Springfield, Friday, February 9th, 1900. Again the troops prepared for battle. For more than a week they had lived in tents, slept their fill, and tasted fresh meat. It was now Sunday, February 4th, and all through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent afternoon two caterpillars of infantry, scarce distinguishable from the hillsides —two brigades they proved to be on a closer view —crawled along the line of the hills to the east of Spearman’s Farm. Warren’s operations west of Potgieter’s Drift had failed: very well, that did not shut out success, and we would now try if we could not fit a key into those desperately locked hills somewhere on the east. In that sleepful week just passed Sir Redvers Buller himself had said that the key was found. None had it in his heart to doubt it. Do not suppose that the troops thought of defeat; the daily signals from Ladysmith were an intolerable incentive; the sound of guns, and the knowledge that sickness struck its roots deeper every day into the splendid garrison smothered the memory of Colenso and Spion Kop. On Saturday night I had been at a concert given by the South African Light Horse in the flare of bonfires on the open veldt, and then Colonel Byng and “Bimbashi” Stewart had vowed in speeches that they would do their best to lead their men to Ladysmith, and the men had sworn that they had only to be led to follow. Not a man but felt, and feels, that Ladysmith must be helped; its need overcomes all the considerations of modern warfare which forbid us to assault the hills of Northern Natal. You cannot see a man drown and refuse to help him; or if you can you are not a soldier but one worthy of the censure of coroners. The brigades of Generals Hildyard and Hart were moving to our right. They bivouacked in front of Swaart Kop, a dark wooded hill south of the Tugela and opposite Vaal Krantz. Vaal Krantz hill was at the east end of the main Boer position. It was there that the strength of the riflemen tailed off to its finish, and it was there that we hoped to open the door to Ladysmith. The ascent to Swaart Kop at the back is almost like a ladder placed against a house. Guns had been hauled up on to the plateau—a pleasant grass plat, fit to play cricket on, placed, characteristically of South Africa, on precipitous walls. How the guns reached the top is the sailors’ secret. The naval gunners might be Boers for their skill in hauling guns on to half-impossible peaks. Mules rolled heels over head down that steep path, but the guns went steadily up drawn by steel ropes; and when all were on the top I counted six naval twelve-pounders, a battery of six mountain guns, and two field fifteen-pounders. Lieut. Ogilvy, R.N., and Lieut. James, R.N., had their guns behind the heavy screen of cactus and mimosa, but the stems of the trees had been cut almost through and when the guns were needed on Monday sudden vistas crashed into existence before the muzzles of the guns. The first gun was fired at seven o’clock on Monday morning. General Lyttelton’s light brigade had been withdrawn from the small kopjes just across the river near Potgieter’s Drift and was replaced by the Lancashire brigade, now commanded by Colonel Wynne. General Talbot Coke’s brigade was across the Tugela also in front of Mount Alice, except one regiment, the Imperial Light Infantry, which indifferently guarded the camp and watched the battle from the heights of Mount Alice. The plan was this. There was to be every appearance of a frontal attack on Brakfontein Hill opposite Mount Alice; no less than six batteries were to move forward across the open ground; but while the appearance of the attack was being sustained the batteries were to be withdrawn one by one and were to move to our right for the real attack on Vaal Krantz. While the intermittent bark of guns was rising to a cannonade there were Mounted Infantry behind Mount Alice still saddling up or moving off to our all-important right at the walk. You might expect the sound of guns, mounting to a climax, to sting every one into instant furious action. I have seldom seen anything that appeared so cool and slow as the squadrons walking off behind Mount Alice. While the guns are booming can one ever come readily to believe how slowly battles develop? The river lies in the valley like the folds of a serpent. General Lyttelton was now moving to our right—it was he who was to assault Vaal Krantz—and he had to cross the river twice. For his first crossing the bridge was made, for the second the bridge was in the making, and five sappers were wounded before that half-hour’s job was finished. The whole army below me moved, stretching out its limbs like a huge waking beast General Hildyard and General Hart, who were to support the assault, were already crouched in potent waiting in front of Swaart Kop. Now the delusive infantry—the York and Lancaster Regiment and the South Lancashires— were advancing in the open towards Brakfontein. Round the guns the long thin lines split and joined together again in front and went on. Here and there the lines were thick, where the men had not yet had room to extend. Officers blew their whistles and threw their arms apart and the knotted part of the line moved crabwise until the proper intervals were observed. And so the two battalions moved on and then the guns moved on too; and at last they moved on so far that the Boer gunners