Scarcely had I returned from posting my last letter when the camp was in a commotion, caused by the news that the West Australians were in action at Slingersfontein, distant about twelve miles from Rensburg. To saddle up and get out as fast as horseflesh would carry a man was but the work of a very short period of time, for the gallop across the open veldt was not a very laborious undertaking. I soon found that the stalwart sons of the great gold colony were in it, and enjoying it.
Slingersfontein is an important position on the right flank of French's column. It is not only an important but a very hard position to hold on account of the nature of the country. Here there is but very little open veldt; mile after mile is covered by small kopjes that rise in countless numbers, until the whole country looks as if it were covered with a veritable forest of hills. Once inside that labyrinth of rocky excrescences, an army might easily be lost, unless every individual man and officer knew the place thoroughly. The Boers know the lay of the land, and, consequently, shift from post to post by paths that are unknown to anyone else with marvellous dexterity and incredible swiftness. Our forces hold a small plain, which is like the palm of a giant's hand, with the surrounding kopjes representing the digits. We hold those kopjes also. The shape of the camp is in the form of a horseshoe, all around the little basin great hills rise, and from those hills England's watch-dogs keep a sharp look-out on the movements of the foe; and well they need to, for, in ground which suits him, the African farmer is as 'cute and cunning as a Red Indian. Behind our position, or, rather, outside of it, there is another small tract of open country, but beyond that, lapping around our stronghold like a crescent, is rough, hilly ground. None of those hills is worth dignifying with the title of mountain, but all of them are big enough to shelter a hundred or two of the enemy, and it is there that they play their game of hide and seek, which is so trying to the nerves of young troops. The Boers hold that rough country entirely, and the outer edge of their semi-circle is not, at any given point, more than four miles from our centre at Slingersfontein.
The outer line of kopjes which skirt their stalking ground are bigger than the hills on the inner side, so that they have an excellent opportunity to conceal their movements from the observation of our most astute pickets, and the only way in which our commanding officer can locate the enemy with any degree of certainty is by making a reconnaissance in force, and, if possible, drawing their fire. If the Boers fall into this trap they invariably pay dearly for the slight advantage they gain over the investigating force, for our guns soon make any known position untenable. The Boer leaders know this, however, and are very loth to allow temptation to overcome discretion; but at times, either through the impetuosity of their troops or through errors in generalship, they give themselves away entirely, and that is precisely what they did upon this occasion.
By means only known to those high up in authority, our people had become acquainted with the fact that the enemy intended to try to extend their line on our right flank, and so threaten us not only upon the left flank, the direct front, and right flank, but also in the rear. Could they succeed in doing this they would have us in a peculiarly tight place, as, once posted in force well down on our right flank, they would then at least be able to harass us badly in our communications with Rensburg, which is our main base of operations. It is there that the General has his headquarters; it is from there that we keep in touch, per medium of the railway and telegraph lines, with the rest of the British Army in South Africa. It is from there that we draw all our supplies of fodder and ammunition. It is from there we should draw all our additional force if we needed reinforcements in case of a general assault by the enemy upon our position at Slingersfontein, and it is from there that we should be strengthened should we decide to make a forward move on the Boers' position. Therefore it behoved us to keep that line of communication intact, no matter what the cost. All these things were as well known to the Boer leader as to us, and that is why they were as keen to get the position as we were, and why we are keen to stop them from accomplishing their object.
It was for the purpose of ascertaining just what the enemy intended to do, and how many men they had to do it with, that Major Ethoran ordered out the West Australian Mounted Infantry, consisting of about 75 men, under Captain Moor, an Imperial soldier in the pay of the West Australian Government, and a small body of Inniskilling Dragoons and Lancers, with a section of the Royal Horse Artillery and two guns. The men moved out of Slingersfontein on Tuesday about midday, and at once proceeded towards a farmhouse located right under the very jowl of an ugly-looking kopje.
This farm was known as Pottsberg, and was well known as a regular haunt of the most daring and dangerous rebels in the whole district. The farm consisted of the usual white stone farmhouse of five or six rooms, a small orchard, surrounded by rough stone walls from three feet six to four feet in height, and about two feet thick, a small cluster of native huts, and a kraal for cattle, made of rough, heavy stones, topped by cakes of sun-baked manure, stored by the farmers for fuel. Some little distance from the back of the farmhouse a stout stone wall ran down from the kopjes on to the plain. This wall was between four and five feet in height and half a yard across in its weakest place--an ugly barricade in itself--behind which a few resolute men with quick-firing rifles, which they know how to use, could make a good stand against vastly superior numbers advancing upon them from the open veldt.
