ESTCOURT, Wednesday, November 22nd, 1899.

Escourt as a village sunk in a cup of the a pleasant and grassy uplands of Natal. It is a half-way house at which overheated people may pause in the summer flight from Durban to the mountains. And here, too, pause we who are concerned in the relieving movement towards Ladysmith. Yet we pause alone, for these are not times for a summer dalliance; what visitors there are are [sic] not at the sanatorium, but they are persons whose necessary business is prosecuted under the eye of military authority; the residents are gone, except a few storekeepers who linger to squeeze that profitable orange an army, and, fearfully tempting fortune, still keep about them the goods of which they may be deprived upon a single mischance to the British army. The enemy crouches at our door, and with our present resources this place is scarcely defensible; the property of to-day is the easy loot of to-morrow.

While we have waited here we have fought with time, not with the enemy. Here is the situation. We cannot advance to the relief of Ladysmith till we have a sufficient force; meanwhile we have not only not a sufficient force to do that, but not a sufficient force to hold the place, to guard the capital, Maritzburg, indeed not to save any part of the colony. Will the Boers advance? Why do they not advance?

In my last letter I said something of the limitations of the Boer military mind—the inability to think of two things at once. Intent on the investment of Ladysmith, and confident of his power to advance when he pleases, the Boer wishes to be off with one job before he is on with the next. But a geographical fact takes its place with purely mental causes. The Tugela river lays between us and Ladysmith, and although there is a bridge across it the Boer is disinclined to make his retreat dependent on a bridge. Hence he has sent south of Colenso so far only large foraging parties, and every day of quiet at Est-court has lessened the anxiety, for if we have not received reinforcements every day, every day has brought their arrival nearer.

But I will not pretend that Estcourt camp has fought time with great expectation of success; there has been rather a certain sense of inevitableness and a stoical resignation. “We have not got enough men to patrol these hills; we have almost no guns to defend them. But we may as well send out what patrols we can, and keep our few men fit, and eat our dinner as usual and see what happens.” That has been the tone of the camp We have heard the guns at Ladysmith on many days, and from the hills we have seen their flashes and every day and every night we have expected to hear them and see them come nearer.

The locking up in Ladysmith of so large a part of the Natal Field Force has had an odd effect on the organisation of our minute army here; work has been devolved on unforeseen shoulders, and redevolved and dovetailed and made to overlap until one scarcely knows whether a transport officer is not also provost-marshal and press-censor. Nor is there this satisfactory condition, that every one feels that he is getting some of his work done by some one else; rather every one seems to think that some one else is invading his province. How can it be helped when the plans of the War Office have been inconsiderately upset by the Boers? But the people of Natal think everything can be helped, and it were useless to pretend that they are expending anything but hearty abuse on the army in Natal and, through it, on the Imperial Government. The Natal newspapers think that they are being kept in the dark like children, and they say so every day with growing vigour. “Why should we be treated contemptuously in our own country?” they ask. And one may go further and ask, “Is not Natal the most loyal colony, and are not the newspapers the instruments of loyalty?” This, then, is a change of front which is worth recording. For myself, I think, however, that this unsatisfactory stage will pass with the defensive stage of the war.

One other point may be added. The colonist has some contempt for every British-bred soldier, at least when the British-bred one is opposed to the Boers; but he also has, it would be unfair not to add, a quite undue contempt for the Boer. Now the colonist is disposed already to speak of Sir George White as though he were a Colley, and to the South African that name signifies an unsullied ignorance of the conditions of warfare in South Africa.

After a few days of assiduous expulsion, all undesirables and suspected spies have been shot out from this almost wholly military camp. Perhaps those undesirables who give the least cause for suspicion give the most difficulty to the expeller. The following authentic scene is offered as proof:—

Enter the hearty but unaccredited representative of a San Francisco paper. He approaches the dignified and polite but highly rigorous Press Censor.

Censor. Let’s see, is it you that wanted to speak to me about------?

American. Yes; I’m very glad to meet you, Major. I hear there’s a sort of a difficulty. But I can explain it to you right here in two minutes----

Censor. But I understand you have not got a War Office licence?

