The Battle of Constantia Farm will not rank as one of the big events of this war, but it is worthy of a full description, because in this battle the Briton for the first time laid himself out from start to finish to fight the Boer pretty much on his own lines, instead of following time-honoured British rules of war. Before attempting to portray the actual fighting, I think a brief sketch of our movements from the time we left the railway line to cross the country will be of interest to those readers of The Daily News who desire to follow the progress of the war with due care.
The Third Division, which had been at Stormberg, and had done such excellent, though almost bloodless, work by sweeping the country between the last-named place and Bethany, rested at the latter place, and built up its full strength by incorporating a large number of men and guns. General Gatacre, who had retrieved his reverse at Stormberg by forcing Commandant Olivier to vacate his almost impregnable position without striking a blow, and later by his masterly move in swooping down on Bethulie Bridge and preventing the Boers from wrecking the line of communication between Lord Roberts and his supplies from Capetown, only remained long enough with his old command to see them equipped in a manner fit to take the field, and then retired in favour of General Chermside. It was under this officer that we marched away from the railway line across country known to be hostile to us. Almost due east we moved to Reddersburg, about twelve and a half miles. We had to move slowly and cautiously, because no living man can tell when, where, or how a Boer force will attack. They follow rules of their own, and laugh at all accepted theories of war, ancient or modern, and no general can afford to hold them cheap. A day and a half was spent at Reddersburg, and then the Third Division continued its eastward course in wretched weather, until Rosendal was arrived at. This is the spot where the Royal Irish Rifles and Northumberland Fusiliers had to surrender to the Boers. We had to camp there for the best part of three days on account of the continuous downpour of rain, which rendered the veldt tracks impassable for our transport. To push onward meant the absolute destruction of mules and oxen, and the consequent loss of food supplies, without which we were helpless, for in that country every man's hand was against us, not only in regard to actual warfare, but in regard to forage for man and beast.
Here we were joined by General Rundle with the Eighth Division, which brought our force up to about thirteen thousand men, thirty big guns, and a number of Maxims. When the weather cleared slightly we moved onward slowly, the ground simply clinging to the wheels of the heavily laden waggons, until it seemed as if the very earth, as well as all that was on top of it, was opposed to our march. Our scouts constantly saw the enemy hovering on our front and flanks, and more than once exchanged shots with them. General Rundle, who was in supreme command, thus knew that he could not hope to surprise the wily foe, for it was evident to the merest tyro that the Boer leader was keeping a sharp eye upon our movements, and would not be taken at a disadvantage. We expected to measure the enemy's fighting force at any hour, but it was not until about half-past ten on the morning of Friday, the 20th of April, that we were certain that he meant to measure his arms with ours, though early on that morning our scouts had brought in news that a commando, believed to be about two thousand five hundred strong, with half a dozen guns, commanded by General De Wet, was strongly posted right on our line of march. Slowly we crept across the open veldt, our men stretching from east to west for fully six miles. There was no moving of solid masses of men, no solid grouping of troops; no two men marched shoulder to shoulder, a gap showed plainly between each of the khaki-clad figures as we moved on to the rugged, broken line of kopjes. There was no hurry, no bustle, the men behaved admirably, each individual soldier seeming to have his wits about him, and proving it by taking advantage of every bit of cover that came in his way. If they halted near an ant-hill, they at once put it between themselves and the enemy.
