The Australians, after relieving Belmont from the Boer commando, suddenly received orders to march upon Enslin, as the Boers had attacked that place, which was held by two companies of the Northamptonshires under Captain Godley; the latter had no artillery, whilst the enemy, who were over 1,000 strong, had one 12-pounder gun with them, but the sequel proved that the Boer is a poor fighter in the open country. He is hard to beat in hilly and rocky ground when acting on the defensive, but he is not over dangerous as an attacking power. Let him choose his ground, and fight according to his own traditions, and the best soldiers in the world will find it no sinecure to oust him. As soon as the Boers put in an appearance at Enslin, Lieutenant Brierly, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who is attached to the Northamptons, made his way to a kopje, which had formerly been held by Boer forces, and a mere handful of men fairly held the enemy in check at that point for over seven hours. The enemy made frantic efforts to dislodge this gallant little band, but failed dismally, and they had not the heart to try to take the kopje by storm, though there were enough of them around the hill to have eaten the little band of Britishers. In the meantime Captain Godley and his men held the township. Again and again the enemy threatened to rush the place, but their valour melted before the determined front of the besieged, and they drew off, taking their gun with them, their scouts having warned them that the Australians, with a section of the Royal Horse Artillery and two guns, were coming upon them from the direction of Belmont, whilst a body of the 12th Lancers and a battery of artillery were dashing down from Modder River. The Australians, who are now 720 strong, the New South Wales Company of 125 men having joined Colonel Head's forces, remained at Enslin, and entrenched there in order to keep open the line of communication between General Methuen's army and Orange River; a section of Royal Horse Artillery and two guns is with them. On half a dozen occasions the Boers have threatened to sweep down upon them from the hilly country adjacent, but up to the time of writing nothing serious has occurred.
On Sunday last we heard the sound of heavy firing coming from the direction of Modder River; scouts coming in informed us that an engagement between General Methuen's force and the enemy, under the astute General Cronje, had commenced. Seeing that Australia was liable to remain idle for the time being, I determined to push on with my assistant, Mr. E. Monger, of Coolgardie, West Australia. When we arrived at Modder River we found the fight raging at a spot about four and a half miles beyond Modder River bridge. Our forces were in possession of the river and the plain beyond; but General Cronje had entrenched himself in a line of ranges stretching for several miles across the veldt. So well had the Boer general chosen his ground, and such good use had he made of the natural advantages of his position, that the British found themselves face to face with an African Gibraltar. The frowning rocks were bristling with rifles, which commanded the plain below, trenches seamed the hillsides in all directions, and in those trenches lay concealed the picked marksmen of the veldt--men who, though they know but little of soldiering from a European point of view, yet had been familiar with the rifle from earliest boyhood; rough and uncouth in appearance, dressed in farmers' garb, still under those conditions, fighting under a general they knew and trusted, amidst surroundings familiar to them from infancy, they were foemen worthy of the respect of the veteran troops of any nation under heaven.
At every post of vantage Cronje, with consummate generalship, had posted his artillery so that it would be almost impossible for our guns to silence them, whilst at the same time he could sweep the plains below should our infantry attempt to storm the heights at the point of the bayonet. At the bottom of the kopjes, right under the muzzle of his guns, he had excavated trenches deep enough to hide his riflemen, but he had thrown up no earthworks, so that our guns could not locate the exact spot where his rifle trenches lay. All the earth from the trenches had been very carefully removed, and the low blue bush which covers these plains completely screened his trenches from view. In front of the trenches, and extending some considerable distance out in front of the veldt, the clever Boer leader had placed an immense amount of barbed wire entanglement, so fashioned that no cavalry could live amongst it, whilst even the very flower of our infantry would find it hard work to charge over it, even in daylight. The Boer forces are variously estimated at from 12,000 to 15,000 men. The number and nature of their guns can only be guessed at, but that the enemy's men are well supplied in that respect there can be no question. Our forces I estimate at about 11,000 men of all arms, including the never-to-be-forgotten section of the Naval Brigade, to whom England owes a debt of gratitude too deep for words to portray; for their steadiness, valour, and accuracy of shooting saved England from disaster on this the blackest day that Scotland has known since the Crimea.
Our troops extended over many miles of country. Every move had to be made in full view of the enemy upon a level plain where a collie dog could not have moved unperceived by those foemen hidden so securely behind impregnable ramparts. During the whole of Sunday our gunners played havoc with the enemy, the shooting of the Naval Brigade being of such a nature that even thus early in the fight the big gun of the bluejackets, with its 42-pound lyddite shell, struck terror into the hearts of the enemy. But the Boers were not idle. Whenever our infantry, in manoeuvring, came within range'of their rifles, our ranks began to thin out, and the blood of our gallant fellows dyed the sun-baked veldt in richest crimson.
