'Wherever a man's post is, whether he has chosen it of his own will, or whether he has been placed at it by his commander, there it is his duty to remain and face the danger, without thinking of death, or of any other thing except dishonour.'—Socrates.
'Such officers do the King best service in the end.'—Hamlet.
A considerable force had now assembled at Heidelberg, but it was not to remain there long. General Hunter took over command from General Ian Hamilton, who had had a bad fall from his horse, and shortly moved off to the Free State, where he and his men soon covered themselves with distinction by the rounding-up of Prinsloo's commandoes near Golden Gate, on the Basuto border.
The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, a half-battalion Somersetshire Light Infantry, and the 28th Field Battery Royal Artillery, with some details, were left to garrison Heidelberg.
The battalion was soon split up into a number of small detachments, and posted at various places along the railway line, which had suffered considerably at the hands of the Boers. Scarcely a bridge remained intact, while the presence of wandering bodies of the enemy in the neighbourhood necessitated the utmost caution and continual vigilance on the part of the companies, half-companies, and even sections, into which some of the companies were at length subdivided.
Headquarters and those companies not on detachment in the meantime had plenty of work cut out for them too. In order to defend the place two hills to the west of the town were occupied, one by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, known as Dublin Hill, and the other by the Somersetshire Light (p. 112) Infantry. Our hill was put into a most thorough state of defence by many hours of hard labour and efficient work under the direction of Colonel Hicks. Sangars were built on every spur and knoll which afforded a good field of fire; traverses and shelters were numerous; in case of a night attack whitened stones along well-made tracks showed the nearest way to the various posts; while not only every company, but every section, had its well-defined trench or wall to rally on and hold.
To some of us, indeed, all these precautions at the time seemed somewhat excessive, and it is true that no attack was ever made; but just as example is better than precept and practice better than theory, so prevention is better than cure, and there is little doubt that the fortification of that hill, in full view of many a Boer field-glass in the town, whence our movements were of course fully reported as frequently as possible to the enemy in the field, had a deterrent effect on any designs our very active foes might otherwise have contemplated.
On the morning of the 26th the left half-battalion, under Major Bird, was suddenly ordered off to Nigel Road Station, about three miles out on the railway to Johannesburg. The Boers having blown up a bridge between this station and Heidelberg, all stores, &c., arriving from Johannesburg had to be dumped down on the veld here, and it was necessary to have a force on the spot to load them into waggons, as well as to guard them and the trains. These soon began to arrive in large numbers, and as each came up the sides of the railway waggons were opened, and their heterogeneous contents chucked out anyhow into a huge mass. In the mean time R.E. construction trains also arrived, and the quiet little siding was soon a scene of wild bustle and excitement. The R.E. went to work on the broken bridge, and made a most excellent job of it in a surprisingly short time, though a casual inspection of the temporary structure they built for (p. 113) trains to pass over gave the lay mind the impression that an extra strong puff of wind would blow the whole thing over. However, it answered its purpose very thoroughly, and reflected much credit on its constructors.
In the meantime Major Bird soon produced law and order out of chaos. The coolies were made to put mealie-bags in one place and biscuit-boxes in another, while the soldiers built both up into a very serviceable sort of fort for the time being, an example of soldierly adaptability which was not lost on any one who saw it or took part in its erection.
We spent two or three very cheery days at Nigel Siding, the stationmaster's house (two rooms) forming an ideal officers' mess, but on the 28th 'E' and 'F' companies, under Captains Shewan and G. S. Higginson, were recalled to headquarters, 'H' company, under Captain Romer, was sent nine miles nearer Johannesburg to guard Reit Vlei Bridge, while 'G' company remained at Nigel Road to watch over such stores as had not yet been removed. This company was shortly further subdivided by the left half-company, under Lieutenant E. St. G. Smith, being sent to guard a culvert half-way to Reit Vlei Bridge.
In the meantime Colonel Hicks never for a moment relaxed the soldierly precautions which it was his custom to observe, whether the Boers were reported in the neighbourhood or not; and several times rumours of intended attacks did arrive, though they invariably proved false.
The town of Heidelberg itself was very Dutch and seething with malcontents and treachery. One could easily forgive them for not being exactly content, but what one could not forgive was their slimness, their plausible exterior, and their inner mass of falsehood. No class were more bitter than the clergymen, and one of these gentry was strongly suspected of being in constant communication with the Boers in the field, though his oath of neutrality was taken and he was availing himself of our hospitality. On one occasion Captain G. S. (p. 114) Higginson spent the night in an empty house in the town in an attempt to mark this fox to ground, but unfortunately his vigil was unproductive of result.
Lieutenant Haskard was now acting as Railway Staff Officer, and having a very busy time of it, as in addition to hundreds of other duties he had to send rations up and down the line to the various detachments.
