WHEN the men returned to the camp that evening after finishing their work, I was left on outpost duty with seven others, at the place where we had been building 'schans' during the day.
The hill we were on formed the extreme right of the Boer line. From our station we looked over the plain leading towards Ladysmith, and to our right we looked across a broad valley, running between us and Nicholson's Nek, a flat-topped hill on the far side.
All remained quiet until three in the morning, when out of the darkness there came the sound of shots followed by confused shouting and trampling, but as the noise died down after a while we let things be. Shortly before daybreak, when it was growing light, two large mules came trotting up from below, their head-ropes trailing on the ground, and on bringing the animals to a halt we found that one of them carried on his back the barrel of a mountain gun, and the other a leathern box containing shell ammunition. They had obviously come from the British lines, and we only learned afterwards that a strong force of infantry had marched out of Ladysmith intending to get into our rear under cover of darkness, but that their battery mules had stampeded, throwing the troops into such disorder that instead of achieving their object, they were obliged to take up a position on our flanks on Nicholson's Nek where, later in the day, I took part in the fighting that led to their capture.
Meanwhile it was sunrise, and we could now make out this force on the level top of Nicholson's Nek across the valley. The soldiers were working like ants, building sangars of stone, and we could see a knot of officers, standing around what looked like an outspread map, while other men were pulling a tarpaulin over a tree for shade. At this time our commando, as well as the other commandos in the vicinity, was still peacefully at rest some 400 yards to the rear, out of sight behind a low ridge, and no alarm had yet been given, so we fired the first shots of the coming battle.
The range was too great for accurate shooting, but our volley had the effect of dispersing the officers, who hurriedly climbed up to join their troops on the hill-top above, where we could now no longer see any sign of life, as the men who had been working there had taken cover, and the plateau scorned deserted. Our shots had the further effect of arousing the commandos and, before long, horsemen came hurrying from the different camps to occupy the forward crest, and within twenty minutes there were hundreds of riflemen in position, facing the plain that runs to Ladysmith.
As for the English force on Nicholson's Nek, orders were sent to the Free State commandos, coming up from the west, to attack them, and by seven o'clock we heard the popping of rifle shots from that direction, but for the next hour or two we could spare them no thought, for tall pillars of dust were rising from Ladysmith, and soon long columns of infantry debouched into the plain before us.
The Transvaal Staats Artillery had dragged a 6-inch Creusot gun 'Long Tom' up Pepworth Hill, a mile to the left, and they had installed several smaller guns there as well, and all these now began to fire on the approaching troops. I expected to see the shells blow great gaps and lanes in the enemy ranks, but instead of this our first shots were spent in finding the range, and by that time the columns had opened out, and, in place of the havoc which I had expected, the firing only caused smoke and local disturbances of earth, while the infantry came steadily on.
And yet a great spectacle was developing.
From where we held the sweep of the hills, we looked down as from an amphitheatre at every movement of the troops on the plain below, infantry hurrying forward in successive waves; guns being galloped up, and all the bustle and activity of a battle shaping before our eyes.
The soldiers, paying little heed to the shells that dropped amongst them, advanced without a halt, although many now fell dead and wounded while in the rear, battery after battery unlimbered. We saw the horse teams ridden back, and then, to cover the progress of their troops, heavy fire was opened and there came the sound, once heard never forgotten, of shells tearing towards us and exploding around us, and overhead, with deafening concussions.
By now, what with the thunder of the British guns and of our own, the crash of bursting shells and the din of thousands of rifles, there was a volume of sound unheard in South Africa before. I was awed rather than frightened, and, once I had got over my first impression, I felt excited by all I saw and keenly joined in the firing. We were so successful that by the time the foremost infantrymen came within I,200 yards of us, many fallen dotted the veld, and their advance wavered before the hail of bullets. They did not run away, but we saw them taking cover behind ant-heaps and such other shelter as the ground afforded. From there they directed a heavy fire on us, but their progress was definitely stayed, and our line held for the rest of the day.
