Bivouac on the Modder, January 15, 1900.
At Modder River camp the dust lies thick and heavy. Every breeze that blows lifts clouds of it, that hang in the air like a dense London fog, and mark the site of the camp miles and miles away. The river, more muddy than ever, moves languidly in its deep channel. There is a Boer laager some miles above the camp, the scourings of which—horrid thought!—are constantly brought down to us. The soldiers eye the infected current askance and call it Boervril. Its effect is seen in the sickness that is steadily increasing.
Thank goodness we escape it. An advantage of scouting is, that, when it comes to a standing camp, with its attendant evils of dirt, smells, and sickness, your business carries you away, in front, or out along the flanks, where you play at hide-and-seek with the enemy, trap and are trapped, chase and are chased, and where you bivouac healthily and pleasantly, if not in such full security, at some old Dutch farm, where probably fowls are to be bought, or milk and butter; or under groups of mimosa trees among stoney deserted kopjes, where there is plenty of wood for burning, as likely as not within reach of some old garden with figs in it ripening and grapes already ripe.
One of the little pictures I shall remember belonging to Modder camp is the sight of the soldiers at early mass. You can picture to yourself a wide, flat dusty plain held in the bent arm of the river, with not a tree or bush on it; flat as a table, ankle-deep in grey dust, and with a glaring, blazing sun looking down on it. The dust is so hot and deep that it reminds one more of the ashes on the top of Vesuvius—you remember that night climb of ours?—than of anything else.
Laid out in very formal and precise squares are the camps of the various brigades, the sharp-pointed tents ranged in exact order and looking from far off like symmetrical little flower-beds pricked out on the sombre plain.
A stone's throw from the river is a mud wall, with a mud house at one side scarcely rising above it, yet house and wall giving in the early morning a patch of black shadow in the midst of the glare. Here the old priest used to celebrate his mass. A hundred or two of Tommies and a few officers would congregate here soon after sunrise, and stand bare-headed till the beams looked over the wall, when helmet after helmet would go on; or kneel together in the dust while the priest lifted the host. Every man had his arms, the short bayonet bobbing on the hip; every brown and grimy hand grasped a rifle; and as the figures sink low at the ringing of the bell, a bristle of barrels stands above the bowed heads. Distant horse hoofs drum the plain as an orderly gallops from one part of the camp to another. Right facing us stands Magersfontein, its ugly nose with the big gun at the end of it thrust out towards us. How many of this little brotherhood under the mud wall, idly I wonder, will ever see English meadows again?
The Boers still face us at Magersfontein. Their left is south of the Modder. They have a strong laager at Jacobsdal on the Reit, and have pushed west and south of that, where, from the kopjes about Zoutspan and Ramdam, they threaten our lines of communication. The Reit river, flowing almost south and north for some distance parallel to the railway, though a good way east of it, is a strengthening feature for them in that part of the field, and taking advantage of it, they have brought their left well round. Their right, on the other hand, is scarcely brought round at all, but stretches about east and west, following the course of the Modder, and extending as far west as Douglas, fifty miles from Modder camp. They make raids south. Pilcher the other day cut some of them up at Sunnyside and took Douglas, but evacuated it again, and it is now in their hands. Altogether you can compare the Boer attitude to a huge man confronting you, Magersfontein being his head, his left arm brought round in front of him almost at right angles to his body and his right stretched wide out in line with his shoulders. From time to time he makes little efforts to bring these outstretched arms farther round, as if to clasp and enfold the British position at Modder River, and it is with the special object of observing and reporting on these movements that our scouting is carried on. This is now attended to by fifteen of us only, under Chester Master, the rest of the corps, with the Major, having gone down to join French at Colesberg now that the advance here has ceased. On the east side of the line we patrol the plain nearly to Jacobsdal, and often lie in the grass or sit among the rocks and watch the little figures of Boers cantering along the road that leads south by the river. Further scouting in that direction is carried on by the garrison along the line.
A strong reconnaissance of ours the other day (January 9th) in the direction of Jacobsdal was a very dignified and solemn exhibition. Our guns rumbled forward with their eight-horse teams across the plain, while our cavalry, stretched out in open order at fifty yards apart, traversed the country in long strings that might have been seen and admired by the enemy at a distance, I daresay, of twenty miles. Chester Master took us forward on the left close to the river, where a party of the enemy, stealing up from the river-bed, tried to cut us off—there were only six or eight of us—and chivied us back to the main body as hard as we could go, two miles ventre à terre through the pelting rain, blazing away from horseback all the time at us, but naturally doing no harm. We thought we should lead them into a trap when we lifted the rise, but our troops had all halted far back in the plain, and our pursuers turned as soon as they saw them. However, we got some men to join us, and set to work to chase them as they had done us. It was really quite exciting; little bent figures of horsemen with flapping hats on ahead, bundling along for dear life, each with its spot of dust attending, we following, whooping and spurring. But bustled as they were, the Boers knew the way they were going. There are some narrow belts of bush that run out from the river into the plain, and as we neared one of these, crick-crack, crick-crack, the familiar croaking voices of Mausers warned us against a nearer approach. We dismounted and fired away vaguely at the distant foe, not so much with the idea of hitting anything, but it is always a relief to one's feelings. I don't know why the guns didn't come up, but was told that they didn't like to push on too far, as the Boers were supposed to be in force here. It seemed a pity to miss such a good shot, especially as we had an enormous great escort and an open country back to camp. But that is the way with guns; sometimes they rush up to within 500 yards of the enemy before they shoot, and sometimes they won't shoot at all.The afternoon was spent in carrying out our reconnaissance. A reconnaissance is undertaken with a view to exposing the enemy's position and strength. Without intending a real attack, you demonstrate, feign a forward movement, push on in one place or another, or threaten to turn his flanks; so obliging him to move his men here and there, expose his strength and the limits of the position, and, perhaps, the whereabouts and number of his guns, if they should be tempted to open fire at our scouts. This is the theory of the thing. In practice it doesn't quite work, owing to the utter ignorance of the Boers of all military tactics. On all occasions when we have carried out these manoeuvres, notably round the Magersfontein hills before the battle, they have not only failed to make the proper responses to our moves, but have neglected to take notice of them in any way whatever. Not a gun speaks, not a man is to be seen. We demonstrate before empty hills. Creepily, you may conjecture the fierce eyes along the rock edge, but nothing shows. In vain we circle about the plain, advance, retire, curtsey, and set to him; our enemy, like the tortoise, "will not join the dance." Nothing is more discouraging. It is like playing to an empty house. However, as young B—— said to me, we did our part anyway, and if they are so ignorant as not to know the counter-moves, well, they must take the consequences. Manoeuvres of this kind, I must tell you, are a high test of military skill, and are often not fully intelligible to the lay mind. As an instance of this, I heard a man of ours, a shrewd fellow but no soldier, say, in his coarse Colonial way, as we were riding home, that he "was glad we had finished making a b——y exhibition of ourselves." It is to be hoped that after a little we shall get to appreciate these manoeuvres better. Just at first there is a slight suggestion of Gilbert and Sullivan about them.