Part 2 out of 6
and we shall have to be as watchful as deer, more so, in fact, since we
have not their power of smell. When we break up into four parties, each
party must scatter, keeping three or four hundred yards apart. On
arriving at any swell or the crest of a hill, a halt must be made, and
every foot of the country searched by your field glasses, no matter how
long it takes. You must assure yourself that there are no moving objects
in sight. When you get near such a point you must dismount, and, leaving
your horse, crawl forward until you reach a point from where you have a
good view, and on no account stand up. While you are making your
observations any Boers who might be lying in sight would be certain to
notice a figure against the skyline, and we know that many of them are
provided with glasses as good as our own. We must be as careful as if we
were out after game instead of men. You all know these things as well as
I do, but I want to impress them upon you. You see, they have captured
five of the Natal police, who are a very sharp set of fellows. However,
a few days' scouting will show us far better what is required than any
amount of thinking beforehand. There is one thing that I want to say to
you. You elected me for your leader, but it is quite probable that when
we have worked together for a bit some of you may prove much better
qualified for the post than I am. What I want to say now is, if this is
the case, I shall feel in no way aggrieved, and shall serve just as
cheerfully under his orders as I hope you will under mine so long as I
There was a general chorus of "No fear of that, Chris. We all know you
well enough to be sure that we have made a good choice. We knew it
before we left Johannesburg, but your pluck in walking up to that Boer
with his loaded rifle clenched the matter."
"Well, we shall see," Chris said. "I shall do my best, but, as I said,
the moment you want a change I shall be ready to resign; and now I think
that we may as well turn in. It is nine o'clock, and we must be up at
daybreak. Squads number one and two will each furnish a man for the
first watch, taking the first on the list alphabetically. At eleven they
will be relieved by two from squads three and four; then one and two
furnish the next pair, and so on. Four watches will take us on till
daybreak. The two of each squad who will be on duty to-night turn in to
the same tent together, then the others will not be disturbed."
The blankets were spread in the little shelter tents, and all except the
two men on duty were soon asleep. Chris had a tent to himself, there
being an odd number, and an extra waterproof sheet had been carried for
this purpose. Before leaving Maritzburg twenty-two poles, a little
longer than cricket stumps, had been made under Chris's direction. They
were shod with iron, so that they could be driven into hard ground. At
the top was a sort of crutch, with a notch cut in it deep enough to hold
another of the same size. Twenty-two other sticks of the same length
were to form the ridgepoles. Half these were provided with a long brass
socket, into which its fellow fitted. The whole, when they were
accompanied by the spare horses, would be packed with their stores and
spare blankets. At other times each rider would carry two of the poles
strapped to his valise behind him.
Chris was the first to stir in the morning. There was but the slightest
gleam of daylight in the sky, but he at once blew a whistle that he had
bought that evening in the town, and heads appeared almost immediately
at the entrances of the other tents, and in half a minute all were out,
some alert and ready for business, others yawning and stretching
themselves, according to their dispositions.
"First of all, let's put on the nose-bags, and let the horses have a
meal," Chris said; "then set to work to groom them. Remember, there must
not be a speck of yesterday's dust left anywhere."
All were soon hard at work. The Kaffirs stirred up the embers of the
fire, which they had replenished two or three times during the night,
hung the kettles again over it, and cut up slices of ham ready to fry.
By half-past five Chris, after inspecting all the horses closely,
declared that nothing more could be done to them. Then they were
saddled, the valises, with a day's provisions and a spare blanket, being
strapped on. Then all had a wash, and made themselves, as far as
possible, tidy. By this time breakfast was ready, and they had just
finished their meal when a party of horsemen were seen in the distance.
Rifles were slung over their shoulders, and bandoliers and belts full of
cartridges strapped on, and they donned their forage-caps after coiling
up the picket-ropes and halters and fastening them with their valises to
the saddles. Then they mounted and formed up in line just as the
general, with two of his staff, rode up. After saying a few words to
Chris, the general examined the horses and their riders closely.
"Very good and serviceable," he said, "and a really splendid set of
horses. Of course, gentlemen, you would look better if you were in
uniform, but for your purpose the clothes you have on are far more
useful. Let me see you in your hats; I can then better judge how you
would pass as Boers."
The lads all slipped their forage-caps in their pockets, and put on
their felt hats, which were of different shapes and colours. As they had
agreed beforehand they at once dropped the upright position in which
they had been sitting, and assumed the careless, slouching attitude of
"Very good indeed," the general said with a laugh. "As far as
appearances go, you would pass anywhere. The only criticism I can make
is that your boots look too new, but that is a fault that will soon be
mended. A few days' knocking about, especially as I fancy we are going
to have bad weather, will take the shine out of them, and, once off,
take good care not to put it on again. A Boer with clean boots would be
an anomaly indeed. Now, I will detain you no longer."
The only manoeuvre the boys had to learn was the simple one of forming
fours. This they had practised on foot, and performed the manoeuvre with
fair accuracy. Then Chris gave the word, and, after saluting the
general, led the way off at a trot.
"They are a fine set of young fellows," the general said to the two
officers with him. "They are all sons of rich men, and have equipped
themselves entirely at their own expense. They are admirably mounted,
and provided they are not caught in an ambush, are not likely to see the
inside of a Boer prison. It says a good deal for their zeal that they
are ready to disguise themselves as Boer farmers instead of going in for
smart uniforms. However, they are right; for, speaking Dutch, as I hear
they all do, they should be able singly to mingle with the Boers and
gather valuable information."
As soon as they were fairly south of the town, Chris said:
"Now our work begins. Number one squad will make its way towards the
river, and follow its course, keeping always at a distance from it, so
that while they themselves would escape notice, they can ascertain
whether any bodies of the enemy are this side of it, or within sight
beyond the other bank. Number four will take the right flank, and keep a
sharp look-out in that direction. Squads two and three will, under my
command, scout between the flanking parties, and examine the farmhouses
and the country generally. The whole will, as I said last night,
maintain a distance of about three hundred yards apart, and each man
will as far as possible keep those next to him on either hand in sight."
The two flanking companies starting off, those under Chris separating as
they rode off until they were as far apart as he had ordered, and then
moved forward. When on level ground they went fast, but broke into a
walk whenever they came to the foot of rising ground, and when near the
top halted, dismounted, and crawled forward. Each man carried a Union
Jack about the size of a handkerchief, elastic rings being sewn to two
of the corners. When necessary these flags could be slipped over the
rifles, and a signal could be passed from one to another along the whole
line--to halt by waving the flag, to advance by holding the rifles
steadily erect. Other signals were to be invented in the future. Chris
took his place in the centre of the line, in readiness to ride to either
flank from which a signal might be given.
For five or six miles no signs of the enemy could be perceived. Most of
the fields were entirely deserted, but round a few of the scattered
farmhouses animals could be seen grazing, and these Chris set down as
belonging to Dutch farmers who had no fear of interference by the Boers,
and were prepared to join them as soon as they advanced. Many of these,
indeed, during the past fortnight had trekked north, and were already in
the ranks of the enemy. Presently Chris, who was constantly using his
glasses, saw the flutter of a flag on a hill away to the left, and a
minute later the signal to halt passed along the line. It had been
agreed that signalling by shot should not be attempted unless the enemy
seen were so far distant that they would not be likely to hear.
"What do you see, Brown?" Chris said as he reached the lad who had first
"There are a good many men and animals round a farmhouse about two miles
away. The house lies under the shoulder of a hill to the left, I suppose
that that is why the others did not see it."
Dismounting, Chris crawled forward with the other until he could obtain
a view across the country. As Brown had said, the farmhouse stood at the
foot of the line of hills they were crossing, and was fully a mile
nearer to those on the right flank than to the point from which he was
looking at it, but hidden from their view. Bringing his glass to bear
upon it, he could distinctly make out that some forty or fifty men were
moving about, and that a large quantity of cattle were collected near
"It is certainly a raiding party," he said to his companion. "They are
too strong for us to attack openly, at least if they are all Boers. It
would not do to lose half our number in our first fight. Still, we may
be able to frighten them off, and save the farmer, who is certainly a
loyalist, and cattle. You gallop along the line as far as it extends and
order all to come over to the right. I shall go on at once and get a
view of the ground close by. By the time they have all assembled we can
see what had best be done."
Going back to their horses they started in opposite directions. In a few
minutes Chris reached a point which he believed to be nearly behind the
farmhouse, picking up some of the scouts by the way.
"I expect I shall be back in about a quarter of a hour," he said as he
dismounted. "You, Peters and Field, may as well come with me, I may want
to send back orders."
They walked forward fast until so far down the hill that they could
obtain a view of the farmhouse. The moment they did so they lay down,
and made their way across some broken ground until they were within a
quarter of a mile of it; then seated among some rocks they had a look
through their glasses, and could see everything that was passing as
clearly as if they had been standing in the farmyard. It was evident the
Boers had only arrived there a short time before Brown noticed them.
Parties of two or three were still driving in cattle, others were going
in and out of the house, some returning with such articles as they
fancied and putting them down by their horses in readiness to carry them
off. Two men and some women and children were standing together in a
group; these were beyond doubt the owners of the farmhouse.
"How many Boers do you make out? I have counted thirty-eight." Peters
had made out forty, and Field forty-three, the difference being
accounted for by those going in and out of the house and sheds.
"Well, we will say forty-five, and then we shan't be far wrong. We
certainly can't attack that number openly, but we may drive them off
empty-handed if we take them by surprise." He examined the ground for
another minute or two, and then said: "I think we might make our way
down among these rocks to within three hundred yards of the house. I
will send six more down to you. With the others I will go down farther
to the left, and work along in that little donga running into the flat a
hundred yards to the east of the house. You keep a sharp look-out in
that direction, and you will be able to see us, while we shall be hidden
from the Boers. We shall halt about three hundred yards beyond the
house. As soon as we are ready I will wave a flag, then you and your
party will open fire. Be sure you hide yourselves well, so that they may
not know how many of you there are; they are certain, at the first
alarm, to run to their horses and ride off. Directly they do so we will
open fire on them, and finding themselves taken in the flank they are
likely to bolt without hesitation. Don't throw away a shot if you can
help it, but empty your magazines as fast as you can be sure of your
aim. Between us we ought to account for a good many of them."
"I understand, Chris; we will wait here till the others join us, and
then, as you say, we will work down as far as we can find cover."
Chris at once returned to the main party, who had by this time all
assembled. "We can bring our horses down a good bit farther without
being seen," he said. "There is a dip farther on with some rough
brushwood. We had better fasten them there; they have learned to stand
pretty fairly, but they might not do so if they heard heavy firing."
Leading their own horses and those of Field and Peters they walked down
to the spot Chris had chosen, and there threw the reins over the horses'
heads as usual, unfastened the head ropes, and tied them to the bushes.
Chris had already explained the situation to the troop, and had told off
six of them to go down to join Peters. He now advanced cautiously with
these till he could point out to them exactly the spot where the two
scouts were lying. Then he returned to the others, and they walked along
fast until they came upon the break in the hill, which lower down
developed into a depression, and was during the rains a water-course.
Down this they made their way. On reaching the bottom they found it was
some twelve feet below the level of the surrounding ground.
A couple of hundred yards further they could tell by the sound of
shouting, the bellowing of cattle, and other noises, that they were
abreast of the farmhouse, and going another three hundred yards they
halted. Chris went up the bank until he could obtain a view, and saw
that he was just at the spot he had fixed on. Making signs to the
others, they took their places as he had directed, some ten yards apart.
