Venter's Spruit: January 25, 1900.
The importance of giving a general and comprehensive account of the late actions around and on Spion Kop prevented me from describing its scenes and incidents. Events, like gentlemen at a levee, in these exciting days tread so closely on each other's heels that many pass unnoticed, and most can only claim the scantiest attention. But I will pick from the hurrying procession a few—distinguished for no other reason than that they have caught my eye—and from their quality the reader may judge of the rest.
The morning of the 20th discovered the cavalry still encamped behind the hills near the Acton Homes road, on which they had surprised the Boers two days before. The loud and repeated discharge of the artillery advised us that the long-expected general action had begun. What part were the cavalry to play? No orders had been sent to Lord Dundonald except that he was to cover the left flank of the infantry. But the cavalry commander, no less than his brigade, proposed to interpret these instructions freely. Accordingly, at about half-past nine, the South African Light Horse, two squadrons of the 13th Hussars, and a battery of four machine guns moved forward towards the line of heights along the edge and crest of which ran the Boer position with the intention of demonstrating against them, and the daring idea—somewhere in the background—of attacking and seizing one prominent feature which jutted out into the plain, and which, from its boldness and shape, we had christened 'Bastion Hill.' The composite regiment, who watched the extreme left, were directed to support us if all was clear in their front at one o'clock, and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, who kept touch between the main cavalry force and the infantry left flank, had similar orders to co-operate.
At ten o'clock Lord Dundonald ordered the South African Light Horse to advance against Bastion Hill. If the resistance was severe they were not to press the attack, but to content themselves with a musketry demonstration. If, however, they found it convenient to get on they were to do so as far as they liked. Colonel Byng thereon sent two squadrons under Major Childe to advance, dismounted frontally on the hill, and proposed to cover their movements by the fire of the other two squadrons, who were to gallop to the shelter of a wood and creep thence up the various dongas to within effective range.
Major Childe accepted his orders with alacrity, and started forth on what seemed, as I watched from a grassy ridge, a most desperate enterprise. The dark brown mass of Bastion Hill appeared to dominate the plain. On its crest the figures of the Boers could be seen frequently moving about. Other spurs to either flanks looked as if they afforded facilities for cross fire. And to capture this formidable position we could dismount only about a hundred and fifty men; and had, moreover, no artillery support of any kind. Yet as one examined the hill it became evident that its strength was apparent rather than real. Its slopes were so steep that they presented no good field of fire. Its crest was a convex curve, over and down which the defenders must advance before they could command the approaches, and when so advanced they would be exposed without shelter of any kind to the fire of the covering troops. The salient was so prominent and jutted out so far from the general line of hills, and was besides shaped so like a blunted redan, that its front face was secure from flanking fire. In fact there was plenty of dead ground in its approaches, and, moreover, dongas—which are the same as nullahs in India or gullies in Australia—ran agreeably to our wishes towards the hill in all directions. When first we had seen the hill three days before we had selected it as a weak point in the Dutch line. It afterwards proved that the Boers had no illusions as to its strength and had made their arrangements accordingly.
So soon as the dismounted squadrons had begun their advance, Colonel Byng led the two who were to cover it forward. The wood we were to reach and find shelter in was about a thousand yards distant, and had been reported unoccupied by the Boers, who indeed confined themselves strictly to the hills after their rough handling on the 18th by the cavalry. We moved off at a walk, spreading into a wide open order, as wise colonial cavalry always do. And it was fortunate that our formation was a dispersed one, for no sooner had we moved into the open ground than there was the flash of a gun faraway among the hills to the westward. I had had some experience of artillery fire in the armoured train episode, but there the guns were firing at such close quarters that the report of the discharge and the explosion of the shell were almost simultaneous. Nor had I ever heard the menacing hissing roar which heralds the approach of a long-range projectile. It came swiftly, passed overhead with a sound like the rending of thin sheets of iron, and burst with a rather dull explosion in the ground a hundred yards behind the squadrons, throwing up smoke and clods of earth. We broke into a gallop, and moved in curving course towards the wood. I suppose we were a target a hundred yards broad by a hundred and fifty deep. The range was not less than seven thousand yards, and we were at the gallop. Think of this, Inspector-General of Artillery: the Boer gunners fired ten or eleven shells, every one of which fell among or within a hundred yards of our ranks. Between us and the wood ran a deep donga with a river only fordable in places flowing through it. Some confusion occurred in crossing this, but at last the whole regiment was across, and found shelter from the terrible gun—perhaps there were two—on the further bank. Thanks to our dispersed formation only two horses had been killed, and it was possible to admire without having to deplore the skill of the artillerists who could make such beautiful practice at such a range.
