Modder River Camp, February 13, 1900.
We are back in the old camp, but only for a few hours. This afternoon we march. Yesterday, crossing the line, we had a glimpse of Rimington and the rest of the corps. They have come up with French, and are off eastward on the flank march. We shall be after them hotfoot before dark. Things begin to shape themselves. We are going to bring our right arm round, leaving Magersfontein untouched, and relieve Kimberley by a flank march in force. Methuen stays here. Poor fellow! I wish him joy of it. Bobs and Kitchener direct the advance; French heads it. They say we shall march 50,000 strong. The line is choked with troop trains, batteries, siege guns, naval guns, and endless truckloads of stores and provisions. At last! is every one's feelings. The long waited for moment has come. You know a hawk's hover? Body steady, wings beating, and then the rushing swoop. So with the army. We have hovered steady here these two months with our wings stretched. Now we swoop.
Far out on the left flank our little body of fifteen has been in a great state of suspense for several weeks. We knew the great tide of advance was setting up from Orange River to the Modder, and as no orders came for us, we began to think we should be out of it. Then one evening, as I was sitting on some boulders above camp looking out over the country, I saw Chester Master riding in from headquarters with a smile on his face, and the sort of look that a man has who brings good news. Down I clambered. Yes, it had come. We were to move that night. The advance had begun, and we were off on an all-night march to catch up French. What a change came over the men! Instead of bored, sulky faces, and growlings and grumblings, all were now keen and alert. When the moon rose we started. Our very ponies seemed to know they were "in the movement," and stepped out cheerily. The night was clear as silver, and each man's shadow moved by his side, clean cut on the ground like the shadows thrown by the electric light outside the Criterion. Song and joke passed once more, and soon up went the favourite cavalry march, the most stirring tune of any, "Coming thro' the Rye." It was very jolly. Not often has one ridden on such a quest, on such a night, to such a tune as that.
So, old Modder, fare you well! Farewell the huge plain that one grew so fond of, with its blue and yellow bars of light, morning and evening; the shaggy kopjes heaped with black rocks, the secluded, lonely farms nestling beneath, old Cook's, where the figs were ripe in the garden, and Mrs. Dugmore, who gave us fresh bread and butter and stewed peaches. Not soon shall I forget those morning patrols. The sea of veldt, the pure air, the carelessness, the comradeship, and the freedom. Old Gordon has a good verse that I find sometimes running in my head—
"It was merry in the morning
Among the gleaming grass,
To wander as we've wandered many a mile,
And blow the cool tobacco cloud
And watch the white wreaths pass,
Sitting loosely in the saddle all the while."
And then the secret bivouacs and lurking-places along the river or in among the deserted hills. The lookout from the tall pyramid, where I have kept watch so many hours day and night, in heat of sun or with stars glittering overhead.
It was from this kopje that we got notice to quit, by the way. Our notice taking the shape of several little brown-backed Boers galloping about and spying at us from a hill one and a half miles to the north. That night we drew out in the plain after dark and camped (no fires) among the bushes, and at grey dawn stole back to have another look. Back dashes one of our advance scouts to tell us that a big force of Boers was just rounding the point. Next minute we were swinging out into the plain, through the low scrub and thorn bush, and as we did so the Boers came through the Nek. They must have known exactly where our usual camp was, and crept up overnight to cut us off. It wasn't by much that they missed. Three or four loiterers, as it was, had a warm minute or two. The first single shots grew to a sudden fierce crackle, like the crackle of a dry thorn branch on the fire, as they came through the bush. But they came on nevertheless, one horse hit only, and joined us, and we formed up and started at a steady gallop for the hills beyond the plain, six miles off; where there was a quite strong camp, established a few days before, for which we have lately been scouting. The Boers chased us some way, but we had got a long start, as they came through the rough ground, and they were never on terms with us. Still it was near enough. Five minutes earlier and what a slating we should have got!
We were told afterwards that the plan on this side was to draw the Boers south of the hills, so as to give the cavalry, which was to move westward just north of the range, a chance of cutting them off. The cavalry, however, didn't turn up. No one seemed to know what had become of them, and I daresay they were saying the same of us. The advice not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing is sometimes rather too literally followed in these manoeuvres, I think. Meantime the Boers have driven off all old Cook's cattle and all Mrs. Dugmore's too; and as we were sent out with the express object of "reassuring the farmers," the result is not entirely satisfactory.No matter; this was all a side issue; now for a larger stage and more important operations. Blow trumpets and sound drums. Enter Lord Roberts and the main army.