, and not a Boer was visible. Our artillery fire was terrific; it searched every point along the ridges at which the enemy had constructed sangars or trenches. This continued for several hours, during which time not a Boer was to be seen, nor was a shot discharged in return. During this interval, as little of importance occurred, General Buller's plan of attack may be explained. To sum it up briefly, the Boers were to be deceived. To this end, General Wynne, with six batteries of artillery and four battalions, was ordered to make a feint advance on our left against Brakfontein. When the enemy’s attention had been successfully distracted from the real point of attack—which was to be Vaal Krantz on our right —and when they had reinforced their right, the demonstrating force was to be withdrawn, and the artillery to be sent round to support the true attack led by General Clery, assisted by the Fourth Brigade. To prepare for this operation, a powerful force of fourteen guns had also been placed during the morning in position on the precipitous Schwartz Kop, which faced it on the south of the Tugela; the fire of these guns was to be withheld until the actual movement on Vaal Krantz was timed to come off. When Vaal Krantz was seized, the infantry were to move to their left and take the Brakfontein position in flank, turning it if possible. The artillery in the plain were to advance from the left and support them, and the cavalry were to support their right and rear.
In the meanwhile, the fight, as yet very one-sided, was proceeding on our left at Brakfontein. The demonstration was very impressive, and reminded me of a field-day on Salisbury Plain, as I sat on the central kopje with my half - company of stretcher-bearers. The day was beautifully fine, and the semicircle of hills which reached from Spion Kop on the left to Doom Kloof on the right was defined perfectly in its very minutest details by the clearness of the air. The crescentic positions, always held by the Boers when possible, seem to show that they have borrowed the old crescent formation adopted by the Zulus, from whom they possibly learnt it. Between where I sat and the hills extended a wide plain, devoid of cover save from a few ant-hills. Here some five or six long lines of khaki-clad infantry were lying, almost indistinguishable, but for their regular sequence, from the ant-hills, each man being some ten paces from the next. With glasses it was possible to discern what they were doing. Those in the front line were lying face down, firing, while those in the rear lines were variously employed. Here a man was on his back, with his hands under his head, smoking and sunning himself; there another trying to open a 'bully beef’ tin, another playing with a dog on a string. Behind the infantry were the artillery, six batteries formed up in brigade divisions, with mathematical precision. As their presence had been intended as a demonstration, for once such an exposure was an advantage, and they looked a really tempting bait for any Boer who had seen Colenso. At the rear of the 15-pounders, in a slight dip between the kopje on which I sat and another on which a traction engine was puffing, the howitzers were in position, each gun sitting in a little ‘dig-out' —as it seemed, a nest — and pointing its gaping muzzle skywards to fire lyddite shells, which, bursting on the Brakfontein Hills, cut holes and disfigured their natural beauty. About 9.30 a.m. the 63rd Battery Royal Field Artillery, which was on the left of the line of guns, received orders to retire and cross the Tugela at Pontoon No. 2, and cover the formation of Pontoon No. 4 by the Royal Engineers, which was to be used by the Light Brigade in the advance preparatory to the attack on Vaal Krantz.
Save for the bursting of our shells, an ominous silence—it seemed almost a silence of death—still reigned over the enemy’s position, and not a shot was -fired nor a Boer seen. The gallant Lancashire Brigade were not to be deceived by such silence They had learned to their cost the ruses Brother Boer could adopt; they had not spent a week in the trenches in Taba Myama and faced the ‘Boger’ for twenty-four hours on Spion Kop for naught Comrades had to be avenged and old scores wiped off before they returned to their native shire.
A continuous splutter of rifle-fire was in steady progress all along our firing lines; occasionally it waned, and occasionally it increased. The imperturbable Thomas Atkins is not without interest or humour, even when lying prone behind an ant-hill under a blazing sun while plying his dangerous trade. Two or three men were thus engaged close to me. I overheard snatches of their conversation: ‘Got a match, chum?’ ‘Where's the bloke?’ ‘Loose off a few rounds, chum, just to let ’em know we ain’t dead!’ 'Wot’s we to fire at?' ‘I dunno.’ ‘The bloke said the ’ill-top; maybe Krooger's behind.’
Away on the plain near the Ladysmith Road stood a solitary tree; on both sides of this the infantry were lying in long lines. Presently the advance line stood up and moved some fifty yards forward. The Brakfontein Hills seemed but a short distance ahead. It almost appeared as if we were going to draw a blank: had Brother Boer really left us an open gate? But no. Pit! pot! A single Mauser rifle speaks. Concealment is no longer possible. Is it by accident or design that this solitary Mauser is fired? It has been heard before: it was heard at Magersfontein} it was heard at Colenso, and here it is heard again. Had it not rung out, the Lancashire Brigade would, I have no doubt, have advanced further. As it was, in their extreme eagerness they had advanced to within 1,500 yards of the base of Brakfontein, rather closer than General Buller had wished. Following this single shot ensued a momentary pause in our firing line. 'Where is this audacious fellow?’ seemed the thought that passed through the minds of our infantry. Momentary it was and not more, for it is followed by a perfect roar of Mauser fire—Pit, pot! pit, pot, pot! pit, pot, pot! If a tornado had burst, its fury could not have been more imposing. Simultaneously the Boer artillery opened fire: one large gun and one small one on Spion Kop, and two Krupps firing segment shell, with two pom-poms from Brakfontein, join the fray, enfilading the infantry on our left and the batteries in the centre. So sudden and so furious was this outburst of shot and shell that the whole plain was obscured by <smoke and dust, and, from a spectacular point of view, it seemed as if Wynne’s Brigade was going to be wiped out It was truly an awful display. The enemy’s shells seemed to be falling everywhere, well-placed time shrapnel bursting over the infantry, over the gunners, over the battery horses, the ground underneath the burst tom up by bullets, and the dust rising in a halo all round. Pom - pom - pom - pom - pom! barked the Vickers-Maxim. Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang! went the shells as they exploded, with white smoke in long lines as each shell seemed to race the others in their errand of death. Boom-m-m! went the big gun on our left, high up on Spion Kop, artfully hidden away behind the eastern side of the Twin Peaks. Bang! went its explosion, as it threw up a mountain of smoke, dust, and stones, enfilading our left. Bang! goes a second gun perched high on the top of Spion Kop, away on our west, from which a dense column of white smoke rises to the sky, betraying the use of black powder. Bang! goes its burst, as it enfilades our infantry from their left Never was a more artistic battle-scene presented to the spectator. It might be compared to a vast Roman amphitheatre, with its arena below, on which our troops were the gladiators, and on which they were being pelted by the occupants of the seats, safely ensconced in an immense semicircle of dark sangared trenches, rising one above the other in tiers.