Colonel Byng thought it advisable to leave the horses in the cover of the protecting river bank, and we therefore pushed on, dismounted, and, straggling through the high maize crop without presenting any target to the guns, reached the wood safely. Through this we hurried as far as its further edge. Here the riflemen on the hill opened with long-range fire. It was only a hundred yards into the donga, and the troopers immediately began running across in twos and threes. In the irregular corps all appearances are sacrificed to the main object of getting where you want to without being hurt. No one was hurt.
Colonel Byng made his way along the donga to within about twelve or fourteen hundred yards, and from excellent cover opened fire on the Boers holding the summit of the hill. A long musketry duel ensued without any loss to our side, and with probably no more to the enemy. The colonial troopers, as wary as the Dutch, showed very little to shoot at, so that, though there were plenty of bullets, there was no bloodshed. Regular infantry would probably have lost thirty or forty men.
I went back for machine guns, and about half an hour later they were brought into action at the edge of the wood. Boers on the sky-line at two thousand yards—tat-tat-tat-tat-tat half a dozen times repeated; Boers galloping to cover; one—yes, by Jupiter!—one on his back on the grass; after that no more targets to shoot at; continuous searching of the sky-line, however, on the chance of killing someone, and, in any case, to support the frontal attack. We had altogether three guns—the 13th Hussars' Maxim under Lieutenant Clutterbuck, detached from the 4th Hussars; one of Lord Dundonald's battery of Colts under Mr. Hill, who is a member of Parliament, and guides the majestic course of Empire besides managing machine guns; and our own Maxim, all under Major Villiers.
These three machines set up a most exhilarating splutter, flaring and crackling all along the edge of the wood, and even attracted the attention of the Boers. All of a sudden there was a furious rush and roar overhead; two or three little cassarina trees and a shower of branches fell to the ground. What on earth could this be? The main action was crashing away on the right. Evidently a shell had passed a few feet over our heads, but was it from our guns shelling the hills in front, or from the enemy? In another minute the question was answered by another shell. It was our old friend the gun to the westward, who, irritated by the noisy Maxims, had resolved to put his foot down. Whizz! Bang! came a third shot, exploding among the branches just behind the Colt gun, to the great delight of Mr. Hill, who secured a large fragment which I have advised him to lay on the table in the smoking-room of the House for the gratification, instruction, and diversion of other honourable members. The next shell smashed through the roof of a farmhouse which stood at the corner of the wood, and near which two troops of the 13th Hussars, who were escorting the Maxims and watching the flanks, had left their led horses. The next, in quick succession, fell right among them, killing one, but luckily, very luckily, failed to burst. The officer then decided to move the horses to a safer place. The two troops mounted and galloped off. They were a tiny target, only a moving speck across the plain. But the Boer gunners threw a shell within a yard of the first troop leader. All this at seven thousand yards! English artillery experts, please note and if possible copy.
