The Battery was now definitely attached to General Paget’s (the 20th) Brigade, and remained with it to the last. Captain Budworth was appointed Adjutant of the Brigade Artillery, and in that capacity was employed considerably with the C.E.A. and the 38th Field Battery, and, consequently, less than hitherto with ourselves.
With the reinforcements he had now received, General Paget was ready to take the offensive, and accordingly planned with General Clements a joint sweeping movement towards Bethlehem. This was begun on July 2, when we moved out of forlorn little Lindley (the victim of more bloody and abrupt vicissitudes than any town in the field of war), and marched south-eastwards, over hilly country, in company with a battalion of the Royal Monster Fusiliers, ever afterwards our close and constant comrades in campaigning (bless their honest brogues and genial fun!), with the Yorkshire Light Infantry, too, and about 800 mounted troops, Bushmen, Yeomanry, etc., and finally the 38th Field Battery, with whom we were also long and intimately associated.
Of the march to Bethlehem as a whole, it may be briefly said that the enemy under General Christian de Wet fell back steadily before the Brigade, disputing the ground as they went in a series of rearguard actions, one of which—that on the second day —was serious, and the others less so or trivial.
On the first day there was no lack of interest and excitement in isolated incidents. The right section, engaged on the right front, together with a company of Munsters, had just dislodged some Boers from a kopje, and were advancing further, when they suddenly found themselves enfiladed by a sharp fire from their old friend (or a mate of his) the big Creuzot gun, which had hitherto been silent in coy obscurity. Being on a wholly unsheltered plateau at the time, there was nothing for it but to gallop back then and there, and an exciting gallop it was, with shells pitching fast and accurately at their heels. No damage was done, however, and they were soon in such safety that the Sergeant-major was able to gather in two trembling Boers as prisoners of war.
The left section, marching with Paget’s centre and main body, engaged this same Creuzot gun again, as soon as it was unmasked. In its way it was a remarkable little duel, for Lieutenant Bayley, who was in charge of the section, picked up the range, which was 4,200 yards, in three shots, and in a few more caused the withdrawal of the gun. His layers must have made excellent practice, for on the following day, when the kopje was occupied, fragments of our shells were found in the gun-epaulement itself.
Another small episode was an adventure of Captain Budworth’s. He was attached to the left wing (of mounted men) which was detailed that day to turn the Boers’ right. Towards the end of the day he was ordered off with a few mounted men to help in extricating a telegraph cart from a morass where it was badly bogged. Daring the operation, and while the predicament was at its worst, a band of Boers arrived, and opened fire. Covered by Captain Budworth’s party, however, Lieutenant Sherard, B.E., and a couple of men, by literally and figuratively putting their shoulders to the wheel, succeeded in saving the cart, with the loss of one horse only, and a couple of minor casualties.
The second day of the march must be treated in greater detail. In some respects it was the most memorable day in our campaign, and in one respect it was, we believe, unique in the whole history of the war.
De Wet in his book calls the scene of the action Elandsfontein; we have always called it Barkin Kop, and that name is adhered to here. The greatest pains have been taken to arrive at the exact truth as to what occurred, and the following account may be received as absolutely trustworthy. We lay stress on this, because, unhappily, an erroneous version has appeared in a recently published history of wide circulation.
Action of Barkin Kop, 3 July 1900
Before daylight, on a cloudy, stormy-looking morning, the Brigade resumed its advance, and after an hour’s marching was divided into two.
The main body, consisting of infantry and one section (the left) of our Battery, and led by the General in person, moved straight to its front, but shortly after starting, the guns, with an escort of Munsters, were sent up a kopje on the right flank, where they had a long duel with some hostile artillery. Here we leave them for the present.
The remainder of the Brigade, consisting of 800 mounted troops (Yeomanry, Australians, and other details), 38th Field Battery (4 guns), and the right section of our own Battery, was detached to make a wide turning movement on the left. This force was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Brookfield; the artillery included in it was under the orders of Major Oldfield of the 38th Field Battery.
