CAMP, NEAR FOURIESBERG, July 26, 1900.
We have a whole day of peace and rest before us—very welcome after the hard fighting we have been doing lately. This lull is to allow Bruce-Hamilton and Macdonald to stop the exits at the eastern end of the valley. We don't want to push the enemy east till we are sure the passes in that direction have been secured. Some of us are annoyed at the delay. We were in touch with the enemy this morning, our scouts and advance guard exchanging shots with their rearguard. We could see them prancing about on the bare hills east of Fouriesberg, and making off in a leisurely way up the eastern valley, and most of us were quite expecting that we should give chase immediately.
Hunter rode forward to have a look. He watched the tiny horsemen hovering on the hills or cantering away; then back he came with a quiet smile on his face, and instead of ordering the advance, as the impetuous ones expected, he led his column back over the way we had come for several miles, and then camped.
So here we are, sitting or lying about, sleeping, smoking, or reading. Our camp is in a small plain, five or six miles from Fouriesberg, surrounded by ranges of great hills. Those south and east, their gaunt peaks rising, streaked with white, above the lower and nearer ones, are in Basutoland. They play an important part in our programme, for it is against that huge barrier that we are pressing the Boers. There are some rounded, turf-clad hills, but most are rocky. Sharp points and stony ridges rise up with jagged and clear-cut outlines into the sky, with gorges and valleys retreating in between, full of deep blue shade, and often horizontal bands of strata, showing like regularly built courses of white masonry along the flanks of the mountains. It is very fine, though gaunt, bare, and untenanted. We have had nothing but level veldt to march on for weeks past, and the change to the eye is a pleasant one. Nevertheless, it is a bad country for our business. To us mountain ranges are not fine scenery, but strong positions; and rocks and crags are not grand and picturesque, but merely good cover. We always serve out extra-ammunition when we come to a pretty bit of scenery.
The present position is this: We have got the Boers, a big lot of them, at any rate, into a very broken and mountainous country, a country which, though it suits their tactics and is strong for defence, is nevertheless very difficult to get out of. The way south is barred by the Basutoland border. They dare not cross that or they would have the hordes of Basutos, who are already buzzing and humming like a half-roused hive, on to them. The other passes Hunter occupies in this way: Rundle comes up from the south-west to Fouriesberg through Commando Nek. Paget and Clements march south towards the same point through Slabbert's Nek. A little farther east Hunter himself forces Retiefs Nek, while farther east still Bruce-Hamilton, helped by Macdonald, is to hold Naawpoort Nek and block the Golden Gate road. The western columns, i.e. Rundle's, Clement's, Paget's, and Hunter's, are to force a simultaneous entrance into the Fouriesberg valley, and having got the enemy's force jammed against the Basuto border, to force it to turn eastward up the rugged Caledon valley, the only two exits to which are, we hope, by this time held by Bruce-Hamilton and Macdonald. This we have now done. Now it only remains to see whether these eastern exits have been successfully occupied by our columns or not.
Plan to illustrate Prinsloo's surrender
From the moment of leaving Bethlehem, at which place we remained nearly a fortnight while the General placed his columns, we entered among the hills and fighting was continuous. Our passage to force was Relief's Nek, and, as we had expected, the Boers made a determined stand there. The ground lay in a naturally defensive position; a narrow plain among steep, almost precipitous, ranges, and in the plain, arresting further progress, an abruptly sunken valley, scooped out to a depth of a couple of hundred feet; as though, what must perhaps have happened, some sudden collapse down below had allowed the ground here to fall in. The sides are in most places precipitous, but to the north they shelve up by degrees in terraces of sloping rock which a man can easily clamber up. The first terrace is only a few feet deep, and accordingly a number of men can form here along the brink and fire across the plain, being totally concealed from the advancing troops. Moreover, the edge of this curious and sudden valley is indented and pierced with a number of little crevices and fissures in which riflemen can snugly ensconce themselves with little risk of being seen by attackers in front. This was the main Boer position. You see it departed from the general rule, and instead of occupying a hill, occupied a hollow. They are past-masters in the art of choosing ground. The adjacent heights were also held.
On the morning of the 23rd we struck our camp a few miles north of the Nek, and advanced to find out whether the enemy were in position here or not. We started before daylight. The night had been intensely cold and very wet. On the high mountains snow had fallen. The sky was heavily clouded, and about sunrise-time dense masses of mist rose and clung about the hills, sometimes closing in the view at fifty yards and then drifting off and leaving it clear again. Our scouts advanced steadily, reconnoitring hill after hill and ridge after ridge, but still there was no sound of firing, and we began to think that the enemy had abandoned the place altogether. This preliminary scouting work, poking about in the hills with a handful of men to find the enemy, always reminds me of tufting for deer in the Exmoor woods before the pack is laid on.
Then there came a few shots from our extreme right, from the hills on the right of the valley's nose, sounding very muffled and dull in the mist, and we, out on the left, advanced with the more caution. It was my chance to come upon the enemy first on this side, and as it will give you a fair notion of the usual risks of scouting, I will tell you how it happened!
