In camp with the T. M. I.—a weird meal—stand to your horses — the battle of Pieters Hill — fine work of the naval guns — bringing in the wounded — a pitiful tale — a generous act — into Ladysmith — a pouring wet night.
March 2.—I have been four clays at the front. And what an experience ! Most of us have seen, and many taken part in, either manoeuvres or a week under canvas, " playing at soldiers " ; but few have had the opportunity of realising the true condition of camp life in time of war, and assuredly it is as different from the make-believe as the grasshopper is from the locust, or a pane of glass from the magnifying lens.
I had swallowed some cold coffee and sandwiches, which I had taken care to put by me in ease of accidents, when the train drew up at the little station of Chieveley, lying amid a honeycomb of white tents. I had joined the T. M. I. (Thorneyeroft's Mounted Infantry, by which abbreviated letters I shall in future allude to them), and was once more a soldier, a little atom in a giant army. I asked where the T. M. I. camp was. Fortunately the questioned one was the sergeant of that regiment's depot, and he directed me to where, after a walk of a mile on a delicious morning, I found Captain Chipman (the regimental paymaster) and Captain Knapp, with a small number of men, waggons, and horses. They very kindly gave me breakfast, and the latter, who was going to the main camp, took me with him after I had, by the greatest of luck, got my horse, which came into the station just before we left.
The bivouac of the T. M. I. was about ten miles off, on the slope of the now famous Mount Cingolo, and about six miles south-east of Colenso. The colonel gave me a hearty welcome, and I met Bertie Rose (Charlie Rose's son), whom I had previously known, and who, to my deep sorrow, is now no more. Thanks to the officers' kindness, I was soon at home, but was not long in discovering that I had brought too much kit for a soldier. My tent was like a marquee compared to the three or four lean-to's some of the officers had, and many were sleeping in the open air on their waterproof sheets and blankets. However, I have been allowed to keep it, and when the supply waggons are in camp, which is very rare, I shall be able to use it. The difficulty, of course, is in its transport. I am sharing it with Captain Boyd Wilson, who was originally in the Inniskilling Dragoons, and to whose company I have been attached.
I don't think I shall ever forget the weird sight presented by our first meal in camp at dinner-time. A large tarpaulin had been tied to two trees, and a post held it up in the centre. Numerous boxes formed the chairs and tables, and to the light of half-a-dozen candle-lanterns we set to work on as excellent a dinner as circumstances would permit. Whisky and soda had not then run out, but latterly it has been an unknown quantity! We had tinned soup, chicken and rice, and roast sucking-pig off an animal whose death I witnessed a few hours before. Mugs were passed round, as the demand for these exceeded the supply, and bowls and dishes were frequently washed to get through the courses. Bread has only been supplied once, but hard ration biscuits make very efficient substitutes for filling up the cracks.
Dinner over, we soon turned in, expecting Tuesday would be an easy day ; but officers and men slept booted and spurred, and sure enough it was necessary, as the camp was roused at 4.30 a.m. and parade ordered " in half an hour." " Ammunition horses to be saddled" was an order given, and while we rushed, lantern in hand, to get a cup of tea and a biscuit, the general impression was that we should only be called on to reconnoitre, and that our camping-ground would remain unchanged. " Stand to your horses ! Prepare to mount! Mount!" and away we went into the grey morning towards Schlangwane and Monte Cristo, which two hills formed part of our captures the day we took Cingolo. As we moved into the plain a big gun away on our left opened fire, then another and another, and at once a staff officer galloped up with instructions that the 2nd Cavalry Brigade was to occupy Monte Cristo and the plain below to protect the naval guns, which were posted there on our right flank. Then we knew there was to be a battle !
It soon leaked out that a pontoon was to be thrown across the Tugela river for General Barton's brigade to cross, and by the time we had reached the summit of Monte Cristo the artillery was hard at work. One gun became six guns, and for all I know six guns became sixty, so incessant was the roar. And from the splendid position we occupied we could see shrapnel bursting with unerring aim among the opposite kopjes, and the lyddite shells exploding with their green smoke as they dealt havoc in the enemies' trenches ; while the perpetual pitter-patter of the Colt and Maxim guns told me we were searching the hills and clearing the way for a great infantry advance. Suddenly, as I watched the grand panorama, I saw a shell burst close down to the river, then another and another, and I soon found that the enemy was enfilading the pontoon-bridge builders. But where was the gun? That was one of the extraordinary features of the battle. Search where we would, it was very rarely we could define their position ; and ours was just as invisible, except when in two or three cases black powder was being used in place of the smokeless cordite. Soon a distant boom told us that the great 6-inch gun, throwing a 100-lb. shell, was being fired from Chieveley, fully six miles in our rear ; and as the day wore on and the cannonade became more furious than ever, we saw creeping along the river bank, towards the right of our position, regiment after regiment of our splendid soldiers ready to develop the attack. A rattle of musketry on the left indicated that we were trying to divert the enemies' attention from our right, and then in extended order from the right and left and from the centre, followed by their supports and reserves, our infantry rushed the first positions, and were soon engaged in deadly earnest with the invisible Boers. Madly and desperately they fought, having hitherto concealed their positions, and risked the chance of death, like rats in their holes. But now or never they had to face us and retire or be cut off.