This Spartan trial for our infantry was soon to end. Shortly after mid-day General Wynne, having accomplished his object, gave the order for his infantry to retire. Slowly—too slowly, it seemed—the front line rose to their feet, and, without the least sign of haste, sedately marched back through the second line and lay down. As the sturdy Lancashire men did this, the fury of the storm again arose. Big shells, little shells, and bullets tore around them. The new front line repeated the same manoeuvre, and before such a stern bombardment such a retirement was unequalled. Some of the enemy, imagining we had lost the day, went so far, even, as to leave their trenches, running forward in order to get within closer range; and many of them paid for their folly, as our artillery were covering the retirement of the infantry with an exceedingly well-directed fire.
Shortly before one o'clock our artillery got their order to withdraw. Magnificent as was the conduct of the infantry in the coolness displayed in carrying out their retirement while harassed on all sides, it was fully equalled by that of the gunners. The batteries were to be withdrawn singly. Behind the kopje on which I sat some of the horses of the gun teams were sheltering. I heard the order given: 'Stand to your horses! Prepare to mount! Mount! Walk! march! trot!' The first section swept by at an easy pace—no man loves his horses better than the British gunner; away they sped, swerving slightly to get round the howitzer battery, and, once past it, they were out on the naked plain. Straight to the guns they went; a graceful curve to allow the limbers to face the gun-carriages, and the guns were hooked in. Swift as an arrow the enemy perceived what was being done. Their prey, the coveted guns, which they considered almost in their grasp, was to be snatched from them. Upon this gallant band they now directed their whole attention. From the west and from the north the Boer guns again opened, and on our moving gunners they concentrated their fire.
In column of route these men returned, sitting sedately on their guns and limbers, the very horses champing their bits and tossing their heads defiantly. As they came back, a mighty shout — a shout of applause—burst forth from the Lancashire Brigade, now lining the kopjes. Pursued every step by bursting shells, it was not to be wondered at that casualties occurred. As we moved out to assist the wounded, we had our share of this tornado of shell-fire. Halfway between the guns and the kopje one gun with its limber had halted. Three of the horses had been struck down, and the men were busy freeing them from their traces. Two of the riders were seriously wounded. One had both his legs smashed into pulp by a shell which passed through them and through his horse. Man and beast seemed one awful mass, yet this poor fellow’s sole object seemed to be to use his fingers to free the harness and assist his comrades to remove the gun.
After sending back these sufferers on a stretcher, we moved on to the guns. Here we found Lieutenant Trimble, R.A.M.C., medical officer in charge of one of the brigade divisions, busy dressing his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant - Colonel Montgomery, R.A., who had been shot. Captain Dawson, R.A., was lying beside one of his guns, severely wounded by shrapnel, and four of his gunners were also injured. It so happened that, as three of the guns of the 78th Battery were retiring, one of the enemy’s shells struck a gun-carriage and disabled it, and at the same time wounded Captain Dawson. Despite a terrific hail of shrapnel, the brave gunners repaired the carriage, and, putting their horses in motion, rescued their weapon and brought it under shelter of one of the kopjes, the 73rd Battery covering its retirement. This was a really magnificent piece of work.
Besides the officers already mentioned, a number of gunners and drivers also required attention, all of whom, after having their wounds bandaged, were removed on stretchers to the nearest field hospital, which was Major Drew Moir’s at Potgeiter's Drift, close by—so close, indeed, that it received quite a number of the enemy’s shells. One by one each battery hooked in and withdrew; each, as it did so, got heavily shelled by the enemy—a sort of encore, it seemed, from its audience in the dress circle; and each, as it reached the kopjes behind, drew its share of applause from the infantry there—in the pit.
By half-past one all the batteries had gone, with wonderfully few casualties, considering the gauntlet they had to run. By 1.40 p.m. they had recrossed the river at Potgeiter’s, and were again to repeat their daring exposure in action against Vaal Krantz. The infantry had by this time also withdrawn in good order, bringing their wounded with them, and the feint was over. The plain was unoccupied, save for a few stragglers who were digging with their bayonets for unexploded shells, and the enemy’s fire had practically ceased.
Considering the terrible fire the Eleventh Brigade had been exposed to on the level ground, the casualty list was extremely small—twenty-three cases only. How this was so it is impossible to explain; but 1 was informed by a field officer in the fighting line that, had the enemy’s accuracy with the rifle been one-tenth what it had the reputation of being, we should have had very serious losses. Although their shell-fire had been extremely correct, many failed to burst, and some of the Krupp segment shells, which I had an opportunity of examining during the afternoon, were found to be filled with sand. So much for Boer honesty in commerce. Notwithstanding the hundreds of pom-pom shells showered on our infantry—many at quite close range, and all of which detonated perfectly—I only saw one case that had a mortal result. A private of the York and Lancaster Regiment was hit by three of these shells in the body; one of them, striking his bayonet as it hung on his left side, twisted it into a complete semicircle.
