THE ADVANCE ON BATOCHE
After dinner I was ordered to turn out for a reconnaissance towards Batoche, the General himself commanding. We circled out on to the open prairie to get clear of the bush, which is dense only within two or three miles of the river bank. After proceeding some distance, we ascertained that the prairie was open to the north, and that the column could thus avoid dangerous ravines and heavy timber, which obstructed our march along the main trail through the settlement. Under the guidance of Mr. Reid, a surveyor, who was acting as paymaster to the Midland Battalion, the General marked out his line of march for the following day, and we returned to camp. The night was an anxious one; we were encamped within six miles of Riel's stronghold, who was aware of our presence, and there was ample cover to make a night attack, with little warning. But our pickets were strong and well placed, and were kept vigilant, by being visited by the General himself as usual, and who was followed later on by the field officer of the day. General Middleton never failed to assure himself every night that the pickets were well placed and doing their duty.
On the following morning we marched eastward at six o'clock, to reach open prairie, and then turned north to the trail that leads directly into Batoche. On the edge of the bush, some six miles from Batoche, the General halted, and ordered. camp to be pitched on a rising ground, protected by a lake on the bush side, and the open prairie on the other. Without halting, the General took my men on and made a reconnaissance to within a mile and a half of the rebel headquarters, to ascertain for himself the lay of the country, to see that our front was clear, and to select a spot nearer Batoche for the following night's camp. We passed through the reserve of "One Arrow," whose tribe had joined the insurgents, leaving his reserve deserted. Beyond a scout or two, who were seen watching our movements, nothing unusual occurred.
In the evening the General assembled the officers commanding corps and explained the duties each was expected to perform on the morrow, when an attack on the enemy's stronghold was to be made. Previous to leaving Gabriel's Crossing, the General had given instructions to Major Smith and Mr. Bedson, on board the steamboat, to drop down the river and join us at eight o'clock on the following morning, opposite Batoche, to co-operate in the contemplated attack.
On the morning of the 9th of May, the camp was astir before daybreak, making preparations for the important day's work before us. We were ready to march punctually at six o'clock, and as we were assembling for parade, a box of cigars, which had, come by that morning's mail, was handed to me as a present from Messrs. Davis & Sons, of Montreal, who for the comfort of the troops generously sent up ten thousand cigars to our column. By this thoughtful act I was enabled to serve out a cigar to each man, and we marched off amidst great good humour and lots of chaff.
The General left the camp intact, to await the, result of the day, leaving a small guard to protect it. Our order of march was as usual. My men covering the front with a line of sixteen skirmishers, `supported as before, followed by "A" Battery of Artillery and the gatling, the Grenadiers, the 90th and the Midland, with the Winnipeg Field Battery and Captain French's Scouts. My skirmishers had to go through dense bush, swamps and gullies, on each side of the trail, but the reconnaissance of the previous day had given them confidence, and they kept their position and touch remarkably well.
When within about a mile of the river, we heard sounds of a hot contest, in the direction of the stream, volley after volley and shot after shot being fired in rapid succession, and the steamboat blowing her whistle "for all she was worth." We knew at once that this part of the programme had miscarried. The General ordered a shot to be fired by the artillery to advise them of our approach, and if possible to draw the attention of the enemy from them in case they were in danger. We then advanced rapidly to the scene of action.
On our approach to the village we found the houses barricaded, which lay on the high ground before descending to the valley. It took some little time to form up the column from the line of march preparatory to going into action. Two guns were brought up and opened fire on the barricaded houses, from which men were seen issuing. I dismounted some of my men and advanced in skirmishing order, as we saw men moving about at the edge of the bush which encircles the prairie ridge at the top of the valley. Right before us, about four hundred yards off, lay two large buildings, near the trail, and out of one of them, after Captain Howard had fired two rounds of the gatling at it, came two or three people who waved a white handkerchief, which on being reported to the General, he advanced with us to ascertain the cause. He found that this house was occupied by a number of priests, some Sisters of Mercy, and several families, who were in a great state of anxiety and fear, and who luckily had not been touched by the gatling, which only hit the corner of the house. The General assured them of his protection, and shook each kindly by the hand. We now again advanced.
My line of scouts went on beyond the church and seminary, as we found them to be, and into the brush, that lay about two hundred yards the other side of the church, and there we received the fire of the enemy from the concealed rifle-pits. The General's orders to me were, that the moment I felt the enemy I was to retire my men and form them up to await further orders, which I now did, in the neighbourhood of the church.
The Grenadiers now came up, and two companies extended in skirmishing order to advance upon the position. The artillery were advanced and opened fire upon the other side of the river. Two more guns were pushed still farther forward, until they commanded the village and the ferry, and there commenced shelling the position to protect the advance of our skirmishers and draw the enemy's fire from the steamboat. By the time these positions were taken up, the fire in the neighbourhood of the steamboat had ceased, and she was not to be seen near the ferry, so we hoped she had made her escape in safety.
