A Desperate Assault
I have more than once had reason to admire the British soldier in
battle, but never was there such good ground for admiration as in
watching him prepare. All the blare and tumult, the death and disaster
of actual conflict have no such tense, dramatic, nerve-trying moments as
when a regiment is making ready for some great enterprise. The fight is
a medley of mixed impressions, jostling each other for a moment's
existence ere passing away, but the getting ready is unforgetable.
Everything is clear-cut and within the sum of human emotions—eternal.
So it was with that last grand charge of the Devons, which swept the
Boers from their fringe of the little plateau and finished the long
seventeen hours' ordeal. The enemy were on one side of the Table, we on
the other. A tropical hailstorm howled across it, and beat heavily in
our faces, as Colonel Park led his men up the sheltered face of the
hill, and halted a moment within five yards of the crest, to make ready.
The men knew exactly what they had to do, and the solemnity of a great
and tragic undertaking was upon and about them. All the world for
them—the too brief past with its consequences, the fast-flying present,
and the mysterious beyond—might concentrate in a short desperate dash
across a storm-swept African hilltop. It was the sublimity of life—the
anticipation of death. The Devons were making ready for it, and how
unready a man might feel at such a moment! The line of brown riflemen
stretched away to the left of us, and it seemed that every trivial
action of every man there had become an epic. One noticed most of all
the constant moistening of the dry lips, and the frequent raising of the
water-bottles for a last hurried mouthful. One man tightened a belt,
another brought his cartridges handier to his right hand, though he was
not to use them. It was something to ease the strain of watching. Every
little thing fixed itself on the mind as a photograph. There was no need
of mental effort to remember. One could not see and forget, and would
not, for his patriotism and his pride of kinship, forget if he could.
Then the low clinking, quivering sound of the steel which died away from
us in a trickle down the ranks as the bayonets were fixed—and a dry,
harsh, artificial laugh, in strong contrast to the quiet of the
scene—everything heard easily somehow above the rush and clatter of the
storm, and lost only for an instant in the sudden bursts of thunder. A
bit of quiet tragedy wedged into the turmoil of the great play, and all
unspeakably solemn and awe-inspiring. One must see to understand it. One
may have seen yet can never describe it. The situation was not for
ordinary language; it was Homeric, over-mastering.
"Now, then, Devons, get ready." There was a dry catch in the colonel's
voice as he gave the word—and the short sentence was punctuated by the
zip-zip of the Mauser bullets, that for a few precious seconds would
still be flying overhead. There was a quick panting of the breath, a
stiffening of the lines of the faces, that with so many of them was but
the prelude to the rigidity of death. It was waiting for them only a few
yards up, and their manhood was being sorely tried. But the Devons
squared their shoulders, gripped their rifles—bringing them up with the
quick whip of the drill, that was too well ground into them to be
forgotten even then. A prompt dressing by the left, and, as though eager
to get it over, the Devons sprang forward to the word into the double
storm of hail and nickel-plated bullets. The killing suspense was
over—they were in action at last, one's whole heart went with them, and
just for one moment, as they stood fully exposed upon the plateau, it
seemed to the watchers that there might be disaster. They had slightly
miscalculated the enemy's strongest point, and had to wheel by the left.
As they did so the line faltered for a moment. A shiver, a
pendulum-like swaying seemed to run down it; that was the history-making
moment, when the regiment might either do something that ever afterwards
they would try to forget, or that all their countrymen would be proud to
remember—the moment in men's lives which, measured by emotion only,
stretch out into centuries. It was the moment of a life, too, for the
commander of men. His chance had come.
"Steady, Devons, steady," came the clear ringing call, and then, with
one great surging rush, that gathered momentum even as it lost in fallen
units, the regiment went on.
Boldly though they had taken and held that hill, prudence came to the
Boer riflemen as these eager bayonets bore down upon them. For a moment
they shot the Devons through and through, and then they ran. At that
moment not a man amongst our common-place, drinking, swearing Tommies
but was exalted, deified—but so many of them were something less of
interest on earth than even a common soldier. Where the regiment had
gone seventy of its dead and wounded littered the hilltop, but still it
was the moment of victory, not of lamentations. It may sound strange to
say that the prelude to a battle, like the preface to a book, can be
greater than the actual battle or the book. But so it seemed to me.
Others might view it differently, but challenge our impressions as we
may in the light of riper history, we shall never alter them. They are
indelible. Overhaul the plates again and again as we please, it will
always be the same picture.
Donald Macdonald ("How we Kept the Flag Flying").