Spearman’s Farm Camp, Sunday, January 28th, 1900. Across the Tugela! There at the foot of Mount Alice was the familiar line of troops, moving snakewise by the devious track; its head had already darted across the river, and not a shot had been fired. Ah, but would not the sudden yellow flashes rip along that row of hills in front? Remembering Colenso, one looked from the troops to the hills, and from the hills to the troops in a constant anxious alternation. But the line drew itself continually forward along the track. To me, looking down on the troops from Mount Alice—a hill fit for Xerxes to watch from—the men were little figures being moved about on a map. The map was large, the figures were small. The veldt can swallow up thirty or forty thousand men and make nothing of them; you might gaze across a few clear miles of it and not see that the army, whose mobilisation has caused so much fuss and expense, was there at all. And then the hills opposite Mount Alice were gloomyand leaden and silent; and the light was like that of a dull November afternoon in England. Not a man, not a sign of life showed. Were the Boers really there? Was this war at all? The men were wading across the river at Pot-gieter’s Drift holding on to one another’s rifles; some were resting on a tiny archipelago half way over; others were neck-deep (and they had to bivouac that night!); others again were being hauled across in a pont—the pont which some of the South African Horse had won by swimming across under fire when Lord Dundonald had made his dash on Mount Alice—these men stood in a row, glued together at the shoulders like little wooden soldiers. It was the evening of Tuesday, January 16th, and this was General Lyttelton’s brigade crossing. Those who were waiting for their turn to go over spread out in hedges and divided the veldt into Sussex meadows. The evening was heavy-eyed and silent—dead; you imagined that men down there spoke to one another in whispers : a dreary mist bringing the night was dropping down the hills, the river was dross of lead, a changing breeze in the mimosas, the creak of a waggon-wheel below, the whirr of partridges and the cry of other birds fell on your ear, with a stroke almost mysterious. Two battalions had halted half-way down to the river, and their fires twinkled brighter and brighter. They were to cross in the morning. But already we had thrown an arm over the river to show that it was ours : we had done it without firing a shot, yet the sight had thrilled me more than a battle could. Mount Alice takes one step down to the river, and on the step—a broad plateau—six naval twelve-pounders were placed. On one of the crests of Mount Alice were two 47 naval guns. January 17th was the first day of serious bombardment. The naval guns were helped by six howitzers placed among the sheltering infantry behind a string of small kopjes just across the river. Submarine mines of earth and smoke—as they seemed—began to spout into the air where the lyddite struck; on the left the shells struck on the eastern and northern ridges of Spion Kop; to the right they struck on Brakfontein; in the lower, more open country between they fell on road and plain, and in the twisted dongas. Up, down, high and low, this side and beyond, they peppered the faces of the hills. Sometimes the explosion was all a pure white burst of smoke, sometimes it was all a cloud of red-brown dust; sometimes—and then it seemed most terrible—it was a great dark black and grey pillar seamed viciously with white. The noise of a bombardment in a hilly country seems to reveal an instrument of changing tunes. The first clean whistle of the projectile as it goes from the muzzle of the gun becomes the sound of a train passing through a valley or dashing out of a tunnel when the hills and kloofs catch the rushing voice in the air and give it back. Sometimes there is the rasping noise of iron being drawn over iron which strikes you as the wrong song for the smooth, whizzing missile; sometimes there is the far truer note of a scythe swishing through grass. Upon the flash and smoke rolling upwards comes the crash of the explosion—the thunder, if the shell was fired from a howitzer—rolling in the folds of the hills and dying in a wail. You might have thought that the hills opposite were held (at an extravagant estimate) by fifty men. When you had searched them for a couple of hours with your glasses you had seen perhaps six Boers. Some dummy epaulments were plain but if there were guns anywhere you could not see them. If this had been your first experience of the Boers you might have said, “There are no Boers, we can walk over those hills when we like.” I had seen the battle of Colenso, and therefore I did not say it or think it. The explosion of our shells was the only sound that came from the Boer hills. At last we grew confidently to expect no answer from the enemy; we stood about on our skyline to watch the bombardment, and no longer looked to see British gunners fall by their guns in full view of the enemy. The Boer knows how to sacrifice an opportunity to the possibility of a better. “What are we waiting ’ere for? Why don’t we go on?” It was the question one private asked another on Mount Alice. Don’t yer know?” No,” said the first man. To give the Boers time to build up their trenches and fetch up their guns. Fair—ain’t it?” That was the private soldier’s laconic criticism of the General’s policy. I do not take the responsibility of confirming it; on the other hand, I shun the equal responsibility of traversing it. A week passed between the arrival of most of our troops and the delivery of Sir Charles Warren’s attack. Every day we waited at Spearman’s Farm Camp we could see men and waggons arriving by the Colenso and Ladysmith roads at the rear of the Boer position. But if I form my own opinion at least I feel assured that some equally obvious reflections must have presented themselves to the General. On one of these days—Wednesday, January 17th —we who kept watch on Mount Alice saw for the first time a narrow strip of black stretched across the river five miles to the west. In the glasses it became a pontoon bridge, and, further, something moved upon it. The uncertain objects resolved themselves; a