The Grenadiers advanced into the bush, were received by. a hot fire from the concealed rifle-pits, and were ordered to lie down. The guns, which were shelling the village, were ordered to change their position. The General and all his staff, besides a number of officers, were watching the effect of the shelling, and just as the guns were being limbered up preparatory to changing their position, a body of' the enemy, who had crept through the bushes which lay a short distance in our front, poured in a volley and wounded two or three men and killed a horse. The gatling, which was being worked for the second time and was just getting into action, with Captain Howard at the crank, turned its fire on the concealed foe, and for the moment silenced them. Captain Howard on this occasion showed his gun off to the best advantage, and very pluckily worked it with great coolness, although the fire from the enemy was very hot for a time. This is the incident that was magnified into the "gatling saving the guns." The illustrated papers drew vivid pictures of our artillery, surrounded by a horde of savages, and Captain Howard's gatling pouring forth its bullets for their salvation, and "mowing 'em down." These absurd illustrations and absurder comments unfairly reflected upon our artillery and their officers; but Captain Howard did nothing more than what was repeatedly done by our gunners, and were it not that he was an officer belonging to the American service partaking of our hospitality and serving with us, I do not suppose his name would have been mentioned. I say this in justice to our own men, and not in any way to discredit Captain Howard, who behaved himself throughout the campaign with the greatest coolness and courage, and worthily upheld the character of the great people who are our neighbours. On this occa- sion we were all anxious to compliment him on the service his gun had performed, the first time it had been in action, and this considerate act of ours was unfortunately made the pretext for which at one time seemed a dereliction of duty on the part of our own gunners and their supports.
We had now received a decided check. Immediately in our front lay a thick bush, beyond which we could not penetrate. We had been driven by the heavy fire of the enemy from the position which the guns occupied over looking the village, which was within easy range of the rifle-pits that were covered by the bush.
I here attempt a short description of the ground that we were fighting on. The trail by which we had approached Batoche from the east, made a turn and came up parallel to the bank of the river, for half a mile, and only a few yards from the edge of the valley to the church. A short distance beyond the church the trail disappeared in the bush, down the slope of the valley leading to Batoche. The bank of the river is very steep, sloping abruptly down to the water about one hundred and fifty feet below, the valley between these two high banks being about a mile wide. On one side, opposite the village, where a few horses with a store stood, a portion of Riel's men were camped, protected by a semicircle of rifle-pits and entrenchments, whose points touched the banks of the river to the north and south. The river bank on our side was covered with heavy timber, and afforded good cover to the enemy, further protected by a semi-circle of rifle-pits which enclosed the slope towards the village, and the ferry. Near the churŠh a short gully formed an indentation leading down to tie river, clothed with brush, towards the bottom, where the enemy were in force. On the prairie level was an open space, about half a mile square, surrounded by clumps of trees and flanked by the river. This position we occupied, making the neighbourhood of the church our headquarters.
The enemy were on two sides of us; in front of us, in their rifle-pits, and on our left, covered by the protection of the river bank, and the shelter afforded by the bush in the gully. On the south side of this short gully, farthest from Batoche, and next our position, was a graveyard with a fence around it, resting on the edge of the bank and overlooking the magnificent valley below.
General Middleton now lined the edge of the river bank, with the 90th, occupying the graveyard and the slope of the hill to the river. The Grenadiers occupied the front, opposed to the rifle-pits of the enemy. Some of my men, with Captain French's, flanked the crests of the short gully, joined by the dismounted Artillery. At this point, Gunner Phillips was killed, and two of Captain French's men were wounded. The mouth of the gully evidently contained the enemy in force. Colonel Williams was ordered to charge down this gully with his two companies, which he gallantly did, clearing the front in this direction; and Captain Peters accompanied by Dr. Codd, took advantage of this movement to go with three or four of his men to recover Phillips' body, which was lying under fire, and who was found to be dead. The position was unknown to the troops, and the danger from the unseen rifle-pits was so great to our inexperienced men that no further advantage was gained; but a continuous fire from both sides was maintained in a determined manner, the enemy not venturing out of their rifle-pits and our troops not venturing into them. We were somewhat annoyed at this time by a galling fire from the opposite side of the river, two or three long range rifles reaching us, sending occasional bullets into our midst. But the artillery opened fire and silenced it; and so the day wore on. The casualties were not heavy, although two gallant comrades, Phillips, of the Artillery, and Moor, of the Grenadiers, breathed their last, and six more were wounded, including Captain Mason, of the Grenadiers.
