The Great Boer War
Arthur Conan Doyle

Part 3 out of 11

of the retreating Boers were exemplified by one of their number,
who turned in his saddle in order to place his outstretched fingers
to his nose in derision of the victors. He exposed himself to the
fire of half a battalion while doing so, but he probably was aware
that with our present musketry instruction the fire of a British
half-battalion against an individual is not a very serious matter.

The remainder of the 23rd was spent at Belmont Camp, and next
morning an advance was made to Enslin, some ten miles further on.
Here lay the plain of Enslin, bounded by a formidable line of
kopjes as dangerous as those of Belmont. Lancers and Rimington's
Scouts, the feeble but very capable cavalry of the Army, came in
with the report that the hills were strongly held. Some more hard
slogging was in front of the relievers of Kimberley.

The advance had been on the line of the Cape Town to Kimberley
Railway, and the damage done to it by the Boers had been repaired
to the extent of permitting an armoured train with a naval gun to
accompany the troops. It was six o' clock upon the morning of
Saturday the 25th that this gun came into action against the
kopjes, closely followed by the guns of the field artillery. One of
the lessons of the war has been to disillusion us as to the effect
of shrapnel fire. Positions which had been made theoretically
untenable have again and again been found to be most inconveniently
tenanted. Among the troops actually engaged the confidence in the
effect of shrapnel fire has steadily declined with their
experience. Some other method of artillery fire than the curving
bullet from an exploding shrapnel shell must be devised for dealing
with men who lie close among boulders and behind cover.

These remarks upon shrapnel might be included in the account of
half the battles of the war, but they are particularly apposite to
the action at Enslin. Here a single large kopje formed the key to
the position, and a considerable time was expended upon preparing
it for the British assault, by directing upon it a fire which swept
the face of it and searched, as was hoped, every corner in which a
rifleman might lurk. One of the two batteries engaged fired no
fewer than five hundred rounds. Then the infantry advance was
ordered, the Guards being held in reserve on account of their
exertions at Belmont. The Northumberlands, Northamptons, North
Lancashires, and Yorkshires worked round upon the right, and, aided
by the artillery fire, cleared the trenches in their front. The
honours of the assault, however, must be awarded to the sailors and
marines of the Naval Brigade, who underwent such an ordeal as men
have seldom faced and yet come out as victors. To them fell the
task of carrying that formidable hill which had been so scourged by
our artillery. With a grand rush they swept up the slope, but were
met by a horrible fire. Every rock spurted flame, and the front
ranks withered away before the storm of the Mauser. An eye-witness
has recorded that the brigade was hardly visible amid the sand
knocked up by the bullets. For an instant they fell back into
cover, and then, having taken their breath, up they went again,
with a deep-chested sailor roar. There were but four hundred in
all, two hundred seamen and two hundred marines, and the losses in
that rapid rush were terrible. Yet they swarmed up, their gallant
officers, some of them little boy-middies, cheering them on.
Ethelston, the commander of the 'Powerful,' was struck down. Plumbe
and Senior of the Marines were killed. Captain Prothero of the
'Doris' dropped while still yelling to his seamen to 'take that
kopje and be hanged to it!' Little Huddart, the middy, died a death
which is worth many inglorious years. Jones of the Marines fell
wounded, but rose again and rushed on with his men. It was on these
gallant marines, the men who are ready to fight anywhere and
anyhow, moist or dry, that the heaviest loss fell. When at last
they made good their foothold upon the crest of that murderous hill
they had left behind them three officers and eighty-eight men out
of a total of 206--a loss within a few minutes of nearly 50 per
cent. The bluejackets, helped by the curve of the hill, got off
with a toll of eighteen of their number. Half the total British
losses of the action fell upon this little body of men, who upheld
most gloriously the honour and reputation of the service from which
they were drawn. With such men under the white ensign we leave our
island homes in safety behind us.

The battle of Enslin had cost us some two hundred of killed and
wounded, and beyond the mere fact that we had cleared our way by
another stage towards Kimberley it is difficult to say what
advantage we had from it. We won the kopjes, but we lost our men.
The Boer killed and wounded were probably less than half of our
own, and the exhaustion and weakness of our cavalry forbade us to
pursue and prevented us from capturing their guns. In three days
the men had fought two exhausting actions in a waterless country
and under a tropical sun. Their exertions had been great and yet
were barren of result. Why this should be so was naturally the
subject of keen discussion both in the camp and among the public at
home. It always came back to Lord Methuen's own complaint about the
absence of cavalry and of horse artillery. Many very unjust charges
have been hurled against our War Office--a department which in some
matters has done extraordinarily and unexpectedly well--but in this
question of the delay in the despatch of our cavalry and artillery,
knowing as we did the extreme mobility of our enemy, there is
certainly ground for an inquiry.

The Boers who had fought these two actions had been drawn mainly
from the Jacobsdal and Fauresmith commandoes, with some of the
burghers from Boshof. The famous Cronje, however, had been
descending from Mafeking with his old guard of Transvaalers, and
keen disappointment was expressed by the prisoners at Belmont and
at Enslin that he had not arrived in time to take command of them.
There were evidences, however, at this latter action, that
reinforcements for the enemy were coming up and that the labours of
the Kimberley relief force were by no means at an end. In the
height of the engagement the Lancer patrols thrown out upon our
right flank reported the approach of a considerable body of Boer
horsemen, who took up a position upon a hill on our right rear.
Their position there was distinctly menacing, and Colonel
Willoughby Verner was despatched by Lord Methuen to order up the
brigade of Guards. The gallant officer had the misfortune in his
return to injure himself seriously through a blunder of his horse.
His mission, however, succeeded in its effect, for the Guards
moving across the plain intervened in such a way that the
reinforcements, without an open attack, which would have been
opposed to all Boer traditions, could not help the defenders, and
were compelled to witness their defeat. This body of horsemen
returned north next day and were no doubt among those whom we
encountered at the following action of the Modder River.

The march from Orange River had begun on the Wednesday. On Thursday
was fought the action of Belmont, on Saturday that of Enslin. There
was no protection against the sun by day nor against the cold at
night. Water was not plentiful, and the quality of it was
occasionally vile. The troops were in need of a rest, so on
Saturday night and Sunday they remained at Enslin. On the Monday
morning (November 27th) the weary march to Kimberley was resumed.

On Monday, November 27th, at early dawn, the little British army, a
dust-coloured column upon the dusty veld, moved forwards again
towards their objective. That night they halted at the pools of
Klipfontein, having for once made a whole day's march without
coming in touch with the enemy. Hopes rose that possibly the two
successive defeats had taken the heart out of them and that there
would be no further resistance to the advance. Some, however, who
were aware of the presence of Cronje, and of his formidable
character, took a juster view of the situation. And this perhaps is
where a few words might be said about the celebrated leader who
played upon the western side of the seat of war the same part which
Joubert did upon the east.

Commandant Cronje was at the time of the war sixty-five years of
age, a hard, swarthy man, quiet of manner, fierce of soul, with a
reputation among a nation of resolute men for unsurpassed
resolution. His dark face was bearded and virile, but sedate and
gentle in expression. He spoke little, but what he said was to the
point, and he had the gift of those fire-words which brace and
strengthen weaker men. In hunting expeditions and in native wars he
had first won the admiration of his countrymen by his courage and
his fertility of resource. In the war of 1880 he had led the Boers
who besieged Potchefstroom, and he had pushed the attack with a
relentless vigour which was not hampered by the chivalrous usages
of war. Eventually he compelled the surrender of the place by
concealing from the garrison that a general armistice had been
signed, an act which was afterwards disowned by his own government.
In the succeeding years he lived as an autocrat and a patriarch
amid his farms and his herds, respected by many and feared by all.
For a time he was Native Commissioner and left a reputation for
hard dealing behind him. Called into the field again by the Jameson
raid, he grimly herded his enemies into an impossible position and
desired, as it is stated, that the hardest measure should be dealt
out to the captives. This was the man, capable, crafty, iron-hard,
magnetic, who lay with a reinforced and formidable army across the
path of Lord Methuen's tired soldiers. It was a fair match. On the
one side the hardy men, the trained shots, a good artillery, and
the defensive; on the other the historical British infantry, duty,
discipline, and a fiery courage. With a high heart the
dust-coloured column moved on over the dusty veld.

So entirely had hills and Boer fighting become associated in the
minds of our leaders, that when it was known that Modder River
wound over a plain, the idea of a resistance there appears to have
passed away from their minds. So great was the confidence or so lax
the scouting that a force equaling their own in numbers had
assembled with many guns within seven miles of them, and yet the
advance appears to have been conducted without any expectation of
impending battle. The supposition, obvious even to a civilian, that
a river would be a likely place to meet with an obstinate
resistance, seems to have been ignored. It is perhaps not fair to
blame the General for a fact which must have vexed his spirit more
than ours--one's sympathies go out to the gentle and brave man, who
was heard calling out in his sleep that he 'should have had those
two guns'--but it is repugnant to common sense to suppose that no
one, neither the cavalry nor the Intelligence Department, is at
fault for so extraordinary a state of ignorance. [Footnote: Later
information makes it certain that the cavalry did report the
presence of the enemy to Lord Methuen.] On the morning of Tuesday,
November 28th, the British troops were told that they would march
at once, and have their breakfast when they reached the Modder
River--a grim joke to those who lived to appreciate it.

The army had been reinforced the night before by the welcome
addition of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which made up
for the losses of the week. It was a cloudless morning, and a
dazzling sun rose in a deep blue sky. The men, though hungry,
marched cheerily, the reek of their tobacco-pipes floating up from
their ranks. It cheered them to see that the murderous kopjes had,
for the time, been left behind, and that the great plain inclined
slightly downwards to where a line of green showed the course of
the river. On the further bank were a few scattered buildings, with
one considerable hotel, used as a week-end resort by the
businessmen of Kimberley. It lay now calm and innocent, with its
open windows looking out upon a smiling garden; but death lurked at
the windows and death in the garden, and the little dark man who
stood by the door, peering through his glass at the approaching
column, was the minister of death, the dangerous Cronje. In
consultation with him was one who was to prove even more
formidable, and for a longer time. Semitic in face, high-nosed,
bushy-bearded, and eagle-eyed, with skin burned brown by a life of
the veld--it was De la Rey, one of the trio of fighting chiefs
whose name will always be associated with the gallant resistance of
the Boers. He was there as adviser, but Cronje was in supreme

His dispositions had been both masterly and original. Contrary to
the usual military practice in the defence of rivers, he had
concealed his men upon both banks, placing, as it is stated, those
in whose staunchness he had least confidence upon the British side
of the river, so that they could only retreat under the rifles of
their inexorable companions. The trenches had been so dug with such
a regard for the slopes of the ground that in some places a triple
line of fire was secured. His artillery, consisting of several
heavy pieces and a number of machine guns (including one of the
diabolical 'pompoms'), was cleverly placed upon the further side of
the stream, and was not only provided with shelter pits but had
rows of reserve pits, so that the guns could be readily shifted
when their range was found. Rows of trenches, a broadish river,
fresh rows of trenches, fortified houses, and a good artillery well
worked and well placed, it was a serious task which lay in front of
the gallant little army. The whole position covered between four
and five miles.

