Read IN THE WAKE OF THE ARMY: CHAPTER VII of The Relief of Mafeking, free online book, by Filson Young, on ReadCentral.com.

MAGERSFONTEIN AND KIMBERLEY

There was a train going to Kimberley with cattle and forage on the afternoon of Thursday, February 22nd, and the stagnation of everything except dust at Modder being complete, I jumped on the twenty-ninth truck as the engine was taking up the slack of the couplings and was immediately jerked forward on the newly-mended road to the north. I had nothing with me except what I stood in and a waterproof; but as the journey of twenty-four miles occupied four hours, and as the heavens poured down a deluge during three hours and twenty-five minutes of the time I was glad to have even that. The line passes beside Magersfontein and through gaps in six ridges behind it, affording an excellent view of the whole position. That position seemed to me practically impregnable. To have won a way to Kimberley upon this road would probably have meant six bloody battles, always with the likelihood of a reverse after each for the attacking army. Imagine a wide and perfectly level plain with a ridge standing straight across it like a great railway embankment, but with arms at each end curving towards the front as the arms of a trench are curved; behind the ridge, and higher, two or three kopjes which command it; behind the kopjes another ridge like the first, with more kopjes to command it; the same thing repeated half a dozen times, without another eminence within fifteen miles. Imagine this, and you see the country between Modder River and Kimberley. And throughout the position every piece of open ground was slashed and seamed by trenches and works, constructed as though for the inspection of an examiner in engineering beautiful, artistic, formidable work that filled the mind of every British officer who saw it with envy and admiration. Behind the hills were little huts and hiding-places contrived within the shadow of the low, thick trees that grow there, so that not a soul lived out of cover. Captain Austin, R.A., who shared the humidity of my truck, and who had been in charge of a 6-inch field-gun trained on Magersfontein at eight thousand yards, told me that he could see through his glasses the whole working of the enemy’s admirable system. They had a look-out man sitting at the far end of a long tunnel of rock and stone; when we fired he gave the signal, and the Boers got into cover; and twenty seconds afterwards, when our shell, beautifully aimed and timed, arrived on the hill, it spent itself upon the flinty rock. Then the Boers showed their heads and fired; and their shell swept through its arc and exploded, generally finding its mark.

The battle of Magersfontein has been the subject of more prolonged discussion than any other single event in the war. Coming on the day after our reverse at Stormberg, it completed the momentary demoralisation of a great mass of people at home who had expected the campaign to resolve itself into a sweeping march on Pretoria. Like the affair of Majuba, it has been sentimentally magnified out of all proportion to its military importance. On the strength of the emotions roused by our disaster, thousands graduated as military critics and cried aloud for the recall of Lord Methuen. Private soldiers with shattered nerves wrote home hysterical narratives and criticisms which were published and commented upon, and treated as valuable evidence. We lost our heads for the moment; there is no doubt of that; but people who are thus betrayed into panic will not be appeased until they have made a scapegoat of someone. Lord Methuen was, of course, the obvious sacrifice. Why did he make a frontal attack? Why did he fail?

It is well to remember that Lord Methuen was being pressed to relieve Kimberley, which represented its case as extreme. He must do something. Naturally he designed the kind of attack which the forces at his disposal were best suited to deliver. A long turning movement was out of the question since he had not the mounted men for it. As for the “frontal attack” at Magersfontein, of which we have heard so much, Lord Methuen never designed and did not deliver a direct frontal attack. His plan was to surprise the extreme left of Cronje’s position, and at the same time contain the whole of his front with a strong force. And no competent critic has ventured to suggest any better disposal of the forces then available for the purposes of attack. No, Lord Methuen has not been criticised and abused because he used his force in one way rather than in another, but simply because he failed.

There is very often more to be learned from a failure than a success, and this particular failure is worthy of a little study. Everyone knows that the reason why the attack on Magersfontein failed was, first, because the Highland Brigade lost its way and came unexpectedly into contact with the enemy’s position, and, secondly, because they failed to rally after the first confusion, when (in the opinion of many experts who were present) a little confidence would probably have saved the day. If any single precaution was neglected, if any pains were spared in the reconnoitring of the position or in securing the proper conduct of the troops towards the place from which their attack was to be delivered, then Lord Methuen was absolutely to blame. But the more that is known about this unfortunate affair the more clearly it will be seen that Lord Methuen neglected no precaution and spared no pains. The rain and pitch darkness were the act of God, and no general in the world can prevail when Nature is so completely in league with the enemy as she was on the night of Magersfontein.

I do not care to dwell on the malice and cruel unfairness of many of the attacks on Lord Methuen, because, for my country’s sake, I hope they will soon be forgotten; but if anyone should still suppose that these great hysterical waves of public feeling select their victims impartially, I would ask him to compare the battle of Magersfontein with the fruitless attack delivered by Lord Kitchener on the Paardeberg laager on February 18th. In one case time was working against Lord Methuen, and threatening to exhaust the endurance of Kimberley; in the other case time was working with Lord Kitchener, limiting the resistance of Cronje to a calculable number of days and hours. In one case there was a small force which, owing to the nature of its composition, could only be used in one way; in the other case there was a large and splendidly-assorted force, which gave opportunity for an infinite variety of combinations. In one case the attack was turned by circumstances which no human being could have prevented into a frontal contact; in the other case that form of attack was deliberately chosen. In one case the casualties were about nine hundred; in the other, about sixteen hundred. And in one case the general officer commanding has been insulted and attacked and defamed, while the officer responsible for the second affair is still regarded by the masses as a consummate master of field operations.