The question that was discussed with a great deal of interest and anxiety during the afternoon was what did the General intend doing. On the previous evening during our reconnaissance the Genera] had selected a spot upon which to camp after the morrow's engagement at Batoche; but he had altered this arrangement, and the orders which had been issued to strike camp at four o'clock in the morning had been countermanded, and the camp was left standing to await the events of the day. The question privately discussed: was whether the General intended retiring to the camp, or would he bring the camp up to the positions.
The news of Colonel Otter's engagement with Pound- maker reached the General before he left Fish Creek, and the wires between Battleford and Clarke's Crossing being down, no further information from that quarter had been obtained, which added to the anxiety of the moment.
The General gave no intimation of his policy, until about half-past three, when he gave me orders to take my men and go with Mr. Secretan, the assistant transport officer, strike camp, and escort them up. As soon as the General had given this order, his face brightened up; and the load of anxiety that had rested upon him, in determining his policy, seemed to pass off when he had made up his mind as to the course he should follow. He was now relying on the valour and determination of his troops, and casting upon them the fate of the day. He was not to be disappointed in the result. There was a certain element of risk in thus moving up his whole equipment close to the enemy's lines, but the General determined upon a bold policy.
We cheerfully returned to the last night's camp at a brisk pace, and the tents were struck and loaded up. Lord Melgund returned with us on his way to Humboldt, to convey the despatches of the General, and continued his way to Ottawa, to confer with the Government upon the present situation, and if necessary to bring up reinforcements. We were sorry to lose him, for a more kind, gallant officer no troops ever served under. I fancy, he felt the affair was likely to be of longer duration than was at first supposed, owing to the stubborn resistance of the enemy, or else he would not have left us at all.
We returned with the transport and camping outfit by half-past seven in the evening, very much to the relief of everyone, who had a long, fatiguing and harassing day, and unproductive of any material results. The houses had been burnt down in our neighbourhood as a precautionary measure, and a place selected, and lines for an entrenched camp marked out.
A corral was soon formed about a quarter of a mile distant from the church, in a ploughed field, and about two hundred yards distant from the bank of the river. Inside this small space the whole of the troops were placed, Using the waggons as a barricade, in case of an attack. The skirmishers were now withdrawn, and as they retreated, they were followed by the enemy with a hot fire, which was kept up till they reached the corral, some bullets taking effect upon the horses, and several men being wounded inside the corral. As dusk had now come on, their firing ceased, and the troops were allowed to get supper in quiet and prepare for the night.
The General now ordered up reinforcements. Colonel O'Brien's Battalion, York and Simcoe Rangers, were ordered to reinforce Colonel Denison at Humboldt; the 7th Fusiliers, under Colonel Williams, of London, to go to Clarke's Crossing, and the remainder of the late Colonel Williams' Battalion, the Midland, were ordered to the front. Colonel Scott's Battalion, the 91st, was also instructed to garrison Fort Qu'Appelle, and Colonel Turnbull's School of Cavalry was ordered to remain at Touchwood Hills, and the Winnipeg troop of Cavalry under Captain Knight, to remain at Fort Qu'Appelle, thus bringing the reinforcements closer to the main column.
The night which we had now to spend will ever be a memorable one to the little force encamped before Batoche. In the corral, formed by about two hundred and fifty waggons, were enclosed some six hundred horses and about eight hundred men, besides teamsters. As soon as the men had their supper, strong pickets were placed outside the corral, in front of the waggons. The Midland, under Colonel Williams, with one company of the 90th, under Captain Forrest, took up a position on the edge of the bank overlooking the valley, to prevent a surprise from the enemy at that point; and during, the whole night it kept up a dropping fire into the bush, which clothed the bank of the river. This was done to prevent the enemy in any numbers sneaking up under cover to surprise the little force, and to keep the men awake, two-thirds of the force kept vigilant watch on all sides, as sentries, pickets and skirmishers; for it was felt by the General that if there was any enterprise in the enemy we would be exposed to a night attack, which, in our crowded position, would have been very harassing, if not serious.
Before dawn next day the teamsters were all aroused, and the troops astir, in case that hour should be selected for an attack. The greatest danger would have been the stampeding of the horses, as it would have embarrassed our movements, so the teamsters were ordered to stand by them. But dawn came and early morning passed without any disturbance, and the men got their breakfast in peace; thus a bright Sunday morning opened upon a scene of war and anxiety.
About seven in the morning we saw through our field glasses a party of men digging near the graveyard. It was a funeral party of the enemy, burying their dead of the day before, and we refrained from interfering, or making any attack, until all was over.
