I start for Reddersburg — building castles in the air — I am attacked from both sides — my horses are shot — a run for life — the position of affairs— caught on the march — a summons to surrender — surrounded — a narrow escape — the last drop of water — a terrible night — the second day — a hopeful sound — m'whinnie's gallantry — the Royal Irish Rifles fight brilliantly — a murderous fire — we surrender — a compliment — Christian De Wet — the last scene.
April 3 and 4. — I was just beginning to congratulate myself on my good luck, and to count the minutes (it was 3 o'clock) before I should be in Reddersburg (then about six miles distant),—I had even gone so far as to build castles in the air of a champagne dinner with the officers of the detachment at Mr Hoffman's hotel to celebrate my escape, when, entering into a somewhat confined portion of the road, I heard a "ping" on my right, and a bullet struck the ground just in front of my horse's feet. Hoping it was from a distant sniper, I moved on quickly, when, from my left this time, came another crack of a rifle right over my head. At the same moment the union-jack and Red Cross flags floated lazily out on the still breeze, with the ambulance waggons immediately beneath them. All this, as you may imagine, was the work of a second, and I at once realised that the forces I had heard of at Dewetsdorf and Kelly's farm had been attacked on the march. In a twinkling I turned the horses' heads for our ambulance, pulled out a white handkerchief, and galloped to the right over the intervening plain. I had barely moved before three bullets passed through my cart from the left, and another, from the right this time, killed both my horses. I couldn't stay where I was, so calling out to a man I saw on the right kopje, "Don't fire; I'm English," I jumped from the cart and ran for all I knew to some safe place of hiding, amid a perfect hail of Boer bullets. I clambered breathless over a wire fence, and threw myself down behind some stones for shelter, and when I was able to speak I soon found my worst fears realised, and that the action had been in progress for fully five hours. As I wish to give you a full description of the battle, I must recount the events which preceded my arrival, as they were subsequently told me by the surviving officers. It appears that they left their bivouac at Kelly's farm at 5 o'clock that morning, and with the mounted infantry as advance-guard had continued their march to Reddersburg. The little force of about 500 men consisted of three companies of the Royal Irish Rifles and about 150 of the 5th Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles mounted infantry with 11 officers, the whole being under the command of Captain M'Whinnie. They had six waggons drawn by oxen and mules, one water-cart and two ammunition-carts, with three ambulances and as many doctors under Captains Hearn and Temple Smyth.
Everything had gone smoothly till about 10 o'clock, when the scouts reported a cloud of dust on the open plain to the right of the road at the spot marked "A" on the accompanying map, which has kindly been furnished me by an officer. At the same time the mounted infantry were fired on from their left front, and at once took up a position on a small piece of rising ground marked "B" to the left of the road, while the Irish Rifles seized a small kopje, " C," on the right. Seeing a more favourable position, and to prevent if possible their being commanded by the enemy's fire, Captain M'Whinnie ordered the mounted infantry to push on and seize the farther or westernmost spur, " D," of a larger hill on the right (called Mosar's kopje), while the Irish Rifles themselves moved on to the easternmost spur, "E," to guard their rear. This kopje formed the end of a long range of hills stretching to the west, while on the opposite side of the road was another range of high hills sloping down at the eastern end to the point the mounted infantry originally took up, marked " B."
It was not quite in this formation I found them, for the commanding officer, having examined his position, had spread his men out so that the centre kopje, running like "a hog's Back " between the two spurs, was also held by part of the force. Having parked the transport waggons and ambulances at the spots marked " F" and " G," it was soon evident from the increased transvergent fire that they were being hotly attacked from two sides. Our men immediately replied with long-range volleys, and it was at this early period of the day that Lieutenant Barclay was killed. By one o'clock the Boer rifle fire got hotter and hotter from both the eastern and western flanks, and it was then that they got their first gun into position about 2800 yards to the north-east. A few well-directed volleys from our men, however, soon caused the gun to be shifted to a more respectful distance.
