Chieveley, Tuesday, December 10th, 1899.

The greater part of the Ladysmith relief column marched obscurely away from Frere on Thursday, December 14th, in the first light of the morning, and in a strange mixture of smoke, dust, and mist. As the light thickened, black patches, still smoking, showed where the refuse of the great camp had been burned, and the acres of camping ground, empty of tents and soldiers and waggons, were a void as sensible to the eye as though a tooth had been drawn from the face of nature. Two days before, an advance camp had been formed beyond Chieveley by the Fusilier Brigade (under General Barton) and a few guns, and the movement of December 14th brought it about that the whole column lay on those dry downs which slope to the Tugela river.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the naval guns in their new position bombarded the hills held by the Boers near Colenso. The lyddite shells burst long aching gaps in the Boer trenches, but no suspicion of answer came from the enemy. The Boers had contrived a conspiracy of invisibility; I myself did not see more than thirty move away from the trenches, and men began to say that the few tents that could be seen were false camps, that the Boers were behind the hills, or indeed had retired altogether, and that we should cross the river without opposition.

Before daylight on Friday, December 15th, I woke to the sound of men and horses tramping and the cries of the native drivers to their mules. There was not a spark of light in the sky till half the mounted brigade had wound past my tent in a walking column; here and there a pipe or cigarette glowed in the column; the men were silent, or if they spoke rallied one another on the expectations of the day; the horses, in the grasp of the prevalent sickness, threw their heads down from time to time and coughed. But, take it for all ill all, the camp was filled with a steady, continuous, sweeping noise which resembled silence.

This was the morning of a battle. Look where you would, you were conscious darkly that the field moved before your eyes; troops in masses, still too vague for recognition, coiled and uncoiled till the light fell on an army that had resolved itself into its disposition. The dust from the arid downs floated up in an ethereal powder, and the column at my tent door passed through it like men wading through a white level tide which reached the middle of men and the bellies of horses.

I cannot help remembering an incident which happened as that column wound past my tent, perhaps because it was one of these incidents which are trifling enough to seize the mind peremptorily on grand occasions. A Zulu driver lashed out with his long whip at his mules, and instantly let drop from his left hand, with a curious native cry of despair, that cherished Kaffir instrument, a concertina. The moving column moved on; “nor all the piety nor wit” of the Zulu could lure it back to recover the concertina. But the leader of the mounted company coming behind noticed the instrument lying on the ground. “Mind that concertina!” he shouted. “Pass the word!” lie pulled his horse aside, the word was passed, a line of horses in the middle of the company swerved, the forest of legs passed, and, behold, the concertina lay untouched. The next company leader threw up his hand like a driver in the Strand. “Look out; mind the concertina!” “Mind the wind-jammer,” said one man to another in tones (as they seemed) of deep personal resentment if a rider let his horse’s hoofs go dangerously near the precious thing. And thus all the rest of the brigade passed, hurrying on to use all the latest and most civilised means for killing men and destroying property, and minding the concertina tenderly as they went; so that when all the dancing sea of legs had passed over it the concertina still lay unscratched on the ground, and I picked it up and took it into my tent.