During the night that followed it was considered expedient that the Highland Brigade, about 4,000 strong, under General Wauchope, should get close enough to the lines of the foe to make it possible to charge the heights. At midnight the gallant, but ill-fated, general moved cautiously through the darkness towards the kopje where the Boers were most strongly entrenched. They were led by a guide, who was supposed to know every inch of the country, out into the darkness of an African night. The brigade marched in line of quarter-column, each man stepping cautiously and slowly, for they knew that any sound meant death. Every order was given in a hoarse whisper, and in whispers it was passed along the ranks from man to man; nothing was heard as they moved towards the gloomy, steel-fronted heights but the brushing of their feet in the veldt grass and the deep-drawn breaths of the marching men.
So, onward, until three of the clock on the morning of Monday. Then out of the darkness a rifle rang, sharp and clear, a herald of disaster--a soldier had tripped in the dark over the hidden wires laid down by the enemy. In a second, in the twinkling of an eye, the searchlights of the Boers fell broad and clear as the noonday sun on the ranks of the doomed Highlanders, though it left the enemy concealed in the shadows of the frowning mass of hills behind them. For one brief moment the Scots seemed paralysed by the suddenness of their discovery, for they knew that they were huddled together like sheep within fifty yards of the trenches of the foe. Then, clear above the confusion, rolled the voice of the general--"Steady, men, steady!"--and, like an echo to the veterans, out came the crash of nearly a thousand rifles not fifty paces from them. The Highlanders reeled before the shock like trees before the tempest. Their best, their bravest, fell in that wild hail of lead. General Wauchope was down, riddled with bullets; yet, gasping, dying, bleeding from every vein, the Highland chieftain raised himself on his hands and knees, and cheered his men forward. Men and officers fell in heaps together.
The Black Watch charged, and the Gordons and the Seaforths, with a yell that stirred the British camp below, rushed onward--onward to death or disaster. The accursed wires caught them round the legs until they floundered, like trapped wolves, and all the time the rifles of the foe sang the song of death in their ears. Then they fell back, broken and beaten, leaving nearly 1,300 dead and wounded just where the broad breast of the grassy veldt melts into the embrace of the rugged African hills, and an hour later the dawning came of the dreariest day that Scotland has known for a generation-past. Of her officers, the flower of her chivalry, the pride of her breeding, but few remained to tell the tale--a sad tale truly, but one untainted with dishonour or smirched with disgrace, for up those heights under similar circumstances even a brigade of devils could scarce have hoped to pass. All that mortal men could do the Scots did; they tried, they failed, they fell. And there is nothing left us now but to mourn for them, and avenge them; and I am no prophet if the day is distant when the Highland bayonet will write the name of Wauchope large and deep in the best blood of the Boers.
All that fateful day our wounded men lay close to the Boer lines under a blazing sun; over their heads the shots of friends and foes passed without ceasing. Many a gallant deed was done by comrades helping comrades; men who were shot through the body lay without water, enduring all the agony of thirst engendered by their wounds and the blistering heat of the day; to them crawled Scots with shattered limbs, sharing the last drop of water in their bottles, and taking messages to be delivered to mourning women in the cottage home of far-off Scotland. Many a last farewell was whispered by pain-drawn lips in between the ringing of the rifles, many a rough soldier with tenderest care closed the eyes of a brother in arms amidst the tempest and the stir of battle; and above it all, Cronje, the Boer general, must have smiled grimly, for well he knew that where the Highland Brigade had failed all the world might falter. All day long the battle raged; scarcely could we see the foe--all that met our eyes was the rocky heights that spoke with tongues of flame whenever our troops drew near. We could not reach their lines; it was murder, grim and ghastly, to send the infantry forward to fight a foe they could not see and could not reach. Once our Guards made a brilliant dash at the trenches, and, like a torrent, their resistless valour bore all before them, and for a few brief moments they got within hitting distance of the foe. Well did they avenge the slaughter of the Scots; the bayonets, like tongues of flame, passed above or below the rifles' guard, and swept through brisket and breastbone. Out of their trenches the Guardsmen tossed the Boers, as men in English harvest fields toss the hay when the reapers' scythes have whitened the cornfields; and the human sheaves were plentiful where the British Guardsmen stood. Then they fell back, for the fire from the heights above them fell thick as the spume of the surf on an Australian rock-ribbed coast. But the Guards had proved to the Boers that, man to man, the Briton was his master.
