The general situation was this. Lord Roberts, in pursuing his triumphant way to the capital of the Transvaal, had left behind him, and especially on his right rear, that is to say, in the south-eastern part of the Orange River Colony, large forces of unconquered Boers, their principal leader the famous Christian de Wet whose exploits had already caused us vast trouble, and were to cause an infinity more. Lindley, which was garrisoned by some troops under Lieut.-General Arthur Paget, was now closely invested by de Wet, and suffering repeated attacks. Even at Kroonstad, the principal British depot between Bloemfontein and Pretoria, our soldiers scarcely held more than the ground they stood on. For de Wet in person rarely stayed long in any one spot, but was for ever swooping down on vulnerable points with a selected band, and decamping when he had done all the mischief he could. It was to one of these raids (and ‘More power to the raider!’ was, we regret to say, our selfish comment at the time) that we owed our introduction to the real business of war, for, on June 22, news was brought to Kroonstad that he had cut the line at Honing- spruit, a few miles to the north, and was making a determined attack on the small garrison station there. When this news arrived the Battery was shivering in its coal-trucks in a siding of Kroonstad station, where we had spent the night of the 21st after a long and tedious day’s travel. Our original destination was, we believe, to have been Pretoria; but the result of the news was an order to detrain and march at once to Honingspruit to help succour the garrison.
It was a time of novelties, pleasant and unpleasant, solemn and humorous; and among the last class might be numbered our first taste of Staff methods in an emergency where time was vital. For two hoars, while Honingspruit was fighting for bare life, we were pelted by a rain of conflicting orders, each countermanding its predecessor, and each involving some inherent absurdity which killed it and called up another. Nobody appeared to know how many guns were wanted, or how (whether by train or road) they were to be got to the scene of action. As the said scene was the naked plain, with no vestige of a platform, you would have thought that question, at least, was tolerably simple. At one time it seemed likely that we should be asked to make our maiden effort either without horses or without harness, or—most formidable contingency of all— without guns! The Editors well remember the resigned stupor they sank into after doing and undoing the same job several times over, and thinking dimly all the while ‘This is war.’
In the end, the right section, with two guns, under the Major, was sent off to Honingspruit, where it is scarcely necessary to say that they arrived too late to be of any use, beyond completing the determination of the Boers to abandon their attack in the face of the reinforcements which had already began to muster. As it was, they had done a quantity of mischief, and caused us grave loss in men.
The left section, under Captain Budworth, together with a squadron of Lancers, and other troops, followed in support, to watch the country to the east of the line, and spent the day posted on a commanding eminence, and without firing a shot. It was proposed to leave the guns indefinitely on this eminence, in the hope that the sight of them might frighten away the Boers; but fortunately the officer in command of the force proved open to argument, and, towards nightfall, the guns were withdrawn, to the great relief of every one concerned, for the top of the hill was bestrewn with dead horses, so that a change of air was very welcome.
On the whole, it was not a satisfactory day; but, after all, the great thing was that we had won our freedom from standing camps, were at large on the field of war, and available for other enterprises. Bitterly cold as the nights were at this season (the depth of winter), probably every man of ns, as he rolled himself in his blanket that night, at a bivouac near the town, praised heaven that no tent stood over him, that hard service biscuit (and none too much of it) had supplanted inglorious bread, and that reveilles in the dark small hours, severe marching, and sharp fighting were to be his lot for the future.
An enterprise offered itself on the very next day (June 23), for the authorities determined to send a relief column to General Paget at Lindley, with supplies, of which he was in urgent need, and reinforcements, to enable him to break down the investment and take the field. The Battery was to form part of the column, whose other constituents were 400 Bushmen, four companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Militia Battalion of the Buffs, the Middlesex Imperial Yeomanry, and two guns of the 17th Field Battery—the whole under the command of Colonel Brookfield, M.P. Protected by this escort, there was an immense convoy of supply waggons drawn by mules and bullocks, besides several traction engines with trucks attached, which, from their asthmatic immobility at bad drifts, proved to be an unmitigated nuisance.