A messenger brought a letter from General de Wet informing Captain M'Whinnie that the Boer force was 2200 men with six guns, and demanding our surrender. The letter was immediately torn into little bits, and a verbal reply typical of the British officer returned to the Boer general. Another gun soon came into action on the same side as the first, and it was apparent to all that our situation was a critical one. It was about three o'clock, when the long-range fire was at its height, that I made my inopportune arrival on the scene, and was saluted from both sides by a shower of bullets. I crawled to where an officer was sitting, and gave him all the information I had gathered the previous night, and as far as possible from behind the stones I collected, I examined the position. The kopjes which I have already described were horse-shoe shaped, and I was somewhere about the centre. The bullets were coming in thick from the opposite hills, and singing merrily as they passed over the " hog's back" from our rear. They were enfilading us, too, from the north - east and south - west, and I soon recognised that our position was a hopeless one unless reinforcements came to our rescue. The officers were working coolly and cheerily, and the men firing with the greatest accuracy when opportunity arose, but our fire was never wasted, and the enemy took good care to keep as far away from us as possible till late in the evening, when a third gun was brought up to the south-cast of where we were lying. It was a fortunate thing that our kopjes were thickly studded with large rocks and boulders, and the men were not slow to obey their officers' orders to keep down when they were not wanted in the firing line. A few bushes, too, were dotted about the hill, and these and the stones were responsible no doubt for the smallness of our casualties, the Boers subsequently owning that they scarcely ever saw us move, and that we were practically invisible. As the afternoon turned to evening, the guns to the north-east got the range of our transport nicely, and shell after shell burst amongst the waggons and the poor beasts which were fastened to them. One mule was cut in half, an ox had his shoulder torn off, and orders were at once given for the rest to be cut loose, so that the poor brutes might at least have a chance. Sergeant Burns, Royal Irish Rifles, with the assistance of the black boys, behaved very well, carrying out these orders as quickly as possible, and rushing back again to their shelters as soon as it was done. A white puff of smoke from the south-east warned us that the gun from that direction was firing shrapnel or segment shells, and though the aim was none too good it was sufficient to make some of us crawl over the " hog's back" to I lie farther side of the hill.
At five o'clock the fire was at its worst, and we could see the enemy encircling us and dosing in on our position ; whilst the cry, " Look out for shrapnel!" and the intermittent peppering of our transport made matters so desperate that I felt our surrender was imminent. But no ! Gallantly the commanding officer and his men stuck to it. Our fire, except on the spur where the mounted infantry had been hotly engaged all day, was almost completely subdued, and we sought the nearest stones for shelter, unconscious of who were alive or dead. From five till six was a terrible time for all. Captain Kelly crawled up to where I was with his head bleeding; from the graze of a shell. What an escape ! I ran to get him water from the ambulance, and of course head over heels I fell with a sprained wrist and foot; but one could feel nothing in this moment of excitement and danger, and I successfully regained my old hiding-place.
News came to us that Captain Dimsdale had been wounded in the bead and throat, and that Captain Casson, who was generously tending his fallen comrade, had been shot dead. Darkness came on, and with it a diminution in the enemy's fire, but in the twilight we could discern them creeping nearer and nearer to the doomed kopje and completely surrounding us. Keeping well away from the sky-line, we were able for the first time for eight hours to shift our cramped positions, but the men could light no fires, and the water-cart, someway distant among the transport, was carefully guarded in case of a prolonged siege. Though the men were sorely in need of both food and water, they bore their trouble with the greatest fortitude, and so tired were they that many were soon asleep, and were with difficulty found and roused to take up their positions on picquet. A consultation of officers was held, which I was privileged to attend, and it was then for the first time I met the commanding officer, Captain M'Whinnie. The possibilities of reinforcements arriving, the probabilities of cutting our way through successfully to Reddersburg, and the despatch of a scout for assistance, were all discussed, and I have no hesitation in saying that, even if we had left our transport, the second course would have been attended with fearful loss.