At eight o'clock the General ordered out the Grenadiers and directed Colonel Van Straubenzic to advance them to their position of the day before. My men were also ordered out, as a line of skirmishers, in front of the right sank of the corral, to protect the camp from surprise in that direction. The Midlanders again occupied the position on the left flank. The enemy took up a more advanced position in front of their rifle-pits, and in the rear of the church, so we lost some of our ground of the previous day; but as the General was occupying the ground only to ascertain further the lay of the country, no attack was ordered. The men put in. some practice by firing at the enemy in front and across the river, and by throwing up temporary entrenchments to protect themselves, taking lessons from the enemy's mode of warfare. Captain French with his men, and one of my troops, was sent on a reconnaissance to ascertain the position of an open plain, reported to the north. He made a circuit of some distance, returned in the evening, and reported having found it. The Winnipeg Field Battery turned out in the afternoon and opened fire from the right of the line across towards the graveyard, and Lieutenant Bolster, of the 90th, with a small detachment, made some blind rifle-pits, to occupy and protect the line of skirmishers as they made their usual' retirement in the evening.
The Rev. Mr. Gordon, who had joined the force as chaplain of the 90th, and who had been sent up by the parishioners of Knox Church, Winnipeg, of which he was pastor, held service in the evening. During his sermon the retirement took place, which was accompanied by heavy firing, to cover and protect the retreating troops.. This made his remarks so much the more impressive, as he had to raise his voice above the din of the firing. To show how completely we had lost track of the days, the arrangements about divine service were being put in orders and Mr. Gordon was consulted, when he had to tell the Brigade Major that Sunday was over.
On Monday morning the General ordered out my men and Captain French's with the gatling to make a reconnaissance on the plain to the north of Batoche. We marched about ten o'clock under the command of the General himself, leaving Colonel Montizambert, Colonel Grasett, Colonel Williams Major Jarvis, Colonel Mackeand and Colonel Van Straubenzie all discussing the position, and studying a plan of the ground, which had been drawn by Captain Haig, R. E., with a view of preparing for the attack. Just as we were going out, one of the priests was being carried to the hospital tent; he had been severely wounded by one of the enemy's bullets, which had entered the window from the rear of the seminary. With Hourie for guide, we made a short cut across, just skirting the prairie where it dips into the thick bush towards the valley; and after a march of about a mile we came to a fine level plateau, of about fifteen hundred acres in extent, and nearly half a mile wide. We discovered that the edge of this plain, next the valley of the river, was lined with men, who were sheltered, as we afterwards found, by the customary rifle-pits which formed part of the semi-circle of entrenchments with which Batoche was surrounded. After dismounting, we threw out our skirmishers, under shelter, in order to draw the fire of the enemy and to ascertain their strength. The gatling opened fire upon some houses, half a mile distant, where some men were seen, which had the effect of bringing out from a house about forty or fifty men who were there assembled, and who scattered in all directions under the rapid firing of the gun. After gaining all the information we could at this point, without exposing the men more than was necessary, the General continued his reconnaissance down the plain. Two scouts were observed in the distance watching our movements, and a view halloo was given, and a chase and chevy ensued, led by the General himself, on his horse, "Old Sam," as he called him.
After an exciting gallop for a couple of miles, we pulled up, but the enemy had escaped us. On our return, we found that the General, who had been left by himself, had made a capture on his own account of a half-breed who had been lurking in the bush. He was unarmed, represented that he had come out for cattle and was not a fighter. He observed, as we marched him off, that the men would have to go hungry to-day for dinner. Before leaving this point we burned down some loghouses that might afford shelter for the enemy, in case further operations were needed here, and we returned to camp in good humour after our morning's excitement driving before us a herd of cattle, some heads of which hat been intended to supply the rebels with their dinner. We also drove off, during these days, all the ponies we could find, and herded them in the neighbourhood of our camp, to prevent the enemy obtaining them for offensive purposes or for flight.
We returned to camp, where the day's work had been similar to the previous one, Colonel Van Straubenzie with his Infantry Brigade occupying the positions in front of the enemy, and keeping up the same excellent practice, making experienced soldiers of his men. The Winnipeg Field Battery turned out in the afternoon and from the neighbourhood of the graveyard, which position had been regained during the day, had a little practice, shelling the opposite side of the river, where we observed that the shells created great consternation, among the rebels, making them scatter and get well beyond range, and silenced the long range rifles which were a constant source of annoyance. The retirement was effected in the evening in the same manner, with the same heavy, independent firing from both sides. It was on this evening that poor Dick Hardisty, the son of the well-known and respected Hudson's Bay officer, who acted as secretary to Mr. Donald A. Smith in 1869, was brought in on an ambulance to breathe his last in a few short hours. His death and a few wounded made up the casualties of the day. Among the latter was Captain Manley, of the Grenadiers, who was wounded while covering the retirement of the 90th. During this movement, the General was engaged shaving himself in the centre of the corral (a daily duty he never neglected). His pocket-glass was resting on the wheel of a waggon, and a bullet struck the waggon-box behind the glass. The General, with the utmost composure, took no notice of it, but went on with his shaving, though the incident was sufficiently exciting to make most men give themselves a gash or dispense with the ceremony on that occasion.