The Great Boer War
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
During the course of the war some sixteen Editions of this work have appeared, each of which was, I hope, a little more full and accurate than that which preceded it. I may fairly claim, however, that the absolute mistakes made have been few in number, and that I have never had occasion to reverse, and seldom to modify, the judgments which I have formed. In this final edition the early text has been carefully revised and all fresh available knowledge has been added within the limits of a single volume narrative. Of the various episodes in the latter half of the war it is impossible to say that the material is available for a complete and final chronicle. By the aid, however, of the official dispatches, of the newspapers, and of many private letters, I have done my best to give an intelligible and accurate account of the matter. The treatment may occasionally seem too brief but some proportion must be observed between the battles of 1899-1900 and the skirmishes of
My private informants are so numerous that it would be hardly possible, even if it were desirable, that I should quote their names. Of the correspondents upon whose work I have drawn for my materials, I would acknowledge my obligations to Messrs. Burleigh, Nevinson, Battersby, Stuart, Amery, Atkins, Baillie, Kinneir, Churchill, James, Ralph, Barnes, Maxwell, Pearce, Hamilton, and others. Especially I would mention the gentleman who represented the 'Standard' in the last year of the war, whose accounts of Vlakfontein, Von Donop's Convoy, and Tweebosch were the only reliable ones which reached the public.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, Hindhead: September 1902.
Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who
defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of
Look at the map of
It was about the time when Oliver Cromwell was at his
zenith--in 1652, to be pedantically accurate--that the Dutch made their first
lodgment at the
But it was different with the Dutch. That very rudeness of
climate which had so impressed the Portuguese adventurer was the source of
their success. Cold and poverty and storm are the nurses of the qualities which
make for empire. It is the men from the bleak and barren lands who master the
children of the light and the heat. And so the Dutchmen at the
For a hundred more years the history of the colony was a
record of the gradual spreading of the Afrikaners over the huge expanse of veld
which lay to the north of them. Cattle raising became
an industry, but in a country where six acres can hardly support a sheep, large
farms are necessary for even small herds. Six thousand acres was the usual
size, and five pounds a year the rent payable to Government. The diseases which
follow the white man had in Africa, as in
In all our vast collection of States there is probably not
one the title-deeds to which are more incontestable than to this one. We had it
by two rights, the right of conquest and the right of purchase. In 1806 our
troops landed, defeated the local forces, and took possession of
The title-deeds to the estate are, as I have said, good
ones, but there is one singular and ominous flaw in their provisions. The ocean
has marked three boundaries to it, but the fourth is undefined. There is no
word of the 'Hinterland;' for neither the term nor the idea had then been
thought of. Had
At the time of their transference to the British flag the
colonists--Dutch, French, and German--numbered some thirty thousand. They were
slaveholders, and the slaves were about as numerous as themselves. The prospect
of complete amalgamation between the British and the original settlers would
have seemed to be a good one, since they were of much the same stock, and their creeds could only be distinguished by their
varying degrees of bigotry and intolerance. Five thousand British emigrants
were landed in 1820, settling on the Eastern borders of the colony, and from
that time onwards there was a slow but steady influx of English speaking
colonists. The Government had the historical faults and the historical virtues
of British rule. It was mild, clean, honest, tactless, and inconsistent. On the
whole, it might have done very well had it been content to leave things as it
found them. But to change the habits of the most conservative of Teutonic races
was a dangerous venture, and one which has led to a long series of
complications, making up the troubled history of
The British Government in
And the separation soon became more marked. There were
injudicious tamperings with the local government and the local ways, with a
substitution of English for Dutch in the law courts. With vicarious generosity,
the English Government gave very lenient terms to the Kaffir tribes who in 1834
had raided the border farmers. And then, finally, in this same year there came
the emancipation of the slaves throughout the
It must be confessed that on this occasion the British
philanthropist was willing to pay for what he thought was right. It was a noble
national action, and one the morality of which was in advance of its time, that
the British Parliament should vote the enormous sum of twenty million pounds to
pay compensation to the slaveholders, and so to remove an evil with which the
mother country had no immediate connection. It was as well that the thing
should have been done when it was, for had we waited till the colonies affected