Finally, it was decided to trust to Providence, to hold our position on the chance of reinforcements arriving in the morning from either north or south, and to despatch a scout to Bethanie, via Reddersburg, to ask for assistance. We heard then that our losses were trifling—about 7 or 8—but poor Captain Dimsdale's wounds were very serious, and he was carried down unconscious to the ambulance, it having been impossible to move him any earlier. Captain M'Whinnie, after digging unsuccessfully with Captain Tennant and others for a supposed well, gave orders that water should be served out of the cart at 4.30 in the morning, and then the pickets were carefully posted all round our position in groups of six. A kindly officer lent me a sweater to try and sleep in, but sleep was practically out of the question. A few got an hour or two, but most of us got none. The night was bitterly cold, and those who had no coats shivered on the stony damp ground. A man struggling to keep warm cuddled up against me, much to my delight, only, however, to push me into a neighbouring thorn-bush ; and then the moon rose for the third time this month, and shed a lurid light over the grim scene. I would have closed my eyes after her treacherous treatment when I crossed the Caledon river, but I could not. I thought of home, and wondered if home thought of me. I was trying to collect my thoughts, when some one asked me how I was. I asked if he were the doctor and could tie up my foot? He was unfortunately only the Wesleyan minister! Good man, no doubt! But I had no need of shriving, however much I suffered, and I was not the only sufferer. Lord bless you, no! There were hundreds who deserved greater sympathy than I did. Many a prayer must have been said for success, but many a curse I heard at the name of the General who had allowed this small detachment to travel through a hostile country without guns and without supports. Then the moon winked and went out, and all was silence, but what a silence! God grant I may never pass a night such as the one f tried to sleep through on April 3rd !
At six o'clock the first shot was fired. Why do they shoot so early? Why don't the Boers sleep ? And as the crack, crack, crack of the Mauser and Lee-Metford rifles betokened that the mounted infantry on the western spur were being hotly engaged, the morning sun rose over Mosar's Hoek on a day of murder and surrender.
Bang! bang ! crash ! and the first shrapnel of April 4 found its mark, while a man's life-blood spluttered over my tunic. Bang ! bang ! this time from another direction, and the shell hurtled over the hill-top and burst close to two startled secretary-birds upon the plain beyond. Bang ! bang ! again, and two projectiles seemed to meet each other in mid-air over the kopje, and burst with a terrific detonation.
An hour after the sun rose the air was alive with bullets screaming in every direction, and, as we expected, from much closer range. Our men were game enough for the fight, and 400 British rifles were soon peppering away at a practically invisible foe.
"What's that? Did you hear it?" said an Irishman close to my elbow; and the fact that he had heard too what I had imagined raised my hopes, and my head too, but I soon put the latter down again ! It was the rattle of volley firing. Could it be the British advancing from Bloemfontein ? It was too good to be true, but the Boers rarely indulged in volleys. We strained our ears more hopefully than ever, and again we thought that amid the crackle of musketry and the booming of the big guns we heard a repetition of the sound. We were, however, doomed to disappointment. So the fight went on—this battle of five to one and of four guns against none. The second hour succeeded the first, and the third was just commencing, when a tremendous fusilade from the mounted infantry position on the west betokened an unusual amount of activity. Shelter on the north side of the hog's back was no longer procurable, and it was a case of lying fiat as a pancake during the now gathering hailstorm of bullets. From all sides we were enfiladed! If a man showed his head he was shot dead. There was not a stone unsmeared with a leaden coating. The whistling and shrieking of the Mauser and Martini bullets were accentuated by the fury of the artillery fire, which searched every corner of the besieged kopje. Nearer and nearer did they close in on us, and gallantly did our men reply. Captain M'Whinnie seemed to court a certain death, moving from section to section, dragging the ammunition up to the mounted infantry, and helping to carry down the wounded. It was a miracle he escaped. Many other instances of coolness and bravery amongst officers and men—young ones too—I might recount during this fearful bombardment, but their names are unknown to me. Those who were there will never forget that the Royal Irish Rifles and the Fighting Fifth gallantly upheld the best traditions of the British Army.
