The Eternal Boy

We adults do not commonly understand boys. Half of us, to be sure, were boys ourselves; but when we became men and settled down to our work, we did not merely put away childish things—we went further and forgot them. To-day, we read a story of boy life and we say, “Why, yes. That’s just the way boys do. I used to do exactly that sort of thing myself.” But the next hour we have forgotten again, and the boy we were is once more a stranger. Boyville is so far removed, both from Delos and from Babylon, that we seldom think the thoughts of its inhabitants, nor see the world with the boys’ eyes. Only a few men are at home in both worlds,—Lindsay, George, some schoolmasters, an occasional father,—and these can do anything with a boy.

2 The difficulty seems not so much to be that we have forgotten the incidents of our boyhood as that we have lost its feelings. So far as specific doings are concerned, we probably remember those crowded years more distinctly than any equal period of our entire lives. Most of us, too, remember them happily, as happily probably as any years we have lived. No, the trouble is not with the memory, but with the self. The experiences of life since we were boys have shifted our psychic centre of gravity, so that we realize the particular incident far more easily than we realize the being to whom it occurred. We do not completely feel that the boy that was is quite ourselves; and while the memory of the fact is sharp, the memory of the mental state that went with it has become dim. Therefore, it costs a distinct effort to put one’s self in the boy’s place. Any proper man will recite by the hour tales of the old swimming-hole in the summer. But if men actually felt toward the water as boys do, every club and half the private houses would have a swimming tank instead of a smoking room.

3 But if we men fail to comprehend boys, what shall we say of the women! The experiences which we have forgotten, they have not even had; if there is a psychic fence which separates men from boys, there are at least knot-holes in the boards; but between boys and women there is a solid wall. There are parts of a boy’s soul which any woman may observe or imagine, but which no woman can ever feel. That women often do understand boys, understand them sometimes better than men do, is simply one of the marvels of feminine insight.

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Paardeberg and the Gordons at Ladysmith

Confronting the British troops lay a circle of hills which might or might not be tenanted by the enemy. Lord Methuen followed the established military course of shelling these hills from a long range, preparatory to an advance. Unfortunately it served no purpose, for the enemy retired temporarily, only to return when the bombardment was over, knowing that after the artillery had concluded their futile expenditure of shells, the British infantry would, in the course of things, advance. It was on Sunday, December 10, that the Highland Brigade set off early in the afternoon under a deluge of rain. When they came within a few miles of the Boers they halted, and darkness began to fall.

At this point Lord Methuen communicated to the Brigade commanders his plan for carrying the enemy’s position. The attack would be launched by the Highlanders at break of dawn.

At midnight, under a lowering sky, and in the black darkness of an African night, the Highland Brigade set out upon its tragic march. The men were drenched to the skin, carried no food, and were formed in quarter column. On the right the Black Watch, then the Seaforths, the Argyll and Sutherlands next, and in reserve the Highland Light Infantry. The Gordons, who had only arrived before the march began, remained in camp. It is important to follow out the plan of attack as indicated by Lord Methuen in his despatch.

“The night march was ordered for 12.30 A.M., the bearings and distance having been ascertained at great personal risk by Major Benson, Royal Artillery, my Deputy-Assistant-Adjutant-General. The distance is two and a half miles, and daybreak was due at 3.25 A.M. I may remark that two rifles went off by accident before the march commenced, and it is pretty clear flashes from a lantern gave the enemy timely notice of the march. Before moving off, Major-General Wauchope explained all he intended to do, and the particular part each battalion of his brigade was to play in the scheme, namely, that he intended to march direct on the south-west spur of the kopje, and on arrival near the objective before daybreak the Black Watch were to move to the east of the kopje, where he believed the enemy to be posted under shelter, whilst the Seaforth Highlanders were to march straight to the south-east point of the kopje, with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders prolonging the line to the left, the Highland Infantry to be in reserve until the action was developed. The Brigade was to march in mass of quarter column, the four battalions keeping touch, and if necessary ropes were to be used for the left guides. These ropes were taken, but, I believe, used by only two battalions. The three battalions were to extend just before daybreak—two companies in firing line, two companies in support, and four companies in reserve—all at five paces interval between them.”