While these things were passing the advancing squadrons had begun to climb the hill, and found to their astonishment that they were scarcely fired at. It was of great importance, however, that the Boers should be cleared from the summit by the Maxim fire, and lest this should be diverted on our own men by mistake I left the wood for the purpose of signalling back how far the advance had proceeded and up to what point the guns could safely fire. The ground was broken; the distance considerable. Before I reached the hill the situation had changed. The enemy's artillery had persuaded the Maxims that they would do better to be quiet—at any rate until they could see something to shoot at. Major Childe had reached the top of the hill, one man of his squadron, ten minutes in front of anyone else, waving his hat on his rifle at the summit to the admiration of thousands of the infantry, all of whom saw this act of conspicuous recklessness and rejoiced. Lord Dundonald had galloped up to support the attack with Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry and the rest of the 13th Hussars. We, the South African Light Horse, had taken Bastion Hill.
To advance further forward, however, proved quite impossible. The Boers had withdrawn to a second position a thousand yards in rear of the top of the hill. From this they directed a most accurate and damnable fire on all who showed themselves on the plateau. Beneath the crest one sat in safety and listened to the swish of bullets passing overhead. Above, the men were content to lie quite still underneath the rocks and wait for darkness. I had a message for Major Childe and found him sitting on this dangerous ground, partly sheltered by a large rock—a serene old gentleman, exhausted with his climb, justly proud of its brilliant success.
I found no reason to remain very long on the plateau, and had just returned to the Brigadier when the Boer guns began to shell the tip of the hill. The first two or three projectiles skimmed over the surface, and roared harmlessly away. But the Boers were not long in striking their mark. Two percussion shells burst on the exposed side of the hill, and then a well-exploded shrapnel searched its summit, searched and found what it sought. Major Childe was instantly killed by a fragment that entered his brain, and half a dozen troopers were more or less seriously wounded. After that, as if satisfied, the enemy's gun turned its attention elsewhere.
I think this death of Major Childe was a very sad event even among the inevitable incidents of war. He had served many-years ago in the Blues, and since then a connection with the Turf had made him not unknown and well liked in sporting circles. Old and grey as he was, the call to arms had drawn him from home, and wife, and comfort, as it is drawing many of all ages and fortunes now. And so he was killed in his first fight against the Boers after he had performed an exploit—his first and last in war—which would most certainly have brought him honourable distinction. He had a queer presentiment of impending fate, for he had spoken a good deal to us of the chances of death, and had even selected his own epitaph, so that on the little wooden cross which stands at the foot of Bastion Hill—the hill he himself took and held—there is written: 'Is it well with the child? It is well!'
The coign of vantage which I found on the side of the hill was not only to a great extent sheltered from the bullets, but afforded an extensive view of the general action, and for the rest of the day I remained with Lord Dundonald watching its development. But a modern action is very disappointing as a spectacle. There is no smoke except that of the bursting shells. The combatants are scattered, spread over a great expanse of ground, concealed wherever possible, clad in neutral tint.
All the pomp and magnificence of Omdurman, the solid lines of infantry, the mighty Dervish array, bright with flashing spears and waving flags, were excluded. Rows of tiny dots hurried forward a few yards and vanished into the brown of the earth. Bunches and clusters of brown things huddled among the rocks or in sheltered spots. The six batteries of artillery unlimbered, and the horses, hidden in some safe place, were scarcely visible.
Once I saw in miniature through glasses a great wave of infantry surge forward along a spur and disappear beyond a crest line. The patter of the Mauser rifles swelled into a continuous rumbling like a train of waggons passing over a pontoon bridge, and presently the wave recoiled; the minute figures that composed it squeezed themselves into cover among some rocks, a great many groups of men began carrying away black objects. A trickle of independent dots dispersed itself. Then we groaned. There had been a check. The distant drama continued. The huddling figures began to move again—lithe, active forms moved about rearranging things—officers, we knew, even at the distance. Then the whole wave started again full of impetus—started—went forward, and never came back. And at this we were all delighted, and praised the valour of our unequalled infantry, and wished we were near enough to give them a cheer.
So we watched until nightfall, when some companies of the Queen's, from General Hildyard's Brigade, arrived, and took over the charge of our hill from us, and we descended to get our horses, and perhaps some food, finding, by good luck, all we wanted, and lay down on the ground to sleep, quite contented with ourselves and the general progress of the army.
