Ambush at Sanna’s Post (March 31, 1900)

December 30, 2017
25 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following is extracted from With the Boer Forces, by Howard C. Hillegas (published 1900).  The location of this military action, part of the Second Anglo-Boer War, is variously called Sanna’s Post, Sannapos(t), and Koorn Spruit.

The battle of Sannaspost on March 31st was one of the few engagements in the campaign in which the forces of the Boers and the British were almost numerically equal. There were two or three small battles in which the Boers had more men engaged than the British, but in the majority of instances the Boers were vastly outnumbered both in men and guns. At Elandslaagte the Boers had exactly seven hundred and fifty burghers pitted against the five or six thousand British; Spion Kop was won from three thousand British by three hundred and fifty Boers; at the Tugela Botha with not more than twenty-six hundred men fought for more than a week against ten times that number of soldiers under General Buller; while the greatest disparity between the opposing forces was at Paardeberg, where Cronje spent a week in trying to lead his four thousand men through the encircling wall of forty or fifty thousand British soldiers.

Sannaspost was not a decisive battle of the war, since no point of great strategical importance was at stake, but it was more in the nature of a demonstration of what the Boers were able to do when they were opposed to a force of equal strength. It was a test which was equally fair to both contestants, and neither of them could reasonably claim to have possessed an advantage over the other a day before the battle was fought. The British commander, Colonel Broadwood, had seventeen hundred men in his column, and General De Wet was at the head of about two hundred and fifty less than that number, but the strength of the forces was equalised by the Boer general’s intimate knowledge of the country. Colonel Broadwood was experienced in Indian, Egyptian, and South African warfare, and the majority of his soldiers were seasoned in many battles. De Wet and his men were fresh from Poplar Grove, Abraham’s Kraal, and the fighting around Kimberley, but they were not better nor worse than the average of the Boer burghers. The British commander was hampered by a large transport train, but he possessed the advantage of more heavy guns than his adversary. All in all, the two forces were equally matched when they reached the battlefield.

The day before the battle General De Wet and his men were in laager several miles east of Brandfort, whither they had fled after the fall of Bloemfontein. His scouts brought to him the information that a small British column was stationed in the village of Thaba N’Chu, forty miles to the east, and he determined to march thither and attack it. He gave the order, “Opzaal!” and in less than eight minutes every one of his burghers was on his horse, armed, provided with two days’ rations of biltong, biscuit, coffee, and sugar, and ready to proceed. De Wet himself leaped into a light, ramshackle four-wheeler, and led the advance over the dusty veld. Without attempting to proceed with any semblance of military order, the burghers followed in the course of their leader, some riding rapidly, others walking beside their horses, and a few skirmishing far away on the veld for buck. The mule-teams dragging the artillery and the ammunition waggons were not permitted by their hullabalooing Basuto drivers to lag far behind the general, and the dust which was raised by this long cavalcade was not unlike the clouds of locusts which were frequently mistaken for the signs of a trekking commando. Mile after mile was rapidly traversed, until darkness came on, when a halt was made so that the burghers might prepare a meal, and that the general might hear from the scouts, who were far in advance of the body. After the men and horses had eaten, and the moon rose over the dark peak of Thaba N’Chu mountain, the burghers lighted their pipes and sang psalms and hymns until the peaceful valley resounded with their voices.

The village and mountain of Thaba N’Chu

Panting horses brought to the little stone farmhouse, where General De Wet was drinking milk, the long-awaited scouts who carried the information that the British force had evacuated Thaba N’Chu late in the afternoon, and that it was moving hurriedly toward Bloemfontein. Again the order: “Opzaal,” and the mule train came into motion and the burghers mounted their horses. A chill night air arose, and shivering burghers wrapped blankets around their shoulders. The humming of hymns and the whistling ceased, and there was nothing but the clatter of horses’ hoofs, the shouts of the Basutos, and the noises of the guns and wagons rumbling over the stones and gullies to mark the nocturnal passage of the army. Lights appeared at farmhouse windows, and at their gates were women and children with bread and bowls of milk and prayers for the burghers. Small walls enclosing family burial plots where newly-dug ground told its own story of the war seemed grim in the moonlight; native huts with their inhabitants standing like spectres before the doors appeared like monstrous ant-heaps—all these were passed, but the drooping eyes of the burghers saw nothing.

