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|The Centre Column (5th Battalion Mounted Infantry) in the Boer War|
By R.S.M. Ernest J. Sullivan (Regimental No. 4430)
Being a personal account of the action of the Worcestershire Company of the 5th Battalion Mounted Infantry in the fight near Bothaville, in the Transvaal, on the 5th/6th November, 1900.
Early in November, 1900, after news had come in of a big Boer raid, which, according to the intelligence received, had been carried out by a considerable force under the personal leadership of the elusive General De Wet himself, I found myself, as a Sergeant of the Worcestershire Company of the 5th Battalion Mounted Infantry, ordered to form part of the centre force of three columns that were to operate under the command of General Sir Charles Knox—our Column being led by a most energetic and valiant officer, Colonel Le Gallais.
We moved out of Kroonstad early one morning at the beginning of November, our objective being in the direction of the Vaal River west of the main Railway line, being fairly certain that we would get in touch with some of the enemy long before reaching the southern border of the Transvaal. And in this we were certainly not disappointed. On the march our usual routine of many months past was still kept up, viz.: a halt at mid-day for about an hour to feed and water both man and horse, more especially the latter—the men getting on as best they could with whatever they might have saved from the menu of the first meal of the morning, known in civilization as breakfast. This would mean the hacking open of a can of bully beef, or hauling out a chunk of meat secreted in the depths of the haversack, amongst tobacco dust, broken biscuit, oil rags, etc.—but, nevertheless, tasting just as sweet as ever to one who had become inured to this diet day after day, for months, on the same hard tack. Incidentally, if there happened to be a small brook handy, we all took fullest advantage of it, much to the distress of our numerous companions that carefully took cover in the seams of our nether garments; all of us knowing that a shrill whistle would warn us that half an hour was left in which to saddle up and get on the trek.
It was on the second day of this perpetual trek that we started out after the usual mid-day halt, not caring one iota what happened; personally, I was at peace with all the world, including South Africa, and was feeling that, so long as my little Cape pony kept going, all was well.
The reader must picture us, moving very cautiously, our Company (Worcestershire) forming the right flank guard, and my section about three miles away from the main body, on the extreme right, acting as the outer screen, riding in file, each horse being kept about fifty yards behind the one in front.
The sun, as usual, is scorching hot and beating down on our thighs and tops of our boots, and the glare from the yellow dry grass through which our horses’ hoofs move swish, swish, is very trying to eyes unshaded by any protection such as smoked glass. All around seems perfectly peaceful, the azure blue sky above, and not a habitation of any sort in sight, not even a native kraal, but, so far as the eye can see, nothing but the far distant horizon where earth and sky seemed to meet. Glancing inwards to make sure that we are keeping the appropriate distance from our other three sections moving between us and the centre of the Column, my eye catches the flutter of a red flag away off in the distance, a little to the rear of our advancing Column.
There is no mistaking what this means, nor who our visitor is, for often before we have seen this very same red flag, perched on this very same lance, and cannot fail to recognise the corpulent gentleman astride that same prancing pony, a little ahead of the flag, to be none other than our Force Commander—a very sure sign of troublous times ahead.
Suddenly the flagged group breaks into a trot and are quickly approaching a similar group where Colonel Le Gallais with his staff are eagerly perusing a map, evidently unconscious of the presence of the Force Commander, General Sir Charles Knox. As the General passes our battery of twelve pounders, we notice a proof of that never-slackened discipline for which the British Army has ever been renowned. The gunners and drivers of the Royal Horse Artillery stiffen up and sit perfectly erect on their horses or limbers, ready to accept and act on any orders that might have to be passed to them. And there we see also, even at this distance, another proof of that perfect discipline as our General returns the salute as though on parade on the barrack square of the Guards Depot.
Now the Commander of the Force and the Commander of this Column have met—you’d think they were in the hunting field, so happy do they seem, neither knowing that the morrow would see one of them passed on to the unknown, in that death in action which is the true soldiers’ wish.
The day is drawing on. None of us has any idea of the exact time—or of the date for that matter—but the sun has an inclination towards the west, and from our own shadows we judge it to be about 2.30 p.m. The two Commanders are still in earnest conversation, and I am beginning to feel that odd but familiar feeling that I shall be called on with my little section of fine men to be up and doing, and that whatever we do must be right—no one must blunder!