Daylight revealed the army, disposed and beautifully ordered, at the top of the plain which falls gently to the Tugela. Beyond the river the hills, as we were the closer, looked the more desperate to take—ridge upon ridge, top upon top, each one looking over the head of the one in front of it—simply desperate! Try to imagine the battlefield. At the end of the plain, where it fell away and disappeared, the high-banked river ran across our front, roughly, in a straight line, and where the river ran was the foot of the hills. Down the plain about the middle, but rather to the east, ran the railway. East of the railway is a great hill, near the river but on this side, called Hlangwana Mountain; and the plain is edged with a ridge which droops away southward like a tail from the mountain. The railway dives straight down the plain to its bridge, or to the place where the bridge used to be before the Boers blew it up, near Colenso; and near the railway bridge was the footbridge, charged with explosives no doubt, but still whole on the day of the battle. On the other side of the river is a cluster of red-brown ridges behind the village, the smallest and nearest to the river bearing on its end Fort Wylie. All these ridges were entrenched, the trenches almost replicas, you might say, of the ridges themselves, trench coming upon trench till the sides of the ridges were potato fields for furrows. Behind this little but important cluster kopjes rise progressively in height and multiply in complexity (some conical, some flat-topped) till they culminate in long flat-backboned Umbulwana, which frowns above invisible Ladysmith. West of the Fort Wylie cluster of ridges, and only a little further back from the river, is a chain of fairly high hills which possess their own sky-line, and of these the most prominent in feature is Grobler’s Kloof Ilill. Below Grobler’s the river makes a loop, of which the bunt, as it were, is to the north; the plain within the loop was therefore on the British or south side of the river, and the troops who marched into the bunt of the loop were exposed to fire from three directions. On our side of the river there was one billow of ground which alone threatened to rob the plain of its title. On the southern end of this high ground the naval battery was placed, and the rest of the billow swelled down to the river so as to make the left wing of our army invisible from the right. So much for the scene of action.

The army was drawn up like this. Lord Dundonald with the Mounted Brigade was on the right, a long way on the east side of the railway, with the 7th Battery R.A. supporting him; next came General Barton’s Fusilier Brigade, also on the far side of the railway; next the 14th and 66th Batteries R.A. and six naval guns, again on the far side of the railway; next General Hildyard’s Brigade, which when it advanced bisected itself with the railway; next the battery of naval guns, on the billow of ground; next General Lyttelton’s Brigade, where the billow sloped to the left; next the 64th and 73rd Batteries R.A.; next, on the flat ground, General Hart’s Brigade; and, finally, on the extreme left, a little cavalry—the Royals and the 13th Hussars.

“I force the passage of the Tugela to-morrow,” Sir Francis Clery had said in his orders the night before; the operations of Friday, December 15th, were therefore plainly intended to be an attack, and not a reconnaissance in force. It is probable that very early in the day, when Sir Redvers Buller — remember that Sir Redvers Buller was present and in command, but officially he had superseded no one — when Sir Redvers Buller, I say, found that the Boers displayed no weak point in their ineffably strong hills, he might have changed the plan into a reconnaissance in force, and, having simply drawn the enemy’s fire at last and counted their guns, might have fallen back with comparatively little loss. But he was prevented from doing this almost entirely by the tragic pickle into which the 14th and 66th Batteries fell. This tragedy was the pivot on which the battle turned, and I must explain it fully later.

Attack, then, there was to be, and the plan of attack as given in the orders was this. General Hart was to cross the Tugela at Bridle Drift, at the top of the loop I have described, and, having crossed, was to march along the north bank to the iron footbridge. General Hildyard was to make straight for the bridge and cross it. General Lyttelton was to support these two brigades. General Barton was to help Lord Dundonald in the attack on Hlangwana Mountain, on this side of the river. The whole scheme was a frontal attack without disguise. Why was this plan made? Well, first, any other plan would have been almost equally difficult, for the Boers held the hills all along the line, and had fortified the few drifts where a turning movement might be made; secondly, the Generals believed, on evidence that there was every reason to think trustworthy, that the hills across the river were rather weakly held; and, thirdly, that belief was supported by the fact that for two days there had been no answer, or trace of answer, to the heavy firing of our naval guns.

I found the infantry sitting in rows in the order of advance—dotted yellow rows on yellow ground, each man the appointed distance from his neighbour, and each row the appointed distance from the next. The first row was far down the plain, a set of mere pin-heads; nearer the rows were like vegetables turned out of a hoed furrow and laid along the ground; and close about me they were full-sized men, chaffing and smoking and propping themselves up on their elbows to inquire when the “fun” was going to begin.