had governments of their own it could never have been done by constitutional
methods. With many a grumble the good British householder drew his purse from
his fob, and he paid for what he thought to be right. If any special grace
attends the virtuous action which brings nothing but tribulation in this world,
then we may hope for it over this emancipation. We spent our money, we ruined
our West Indian colonies, and we started a disaffection
But the details of the measure were less honourable than the
principle. It was carried out suddenly, so that the country had no time to
adjust itself to the new conditions. Three million pounds were ear-marked for
It was a strange exodus, only comparable in modern times to
the sallying forth of the Mormons from Nauvoo upon their search for the
promised laud of
This victory of the 'voortrekkers' cleared all the country
between the Orange River and the Limpopo, the sites of what has been known as
the Transvaal and the
And now at the end of their great journey, after overcoming
the difficulties of distance, of nature, and of savage enemies, the Boers saw
at the end of their travels the very thing which they desired least--that which
they had come so far to avoid--the flag of
Had they any wrongs to tell? It is difficult to reach that
height of philosophic detachment which enables the historian to deal absolutely
impartially where his own country is a party to the quarrel. But at least we
may allow that there is a case for our adversary. Our annexation of
The emigrants who had settled in the huge tract of country
between the Orange River in the south and the Limpopo in the north had been
recruited by newcomers from the
At this period the
In the very year after the Sand River Convention a second
In the meantime
For twenty-five years after the Sand River Convention the
burghers of the
There did not appear to be any strong feeling at the time
against the annexation. The people were depressed with their troubles and weary
of contention. Burgers, the President, put in a formal protest, and took up his
But the empire has always had poor luck in
It cannot be too often pointed out that in this annexation,
the starting-point of our troubles,
In December 1880 the Boers rose. Every farmhouse sent out
its riflemen, and the trysting-place was the outside of the nearest British
fort. All through the country small detachments were surrounded and besieged by
the farmers. Standerton,
The defeat at Majuba Hill was followed by the complete
surrender of the Gladstonian Government, an act which was either the most
pusillanimous or the most magnanimous in recent history. It is hard for the big
man to draw away from the small before blows are struck but when the big man
has been knocked down three times it is harder still. An overwhelming British
force was in the field, and the General declared that he held the enemy in the
hollow of his hand. Our military calculations have been falsified before now by
these farmers, and it may be that the task of Wood and Roberts would have been
harder than they imagined; but on paper, at least, it looked as if the enemy
could be crushed without difficulty. So the public thought, and yet they
consented to the upraised sword being stayed. With them, as apart from the
politicians, the motive was undoubtedly a moral and Christian one. They
considered that the annexation of the
An armistice was concluded on March 5th, 1881, which led up
to a peace on the 23rd of the same month. The Government, after yielding to
force what it had repeatedly refused to friendly representations, made a clumsy
compromise in their settlement. A policy of idealism and Christian morality
should have been thorough if it were to be tried at all. It was obvious that if
the annexation were unjust, then the
It was evident from the first that so illogical and
contentious an agreement could not possibly prove to be a final settlement, and
indeed the ink of the signatures was hardly dry before an agitation was on foot
for its revision. The Boers considered, and with justice, that if they were to
be left as undisputed victors in the war then they should have the full fruits
of victory. On the other hand, the English-speaking colonies had their
allegiance tested to the uttermost. The proud Anglo-Celtic stock is not
accustomed to be humbled, and yet they found themselves through the action of
the home Government converted into members of a beaten race. It was very well
for the citizen of
The Government of the
During three years the little State showed signs of a
tumultuous activity. Considering that it was as large as
In 1884 a deputation from the Transvaal visited
This, then, is a synopsis of what had occurred up to the signing of the Convention, which finally established, or failed to establish, the position of the South African Republic. We must now leave the larger questions, and descend to the internal affairs of that small State, and especially to that train of events which has stirred the mind of our people more than anything since the Indian Mutiny.
There might almost seem to be some subtle connection between the barrenness and worthlessness of a surface and the value of the minerals which lie beneath it. The craggy mountains of Western America, the arid plains of West Australia, the ice-bound gorges of the Klondyke, and the bare slopes of the Witwatersrand veld--these are the lids which cover the great treasure chests of the world.