At midnight another halt was made, horses were off-saddled and men lay down on the veld to sleep. The generals and officers met in Krijgsraad, and other scouts arriving told of the enemy’s evident intention of spending the remainder of the night at an old-time off-saddling station known as Sannaspost. The news was highly important, and the heads of the generals came closer together. Maps were produced, pencil marks were made, plans were formed, and then the sleeping burghers were aroused. The trek was resumed, and shortly afterward the column was divided into two parts; the one consisting of nine hundred men under General Peter De Wet, proceeding by a circuitous route to the hills south of Sannaspost, and the other of five hundred men commanded by General Christian De Wet moving through a maze of kopjes to a position west of the trekking station.

The burghers were not informed of the imminence of a battle; but they required no such announcement from their generals. The atmosphere seemed to be surcharged with premonitions of an engagement, and men rubbed sleep out of their eyes and sat erect upon their horses. The blacks even ceased to crack their whips so sharply, and urged the mules forward in whispers instead of shrieks. Burghers took their rifles from their backs, tested the workings of the mechanism and filled the magazine with cartridges. Artillerymen leaped from their horses and led them while they sat on the cannon and poured oil into the bearings. Young men speculated on the number of prisoners they would take; old men wrote their names on their hats by the light of the moon. The lights of Bloemfontein appeared in the distance, and grey-beards looked longingly at them and sighed. But the cavalcade passed on, grimly, silently, and defiantly, into the haunts of the enemy.

After four hours of trekking over veld, kopje, sluit, and donga, the two columns halted, the burghers dismounted, and, weary from the long journey and the lack of sleep, lay down on the earth beside their horses. Commandants, field-cornets and corporals, bustling about among the burghers, horses and wagons, gave orders in undertones; generals summoned their scouts and asked for detailed information concerning the whereabouts of the enemy; patrols were scurrying hither and thither to secure accurate ideas of the topography of the territory in front of them; all who were in authority were busy, while the burghers, who carried the strength of battle in their bodies, lay sleeping and resting.

The first dim rays of the day came over the tops of the eastern hills when the burghers were aroused and asked to proceed to the positions chosen by their leaders. The men under Peter De Wet, the younger brother of the Commandant-General, were led to an elevation about a mile and a half south of Sannaspost, where they placed their cannon into position and waited for the break of day. Christian De Wet and his five hundred burghers advanced noiselessly and occupied the dry bed of Koorn Spruit, a stream which crossed the main road running from Thaba N’Chu to Bloemfontein at right angles about a mile from the station where the British forces had begun their bivouac for the night, two hours before. No signs of the enemy could be seen; there were no pickets, no outposts, and none of the usual safeguards of an army, and for some time the Boers were led to believe that the British force had been allowed to escape unharmed.

Christiaan de Wet

The burghers under the leadership of Christiaan De Wet were completely concealed in the spruit. The high banks might have been held by the forces of their enemy, but unless they crept to the edge and looked down into the stream they would not have been able to discover the presence of the Boers. Where the road crossed the stream deep approaches had been dug into the banks in order to facilitate the passage of conveyances—a “drift” it is called in South Africa—and on either side for a distance of a mile, up and down the stream, the burghers stood by their horses and waited for the coming of the day. The concealment was perfect; no specially constructed trenches could have served the purposes of the Boers more advantageously.

Dawn lighted the flat-topped kopjes that lay in a huge semicircle in the distance, and men clambered up the sides of the spruit to ascertain the camp of the enemy. The white smoke-stack of the Bloemfontein waterworks appeared against the black background of the hills in the east, but it was still too dark to distinguish objects on the ground beneath it. A group of burghers in the spruit, absent-mindedly, began to sing a deep-toned psalm, but the stern order of a commandant quickly ended their matutinal song. A donkey in an ammunition wagon brayed vociferously, and a dozen men, fearful lest the enemy should hear the noise, sprang upon him with clubs and whips, and even attempted to close his mouth by force of hands. It was the fateful moment before the battle, and men acted strangely. Some walked nervously up and down, others dropped on their knees and prayed, a few lighted their pipes, many sat on the ground and looked vacantly into space, while some of the younger burghers joked and laughed.

