It would take too long to deal at all circumspectly with the history of South Africa. It was the Portuguese who originally discovered the Cape of Good Hope, and for long years they were the controllers of the sea and of Africa. Many years later other peoples began to colonise in far-away lands, and Sir Francis Drake ran across the Cape, but as yet there was no interest in the place from a commercial point of view; the coast was merely used as a suitable stopping-place. Later on the Dutch—who were a great sea people then—founded a colony where Cape Town now stands. The French soon followed them, particularly the Huguenots, who had fled from their own country and were glad to settle in Africa. Last of all, the British became very anxious to found a settlement, and in 1795 Cape Colony was added to the British Empire and the rule of the Dutch was ended. The Dutch, who have always proved a courageous and obstinate people, never ready to admit the superiority of anybody else, in due course made their way elsewhere, preferring hardship to dependence.
After the wars of Napoleon the other Powers in Europe recognised that the British were supreme in South Africa, for which acknowledgment the Government paid Holland a large sum of money. From this time onwards troubles came at intervals from the Kaffir wars to the Zulu rising, from Majuba to that greatest of all campaigns in South Africa—the Great Boer War. From the beginning there were difficulties between the natives and the Boers, the Kaffir siding now with the English and now with the Boers, but usually against the latter. In the Kaffir campaigns the Highlanders took part, but they are not of sufficient importance to demand our attention.
There is one expedition, however, that has a memorable place in our history. Some men of the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch, the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders, and the Highland Light Infantry were, in 1852, shipped for South Africa to take part in the campaign against the Kaffirs. They sailed upon the Birkenhead, and one dark night the ship went to pieces at a place called Danger Point. So swift and sudden was the shock that only a certain number of the boats could be lowered, and had they all been used there was quite an inadequate number for both the troops and the passengers. In perfect order the soldiers formed up in companies, and the women and children were lowered over the side. The horses were loosed and given a last chance for their lives. Then the boats put off and the Birkenhead was left to her fate. As the dawn was breaking, with those silent figures as steady as on parade, the Birkenhead disappeared, and four hundred British soldiers went to their death. That memorable scene has never been forgotten, and should be recalled as one of the most honourable and moving incidents in the history of the Highland regiments.
Subsequent to the melancholy end of the Birkenhead, the Boers had made their Great Trek, and the trouble with Dingaan, the Zulu chief, had resulted in the massacre of their comrades.
With the discovery of gold the whole aspect of South Africa changed. The country was suddenly inundated with all the riff-raff of Europe. The “gold rush” wrought more harm than can ever be fully estimated. Strife and trouble arose on every side. The Boers, who perpetually tyrannised over the natives, also attempted to tyrannise over the British. At last, on the 12th of April 1877, the South African Republic was taken over by the English, and the Union Jack run up at Pretoria. Although the Boers were very much aggrieved, they were quite unable to protect their rights in the matter, as the country was full of British troops.
A Zulu war broke out under Cetewayo, in which the Transvaal Boers would take no part, leaving the British to fend for themselves as best they could. Events followed hard upon each other. The terrible disaster of Isandlwana, where the British forces were cut off and suffered a loss of 800 men, sent a thrill through the whole of South Africa. Within a few hours there followed the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, when a handful of men kept 3000 Zulus at arm’s length for many hours. In 1879 the 91st Highlanders left for Zululand, to take their share in the defeat of the Zulus at the battle of Ulundi and the capture of Cetewayo.
In the meantime the dissatisfaction of the Boers had in no way diminished. Desiring to regain their freedom, they made preparations for doing so. They elected Kruger, Joubert, and Pretorius as their leaders, and, on the 16th of December 1880, raised the flag of the Republic at Heidelburg, their new capital. War was declared, and in January 1881 the British suffered a reverse at Laing’s Nek, where they remained strongly posted. Laing’s Nek was very close to a kopje that has passed into our history as Majuba Hill.
We know a great deal more about the Boers now than we did then. We did not realise at that time that they were a clever and courageous foe, linking their intimate knowledge of the country with a sure and deadly marksmanship. The British troops in South Africa were quite inadequate in numbers to deal with such a situation. The 92nd Gordon Highlanders, with their famous march to Kandahar still vivid in the public mind, were hurried to reinforce the troops under General Sir George Colley at Prospect Hill.
General Colley had been instructed by Sir Evelyn Wood that he must not attempt an advance for the present. Despite this order he resolved to occupy Majuba Hill by night, and hold what appeared to be a superior position. Accordingly, at half-past eight on the evening of February 25, the little party, composed of 550 men of the Gordons and a party of the Naval Brigade, carrying 70 rounds of ammunition and three days’ rations but no water, began their ascent of Majuba Hill. At the base they left a detachment to guard their lines of communications, thus reducing the force to some 350 men. So far as Colley’s plan was concerned it was entirely successful. Just before the dawn broke the British were in possession of the summit, while far beneath them they could see the Boer camp beginning to stir for the day.
General White, V.C., who was then Senior Major of the Gordons, has described the situation in the regimental records. “The approaches,” he says, “to the brow below were nearly all concealed from the view of the defenders on the top. The slope of the hill leading up to the brow is broken by natural terraces, which run nearly round the hill, and which afford an enemy, under cover of his firing parties placed for the purpose, an opportunity of collecting in force on any point, and to circuit round the hill without coming under the fire, or even the observation of the defenders.”
To put it quite simply, the summit of the hill was like a saucer, while instead of a smooth slope down which the defenders could pick off the ascending foe, the cover was so ample that it was possible for the Boers to shoot the British against the sky-line without exposing themselves.
General Colley had expressed no deeper design than his wish that the men should hold the hill for three days. He made no preparations for the defence, he forbade the troops to entrench themselves, and so the day dawned, and the Boers awakened to the fact that Majuba Hill was occupied by the British. What followed is soon told. A storming party crept up the face of the hill, though quite out of sight of the British, and when Lieutenant Ian Hamilton of the Gordons approached General Colley, begging him to let them entrench themselves or charge, he merely repeated the fateful words, “Hold the place for three days.” The Boers, firing against the sky-line, opened the engagement. It was simply a question of time until the little garrison were picked off man by man. Too late was it when Colley, at last thoroughly alive to the danger, running hither and thither, attempted to entrench his men. Still he refused to let the Gordons charge, and the Boers contented themselves for some time in reducing the number of the defenders. At last, growing contemptuous of such warfare, they attempted to finish the business and carry the position by assault. Undaunted, but sick at heart, the Gordons drove them back at the point of the bayonet. The end was near at hand. One hundred and fifty of the Highlanders stood shoulder to shoulder, determined to hold out to the last. Sir George Colley, shot through the head, fell in the hour of his deep humiliation. When at last the belated order was given to retreat, 200 men of that little force of 350 lay dead or wounded, and only 60 or 70 came out of the action. Lieutenant Ian Hamilton, who was later on to uphold the glory of the British arms against the Boers, was so badly wounded that when the enemy came to look at him they said, “You will probably die, you may go.”