During this part of the day’s action the heat of the sun was intense. As an example of its severity, I may mention that, while examining several of the infantry who had been wounded, and who had been lying in the firing line since morning, 1 noticed the entire surface of the skin’s cuticle over their shoulders raised in huge sun-blisters, thus proving what the sufferings of this branch of the service must be under an African sun. The men who were killed were buried after the retirement close to the back kopje, each grave being fenced in with barbed-wire railings, and a wooden cross, made out of a ‘bully beef' packing-case, put at the head, with the man’s name cut on it. As an extra precaution for further identification, when, in the future, an iron cross should come to be erected, the man’s name, with other particulars, was written on a piece of paper and put into an empty bottle, which, after being corked, was stuck head downwards beneath the cross. Even the burials were not without their danger, as the enemy kept shelling us from Spion Kop, to the full view of which we were exposed throughout the service, which I myself read [The chaplains were busy in the hospitals at this period of the day], its impressiveness, the men standing round bareheaded, being several times interrupted by someone calling out, 'Look out, sir! there’s another shell coming!’ And I must confess shell-fire is distinctly unpleasant at any time, and more especially under such trying circumstances as these.
I will now attempt to describe the real action of the day, which took place on our right, or eastern flank, and was mainly directed against Vaal Krantz, a small hill on the northern side of the Tugela, almost facing Munger’s Drift. It will be necessary first, briefly, to state its position in relation to the surrounding and dominating hills. The tortuous course of the Tugela, as it runs south through the Vaal Krantz valley from below the Spion Kop plateau on the west to the eastern spur of Schwartz Kop on the east, may be said to resemble the letter M—a very erratically - formed letter, I must confess, but it will serve for the purposes of description. To the north-west of its first acute angle lie the Twin Peaks of Spion Kop; in front of the second or obtuse angle is the Vaal Krantz plain, on which the demonstration by General Wynne just described took place; and on the north-east of the second or last acute angle of the M lies the Vaal Krantz ridge, some 2,000 yards from the river. This ridge, which is crescentic with a hog-backed eminence, is about one and a half miles long, and faces the river by its concavity. On the west it is backed by the long slopes of Brakfontein, and on the east it is dominated by a high green mountain, Doom Kloof, and a number of other lofty hills, which are as yet nameless.
Simultaneously with General Wynne’s feint against the west of Brakfontein, General Clery’s Division [Comprising Hart’s and Hildyard’s Brigades] and General Lyttelton’s Brigade advanced to Pontoon Bridge No. 2, where they massed as if about to support the false frontal attack. When General Wynne had engaged the enemy’s attention for some two hours, Generals Clery and Lyttelton were to move their troops rapidly east, across the tongue of ground north of Schwartz Kop, and advance against Vaal Krantz ridge, crossing the river by Pontoon Bridge No. 4, which was in process of construction. When the infantry had attacked Vaal Krantz, the assault was to be supported by the combined efforts of our artillery, on both high and low ground. On Schwartz Kop the following guns were in position: Six naval 12-pounders; six mountain battery 9-pounders; two 15-pounders (64th Battery Royal Field Artillery); two 50-pounders (5-inch, Royal Garrison Artillery). Two naval 47 guns were mounted on Spearman’s Hill. The six batteries which had been supporting General Wynne were also to assist; they were to cross Pontoon Bridge No. 2, and take up a new position against Vaal Krantz. Here they were to remain until the infantry had captured the hill, when they were to advance with Colonel Burn Murdoch’s First Cavalry Brigade [Comprising Royals, 13th Hussars, 14th Hussars, and ‘A’Battery Royal Horse Artillery], cross Pontoon Bridge No. 4, and come into action on Vaal Krantz ridge, directing their fire against Brakfontein to prepare it for the advance of General Clery’s infantry. Against the west of Brakfontein General Wynne was to co-operate if opportunity offered. General Coke’s Tenth Brigade was to remain in reserve. Lord Dundonald’s Cavalry Brigade [Comprising the South African Light Horse, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, Bethune’s Mounted Infantry, Composite Mounted Infantry (Gough), and Dundonald’s Galloping Colt Battery] was to guard the right and rear of the army against any attack from the direction of Doom Kloof. To the east of Schwartz Kop at Munger’s Drift, supported by the fire of the 63rd Battery Royal Field Artillery, under Major Paget, which had been withdrawn for this purpose from the open plain, the Royal Engineers had been busy during the morning laying down another pontoon, which they completed by noon. The gallant sappers had a heavy casualty list during the day, for they lost some dozen men killed and wounded by the concentrated fire of the enemy’s marksmen, who did their level best to harass the work. Although exposed to continuous rifle-fire, which splintered many a plank of the bridge, these gallant sappers systematically performed their task; the various sections of the unwieldy raft-like bridge were fitted together and its construction skilfully carried out under the personal supervision of Major Irvine, R.E.
As an illustration of the nature of the country, and the means of communication from one place to another available to the enemy, the following example may be of interest. Some Boers were observed escorting what appeared to be a pom-pom gun drawn by eight horses on a galloping carriage across the back of their position, from west to east. As they crossed by Munger’s Farm—Klipport Road—they came under the fire of our guns on Schwartz Kop. Our first shell fell very close; the team swerved sharply to their right, and disappeared; they seemed to have fallen into a donga. Another shell followed them, but no more was seen of the pom-pom for some time, when it reappeared at least a mile away, coming out of another donga, short of two horses and a man, and galloped to cover. The country was honeycombed with these dongas, all of which had been utilized by the enemy for defence.
At noon General Louis Botha arrived with reinforcements. The Boer Generalissmo had been away at Pretoria on leave, and had been hurriedly telegraphed for, as before stated, on February 4. Reaching Vaal Krantz, he assumed the chief command, and having allotted the reinforcements he had brought with him from the Ladysmith laagers, he concentrated a heavy artillery fire on Vaal Krantz. It was not until about 2 p.m. that the second act in the Vaal Krantz battle commenced. At this hour General Lyttelton crossed the pontoon at M unger’s Drift at the head of the following force: 1st Rifle Brigade, 1st Durham Light Infantry, 3rd King’s Royal Rifles, 2nd Scottish Rifles, and 2nd Devons, the last-named regiment being lent him by General Hildyard, who was holding his own Brigade, the Second, in reserve under the slopes of Schwartz Kop. While crossing the bridge, General Lyttelton’s men are exposed to a perfect tornado of shell and rifle fire. In one continuous stream they dash across. A Boer pom-pom under Ben Viljoen enfilades them from their right front; it has crept up cautiously, and is in action on a small kopje to the right of Vaal Krantz Ridge, well tucked away under cover of a kloof, safe from our artillery. Once across, the infantry re-arrange themselves, each regiment taking advantage of what cover it can; it is the scantiest imaginable.