An obvious question must here occur to the mind of every
non-military reader--Why should this position be attacked at all?
Why should we not cross higher up where there were no such
formidable obstacles?' The answer, so far as one can answer it,
must be that so little was known of the dispositions of our enemy
that we were hopelessly involved in the action before we knew of
it, and that then it was more dangerous to extricate the army than
to push the attack. A retirement over that open plain at a range of
under a thousand yards would have been a dangerous and disastrous
movement. Having once got there, it was wisest and best to see it

The dark Cronje still waited reflective in the hotel garden. Across
the veld streamed the lines of infantry, the poor fellows eager,
after seven miles of that upland air, for the breakfast which had
been promised them. It was a quarter to seven when our patrols of
Lancers were fired upon. There were Boers, then, between them and
their meal! The artillery was ordered up, the Guards were sent
forward on the right, the 9th Brigade under Pole-Carew on the left,
including the newly arrived Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. They
swept onwards into the fatal fire zone--and then, and only then,
there blazed out upon them four miles of rifles, cannon, and
machine guns, and they realised, from general to private, that they
had walked unwittingly into the fiercest battle yet fought in the

Before the position was understood the Guards were within seven
hundred yards of the Boer trenches, and the other troops about nine
hundred, on the side of a very gentle slope which made it most
difficult to find any cover. In front of them lay a serene
landscape, the river, the houses, the hotel, no movement of men, no
smoke--everything peaceful and deserted save for an occasional
quick flash and sparkle of flame. But the noise was horrible and
appalling. Men whose nerves had been steeled to the crash of the
big guns, or the monotonous roar of Maxims and the rattle of Mauser
fire, found a new terror in the malignant 'ploop-plooping' of the
automatic quick-firer. The Maxim of the Scots Guards was caught in
the hell-blizzard from this thing--each shell no bigger than a
large walnut, but flying in strings of a score--and men and gun
were destroyed in an instant. As to the rifle bullets the air was
humming and throbbing with them, and the sand was mottled like a
pond in a shower. To advance was impossible, to retire was hateful.
The men fell upon their faces and huddled close to the earth, too
happy if some friendly ant-heap gave them a precarious shelter. And
always, tier above tier, the lines of rifle fire rippled and
palpitated in front of them. The infantry fired also, and fired,
and fired--but what was there to fire at? An occasional eye and
hand over the edge of a trench or behind a stone is no mark at
seven hundred yards. It would be instructive to know how many
British bullets found a billet that day.

The cavalry was useless, the infantry was powerless--there only
remained the guns. When any arm is helpless and harried it always
casts an imploring eye upon the guns, and rarely indeed is it that
the gallant guns do not respond. Now the 75th and 18th Field
Batteries came rattling and dashing to the front, and unlimbered at
one thousand yards. The naval guns were working at four thousand,
but the two combined were insufficient to master the fire of the
pieces of large calibre which were opposed to them. Lord Methuen
must have prayed for guns as Wellington did for night, and never
was a prayer answered more dramatically. A strange battery came
lurching up from the British rear, unheralded, unknown, the weary
gasping horses panting at the traces, the men, caked with sweat and
dirt, urging them on into a last spasmodic trot. The bodies of
horses which had died of pure fatigue marked their course, the
sergeants' horses tugged in the gun-teams, and the sergeants
staggered along by the limbers. It was the 62nd Field Battery,
which had marched thirty-two miles in eight hours, and now, hearing
the crash of battle in front of them, had with one last desperate
effort thrown itself into the firing line. Great credit is due to
Major Granet and his men. Not even those gallant German batteries
who saved the infantry at Spicheren could boast of a finer feat.

Now it was guns against guns, and let the best gunners win! We had
eighteen field-guns and the naval pieces against the concealed
cannon of the enemy. Back and forward flew the shells, howling past
each other in mid-air. The weary men of the 62nd Battery forgot
their labours and fatigues as they stooped and strained at their
clay-coloured 15-pounders. Half of them were within rifle range,
and the limber horses were the centre of a hot fire, as they were
destined to be at a shorter range and with more disastrous effect
at the Tugela. That the same tactics should have been adopted at
two widely sundered points shows with what care the details of the
war had been pre-arranged by the Boer leaders. 'Before I got my
horses out,' says an officer, 'they shot one of my drivers and two
horses and brought down my own horse. When we got the gun round one
of the gunners was shot through the brain and fell at my feet.
Another was shot while bringing up shell. Then we got a look in.'
The roar of the cannon was deafening, but gradually the British
were gaining the upper hand. Here and there the little knolls upon
the further side which had erupted into constant flame lay cold and
silent. One of the heavier guns was put out of action, and the
other had been withdrawn for five hundred yards. But the infantry
fire still crackled and rippled along the trenches, and the guns
could come no nearer with living men and horses. It was long past
midday, and that unhappy breakfast seemed further off than ever.

As the afternoon wore on, a curious condition of things was
established. The guns could not advance, and, indeed, it was found
necessary to withdraw them from a 1200 to a 2800-yard range, so
heavy were the losses. At the time of the change the 75th Battery
had lost three officers out of five, nineteen men, and twenty-two
horses. The infantry could not advance and would not retire. The
Guards on the right were prevented from opening out on the flank
and getting round the enemy's line, by the presence of the Riet
River, which joins the Modder almost at a right angle. All day they
lay under a blistering sun, the sleet of bullets whizzing over
their heads. 'It came in solid streaks like telegraph wires,' said
a graphic correspondent. The men gossiped, smoked, and many of them
slept. They lay on the barrels of their rifles to keep them cool
enough for use. Now and again there came the dull thud of a bullet
which had found its mark, and a man gasped, or drummed with his
feet; but the casualties at this point were not numerous, for there
was some little cover, and the piping bullets passed for the most
part overhead.

But in the meantime there had been a development upon the left
which was to turn the action into a British victory. At this side
there was ample room to extend, and the 9th Brigade spread out,
feeling its way down the enemy's line, until it came to a point
where the fire was less murderous and the approach to the river
more in favour of the attack. Here the Yorkshires, a party of whom
under Lieutenant Fox had stormed a farmhouse, obtained the command
of a drift, over which a mixed force of Highlanders and Fusiliers
forced their way, led by their Brigadier in person. This body of
infantry, which does not appear to have exceeded five hundred in
number, were assailed both by the Boer riflemen and by the guns of
both parties, our own gunners being unaware that the Modder had
been successfully crossed. A small hamlet called Rosmead formed,
however, a point d'appui, and to this the infantry clung
tenaciously, while reinforcements dribbled across to them from the
farther side. 'Now, boys, who's for otter hunting?' cried Major
Coleridge, of the North Lancashires, as he sprang into the water.
How gladly on that baking, scorching day did the men jump into the
river and splash over, to climb the opposite bank with their wet
khaki clinging to their figures! Some blundered into holes and were
rescued by grasping the unwound putties of their comrades. And so
between three and four o'clock a strong party of the British had
established their position upon the right flank of the Boers, and
were holding on like grim death with an intelligent appreciation
that the fortunes of the day depended upon their retaining their

'Hollo, here is a river!' cried Codrington when he led his forlorn
hope to the right and found that the Riet had to be crossed. 'I was
given to understand that the Modder was fordable everywhere,' says
Lord Methuen in his official despatch. One cannot read the account
of the operations without being struck by the casual, sketchy
knowledge which cost us so dearly. The soldiers slogged their way
through, as they have slogged it before; but the task might have
been made much lighter for them had we but clearly known what it
was that we were trying to do. On the other hand, it is but fair to
Lord Methuen to say that his own personal gallantry and unflinching
resolution set the most stimulating example to his troops. No
General could have done more to put heart into his men.

And now, as the long weary scorching hungry day came to an end, the
Boers began at last to flinch from their trenches. The shrapnel was
finding them out and this force upon their flank filled them with
vague alarm and with fears for their precious guns. And so as night
fell they stole across the river, the cannon were withdrawn, the
trenches evacuated, and next morning, when the weary British and
their anxious General turned themselves to their grim task once
more, they found a deserted village, a line of empty houses, and a
litter of empty Mauser cartridge-cases to show where their
tenacious enemy had stood.

Lord Methuen, in congratulating the troops upon their achievement,
spoke of 'the hardest-won victory in our annals of war,' and some
such phrase was used in his official despatch. It is hypercritical,
no doubt, to look too closely at a term used by a wounded man with
the flush of battle still upon him, but still a student of military
history must smile at such a comparison between this action and
such others as Albuera or Inkerman, where the numbers of British
engaged were not dissimilar. A fight in which five hundred men are
killed and wounded cannot be classed in the same category as those
stern and desperate encounters where more of the victors were
carried than walked from the field of battle. And yet there were
some special features which will differentiate the fight at Modder
River from any of the hundred actions which adorn the standards of
our regiments. It was the third battle which the troops had fought
within the week, they were under fire for ten or twelve hours, were
waterless under a tropical sun, and weak from want of food. For the
first time they were called upon to face modern rifle fire and
modern machine guns in the open. The result tends to prove that
those who hold that it will from now onwards be impossible ever to
make such frontal attacks as those which the English made at the
Alma or the French at Waterloo, are justified in their belief. It
is beyond human hardihood to face the pitiless beat of bullet and
shell which comes from modern quick-firing weapons. Had our flank
not made a lodgment across the river, it is impossible that we
could have carried the position. Once more, too, it was
demonstrated how powerless the best artillery is to disperse
resolute and well-placed riflemen. Of the minor points of interest
there will always remain the record of the forced march of the 62nd
Battery, and artillerymen will note the use of gun-pits by the
Boers, which ensured that the range of their positions should never
be permanently obtained.

The honours of the day upon the side of the British rested with the
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Yorkshire Light Infantry,
the 2nd Coldstreams, and the artillery. Out of a total casualty
list of about 450, no fewer than 112 came from the gallant Argylls
and 69 from the Coldstreams. The loss of the Boers is exceedingly
difficult to gauge, as they throughout the war took the utmost
pains to conceal it. The number of desperate and long-drawn actions
which have ended, according to the official Pretorian account, in a
loss of one wounded burgher may in some way be better policy, but
does not imply a higher standard of public virtue, than those long
lists which have saddened our hearts in the halls of the War
Office. What is certain is that the loss at Modder River could not
have been far inferior to our own, and that it arose almost
entirely from artillery fire, since at no time of the action were
any large number of their riflemen visible. So it ended, this long
pelting match, Cronje sullenly withdrawing under the cover of
darkness with his resolute heart filled with fierce determination
for the future, while the British soldiers threw themselves down on
the ground which they occupied and slept the sleep of exhaustion.



Lord Methuen's force had now fought three actions in the space of a
single week, losing in killed and wounded about a thousand men, or
rather more than one-tenth of its total numbers. Had there been
evidence that the enemy were seriously demoralised, the General
would no doubt have pushed on at once to Kimberley, which was some
twenty miles distant. The information which reached him was,
however, that the Boers had fallen back upon the very strong
position of Spytfontein, that they were full of fight, and that
they had been strongly reinforced by a commando from Mafeking.
Under these circumstances Lord Methuen had no choice but to give
his men a well-earned rest, and to await reinforcements. There was
no use in reaching Kimberley unless he had completely defeated the
investing force. With the history of the first relief of Lucknow in
his memory he was on his guard against a repetition of such an

It was the more necessary that Methuen should strengthen his
position, since with every mile which he advanced the more exposed
did his line of communications become to a raid from Fauresmith and
the southern districts of the Orange Free State. Any serious danger
to the railway behind them would leave the British Army in a very
critical position, and precautions were taken for the protection of
the more vulnerable portions of the line. It was well that this was
so, for on the 8th of December Commandant Prinsloo, of the Orange
Free State, with a thousand horsemen and two light seven-pounder
guns, appeared suddenly at Enslin and vigorously attacked the two
companies of the Northampton Regiment who held the station. At the
same time they destroyed a couple of culverts and tore up three
hundred yards of the permanent way. For some hours the Northamptons
under Captain Godley were closely pressed, but a telegram had been
despatched to Modder Camp, and the 12th Lancers with the ubiquitous
62nd Battery were sent to their assistance. The Boers retired with
their usual mobility, and in ten hours the line was completely

Reinforcements were now reaching the Modder River force, which made
it more formidable than when it had started. A very essential
addition was that of the 12th Lancers and of G battery of Horse
Artillery, which would increase the mobility of the force and make
it possible for the General to follow up a blow after he had struck
it. The magnificent regiments which formed the Highland
Brigade--the 2nd Black Watch, the 1st Gordons, the 2nd Seaforths,
and the 1st Highland Light Infantry had arrived under the gallant
and ill-fated Wauchope. Four five-inch howitzers had also come to
strengthen the artillery. At the same time the Canadians, the
Australians, and several line regiments were moved up on the line
from De Aar to Belmont. It appeared to the public at home that
there was the material for an overwhelming advance; but the
ordinary observer, and even perhaps the military critic, had not
yet appreciated how great is the advantage which is given by modern
weapons to the force which acts upon the defensive. With enormous
pains Cronje and De la Rey were entrenching a most formidable
position in front of our advance, with a confidence, which proved
to be justified that it would be on their own ground and under
their own conditions that in this, as in the three preceding
actions, we should engage them.