Position by position we carried, sometimes at the point of the bayonet, and ever and again I saw hastily summoned reinforcements galloping to the Boer trenches, only to fall back from our terrible artillery fire. The hills on the other side seemed to be aflame, and yet there was no diminution in the energy of our guns. Now I heard the distant cheer of our men as they captured Hart's Hill; and then in the distance, from the direction of Nelthorpe, I saw, with hair on end, a desperate effort to surround one of our positions. It was the anniversary of Majuba, and I held my breath as I heard the command from one of the naval officers : "Turn the guns on to those men—sight them at 5300 yards." Bang! Bang! Bang! The noise was deafening. But right into the scrub where the Boer horsemen were preparing to open fire the shells burst with splendid accuracy. Away they went galloping across the open plain, saddle after saddle emptied; and as the daylight disappeared, and the fire of the enemy's pom-pom grew less and less, we knew that the day was ours, and that our troops had done all that had been asked of them in the battle which will probably earn the name of Pieters Hill. For our own part, we were only sniped at occasionally, the ping of the bullets being uncommonly close; but I was in luck's way in seeing one of the greatest battles, and, as others say, the most tremendous artillery display, of the present war in Natal.
I do not pretend to know the magnitude of the opposing force. It was invisible until our infantry developed the attack, when the Boers could be clearly seen retiring and reinforcements coming up, but I am sure of two things : (1) that the enemy's position could have been held by a very small force, so difficult was it to attack; and (2) whatever effect our artillery fire must have had where it fell, many of our own men must have lost life or limb through it, so impossible is it to distinguish friend from foe in an attack of such magnitude. In all humility I venture an opinion that the Boers fought a very fine rearguard action to give them time to remove their transport and guns to some other position, and they probably did so in order to relieve a portion of their force who might go to the rescue of their heterogeneous allies in the Free State. In fact, the Boers relieved Ladysmith of their own account, and not from any defeat by General Buller's force, though in no way does this detract from the credit our troops deserve for their extraordinarily gallant conduct.
We got orders to return to camp at 6 p.m., but to be at the new pontoon bridge before daylight, in order to hold it against any possible attack. So off we galloped, only to find all our baggage, supply waggons, and tents packed up! After a lime-juice and water and a hard biscuit standing up in the darkness, I threw myself on the ground to get what sleep I could.
Breakfastless next morning, for there was no water in the camp, we arrived before 7 a.m. at the pontoon bridge. This was on Wednesday morning, February 28. Here we found artillery, irregular horse, and infantry all packed like sardines, waiting their turn to cross the Tugela. Far up on the opposite hills we noticed, to our relief, our infantry holding the positions they had so gallantly taken, and knew that this time at least we were not to retire from the ground we had gained.
General Buller was on the opposite bank with his staff when we moved off, passing on our way a gang of Boer prisoners we had captured, and the stretcher - bearers bringing in the wounded. Poor fellows! they deserved the sympathy they received. One wounded Boer was absolutely yellow-green from the lyddite, and I am afraid he was terribly wounded. The hills over which we advanced showed the fearful havoc our artillery fire had created. The ground was strewn with shells and shrapnel bullets, and the stench of dead horses and cattle was perfectly horrible. In one trench the headless trunk of a Boer bore testimony to the efficiency with which our guns had been served. Not far away the stretcher - bearers were burying a young woman barely twenty-one years of age. Their tale was a pitiful one. She had been found dying in the trenches, bandolier across her breast and rifle in hand, and as she died she told them her husband had forced her to fight, as she was such a good shot. How shockingly cruel! But against this I may relate another story, in favour of the Boers. In one of the recent fights in which the Inniskilling Fusiliers were heavy losers, there were but two officers and two men left to be surrounded by the Boers. One of the officers recounted to me the following narrative. He fell into the hands of De Wet, one of the opposing generals, and asked for water for his wounded men. Ten orderlies were at once told off to fetch water for the water-bottles, and with his own hands De Wet fastened on this officer's arm a white handkerchief, and told him he could go about his wounded without fear of being shot. So instead of being made a prisoner, he was able to perform his errand of mercy.
Boer tents, carts, provisions, and ammunition were strewn on all sides, and it was reported that the enemy had gone, never to return. There was one curiosity that caught my eye, a tin case of ammunition labelled "kynoch's explosive sporting ammunition— birmingham."
A patrol of Thorneycroft's bad not gone out five minutes, however, before it was attacked from a donga, and five horses had to be reckoned among the killed. It was a day of reconnaissance ouly, though we drew the Boer shell fire for an hour or two from Bulwana, and on one occasion were nearly hit. But our work done, we found Ladysmith was relieved, and the road open. Lord Dundonald and a few of his brigade rode in that night, while we returned in the darkness to a camp this side of the river, to face a pouring wet night, accompanied by the most vivid lightning I have ever witnessed. I found a cornei inside a waggon, and when the rain stopped I threw myself on my Wolseley valise on th3 ground, and slept as well as I could under the circumstances.