At the drift stood the generals, scanning the hills and undulations with their glasses. Small fires appeared in the east near the tall white stack. “They are preparing their breakfast,” some one suggested. “I see a few tents,” another one reported excitedly. All eyes were turned in the direction indicated. Some estimated the intervening distance at a mile, others were positive it was not more than a thousand yards—it was not light enough to distinguish accurately. “Tell the burghers that I will fire the first shot,” said General De Wet to one of his staff. Immediately the order was spread to the men in the spruit. “I see men leading oxen to the wagons; they are preparing to trek,” remarked a commandant. “They are coming down this way,” announced another, slapping his thigh joyfully.

A few minutes afterwards clouds of dust arose, and at intervals the wagons in the van could be seen coming down the slope toward the drift. The few tents fell, and men in brown uniforms moved hither and thither near the waterworks building. Wagon after wagon joined in the procession; drivers were shrieking and wielding their whips over the heads of the oxen, and farther behind were cavalrymen mounting their horses. It was daylight then, although the sun was still below the horizon, and the movements of the enemy could be plainly discerned. The ox-teams came slowly down the road—there seemed to be no limit to their number—and the generals retreated down the drift to the bottom of the spruit, so that their presence should not be discerned by the enemy, and to await the arrival of the wagons.

The shrieking natives drew nearer, the rumbling of the wagons became more distinct, and soon the first vehicle descended the drift. A few burghers were sent forward to intercept it. As soon as it reached the bottom of the spruit the men grasped the bridles of the horses, and instantly there were shrieks from the occupants of the vehicle. It was filled with women and children, all pale with fright on account of the unexpected appearance of the Boers. The passengers were quickly and gently taken from the wagon and sent to places of safety in the spruit, while a burgher jumped into the vehicle and drove the horses up the other drift and out upon the open veld. The operation of substituting drivers was done so quickly and quietly that none of those approaching the drift from the other side noticed anything extraordinary, and proceeded into the spruit. Other burghers stood prepared to receive them as they descended the drift with their heavily laden ammunition and provision wagons, and there was little trouble in seizing the British drivers and placing the whips into the hands of Boers. Wagon after wagon was relieved of its drivers and sent up to the other bank without creating a suspicion in the minds of the others who were coming down the slope from the waterworks.

After fifty or more wagons had crossed the drift a solitary cavalry officer with the rank of captain, riding leisurely along, followed one of them. His coat had a rent in it and he was holding the torn parts together, as if he were planning the mending of it when he reached Bloemfontein. A young Boer sprang toward him, called “Hands up!” and projected the barrel of his carbine toward him. The officer started out of his reverie, involuntarily reached for his sword, but repented almost instantly, and obeyed the order. General De Wet approached the captain, touched his hat in salute, and said, “Good morning, sir.” The officer returned the complimentary greeting and offered his sword to the Boer. De Wet declined to receive the weapon and told the officer to return to his men and ask them to surrender. “We have a large force of men surrounding you,” the general explained, “and you cannot escape. In order to save many lives I ask you to surrender your men without fighting.” The officer remained silent for a moment, then looked squarely into the eyes of the Boer general and said, “I will return to my men and will order them to surrender.” De Wet nodded his head in assent, and the captain mounted his horse. “I will rely upon your promise,” the general added, “if you break it I will shoot you.”

General De Wet and several of his commandants followed the cavalry officer up the drift and stood on the bank while the horseman galloped slowly toward the troops which were following the wagons down the slope. The general raised his carbine and held it in his arms. His eyes were fixed on the officer, and he stood as firm as a statue until the cavalryman reached his men. There was a momentary pause while the captain stood before his troops, then the horses were wheeled about and their hoofs sent showers of dust into the air as they carried their riders in retreat. General De Wet stepped forward several paces, raised his carbine to his shoulder, aimed steadily for a second, then fired. The bullet whistled menacingly over the heads of oxen and drivers—it struck the officer, and he fell.

All along the banks of the spruit, for a mile on either side of the ravine, and over on the hills where Peter De Wet and his burghers lay, men had been waiting patiently and expectantly for that signal gun of Christian De Wet. They had been watching the enemy toiling down the slope under the very muzzles of their guns for almost an age, it seemed, yet they dared not fire lest the plans of the generals should be thwarted. Men had lain flat on the ground with their rifles pointing minute after minute at individuals in the advancing column, but the words of their general, “I will fire the first shot,” restrained them. The flight of the bullet which entered the body of the cavalry officer marked the ending of the long period of nervous tension, and the burghers were free to use their guns.