Hello! Here’s our friend the Boer ! (At that later period of the war there were a certain number of “tame Boers” who had accepted the annexation of their territory, had taken the oath of allegiance, and were employed as scouts and agents by the British forces) Yes, coming over the undulating veldt is the man whom we have held responsible for many an unexpected scrap which we have recently been mixed up in. We know him, and have spoken to him, when occasionally he has spent the night in our camp—though he is oftener in the enemy’s laager.
Yes, there is no mistaking that little wiry iron-grey pony with its long mane, and its tail almost sweeping the ground, only a couple of hands higher than the Shetland species.
And the man; he is a regular fine specimen of the Boer farmer, broad-shouldered, standing about five feet ten inches, unkempt black beard which almost hides his rather pleasant face, his Mauser rifle resting on the pummel of his saddle, while his nosebag and haversack strapped on the sides of his saddle are clearest evidence that whatever farmhouse he last visited has thoroughly replenished his larder both for man and horse.
We never really knew who this man was, whether he was a Britisher masquerading as a Boer or a real bona-fide Boer. Perhaps it is just as well we didn’t know. Our only concern was that he spent a lot of time in the enemy’s laagers and, as he told me, he knew all that was worth knowing of the Boers’ programme for to-morrow, after an hour’s talk round the peat fire at night. He knew their exact strength and their Commander’s name, and where they were making for, in fact everything that could be of assistance to any intelligent General.
And here he is now, chock full of information, and can give you the enemy’s actual position at this very moment. Just wait
The signal is passed for us to halt, but before doing so I needs must send a corporal and a file further to our right, just over that rise, the other side of which is not very clearly visible to one dismounted. Then our horses seem to appreciate us better as we transfer our weight from the saddle to the ground.
In a very few moments some of my men have gone off to sleep, for the heat and the continuous riding have produced a weariness that can only be relieved by just a little period, however small, of partial unconsciousness. Fifteen or twenty minutes soon pass by; then a short low whistle from the Major commanding the Company is the signal to get mounted, followed by the usual sign to advance. My three men out to the right soon rejoin the section, and we resume our original direction. Now an orderly leaves the Headquarters group in the centre, hands a note to our Major Holland, and returns to the C.O. with his receipt.
Suddenly from our flankers comes word that a very suspicious cloud of dust is visible a long way off to our right front—from persona observation I would estimate it to be about fifteen or twenty miles off, distances being very deceptive in South Africa, where visibility is so very clear. My intention to report this is not carried out, for I see our Company orderly approaching with an order from the Major. “Hello! Dick, what’s the good news?” “Read that, Sergeant! and put your monica (signature) on that!” handing me two slips of paper torn from the well-known field pocket book, on one of which is the following, signed by Major Holland :—
To :—Commander (No. 4 Section) Right
Flank Guard: 3.15 p.m.
“Fifteen minutes from now, at a signal from me (waving my riding crop over my head from front to rear), the whole force will move to the right. This will make the Worcester-shire Company the advanced guard, and your section (No. 4) the scouts, supported by two sections under command of Lieut. Lambton. Make all necessary dispositions at once. Your direction will be N.E. and move energetically in that direction. You should meet slight opposition within an hour. Cover your advance with not less than four men in sight ahead.”
As I read and re-read this short note, something thumping inside my chest is positive proof of the excitement I feel, and am trying to suppress. But the whole manoeuvre is very simple and, after detailing four men to gallop off as soon as we alter our direction, nothing is necessary but to await the arranged signal.
Major Holland has turned his horse’s head towards us and has given the signal.
Our Battery of twelve-pounders with one pom-pom are wheeling round, and what had been our advanced and rear guards have become the left and right flank guards respectively.
We are now heading in the north-east direction, the whole movement having taken place like clockwork. My four men are still maintaining a steady gallop to get a sight of some dead ground a couple of miles ahead.
The country around is just the same as in all quarters of the Orange Free State—flat and slightly undulating in places, with here and there a small hill known as a kopje. Away in the distance, however, there is what appears to be a hill that stands out more noticeably than others, being considerably higher. We know those hills: in most of them after ascending one side, seemingly so precipitous, you find that the top is quite flat and the ground slopes off very gradually down to the open veldt. Just to the right of this hill there are unmistakable signs of movement. The dust is coming up in clouds, and we can guess that it must be caused by the trek of a rather formidable column. Besides that, the information given by our friend the Boer has been sufficient to make us certain that we shall soon locate the enemy; and it won’t be long before the enemy locates us.