long column wriggled out from a gully; men, horses, guns, waggons, moved steadily across the bridge; on the other side the infantry filed up into pools of brown, then ordered themselves and went forward in open lines. Sir Charles Warren was crossing the Tugela at Waggon Drift. Boom, boom, boom, boom! The sound of fifteen-pounders floated up to us. It was really nothing at all—a handful of Boers had sniped at the troops from a farmhouse and the gunners were telling them not to. The few Boers fled up the hills; one man in the Devons lay dead from a long-range stray shot. All that day and the next the column moved across; there were Sir Charles Warren, General Clery, General Hildyard and his brigade, General Hart and his brigade, General Woodgate and his brigade, Lord Dundonald and the mounted infantry, and half a dozen batteries. The next day Warren’s column was still crossing, and on the same day General Lyttelton’s brigade made a demonstration in front of Mount Alice. The business of demonstrators is to appear to be about to do something which they have no intention of doing. Now the brigade went out with attack written on its face; it advanced in an order more open than I had ever seen employed before— General Lyttelton is a man who knows what he is about—and arrived almost within rifle shot of the Boer hills. If the Boers had fired the appearance of attack would have melted from the face of the brigade, we should have known where the Boer guns were, and we should have kept back some of the enemy who might have gone to trouble Sir Charles Warren. Something of that sort is what is expected of every ordinarily constituted enemy before whom a demonstration is made. But you might as well set a terrier running before the Boer lines and expect that their fire will be drawn as hope to draw it by a demonstration. This was the day that the balloon disappointed the pessimists. It swelled into a great yellow tulip growing out of the veldt behind the kopjes across the river, and then it sailed nobly up, car and all, and the man in the car signalled what he could see. One day later, when the Boers had indulged us for the first time by firing a few rounds from a Vickers-Maxim, the balloon was shot through by a shell, but the rent nearly closed itself automatically, and the “balloonatic” in the car—the word by which some one has expressed the combination of reckless qualities which are necessary to the true military aeronaut— stayed up for an hour afterwards, doubtful but heroic, lest the Boers should think it was any use firing shells at a balloon. On Friday, January 19th, I crossed Waggon Drift, and rode some five miles further to the advanced position of Sir Charles Warren, who was now marching west. Obviously the plan was this: Warren was to make a long march round and attack the Boer hills in the rear, and the force remaining at Potgieter’s Drift would simultaneously attack them in front. Warren’s troops were, in a word, to become a detached force; they would disappear round the stretching hills and when we heard them banging away behind Spion Kop we who stayed behind would have our signal to advance. I found the force halted in a saucer of ground—guns limbered up and ready to move on, waggons, and infinite teams of oxen and mules, infantry in patches, men asleep on their backs with the flies in a swarm about them, and the spiteful sun scorching their faces. The sappers were throwing a bridge across Venter’s Spruit, a tributary of the Tugela, but the column could cross somehow without that. “What are we waiting for?” A gunner with his helmet tilted over his nose spoke from the ground. “Cavalry support, I suppose,” an equally sleepy voice answered. “Hope we shan’t stay in this hole to-night. See that hill over there?” Two or three heads were raised. “Good place for a gun. What do you think?” “A Boer gun?” “Yes—nothing to prevent it, is there?” “Nothing that I can see—they will have one there by the morning if we don’t look out.” “Ah, there’s the cavalry!” A popping of rifles came from beyond the ridges north of us. Cavalry patrols were on the southern slopes of the chain of hills which shoots out roughly at right angles from the western flank of Spion Kop and lies, roughly again, parallel with the Tugela. The river and the hills run east and west. On the sky-line of the hills we could see hundreds of Boers keeping pace with Warren’s march. When the Boers are on the high sky-lines and connected ridges they do not mind showing themselves. It was the old situation; the Boers up in the skies and we looking at them from low and cuppy ground. I wandered on to a patch of infantry; officers lay under waggons, not all were sheltered : some had only their heads possessing a bit of the slender shadow. “Have you seen my battalion?” The officer who asked me was seated on a sort of high improvised throne under a hood at the back of a large waggon, and reminded one of a circus-queen in a procession. I had no idea where his battalion was. He told me the force had five days’ food, so that it had to march round, fight, and join hands with Sir Redvers Buller in five days. What food there was was therefore of a stern quality, and the officer accepted a tin of sardines from me with a diverting mixture of rapture and scruples. Warren’s force appeared to be now detached. I wished it luck and hurried homewards lest the bridge at Waggon Drift—the last link between the two wings of the army—should be cut before I reached it. But the next morning showed that there had been a complete change of plans, partly, I suppose, because the food with the force was not enough for the undertaking, and the delay of waiting for more would have been fatal; and partly because it had been discovered that after all there was no way round to the back of Spion Kop through open country. The hills on which the Boers were, are, in fact, a spur of the Drakensberg mountains; wherever Sir Charles Warren might go he must go through mountains. Therefore the force had doubled back on itself, extricated itself from the dangerous hollow of ground, and before daylight was advancing towards the crest of the hills immediately west of Spion Kop. This was on Saturday, January 20th. It was the first day of a six days’ battle.