made up their minds that it really was an attack, or if not—and of course they are used to demonstrations—that at least it was something worth firing at. The first line of the six batteries had been shelling everything that presented itself to the minds of the gunners. That is the way of feinters. The air was burdened with rushing and whistling sounds; here a vapour of brown dust floated along the hills where a shell had ploughed up the earth; there a huge white Prince of Wales’s feather of smoke sailed up from a farmhouse compound. Then, suddenly, a great pillar rose out in the solid earth in front of our guns, and the whine of the shell passing through the air rose up to Mount Alice long after the explosion was over. Rare occasion! The fire of the Boers had been drawn when it was wanted. Moving off to our right as quickly as infantry can move was Lyttelton’s column, with a gap in its back where it dropped down to the first pontoon bridge across the river. Now it was all-important that it should hurry on without being noticed. Already the first battery of those before Brakfontein had come quietly away and was stealing along behind Lyttelton’s infantry. It was after ten o’clock. I turned again to the batteries in action. Another pillar flew up from the earth. It was closer to the guns. One caught at one’s breath, for the next shell surely must fall right on them. As for the guns themselves they barked more furiously than ever. Two and three shells at once sang and ground through the air, flashed into life out of invisibility on the opposite hills or tore through the red-brown earth of the trenches. A third pillar bounced up from the open ground. But this time it was behind our guns; and the gunners were all the time bending over the guns, aiming, loading, firing, lifting things out of boxes, like busy waiters at a crowded supper. A three-inch Boer gun was firing from Spion Kop. And now there came from the east of Brakfontein the hateful hollow sound of the Vickers-Maxim— pom-pom-pom-pom-pom—and the little shells fell and spluttered along the ground in a string. They seemed to rake the whole line of the 78th Battery. Our howitzers behind the field guns began to fire : out went the shell from the thicknecked barrel with little more than the sound of a rocket, and the twelve pounds of lyddite exploded on the opposite ridge with a clap like thunder. A third gun opened on our batteries. At once little squirts of dust were threshed up all round the 78th Battery, just as when the first few drops of a heavy storm are flung upon a pond. Afterwards came the peculiar unmistakable wail. It was shrapnel. I saw the gunners through a drifting cloud. Again and again the shells fell before, behind, between, and to right and left of the guns. Presently a few gunners appeared more clearly. They were coming back. Three or four guns stood deserted. The rest were worked as busily as ever. Behind all the batteries, under the shelter of a slight ridge, horses and limbers were wheeling into a formation. They were going to bring home the guns. Forward they went, six teams in a perfect row, galloping towards the imperilled treasures in the open veldt. Was there ever anything finer than British gunnery or so extravagantly dangerous? I could see an officer at the guns waiting for the rescue. He sat stock-still on his horse. His hand went continually up to his mouth and dropped away again. He might have been taking snuff or pulling his moustache. Perhaps it was the action of nervousness; but nothing ever looked cooler. The six teams passed in front of the first row of guns, wheeled round like horses driven on the curve of a drive, and pulled up at the guns. Men were busily twitching and hauling at the couplings. Again the shrapnel dust flew up from the ground and a large shell fell between two teams. And then, after an jeon, as it seemed, the six teams galloped back with the six guns. A couple of officers were hit—the foot of one was gone—and a few horses and two or three men were wounded. You could scarcely believe that this miracle of immunity to the majority had happened. The first line of guns was back and under shelter. The shells began to fall among what had been the second line. The Boers, it seemed, would deal with everything in turn. But soon these guns too had been brought home and the batteries were safe; the first had already trotted unostentatiously away to the right. Only the turn of the infantry remained. The two battalions might not have existed all this time; they lay flat and were part of the veldt. But now whistles blew and up they rose. Where there had been nothing there was now row upon row of dotted lines, black in the bright sunlight. They moved away from Brakfontein, and on the signal a splutter of musketry burst forth from invisible riflemen and instantly swelled into a continuous roar. It came after a moment’s silence, and was like the burst and swell of clapping hands in a theatre. The infantry, hunted home by bullets, came back; the operation was over; the casualties were barely fifty; seldom was a feint more engrossing—to the enemy. I was on Swaart Kop when the bombardment of Vaal Krantz was at its highest. Hildyard’s and Hart’s brigades lay below me ready for everything. Lyttelton’s brigade was half across the newly-built bridge. The Durham Light Infantry lay under the sheer river bank on the other side. In a few minutes