The carefully prepared attack of Lord Roberts on the Boer position at Osfontein was delivered on Wednesday, March 7th, with the result that the enemy fled without attempting to defend his extremely strong position. To understand the gravity of the attack you must have been there during the last few days of preparation, when hills and ridges, subsequently abandoned in a moment, were being strengthened and armed with trenches and guns. On Sunday and Monday, the 4th and 5th of March, I rode round the whole position, and, like everyone else, was led to expect a very severe struggle. The position was roughly this. The great plain through which the river winds is broken five miles east of Osfontein by a long range of kopjes extending about fourteen miles north and south. All these kopjes were until the day of our attack occupied by a force of 7,000 Boers, but to the west of them were a few lower hills and ridges which we held. We did not know exactly how far to the east the Boer kopjes extended; that is to say, we did not know how broad might be the line of their defences; all we knew was that there were other kopjes to the eastward, and that the enemy probably held them. Our force, 30,000 strong, was disposed over a square of perhaps eight miles; yet if you had ridden all day in circles round the farm of Osfontein, which was Lord Roberts's headquarters, you might have wondered whether there were even 5,000 men, so scattered were our camps. The whole air of the place was that of almost pastoral quietness, and the only sound to be heard was the lowing of oxen.
Out in the advanced pickets the silence was deeper, but it was not pastoral. I rode out on the Monday to a little kopje, our most advanced post—a place within rifle range of the opposite Boer position, about 2,000 yards away. Over the plain, here green and sweet with the smell of tiny flowers newly burst out by the heavy rains, I rode out from under the shelter of a big kopje held by Kitchener's Horse. Between it and the little hill held by the picket the ground was exposed, but a man and a horse make a poor target at extreme range, and the danger was small.
We cantered along in the midst of the great harmonious silence of populous fields; the locusts waltzed in the sun, the little mere-cats stood and watched us for a moment and then scampered into their holes; the ants were toiling busily beneath a thousand heaps. The plain stretched to the horizon, with the stone-covered kopjes standing out like larger ant-heaps.
Something sang in the sunny air above my head, and I flicked with my whip to drive the locust away. Immediately afterwards I heard the sharp double report of a Mauser, like a postman's knock, and after that again the shrill moan, infinitely melancholy, of a flying bullet; and away to my left, about two hundred yards, the sand rose in a fountain. It was my first experience under fire, and I confess that for ten seconds I gave myself up. During those ten seconds I was altogether absorbed in watching a mere-cat trying to roll something into his house; then I began to see that I was not in any particular danger at so extreme a range, and I lost my interest in the mere-cat. But for all that my pony had to do his best over the space that separated us from the picket. There were a few more shots, and always the shrill moan, but in two minutes we were behind the shelter of the little hill.
I climbed up its steep side and found the handful of men, with an officer, lying among the stones on the windy height. There is no comfort in picket work. This officer and his men had to lie for twenty-four hours at a time without shelter from sun or rain, and with nothing to eat but bully beef and hard-tack biscuits. Always their glasses were sweeping the enemy's position, as the officer on a ship's bridge examines the horizon; every little movement of men or cattle was carefully noted.
Presently I had an illustration of the spirit in which lives are taken in war, a demonstration of what had been happening to myself a few minutes before. Out of the shoulder of a hill three Boers came on ponies, and began to walk leisurely across to the next kopje. Now immediately in front of our hill was another and smaller one, too inconsiderable to be occupied permanently, but useful for commanding the Boer front at rifle range. As we lay watching the three specks crossing the field, "Sergeant," said the officer, "take a few men down to that kopje, and see if you can't get a shot at the fellows." And off went the sergeant and a dozen men, as pleased as Punch.
Some time elapsed before they reached the hillock, and still the three Boers moved slowly and unsuspectingly across our view. After an anxious pause the rifles cracked out, one after another, like a rip-rap, and at the same time the Boers seemed to fly instead of to crawl. I then saw through my glasses that one of the men pitched backwards from his horse, which still fled, riderless now, beside the others, who were soon out of range. The men beside me cheered, but ten minutes ago I had been in a position exactly similar to that of the Boers; we are all egoists in such a case; it was myself that I saw out in the plain, my own pony rushing away scared; and I did not join in the acclamations. But all is changed in war-time; men are no more than game; the excitement is the old savage one—the lust of blood and the chase.