Until the officer advised his men to retreat and he himself fell from his horse the main body of the British troops was ignorant of the presence of the Boers, but the report of the rifle was a summons to battle and instantly the field was filled with myriads of stirring scenes. The lazy transport-train suddenly became a thing of rapid motion; the huge body of troops was quickly broken into many parts; horses that had been idling along the road plunged forward as if projected by catapults. Officers with swords flashing in the sunlight appeared leading their men into different positions, cannon were hurriedly drawn upon commanding elevations, and Red Cross wagons scattered to places of safety. The peaceful transport-train had suddenly been transformed into a formidable engine of war by the report of a rifle, and the contest for a sentiment and a bit of ground was opened by shrieking cannon-shell and the piercing cry of rifle-ball.

Down at the foot of the slope, where the drift crossed the spruit, Boers were dragging cannon into position, and in among the wagons which had become congested in the road, burghers and soldiers were engaging in fierce hand-to-hand encounters. A stocky Briton wrestled with a youthful Boer, and in the struggle both fell to the ground; near by a cavalryman was firing his revolver at a Boer armed with a rifle, and a hundred paces away a burgher was fighting with a British officer for the possession of a sword. Over from the hills in the south came the dull roar of Boer cannon, followed by the reports of the shells exploding in the east near the waterworks. British cannon opened fire from a position near the white smoke-stack and scores of bursting projectiles fell among the wagons at the spruit. Oxen and horses were rent limb from limb, wagons tumbled over on their sides; boxes of provisions were thrown in all directions, and out of the cloud of dust and smoke stumbled men with blood-stained faces and lacerated bodies. Terrified and bellowing oxen twisted and tugged at their yokes; horses broke from their fastenings in the wagons and dashed hither and thither, and weakling donkeys strove in vain to free themselves from wagons set on fire by the shells. Explosion followed explosion, and with every one the mass became more entangled. Dead horses fell upon living oxen; wheels and axles were thrown on the backs of donkeys, and plunging mules dragged heavy wagons over great piles of débris.

The cannon on the southern hills became more active and their shells caused the landscape surrounding the waterworks to be filled with geysers of dust. Troops which were stationed near the white smoke-stack suddenly spurred their horses forward and dashed northward to seek safety behind a long undulation in the ground. The artillerymen in the hills followed their movements with shells, and the dust-fountains sprang up at the very heels of the troops. The cannon at the drift joined in the attack on the horsemen scattered over the slope, and the big guns at the waterworks continued to reply vigorously. The men in the spruit were watching the artillery duel intently as they sped up and down the bottom of the water-less stream, searching for points of vantage. A large number of them moved rapidly down the spruit towards its confluence with the Modder River in order to check the advance of the troops driven forward by the shell-fire, and another party rushed eastward to secure positions in the rear of the British cannon at the waterworks. The banks of the stream still concealed them, but they dared not fire lest the enemy should disturb their plans. On and on they dashed, over rocks and chasms, until they were within a few hundred yards of a part of the British force. Slowly they crept up the sides of the spruit, cautiously peered out over the edge of the bank and then opened fire on the men at the cannon and the troops passing down the slope. Little jets of dust arose where their bullets struck the ground, men fell around the cannon, and cavalrymen quickly turned and charged toward the spruit. The shells of the cannon at the drift and on the southern hills fell thicker and thicker among the troops and the air above them was heavy with the light blue smoke of bursting shrapnel. The patter of the Boer rifles at the spruit increased in intensity and the jets of brown dust became more numerous. The cavalrymen leaped from their horses and ran ahead to find protection behind a line of rocks. The intermittent, irregular firing of the Boers was punctuated by the regular, steady reports of British volleys. The brown dust-geysers increased among the rocks where the British lay, and soon the soldiers turned and ran for their horses. Burghers crept from rock to rock in pursuit of them, and their bullets urged the fleeing horsemen on. The British cannon spoke less frequently, and shells and bullets fell so thickly around them that bravery in such a situation seemed suicidal, and the last artilleryman fled. Boers ran up and turned the loaded guns upon the backs of those who had operated them a few moments before.

