previous
next



  ― 99 ―

Chapter VII The Battle

THE long rocky ridges overlooking the road down which the Boer convoy disappeared at dusk last evening is a bleak, windswept, unhappy place at dawn. It has been an unhappy place all through the long darkness—a lonely, inhospitable, barren perch upon which lost souls might roost and bemoan their fates in the small hours and be in keeping with their surroundings, but where flesh and blood feels that it is distinctly a trial of patience and endurance to spend eight freezing hours.

All night the bitter wind has whined and whistled through the rocks, moaning sadly in the long dry grass and about the scanty bushes, thrusting its icy hand into one's very body through cloak, and tunic, and jumper, and woollen shirt. To stand upon the summit keeping watch had been as though one walked naked along the weather side of a ship's deck in Southern seas. The clear brightness of the stars blazing and twinkling in a cloudless sky overhead has accentuated the keen chill of existence on this iceberg,


  ― 100 ―
glacier, snowfield—anything but good, dry, warm, hospitable earth.

At dusk, our rifles had flamed long-range volleys into the valley, and we had prayed for just one little field-gun, for just one handy Maxim to reach the crawling oxen, that slowly and haltingly, but bravely and surely, dragged the last of the Boers' waggons into safety and escape behind the little rise that covered their crossing to the river. We had been too few to make the sudden dash that would have given them to us, too far ahead of the slow batteries that might have wrecked and splintered wheels and disselbooms and covers, and mowed down the patient oxen where they toiled laboriously to shelter. One Maxim might have done it. One pom-pom would have captured them at five thousand yards, but our little carbines could not check the slow escape at half that distance.

Once, as the last waggon came slowly into the field of fire, it had halted and remained. Through glasses, the spit of the hailing nickel had made on the ground about it a little dust squall. Two yoke of oxen fell before it, and the cart seemed to be over. Yet brave men had come through the storm of death leading slow oxen, and had gallantly drawn the waggon the hundred yards that had to be crossed before it disappeared from out straining eyesight in the fast gathering gloom. Brave, dauntless, determined men those—whether sjambok-threatened Kaffirs or


  ― 101 ―
plucky Boers—and one could hardly hold back a cheer even, as the almost abandoned team crawled into safety round the shoulder of the tiny hillock.

The Boer may be an unenlightened, slothful ‘waster’. He may not have too well-defined notions as to treachery and guile. He may play the white flag trick—but he is no coward. Black-hearted Ben Viljoen had led a team of horses to save a pom-pom on the Tugela, alone and single-handed, and had saved it, and been credited with his brave deed; but that Boer or Kaffir driver who brought the slow bullocks into the rain of bullets in the cold dusk of that winter evening by the Gatsrand did something which, had it been a gun and he an Englishman, would have won for him the V.C. and a justly and well earned fame. In point of merit it was a deed no whit behind the saving of the guns of ‘Q’ Battery at Sanna's Post. Heaven alone knows now what the cart contained. Had it been bar-gold instead of possible mealies, or shells, or furniture, its salvation from us could not have been more worthy of respect, or more admirable and gallant than it was.

Here, at daylight, as the cold sky paled and yellowed and flamed into the crimson promise of a glorious day, we sat among the rocks and shivered. The ridge we had occupied through the night sloped, not very steeply, up from the valley we had been ascending all yesterday afternoon, but dropped in a sudden steepness below us into as fair a vale as ever man had gazed upon.




  ― 102 ―

A tree-lined river meandered down a flat. White farms dotted its banks, and little plots of ‘cultivation’. Beyond it stretched a grassy plain to the low, rocky foothills of a line of purple ranges over which towered one great berg higher than its fellows. All about the horizon weird spidery structures with tall smoke stacks stood out black and sharply cut against the fresh sky. Over all brooded the calm of early morning—the quiet peacefulness of a world not yet awake.

It was the promised land, the lost Eldorado of so many months which had been the ultimate cause of our coming from all the quarters of the globe—the rich, blood-bought gold-reef, which, argue as we may concerning the enlightenment we distribute with bullet and lyddite, or the visions of Dutch confederation which Paul Kruger and Steyn, his dupe, might have dreamed, was, and is, the great final casus belli of this bloody struggle between Dutch and English for supremacy in South Africa.