Then he raised his rifle after slipping the little flag upon it. A
moment later came the crack of a rifle, followed by other shots in quick
succession. Chris, with his eyes just above the level of the ground,
could see all that was passing round the farmhouse. With shouts of alarm
the Boers at once rushed towards their horses, several dropping before
they reached them. As they rode out from the yard the magazine rifles
kept up a constant rattle, sounding as if a strong company of troops
were at work. Chris waited until they were nearly abreast of his party,
and then fired.
His companions followed his example, and in a moment a fire as rapid and
effective as that still kept up from the hill was maintained. This
completed the stampede of the enemy. They were soon half a mile away,
but even at that distance the Mauser bullets continued to whistle over
and among them, and they continued their flight until lost in the
distance. Chris's whistle gave the signal for ceasing fire, and the two
parties sprang to their feet, gave three hearty cheers, and then ran
towards the farmhouse. In the yard lay five Boers and seven or eight
horses; the riders had jumped up behind companions, for as they passed,
Chris had seen that several of the animals were carrying double. The
little group, so lately prisoners, advanced as they came up, almost
bewildered at the sudden transformation that had taken place, their
surprise being increased on seeing that they had apparently been rescued
by another party of Boers, and still more when on their reaching them
they found that these were all mere lads.
"We are a party of Maritzburg Scouts," Chris said, with a smile at their
astonished faces; "though, as you see, we are got up as Boers so as to
be able to get close to them without exciting suspicion. We were
fortunate in just arriving in time."
"We thank you indeed, sir," the settler said, "for you have saved us the
loss of all our property, and, for aught I know, from being carried off
as prisoners. We were intending to trek down to Ladysmith today, and had
just driven in our herds when the Boers arrived. If they had been
content with stealing them, they would have been away before you
arrived; but they stopped to plunder everything they could carry off,
and, as I should say, from noises that we heard in the house, to smash
up all the furniture they could not carry off. We are indeed grateful to
"We are very glad to have had the chance of giving the plunderers a
lesson," Chris said. "It will make them a little cautious in future. But
I think that you are wise to go at once, for there are certainly parties
between this and Elandslaagte, where they have cut the line; so I should
advise you to travel west for a bit before you strike down to Ladysmith.
We have not heard of any of them being beyond the line of railway yet.
Now we have work to do. Number one and two squads will at once go up and
fetch down the horses, number three and four will examine the Boers who
have fallen here and out on the plain and will bring in any who may be
He went out with this party; they found that eight more had fallen.
Three of these lay at a short distance from the farmhouse, and had
evidently fallen under the fire of the party on the hill; the others had
been hit by those in the ambuscade. Altogether ten horses had been
killed. Five of the Boers were still alive.
"Have you a spare cart?" Chris asked the farmer.
"Yes, I can spare one. Fortunately I have a small one besides two large
waggons. May I ask what you want it for?"
"I want it to carry these wounded men to within reach of their friends.
Which is the nearest drift?"
"Vant's Drift, and it is there, no doubt, that the party crossed. It is
a little more than two miles away."
"Then we will place the wounded in the cart, and you might send one of
your Kaffirs with it to the drift and stick up a pole with a sheet on
it; they are sure to have halted on the other side, and will guess that
there are wounded in it. As soon as the Kaffir comes within two or three
hundred yards of the river he can take the horses out and return. I dare
say he will be back again before you are off."
The cart was driven along the line that the Boers had taken, the wounded
being carefully lifted and placed in it as it reached them. Two more
were found dead and three wounded some distance beyond the spot where
the searchers had turned, having fallen nearly a mile from the farm; the
lads who accompanied the cart then returned. Long before they reached
the house the horses had been brought down. The settler and his Kaffirs
were hard at work loading the stores into two ox-waggons. The lads all
lent their assistance, and in less than an hour the settlers started for
Ladysmith, the women and children in the wagon, and the men on horseback
driving their herds with the aid of the Kaffirs. After a hearty adieu,
Chris and his party rode on together for some little distance before
again scattering widely to recommence their work of scouting. Hitherto
they had been too busy for conversation, but now they were able to give
words to the satisfaction they all felt at their success.
"It has been splendid!" Sankey said enthusiastically. "We have defeated
a force twice as strong as ourselves, have killed or badly wounded
eighteen of them, and you may be sure that of those that got away
several must have been hit. Not one of us has a scratch."
"Splendid!" another exclaimed. "It could not have been better managed. I
think we ought to give three cheers for Chris." Three rousing cheers
were given. "After this, Chris," Carmichael said, "I don't think you
need talk any more about resigning the command. General Symons himself
could not have done better."
"I think, at any rate, we have begun to wipe off old scores," Chris
said. "We have paid for a few of the insults the ladies had to submit to
as we came along, and I am heartily glad that we were in time to do it.
We have baulked them of the haul they expected to make, and saved
something like a thousand head of cattle for the colony, to say nothing
of preventing these people from being absolutely ruined. It is only a
pity that we had not our horses with us. If we had, not many of the
Boers would have recrossed the river. But we could not have taken them
with us without being detected before we got into position, and in that
case we might have had a hard fight, and matters would probably have
turned out altogether differently."
There was a general expression of assent, for all felt that in an equal
fight the Boers, being twice their own numbers, would have been more
than a match for them. It was evening when they returned to Dundee,
having come across no more Boers during the day's work. Directly they
arrived at the little camp where they had left the tents standing in
charge of their two Kaffirs, Chris wrote a short report of their doings,
stating briefly that they had come upon a party of forty-five Boers in
the act of driving off the cattle and sacking the house of Mr. Fraser, a
loyal settler. Having dismounted and divided into two parties, they had
attacked the Boers and driven them off, with the loss of ten killed and
eight seriously wounded left on the field. Many of their horses had been
killed. The wounded Boers had been sent in a cart to Vant's Drift, and
the farmer and his herds had been escorted as far as the line of
railway, which they had crossed and were making for Ladysmith. There had
been no casualties among his party.
Field rode over with this report and delivered it at headquarters,
remaining to ask whether there were any orders for the next day. When he
returned he brought a line from the general. It contained only the
words, "I congratulate you most heartily. The affair must have been
managed excellently, and does you all the greatest credit. Continue
scouting on the same line to-morrow."
The lads were all highly delighted when Chris read this aloud, and then
sat down to a well-earned meal, which was the more enjoyed as it had
been voted that Field, as one of the finance committee, should go into
the town and buy half a dozen of champagne in honour of their first
victory. In the course of the evening one of the general's staff rode
into camp on his way to town, having been requested by him to obtain
full particulars of the fight at Eraser's farm. He took his seat by the
fire with them, and Chris gave him a full account of their proceedings.
"Upon my word, Mr. King," he said, "you managed the matter admirably; no
cavalry leader could have done it better."
"There is no particular credit about the management," Chris said; "we
acted just as we should have done had we been stalking a herd of deer
instead of a party of Boers. One always manages, if possible, to put a
party on the line by which they are likely to take flight, before
crawling up within shot. If we could have taken our horses down with us
before we opened fire we should have done so, and being so well mounted,
I think few of them would have got away; but we could not manage it
without risking being seen, and in that case the Boers, on making out
what our strength was, would certainly have shown fight; and even if we
had beaten them, which I don't suppose we should have done, we should
have suffered heavily."
"You were quite right not to risk it," the officer said; "we know by old
experience that the Boers are formidable antagonists when behind
shelter, and, accustomed as they are to shooting on horseback, I dare
say they will do well when not opposed by regular cavalry, who, I am
convinced, would ride through and through them. I am quite sure that in
the open they will not be able to make any stand whatever against
infantry, which is the more important, as in so hilly a country as Natal
our cavalry would seldom be able to act with advantage."
In the course of conversation he told them that there was no news of any
large body of the Boers being near. Joubert's force had not moved out of
Newcastle, and nothing had been heard of the Free Staters or of the
Utrecht force under Lucas Meyer. "We have sentries on all the lower
hills round here and Glencoe, and there is no fear of our being
surprised. The sooner they come the better, for we are all longing to
get at them; and I can tell you we felt quite jealous when we heard of
your spirited affair to-day. I can assure you that we shall have a
greater respect for the volunteers than we had before, and if all do as
well as you have done to-day they will be a most valuable addition to
After their visitor had left, they sat chatting round a fire till ten
o'clock, and then turned in.
THE FIRST BATTLE
All in the little camp, save the two sentries, slept soundly until, at
two in the morning, they awoke with a sudden start. A deep boom and a
strange rushing sound was in their ears. With exclamations of surprise
they all scrambled out of their tents.
"What is that?" Chris asked the sentry.
"It is a big gun on the top of that high hill they call Talana. We saw
the flash of light, and directly after heard the report, and a rushing
sound. I suppose it was a shot overhead; if it had been a shell we
should have heard it burst and seen the flash. It must have been fired
at the camp."
The horses, startled by the report, were plunging and kicking, and the
lads at once ran to their heads and patted and soothed them. Not until
they were quiet did they gather again.
"What time is it?" Chris asked.
"The clock on the church struck two a few minutes ago," Brown, who was
on sentry, said. As he spoke another gun boomed from Talana, or as it
was generally called in the town, Smith's Hill, from a farm owned by a
settler of that name at its foot. It was about a mile and a half east of
the town, and therefore some three miles from the camp.
"It must be a very heavy gun by its sound--as big as the largest of
those we have heard fired from that fort above Johannesburg. Joubert
must have started from Newcastle early to have managed to get it up
there by this time, or it may be the force from Utrecht; anyhow, they
must be strong to venture to attack us in this way. We may as well
saddle up, though it is hardly likely the cavalry will be engaged. I
shall not send to camp for orders; the general will have enough to think
about, and it will make no matter where twenty men place themselves.
However, I shall ride over to camp and see what is going on there; it is
likely enough that there will be an attack by the Free Staters on the
other side. Carmichael and Horrocks, do you run into the town and see
what is going on there. I will not start till you get back; if any of
the staff see me they may ask some questions about it."
In a quarter of an hour the two lads returned. The people there were
completely scared at the unexpected attack, and the streets were full of
half-dressed men; however, they seemed to be getting over their first
terror, now that they found it was the camp and not the town that was
being fired at, and the volunteer corps was already gathering in
readiness for orders.
"We may be pretty sure that nothing will be done till daylight," Chris
said. "Our men know the ground now, and none of the Transvaal Boers can
do so, and I don't think they will venture to move till they can see
their way about. I am glad, indeed, that most of the women and children
were sent off two days ago, and that the scare on the evening that we
arrived, when the news came of the railway being cut at Elandslaagte,
sent the greater part of the men who had remained behind, and who did
not mean fighting, off by road. If they bombard the town they may do
damage to property, but there will be no great loss of life. You had
better give the horses a feed--that is, if they are disposed to eat at
this hour--while I am away."
On reaching the camp, Chris found all the troops under arms. They had
been roused before the Boer fire began, as a picket to the east of
Dundee had been attacked and driven in. It was not, however, supposed
that the Boers were in force until their guns opened fire. All lights
were out in the camp, and the enemy's shot had gone wide. It was by no
means clear why the Boers should have betrayed their presence on the top
of the hill until it was light enough for them to use their guns with
effect. Chris had, before starting, put on his flat cap.