On the morning of Saturday, December 9th, the British General made
an attempt to find out what lay in front of him amid that
semicircle of forbidding hills. To this end he sent out a
reconnaissance in the early morning, which included G Battery Horse
Artillery, the 9th Lancers, and the ponderous 4.7 naval gun, which,
preceded by the majestic march of thirty-two bullocks and attended
by eighty seamen gunners, creaked forwards over the plain. What was
there to shoot at in those sunlit boulder-strewn hills in front?
They lay silent and untenanted in the glare of the African day. In
vain the great gun exploded its huge shell with its fifty pounds of
lyddite over the ridges, in vain the smaller pieces searched every
cleft and hollow with their shrapnel. No answer came from the
far-stretching hills. Not a flash or twinkle betrayed the fierce
bands who lurked among the boulders. The force returned to camp no
wiser than when it left.

There was one sight visible every night to all men which might well
nerve the rescuers in their enterprise. Over the northern horizon,
behind those hills of danger, there quivered up in the darkness one
long, flashing, quivering beam, which swung up and down, and up
again like a seraphic sword-blade. It was Kimberley praying for
help, Kimberley solicitous for news. Anxiously, distractedly, the
great De Beers searchlight dipped and rose. And back across the
twenty miles of darkness, over the hills where Cronje lurked, there
came that other southern column of light which answered, and
promised, and soothed. 'Be of good heart, Kimberley. We are here!
The Empire is behind us. We have not forgotten you. It may be days,
or it may be weeks, but rest assured that we are coming.'

About three in the afternoon of Sunday, December 10th, the force
which was intended to clear a path for the army through the lines
of Magersfontein moved out upon what proved to be its desperate
enterprise. The 3rd or Highland Brigade included the Black Watch,
the Seaforths, the Argyll and Sutherlands, and the Highland Light
Infantry. The Gordons had only arrived in camp that day, and did
not advance until next morning. Besides the infantry, the 9th
Lancers, the mounted infantry, and all the artillery moved to the
front. It was raining hard, and the men with one blanket between
two soldiers bivouacked upon the cold damp ground, about three
miles from the enemy's position. At one o'clock, without food, and
drenched, they moved forwards through the drizzle and the darkness
to attack those terrible lines. Major Benson, R.A., with two of
Rimington's scouts, led them on their difficult way.

Clouds drifted low in the heavens, and the falling rain made the
darkness more impenetrable. The Highland Brigade was formed into a
column--the Black Watch in front, then the Seaforths, and the other
two behind. To prevent the men from straggling in the night the
four regiments were packed into a mass of quarter column as densely
as was possible, and the left guides held a rope in order to
preserve the formation. With many a trip and stumble the ill-fated
detachment wandered on, uncertain where they were going and what it
was that they were meant to do. Not only among the rank and file,
but among the principal officers also, there was the same absolute
ignorance. Brigadier Wauchope knew, no doubt, but his voice was
soon to be stilled in death. The others were aware, of course, that
they were advancing either to turn the enemy's trenches or to
attack them, but they may well have argued from their own formation
that they could not be near the riflemen yet. Why they should be
still advancing in that dense clump we do not now know, nor can we
surmise what thoughts were passing through the mind of the gallant
and experienced chieftain who walked beside them. There are some
who claim on the night before to have seen upon his strangely
ascetic face that shadow of doom which is summed up in the one word
'fey.' The hand of coming death may already have lain cold upon his
soul. Out there, close beside him, stretched the long trench,
fringed with its line of fierce, staring, eager faces, and its
bristle of gun-barrels. They knew he was coming. They were ready.
They were waiting. But still, with the dull murmur of many feet,
the dense column, nearly four thousand strong, wandered onwards
through the rain and the darkness, death and mutilation crouching
upon their path.

It matters not what gave the signal, whether it was the flashing of
a lantern by a Boer scout, or the tripping of a soldier over wire,
or the firing of a gun in the ranks. It may have been any, or it
may have been none, of these things. As a matter of fact I have
been assured by a Boer who was present that it was the sound of the
tins attached to the alarm wires which disturbed them. However this
may be, in an instant there crashed out of the darkness into their
faces and ears a roar of point-blank fire, and the night was
slashed across with the throbbing flame of the rifles. At the
moment before this outflame some doubt as to their whereabouts
seems to have flashed across the mind of their leaders. The order
to extend had just been given, but the men had not had time to act
upon it. The storm of lead burst upon the head and right flank of
the column, which broke to pieces under the murderous volley.
Wauchope was shot, struggled up, and fell once more for ever.
Rumour has placed words of reproach upon his dying lips, but his
nature, both gentle and soldierly, forbids the supposition. 'What a
pity!' was the only utterance which a brother Highlander ascribes
to him. Men went down in swathes, and a howl of rage and agony,
heard afar over the veld, swelled up from the frantic and
struggling crowd. By the hundred they dropped--some dead, some
wounded, some knocked down by the rush and sway of the broken
ranks. It was a horrible business. At such a range and in such a
formation a single Mauser bullet may well pass through many men. A
few dashed forwards, and were found dead at the very edges of the
trench. The few survivors of companies A, B, and C of the Black
Watch appear to have never actually retired, but to have clung on
to the immediate front of the Boer trenches, while the remains of
the other five companies tried to turn the Boer flank. Of the
former body only six got away unhurt in the evening after lying all
day within two hundred yards of the enemy. The rest of the brigade
broke and, disentangling themselves with difficulty from the dead
and the dying, fled back out of that accursed place. Some, the most
unfortunate of all, became caught in the darkness in the wire
defences, and were found in the morning hung up 'like crows,' as
one spectator describes it, and riddled with bullets.

Who shall blame the Highlanders for retiring when they did? Viewed,
not by desperate and surprised men, but in all calmness and sanity,
it may well seem to have been the very best thing which they could
do. Dashed into chaos, separated from their officers, with no one
who knew what was to be done, the first necessity was to gain
shelter from this deadly fire, which had already stretched six
hundred of their number upon the ground. The danger was that men so
shaken would be stricken with panic, scatter in the darkness over
the face of the country, and cease to exist as a military unit. But
the Highlanders were true to their character and their traditions.
There was shouting in the darkness, hoarse voices calling for the
Seaforths, for the Argylls, for Company C, for Company H, and
everywhere in the gloom there came the answer of the clansmen.
Within half an hour with the break of day the Highland regiments
had re-formed, and, shattered and weakened, but undaunted, prepared
to renew the contest. Some attempt at an advance was made upon the
right, ebbing and flowing, one little band even reaching the
trenches and coming back with prisoners and reddened bayonets. For
the most part the men lay upon their faces, and fired when they
could at the enemy; but the cover which the latter kept was so
excellent that an officer who expended 120 rounds has left it upon
record that he never once had seen anything positive at which to
aim. Lieutenant Lindsay brought the Seaforths' Maxim into the
firing-line, and, though all her crew except two were hit, it
continued to do good service during the day. The Lancers' Maxim was
equally staunch, though it also was left finally with only the
lieutenant in charge and one trooper to work it.

Fortunately the guns were at hand, and, as usual, they were quick
to come to the aid of the distressed. The sun was hardly up before
the howitzers were throwing lyddite at 4000 yards, the three field
batteries (18th, 62nd, 75th) were working with shrapnel at a mile,
and the troop of Horse Artillery was up at the right front trying
to enfilade the trenches. The guns kept down the rifle-fire, and
gave the wearied Highlanders some respite from their troubles. The
whole situation had resolved itself now into another Battle of
Modder River. The infantry, under a fire at from six hundred to
eight hundred paces, could not advance and would not retire. The
artillery only kept the battle going, and the huge naval gun from
behind was joining with its deep bark in the deafening uproar. But
the Boers had already learned--and it is one of their most valuable
military qualities that they assimilate their experience so
quickly--that shell fire is less dangerous in a trench than among
rocks. These trenches, very elaborate in character, had been dug
some hundreds of yards from the foot of the hills, so that there
was hardly any guide to our artillery fire. Yet it is to the
artillery fire that all the losses of the Boers that day were due.
The cleverness of Cronje's disposition of his trenches some hundred
yards ahead of the kopjes is accentuated by the fascination which
any rising object has for a gunner. Prince Kraft tells the story of
how at Sadowa he unlimbered his guns two hundred yards in front of
the church of Chlum, and how the Austrian reply fire almost
invariably pitched upon the steeple. So our own gunners, even at a
two thousand-yard mark, found it difficult to avoid overshooting
the invisible line, and hitting the obvious mark behind.

As the day wore on reinforcements of infantry came up from the
force which had been left to guard the camp. The Gordons arrived
with the first and second battalions of the Coldstream Guards, and
all the artillery was moved nearer to the enemy's position. At the
same time, as there were some indications of an attack upon our
right flank, the Grenadier Guards with five companies of the
Yorkshire Light Infantry were moved up in that direction, while the
three remaining companies of Barter's Yorkshiremen secured a drift
over which the enemy might cross the Modder. This threatening
movement upon our right flank, which would have put the Highlanders
into an impossible position had it succeeded, was most gallantly
held back all morning, before the arrival of the Guards and the
Yorkshires, by the mounted infantry and the 12th Lancers,
skirmishing on foot. It was in this long and successful struggle to
cover the flank of the 3rd Brigade that Major Milton, Major Ray,
and many another brave man met his end. The Coldstreams and
Grenadiers relieved the pressure upon this side, and the Lancers
retired to their horses, having shown, not for the first time, that
the cavalryman with a modern carbine can at a pinch very quickly
turn himself into a useful infantry soldier. Lord Airlie deserves
all praise for his unconventional use of his men, and for the
gallantry with which he threw both himself and them into the most
critical corner of the fight.

While the Coldstreams, the Grenadiers, and the Yorkshire Light
Infantry were holding back the Boer attack upon our right flank the
indomitable Gordons, the men of Dargai, furious with the desire to
avenge their comrades of the Highland Brigade, had advanced
straight against the trenches and succeeded without any very great
loss in getting within four hundred yards of them. But a single
regiment could not carry the position, and anything like a general
advance upon it was out of the question in broad daylight after the
punishment which we had received. Any plans of the sort which may
have passed through Lord Methuen's mind were driven away for ever
by the sudden unordered retreat of the stricken brigade. They had
been very roughly handled in this, which was to most of them their
baptism of fire, and they had been without food and water under a
burning sun all day. They fell back rapidly for a mile, and the
guns were for a time left partially exposed. Fortunately the lack
of initiative on the part of the Boers which has stood our friend
so often came in to save us from disaster and humiliation. It is
due to the brave unshaken face which the Guards presented to the
enemy that our repulse did not deepen into something still more

The Gordons and the Scots Guards were still in attendance upon the
guns, but they had been advanced very close to the enemy's
trenches, and there were no other troops in support. Under these
circumstances it was imperative that the Highlanders should rally,
and Major Ewart with other surviving officers rushed among the
scattered ranks and strove hard to gather and to stiffen them. The
men were dazed by what they had undergone, and Nature shrank back
from that deadly zone where the bullets fell so thickly. But the
pipes blew, and the bugles sang, and the poor tired fellows, the
backs of their legs so flayed and blistered by lying in the sun
that they could hardly bend them, hobbled back to their duty. They
worked up to the guns once more, and the moment of danger passed.