On the 9th, Sergeant-Major Burke rejoined the regiment, having been a prisoner since he was wounded at Talana, and left at Dundee. During this time his duties had been ably performed by Colour-Sergeant C. Guilfoyle, now Sergeant-Major, 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Lieutenants Marsh and Weldon also joined here, as Lieutenant Supple had done a few days before. The two former had followed the regiment up the line to Mafeking, and thence across the Western Transvaal in a cape-cart, following very nearly in our tracks. They had an adventuresome journey, and were delighted to reach us at last. Captain Clarke, R.M.L.I., who was attached to the regiment, escorted an important Boer commander, named Van Rensburg, to Johannesburg, on his way to St. Helena.
It is necessary to explain briefly here the situation of the three companies, 'A,' 'E,' and 'F,' under Major English, Captain Shewan, and Captain G. S. Higginson, which had been sent out to guard various points on the line from Heidelberg to Standerton.
'A' and 'E' companies had originally gone out, and were posted at Botha's Kraal. Later on it became necessary to hold Zuikerbosch as well. Major English, with Lieutenant Newton as his subaltern, was sent to garrison it. Taking 'E' company with him and leaving Captain Higginson at Botha's Kraal, Major English, with some 110 Royal Engineers, occupied the post, and at once set about to put it into a thorough state of defence. He fully recognised the inherent weaknesses of his situation, and saw that unless well (p. 115) entrenched he was practically at the mercy of an enemy armed with artillery, as he had none to reply with, while the nearest reinforcements were miles away, and liable themselves to be attacked in force at any moment. He therefore spared no ingenuity in strengthening the position. Having Royal Engineers and a considerable number of Kaffirs at his disposal, he very soon effected his purpose and dug himself comfortably in.
In the meantime signs were not wanting of approaching Boer activity. A large commando, under Hans Botha, was known to be hovering about the neighbourhood, and as it was also known that Botha was occasionally in the habit of spending a night under his own roof—not three miles away—Captain G. S. Higginson made two efforts to catch him napping. But on neither occasion was the chieftain at home, and the unfortunate Higginson, who had selected the darkest and wildest nights as most suitable for his purpose, was foiled each time, and had to withdraw somewhat crestfallen, under a fire of raillery from the ladies of the establishment. He collected some valuable information, nevertheless, and sent in reports of Boers in the vicinity, which, however, were not sufficient to induce General Hart to take any extra precautions.
Such was the situation of affairs when, on the misty morning of July 21st, we at Heidelberg heard the hoarse barking of the accursed pompom, varied by the duller and more menacing note of heavier guns. Anxiously we asked each other what it could be, and reluctantly we came to the conclusion that our comrades were being submitted to shell-fire with no possible chance of reprisal. As the sun rose, the mist did the same, and very soon cheerful messages came twinkling over 'the misty mountain-tops,' announcing that a considerable force of Boers were attacking them, but that they had little fear of not being able to keep them off.
(p. 116) General Hart hastily assembled a small column and marched to Major English's assistance, leaving Colonel Hicks in command of the camp, and as it was quite possible the main attack might be intended for Heidelberg, we took all necessary precautions for the safety of the town.
Before General Hart's force arrived, the Boers had commenced to withdraw, having discovered that on this occasion they had attacked a veritable hornet's nest.
The hill on which Major English had dug his entrenchments is situated in the angle made by the Zuikerbosch River where it turns sharply to the south, and was on the left bank of the stream. On the other side of the river was the hill occupied by the Royal Engineers. Between these two was the new deviation bridge then under construction. The Kaffirs lived in the hollow between the hills, as did also the Yeomanry, of whom there were about ten, under a very young officer. Major English had given this officer orders that, on any attack taking place, he should at once lead his horses down to the river, where there was a kind of hollow place which would have afforded them excellent cover. This order, however, probably from the suddenness of the attack, was not complied with in time, and the horses were in consequence stampeded almost immediately. The natives also were not long in effecting a rapid southerly movement, for which, of course, they cannot be blamed, and the Boers shelled them lustily as they streamed away.
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers' camp was on the southern slope of the hill, the summit being occupied at night by alternate companies, who stood to arms shortly before dawn. Captain Shewan was on the hill, and on the point of letting the men fall out, when the attack commenced. The trenches were at once manned without the slightest noise or confusion, and the Boers' rifle-fire vigorously replied to.
The two Boer guns were in position on the hills to the (p. 117) north, some 3400 yards off, while the pompom came into action near the Fortuna coal-mine. Owing to the excellent disposition and construction of the defences, the enemy's fire made little or no impression, until after a time they began to move round to the flanks of the position. Their rifle-fire then began to have some effect, but at the same time the fire of the defence had a better target, and after a short time the burghers commenced to withdraw from the rear face of the work. In the meantime they had swung round to the west of the Engineers' hill, and under cover of a grass fire, which was lighted by them and spread right up to the trenches, endeavoured to attack this part of the position, in which, however, they also failed. The enemy continued his endeavours until mid-day, when he commenced to withdraw, his movement being somewhat expedited by the arrival of the reinforcements under the General.