American. No. That’s right. But you see I couldn’t very well as I haven’t been near London, and I thought as I was the representative of the San Francisco-----

Censor {hoping to end the interview). I’m really awfully sorry, but you see I don’t act on my own authority—you quite understand that—and as you have no licence it would be quite impossible—

American. Oh, I quite understand your position, old man, and of course you’re quite right, and I don’t bear you any grudge. But I suppose you’ve heard of the San Francisco----

Censor. No, really; I’m afraid it’s quite impossible.

American. You wouldn’t know old Benjamin So-and-so then, my chief—a lovely man. You ought to know him; you’d like him. It was for him I was imprisoned three weeks in Cuba.

Censor. I’m afraid really----

American {patting Censor on shoulder). Oh, I quite understand your difficulty—{Censor makes deprecating motion)—Well, have a drink.

Censor. No; thanks very much.

American. Well! This is the most tee-tee-total place!

Censor. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to stay in camp. . . . Orderly! Show this gentleman to the railway station.

American. You needn’t think now I don’t see the difficulty, but I thought all the same— (some civilians pass with cameras'). Well, say, I should like to have a photograph of you, old man. Say! (Civilians pass on. Censor turns away.) Well, goodbye, old man. Goodbye! (Censor turns round. American holds out his hand. They shake hands. Censor is instantly occupied with new business. American goes off towards railway station guided by orderly.)

The chief diversion of our life at Estcourt used to be (the past tense signifies a great tragedy) the daily start and return of the armoured train. We used to throng down to the station to see it off, and to hear its news on its return, much as people go down to see the boats at Dover pier. It was not really an armoured train at all; it was not an armoured train, that is to say, with trap doors and proper outlets for the muzzles of Maxim guns. It was made up of an ordinary engine and ordinary iron trucks belonging to the Natal Government Railway protected by boiler walls; and through the boiler plates were cut loopholes for the rifles. The trucks had no roofs. To get in or out of the trucks one had to climb over the walls. It was fun to see a small and clumsy climber pushed up from the inside by his comrades, then squirm preposterously on his stomach over the wall and drop or scramble down the seven feet on the outside. I used to imagine the men under a heavy fire performing their slow and painful acrobatic feat to get out of their cage.

The train, in short, was a death-trap. Nearly every day it used to reconnoitre the country as far north as Colenso, which was many miles within what might be called the enemy’s country. There were not enough troops to send a cavalry escort with the train for scouting the country near the line, and we used to say—we take no credit for wisdom after the event, for we all said it—that one day the Boers would wait quietly hidden till the train had passed and then pull up the line behind it. Its retreat would be cut off, and if the Boers had a gun they could do what they liked with the train. I think every one admitted this, and every one would also have admitted that we had not one man to spare, yet nearly every day that train went out to Colenso. Immunity from mishap encouraged temerity, and still day after day the death-trap returned with the same story; the wires had been tested at the intermediate stations and found intact; the Boers had been sighted and perhaps even a volley had been exchanged; Colenso had been found empty or in the hands of looters; a native runner had been picked up and had produced messages from his shoes and the inside of his clothing, and this although he had been stopped and searched by the Boers; and occasionally a farmer was brought in to camp thinking the time had come to retreat before the Boers. “Well,” we used to say, “the armoured train has come back to-day, but to-morrow something will happen.”

On Wednesday, November 15th, something happened; we had surely enough been wise before the event, and I can heartily wish that we had not. But the disaster was the culmination of a small series of events which must be related in their proper order.

On Tuesday, November 14th, about eleven a.m., the alarm gun was fired on a small hill just outside Estcourt. Instantly the camp sprang to life. In a moment belts were being buckled, straps thrown across shoulders, helmets jammed on heads, putties wrapped feverishly round legs, and the tents—for the orders were to strike camp —the tents, with loosened guy ropes, were sinking to the ground like deflated balloons. The tents were packed and left ready to be moved; evidently it was not expected that we should be able to hold Estcourt.

The General and his staff took their position in the middle of the main street of the village and watched the rim of the hills round Estcourt. The Boers were said to be advancing on us along the Colenso and Weenen roads. The news had been brought in by cyclist scouts and by the magistrate and the Dutch minister of Weenen—the Dutch minister who, everybody says, came in a scout and went back a spy, for he and the magistrate returned to Weenen that night.

