Near Johannesburg, May 31, 1900.
"May 1st, 1900.—The long-looked, long-waited for moment has come at last. We march from Bloemfontein on a glorious autumn morning, in fresh cool air and the sky cloudless. Forty miles off Thaba Nchu, that hill of ill omen, might be ten, so bold and clear it stands up above the lower ranges. The level plain between the island hills is streaked with gauzy mist.
"North of Bloemfontein we get into a pretty, uneven country with several level-topped kopjes set end to end like dominoes, and thickets of grey mimosas clustering in the hollows. The great column is moving forward on our left. Big ambulance waggons, with huge white covers nodding one behind the other, high above the press; the naval twelve-pounders, with ten-oxen teams and sailors swinging merrily alongside; infantry marching with the indescribable regular undulation of masses of drilled men, reminding one of the ripple of a centipede's legs; field artillery, horse artillery, transport waggons, more infantry, more guns—they stretch in a long, dark river right across the plain.
"Now a halt is called. The men drop on one knee where they stand, or hitch up their knapsacks to ease their tired shoulders. Then on again, guns jolting, men sweating, marching at ease, with helmets on wrong side first to shelter their eyes, and rifles with butt-ends over shoulders. They have a rest after a few hours, and fall out by the wayside, fling off the heavy accoutrements, light pipes, and fall a-yarning, stretched on the grass, or pull out scraps of old newspapers to read."
That was written the day we left Bloemfontein, just a month ago, and 250 miles away. We have come along well, have we not?
Brandfort is a little town on the railway some forty miles north of Bloemfontein, overlooked by a big rocky kopje on the north. Here we find our dear friends once more assembled to meet us after this long interval, and we have a little battle with them, of which I will spare you the description. An incident of some interest was the appearance of the "Irish Brigade" from the Natal side, who held the hill above the town. Rimington got leave from Hutton to turn them out, which he did so cleverly, and taking us at them at such a pace that we did the business without loss, except, indeed, in horses, of which several were hit. I don't know if the two or three prisoners we took (and that we had some thought of shooting out of hand) were a fair sample of the brigade, but fouler-mouthed scoundrels I think I never set eyes on.
Our plan of advance has been all along very simple and effective. Our centre keeps the railway, while our wings, composed largely of mounted troops, are spread wide on each side, and threaten by an enclosing movement to envelop the enemy if he attempts to make a stand. These tactics have been perfectly successful, and the Boers have been forced again and again to abandon strong positions from a fear of being surrounded. A bear's hug gives the notion of the strategy. No sooner do our great arms come round than away slip the Boers while there is still time. The Vet River was probably their strongest position, and here they did make some attempt at a stand. This is how things looked that morning:—
"May 5th, 12.30.—We have just got to the big slopes overlooking Vet River. The enemy is in a strong position along the river-bed, which is thickly wooded, and in the hills beyond. Our left has touched them, and as I write this our pompon on that side has a couple of goes. Kaffirs tell us that the valley is full of Boers. Boers everywhere; in the river-bed, in the sluits on the far side, in the hills; and that they have plenty of guns. It is something like the Modder River position, but stronger, inasmuch as there are ranges of hills on the far side of and overlooking the river; so that they have two lines of defence, the second commanding the first. An excellent arrangement. Walking forward to the brow, a few of us had the whole panorama at our feet. We had no idea it was so strong, and you might notice a thoughtful look on more than one face as we walked back to our men behind the hill.
"We have now got the guns to a nearer rise, sloping to the river, and are standing in extended order waiting for the next move. This will take the form of artillery practice, and it is prophesied that we shall get it pretty hot, as they will certainly have better guns than our twelve-pounders. The sun is melting. Guns unlimber (1.15). Teams jingle back, and the guns open fire from edge of slope, each one as it delivers its shot starting back as if with surprise at its own performance.
"3 P.M.—Our guns are blazing away merrily now. The Boers, if they have guns, are very reticent. They have sent us a few shells, which have done no harm, mostly falling short. Hamilton is said to be at or near Winburg. If this is so, he will be threatening the retreat of the Boers here soon. Meantime a huge column, miles long, is crawling in the distance across the flattish grass sweeps far to the east. This is the main column, under Lord Roberts."
