At 2 a.m. word was passed for the front rank men to fix bayonets, the rear rank to carry picks and shovels. Then out over the trench we went. We knew that not a bush, not an ant hill, scarcely a straw, was between us and the enemy, but that the tract over which we were advancing was as devoid of protection of any kind as though it were the frozen surface of a lake. In the darkness we were ordered to grasp with the left hand the rifle of our left hand man in order to keep the ranks. Forward we crept with almost noiseless tread; never a word except the whispered command. On we went, certain that some would never come back, yet without a faltering step. The rear rank, with entrenching tools, followed noiselessly. What were we going to do? None of us knew, but we felt that the time was at hand when mothers would be left to mourn.
Suddenly, without a warning shot, the enemy poured a murderous volley into our advancing line. Every man fell. Those who were not killed or wounded hugged the ground, while the rear rank digged as do the miners in narrow passages-now lying on this, now on that side, now on the stomach. The blows of the pick were not loud enough to drown the groans of the wounded. Meanwhile volley after volley, in straggling succession, came from the trench in front. One unearthly, continuous shriek of flying bullets appalled the ear, while more rapid than the click of a typewriter came the "crack" of the explosives. It seemed as though the furies were out in all their fury and were celebrating a coronation ceremony overhead. I lay and waited my turn to come; I was sure it would. A groan on my left told of a bullet gone home; a sigh on my right told of a soul released; a babel of groans and smothered cries told that death was abroad, and why should he pass me by?
"Zing-ng-ng-z, your turn next," said the mauser, spitefully. "Ping-ng-ng-piss-ss-s-s, I got a hair out of you," said the ricochet, as it kicked up the sand. "Hiss-ss-ss-spit," said the dum-dum; "I kissed you that time." "Swish-sh-sh-sh," said the big martini; "I did for your chum." And still I lay and waited until death was satiated, and only an occasional messenger flew by.
Meanwhile our rear rank had digged a trench of sufficient depth to insure safety, and to this we retired. The wounded were carried to the trench from which we had advanced. The sight here was gruesome indeed. By the flickering light of a candle, which had to be doused, as it drew the fire of the enemy, the doctor plied his bloody trade. Now he bends over a poor chap with a bullet through the head, and twice hit in the chest. "Our - Father - who - art - in - Heaven-Hallowed - be - Thy - I - killed - a - sheep - and If - you-will-Oh - murder - murder - help - you're - killing - look - out - you - fools - oh - murder - Our - Father - who -art," and so on, in his delirium mixing prayers with curses, he pours forth a torrent of meaningless combinations, until the blood from his wound at length chokes him, and his mutterings sink into guttural ejaculations.
The trench filled with the wounded, the flickering candle, the dancing, gruesome shadows, the hiss of the bullets, the delirious flow of talk from the wounded, and the red-handed doctor, all combine to give the impression that a horrible dream holds the mind and no reality. One member of our company was shot through the abdomen, and suffered all that man can bear. One after the other the wounded were brought to the doctor, dressed, and sent to the rear.
We held the trench until daylight; then, as the light strengthened, looking through the holes, we saw five stark objects lying between us and the enemy. We saw, too, that the Boers held a trench parallel to ours, and not more than sixty-five paces from where we lay. How so many of us escaped death can never be explained. We were discussing our morning coffee, and wondering how long before the order to charge, when a shout from somewhere drew our attention to a white rag tied to the barrel of a rifle and waving from the Boer trench. We were cautious and did not believe that it meant surrender; but, as man after man came forth and threw his rifle on the ground, it dawned upon us that our long stretch of anxiety was at an end-that for a time, at least, the awful tension, the fearful expectancy of death, the terrible, terrible sacrifice of life, were all past; and for the present we could draw a good, free breath without fear of it being the last.
We felt like school-boys, although none who saw us with gaunt, haggard faces and unkempt beards, with ragged clothes and worn out shoes, would have taken us for anything but tramps. We shook hands; we joked, laughed, and even the hum of a song was heard. We looked forward to a good night's sleep, when we could take off our boots and even unwind those long putties, which made our legs look like-dear knows what-I don't.