Our small garrison dotted itself along the rim of hills on the north and east of Estcourt; there were the Dublin Fusiliers, the Border Regiment, and the West Yorkshires, and the mounted troops—some of the Imperial Light Horse, the Natal Carbineers, and the mounted infantry of the 60th Rifles—scouted forward. I was not allowed to go further than a spot about one and a half miles from Estcourt where our pickets were lying down in a firing line. Here I waited for hours and could see the Boers, not in great numbers, coming and going on the top of a table hill about three miles away and moving about a farmhouse at the foot of the hill.

They did not advance, and the expectation of an attack waned with the waning day. The Mounted Infantry came into contact with no more than 200 Boers and exchanged perhaps thirty harmless shots with them. But there was this unhappy uncertainty about the whole matter, that we had been unable to scout the country properly, and we knew not what force was at the back of the Boers we had seen.

When I returned to Estcourt, and the greater part of the troops had been drawn in, I found that the camp was what the soldiers call “jumpy.” Were we going to stay or abandon Estcourt that night? The camp wore an air of vacillation, and vacillation is the blood-brother to demoralisation. The ground of the Dublins had sprung once more into a little white village, and no sooner had this happened than, by orders, the white walls fluttered to the ground again and were packed ready to be moved. The troops were told to bivouac, that is, sleep in their blankets in the open, and the night —the nights here are chilling—fell with teeming rain. Already the heavy stores were being heaped on the trucks standing in the station.

There is an atmosphere of retreat which is unmistakable even before the final order has been given, and Estcourt now was wrapped in this atmosphere. Officers went about blue, and some “jumpy,” but all I met said it was monstrous that we should abandon Estcourt before we had been attacked or even seen many Boers; and yet here was the curious thing, that there was a moment when every one firmly believed that we were going to abandon it. Perhaps none realised even then the seriousness of that moment. If Estcourt were abandoned there would be a rapid fall back towards Maritzburg, and imagine the effect on the troops, on the colony, on every one and everything, of this declension upon the almost unprotected capital! I do not know, and it would be considered scarcely my business to inquire, who was responsible for this grave moment. I know only that within an hour the whole situation changed. It was a moral, not a physical, change; no more troops had arrived, and we had no reason to believe that the Boers were less than vivid imaginations had made them, and yet within an hour the spirit of Estcourt was changed. At ten o’clock that night I knew that there was to be no retreat, no miserable night march, no military disgrace.

Colonel Long—he had succeeded in the command recently to General Wolfe-Murray — had heard all opinions, and now he had spoken. He had “stated in emphatic language what he’d be” before he would leave Estcourt. On the morrow we were to fight if the Boers would have it so; the two naval twelve-pounders which had been brought down from the hill and put in the train were detrained; Captain Haldane, of the Gordons (already shot in the foot in this campaign), was to take out the armoured train with a naval seven-pounder mounted on a truck and do just what he could and just what he liked; operations were to begin with daylight, and, in short, Colonel Long, who commanded the artillery at Omdurman, and has commanded more artillery in action than any British officer, was resolute to see now what he could do with almost no artillery at all.

A camp waiting every moment for an attack is an odd resting-place. The thud and hollow bang of goods being unladen in a tin shed at the railway station become the voice of artillery on the hills, and the bumping of a truck along the uneven sleepers is the best imitation I know of independent musketry fire. Twice that night I went outside my tent to listen.

At about 4.30 a.m. Mr. Winston Churchill, who was sleeping in my tent, woke me up to say that he was going in that death-trap, the armoured train, with Haldane. I said that he would either see too little or too much. We all know now that it was “too much,” though even so—and as I write I do not know whether Churchill is alive or dead—I doubt whether the experience was too much for his astonishing fearlessness.

It must have been two hours later when we heard quick artillery fire in the direction of Colenso—the direction in which the armoured train had gone. Mr. Amery, of the Times, and I started off towards the firing, but on foot as our ponies were sick. About two miles from Estcourt we heard the shrill whistle of the armoured train among the hills, and not long afterwards it appeared out of a gully close to us—but, behold, an armoured train no longer; only the armoured engine and a tender, and these crowded with clinging men! Men stood on the foot-plates of the engine, sat on the cowcatcher in front, and hung on to the sides of the tender; and when we ran to the track they waved their arms and pointed backwards and threw up their hands again, like men who would signalise something horrible. They were nearly all platelayers.