The action of the 21st had begun before I awoke, and a brisk fusillade was going on all along the line. This day the right attack stood still, or nearly so, and the activity was confined to the left, where General Hildyard, with five battalions and two batteries, skilfully felt and tested the enemy's positions and found them most unpleasantly strong. The main difficulty was that our guns could not come into action to smash the enemy in his trenches without coming under his rifle fire, because the edge of the plateau was only a thousand yards from the second and main Boer position, and unless the guns were on the edge of the plateau they could see very little and do less. The cavalry guarded the left flank passively, and I remember no particular incident except that our own artillery flung the fragments of two premature shells among us and wounded a soldier in the Devonshire Regiment. The following fact, however, is instructive. Captain Stewart's squadron of the South African Light Horse dismounted, held an advanced kopje all day long under a heavy fire, and never lost a man. Two hundred yards further back was another kopje held by two companies of regular infantry under equal fire. The infantry had more than twenty men hit.
On the 22nd the action languished and the generals consulted. The infantry had made themselves masters of all the edge of the plateau, and the regiments clustered in the steep re-entrants like flies on the side of a wall. The Boers endeavoured to reach them with shells, and a desultory musketry duel also proceeded.
During the afternoon I went with Captain Brooke to visit some of the battalions of General Hart's Brigade and see what sort of punishment they were receiving. As we rode up the watercourse which marks the bottom of the valley a shrapnel shell cleared the western crest line and exploded among one of the battalions. At first it seemed to have done no harm, but as we climbed higher and nearer we met a stretcher carried by six soldiers. On it lay a body with a handkerchief thrown across the face. The soldiers bearing the stretcher were all covered with blood.
We proceeded and soon reached the battalions. A company of the Dublin Fusiliers were among those captured in the armoured train, and I have the pleasure of knowing most of the officers of this regiment. So we visited them first—a dozen gentlemen—begrimed, unwashed, unshaven, sitting on the hillside behind a two-foot wall of rough stones and near a wooden box, which they called the 'Officers' Mess.' They were in capital spirits in spite of every abominable circumstance.
'What did you lose in the action?'
'Oh, about fifty. Poor Hensley was killed, you know; that was the worst of it.'
Captain Hensley was one of the smallest and bravest men in the Army, and the Dublin Fusiliers, who should be good judges, regarded him as their very best officer for all military affairs, whether attack, retreat, or reconnaissance. Each had lost a friend, but collectively as a regiment they had lost a powerful weapon.
'Very few of us left now,' said the colonel, surveying his regiment with pride.
'About four hundred and fifty.'
'Out of a thousand?'
'Well, out of about nine hundred.'
This war has fallen heavily on some regiments. Scarcely any has suffered more severely, none has won greater distinction, than the Dublin Fusiliers—everywhere at the front—Dundee, Lombard's Kop, Colenso, Chieveley, Colenso again, and even here at Spion Kop. Half the regiment, more than half the officers killed or wounded or prisoners.
But the survivors were as cheery as ever.
'Do these shells catch anyone?'
'Only two or three an hour. They don't come always: every half-hour we get half a dozen. That last one killed an officer in the next regiment. Rather bad luck, picking an officer out of all these men—only one killed to-day so far, a dozen wounded.'
I inquired how much more time remained before the next consignment of shells was due. They said about ten minutes. I thought that would just suit me, and bade them good morning, for I have a horror of being killed when not on duty; but Captain Brooke was anxious to climb to the top and examine the Boer position, and since we had come so far it was perhaps worth while going on. So we did, and with great punctuality the shells arrived.