We are certainly moving energetically towards the point from which all this dust is ascending, as can be judged from the beads of perspiration that are visible on our horses’ necks and the froth that has settled on the outer ends of the bit; and there is good reason for our haste—daylight is within a couple of hours of vanishing, and as twilight is unknown in these regions, night will then at once blot out the scorching beams of old Sol. Then we shall find ourselves up against the very condition we hope to avoid, viz.: darkness, under whose cloak the enemy is able easily to give us the slip, especially as he knows every inch of this territory, vast and deserted though it is.
Amongst all our men there is eagerness to get on, though who knows their inmost thoughts? In each of us there is an honest-to-goodness lack of anxiety and a most sanguine callousness; and after all these months of trek, trek, none of us seems to care whether the very next moment is his last or not.
Yes, amongst my men, I know, there is a positive callousness evidenced very clearly by the dare-devil acts they will get up to, in spite of, or even because of, the showers of bullets, where that shower was thickest. I wonder are these the real qualifications for bravery? Because if such they are, I have the bravest group that ever lived; and I know every one of them familiarly and the actual bit of land on which he first saw the light in his home in far-off England. Splendid men! For many and many a year to come I shall still cherish with pride my fond memories of these gallant men.
We have temporarily lost sight of our four scouts, but, no, there is one visible, galloping to what appears to be a slight rise in the ground ahead, and now the other three appear; evidently there is a considerable dip in the ground—such basin-like places are very common as we ride over the veldt. Yes, and there is also the unmistakable double report of the Mauser rifle. Our scouts are being fired on. We have got in touch with the enemy and, by the usual signal, our two sections in support are notified. Our scouts keep riding on. The firing is only spasmodic, just a few sighting shots. Neither horse nor man is yet hit. Our extension is at once increased and we break into a trot, so as to gain shelter in the hollow just traversed by our scouts. There we halt until Lieut. Lambton can catch up with us.
In a few moments he is with us and, after dismounting, he and I, with binoculars in hand, walk deliberately up the slope ahead, lie down on the ground and take a look at the side of the hill whence the firing is coming. We can plainly see the flash from the rifles at each shot, which is fired at about a minute’s interval. We are getting very interested now, and it reminds us of our peace time manoeuvres when the opposing force, like ourselves, were only firing blank cartridges; and so the enemy now might well be doing, for we have not as yet located the bullets drop. There is no flying dust visible where they might be striking, nor can we gain any information as to the enemy’s strength from the sound of his rifle fire.
All that we are painfully aware of is the fact that our Column musters not more than five hundred rifles, four twelve-pounders, and a porn-porn, and that the enemy Commando is said to be easily double that number so far as rifles are concerned. Our job is simply to try and keep in touch with him as soon as sighted, so as to give our flanking Columns time to close in and make the necessary dispositions.
Here is Major Holland’s orderly again. He hands Lieut. Lambton a note, which he reads and passes to me. The gist of it is as follows:—
“Don’t get closer than 500 yards from the kopje in front, and after drawing fire, return at once to where you are now, if possible. On no account are you to get seriously engaged.”
Having thoroughly explained this order to the N.C.O.’s, I order those who had dismounted to get into their saddles again. Meanwhile the firing seems to be getting a little heavier, and it looks like some dirty work ahead.
At a signal we are off, joined by one of the supporting sections, the other keeping a respectable distance so as not to lose touch with the Major further in the rear. We are still keeping a walking pace, but I notice the extreme left of our line is lagging behind a little, so I touch my little grey pony’s flanks with a spur and gallop off to correct it, and so get them up into the line again. Now we have no doubt as to what is the enemy’s target. Some of his shots are going high, we hear them whistle by overhead, others are striking up the dust in front, and the flashes become more visible as the sun begins to disappear.