The train passed. We hurried on, struggling —for a soaking rain was falling now—over the khaki-coloured baked mud now become a slippery paste. About six miles up the line we met another platelayer from the train returning on foot — a yellow-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian, but the blue eyes were now bloodshot, and the words came shortly and stumblingly from his mouth. He seemed anxious to talk too; and, indeed, his was an experience which a platelayer might count out of the common and worth communication.

He told us how the train had travelled to Chieveley station; how the Boers had let it pass by, and then taken up a position behind it just as we had all prophesied; how Captain Haldane had tried to run the train through between the two kopjes where the Boers were posted; how when the train was bounding round the curves of this little railway two trucks had toppled over, perhaps of their own accord, perhaps because a shell had struck them, perhaps because there was an explosive on the line. And then into the midst of this railway accident, bad enough already, into the men crawling from under the trucks and among the wreckage, the Boers had poured rifle fire and the fire from a Maxim and three field guns. “Man!” said the Scandinavian platelayer, “I never saw nor heard anything like it.”

Further up the line, at Ennersdale, we found twelve men from the Dublin Fusiliers and the Durban Light Infantry who had escaped from the disaster, and gradually we pieced the story together. We heard how Churchill had walked round and round the wreckage while the bullets were spitting against the iron walls, and had called for volunteers to free the engine; how he had said, “Keep cool, men”; and again, “This will be interesting for my paper” ‘ (the Morning Post); and again how, when the engine-driver was ‘grazed on the head and was about to escape, he had jumped in to help him, and had said, “No man is hit twice in the same day.” The naval seven-pounder had been put out of action after firing three shots, and four out of the five sailors serving it had been bowled over.

At last the engine had been freed and had started homewards with some thirty men, fifteen of whom were wounded, and then Churchill and Haldane had turned back to help the Dublin Fusiliers and Durban Light Infantry who were still engaging the enemy, and were almost surrounded. There the story ends, at the moment in which Churchill and Haldane disappeared into the fight again.

Well, I devoutly hope Churchill is safe; but I half fear the gods love too much a man, only twenty-four years old, who has notable services performed in three campaigns already at his back, a man who can translate his thoughts instantly into apt and flowing language, a man with a taste in literature, the author of “With the Malakand Field Force,” and “The River War.” He is that rare combination, the soldier, the reckless soldier even, and the bookman; and it is strange to hear the young soldier speaking in the words of the bookman to his taciturn fellow-soldiers without a trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness. He has the ability—invaluable to an orator—to finish a spoken sentence in grammatical form, and so it happens that since he has the faculty of quick literary imitation he is continually practising it in conversation. Sometimes it will be the sonorous Gibbonian sentence, sometimes the balance and antithesis of Addison, sometimes the strong confusion of Carlyle. This is the way to Parliament, whither he will carry, if he survive these perilous days, qualities that even his father had not. “On to success through notable performances; and if not through notability, then through notoriety; but anyhow, on to success!” That is the motto and the motive, and the humorous candour of their adoption is the singular attractiveness of a strong character.

Twice the hospital train has visited the Boer lines to ask for the wounded, and the Boers have replied, “There are three dead with us and nine wounded, and the rest are prisoners. We can give you no names; you will see those in the Pretoria papers.” Altogether seventy-five men of those who went out in the armoured train are missing.

This was the one incident of the day. This desperate plan of what was to have been a desperate day lost nothing of its desperation; but the other plans remained merely plans; there was practically no other fighting at all.

There is this to be said in extenuation of the armoured train tragedy, that it was not a foolish reconnaissance but a wild fighting act of which, once accepted, the risk was necessary. For this armoured train, as an instrument of reconnaissance, there is hardly anything to be said in extenuation. I speak on all military things with diffidence; but here I can speak with confidence, as I repeat the expressions of almost every officer in Estcourt. It is the greatest of ironies that Haldane should have been one of the chief condemners of the train. It is the greatest of mysteries that an instrument of which every one disapproved should have continued to be used.

The story we heard at Ennersdale was difficult to extract from the Dublin Fusiliers, for with characteristic and jovial indifference they had already almost forgotten the armoured train, and were concerned only to praise the hospitality of some members of the Natal Police who were picketed at the railway station. “They’ve thrated us wonderful dacint,” they said, “and we shall niver forget thim bhoys, whether it’s in South Africa or in India or in Oireland oither.” So saying, with their hands waving and the r’s rolling in their mouths, they went away down the line.