One could not gaze out over the quiet valley and beyond the dim ridges to where the great mine buildings stood—some of them still sending up thin columns of black smoke into the clear air, and still seeming to be worked—without feeling that here, at last, was the thing we had been marching, and starving, and getting fever, and dying for all these months past; that here, indeed, was the great reward of toil, and danger, and sickness, and blood that had been


  ― 103 ―
spilt as water over half a year and more. This was the thing that was to pay for Magersfontein, and Colenso, and Stormberg, and the Tugela—for the sufferings of the women and little children of Ladysmith, and Kimberley, and Mafeking. Here it was—a long system of a particular kind of dirt, occurring in a peculiar geological fashion and containing a yellow metal. This was the prize, the great bone of contention which the big dog was taking from the little one—and taking it simply because he could not avoid doing so.

O land of gold and greed, mysterious lying and open cheating, how much have you to answer for! The burned homes, the bullet-pocked walls, the new graves, the pestilential hospitals, the brave lives—how great and strong for good you will need to become ere you pay for all these! Treasure, and Life, and Love. These are the items of your vast indebtedness, and the last not the least. Do you think, Golden Rand, that you will ever liquidate your liabilities?

Over there, vaguely beyond the ranges, lies Johannesburg. Somewhere not very far across the veldt the ill-starred Jameson brought his idiotic raid to an inglorious finish. What a finish—we have not come to it yet.

The sun rises out of the shoulder of the great berg. There are no Boers in all the valley. Everything is still and tranquil, as it always should be in this vale


  ― 104 ―
of peace. From the farmhouses on the river bends the blue smoke curls up into the morning. Cocks crow distantly below our feet. The road that leads behind the little hillock stretches clear and white from out the narrow pass on our left hand. There is no sign or trace of the convoy that trekked along it yesternight, save a couple of black specks very far away that may be dead oxen.

They have all gone apparently—gone again as always. We march, and march, and march day after day, week after week, and we never come to handgrips with our wily foe. Will they ever stand and fight us? Will they ever give us the chance we want so badly of bringing the war to an end in one grand death-grip? Are we always to trek, trek, trek till the Day of Judgment, and never catch and close with them? Will they defend the city?

What a joke it would be to shell Johannesburg! From all accounts it would be a glorious place to wreck. And then—the loot. Think of it, you who own it—how would it be if we, the saviours of your dividends, had had to blast your assets with common shell. Our stars—but it would have been funny! Mayfair, Rondebosch, Durban, Delagoa—how you would have squirmed as you read. It would well-nigh have been as comfortable for you in the cold veldt, where you would, at least, have had the distraction of doing, as to be biting your nails and fuming impotently over the wires that told of your stores, and


  ― 105 ―
banks, and suburbs under the blighting influence of the Four-point-Sevens.

The sun rose higher. Up on the ridge the wind that blew all night had stopped the frost, but down in the sheltered shadow of the hills it covered the grass in great patches like thin snow. The cold breeze had died away at dawn, and now, though still bitterly raw to half-starved men, the day was slowly brightening and mellowing in the golden sunlight.

They were strange figures that huddled amongst the rocks. Unshaven, dirty, wolfish faces looked grimly out from woollen caps and mufflers as the tired men sat in their blue-black overcoats, with the great collars sticking up about their ears, carbines resting across knees, the thin reek of disreputable pipes tingeing the clear air.

Last night had been supperless. No one knew where the Brigade might be, save that it had halted somewhere behind in yesterday's valley. We could not see back to overlook it because the ridge was flat on top, and wide ere it fell away. The horses had remained at the foot with their holders all night. We had had no blankets, nothing to eat or drink, and there was going to be no breakfast. The day was bright enough, and the sky blue, and the view magnificent—but how may you appreciate a fine day, and an azure sky, and a glorious prospect when there is nothing in your inside but a hollow?

A man came up on the ridge who said we were to


  ― 106 ―
rejoin the Brigade and draw more ammunition. Had he mentioned biscuits or bully-beef he would have been appreciated and popular. As it was, the message he brought got him disliked. We had emptied our bandoliers into the convoy last evening, so that the order to replenish them out of the ammunition-cart hardly augured anything out of the common.

We gathered up haversacks and water-bottles, and wended our weak way down the slope to where the poor limp horses and the profane horse-holders hung their heads and cursed the cold night respectively.

The Brigade had camped below the ridge. The Fourth were across the valley, upon the other side of the pass, and Hutton's Mounted Infantry were tumbling along with their guns from behind. The long train of transport-waggons toiled up the valley.

