The Boers had occupied it two days before, had captured a train there, and torn up the rail in two places, making a number of prisoners and seizing 100 head of cattle and quantities of other private stores and the luggage going to Dundee. Early in the morning we had gone out with four companies of the Manchesters in an armoured train with an ordinary train behind it, a battery of Natal Field Artillery, and the Imperial Light Horse under Colonel Scott Chisholme, to reconnoitre with a view to repairing the line. They seized the station and released a number of prisoners, but were compelled to withdraw by three heavy Nordenfeldt guns, which the Boers had posted on a hill about 2,500 yards beyond the station. At half-past ten they had reached the point I describe, and were very slowly coming back towards Ladysmith, the trains moving backwards, and the cavalry walking on each side the line. The point is called Modder’s Spruit, from some early Dutchman, and there is a little station there, the first out from Ladysmith town. At that moment another train was seen coming up with the 1st Devons, and within an hour a fourth arrived with five companies of the Gordons. The 42nd Field Battery then came, and the 21st later; the 5th Lancers with a few 5th Dragoon Guards, and a large contingent of Natal mounted volunteers. That was our force. It took up a strong and fairly concealed position behind a rise in the road to the left of the railway and waited. Meantime the Boer scouts crept along that rocky ridge on our right front and down into the plain, firing into us at long range, quite without effect.
At half-past one General French, who had taken command, sent out a few Lancers to watch our left, and a large force of mixed cavalry to the right. By a long circuit these swept up the whole length of the ridge and cleared out the Boer sharpshooters, who could be seen galloping away over the top. The infantry then detrained and advanced across the plain and up the ridge in extended order, half a battery meantime driving out a small Boer party, which was firing upon our Lancers on our left.
[Illustration: Plan of the battle of Elands Laagte]
When we reached the top of that long ridge, we found it broad as well as long, and we were moving rapidly across it when, with the usual whirr and crash and scream, one of the enemy’s big shells fell in the midst of our right centre, killing two horses at a gun. It was at once followed by another, and a dozen or two more. They had our range exactly, and the art of knowing what was going on behind the hill, but though the shells burst all right and hot fragments or bullets went shrieking through the midst of us, I did not see anything but horses actually struck. I think six or seven horses were killed at that place, and later on I heard of a bugler having his head cut off, and two or three others killed by shell, but otherwise I believe the artillery did us no damage, though to most men it is more terrifying than rifle fire. When we reached the edge of the ridge we looked across a broad low valley, with one small wave in it, to the enemy’s main position on some rocky hills nearly 4,000 yards away. The place was very strong and well chosen.