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Chapter VIII The Battle (Continued)

ALL the fight is upon our left hand now. The great cannon of the Berg send their plunging missiles into the soft veldt soil where no one is. They seem to be making gravel-pits.

Assuredly, we are shelved for the day in these rocks. The Brigades are over there, trying to edge round the enemy's right flank; but they are getting a warm reception. Since the fifteen-pounder has become silent our end of the ridge has remained unmolested.

Not so on the right. Ther is a rolling crash of rifle-fire, and there had been the horrid barking of the Boer pom-pom, half a mile from us. The Canadians are being wiped off the face of the kopje, apparently.

But only ‘apparently’. In reality, the ‘boys’ are skilfully ‘verneuking’ those past masters of ‘verneukery’—the Johannesburg Police. We did not hear of it until several nights afterward, but it was very neat.

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Opposite the end of the ridge where the Canadians were a large commando of Boers occupied a closer-sweeping spur of ‘Fifteen-pounder Ridge,’ well within rifle range. For an hour or more both sides had steadily exchanged shots. The Boers had brought up a pom-pom, and for a time, until silenced by a section of a Horse Battery which had crept up unseen from the river, had worried the Canadians over-much. It was evident that the Boers greatly coveted the position of the latter, and meant to have it if such were possible.

Then the O.C. Canadians did a clever thing. Suddenly calling upon his men to retire, and causing them to mount their horses behind the kopje—the while they cursed him fervently for a coward below their breaths—he galloped his regiment along the rear of the ridge, so that they passed between a gap in it and a smaller elevation behind, and must have seemed to the Boers to be in full and hurried retreat. Once past the gap, he wheeled them quickly behind the little isolated hill that faced it, and waited there ten minutes. A single remaining subaltern watched with his field-glasses from the rocks whence they had come.

Five, six, seven, ten minutes—the Boers kept up a hailing fire upon the ridge, to which there was no reply. They had seen the Canadians stand up to retire, and then ride past the gap, and by now must have felt that the desired position was theirs for the taking.

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So out they came into the open—a wildly galloping mob of several hundred horsemen. From behind a boulder the sub. waved his pocket-handkerchief.

Now was the chance of the ‘darned ol' Colonel’. Back they went at a gallop to the kopje. The lieutenant upon its top was signalling frantically from his rock. The racing Boers were half across the open.

Up through the rocks swarmed the eager regiment. Below the crest they halted, and, following the example of their commander and his officers, stole forward cautiously on hands and knees to the edge that overlooked the plain. Great boulders, and grass, and bushes shielded them from sight. They spread about the top, and laid their cartridges out in convenient heaps, and adjusted sights and elbow-rests. They were to do the thing in style this time.

On and on swept the excited Boers. Oh! but it must have been grand to see the Zarps—the tricky, slim, patrol-getting Zarps, to whom we all owed so much that we wished to repay—riding witlessly into Gehenna. No one fired a shot at them—the Colonel was to judge how close they should come. Nothing was to be done but keep on fixing the sights as the range altered and decreased. It would be a little Bunker's Hill.

At five hundred yards the noise of the thundering hoofs was plain and loud. At four, they were racing for who should be first into the coveted position

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whence might be raked the whole ridge. It must have been exciting for the Canadians.

On—on—on to three hundred. A fine man on a grey pony led the van, his great beard flowing back against his chest. Now and then he waved his rifle overhead and yelled. It was the Dutch equivalent to a cavalry charge.

Two hundred yards away and they still galloped. The murderous blue barrels of the Lee-Metfords poked out amongst the rocks. Keen eyes were glancing along the steady barrels. Strong hands held men's lives in the twitching of dirty forefingers.

A rifle cracked from the middle of the kopje, and the black-bearded leader left his saddle with startling sudden limpness, and was merely a bleeding heap of clothing in the grass.

Then—what a hell it must have been amongst the Boers; such a hell as they had so often loosed on us, such a hell as must have been at Magersfontein, and amongst the guns at Colenso. For all its length the kopje cracked out smokeless, flameless death. Half a dozen saddles emptied themselves, and as many horses kicked, crippled, in the grass.

