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").