The force advanced slowly under a desultory rifle fire, which was silenced after a time by a few rounds from the guns. About half-past nine, the enemy began shell-fire; and thus disclosed their main position. This was on a line running at right angles to our line of advance, marked in the centre by a small kopje (a) and terminating on the right (that is, on our right) in a big hill called Barkin Hop. Three Boer guns were located—two in kraals on high ground to the left, and one on kopje (A).
There was a pause to reconnoitre, and Major Oldfield galloped forward and chose ground—a ridge parallel to the enemy’s position—where his artillery could come into action. All six guns advanced to this ridge, and, in doing so, came under an accurate shrapnel fire. A long duel ensued, with the result that the enemy were practically silenced, though by no means disabled, for whenever our fire slackened, theirs spurted spasmodically up again. At last, however, parties of Boers were seen to be retiring, and accordingly it was decided to push forward a mounted force to turn their right flank. The two H.A.C. guns were detailed to support the movement, and for this purpose were withdrawn behind the crest of the ridge in readiness to move out. But the projected movement fell through, from causes that need not be gone into, and in the end the H.A.C. guns were brought into action on the ridge again, but in a new position, while two of the 38th Battery guns were shifted to the place we had originally occupied.
The artillery was now disposed in three sections of two guns each, in the positions marked on the plan, the two H.A.C. guns, under Major McMicking, on the left; two guns of the 38th Battery, in charge of Captain Fitzgerald, in the centre, about 130 yards distant from ours; and two guns of the same Battery, in charge of Lieut. Belcher, on the right, at a further distance of about 80 yards. The latter section was on the edge of a mealie field, and beyond, on their right front, was a considerable stretch of ‘dead’ ground.
It is to be noted that these three positions were divided from one another by slightly rising ground, so that each section was invisible to the others. As for the H.A.C. guns, Major McMicking had them carefully run up by hand to the exact spot selected; and so skilfully were they thus concealed, that the Boer artillery failed properly to locate them for the rest of the day.
The troops in support were disposed as follows:
On the left of the H.A.C. guns was a small detachment of troops, with a look-out post on an eminence to their front. The rising ground between the H.A.C. guns and Captain Fitzgerald’s section was held by Australians, and an escort composed of Yeomanry and Prince Alfred’s Guards was posted on the right front of Lieut. Belcher’s section, but was afterwards unfortunately withdrawn, by orders of the O.C.R.A., to the right rear. The main body of the Yeomanry were in extended order further to the right.
The weather throughout the day was dismal, with a high cold wind, and, frequently, drenching showers of rain.
At about half-past twelve the enemy increased their shell-fire, unmasking two fresh guns, one on a kopje (a), the other on Barkin Kop. The latter partly enfiladed our position, but on the whole the fire, though heavy, was doing little damage; so little that Major Oldfield presently ordered the gunners of his Battery to cease fire, and to lie down near their guns; his reasons being that his ammunition was running low and that it was best to wait until General Paget, with the rest of the Brigade, should make his presence felt on the right.
There can be no doubt that this cessation of fire gave the impression to the enemy that these four guns (which they could probably see) had been temporarily abandoned. In any case, they redoubled their own shell-fire, and also threw out skirmishers against our left, in resisting whom, among other casualties, Major Bose, of the Australians, was badly wounded. This was probably in the nature of a diversion, to cover a serious movement which, with extraordinary suddenness and secrecy, was launched against our right. It was heralded (at about 3.15) by a sharp burst of rifle-fire, at the first sound of which Major Oldfield and Captain Budworth hurried up to the crest of the ridge, and found that a detachment of Boers, numbering about a hundred, had stolen up the dead ground ahead, through the mealie fields, and were now within fifty yards of Lieut. Belcher’s section, into whose gunners they were pouring a rapid and deadly fire.
Major Oldfield, almost immediately, fell mortally wounded, and in such agony that Captain Budworth, after attempting to remove him, had to desist. Turning to obtain assistance, he saw that the detachment on the left of the H.A.C. guns, and also the Australians who had been holding the rise between our own and Captain Fitzgerald’s guns, had retired. It will be remembered that the Yeomanry escort on the right flank had previously been withdrawn some distance to the rear (otherwise this dashing raid could never have been effected unobserved, if, indeed, it could have been attempted at all). The whole ridge, therefore, with its six unlimbered guns, was now left at the mercy of the Boers. Behind it was a wide stretch of open ground, and if the enemy carried the crest and commanded this, nothing could hinder a terrible disaster like that of Sanna’s Post.