The enemy is using black powder, and the appearance of the side of the hill about midway up is like a pyrotechnic display. We break into a steady gallop, the fusilade increases, but there are no casualties yet. We keep going on, until we get to another dip in the ground which discloses the foot of the hill, and we can tell then that there is a stream (The River Valsch) not very far off. This we only guess in the approaching darkness from the sudden greenness of the grass around and distant clumps of trees. We have got quite close enough to the enemy, and Lieut. Lambton decides to retire. He blows his whistle for us to file about. In a flash we have complied. This seems to have incited the enemy to increase the volume of his fire, and the rattle is perfectly deafening. The whistle of the bullets about our ears and the whack of others as they plough up the ground has a tendency to make one lean over the horse’s neck, by way of minimising the target. Just then I glance back over my shoulder and see that the smoke from the rifles is very thick, drifting right up to the top of the kopje. It reminds me of pictures illustrating the battles of a century ago, before the days of smokeless powder. Then my horse shies or stumbles, I don’t really know which, and the next second I make a side somersault as I am thrown from the saddle, to land with a thump on the ground in very close and dangerous proximity to a large boulder, on which I bump the back of my head. There I lie stretched for about a minute, the only sentence I utter starting with a big “D,” when, lo and behold, looking down at me from his horse is Lieut. Lambton. “Are you hit, Sergeant?” “No, sir, I don t think so,” I answer, “but for heaven’s sake get back, or they’ll wing you.” He tells me to get hold of his stirrup-iron, but I say that I’ll be with him in a few minutes if he’ll just get away himself. With that he canters off, and I struggle to my feet. With long strides, I run after him, the bullets flying everywhere except into me. (I have often wondered since how such marksmen as the Boers were reputed to be ever missed me, as I was well within four hundred yards of them, and my be-putteed and be-britched short legs could not propel me very fast.) But there goes one that a bullet has struck—a riderless horse, which has been hit in the belly, by what must have been an expanding or explosive bullet, as its very entrails are protruding and dropping so low that its hind legs are almost treading on them. A most horrible sight and quite enough to take my mind off whatever danger I may be in of a similar fate, as I watch the poor faithful beast fall forward and kick its last.
My chief concern is the terrible thirst that has come over me. My tongue seems like a piece of leather, and I can scarcely swallow, my throat is so dry. This run up the slope is beginning to tell on me and, not caring much whether they hit me or not, I start to walk very casually, when I see ahead of me Major Holland’s orderly leading my horse—and it isn’t very long before I am into that saddle again.
It was a simple matter soon to forget the last fifteen minutes since my horse and I pasted company, but I shall never quite forget the fifteen minutes after I rejoin my section. “Not a very good example,” says Major Holland,” for the Sergeant of a Section to dismount without orders, aggravating that offence by doing so in the immediate vicinity of the enemy ! “ Needless to say, I promptly plead guilty. “Yes,” he continues, “the Manual of Military Law reads that for such offence you are liable, if tried by Court-martial, to suffer death or some less punishment. I think, however, we can safely forego the Court-martial, and consider the latter part of the sentence as having been carried out, as, from personal observation, through my field glasses, I think you got as near to the brink of eternity as any firing squad could put you, short of actually killing you. Accidents, however, will happen, and your becoming dismounted under the circumstances was probably beyond your control, as I am well aware that your equestrian abilities are positively rotten, so I think I can only congratulate you on escaping with a whole skin.” This harangue seems greatly to amuse all who listen to it, and though at first greatly embarrassed, I thoroughly enter into the joke of the whole proceedings, realizing that there is a lot of truth in what the Major has said, though a rebuke is wrapped up with his usual jocularity. (I heard later that Lieut. Lambton got something similar for risking his life by returning to find out if I had been hit or not.)
The Company is now back in the hollow, which we had first left to draw fire, and our gunners are busy making their twelve-pounders bark as they put over a few shrapnel shells, by way of making the enemy’s position behind those boulders on the side of the hill uncomfortable; and now we are resting awhile, awaiting orders.
By this time it is quite dark, and the occasional burst of shrapnel on the hill does not appear to be doing much harm, though it lights up the place like a Verey light. The rifle fire has practically ceased except for a shot now and then; though goodness only knows what anyone can see to shoot at.
Major Holland has just got fresh orders, and we hand over our horses to our “Number Threes.” (In Mounted Infantry each group of four men are numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4, and the Number 3, on all occasions when the Company is to be used as infantry, holds the horses and follows behind with the horses of Nos. 1, 2, and 4 and his own.) We get together in some sort of formation and are ordered to fix bayonets, moving off very cautiously over the ground we have just retired from, our orders being to take the hill at bayonet point at any cost.