The fun began in earnest a few minutes before six o’clock; lyddite, lyddite, lyddite was poured from the Naval Battery on to the Boer ridges— first the tremendous crash of the 40-pounder, then the rise high into the air of the red-brown dust, ploughed up by the tail of the gun at the frantic recoil; the cry of the shell through the air; the upheaval of smoke and earth and dust, like the explosion of a submarine mine, where the shell burst on the brown hills; the gasped, excited compliments to the gunner; the report of the explosion flung back to you, followed by the long rolling reverberation given up by the hills; the shorter, more snappy crash of the 12-pounders, the pall of dust and smoke (red and grey) drooping over the ridges; Fort Wylie knocked askew, and showing only now and again, as through a cloud bank, the wreaths of shrapnel smoke in the air at a higher level; the deafness and buzzing in your ears—these are things that clamp your soul and will be the visions afterwards of wakeful nights.

The pin-heads of infantry stood up and advanced further down the plain, and the rows behind them also stood up and advanced into the places which just before had been occupied by the pin-heads. All the time the crash and scream of the bombardment continued, and never so much as a single shell or a puff of rifle smoke came from the Boers. Had they thought it worth while to hold the hills against this ransacking, awful bombardment? Was not our advance, after all, to be an Aldershot field-day? On our left one might, until now, have supposed so.

Ah! what was that crackling and rattling away down on our left? Was it possible that the close-quarter fighting was beginning already? The gunners seemed barely to have begun their deadly work, and yet this new sound, swelling into a steady continuity, could mean only one thing. General Hart had, indeed, marched his men down to within a few hundred yards of the river in quarter-column formation, and there the main body of them halted, offering a solid target to the Boer artillery. Hart had brought his brigade into action much sooner than any one had expected and before the artillery had prepared the way for their advance with shell fire. And we learned later that the advance had been misdirected as well as mistimed; the brigade struck the river not at Bridle Drift, as had been intended, but at another point altogether.

The Dublin Fusiliers, however, who were the first line and were to hold the river bank while the crossing was made at Bridle Drift, opened into extended order, and marched for the place where the river makes a loop. Then suddenly, and for the first time, a flash on the opposite hills—not the flash of a shell bursting but of a Boer gun— phew-w-w-w-w, whistling and throbbing came the projectile, and dump, down among the extended lines. Whoever those artillerists were, Germans or not, they knew how to train a gun.

And now all along the Boer lines the guns were licking out their vicious little adders’ tongues of fire. So there were guns, after all—ten, as far as I could make out—and the air on our side of the river was whistling and throbbing, and sometimes was filled with the horrible whine of bursting shrapnel, all of which are very different sounds from the cry of a shell which is departing from you. What consummate coolness and judgment that defending party had, to lie quiet for two days and part of a morning under lyddite, and to open now—now! Well, in spite of experience and statistics, one can never remember (while the thunder of artillery is in one’s ears) how strangely small is the number of casualties from shell-fire; I, at least, could hardly imagine a Boer gunner standing steadily to his gun under that bombardment.

The Dublins disappeared down on to the plain in the loop of the river, and I must continue my narrative from the evidence of others, as they were hidden from me by the billow of ground on the large plain. I was watching the advance in the middle.

Hart’s brigade had begun the morning with a kind of brigade drill, and the spirit of it clung to them. Behind the Dublins came the Connaught Rangers in quarter columns massed, and one Boer shell after another was dropped on to the excellent target before the unfortunate fellows were dispersed. As for the Dublins, conspicuous and entirely unsheltered, like every one else on this unequal day, they were fired on from three directions—musketry on either side, and a couple of guns as well as musketry on their front. Unfortunate and gallant regiment; it was for this that the diminished battalion had just been brought up to fighting strength, to lose 216 men! The Connaughts lost only less severely, a regiment, like the Dublins, as hard to restrain in the field as in the camp.