The left section was to proceed with the column at once; the right, which was still some distance away, was to follow as rapidly as it could, and join the camp at nightfall.
We started at 2 P.M., at the outset fording the ValBch River and mounting a precipitous drift from it. At the top of this we issued upon that rolling, buff-coloured expanse of withered grass, with its pink undertone, which was to be our hunting-ground for many weeks. Checks were frequent, and the column only did Bix miles before forming camp for the night. Everything had been new and strange: the lean and ragged foot soldiers who marched alongside of us, toughened, stained, and blasts after months of service; the turmoil of encampment in the dark, with the shrill yells of black drivers, and the hustle and crush of crowding waggons; the twinkle of hosts of camp-fires, and the hot glow of a distant veldt-fire; and, finally, the ghostly ride of two miles to water the horses, at a pond whose precise position nobody knew—a silent, mysterious ride, for it was hostile country, and Providence only knew where de Wet and his prowling bands might be. One thing only was sure, that he would make a vigorous effort to stop this column and thwart the release of Lindley’s garrison.
Reveille was at 3 A.M. on the next day, and we found what it was to have hastily to harness-up with icy fingers and stiff frames, in pitch dark, with only a bare minute (and, if you were late, not even that) to swallow a mess-tin of hot weak coffee, before you hooked in your team and mounted. How singular it was, too, to be riding later on in the morning under a genuinely hot sun, while the tinkle of ice still sounded from within your frozen water-bottle!
Sixteen miles we did that day, with a long halt at mid-day in deference to the habits of the trek-ox, whose pensive progress over level ground, sullen obstinacy at critical spruits, and acute sensitiveness as to the hours of his meals, make up one of the many difficult problems of warfare in a country such as this. Boer scouts had been seen, but no attack was made.
The next day also was uneventful, but on June 26—a red-letter day in all our memories—the Battery, after all those months of disheartening suspense, was at last put to the test. It was half-past 7 a.m., and after two hours’ marching, we had halted on the crest of a hill overlooking a spruit, and were listening curiously to a rippling, crackling sound that broke the still air on our left front. We were all in our cloaks, for it was very cold ; but the Adjutant now came down the column of route, and, with jubilation in his face, recommended us to roll them on our saddles, as we might not soon get another chance. The situation was clear enough to anybody. The crest we were standing on curved away to the left front at about the same level, and then rose to and ended in an abrupt kopje directly commanding the road by which the convoy had to pass, and occupied by Boers whom it was essential to dislodge before any progress could be made. Mounted troops were sent round to take them in the rear, and the Battery was ordered to engage them in front. Apparently, we could easily have done this from the sheltered crest where we then were, but the Brigadier thought otherwise, and we certainly were in no mood to dispute his wisdom, when he ordered us into the open plain below, there to come into action.
‘Walk, March !’ —’Trot!’ —and down we went into the most villainous gully, splashed through a stream, galloped up a steep and crumbling bank, formed line on the level, and trotted methodically into action. As soon as we topped the bank, our baptism of fire began—a fairly heavy rifle-fire, knocking up those uncanny-looking dust-spots all round us, and causing slight casualties among men and horses. But the advance was perfectly orderly; the guns were unlimbered smartly, the teams and waggons withdrawn to the rear, and without the least delay the range of the hostile kopje was found, and shrapnel rained accurately on its crest and reverse slopes.
It was the first occasion during the three and a half centuries of its existence that the H.A.C. had fired a shot on foreign soil, and on a matter of such burning interest to us who love our Corps and are keenly jealous of its honour, it would be easy unconsciously to exaggerate. But all present, including the Brigadier, who gave us hearty praise, know that we are not doing anything of the sort. It was a day to be proud of.