But as the evening wore on it became evident that no attack could
succeed, and that therefore there was no use in holding the men in
front of the enemy's position. The dark Cronje, lurking among his
ditches and his barbed wire, was not to be approached, far less
defeated. There are some who think that, had we held on there as we
did at the Modder River, the enemy would again have been
accommodating enough to make way for us during the night, and the
morning would have found the road clear to Kimberley. I know no
grounds for such an opinion--but several against it. At Modder
Cronje abandoned his lines, knowing that he had other and stronger
ones behind him. At Magersfontein a level plain lay behind the Boer
position, and to abandon it was to give up the game altogether.
Besides, why should he abandon it? He knew that he had hit us hard.
We had made absolutely no impression upon his defences. Is it
likely that he would have tamely given up all his advantages and
surrendered the fruits of his victory without a struggle? It is
enough to mourn a defeat without the additional agony of thinking
that a little more perseverance might have turned it into a
victory. The Boer position could only be taken by outflanking it,
and we were not numerous enough nor mobile enough to outflank it.
There lay the whole secret of our troubles, and no conjectures as
to what might under other circumstances have happened can alter it.

About half-past five the Boer guns, which had for some unexplained
reason been silent all day, opened upon the cavalry. Their
appearance was a signal for the general falling back of the centre,
and the last attempt to retrieve the day was abandoned. The
Highlanders were dead-beat; the Coldstreams had had enough; the
mounted infantry was badly mauled. There remained the Grenadiers,
the Scots Guards, and two or three line regiments who were
available for a new attack. There are occasions, such as Sadowa,
where a General must play his last card. There are others where
with reinforcements in his rear, he can do better by saving his
force and trying once again. General Grant had an axiom that the
best time for an advance was when you were utterly exhausted, for
that was the moment when your enemy was probably utterly exhausted
too, and of two such forces the attacker has the moral advantage.
Lord Methuen determined--and no doubt wisely--that it was no
occasion for counsels of desperation. His men were withdrawn--in
some cases withdrew themselves--outside the range of the Boer guns,
and next morning saw the whole force with bitter and humiliated
hearts on their way back to their camp at Modder River.

The repulse of Magersfontein cost the British nearly a thousand
men, killed, wounded, and missing, of which over seven hundred
belonged to the Highlanders. Fifty-seven officers had fallen in
that brigade alone, including their Brigadier and Colonel Downman
of the Gordons. Colonel Codrington of the Coldstreams was wounded
early, fought through the action, and came back in the evening on a
Maxim gun. Lord Winchester of the same battalion was killed, after
injudiciously but heroically exposing himself all day. The Black
Watch alone had lost nineteen officers and over three hundred men
killed and wounded, a catastrophe which can only be matched in all
the bloody and glorious annals of that splendid regiment by their
slaughter at Ticonderoga in 1757, when no fewer than five hundred
fell before Montcalm's muskets. Never has Scotland had a more
grievous day than this of Magersfontein. She has always given her
best blood with lavish generosity for the Empire, but it may be
doubted if any single battle has ever put so many families of high
and low into mourning from the Tweed to the Caithness shore. There
is a legend that when sorrow comes upon Scotland the old Edinburgh
Castle is lit by ghostly lights and gleams white at every window in
the mirk of midnight. If ever the watcher could have seen so
sinister a sight, it should have been on this, the fatal night of
December 11, 1899. As to the Boer loss it is impossible to
determine it. Their official returns stated it to be seventy killed
and two hundred and fifty wounded, but the reports of prisoners and
deserters placed it at a very much higher figure. One unit, the
Scandinavian corps, was placed in an advanced position at
Spytfontein, and was overwhelmed by the Seaforths, who killed,
wounded, or took the eighty men of whom it was composed. The
stories of prisoners and of deserters all speak of losses very much
higher than those which have been officially acknowledged.

In his comments upon the battle next day Lord Methuen was said to
have given offence to the Highland Brigade, and the report was
allowed to go uncontradicted until it became generally accepted. It
arose, however, from a complete misunderstanding of the purport of
Lord Methuen's remarks, in which he praised them, as he well might,
for their bravery, and condoled with them over the wreck of their
splendid regiments. The way in which officers and men hung on under
conditions to which no troops have ever been exposed was worthy of
the highest traditions of the British army. From the death of
Wauchope in the early morning, until the assumption of the command
of the brigade by Hughes-Hallett in the late afternoon, no one
seems to have taken the direction. 'My lieutenant was wounded and
my captain was killed,' says a private. 'The General was dead, but
we stayed where we were, for there was no order to retire.' That
was the story of the whole brigade, until the flanking movement of
the Boers compelled them to fall back.

The most striking lesson of the engagement is the extreme
bloodiness of modern warfare under some conditions, and its
bloodlessness under others. Here, out of a total of something under
a thousand casualties seven hundred were incurred in about five
minutes, and the whole day of shell, machine-gun, and rifle fire
only furnished the odd three hundred. So also at Ladysmith the
British forces (White's column) were under heavy fire from 5.30 to
11.30, and the loss again was something under three hundred. With
conservative generalship the losses of the battles of the future
will be much less than those of the past, and as a consequence the
battles themselves will last much longer, and it will be the most
enduring rather than the most fiery which will win. The supply of
food and water to the combatants will become of extreme importance
to keep them up during the prolonged trials of endurance, which
will last for weeks rather than days. On the other hand, when a
General's force is badly compromised, it will be so punished that a
quick surrender will be the only alternative to annihilation.

On the subject of the quarter-column formation which proved so
fatal to us, it must be remembered that any other form of advance
is hardly possible during a night attack, though at Tel-el-Kebir
the exceptional circumstance of the march being over an open desert
allowed the troops to move for the last mile or two in a more
extended formation. A line of battalion double-company columns is
most difficult to preserve in the darkness, and any confusion may
lead to disaster. The whole mistake lay in a miscalculation of a
few hundred yards in the position of the trenches. Had the
regiments deployed five minutes earlier it is probable (though by
no means certain) that the position would have been carried.

The action was not without those examples of military virtue which
soften a disaster, and hold out a brighter promise for the future.
The Guards withdrew from the field as if on parade, with the Boer
shells bursting over their ranks. Fine, too, was the restraint of G
Battery of Horse Artillery on the morning after the battle. An
armistice was understood to exist, but the naval gun, in ignorance
of it, opened on our extreme left. The Boers at once opened fire
upon the Horse Artillery, who, recognising the mistake, remained
motionless and unlimbered in a line, with every horse, and gunner
and driver in his place, without taking any notice of the fire,
which presently slackened and stopped as the enemy came to
understand the situation. It is worthy of remark that in this
battle the three field batteries engaged, as well as G Battery,
R.H.A., each fired over 1000 rounds and remained for 30 consecutive
hours within 1500 yards of the Boer position.

But of all the corps who deserve praise, there was none more
gallant than the brave surgeons and ambulance bearers, who
encounter all the dangers and enjoy none of the thrills of warfare.
All day under fire these men worked and toiled among the wounded.
Beevor, Ensor, Douglas, Probyn--all were equally devoted. It is
almost incredible, and yet it is true, that by ten o'clock on the
morning after the battle, before the troops had returned to camp,
no fewer than five hundred wounded were in the train and on their
way to Cape Town.



Some attempt has now been made to sketch the succession of events
which had ended in the investment of Ladysmith in northern Natal,
and also to show the fortunes of the force which on the western
side of the seat of war attempted to advance to the relief of
Kimberley. The distance between these forces may be expressed in
terms familiar to the European reader by saying that it was that
which separates Paris from Frankfort, or to the American by
suggesting that Ladysmith was at Boston and that Methuen was trying
to relieve Philadelphia. Waterless deserts and rugged mountain
ranges divided the two scenes of action. In the case of the British
there could be no connection between the two movements, but the
Boers by a land journey of something over a hundred miles had a
double choice of a route by which Cronje and Joubert might join
hands, either by the Bloemfontein-Johannesburg-Laing's Nek Railway,
or by the direct line from Harrismith to Ladysmith. The possession
of these internal lines should have been of enormous benefit to the
Boers, enabling them to throw the weight of their forces
unexpectedly from the one flank to the other.

In a future chapter it will be recorded how the Army Corps arriving
from England was largely diverted into Natal in order in the first
instance to prevent the colony from being overrun, and in the
second to rescue the beleaguered garrison. In the meantime it is
necessary to deal with the military operations in the broad space
between the eastern and western armies.

After the declaration of war there was a period of some weeks
during which the position of the British over the whole of the
northern part of Cape Colony was full of danger. Immense supplies
had been gathered at De Aar which were at the mercy of a Free State
raid, and the burghers, had they possessed a cavalry leader with
the dash of a Stuart or a Sheridan, might have dealt a blow which
would have cost us a million pounds' worth of stores and dislocated
the whole plan of campaign. However, the chance was allowed to
pass, and when, on November 1st, the burghers at last in a
leisurely fashion sauntered over the frontier, arrangements had
been made by reinforcement and by concentration to guard the vital
points. The objects of the British leaders, until the time for a
general advance should come, were to hold the Orange River Bridge
(which opened the way to Kimberley), to cover De Aar Junction,
where the stores were, to protect at all costs the line of railway
which led from Cape Town to Kimberley, and to hold on to as much as
possible of those other two lines of railway which led, the one
through Colesberg and the other through Stormberg, into the Free
State. The two bodies of invaders who entered the colony moved
along the line of these two railways, the one crossing the Orange
River at Norval's Pont and the other at Bethulie. They enlisted
many recruits among the Cape Colony Dutch as they advanced, and the
scanty British forces fell back in front of them, abandoning
Colesberg on the one line and Stormberg on the other. We have,
then, to deal with the movements of two British detachments. The
one which operated on the Colesberg line--which was the more vital
of the two, as a rapid advance of the Boers upon that line would
have threatened the precious Cape Town to Kimberley
connection--consisted almost entirely of mounted troops, and was
under the command of the same General French who had won the battle
of Elandslaagte. By an act of foresight which was only too rare
upon the British side in the earlier stages of this war, French,
who had in the recent large manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain shown
great ability as a cavalry leader, was sent out of Ladysmith in the
very last train which made its way through. His operations, with
his instructive use of cavalry and horse artillery, may be treated

The other British force which faced the Boers who were advancing
through Stormberg was commanded by General Gatacre, a man who bore
a high reputation for fearlessness and tireless energy, though he
had been criticised, notably during the Soudan campaign, for having
called upon his men for undue and unnecessary exertion. 'General
Back-acher' they called him, with rough soldierly chaff. A glance
at his long thin figure, his gaunt Don Quixote face, and his
aggressive jaw would show his personal energy, but might not
satisfy the observer that he possessed those intellectual gifts
which qualify for high command. At the action of the Atbara he, the
brigadier in command, was the first to reach and to tear down with
his own hands the zareeba of the enemy--a gallant exploit of the
soldier, but a questionable position for the General. The man's
strength and his weakness lay in the incident.

General Gatacre was nominally in command of a division, but so
cruelly had his men been diverted from him, some to Buller in Natal
and some to Methuen, that he could not assemble more than a
brigade. Falling back before the Boer advance, he found himself
early in December at Sterkstroom, while the Boers occupied the very
strong position of Stormberg, some thirty miles to the north of
him. With the enemy so near him it was Gatacre's nature to attack,
and the moment that he thought himself strong enough he did so. No
doubt he had private information as to the dangerous hold which the
Boers were getting upon the colonial Dutch, and it is possible that
while Buller and Methuen were attacking east and west they urged
Gatacre to do something to hold the enemy in the centre. On the
night of December 9th he advanced.