Now we looked to the hills beyond Estcourt and saw a patrol of the Imperial Light Horse coming towards us at a gallop. But first a man, swaying on his horse and held between two comrades, came into the station yard. He had been shot in the upper part of the thigh. He could not ride further, and the patrol was retiring before the Boers, who were just beyond the crest of the hill. Amery and I helped him on to a trolley, and then pushed our unusual vehicle some miles towards Estcourt till we fell in with our old friends, the Dublin Fusiliers. They took the wounded man on with the utmost heartiness and merriment, and we have no doubt treated him “wonderful dacint,” though we thought it better to intervene once at the outset when a kindly Irishman produced a long knife and thought the pain of the wounded man would be removed if the bullet were dug out there and then.

For days we continued to fight against time. Every day troops poured into the village. The management of the little single-line railway from Durban was altogether masterly. Sidings were being hurriedly made at this simple station, until the fifty Kaffir labourers vanished upon the sound of artillery nearer than Ladysmith. We were almost surrounded, some said, and the Kaffirs were held to be the rats who leave the sinking ship. But communication with Maritzburg was still open, and we waited—still fighting time.

The first alarm had been sounded at Est-court on Tuesday, November 14th, but it was not till Saturday, November 18th, that a considerable number of Boers came within plain sight of the village. A long, flat-topped hill four miles away was their main position, but strong parties came much nearer. On a high point of the Colenso road, just above the village, I found two scouts of the Natal Mounted Police being fired at from a kopje at a range of about 800 yards; on the railway below us a party of about fifty were lingering and stooping on the bridge over the Little Bushman’s River, a mile and a half away—perhaps considering the best way to destroy it; and behind a five-foot wall two miles distant a scarcely intermitted line of Boers moved from left to right on their ponies, jogging, trotting, or trippling. Soon a line behind the wall halted; a few men came through a gap, others sat on the wall with their legs dangling.

Now the distance to the wall had been angle-measured, and at this moment the naval gunners at the back of Estcourt let fly the first shell fired here. The range was 8,000 yards. The shell struck the wall; one man at least was laid on the ground, and men and ponies scattered in all directions. Almost at the same moment the Dublin Fusiliers, who were lining a kopje, fired three long-range volleys. The trend of the Boers from left to right was now confirmed; all joined in the movement of the majority. Past the wall they went, jogging, trotting, trippling, and where the long wall ended they dipped behind a grassy shoulder of hill and disappeared. We knew that they were passing to the west of Estcourt, and that another commando was already closing upon us from Weenen on the east, and we said, “The Boers are trying to get the line south of us and cut us off.” We all knew this, I say, but nothing was done then to stop the movement. I suppose our troops were too few for anybody to be detached in a hazardous encounter from the not easily defended village. And so the enemy passed on untouched, working always from their left to right, trekking always to the west; with jogging, trotting, or trippling ponies, the thin line unwound itself like a ribbon from the reel, and in the afternoon the hills seemed empty of the enemy.

The adventure of two members of the Natal Mounted Police this day when scouting was splendidly audacious. At a turn of the path they found themselves face to face with two Boer pickets. On a common impulse, although hardly knowing what to do, they galloped at them. The Boers appeared to suppose that our scouts were their own men, and did not even raise their rifles. The next moment they found themselves being galloped towards the British camp with revolvers at their heads, and helped on their way by the bullets of the rest of the Boer pickets, who had now approached and rendered them this questionable assistance. Admirable Mounted Police! No men have done better service than these have done. In constant scouting they have had Uriah’s place, while their disciplined habit of mind has always helped them to consider themselves complimented thereby. Yet because their position lies half-way between soldier and policeman they do not always get a right share of that pure military glory which is part of the motive of the soldier. Their need of just credit is the greater, and they shall have it. To see them sweep by in a squadron is to see a thing of life and cohesion, as different from a hurriedly raised body of horse as an eight-oared crew of good watermen well together is from a ragged, disconnected crew of novices.

On Sunday, November 19th, all was quiet in Estcourt. The Boers had vanished into the hills; the country for miles round was clear of them; but we watched the long stretching hills as one watches water in which a diver has disappeared, knowing that when they did appear again it would be south of us. And so it was; that evening our scouts found them on a long table hill on the skyline about ten miles from Estcourt.

