The Northumberland Fusiliers

South Africa: Chasing a Phantom Army

First Hand Account by Private James Dunning
There is something a soldier always likes to see - and that is his enemy. He soon loses the taste for being potted by an invisible marksmen, and for seeing men fall dead, as I have seen them, killed by the bullets of riflemen who are hidden more than 2000 yards away. A soldier too likes to have a pitched battle, to go ahead with his work, and get it done with. He soon gets utterly weary of the pursuit of a fleeing foe that he seldom or never sees and rapidly tires of the sport of chasing a phantom army.

You know of course about the Northumberland Fusiliers - the 'Ever Fighting Never failing Fifth,' as Wellington called them in the days of the Peninsula - and that both battalions went out to South Africa to the war? A wonderful feature of the regimental spirit was that not a single reservist, I believe, failed to return to the Colours when the call came. Of the 2000 officers and men who were on active service, 1200 were reservists. The war cost the regiment in killed alone 13 officers and 229 non-commissioned officers and men, to say nothing of the sick and wounded and the permanently damaged.

I jumped from an easy-going monotonous Aldershot manoeuvring existence to a round of battles. Out to Cape Town in the 'Gaul', up to De Aar, and on to Orange River, and there we had a little reconnaissance, which told us something of the kind of work that we were in for. I saw the Boers for the first time, and the Fifth began its sacrifices in the campaign. The first to fall was Lieutenant Bevan, shot through the thigh so badly that he could not move. Colonel Keith-Falconer, our chief, sprang up from behind cover to save the subaltern. He was shot dead - and rests in a soldier's grave in the lonely veld. He was a brave officer and a gentleman. It is a strange but inspiring fact that his successor, Major Ray - 'Young Ray,' as he was called affectionately - was also killed in action, soon afterwards, while doing the same thing - giving his life for a friend. South Africa had its days of gloom, but it has given us many glorious memories.

Then, in six days, we had 3 battles - Belmont, Graspan, and Modder River. Not a man of the Fifth fell out on the advance to the little farm which has given us the victory of Belmont - yet the heat was awful, and we were loaded up with 'oddments', such as soap, canvas shoes, flannel shirt, towel, socks, and greatcoat, to say nothing of sidearms, rifles and ammunition. In that fierce fight at Belmont we fired upon each other at a distance of only about 100 yards. Here again we lost a gallant gentleman - Captain Eager, who was shot dead while tending a wounded man - the third officer in the Fifth who, in a few days, had died in the attempt to succour a comrade. There is a grave in Belmont Farm Cemetery in which 14 of our officers and men are sleeping. After the battle we heaped it up with rocks and earth, made a big cross, planted a prickly pear-tree, and marched on.

At Modder River we had a long and desperate struggle of 15 hours. For nearly 20 hours the Fifth had nothing but a cup of coffee, and we had to use our emergency rations of cocoa. Lord Methuen in his official dispatch said that the action was one of the hardest and most trying fights in the annals of the British Army.

I was shot through the hip and was ordered home, but I wanted to remain, and I was allowed to stay. There would have been more left of me now if I had taken my chance and returned to England.

I thought I knew, by the time I was fit for service again, what marching and enduring meant, but that was mere child's play to the life I led when we began the pursuit of the phantom army and its 'slim' commander, Delarey. At first we thought it would be sport, but when we had become like a column of ragged tramps, and as lean and gaunt as greyhounds, we changed our minds. There was not a man I think who did not yearn for a proper fight, just to get the wretched, harassing business settled once and for all.

General de la Rey
For some time we had heard and seen nothing of Delarey, but we were not so unwise as to suppose that he had forgotten us. As a matter of fact, he was biding his time, waiting for his chance, and it came when I was in the rearguard of a convoy near Klerksdorp, in the Transvaal, just over the border of the orange River Colony.

We had only about 50 miles to march. That was nothing to men who had become known as the Salvation Army and Methuen's Mudcrushers, and who at one time, for 15 consecutive days, had marched on an average more than 15 miles a day. That was done, too, under a blazing sun, in a land of dusty road and burnt veld, on half rations, with snatches of food and sleep, and burdened with a weight of from 35 to 40 pounds. Sometimes 4 miles meant a dozen, for Tommy Atkins did not travel like the crow.

There were about 120 waggons in the convoy, which covered an enormous stretch of country. The escort numbered rather more than 600, and was commanded by Colonel Anderson. It was made up of 3 companies of the Fifth, some Paget's Horse and Imperial Yeomanry, a pompom, and 2 guns of the Royal Field Artillery.