Nothing happens, even when we get to the foot of the hill; all is silence—and we cross the little stream over numerous small rocks and boulders, as it peacefully glides babbling on. We eventually get even to the top of the hill, meeting no one to impede our advance; and then we find that the hill, as usual, slopes gradually down to another wide stretch of open veldt. We halt to enable a few mounted scouts from another company to pass through, while arrangements are made to bivouac for the night. Our horses are watered before they catch us up, so having unsaddled them and pegged them down, we slip on their nosebags and they are fed with mealies, salvaged from some farmhouse en route. No fires are allowed to be made, so we have to be satisfied with plain unadulterated water, some biscuits, and jam—that eternal “pozzy.” It must be about nine p.m., perhaps later, and soon we try and find a soft spot on the ground with a saddle blanket or numnah for a pillow, and in a very short time most of us are sound asleep, greatly soothed by a gentle breeze that is just coming up—so different from the scorching heat of an unusually hot day.
* * * * * *
And now it seems opportune to leave our tired warriors to take their rest on the hard ground with the starlit sky for a canopy, and try and describe the extraordinary position that exists between these opposing forces—a position, of which none of these weary sleepers, excepting probably only those in charge of operations, could possibly have even the remotest idea. When we lay down to rest, we all were of opinion that the enemy must have vanished altogether, with extraordinary swiftness, that they were trekking off along the dark and lonely veldt, hurriedly making the interval between us and them greater and greater.
But as events turned out on the morrow, we were very soon to be disillusioned. We had stopped to bivouac and sleep. Yes, and within five miles the Boers had done the very same thing ! Within five miles ! Our part of the job had been carried out to the letter, in that we were keeping in touch with him but, owing to our numerical weakness, were avoiding being too seriously engaged with him.
The fighting part of our force was over the stream and well in front of the top of the hill, but the few mobile Cape carts, carrying our scanty food and stores, and also our guns, had been left on the other side of the stream, which we had crossed, and at the foot of the hill.
* * * * * *
At break of day, about 3.30 a.m., we are aroused; and with just about time to stretch ourselves, without bothering, to feed our horses or water them, we saddle up and stand by. Another Company has been detailed as advanced guard to-day, and our Company (Worcestershire) are in support. After allowing that other Company sufficient time to get through our outpost line, we mount and move on. It is very irksome to us to be moving a few yards and then having to halt, though there is sufficient reason, since our scouts have not gone more than one mile, very cautiously, before they come upon groups of Boers here and there, apparently on outpost duty, but all of them absolutely sound asleep, their horses wandering aimlessly about, grazing and knee-hobbled.
These are aroused, made prisoners, and quietly passed back, horses and all, and further progress is continued. Having got through the enemy’s outpost line, the scouts are then joined by the rest of the advanced guard and break into a trot, passing out of our sight over rising ground in front. Our Company are now sent up with orders to support them, but after going forward at a canter we came to a halt very suddenly on a small rise, where we find ourselves in full view of the Boer laager. Immediately we dismount, and after handing over our horses, lie down and pour a steady fire into their camp.
To our left is a red-bricked farmhouse with a wire fence all round it, and just behind that farmhouse is a cattle kraal. Beyond the kraal the ground slopes down into a very deep basin-like hollow, the distance from our rim of the basin to the opposite rim being approximately eight hundred yards.
Only about thirty yards to our front there stands up very prominently a square outhouse, which in normal times would have housed a couple of pigs—a pig-pen, built of stones and boulders, the four walls being about eight feet high and four feet wide. Unfortunately, however, in our necessary haste to make the most of the element of surprise, no one has thought of reconnoitering this pig-pen.
Our rifle fire has now aroused the enemy, and we can see them rushing to get hold of their horses, which they mount barebacked, leaving their saddles on the veldt for anyone who had use for them. Our men have not quite encircled the laager, leaving a gap on the further side, and brer Boer is never slow to take fullest advantage of a means of escape. We keep up a rapid fire directed towards their one visible way of exit, until the numbers we drop there are sufficient to convince them that it must be folly to try to escape through that unhealthy place. But soon it is clear that there must be other lines of retreat available, because not many horses remain visible near the laager, so we direct our special attention to their wagons, which have still the covers rigged up on them which have served as shelters during the previous night. We conjecture that there must be one or two men there who think, possibly, that invisibility means safety.