An advance is now made for some 600 yards up the north bank of the Tugela. About the same hour the field batteries which had been in action on the west of Vaal Krantz plain with General Wynne’s Brigade also crossed, and immediately came into action against the Vaal Krantz ridge. The cannonade was now terrific, as the guns on Schwartz Kop and Mount Alice also joined in, some sixty in all being at work. The summit of Vaal Krantz was quite obscured by bursting shells. General Lyttelton now sent the 1st Durham Light Infantry and the 1st Rifle Brigade forward against Vaal Krantz, before reaching the lower slopes of which it was necessary to cross a donga held by the enemy. Half a battalion made its way to M ungers Farm, which enfiladed the line of advance to the hill. From a kopje on the extreme right, not more than 2,000 yards from Vaal Krantz, and under Doom Kloof, the enemy pour a heavy fire from a pom-pom and rifles. Four of our Maxims open against this hill, and, as the enemy’s fire cannot be got under, the Devons are about to advance and take it. Just as they are getting under way, General Hildyard gallops up to their ranks and stops the advance, for he sees that the taking of this hill would result in heavy loss, as it is exposed to a double enfilade fire from north and south.
Munger’s Farm is seized by a bayonet charge, and the Light Brigade now advance on Vaal Krantz, the intervening donga being rushed in like manner. Still at the ‘double,' the infantry now clamber up Vaal Krantz; a heavy fire is poured on them from their front and from both flanks; still, on they rush. At 4.30 p.m. a surging mob of victorious British soldiers race over the crest, and a ‘battle' and a 'melee' take place; bayonets are again used freely by the Durham Light Infantry, who themselves lose seven officers and some seventy men in this assault. The Boers break and fly [Vaal Krantz was occupied by a gun and some 120 of the enemy. The Field-Comet in charge went off with the gun and about half of these as our troops approached; most of the rest were killed] some half-dozen hold up their hands; haggard creatures they are, with unkempt locks and lyddite-stained, ragged coats; they have fought well and hard, and their lives are spared. They are led away with their wounded brothers and the captured horses, under a guard, to the rear. Vaal Krantz is ours: it is again British soil.
It may be of interest to record, in view of Mr. Kruger’s allegation, referring to his abhorrence of the employment of armed Kaffirs in the war, that on no occasion were they so employed by his burghers, that when the summit of Vaal Krantz was reached five or six armed Kaffirs were found aiding the enemy. Lieutenant Lambton, of the Durham Light Infantry, was wounded by one. There is no possible doubt about this record, as General Buller made searching inquiries into it at the time, and embodied it in his despatch of February 8. This incident, with many other authentic ones, should be carefully noted.
Vaal Krantz not affording sufficient cover for so many troops, some of the attacking force were sent to take cover in the bed of the spruit below; upon this and upon the hill itself the enemy concentrated a hot fire. Three guns on Spion Kop were particularly annoying, and took some time to silence, as they were difficult to locate. At last, however, the 47 on Mount Alice got their range and managed to smash one up; the Naval Brigade claims also to have damaged the muzzle of another, so that its shooting became inaccurate. The third gun, being under cover of one of the Twin Peaks, was so well protected by the mountains that even the bluejackets had to confess that they could not reach it.
From the hour General Lyttelton’s Brigade captured Vaal Krantz until nightfall the troops were busy entrenching themselves, no further attack being made on our side during this interval. About 6.30 p.m. the enemy, who had by this time reinforced their left with more artillery, directed a heavy shell-fire on Vaal Krantz, compelling our troops to take cover under its western slopes. By nightfall the programme of the day as originally laid down was not completed, the actual work done only consisting in General Wynne’s demonstration against Brakfontein, and the capture and occupation of Vaal Krantz by General Lyttelton’s Infantry; while the third part of the original plan— namely, the occupation of Vaal Krantz by our field-guns, and the main attack against the Brakfontein position by a turning movement of General Clery’s Division and the First Cavalry Brigade—was postponed for another day.
As the darkness of night set in, our guns ceased firing, as also did the heavier pieces of the Boers; but their smaller fry, pom-poms and Maxims, kept raking the reverse slopes of Vaal Krantz with very great accuracy, the crimson-yellow flashes of the bursting shells momentarily lighting up the bivouac of the infantry, making them think that a counter-attack was intended, and keeping them awake. Shortly before dark I had a narrow escape from shell-fire. I had just finished my evening meal, and had strolled up to examine the traction-engine which worked our searchlight on Wynne’s Kopjes; just then a shell struck the ground a short distance away, and, failing to burst, buried itself in the ground. 1 foolishly walked over to secure it as a trophy, but as I was rooting it up with a stick another hit a rock a few paces off, covering me with a cloud of clay and stones, and filling my eyes with dust. It came so quickly that I had not even time to duck, much less to take cover, and I could distinctly smell the detonating charge. The traction-engine here kept working all the evening, making a hideous din and sending up dense clouds of smoke. Its noise kept us awake for some hours, but the enemy came to our assistance in this matter, for they shelled it so vigorously that it had to stop working, and by midnight silence reigned supreme from one end of the valley to the other, and all, save the sentinels—the eyes of the army—were asleep.
