Bloemfontein, April 9, 1900.
All the way from Modder River down the Kimberley line and up the central one from Naauwpoort, the most dismal rumours reached me at all stations, growing more definite as I neared Bloemfontein. Sanna's Post and Reddersberg! You have heard all about them by now. Nearly 1000 casualties and seven guns taken.
You remember I told you in my last letter that a big body of Boers marched north across our bows. Pilcher was out on that side and drew back. The Boers got wind of him, and wheeled west in pursuit. Broadwood, not strong enough to hold Thaba Nchu, moved in on Bloemfontein, the Boers after him.
It is no fun describing things one has not seen. The ground I know. It is a flat plain the whole way, but down the middle of it is a deep sluit or watercourse, some thirty feet deep, with steep, sudden banks, and through this the road dips down and passes. Broadwood halted on the east side of it, thus leaving it between himself and home. In doing this he gave a chance to an enemy who never throws a chance away. The Boer leader was Christian De Wet.
The first thing in the morning the enemy began shelling our camp. The convoy was sent on, not a scout with it. Meantime, during the night several hundred Boer marksmen had been sent round into the sluit, and were now lying right across poor Broadwood's retreat. The Boers, acting with their devilish coolness as usual, took possession of the waggons without giving the alarm. Our two batteries and Roberts' Horse came along, and were allowed to get to point-blank distance, and then the volley came; magazine rifles at pistol-shot range. For the moment the result, as at Magersfontein, was chaos.
Hornby dealt the first counter-blow. With the five manageable guns he galloped back a bit and brought them into action at 1000 yards. He showed first that it was going to be a fight and not a stampede. "Steady and hit back," said Q Battery. You should hear the men talk of that battery. It lost almost every man, killed or wounded, but it was the chief means in restoring some sort of order to the retreat. But the disaster was past retrieving. In killed, wounded, and prisoners we lost a third of our force, the whole convoy, and seven guns out of twelve. I can see the question you are dying to ask. Why on earth did Broadwood camp the wrong side of that ditch? That is exactly the sort of question that a "blooming civilian" would ask. And then came Reddersberg and the loss of another five hundred. Christian De Wet again! And all this within hearing, as you may say, of the main British army.
These disasters come most inopportunely for us. Many of the Orange Free State Burghers, when their capital was taken, seem to have thought it was all up and some of them took the oath. But this right and left of De Wet's has changed that impression. It comes just in time to fan into a fresh blaze embers that seemed dying out. We hear that all the farmers who had taken the oath are under arms again. They had not much choice, for the fighting Boers simply came along and took them.
My visit to old Modder River was very interesting. It was quite deserted; only a few odds and ends of militia, where, when I remember it last, there were stately great squares of ordered tents and long lines of guns and limbers and picketed horses, and the whole place crawled with khaki, and one felt around one all the bustle and energy of a huge camp. I felt quite melancholy, as when one revisits some scene of childhood changed beyond recall. Trains were running regularly up to Kimberley and ordinary citizens were travelling up and down. It seemed the war was forgotten. To me, who had been living in the head and front of a big army for seven months, all these old signs of peace and a quiet life seemed strange enough. There were some children going up with their papas and mamas. As we came one after another to the lines of hills at Belmont and Graspan they pointed and crowded to the windows, and papa began to explain that the great fights had been here, and to tell all about them, quite wrong.
The hills look peaceful enough now. The children press their noses and little india-rubber fingers against the glass, and chatter and laugh and bob up and down—
"Little they think of those strong limbs
That moulder deep below."
And I sit back in my corner ashamed of my dirty old tunic and the holes in it, and peer between two small flaxen heads at hills I last saw alive with bursting shell.