On came the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Border Regiment to the support of both, and the 64th and 73rd Batteries were firing away in their rear, but nothing could save them from the flanking fires and the guns in front, which had fairly gripped their position. At last the river bank was reached— reached by those who were left. Where was the ford? Where were the Boers? Never mind the ford—the Boers, as was discovered later, had dammed the river, and the ford no longer existed; some plunged into the deep water, nearly 170 rounds of cartridges were on their bodies, barbed wire beneath the water may or may not have dragged them down—I cannot entirely trust the evidence—but most of them drowned like dogs with weights tied to them. A few reached the other bank. Where was the Boer fire coming from now? What a conspiracy of invisibility, whether the enemy were passive or active!

A man of the Dublins—he had been one of the first up the hill at Talana, and his was a name cherished for bravery even among the Dublins—was looking after some wounded comrades on the river bank. Finding himself alone, he thought only of getting back to his regiment—was not that the firing line?—and, like a good fellow, he put his helmet on the back of his head and, as the soldier says, “legged it.” He was seen running back, and was arrested when he reached his lines— to be tried for cowardice. Ah, but the thing was hopeless; more ammunition was needed even before the retirement set in; two natives in charge of it turned to run away at the supreme moment, and a private of the Dublins shot them dead. The need to retire was none the less; back came the lines, not less conspicuous in retreat than in advance, with the shrapnel and bullets about their ears from the invisible enemy to the last syllable of the retirement.

Some of those who had crossed the river never heard of the retirement and were made prisoners. The Colonel of the Inniskillings fell in with some Boers on the other side. They do not appear to have offered to take him, though he was unwounded and surrounded. “Stop your men firing,” one of them said in effect. “How can I do that?” the Colonel is said to have asked. “Well, undertake to do it and I’ll walk away,” said the Boer, as I have it; and with that he and his men did walk away.

There were other similar cases. Barton, of the Connaughts, for example, went twice to the river to bring water for the wounded after the retirement had begun. At the second visit he met some Boers, and he was unarmed. “Are you a combatant?” they asked. “I was" said he. And then, after a conversation, he suddenly realised that he was alone and free, but—strange difference and incredible discomfiture!—committed somehow by the conversation; in short, on his parole not to fight against the Boers again in this whole campaign! To save his honour among his friends by dishonour would have been easy to a less scrupulous man. He preserved his honour by risking it. He confessed that he was on his word. And so one who is known as a keen soldier goes to the rear with a little incident in his life that approaches the mysterious, that happened almost inexplicably to himself, an incident that occupied but a few moments in the bewildering hours of a battle, and yet is irrevocable. A captain in the Dublins argued with another party of Boers and afterwards came back to our lines. Another singular experience was that which befell Colonel Bullock, of the Devons. He, with about forty of his men, was cut off by the Boers among some trees near the river. When called upon to surrender he refused; and some of his men fired, killing three Boers. The Boers certainly behaved with great restraint. They merely advanced and repeated their demand. And when Colonel Bullock refused again, a Boer simply clubbed him over the head with the butt-end of a rifle. When Bullock fell the whole party were made prisoners. Curious fellows these Boers!

Enough has been said of the fight on the left. Our guns had come into action a little too late, if they would have made any difference in fighting an invisible enemy. Hart was repulsed. He had lost 523 men.

It would be accurate to say that three battles were going on at once. While General Hart was fighting on the left, General Hildyard pressed forward to the bridge in the middle, and General Barton and the Mounted Brigade under Lord Dundonald had their own fight against Hlangwana Mountain, far away on the other side of the railway. The story of the middle is the story of the 14th and 66th Batteries R.A. and six naval guns.

Colonel Long, as I know, for I travelled from England with him, had a theory, which was this— that you must get near to the enemy with your guns. “The only way,” he used to say, “to smash those beggars is to rush in at ’em.” I was not at Omdurman, where he commanded the artillery, but I know that at Colenso he had every opportunity to employ his theory. He chose to go with the 14th and 66th Batteries, perhaps because on the east side of the railway he had the best opportunity of getting near the enemy. A long way down the plain he halted and began to fire at Fort Wylie; but he was not near enough to fulfil the theory, and so Colonel Hunt, who commanded these two batteries, was ordered to limber up, and on the guns went. Colonel Long went with them. This time they halted about five hundred yards from a shelter trench on the south side of the river.