At twilight on Tuesday, February 6, the booming of guns ushered in the dawn, and roused us from our bivouacs. Away to the east, on the crest and slopes of Vaal Krantz, General Lyttelton’s Brigade was the centre of the enemy’s fire; his troops had but a sorry breakfast, for, raked by shrapnel, pom-pom, common shell, and Mauser hail, their time was fully occupied in taking what cover they could from the scanty sangars and trenches they had improvised during the night with their bayonets and horny hands; and here be it stated that Tommy Atkins is no mean expert with such instruments. Below Vaal Krantz, in the more sheltered cover of a deep donga, the Devons had a better chance of getting their morning meal, as was evident from the upward-curling smoke of their brushwood fires, rising in the still air of the morning; even they are soon to be interrupted, as the fray is about to begin at close quarters. A commotion is noticeable on the north crest of Vaal Krantz; bayonets are glittering and moving forward; guns boom and rifles crackle. The Boers are attacking the hill: they mean to retake Vaal Krantz! Reserve troops are sent up to the crest line, and our men there, thus reinforced, surge forward; bayonets are glinting in the morning sun; a rush forward, and they disappear over the crest, and the sudden cessation of continuous fire lets us know that the Boers are repulsed.
During the morning it was reported that our field-guns could not be placed on Vaal Krantz, its sides being too steep and rocky; besides, the enemy’s long-range rifle-fire was too heavy, and thus as an artillery position it was valueless, unless the Boers were cleared out of the hills which dominated it. These hills formed their second position, which was of considerable strength; its line of approach would have to be undertaken by infantry alone, under an enfilade fire from the enemy’s guns; their artillery had been reinforced during the night by the arrival from Ladysmith of a Long Tom, a Creusot gun on platform mountings firing a 96-pound shell to a range of 12,000 yards. This monster was perched high on the top of a hill above Doom Kloof, and could be barely ranged by our long-range guns on Schwartz Kop, while the Boers had also a number of smaller guns tucked away in recesses in the kloofs to the east and west of Vaal Krantz, so artfully hidden and sheltered that our artillery could not harm them, even when their positions were located. Under these circumstances it was considered too costly for the infantry yet to attempt to capture this position in daylight.
During the day our heavy guns bombarded Spion Kop, Brakfontein, and Doom Kloof, and kept the enemy fully occupied. The Naval Brigade on Schwartz Kop, to enliven matters, engaged Long Tom of Doom Kloof in a long-range artillery duel with their 47, and made some very pretty shooting at 11,500 yards; the encounter was most interesting. Snap—boom! goes the report of the naval guns, a scream as the shell passes onwards, a pause, a flash of light, a cloud of dust and lyddite rises on Doom Kloof; another pause; bang! goes the burst, followed by the clashing din of its echoes as it reverberates first down the valley to the east, near the burst, then echoes and re-echoes, and is thrown back as the hills on the west take it up and finally return it again from Spion Kop, for all the world like rolling thunder. Long Tom now replies. From the summit of a huge emplacement above Doom Kloof something uncanny appears, almost perpendicular, against the sky, like a miniature factory chimney, one might say; it is the muzzle of the huge Creusot, as it is run forward, rising like some prehistoric monster from its lair. The naval men watch it through their glasses from Schwartz Kop; they know what is about to follow, that still they are safe, and that the time has not yet come to take cover. A great flash of light, which seems yards long, is emitted from the monster, and its muzzle disappears; a column of white smoke arises, at first small, but rapidly increasing in size as it ascends in convolutions to the blue sky. A pause follows; then the report of discharge rings out, Boom-m-m! which re-echoes through the valleys; then another pause, a scream, growing louder and louder as the shell approaches. Now, and only now, do the naval men take cover; they scamper to their gun, for the target is always the safest place. Another flash, another cloud of smoke mixed with clay; perhaps a few stones are visible, though rarely; another pause, and the report of the burst is heard, Bang! a much more insignificant bang than that of the lyddite burst of our gun.
Thus the duel went on all day, and on two occasions the Naval Brigade succeeded in blowing up Long Tom’s magazine or ammunition store alongside the enemy’s gun, which each time was heralded by a terrific report and dense clouds of smoke. Half a dozen times during the day, owing to short intervals of cessation of firing from the Creusot, the 'Handy Man' claims to have knocked his antagonist out; but he is wrong, for after a short pause Long Tom comes up again and resumes firing. In the meanwhile our field batteries were not idle; six or seven of them had drawn up in close formation in a semicircle on the Vaal Krantz plain, near the river south of Thornhill Farm, and were hammering away to their hearts’ content at the Brakfontein position. Spion Kop and Doom Kloof they, of course, could not reach, though the enemy’s guns on those hills were enfilading them. The Boer artillery always seem to have the happy knack of keeping out of range, by getting behind the cover of slopes and spurs, where they can see without being either seen or reached. The British field-guns, on the other hand, have but one kind of formation for all fighting—that is, in line at stated intervals, irrespective of the nature of the ground—and until the battle of Pieter’s have had but little chance of proving what a really effective thing a concentrated fire from such formations is. At Pieter’s, and on other occasions afterwards, they had this opportunity, and tied for honours with the infantry in the day’s success. The enemy had a fine target in the six batteries, as they lay drawn up on the Vaal Krantz plain, and did not neglect it; from three sides—from Spion Kop, Brakfontein, and from the direction of Doom Kloof—the Boer guns made most accurate shooting. They placed their shells beautifully, timed their shrapnel correctly, and left no stone unturned to smash our artillery. This, however, they failed to achieve, as their material was faulty; many failed to burst, and the few that did caused but little damage. The gun teams of our batteries were drawn up behind a small knoll of rising ground, close to the river, and the enemy shelled the horses vigorously; but again, notwithstanding an excellent target and splendid marksmanship, little damage was done.
I was greatly impressed with the behaviour of the battery horses under what must have been a most tormenting fire; they showed the utmost unconcern, and some of the animals, even when hit, scarcely seemed to wince. Any horse that chanced to be wounded was treated by a veterinary surgeon on the spot, and the more serious cases were shot dead at the time, thus avoiding unnecessary suffering.