they were to advance north along the river to Vaal Krantz. The most easterly ridge of Vaal Krantz stood obscure in dust and smoke. Above all were the little white airy buttons of smoke from bursting shrapnel. Nothing, one thought, could live under that bombardment. The time was ripe. A handful of skirmishers from the Durhams climbed up the bank and ran into a mealie field, their bodies curved crescent-shape as they ran. They dropped among the mealies. All shot? No, there they were, firing. Up again in a minute, on they went. Now some were out in the open beyond the mealie field. Two men collapsed behind ant-heaps; then one rose up and ran back to the field. More men—a whole company—came out from the river bank. The first skirmishers made room for them by spreading out into the open to the right of the mealies. Down these men went behind ant-heaps. Surely that man there was hit? No, he was firing again. Ah, but that other man had fallen limply right in the open. Now he was crawling on his belly to an ant-heap. He was wounded. Another man was helping him. From a cob-web of dongas below Doornkloof Mountain the Boers were sending in a harassing cross-fire; also from a donga in front to the east of Vaal Krantz; also from the walls round a homestead. Half a battalion was out from the river bank now, and the wounded were unmistakable where they lay. Major Johnson-Smyth was shot dead. The mountain battery on Swaart Kop was firing into a donga at three thousand yards. Ridiculously disproportionate columns of white smoke curled up from the baby guns. The gunners, after the fashion of mountain gunners, knelt beside the kicking infants, the firer drew tight the lanyard and cut the side of his hand fiercely down upon it; back flew the gun through the avenue of four kneeling men, tilted up on one wheel, threatening to overturn; and then the gunners slapped it back into equilibrium and its former position. Wherever the Boer fire was coming from, the riflemen were invisible. But the tendency of the enemy was plain; on the plateau behind his hills horsemen and waggons moved to the east. The Boers meant to make themselves strong on Doornkloof. If they succeeded they would send every sort of fire on our right flank. And how could we stop it? Only by storming the mountain and suffering a horrible loss that would bear no relation to the achievement. The Boers did succeed. Vaal Krantz was a profitless capture. First, it stood in front of the main line of Boer hills and so did not enable us to open a flanking fire at all—a fact which might have been discovered long before from any reputable survey-map had one existed; secondly, it was soon flanked itself from Doorn-kloof. On Swaart Kop it was necessary to stand close by the guns to see through the vistas in the bushes. The noise was deafening. At one’s ear was the voice of the artillery officer : “Number two gun— fire!” “Number three gun—fire!” “Number four gun—fire!” From the map of country stretched below there floated up the voice of the infantry officer, “Fire!” Cr—r—r—r—r—mp! The infantrymen lying on their stomachs on this side of the river had fired a volley. Tat—tat—tat —tat—tat—tat—tat! four Maxims were stuttering at once, and their utterance was punctuated with the heavier, slower tapping of the Colt guns. The Durhams were already on the lower slopes of Vaal Krantz; the Rifle Brigade strained at their heels; the infantry multiplied behind; the mealie fields filled with brown figures; a man lay behind every ant-heap; the bearers and the doctors stooped over limp, huddled figures. It was about three o’clock when a Boer gun dashed out from behind Vaal Krantz towards Doornkloof. It was drawn by six horses, an officer rode in front, another behind. There was no guard. Never before was a Boer gun exposed in the open like this! Every eye seized it, every gun turned upon it; the hunting field never heard such an outcry. The gun could easily have been taken in safety further behind Vaal Krantz, but the gunners wanted to reach a particular green kopje nearer our infantry. They risked it, and dashed for it. It was magnificent! A single horse down and the whole equipage must have been smashed into a dust-heap. Three shells fell at once near the gun. It bounced on at the gallop like a sledge over the rough ground. The shells crept nearer to it. One more shell and the gun would be no more—or so we thought, and the thought was hardly there when the shells fell wide. A donga lay in front of the gun; it was making for that. In twenty seconds it would be there. It reached the edge of the donga; it was checked and stood still while the horses pawed their way down the rough dip. Now for it! One more chance! One more shell! The earth and smoke flew up; the shell was wide. The gun had disappeared. It had gone to earth. It deserved to be there. I found that I was breathless. A few minutes before four o’clock Vaal Krantz was ours. The first man had reached the top, he was walking cautiously across it, and, as he looked about him, his bayonet flickered like a fire-fly. Soon the brigade was resting on the side of the hill. But all the hill was under fire from west and north and east. To the west at least the Boer riflemen must be driven back along the ridges. A battery of horse artillery whirled across the open from below Swaart Kop. Field artillery goes in a fine tumult, and has many adventitious aids to