With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter V. 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 countersign."
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 well."
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."
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 are firing."
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 weight.
"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 after."
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 there."
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 infantry.
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 cheering loudly.
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 escape.
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 you."
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 to surrender.