It had been little less than a massacre. “The top of Majuba,” says Colonel M’Bean, “was a horrid sight. The first thing I saw was a long row of dead men—some 40 or 50 of them. There were also numbers of wounded men lying about, most of them frightfully wounded. I went towards the edge of the hill where so many of the 92nd had been killed…. The dead were all shot above the breast, in some men’s heads I counted five and six bullet wounds.”
It is now admitted that under the circumstances, and under the conditions of the defence, the disaster could not have been prevented. There was only one gleam in the encompassing gloom—to the last the British had fought without quailing.
He knows no tears who in the van
And foremost fight
Met death as should an Englishman
Upon Majuba’s Height.
Whether foolishly or not cannot be discussed here, the British Government instructed Sir Evelyn Wood to come to terms at all costs, and the truce that resulted gave the Transvaal into Boer hands, with Mr. Kruger as President. We see now how unwise it was to permit this disgrace and humiliation to the British arms and the British name. Long years of quarrelling between the Boer colonists and those who acknowledged the sovereignty of England, were to make South Africa a place of miserable dissension. The easy success over a few hundred trapped British soldiers was magnified, in the eyes of the more ignorant Boers, into a victory over the whole English race, and until the Great War of 1899-1902 no occasion was ever let slip on which the name of ‘Majuba’ could be recalled and emphasised.
Previous to 1882 Egypt had for many years been under the control of England and France, but neither of these Powers had actually occupied the country. In 1882, owing to the Nationalist Movement under Arabi Bey, which endangered the lives and property of Europeans, these two Powers decided that some steps must be taken to ensure the security of the white population. Shortly after, France agreed to leave the matter in the hands of the English, and the British fleet bombarded Arabi’s position at Alexandria, while the English army under Sir Garnet Wolseley landed upon the coast to crush the Egyptian forces. This action was to end in the English occupation of Egypt, which has lasted until to-day. The principal reason for acting so quickly and with such determination was the danger that would ensue should the control of the Suez Canal fall into the hands of a hostile Power. The Khedive, who was a vassal of the Sultan, possessed at this time a mere shadow of authority, and after the war an English official was appointed to control his policy.
Sir Garnet Wolseley having decided to give the enemy no warning of his advance upon Cairo, planned to descend upon the city from Ismailia, and not from Alexandria as they expected. The position of Tel-el-Kebir was destined to become the scene of the final battle before the march upon Cairo.
The British army included the Grenadiers and Coldstreams, some cavalry and artillery, and the Highland Brigade, formed of the Black Watch, the Camerons, the Gordons, and the Highland Light Infantry. It is also of interest to note that with the force was a major of Egyptian cavalry called Herbert Kitchener.
Following the landing in Egypt, the army marched across the desert in the hope of surprising the enemy. The bombardment of Aboukir took place, and shortly afterwards the enemy were repulsed from Magfar. The British forces now concentrated at Kassassin, where Wolseley decided that the final conflict must be forced. They were now very near to the enemy’s position, and on the night of the 12th of September were only some five miles distant from Tel-el-Kebir, where the Egyptians were heavily entrenched.
Sir Garnet Wolseley, having studied the position for several days, learned that the Egyptian pickets did not come beyond their defences at night. This led him to believe that a swift night assault might carry their position without further trouble. There were, however, several considerations that might militate against the success of a night attack. For one thing it was most essential that the enemy should be so thoroughly dispersed that the cavalry could advance without delay upon Cairo. There was also the danger that, in the darkness, the soldiers would fire upon each other, and to prevent such a calamity he placed the infantry at each end of the line and the artillery in the centre.
The troops set out in complete silence, no smoking or even the giving of orders being permitted. It was a moonless night, and, careful as they were, the Highland Brigade at one period lost their direction, and a new formation delayed the advance.
About an hour before sunrise the Highlanders found themselves beneath the parapet of the enemy’s position, and the end of the hazardous march was reached. Sir Archibald Alison, who commanded the Highland Brigade, has written: “The Brigade formed for the march in the order in which it was to attack—two lines two deep. The rifles were unloaded, the bayonets unfixed, and the men warned that only two signals would be given—a word to ‘Fix bayonets,’ a bugle sound of ‘To storm.’ I never felt anything so solemn as that night march, nor do I believe that any one who was in it will ever forget it. No light but a faint star; no sound but the slow, measured tread of men on the desert sand. Just as the first tinge of light appeared in the east a few rifle shots fired out of the darkness showed that the enemy’s outposts were reached. The sharp click of the bayonets then answered the word, ‘To fix’—a few minutes more of deep silence, and then a blaze of musketry flashed across our front, and passed far away to each flank, by the light of which we saw the swarthy faces of the Egyptians, surmounted by their red tarbooshes, lining the dark rampart before us. I never felt such a relief in my life. I knew then that Wolseley’s star was bright, that the dangerous zone of fire had been passed in the darkness, that all had come now to depend upon a hand-to-hand struggle.”
The Highlanders were some hundred and fifty yards from the Egyptian entrenchments, which were 6 feet high and 4 feet deep. Suddenly through the long night silence a bugle rang out, and with a cheer the Highland Brigade broke into a charge. Some 200 men fell before they reached the parapet, the losses being increased before they scaled the entrenchments. Alison had written that he never saw men fight more steadily than the Egyptian soldiers, they rallied every foot of the way. “At this time,” he says, “it was a noble sight to see the Gordon and Cameron Highlanders—now mingled together in the confusion of the fight, their young officers leading with waving swords, their pipes screaming, and that proud smile on the lips and that bright gleam in the eyes of the men which you see only in the hour of successful battle.”
It is said Donald Cameron of the Camerons was “the first man to mount the trenches, and the second man to fall.” A minute, and whole companies of men were swarming and pouring like waves of the sea over the Egyptian defences, and rushing down upon their defenders. Although taken by surprise the enemy made a stubborn fight, but after half an hour’s fierce conflict the battle of Tel-el-Kebir was over, and the morning sun rose to pour its rays down upon the flying Egyptian army. Without delay Sir Garnet Wolseley pushed forward the cavalry to advance upon Cairo. Thus Arabi was prevented either from arresting the retreat or sacking the city, and realising that there was no further hope in resistance to the British arms he surrendered his sword, and the rebellion was over.
It had been a swift action, but it would be wrong either to underrate the discipline and bravery of the Egyptian troops or to imagine that it was an easy victory. As General Hamley has written in the Nineteenth Century: “The Scottish people may be satisfied with the bearing of those who represented them in the land of the Pharaohs. No doubt any very good troops, feeling that they were willing, would have accomplished the final advance; but what appear to me exceptional are: First, the order and discipline which marked that march by night through the desert; and, secondly, the readiness with which the men sprang forward to storm the works. The influence of the march had been altogether of a depressing kind—the dead silence, the deep gloom, the funereal pace, the unknown obstacles, and enemy. They did not know what was in front, but neither did they stop to consider. There was not the slightest sign that the enemy was surprised—none of the clamour, shouts, or random firing which would have attended a sudden call to arms. Even very good troops at the end of that march might have paused when suddenly greeted by that burst of fire, and none but exceptionally good ones could have accomplished the feats I have mentioned.”