Colonel Martyr was now at Willow Grange, about seven miles south of Estcourt, with some of the mounted troops, and he determined to make a night attack on the Boers’ new position. There are two things from which the Boer has a peculiar aversion : one is a night attack, for he likes to spend his night peacefully, without even the trouble of a too exacting picket duty; and the other is the bayonet—cold steel. Both are of the genius of the British soldier. But on that evening Colonel Martyr was stopped by Colonel Kitchener (who thought our force insufficient) when he had actually begun his march forward. The notion of a night attack, however, had taken possession of the commander, for the next night one was arranged with greater deliberation. The advance on the enemy was to be made from Willow Grange.

I left for Willow Grange by the 10.30 train from Estcourt. Several officers were on board, Colonel Martyr among them—men whose eyes were shutting involuntarily after constant night duty, who were all alike preoccupied and yet all alert with the inimitable stinging excitement of a night attack. It was not a good night to march secretly; a still, gentle night, with a round-faced moon sailing placidly in the sky. At Willow Grange—a mere roadside station—I found that the troops would not march forward till two o’clock in the morning; indeed, the infantry had not yet arrived, for they were to march from Estcourt. Outside the station a sergeant stood over a hearty, blazing fire preparing gallons of coffee and cutting up apparently endless bread and cheese—a kindly man, who promised to let me know when the time arrived. Then I went and lay down in the station, and about half-past one o’clock the excellent man came and woke me up and said that the troops were ready, and added that some coffee and bread and cheese were also ready for me.

Outside I found five companies of the Border Regiment, three of the East Surrey, one of the Queen’s, and two guns of the Natal Field Artillery. On the other side of the line were the mounted troops under Colonel Martyr—a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, bodies of the Natal Carbineers, the mounted company of the King’s Royal Rifles, Bethune’s Mounted Infantry, and other detachments. It was a queer scene—the silver sky, the dark ground, the yellow fires, the hushed voices chaffing and prophesying, the flicker of a match as a man lit his pipe after his very early breakfast, and beyond all, across a valley, the long ribbed back of the dark hill on which the enemy lay sleeping.

The moon was becoming glossed over with a filmy haze—the men noted it with satisfaction; but when all were ready to start, still no order came. In the station a door stood open, and from the room a horn of light protruded; inside Colonel Hinde sat hour after hour writing. Some of us simply watched that open door, or our eyes strayed from it only to study the moon or to count the time that remained before it would be daylight. At length a negative order came. No start would be made for an hour and a half. The troops lay down—clay-coloured rows almost invisible on the ground, the fires dwindled into glowing cinders, and for an hour and a half there was stillness except for the deep, convulsive cough which had become common among men who had lain out in the open, wet night after wet night, on picket duty.

At last an order came. The troops were to stand up. They stood up. For over half an hour they remained without further order. And now the strange, dark redness, which is not light but is the promise of light, was curdling into bars in the east, and we knew that if there were to be an attack it would not be a night attack. The troops were moved a little further away from the station, and were paraded. In half an hour the light no longer streamed from the colonel’s door; the moon was insignificant; it was dawn. Then came the sun; the tension of waiting and anxious anticipation relaxed with a snap, and one could not help smiling to oneself because the night attack had become a sunlight parade on a pleasant mead.

But it seemed that something might still happen, and I must return to Estcourt for my pony, which I had not been able to bring the night before. Fortunately an armoured engine which had been down the line soon ran into the station, and I was allowed to travel on it to Estcourt. The engine was shut in all round with boiler walls, so that the driver could see nothing ahead of him. “How do you know that the line hasn’t been pulled up?” I asked. “I don’t,” said he; “I trust to Providence.”

When I returned to Willow Grange General Hildyard had arrived and the situation had been explained to him. About midday I set out with all the mounted troops for what seemed likely to be a reconnaissance in force. Five miles we rode in a long column, with the ambulance waggons bringing up our rear, and then we saw the enemy still on the top of their long, flat hill. We halted and watched them,  cat-and-mouse fashion, for a whole hour, and then, as I was assured that nothing would happen that day, I rode back in advance of the troops to Willow Grange. But at Willow Grange I was not to have a rest after all. I had scarcely been five minutes in the station when the whole camp was alarmed. A commando of Boers was within half a mile of our picket—a commando unheard of, unsuspected. And the mounted infantry were five miles away watching a party of the enemy who did nothing more menacing than show themselves on the sky-line!