Slowly but steadily they rolled onward, like a great sluggish, but irresistible, yellow wave, until we saw the scouts slipping from rock to rock up the stony heights of the first line of hills. Breathlessly we watched the intrepid "eyes of the army" advance until they stood silhouetted against the sky-line on the top of the black bulwarks of the veldt. Then we strained our ears to catch the rattle of the enemy's rifles, but we listened in vain; and we were completely staggered. What did it mean? Was it a trap? Was there some devilish craft behind that apparent peacefulness? Trap or no trap, we had not long to wait. The long, yellow wave curled inwards from both flanks, the men going forward with quick, lithesome steps. The mounted infantry shot forward as if moved by magic, and, before the eye could scarcely grasp the details, our fellows held the heights, and men marvelled and wondered whether the Boers had bolted for good. But they soon undeceived us, for the hills shook with the far-reaching roar of their guns, and shells began to make melody which devils love; but they did no harm. Not a man was touched. Then came the short, sharp word of command from our lines. Officers bit their words across the centre, and threw them at the men. The Horse Artillery moved into position, some going at a steady trot, others sweeping along the valleys as if they were the children of the storm. The left flank swung forward and encircled the base of an imposing kopje. The men swarmed up with tiger-like activity, quickly, and in broken and irregular lines; but there was no confusion, no wretched tangle, no helpless muddle. They did not rush madly to the top and stand on the sky-line to be a mark for their foes. When they almost touched the summit they paused, formed their broken lines, and carefully and wisely topped the black brow; and as they did so the Boer rifles spoke from a line of kopjes that lay behind the first. Then our fellows dropped to cover, and sent an answer back that a duller foe than the Boers would not have failed to understand. The Mauser bullets splashed on the rocks, and spat little fragments of lead in all directions; but few of them found a resting-place under those thin yellow jackets. By-and-by the shells began to follow the Mauser's spiteful pellets, but the shells were less harmful even than the little hostile messengers; for, though well directed, the shells never burst--they simply shrieked, yelled, and buried themselves. Our gunners got the ground they wanted, and soon gun spoke to gun in their deep-throated tones of defiance. The Boers were not hurting us; whether we were injuring them we could not tell.
In the meantime our whole transport came safely inside a little semi-circular valley, and arranged itself with almost ludicrous precision. The nigger drivers chaffed one another as the shells made melody above their heads, and made the air fairly dance with the picturesque terms of endearment they bestowed upon their mules, between the welts they bestowed with their long two-handed whips. When two of their leaders jibbed and refused to budge, they howled and called them Mr. Steyn and Ole Oom Paul; but when they got down solid to their work they laughed until even their back teeth were showing beyond the dusky horizon of their lips, and endowed them with the names of Cecil Rhodes and Mistah Chamberlain, which may or may not appear complimentary to the owners of those titles--anyway, the mules did not seem to be offended. One thing was made manifest to me then, and confirmed later on, viz., the nigger is a game fellow; give him a little excitement, and he is full of "devil"--it's the doing of deeds in cold blood that finds him out. After seeing the way the transport was handled, I moved along to look at the ambulance arrangements, and found them practically perfect. The medical staff was cool and collected, the helpers were alert and attentive to business; the waggons, with their conspicuous red crosses, were all well and carefully placed--though in such a fight it was a sheer impossibility to dispose them so as to render them absolutely immune from danger, for shells have a knack of falling where least expected, and when they burst he is a wise man who falls flat on his face and leaves the rest to his Creator and the fortune of war. My next move was to secure a position on the top of a kopje, to try to gather some idea concerning the actual strength of the Boer position. It needed no soldier's training to tell a man who knew the rugged Australian ranges thoroughly that the enemy had chosen his ground with consummate skill. To get at the Boers our men had either to go down the sides of the kopjes in full view of the clever enemy, or else make their way between narrow gullies, where shells would work havoc in their packed ranks. After they had reached the open, level ground, they had to cross open spaces of veldt commanded by the Boer guns and rifles, whilst the Boers themselves sat tight in a row of ranges that ran from east to west, mile after mile, in almost unbroken ruggedness. If we turned either flank, they could promptly fall back upon another line of kopjes as strong as those they held. Away behind their position the grim heights of Thaba Nchu rose towards the blue sky, solemn and stately. Far away to the eastward, a little south of east perhaps, I could see the hills that hid Wepener, distant about eighteen miles from the Boer centre. There we knew, and the enemy knew, that the Boers held a British force pinned in. They knew, and we knew, that Commandant Olivier, with eight or nine thousand men and a lot of guns, held the reins in his hands; and the men our force were engaging knew that unless they could keep us in check Olivier would soon be the hunted instead of the hunter.