I was out with my tufters on the left front, and we were drawing with all possible care the hills on that side. In front of us was a tall peak, and I sent a few men to work round it on the left while I went round the right. This hill really overlooked the Boer position. My left flankers got round and rejoined me in front. Either they must have been concealed from the Boers by the mist or have been mistaken for a party of Boers themselves, for they had passed within a few hundred yards of the edge where the enemy lay and were not fired at.
Damant, our captain, coolest and bravest of officers, now joined me, and with two or three men we pushed cautiously on towards some loose rocks, which, from the top of the rise, seemed to command a view of the valley beneath. We had advanced to within eighty yards of the rocks, in open order, when we thought we heard voices talking, and immediately afterwards some one said loudly in Dutch, "Who rides there?" And then another voice more to the right exclaimed, "Here they are!" At the same instant one caught a motion as of heads and shoulders cuddling down and adjusting themselves in a disagreeable way. There they were and no mistake, all tucked in among the rocks like wood-lice.
Our position then was a curious one, for we had actually walked quite in the open up to within speaking distance of the main Boer position, a position that was to defy our army for a day and a half.
The ground sloped down in a slight hollow. It was thickly sprinkled with snow and dotted here and there with little green spots where the grass tufts showed through. A wire fence crossed the hollow lower down. Luckily we heard their voices before they started shooting, and instantly we turned and rode for it, the Mausers all opening immediately and the bullets cracking and whistling round our ears. As bad luck would have it, my pony, which, like most of them, knows and dreads the sound of rifles fired at him (though he will stand close to a battery or among men firing without minding it in the least), became so frantic at the noise of the bullets that I was quite unable to steer him. With head wrenched round he bored away straight down the hill towards the wire. As we got to it I managed to lift him half round and we struck it sideways. The shock flung me forward on to his neck, which I clasped with my left arm and just saved myself falling. For an instant or two he struggled in the wire, a mark for every rifle, and then got clear. In his efforts he had got half through his girths and the saddle was back on his rump. A pretty spectacle we must have looked, I sitting back on his tail, my hat in my hand, both stirrups dangling, and the bullets whistling round both of us like hailstones. However, I lugged him out at last, and we went up the side of the fence broadside on to the shooters, as hard as ever we could lay legs to the ground. It is a difficult thing to bring off a crossing shot at that pace, and in a few hundred yards we were over the slope and out of shot. I have seen lots of our men have much narrower escapes than this.
Well, after all that, we will get back to the action. Having located the enemy, the Guides all collected behind the conical hill, climbed up, and from the edges of it began shooting down into the Boer position. Here we were joined by the Black Watch, who carried on the same game. It was not, however, at all a paying game, and the fact that the Boers had not held this hill themselves, though so close to their position, is sufficient of itself to show their remarkable skill in choice of ground. For the hill, conical and regular in shape, was perfectly bare, and while they behind the sharp ledges and in the fissures of the rocks below were well concealed from the men above, these as they crept round the smooth hillside came into immediate view against the sky. The sleet of bullets shaving the hill edge was like the wind whistling past. The Black Watch lost a lot of men here. In the afternoon the Guides and some of Lovat's Scouts pushed forward on the left and gained a low ridge, where, lying down, we could command a part of the enemy's position, and send in a flanking fire. This manoeuvre was useful and suggested a plan for next day. That night I had to take out a picket on a hill on our south-east front and had but a sorry time of it; for it was a bitterly cold, rather wet night, and the position was not without its anxiety. I got little sleep.
Next morning, July 24, soon after light, the main body of the Guides and Lovat's Scouts (who are under Rimington at present) came out, and we rode down to the slopes on the left of the Boer valley again. Here we crept up as far as we could and began to put in our fire. It must have been very annoying for them, for a part of their position was quite exposed to us. We could see the short white cliff at the edge of the basin and the Boers moving about and running up and down, diving into fissures and getting under cover, for all the world like rabbits, as our fire searched the position. They replied, but though a lot of bullets were whistling about, no one was hit. There was a Maxim at the foot of the conical hill rattling away, and the Black Watch were again on the hill itself, blazing away at the rocks as vigorously as ever. Then at last between us and them up gallops a section of guns, and the little puff balls begin to burst along the rock edge in a way which we could see was very disconcerting for the Boers, who were rapidly finding the place too hot for them. A little after, some one sings out, "Here comes the attack!" and true enough we can make out the little khaki dots in long loose strings moving forward round the hill towards the valley head. It is the Seaforths. We on our side "carry on the motion," dash forward, lie down and shoot, and on again. We make for a kopje on our edge of the valley. The fire is too hot for the Boers to dare to show up much and there is not much opposition. But I can assure you that a charge of 1500 yards, even without the enemy's fire, is a serious thing enough. Puffing and panting, I struggle on. Long-legged Colonials go striding by land leave me gasping in the rear. When at last we reach the kopje and look down into the sunken valley, the Seaforths are pouring in their fire on the retreating Boers, our fellows are doing the same from the kopje top, but I myself am too pumped out to care for anything and can only lie on the ground and gasp.
