[Editor: A poem by George Essex Evans about the Battle of Eland’s River (South Africa) in August 1900. Published in The Argus, 3 August 1901.]
4th to 16th August, 1900.
This engagement has been described by English officers as the most gallant fight of the whole war, and has been specially recommended by Conan Doyle as the finest subject that an Australian balladist could wish for.
It was on the fourth of August, as five hundred of us lay
In the camp at Eland’s River, came a shell from De La Rey —
We were dreaming of home faces,
Of the old familiar places,
And the gum-trees and the sunny plains five thousand miles away —
But the challenge woke and found us
With four thousand rifles round us;
And Death stood laughing at us at the breaking of the day.
Hell belched upon our borders, and the battle had begun.
Our Maxims jammed: We faced them with one muzzle-loading gun.
East, south, and west, and nor’ward
Their shells came screaming forward
As we threw the sconces round us in the first light of the sun.
The thin air shook with thunder
As they raked us fore and under,
And the cordon closed around us, and they held us — eight to one.
We got the Maxims going, and the field-gun into place
(She stilled the growling of a Krupp upon our southern face);
Round the crimson ring of battle
Swiftly ran the deadly rattle
As our rifles searched their fore-lines with a desperate menace;
Who would wish himself away
Fighting in our ranks that day
For the glory of Australia and the honour of the race?
But our horse-lines soon were shambles, and our cattle lying dead
(When twelve guns rake two acres there is little room to tread),
All day long we heard the drumming
Of the Mauser bullets humming,
And at night their guns, day-sighted, rained fierce havoc overhead.
Twelve long days and nights together,
Through the cold and bitter weather,
We lay grim behind the sconces, and returned them lead for lead.
They called us to surrender, and they let their cannon lag;
They offered us our freedom for the striking of the flag —
Army stores were there in mounds,
Worth a hundred thousand pounds,
And we lay battered round them behind trench and sconce and crag.
But we sent the answer in,
They could take what they could win —
We hadn’t come five thousand miles to fly the coward’s rag.
We saw the guns of Carrington come on and fall away;
We saw the ranks of Kitchener across the kopje grey —
For the sun was shining then
Upon twenty thousand men —
And we laughed, because we knew, in spite of hell-fire and delay,
On Australia’s page for ever
We had written Eland’s River—
We had written it for ever and a day!
Geo. Essex Evans.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday 3 August 1901, page 13
Carrington = General Frederick Carrington, who led a force of 1,000 men to relieve the troops at Eland’s River, but was beaten back by the Boers
De La Rey = General Koos de la Rey, a leading Boer commander during the Boer War
Eland’s River = the site of the Battle of Eland’s River (1900), where about 500 British Empire soldiers (mainly Australian and Rhodesian) were surrounded by a force of about 3,000 Boer troops led by General Koos de la Rey
Kitchener = Lord Herbert Kitchener, who led an army of 10,000 soldiers to relieve the post at Eland’s River, in the face of which the Boer force retreated
Maxims = Maxim machine-guns
sconces = protective screens or shelters (in another context, it would refer to brackets affixed to a wall for holding candles)