About 10 a.m., while waiting to be of service in case of casualties with the men of my half of Major Winter’s bearer company on Wynne’s Kopjes, a shell passed close to my head. I was standing on the summit of the kopje conversing with Major Matthews, of the King’s Own. We both wondered what the enemy were firing at, but on looking up saw the cause. The poor old traction-engine on the next kopje, which had been so ruthlessly disturbed the night before, was getting up steam and endeavouring to turn round preparatory to descending the hill. The ever-observant enemy had ‘spotted’ it, and within the next five minutes fifteen shells (I counted them) passed in quick succession over our heads, like ducks flighting. The majority of them did not burst, and as they began to fall short, dropping among my men, one or two of whom were struck, I did not consider it fair to detain the stretcher-bearers, who had no wounded to look after, nor the prospect of any, except among themselves, if they were allowed to remain; I accordingly told them to extend [Stretcher-bearers should always be moved about in extended order like infantry, in order that their stretchers may be seen by the enemy, and also that, if fired upon, they may offer the flimsiest possible target] and retire. As we did so several shells followed us. One struck a small tree, which it felled; another 'lobbed’ into a group of mules and Kaffirs, killing three of the former and wounding more; the rest stampeded. Another burst on the traction-engine, wounding a Kaffir, who crawled underneath as his companions bolted, leaving only the conductor in charge. A diversion was now created, and all interest was centred on a strange object which was seen rising near the river. This was the war balloon. Slowly, so slowly that it hardly seemed to move, rose the scaly, brown-coloured monster, wobbling from side to side in its endeavours to break away from a cart which held its tether. Bang! bang! bang! go the Boer guns, big and small, from 6-inch Creusots to 1-inch pom-poms, for never was there an army, except that of China, with a more varied and nondescript collection of ordnance than this army of Louis Botha. For two hours the balloon floats high in the air, almost as high as Spion Kop, and Captain Phillips, R.E., the daring aeronaut, is scanning the Boer position from his swaying basket in mid-air, and describing what he sees to the earth below by telephone.
Late in the afternoon the enemy made another sudden attempt to retake Vaal Krantz, creeping up to within short range and opening a heavy fire, supported by their artillery. Our outposts at the western end of the hill were driven back with loss, and for a short time it almost seemed as if the hill would be recaptured General Lyttelton, however, saved the situation by sending half a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, supported by the King’s Royal Rifles, and these troops, led by Colonel Fitzgerald, of the former corps, came to close quarters with the enemy at the point of the bayonet, and, with three ringing cheers, swept them from the hill, Colonel Fitzgerald being himself severely wounded as he led the charge.
As night came on, Hildyard’s Brigade got orders to relieve Lyttelton's, which had stolidly borne the brunt of a bombardment for thirty-six long hours without a single murmur. The relieving brigade took up the following positions on Vaal Krantz. The crest line was occupied by the Queen's, the East Surreys, and the West Yorks, in the order named, from left to right; the Devons occupied the reverse slopes as reserve. All these troops made the best of their time in 'sangaring' their positions. Each man well knew his best chance for the following day’s fight lay in his ability to construct these stone-wall fortifications.
During the night the enemy had again been reinforced in men and guns. On the lower slopes of Spion Kop, carefully tucked away behind a hump, a new arrival, a big 40-pounder, had been mounted, and this piece, with the other guns on the hill, started firing after dawn of the 7th, about 5.40 a.m., enfilading the long lines of the sturdy Devons on Vaal Krantz. Long Tom on Doom Kloof, with some smaller guns and pom-poms, opened from the east; two high-velocity guns in front; a battery of field-guns and some more pom-poms on Brakfontein opened from the west. In the morning all centred their fire on Vaal Krantz and our two 5-inch guns, which were drawn up on the flat by the river. As the morning wore on other targets occupied the attention of the Boer artillery, one of these being General Wynne’s Eleventh Brigade, who had left their bivouacs at 4.30 a.m. on the kopjes facing Potgeiter’s, and moved to below Schwartz Kop to support General Clery’s Division. The transport and the cavalry, who were also sheltering here, were shelled, and Major Goggins 4th Brigade Field Hospital received its share of attention. About 2 p.m. the enemy’s six field-guns on Brakfontein again opened fire on Vaal Krantz. In less than an hours time these guns dropped close on 300 Creusot shells among the closely-packed troops on this hill. It was a trying day for our infantry— a day of everlasting watching, and dodging shell-fire. All bore it stolidly, and none flinched, lying there under the blazing sun, motionless lines of enduring men, all true to the famous traditions of the British Army.
Below the eastern spur of Schwartz Kop the Royal Engineers are laying a new pontoon—Pontoon No. 3. They in their turn are perceived by the enemy, who open fire on the gallant sappers; still they work on fearlessly, as they did at their previous bridges, and only leave when their work is accomplished. From Vaal Krantz a steady stream of stretcher-bearers is winding its way back to the field hospital below the north-western spur of Schwartz Kop. As they arrive with their bleeding and maimed charges they are met by the hospital orderlies. The cases are sorted according to the severity of their wounds, and all except those requiring immediate operation are given bovril, coffee, or stimulants, as a medical officer thinks fit. All the available surgeons save those who are with the regiments in the fighting line are busy rendering assistance, rank making no difference. A Principal Medical Officer of a division is working as hard as, if not harder than, the last-joined subaltern. With each and all the aim is the same: treat, feed, rest, and evacuate [‘Evacuate’ is here used in the military sense, meaning clear out or pass on those of the sick and wounded who are in a fit condition to be removed from a field hospital on stretchers or ambulances to one of the larger hospitals in the rear. It is always advisable to move as many of these cases as possible, for a field hospital only accommodates 100 patients, and one never knows when a further rush of cases may come in] is the universal routine. The severe cases have their pain relieved by hypodermic injections of morphia; some, who require immediate operation, go to the special marquee set apart for this purpose. Inside this are the operators and their assisting staff; in the centre is the field service operating-table, with its folding top and waterproof sheet cover. It is supported by the now empty surgical panniers, from which the instrument cases and other accessories have been removed. In one corner of the tent a long nickel-plated caldron is boiling. In it the instruments are being sterilized in allotropic ['Allotropic' is here used to express the very great difference between the filtered water and the original, not in appearance only, but also in consistency. The Tugela water was absolutely filthy— brown in colour, and of pea-soup consistency, and, being much polluted, contained germs unfavourable to the healing of wounds > besides, the large quantity of mud it held would have acted as an irritant, had not filtration been adopted to purify it] water filtered from the Tugela. On the top of a couple of ‘bully beef' boxes near the head of the table are trays of antiseptic solutions, with covers superimposed. The latter are absolutely necessary to hinder pollution from dust, which is wafted on every breeze. This and the swarms of flies may be termed the curse of Listerism and of the wounded ‘Tommy.’ If these two nuisances could have been suppressed, the South African campaign would have been relieved of its greatest evils, with the exception of the microbes of enteric and dysentery.