At Modder village I hired a horse and rode across the plain to Magersfontein. I must often have described the place to you—the great flat and the beak of hill, like a battleship's ram, thrust southward into it. Do you know, I felt quite awestruck as I approached it. It seemed quite impossible that I, alone on my pony, could be going to ride up to and take single-handed that redoubtable hill, which had flung back the Highlanders, and remained impregnable to all our shelling. I thought some Boer, or ghost of a Boer, would pop up with his Mauser to defend the familiar position once more. However, none did. I picked my way through the trench, littered with scraps of clothing and sacks and blankets, with tins and cooking things, and broken bottles and all sorts of rags and debris littered about. The descriptions of the place sent home after the battle are necessarily very inaccurate. Those I have seen all introduce several lines of trenches and an elaborate system of barbed wire entanglements. There is only one trench, however, and no barbed wire, except one fence along a road. There are, however, a great number of plain wire strands, about ten yards long perhaps, made fast between bushes and trees, and left dangling, say, a foot from the ground. They were not laid in line, but dotted about in every direction, and, in anything like a dim light, would infallibly trip an advancing enemy up in all directions. The single trench is about five feet deep, the back of it undercut so as to allow the defenders to sleep in good shelter, and the number of old blankets and shawls lying here showed it had been used for this. It followed closely the contour of the hill, about twenty yards from its base. Eastward it was continued across the flat to the river.
The "disappearing guns," in the same way, were not disappearing at all. They simply had strong redoubts of sandbags built round them, the opening in front being partly concealed by bushes. On each side of the gun, inside the redoubt, was a pit, with a little side passage or tunnel, where two or three gunners could lie in perfect security, and yet be ready at an instant's notice to serve their gun. As for the kopjes themselves, every rock and stone there was split with shell and starred with bullet marks. The reverse side of the slopes were steepened with stone walls here and there, as a protection against shrapnel, and sangars and lookout places were built at points of vantage. Altogether, though not so elaborate as one had been led to believe, the defences struck one as extremely practical and business-like.
I stayed there for two interesting hours. You can guess with what feelings I looked down on the plain from Long Tom's redoubt, poor old Joey's rival, and traced the long line of the river, with its fringe of willows, and marked, up and down, a score of places where we had skirmished or hidden, distinguishing the positions of our guns and pickets, and all the movements and manoeuvres of our army. For the first time one realised what a bird's-eye view the Boers had of it all, and how our whole position and camp lay unrolled like a map almost at their very feet.
I must add a word to tell you that the boxes have arrived! I only wish you could have been here to see the contents distributed. First (this was about a week ago) came a huge box full of good things to eat, raisins, figs, a great many tins of cocoa and milk, chocolate, and other things. We spread them all out on sheets in the verandah of the farm in little heaps, and very pretty and tempting they looked, the white sheets down the shady verandah, and little piles of sweetmeats and things dotted all over them. Each man drew a ticket and chose his eatable, some putting it carefully away, others bolting it immediately. One can get absolutely nothing in Bloemfontein, and the men were as keen as school children. It was an excellent idea sending such a lot of figs and raisins. They are soon gone, but they are so immensely appreciated while they last; they give the men the badly wanted holiday feeling. I almost think that, in the way of provisions, delicacies are more liked by men on service, and really do them more good than the more practically useful things.
Then, a day or two ago, came another great box full of clothing. Flannel shirts, socks, under-clothing, &c. There was, especially, in this box, a packet of little handkerchiefs with a card, and on it written: "Worked by Mrs. Hope and her little girls for the soldiers." The little present touched us all very much. I have kept the card with the intention of thanking "the little girls" if ever I get the chance.
We are only about a hundred strong now, and there were enough things to go round several times. If you had foreseen and planned the date of their arrival they could not have reached us at a more opportune moment. The men have scarcely anything to wear, for all our kit and clothes, everything we possess, was lost at the Sanna Post surprise party. I assure you they are grateful. I read them the names of the subscribers, and they all send their best thanks. Several came up to me and asked that their thanks might be sent to you for your trouble in getting the subscriptions, &c. No money that could have been expended in any charity could have been better spent than this. The men have done fearfully hard work, and were many of them literally in rags. It has been the greatest help. The Major has sent you a few words of thanks, but has asked me to write more particularly. You will let those know who have helped, will you not, how this Colonial corps of ours has appreciated your English present.
And now, farewell. They say we move forward in a week. I hope it may be true. They also say we shall finish the campaign in a couple of months. Fiddle-de-dee! is what I say. Tell H. to educate little S. as a scout among the Devonshire hedges, and give him a bit of practical training against the time he will be old enough to come out. There will be Boers to take him on.