As he approached the camp he was challenged by a sentry: "Who comes
there?" and on his replying, "An officer of the Maritzburg Scouts," the
sentry called out: "Advance, officer of the Maritz Scouts, and give the
Fortunately, as it happened, the officer had given it to Chris on his
visit to their camp, and he therefore answered at once, "Ladysmith," and
was relieved when the sentry called out, "Ladysmith pass, and all is
When he entered the camp he found the men were standing in lines, but at
ease, with their rifles piled in front of them, and there was a hum of
conversation in the ranks. At the head-quarter tents everybody was
astir. Presently an officer came up.
"Who are you?" he asked as he advanced.
"I am in command of the party of Maritzburg Scouts."
"Mr. King, is it not?" the officer asked.
"Yes, sir. I have ridden in to ask if there are any orders."
"No, and there will be none issued until it is daylight, and we can make
out how matters stand and what is the force of the Boers. It is not
likely that you will have any special orders, but can act with the
cavalry and mounted infantry."
"Thank you, sir. Then I will ride back at once." On returning to camp,
he said: "There is nothing to be done till morning. So far they have no
idea of the force of the Boers. This is just the work we were formed
for. Peters, you and Field and Horrocks certainly speak Dutch better
than any of the others. It is half-past two now, and we have at least
two and a half hours of darkness, therefore I propose we try to find out
what force the Boers have got up there. It is no use for more than four
of us to go, so the others can turn in, except the two sentries; but all
will, of course, be ready to mount in case any party of Boers should
come down upon the town before it is light. The next time I want three
men on special duty I will give others a chance."
"Shall we ride, Chris?"
"I think so. Of course it will be more difficult getting up there in the
dark; but I shall make a detour of three or four miles, and come up on
the other side, and we should be much more likely to be questioned if we
were on foot than on horseback. Should we come upon any party of armed
Boers, remember we have just arrived from Standerton, and finding when
we got to Newcastle that the force had moved on, and were to take up
their station at Talana Hill, we rode on to overtake them. When we get
fairly there among them, we will dismount; Field and Peters will stand
by the four horses, Horrocks and I will go on. If you hear a row, you
will mount and wait a minute or two, and then if we do not come, you
will ride off with our horses as well as your own. We shall try and make
our way to the edge of the hill, and ought to be able to slip away in
the darkness if we can get there before we are shot down or overtaken.
However, I don't think there is much chance of our being recognized.
Indeed, I expect most of them will be lying down for a sleep before the
time comes for action. If there is one thing a Boer hates it is being
kept awake at night. I will take one of the Kaffir boys with us. They
can see in the dark a great deal better than we can; and as the Boers
are sure to have some natives with them, he is quite as likely to pick
up news as we are--more so, perhaps, for the natives will sit and talk
all night while their masters are snoring. I think the one we call Jack
is the sharpest."
Jack was called up, and on being told what was required, at once agreed
to accompany them.
No time was lost. Chris and his three companions mounted, and with the
Kaffir running alongside they set off at a trot. Keeping to the north of
east, they rode on for some two miles, Jack leading the way with as much
ease as if it had been daylight. When they had, as they calculated, come
upon the ground the Boers must have passed over, they turned south, and
kept on until they saw the dark mass of Talana on their right, and made
towards it. On this side the hill sloped gradually, while on that facing
Dundee it was extremely steep and strewn with boulders. They were now
going at a walk, and they soon came upon an immense gathering of
waggons, carts, oxen and ponies, crowded without any order, just as they
had arrived two hours before. "There is no fear of our being detected,"
Chris said in a whisper, "and we can't do better than stop here. There
is no getting the horses through this crowd, and if we did manage to do
so there would be no getting them back, certainly not in a hurry. You
had better lie down beside them, it is not likely that any Boers will be
coming up or down. If the whole camp is like this there is not the
slightest fear of our getting caught." Jack had already been instructed
that when he got into the camp he was to leave them and join any party
of Kaffirs he found awake, and talk to them as if he were one of the
bullock drivers. As Chris and his companions returned, the former would
blow his whistle softly, and he was then to make his way down to the
horses at once.
Passing on unquestioned they neared the top of the hill, having left the
mass of the vehicles behind them. There were, however, large numbers of
ponies assembled here in readiness should their masters require them.
Hitherto they had heard no voices since entering the camp, but as they
went farther they heard talking. Here the fighting men were assembled.
For the most part they were lying down; some were asleep; others,
however, were moving about, and joining or leaving groups gathered
together discussing the events of the next day. Horrocks and Chris now
separated and joined different parties, some twenty yards from each
other. They attracted no attention whatever. Their appearance in their
broad hats and rough clothing, their bandoliers and rifles, was
precisely similar to that of the men standing about.
No doubt whatever that the morning would bring them a brilliant victory,
appeared to be entertained by the enemy. The artillery would first crush
that of the British, then they would charge down and finish the affair.
"They say that they have less than four thousand altogether," one said.
"We are as many, and, as everyone knows, one Boer is a match for any
three rooineks. It will not be a fight, it will be slaughter. We shall
stop a day to gather the plunder and send it off in the waggons, then we
shall go south and destroy the force at Ladysmith. Three days later we
shall be in Maritzburg, and within three or four days afterwards shall
drive the British on board their ships at Durban. We shall get grand
plunder there and at Maritzburg. But I think it is time now to take a
hand at building up that wall along the front. Ebers' commando have been
at it for three hours, and it is our turn now."
[Illustration: CHRIS AND HIS COMPANIONS SCOUTING.]
There was a general movement, which was accelerated by a sharp order,
and a minute later Horrocks and Chris again came together and moved on
with the others. Three hundred yards farther they came upon six guns,
beyond which a number of men were at work carrying and placing great
stones to form a rough wall. These left off their work as soon as the
party arrived. Having now seen all that was necessary, the two lads
joined them and returned with them down the hill. The others threw
themselves down near their horses, but Chris and his companion went on.
Through the huge gathering of waggons they made their way with great
difficulty, Chris giving a low whistle occasionally. At last they were
through the camp. Jack was standing by the horses, and Peters and Field
at once rose to their feet. Without a word they mounted, and rode
without speaking till they were some little distance from the waggons.
"You are back earlier than I expected," Field said. "You have been gone
scarcely an hour."
"No; the only difficulty we had was making our way through the mass of
waggons and animals all mixed up higgledy-piggledy, and there has been
no more excitement than if we had been walking through Dundee. We have
got all we wanted to know. Their strength is about four thousand. They
have six guns. They are building a stone wall along the brow of the
hill, and they are cock-sure that they are going to thrash us without
difficulty." Field and Peters laughed.
"They are fools to count their chickens before they are hatched," the
latter said. "If they think it is going to be another Laing's Nek
business they will find themselves mightily mistaken, though it will be
a very difficult business to scale that hill from the other side under
such a rifle fire as they will keep up."
Jack had now taken his place ahead of them again, and kept there with
ease, although, they broke into a canter as soon as they reached the
level ground. In half an hour they reached their camp.
"Now, Jack," Chris said when he had dismounted, "we have not heard what
news you have picked up."
"Not much news, baas. Talk with some Kaffirs; all hope that we beat them
to-day, but think we cannot do so. Too many Boers and big guns. They say
Boers very angry because the other commandos not here, and Free State
Boers not arrived. They sure going to beat the rooineks, but are afraid
that some may get away. If Joubert and Free Staters here, catch them in
a trap and kill them all."
Such was the substance of Jack's answer in his own language. By this
time the rest of the party had turned out to hear the news. They had had
but little sleep, for all were intensely anxious as to the fate of their
four comrades, and although delighted that they had returned safely,
were a little disappointed on finding that the affair had been so tame
and unexciting. While they were talking the two Kaffirs had stirred up
the fire, put some wood and some coal on, and hung up the kettle.
"That is right, Jack," Chris said; "day will begin to break in half an
hour, and we may have to be moving." All was quiet until half-past five,
and the lads had just finished their meal when the Boer guns opened
fire, and two or three minutes later those of the British replied.
"It is an uncomfortable feeling sitting here with that terrific roaring
noise overhead," Chris said. "One knows that there is not the slightest
risk of being hit, but, to say the least of it, it is very unpleasant.
There, a shell has just burst over the camp. So it is shell that they
Indeed, the Boers had been using these missiles only, but owing to some
fault in the loading, or the badness of the fuses, they fell for the
most part without bursting. It was soon evident to the lads that the
range of the British guns was shorter than that of the heavier pieces
from Talana. The distance was five thousand yards, and the elevated
position of the Boer guns added to the advantage given by their superior
"I will ride in now," Chris said as he got up from breakfast, "and tell
the staff what we have gathered as to the Boers' strength." He had on
his way down the hill exchanged his hat for his forage-cap, and taking
Horrocks with him he galloped to the camp. Sir Penn Symons was standing
on a small elevation watching the fire. Chris rode up and saluted.
"I have no orders for you, Mr. King, except that when the fighting is
over you will join the cavalry in pursuit."
"Thank you, sir; I have not come for orders, but to report to you that
with Mr. Horrocks and two others, and one of our Kaffir servants, I
entered the Boer camp last night in order to ascertain their strength."
"You did!" the general exclaimed in surprise. "You hear that,
gentlemen?" he said, turning round to three or four of his staff
standing but a short distance behind him. "Mr. King and three of his
party absolutely entered the Boer camp last night to discover their
force. Well, sir, what was the result?"
"There are about four thousand of them, sir, over rather than under, and
they have six guns, all of heavy calibre. When I was there they were at
work building a thick wall some five feet high of rough stones along the
edge of the hill. It will scarcely shelter the guns, but it will provide
cover for the riflemen at the edge of the hill. There is an immense
gathering of waggons and carts--there are certainly not less than a
thousand of them--in a confused mass behind the hill. Arriving in the
dark, each seems to have gone on until it could get no farther. The
fighting men are all on the top of the hill, and between them and the
waggons are their ponies. They certainly could not ride away till the
waggons have been passed through, but possibly a passage may have been
left on each side of these for them to get through, in order, as is
their intention, to charge your army when their guns have silenced your
artillery. I gathered that expected commandos had not come up. They were
disappointed at hearing nothing of the Free Staters, who they expected
would have attacked Glencoe from the other side. They are absolutely
confident of success, and expect to overwhelm General White at Ladysmith
in three days from now, and to be in Pietermaritzburg in a week, and are
talking of driving the last rooinek on board the ships at Durban shortly
The general smiled. "I am much obliged to you for your information, Mr.
King, and am much pleased at the courage with which you and your
companions entered the Boer camp to obtain it. It is satisfactory to
learn that their force is not much greater than our own. It is also
useful to know that their ponies are gathered so close to them, for
shells that go over the hill may burst among them; and I believe that
one of the Boers' most vulnerable points is their horses, for without
them they would feel absolutely lost. I am sure, Mr. King, that you
would wish to be in the thick of the fighting, but I would rather that
you curbed your impetuosity, for after the manner in which you obtained
this news for me, I can see that your party will do far greater service
in scouting and in gaining intelligence than they could afford in
action. I should advise you to shift your camp, as the troops are about
to advance into the town, and the enemy's shot will soon be falling
A few minutes later two field batteries moved forward and took up their
position south of Dundee, escorted by the mounted infantry and the
rifles. The third battalion of the Lancashire regiment remained to
protect the camp should it be attacked by the Free Staters, while the
Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were to march through the
town to a donga or river-bed half a mile to the east. Beyond this the
long ascent to Talana begins. The King's Royal Rifles were to take up a
position under cover to the east of the town.