We thought, you see, that we were in for quite a big fight. We thought the same often later. At this river or this range they will make their stand. But always, as here at Vet River, we advanced on such a wide front that the enemy had to retire betimes to avoid being outflanked, and so the "stand" was never made. We joined Ian Hamilton at Kronstad, and while we were out with him on the east side the enemy once or twice attacked our flank or rearguard in the most determined manner. However, we held on our way very composedly, our waggons rumbling along sleepily indifferent, while the Boers with all their might would be hanging on to our tail. Usually, after we had towed them for a day or two, they would let go, and then another lot would come along and lay hold. The first party would then retire to its own village and district, feeling, no doubt, that it had barked us off the premises in great style, and lay in wait for the next army of ten or twenty thousand men that should happen to pass that way.
It is the convoy that always hampers our movements so, that dictates the formation of an advance and makes us almost a passive target to attack. Our convoy with Ian Hamilton must have been seven or eight miles long, and was often delayed for hours at fords and creeks, where scenes of wild confusion took place and you were deafened with yelling Kaffirs and cracking whips. This convoy has of course to be guarded throughout, which means a very attenuated and consequently weakened force, an attack on one part of which might be carried on without the knowledge of the rest of the column, or the possibility of its giving much help anyway. When we left Lindley we had a sharp rearguard action, and the Boers pushed their attack very vigorously. They did the same on the right flank, and the advance guard also had some fighting. Neither of these parties knew that the others were engaged at all, and probably the bulk of the main column were quite ignorant that a shot had been fired anywhere.
Lindley is one of those peculiar, bare, little Dutch towns, the presence of which on the lonely hillside always seems so inexplicable. It is even more than usually hideous. There is the inevitable big church, the only large building in the place, occupying a central position, and looking very frigid and uninviting, like the doctrine it inculcates; a few large general stores, where you can buy anything from a plough to a pennyworth of sweets, and some single-storey, tin-roofed houses or cottages flung down in a loose group. But around it there are none of the usual signs of a town neighbourhood. No visible roads lead to it; no fertile and cultivated land surrounds it; no trees or parks or pleasure grounds are near it. The houses might have been pitched down yesterday for all the notice the veldt takes of them. Spread out over the hills and valleys for some hundreds of miles each side this barren treeless veldt, which, after all, is the main fact of South African life, seems to carry these little unexpected towns on its breast with the same ease and unconsciousness that the sea carries its fleets of ships; surrounding and lapping at their very hulls; not changed itself nor influenced by their presence.
During our stay of a day or two at Lindley it became increasingly evident that the people of that neighbourhood resented our presence there. Our pickets were constantly engaged. There are some rather abrupt hills on the east side of the town, among the nearer ones of which our look-outs were stationed while the Boers prowled among the others. Here the Mausers and Lee-Metfords talked incessantly, and the conversation was carried on in a desultory way down in the river valley and among the rolling hills on the southern side. It was plain that the enemy was quite prepared to "put up a show" for us, and no one was surprised, when the morning of our departure came, to see the strong force of Mounted Infantry told off for rearguard, or note the presence of the General himself in that part of the field.
There are long slanting hills that rise above the village on its south side, the crests of which were occupied by our pickets. As the pickets were withdrawn, the Boers rapidly followed them up, occupied the crest in turn, and began to put in a heavy fire and press hard on our retreating men.
From a square and flat-topped kopje just north of the town we had the whole scene of the withdrawal down the opposite slopes before our eyes. Our Mounted Infantry were hotly engaged but perfectly steady. They lay in the grass in open order, firing, their groups of horses clustered lower down the hill; then retired by troops and set to work again. This giving ground steadily and by degrees is a test of coolness and steadiness, and it was easy to see that our men were under perfect control. At last they came under the protection of our hill. We had got our battery of guns up it, and it was a moment of great satisfaction to all concerned, except possibly the Boers, when the first angry roar rose above the splutter of rifles, and the shell pitched among some of the foremost of the enemy's sharpshooters. In a duel of this sort the interference of artillery is usually regarded as decisive. Guns, as people say, have "a moral effect" that is sometimes out of proportion to the actual damage they inflict. Anyway, skirmishers seldom advance under gun-fire, and the Boers on this occasion were decisively checked by our battery. Even when the guns left, we were able from the vantage-ground of the hill to keep them at arm's length until the time came to catch up the column.