The fact that he was about to do so, and even the hour of the
start, appear to have been the common property of the camp some
days before the actual move. The 'Times' correspondent under the
date December 7th details all that it is intended to do. It is to
the credit of our Generals as men, but to their detriment as
soldiers, that they seem throughout the campaign to have shown
extraordinarily little power of dissimulation. They did the
obvious, and usually allowed it to be obvious what they were about
to do. One thinks of Napoleon striking at Egypt; how he gave it
abroad that the real object of the expedition was Ireland, but
breathed into the ears of one or two intimates that in very truth
it was bound for Genoa. The leading official at Toulon had no more
idea where the fleet and army of France had gone than the humblest
caulker in the yard. However, it is not fair to expect the subtlety
of the Corsican from the downright Saxon, but it remains strange
and deplorable that in a country filled with spies any one should
have known in advance that a so-called 'surprise' was about to be

The force with which General Gatacre advanced consisted of the 2nd
Northumberland Fusiliers, 960 strong, with one Maxim; the 2nd Irish
Rifles, 840 strong, with one Maxim, and 250 Mounted Infantry. There
were two batteries of Field Artillery, the 74th and 77th. The total
force was well under 3000 men. About three in the afternoon the men
were entrained in open trucks under a burning sun, and for some
reason, at which the impetuous spirit of the General must have
chafed, were kept waiting for three hours. At eight o'clock they
detrained at Molteno, and thence after a short rest and a meal they
started upon the night march which was intended to end at the break
of day at the Boer trenches. One feels as if one were describing
the operations of Magersfontein once again and the parallel
continues to be painfully exact.

It was nine o'clock and pitch dark when the column moved out of
Molteno and struck across the black gloom of the veld, the wheels
of the guns being wrapped in hide to deaden the rattle. It was
known that the distance was not more than ten miles, and so when
hour followed hour and the guides were still unable to say that
they had reached their point it must have become perfectly evident
that they had missed their way. The men were dog-tired, a long
day's work had been followed by a long night's march, and they
plodded along drowsily through the darkness. The ground was broken
and irregular. The weary soldiers stumbled as they marched.
Daylight came and revealed the column still looking for its
objective, the fiery General walking in front and leading his horse
behind him. It was evident that his plans had miscarried, but his
energetic and hardy temperament would not permit him to turn back
without a blow being struck. However one may commend his energy,
one cannot but stand aghast at his dispositions. The country was
wild and rocky, the very places for those tactics of the surprise
and the ambuscade in which the Boers excelled. And yet the column
still plodded aimlessly on in its dense formation, and if there
were any attempt at scouting ahead and on the flanks the result
showed how ineffectively it was carried out. It was at a quarter
past four in the clear light of a South African morning that a
shot, and then another, and then a rolling crash of musketry, told
that we were to have one more rough lesson of the result of
neglecting the usual precautions of warfare. High up on the face of
a steep line of hill the Boer riflemen lay hid, and from a short
range their fire scourged our exposed flank. The men appear to have
been chiefly colonial rebels, and not Boers of the backveld, and to
that happy chance it may be that the comparative harmlessness of
their fire was due. Even now, in spite of the surprise, the
situation might have been saved had the bewildered troops and their
harried officers known exactly what to do. It is easy to be wise
after the event, but it appears now that the only course that could
commend itself would be to extricate the troops from their
position, and then, if thought feasible, to plan an attack. Instead
of this a rush was made at the hillside, and the infantry made
their way some distance up it only to find that there were positive
ledges in front of them which could not be climbed. The advance was
at a dead stop, and the men lay down under the boulders for cover
from the hot fire which came from inaccessible marksmen above them.
Meanwhile the artillery had opened behind them, and their fire (not
for the first time in this campaign) was more deadly to their
friends than to their foes. At least one prominent officer fell
among his men, torn by British shrapnel bullets. Talana Hill and
Modder River have shown also, though perhaps in a less tragic
degree, that what with the long range of modern artillery fire, and
what with the difficulty of locating infantry who are using
smokeless powder, it is necessary that officers commanding
batteries should be provided with the coolest heads and the most
powerful glasses of any men in the service, for a responsibility
which will become more and more terrific rests upon their judgment.

The question now, since the assault had failed, was how to
extricate the men from their position. Many withdrew down the hill,
running the gauntlet of the enemy's fire as they emerged from the
boulders on to the open ground, while others clung to their
positions, some from a soldierly hope that victory might finally
incline to them, others because it was clearly safer to lie among
the rocks than to cross the bullet-swept spaces beyond. Those
portions of the force who extricated themselves do not appear to
have realised how many of their comrades had remained behind, and
so as the gap gradually increased between the men who were
stationary and the men who fell back all hope of the two bodies
reuniting became impossible. All the infantry who remained upon the
hillside were captured. The rest rallied at a point fifteen hundred
yards from the scene of the surprise, and began an orderly retreat
to Molteno.

In the meanwhile three powerful Boer guns upon the ridge had opened
fire with great accuracy, but fortunately with defective shells.
Had the enemy's contractors been as trustworthy as their gunners in
this campaign, our losses would have been very much heavier, and it
is possible that here we catch a glimpse of some consequences of
that corruption which was one of the curses of the country. The
guns were moved with great smartness along the ridge, and opened
fire again and again, but never with great result. Our own
batteries, the 74th and 77th, with our handful of mounted men,
worked hard in covering the retreat and holding back the enemy's

It is a sad subject to discuss, but it is the one instance in a
campaign containing many reverses which amounts to demoralisation
among the troops engaged. The Guards marching with the steadiness
of Hyde Park off the field of Magersfontein, or the men of
Nicholson's Nek chafing because they were not led in a last
hopeless charge, are, even in defeat, object lessons of military
virtue. But here fatigue and sleeplessness had taken all fire and
spirit out of the men. They dropped asleep by the roadside and had
to be prodded up by their exhausted officers. Many were taken
prisoners in their slumber by the enemy who gleaned behind them.
Units broke into small straggling bodies, and it was a sorry and
bedraggled force which about ten o'clock came wandering into
Molteno. The place of honour in the rear was kept throughout by the
Irish Rifles, who preserved some military formation to the end. Our
losses in killed and wounded were not severe--military honour would
have been less sore had they been more so. Twenty-six killed,
sixty-eight wounded--that is all. But between the men on the
hillside and the somnambulists of the column, six hundred, about
equally divided between the Irish Rifles and the Northumberland
Fusiliers, had been left as prisoners. Two guns, too, had been lost
in the hurried retreat.

It is not for the historian--especially for a civilian
historian--to say a word unnecessarily to aggravate the pain of
that brave man who, having done all that personal courage could do,
was seen afterwards sobbing on the table of the waiting-room at
Molteno, and bewailing his 'poor men.' He had a disaster, but
Nelson had one at Teneriffe and Napoleon at Acre, and built their
great reputations in spite of it. But the one good thing of a
disaster is that by examining it we may learn to do better in the
future, and so it would indeed be a perilous thing if we agreed
that our reverses were not a fit subject for open and frank

It is not to the detriment of an enterprise that it should be
daring and call for considerable physical effort on the part of
those who are engaged in it. On the contrary, the conception of
such plans is one of the signs of a great military mind. But in the
arranging of the details the same military mind should assiduously
occupy itself in foreseeing and preventing every unnecessary thing
which may make the execution of such a plan more difficult. The
idea of a swift sudden attack upon Stormberg was excellent--the
details of the operation are continually open to criticism.

How far the Boers suffered at Stormberg is unknown to us, but there
seems in this instance no reason to doubt their own statement that
their losses were very slight. At no time was any body of them
exposed to our fire, while we, as usual, fought in the open. Their
numbers were probably less than ours, and the quality of their
shooting and want of energy in pursuit make the defeat the more
galling. On the other hand, their guns were served with skill and
audacity. They consisted of commandos from Bethulie, Rouxville, and
Smithfield, under the orders of Olivier, with those colonials whom
they had seduced from their allegiance.

This defeat of General Gatacre's, occurring, as it did, in a
disaffected district and one of great strategic importance, might
have produced the worst consequences.

Fortunately no very evil result followed. No doubt the recruiting
of rebels was helped, but there was no forward movement and Molteno
remained in our hands. In the meanwhile Gatacre's force was
reinforced by a fresh battery, the 79th, and by a strong regiment,
the Derbyshires, so that with the 1st Royal Scots and the wing of
the Berkshires he was strong enough to hold his own until the time
for a general advance should come. So in the Stormberg district, as
at the Modder River, the same humiliating and absurd position of
stalemate was established.



Two serious defeats had within the week been inflicted upon the
British forces in South Africa. Cronje, lurking behind his trenches
and his barbed wire entanglements barred Methuen's road to
Kimberley, while in the northern part of Cape Colony Gatacre's
wearied troops had been defeated and driven by a force which
consisted largely of British subjects. But the public at home
steeled their hearts and fixed their eyes steadily upon Natal.
There was their senior General and there the main body of their
troops. As brigade after brigade and battery after battery touched
at Cape Town, and were sent on instantly to Durban, it was evident
that it was in this quarter that the supreme effort was to be made,
and that there the light might at last break. In club, and dining
room, and railway car--wherever men met and talked--the same words
might be heard: 'Wait until Buller moves.' The hopes of a great
empire lay in the phrase.

It was upon October 30th that Sir George White had been thrust back
into Ladysmith. On November 2nd telegraphic communication with the
town was interrupted. On November 3rd the railway line was cut. On
November 10th the Boers held Colenso and the line of the Tugela. On
the 14th was the affair of the armoured train. On the 18th the
enemy were near Estcourt. On the 21st they had reached the Mooi
River. On the 23rd Hildyard attacked them at Willow Grange. All
these actions will be treated elsewhere. This last one marks the
turn of the tide. From then onwards Sir Redvers Buller was massing
his troops at Chieveley in preparation for a great effort to cross
the river and to relieve Ladysmith, the guns of which, calling from
behind the line of northern hills, told their constant tale of
restless attack and stubborn defence.

But the task was as severe a one as the most fighting General could
ask for. On the southern side the banks formed a long slope which
could be shaved as with a razor by the rifle fire of the enemy. How
to advance across that broad open zone was indeed a problem. It was
one of many occasions in this war in which one wondered why, if a
bullet-proof shield capable of sheltering a lying man could be
constructed, a trial should not be given to it. Alternate rushes of
companies with a safe rest after each rush would save the troops
from the continued tension of that deadly never ending fire.
However, it is idle to discuss what might have been done to
mitigate their trials. The open ground had to be passed, and then
they came to--not the enemy, but a broad and deep river, with a
single bridge, probably undermined, and a single ford, which was
found not to exist in practice. Beyond the river was tier after
tier of hills, crowned with stone walls and seamed with trenches,
defended by thousands of the best marksmen in the world, supported
by an admirable artillery. If, in spite of the advance over the
open and in spite of the passage of the river, a ridge could still
be carried, it was only to be commanded by the next; and so, one
behind the other, like the billows of the ocean, a series of hills
and hollows rolled northwards to Ladysmith. All attacks must be in
the open. All defence was from under cover. Add to this, that the
young and energetic Louis Botha was in command of the Boers. It was
a desperate task, and yet honour forbade that the garrison should
be left to its fate. The venture must be made.

The most obvious criticism upon the operation is that if the attack
must be made it should not be made under the enemy's conditions. We
seem almost to have gone out of our way to make every obstacle--the
glacislike approach, the river, the trenches--as difficult as
possible. Future operations were to prove that it was not so
difficult to deceive Boer vigilance and by rapid movements to cross
the Tugela. A military authority has stated, I know not with what
truth, that there is no instance in history of a determined army
being stopped by the line of a river, and from Wellington at the
Douro to the Russians on the Danube many examples of the ease with
which they may be passed will occur to the reader. But Buller had
some exceptional difficulties with which to contend. He was weak in
mounted troops, and was opposed to an enemy of exceptional mobility
who might attack his flank and rear if he exposed them. He had not
that great preponderance of numbers which came to him later, and
which enabled him to attempt a wide turning movement. One advantage
he had, the possession of a more powerful artillery, but his
heaviest guns were naturally his least mobile, and the more direct
his advance the more effective would his guns be. For these or
other reasons he determined upon a frontal attack on the formidable
Boer position, and he moved out of Chieveley Camp for that purpose
at daybreak on Friday, December 15th.