Considering the numbers of the attacking force, and the resolute manner in which they had persevered, the casualties were extraordinarily small, two officers and three men wounded, one of the former being Major English himself; he was struck by a shell splinter in the eye, but most fortunately did not lose the sight of it.
This gallant defence called forth a most eulogistic order from the Commander-in-Chief. The success had come at a time when it was badly needed. The guarding of the railways necessitated the splitting-up of forces, and in more than one recent instance a commander of less foresight than Major English had failed to realise the responsibility of his position, with the result that more additions were made to the already-far-too-long list of 'regrettable incidents.'
The following telegrams passed between General Hart and Major English:—
Helio message received at Zuikerbosch Fort on July 22nd, 1900, from General Hart: 'Received following wire from Lord Roberts. Begins—"Please convey my congratulations (p. 118) to Major English, and all concerned on the gallant manner in which they defended their post on the Zuikerbosch."'
Major English made the following reply:—'All in the Zuikerbosch command thank our General for forwarding Lord Roberts' telegram, which they consider a great honour.'
The following is an extract from Army Orders in South Africa, dated Pretoria, July 26th, 1900:—
'Engagement.—The Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief desires that the following account from Major-General A. Fitzroy Hart, C.B., Commanding 5th Brigade, of the successful defence of a post by a small force of infantry against a determined attack of the enemy with guns, be published as an example of what can be accomplished by a small body of resolute men, well commanded and skilfully and judiciously entrenched:—
'From General Hart, Zuikerbosch, to Lord Roberts, Pretoria, July 21st: "Enemy made a determined attempt to destroy my advanced post at Railhead, Zuikerbosch, to-day. Major English, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, commands the post, with two companies of Dublins, ten Yeomanry, and 110 Royal Engineer reparation party, defending the new railway bridge which replaces destroyed one. Boers began attack at daybreak with two or three guns and a pompom, shelling the position hard. They then advanced, and completely surrounded him with mauser fire, keeping it up from 6.20 a.m. to 11.45 a.m., and it was hotly returned. English signalled early to me at Heidelberg, thirteen miles off, that he was surrounded, and holding his own confidently. I started from Heidelberg with two guns, a pompom, 130 Somersets, and 140 Marshall's Horse and Yeomanry, and, on approaching English's position, found he had already beaten off the enemy, and saw them assembled on the heights N.E. of his position, and beginning to ride off N.E. My guns opened fire, and Boers broke into a gallop. The complete repulse of the Boer attack is entirely due to the skill with (p. 119) which Major English had fortified his position, his vigilant arrangements, and the good fighting of the garrison. Casualties: wounded—Lieutenant Greig, severely; Privates Mallon, Stanton, and O'Brien, slightly. The bridge and train not injured. Line only injured to the extent of three rails taken up. Numbers of enemy's casualties not known. Boers sent out an ambulance for wounded, and were seen burying dead."'
The following extracts from a letter from Sapper F. Adcock, published in a home newspaper, are also of interest. After a brief description of the situation, he continues:—'It was at this time that the heliographers of the Dublin's showed their pluck, for, fixing up their stand amidst shot and shell, they got their message through to Heidelberg.... We could watch every move of the Dublins, as the ditch ran in the line of their kopje.... Another bit of pluck well worth seeing happened just as there was a lull in the firing. Two of the Dublins ran from their entrenchments to their tents, quite a quarter of a mile, and carried all their bread in a blanket between them to the entrenchments. The Boers fired three shells at them when they were going back, but two fell short, and the other was right between them.'
The sapper was right, and it is pleasant to read letters like the above when emanating from an entirely independent source. Major English reported most favourably of the signalling, which was necessarily conducted practically in the open, the enemy's projectiles falling all round the operator and Major English, who stood close beside him. For this service Private Farrelly, who sent the message, was awarded the distinguished conduct medal. The two brave men who went out for the bread were Privates Hayes ('A' company) and Townsell ('E' company).
The remainder of our stay at Heidelberg was uneventful except for what might very easily have been a most unpleasant (p. 120) accident. We were all seated at lunch one day when there was a sudden and loud report close at hand. Investigation proved that it came from Captain Pomeroy's revolver (an officer belonging to a West Indian Regiment who was attached to us). He had carelessly left it in his tent loaded, while his servant had still more carelessly fired it off. The only sufferer was an unfortunate animal, Major Bird's charger, which was shot in the hoof.On our departure on the 27th, Major-General Cooper's Brigade took over the defence of the town.