By-and-by the rifle fire on our left flank grew weaker and weaker--our guns were searching the kopjes with merciless accuracy--and before sundown it died away altogether, and we had time to collect our wounded and ascertain our losses, though we could not even guess how the Boers had fared Our wounded amounted to eight men all told, none of them dangerously hurt; of dead we had none, not one. When their fire slackened the enemy doubtless expected to see an onward dash of troops from our position, but it was not to be. General Rundle had decided to play "patience" and save his men; there was no necessity for him to rush on and force the Boer position, and he chose the better part. Steadily our fellows were worked into position, until every bit of ground that could bear upon the foe was lined with British troops. Every available point, front or flank, where a gun could be placed to harass the foe was taken advantage of; nothing was left to chance, nothing was rashly hurried. Carefully, methodically the work was done. There was to be no carnival of death on our side, no trusting to the "luck of the British Army," no headlong rush into the arms of destruction, no waving line of bayonets. The Boer was to play a hand with the cards he loves to deal. He was to be shelled and sniped. If he wanted straight-out fighting, he had to come out into the open and get it. He was to have no chance to sit in safety and slaughter the British soldiers like shambled deer, as he had so often done before. As the sun went down our men bivouacked where they stood, and nothing was heard through the long, cold night except at intervals the grim growling of a gun, the sentinels' swift, curt challenge, or the neighing of horses as steed spoke to steed across the grass-grown veldt.
At the breaking of the dawn I was aroused from sleep by the simultaneous crashing of several of our batteries. It was Britain's morning salutation to the Boer. I hurried up to a spot on the kopje where a regiment of Worcesters lay amongst the broken ground, and saw that the battle was just about to commence in deadly earnest. It was a huge, flat-topped kopje where I located myself. The outer edges of the hill rose higher than the centre, a little rivulet ran across tiny indentations on the crown of that rampart, and there was ample space for an army to lie concealed from the eyes of enemies. If the Boers were strongly posted, so were the British. Away past our right flank Wepener range was plainly visible in the clear morning light, and just behind Wepener lay the Basuto border, with its fringe of mountains. About two thousand yards away, directly facing our centre, a white farmhouse stood in a cluster of trees. This farmhouse gave the battlefield its name, Constantia Farm. The enemy could be seen by the aid of glasses slipping from the kopjes down towards this farm and back again at intervals. Cattle, horses, goats, and sheep went on grazing calmly, the roaring of the guns doubtless seeming to them but as the tumult of a storm.
Turning my eyes towards the valley behind our position, I saw that we intended to try to turn the enemy's left flank. Little squads of mounted men, 95 in each group, swept along the valley at a gallop. They were the Yeomanry and mounted infantry, and numbered about 600. A more workmanlike body of fellows it would be hard to find anywhere. They sat their horses with easy confidence, and looked full of fight. Some of them carried their rifles in their hands, muzzle upwards, the butt resting on the right thigh; others had their guns slung across their shoulders. Group after group went eastward, and the Boers knew nothing of the movement, because we were for once employing their own tactics. I watched them out of sight, and then turned my attention to the guns. There was very little time wasted by our people. The gunners on our left flank poured in a heavy fire, the centre took up the chorus, and the guns on the right repeated it. For miles along their front the Boers must have been in deadly peril. We seldom saw them. Now and again a group of roughly clad horsemen would flash into view and disappear again as if by magic, with shells hurtling in their wake. Our artillery could not locate their main force with any degree of certainty, nor could they place us properly. They were not idle; their guns, of which they had a decent number, sought for our position with dauntless perseverance. Their shells soon began to drop amongst us, but they did no harm at all. They fell close enough to our troops in many instances, but they were so badly made that they would not explode, or if they did they simply fizzed, and were almost as harmless as seidlitz powders.