When the little packets had been untied, and the slim cartridges stowed away in the bandoliers, we mounted and rode back to a farmhouse in the rear, where there was a dam, in order to water the horses. There was absolutely nothing left at that farm except some hay, which a foraging Cornstalk had discovered in a loft—hundreds of bundles of it. Fowls, pigs, sheep—everything—had been eaten up over night; so we watered our horses, and strapped two bundles of hay apiece to the rear of the saddles, and rode back to the Brigade, which was forming up to march.

Down through the narrow road between the hills


  ― 107 ―
the dingy column rolled heavily in the dust. Sweating engineers threw gravel and rocks into the ruts and ditches so that the jolting guns might pass by. Dragoons, Hussars, Cornstalks, Canadians chaffed, and spat, and smoked by the roadside. The cloud of fine white dust rose high into the air. If there were any Boers watching from the Berg they would know, without doubt, that the khakis were coming.

At the foot of the steep hills some sort of order evolved itself from chaos. Batteries pieced themselves together again. Harassed mules drew bumping Scotch carts to their rightful regiments. Troops, and squadrons, and regiments and brigades reformed.

The Fourth Brigade drew away to the left, and rode to find a crossing-place higher up the river. We went on down the road, past the hillock where the dead trek-oxen lay, and a little pool of dried blood had congealed by the side of the track—past a white house, and a garden, and a store on to a short wooden bridge that led across the little stream, and where the column narrowed into ‘files’ and crossed more slowly, the scouts spreading out and galloping over the plains beyond the farther bank.

The trees along the river were beautiful weeping willows, shady elms and great Cape-mulberries. Then the flat extended before us—waving grass that shone as a wheat-field in the morning sunlight—and stretched away to a low line of rocky kopjes immediately in front, and a short two miles away, sweeping


  ― 108 ―
round the left extremity of the tiny range and on up into low rolling ridges. Beyond the line of rocks towards which we moved there was another and a higher series, separated from the first by a gently rising plain. Beyond them, again, rose taller hills, and from their midst the great blue Berg dominated all, and seemed to frown upon us as we came riding over the plain.

The quiet glory of a divine day rested over everything. Doves cooed musically in the river timber, one red-brick house to the left nestled in a bend. Six tall poplars grew before it, bare and leafless now. The inevitable white flag flew from a chimney.

As we left the bridge and the river we spread out across the plain in long lines twenty yards apart. Each man was fifty from his right and left hand neighbour. Something was in the wind, but no one knew what. Perhaps Johnny French had known, and that was why we extended so rapidly to the most open of open order as we came on to the wide plain.

Until the guns open you never know that you are going into battle. So many times were the usual precautions against surprise taken by the leaders, and so many times did emptiness of event characterise the day's operations, that we had begun to be sceptical as to whether ‘opening out’ really meant anything or not—whether all preparation for possible combat were not, after all, a mere matter of form. There were, of course, signs and omens that might point to


  ― 109 ―
an engagement, as, for instance, when the ‘Pick-me-ups’ (ambulance waggons) followed close up to the firing line. But, as a rule, it was never safe to prophesy an action until the first Boer shell came howling overhead. Brer' Boer was so very much an adept at lyin' low an' sayin' nuffin' until the time came when he considered he might say it with most effect, that it frequently came about that you were in the midst of a hot fire although, half an hour before, you would have readily betted against any possibility of such an eventuality. And, just as frequently, after you had been cautiously ‘feeling’ some ‘dirty’ country for half an afternoon you would find that he was not there.

You are half across the plain now—riding loosely and carelessly through the rich grass, the hungry horses reaching greedily for a mouthful of it every now and then. The black dots of scouts have reached and passed the first line of rocks. They are in the little strip of open country between that ridge and the next.

Ping-pong!

“Hullo! what's that?” you ask yourself aloud, at the same time gathering up the loose reins and pulling your horse together. All eyes are straining after the specks that move across the open, but, as you ride forward, the ridge in front just hides them.

Ping-pong! ping-pong! ping, ping, ping-pong! pong, pong—p-r-r-r-r-r-mp!—ping-pong! ping-pong!


  ― 110 ―
It is the overture. A running, ripping, far away crashing of rifle-fire comes from the second ridges. You cannot see the scouts, but you know how they are racing. They are getting it ‘pretty hot,’ and somehow it seems to you rather funny.

Ah! Now it is our turn.