Chris had ridden back fast to Dundee. The work of taking down the tents
and packing their materials and all the stores on to the spare horses
took but a few minutes, and two of the lads went with the two natives
and saw the horses safely placed in a sharp depression half a mile away,
in which they would be safe from Boer shells. Chris had told his
companions what the general had said. They all looked disappointed.
"We shall have plenty of opportunities afterwards, and it is a
compliment that he considers we had better reserve ourselves for
scouting, which, after all, is the work we always intended to carry out.
Still, though, after what he has said, we cannot absolutely join the
cavalry, we will manage somehow to see some of the fighting without
getting into the thick of it. Besides, I should say that in any case the
whole brunt of the affair must fall upon the infantry and artillery. If
they silence the Boer guns and capture the hill, the battle is won, and
the cavalry will have to wait for their chance till they can get the
Boers to fight on ground where they can act."
Drizzling rain had now set in, but this and the fact that they had
started without breakfast in no way abated the spirits of the troops who
soon came along, marching with light step and eager faces which showed
that they were delighted at the prospect of action. The batteries to the
right had already come into play, and a vigorous cannonade was being
directed at the crest of the hill, from which the Boer guns kept up a
slower though steady fire in return.
"While nothing else is doing we may just as well ride over and see how
things are getting on there," Chris said. And as soon as the two Irish
regiments had passed, the little troop trotted across to the rising
ground and dismounted a few hundred yards from the guns. They soon saw
with satisfaction that the fire of the Boers was far from effective,
their aim was not good, and a very small proportion of the shells burst;
while on the other hand the shrapnel from the British batteries burst
with splendid accuracy over the crest of the hill. For two hours the
artillery duel continued, then the Boer guns gradually ceased their
fire. The mist that had partly shrouded the summit of Talana, eight
hundred feet above the plain, and the smoke that still hung thickly
there, rendered it impossible to say whether they had all been put out
of action or simply withdrawn, but when it cleared off they could no
longer be seen. It was now the turn of the infantry. Beyond the donga in
which they were lying the rise of the ground was gradual, up to a
plantation which surrounded Smith's farm. Beyond this the ground was
rocky. The men advanced at the double in open order, and the moment they
were seen by the Boers a continuous fire of musketry was opened. The
distance was about a mile, but the Mauser rifles had a much greater
range than this and the bullets pattered thickly on the ground. Only
four men, however, fell. The two regiments halted in the plantation and
farm buildings, and the advanced line at the edge of the trees opened
fire in answer to that to which they were exposed. The general at first
had taken up his position with the guns, but as soon as the men advanced
from the donga he joined them and accompanied them as far as the
plantation. Then he returned to the battery, which continued its fire
with greater activity to prepare the way for the further advance of the
The Rifles had joined the two Irish regiments, and at half-past nine
General Symons galloped up to the farm and gave the order for the
advance. This was received with a cheer by the men, who had been
impatiently awaiting it. Scarcely had the cheer died away when the
general was mortally wounded by a bullet that struck him in the stomach.
Unconscious that the wound was so severe he retained his seat a minute
or two, and was then carried by the Indian bearer company into the town.
The troops, ignorant of the misfortune that had befallen them, were now
working their way up the hill, taking advantage of every stone and
boulder, and although exposed to a terrific fire, gradually pushing on
until they reached a stone wall which ran round the face of the hill.
Beyond this the ground was much rougher and very much steeper--so steep,
indeed, that it was almost impossible to climb it. The fire of the enemy
was now terrific. The troops were some three hundred yards from the
crest, and it was certain death to show a head above the wall. An
officer placed his helmet on the end of his sword, and the moment he
raised it, it was riddled by five balls.
For a time it was impossible to advance farther, but when the Boer fire
moderated a little the order ran along the line for the men to storm the
position. A signal was made to the artillery to cease fire, and as it
did so the men leapt over the wall and rushed forward. There was now no
thought of taking shelter or returning the Boers' fire, every effort was
needed for surmounting the difficulties in their way. In some places the
rock was so steep that the men had to climb on their hands and knees,
sometimes those below pushed their comrades up and were in turn assisted
by them to climb. The roar of musketry was unceasing. It seemed to be an
impossibility for any man to reach the top unscathed, and yet there was
no hesitation or wavering. Numbers fell, but panting and determined the
rest pressed on. The Rifles suffered most heavily, and out of the
seventeen officers who advanced with them five were killed and seven
wounded. At last the steepest part of the ascent was surmounted. Those
who first reached this point waited until joined by others, and then
fixing bayonets they rushed up the slope to the edge of the plateau
The Boers did not await the onset; the great body had already fled. They
had believed it impossible for mortal men to scale the hill under their
continuous fire, and our steady advance through the hail of bullets had
astounded them and shaken their courage. The artillery, after ceasing
fire, had galloped off at full speed and taken up their position on the
ridge known as Smith's Nek, overlooking the plain behind the hill. For a
distance of three miles this was covered with waggons and galloping men.
The guns were about to open fire upon them when a white flag was
hoisted, and, believing that the Boers had surrendered, the gunners
abstained from firing. It was, however, but the first of numerous
similar acts of treachery, and the Boers were thus enabled to make their
The appearance of the plateau gained by the troops was appalling. Some
five hundred of the Boers lay dead or wounded, and many had doubtless
been carried off. Three of the guns lay dismounted, the others had been
removed; for as they could not be sufficiently depressed to bear upon
the stormers, they had been taken off as soon as the advance began in
earnest. Beyond the plateau smashed waggons and dead animals lay
thickly. Great numbers of the Boer ponies had been killed; many were
still standing quietly waiting for their masters, lying dead above.
Pursuit was out of the question. The men were exhausted by their
efforts; they were wet to the skin by the rain that had for nine hours
come down unceasingly; they had had no food since the previous day, and
the tremendous climb had taxed their powers to the utmost. For a time
they cheered vociferously, the first joy of victory overcoming the
thought of their dead and wounded comrades, who had to be collected and
carried down. The loss had been severe, ten officers and thirty men had
been killed, twenty officers and a hundred and sixty-five men wounded;
and nine officers and two hundred and eleven men did not answer to the
roll-call. This loss was unaccountable.
Chris, as soon as the infantry advance began, had, after talking with
the others, agreed to set out in the direction in which the three
squadrons of cavalry had started in the morning with instructions to
work round, and be prepared to cut off the enemy's retreat. They had
with them some of the mounted infantry and a machine-gun.
As the whole Boer force would be concentrated on the hill, Chris thought
that there would be no danger in riding round, especially as, even had
the Boers posted a force to protect their line of retreat, he was
confident that the speed of his horses would prevent any chance of
capture. From some natives he learned the direction that the cavalry had
taken, and presently on rising ground, saw two parties halted in hollows
some two miles apart. The farthest out on the plain appeared to be the
largest, and to this he rode. The officer in command had seen him in
camp, and as he saluted on riding up, said:
"So you have come to lend us a hand, sir? Can you tell me how matters
are going on at Dundee?"
"At the time we rode off, sir, the advance of the infantry had just
begun, the Boer guns had been silenced, and our men were advancing from
Smith's farm under a very heavy fire of the enemy, which continued
without intermission as long as we were within hearing distance."
"Did you see the other squadron as you came along?"
"They are in a hollow two miles away."
"Ah! that is where we left them."
The troopers were all dismounted, and the scouts followed the example.
The boom of the British guns was continuing unabated. "They can be
getting on but slowly," the officer said. "I am afraid we shall find it
a very tough job. I suppose there is a strong force up there?"
"Over four thousand."
"How do you know?"
"I was up there last night," Chris said, "with three of the others. We
did not go up in these caps, as you may suppose, but in wide-brimmed
hats. We were able to get about without exciting any suspicion whatever.
We found they had six guns and over four thousand men. As we all speak
Dutch fluently there was really no chance of our being detected."
The other officers of the squadron had all gathered round.
"Danger or no danger, it was a very plucky action," their leader said.
"I suppose that was the news you brought in just before the troops
marched off. Well, I wish that we had got our breakfast and the horses a
feed before we started. It is more important for the horses than it is
for us, though I should not be sorry for breakfast myself."
"We have some food in our haversacks, sir. We breakfasted before we
started, and we filled our haversacks with biscuits, thinking that
perhaps they would be welcome, for we knew that none of the troops had
anything to eat before leaving."
"You are very good to offer it," the colonel said. "But we could not eat
while the men have nothing."
"It will go round, sir, though it will be but a small portion for each.
We each put about ten pounds of biscuits in our haversacks, and shall
not be sorry to get rid of the weight. It will make something like
three-quarters of a pound per man all round."
"More than that," the officer said. "I am indeed greatly obliged to
The haversacks were emptied and divided into four heaps of equal size,
with a proportionate heap for the ten officers. Four men were called up
from each troop, and in a short time the soldiers were all munching
biscuits, every man dividing his rations with his horse. The sight of
the rough-looking troop had at first excited some amusement and a little
derision among the soldiers, but this feeling was now exchanged for
gratitude, and it was unanimously agreed that these young farmers were a
capital set of fellows. The hours passed slowly until the officers,
through their glasses, saw a great movement in the encampment on the
hill. The waggons standing lowest separated from the others, and
gradually a general movement set in.
"Our men must be gaining ground," the colonel said, "and the Boers are
beginning to funk."
The bits were put into the horses' mouths again, the saddles buckled up
tightly, and an expression of satisfaction succeeded that of disgust at
the long hours standing in the pouring rain. Presently, when the leading
waggons were abreast of them, at a distance of about a mile, the order
was given to mount, and the two squadrons dashed across the plain and
were soon among the fugitives. There were many mounted men among them,
these being the first to steal away from the fight. They opened fire as
the cavalry approached, but were soon overthrown or driven away in
headlong flight. Many of the waggons were seized, but each moment their
defenders became stronger. The Boers were now flocking down in great
numbers, and seeing their teams and property in danger they dismounted,
formed some of the waggons up in a square, and from them opened a heavy
fire upon the troopers. Chris dismounted his party, and returned the
fire, but the officer in command, seeing that with so small a force of
infantry he could do nothing, and that the numbers of their enemies were
increasing, drew off. He would have continued the fight, but he supposed
that the artillery would soon be at work, and knew they could not open
fire as long as he was engaging the Boers, he therefore retired with the
long train of captured waggons, and late in the afternoon reached camp.
Nothing was seen of the other squadron and mounted infantry, nor was any
news received of them until the following day, when a medical officer
with some wounded men came in. Like the larger force, they too had
ridden in among the waggons, but had taken a more northerly line, and
had come on a point where the Boers were thickest. They had charged and
taken several prisoners, and inflicted severe loss on the enemy. These,
however, had swarmed round them, keeping up an incessant fire and
barring their retreat. They took up a defensive position in a farm, and
for three hours repelled all the attacks of the Boers, until their
horses were all killed or had broken away and the ammunition exhausted,
while the Boers had just brought up the three guns they had withdrawn
from the hill. Further resistance would have ended in the extermination
of the whole party, and Lieutenant-Colonel Moller was therefore obliged
The scouts erected their tents again on their former ground. The
remaining inhabitants of Dundee were jubilant over the victory that had
been won, and did their best, by hanging out flags from the windows, to
decorate the town. Jack and his companion had returned to the camp with
the spare horses as soon as the hill was carried, and had the fires
lighted by the time the party came in. In spite of having worn their
blankets as cloaks, all were wet through, but after changing their
clothes, they went into the town to gather the news of how the hill had
been won, and by the time they returned their meal was ready.