It is worth while repeating these words of General Hamley’s, because in a later chapter we shall have to deal with that other memorable night march at Magersfontein. However melancholy the story, it serves to illustrate that when a night attack does not prove a surprise it becomes nothing less than a calamity.
Considerably before the events of the last chapter, Sir Samuel Baker, the English explorer, had travelled through the unknown regions of the Upper Nile, and found that the country was almost entirely devoted to the slave-trade. An effort was made to improve conditions there. The Khedive for a time asserted his authority over these regions, two Englishmen being appointed in succession as his governors, the first Sir Samuel Baker himself, and the second Charles Gordon. For many years Gordon, who had come fresh from China, struggled to free the natives from the slave-traders, but his labours were rendered useless by the accession of a worthless Khedive. Shortly afterwards he returned to England, and the Soudan relapsed into its old corruption. Then, in 1882, appeared one of those strange dramatic figures that in the East spring into prominence and disappear as abruptly—a fanatic named Mohammed Ahmed, proclaiming himself as Mahdi, and calling to his standard all true Mahommedans.
The Arabs have ever been ready to follow the sword, and very soon 6000 troops under Yusef Pasha were almost annihilated. Swiftly one Egyptian garrison fell after another. The Mahdi advanced towards the north, and cut to pieces an Egyptian army under Colonel Hicks. The word passed from village to village, from mosque to mosque, from one solitary encampment to another that the Mahdi had indeed come at last, and with the defeat of Hicks’s army not only was Khartoum in hourly peril, but Cairo itself was threatened.
Fortunately, the Arab—like the Highlander of old—is satisfied with the booty in hand, and very much prefers to see it safely put away before he takes to the field again in search of more. Such practical considerations were a check to the Mahdi’s religious zeal, and permitted England to collect her strength—or one should say such strength as lay to her hand; for at this time public interest in Egypt was very luke-warm. The result was the tragic page in history that closed with the death of Gordon in Khartoum. There was one man in Egypt who was later on both to avenge Gordon and to subdue the Soudan, but he as yet was unknown. The name of this young man was Kitchener, and the war correspondent, Mr. John Macdonald, has given the following little sketch of the future victor of Omdurman as he was in the year 1883—the year in which the Mahdi renewed his activities. It is not without interest at the present time.
“Taylor,” he writes, “had invited me the night before to accompany him and his friend and witness the operation which they were both to supervise. A tall, slim, thin-faced, slightly stooping figure in long boots, ‘cut-away’ dark morning-coat and Egyptian fez, somewhat tilted over his eyes—such, as I remember him, was the young soldier who was destined to fulfil Gordon’s task of ‘smashing the Mahdi.’ ‘He’s quiet,’ Taylor whispered to me as we were getting ready; ‘that’s his way.’ And, again, with characteristic jerk of the head, ‘He’s clever.’ And so, in the raw, greyish early morning of January 8, 1883, the three of us drove in our dingy rattle-trap over the white dusty road Nilewards to meet the fellah cavaliers. Taylor did most of the talking. Kitchener expressed himself in an occasional nod or monosyllable.
“At the barracks we found some forty men waiting. I remember Kitchener’s gaze at the awkward, slipshod group as he took his position in the centre of a circular space round which the riders were to show their paces. ‘We begin with the officers,’ said Taylor turning to me; ‘we shall train them first, then put them to drill the troopers. We have no troopers just yet, though we have 440 horses ready for them.’
“And now began the selection of the fellah officers. They were to be tested in horsemanship. The first batch were ordered to mount. Round they went, Indian file, Kitchener, like a circus-master standing in the centre. Had he flourished a long whip he might have passed for a show-master at a rehearsal. Neither audible nor visible sign did he give of any feeling roused in him by a performance most disappointing and sometimes ridiculous. His hands buried in his trousers pockets, he quietly watched the emergence of the least unfit. In half an hour or so the first native officers of the fellah cavalry were chosen. It was then that Kitchener made his longest speech, ‘We’ll have to drive it into those fellows,’ he muttered, as if thinking aloud.”
The importance of this extract is the glimpse it gives of the material that was the hope of Egypt.
That was the type of man that Kitchener took in hand, and that was the type of man who was to uphold the supremacy of the British arms against the fanatic forces of the Mahdi.
But between 1883 and Omdurman there was more than spade work—there was grim tragedy and humiliating defeat. In August 1883, when the Mahdi was again on the war-path, General Baker despatched native reinforcements from Cairo in the vain hope that they would be able to withstand the advance of the Arabs. On February 4, 1884, Baker’s poorly trained Egyptians encountered the Sudanese, and were practically annihilated. This disaster, following so quickly upon the rout of Hicks’s troops, awakened the Government at home to the fact that something must be done. Sir Gerald Graham was ordered to proceed with a force of 4000 British troops to Suakin. With his force were the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders and the Black Watch. On the 29th of February the British troops set out upon the road over which Baker himself had passed, and came in touch with the enemy at El-Teb. The Arabs were defended to some extent with entrenchments, and for an hour maintained a steady fire. Then, having grown confident by their easily-won victories over Egyptian troops, the Sudanese hurled themselves at the Highlanders, shaking their long spears, and shouting their battle-cries. They were met by the solid unbreakable square of the 42nd. Checked and demoralised, their advance was quickly turned into a rout. No sooner did the enemy waver than the cavalry were let loose, and the engagement at El-Teb was turned into a signal success.
On the 13th of March 1884 was fought the battle of Tamai, in which the Black Watch took a leading part. The Highlanders were ordered to charge at the enemy in front, but did not perceive that on their right lay a deep nullah or piece of hidden ground. No sooner was their flank exposed than hosts of the enemy leapt to their feet and broke upon them. The 42nd were caught between two fires and surrounded. The Naval Brigade, forced back, were compelled to surrender their guns. It became a hand-to-hand struggle, each man fighting for himself.
In the words of Kipling:
We took our chanst among the Kyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We ‘eld our bloomin’ own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us ‘oller.
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis an’ the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds again’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.
For a moment it seemed as though Baker’s disaster was to be repeated. But the British regulars were very unlike the undisciplined Egyptians. “The spectacle,” wrote a war correspondent, “did not so much terrify as exercise a weird, terrible fascination. I do not suppose that either I or any one else who witnessed it will often again see its equal for magnificence. Though retreating, our men literally mowed down their assailants. In the smoke and dust of the battle, amid the bright gleam of their myriad spearheads, the semi-nude, brown-skinned, black, shaggy-haired warriors were falling down in scores. Of all the savage races of the world none are more desperately brave than the Soudan Arabs, who were breaking upon our ranks like a tempestuous sea. At last the pressure of the front upon the rear became so great that those of us who were mounted were for a few moments too tightly wedged together to be able to move; but we felt the collapse was only temporary.”