Far away, on the left shoulder of the great Berg, a little white cloud, wonderfully clear and distinct, has risen into the blue sky. You have seen it before—that beautiful, white, woolly cloud.

For a long time nothing seems to come of it. Five, ten, fifteen seconds slip by and the day is just as still, and calm, and beautiful as before. Twenty seconds—and a deep, solemn, reverberating ‘boom-m’ trembles through the clear air.

“It's close now. Is the dam thing coming my way?”

The great Creusot shell suddenly whistles and howls high overhead, and, almost as soon as you have heard it in the air, it bursts with a thunderous, sudden ‘bang!’ that cuts short its devilish song, throwing up a great column of dust and dirt and stones behind you, and seeming to blow a man and a horse who are near it into a thousand pieces. Almost before the dust and blue smoke and smell of powder have drifted away you see that man pulling his astonished charger on to its feet again! The long lines of horse-men move slowly over the plain.

It is the first note of an infernal symphony which is to be played all day.




  ― 111 ―

Again the solemn ‘boom-m’—but this time from another place, and with no white cloud. Again the shrieking flutter in the sky, and again the crashing burst and flying stones—away to your left.

Still the steady lines move forward.

From the Berg the white tuft of smoke once more drifts up, slowly and peacefully, into the blueness. This time you count the seconds carefully. Between ‘nineteen’ and ‘twenty’ the great gun booms out its note to you.

There are no sound symbols to express that rushing, howling, whining whir-r-r, as the ninety-six pounds of destructiveness cleave their rapid, invisible way through the air—but it is a sound which you will never confuse with any other in your life.

The abrupt explosion again cuts it short. This one bursts just short of the leading line. You rapidly reckon up the range. Twenty seconds divided by five gives four. Roughly, you are four miles away from the black-powder Creusot. It is somewhere about seven thousand yards.

Good shooting! They have put in one just too far and another just too short. The next ought to do something.

Two more hurtling shots from the invisible Long Toms dig harmless holes in the veldt to left and right.

The whole plain is full of horsemen now. They come on—quietly, ordered, slow—towards the rocks.


  ― 112 ―
It is the wonder of discipline. Nobody enjoys being shelled. Every one would rather be somewhere else. It is no ‘picnic’ to behold sudden death arriving by the hundredweight. Hardest of all is it to walk your nervous horse, and to keep the intervals and ‘dressing’ of the open ranks so that you do not bunch. But just because that cool Colonel—who is as a gentle old lady in camp—gives no order and makes no sign you ride forward, a better man than in all your life before, because you have learned your lesson of blind obedience, even unto Death.

Some squadrons edge over to the open ground on the left that passes by the end of the ridge. We are evidently going to occupy those rocks.

The Berg puffs its smoke into the sky once again. Again the long waiting. Again the weird scream—and then—b-r-rump! bang!—the shell plumps right into the midst of the moving swarm of horsemen, a hundred yards to your right front and close beside a horse. Through the drifting dust and dull smoke you see him lifted off his legs backwards and thrown to the ground across his rider. You notice that a hind leg kicks feebly—once, twice—and is still. The man's head and shoulders are towards you. His left hand neighbour digs in the spurs, gallops suddenly to where the lifeless heap of man and horse lies in the grass beside a great new hole, and dismounts and bends over the stricken pair.

Suddenly his hand goes up, and he seems to have


  ― 113 ―
called, for another man races to the spot. Together they drag, and pull, and shove—and, ere you are past, one of them is supporting a reeling, drunken, limp-legged figure who is, mirabile dictu, yet alive—though he himself does not seem quite certain of the fact. He staggers back on foot, his comrades' arms about his shoulders, and sits down on the ground with his dazed head in his hands.

The fear of God is in your heart, but still you ride slowly forward.

From somewhere in the second line of rocks a new note reaches you. It is closer and louder, and so close that you are able to see the faint vapour of each discharge slowly curling above the bushes. Almost as soon as the sound of it, comes another rending ‘bang’ in the air above, and a beautiful cloudlet forms itself out of nothing and sends a sudden rush of screeching shrapnel bullets tearing up the dust—just where no one happens to be.

The three great guns in the background are dropping their ponderous missiles all about the flat now. The air is full of their rushing flight. One of them has discovered a Horse Battery as it comes out from the river across the flat behind us. It is galloping ‘for all it is worth,’ and the great shells drop closer and closer each time, seeming to cover it with dust, but not to check it.