The force which General Buller led into action was the finest which
any British general had handled since the battle of the Alma. Of
infantry he had four strong brigades: the 2nd (Hildyard's)
consisting of the 2nd Devons, the 2nd Queen's or West Surrey, the
2nd West Yorkshire, and the 2nd East Surrey; the 4th Brigade
(Lyttelton's) comprising the 2nd Cameronians, the 3rd Rifles, the
1st Durhams, and the 1st Rifle Brigade; the 5th Brigade (Hart's)
with the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Connaught Rangers, 2nd
Dublin Fusiliers, and the Border Regiment, this last taking the
place of the 2nd Irish Rifles, who were with Gatacre. There
remained the 6th Brigade (Barton's), which included the 2nd Royal
Fusiliers, the 2nd Scots Fusiliers, the 1st Welsh Fusiliers, and
the 2nd Irish Fusiliers--in all about 16,000 infantry. The mounted
men, who were commanded by Lord Dundonald, included the 13th
Hussars, the 1st Royals, Bethune's Mounted Infantry, Thorneycroft's
Mounted Infantry, three squadrons of South African Horse, with a
composite regiment formed from the mounted infantry of the Rifles
and of the Dublin Fusiliers with squadrons of the Natal Carabineers
and the Imperial Light Horse. These irregular troops of horse might
be criticised by martinets and pedants, but they contained some of
the finest fighting material in the army, some urged on by personal
hatred of the Boers and some by mere lust of adventure. As an
example of the latter one squadron of the South African Horse was
composed almost entirely of Texan muleteers, who, having come over
with their animals, had been drawn by their own gallant spirit into
the fighting line of their kinsmen.

Cavalry was General Buller's weakest arm, but his artillery was
strong both in its quality and its number of guns. There were five
batteries (30 guns) of the Field Artillery, the 7th, 14th, 63rd,
64th, and 66th. Besides these there were no fewer than sixteen
naval guns from H.M.S. 'Terrible'--fourteen of which were
12-pounders, and the other two of the 4.7 type which had done such
good service both at Ladysmith and with Methuen. The whole force
which moved out from Chieveley Camp numbered about 21,000 men.

The work which was allotted to the army was simple in conception,
however terrible it might prove in execution. There were two points
at which the river might be crossed, one three miles off on the
left, named Bridle Drift, the other straight ahead at the Bridge of
Colenso. The 5th or Irish Brigade was to endeavour to cross at
Bridle Drift, and then to work down the river bank on the far side
so as to support the 2nd or English Brigade,--which was to cross at
Colenso. The 4th Brigade was to advance between these, so as to
help either which should be in difficulties. Meanwhile on the
extreme right the mounted troops under Dundonald were to cover the
flank and to attack Hlangwane Hill, a formidable position held
strongly by the enemy upon the south bank of the Tugela. The
remaining Fusilier brigade of infantry was to support this movement
on the right. The guns were to cover the various attacks, and if
possible gain a position from which the trenches might be
enfiladed. This, simply stated, was the work which lay before the
British army. In the bright clear morning sunshine, under a
cloudless blue sky, they advanced with high hopes to the assault.
Before them lay the long level plain, then the curve of the river,
and beyond, silent and serene, like some peaceful dream landscape,
stretched the lines and lines of gently curving hills. It was just
five o'clock in the morning when the naval guns began to bay, and
huge red dustclouds from the distant foothills showed where the
lyddite was bursting. No answer came back, nor was there any
movement upon the sunlit hills. It was almost brutal, this furious
violence to so gentle and unresponsive a countryside. In no place
could the keenest eye detect a sign of guns or men, and yet death
lurked in every hollow and crouched by every rock.

It is so difficult to make a modern battle intelligible when
fought, as this was, over a front of seven or eight miles, that it
is best perhaps to take the doings of each column in turn,
beginning with the left flank, where Hart's Irish Brigade had
advanced to the assault of Bridle Drift.

Under an unanswered and therefore an unaimed fire from the heavy
guns the Irish infantry moved forward upon the points which they
had been ordered to attack. The Dublins led, then the Connaughts,
the Inniskillings, and the Borderers. Incredible as it may appear
after the recent experiences of Magersfontein and of Stormberg, the
men in the two rear regiments appear to have been advanced in
quarter column, and not to have deployed until after the enemy's
fire had opened. Had shrapnel struck this close formation, as it
was within an ace of doing, the loss of life must have been as
severe as it was unnecessary.

On approaching the Drift--the position or even the existence of
which does not seem to have been very clearly defined--it was found
that the troops had to advance into a loop formed by the river, so
that they were exposed to a very heavy cross-fire upon their right
flank, while they were rained on by shrapnel from in front. No sign
of the enemy could be seen, though the men were dropping fast. It
is a weird and soul-shaking experience to advance over a sunlit and
apparently a lonely countryside, with no slightest movement upon
its broad face, while the path which you take is marked behind you
by sobbing, gasping, writhing men, who can only guess by the
position of their wounds whence the shots came which struck them
down. All round, like the hissing of fat in the pan, is the
monotonous crackle and rattle of the Mausers; but the air is full
of it, and no one can define exactly whence it comes. Far away on
some hill upon the skyline there hangs the least gauzy veil of thin
smoke to indicate whence the six men who have just all fallen
together, as if it were some grim drill, met their death. Into such
a hell-storm as this it was that the soldiers have again and again
advanced in the course of this war, but it may be questioned
whether they will not prove to be among the last of mortals to be
asked to endure such an ordeal. Other methods of attack must be
found or attacks must be abandoned, for smokeless powder,
quick-firing guns, and modern rifles make it all odds on the

The gallant Irishmen pushed on, flushed with battle and careless
for their losses, the four regiments clubbed into one, with all
military organisation rapidly disappearing, and nothing left but
their gallant spirit and their furious desire to come to hand-grips
with the enemy. Rolling on in a broad wave of shouting angry men,
they never winced from the fire until they had swept up to the bank
of the river. Northern Inniskilling and Southern man of Connaught,
orange and green, Protestant and Catholic, Celt and Saxon, their
only rivalry now was who could shed his blood most freely for the
common cause. How hateful seem those provincial politics and narrow
sectarian creeds which can hold such men apart!

The bank of the river had been gained, but where was the ford? The
water swept broad and unruffled in front of them, with no
indication of shallows. A few dashing fellows sprang in, but their
cartridges and rifles dragged them to the bottom. One or two may
even have struggled through to the further side, but on this there
is a conflict of evidence. It may be, though it seems incredible,
that the river had been partly dammed to deepen the Drift, or, as
is more probable, that in the rapid advance and attack the position
of the Drift was lost. However this may be, the troops could find
no ford, and they lay down, as had been done in so many previous
actions, unwilling to retreat and unable to advance, with the same
merciless pelting from front and flank. In every fold and behind
every anthill the Irishmen lay thick and waited for better times.
There are many instances of their cheery and uncomplaining humour.
Colonel Brooke, of the Connaughts, fell at the head of his men.
Private Livingstone helped to carry him into safety, and then, his
task done, he confessed to having 'a bit of a rap meself,' and sank
fainting with a bullet through his throat. Another sat with a
bullet through both legs. 'Bring me a tin whistle and I'll blow ye
any tune ye like,' he cried, mindful of the Dargai piper. Another
with his arm hanging by a tendon puffed morosely at his short black
pipe. Every now and then, in face of the impossible, the fiery
Celtic valour flamed furiously upwards. 'Fix bayonets, men, and let
us make a name for ourselves,' cried a colour sergeant, and he
never spoke again. For five hours, under the tropical sun, the
grimy parched men held on to the ground they had occupied. British
shells pitched short and fell among them. A regiment in support
fired at them, not knowing that any of the line were so far
advanced. Shot at from the front, the flank, and the rear, the 5th
Brigade held grimly on.

But fortunately their orders to retire were at hand, and it is
certain that had they not reached them the regiments would have
been uselessly destroyed where they lay. It seems to have been
Buller himself, who showed extraordinary and ubiquitous personal
energy during the day, that ordered them to fall back. As they
retreated there was an entire absence of haste and panic, but
officers and men were hopelessly jumbled up, and General
Hart--whose judgment may occasionally be questioned, but whose cool
courage was beyond praise--had hard work to reform the splendid
brigade which six hours before had tramped out of Chieveley Camp.
Between five and six hundred of them had fallen--a loss which
approximates to that of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein. The
Dublins and the Connaughts were the heaviest sufferers.

So much for the mishap of the 5th Brigade. It is superfluous to
point out that the same old omissions were responsible for the same
old results. Why were the men in quarter column when advancing
against an unseen foe? Why had no scouts gone forward to be certain
of the position of the ford? Where were the clouds of skirmishers
which should precede such an advance? The recent examples in the
field and the teachings of the text-books were equally set at
naught, as they had been, and were to be, so often in this
campaign. There may be a science of war in the lecture-rooms at
Camberley, but very little of it found its way to the veld. The
slogging valour of the private, the careless dash of the regimental
officer--these were our military assets--but seldom the care and
foresight of our commanders. It is a thankless task to make such
comments, but the one great lesson of the war has been that the
army is too vital a thing to fall into the hands of a caste, and
that it is a national duty for every man to speak fearlessly and
freely what he believes to be the truth.

Passing from the misadventure of the 5th Brigade we come as we move
from left to right upon the 4th, or Lyttelton's Brigade, which was
instructed not to attack itself but to support the attack on either
side of it. With the help of the naval guns it did what it could to
extricate and cover the retreat of the Irishmen, but it could play
no very important part in the action, and its losses were
insignificant. On its right in turn Hildyard's English Brigade had
developed its attack upon Colenso and the bridge. The regiments
under Hildyard's lead were the 2nd West Surrey, the 2nd Devons
(whose first battalion was doing so well with the Ladysmith force),
the East Surreys, and the West Yorkshires. The enemy had evidently
anticipated the main attack on this position, and not only were the
trenches upon the other side exceptionally strong, but their
artillery converged upon the bridge, at least a dozen heavy pieces,
besides a number of quick-firers, bearing upon it. The Devons and
the Queens, in open order (an extended line of khaki dots, blending
so admirably with the plain that they were hardly visible when they
halted), led the attack, being supported by the East Surrey and the
West Yorkshires. Advancing under a very heavy fire the brigade
experienced much the same ordeal as their comrades of Hart's
brigade, which was mitigated by the fact that from the first they
preserved their open order in columns of half-companies extended to
six paces, and that the river in front of them did not permit that
right flank fire which was so fatal to the Irishmen. With a loss of
some two hundred men the leading regiments succeeded in reaching
Colenso, and the West Surrey, advancing by rushes of fifty yards at
a time, had established itself in the station, but a catastrophe
had occurred at an earlier hour to the artillery which was
supporting it which rendered all further advance impossible. For
the reason of this we must follow the fortunes of the next unit
upon their right.

This consisted of the important body of artillery who had been told
off to support the main attack. It comprised two field batteries,
the 14th and the 66th, under the command of Colonel Long, and six
naval guns (two of 4.7, and four 12-pounders) under Lieutenant
Ogilvy of the 'Terrible.' Long has the record of being a most
zealous and dashing officer, whose handling of the Egyptian
artillery at the battle of the Atbara had much to do with the
success of the action. Unfortunately, these barbarian campaigns, in
which liberties may be taken with impunity, leave an evil
tradition, as the French have found with their Algerians. Our own
close formations, our adherence to volley firing, and in this
instance the use of our artillery all seem to be legacies of our
savage wars. Be the cause what it may, at an early stage of the
action Long's guns whirled forwards, outstripped the infantry
brigades upon their flanks, left the slow-moving naval guns with
their ox-teams behind them, and unlimbered within a thousand yards
of the enemy's trenches. From this position he opened fire upon
Fort Wylie, which was the centre of that portion of the Boer
position which faced him.