It was touch and go, but the undismayed veterans of the Black Watch and those other troops who formed the British force were bound, sooner or later, to enforce their superiority. Presently, shoulder to shoulder, forming where they could into squares, the 42nd and 65th began to advance. For a moment the conflict was in suspense, then the crisis had passed. The victory was won.
Unhappily, the British Government took no advantage of Graham’s successes, and decided upon the evacuation of the Soudan. Under these circumstances the only thing left to do was to ensure the safety of the civilians in the various towns more or less under European control. There was one man above all others who was competent to deal with the exigencies of the situation, and that was General Gordon. He was begged by the Government to leave for Egypt to carry out this mission. We must not overlook, in justice to the Government, that neither they nor probably Gordon himself appreciated the strength of the revolutionary movement in the Soudan, so that when he arrived at Khartoum in February 1884 he was dismayed to find it was exceedingly likely that he would be isolated there, if not actually besieged by the enemy. Accordingly, he advised the Government to make good the advantage gained by Sir Gerald Graham, and ensure a lasting peace in the Soudan. But the Government refused to be interested in the problem. Then Gordon communicated with the country, stating that he had provisions for only five months. Lord Granville, without dealing with the situation in any way, instructed him to leave Khartoum as best he could, and it was not until the end of March that the grave danger to Gordon was realised. Lord Wolseley, voicing the sympathies of the English people, begged the Government to do something to save a man whom they had sent out to represent the country.
Then and only then, Mr. Gladstone, who had placed every possible obstacle in the path of action, permitted the British troops to set out for Egypt, with Wolseley in command. And so there embarked that melancholy expedition, against which time and ill-luck waged a remorseless warfare—an expedition that was to reach Khartoum two days after the murder of Gordon.
Under Major-General Earle the Black Watch came up the Nile, while Sir Charles Wilson was heading for Khartoum. On the 10th of February Earle’s columns came into conflict with the enemy at Kirbekan, when, to quote Wolseley’s despatch, “The Black Watch advanced over rocks and broken ground upon the koppies, and after having by their fire in the coolest manner driven off a rush of the enemy, stormed the position under a heavy fire.”
The Arabs put up, as always, a desperate resistance; they hurled one attack after another upon the guns, but always to be met with a devastating fire. The Black Watch in a later stage in the battle attempted to cut off the retreat of the enemy. Having placed them in an ambuscade, General Earle prepared for a decisive action. “For this assault,” says Charles Lowe, “the order was about to be given, when a body of the Arabs, one of whom bore a banner, the rest being armed with swords and spears, boldly rushed down from the heights in front, and charged towards the nearest companies of the Black Watch, under Colonel Green. The Highlanders, though standing in line as at Balaclava, never budged, but met their assailants with such a withering fire that those who were not mown down by the bullets of the Martini-Henrys turned and fled towards the river.”
It was the last effort of the Arabs, and a counter-attack now began. With ‘The Campbells are comin’’ the 42nd rushed up the hill-side, and the battle was soon over. Unfortunately, at the conclusion, General Earle was killed by one of the fugitives.
The Gordons took part in the arduous advance up the Nile to Abu Hamid, and when they reached that place news came of the death of Gordon. The tragic words ‘Too late!’ echoed throughout Egypt and the world. To those who had strained every nerve to reach him the news was bitter indeed. The expedition had failed, and there was nothing for it but to return. The water in the Nile was falling, and the advance must needs be stopped.
The Government, now roused to action and anxious to satisfy the indignation of the public, decided that the Mahdi must be crushed; but the matter was long delayed, and it was many years before Kitchener came to avenge the murder of a great Scotsman, and one of the most memorable figures of the last century.
The failure of the Gordon Relief Expedition encouraged the Mahdi in the belief that his success was due to the direct guidance of God. In his own mind, at least, he had driven the British home again, and although his death occurred in 1885, it in no way concluded the threatening of Egypt. There were many contests between the Dervishes and the Egyptian troops, who, led by British officers, were now able to hold their own. The labours of Kitchener were already beginning to bear fruit.
In August 1886 he was appointed Governor of Suakin, and instantly set about fortifying the place against the Dervishes. Various engagements followed during the forthcoming years, and the struggle with the Mahdi’s forces went on until the campaign opened which was to end in the final and crushing victory of Omdurman. It must not be thought that this success was simply a success of arms; there had been many of those in the past. It was rather the culminating and final achievement in a long and silent campaign extending over many years, opening, as we have seen, with the first rather dismal efforts at training the Egyptians, passing on to that wonderful system of railways which crossed over five hundred miles of bare desert, to reach its appointed end in the fall of Omdurman and Mahdism.
It had taken sixteen years to make the Anglo-Egyptian army, and by the time the battle of Omdurman was fought it numbered 18,000 men, with 140 English officers.
From 1888 to 1892 Kitchener was Adjutant-General of the Egyptian Army; in 1892 he became Sirdar. At last, in 1894, he seized his opportunity. There was at this time a new Khedive—a young man who showed signs of resisting or criticising British rule. Without hesitation the Sirdar showed him very clearly that this would be unwise behaviour. He followed up his action by pushing forward his railways, mile by mile, towards Omdurman, the city of the Khalifa. It was impossible for the latter to surrender the city, for such an action would proclaim throughout the Soudan that the Mahdi was little better than a fugitive. The dawn of peace was already breaking. Omdurman was within striking distance.
The Dongola Expedition took place in 1896, resulting in the capture of Dongola and the dispersal of the Arabs in that quarter. In 1897 the Government at last came to a practical decision, and determined to crush for ever the power of the Khalifa, and for that purpose despatched an army in which were included the Seaforth Highlanders and the Camerons. It was no unexpected event for Kitchener. More truly was it the last mile of the journey. His organisation was complete, his troops were efficient, he could take his own time, and the result was certain.
The Khalifa’s army was roughly estimated at 60,000 men, and divided into one division of 40,000 at Omdurman and another of 20,000 at Metammeh. The Sirdar, accompanied by General Gatacre and General Sir Archibald Hunter, was in command of a force of some 12,000 men perfectly equipped, and with some eight squadrons of Egyptian cavalry. The Camerons and Seaforths were brigaded under General Gatacre.
Mahmoud, who commanded the Khalifa’s troops at Metammeh, left that place and marched towards the River Atbara, where he settled down in a zeriba, and calmly awaited the British advance. This was a new turn in Dervish tactics; formerly they had been only too ready to rush upon the British bayonet. But Mahmoud had learnt with native shrewdness the foolishness of throwing men upon the British square. He also knew who best could play a waiting game. It was imperative that Kitchener should act, and act quickly, and so, on the night of April 7 he advanced to open the conflict. As the late G. W. Steevens has so graphically written: “All England and all Egypt and the flower of the black lands beyond, Birmingham and the West Highlands, the half-regenerated children of the earth’s earliest civilisation, and grinning savages from the uttermost swamps of Equatoria, muscle and machinery, lord and larrikin, Balliol and Board School, the Sirdar’s brain and the camel’s back—all welded into one, the awful war machine went forward into action.”