On they came still, for twenty yards or so, and many more fell ere they had all turned and were racing back for their lives, leaving a wake of dead and wounded behind them as they fled. Five, six, seven, eight hundred yards, and the little spirts of dust still splashed between the reeling horses. A

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thousand—and two rounds of shrapnel caught them up and hastened their scurry into the rocks and bushes. Back from the shelter of the bushes came a patter of bullets amongst the Canadians.

The two British guns behind plentifully scattered favours amongst the rocks whither the discomfited Boers had betaken themselves, and presently their fire died away. Forty of them were killed and wounded and made prisoners. Truly, the ‘slim’ Zarp had met a ‘slimmer’ than himself!

Without pause the great guns had boomed all through the forenoon, and at mid-day the air still trembled with their vibration. We knew nothing of what was going on elsewhere.

A shining, dancing shimmer of mirage hid the veldt to the left. A great voice came from the placid lake, and where the Creusot shells dropped into its glittering bosom dust and gravel splashed up instead of water. Our own guns were barking from the mirage, but although they may have done good work in silencing the cannon of smaller calibre which were shelling from a closer range they could not approach Long Tom. It was cruelly galling to have to receive all his remarks, without having any chance of joining in the argument.

Nevertheless, the work of the Royal Horse Artillery, as always, was the most excellent thing about the day's operations. Often and often whole batteries sneaked in under the long range of the big fellow—zig-zagging

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to and fro, literally dodging the heavy projectiles he pelted at them—and burst their little shrapnel in the air above, so that the Dutch gunners found it all too hot about the breeches, and more expedient for the time being to rest under cover at a distance. But whilst one was temporarily out of action, the others would concentrate their fire, and by sheer weight of metal compel the withdrawal of the plucky twelve-pounders and their intrepid gunners.

And here it may not be amiss to remark, that of all branches of the Imperial army none struck the amateur soldier as being so worthy of praise and appreciation as the Royal Artillery. On the whole, the ‘regulars’ were a disappointment. It seemed to most of us that the army lacked in every essential that was to be effective in such wars as the present, save one or two. It was brave—that went without saying and as a matter of course. It was well drilled—but what did all its training count for here; or what will it count for in the future? It had found ‘Brown Bess’ very useful in the past; it had done much with the muzzle-loading rifle. Earlier still, it had distinguished itself with spears and bows and arrows. It had used swords with much effect in the days when ranges were numbered, both for cannon and small arms, by the lower hundreds, instead of thousands, of yards. And it clung to the tradition of the smooth-bore and the sabre, even whilst it used the breech-loading gun and the magazine rifle. Because

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it had found volleys effective against, say, ten thousand men who covered a front of five hundred yards and had a depth in formation of not very many more, it clung to them affectionately in cases where five hundred men extended over a front of ten thousand yards, and had no depth at all. And it made many kinds of a fool of itself on many separate occasions simply by its slavish adherence to systems that nowadays are effective nowhere but on the melodramatic stage.

But the gunners—they were good, good beyond all question or doubt. They, too, had their ancient drill to hamper their mobility and movement. They, too, had the traditions that bands playing into action represent. The heavy harness, the useless kit, the blundering methods of transport were theirs as much as the Cavalry's and Infantry's. But they knew how to use their weapons, and no amount of discouragement ever affected their effectiveness. To silence a British gun you must kill its gunners; even to interfere with the carrying out of its work in any degree at all you must, at the very least, wound half its crew. The Artillery were brave, cool, self-sacrificing, level-headed, disciplined, devoted—altogether admirable. The last word sums them up in toto—they were ‘admirable’. Only—their guns might have been better.

Of the Field Artillery we, of French's Division, were unable to judge. One had only heard the booming of their distant guns; but, if they be but

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one-half so efficient, brave and skilful as their brethren of the Royal Horse, they must come near to being the second ‘crack’ corps of the British army.

Noon passed. There was nothing to eat. The horses had had the bundles of hay, which they ‘wolfed’ ravenously, but we had only a couple of holes in our belts—a diet which is by no means sustaining. The guns and pom-poms dinned as loudly as ever, and, occasionally, there was a faint, fierce crackle of rifle-fire far on the left. The mirage had faded away by one o'clock.