I was wondering what the end would be. Death appeared absolutely certain. There seemed no hope, when suddenly there came a crack—ping, crack—ping, crack—ping (a different sound to any other we had heard), and the stones near me were covered with little round bullet-marks. "That was a near one," said a Tommy, as he crouched still lower to the ground, and a bullet splash in the rock to the right of him bespoke the truth of his remark. "Who's sniping us on our left ?" shouted an officer just above me. "That's just wThat we all want to know," I answered. We knew it soon enough. A man next me raised his head to have a look, and rolled over me dead as a stone. For the last hour, from eight to nine, we had been lying under this murderous, terrible, enfilading fire, when word was passed that the mounted infantry had been driven in and were prisoners. We held out as long as we could, but a white Hag was soon hoisted, and then another, and a distant shout proclaimed that we had surrendered. Thank God, it was over ! We had surrendered, but with all the honours of war! Bradford, a gallant young officer, was wounded at the very end. For close on twenty-four hours had this little detachment been besieged by a force nearly five times its own size, and no wonder General De Wet paid Captain M'Whinnie the compliment of saying, "How splendidly you have fought! "
As I rose from the ground the word was passed, "Disarm yourselves, men," and stripped of rifles, pouches, side-arms, and bandoliers, we made our way proudly but silently through the swarming Boers to our ambulances at the bottom of the hill. The last scene was one not easy to forget. Here an excited Boer, greedy for loot, was demanding the surrender of private property. There two men were carrying a poor fellow to the hospital, groaning from a bullet in his leg. A Boer was stretched out on the lead-covered grass quite dead. Some officers were pointing out to the stretcher-bearers the position of some of our wounded, and the doctors were busy attending to the urgent calls of those who had already been brought in. Each man spoke to his pal in whispered tones. A few unthinking individuals, whose parched mouths alone were sufficient to make them forgetful of their wounded comrades, made a rush for the water-cart near the ambulance, but a word of remonstrance from the doctor soon put that little matter right. Others made for the waggons, to secure, if possible, their great-coats, and to share in the little bully-beef and biscuit they had been denied so long, which the Boers were already looting. I sat down on a stone, half dazed by the scene, my mind and brain whirling in the confusion of the events of the past three days. Mechanically I opened my camera, which I had still with me, and mechanically it clicked at the various changing scenes.
General De Wet, an undistinguished-looking man, with a black pointed beard, surrounded by an equally undistinguished staff, had mounted a waggon, and was declaiming to an excited mob of armed Boers the greatness of his victory, and his thanks to God. Loud cheers greeted his remarks, and then from 2000 throats came the deep sonorous chant of the Volkslied, or National Anthem, which grated on my ears. An official told us to fall in. We were promised immunity from theft and blackmail. What cant! Some of the officers rode, others walked. I drove on a waggon, owing to the pain in my foot. " Hullo, photographer!" said a cheeky Boer to me, whom I recognised as one of my previous day captors. "How did you get here? Who let you go? Why aren't you at Dewetsdorf ?" I was soon surrounded by a gaping crowd. I held my peace, but when the opportunity arrived I stated my position to an official, who promised me consideration of my case. And then the Basuto boy driving my waggon rolled his eyes ominously, and pointed to the dead Boer, for whom a grave was being dug. I saw him buried. Very reverently they did it. Uncovered in the burning sun, they stood around some one who spoke the dead man's eulogy. They wrapped him in his red blanket, and they said Amen. Yes, they were human enough, these rough men of the veldt. I noticed the wheels of my waggon were revolving — I passed a 15-pounder on the road which had once belonged to us—I heard some one say we had lost about 60 killed and wounded — I wondered at my luck—I drank a little water at a stream, and a kindly Boer gave me bread — I was in a dream — and I forgot all but my sympathy for the dejected officers and men.