"What do you think of affairs, Chris?"
"I think that the officer at Ladysmith was right, and that it was a
frightful mistake to divide the force and send four thousand men up
here. They have thrashed the Boers today, but they may be back again on
the top of that hill tomorrow. Besides, we know that Joubert's force was
not engaged to-day, and they and the Free Staters will be gathering
round. We might win another victory, but we are certain to be obliged to
fall back soon, and my opinion is that we shall be very lucky if we get
"Why not start to-morrow morning, Chris?" Peters said. "We shall be of
no use scouting here, and not much use if there is hard fighting. I hear
that some natives have brought in the news that there was some firing
to-day at Elandslaagte. If that is the case, we must have troops there,
and the chances are that they will be there to-morrow." "Yes, that is
very likely," Chris agreed. "General White will be sure to hold the line
there if he can, for he must feel sure that the force here will have to
retreat now that it is attacked in earnest. When we were talking to-day
to the cavalry, one of the officers mentioned that we had still
telegraphic communication with Ladysmith, for although the wires by the
railway are cut, it is possible to communicate through Helpmakaar. The
Boers seem to have forgotten that, for it is quite out of the direct
line, and nearly double as far round. Well, as we had no orders to come
here, I suppose there is no occasion to get orders to go back. I think
Peters's proposal is a very good one, but on a point like this everyone
ought to give an opinion. My view is that we might be a great deal more
useful there than here, and that if we stop we shall run a great chance
of being captured. I think that it would be a fair thing to put it to
He took two or three leaves out of his pocket-book, and tore them up
into narrow slips of paper.
"Now," he said, "write 'Yes' if you are in favour of going back, 'No' if
you are for stopping here. Drop them into my cap and the majority shall
When the strips of paper were examined, it was found that only two out
of the twenty-one were in favour of remaining.
"That settles it," Chris said. "It is thirty miles down to Elandslaagte
by road, and as from here to Glencoe is five miles, and we are no nearer
there than we are here, by cutting across to Waschbrank we shall have
only five-and-twenty miles to ride. It is well that we should get there
as early as possible, so we will settle to start at five o'clock, which
will take us there by eight, in time to see anything that is going on.
No doubt we shall be able to hear from natives as we go along whether
the troops are still there; at any rate if they are, we are sure to hear
firing before we get there, unless, of course, the Boers have retired."
The horses had already had an extra feed, and the Kaffirs were warned of
the hour at which they were going to start. The pack-horses were able to
keep up with the rest, for their loads were by no means heavy--in fact,
they carried less weight than the others. The two hundred pounds of
biscuits given to the hussars made no difference in their baggage, for
this had been bought at Dundee, as the lads decided to keep their stores
as far as possible intact for a time when they might for some days be
away scouting in a district where no provisions could be obtained.
At four o'clock the sentries roused the others, and having taken a cup
of coffee and some cold meat and bread, and led the horses down to the
stream while the Kaffirs were loading up the packets and bundles, they
mounted at five o'clock and set off at a trot, Jack and Japhet, a name
suggested by Field, who was the wag of the party, were allowed to ride
on two of the horses that carried the lightest burdens. All the lads
were provided with compasses, but these were not necessary, as both the
natives were well acquainted with the country, which was wild and
When they reached Wessels station, nine miles from Elandslaagte, they
heard the sound of guns. At this proof that there was still a force
there, they turned off from the road, and riding west, struck the point
where the main road to Meran crossed the Sundays River, and then, still
keeping a mile west of the line of railway, found themselves abreast of
the station. Just as they did so, a body of mounted volunteers galloped
up towards them. As soon as they were seen, they exchanged their hats
for forage-caps, and some of them, by Chris's orders, hoisted their
union-jacks on their rifles.
"It is well that you raised those flags," the officer in command said.
"We made sure by your appearance that you were Boers, and rather took
your change of caps as one of their slim devices, and had our rifles
ready to give you a warm reception. I suppose you come from Dundee? We
heard news yesterday evening of the battle, and were sorry to hear how
heavy the losses were, and particularly of General Symons' wound. I
suppose you have no later news?"
"No, beyond that we heard he was very dangerously hit indeed. He is
either at the church or town-hall. Both have been turned into
"There is a good deal of anxiety at Ladysmith," the officer said. "The
general opinion is that, with the Boers closing in all round it, the
position is a very serious one."
"I am afraid so, sir. There is nothing to prevent the Boers from
returning to their position on Talana Hill to-day; and soon after we
left the town this morning we heard the sound of guns away on the right,
and supposed that the Free Staters had approached Glencoe. As mounted
men are of very little use there, and our party is too small to be able
to do any good, we thought it would be best to come back here,
especially as there was a native report that there was firing in this
"Yes; a party of our cavalry under French came up with a battery of
field artillery. There was a little skirmishing, but in the evening the
Boers were strongly reinforced, and our cavalry returned to Ladysmith.
It was only a reconnaissance to ascertain the general situation. To-day
we are stronger. Squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards, 5th Lancers, the
Natal mounted, battery, and several detachments of mounted volunteers,
including the Imperial Light Horse, and half the Manchester Regiment,
are coming up in an armoured train. I suppose you are not attached to
any other corps?"
"Yes; we form a section of Captain Brookfield's corps of Maritzburg
Scouts. As you see, we are not in uniform; it being thought that, as we
are all from Johannesburg, and speak Dutch and Kaffir, we should be of
more use for scouting if able to appear as Boers."
"A very good idea," the officer said, "but somewhat dangerous; for if
they caught you they would assuredly shoot you as spies."
"We don't mean to be caught if we can help it, as you see we are very
"Uncommonly well. Brookfield's subscriptions must have come in
handsomely for him to be able to buy such horses as those."
"We provide our own mounts and equipments," Chris said, "and consider
ourselves very lucky in getting hold of this batch of horses from Mr.
Duncan on the day he arrived at Maritzburg. I really think they were
very cheap at sixty pounds each."
"They were not dear, certainly; and the fact that they came from him is
in itself a sufficient recommendation. We have got some thirty from him,
but they are a different stamp of animal and did not cost half that
figure. And now we must be riding to join the rest of our fellows. We
made you out when you were a couple of miles away, and were sent off to
ascertain what you were. By the way, you will find Brookfield there. He
arrived with his men by rail last evening." Riding on, they soon came
upon the mounted corps, and were warmly received by Captain Brookfield.
"You are back just in time," he said. "I suppose that you saw something
of the fight yesterday, but, as I see your number still complete, you
can scarcely have been in the thick of it?"
"We were with two squadrons of Hussars, and captured a good many waggons
and did a little fighting, but nothing very serious. There were only a
few casualties. We heard, however, from Colonel Yule, who has succeeded
poor Symons, that up to ten o'clock last night, another of the squadrons
of the Hussars and a company of mounted infantry with them had not
returned, and nothing was known of their whereabouts."
"Had they not got into camp when you started?"
"I did not hear, sir. In fact, we set off by daylight. But last night it
was hoped that the squadron, which was acting independently, had lost
their way, and would come in this morning. Where is the Boer force now?"
"Our batteries have shelled them out of the station. They were wholly
unprepared for it, and bolted at once to those hills a mile and half
east of the line. Their camp lies at the bottom of that conical hill.
You can make them out from here with your glass. There, French is moving
The order had indeed been given to advance, the artillery accompanying
the cavalry, and halting every two or three minutes to deliver their
fire. The ground was flat, but cut up by gullies. As soon as they came
within range, the colonials dismounted and added their fire to that of
the guns. An immense confusion was seen to reign in the Boer camp, and
thirty-seven British subjects, including the officials and staff at the
railway-station, and some of the coal-miners, took advantage of this and
ran forward to join their friends. They were at once sent back into
Ladysmith, after having given the information that General Koch was in
command of the Boers, and that Commandant Miellof and the German Colonel
Shiel, with many of the Johannesburg commando, were there. Chris and his
comrades felt great satisfaction at the news.
"We have a chance of paying off old scores on the right persons now,"
Chris said. "I do hope that the fellows who insulted us when we were
coming down are here, and that we shall manage to get among them."
For the time, however, this wish was not gratified. The Boers now seeing
that they had such a small force opposed to them, steadied themselves
and opened fire with some guns, Maxims, and rifles from the crest of the
hill, while a swarm of horsemen and dismounted men poured out to
threaten the flanks of the British. The odds were too great; the
comparatively heavy guns of the enemy were well aimed and served, and
quite overpowered the fire of the light cannon of the field and mountain
batteries. The order was given to fall back, which was done in good
order, though the troops were harassed by a hot fire from the enemy
concealed in the gullies. On reaching the high ground near Modder
Spruit, the country was more in favour of the British, who were now
extended on each flank. The Boers were unable or unwilling to move their
heavy guns from their position on the hill, and being now beyond their
range, and exposed to the fire of four batteries as well as the
infantry, those pressing forward fell back. General French had brought
out a signalling apparatus with him, and the telegraph wires were
tapped, and a message sent to General White asking him for
reinforcements in order to carry the Boer position.
The fight now ceased for a time. A party of the Boers occasionally crept
forward and opened fire, but the Colonial Horse dashed forward and sent
them flying back to the hills. From nine o'clock till a quarter to two
the troops remained idle, but the reinforcements then arrived, a battery
of field artillery, several squadrons of Dragoons, Lancers, and
Colonials, and the Devonshire regiment and Gordon Highlanders, the
infantry being brought up by train. These were under the command of
Colonel Ian Hamilton, who had a thorough knowledge of Boer tactics, and
knew how to handle his troops. It was well that it was so, for, led by a
less experienced commander, they would have suffered terribly in their
advance. While the infantry detrained, the Colonials, followed by the
5th Lancers, rode towards some low hills, whence some parties of Boers
had maintained a distant fire. These were at once scattered. The
infantry marched along some ridges parallel with the railway, but a mile
away, while the Devonshire regiment kept along the low ground by the
line. The 5th Dragoon Guards, with some troops of Colonials and one of
the field batteries, moved forward on the left.
The Manchesters were on the right of the infantry, the Gordons in the
centre, and the Devons on the left, as they set their faces towards the
Boer position. At three o'clock the action began, the Boer riflemen
opening a heavy fire. It was still too distant, however, to do any
serious execution, and the British moved forward as regularly and
unconcernedly as if it had been a field day. The Boer fire grew in
intensity, and one of our batteries opened with shrapnel to drive them
from the lower ridges. At half-past three the Boer artillery joined
their deeper roar to the rattle of musketry and the sharp cracks of the
British guns. Although it was still early the light was indistinct, for
a heavy thunder-storm had been for some time brewing, and this burst
before the heat of the action really began. The darkness was all in
favour of the advancing infantry, who in their khaki uniforms were
almost invisible to the Boers.