Two o'clock—and we lay sleeping in the warm sunlight upon the ridge. Officers strolled about chatting to one another, and looking through glasses at the distant bodies of troops manœuvring in the haze-enveloped veldt. Below the ridge, the worn horses dozed dejectedly. We seemed to have become mere spectators in the ‘Theatre of War’.

But, at half-past three, there came a diversion. In the rising plain that lay between our position and the opposite ledge of rocks was a shallow spruit—a mere depression. It led out from the hills, and lost itself in the veldt. The rocks and scrub where the Boers had had their troublesome fifteen-pounder earlier in the day were beyond our rifle-range. It was the same series of little hills from which the Johannesburg Police had made their fatal raid, but, at our end, was much much further away than where it faced the Canadians. We knew that we were safe

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from rifle-fire delivered from the rocks, but the depression in the veldt had not been reckoned with.

A lengthy trooper sat smoking on a rock. For the time being he had ceased to be a trooper with a regimental number. He had become a general—and a very ‘swagger’ general too. From time to time he removed the pipe from his lips, and made caustic comment on the British army and the leaders thereof. Six feet two, straight-backed, broad-shouldered, bronzed and long of limb—sitting there in the sunlight, he struck one as a picture of youthful grace and masculine beauty of form and figure impossible to match. A stubbly growth of beard clouded his strong jaw. The dark shadow of the helmet-peak lay across his eyes and brow in a sharp, black line. His carbine was beside him on the rock. One felt almost proud that the Western Plains could produce so perfect a specimen of glowing manhood. Perched up there against the sky-line, he was a goodly thing to look at. And some Dutch sharpshooter found him an equally goodly thing to shoot at from the spruit.

He said—what he said does not matter. It had no possible reference to the scenery, or himself, or any other person on earth. But the way he said it made it mean a great deal.

There was a furrow cut across his shoulders from left to right. His jacket was ruined, and his back grooved with a scar, which will only fade as he decomposes finally.

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“Damned inconvenient,” he remarked as an after-thought. No doubt it was.

The Mausers rumbled in the spruit—the Mauser bullets cracked and splashed about the rocks where we were and whined plaintively in the air.

It was startling—but we knew the range of the spruit, and although the best that we could see was an occasional crouching figure or a peeping head, and the distance was a good thousand yards, we set to to make it too warm for them to lie in. They had themselves similar intentions as to our kopje.

Everybody lay now behind the most convenient rock. From the whole three squadrons a crackling din of cordite ripped amongst the stones. The two English squadrons fired precise and admirable volleys. The Cornstalk one fired as its individual members thought fit. The so-called ‘explosive’ bullets cracked like little whips, as they struck near by where you lay.

It is a weird, blood-chilling sound when you hear it for the first time—the whistling of those little deaths in the still air. Not exactly a whistle is it either—something between that and a whir-r, but very business-like and brisk. At first you think that every second of time will be your last upon earth. A bullet flicks your ear, and you make up your mind to take the next one as bravely as may be, and fully expect it to come quickly. Death—sudden, and sure, and bloody—seems inevitable, and, in your heart of

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hearts, you are afraid—terribly, wofully, loathsomely afraid.

But Death passes overhead, or spits in the dust beside you; and by-and-bye you become familiar with him, and find out that he is not such a bad fellow at all—not nearly so keen on getting you as you had imagined him to be. And you become a fatalist—a mere unthinking fatalist. If you are to ‘stop one,’ one will be stopped by your body. If you are to come out scatheless you will do so. In the meantime, your life will be much pleasanter if you don't worry over your chances.

This is a kind of courage. You know that there is danger in those whining voices. You quite realise that the next moment may be your last; but a little custom causes you to regard it all philosophically, and, although to most men being under fire is never a pleasant matter, it becomes an in no wise serious one.

Some there are who have never known what fear is—but they are creatures deficient in nervous organisation, who lack a primary instinct, and who, not knowing what it is to be slavishly afraid, can never rise to the height of overcoming themselves, and doing their duty in spite of the most awful trial to which the mind of man may be subjected whilst he holds his reason.

The cracking bullets continue to smite the rocks viciously. The air still hums with those that pass by. Far down the line you see, as you load, two

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Englishmen carrying away a limp comrade by his head and heels. No one seems to be ‘stopping one’ in your vicinity.