The spiteful little pom-poms cracked away and kept us on the alert, until one grew weary of the everlasting noise of cannon. At mid-day, tired of the monotony of the game, I turned my horse's head towards camp, and, in company with three other correspondents, soon sat down to a lunch of mealies and boiled fowl; but we were destined not to enjoy that meal, for before the first mouthful had left my plate there came a wailing howl through the air, then a strange jarring noise, and a shell plunged into the earth forty yards away from the tent. A few minutes later another visitor from the same direction crashed on top of one of the transport waggons within a stone's throw of our tent. That decided me; in a few seconds I had scrambled up the side of a kopje, with the leg of a fowl in one hand and a soldier's biscuit in the other. The shells had not burst, but no man could say when one would, and I had no particular interest in regard to the inside of any shell myself. I was not the only one who made a hasty exit from the camp; in ten seconds the side of the kopje was alive with men. The shells continued to fall right amongst the waggons every few minutes for over two hours; yet only one man was killed, a negro driver being the victim, a shell dropping right against his thigh. The range of the Boer gun was absolutely perfect, but the shells were mere rubbish. Had they been as good as ours, half our transport would have been in ruins. The British gunners manoeuvred in all directions in order to locate that particularly dangerous piece of ordnance. They blazed at it in batteries; they tried to find it by means of cross-firing; they lined men up on the sky-line of kopjes to draw the fire; they limbered up and galloped far out on the veldt, until the enemy's rifle fire drove them in again; but all in vain. The Boer leader had placed his gun with such skill that the British could not locate it, and it kept up its devilish jubilee until the night set in.
That day our scouts captured one Free State flag from the enemy; the Yeomanry and mounted infantry did not succeed in their efforts to turn the Boers' left flank, but they checked the enemy from advancing in that direction, which was an important item in the day's work. We did not want the Boer left to overlap our right; had they done so they could then get behind us and harass our convoys coming from the direction of Bethany railway station. We had very little dread of them turning our left flank, because we knew that General French was moving towards us on that side from Bloemfontein, with the object of getting the Boers on the inside of two forces, and so giving them no chance of escape. We had only a few men wounded, one petty officer of the Scouts killed, and a negro driver killed, which was simply marvellous when one considers the terrible amount of ammunition used during the day. That night all the correspondents had to sleep, or try to sleep, with the transport. It was a wretched night; we knew the Boers had the range, and we fully expected to get a hot shelling between darkness and dawn, but, curiously enough, the foe kept their guns still all the night But the suspense made the night a weary one.
The following day was Sunday, and at a very early hour our scouts informed us that the Boers had made a wide detour towards Wepener, and had overlapped our right flank. They slipped up into a kopje, which would have enabled them to enfilade our position in a most masterly manner; but before they could get their guns there our artillery was at them, and the kopje was literally ploughed up with shells. It was too warm a corner for any man on earth to attempt to hold, and they soon took their departure, falling back in good order, and leaving no dead or wounded behind them. The Yeomanry had advanced on the kopje, under the protection of the shell firing, and when close to the position they fixed bayonets and dashed up the hill; but when they topped it they found that the Boers had retired. It was a quick bit of work, neatly and expeditiously done. Had the Boers held the hill long enough to get their guns in position they would have played havoc with us, for they could then have swept our whole line. From morning until night-fall we kept at them with our big guns; whenever a cloud of dust arose from behind a range of kopjes we dropped shells in the middle of it; wherever a cluster of Boers showed themselves for a second a shell sought them out. No matter how well they were placed, they must have had a lively time of it. During the Sabbath they scarcely used their guns at all, but they opened on our troops with rifle fire as soon as they made a forward move at any part of the line, showing clearly that they were watching as well as praying. The day closed without incident of any particular character; we had a few wounded, but no deaths, and could form no idea how the Boers were faring. Now and again during the night one or another of our guns would bark like sullen watchdogs on the chain, but the Boer guns were still.