On the right flank they were more successful, pressing home a heavy attack on the Mounted Infantry on that side. A squadron got cut off and rushed by the enemy, who rode in to it shooting at pistol-shot distance, and shouting "Hands up!" We lost pretty heavily in casualties, besides about fifty prisoners. These small mishaps are of no great importance in themselves, but they encourage the enemy no doubt to go on fighting. The story as it goes round the farms will lose nothing in the telling. Probably in a very short time it will amount to the rout of Hamilton's column, and the captured troopers will lend a colour to the yarn. Burghers who have taken the oath of allegiance will be readier than ever to break it. However, time no doubt will balance the account all right in the long-run.
From Lindley, fighting a little every day, we marched north to Heilbron, where Broadwood got hold of the Boer convoy by the tail, and succeeded in capturing a dozen waggons. From there we cut into the railway, and crossed it at Vredefort, passing through the main body of the advance in doing so. Anything like the sight of these vast columns all pushing in one direction you never saw. In this country one can often see thirty or forty miles, and in that space on the parched, light-coloured ground you may see from some point of vantage five or six separate streams of advance slowly rolling northward, their thin black lines of convoy overhung by a heavy pall of dust. As we closed in and became involved for a moment in the whole mass of the general advance, though accustomed to think no small beer of ourselves as an army, for we number 11,000 men, we realised that we were quite a small fraction of the British force. Endless battalions of infantry, very dusty and grimy, but going light and strong (you soon get into the habit of looking attentively at infantry to see how they march); guns, bearer-companies, Colonial Horse, generals and their staffs, go plodding and jingling by in a procession that seems to be going on for ever. And beside and through them the long convoys of the different units, in heavy masses, come groaning and creaking along, the oxen sweating, the dust whirling, the naked Kaffirs yelling, and the long whips going like pistol-shots. The whole thing suggests more a national migration than the march of an army. And ever on the horizon hang new clouds of dust, and on distant slopes the scattered advance guards of new columns dribble into view. I fancy the Huns or the Goths, in one of their vast tribal invasions, may have moved like this. Or you might liken us to the dusty pilgrims on some great caravan route with Pretoria for our Mecca.
We crossed the Vaal at Lindiquies Drift, being now on the west flank, and met the Boers the day before yesterday two miles from here on the West Rand. The fight was a sharp one. They were in a strong position on some ridges, not steep, but with good cover among stones and rocks. We came at them from the west, having made a circuit. Our advance was hidden by the rolling of the ground, but the enemy guessed it, and sent a few shells at a venture, which came screaming along and buried themselves in the ground without doing much damage that I could see beyond knocking a Cape cart to pieces. By 2 P.M. we had crawled up the valley side and got several batteries of artillery where they could shell the Boer position. The two great "cow-guns," so called from the long teams of oxen that drag them, were hauled up the slope. The enemy got an inkling of our intention now, and his shells began to fall more adjacent. Then our fire began. It was difficult to see clearly. The dry grass of the veldt, which is always catching fire, was burning between us and the Boers; long lines of low smouldering fire, eating their way slowly along, and sending volumes of smoke drifting downward, obscuring the view. Half the ground was all black and charred where the fire had been; the rest white, dry grass. The Boer position was only about two miles from our ridge; a long shallow hollow of bare ground, without bush or rock, or any sort of cover on it, except a few anthills, separating us from them. Our field-batteries opened, and then the great five-inch cow-guns roared out. We ourselves were close to these with Hamilton (we are acting as his bodyguard), and with the other officers I crept up to the ridge and lay among the stones watching the whole show. After a shot or two all our guns got the range, a mere stone's throw for the great five-inchers. Their shrapnel burst along the rise, and we could see the hail of bullets after each explosion dusting the ground along the top where the Boers lay. The enemy answered very intermittently, mostly from their Long Tom far back, which our big guns kept feeling for. I never heard anything like the report of these big guns of ours and the shriek of the shells as they went on their way.