The Dervish zeriba lay some twenty miles distant. At about a quarter to four in the morning the advance guard came in sight of the enemy, and instantly the British force halted. It was, indeed, a formidable position that faced them. Mahmoud had studied the lie of the ground very carefully, and sheltered himself from artillery fire by a ridge of rising country. All around his camp was knotted and twisted together an entanglement of desert thorn some 10 feet high, and as much as 20 feet broad in some places. Behind these were trenches and bomb-proof shelters. Without the help of heavy artillery a frontal attack was the only possible way to gain the victory. And so in two ranks the British began their advance on the zeriba, headed by the Camerons and the Seaforth Highlanders. It has been said that General Gatacre was the first man to reach the formidable entanglement of desert thorn. At his heels came the Camerons, who, forcing a way through, managed to enter the zeriba. One of their pipers, standing upon a height of earth, began to play ‘The March of the Cameron Men,’ and fell almost at once, riddled with bullets. In the fierce conflict that followed none fought more staunchly than Lewis’s half brigade of Egyptians. That in itself was worth as much as half a dozen minor victories.
The fire of the Dervishes from their trenches rained thick and fast upon the Highlanders as they came through the break in the hedges, but when they had gained a real foothold inside the zeriba, the Dervishes lost heart, and made away towards the Atbara River. The fine strategy of Kitchener forcing an engagement at this point was now apparent. The enemy were faced with thirty miles of waterless desert, at the end of which it was probable they would encounter the British gunboats. It was more than a victory in arms; it struck the first devastating blow at the power of the Khalifa.
In answer to Kitchener’s despatch, Queen Victoria replied: “Anxious to know how the wounded British and Egyptians are going on. Am proud of the gallantry of my soldiers. So glad my Cameron Highlanders should have been amongst them.”
A writer in Blackwood’s Magazine relates the following striking incident, doubly pregnant with meaning to-day. “After Atbara,” he says, “and as we rode through the ‘dem,’ Lord Cecil joined us, and presently K. pulled up among the charred corpses on the burning ground to make some enquiries. Cecil made a grimace and pointed to the ground; it was strewn with Dervish shells lying about under our horses’ hoofs and the hoofs of the chief’s horse, with the grass on fire all around them. Neither of us spoke, but Kismet, destiny, or whatever it is that sits behind the crupper, impelled K. to move on, and a few minutes later a column of smoke shot up into the air—the shells had exploded. But K. had passed on—destiny had need of him still.”
In July 1898 began the advance on Omdurman, in which the Camerons and Seaforths took part. The battle was fought on September 2nd. The Khalifa’s army numbered some 50,000 men, and the fight that was to end in the utter defeat of Mahdism extended over five hours. The Highlanders did not take as prominent a part here as at Atbara, and the chief battle honours lie with Brigadier-General Hector Macdonald, whose Soudanese troops were handled with much brilliancy, and the 21st Lancers, the glory of whose charge rang throughout England and the Empire.
The Dervishes, trusting to their overwhelming superiority in numbers, advanced in dense hordes against the British lines, and at this point of the engagement the Camerons and Seaforths withstood the fury of the opening attack with magnificent steadiness. The enemy were met with a murderous fire; whole lines and ranks were simply mown down by our shrapnel: attack upon attack was launched with reckless gallantry, always to be repulsed.
In one portion of this campaign it has been related that for two hours a company of the Seaforths were engaged with a great number of the Dervishes, and as their ammunition had run short, they were compelled to use the bayonet. “Not one shot was fired,” says an eye-witness, “for two hours, and yet the greatest and most serious losses amongst the enemy occurred during the time when the Seaforths were getting in with the bayonet.” At Omdurman, in that great charge of the Dervishes, it became impossible to check them altogether, and so heavy was the fire that the rifles of the Cameron Highlanders became too hot to hold. To avert a repulse the curious spectacle was seen of men carrying and exchanging rifles with the reserve lines behind.
The stand made by the Dervishes has earned the praise of G. W. Steevens, who witnessed it. “Our men,” he says, “were perfect, but the Dervishes were superb—beyond perfection. It was their largest, best, and bravest army that ever fought against us for Mahdism, and it died worthily of the huge empire that Mahdism won and kept so long.” They lost, roughly, 11,000 men killed with 16,000 wounded; and with the battle of Omdurman came the end of the long struggle in the Soudan, and not only that, but the avenging of the death of Gordon.
The losses amongst the two Highland regiments, and indeed the British force as a whole, were trifling for such a hard-fought action.
Whatever else the Highland regiments may have been asked to face before or since—for whirlwind fury and deathless courage, for wild disturbing swiftness and noisy violence, nothing could surpass a Dervish charge.
Troops that can meet that without wavering—front, rear, and flank—need have no qualms for the future exigencies of war.
We must now return to the year 1895, to follow one of those little wars that flare up intermittently on the frontiers of our vast Empire, and accompany the Gordons through the campaign that is best known for the dramatic moment at Dargai. Minor campaigns such as these are not of the first importance from the military point of view, nor should the name of a great regiment be associated too closely with a single episode, but they have this value, that they have enabled our soldiers to keep in training for great and laborious campaigns such as the Boer War, already looming dark upon the horizon of history.
The initial fighting at Chitral proved to be the beginning of a great deal of guerilla warfare on the North-West frontier of India. Chitral had become united to our Indian Empire in 1848; but the Government took no particular part in controlling the country, the consequence being that when Umra Khan, ruler of Bajour, decided to dispute our suzerainty, war was proclaimed. Umra Khan acted with all promptitude, and at the beginning was rewarded with some success, besieging an English garrison in Fort Chitral in January 1895. On the 1st of April Sir Robert Low, accompanied by a force of 15,000 men, amongst whom were the Gordon Highlanders and the Seaforths, crossed the border country with all speed and rushed the outposts of the enemy on the 3rd of April. It was a hazardous expedition, and the troops in their haste were permitted to carry very few stores or ammunition or tents. Major Bland Strange, in his interesting narrative of the campaign, has written: “The bones of the expedition, like those of the first ill-starred one to Cabul, were also to whiten the passes. The desperate valour of the hillmen, starvation, Afghan guile, and Russian intrigue were to smite us. But the good organisation and reticent generalship of Low, the dash of Kelly, the dogged defence by Robertson, and the steady courage of our troops falsified pessimistic prophecy.”
There were two important passes in the enemy’s country held by the Pathans, who were in a strong position behind defences along the slopes of the hills some 3000 feet above the advancing troops. In order to carry the position the slope must be rushed under the sniping fire of the enemy.