Monday morning broke crisp and clear, and once more the big-gun duel began, only on this occasion the Boers made great use of a pom-pom gun This spiteful little demon tossed its diminutive shells into camp with painful freeness. They knocked three of the Worcesters over early in the day, killing two and badly damaging the other. As on all other occasions in this peculiar engagement, the Boer gunnery was simply superb; but their shells were worthless. Shells grew so common that the "Tommies" scarcely ducked when they heard the report of a gun they knew was trying to reach them, but smoked their pipes and made irreverent remarks concerning things made in Germany. About midday a party of Boers, who had somehow dodged round to our rear, made a dashing attempt to raid some cattle that were grazing close under our eyes; but they had to vanish in a hurry, and were particularly lucky in being able to escape with their lives, for a party of scouts darted out after them at full gallop on one side, whilst another party of mounted infantry rode as hard as hoofs could carry them on the other side of the bold raiders. They unslung their rifles as they dashed across the veldt, and the Boers soon knew that the fellows behind them were as much at home as they were themselves at that kind of business.
Late on Monday evening the Boers located a little to the left of our centre moved forward a bit. Though with infinite caution, and commenced sniping with the rifle. It was an evidence that they were growing weary of our tactics, and would greatly have liked us to attempt to rush their position with the bayonet, so that they could have mowed our fellows down in hundreds. But this General Rundle wisely declined to do; it was victory, not glory, he was seeking, and he was wise enough to know that a victory can be bought at far too high a price in country of this kind against a foe like the wily Boer. On Sunday night our strength was augmented by the arrival of three regiments of the Guards, and on Monday night we, knew for a certainty that General French was close at hand. The Boer was between two fires, and he would need all his "slimness" to pull him out of trouble. During a greater part of the night our guns continued to rob sleep of its sweetness, and the enemy's pom-pom mingled with our dreams. On Tuesday morning news came to us that Wepener had been relieved by Brabant and Hart, and that the Boers who had invested that place were drawing off in our direction, so that our right flank needed strengthening. The Boers displayed no sign of quitting their position, though they must have known that Brabant and Hart would be on their track from the south-east, and General French from the north-west. They held their ground with a grim stubbornness against overwhelming odds of men and guns, and dropped shells amongst us in a way that made one feel that no spot could be labelled "absolutely safe."
At about 7 p.m. we sent a force out south, consisting of about 4,000 men, under General Boyes. Amongst that force were the West Kents, Staffords, Worcesters, Manchesters, all infantry. The Imperial Yeomanry and mounted infantry also accompanied the expedition. But there was little for them to do except hold the enemy in check, which they did. There were some phenomenally close shaves during the day. On one occasion the enemy got the range of one of our guns with their pom-pom, and the way they dropped the devilish little one-pound shells amongst those gunners was a sight to make a man's blood run chill. The little iron imps fell between the men, grazed the wheels, the carriage, and the truck of the gun; but
He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.
Nothing short of angel-wings could have kept our fellows safe. The men knew their deadly peril, knew that the tip of the wand in the Death Angel's hand was brushing their cheeks. One could see that they knew their peril. The hard, firm grip of the jaw, the steady light in the hard-set eyes, the manly pallor on the cheeks, all told of knowledge; yet not once did they lose their heads. Each fellow stood there as bravely as human flesh and blood could stand, and faced the iron hail with unblenching courage and intrepid coolness. Had those khaki-clothed warriors been carved out of bronze and moved by machinery, they could not have shown less fear or more perfect discipline. The pom-pom is a gun which I have been told the British War Office refused as a toy some two years back. I have had the doubtful pleasure of being under its fire to-day, and all I can say is that I would gladly have given my place to any gentleman in the War Office who happens to hold the notion that the pom-pom is a toy.