Our work is varied. One moment a host of cases is brought in; then, again, only a straggler; and at times we get a distinct pause and a rest. It was during such a lull, while conversing with Captain Parry, R.A.M.C., and Father Collins, our indefatigable chaplain, outside the operating-tent, that one of those little incidents common to most of our field hospitals at this period of the war occurred. As it is of interest, showing the sense of insecurity such institutions 'enjoyed,' I will record it Long Tom on Doom Kloof, for some reason best known to itself, had been dropping its 96-pound shells of solid iron into the hospital, and, as most of them failed to burst, they were ignored by all. At the time to which I refer one struck the ground but a dozen yards from the operating-tent, and, exploding, covered all three of us with dust, nothing more serious hitting us, although I picked up several splinters 1 inches thick, and its base, a solid lump weighing 20 pounds, close by afterwards. In a few minutes another shell from the same gun came by, which struck the ground just outside the hospital, but failed to burst A number of stretcher-bearers ran over to secure it for a trophy [As an example of the risks ran by trophy-hunters looking for shells, the following may be quoted. During the battle of Vaal Krantz, a Kaffir driver ran over to a spot where a Long Tom shell had imbedded itself in the ground and failed to explode. As he was digging it up, another, fired a few seconds afterwards, striking the same place, burst, and carried away one of his lower limbs; this unfortunate man died afterwards from the result of the injury] and to see the long black burrow it had made in the ground—such is the curiosity of man. A third shell now hurtled along, screaming louder and louder as it approached, and making a truly horrible noise. We all thought it would pass right into the operating-tent, beside which we were standing, and, not wishing my head to be caught in the way, I ducked it involuntarily. Whether my companions did so also I cannot say, for I was too perturbed to notice. As it passed by I looked up to follow its course, which was towards a hospital tent facing me. In front of this tent a man was sitting on an empty box shaving; in his left hand he held a looking-glass, and in the other his razor. From the intent expression on his face, he was evidently too much engaged at his toilet to hear the shell coming. Before a warning shout could be given the shell burst beside him. Razor and glass were dropped, and he fell off the box. Nothing more could be seen in the cloud of smoke and dust that was thrown up. On running up, we found he was uninjured, save for a small self-inflicted cut from the razor!
What was the cause of Long Tom's wrath against this region of the Vaal Krantz valley it is hard to say. Although the hospital was flying its Geneva flag, which must have been visible for miles, I do not think the enemy wilfully fired on it, because, as we were almost surrounded by transport-waggons and cavalry horses, it is more likely that the enemy were endeavouring to hit these, without regarding the hospital. Another object, perhaps, was their would-be target, the balloon, which had recrossed the river since the day before, and had made another ascent close to Schwartz Kop, and was wobbling backwards and forwards sky-high over our heads for some hours.
During the morning Generals Buller and Warren went to Vaal Krantz to consider the situation. This may be stated briefly. It was impossible to mount guns on Vaal Krantz; it was impossible to assault the Boer position with infantry alone without a loss of perhaps 3,00a This would be bad in itself, but plus the chance of defeat, what would it mean? Let us consider it The heart of the Empire, the First Army Corps, was in General Buller’s army at that time, and he dared not risk it so far forward with a treacherous river behind him and an enemy in fortified positions on each flank. Had he advanced and taken this position at his front, he would have had another engagement at Ibelino, seven miles from the Tugela, where the enemy had another strong position, behind which was the only place where water was obtainable between the Tugela and Ladysmith. If we had to fight the enemy for two or three days to take this position, it would have been necessary to carry water in tanks from the Tugela for about 40,000 beings of all sorts, and suppose by chance the enemy got round our flank and cut us off from the river? Our aerial scout, the balloon, also reported that ridge after ridge commanded Vaal Krantz. Many of these could not be seen from our positions, and, not being marked on the available maps, we were ignorant of their existence. The enemy were also seen bringing up more guns, and placing them in position on the hills. In the afternoon we heard that Vaal Krantz was to be abandoned when darkness set in, and that the third attempt to relieve Ladysmith was to be given up. Orders were issued for a general retirement of the army to Spearman’s and Springfield. The hour fixed for this to commence was 9 p.m., so that we might be enabled to move our transport up the valley under cover of darkness, as its entire length was commanded by the Boer guns. At the hour appointed, as the last half of the troops were hurrying across, their movements were heard by the enemy, and, thinking an attack was in progress, they broke the silence of the night by a terrific discharge of musketry. Some of us at Schwartz Kop thought our forces were making a night attack on Long Tom; their entire position took it up, the dazzling flashes of the rifles lighting up the surrounding hills. Of these Doom Kloof was particularly noticeable, as the enemy had evidently posted a strong guard to protect their Long Tom from such an attack. The firing did not last long, and soon silence reigned, save for some individual sniper aiming at an imaginary foe, but presently he got tired and all was still. By midnight all were across, and shortly after this the pontoon was taken up and moved away.