Probably the trench was not visible to the batteries, but I could see it easily from my position below the naval battery. This was filled with Boers; beyond the trench was a hedge of trees, also filled with Boers; and beyond that the river banks— those also filled with Boers. Colonel Long was still unlimbering in his new position when—bang! —it was like the signal for a firework display to begin—a shell came down among the guns, and on the signal the air was instantly whipping and singing with bullets all round the gunners. Men and horses fell down just where they stood; the shells were nothing, but the air and ground were furious with bullets.

British artillery has never been in a hotter place; if there can be such a thing as an ambuscade in the middle of a pitched battle, these batteries had run into one. For nearly half an hour the guns were served by men and officers, who seemed to melt down into the ground under some deadly sirocco, and at the end of the half-hour there was silence there—at least on our part; nearly every officer was wounded, the horses lay round dead in heaps. Behind the guns there was a donga, and three hundred yards behind that another donga. Most of the naval guns were to the right of the second donga, commanded by Lieutenant Ogilvy, of the Terrible. He himself has told me how the bullets cut right through horses and ammunition waggons; they were bullets at close quarters, in the full strength of life, bullets that splashed and drummed and spattered on the guns and limbers. “Last night it rained rather heavily,” he said in talking to me, “and the first few heavy drops on my tent—by gad! I had the whole scene over again. It was that exactly.” One of the naval twelve-pounders upset in the donga, but the loss among the navy men was astonishingly small. Remember, however, that the naval gunner studs his guns about irregularly, wherever he sees good positions, and holds in contempt the plan of the army gunner, who puts his guns in a beautiful symmetrical line, the guns at regular intervals, and all close together.

When the general retirement was ordered, one of these hearty naval souls thought, on reflection, that retirement was not for him. He slipped away, picked up a rifle, and filled his pouches with ammunition. He trudged along towards the river, and at last selected a spot which satisfied his modest requirements—a little comfort and reasonable shelter. His officer did not see him again until nightfall, when he came into camp tired, hot, very footsore, hungry, and thirsty. He had fired away all his pouches of ammunition and then had trudged home alone, long after the retirement was over. “I haven’t had such a good day,” he said with simple feeling, as he dropped worn out to the ground, “not for a very long while.”

Colonel Long, shot through the liver, Colonel Hunt, also wounded, and their officers, nearly all wounded, had fallen back to the donga behind their guns. The guns stood alone, and seemed to us all to be abandoned. Colonel Long apparently had no such thought. It seems inevitable that he should receive the greater part of the blame for the result of the battle; it will be said that he precipitated and protracted the fight and prevented it from being turned, at worst, into a costly reconnaissance. It is just, therefore, that his own statement should be considered. No one, I imagine, will argue that the theory of getting near enough was proved in this case to be anything but a gloomy failure. Colonel Long himself allows that. But listen to the rest. He says that when he fell back to the donga he did so because he was ordered; that he retired to wait for reinforcements and ammunition, expecting them to come every moment; that his retirement was plainly not a panic, because all the wounded were brought carefully to the donga; that he expected the main advance on the Tugela to overtake him any moment, when he would be able to re-man his guns, and that was the reason why he left them standing ready for use with their breech-blocks still in them. Poor Long lay in the donga for hours. “Don’t hurry about me,” he kept saying; “there are lots worse.” He had to wait, in any case, for there was no doctor in the donga. At last Captain Herbert brought Sir Francis Clery’s staff doctor, who came readily under the heavy fire and helped the wounded. His was only one instance that day of the eager devotion of doctors. Anywhere among the shell fire you could see them kneeling and performing little quick operations that required deftness and steadiness of hand, and I question if there is in this world a more exquisite combination of tenderness and courage than in the doctor who does his bare duty on the battlefield.