The troops were now in extended open order, and advanced towards the
foot of the hill by rushes, taking advantage of the ant-hills that
studded the plain and afforded an excellent cover, being high enough to
cover them while lying down, and thick and compact enough to resist the
passage of a Mauser bullet. The Highlanders were suffering the most
heavily, their dark kilts showing up strongly against the light sandy
soil, and while the Devons and Manchesters sustained but few casualties,
they were dropping fast. They and the Manchesters were somewhat in
advance of the Devons, who were guarding their flank, which was
threatened by a large number of Boers gathered on the ridges on that
The storm was now at its height, the thunder for a time deadening the
roar of the battle, but through the driving rain the infantry pressed on
until they reached the foot of the Boers' hill. Large numbers of the
enemy were on the slope, hidden from sight by the boulders, but these
could not long maintain their position, for the British marksmen shot as
straight as the Boer. Our batteries, which had almost silenced those of
the enemy, scattered their shrapnel among those higher up the hill, and
as the Boers rose to fly before the bayonets of our cheering troops,
they were swept away by volleys of the Lee-Metfords. So, with short
pauses when shelter was obtainable, our troops bore upwards, cheering
and even joking, until they reached the last shoulder of the hill. The
Boers made a short but plucky struggle, numbers pushing up from behind
to help their comrades, but nothing could check the impetuosity of our
troops. The magazines of the rifles were now for the first time set in
action, and the Boer force withered away under the terrible storm of
The men of the Imperial Light Horse, who had dismounted and joined in
the advance, were fighting side by side with the Highlanders and
Manchesters. The pace was now increased to a run, and shouting and
cheering the men went forward with levelled bayonets. Many of the Boers,
lying behind rocks, maintained their fire until the troops were within
two yards of them, and then rising, called for quarter. The men, furious
at seeing their comrades shot down when all hope of resistance was over,
would have spared none, had not the officers with the greatest
difficulty restrained them from bayoneting the Boers, and many of these
were in fact killed. As the troops, now joined by the Devons, were
rushing down upon the camp, the Boers raised a white flag, and the bugle
sounded "Cease firing". The men halted for a moment and then were
advancing quietly when a tremendous fire broke out from the Boers, who
were scattered over the ridges of the hillside and a slope leading to
Hitherto the British loss had been wonderfully small considering the
storm of bullets through which they had passed, but numbers now dropped,
and taken wholly by surprise, the troops ran up the hill again. But not
for long. Halting when they reached the crest, and furious at the
treachery that had been practised with such success upon them, they
turned again, and rushed down the hill, scattering the Boers, who still
clung to their shelters, with their fire. It was just six o'clock when
the Devons carried the last defence of the Boers and then with the
Manchesters swept down into the camp. It was now the turn of the
cavalry. These had in the darkness moved forward unnoticed, and the
Lancers and Dragoons, with a few of the Colonials, among whom were the
Maritzburg Scouts, fell upon the flying Boers and cut them up with great
slaughter, and, although it was now quite dark, followed them for
upwards of two miles, and then returned to camp.
The losses were heavy. The Gordons had lost four officers killed and
seven wounded, and a total of a hundred and fifteen casualties among the
four hundred and twenty-five men led into action. The Imperial Light
Horse lost their colonel and had seven officers wounded, and eight men
killed and forty wounded. Two hundred of the Boers lay dead upon the
field. Their wounded were vastly more numerous, and most of the
principal officers were killed or captured. General Koch, two of his
brothers, a son, and a nephew were all wounded; Shiel, Viljoen, and many
others killed or captured. Everything had been left behind. Three guns,
all their baggage, their waggons, a great quantity of arms and
ammunition, and many horses fell into the hands of the victors. Several
battle flags were also captured, and two hundred prisoners were brought
in by the cavalry. The night was a dreadful one, the rain still
continued to come down, the cold was bitter, and it was next to
impossible to find, still less to bring down, the wounded. Nevertheless
the soldiers carried on the work during the greater part of the night.
Boer waggons were turned for a time into hospital tents, and here by the
light of their lanterns the surgeons laboured unweariedly in giving what
aid was possible to those brought in, whether Boers or Britons. Chris
and his band worked as hard as the rest, and carried down a great number
of wounded; but in spite of all the exertions of the troops many
remained on the hillside all night, the sufferings from the wounds being
as nothing to that caused by the wet and cold. The lads' flasks were of
great use now, and enabled many a man, too badly wounded to be carried
down the rough hillside, to hold on till morning. General White had
arrived from Ladysmith while the battle was going on, but he left the
command in the hands of General French. On the following morning orders
came for General French to retire, as strong parties of the enemy had
been seen further south, and it was hourly becoming more and more
evident that it would be impossible to hold the country beyond
Ladysmith, and many were of opinion that even this position was too far
The splendid valour shown by our soldiers at Dundee and Elandslaagte,
and the heavy losses they suffered, had been practically thrown away.
The coal-fields of Northern Natal had been lost, the loyal settlers had
been plundered and ruined. Colonel Yule's force was in imminent peril,
and all that had been obtained was the temporary possession of the two
heights, both of which had to be relinquished on the following morning.
Beyond showing the Boers how enormously they had underrated the fighting
powers of the British troops, no advantage whatever had been gained by
the advance beyond Ladysmith.
Three of the Johannesburg Scouts had been wounded in the charge among
the Boers. None of the injuries were severe, being merely flesh wounds,
of which they were hardly conscious during the fighting, and which would
not be likely to keep them long from the saddle. None of them applied
for medical assistance, as the surgeons were so fully occupied with
serious cases. Their comrades bound up the wounds and placed them in the
most sheltered position they could find, five of their comrades
remaining in charge of them and the horses, there being no possibility
of finding the two Kaffirs and the spare animals in the confusion and
"We have had one lesson," Chris said, as at seven in the morning the
party assembled, worn out by the long night's work, "and that is, that
blankets are well enough against a passing shower, but that when there
is any probability of wet we must carry our waterproof sheets with us.
Of course they would have been no good last night, but on occasions when
there is no need for us to be using our hands they will be an immense
"But we should have been wet through before we lay down, Chris."
"Yes, they would not have kept us dry, but they would have gone a long
way towards keeping us warm. It would be like putting oilskin over wet
lint; we should have felt as if we were in a hot poultice in a short
time. And even while riding it would have been very comfortable, if we
had worn them as we did the blankets, with a hole in the middle to put
our heads through."
"But that would spoil them for tents," Carmichael said.
"Well, we could have flaps sewn so as to cover the hole."
"Our blankets were very useful last night," Horrocks remarked. "I don't
know how we could have got many of those poor fellows down the hill if
we had not carried them in the blankets. It was infinitely easier for
them and a great deal easier for us. I saw lots of soldiers using theirs
in the same way." "Are you sure you will be able to sit your horses down
to Ladysmith?" Chris asked Brown, Capper, and Harris, the three wounded.
All laughed. "One would think that we were babies, Chris," Harris said.
"We could ride to Maritzburg if necessary, though I feel my arm rather
stiff, and no doubt it will be stiffer still to-morrow. I felt a bit
miserable at sunrise after lying there shivering, and envied you fellows
who could keep yourselves warm by working; but I am beginning to thaw
out now, and the sight of the Kaffirs coming towards us with the horses
half an hour ago, and the thought of hot coffee, did even more than the
sun to warm me."
"It will be ready soon," Willesden, who was specially in charge of the
stores, said. "It was a capital idea bringing that large spirit stove
and the paraffin with us; even a native could not find any dry sticks
"Except as the soldiers have done," Chris said, pointing to where, a
quarter of a mile from the spot where they had gathered, a dozen fires
were blazing, the soldiers having utilized some of the Boer waggons that
had been smashed by the shell for the purpose of firewood.
"Yes, but if we were by ourselves, Chris, there would be no broken
waggons; besides, after all I should not care to go down and scramble
with the soldiers for a place to put a kettle on. At any rate, the stove
will be invaluable out on the veldt."
"We all agree with you, Willesden," Peters said, "and it was because you
were the one who suggested it that we promoted you to the office of
superintendent of the kitchen. It is a comfort, too, that we have some
clear water instead of having to get it from one of these muddy streams.
The storm has done good anyhow, for if it had not been for that there
would have been no breakfast for the troops until they had moved to the
In another twenty minutes they were drinking hot coffee and munching
biscuits. At ten o'clock the bugle sounded the assembly, and the troops
formed up, the wounded were placed in ambulance waggons or carried on
stretchers, and all returned to Elandslaagte station. Here the wounded
were sent on by train, while the infantry and cavalry returned by road.
Talking to some of the officers of the Imperial Horse, several of whom
were friends of his father, and had only left Johannesburg a short time
before the declaration of war, Chris learned that the principal object
in fighting the battle was to drive the Boers off the line by which the
Dundee force would retreat; for Colonel Yule in his telegraphic despatch
had stated, that although a victory had been won he felt that the
position was untenable, and that he might at any moment be forced to
evacuate it. He also learned that the safety of the line beyond
Ladysmith was already threatened, but whether Sir George White would
decide upon falling back towards Pietermaritzburg or would hold
Ladysmith no one knew. Certainly nothing could be determined upon until
General Yule rejoined with the division from Dundee.
The position there was indeed growing worse every hour. While the battle
of Elandslaagte was being fought the Boers had opened fire from the
hills above Glencoe on the British camp, and had compelled it to shift
its position. The next day they were again obliged to move by artillery
on the Impati mountain, and it was then that General Yule decided to
retire at once on Ladysmith. A cavalry reconnaissance which was sent out
found that the Boers were in great strength in the pass of Glencoe, and
it was therefore determined to move by the roundabout way through
Helpmakaar. Some stores of ammunition that had been left under a guard
in the other camp were fetched, and with full pouches the little army
started on its long and perilous march at nine o'clock on the evening of
the 22nd. The camp was abandoned as it stood. The wounded remained with
some surgeons under the protection of the Red Cross flag. All the
available transport accompanied the column, but the men's kits and all
other encumbrances were left behind. They were obliged to pass through
Dundee to get upon the southern road, but so quietly was the movement
effected that but few of the townsmen knew what was happening.
The column was led by Colonel Dartnel, chief of the Natal Police, whose
knowledge of the district was invaluable to the troops. The roads were
heavy, and the rain continued to pour down in torrents. Each man carried
three days' provisions; they tramped along silently through the night;
stoppages by swollen streams were frequent, and by daybreak the next
morning they had only accomplished nine miles of their journey. Early in
the morning the townspeople had woke up to the fact that the army had
gone, and there was a general exodus of all who could obtain
conveyances. The Boers remained for some time in ignorance that the
force whose capture or destruction they had regarded as certain had
slipped away. They saw the tents, but the fact that neither men nor
horses were visible puzzled them, and it was eleven o'clock before some
of the more venturesome galloping down found that the English force had
Then from all sides they poured into the town. Had they at once pursued
they might still have overtaken the retreating force before nightfall;
but they immediately set to work to loot the great stores of provisions
left behind, and to gather their pickings from the deserted houses of
Dundee, and so let slip their opportunity, and no pursuit whatever was
attempted. For four days the column continued its march, resting for a
few hours each day and usually marching all night. The road was terribly
bad, leading through narrow mountain passes, and had but a small force
of the enemy held the Waschbrank gorge, where the sides were for three
miles nearly perpendicular, a terrible calamity might have taken place.
Happily, however, the Boers were in absolute ignorance of the road which
the British troops were following, and concluded that they must have
somewhere crossed the railway and were making their way down by the
roads to its west. That they had gone through Helpmakaar does not appear
to have occurred to them, for after marching some thirty miles to that
town the column was as far off Ladysmith as when it started.