But for the pointed rifles and the noise there is nothing visible to indicate a fight—that is to say, nothing that you might photograph. The flying splashes of dust alone show where the enemy's bullets are hitting. Each time you fire there is only a very blue haze in front of your rifle-barrel—so faint that you cannot see it before the rifle of the next man to you.

Over the rocks behind come sweating men carrying a Maxim in their arms. One has the gun itself, another the tripod, others the grey boxes of belted ammunition. A clean-shaven youth directs them.

They pass through the firing-line, and go half-way down the front of the little ridge. Here they set up their pretty toy as coolly as though they were merely a party of surveyors erecting a theodolite to run a line. Some one adjusts a belt of cartridges.

The bullets spit all round them and in between the legs of the tripod and the feet of the sergeant who is laying the gun. The languid officer walks up and down behind, holding a pair of field-glasses, a lighted cigarette between his lips, and issuing quiet orders in a voice indicative rather of boredom than of anything else.

Tat-tat-tat-tat!—all in one breath, but each discharge distinct and clear, and of a note exactly similar

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to the one preceding it—the sergeant tries a ‘sighter’. The lieutenant raises his glasses.

The Boers must be lying low along the edge of the depression nearest us to fire. It is not deep enough to shelter them as they walk about.

“Try nine hundred,” says the officer. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat!—obediently replies the Maxim.

“Too short; make it a thousand.” Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat—into one long volume of speedy firing, the little gun raps out its stream of bullets—four hundred to the minute. The empty cartridge-cases, flying from the breech in a continuous stream too swift to see, tinkle on the ground ceaselessly. The belt empties itself—the spitting tube ceases its energetic babble for a moment or two, as a new belt is fitted on; then begins again. The sergeant sweeps the barrel about, pauses, tries new ranges—handles the gun as one who knows its every whim. He is a fine cool man that sergeant, and a very handsome one. Under the hailing nickel he sits and works that invaluable weapon deliberately, steadily, competently. He is the very centre of a little dust-storm raised by the pelting bullets. The Boers are making a target of the gun. Yet he is never scratched. One of the detachment is shot through the chest as he bends over a box of cartridge-belts. He sits in the grass, coughing out his lungs.

There is something brisk and inspiriting about the cheerful tapping of a Maxim in action. It has the air

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of one who says, “Keep it going, lads. Keep it going—we're knocking spots out of them!”

The edge of the depression from which the Boers had opened fire must have been a ‘warm’ spot under that pouring torrent of bullets, both from the machine gun and the carbines of the three squadrons. Under their combined influence the Boer fire slackened and died away gradually, a few lone whistles in the air, long after the main body must have evacuated the spruit, telling of the few brave men who were the last to leave—the Commandant and Field Cornets probably, staying behind after the men had refused to face it longer, to fire a parting shot or two at the hated English, in bitterness of soul and disappointment. It must be a hard thing for a gallant man, ready to sacrifice his own life—nominally commanding troops who have such liberty to use their own discretion as the Boer armies had—to contain his soul in comfort when his men refuse to carry out his orders.

We are left in peace again. The damage with us is slight—one man's coat ripped, and one man with a bullet through his forearm—but down the ridge one can see a doctor hurrying from heap to heap, and a few limp forms being carried down to the foot of the ridge. Their position was more exposed and less adapted to taking cover than was ours. Also, they probably did not possess quite such an aptitude for ‘taking cover’ as the Cornstalks.

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The man of the Maxim detachment who was wounded ten minutes ago is dead. He lies face downward in the grass, with his head resting on his folded arms and one leg crossed over the other—just as though asleep. Some one rolls him over to feel his heart. His eyes are half closed, and he is smiling through a hideous slobber of blood about the mouth. In his chest is a tiny hole, but in his back—a gaping, spongy rent. The kind of wound the soft-nose makes.

They buried him presently behind the ridge; and the ground was so hard that they could only dig the grave eighteen inches deep. So they had to pile stones above him. A friend belonging to the gun detachment had laconically remarked: “Puir old Jock—he wasna' a bad bloke”. That was his obituary; and, if you come to think of it, you and I will not have done so badly if some one can say that of us when our time has come.

