On Sunday we were all astir for a big battle. But no village Sabbath in the Highlands could have been quieter, though it might have been more devotional. We rode about as usual, though our rides are very limited now, and the horse that took me forty miles last Wednesday is pining because the Boers have cut off his exercise. We sweated and swore, and suffered unfathomable thirst, but still there was no more battle than the evening hymn. Next day we knew it would be different. At night I heard the guns go out eastward along the Helpmakaar road to take up a position on our right. At three I was up in the morning darkness, and riding slowly northward with the brigade that was to form our centre, up the familiar Newcastle road. We had not far to go. The Boers save us a lot of exertion. A mile and a half—certainly less than two miles—from the outside of the town was our limit. But as we went the line of yellow behind our two nearest mountains, Lombard’s Kop and Bulwan (Mbulwani, Isamabulwan—you may spell it almost as you like), was suddenly shot with red, and the grey night clouds showed crimson on all their hanging edges. The crimson caught the vultures soaring wide through the air, and then the sun himself came up with that blaze of heat which was to torture us all day long.
The central rendezvous beside the Newcastle road was well protected by a high rocky hill, which one can only call a kopje now. There were the 5th Dragoon Guards, the Manchesters, the Devons, the Gordons, with their ambulance and baggage, some of the Natal Volunteers, and when the train from Maritzburg arrived about six the Rifle Brigade marched straight out of it to join us. I climbed the kopje in front of them, and from there could get a fine view of the whole position except the extreme flanks.
At 5.10 the first gun sounded from a battery on the right of our centre—a battery that was to do magnificent work through the day. The enemy’s reply was an enormous puff of smoke from a flat-topped hill straight in front of me. A huge shell shrieked through the air, and, passing high above my head, burst slap in the middle of the town behind me. Again and again it came. The second shot fell close to the central hospital; the third in a private garden, where the native servants have been busy digging for fragments ever since, as in a gold mine, not considering how cheap such treasure is now likely to become. The range was something over four miles. One of the shells passed so near the balloon that the officer in the car felt it like a gust of wind. (I ought to have told you about that balloon, by the way. We sent it up first on Sunday morning, our Zulu savages opening their mouths at it, beating their lips, and patting their stomachs with peculiar cries.)