The anxiety at the latter town was intense. The line being still uncut,
the arrival of the column at Helpmakaar was known, but beyond that no
communication could be received. On Tuesday the 24th Colonel Dartnel
arrived in Ladysmith with the news that the column was now twenty miles
away, all well, and he at once returned to them with supplies and a
small relief force. On Wednesday many of the men came in, and on
Thursday the remainder arrived and were heartily greeted. On the 24th--
in order to divert the attention of Joubert and the Free State Boers,
both of whom were converging upon General Yule's column, still making
its way through the passes--a force composed of three regiments of
cavalry, four of Colonial Mounted Infantry, three batteries, and four
infantry regiments went out. The enemy were found near Reitfontein. No
actual engagement took place, but for some hours an artillery and rifle
duel was maintained and the Boers fell back. The number of casualties
was not large, and these were principally among the Gloucester regiment,
who, on entering a valley supposed to be untenanted, were received by a
heavy fire from a strong party of the enemy hidden there. The fight,
however, fulfilled the object for which the advance was undertaken, that
of occupying the Boers' attention and enabling the column from Dundee to
make its way into Ladysmith unmolested. The Boers were now closing in on
the latter town from all directions, and preparations for defence at
once began. The town-hall and the schools were fitted up as hospitals
and everything arranged for the reception of wounded. As the Boers had
already been seen near Colenso, sixteen miles to the south, it was
certain that the communications would ere long be cut.
No more unsuitable place for a military camp could well have been
selected than Ladysmith, which had indeed been chosen, years before the
war was thought of, on account of its position on the railway, and the
vicinity of the Klip river. The fact that the country immediately round
was fertile and forage was obtainable no doubt influenced the military
authorities in their selection. Lying in the heart of a mountainous
country, it was commanded by steep and rocky hills at a distance of from
two to four miles. Just as many castles built in the days before
firearms were in use were rendered untenable against even the clumsy
cannon of early days placed on eminences near, so the improvement in
artillery and the possession of powerful modern guns by the Boers had
gravely imperilled the position of Ladysmith. The military authorities
could never have anticipated that the town would be besieged by foes
armed with artillery that could carry over five miles. But such was the
case now, and all there felt, as soon as it was decided to defend the
place till the last, that the position was a precarious one.
Fortunately, a considerable store of provisions had been collected, and
so long as the line was open additions were being sent up by every
train. The line was a single one, winding along through passes among the
hills, and therefore open to attack by small bodies of the enemy. In
point of size Ladysmith was the third largest town in Natal. Durban
boasted a population of thirty thousand, Pietermaritzburg of twenty
thousand, and Ladysmith of four thousand five hundred, being four
hundred larger than that of Dundee. It was the point at which the line
of railway forked, one branch running north through Glencoe to the
Transvaal, the other northwest through Van Reenen's Pass to
Bloemfontein. It was a pretty straggling town with its barracks,
government buildings and large stores. Almost all the houses were
detached and standing in their own gardens, and as these were largely
wooded its appearance was very picturesque, with the Klip river, a
branch of the Tugela, running through it. The houses were, for the most
part, one-storied, and the roofs were all painted white for the sake of
coolness. No perfectly open town had ever before undergone a siege by an
army of some thirty thousand men provided with excellent guns, and yet
the garrison awaited the result with perfect confidence.
On the 30th, the Boers being now in force on many of the hills around
the town, and having inflicted the first annoyance upon Ladysmith by
cutting the conduit that brought down the water-supply to the town from
a reservoir among the hills, and so forced it for the future to depend
upon a few wells and the muddy water of the river, it was determined to
make an effort to drive them back and to gain possession of some of the
hills from which it was now evident the town would stand a risk of being
bombarded. Hitherto there had been considerable apathy in taking
measures for keeping the enemy as far as possible out of range. A few
redoubts thrown up during the last week and strongly held would have
been invaluable, but it seemed to be considered by the military
authorities that the siege could be but a short one, and that the Boers
would speedily be driven off by the troops now pouring into Durban.
An effort was now to be made to repair the consequences of this
remissness and to drive the Boers off the positions they occupied, and
it was hoped that if a heavy blow were dealt them they would draw off
altogether. The forces of Joubert, Meyer, and the Free Staters were now
all within a distance of a few miles, and were all to be beaten up.
Their central position was on a hill afterwards known as Signal Hill,
and on this they had already planted a forty-pounder gun. A force
composed of six companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, four and a half
of the Gloucesters, a mountain battery and a troop of Hussars started at
midnight towards a hill known as Nicholson's Nek, occupied by the Free
Staters. Major General Hunter with a brigade of infantry, three
batteries, and a small cavalry force were to attack Meyer's commando to
the east, while General White, with two infantry brigades, French's
cavalry, and six batteries of field artillery moved against Joubert's
force on Modder Spruit. It was hoped that the Boers, if defeated, would
find their retreat barred by the force that had stated early for
Nicholson's Nek. All were well away from the town before daylight broke.
At five o'clock in the morning the guns spoke out, and were at once
answered by the Boer artillery, and the roar of fire soon became
general. General White's central column was screened by a ridge near the
railway, and the big gun on Signal Hill directed its fire partly against
the town and partly against the cavalry which could be seen by them in
rear of the column. As only a few of the Volunteer Horse had been
ordered to accompany the attacking force, Chris and his companions took
up their position on an eminence that afforded a general view of the
battle, and here a large number of the townspeople also gathered. The
general plan of operations was that the two movable columns should form
a rough arc of a circle and, driving in both flanks of the Boers, sweep
the whole force before them.
"They have a great many guns," Peters said, as the rattle of the
machine-guns and the thud of quick-firing one-pounders joined the
continuous fire of several Boer batteries and the deeper roar of their
big gun, "and they seem to be in greater force than was supposed, for I
can make out large reinforcements coming up to them from behind."
Our artillery were first placed about four thousand yards from the Boer
position, but as this was on higher ground than that occupied by our
guns our fire did not appear to be effective. They were therefore moved
forward some distance, supported by two battalions of the Rifles and the
Dublin Fusiliers. The infantry force with them pushed forward rapidly
and gained a crest from which they threatened to take the Boer position
on Signal Hill in rear; but the Boers, very strongly reinforced, moved
to meet them, and heavy fighting took place, until the enemy's force
became so strong that they not only checked the further advance of the
brigade, but threatened it on both flanks. Two batteries went to their
assistance, but even with this aid they could not continue their
advance, pressed as they were by greatly superior numbers and harassed
by the fire of the Boer field batteries on the hill.
At other points our advance was opposed as hotly. Nowhere were our
infantry gaining ground. The enemy had not wasted their time, but had
thrown up intrenchments on the steep hills they occupied, and from these
shelters maintained a terrible fire, while their numerous machine-guns
swept the ground with a hail of bullets and shells. On such ground the
cavalry were useless, and the range of the Boer guns was much greater
than that of our own.
"It seems to me," Chris said, "that instead of gaining ground we are
losing it. We can't see at all what is going on, but certainly the
firing seems nearer than it was."
All had thought the same though none had cared to suggest such a thing.
"Hurrah! there is a train coming in," Field said. "I heard they were
expecting a party of sailors with naval guns. They would be useful just
at the present moment. Let us go down and see, we can make out nothing
Glad to be doing something they went down the hill. As they reached the
station they saw a large detachment of sailors at work detraining some
twelve-pounders and two large quick-firing guns. Teams of oxen were
brought up, the sailors harnessed themselves to ropes, and with
tremendous exertions one of the guns was taken up to an eminence, and at
eleven it opened fire. It was but just in time. In steady order the
columns were retiring with their faces towards the Boers, answering shot
for shot, carrying off their wounded as they dropped, in spite of the
terrible rifle fire and the roar of the Boers' batteries; but as soon as
the first naval gun opened fire, amid the cheers of the townspeople, the
situation was changed. The first two shells burst close to the Boer big
gun, the third in the midst of the artillerymen, and it was some time
before its fire was resumed. In the meantime the sailors had turned
their attention to other Boer batteries which the field artillery had
scarcely been able to reach, and one by one these were withdrawn over
At one o'clock Colonel Hamilton's brigade, which had hitherto been lying
behind the crest they first occupied, in readiness to repel any counter-
attack the Boers might make, now moved out and took up their position to
cover the retirement of Hunter's column and Howard's brigade, and
although the Boers pressed hotly upon them they held their ground
steadily until their comrades had all reached their camp, and then
marched in unhindered by the enemy, whose big cannon had now been
finally silenced by the naval gun and their batteries for the most part
obliged to retire.
After seeing the naval gun open fire Chris had gone down to speak to
Captain Brookfield, when he met two soldiers of a mountain battery
carrying an injured comrade. They took him into the hospital and then
came out. Their shoulder-straps showed them to belong to the mountain
battery that had gone out with the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the
Gloucesters, of whom nothing had been heard, though occasionally, in
momentary intervals of fire, the sound of distant musketry could be made
out in the direction of Nicholson's Nek.
"How are your party getting on?" he asked.
"We don't know anything about them, sir," one of the men said, "except
that they have been heavily engaged since daylight. I am afraid that
they are in a tight place."
"How is it you know nothing about them?"
"It has been a bad job altogether," the man said. "We were marching up a
steep valley with only room for us to lead two mules abreast; we were in
the rear of the column. Suddenly a boulder came rolling down the hill
and some shots were fired. In a moment the mules stampeded. One or two
began it, kicking and plunging and squealing like wild beasts, then the
others all set to. There was no holding them? it was almost pitch-dark,
and before one could say 'knife' they were tearing down the road we had
come up. There was no time to stop, and those who were lucky jumped out
of their way, those who were not were knocked down and trampled on. As
soon as they had gone those of us who were not hurt set off after them
and looked for them everywhere, but only two or three were caught. Where
the rest went I don't know, but I hope that they got into the enemy's
line of fire and were all shot. At last we gave it up as a bad job and
went back to bring in the fellows who were hurt. I think most of them
are in now. We have been a long time, for Thompson's leg was broken and
one of his arms, and, I expect, most of his ribs, and it hurt him so to
be moved that we have had to stop every two yards." "It is a bad
business indeed," Chris said; "and of course all your guns are lost?"
"Every one of them, and what is worse, all the reserve small-arm
ammunition is lost too. The mules carrying them were with ours, and as
the fighting up there has been going on ever since, I am afraid the
infantry must have pretty well used up their last cartridges."
It was not until the next day that the extent of the calamity was known,
when a Boer came down with a white flag asking that doctors might be
sent up. The little column instead of, as had been hoped, surprising the
Boers had itself been ambushed, being suddenly attacked by two strong
parties of the enemy. They at once seized a little eminence, threw up a
breastwork of stone, and defended themselves successfully until the
ammunition was entirely exhausted, and a hundred and fifty had been
killed or wounded. The Boers had, by taking advantage of every bit of
cover, crept up close to them, and a murderous fire was poured in. The
two regiments asked Colonel Carleton, who commanded them, to allow them
to charge with their bayonets and cut their way through. He consented to
allow the desperate attempt to be made, and the men were in the act of
fixing bayonets when someone raised a white flag, and the Boers standing
up advanced to receive the surrender.
After this the laws of war permitted no further defence, and the men,
half mad with fury at the situation in which they were placed, threw
down their rifles and were made prisoners. This was at two o'clock in
the afternoon, after the rest of the force had returned to Ladysmith;
and thus some nine hundred men fell into the hands of the Boers. Apart
from this the loss was comparatively small considering the heat of the
engagement. The day's work had been altogether unsatisfactory; no
advantage whatever had been gained beyond the discovery of the Boers'
position, and their unexpected strength and fighting powers, and it was
evident that the force at Ladysmith was unable to drive off the enemy
unaided, and must undergo a siege until the arrival of a relieving army.