Somehow the enemy got hold of the position where General Rundle and staff were located, and all the afternoon they swept the plain in front of the tents, the hills above, and the hill opposite with shells; but they could not quite drop one in the little ravine itself. Half an hour before sundown I had to ride with two other correspondents to headquarters to get a dispatch away. We got across safely, but had not been there five minutes before a grandly directed shell sent the General and his staff off the brow of the hill in double quick time. We delivered our dispatches, and were getting ready for a gallop over the quarter mile of veldt, when, pom, pom, pom, pom, came a dozen one-pounders a few yards away right across our track. It made our hearts sit very close to our ribs, but there was nothing for it but to take our horses by the head, drive the spurs home, and ride as if we were rounding up wild cattle. I want it to stand on record that I was not the last man across that strip of veldt. There was not much incident in the day's fighting; there seldom is in an artillery duel, carried on by men who know the game, in hilly country. Once during the afternoon the big gun belonging to the Boers became so troublesome that half a dozen of ours were trained upon it, and for best part of an hour it sounded as if a section of Sheol had visited the earth, so deadly was the fire, so fierce the bursting missiles, that not a rock wallaby, crouching in its hole, could have lived twenty minutes in the location. We heard no more from that gun.
As I rode from position to position our fellows greeted me with the cry: "Any news, sir? Heard if we are going to have a go at 'em with the spoons (bayonets)?" One midget, a bugler kiddie, so small that an ordinary maid-of-all-work could comfortably lay him across her knee and spank him, yawned as he knelt in the grass, and desired to know when "we was goin' ter 'ave some real bloomin' fightin'. 'E was tired of them bloomin' guns, 'e was; they made his carmine 'ead ache with their blanky noise. 'E didn't call that fightin'; 'e called it an adjective waste of good hammunition. 'E liked gettin' up to 'is man, fair 'nd square, 'nd knockin' 'ell out of 'im." He meant it, too, the little beggar, and I could not help laughing at him when I considered that lots of the old fighting Boers I had seen could have dropped the midget into their lunch bags, and not have noticed his weight.
The Yeomanry did a lot of useful work, and are as eager for fight as a bull ant on a hot plate. They are as good as any men I have seen in Africa, full of ginger, good horsemen, wear-and-tear, cut-and-come-again sort of men. They adapt themselves to circumstances readily, are jolly and good-humoured under trying circumstances. Their officers are, as a rule, first-class soldiers, equal to any emergency. On Tuesday the Boers kept their guns going at a great rate, and we really thought that they had made up their minds to see the thing right out at all costs. Personally I did not for a moment think that they were ignorant of General French's rapid advance. I do not believe it possible for any large body of hostile troops to move in South Africa without the Boers being thoroughly cognisant of every detail connected with the move, partly because they are the most perfect scouts in the world, and partly because the scattered population on every hand is positively favourable to them. Our artillery dropped a storm of shells during the day, and that night it was whispered in camp that there was to be a general attack next morning. On Tuesday evening General French advanced right on to the Boer rear, and some smart fighting took place, the enemy suffering considerably, though our losses were small.
At dawn on Wednesday we moved forward rapidly, and in a few hours' time our infantry were standing in the trenches and upon the hills that the Boers had occupied the day before. Our mounted men rode at a gallop through the gullies, but nothing was to be seen of the foe except a few newly dug graves. The Boers had vanished like a dream, taking all their guns with them. Louis Botha, the commander-in-chief, had come in person to them, and the retreat was carried out under his eyes. We followed to Dewetsdorp, and from there on to Thaba Nchu (pronounced Tabancha).
On Friday night the enemy exchanged a few shots with us from the heights beyond, but no harm was done on either side. The Third Division, to which I had attached myself, under General Chermside, has been ordered towards Bloemfontein. French is in command, and, judging by his past performances, I fully expect we shall have some busy times, though French may go away and leave the Eighth Division under General Rundle.