General Robert Broadwood, commanding the British force at Sanna’s Post

Down in the north-western part of the field a large force of troops was dashing over the veld toward the banks of the spruit. Officers, waving swords above their heads and shouting commands to their subordinates, led the way. A few shells exploding in the ranks scattered the force temporarily and caused horses to rear and plunge, but the gaps quickly disappeared, and the men moved on down the slope. Boers rode rapidly down the spruit and out upon the veld behind a low range of kopjes which lay in front of the British force. Horses were left in charge of native servants, and the burghers crept forward on hands and knees to the summit of the range. They carefully concealed themselves behind rocks and bushes and waited for the enemy to approach more closely. The cavalrymen spread out in skirmishing order as they proceeded, and, ignorant of the proximity of the Boers, drew their horses into a walk. The burghers in the kopje fired a few shots, and the troops turned quickly to the left and again broke into a gallop. The firing from the kopje increased in volume, the cannon from the hills again broke forth, the little dust-clouds rose out of the earth on all sides of the troopers, and shrapnel bursting in the air sent its bolts and balls of iron and steel; into the midst of the brown men and earth. Horses and riders fell, officers leaped to the ground and shouted encouragement to their soldiers, men sprang behind rocks and discharged their rifles. Minutes of agony passed. Officers gathered their men and attempted to lead them forward, but they had not progressed far when the Boers in the spruit in front of them swept the ground with the bullets of their rifles. Burghers crept around the edge of the kopjes and emptied their carbines into the backs of the cavalrymen, cannons poured shell upon them from three different directions, and these men on the open plain could not see even a brace of Boers to fire upon. Men and horses continued to fall, the wounded lay moaning in the grass, while shells and bullets sang their song of death more loudly every second to those who braved the storm. A tiny white cloth was raised, the firing ceased instantly, and the brave band threw down its arms to the burghers who sprang out from the spruit and rocky kopje.

In the east the low hills were dotted with men in brown. To the right and left of them, a thousand yards apart, were Boer horsemen circling around kopjes and seeking positions for attacking the already vanquished but stubborn enemy. Rifle fire had ceased and cannon sounded only at intervals of a few minutes. Women at the doors of the two farmhouses in the centre of the battlefield, and a man drawing water at a well near by, were not inharmonious with the quietness and calmness of the moment, but the epoch of peace was of short duration. The Boer horsemen stemmed the retreat of the men in brown, and compelled them to retrace their steps. Another body of burghers made a wide détour north-eastward from the spruit, and, jumping from their horses, crept along under the cover of an undulation in the ground for almost a half-mile to a point which overlooked the route of the British retreat.

The enemy was slow in coming, and a few of the Boers lay down to sleep. Others filled their pipes and lighted them, and one abstracted a pebble from his shoe. As the cavalrymen drew nearer to them the burghers crept forward several paces and sought the protection of rocks or piled stones together in the form of miniature forts. “Shall we fire now?” inquired a beardless Free State youth. “Wait until they come nearer,” replied an older burgher close by. Silence was maintained for several minutes, when the youth again became uneasy. “I can hit the first one of those Lancers,” he begged, as he pointed with his carbine to a cavalryman known to the Boers as a “Lancer,” whether he carried a lance or not. The cannon in the south urged the cavalrymen forward with a few shells delivered a short distance behind them, and then the old burgher called to the youth, “See if you can hit him now.”

The boy missed the rider but killed the horse, and the British force quickly dismounted and sought shelter in a small ravine. The reports of volley firing followed, and bullets cut the grass beside the burghers and flattened themselves against the rocks. Another volley, and a third, in rapid succession, and the burghers pressed more closely to the ground. An interval of a minute, and they glanced over their tiny stockades to find a British soldier. “They are coming up the kopje!” shouted a burgher, and their rifles swept the hillside with bullets. More volleys came from below and, while the leaden tongues sang above and around them, the burghers turned and lay on their backs to refill the magazines of their rifles. Another interval, and the attack was renewed. “They are running!” screamed a youth exultingly, and burghers rose and fired at the men in brown at the foot of the kopje. Marksmen had their opportunity then, and long aim was taken before a shot was fired. Men knelt on the one knee and rested an elbow on the other, while they held their rifles to their shoulders. Reports of carbines became less frequent as the troops progressed farther in an opposite direction, but increased again when the cavalrymen returned for a second attack upon the kopje. “Lend me a handful of cartridges, Jan,” asked one man of his neighbour, as they watched the oncoming force. “They must want this kopje,” remarked another burgher jocularly, as he filled his pipe with tobacco and lighted it.