That Battery Commander knows what he is about. The Red-Books teach him to bring his guns out in


  ― 114 ―
a clump, affording thereby an excellent target for Long Tom, instead of sneaking them one by one into position. But he zig-zags this way and that, to left and right, across the plain, dodging, as it were, the range of the big fellows in the Berg.

Bang!—sudden, quick—in the rank ahead of you, right at a horse's head!

In the flash and roar of the bursting shell, you see the stricken man throw out his arms. As the horse rears backward he comes to the ground clear of him, and lies spread-eagled with limbs outstretched, and blackened, bleeding face staring dumbly into the smiling heavens.

God!—it was sudden. His brother is beside him, lifting a white, horror-stricken face, as he holds the battered head upon his knees.

“Come on, you fellows; never mind that man,” cries the troop-leader, trotting back to where you pause like a crowd at a street accident. You ride slowly past the dead man. It makes you feel bad inside, but wild to rush the fifteen-pounder on the second ridge which did the work.

Now, from its left, comes a sound you had been expecting. Pom-pom-pom-pom-pom-pom-pom-pom—like an even succession of heavy strokes upon a drum. Horridly screaming past, the little devils go ripping through the lines of horsemen, knocking the dust up all about, but doing no damage—crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack!




  ― 115 ―

As the ridge draws closer the din becomes terrific. The great cannon by the Berg boom out their solemn notes unceasingly, and their terrible missiles keep on dropping all about the plain, throwing up huge red spouts of dust and dirt like miniature volcanoes in eruption. From a closer range five or six lighter pieces of artillery shell the ground energetically to our left, as the greater part of the troops on the plain edge that way. There is a continual screaming, rushing noise that fills all the sky. The day shakes and trembles with the Titanic crashing sounds. All the devils of hell are loose about the world.

As we halt below the ridge the Berg sends a messenger to the left extremity of the rocks. It lands where they join the alluvial. Such heaps of flying stones and clods of earth spin up from where it strikes as to make you feel that the kopje is in danger of falling down.

The pom-pom in front is turning its attention to the right now, where a regiment of Canadians are stretching at a gallop to seize the flank of the ridge we occupy. The fifteen-pounder sends a message to us to quit, but it flies overhead low down and bursts behind the horses. This little gun means to give some trouble.

Dismounted, with carbines—we are crouching in the rocks and grass, spread out all along the ridge. The plain stretches grassy and fair before us to where that


  ― 116 ―
horrid gun works just beyond our reach. Its almost invisible haze shows faintly among the bushes. Another shell comes and bursts in the air lower down—a hundred yards too short—and tears the ground with shrapnel. We seem to be in for a warm time of it if we stay here. Another shot, and they will have our range accurately, and will pepper us.

But suddenly the quick, loud crack of cordite seems to burst in our very ears. Something roars overhead. A little tuft of smoke lifts above the opposite ridge some way beyond the Boer gun. Our own batteries are coming into action behind. We are between two fires. Long Tom howls over us at the battery, the battery spits at the fifteen-pounder within its reach. They lose no time.

Our vis-à-vis bursts a shell in the rocks, and a flying stone breaks a man's arm. Quickly again comes the smack of the cordite—and again, and again, in rapid succession.

There is a rushing wind above our heads, a diminishing roar as they cross the flat, and the three shells seem to land right on the Boer gun. He does not speak any more—at least, not from that position.

Heavens above! but it is good to hear the bark of our own little guns. They are little and light, but there are none in all the world so well served as those of the R.H.A. They snap and snarl at the great baying Long Tom just as a terrier baits a mastiff, and they work in under his far-reaching fire, and discomfort


  ― 117 ―
his gunners with shrapnel in the most impudent way conceivable.

The battery behind continues to shell the ridge over our heads for a little time longer. They search it with ‘shrapnel,’ and knock the rocks about with ‘common,’ and generally seem to inflict discomfort on its occupants. We seem to be the focus of all the sounds of war.

The battery draws all the fire from Long Tom. The shells seem to burst between the guns. They set fire to the grass. The battery limbers-up, and presently opens for a new place. A squadron of mounted infantry comes out of the river and rides back and forward to draw Long Tom's attention from the battery as it changes ground.

Great columns of smoke veil the hills behind as the fires amongst the grass spread rapidly, leaving black patches upon the veldt.

previous
next