But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the tide of
battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example
of the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. Not
even Mercer's famous description of the effect of a flank fire upon
his troop of horse artillery at Waterloo could do justice to the
blizzard of lead which broke over the two doomed batteries. The
teams fell in heaps, some dead, some mutilated, and mutilating
others in their frantic struggles. One driver, crazed with horror,
sprang on a leader, cut the traces and tore madly off the field.
But a perfect discipline reigned among the vast majority of the
gunners, and the words of command and the laying and working of the
guns were all as methodical as at Okehampton. Not only was there a
most deadly rifle fire, partly from the lines in front and partly
from the village of Colenso upon their left flank, but the Boer
automatic quick-firers found the range to a nicety, and the little
shells were crackling and banging continually over the batteries.
Already every gun had its litter of dead around it, but each was
still fringed by its own group of furious officers and sweating
desperate gunners. Poor Long was down, with a bullet through his
arm and another through his liver. 'Abandon be damned! We don't
abandon guns!' was his last cry as they dragged him into the
shelter of a little donga hard by. Captain Goldie dropped dead. So
did Lieutenant Schreiber. Colonel Hunt fell, shot in two places.
Officers and men were falling fast. The guns could not be worked,
and yet they could not be removed, for every effort to bring up
teams from the shelter where the limbers lay ended in the death of
the horses. The survivors took refuge from the murderous fire in
that small hollow to which Long had been carried, a hundred yards
or so from the line of bullet-splashed cannon. One gun on the right
was still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed
to bear charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled
with their beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue
wreaths of the bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against
the trail, and his comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon
his breast. The third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon
his face; while the survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood
at attention looking death in the eyes until he too was struck
down. A useless sacrifice, you may say; but while the men who saw
them die can tell such a story round the camp fire the example of
such deaths as these does more than clang of bugle or roll of drum
to stir the warrior spirit of our race.

For two hours the little knot of heart-sick humiliated officers and
men lay in the precarious shelter of the donga and looked out at
the bullet-swept plain and the line of silent guns. Many of them
were wounded. Their chief lay among them, still calling out in his
delirium for his guns. They had been joined by the gallant Baptie,
a brave surgeon, who rode across to the donga amid a murderous
fire, and did what he could for the injured men. Now and then a
rush was made into the open, sometimes in the hope of firing
another round, sometimes to bring a wounded comrade in from the
pitiless pelt of the bullets. How fearful was that lead-storm may
be gathered from the fact that one gunner was found with sixty-four
wounds in his body. Several men dropped in these sorties, and the
disheartened survivors settled down once more in the donga.

The hope to which they clung was that their guns were not really
lost, but that the arrival of infantry would enable them to work
them once more. Infantry did at last arrive, but in such small
numbers that it made the situation more difficult instead of easing
it. Colonel Bullock had brought up two companies of the Devons to
join the two companies (A and B) of Scots Fusiliers who had been
the original escort of the guns, but such a handful could not turn
the tide. They also took refuge in the donga, and waited for better

In the meanwhile the attention of Generals Buller and Clery had
been called to the desperate position of the guns, and they had
made their way to that further nullah in the rear where the
remaining limber horses and drivers were. This was some distance
behind that other donga in which Long, Bullock, and their Devons
and gunners were crouching. 'Will any of you volunteer to save the
guns?' cried Buller. Corporal Nurse, Gunner Young, and a few others
responded. The desperate venture was led by three aides-de-camp of
the Generals, Congreve, Schofield, and Roberts, the only son of the
famous soldier. Two gun teams were taken down; the horses galloping
frantically through an infernal fire, and each team succeeded in
getting back with a gun. But the loss was fearful. Roberts was
mortally wounded. Congreve has left an account which shows what a
modern rifle fire at a thousand yards is like. 'My first bullet
went through my left sleeve and made the joint of my elbow bleed,
next a clod of earth caught me smack on the right arm, then my
horse got one, then my right leg one, then my horse another, and
that settled us.' The gallant fellow managed to crawl to the group
of castaways in the donga. Roberts insisted on being left where he
fell, for fear he should hamper the others.

In the meanwhile Captain Reed, of the 7th Battery, had arrived with
two spare teams of horses, and another determined effort was made
under his leadership to save some of the guns. But the fire was too
murderous. Two-thirds of his horses and half his men, including
himself, were struck down, and General Buller commanded that all
further attempts to reach the abandoned batteries should be given
up. Both he and General Clery had been slightly wounded, and there
were many operations over the whole field of action to engage their
attention. But making every allowance for the pressure of many
duties and for the confusion and turmoil of a great action, it does
seem one of the most inexplicable incidents in British military
history that the guns should ever have been permitted to fall into
the hands of the enemy. It is evident that if our gunners could not
live under the fire of the enemy it would be equally impossible for
the enemy to remove the guns under a fire from a couple of
battalions of our infantry. There were many regiments which had
hardly been engaged, and which could have been advanced for such a
purpose. The men of the Mounted Infantry actually volunteered for
this work, and none could have been more capable of carrying it
out. There was plenty of time also, for the guns were abandoned
about eleven and the Boers did not venture to seize them until
four. Not only could the guns have been saved, but they might, one
would think, have been transformed into an excellent bait for a
trap to tempt the Boers out of their trenches. It must have been
with fear and trembling that Cherry Emmett and his men first
approached them, for how could they believe that such incredible
good fortune had come to them? However, the fact, humiliating and
inexplicable, is that the guns were so left, that the whole force
was withdrawn, and that not only the ten cannon, but also the
handful of Devons, with their Colonel, and the Fusiliers were taken
prisoners in the donga which had sheltered them all day.

We have now, working from left to right, considered the operations
of Hart's Brigade at Bridle Drift, of Lyttelton's Brigade in
support, of Hildyard's which attacked Colenso, and of the luckless
batteries which were to have helped him. There remain two bodies of
troops upon the right, the further consisting of Dundonald's
mounted men who were to attack Hlangwane Hill, a fortified Boer
position upon the south of the river, while Barton's Brigade was to
support it and to connect this attack with the central operations.

Dundonald's force was entirely too weak for such an operation as
the capture of the formidable entrenched hill, and it is probable
that the movement was meant rather as a reconnaissance than as an
assault. He had not more than a thousand men in all, mostly
irregulars, and the position which faced him was precipitous and
entrenched, with barbed-wire entanglements and automatic guns. But
the gallant colonials were out on their first action, and their
fiery courage pushed the attack home. Leaving their horses, they
advanced a mile and a half on foot before they came within easy
range of the hidden riflemen, and learned the lesson which had been
taught to their comrades all along the line, that given
approximately equal numbers the attack in the open has no possible
chance against the concealed defence, and that the more bravely it
is pushed the more heavy is the repulse. The irregulars carried
themselves like old soldiers, they did all that mortal man could
do, and they retired coolly and slowly with the loss of 130 of the
brave troopers. The 7th Field Battery did all that was possible to
support the advance and cover the retirement. In no single place,
on this day of disaster, did one least gleam of success come to
warm the hearts and reward the exertions of our much-enduring men.

Of Barton's Brigade there is nothing to be recorded, for they
appear neither to have supported the attack upon Hlangwane Hill on
the one side nor to have helped to cover the ill-fated guns on the
other. Barton was applied to for help by Dundonald, but refused to
detach any of his troops. If General Buller's real idea was a
reconnaissance in force in order to determine the position and
strength of the Boer lines, then of course his brigadiers must have
felt a reluctance to entangle their brigades in a battle which was
really the result of a misunderstanding. On the other hand, if, as
the orders of the day seem to show, a serious engagement was always
intended, it is strange that two brigades out of four should have
played so insignificant a part. To Barton's Brigade was given the
responsibility of seeing that no right flank attack was carried out
by the Boers, and this held it back until it was clear that no such
attack was contemplated. After that one would have thought that,
had the situation been appreciated, at least two battalions might
have been spared to cover the abandoned guns with their rifle fire.
Two companies of the Scots Fusiliers did share the fortunes of the
guns. Two others, and one of the Irish Fusiliers, acted in support,
but the brigade as a whole, together with the 1st Royals and the
13th Hussars, might as well have been at Aldershot for any bearing
which their work had upon the fortunes of the day.

And so the first attempt at the relief of Ladysmith came to an end.
At twelve o'clock all the troops upon the ground were retreating
for the camp. There was nothing in the shape of rout or panic, and
the withdrawal was as orderly as the advance; but the fact remained
that we had just 1200 men in killed, wounded, and missing, and had
gained absolutely nothing. We had not even the satisfaction of
knowing that we had inflicted as well as endured punishment, for
the enemy remained throughout the day so cleverly concealed that it
is doubtful whether more than a hundred casualties occurred in
their ranks. Once more it was shown how weak an arm is artillery
against an enemy who lies in shelter.

Our wounded fortunately bore a high proportion to our killed, as
they always will do when it is rifle fire rather than shell fire
which is effective. Roughly we had 150 killed and about 720
wounded. A more humiliating item is the 250 or so who were missing.
These men were the gunners, the Devons, and the Scots Fusiliers,
who were taken in the donga together with small bodies from the
Connaughts, the Dublins, and other regiments who, having found some
shelter, were unable to leave it, and clung on until the retirement
of their regiments left them in a hopeless position. Some of these
small knots of men were allowed to retire in the evening by the
Boers, who seemed by no means anxious to increase the number of
their prisoners. Colonel Thackeray, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers,
found himself with a handful of his men surrounded by the enemy,
but owing to their good humour and his own tact he succeeded in
withdrawing them in safety. The losses fell chiefly on Hart's
Brigade, Hildyard's Brigade, and the colonial irregulars, who bore
off the honours of the fight.

In his official report General Buller states that were it not for
the action of Colonel Long and the subsequent disaster to the
artillery he thought that the battle might have been a successful
one. This is a hard saying, and throws perhaps too much
responsibility upon the gallant but unfortunate gunner. There have
been occasions in the war when greater dash upon the part of our
artillery might have changed the fate of the day, and it is bad
policy to be too severe upon the man who has taken a risk and
failed. The whole operation, with its advance over the open against
a concealed enemy with a river in his front, was so absolutely
desperate that Long may have seen that only desperate measures
could save the situation. To bring guns into action in front of the
infantry without having clearly defined the position of the
opposing infantry must always remain one of the most hazardous
ventures of war. 'It would certainly be mere folly,' says Prince
Kraft, 'to advance artillery to within 600 or 800 yards of a
position held by infantry unless the latter were under the fire of
infantry from an even shorter range.' This 'mere folly' is exactly
what Colonel Long did, but it must be remembered in extenuation
that he shared with others the idea that the Boers were up on the
hills, and had no inkling that their front trenches were down at
the river. With the imperfect means at his disposal he did such
scouting as he could, and if his fiery and impetuous spirit led him
into a position which cost him so dearly it is certainly more easy
for the critic to extenuate his fault than that subsequent one
which allowed the abandoned guns to fall into the hands of the
enemy. Nor is there any evidence that the loss of these guns did
seriously affect the fate of the action, for at those other parts
of the field where the infantry had the full and unceasing support
of the artillery the result was not more favourable than at the

So much for Colenso. A more unsatisfactory and in some ways
inexplicable action is not to be found in the range of British
military history. And the fuller the light which has been poured
upon it, the more extraordinary does the battle appear. There are a
preface and a sequel to the action which have put a severe strain
upon the charity which the British public has always shown that it
is prepared to extend to a defeated General. The preface is that
General Buller sent word to General White that he proposed to
attack upon the 17th, while the actual attack was delivered upon
the 15th, so that the garrison was not prepared to make that
demonstration which might have prevented the besiegers from sending
important reinforcements to Botha, had he needed them. The sequel
is more serious. Losing all heart at his defeat, General Buller,
although he had been officially informed that White had provisions
for seventy days, sent a heliogram advising the surrender of the
garrison. White's first reply, which deserves to live with the
anecdote of Nelson's telescope at his blind eye, was to the effect
that he believed the enemy had been tampering with Buller's
messages. To this Buller despatched an amended message, which with
Sir George White's reply, is here appended:

Message of December 16th, as altered by that of December 17th,

'I tried Colenso yesterday, but failed; the enemy is too strong for
my force except with siege operations, and these will take one full
month to prepare. Can you last so long?