Late on the Tuesday night we heard that the attack was to be made early on the morrow. So we rose at three and rode out in the starlight through the busy camp, where the flashlights were talking and the fires blazing. I rode round to the south about eight miles, and presently the whole Boer position stood out black before the fires of dawn, and when the sun came up it showed one division of our troops—the Sixth—creeping round to the south where the enemy's position terminated in seven small kopjes. It was beautiful to see the division advance down the slope with the screen of mounted infantry opening out in front like a fan, with another and more slender screen, like another fan, in front of them again.
The sun was well up, but I had not yet heard a gun go off. Presently there was a report, and the sand rose in a column before the kopjes. This was a 4.7 naval gun finding its range with common shell. Again the invisible gun behind me boomed, again the weird, prolonged whirtling overhead; the long wait—perhaps for fifteen seconds; then a cloud of hideous vapour right on the kopje; then the report of the exploding shell. This happened perhaps half a dozen times; the well-aimed shells dropped now behind, now on the hills; there was no reply; and in half an hour the mounted infantry were riding over the kopjes. The enemy had simply broken and fled towards their central position.
From the north side, where the Ninth and Seventh Divisions were, one could hear the same sounds, but no rifle fire. After our guns had cleared the seven kopjes a kind of Sabbath stillness fell upon the land.
Lying in the grass, listening to the droning flies, I tried to tell myself that I was watching a momentous battle; that matters of life and death were on hand: but the wind laughed through the grasses at the very notion, and the timid steinbuck leaped up quite close to me, as if to say, "Who's afraid?"
Behind me a brigade was winding to the south with a movement almost lyrical; but no man seemed to be doing anything that could be called fighting. I decided that nothing more was to be seen on the south, and started to cross northward between the positions. My path was in what ought to have been the hottest zone of fire; but the hares leapt in the sun and the grasshoppers hummed with delight. While crossing northward I met the advance scouts of a regiment of mounted infantry advancing where, according to all ordinary laws, no mounted infantry could or ought to have been—advancing directly on the central Boer position.
"Come along," said the Colonel; "I believe the whole position is empty; we're going to scale those ridges."
Now these very ridges were the ones to which I had seen the Boers retreat, about a thousand of them, half an hour ago, and I told the Colonel so. "But they must have gone," he said, "or else they would be firing at us now."
It was perfectly true. The whole company was halted, while we chatted, within easy fire of the enemy's position; a few pom-poms would have made a shocking mess amongst the men and horses. But the hills were clothed with silence as with a garment.
"Anyhow, I'm going to see," said the Colonel. "Come along."
So we cantered on up to the foot of the hill, up the slope, over the hill, and not a shot was fired at us. The excitement was tremendous; we were riding slap into what looked like a hornets' nest. There were kopjes flanking us now on both sides; I wished that I hadn't come. I expected every moment to hear the rattle of Mausers. Someone's horse kicked a tin can, and we ducked our heads like one man. But we rode up to and into and through and over the central position of the enemy that he had been strengthening for days; and he never fired a shot to prevent us. It was glorious luck, thus to be in the very front of an advancing force, to be on the very horns of the advance, and to be absolutely out of danger, for what little opposition there was was encountered later by the main body.
When I thought that I had advanced far enough into what ought to have been the jaws of death, I drew on one side and let the brigade go past, and then I saw what little firing there was. Behind the mounted infantry came the field-guns, galloping alone over the smooth ground; and presently we heard the report of a gun from the other side of the next eastward ridge over which the enemy had retired. It is very uncomfortable waiting for a shell to arrive. One has only the sound to guide one as to where it has come from, and one has no notion at all as to where it is going to strike. This one burst right amongst the galloping artillery, which at once opened out on both sides of a smoking patch. Not a man or horse was down. And here the Boers lost their big chance of the day. All the brigade had to advance through this one narrow pass between the kopjes; the Boers had got the range of it absolutely; if they had fired a dozen shells in quick succession they would have done a dismal amount of mischief. But they only fired two other shells, and, marvellously, no one was hit. The reason I believe to have been that the dust of their own retreat, which hung like a haze over the ridge, hid our advancing troops from the Boers, and they did not know whether or not anyone was under their fire.
In the meantime the Ninth Brigade had been doing just the same kind of thing on the north river bank; and when the attack (such as it was—a gentle shelling) was being pressed there, General French came up from the south-east and drove the enemy northward across the river. If French had been a little earlier we should have cut off the Boers at the river, for that was their only line of retreat. As it was, he came in time to chase them; and when we heard of him again he was in full cry on the road to Bloemfontein.
It was a strange engagement; an almost bloodless battle; a great spectacle like an Aldershot Field Day; a demonstration of forces far stronger than the mere force of arms—confidence on the one hand, and on the other demoralisation and a broken spirit.