We were going steadily ahead - a long, straggling, clumsy, slow procession. Forty of the 50 miles had been covered, and already, from the hills around Klerksdorp, the British sentries could see us coming. There was no suspicion of of death in ambush - in fact, Paget's Horse had been sent on, and they went away in the night. They were well out of the fatal morning which followed.

After a black and rainy night we struck our camp and resumed our crawl. It was then daybreak - a grey and cheerless morning. Near us was the deep Jagd Spruit and a long mass of scrub and high grass. I was marching in the open, away from rocks and ferns and things of that sort.

Then, like a bolt from the skies, the swoop came upon the convoy. The phantom army had reappeared in the flesh. A single shot was fired - a vicious little crack which I took to be a signal of attack. I saw a man in front of me who had sprung up out of the vegetation or from behind a rock - a Boer, whose rifle was presented point blank at us at a distance of something like 20 yards. It was not a comfortable sight to those who were not expecting it. But it was very thrilling.

The solitary marksman fired. Then a lot of his comrades appeared in just the same swift, stealthy mysterious fashion. I think - I am sure - that they must have been hiding in the spruit and the scrub. I for one saw nothing of them till they were upon us.

"Hands up!" I heard them shouting; but if it comes to that they didn't give a man much time. They might as well have told us that they were going to fire, and then plugged into us.

"Hear that, Tommy?" asked a comrade near me. My name isn't Thomas at all, but that's what I was called.

"Not hands up," I answered. "We'll fight for it!"

"Good for you, Tommy," he shouted. "We will!"

Boer Attack on the Rearguard
I had scarcely got the words out of my mouth when I saw, a little in front of us, a Boer kneeling and taking aim. I rushed towards him and struck him with the butt of my rifle, and he tumbled over.

I dropped on one knee. "Now," I told my friend, "we have to stay and fight for it. It's life for life today."

There was loud and hoarse shouting near me, and a lot of commotion amongst the panic-stricken drivers and the mules. I saw a mounted man with a sjambok in his hand, trying, I suppose, to drive off some of our waggons.

"I'm going to shoot at him!" I said, and I got on my knee at the side of a tree and took steady aim. I fired and saw the horseman fall. "That's done it, I think!" I said to my friend, Then I cried: "Keep down!" for I heard a rattling noise very near us, and I knew that a volley was being fired by the enemy.

That was merely the beginning of things, the fight had started and went on in such a way as you might have supposed that it would never finish. All sorts of sounds assailed me, all kinds of voices rose in the confusion. But I thinks that the chief note in all that was said was one of hope and encouragement. We were ambushed and overpowered - the enemy, it is calculated were three to one against us - but we kept on fighting furiously, believing, some of us, that help would come from Klerksdorp. Surely the sentries could see what was taking place, and surely an alarm was raised.

There was time for one thing only, and that was to try to save the convoy, and one's own life. It was soon clear enough that the convoy was lost, and as to a man's own life, what could he suppose when he looked around him and saw his own comrades lying dead and wounded?

Another rattling volley came - just as, in a thunderstorm, you hear the vicious crackling of the storm-clouds after the vivid lightning flash.

"They've got the guns!" I shouted. An officer near me cried: "They've claimed the guns I think!" Then the ominous word was passed was passed along - "Retire!"

I heard it. The order came from a good and brave officer, and I think that the word was the last he uttered, for almost instantly he was shot dead. But there was still no immediate withdrawal. We were even yet animated by the spirit of our watchword - no retreat, and no surrender.

I went on firing, steadily, I believe, and as calmly as one can at such a time. Service hardens a man marvellously, and I had been in two little campaigns before I came to South Africa. And in South Africa itself I had had a pretty generous baptism of Mausers.

There had been heavy losses amongst us. I knew that. But I could not tell what the casualties were. I could only judge from what I saw about me - and I knew that many of my comrades would never answer the roll-call. And death is so demoralising too. A comrade near me said:

"Jeps is killed - shot dead. We'd better surrender, Tom."

"No, " I answered, "we'll fight for it. There's no surrender, and no turning back. That's what the general said, you know." It is wonderful what influence a saying like that has on the private. He doesn't know much, as I have said, about the plan of things, or the way that schemes are carried out; but he does understand the meaning of an inspiriting message, and a good many of them were issued in the South African war.