On November 15th Colonel Long was in command at Estcourt, and was held responsible for the disaster to the armoured train. I believe he had ordered the officer commanding the train not to go beyond Frere (it was just beyond Frere that the accident happened); but he had given the order verbally, not in writing, for want of time, and so he accepted the responsibility. On the same day of the next month he is held responsible for half the trouble at Colenso. He may be responsible, but he is a good soldier and a gentleman if ever there was one.

I must leave Colonel Long and return to the guns standing there and inviting rescue. General Hildyard’s infantry advanced to the support of the unhappy guns which were unable to support them—a strange but necessary inversion. I shall never forget the advance of the Devons and the Queen’s and the Scots Fusiliers (who had bored across the plain diagonally from Barton’s Brigade) over the plain on the right of the railway to the river. Line after line suddenly rose up and ran forward; some reached a shelter trench (a better trench than our engineers could build, as everybody swears), and dropped into it, others passed on beyond that and disappeared over the steep edge of the river. The shells were bursting in the four corners of the advance, but the infantrymen do not look to the right or to the left; they simply do not mind them; they walk straight through the dust of them at the same pace, with eyes to the front. You never saw such a wonderful thing in your life. Here and there you could clearly see a man drop, and the line rolled on without him, and the next straight as a ruler, like the one before it and the one behind it, passed over him too and was gone like a wave, leaving, as is the way of waves, something in its track. I remember watching the smoke and dust from one shell drift slowly away, and when it was gone three men were on the ground. One rose up and walked away. The second rose up and sat down carefully on a rock; then he got up from that and put his hands on his hips, and leaned forward as though examining something in the grass, and then slowly toppled forward; two bearers and a doctor were standing over him five minutes afterwards. And the third man lay on the ground quite still, and I do not think he ever moved again.

Now what was to happen to those twelve guns still standing there without their friends? A litter of abandoned things was about them, and horses galloped near in circles in a sort of playful frenzy which puzzled me till I found that they were all riderless and were dragging their dead still harnessed to them. The infantry had now clashed with the Boer riflemen all along the line of three miles and more, and the rattle was a memorable confusion of sounds like the rolling of kettledrums and the clapping of hands all brought up to a far higher power. Sometimes the din dwindled almost to silence—you might have thought the battle over —and then as a new line of our infantry appeared and menaced the line of the river the noise would rise again from a few startled pops through a crescendo of crackling to a sweeping babel of sound.

It was during this advance of the Devons and the Queen’s that the series of brilliant attempts to rescue the guns began. A little earlier—about ten o’clock—Sir Redvers Bullerhad left the position he had appointed for himself at the naval battery —the situation in the centre was too serious for a man of Buller’s spirit to stay away from it now— and had ridden off towards the guns with all his staff and the escort of the Natal Police. “Out of this, please,” he said—he was down among the naval twelve-pounders behind Long’s guns now. The Boers had perhaps recognised the staff; the whistling in the air trebled.

“You oughtn’t to be here, sir,” gasped Ogilvy.

“I’m all right, my boy,” said the General.

The staff lingered about the place; Sir Redvers Buller was eating sandwiches, and from the scattered groups of men emerged one of the most gallant trios that ever tried to win the Victoria Cross. Off the three went for the guns—I saw them go— Schofield, Sir Redvers Buller’s A.D.C.; Congreve, of the Rifle Brigade, who had been quietly giving me notes out of his pocket-book an hour before up near the naval battery; and young Roberts (Lord Roberts’ son), of Sir Francis Clery’s staff.