Captain Budworth managed to reach his pony, and galloped back at once to call upon the Australians to return. That he succeeded in bringing them back, and promptly too, reflects the highest credit on him, and also, be it added, on the men he had to deal with. Who ordered their retirement it is impossible to ascertain; but it is just to say that when called upon to come back again, they did so willingly; and it is common knowledge that it requires more courage, both moral and physical, for troops in retreat to rally and face fire, than to sit tight and suffer it from the first.
But meanwhile terrible mischief was being done on the ridge.
When the surprise occurred, Lieut. Belcher’s gunners were lying down, but on the alarm instantly ran to their guns, and were ordered to fire case, the last resource of artillery when attacked at close quarters. One round only could be fired, and then the Boers were on them. Lieut. Belcher was shot dead, and all his gunners were either killed, wounded, or captured.
Captain Fitzgerald’s section, eighty yards further to the left, had a little more time, and were ordered promptly to limber up. One gun was safely removed to the left rear, thanks to the coolness of the No. 1, Sergeant Adams; the other gun-team, in coming up to hook in to the limber, was driven in error too much towards the right, and, in the few seconds so lost, all the drivers and horses were shot, and Captain Fitzgerald was severely wounded in an endeavour to extricate the wounded horses. All the gunners too were killed or wounded. The Boers were thus in actual possession of three out of four of the 38th Battery guns.
Fortunately, instead of pressing forwards at once towards the remaining 38th gun, and, over the intervening rise, to the H.A.C. guns, which were completely at their mercy, they delayed to secure their prisoners and to attempt the removal of the already captured guns. This delay gave time for help to arrive. The Australians, with Captain Budworth at their head, soon appeared on the scene again, were met with a hot fire, but pushed forward with such determination that the Boers abandoned the guns and made off, covered in their retreat by a renewal of shell-fire.
The H.A.C. guns on the left, hidden by their fold of ground, were not actually affected by the sudden raid we have described; but until the Australians returned, they also were left without a single protecting rifle, while they had at the same time to meet an emergency of their own, an attack on the left flank in support of the frontal raid; and to meet it without assistance too, for the detachment on their left, unlike the Australians, were very slow in returning. At one time, accordingly, the two guns were firing trail to trail, one at the Boers on their left, and one towards the right, over the heads of the disabled 38th. Under these difficult and perilous circumstances perfect steadiness prevailed.
As will be understood, however, the period of imminent danger did not last long. It was over from the moment that, owing to the Australian fire, the Boers left the disabled guns and retreated. Shell-fire broke out again, but Lieut. Belcher’s limbers were able to drive up and quietly remove their two guns. One of Captain Fitzgerald’s had already been safely taken away, as was related above. The other, having lost its team and drivers, could not at first be moved, but two Yeomanry officers succeeded in hooking a pair of wounded horses into it, and were trying to get it away, when a H.A.C. limber appeared on the scene with fresh horses and men, and drove it out of action. All four of the 38th Battery guns were thus brought gradually round to support the left, and one of them, it should be recorded, was served by H.A.C. drivers. (For drivers to serve a gun was probably an unprecedented circumstance.) The mounted troops, including the Yeomanry on the right, took their places in the line, the welcome sound of General Paget’s guns was heard on the right, and all seemed ripe for an energetic advance to follow up the enemy’s repulse. A bold and skilful handling of the mounted troops would have had excellent chances of success; but doubtless the whole force was a little dazed by what had happened, and the advance when made was hesitating and ineffectual.
Another distraction was caused by some disquieting news from the main body, which had met with an ambush and required assistance. Let us now revert to their side of the field, and in doing so follow the fortunes of the left section of our Battery.