an exhilarating clatter. At the gallop the gunners on the carriage cling like limpets. But for sheer speed you must see horse artillery; every horse is ridden and spurred, the dangling gun with nobody on it to hold on for his life, bangs and leaps over the ground. Horse artillery is a whirlwind. This battery that galloped across to the river west of Vaal Krantz, wheeled twice as it went, swooping to its position with the eye of a bird. It was just as when gulls swing together in the air : first you have the paper-edge of the wing, then a twinkle in the air, and out of exiguity sails the broadside of the whole line. The horse battery shelled the ridges sedulously, and the Durhams advanced perhaps half a mile along the hog’s-back of the captured kopje. Night fell. The sound of musketry had not died at nine o’clock. On Tuesday morning Vaal Krantz appeared seamed with trenches. Shells came with the dawn. The brigade was protected by all the means that mind and limb had been able to devise and build during the night. But the “pom-pom” shells strung along the flat top of the hill. Perhaps they did little harm, and they are very small, but that long, grasping flutter of grey smoke is most horrible to see. Now, could we hold this hill, or was it to be another Spion Kop? All day the sound of musketry played in significant cadences; shells fell visibly among our trenches, and our gunners, heroically exposed in the open but ignored in favour of better prey, bombarded invisible guns. A pontoon bridge was thrown across the Tugela at the foot of Vaal Krantz. It was well enough for the infantry to dash across, but how could the cumbersome transport of our army move across that open land while the guns on Doornkloof were not silenced? And if they could not, how should our capture serve any good purpose? About four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon the Boers attacked our front trenches from the west. A heavy burst of rifle fire, and our surprised infantry were tumbling back along the ridge. A couple of hundred yards back they stopped, rallied, and faced the enemy; hundreds of heads bobbed up where the bullets were topping the curve of the hill; the 6oth Rifles were going to the rescue. Again the fire-flies glimmered along the top of the hill; they stopped; the sound of musketry grew; they were up again and flitting on; finally they flashed straight and full and strong at the trenches, and the old positions were ours again. It was all over in less than an hour. We had beaten off an attack, but still we had made no advance. At dusk General Hildyard’s brigade relieved General Lyttelton’s. On Wednesday morning Vaal Krantz appeared ribbed and slashed with even more trenches; traverses and headcovers had been built in the night. General Hildyard and Prince Christian Victor had not slept. Now should we hold the place? A large Creusot gun on the top of Doornkloof was dropping 100 lb. shells here and there all over the field with graceful impartiality. One fell among the waiting infantry in front of Swaart Kop. “Scatter!” cried an officer, and soon all the battalions were hiding in the rich wood which clothes the side of Swaart Kop. One fell among the Mounted Infantry, and men and horses drew behind a hump of ground. One fell near the balloon which was leaping to escape the hands of the balloon section. One fell among the artillery horses which were grouped away behind the guns; the smoke cleared, and, behold, the horses stood unmoved and only a Kaffir driver and a bullock lay on the ground. A quarter of an hour later a happy opportunist passed me on the slope of Swaart Kop with a rib of beef in his hands. Twenty guns were firing at the hundred-pounder. It used black powder, and the shaft of white smoke that it belched up out of its mouth would not have done discredit to the whole of our mountain battery. The ground near it smoked like a lime kiln from our shells, but the gun itself smoked away too, with no hitch in its regularity. “There it is; it’s up again!” was the cry, for the gun was on a disappearing carriage. Its barrel, plain against the sky, vacillated till it settled on its object. “It’s pointing this way!” The white cloud spouted forth. Those who liked lay behind rocks, but in any case in the quarter of a minute during which you waited for the shell were some of the strangest moments of anticipation in a man’s life. The gun rose from its den, pointed, fired, and disappeared in twelve seconds. Our shells from the nearest guns took eighteen seconds to reach it, so that they were always six seconds too late. Night fell, and still no advance had been made. Our casualties in the three days’ fighting were nearly 400. That night several corps of Mounted Infantry and some guns passed my tent on the road to Spearman’s Farm. “A reconnaissance,” some one said, “to see if the Boers are still holding their right.” But I woke in the night, and the tramping and grinding were still on the road. Day and the truth dawned together. We were retiring. And where lay the fault? Not with the infantry —they will go anywhere with a cheer; scarcely with Sir Redvers Buller who was severe with himself and honest with the army and the nation when he gave the order. The fault of this and of all other battles was the cumbrous nature of our transport. How should it be otherwise than that jam and pickles should be at a disadvantage against biltong?