Our casualties were not heavy, for we were well protected, but the guns on Pepworth Hill close by were being severely punished. The English batteries concentrated upon silencing our pieces there and we could see that the people were making heavy weather on the hill, for its summit was covered in smoke and flame, and the roar of the bursting shells shook the ground even where we lay.
For the past few days I had been without word of my brother, but now an artilleryman came racing up on horse-back with a message from General Maroola to say that most of the guns were out of action. I recognized the man as an old acquaintance, and, when he saw me, he said my brother was at that moment serving as a volunteer with the crew of the big Creusot on Pepworth Hill. Concerned to hear that he was there, I ran back for my horse, which was standing under cover with the rest, and rode for the hill as fast as I could go, through shell and bullet fire I reached the rear of the hill in safety, and certainly the dispatch-rider had not overstated the case. Six or seven (lead artillerymen, some horribly mutilated, were laid out on a square of canvas to which they had been carried from above, and Ferdinand Holz, the German military doctor, was attending to a number of wounded also brought down from the emplacements.
An ambulance-van was standing nearby with several of its mule team dead in their traces, and in the distance the native drivers were running wildly to the rear. At the guns above twenty to thirty shells at a time were bursting with terrific noise. I tied my horse to a tree and, after an anxious glance at the dead and wounded, to make sure that my brother was not of their number, I began to work my way up, crawling from stone to stone, and running forward whenever there was a lull in the fire, until I reached the sand-bagged ramparts. Here I found my brother, and the surviving artillerymen, crouching behind the wall, unable to serve their guns under the storm that was lashing the position. It was mostly shrapnel, so that none of the guns were actually destroyed, but all were silenced.
More dead lay about and wounded men were sheltering with the rest in the lee of the Parapet. I liked the spot so little that I tried to persuade my brother to return with me to our own commando, but, although he was somewhat shaken by this ordeal, he refused to come, and I had to admit that he was right. As there was no object in my remaining I bade him good-bye, and taking advantage of a slackening in the British gun-fire I made my way down. Below I found Dr Holz, lying in a heap, struck dead by a shell while helping the wounded. A fresh ambulance wagon came up just then and I lent a hand at loading the casualties before I sought out my horse, fortunately unscratched, and made haste to get away. I found the Pretoria men still holding the ridge on which I had left them, and on the plain before them the situation had not materially altered. The English troops showed no signs of advancing, and our commandos lay inactive while the guns pounded away, the battle resolving itself into an artillery duel, except that on the right we could hear the continuous crackle of musketry from Nicholson's Nek, where the Freestaters were engaged with the force that had come out of Ladysmith during the night.
Our Corporal, Isaac Malherbe, now suggested to those of us lying near that we should accompany him across the valley to Nicholson's Nek. About a dozen of us followed him to the horses, dodging among the rocks and trees to escape the shrapnel, and we rode down into the broad valley on the opposite side of which rose Nicholson's Nek.
We came under plunging rifle-fire as we moved across the floor of the valley, but we got under cover at the foot of the hill without loss. Here there was a party of Indian doolie-bearers, who had brought down some wounded English soldiers, our unexpected appearance among them causing considerable consternation. Ignoring them, we tethered our horses and started to climb the hill, going warily for fear of blundering into the wrong side of the fighting which we could hear above. The top of Nicholson's Nek is a broad level plateau dotted with outcrops of loose boulders, and, on breasting the rim, we were for a moment or two unable to gauge the situation. Rifles were cracking and bullets were whizzing, but there was no one in sight. Crawling forward, however, we came on small parties of Free State burghers lying behind rocks and other shelter in a rough line across the hill, and when we joined one of these groups, they pointed out to us where the English troops lay posted, behind similar cover, thirty or forty yards away.
Both sides were maintaining a vigorous short-range rifle contest, in which the soldiers were being badly worsted, for they were up against real old-fashioned Free State Boers for whom they were no match in sharpshooting of this kind. Time after time I saw soldiers looking over their defences to fire, and time after time I heard the thud of a bullet finding its mark, and could see the unfortunate man fall back out of sight, killed or wounded. We joined in the fight, and for the next hour we slowly but surely pressed the English to the far edge of the hill.