When our fellows trotted out from camp, Captain Moor received orders to distribute his men in small bodies all along the edge of the kopjes between Pottsberg farmhouse and Kruger's Hill, a small kopje lying almost in a line with our camp, on the right. The men were ordered to go as close as possible to the enemy's position, to see as much as they could possibly see in regard to the numbers of troops in the hills held by the enemy. If they succeeded in discovering the rebels in large bodies they were to draw their fire and immediately retreat at full speed. In the meantime the two guns belonging to the Royal Horse Artillery were beautifully placed in a dip in the veldt, where they could play upon the Boers should they attempt to rush the West Australians at any given point. The Lancers and Dragoons were placed in charge of some kopjes behind the guns, in order to protect them should a concerted onslaught be made upon them by the mounted Boers, who were shrewdly suspected to be in hiding in strong force behind the first row of hills, which screened the enemy's position.
The Australians rode out steadily, and took up their positions with an amount of coolness that startled older soldiers. This was absolutely their first trial on real fighting service, and everybody connected with them was anxious to see how they would comport themselves in the face of the enemy. Not only was it their first fighting effort, but it was their début in the saddle, as until a week previous they had been simply infantrymen, and not a dozen of them had ever been in the hands of a mounted drill instructor. It was a big task to set such green men, but they proved before the day was out that they were worthy of the confidence reposed in them. Captain Moor, Lieutenant Darling, and Lieutenant Parker each took a small section into action; the others were under the immediate control of their sergeants. They split up into small parties, and swept the very edge of the kopjes, peering into gullies, climbing the outer hills, working along the ravines with a courage and thoroughness that would have done credit to the oldest scouts in all the Empire. Yet nothing came of their investigations for quite a long time. The enemy did not mean to be drawn, and remained passive, so that the West Australians at last became a little bit reckless, and were consequently not so guarded as they might have been. All at once a body of scouts ran upon a large body of the enemy near Pottsberg Farm, in a deep and shady ravine. The enemy were trying to evade notice, but that was now impossible. In a moment rifles were ringing on the air, and after that first volley the little band of Australians wheeled and galloped for the open country. To have remained there would have meant certain death to every one of the half-dozen who comprised the picket, so they did their duty--they fired and rode for the veldt. In a few seconds Boers were dashing out of the kopjes on all sides, trying to cut the small band of Australians off or shoot them down. But the Australians knew their game; they opened out, so that each man was practically riding alone.
The Boers could do little with them. Those who stood by the guns noticed that very large numbers of men in the Boer ranks were either niggers or half-castes, and it was also very noticeable that they knew but little about the use of the rifle. They fired high and wide, and notwithstanding the fact that they poured their ammunition away in wholesale fashion, they did little harm worth mentioning, although many of them fired at little more than pistol range. They were simply crazed with excitement, and did not succeed in cutting off a single member of that adventurous band. Whenever an Australian found himself in a tight place he simply dug his spurs into his horse's flanks, lifted his rifle, and blazed into the ranks of the foe. If his horse was shot dead under him he coo-eed to his mates, and kept his rifle busy, and every time the coo-ee rang out over the whispering veldt the Australians turned in their saddles, and riding as the men from the South-land can ride, they dashed to the rescue, and did not leave a single man in the hands of the enemy. Many a gallant deed was done that day by officers and men. Captain Moor gave one fellow his horse, and made a dash for liberty on foot, but he would have failed in his effort had not Lieutenant Darling, a West Australian boy, ridden to his aid, and together the two officers on the one horse got back to the shelter of the guns. The enemy still blazed away in the wildest and most farcical fashion. Had they been Boer hunters or marksmen very few of the West Australians would ever have got across that strip of veldt alive. As it was, only two of them got wounded, none were killed, one or two horses were shot dead, and then the big guns got to work in grim earnest.
A party of Boers, however, got round one of the kopjes, where some of the Lancers were posted, and now half a dozen of those brave fellows are missing, and I fear they are to be counted amongst those who will never return again. Sergeant Watson, of the R.H., was killed, and several of his men and a few of the Lancers were wounded, but the R.H. guns soon swept the plain clear of the enemy, and they retired, carrying their dead and wounded with them. The work for the day was done, and well done, for the enemy had shown his hand. We knew his position and his strength, and next day we went out in force to have a word with him, but the wily Boers kept strictly under cover, and refused on any terms to be drawn again.