In vain all that day Methuen tried by every rule he knew to draw the enemy; vainly, the Lancers rode recklessly to induce those human rock limpets to come out and cut them off. Cronje knew the mettle of our men, and an ironic laugh played round his iron mouth, and still he stayed within his native fastness; but Death sat ever at his elbow, for our gunners dropped the lyddite shells and the howling shrapnel all along his lines, until the trenches ran blood, and many of his guns were silenced. In the valley behind his outer line of hills his dead lay piled in hundreds, and the slope of the hill was a charnel-house where the wounded all writhed amidst the masses of the dead; a ghastly tribute to British gunnery. For hours I stood within speaking distance of the great naval gun as it spoke to the enemy, and such a sight as their shooting the world has possibly never witnessed. Not a shell was wasted; cool as if on the decks of a pleasure yacht our tars moved through the fight, obeying orders with smiling alacrity. Whenever the signal came from the balloon above us that the enemy were moving behind their lines, the sailors sent a message from England into their midst, and the name of the messenger was Destruction; and when, at 1.30 p.m. of Tuesday, we drew off to Modder River to recuperate we left a ghastly pile of dead and wounded of grim old Cronje's men as a token that the lion of England had bared his teeth in earnest.
Three hundred yards to the rear of the little township of Modder River, just as the sun was sinking in a blaze of African splendour on the evening of Tuesday, the 13th of December, a long, shallow grave lay exposed in the breast of the veldt. To the westward, the broad river, fringed with trees, ran murmuringly, to the eastward, the heights still held by the enemy scowled menacingly, north and south, the veldt undulated peacefully; a few paces to the northward of that grave fifty dead Highlanders lay, dressed as they had fallen on the field of battle; they had followed their chief to the field, and they were to follow him to the grave. How grim and stern those dead men looked as they lay face upward to the sky, with great hands clenched in the last death agony, and brows still knitted with the stern lust of the strife in which they had fallen. The plaids dear to every Highland clan were represented there, and, as I looked, out of the distance came the sound of the pipes; it was the General coming to join his men. There, right under the eyes of the enemy, moved with slow and solemn tread all that remained of the Highland Brigade. In front of them walked-the chaplain, with bared head, dressed in his robes of office, then came the pipers, with their pipes, sixteen in all, and behind them, with arms reversed, moved the Highlanders, dressed in all the regalia of their regiments, and in the midst the dead General, borne by four of his comrades. Out swelled the pipes to the strains of "The Flowers of the Forest," now ringing proud and high until the soldier's head went back in haughty defiance, and eyes flashed through tears like sunlight on steel; now sinking to a moaning wail, like a woman mourning for her first-born, until the proud heads dropped forward till they rested on heaving chests, and tears rolled down the wan and scarred faces, and the choking sobs broke through the solemn rhythm of the march of death. Right up to the grave they marched, then broke away in companies, until the General lay in the shallow grave with a Scottish square of armed men around him, only the dead man's son and a small remnant of his officers stood with the chaplain and the pipers whilst the solemn service of the Church was spoken.
Then once again the pipes pealed out, and "Lochaber No More" cut through the stillness like a cry of pain, until one could almost hear the widow in her Highland home moaning for the soldier she would welcome back no more. Then, as if touched by the magic of one thought, the soldiers turned their tear-damp eyes from the still form in the shallow grave towards the heights where Cronje, the "lion of Africa," and his soldiers stood. Then every cheek flushed crimson, and the strong jaws set like steel, and the veins on the hands that clasped the rifle barrels swelled almost to bursting with the fervour of the grip, and that look from those silent, armed men spoke more eloquently than ever spoke the tongues of orators. For on each frowning face the spirit of vengeance sat, and each sparkling eye asked silently for blood. God help the Boers when next the Highland pibroch sounds! God rest the Boers' souls when the Highland bayonets charge, for neither death, nor hell, nor things above, nor things below, will hold the Scots back from their blood feud. At the head of the grave, at the point nearest the enemy, the General was laid to sleep, his officers grouped around him, whilst in line behind him his soldiers were laid in a double row, wrapped in their blankets. No shots were fired over the dead men resting so peacefully, only the salute was given, and then the men marched campwards as the darkness of an African night rolled over the far-stretching breadth of the veldt. To the gentlewoman who bears their General's name the Highland Brigade sends its deepest sympathy. To the mothers and the wives, the sisters and the sweethearts, in cottage home by hillside and glen they send their love and good wishes--sad will their Christmas be, sadder the new year. Yet, enshrined in every womanly heart, from Queen Empress to cottage girl, let their memory lie, the memory of the men of the Highland Brigade who died at Magersfontein.