Roberts was looking over his shoulder at Schofield, laughing and working his stick with a circular motion, like a jockey, to encourage his horse; he was in the full exhilaration, that is to say, of a man riding to hounds, when his first bullet found its billet Poor Freddy Roberts! he was shot three times, and fell mortally wounded. He died on Sunday night, to every one’s grief. He just faded gently away with a notoriously painful wound which gave him marvellously little pain, and his last moments would have been made golden to him if he had known that he had been granted a V.C. Like father, like son—but the son never knew it. The message reached Cape Town in time, but there it was delayed, and when it arrived at Chieveley, Roberts lay in another bed.

Roberts, as I have said, was shot three times and fell wounded mortally. Congreve was shot twice through the clothes, and his body was still untouched; then his riding-cane went, shot in halves as he held it in his hand, and finally he got one in the leg, and he too fell. Only Schofield remained—Schofield and the splendid fellows who were left on the horses; and he, with those men and such horses as were still alive, brought back two guns. Still ten guns out of the two batteries remained. Who would bring them in?

The officer commanding the 7th Battery, near Hlangwana Mountain, sent off Reid, his senior captain, with a team of waggon horses and riders, to emulate the trio. Nearly every horse was shot. Reid returned to his own battery with a bullet in his thigh, and stayed there, covering the retreat of the mounted brigade, till half-past three in the afternoon. Then Lord Dundonald ordered him home, since advice to that effect had been useless. It had to be explained to Reid afterwards—what he had done. “Bosh!” he said. “It was the drivers.”

Schofield was like Reid; the drivers, if you believed him, had done it all. It was not true, and yet what can be finer than to remember and admit that the basis of all individual distinction is the jeopardies and sacrifices of others; to remember that officers make themselves famous always a little by proxy. So long as our officers do remember and confess it, we need not fear that they live in an inhuman relationship with their men. None of Schofield’s six drivers was hit, but three of the horses were, and yet they managed to stand up and pull the guns. If one horse had fallen the whole game would have been up—not a gun of the two batteries could have been won back for us. “I can’t believe it even now,” Schofield told me afterwards, “that we got through so well.” And then he went on, “I’ll show you how cool those drivers were. When I was hooking on one of the guns one of the drivers said, ‘ Elevate the muzzle, sir ’—that’s a precaution for galloping in rough country. But I shouldn’t have thought of it—not just then. Pretty cool, wasn’t it?”

It was all no good; a general retirement was ordered, ten guns were left on the field, and it may be true that the Boers rolled them into the river.

Sir Redvers Buller and his staff came by me on their return. The General climbed down limply and wearily from his horse like an old, old man. I thought he was wounded with vexation; I did not know then that he was wounded— though slightly—with a bullet, which had passed round his ribs. The horse of Lord Gerard, one of his A.D.C.’s, had been shot in the neck; Captain Hughes, the doctor of his staff, had been killed— half blown to pieces—by a shell; one of the Natal Police (the General’s escort) had had his horse grazed in the fetlock, in the belly, and in the mouth, and two bullets had passed through his holsters. This is the sort of fire the General had been under, eating sandwiches.

Meanwhile the naval gunners had been bringing their twelve-pounders away. All their native drivers had fled, and the sailors fell to with their invincible jollity to man the bullock teams, kicking the animals with lusty good-will in the ribs to put them right, using with fervour the few Kaffir words they had among them. Twenty-eight oxen were lost, but the guns were all brought away. The sailors were pursued by their old friends the shells that had been playing on them all the morning; they recognised them all with kindly greeting— the three shells, for instance, that came regularly in a volley from the Vickers-Maxim, with the “pom-pom-pom” voice, like the sound of a postman rapping on the door of an empty house, shells of such low velocity that the sailors had plenty of time to take cover after they had heard the report of the gun; then the segment shell, that moved so slowly and visibly in the air before it burst that they used to run out from behind the guns to field it like a cricket ball; and, lastly, the shell with a bad “driving-band,” that twittered with a peculiar cadence through the air and was known as the canary-bird.