The Sikhs set out on this perilous business, while the Gordons marched up the centre of the Pass, and then, cutting away to the right, set their faces to the hill-side. They provided an easy mark for the enemy, but the advance was never checked, and when the ridge was reached a hand-to-hand conflict took place. Once on top the Gordons and the Scottish Borderers soon cleared the enemy out of the position. The Gordons and the Gurkhas were then left to defend the famous Malakand Pass, while General Low pushed on after the enemy. By dogged perseverance and the efficiency of the artillery the British were enabled to fight their way through to Chitral, and on April 20 marched into the town. Umra Khan made for Afghanistan, and the campaign was ended. A fort was built in case of further revolution, and that greatest of all factors in civilisation—a road—was constructed to unite India with this outlying post.
Naturally enough, the tribes who were in the neighbourhood of Chitral, and whose country lay between it and India, were by no means pleased by the occupation by British troops, nor did they take very kindly to the road which meant to them their eventual subjection. For a considerable time there were rumours of trouble, and in the end there broke out a sudden rising of the people in the Waziri country. This was in 1897, and so widespread was the trouble that it was not crushed until the Indian Government had put under arms the most formidable force since the Mutiny.
There are several factors in such tribal uprisings that carry with them their ultimate defeat. First of all, there are always rumours of revolt before it actually bursts into flame; secondly, the tribes find it difficult to unite together, or even to rise at the same time—thus a disciplined army can deal with one after another; thirdly, they have no definite system of organisation, and—as in the case of the Afghans—are little better than an army of snipers.
The Waziris rose first, then the Swatis under the Mad Mullah, and so on to the Afridis and the Orakzais. Each of these tribes was capable of putting a great many men in the field. It has been stated that the Afridis alone could provide 30,000 men armed with modern rifles. Sir William Lockhart with 34,000 men, including some 12,000 British troops, amongst whom were the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, was sent against these Afridis. In accordance with the native custom of warfare, the enemy took up a position at the summit of the now celebrated ridge of Dargai, and there awaited the arrival of the British. To advance with any safety, this pass must first of all be cleared.
The initial encounter was rather futile. The ridge was carried by storm, and then, as the hillmen were in rapid flight, vacated again. On the return of the British to camp, the Afridis, under the delusion that our troops had taken fright and were in retreat, assembled again in their thousands, and full of elation attacked them in the rear. The task of guarding the safe return of the British troops was entrusted to the Gordon Highlanders, who checked the rush of the enemy with consecutive volleys. The fight went on throughout the night, and so on this day’s fighting, though much had been gained, all had been thrown away. Dargai had been taken, only to fall again into the hands of the enemy, and before an advance could be made it must be retaken at the point of the bayonet.
The withdrawal from Dargai has been bitterly blamed by critics, some of them more carping than competent; but one thing is clear enough—the Afridis were so encouraged by regaining the ridge that they were greatly heartened for the next day’s fighting, and manned the heights in expectation of victory.
Two days later the engagement was reopened, the British artillery shelling the tribesmen’s most prominent defences, but little damage could be done in a country so covered with rocks. The most it could accomplish was to assist the infantry, and under the protection of the guns the Gurkhas began the first assault. They rushed into the bullet-swept zone that lay between the end of the pass and the ascent, to be so harassed by the rain of fire that they were compelled to take cover at the bottom of the slope, and there await support. The Dorsets and the Derbys who gallantly went to their assistance, were also compelled to take cover after a terrible punishing. The zone of fire was concentrated on a narrow stretch of open country, which had to be crossed before the actual ascent of the ridge began. That was the first stage of the attack. Then the stiff climb followed, while at the top of the ridge the Afridis waited under cover. The triumphant shouts of the tribesmen could be heard at the initial success over the British arms, and at this desperate situation, when three battalions were under cover, unable to advance or retreat, the Gordons, with the Sikhs in support, were called forward to carry the position. Colonel Mathias appealed to his famous battalion, “Highlanders,” he cried, “the General says the position must be taken at all costs. Men, the Gordons will storm that Pass!” Colonel Gardyne has written that at those words “there was first a tremendous hush—then the answering cheer assured Colonel Mathias that his confidence was not misplaced. The bugle sounds the advance, the pipers play, the officers cry, ‘Come!’ and a wave of kilted soldiers bursts into the fire-swept open. Almost at once, Major Macbean fell, shot through the thigh…. The gallant young Lamont was killed instantaneously; Lieutenant Dingwall, wounded in four places, was carried out of further danger by Private Lawson. The first division reach the sheltering rocks, panting for breath; they shout, the officers waving their swords to those behind; while Piper Findlater, though wounded and unable to move, still inspires them with his warlike strains. They start again, ‘the men cheering like mad,’ up the precipitous path leading to the crest where they look for a warm reception. But the top is reached—it forms a succession of ridges along which the Highlanders rush unopposed, and great is the cheering as they realise that the enemy is in full flight.”
To put it bluntly, the Afridis had not waited to dispute the position with men who could not be stopped by bullets, and this charge in the face of such a deadly and concentrated fire will be long considered as courageous and splendid a story as anything in the history of the Highland regiments. What followed can be told in very few lines. The war against the Afridis was by no means over, but the eventual issue was already in sight. The advance through the almost impenetrable ravines and over the rugged hills progressed painfully, but with determination. Peace came on April 4, 1898. It had been a memorable campaign, and one that the troops engaged in were naturally proud to commemorate. As Sir William Lockhart said in taking leave of them, “The boast of the tribes was that no foreign army—Moghul, Afghan, Persian, or British—had ever penetrated, or could penetrate their country; but after carrying three strong positions and being for weeks subsequently engaged in daily skirmishes, the troops succeeded in visiting every portion of Tirah, a fact which will be kept alive in the minds of future generations by ruined forts and towers in their remotest valleys.”
The Gordons received two Victoria Crosses for gallantry in the action at Dargai, and established themselves, by their exploit, first favourites in the affections of the British people.
In an earlier chapter we have seen how the humiliating defeat of Majuba left the Boers in possession of the Transvaal. Since that event many things had happened. The discovery of gold had brought great numbers of people into the Boer territories; the rivalry between the Britisher and the Dutchman grew fiercer and fiercer year by year, till eventually there was this curious situation—that a comparatively small body of Boers ruled with the utmost severity, and taxed with the greatest heaviness a very large population of Englishmen. The Government at Pretoria was as corrupt as a South American Republic; it was determined to embarrass in every way the newcomers who came under its authority, and this constant friction was one of the main causes that were to bring about one of the most critical, most costly, and most humiliating wars in which we have ever taken part.
The troubles of the Uitlanders, as they were called, reached a head when Dr. Jameson, supported by a few hundred men, crossed the Transvaal border on December 29, 1895. It will probably never be known how wide was the conspiracy which inspired this futile raid, but we find it difficult to believe that so small a body of men could have hoped to achieve anything by themselves. In all likelihood the scheme was premature, at any rate Dr. Jameson and his men were rounded up and forced to surrender. The British Government was not in a position to defend Jameson, while Kruger threatened that if the Uitlanders, who, of course, were sympathetic with the raid, rose in rebellion, he would not hesitate to shoot their leader. Instead of doing the Boer Government any damage, the unfortunate Uitlanders had played into Kruger’s hands. It was impossible to deny that he had been attacked in an unwarrantable and illegal fashion, but when he acted with apparent leniency he was merely playing a cunning part. He stated—and it sounded quite reasonable under the circumstances—that it would be impossible to give the Uitlanders the vote after such a conspiracy had been on foot.