We are not, however, allowed to have things quite our own way; the special attention we have given to those trying to escape has caused us to neglect the steeply sloping ground under our very noses; and by crawling through the long grass up this slope towards us, the wily Boer has been gradually establishing himself in a position that now enables him to get in accurate shots at anyone who even shews the brim of a slouch hat; and it is difficult to avoid the risk, for the presence of this same rather tall and thick grass has forced us to adopt the kneeling position in order to make effective use of our rifles. Up to now their only reply to our fire has been coming from the direction of the walls of the cattle kraal; but now the number of the enemy taking shelter behind those walls is getting greater, and they are certainly making the position I find myself in anything but comfortable. This is forced on my notice by a loud shout from my Corporal, who, in the midst of doing a little musketry practice on his own, as though he were on the Bisley ranges, has suddenly adopted the prone position and howls that he has been hit in the arm. I immediately crawl up to him. After hacking open the sleeve of his coat, I find that a bullet had gone through the fleshy part of his left forearm, which I proceed to bandage up with the little that remains of his first field dressing, supplementing this by removing one of his puttees and completing the bandage with that. Having fixed him up, I tell him to make himself scarce and try and get back to wherever our horses have been sent.
Prior to this incident I have already sent two of my men off to my left to try and locate our C.O., Major Holland, but as neither of them have returned with any information, I presume that either they have got in the way of a Mauser bullet, or having reached the Major, have been made to stay with him. In any case, it is of no material good for us to remain where we are, as it is positively suicidal to fire into the laager now, since to do so we must either kneel or stand; either position meaning a risk of speedy death. In these circumstances I decide to go off to the left myself, leaving word with the four of my men that are left with me to follow me, one at a time, at about a minute’s interval.
First of all I make tracks towards the spot where one of our twelve-pounders has started firing; but when I see the gun I realise at once that it will be necessary for me to get to its rear, which I proceed to do at a lively run, noticing in passing that two of our gunners are lying dead or wounded close to one of the wheels. As I pass behind I find that the gunners do not consider me a very welcome visitor. They yell at me to lie down since I am drawing fire on them, so I think it best to drop, and accomplish thereby two good results, viz.: my own safety and that of the gunners, and also a very welcome rest for myself, which enables me to regain my breath. There I lie for what seems about five minutes. The thought uppermost in my mind is, that, come what may, I must locate the Major, as I am, at this time, the only sergeant in the Company. Meanwhile, I take a good look round, and can see that our poor gunners are having a very rough time of it. Rifle bullets are whistling and screaming through the air and even ricocheting off the barrel and shield of the gun itself, besides flicking up considerable dust as they plough up the turf all around it. Our pom-pom is in action away on our left, and from where I am I can see that those gunners also have suffered many casualties from fire directed at them from the windows of the red brick farmhouse. Suddenly I sight Major Holland, and jumping to my feet I rush off in his direction. Before reaching him, however, I cannot resist the temptation of taking a good swig at some water, which lies, in a hollow through which wheels have recently stirred up the mud. I am so desperately thirsty that I am quite indifferent to the bullets that are evidently intended for me—bullets that sizzle as they go plunk into and around this puddle. Then I heard the Major’s stentorian voice shouting at me. “Sergeant, are you insured? or have you nine lives like a cat? Get up here by crawling unless you are fed up with life! “ This is enough, and using the Australian crawl stroke, as if swimming, I manage to reach the remainder of the Company. There I find that the Major’s orderly has been killed whilst in the kneeling position, and is still in that position, though dead! A couple of Boers have occupied the pigpen before referred to, and it is mainly from there that all the damage is being done. All we can see are the barrels of their rifles, shining in the sun, sticking through loopholes. Rifle fire against them is useless—they are quite safe; the only thing that could upset them would be a direct hit of a shell from the twelve-pounders, but that is impossible, because even if a shell could by any chance be made to hit the pig-pen, it would be as dangerous to us, only thirty yards away, as to the Boers who are holding it. There we must allow them to remain, in the hope that they may very soon fire their last round of ammunition.
Two of our men have offered to rush the pig-pen at the point of the bayonet, but the Major will not allow them, holding that the risk is too great to hazard the lives of two such gallant men; and we need every man.