After the cannonade had been kept up for a bit, the infantry began their advance. This was, I think, the finest performance I have seen in the whole campaign. The Gordons did it; the Dargai battalion. They came up, line by line, behind our ridge and lay down along with us. Then, at the word "Advance," the front line got up and walked quietly down the slope, and away towards the opposite hill, walking in very open order, with gaps of about fifteen yards between the men. A moment or two would pass. Then when the front line had gone about fifty yards, the "Advance" would again be repeated, and another line of kilted men would lift themselves leisurely up and walk off. So on, line behind line, they went on their way, while we watched them, small dark figures clearly seen on the white grass, through our glasses with a painful interest. Before they had reached half way across, the vicious, dull report, a sort of double "crick-crack," of the Mausers began. Our guns were raining shrapnel along the enemy's position, shooting steady and fast to cover the Gordons' advance; but the Boers, especially when it comes to endurance, are dogged fellows. They see our infantry coming, and nothing will move them till they have had their shot. Soon we can see the little puffs of dust round the men, that mark where the bullets are striking. All the further side, up the long gradual slope to the Boer rocks, has been burnt black and bare, and the bullets, cutting through the cinders, throw up spots of dust, that show white against the black. Men here and there stagger and fall. It is hard to see whether they fall from being hit, or whether it is to shoot themselves. The fire gets faster and faster, our guns thunder, and through the drifting smoke of the veldt fires we can still see the Gordons moving onward. Then among the looking-out group, crouched near the guns, goes a little gasp and mutter of excitement. We catch on the black background, glistening in the sun, the quick twinkle of a number of little steel points. They are fixing bayonets! Now the little figures move quicker. They make for the left side of the ridge. A minute more, and along the sky-line we see them appear, a few at first, then more and more. They swing to the right, where the enemy's main position lies, and disappear. There is a sharp, rapid interchange of shots, and then the fire gradually lessens and dies away, and the position is captured. They have lost a hundred men in ten minutes, but they've done the trick.
Later on, Hamilton, one of the most beloved of our Generals, gallops forward, and on the hill they have won, as evening is closing, says a few words to the Gordons. "Men of the Gordons, officers of the Gordons, I want to tell you how proud I am of you; of my father's old regiment, and of the regiment I was born in. You have done splendidly. To-morrow all Scotland will be ringing with the news." This charge will, no doubt, take rank as one of the most brilliant things of the war.
Next morning at dawn, escorting the cow-guns, I came to where the Boers had held out so long among the scattered rocks. The Gordons were burying some of the Boer dead. There were several quite youngsters among them. One was a boy of not more than fourteen, I should think, like an English schoolboy. One of the Gordons there told me he saw him, during the advance, kneeling behind a stone and firing. He was shot through the forehead. There is something pathetic and infinitely disagreeable in finding these mere children opposed to one.These infantry advances are the things that specially show up the courage of our troops. Each man, walking deliberately and by himself, is being individually shot at for the space of ten minutes or more, the bullets whistling past him or striking the ground near him. To walk steadily on through a fire of this sort, which gets momentarily hotter and better aimed as he diminishes the distance between himself and the enemy, in expectation every instant of knowing "what it feels like," is the highest test of courage that a soldier in these days can give. Nothing the mounted troops are, as a rule, called upon to perform comes near it. Knowing exactly from experience what lay in front of them, these Gordons were as cool as cucumbers. As they lay among the stones with us before beginning the advance, I spoke to several, answering their questions and pointing them out the lie of the ground and the Boer position. You could not have detected the least trace of anxiety or concern in any of them. The front rank, when the order to advance was given, stepped down with a swing of the kilt and a swagger that only a Highland regiment has. "Steady on the left;" they took their dressing as they reached the flat. Some one sang out, "When under fire wear a cheerful face;" and the men laughingly passed the word along, "When under fire wear a cheerful face."