There were provisions calculated to last for two months, and no one
doubted that long before that time General Buller would arrive to their
rescue. So confident had the military authorities been, that not only
had no defensive works been thrown up, but they had omitted to send the
women and children, and the men unfitted to give active assistance, to
On the following morning the scouts held a council of war.
"Now," Chris said, "we have to decide the all-important question. It is
quite certain that the town is going to be besieged, and I should say
that the siege will last for some time, as nothing can be done to
relieve them until a lot of troops arrive from home. We have shown at
Dundee and Elandslaagte that our fellows can drive the Boers from their
kopjes, but a force arriving to relieve Ladysmith would have to fight
its way through a tremendously mountainous district, and to capture at
least eight or ten such positions. At Dundee and Elandslaagte the Boers
had only a few guns, and the big one from Pretoria had not arrived, nor
had they time to fortify themselves. It is certain, therefore, that it
will require a very big force to fight its way in here, especially as
the Tugela has to be crossed, and the Boers will of course destroy the
"It may be a couple of months before the place is relieved. Of course
the question is, Shall we stay here or go? I don't think we should be of
much use here; indeed, I don't see that cavalry would be any good at
all, whereas if a portion of the Boers push south we may be very useful
in our own line of scouting. Still, this is a question for you to
decide. You chose to make me your commander when at work, but we should
all have an equal voice in a matter of this sort."
There was little discussion; all were of their leader's opinion that it
was best for them to leave. The prospect of a long siege in which they
could take but little active part was not a pleasant one, and it was
decided at once that they should leave.
"Very well," Chris said. "Then I will go in to Captain Brookfield and
ask his permission to go. Now that we are in camp with him he must be
They had since Elandslaagte taken their places as a part of the
Maritzburg Scouts, and had been drilled for some hours each day. They
were already favourites among the corps, who were proud of the work they
had done, and being a pleasant set of lads their uncouth appearance,
which had at first been viewed with much disfavour by many of their
comrades, had been forgiven. Chris went to the commander's tent and laid
the matter and their decision before him.
"I think that it is just as well that you should go, Chris," the officer
said; "and indeed I was on the point of telling you that we are all
leaving. For myself I cannot understand why the cavalry should be kept
here, and indeed I know that it is their opinion also, and that they
have asked the general to let them leave. However, he has decided to
keep them. I am sure it is a mistake. Before the siege is over forage is
sure to run short, and half the cavalry will be dismounted before the
end comes. However, I have seen him and pointed out that as scouts we
should be useless here. He has given me leave to go, but has requested
me to join the first troops that come up the line. When we are once away
I shall give you leave to act altogether independently of us, which will
I am sure suit you better than being kept for weeks perhaps at Colenso
or Estcourt. Another thing I will do. General Yule was speaking to me
only yesterday of the manner in which your party defeated and cut up
more than double your number, and how you and three of your party went
into the Boer camp at Talana and ascertained their strength for General
Symons. I expect that General Buller will come on here, as it is
certainly the most serious point at present. I will ask Yule to give you
a letter of introduction to him, it will be useful; and I have no doubt
that he will give you a free hand, as I have done. I should not call
upon General Buller in that rig-out, if I were you. I have heard he is
somewhat of a martinet at the War Office, and we know that they have a
very poor opinion of volunteers there."
Chris smiled. "Volunteers have done good service at the Cape before now,
sir, and have shown over and over again that a man can fight just as
well in plain clothes as if he were buttoned up to the chin in uniform;
and as the Boers are themselves nothing but volunteers, I should think
that before this war is over the War Office will see its mistake."
"I should think so indeed, Chris, but at present they have certainly not
woke up to the fact. I see by the telegrams that the London Scottish and
the London Irish have both volunteered almost to a man for service here,
and that they have not even had a civil reply to their application. I
tell you, lad, this war is going to be a big thing, and before it is
over we may have both militia and volunteers out here, and perhaps
troops from the colonies. I heard that some of the Australian colonies
have already offered to send bodies of mounted men, and that our
government are ordering out a larger number of men than was at first
intended. I hear this morning that at Kimberley and Mafeking fighting
has begun. On the 24th Kimberley made a successful sortie, and on the
25th a general attack on Mafeking was repulsed. The fact that both these
places are beleaguered, and that we have again been obliged to fall back
here, and are likely to be cut off altogether, has evidently stirred
them up, and they begin to understand that it is going to be a much
bigger affair than they expected.
"I wrote to your mother yesterday at Durban, and told her that I
intended to leave while it is still possible. Of course you have
written; but I told her of the flattering way in which General Yule had
spoken of the doings of you and your party, and said that I hoped she
would not be anxious, for it was quite evident that you were able to
take good care of yourselves. My letter was in answer to one she wrote
to me from Durban, begging me to keep you from undertaking what she
called 'mad-brained business', and expressing some regret that you and
the others had been allowed to form a separate corps, instead of being
under the command of an experienced officer like myself. I told her that
I thought that you would have less chance of coming to harm in scouting
work than if you had to work in a regular way as the general ordered. If
this sort of fighting--I mean, of attacking in front every position the
Boers choose to take--goes on, our numbers will very speedily dwindle
"The fact is, as far as we colonials can see, the regulars do not as yet
understand fighting the Boers. Nothing could be more splendid than the
behaviour of the troops, both at Dundee and Elandslaagte, but in our
humble opinion neither fight was necessary; and if Talana was to be
attacked, it should have been done by marching the troops round the hill
and taking it in the rear. In that case the Boers would have bolted
without firing a shot. That it could have been done is shown by the fact
that the cavalry did it, and encountered no difficulty on the way.
Again, at Elandslaagte the object of keeping the road open would have
been equally well attained if, after driving them out of the station, we
had taken up a strong position there and waited for them to attack us.
Therefore, Chris, I think that fighting in our way--that is to say, in
Boer fashion--and trusting to skill as much as to shooting, you will be
running a good deal less risk than you would in fighting under British
generals in British fashion. We shall go off quietly this evening. We
must keep a bright look-out on the way, for the trains have been fired
upon, and at any moment the Boers may pull up the rails and block the
Two hours later all was ready for a start, and just before sunset the
corps rode out of Ladysmith. They kept a sharp look-out as they went,
but saw no signs of the enemy, and crossing the Tugela by the bridge
near Colenso, halted there for the night. Here Captain Brookfield
reported his arrival to the officer in command of the troops, and on the
following day Chris and his friends rode on to Estcourt. They had seen
some parties of mounted men in the far distance, but none had come near
them, and as the military authorities were well aware of the Boers being
in the vicinity, there was nothing to be gained by scouting. But it was
now decided that they were in advance of the point that any large number
of the enemy were likely to reach, and might therefore strike across the
country and resume what they considered their regular work. They added
to their stores several articles whose want they had felt, had slits
made in the waterproof sheets, and covers sewn on to close the holes
when they were used for tents, and had some triangular pieces of the
same material made to buckle on so as to close the rear of the tents,
which had before been open to the wind and rain. They had employed much
of their spare time in training their horses and in teaching them to lie
down when ordered, and thus share the shelter taken up by their masters,
behind rocks or a wall.
The officer commanding the small force at Estcourt had at first viewed
them with some suspicion, but Colonel Yule had purposely left open the
letter with which he had furnished Chris, so that it could be shown to
any officers commanding posts or detached forces, and its production now
caused his cold reception to be converted into a warm welcome. Riding
across country they met more than one farmer trekking with his cattle
and belongings towards the ferry across the Mooi river. These reported
that the Boers had overrun the whole of the country north of the Tugela,
and that some parties had already crossed at the ferry on the road
between Helpmakaar and Greytown. Fugitives had come in from the villages
on the other side, and complained that the Boers were looting
everywhere, and had driven off thousands of cattle and numbers of
horses, and had everywhere wantonly destroyed the furniture and
everything they could not carry off, in the farmhouses they visited.
A vigilant look-out was kept as the scouts advanced. On the second day
after starting they encamped on a slight elevation near Mount Umhlumba,
and early next morning they saw a party of some twenty Boers riding in a
direction that would bring them within rifle-shot of their camp. All
were at once on the alert.
"We will not go out and attack them," Chris said to the lads who were
running towards their horses. "That would mean that though we might kill
all of them, half of us would probably be shot. We will ambush them. Get
the picket ropes loose and the bridles on ready for mounting, and then
leave the horses in charge of the natives where we camped. They will be
out of sight there. When you have done that take your places quietly
among the rocks. Do you, Capper and Carmichael, put yourselves twenty or
thirty yards apart; you are our best shots. When the Boers get within a
thousand yards, which is as near as they will do if they keep the line
they are going, open fire upon them and keep it up steadily, but not too
fast. When they see that only two men are firing they will think that
you are a couple of farmers whose place they have plundered, and who are
determined to have their revenge. You are safe to hit some of them, and
the others will decide upon wiping you out, and will probably leave
their horses and crawl up in their usual style. When they get close it
will be our turn. I don't think many of them are likely to get away."
His orders were carried out, and five minutes later the two rifles
flashed out one after another. The Boers were riding in a clump. One was
seen to fall, and the horse of another gave a violent plunge.
"Very good," exclaimed Chris, who, like the rest, was lying down behind
a rock. "Don't fire too fast. Wait half a minute, and then each take
another turn, one a little time after the other." The man who had fallen
was instantly picked up by one of his comrades, and all rode off at full
gallop, but before they could get beyond the range of the Mausers each
of the lads had fired two more shots. No more of the Boers dropped, but
the watchers, who had their glasses directed upon them, thought by their
movements that two had been hit. The Boers, when the firing ceased,
stopped, and for some little time remained clustered together. Then they
took a long sweep round to a point where the ground was broken, and a
shallow donga ran up in a direction that would bring them within a
hundred yards of the position occupied by their hidden assailants. There
they were seen to dismount, and, after some talk, leaving all the horses
in the charge of one man, probably one of the wounded, they entered the
donga. Its course was irregular, and once or twice the two lads were
able to get a shot at them. The Boers did not return the fire but
hurried past the exposed points. As they approached a head was
occasionally raised above the bank to view the position, and then
disappeared again. The ground between the camp and the nearest point of
the donga was thickly strewn with boulders, with bushes growing between
them. The lads had all shifted their position to this side.
"Don't open fire till I give the order," Chris said quietly. "We have
got them now."
Except for a slight movement of the bushes, it would not have been known
that the Boers had left the donga. Once or twice Capper and Carmichael
caught a momentary glimpse of one of them, but held their fire, as Chris
"Let them come within twenty yards, then both fire at once, whether you
catch a glimpse of them or not. Thinking that your rifles are
discharged, they will all jump up and make a rush. Then it will be our
[Illustration: "BOTH RIFLES CRACKED AT ONCE."]
Presently a man's head was seen peering round a rock at about the right
distance. Both the rifles cracked at once, and a Boer fell prone on the
ground beyond his shelter. At the same moment there was a shout, and his
comrades all sprang to their feet and rushed forward. A volley from the
whole of the scouts flashed out. Twelve of the Boers fell, the others
leapt back behind their shelters, and in turn opened fire.
"Keep in shelter!" Chris shouted. "They know now that we are two to
their one, and will soon be making off."
The combatants were so close to each other that neither dared expose
shoulder or head to take aim, and after the first shots fired at the
Boers all remained quiet. Chris waited for three or four minutes, and
then told four of the lads who were in the best shelter to crawl back,
mount their horses, and ride out down the other side of the slope, and,
after making a slight circuit, to gallop straight at the Boers' horses.