It is not our business to criticise the scheme of attack, but only to deplore the fact that so many brave men should lose their lives in such an abortive attempt. It would have been impossible to reach the Boer lines in anything but disorder had the Highland Brigade not advanced in close column: the blunder appears to have been that they maintained close formation too long. Long before, in the year 1746, the Highlanders, who might be expected to have an intimate knowledge of the country through which they were passing, set out upon a similar night attack, only to find themselves hopelessly lost—and that not so very far from Inverness. At Magersfontein the distance was a short one, but the difficulty of ascertaining how far the Boer trenches were from the foremost columns led to chaos. No one has described the situation more graphically than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Great Boer War. “With many a trip and stumble,” he writes, “the ill-fated detachment wandered on, uncertain where they were going and uncertain what it was they were meant to do. Not only among the rank and file, but among the principal officers there was the same absolute ignorance. Brigadier Wauchope knew, no doubt, but his voice was soon to be stilled in death. The others were aware, of course, that they were advancing either to turn the enemy’s trenches or to attack them, but they may well have argued from their own formation that they could not be near the riflemen yet. Why they should be still advancing in that dense clump we do not now know, nor can we surmise what thoughts were passing through the mind of the gallant and experienced chieftain who walked beside them…. Out there, close beside him, stretched the long trench, fringed with its line of fierce, staring, eager faces, and its bristle of gun-barrels. They knew he was coming. They were ready. They were waiting. But still, with the dull murmur of many feet, the dense column, nearly four thousand strong, wandered onwards through the rain and the darkness, death and mutilation crouching upon their path.”

The end came quickly enough. Within a few hundred yards the Boer rifles opened fire upon the massed columns of the Highlanders. They fell in solid ranks and companies. The destruction inside a few moments has been rightly enough compared to the fall of corn before the reaper. Out of the darkness there was one single lurid blaze of light, a prolonged roar of musketry, and the Highland Brigade was decimated as it stood.

Just as the fire opened, the order had been given for the men to deploy, but the extension never took place. Wauchope was one of the first to fall. As his biographer has finely said: “General Wauchope fought and fell as a man and as a soldier, carrying out his orders loyally to the end. He died where he would have wished to die—at the head of his gallant Highlanders, with his face to the foe.”

It was impossible for the Highland Brigade to advance in any order: their officers were killed, their ranks were broken, they were confronted by barbed wire and strong entrenchments, and yet it came hardly on them that they should have to retreat. F. G. Tait, the famous Scottish golfer, who was destined to fall at the Modder River, remarked in a letter home: “General Wauchope and our Colonel, and Captain Bruce and young Edmonds were all killed, with the lot of men that I accompanied. General Wauchope is in no way responsible for the fearful loss of life amongst the Highland Brigade: he got his orders, and had to carry them out, and he was killed in front of his brigade. I feel certain that if we had been led up in line we should have rushed the position with probably a quarter of the loss that we actually suffered. As it was, we arrived rather late, and in mass of quarter column…. You might imagine the effect of a tremendously hot rifle fire into that compact body.”[11]

According to F. G. Tait the first orders that emerged from the chaos and noise and the groans of the wounded were those of, ‘Lie down, fix bayonets, and prepare to charge.’ This, unhappily, led very little farther. Tait writes as follows: “We got along a hundred yards or so when we got into the dreadful flanking as well as frontal firing, and lost very heavily. I could now see that the enemy were in trenches about 200-250 yards off. We managed to get 50 yards nearer, losing heavily all the time, and there we lay down (what was left of the lot with me) and began firing. I was about 15 or 20 yards in front, and had just got up to get back in line when I got a bullet through my left thigh. I was able to turn over on my stomach and fire at the Boers. A quarter of an hour later it was quite light, and then we began to get it properly. The men on each side of me were hit straight away, and in a few minutes very few were left unhit. It was quite impossible for any ambulance or doctor to advance, so all our wounded lay within 200 yards or so of the Boer trenches all day in a broiling sun, being shot at whenever they moved until seven o’clock at night, most of them without a drop of water.”