Throughout the night, we in the bivouacs under Schwartz Kop were kept awake by the movements of the troops, as they passed by on their way towards Springfield, via Spearman’s Hill, the steady tramp, tramp of the infantry being varied at dawn by the jingle, jingle of the chains of the waggons; such noises made sleep impossible. On the morning of February 7 some of the British batteries were left in positions commanding the river, in order to cover the retirement of the remainder of the force; this was, however, undisputed by the enemy, except by long-range artillery-fire, which did but little harm. The 63rd Battery Royal Field Artillery was left with Hart’s Brigade, and ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery, which had arrived recently from Umballa, and which was under the command of Major E. A. Burrows, was another battery left behind to cover the general retirement; it had taken up a position on Gun Hill near Mount Alice. It fired a few rounds of shrapnel at a range of 3,500 yards at a party of Boers, probably a band of looters, who had ventured down to the ground recently occupied by the infantry on Vaal Krantz. Beyond this range, the Field Artillery guns with which this battery was armed were unable to burst time shrapnel at this period of the campaign, for in those days they had no ‘ blue-nosed' fuses [The first fuses issued had their 'noses' painted yellow; later on a fuse allowing of longer range of bursting was issued; to distinguish this, its nose was painted blue. At Vaal Krantz, for this reason, the Field Artillery were handicapped; at Pieter’s Hill, and again at Bergendal, it was different; in these engagements they were able to reach the enemy and make them keep their fire down, which is the most that can be expected from shrapnel against troops in such trenches as the Boers had; and here again the artillery, by lengthening their range and fuse, were able to send their shells well over the heads of the infantry, even when they were advancing to the final assault. In considering the required range for field-guns, it must be remembered that artillery ought not only to be able to reach the enemy from their position, but also to fire well over his trenches, so that they may not have to cease firing as their own infantry reach it, and may thus be able to harass the enemy in their retreat]. South of the river, close to Potgeiter’s Drift, the Army Service Corps had a busy morning, removing and loading upon ox-waggons a vast accumulation of stores which had been concentrated there, such as huge stacks of 1 bully beef’ and biscuit-boxes, compressed forage and medical comforts.
Such a task, at any time a laborious one, was now rendered even more so by the spiteful action of the enemy’s long-range guns, which were firing about everywhere—promiscuously. Yet the gallant Army Service Corps—‘Tommy’s' best friend—worked hard, and not a pound of stores did they leave behind.
Close by was the Eleventh Brigade Hospital— noted at all times for the splendid way in which it carried out its work; it was now all bustle, as the sick and wounded were being removed. Major Moir, R.A.M.C., its Commanding Officer, had sent for and received about 500 Indian stretcher-bearers; these, with their dhoolies and tongas, were drawn up alongside of about the same number of Colonel Gallwey’s Colonial Stretcher Corps, and as I rode up presented a most animated and picturesque group. I had been sent with a train of ambulance-waggons to assist in the evacuation. The hospital had been pitched in what was probably the most picturesque locality of the Vaal Krantz valley: it lay under a steep, rugged hill, wooded by mimosa and cacti; the very tents were sheltered by mimosa-bushes, forming quite a rural camp. Grouped all round were the dhoolie-bearers, their dark skins, lighdy-built frames, and many coloured raiment, such as Indians love to wear, impressing the spectator with the thought that here again were representatives of the mighty British Empire. Let not the public forget what Great Britain owes to her colonies.
With such an array of stretcher-bearers and ambulances, and with a long, steep, dusty, uphill march to Spearman’s Camp before them, is it any wonder that some of the ‘ Tommies,’ who were neither very sick nor very badly wounded, should have hesitated when told to (follow on ’ behind the ambulances? I was standing beside such a group while mine were being laden with the severer cases. Some of the walking men were discussing the order. 'Why foot-slog,' says one, 'when you can get a ride in a blooming 'bus?’ ‘Penny all the way to ’Ampstead,' says another. 'Any 'ansoms?' says a third. And so the good-humoured banter went on. Long Tom on Doom Kloof came to our assistance. Whirr-r! bang! a shell bursts close by—within the hospital. 'Guess, chum, we’d better start,' says one man. 'You bet, chum,' says another. 'The blooming bloke says walk: let’s walk,' says a third. And after a last lingering look at the ambulances, off they trudge. Later on, halfway up the hill, we see them again, alongside the dusty road; some energetic canteen-owner has erected a tent, and is doing a brisk trade, as for many it is a half-way house for a drink of temperance ale: no other beverage is allowed by General Buller to be sold at the canteens. Here a group of weary 'foot-sloggers' have stopped, and are seen refreshing themselves with non-intoxicant beer at sixpence a small bottle; others are eating biscuits out of air-tight tins, is. 6d. per tin; another is using a piece of stick, as a substitute for a better implement, to get at tinned salmon. And thus the army spends some of its hard-earned 4 bob a day 9 in the field. What matter?—the customers have been confined to 'bully’ and biscuit for the last week, and can afford it. At the top of the hill we stop the ambulances, and give as many as can be seated a rest as far as Spearman’s.
At Spearman’s a vast array of canvas meets our eye; here every available tent has been given over by the military to the doctors. We stop at Major Kirkpatrick’s Hospital, No. 4 Stationary, as it is called; in reality it is ‘stationary’ in name, and nothing else, being as mobile as a held hospital. We are met by Majors Kelly and Mallins, R.A.M.C., both members of the Staff; a sergeant-major, armed with a huge note-book, takes the names and other particulars of the cases as they are moved off to the various tents or marquees.
Mr. Frederick Treves, the eminent London surgeon, who has left home and country at the nation’s call, strolls over and converses with one and all when our charges are comfortably settled in beds, with snowy sheets, to which they have been foreign for many a month; then we are invited into the mess tent to partake of some refreshment. After the meal we are shown round the hospital; several sisters of the Army Nursing Service are busy comforting their patients [During the Vaal Krantz operations from February 5 to 7, the following casualties occurred: Killed, 2 officers and 23 men; wounded, 18 officers and 326 men; missing, 5 men; total, 374.]. One is writing a letter for a dying soldier; he, poor fellow! is a hopeless case—a severe internal injury from a pom-pom shell. He lies propped up in bed, and with broken speech dictates this, his last letter.
As evening is coming on, we inspan and drive our ambulances away to the camping-ground allotted for the bearer company.