The raid made things awkward all round. For some time England had learnt with anxiety that arms were being freely imported into the Transvaal. After the raid it was impossible to make any expostulation, and from now onwards until the war the Uitlanders—like the Israelites of old—groaned under Kruger. Their plight was indeed a very hapless one. They had attempted by great patience and industry, and without protesting unduly when the Boers grew rich upon their labours, to win some legal recognition, and had failed. They had then planned for a rising with a view to winning their own freedom by their own arms. This, too, had failed. Finally, they had so embarrassed the mother-country that she could do nothing to help them. At last they decided that they would openly petition the Queen, and in a moment the whole quarrel was lifted from Pretoria to the throne of England. A conference took place between Sir Alfred Milner and President Kruger at Bloemfontein on May 30, 1899. It is doubtful whether the Boer President desired that any agreement should be come to; it is more probable that he was playing for time—at any rate no conclusion was reached, and later on Sir Alfred Milner brought it home, perhaps for the first time, to England that she must take action. “The case for intervention,” he said, “is overwhelming, the only attempted answer is that things will right themselves if left alone. But, in fact, the policy of leaving things alone has been tried for years, and it has led to their going from bad to worse. It is not true that this is owing to the raid. They were going from bad to worse before the raid. We were on the verge of war before the raid, and the Transvaal was on the verge of revolution….”
Still, the British Government struggled to maintain peace, and to come to some amicable arrangement. But the Boers, like the Amir of Afghanistan, did not believe England would ever face trouble. They were also contemptuous of the British soldier.
To-day, when the long conspiracy of Prussia is admitted by the most unsuspicious person, it can be recalled that, without question, the Boer Government was in touch with Germany, and that not only cases of rifles passed into Pretoria and Johannesburg, but that Krupp guns, outranging our own artillery, were shortly to create the first of many surprises in that surprising war. The sympathies of Europe were entirely with the Boers, and, doubtless, Kruger had been advised from Berlin. Many Germans took part in the campaign, and it was in certain measure to their expert knowledge that the Boer artillery was so well manned. Beyond that the Boers could fully hold their own. Botha, Joubert, and De Wet were in their several capacities brilliant strategists and resourceful leaders. The burghers were well armed, well mounted, exceedingly courageous, and inspired by the deepest hatred for the British. The British, on the other hand, were very ignorant regarding the Boer, greatly under-estimated the numbers they could put in the field, had no expert knowledge regarding the country or manner of the fighting there, and could not persuade themselves that this was anything but a kind of punitive expedition. By this time, with so many campaigns behind us, some judgment can be formed upon the British Army, not only the Highland regiments with whom we have dealt in particular, but those English Line regiments and cavalry, whose prestige and courage have won a hundred victories. Yet were these to suffer amazing disasters in South Africa. The war was indeed to prove the graveyard of many hopes and many reputations. Looking back at it now, after the interval of many years, and when the greatest war has shown that the British Army is as invincible as ever it was, we can only come to the conclusion that the generalship in South Africa had for a season fallen altogether into decay. The days of the Crimea and the Mutiny were long past; Roberts and Wolseley were old men; Kitchener, the most competent organiser of the younger generation, was still engaged with his great work in Egypt, while a kind of dry-rot seems to have come over the generation that lay between. The ultimate good of the South African War was that it cut this dry-rot clean away; but the story of the war is one of great courage and endurance struggling against the grossest incompetence.
The Boer Government kept the negotiations running until the falling of the rain. With the rain the grass sprouted, the veldt was no longer like a desert, and the days for campaigning were nigh. For many months Kruger had been preparing for the conflict, while the British Government were so deep in the political negotiations that they thought of nothing else. The Boers could place 50,000 burghers, together with their heavy artillery, in the field, while the British forces in South Africa were a mere handful. Troops were despatched from India, including the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, and these arrived at the end of September, bringing the number of the British army in South Africa to 22,000.
On October 9, 1899, President Kruger issued his ultimatum, and within forty-eight hours the Boer War had commenced. On October 12 the Boer forces were on the march, 12,000 of them, with two batteries of eight Krupp guns each, setting out from the north. From the Transvaal came another commando accompanied by a number of Germans, armed with heavy guns, and led by Joubert.
The British forces under the command of Sir George White and General Penn Symons were concentrated at Ladysmith. This position was not a strong one, and should really have been vacated, but it was quite unsuspected that the Boer artillery was as powerful as to include 6-inch Creusot guns. To Ladysmith came the Gordon Highlanders, who eventually were to undergo the famous siege under their old officer. Some 4000 Britishers there were to meet the advancing Boers, who came “winding in and out between the hills as far as eye could reach, the long black string of horsemen stretched like an enormous serpent, with head and tail lost in space.” In this manner the Boers entered Natal, and on the 12th of October came into touch with the British under General Penn Symons. General Symons was a man of the greatest courage, and with the utmost confidence and pride in his men. He awaited the arrival of the Boers at Talana Hill, where, with the breaking of the dawn the black figures of the enemy were first seen against the sky-line, and the opening action of the long war commenced.
It was evident at once that the Boer artillery would make our position untenable, and while our guns were endeavouring to gain a mastery over those of the enemy, the infantry were sent up the front of the hill under a very severe fire. General Symons was one of the first to fall. To the last he encouraged his men, and throughout he had refused to take the smallest care for his own safety.
This first conflict, which does not really concern us in this book, was of no strategic value, and resulted in a heavy loss of men, though it was in a sense a success, since the Boers were driven back from Talana Hill. But it was the first indication that in a country like South Africa the storming of one hill in a land of hills without any definite strategic gain is simply bad generalship.
In the meantime, General French, already recognised as our most brilliant cavalry leader, had set out towards Elandslaagte. Coming to the conclusion that the numbers of the enemy were too strong, he communicated with Ladysmith that he must have reinforcements. In a very short time the Devons, the Lancers, with the Gordons and some artillery united with his forces, and advanced towards the Boer position upon a group of hills overlooking Elandslaagte station. The artillery opened the engagement, and succeeded in silencing the enemy’s guns. The Boers, whose memories were fresh with the strange spectacle of an untrenched foe at Majuba, also received a surprise in this war, so full of surprises. To their great dissatisfaction the Manchesters and the Gordons, dressed in undistinguishable khaki, advanced under cover, the only colour visible being the kilt of the Gordons, which they had refused to discard.