The British cannon in the east again became active, and the dust raised by their shells was blown over the heads of the burghers on the kopje. The reports of the big guns of the Boers reverberated among the hills, while the regular volleys of the British rifles seemed to be beating time to the minor notes and irregular reports of the Boer carbines. At a distance the troops moving over the brown field of battle resembled huge ants more than human beings; and the use of smokeless powder, causing the panorama to remain perfectly clear and distinct, allowed every movement to be closely followed by the observer. Cannon poured forth their tons of shells, but there was nothing except the sound of the explosion to denote where the guns were situated. Rifles cut down lines of men, but there was no smoke to indicate where they were being operated, and unless the burghers or soldiers displayed themselves to their enemy there was nothing to indicate their positions. Shrapnel bursting in the air, the reports of rifles and heavy guns and the little puffs of dust where shells and bullets struck the ground were the only evidences of the battle’s progress. The hand-to-hand conflicts, the duels with bayonets and swords and the clouds of smoke were probably heroic and picturesque before the age of rapid-fire guns, modern rifles, and smokeless ammunition, but here the field of battle resembled a country fox-chase with an exaggerated number of hunters, more than a representation of a battle of twenty-five years ago.

On the summit of the kopje the burghers were firing leisurely but accurately. One man aimed steadily at a soldier for fully twenty seconds, then pressed the trigger, lowered his rifle and watched for the effect of the shot. Bullets were flying high over him, and the shrapnel of the enemy’s guns exploded far behind him. There seemed to be no great danger, and he fired again. “I missed that time,” he remarked to a burgher who lay behind another rock several yards distant. His neighbour then fired at the same soldier, and both cried simultaneously: “He is hit!” The enemy again disappeared in the little ravine, and the burghers ceased firing. Shells continued to tear through the air, but none exploded in the vicinity of the men, and they took advantage of the lull in the battle to light their pipes. A swarm of yellow locusts passed overhead, and exploding shrapnel tore them into myriads of pieces, their wings and limbs falling near the burghers. “I am glad I am not a locust,” remarked a burgher farther to the left of the others, as he dropped a handful of torn fragments of the insects. Shells and bullets suddenly splashed everywhere around the burghers, and they crouched more closely behind the rocks. The enemy’s guns had secured an accurate range, and the air was filled with the projectiles of iron and lead. Exploding shells splintered rocks into atoms and sent them tearing through the grass. Puffs of smoke and dirt were springing up from every square yard of ground, and a few men rose from their retreats and ran to the rear where the Basuto servants were holding their horses. More followed several minutes afterwards, and when those who remained on the summit of the kopje saw that ten times their number of soldiers were ascending the hill under cover of cannon fire they also fled to their horses.

An open plain half a mile wide lay between the point where the burghers mounted their horses, and another kopje in the north-east. The men lay closely on their horses’ backs, plunged their spurs in the animals’ sides, and dashed forward. The cavalrymen, who had gained the summit of the kopje meanwhile, opened fire on the fleeing Boers, and their bullets cut open the horses’ sides and ploughed holes into the burgher’s clothing. One horse, a magnificent grey who had been leading the others, fell dead as he was leaping over a small gully, and his rider was thrown headlong to the ground. Another horseman turned in his course, assisted the horseless rider to his own brown steed, and the two were borne rapidly through the storm of bullets towards the kopje. Another horse was killed when he had carried his rider almost to the goal of safety, and the Boer was compelled to traverse the remainder of the distance on foot. Apparently all the burghers had escaped across the plain, and their field-cornet was preparing to lead them to another position when a solitary horseman, a mere speck of black against a background of brown, lifeless grass, issued from a rocky ravine below the kopje occupied by the enemy, and plunged into the open space. Lee-Metfords cracked and cut open the ground around him, but the rider bent forward and seemed to become a part of his horse. Every rod of progress seemed to multiply the fountains of dust near him; every leap of his horse seemed necessarily his last. On, on he dashed, now using his stirrups, now beating his horse with his hands. It seemed as if he were making no progress, yet his horse’s legs were moving so swiftly. “They will get him,” sighed the field-cornet, looking through his glasses. “He has a chance,” replied a burgher. Seconds dragged wearily, the firing increased in volume, and the dust of the horse’s heels mingled with that raised by the bullets. The sound of the hoofs beating down on the solid earth came louder and louder over the veld, the firing slackened and then ceased, and a foaming, panting horse brought his burden to where the burghers stood. The exhausted rider sank to the ground, and men patted the neck and forehead of the quivering beast.