'How many days can you hold out? I suggest you firing away as much
ammunition as you can, and making best terms you can. I can remain
here if you have alternative suggestion, but unaided I cannot break
in. I find my infantry cannot fight more than ten miles from camp,
and then only if water can be got, and it is scarce here. Whatever
happens, recollect to burn your cipher, decipher, and code books,
and all deciphered messages.'

From Sir G. White to Sir R. Buller. December 16th, 1899.

'Yours of today received and understood. My suggestion is that you
take up strongest available position that will enable you to keep
touch of the enemy and harass him constantly with artillery fire,
and in other ways as much as possible. I can make food last for
much longer than a month, and will not think of making terms till I
am forced to. You may have hit enemy harder than you think. All our
native spies report that your artillery fire made considerable
impression on enemy. Have your losses been very heavy? If you lose
touch of enemy, it will immensely increase his opportunities of
crushing me, and have worst effect elsewhere. While you are in
touch with him and in communication with me, he has both of our
forces to reckon with. Make every effort to get reinforcements as
early as possible, including India, and enlist every man in both
colonies who will serve and can ride. Things may look brighter. The
loss of 12,000 men here would be a heavy blow to England. We must
not yet think of it. I fear I could not cut my way to you. Enteric
fever is increasing alarmingly here. There are now 180 cases, all
within last month. Answer fully. I am keeping everything secret for
the present till I know your plans.'

Much allowance is to be made for a man who is staggering under the
mental shock of defeat and the physical exertions which Buller had
endured. That the Government made such allowance is clear from the
fact that he was not instantly recalled. And yet the cold facts are
that we have a British General, at the head of 25,000 men,
recommending another General, at the head of 12,000 men only twelve
miles off, to lay down his arms to an army which was certainly very
inferior in numbers to the total British force; and this because he
had once been defeated, although he knew that there was still time
for the whole resources of the Empire to be poured into Natal in
order to prevent so shocking a disaster. Such is a plain statement
of the advice which Buller gave and which White rejected. For the
instant the fate not only of South Africa but even, as I believe,
of the Empire hung upon the decision of the old soldier in
Ladysmith, who had to resist the proposals of his own General as
sternly as the attacks of the enemy. He who sorely needed help and
encouragement became, as his message shows, the helper and the
encourager. It was a tremendous test, and Sir George White came
through it with a staunchness and a loyalty which saved us not only
from overwhelming present disaster, but from a hideous memory which
must have haunted British military annals for centuries to come.



The week which extended from December 10th to December 17th, 1899,
was the blackest one known during our generation, and the most
disastrous for British arms during the century. We had in the short
space of seven days lost, beyond all extenuation or excuse, three
separate actions. No single defeat was of vital importance in
itself, but the cumulative effect, occurring as they did to each of
the main British forces in South Africa, was very great. The total
loss amounted to about three thousand men and twelve guns, while
the indirect effects in the way of loss of prestige to ourselves
and increased confidence and more numerous recruits to our enemy
were incalculable.

It is singular to glance at the extracts from the European press at
that time and to observe the delight and foolish exultation with
which our reverses were received. That this should occur in the
French journals is not unnatural, since our history has been
largely a contest with that Power, and we can regard with
complacency an enmity which is the tribute to our success. Russia,
too, as the least progressive of European States, has a natural
antagonism of thought, if not of interests, to the Power which
stands most prominently for individual freedom and liberal
institutions. The same poor excuse may be made for the organs of
the Vatican. But what are we to say of the insensate railing of
Germany, a country whose ally we have been for centuries? In the
days of Marlborough, in the darkest hours of Frederick the Great,
in the great world struggle of Napoleon, we have been the
brothers-in-arms of these people. So with the Austrians also. If
both these countries were not finally swept from the map by
Napoleon, it is largely to British subsidies and British tenacity
that they owe it. And yet these are the folk who turned most
bitterly against us at the only time in modern history when we had
a chance of distinguishing our friends from our foes. Never again,
I trust, on any pretext will a British guinea be spent or a British
soldier or sailor shed his blood for such allies. The political
lesson of this writer has been that we should make ourselves strong
within the empire, and let all outside it, save only our kinsmen of
America, go their own way and meet their own fate without let or
hindrance from us. It is amazing to find that even the Americans
could understand the stock from which they are themselves sprung so
little that such papers as the 'New York Herald' should imagine
that our defeat at Colenso was a good opportunity for us to
terminate the war. The other leading American journals, however,
took a more sane view of the situation, and realised that ten years
of such defeats would not find the end either of our resolution or
of our resources.

In the British Islands and in the empire at large our misfortunes
were met by a sombre but unalterable determination to carry the war
to a successful conclusion and to spare no sacrifices which could
lead to that end. Amid the humiliation of our reverses there was a
certain undercurrent of satisfaction that the deeds of our foemen
should at least have made the contention that the strong was
wantonly attacking the weak an absurd one. Under the stimulus of
defeat the opposition to the war sensibly decreased. It had become
too absurd even for the most unreasonable platform orator to
contend that a struggle had been forced upon the Boers when every
fresh detail showed how thoroughly they had prepared for such a
contingency and how much we had to make up. Many who had opposed
the war simply on that sporting instinct which backs the smaller
against the larger began to realise that what with the geographical
position of these people, what with the nature of their country,
and what with the mobility, number, and hardihood of their forces,
we had undertaken a task which would necessitate such a military
effort as we had never before been called upon to make. When
Kipling at the dawn of the war had sung of 'fifty thousand horse
and foot going to Table Bay,' the statement had seemed extreme. Now
it was growing upon the public mind that four times this number
would not be an excessive estimate. But the nation rose grandly to
the effort. Their only fear, often and loudly expressed, was that
Parliament would deal too tamely with the situation and fail to
demand sufficient sacrifices. Such was the wave of feeling over the
country that it was impossible to hold a peace meeting anywhere
without a certainty of riot. The only London daily which had
opposed the war, though very ably edited, was overborne by the
general sentiment and compelled to change its line. In the
provinces also opposition was almost silent, and the great colonies
were even more unanimous than the mother country. Misfortune had
solidified us where success might have caused a sentimental

On the whole, the energetic mood of the nation was reflected by the
decided measures of the Government. Before the deep-sea cables had
told us the lists of our dead, steps had been taken to prove to the
world how great were our latent resources and how determined our
spirit. On December 18th, two days after Colenso, the following
provisions were made for carrying on the campaign.

1. That as General Buller's hands were full in Natal the
supervision and direction of the whole campaign should be placed in
the hands of Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener as his chief of
staff. Thus the famous old soldier and the famous young one were
called together to the assistance of the country.

2. That all the remaining army reserves should be called out.

3. That the 7th Division (10,000 men) should be despatched to
Africa, and that an 8th Division should be formed ready for

4. That considerable artillery reinforcements, including a howitzer
brigade, should go out.

5. That eleven Militia battalions be sent abroad.

6. That a strong contingent of Volunteers be sent out.

7. That a Yeomanry mounted force be despatched.

8. That mounted corps be raised at the discretion of the
Commander-in-Chief in South Africa.

9. That the patriotic offers of further contingents from the
colonies be gratefully accepted.

By these measures it was calculated that from seventy to a hundred
thousand men would be added to our South African armies, the
numbers of which were already not short of a hundred thousand.

It is one thing, however, to draw up paper reinforcements, and it
is another, in a free country where no compulsion would be
tolerated, to turn these plans into actual regiments and squadrons.
But if there were any who doubted that this ancient nation still
glowed with the spirit of its youth his fears must soon have passed
away. For this far-distant war, a war of the unseen foe and of the
murderous ambuscade, there were so many volunteers that the
authorities were embarrassed by their numbers and their
pertinacity. It was a stimulating sight to see those long queues of
top-hatted, frock-coated young men who waited their turn for the
orderly room with as much desperate anxiety as if hard fare, a veld
bed, and Boer bullets were all that life had that was worth the
holding. Especially the Imperial Yeomanry, a corps of riders and
shots, appealed to the sporting instincts of our race. Many could
ride and not shoot, many could shoot and not ride, more candidates
were rejected than were accepted, and yet in a very short time
eight thousand men from every class were wearing the grey coats and
bandoliers. This singular and formidable force was drawn from every
part of England and Scotland, with a contingent of hard-riding
Irish fox-hunters. Noblemen and grooms rode knee to knee in the
ranks, and the officers included many well-known country gentlemen
and masters of hounds. Well horsed and well armed, a better force
for the work in hand could not be imagined. So high did the
patriotism run that corps were formed in which the men not only
found their own equipment but contributed their pay to the war
fund. Many young men about town justified their existence for the
first time. In a single club, which is peculiarly consecrated to
the jeunesse doree, three hundred members rode to the wars.

Without waiting for these distant but necessary reinforcements, the
Generals in Africa had two divisions to look to, one of which was
actually arriving while the other was on the sea. These formed the
5th Division under Sir Charles Warren, and the 6th Division under
General Kelly-Kenny. Until these forces should arrive it was
obviously best that the three armies should wait, for, unless there
should be pressing need of help on the part of the besieged
garrisons or imminent prospects of European complications, every
week which passed was in our favour. There was therefore a long
lull in the war, during which Methuen strengthened his position at
Modder River, Gatacre held his own at Sterkstroom, and Buller built
up his strength for another attempt at the relief of Ladysmith. The
only connected series of operations during that time were those of
General French in the neighbourhood of Colesberg, an account of
which will be found in their entirety elsewhere. A short narrative
may be given here of the doings of each of these forces until the
period of inaction came to an end.

Methuen after the repulse at Magersfontein had fallen back upon the
lines of Modder River, and had fortified them in such a way that he
felt himself secure against assault. Cronje, on the other hand, had
extended his position both to the right and to the left, and had
strengthened the works which we had already found so formidable. In
this way a condition of inaction was established which was really
very much to our advantage, since Methuen retained his
communications by rail, while all supplies to Cronje had to come a
hundred miles by road. The British troops, and especially the
Highland Brigade, were badly in need of a rest after the very
severe ordeal which they had undergone. General Hector Macdonald,
whose military record had earned the soldierly name of 'Fighting
Mac,' was sent for from India to take the place of the ill-fated
Wauchope. Pending his arrival and that of reinforcements, Methuen
remained quiet, and the Boers fortunately followed his example.
From over the northern horizon those silver flashes of light told
that Kimberley was dauntless in the present and hopeful of the
future. On January 1st the British post of Kuruman fell, by which
twelve officers and 120 police were captured. The town was
isolated, and its capture could have no effect upon the general
operations, but it is remarkable as the only capture of a fortified
post up to this point made by the Boers.

The monotony of the long wait was broken by one dashing raid
carried out by a detachment from Methuen's line of communications.
This force consisted of 200 Queenslanders, 100 Canadians (Toronto
Company), 40 mounted Munster Fusiliers, a New South Wales
Ambulance, and 200 of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry with
one horse battery. This singular force, so small in numbers and yet
raked from the ends of the earth, was under the command of Colonel
Pilcher. Moving out suddenly and rapidly from Belmont, it struck at
the extreme right of the Boer line, which consisted of a laager
occupied by the colonial rebels of that part of the country.
Nothing could exceed the enthusiasm of the colonists at the
prospect of action. 'At last!' was the cry which went up from the
Canadians when they were ordered to advance. The result was an
absolute success. The rebels broke and fled, their camp was taken,
and forty of them fell into our hands. Our own loss was slight,
three killed and a few wounded. The flying column occupied the town
of Douglas and hoisted the British flag there; but it was decided
that the time had not yet come when it could be held, and the force


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