We were talking to the officers of another regiment when they began. Two came in quick succession over the eastern wall of the valley and then one over the western. All three burst—two on impact, one in the air. A fourth ripped along a stone shelter behind which skirmishers were firing. A fifth missed the valley altogether and screeched away into the plain clear of the hills. The officers and men were quite callous. They scarcely troubled to look up. The soldiers went on smoking or playing cards or sleeping as if nothing had happened. Personally I felt no inclination to any of these pursuits, and I thought to sit and wait indefinitely, for the caprice of one of these shrieking iron devils would be most trying to anyone. But apparently you can get accustomed to anything. The regiment where the officer had been killed a few minutes before was less cheerful and callous. The little group of officers crouching in the scanty shelter had seen one of their number plucked out of their midst and slain—uselessly as it seemed. They advised us to take cover, which we would gladly have done had there been any worth speaking of; for at this moment the Boers discharged their Vickers-Maxim gun—the 'pom-pom'—and I have never heard such an extraordinary noise. Seven or eight bangs, a rattle, an amazing cluttering and whistling overhead, then the explosions of the little shells, which scarred the opposite hillside in a long row of puffs of brown dust and blue-white smoke, suggesting a lash from a knotted scourge.
'Look out!' we were told, 'they always follow that with a shell.' And so they did, but it passed overhead without harming anyone. Again the Vickers-Maxim flung its covey of projectiles. Again we crouched for the following shell; but this time it did not come—immediately. I had seen quite enough, however, so we bade our friends good luck—never good-bye on active service—and hurried, slowly, on account of appearances, from this unhealthy valley. As we reached our horses I saw another shell burst among the infantry. After that there was another interval. Further on we met a group of soldiers returning to their regiment One lad of about nineteen was munching a biscuit. His right trouser leg was soaked with blood, I asked whether he was wounded. 'No, sir; it's only blood from an officer's head,' he answered, and went on—eating his biscuit. Such were the fortunes for four days of the two brigades forming Warren's left attack.
I have already written a general account of the final action of Spion Kop on January 24, and have little to add. As soon as the news spread through the camps that the British troops were occupying the top of the mountain I hurried to Gun Hill, where the batteries were arrayed, and watched the fight from a flank. The spectacle was inconsiderable but significant. It was like a shadow peep-show. Along the mighty profile of the hill a fringe of little black crotchets advanced. Then there were brown and red smudges of dust from shells striking the ground and white puffs from shrapnel bursting in the air—variations from the black and white. Presently a stretcher borne by five tiny figures jerks slowly forward, silhouetted on the sky-line; more shells; back goes the stretcher laden, a thicker horizontal line than before. Then—a rush of crotchets rearwards—one leading two mules, mules terrified, jibbing, hanging back—all in silhouette one moment, the next all smudged with dust cloud; God help the driver; shadows clear again; driver still dragging mules—no, only one mule now; other figures still running rearwards. Suddenly reinforcements arrive, hundreds of them; the whole sky-line bristles with crotchets moving swiftly along it, bending forward almost double, as if driving through a hailstorm. Thank heaven for that—only just in time too—and then more smudges on the shadow screen.
Sir Charles Warren was standing near me with his staff. One of his officers came up and told me that they had been disturbed at breakfast by a Boer shell, which had crashed through their waggon, killing a servant and a horse. Presently the General himself saw me. I inquired about the situation, and learned for the first time of General Woodgate's wound—death it was then reported—and that Thorneycroft had been appointed brigadier-general. 'We have put what we think is the best fighting man in command regardless of seniority. We shall support him as he may request. We can do no more.'
I will only relate one other incident—a miserable one. The day before the attack on Spion Kop I had chanced to ride across the pontoon bridge. I heard my name called, and saw the cheery face of a boy I had known at Harrow—a smart, clean-looking young gentleman—quite the rough material for Irregular Horse. He had just arrived and pushed his way to the front; hoped, so he said, 'to get a job.' This morning they told me that an unauthorised Press correspondent had been found among the killed on the summit. At least they thought at first it was a Press correspondent, for no one seemed to know him. A man had been found leaning forward on his rifle, dead. A broken pair of field glasses, shattered by the same shell that had killed their owner, bore the name 'M'Corquodale.' The name and the face flew together in my mind. It was the last joined subaltern of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry—joined in the evening shot at dawn.
Poor gallant young Englishman! he had soon 'got his job.' The great sacrifice had been required of the Queen's latest recruit.