Down in the valley, near the spruit, the foreign military attachés in uniforms quite distinct were watching the effect of the British artillery on the saddle belonging to one of their number. “They will never hit it,” volunteered one, as a shell exploded ten yards distant from the leathern mark. “They must think it is a crowd of Boers,” suggested another, when a dozen shells had fallen without injuring the saddle. Fifteen, twenty tongues of dust arose, but the leather remained unmarred by scratch or rent, and the attachés became the target of the heavy guns. “I am hit,” groaned Lieutenant Nix, of the Netherlands-Indian army, and his companions caught him in their arms. Blood gushed from a wound in the shoulder, but the soldier spirit did not desert him. “Here, Demange!” he called to the French attaché, “Hold my head. And you, Thompson and Allen, see if you cannot bind this shoulder.” The Norwegian and Hollander bound the wound as well as they were able. “Reichman!” the injured man whispered, “I am going to die in a few minutes, and I wish you would write a letter to my wife.” The American attaché hastily procured paper and pencil, and while shells and shrapnel were bursting over and around them the wounded man dictated a letter to his wife in Holland. Blood flowed copiously from the wound and stained the grass upon which he lay. He was pale as the clouds above him, and the pain was agonising, but the dying man’s letter was filled with nothing but expressions of love and tenderness.

In the south-eastern part of the field a large party of cavalrymen was speeding in the direction of Thaba N’Chu. On two sides of them, a thousand yards behind, small groups of horsemen were giving chase. At a distance, the riders appeared like ants slowly climbing the hillside. Now and then a Boer rider suddenly stopped his horse, leaped to the ground, and fired at the fleeing cavalrymen. A second afterwards he was on his horse again, bending to the chase. Shot followed shot, but the distance between the forces grew greater, and one by one the burghers turned their animals’ heads and slowly retraced their steps. A startled buck bounded over the veld, two rifles were turned upon it, and its flight was ended.

The sound of firing had ceased, and the battle was concluded. Wagons with Red Cross flags fluttering from the tall staffs above them, issued from the mountains and rumbled through the valleys. Burghers dashed over the field in search of the wounded and dying. Men who a few moments before were straining every nerve to kill their fellow-beings became equally energetic to preserve lives. Wounded soldiers and burghers were lifted out of the grass and carried tenderly to the ambulance wagons. The dead were placed side by side, and the same cloth covered the bodies of Boer and Briton. Men with spades upturned the earth, and stood grimly by while a man in black prayed over the bodies of those who died for their country.

Boer officers, with pencils and paper in their hands, sped over the battlefield from a group of prisoners to a line of passing wagons, and made calculations concerning the result of the day’s battle. Three Boers killed and nine wounded was one side of the account. On the credit sheet were marked four hundred and eight British soldiers, seven cannon, one hundred and fifty wagons, five hundred and fifty rifles, two thousand horses and cattle, and vast stores of ammunition and provisions captured during the day.

In among the north-eastern hills, where a farmer’s daub-and-wattle cottage stood, were the prisoners of war, chatting and joking with their captors. The officers walked slowly back and forth, never raising their eyes from the ground. Dejection was written on their faces. Near them were the captured wagons, with groups of noisy soldiers climbing over them in search of their luggage. On the ground others were playing cards and matching coins. Young Boers walked amongst them and engaged them in conversation. Near the farmhouse stood a tall Cape Colony Boer talking with his former neighbour, who was a prisoner. Several Americans among the captured disputed the merits of the war with a Yankee burgher, who had readily distinguished his countrymen among the throng. Some one began to whistle a popular tune, others joined, and soon almost every one was participating. An officer gave the order for the prisoners to fall in line, and shortly afterward the men in brown tramped forward, while the burghers stepped aside and lined the path. A soldier commenced to sing another popular song, British and Boer caught the refrain, and the noise of tramping feet was drowned by the melody of the united voices of friend and foe singing—

“It’s the soldiers of the Queen, my lads,
Who’ve been, my lads—who’ve seen, my lads,
We’ll proudly point to every one
Of England’s soldiers of the Queen.”

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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