CHAPTER 30. THE CAMPAIGN OF DE WET.
It is some time since we have seen anything of this energetic gentleman with the tinted glasses, but as the narrative will be much occupied with him in the future a few words are needed to connect him with the past. It has been already told how he escaped through the net which caught so many of his countrymen at the time of the surrender of Prinsloo, and how he was chased at furious speed from the Vaal River to the mountains of Magaliesberg. Here he eluded his pursuers, separated from Steyn, who desired to go east to confer with Kruger, and by the end of August was back again in his favourite recruiting ground in the north of the Orange River Colony. Here for nearly two months he had lain very quiet, refitting and reassembling his scattered force, until now, ready for action once more, and fired by the hope of cutting off an isolated British force, he rode swiftly northwards with two thousand men under that rolling cloud which had been spied by the watchers of Frederickstad.
The problem before him was a more serious one, however, than any which he had ever undertaken, for this was no isolated regiment or ill-manned post, but a complete little field force very ready to do battle with him. De Wet's burghers, as they arrived, sprang from their ponies and went into action in their usual invisible but effective fashion, covered by the fire of several guns. The soldiers had thrown up lines of sangars, however, and were able, though exposed to a very heavy fire coming from several directions, to hold their own until nightfall, when the defences were made more secure. On the 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th the cordon of the attack was drawn gradually closer, the Boers entirely surrounding the British force, and it was evident that they were feeling round for a point at which an assault might be delivered.
The position of the defenders upon the morning of October 25th was as follows. The Scots Fusiliers were holding a ridge to the south. General Barton with the rest of his forces occupied a hill some distance off. Between the two was a valley down which ran the line, and also the spruit upon which the British depended for their water supply. On each side of the line were ditches, and at dawn on this seventh day of the investment it was found that these had been occupied by snipers during the night, and that it was impossible to water the animals. One of two things must follow. Either the force must shift its position or it must drive these men out of their cover. No fire could do it, as they lay in perfect safety. They must be turned out at the point of the bayonet.
About noon several companies of Scots and Welsh Fusiliers advanced from different directions in very extended order upon the ditches. Captain Baillie's company of the former regiment first attracted the fire of the burghers. Wounded twice the brave officer staggered on until a third bullet struck him dead. Six of his men were found lying beside him. The other companies were exposed in their turn to a severe fire, but rushing onwards they closed rapidly in upon the ditches. There have been few finer infantry advances during the war, for the veld was perfectly flat and the fire terrific. A mile of ground was crossed by the fusiliers. Three gallant officers - Dick, Elliot, and Best - went down; but the rush of the men was irresistible. At the edge of the ditches the supports overtook the firing line, and they all surged into the trenches together. Then it was seen how perilous was the situation of the Boer snipers. They had placed themselves between the upper and the nether millstone. There was no escape for them save across the open. It says much for their courage that they took that perilous choice rather than wave the white flag, which would have ensured their safety.
The scene which followed has not often been paralleled. About a hundred and fifty burghers rushed out of the ditches, streaming across the veld upon foot to the spot where their horses had been secreted. Rifles, pom-poms, and shrapnel played upon them during this terrible race. 'A black running mob carrying coats, blankets, boots, rifles, was seen to rise as if from nowhere and rush as fast as they could, dropping the various things they carried as they ran.' One of their survivors has described how awful was that wild blind flight, through a dust-cloud thrown up by the shells. For a mile the veld was dotted with those who had fallen. Thirty-six were found dead, thirty were wounded, and thirty more gave themselves up as prisoners. Some were so demoralised that they rushed into the hospital and surrendered to the British doctor. The Imperial Light Horse were for some reason slow to charge. Had they done so at once, many eye-witnesses agree that not a fugitive should have escaped. On the other hand, the officer in command may have feared that in doing so he might mask the fire of the British guns.
One incident in the action caused some comment at the time. A small party of Imperial Light Horse, gallantly led by Captain Yockney of B Squadron, came to close quarters with a group of Boers. Five of the enemy having held up their hands Yockney passed them and pushed on against their comrades. On this the prisoners seized their rifles once more and fired upon their captors. A fierce fight ensued with only a few feet between the muzzles of the rifles. Three Boers were shot dead, five wounded, and eight taken. Of these eight three were shot next day by order of court-martial for having resumed their weapons after surrender, while two others were acquitted. The death of these men in cold blood is to be deplored, but it is difficult to see how any rules of civilised warfare can be maintained if a flagrant breach of them is not promptly and sternly punished.