And yet out of this dismal event, despite their terrible position, the Highland Brigade did not lose their prestige. Trapped, bewildered, unable either to advance or retreat, they held their ground and died without fear. Many, indeed, perceiving that no officers were left to lead them, advanced on their own initiative through the hail of fire, and were discovered in the morning suspended on the barbed wire before the Boer trenches. A section of the Black Watch, it is recorded, refused to retire, and entrenching themselves as far as they could, carried on the combat throughout the long terrible day, until when night fell there was not one single survivor left. All through that desperate day the Highlanders lay exposed to the Boer fire, refusing to surrender, without food or water, wounded and unwounded together, awaiting the support from the artillery and the reserves, which was so difficult to give. It has been recorded of the Argyll and Sutherlands that their claim to the pledge, “We die, but we do not surrender,” was most nobly earned that day. At Magersfontein the regiment that had provided the ‘thin red line’ at Balaclava remained steady under the terrific fire, and it was owing in a large degree to the 93rd and to the Coldstream Guards that their unfortunate comrades, who had led the advance and suffered more terribly, were enabled to hold out during the day.

To return to the actual conflict. It is stated that within a few moments of the opening of the Boer fire at least 600 men were out of action. Less courageous or disciplined soldiers would have broken and scattered wildly to the rear, and none could have called them cowards; but the Highland Brigade, assembling as far as was possible within their own units, had by the break of day made some attempt at following up the belated attack. Unfortunately the Boers were so securely entrenched that it was a very one-sided affair. The rising sun brought the Horse Artillery up at the gallop, and under cover of their fire the Highland Brigade were enabled to get some respite from the deadly Boer marksmanship. As day advanced reinforcements were hurried up, the Gordons coming with the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Coldstreams, and the gallant Yorkshire Light Infantry to protect the flank. In the afternoon the Highland Brigade—who had tasted neither food nor water for twenty-four hours—made a pitiful effort to charge the Boer position. The fire that was opened upon them was, at so short a range, almost annihilating. It was inevitable that they must remain out of action until they could fall back and reassemble. The Gordons, who came fresh into action, did what was possible to distract the Boer fire from their unhappy comrades, and when the evening came the merciful darkness enabled the wreckage of the Highland Brigade to creep back to the rear.

The bitterest day in the story of the Highland regiments was, at last, at an end. The disaster at Magersfontein brought with it a loss of nearly 1000 men; out of the Highland Brigade 57 officers had fallen, and in the Black Watch alone 19 officers and over 300 men. Never in the annals of that regiment had there been such a loss since the action at Ticonderoga in 1757.

In his report of the action, Lord Methuen sums it up as follows: “The attack failed. The inclement weather was against success. The men in the Highland Brigade were ready enough to rally, but the paucity of officers and non-commissioned officers rendered this no easy matter. I attach no blame to this splendid brigade. Nothing could exceed the conduct of the troops from the time of the failure of the attack at daybreak. There was not the slightest confusion, though the fight was carried on under as hard conditions as one can imagine, for the men had been on the move from midnight, and were suffering terribly from thirst.”

The next morning the Boers awaited a British attack, which never came. It was evident from the disaster that had overtaken the Highland Brigade that it would be almost impossible to storm the Boer position by a frontal assault. Lord Methuen, feeling that he could not carry out a flanking movement without reinforcements, decided he would rest his troops, and postpone for the present the advance on Kimberley.

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The Highland Brigade at Tel-el-Kebir

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.

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