Potgieter's Drift, February 4, 1900
SENTIMENT is a quality to be reckoned with in war. In an instant the humdrum view of things taken for over a week in camp has been brightened, and the troops have been heartened because official pronouncement has been made that to-morrow the Army will again give battle to the Boers. All ranks are jubilant, for every man is imbued with the sentiment that the honour and glory of carrying relief to Ladysmith must be won at once at any cost. This time the soldiers are to be allowed to get at the enemy wherever he can be reached, and, further, the troops are to be smartly and adequately supported throughout the day by batteries and cavalry. General Buller personally will supervise and direct the whole field of operations. Here is yet another ground for satisfaction, and for the expression of the hope that the superiority of the British arms will be triumphantly vindicated. The rest at Potgieter's has been for recuperation and concentration, and the preparation of plans for a fight to a finish. Everywhere there are evidences of this new influence at work in the bearing, brightened looks, and cheery chat of the men.
An outline of what has been done may help to render clearer, later on, the conduct of the action. An effort is to be made to engage the enemy's attention along their front opposite Potgieter's Drift. There may even be a serious attempt to storm their stronghold at Brakfontein by a frontal attack. The ground thereabouts is relatively low compared with the mountainous chains of Spion Kop upon the west, and the ranges abutting from Grobler's Kloof upon the east. Between these is a space six to eight miles in width of comparatively flat, hillocky land. Over it passes the road to Ladysmith. Later on in the day, from masked batteries, a flanking attack may be delivered from Schiet Drift, and a resolute bid made to carry the lofty tableland of the Doom Kloof. General Clery's Division has proceeded in the direction of Schiet Drift, where he will be helped by the three regiments of Regular Cavalry, placed under the command of Colonel Burn-Murdoch, together with artillery. Around Potgieter's Drift are in watching Warren's Division, consisting of Generals Lyttelton's and Wynne's Brigades—Colonel Wynne having succeeded to General Woodgate's command. Lord Dundonald, with all the Colonial, or Irregular Cavalry, is to back up the attack from Potgieter's. Including the naval guns, in all seventy-two cannon will be employed to-morrow in a preparatory bombardment of the Boer lines. As closely as can be estimated, the enemy have mounted, in opposition to us, some twenty guns and many Maxims, behind very strong works.
One day has been very much like another since the troops returned to encamp near Spearman's. The weather, in all conscience, was damp and depressing enough, without the surroundings of crowded quarters, idling parade, and no recent big victories to discuss over and over again. That Buller had the key to Ladysmith we all believed, and fervently trusted it would fit the Boer lock. Yet there was compensation in the rain, for it filled the spruits and ensured the needful water-supply for men, horses, and cattle. The Tugela, which was so near, was still too far for most, and only a few troops enjoyed the privilege of drinking and washing in its sweet, full-running abundance. Of the sloppiness of a London wet day many know something, but of the dreary, dirty muddiness of big camps in prolonged wet weather happily they know but little. No scrapers, no doormats are in evidence; you bring into the tents enough of the soil of the country to supply a garden with mould. The soldier's tent becomes a sort of backyard, sleeping-room, dining-room, bath-room, drying-room all rolled into one upon the same floor. Extra rations and an occasional tot of rum were the comforts by day.
There are people who are never contented, not even with the three days wherein every soldier was allowed if lb. of fresh meat. An acquaintance of mine, an officer in the Army Service Corps, was unfortunately called from his urgent duties by a brother officer, who desired to consult him upon a matter of pressing moment. Said the intruder, "Out of one of my companies of 100 men there are nineteen vegetarians. Now what do you recommend I should give them in lieu of the extra beef ration ?" " There are no substitutes I can issue," replied the Army Service man. "Then what am I to do with these men ? " demanded the officer. " Well," answered the other, " I suggest that, as the next best thing to be done, you turn them out to graze!" Whether he did nobody knows, or whether they are consuming the living, wild, succulent plants of Natal no one cares; but from the haggard aspect of the martyrs, I imagine they have backslided upon bully beef and coarse biscuits.
The Royal Engineers suffered much loss upon Spion Kop. Lieutenant Falcon, of the 17th Company, had three bullets pass through his helmet, a shell wounded him in the arm and leg, breaking the bone below the knee, and two Mauser bullets passed through his thighs. Major Massey, commanding the same company, who did his duty in face of a terrible hail of bullets and shell, was literally shot to death. The Colonial Imperial Light Infantry went into action upon Spion Kop at 9 a.m., and remained upon the mountain till 8 p.m. Out of 850 men they had thirty-nine killed and ninety wounded, including amongst the latter a brother of the correspondent, Mr. Falconer, who was struck with a piece of shell. Most of these Volunteers were Outlanders, and at least six of them, whose bodies were afterwards discovered, had been clubbed to death by the Boers. Two of those slaughtered in that way, Corporal Weldon and Private Daddon, were ex-Pretoria men. Lieutenant Rudall, of the L.L.I., whilst leading the reliefs towards the right about 11 a.m., was hit and killed by a " pom-pom " shell.