Suddenly we hear the muffled clatter of horses’ hoofs as Colonel Le Gallais and his Brigade Major come galloping up. They are making straight for the farmhouse, relieving us of a little of the rifle fire as the Boers switch their aim on to them. They are hoping to reach a suitable place from which to get a better idea of how the battle is progressing; but the Brigade Major becomes very suddenly and most involuntarily dismounted, by his horse galloping straight into the fence that surrounds the house, pitching its rider head first clean over the fence. After the horse has recovered itself it gallops madly between us and the pig-pen right across our front, literally dripping with blood, which pours out from numerous wounds from bullets that had passed through its body. It is a sickening sight, and such a splendid steed
Our gallant Commander dismounts quite coolly, and walks casually up to the entrance to the farmhouse, but in a moment falls dead as he enters the passage-way, being shot through the throat from a window on the other side of the house. So is snuffed out the valuable life of a very gallant officer and most capable Commander, whom everyone in our small force deeply lamented.
The command of the Column thus devolves on Major Taylor of the Gunners, who manages to get up to our line without accident, and promptly settles himself near Major Holland, where he can soon realize and appreciate the position. He brings us the news that the enemy, after vacating their laager in the first surprise of the morning, have rallied and have practically surrounded us; that we are already cut off from our transport and horses, and that there is quite a lively engagement going on at the other side of the hill. Our pom-pom gunners have all been killed or wounded, the drivers of the gun-team having taken their places, while some men of another company of Mounted Infantry are bringing up the ammunition.
All this is indeed bad news, and shews that the tables have been very effectively turned on us. However, the Major tells us that the Column under Colonel Butler on our left will soon be with us, for our dispatch rider has returned, having got through safely with our late Commander’s message. This Column was ten miles away when he reached it.
Major Taylor is not long in deciding that something very drastic has to be done to remove those two men in the pig-pen, who have certainly been responsible for the casualties amongst his gunners.
Just at this moment the Boers manage to get a gun into action from the far side of the wall of the cattle kraal, and start blazing away as rapidly as they can, their shells dropping harmlessly to our right rear where there is no important target.
We get orders to fix bayonets and get ready to charge. Every man of us gets up into a kneeling position and fires as rapidly as possible, some at the kraal where the Boer gun had appeared. There is, however, no necessity for the charge, for suddenly someone hoists something white on a rifle, a shirt or some other white garment. We immediately cease firing, leaving one cartridge in the chamber of our rifles, and lie down again. Major Taylor stands up and shouts that if they want to surrender they must come out into the open—we will not fire at them. The sign of surrender is still held aloft, and presently, one at a time, the Boers come out, just as a party of New Zealand Mounted troops come up, charge straight into the laager and clear every one out of the kraal. Two of our men go round to the rear of the pig-pen, whence they bring out those two snipers. After removing their bandoliers we find that they had just three more cartridges left between them.
* * * * * *
Our haul in prisoners, that is those who had not managed to escape from the laager in the rush of the early morning, was ninety-nine Boers and four Kaffirs, together with five guns and one maxim. Two of the guns were twelve-pounders which once belonged to “Q” Battery and one to “U” Battery Royal Horse Artillery. “U” Battery Royal Horse Artillery was the Battery now with us. These three guns were some of those captured by the Boers during the recent disaster to our forces at Sanna’s Post.
The number of dead Boers, which we collected at this point, was sixteen.
As the prisoners came in, my Company, only thirty-five men, formed a ring around them, still keeping our bayonets fixed, while the New Zealanders got busy taking stock of what the enemy Cape carts and wagons contained.
We managed to secure some picks and shovels out of the farmhouse, and dug a hole in the ground about fifteen feet square and about six feet deep, and when all the Boer dead had been collected we placed the bodies into the pit in two layers, ten at the bottom and the others on top of them. Our Chaplain delivered the burial service, all of us, including the prisoners, standing bareheaded reverently around, and at the conclusion of this service we filled in the grave, leaving a cross at the head with just the number of the bodies buried there inscribed upon it. Then we started off back to Kroonstad to await instructions to carry out some similar operations, but meanwhile enjoying a little respite from action.
But ever afterwards I shall still retain fresh memories of those hours, so close to that pig-pen, during which I, at least, prayed for the sun to go down, reversing the plea of Joshua who prayed that the sun stand still arid the earth cease to revolve !
Note: This article was orginally printed in the "FIRM" magazine in October 1929 (Map and Photo added).