I see in your last letter you want to know about the character of the Guides, and whether there has been any cases of treachery among them. I don't know what started these old yarns. They were invented about Magersfontein time, probably to account for that awful mishap, and got into the local press here and made a lot of fuss, but we have heard nothing since on that score. There is such a lot of treachery put here (owing to the intermingling of English and Dutch in their two territories) that almost anything in that line seems credible, and there are numbers of people about, loafers in bars and fifth-rate boarding-houses, to whom anything base seems perfectly natural, and who delight in starting and circulating such tales. At the same time there are also numbers of honest and loyal men, and it is from these, and exclusively from these, that the fighters are drawn. In South Africa, and among the South Africans, a war of this sort, between neighbours and cousins, is the sternest test of loyalty. Many have failed to stand it. But the loyalty of those who have not wavered, but have taken up arms for their country in a quarrel like this, is of a sort you can trust to the utmost extremity. There are no men in the field who feel so deep an animosity towards the Boers, and whom the Boers in their turn hate so much, as the fighting South African Colonials. As for the Guides, I can assure you that there has not been a single case of any one of our men having been accused of treachery, nor suspected of treachery. I have made careful inquiries, lest such a case might have occurred without my knowledge, and I am assured by our adjutant (C.H. Rankin, Captain 7th Hussars) that there has been no such case, and that the slander was without the slightest foundation whatever.
Shortly after Magersfontein the greater part of the Guides turned back to Colesberg, leaving fifteen of us with Methuen, the services of the whole corps not being required, as Methuen's force was now stationary. Before it left, Methuen paraded the corps and spoke in the warmest terms of the good work it had done. Nevertheless it was their turning back, or being sent back, as it was called, that gave a pretext to the slander that was then started. Later, when his attention was called to the story, Methuen wrote to the Cape Times a most emphatic letter vindicating the corps from the least suspicion, and indignantly denying that the least cause for any had existed. Lord Roberts himself, who came up soon afterwards, wrote a very handsome and decisive letter to the same paper, and since then I don't think we have heard anything about it. The whole story is so ridiculous, considering the way the Guides hate the Boers, and the danger of the services they do, that to any one who knows anything about the corps it is a tale rather to be laughed, at than seriously resented. I saw the other day a letter from Hunter to Rimington, in which the General speaks of the corps with a kind of weighty deliberation that is very satisfactory, mentioning emphatically its "trustworthiness," its "bravery," and its "exceptional and proved value in the field."
Our casualty list so far is about forty per cent., I believe; but this loss, though not light, does not in a Colonial corps give an adequate idea of the service done. All the Colonials, so far as I know (the Australians and South Africans certainly), have much the same qualities that make our enemies so formidable. They have individual intelligence and skill, a faculty for observation, and the habit of thinking for themselves. They are therefore able to take care of themselves in a way which our regular troops, mostly town-bred men, without independent training, cannot do.
The difference comes out chiefly in scouting, including all the flanking and advance guard business, extending for several miles to left and right, and in front and rear of an army column, by which that column feels its way through an enemy's country. The regulars usually carry out these tactics in long lines with wide intervals between the men. But nothing is so conspicuous as a long line of men riding at fifty yards' interval. They can be detected a dozen miles off, and plenty of opportunities will occur for a mobile, cunning enemy like the Boers to lie in ambush and get a shot at the outsider. Our regulars are better at this game than they used to be, but many lives have been lost at it. On the other hand, Colonials adopt more the tactics of a Scotch gillie in a deer forest, whose object is to see, but not to be seen. Sky-lines are avoided and cover taken every advantage of. From places where a good view is to be obtained the country is intently studied; not by a horseman poised in relief like the Achilles statue in Hyde Park, but by a man who has left his horse on the reverse slope and lies hidden among the rocks with his glass. Again, if a farm or suspicious-looking kopje has to be approached, this is partly encircled, and threatened or examined in flank or rear before being occupied; while if the place, a long range of hills for instance, has to be approached in front, a sudden left or right wheel at long range may often draw the enemy's fire. These are a few of the many expedients that sometimes suggest themselves to lessen risk. In all, the first necessity is personal intelligence in the men and the habit of taking notice and thinking for themselves, faculties which the independent, self-reliant life of the Colonials has greatly developed. Just the same holds good when it comes to shooting; choosing cover, keeping oneself hidden, creeping on from point to point without giving the enemy a fair shot, or detecting the probable bushes or rocks behind which an enemy may be lying, or any sign of his whereabouts. The Tommy as he advances is apt to expose himself, because he doesn't think. The Colonial will get to the same spot perhaps quite unperceived. This is why I say that our loss does not give an adequate idea of the work done by the corps. The defence of the conical hill here at Relief's Nek is a good example. Our men hold the hill for several hours before the regulars come up, and lose one man. As soon as the regulars arrive (though by this time the exposed places are known and the enemy located), they begin to lose men, and by the conclusion of the action have lost, I am told, over forty. I think, and have often spoken so highly of our soldiers' courage, that I don't hesitate to point out their weakness. They are lacking in personal intelligence. For all their pluck, they don't know how to look after themselves. There have been, as you will have heard, many cases in which detached parties of our cavalry, mounted infantry, and yeomanry have been cut off and captured. How often has this happened to the Colonials?