Of the fight on the right I need say little. The mounted brigade made a frontal attack on Hlang-wana. The Boers were, as usual, invisible. The brigade had Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry on the right, the composite regiment in the middle and the South African Light Horse on the left. An enfilading fire from both sides of a gully up which the brigade was advancing opened suddenly; the brigade retired—was ordered to retire, as Lord Dundonald explains, who wished to remain and believes he could have taken the hill—and suffered heavily in the brief retirement. The enfilading fire drew another fire, which otherwise would doubtless have been reserved, from another party of Boers at the head of the gully.

When the retirement was nearly completed, an odd, inexplicable figure lingered about the battlefield. The time was neutral; we had left the field, but for a few stragglers; the Boers had not yet come on to it; only the aasvogels gathered in numbers, wheeling overhead with an eye on the horrid banquet. To the coarse or unseeing eye the figure might have been that of a Dutchman or a German—the private soldier who saw it took it for that; only the finer, sympathetic eye could see in it, through all the suspicious ways, through the wildness and evasiveness, unmistakable remnants of the British officer. He was riding an artillery horse, and his saddlebags were filled with booty of the field. But such booty! Paltry little detached pieces of harness and artillery-horse furniture. He was brought into camp as a Dutch prisoner, and there an officer recognised him—an old comrade, an old war horse, who had returned to the battle. And the explanation? “Oh, sunstroke in India, or something of that sort, you know.” That was all. And then the old fellow was sent gently to the rear.

Prince Christian Victor was under fire, and very heavy fire too, with Sir Redvers Buller during the day. Although it was his first experience of the kind he was remarkable for his coolness. Indeed he seemed to enjoy it.

At noon all was practically over; our loss in killed, wounded, and missing was 1,147. Never had been such an extraordinary sight—an enemy so conspicuous on the one side against an invisible foe on the other. I had had just one glimpse of the Boers, and that had revealed their wonderful mobility; it was a glimpse of perhaps fifty men galloping hard across a short, low neck at the back of two ridges, men who had come from their right after General Hart’s repulse to reinforce their middle and left, and passed round at the back; and unless one happened to glance at that neck, as I did, none would have known anything of the movement. Of course the Boers had the position —the only position—in the fight; it is doubtful whether such a place as that across the Tugela is pregnable when held with modern weapons. Yet our advance was magnificent; Sir Redvers Buller said he had never seen a finer. This must be said all the same—the skill with which the Boers had laid out their trenches and chosen positions for their guns, and the coolness and judgment with which they sat tight under artillery fire and reserved their fire till precisely the right moment, makes their defence of the Tugela one of the most notable of modern times; a military feat comparable with the brilliant raid which they made into the heart of Natal taking their transport with them, risking and winning an engagement at Brynbella Hill and returning north of the Tugela in safety. The good soldier will not depreciate these achievements, but will say that the people to whose credit they stand are worth beating.

The wounded came in on stretchers in converging lines from our left, middle, and right, and were received by the ambulance train on the railway—men with waxen grey faces and clotted bandages swathed about them; men who smiled at their friends and instantly changed the smile for a gripping spasm; men who were clinched between life and death; men who had died on the way and were now carried hurriedly and jerkily, since it no longer mattered; men who bore a slight pain contentedly because they were glad that they would be tucked away safely in a hospital for the rest of the campaign; men of a different constitution who took it ill that so slight a pain should cause them so great an incapacity; men who were mere limp, covered-up bundles, carried on stretchers through which something dark oozed and dropped. Why dwell on these details of a “specimen day”? The afternoon had fallen to evening before the last naval gun boomed out a declaration that the British army would come and come again.

As for General Buller, he gained laurels from his defeat that are not always won by victorious generals. He sacrificed, or let me say, rather, he jeopardised, his own reputation in order to avert an irreparable sacrifice of his army. A weaker man, a less heroic soldier, would have carried the position with an appalling loss of life. Buller’s decision to retire was a proof of his bravery and good generalship.