The Boer guns, worked by Colonel Schiel, a German, with eighty German gunners under him, opened fire with practised skill and accuracy. The Boer Mausers picked off the advancing British infantry, wounding, amongst others, the Colonel of the Gordons. Suddenly a storm burst over the conflict, a deluge of rain beat upon the faces of the advancing troops, the whistle of bullets sang in their ears, and men were falling rapidly. Having lost their Colonel, the Gordons hesitated when within charging distance of the enemy. At that, Captain Meiklejohn—who was to end his life so heroically in Hyde Park—rushed to the front, calling upon the Highlanders to follow him. For this action Meiklejohn lost one arm, but received the Victoria Cross. The victory was as good as won. “Dark figures sprang up from the rocks in front. Some held up their rifles in token of surrender. Some ran with heads sunk between their shoulders, jumping and ducking among the rocks. The panting, breathless climbers were on the edge of the plateau. There were the two guns which had flashed so brightly, silenced now, with a litter of dead gunners around them, and one wounded officer standing by a trail. It was the famous Schiel, the German artillerist. A small body of the Boers still resisted. Their appearance horrified some of our men. ‘They were dressed in black frock-coats, and looked like a lot of rather seedy business men,’ said a spectator. ‘It seemed like murder to kill them.’ Some surrendered, and some fought to the death where they stood.”
Hardly had the ridge been taken and the Highlanders had flung themselves down, utterly exhausted, from the long advance and the final charge with the bayonet, when a number of Boers rushed from a place of concealment and opened fire upon the Gordons. It was a moment of dire peril. Men dropped on every side, and things were instantly critical, when Sergeant-Major Robertson rallied the battalion and carried the Boer position, winning the Victoria Cross for his gallantry.
Next day the Gordons returned to Ladysmith, where they were to experience a four months’ siege.
Things moved quickly after this. On October 30 was the battle of Nicholson’s Nek; on November 2 the last train left Ladysmith. Leaving for a while the battalion of the Gordons to take their part in the defence of Ladysmith, we will follow the Highland Brigade in their advance upon Kimberley.
The opening of the war caused the greatest gratification to all well-wishers of the enemy and a certain amount of despondency at home. On the Continent there was the wildest delight that the Boer army was carrying everything before them. Few nations, apart from America, Italy, Denmark, and Greece, were able to conceal their elation that at last England was likely to pass through her hour of bitter humiliation. After a fortnight, in which five actions had taken place, we had lost a quarter of Natal, a great stretch of railway, and saw our troops besieged or on the eve of being besieged in Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. The situation could not be regarded as anything but critical. At the same time reinforcements were being hurried out, and should these various positions resist the Boer attacks there was no reason to suppose that the ultimate victory was far off. On November 12 Lord Methuen had reached the Orange River, and, accompanied by a well-equipped force—though not a large one in number—he set out towards Kimberley, where he found the Boers in possession of Belmont. The first action has been described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as “an Alma on a small scale.” The British troops took the hill by storm, driving the enemy from their position at the point of the bayonet. But the unfortunate culmination to the majority of these early actions was that the Boers bolted to their ponies and galloped away, and owing to our lack of cavalry it was never possible to turn a retreat into a rout. Lord Methuen repeated this success two days later at Graspan, and on the 28th fought the battle of Modder River, in which the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived in time to take a part. Having driven the Boer before him on two occasions within four days, Lord Methuen was under the impression that the farmers had lost heart and would no longer put up a formidable resistance.
On the 28th began the advance on Modder River, upon whose banks General Cronje was entrenched. Cronje was a man of considerable strength of character, a skilful general after the Boer tactics, trusted implicitly by his men, and in command of a strong and formidable commando. So far the British had met the enemy entirely in hill country; it had become a kind of dream amongst the British soldiers that if they could only catch the Boer in a plain the effect of discipline and bravery would teach the enemy a severe lesson. There was a certain amount of truth in this belief, and when the Boers did eventually come in sharp contact with the Lancers it was a bitter enough experience for them.
Unhappily no precautions appear to have been taken to ascertain either the strength of the enemy’s position or the best mode of attack. For some reason or another, probably owing to an under-estimation of Cronje’s position, the men were not even permitted to breakfast before the march began, and so on a beautiful morning they set out towards the undulating plain that lay upon the other side of the river.
Cronje had laid his plans with the utmost care and assurance, placing his men on both sides of the river, entrenching them upon the sloping ground, and concealing his artillery. The question has been raised—and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle raised it again—Why the river should have been crossed at that particular point; also why the British forces should have been led over an open plain without any attempt at reconnaissance? Such problems as these, however, might be multiplied to little purpose throughout the earlier part of the South African campaign. Perhaps the briefest answer to them would be that it was just because of such incidents as these that the country was eventually to plead with its oldest soldier to take over the command. Now that we have tested the lessons that South Africa taught us, the humiliation has passed into thankfulness that they came in time.
Cronje simply waited until the British were within range of his fire, and then very suddenly opened a tornado of bullet and shell fire at a range of seven hundred and fifty yards. One moment, and in front of them had lain an apparently peaceful landscape, a few houses and farms sleeping under the morning sun; the next, and the whole horizon was blazing with death. It was fatal to advance; the cavalry could do nothing, while the infantry were dependent upon the guns to gain the superiority. At this critical moment one of the most dramatic incidents in the war occurred. Out of the unknown, with staggering horses and guns caked with mud, lumbered up the 62nd Field Battery, which had covered thirty-two miles in less than twenty-four hours. It was a providential piece of good fortune.
Throughout the long day the infantry lay under the broiling sun, just as the remnants of the Highland Brigade were to endure it not very long after. The artillery engagement wore on, the heat passed, and as night came the British were gaining the advantage. All day they had been without food. At last, in the late afternoon, the North Lancashires managed to get across the river and take up a position on the extreme left, where they were joined by the Coldstreams and the Argyll and Sutherlands. The action was turning against the Boers. With this desperate little force on their flank, and the artillery shattering their guns on the front, they took advantage of the night to evacuate their trenches and retreat. It had indeed been a costly action, and might have been a humiliating defeat. What perhaps it was more than anything else was a proof of British bravery under the most dismal conditions.
Lord Methuen remained upon the Modder River until he was joined by the Highland Brigade, composed of the 2nd Seaforths, the Highland Light Infantry, the 1st Gordons fresh from Dargai, and the 2nd Black Watch, with whom was Major-General Andrew Wauchope. Wauchope had seen service in the Soudan, and was one of the best-beloved officers in the history of the Highland regiments.
A spectator has written: “Watching the arrival of the Highland Brigade, very magnificent they looked as they swung into camp, pipers strutting before them, kilts swish-swishing, all in perfect order and perfect step—the finest troops in the world.”
The Boers, having fallen back from the Modder River, halted at Magersfontein, a circle of hills which Cronje endeavoured—with what success we shall see—to render impregnable. It was the next step towards Kimberley, and on Saturday, December 9, Lord Methuen despatched one of the most critical and forlorn expeditions in our history, and the most tragic in the story of the Highland regiments.