THE EXCITEMENT OF A RIFLE FUSILADE—A SIX-HOURS' FIGHT—THE PICKING OFF OF OFFICERS—A DISPLAY OF INFERNAL FIREWORKS—"GOD BLESS THE PRINCE OF WALES."
When all is said, there is nothing to stir the blood like rifle-fire. Rifle-fire wins or loses decisive actions; rifle-fire sends the heart galloping. At five in the morning of the 9th I turned on my mattress and heard guns; I got up.
Then I heard the bubble of distant musketry, and I hurried out. It came from the north, and it was languidly echoed from Cæsar's Camp. Tack-tap, tack-tap—each shot echoed a little muffled from the hills. Tack-tap, tack-tap, tack, tack, tack, tack, tap—as if the devil was hammering nails into the hills. Then a hurricane of tacking, running round all Ladysmith, running together into a scrunching roar. From the hill above Mulberry Grove you can see every shell drop; but of this there was no sign—only noise and furious heart-beats.
I went out to the strongest firing, and toiled up a ladder of boulders. I came up on to the sky-line, and bent and stole forward. To the right was Cave Redoubt with the 4·7; to the left two field-guns, unlimbered and left alone, and some of the Rifle Brigade snug behind their stone and earth schanzes. In front was the low, woody, stony crest of Observation Hill; behind was the tall table-top of Surprise Hill—the first ours, the second the enemy's. Under the slope of Observation Hill were long, dark lines of horses; up to the sky-line, prolonging the front leftward, stole half-a-dozen of the 5th Lancers. From just beyond them came the tack, tack, tack, tap.
Tack, tap; tack, tap—it went on minute by minute, hour by hour.
The sun warmed the air to an oven; painted butterflies, azure and crimson, came flitting over the stones; still the devil went on hammering nails into the hills. Down leftward a black-powder gun was popping on the film-cut ridge of Bluebank. A Boer shell came fizzing from the right, and dived into a whirl of red dust, where nothing was. Another—another—another, each pitched with mathematical accuracy into the same nothing. Our gunners ran out to their guns, and flung four rounds on to the shoulder of Surprise Hill. Billy puffed from Bulwan—came 10,000 yards jarring and clattering loud overhead—then flung a red earthquake just beyond the Lancers' horses. Again and again,—it looked as if he could not miss them; but the horses only twitched their tails, as if he were a new kind of fly. The 4·7 crashed hoarsely back, and a black nimbus flung up far above the trees on the mountain. And still the steady tack and tap—from the right among the Devons and Liverpools, from the right centre, where the Leicesters were, from the left centre, among the 60th, and the extreme left, from Cæsar's Camp.
The fight tacked on six mortal hours and then guttered out. From the early hour they began and from the number of shells and cartridges they burned I suppose the Boers meant to do something. But at not one point did they gain an inch. We were playing with them—playing with them at their own game. One of our men would fire and lie down behind a rock; the Boers answered furiously for three minutes. When they began to die down, another man fired, and for another three minutes the Boers hammered the blind rocks. On six hours' fighting along a front of ten or twelve miles we lost three killed and seventeen wounded. And, do you know, I really believe that this tack-tapping among the rocks was the attack after all. They had said—or it was among the million things they were said to have said—that they would be in Ladysmith on November 9, and I believe they half believed themselves. At any rate I make no doubt that all this morning they were feeling—feeling our thin lines all round for a weak spot to break in by.
They did not find it, and they gave over; but they would have come had they thought they could come safely. They began before it was fully light with the Manchesters. The Manchesters on Cæsar's Camp were, in a way, isolated: they were connected by telephone with headquarters, but it took half an hour to ride up to their eyrie. They were shelled religiously for a part of every day by Puffing Billy from Bulwan and Fiddling Jimmy from Middle Hill.
Every officer who showed got a round of shrapnel at him. Their riflemen would follow an officer about all day with shots at 2200 yards; the day before they had hit Major Grant, of the Intelligence, as he was sketching the country. Tommy, on the other hand, could swagger along the sky-line unmolested. No doubt the Boers thought that exposed Cæsar's Camp lay within their hands.
But they were very wrong. Snug behind their schanzes, the Manchesters cared as much for shells as for butterflies. Most of them were posted on the inner edge of the flat top with a quarter of a mile of naked veldt to fire across. They had been reinforced the day before by a field battery and a squadron and a half of the Light Horse. And they had one schanze on the outer edge of the hill as an advanced post.
In the dim of dawn, the officer in charge of this post saw the Boers creeping down behind a stone wall to the left, gathering in the bottom, advancing in, for them, close order. He welted them with rifle-fire: they scattered and scurried back.
The guns got to work, silenced the field-guns on Flat Top Hill, and added scatter and scurry to the assailing riflemen. Certainly some number were killed; half-a-dozen bodies, they said, lay in the open all day; lanterns moved to and fro among the rocks and bushes all night; a new field hospital and graveyard were opened next day at Bester's Station. On the other horn of our position the Devons had a brisk morning. They had in most places at least a mile of clear ground in front of them. But beyond that, and approaching within a few hundred yards of the extreme horn of the position, is scrub, which ought to have been cut down.
Out of this scrub the enemy began to snipe. We had there, tucked into folds of the hills, a couple of tubby old black-powdered howitzers, and they let fly three rounds which should have been very effective. But the black powder gave away their position in a moment, and from every side—Pepworth's, Lombard's Nek, Bulwan—came spouting inquirers to see who made that noise. The Lord Mayor's show was a fool to that display of infernal fireworks. The pompon added his bark, but he has never yet bitten anybody: him the Devons despise, and have christened with a coarse name. They weathered the storm without a man touched.
Not a point had the Boers gained. And then came twelve o'clock, and, if the Boers had fixed the date of the 9th of November, so had we. We had it in mind whose birthday it was. A trumpet-major went forth, and presently, golden-tongued, rang out, "God bless the Prince of Wales." The general up at Cove Redoubt led the cheers. The sailors' champagne, like their shells, is being saved for Christmas, but there was no stint of it to drink the Prince's health withal. And then the Royal salute—bang on bang on bang—twenty-one shotted guns, as quick as the quickfirer can fire, plump into the enemy.
That finished it. What with the guns and the cheering, each Boer commando must have thought the next was pounded to mincemeat. The rifle-fire dropped.
The devil had driven home all his tin-tacks, and for the rest of the day we had calm.