This is a long digression; I have made it here because the subject of it is inseparable from my memory of the dark and stony ranges which I saw closely for the first time through the pitiless rain of that February day. Miserable as the journey was, its passage through the country occupied so lately by the enemy made it interesting. The way in which our sappers had toiled to repair the line was beyond praise. Every telegraph post had been blasted in two pieces by dynamite; every culvert had been blown up; nearly every insulator smashed; the wires (about seven in number) had been cut every few hundred yards; yet within four days from the relief of Kimberley trains had begun to go up the whole distance and telegraphic communication had been restored. I saw the work that had been done, and the difficulty of it, and was proud of the way in which it was accomplished. Not that there is little to be proud of in the work of the army. On the contrary, one is amazed to see what is accomplished in spite of the system, amazed to find what can be done by able men against the most determined opposition from their own side; but the great fact that was brought out by the earlier part of this campaign is that the man of intelligence and initiative and ability and energy was fast in the clutches of the Red Tape spider, which fussed round him until he was enveloped in the scarlet web and impotent to use brains or energy. Engineering is one of the few things of which corporate bodies admit their ignorance; therefore the sappers got through much admirable work quietly and quickly.

The approach to Kimberley with its mine shafts and hills of blue dust reminded me of the Black Country. What one noticed first with regard to the town was the number of holes and shelters and warrens into which people had crept for safety. Hundreds of them, like human anthills; and one thought, What strange place is this, where men fear to walk upright? The menu at the principal hotel, where I dined, would (if it had been printed) have consisted of one item horseflesh. I noticed that the residents ate it eagerly, and even talked about it; but most of us strangers arose hungry and went quickly into the fresh air.

That night and the next morning I walked through the town and talked to people who had been living there; and it was when I talked to the people that I began to realise what had been happening. The few ruined buildings and riddled walls conveyed little to me. But when one found man after man thin, listless, and (in spite of the joy of salvation) dispirited; talking with a tired voice and hopeless air, and with a queer, shifty, nervous, scared look in the eye, one began to understand.

The thing was scarcely human, scarcely of this world. These men were not like oneself. If you threaten an inexperienced boxer with a quick play of fists on every side of his head, even though you never touch him, you may completely demoralise him; he shies at every feint and every movement. And these people had been in a situation comparable with that of the poor boxer. Think of it. The signal from the conning tower, the clamour of bells and whistles, the sudden silence amongst the people, the rush for shelter, and then the hum and roar, like wind in a chimney, of the huge iron cylinder flying through the air, potent for death. And then, perhaps, the noise of a falling building, or the scream of some human creature who is nothing but a mass of offence when you come up five seconds later. Think of this repeated six or seven sometimes sixty or seventy times during the daylight hours, and can you wonder that men should lose their placid manners and scuttle like rats into their holes at the dreaded sound? And all this fear and horror to be borne upon an empty stomach, for the horrors of partial starvation were added to the constant fear of a violent death. Mothers had to see their babies die because there was no milk or other suitable nourishment; a baby cannot live on horse and mule flesh. There was hardly a coloured baby left alive; and that one statement accounts for whole lifetimes of misery and suffering.

It was not until the Boers had mounted their 6-inch gun on the 8th of February that the panic began. People had got used to the smaller shells, which could often be dodged; besides, the enemy did not fire so many of them. But when the big gun began its seventy rounds a day people lost their self-command and began to dig and scratch in the earth for shelter. Thousands went down the mines and sat all day in the bowels of the earth. Men walking in the streets jumped if a mule kicked an iron plate; they screamed when the signal was given; they broke and ran and burrowed into shelter. Yet so fast do some men anchor themselves to routine that many kept their offices open and did business all the while, however, with one eye on the paper and the other glancing through the door or window; ever with one ear turned to the speaker and the other noting the rustle of paper stirred by the breeze and the hum of wind under the door.

That only twenty people were killed is no fact at all in connection with the panic; what really matters is that seventy times a day something happened which might have killed a dozen people.

I have only to add, in case I am accused of exaggerating the state of terror, that the people who went through this ordeal have not necessarily the clearest conception of it. I came out of the safe outer world and saw their faces and eyes, and, if I had not heard a word, I should have known.

One other thing. A despatch sent by me to The Manchester Guardian contained this sentence complimentary to the De Beers Company: “The condition of the town would have been deplorable but for the relief administration of the De Beers Company.”

That sentence was not made, but suggested by my good friend the censor; and it will serve to indicate how great was the bowing down before the house of De Beers. I wish to disavow any compliment I may have appeared to pay that company in my telegram, for I think they did their bare duty. What they did was to provide a ration of soup for the inhabitants as long as some bullock meat which they possessed lasted; to organise relief works by making roads and fences in a town which belongs chiefly to themselves; and to allow people to shelter in their mines. Perhaps they could do no more. Considering everything, and remembering some facts in connection with this and other political troubles, I ask, Could they well have done less?