Before that party returned in triumph another important movement was already in progress, of which, I believe, I was the only outside spectator. Just before four I was awakened by the trampling of cavalry going up the Newcastle road. They were the 5th Lancers, the 5th Dragoon Guards, and the 18th Hussars. The 19th Hussars had been out all night burning a kraal and distracting attention from Gun Hill. Just as the stars vanished, the 18th, followed by the others, galloped forward towards the Boer lines in the general direction of Pepworth Hill, though our main force was on the left of the direct line. General Brocklehurst was in command. It is described at Headquarters as a reconnaissance or demonstration. But there are rumours that more was originally intended—perhaps an attack on the Boer rail head, with its three heavy trains this side of Modder Spruit; perhaps the destruction of the Modder Spruit Bridge. If the object was only to discover whether the Boers are still in force, and to demonstrate the coolness of the British cavalry, the movement was entirely successful.
Directly the cavalry advanced across the fairly open valley of Bell’s Spruit, passing Brook’s Farm and making for the left of Limit Hill on the main road, they were met by a tremendous rifle fire from every ridge and hillock and rock commanding the scene. At the same time, guns opened upon them from Surprise Hill on our left rear, and from some spot which I could not locate on our left front. Still they advanced, squadron after squadron sweeping across Bell’s Spruit, and up into the tortuous little valleys and ravines beyond, towards Macpherson’s Farm. That was the limit. It is about two and three-quarter miles (not more) from our picket on the Newcastle road, and lies not far from the left foot of Pepworth Hill. The 18th Hussars, through some mistake in orders, attempted to push still further forward towards the hill, but just before five a general retirement began.
Except perhaps at the close of Elands Laagte fight, or in one brief assault of Turks upon a Greek position in Epirus, I have never heard anything to compare to the rifle fire under which the withdrawal was conducted. The range was long, but the roll of the rifle was incessant. The whole air screamed with bullets, and the dust rose in clouds over the grass as they fell. Then the 6 in. gun on Bulwan ("Puffing Billy”) and an invisible gun on our right opened fire, throwing shells into the thick of our men wherever the ravines or rocks compelled them to crowd together. They came back fast, but well in hand, wheeling to right or left at word of command, as on parade. The B Squadron of the 18th had a terrible gallop for it, right across the front of fire along a ridge such as Boers rejoice in. Their loss was two killed and seventeen wounded. The others only lost three or four slightly wounded. It proves how lightly a highly-disciplined cavalry can come off where one would have said hardly any could survive.