So far we had used the rifle solely, answering, as best we could, the merciless bullets from the unseen marksmen. Then something like an electric shock went through us, for the bugle rang out the 'Charge!'

There was a lull in the firing, followed by the rattling of the bayonets as they were snatched from the scabbards and fixed. Then with the glittering deadly tips levelled we rushed towards the spot where the enemy seemed to be hidden most thickly. What followed was a confused and wild melee. The spruit was glutted with the frenzied mules, the broken waggons, and the demoralised drivers. Some there were, of course, who took to their heels, and they were lucky, for at any rate they saved their skins.

Meanwhile the Boers were cutting up the convoy, destroying it on all sides ruthlessly. Delarey himself was present, and fought like the brave and chivalrous chief which a good many of us knew him to be.

I had settled into the way of battle, and so far had escaped unhurt. It really seemed as if I should escape entirely free, but apparently it was ordained that my peppering should come thickly. All at once, in the thick of the action, felt a strange searing sensation in my side. I knew what it was because I had been bullet-struck before. Still, I held on with the fighting; it is amazing what you can do when you are supported by the excitement of battle. And I did not want to fall either, and endure the torture of thirst and inevitable neglect on the burning veld.

I was hit a second time, and fell to the ground, lying on my wounded side. A sergeant bent over me. He saw without asking, what had happened, and set to work to do his best for me. Every soldier carried a rolled bandage, a piece of waterproof, a couple of safety pins, a pad of wool, and a pad of gauze. So you see we had something to set us up as amateur doctors. The sergeant must have used or lost his bandage, at any rate, he took off one of his puttees, and having picked up a stone, he wrapped it in the cloth and then did his best to place the object to my side to staunch the bleeding.

I can hardly bear to recall the terrors of that dreadful period, and I will pass lightly over the harrowing incidents that followed. I remained where I had fallen, utterly helpless but perfectly conscious. I did my best to keep quiet, resting on my side, with my arms over my head, as one places them in sleeping.

A bullet entered my right forearm, a second also struck the limb so that I had four of the missiles in me. I had already had my share of attention, quite as much as I wanted or could carry. Surely I might have been spared, but war is merciless. A fifth bullet struck me in the left arm. A sixth entered the right hip.

There was a resting space. Then my unhappy target of a carcase was again the recipient of a bullet, this time through the left calf. To crown it all, an eighth bullet struck my right heel.

It is one of the marvels of modern warfare that so many bullets can enter a single individual, and yet make it possible for that individual to live. But the Mauser and Lee-Metford bullets were far different from the old Martini missile, or the dreadful explosive bullets that were sometimes used during the war in South Africa. More than once I saw the terrible havoc which they wrought.

I lay in agony where had fallen - an agony which was all the more acute because I was conscious, and all the more terrible because, although I was conscious, I was not able to speak or make a sound. My mouth was choked with blood.

All the time there were the fierce but lessening sounds of the battle around me, then a growing silence, then a swimming of the senses, and I knew no more until I was roused to consciousness by men handling me. I managed to move and make some sort of sound, then the men left me. I knew afterwards that it was supposed that I was dead, and that the Boers were beginning to strip me.

British Army Hospital
Hour after hour I remained where I had fallen - nine in all before I was carried off the field of battle. It is hard, almost impossible, to tell you anything like my real sensations when I was lying wounded, nor can I recall many of the strange and terrible things I witnessed. But I do remember that one picture which impressed itself clearly on my memory was the sight of a sergeant running about quite naked. I do not know what had happened to his clothing, or how he came to be in that condition; I merely recollect that it was so. It is one of the extraordinary incidents of warfare.

Another man I saw, a noble specimen of health and strength, a sergeant who was here and there and everywhere - the perfect picture of a fighter. I lost sight of him in South Africa, and when next we met I myself had almost risen from the dead, and he was being wheeled about in a chair in hospital, a life-long, helpless cripple, for both his legs, because of wounds, had been amputated.

Seven operations put me more or less right, and now my steel-strengthened corsets hold together what is left of me. Somewhere in the world there is an old comrade, a sergeant, who carries a relic of me about with him, a trifle in the way of a rib. Fastened to her watch-chain, an old lady, who happens to be my mother, carries a silver Mauser bullet, the first of the eight with which I was riddled when I was fighting in the rearguard of the captured convoy.

The Boer War
Marching To The Drums
by Ian Knight
(Greenhill Books, London Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania 1999)


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