We kept up the fire for an hour and ten minutes, expending 225 rounds, and by that time the Boers were silenced and had abandoned the kopje, so permitting the convoy to resume its advance in perfect security. As in all our fighting, we were wonderfully lucky; forthough our position offered not a stock or stone of shelter, we had only two men, Gunner O’Regan and Driver Clough, wounded, and four horses hit.
It is known now that de Wet himself was not present either at this action or at that on the morrow. He states in his book that he was too much occupied at Lindley to be able to lead the resistance to our column—a resistance which he had intended to be more resolute and effective than it actually was. For all that, it was resolute enough to put us in no little jeopardy. For the rest of this day there was only some long-range, desultory fighting; but on the next (June 27) we were hard put to it to cover the remaining miles to Lindley. Yet cover them we must, then and there, if we were to save the garrison, who were hard pressed at the moment, and unable to spare a single man to meet and assist our column. But for the convoy the matter would have been comparatively simple —a quick, running fight, audaciously conducted, would have settled the matter for good or ill; but the slow-moving, sinuous convoy, one of the most unwieldy things in the wide world, precluded any such course. The Boers knew this, too, and had chosen a spot to withstand us about seven miles on from our bivouac of the previous night, where one of those ugly spruits, that were becoming familiar, crossed the road and spelt delay and confusion for the ox-waggons. Above it, on our side, was a ridge which sloped down to the bed of the stream in two enormous undulations, like steps in a staircase. Beyond it were kopjes and rising ground. The enemy were posted at various points to the front and on both flanks of this position; and a big Creuzot gun of theirs commanded the approach to the spruit.
As soon as their position disclosed itself, our right section, which had been part of the advance-guard, was sent on to the first of these undulations, or steps, where, in the list of new emotions, it obtained that of shell-fire from the Creuzot gun. Happily for us, Boer shells, though often aimed with uncomfortable accuracy, were rarely of good workmanship, only bursting on impact, and so doing little damage. The left section, which that day was with the rear-guard, was also hastily summoned to the same spot, and reached it after three miles’ continuous trotting, mostly up-hill, past the whole convoy.
There was now a short time of hesitation, for, while shells were falling thick and fast in our neighbourhood, we found that we could not nearly reach the source of them with our own light guns. Our right section, therefore, and the two guns of the 17th Field Battery, were sent forward by the Brigadier to engage the enemy's artillery at a nearer range, while it was decided at the same time to take the opportunity of immediately throwing the convoy across the spruit, and the left section was detailed to act as rear-guard for this operation and cover the transit with its guns.
To follow the fortunes of the right section first. They had a hard tussle with the Creuzot, and eventually silenced it; but not the Boer riflemen who swarmed on the front. Against these they repeatedly came into action, and so gave support to our own Bushmen and Yeomanry who were engaged in clearing the left flank. Finally they joined the van of the convoy, which was beginning to uncoil its cumbersome length ahead, having practically crossed the spruit, and safely reached Lindley at the head of it before dark.
As it turned out, the left section, under Captain Budworth, who were still posted on the undulation that we spoke of, had the chief post of danger. The Creuzot gun, only temporarily silenced, had shifted its position, and now, in company with a second of the same calibre, opened fire on the convoy and rear-guard. Twice the Captain shifted the section to more commanding points and tried to reach them, but in vain. The Boer riflemen also, only beaten off for the time, closed in on all sides round the same quarter. Meanwhile the convoy wound its interminable length, with the most maddening slowness, across the spruit. Another circumstance tended to confuse the situation. The cordon of Boers, in closing in, fired the veldt, and the flames, driven by a favouring wind, licked their way up to our very guns and horses, while the whole atmosphere became murky with smoke, through which the sun appeared as a dull crimson ball, as in a November fog in London. There was a certain lack of intelligent direction too, for the Brigadier, assuming prematurely that the convoy was safe, had galloped off to the head of it with a cheery ‘Au revoir till dinner at Lindley,' and was now near that longed-for haven. The infantry who were helping to hold the extreme rear began filtering back with breathless stories of myriads of Boers about to pour over the ridge above us, whereupon our guns were turned in that direction, but with scant hope of making any impression, even with case-shot, on an open line of skirmishers. In fact things looked really bad, and without some coolness and nerve would have ended badly. But Captain Budworth, then as always, was equal to the occasion, and the convoy did in the fulness of time ramble and scramble over the spruit. As the last waggons entered it the guns were ordered to cross also, and continue their covering tactics from the other side. Some of us can see now that pandemonium of yelling Kaffirs, plunging cattle, blaspheming transport officers, and panting traction-engines, through which we forced our road, and so climbed out of that accursed spruit, under its pall of lurid smoke.