The infantry swarmed to the hills. Above the station there was a steep but low hill covered with ironstone boulders, which gave us excellent cover; beyond that there was a higher ridge of the same hill; then there was a small valley, and beyond that again there was the great, long, flat-backed hill, with its nose pointed towards us, called Brynbella. It was on the second ridge of the small hill that the Boers had appeared. Their main body was on Brynbella. I ran up to the first ridge, alongside a lieutenant of the Border Regiment whose face was transfigured with excitement. Five minutes before I had seen him asleep on his back in the station; now he ran, buckled his straps, panted, beamed, and remarked to me all in the same moment, “By Jove, only half a mile from my picket!”

The rain had begun to fall and we had begun the ascent together, and now the rain was a cataract for force. “Lie down, men!”—this as we reached the crest. “Off coats!” The men half rose to throw their greatcoats off “Keep your heads down there! keep down. Keep down, will you? Do you want the enemy,” &c. Still two or three men kept their coats on behind large boulders, for the rain sluiced down without a thought of slackening. “Coats off there at once! Do you hear what I say?”

No shot had yet come from the second ridge, but the East Surreys on my left fired four or five shots —wild shots, I think, at doubtful figures.

“Now then”—it was the young officer of the Borders speaking—" at the double!”

He leaped forward, ahead of his troop, and the men rose and ran forward in open order. No coats on now. I expected to hear s-s-s-s-s! s-s-s-s-s! now if ever, and to see the men drop. But no; across the open they went. The Boers had gone from their ridge, and no doubt had fallen back, concealed, on to Brynbella. Soon the whole of our first line occupied the second ridge. I stayed where I was, overlooking the station and the mead beyond it, to see the guns brought up and to watch for the cavalry. Here come the guns! But only two of the Natal Field Artillery guns, with a range at best of 3,500 yards—popguns the men call them.

On they came, merrily, up the first slope of the hill, with all the delirious rushing, clang, and clatter of artillery galloping. Then there came a check. The guns had encountered the steepness and the ironstone boulders. Back they went a little and then charged at the boulders, but it was no good, and the guns stayed where they were for orders.

Suddenly I looked across the mead beyond the railway line, and there, topping the edge, a mile away, was the emerging head of the thin snake-line of horsemen. This was opportune. They had been met on their way home and warned, and now they came on at a gallop to the attack—to the attack, to the beginning, only now, of what they had already sought two days and a night without sleep. What a relentlessly exacting thing is war!

At the station they split into two columns; one stole round the right of my hill, the other to the left, both towards Brynbella Hill. Now only to get the sticking guns forward and this would be a pretty attack! Already the Boers were creeping down Brynbella to meet us. I shall never forget that advance of their skirmishing lines, all the more significant because they were still out of range. It was simply a second nature, an impregnable instinct, which caused them to choose their steps like that, to steal from boulder to boulder, to drop down and creep and hide and keep watchful eyes, and yet all the while to advance and remember and preserve their skirmishing line until they reached a natural rampart of rocks and halted behind it. Will the British private ever learn to advance like that? I fear that only a life spent in this country —yes, and perhaps the inheritance of an instinct from a father and forefathers—could give him that cat-like intelligence.

But suddenly the appearance of things changed. I found the infantry supports behind me falling back to the station, and soon the movement set in through all the lines. Willow Grange was to be abandoned. It was thought to be indefensible. Already the baggage was being thrown into trucks in the station. The horsemen lingered round the flanks of the hill above the station to cover our retreat. The infantry were told to creep away so that the retreat might be as far as possible unobserved.

Let me record the rapidity with which it was accomplished; in a few minutes we were all— infantry, waggons, guns—stringing along the road to Estcourt, and we all arrived without being pursued, and without, so far as I know, leaving anything behind. A large mixed force came out from Estcourt to meet us, a rapidly moving body infantry lightly equipped, guns clattering, cavalry jingling. But we had no need of them to aid or quicken our retreat. The wire from Estcourt to Mooi River had been cut by the Boers earlier in the day. Now we had given them the line, and behold Estcourt was detached from the world.

It was an astonishing change, but a change characteristic of war, from the night attack on our enemies to a retreat from them within twenty-four hours. The relieving force in Estcourt was itself in need of relief.