Here is the strangest story of all from Spion Kop, and one which I have had verified from several quarters. During a lull, when the Boers were making their counter-attacks upon the Lancashire battalions, an officer in kh&ki suddenly appeared at the corner of the trench, and, in good English, bade the men come out and not stay there, as they were of no use in that position. "Come this way!" he cried, and several men got out to follow him. A few steps forward, around the rocks, they saw a number of Boers, and the soldiers hesitated. " They are friends," cried the officer; " come on!" But a Lancashire lad replied, " Hold on a bit. Who are you ?" The officer, who proved to be, it is said, an Austrian, grabbed the mans rifle, but the soldiers quietly gave him the bayonet, stretching the fellow upon the ground just as the Boers from the rocks fired a volley into our men. Only two or three of the soldiers were able to regain unwounded the cover of the trench, which, unfortunately, was not dug in the most commanding spot. More than once that day the cry " Retire!" was raised upon Spion Kop by Boers anxious to get our men away.
You can rely upon it that no one more than General Buller deplores the mistake which led to the foolish evacuation of that key of the Boer position. That little cherub Middy Downs has again been distinguishing himself at Chieveley. For so youthful a salt he is full of pluck, and has an inexhaustible store of humour. His criticisms are a matter of camp notoriety. With the bluejackets, after a heavy storm—or rather during it,—he was sent out to recover some ammunition from near the naval 12-pounder gun-pit. The place was afloat, and Downs, scrambling for the ammunition, tumbled in, and was nearly drowned. Luckily some loose railway sleepers were about, and upon one of these he swam out. Regaining his legs and solid land, he said, " Ah ! this is a gun-pit, is it ? I suppose it is a bally army gun-pit."
The cavalry reconnaissance to Honger's Poort on January 30 found few Boers, and the chief result was a day's outing for the troopers. OnWednesday, January 31, the artillery of General Buller s force was materially strengthened by a battery of horse artillery. There was a redistribution and changing of camps on Thursday, February 1. Major-General Talbot-Coke moved his brigade forward under the slopes of Mount Alice, where he was upon favourable ground from which to render help in case of an attack on the camp. During that and the following day, preparations were made for placing guns upon Swartz Kop proper. This is a very rugged, steep, double-topped, wood-covered mountain rising from the flat meadow-land down by the winding Tugela. In appearance it is not unlike Dumbarton, on the Clyde. Owing to its position upon the flank of Brakfontein it almost commands the enemy's works, but in turn it is overlooked by the far higher Doornkloof ranges. With great labour the naval 12-pounders and other guns were got up Swartz Kop, the sailors managing with steel hawsers to warp their cannon up very smartly. A mountain battery of screw-guns that took the same road had a hard time. Several of the mules fell, and one rolled down the mountain with part of the gun and was killed. The piece was recovered and sent up on another mule to the top. After the guns, including even bigger cannon, gained the summit a roadway was blasted and made up the hillside.
On Saturday, February 3, sports were held at the South African Light Horse camp, in which Captain Bimbashi Steward's "A" Squadron was well to the front in the tug-of-war, wrestling, and other events. The customary camp-fire and singsong followed in the evening, and as the news had leaked out that a forward movement was on, the men were in the highest spirits. Colonel Byng distributed the prizes to the successful competitors.
To-day and yesterday there has been much receiving and sending of messages by helios and lamps to and from Signal Hill or Mount Alice and Ladysmith. Numbers of the despatches have been in cypher, but hundreds have passed of an entirely private character. The two helios can be very plainly seen at Ladysmith. One twinkles busily from the end of Waggon Hill, near one of Besters' Farms, and was the first we got into communication with, while the other glints and winks from Thorn-hill's Farm. Above the Orange Free State railway junction, a mile behind Ladysmith and upon the north-east, at night-time the Boers, by means of their new powerful acetylene lamps, try to spoil our signallers' messages, but I am glad to say they have not frustrated the nightly interchange between us and the town. According to messages to hand from Ladysmith, I hear that the garrison is living comfortably enough upon a reduced ration scale. Whisky is no longer practically procurable. As much as £20 a bottle is offered and finds no takers. Cigars, cigarettes, and tobacco are also at famine prices; in truth, cigarettes and cigars are not procurable, and tobacco sells at £4 a pound. The Army surgeons, however, have managed to retain certain stores and luxuries for the exclusive use of the sick and wounded.