The most critical moments were still to come, for an exceedingly difficult bit of ground flanked the farther side of the spruit, and the convoy, while scaling this, was highly vulnerable, having, besides, left some wreckage in the shape of broken- down waggons and exhausted traction-engines in the bed of the gully itself. The enemy, who, to tell the truth, had never been as adventurous as they might have been, gained hardihood, and gradually drew their cordon tighter, till they enveloped us at nearly every point of the compass. There was only one thing to be done: to show a cool and determined front till darkness fell; and that was done. The Bushmen held a steep declivity, which overhung the spruit on the left, with gallantry and tenacity; we ourselves, from further back, fired over their heads and towards the rear at a target which, from the nature of the ground, we could only roughly conjecture at. The Yorkshire Light Infantry tackled the right (not without difficulties, for they left a company straying about there all night). And so, minute after minute was gained, till day melted into twilight and twilight thickened to night, and the convoy, safely extricated, was well on its forward way. Not till then did we ourselves limber up and follow, dead tired, both man and beast. There were still eight miles to Lindley—atrocious miles, too—over rocky heights and hollows, and many an awkward donga; but we were unmolested, and reached our haven at nine o’clock, were dumped down in a waste field, chucked off our harness (most kindly helped by some men of the 38th Field Battery), and slept like logs.
We call this action Paardeplatz, whether correctly or not it cannot be said with certainty. It was a good example of those small affairs which are never heard of unless they end ‘regrettably,’ but which are thrilling enough to those engaged in them, and which may have far-reaching consequences. If our column had been rushed or even seriously delayed, Lindley might easily have fallen, and a disaster of some magnitude incurred.
It should be recorded that the Brigadier sought out Captain Budworth on the following day, and congratulated him warmly on the behaviour of the artillery of the rear-guard.
Our first little enterprise was thus happily achieved, and its results for us were excellent, for it gave us confidence in ourselves and our officers, and showed that our long detention on the lines of communication had at any rate made ns sound and efficient.
Whether it was due to over-elation or not, the Editors cannot say; hut the fact remains that on the following day astonished Lindley woke to find a new and flaming piece of red and blue bunting floating in its midst. It is understood that the General himself instantly sent an indignant inquiry as to the meaning of this dangerous phenomenon, which was calculated to draw fire not only on his troops but on hiB own headquarters, which were uncomfortably close at hand; and was told that it was the flag of the H.A.C. who had come to his rescue over-night. Our colours, we regret to record, had to be incontinently struck!
At Lindley we spent four fairly peaceful days, broken once, for the left section, by an excursion which deserves a word, because it imposed a fresh test of discipline and smartness. The section was sent out to help in escorting the empty convoy and some batches of sick and wounded back to Kroonstad over the same road. We did a rapid day’s march, of seventeen miles or so, and bivouacked in the evening; but at 11.30 P.M. were abruptly roused and ordered back at once to Lindley. The order was so sudden and unexpected that in our ignorance we thought some critical emergency had arisen, and that on us alone hung the fate of Lindley! In point of fact, it was only a natural impatience on General Paget’s part to have his forces complete again before beginning a concerted movement southwards; but the test spoken of was none the less useful, for though we were scarcely awake, and the night was black, the teams were harnessed and on the homeward road in a time that would have done credit to a regular battery, while those now odiously familiar ridges and drifts were traversed without a hitch, and with all possible speed.