As we gained ground we began to come on their dead and wounded, and realized what heavy losses we were inflicting, for behind almost every rock lay a dead or wounded man, and we knew that we should have possession of the hill before long.
Towards noon, as we were increasingly hustling our opponents, we heard a bugle ring clear above the rifle-fire, and at the same time a white flag went up.
Hundreds of khaki-clad figures rose from among the rocks and walked towards us, their rifles at the trail. We stood up to wait for them. The haul was a good one, for there were 1,100 prisoners, mostly Dublin Fusiliers. The commando responsible for this came from the district at Heilbron in the Northern Free State. They were led by Commandant Mentz, but the man who had chiefly urged on the fight was Field-Cornet Christian de Wet, afterwards the redoubtable guerilla leader. I saw him here for the first time as he made his way from point to point during the action, and I well remember his fierce eyes and keen determined face.
Shortly after the surrender I was talking to some of the captured officers when I heard one of them exclaim: 'My God; look there!' and turning round we saw the entire British force that had come out against us on the plain that morning in full retreat to Ladysmith. Great clouds of dust billowed over the veld as the troops withdrew, and the manner of their going had every appearance of a rout. There were about 10,000 soldiers, but General Joubert had far more than that number of horsemen ready to his hand, and we fully looked to see him unleash them on the enemy, but to our surprise there was no pursuit. I heard Christian de Wet mutter: 'Los jou ruiters; Los jou ruiters' (Loose your horsemen — loose your horsemen), but the Commandant-General allowed this wonderful opportunity to go by, a failure that cost us dear in the days to come.
Judging by the disorderly appearance of the retreat, he could have driven the English clean through Ladysmith and out beyond, and he would have lost fewer men in the doing of it than we lost in the subsequent siege, but the English went hurrying back unmolested, save for an occasional shell from Pepworth Hill, where our guns had sprung into life again, and, with the whole Boer Army looking on, no attempt was made to exploit the victory that had been gained.
When we saw the troops falling back, and no chase given, we washed our hands of the business, and began to examine our own immediate surroundings on the hill-top. Dead and wounded soldiers lay all around, and the cries and groans of agony, and the dreadful sights haunted me for many a day, for though I had seen death by violence of late, there had been nothing to approach the horrors accumulated here.
Of our party under Isaac Malherbe not one had been hit, but the Free State men had eight or nine dead, and fifteen or twenty wounded. The English casualties were about two hundred killed and as many injured, the disparity being due to the fact that the English soldiers were no match for us in rifle-shooting. Whatever the defects of the commando system may be (and they are many) the Boer superiority in marksmanship was as great now as it had been in I88I. Having looked at the dreadful scenes on the plateau, we parted from the Freestaters and, returning down the hill to our horses, rode back through the valley to the Pretoria commando, which we found in the same place in the line where we had left them, the men still holding the ridge, and their horses still under cover behind.
There was on this day, and for long after, much acrimonious discussion regarding the Commandant-General's failure to pursue when the English turned back, and I was told by old Maroola himself, that when officers came up to implore Piet Joubert to follow; he quoted the Dutch saying: 'When God holds out a finger, don't take the whole hand,' meaning that the Almighty had sufficiently aided us for one day, and that it did not behove us to presume upon His bounty, a view which Isaac Malherbe said might be sound theology but no good in making war.
With that lack of vision that marred most of our doings in the earlier stages, we hailed the Ladysmith battle as a great victory, and we acted as if we had a broken and defeated enemy before us. It certainly was a notable success, but in the end it would have been better for us had the British smashed our line that day, for our leaders would then have followed a better plan of campaign than sitting down to a prolonged and ruinous siege.
Had the Boers made for the coast, instead of tying up their horsemen around towns that were of no value to them, the outcome of the war might have been different, but they sacrificed their one great advantage of superior mobility, and allowed splendid guerilla fighters to stagnate and demoralize in the monotony of siege warfare, at a time when our only salvation lay in pushing to the sea.