It was four o'clock now, and the sun was getting low. The silly convoy was crossing the river behind us, and coming over the plain after the Division. That is just the senseless way of convoys—they never know that there are any shells to be drawn until one lands in an ammunition-waggon. It is very amusing to see a convoy getting shelled. We watched anxiously from the ridge in expectation of some entertainment.

The fighting was all very far to the left front now.

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The Division seemed to have been trying to sneak round the right flank of the Boer position all day. At one time, by pushing the Horse Batteries up under the fire of Long Tom, they had succeeded in silencing one of the great bullies; but the other two had spoken with such good effect that the batteries had been compelled to withdraw to a safer distance, and our friend of the tufting smoke, who had been also temporarily withdrawn, came back again and sang his song as merrily as ever.

It was an extraordinary sight that we beheld from our ridge late in the afternoon. The main part of the three brigades were massed upon a slope—or seeming to be massed—three miles away. In front of them, and hopelessly outranged, were the little ‘twelve-pounders,’ vainly replying to the big guns of the Boers. All the time the huge shells were dropping amongst our fellows, throwing up great spouting splashes of red dust plainly visible from where we stood. The far away boom of the cannon was ceaseless, regular, ominous. And it seemed to us that the slaughter in the Division must be awful. But it was not so. All the afternoon—we learned next day—they had had but two men killed and some twenty wounded.

Ah! Long Tom had espied the convoy. The shell burst close beside the line of waggons. The column of transport halted as if undecided what to do or how to do it. Another great burst seemed to tear

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up the veldt, even in the midst of all the crowded waggons. From our far-off position we could hear demoniac yells and screaming of the Kaffir drivers and the volleying creaking of their whips.

Another explosion just beyond the line. All seemed to be in a hopeless confusion, but at last we could see that the teams were turning about and beginning to literally race back over the way they had come. Of course it was all they could do.

But, vividly as one might realise how very unpleasant a thing it must be to drive a waggon with those howling hundred-pounders dropping all about, one could not help laughing at the way in which the Kaffirs bestirred themselves to reach a safer position. The long string of carts and waggons had come crawling up from the river, as though protesting against being dragged along until so late an hour in the day—the very slowness of their march seeming to say, “See how tired we are!” Now, their teams galloped. It was a scurry back to safety. They had barely come within the range of the big gun when he opened on them, but the first half-mile of their retirement was as a chariot race.

Right up to dark the Division clung to its uncomfortable position. The cannon on the Berg boomed without pause. As the red sun went down behind the purple hills, and the short twilight merged into darkness, the flashes of their guns and ours were distinct and clear, and the quick flame of the bursting

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shells looked like a mammoth firework display. Shrapnel crashing in the darkness has a very fine effect. You see the flash of the gun, sudden and quick, as it is fired; then, as the ‘boom-m’ comes to you, the shell explodes in the black sky like a great cracker flung high aloft. A pom-pom winks as a signal-lamp, and the little shells striking on the ground are a series of sharp bursts of light.

At dusk the two Cavalry Brigades retired across the river. One by one the great guns ceased to fire. Last of all to stop work was the energetic pom-pom.

Hutton's Brigade stayed to hold the position. We rode back—tired, dejected, hungry—unable to comprehend it all, and believing, though none liked to say it, that we had at last sustained a reverse.

However, it was not a reverse. We did not know until next day that we had simply been keeping Louis Botha and his guns employed whilst Lord Roberts came to Elandsfontein and threatened Johannesburg.

In the camp that night no one was noticeably cheerful. But there was an issue of bully-beef and biscuits, and to men who had fasted and worked hard for more than thirty hours on end, these delicacies were more acceptable than would have been the finest dishes gourmand ever dreamed upon.

So we lay down to rest—battle-stained, weary and unreflective. The cold night closed over the camps by river and Berg. The blessed sleep and rest came

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welcomely alike to Boer, and Briton, and Tommy Cornstalk.

All the following morning, when we had returned to our places, we drew their steady artillery-fire; but at noon came Ian Hamilton with many men and, best sight of all, his two great ‘cow-guns’—six-inch naval giants drawn by thirty-two bullocks apiece, and having another thirty-two to each timber. Four rounds from them and Long Tom was silently employed in getting himself down to the threatened railway, as were also his brethren of the other positions.