Modder River Camp, December 1899.
A few days ago we welcomed a distinguished stranger here in the shape of a long 4.7 naval gun. They set him up in the road just outside the station, with his flat-hatted sailors in zealous attendance, where he held a day-long levée. The gun is a remarkable object among the rest of our artillery. Its barrel, immensely long but very slender, has a well-bred, aristocratic look compared with the thick noses of our field-guns. It drives its forty-five pound shell about seven miles, and shoots, I am told, with perfect accuracy. It is an enlarged edition of the beautiful little twelve-pounders which we have hitherto been using, and which exceed the range of our fifteen-pounder field-guns by about a half. Why should naval guns be so vastly superior to land ones?
I interviewed the sailors on the accomplishments of the new-comer, and on the effects especially of lyddite, about which we hear so much. One must allow for a little friendly exaggeration, but if the mixture of truth is in any decent proportion, I should say that spades to bury dead Boers with are all the weapons that the rest of us will require in future. The gun uses shrapnel as well, but relies for its main effects on lyddite. As for this horrible contrivance, all I can say is that the Geneva Conference ought to interdict it. The effects of the explosion of a lyddite shell are as follows:—Any one within 50 yards is obliterated, blown clean away. From 50 to 100 yards they are killed by the force of the concussion of the air. From 100 to 150 yards they are killed by the fumes or poisonous gases which the shell ex-hales. From 150 to 200 they are not killed, but knocked senseless, and their skin is turned to a brilliant green colour. From 200 to 250 they are so dazed and stupefied as to be incapable of action, and, generally speaking, after that any one in the district or neighbourhood of the shock is "never the same man again." This is no mere rumour, for I have it direct from the naval gunners themselves.
This morning, well before light, we took out our gentleman, dragged by an immense string of oxen, to introduce him to his future victims and whet his appetite by a taste. The Boer position lies some six miles to the north of the river. The most conspicuous feature of it is a hill projecting towards us like a ship's ram and dipping sharply to the plain. Magersfontein, they call it. The railway going north leaves it to the right, but other hills and kopjes carry on the position westward across the railway, barring an advance. It is evident that we shall have to take the place in front, as we are not strong enough nor mobile enough to go round.
We have a few reinforcements, notably the Highland Brigade, also the 12th Lancers under Airlie, and some Horse Artillery pop-guns.
There is a good deal of bush on the plain, especially to the right of the steep hill, where it is quite thick. During the last week we have been poking about in this a good deal, approaching the hill now on this side, now on that, under cover of the scrub, examining and searching, but with very little result. They keep themselves well hidden. The hills look untenanted except that now and then we have seen parties of Boers wending their way in between the kopjes and driving in herds of cattle.
In the thick bush on the eastern plain, as we lay one morning at daybreak, we could hear the shouts of men and catch glimpses of them here and there riding about and urging their cattle on. Some passed not far from where we lay crouched (we had left our ponies on the outskirts of the bush). It seemed funny to watch them riding to and fro, unconscious of our presence and calling to each other. It reminded me of some boy's game of hide-and-seek or Tom Tiddler's ground. We have had two or three casualties, and lost two prisoners, and we have bagged several of them. The army is resting.
Well, this morning, as I was saying, we take our Long Tom (Joey, as he is now called, out of compliment to Chamberlain) out for a shot. Here is a note about it:—
"4.30 A.M.—Our little groups of horse, in threes and fours, are clustered behind bushes. There is a whispered consultation round our large gun and his nose slowly rises. The jerk of the lanyard is followed by a frightful explosion and then comes the soaring noise of the flying shell and the red spark and column of dust on the kopje. The range has been well judged, for the first shot falls with beautiful accuracy just on the hill where they are supposed to be.
"It is worth getting up at this time to enjoy the delicious, pure, and fresh air. The glow of sunrise is in the sky, but not yet the sun. There are some long streaks and films of rosy cloud along the east. Already, after five shots, the whole kopje is enveloped in dust and reddish smoke from the bursting lyddite, but elsewhere between us and the sunrise the hills are a perfect dark blue, pure blocks of the colour. The Lancers on their horses show black against the sky as they canter, scattering through the underwood with graceful slanting lances. At slow deliberate intervals the long gun tolls. Dead silence is the only reply. The sun rises and glares on the rocky hills. Not a living thing is to be seen."