We left them in action under Lieut. Bayley on a steep kopje to the right of the main body. The guns opposed to them were long-range Krupps, and the problem before Lieut. Bayley was to reach these at a range of 7,000 yards. It was solved, after some delay, by sinking the trails and using aiming posts, but not before a number of wonderfully accurate shots had dropped unpleasantly close to our limbers and waggons, though, bursting on impact and on rain-sodden ground, they did us no hurt. The hostile fire slowly slackened and ceased, but it could scarcely have been in deference to our own efforts, which, at such a range, must have been inconclusive at the best. Probably the Boer guns preferred to concentrate their energies on the unlucky 38th. We ceased fire, too, and there was a long wait in the rain, while we cooked little messes on cow- dung fires, and thought the fighting was over for the day. But at two o’clock orders came for us to descend into the plain, and support the Infantry in a general attack on the main Boer position, which was an extension of the same series of hills as that described above, and was flanked on our left by Bar kin Kop. We advanced in a succession of short rushes, through barbed wire fences, over hollows and streams and heavy mealie fields, firing a few shots, and hurrying on again, the enemy’s skirmishers falling back uninterruptedly. Blinding sheets of rain fell during this advance, which led us ultimately to the foot of the kopje. ‘Up it,’ was the order, and a very nasty ascent it was, especially with tired horses. The slope, naturally steep, was strewn with loose boulders, and, near the top, seamed with sangars built for defence, and by no means easy for guns to pass. One of the limbers was overturned, bat the accident was soon repaired, and the section fired from the summit at the dispersing enemy, under the direction of General Paget in person.
It was now about five; the last Boer disappeared from view in the direction of Bethlehem; Clements’s Brigade was known to be pressing them on the far right, and for the second time it looked as though fighting was over for the day. The guns descended, flanked by the Infantry, into a broad undulating valley. About 600 yards to our front ran a low ridge, which, happily, struck Lieut. Bayley as suspicious in appearance. He halted his guns therefore, and sent forward ground-scouts to inspect it. It was well that he did so, for when these men had advanced a certain distance there was a furious outbreak of Mausers from the right front, whence the ridge curved backwards parallel to the line of march. The Infantry, who were in close order at the time (for every one of us thought we were merely marching into camp), spread out and scattered in all directions. Lieut. Bayley had gone off at the moment to look at the camping ground, and Sergeant Wood was in temporary charge of the guns. Without waiting for orders, he promptly ordered ‘action front,’ and in a minute or two shrapnel were dropping accurately and rapidly on the ridge where the ambush had been made. The General now came up again, directed our fire, and forcibly persuaded the Infantry to lie down and give us a fair field. The affair was over in ten minutes; and, all things considered, it was a narrow shave. If Lieut. Bayley had not reconnoitred the ground (a duty which, needless to say, did not strictly belong to him) the ambush would have come to light later, and far more disastrously; and but for the coolness and decision of Sergeant Wood, it might have had very humiliating consequences as it was. The mounted wing of the Brigade now joined us, and at twilight camp was at last formed after this eventful day; and our sections reunited and exchanged their experiences. There was a bitter frost that night, trying to men in sopping clothes; there was gloom too, over the sad mishap to our fellow battery; bat, on the other band, a convoy had just arrived from Kroonstad with parcels and letters from England, and consoled by this we made the best of things.
A word more about the attack on the six guns. De Wet, in his account of it, says the party numbered 100 men, and was led by Commandant Michal Prinsloo; but in this case there is strong reason for thinking that he purposely suppresses the name of his brother, who, at a later date, greatly to his anger, turned ‘hands-upper.’ Certainly Boer prisoners declared that it was Piet de Wet who led the charge. In praising the gallantry of the attack, he adds that the Boers were only compelled to retire by the advent of a ‘large force’ from the rear, before there had been time to bring up teams to remove the guns. The error is excusable; but, as a matter of fact, the force of Australians that beat them off was very small, though they could scarcely have known this. That teams were actually on the way to remove the captured guns is, we believe, the truth. In any case, one cannot leave the subject without a word of admiration for such a plucky exploit; unique, too, so far as we are aware, in the history of the war, as was hinted early in the chapter. Artillery has been rushed and captured by various means at other times; but we know of no other case where a small party of men on foot attacked and seized guns in action in the open.
As for the British side, it would be invidious to discuss the errors of the day. They were typical, in a sense, of the errors of the war; and it is enough to say that they were amply redeemed.