Gold had been known to exist in the
Such a discovery produced the inevitable effect. A great
number of adventurers flocked into the country, some desirable and some very
much the reverse. There were circumstances, however, which kept away the rowdy
and desperado element who usually make for a newly
opened goldfield. It was not a class of mining which encouraged the individual
adventurer. There were none of those nuggets which gleamed through the mud of
the dollies at Ballarat, or recompensed the forty-niners in
The situation was an extraordinary one. I have already
attempted to bring the problem home to an American by suggesting that the Dutch
of New York had trekked west and founded an anti-American and highly
unprogressive State. To carry out the analogy we will now suppose that that
That these Uitlanders had very real and pressing grievances
no one could possibly deny. To recount them all would be a formidable task, for
their whole lives were darkened by injustice. There was not a wrong which had
driven the Boer from
Without attempting to enumerate all the wrongs which embittered the Uitlanders, the more serious of them may be summed up in this way.
1. That they were heavily taxed and provided about seven-eighths of the revenue of the country. The revenue of the South African Republic--which had been 154,000 pounds in 1886, when the gold fields were opened--had grown in 1899 to four million pounds, and the country through the industry of the newcomers had changed from one of the poorest to the richest in the whole world (per head of population).
2. That in spite of this prosperity which they had brought, they, the majority of the inhabitants of the country, were left without a vote, and could by no means influence the disposal of the great sums which they were providing. Such a case of taxation without representation has never been known.
3. That they had no voice in the choice or payment of officials. Men of the worst private character might be placed with complete authority over valuable interests. Upon one occasion the Minister of Mines attempted himself to jump a mine, having officially learned some flaw in its title. The total official salaries had risen in 1899 to a sum sufficient to pay 40 pounds per head to the entire male Boer population.
4. That they had no control over education. Mr. John Robinson, the Director General of the Johannesburg Educational Council, has reckoned the sum spent on Uitlander schools as 650 pounds out of 63,000 pounds allotted for education, making one shilling and tenpence per head per annum on Uitlander children, and eight pounds six shillings per head on Boer children--the Uitlander, as always, paying seven-eighths of the original sum.
5. No power of municipal government. Watercarts instead of pipes, filthy buckets instead of drains, a corrupt and violent police, a high death-rate in what should be a health resort--all this in a city which they had built themselves.
6. Despotic government in the matter of the press and of the right of public meeting.
7. Disability from service upon a jury.
8. Continual harassing of the mining interest by vexatious legislation. Under this head came many grievances, some special to the mines and some affecting all Uitlanders. The dynamite monopoly, by which the miners had to pay 600,000 pounds extra per annum in order to get a worse quality of dynamite; the liquor laws, by which one-third of the Kaffirs were allowed to be habitually drunk; the incompetence and extortions of the State-owned railway; the granting of concessions for numerous articles of ordinary consumption to individuals, by which high prices were maintained; the surrounding of Johannesburg by tolls from which the town had no profit--these were among the economical grievances, some large, some petty, which ramified through every transaction of life.
And outside and beyond all these definite wrongs imagine to a free born progressive man, an American or a Briton, the constant irritation of being absolutely ruled by a body of twenty-five men, twenty-one of whom had in the case of the Selati Railway Company been publicly and circumstantially accused of bribery, with full details of the bribes received, while to their corruption they added such crass ignorance that they argue in the published reports of the Volksraad debates that using dynamite bombs to bring down rain was firing at God, that it is impious to destroy locusts, that the word 'participate' should not be used because it is not in the Bible, and that postal pillar boxes are extravagant and effeminate. Such obiter dicta may be amusing at a distance, but they are less entertaining when they come from an autocrat who has complete power over the conditions of your life.
From the fact that they were a community extremely preoccupied by their own business, it followed that the Uitlanders were not ardent politicians, and that they desired to have a share in the government of the State for the purpose of making the conditions of their own industry and of their own daily lives more endurable. How far there was need of such an interference may be judged by any fair-minded man who reads the list of their complaints. A superficial view may recognise the Boers as the champions of liberty, but a deeper insight must see that they (as represented by their elected rulers) have in truth stood for all that history has shown to be odious in the form of exclusiveness and oppression. Their conception of liberty has been a selfish one, and they have consistently inflicted upon others far heavier wrongs than those against which they had themselves rebelled.
As the mines increased in importance and the miners in
numbers, it was found that these political disabilities affected some of that
cosmopolitan crowd far more than others, in proportion to the amount of freedom
to which their home institutions had made them accustomed. The continental
Uitlanders were more patient of that which was unendurable to the American and
the Briton. The Americans, however, were in so great a minority that it was
upon the British that the brunt of the struggle for freedom fell. Apart from
the fact that the British were more numerous than all the other Uitlanders
combined, there were special reasons why they should feel their humiliating
position more than the members of any other race. In the first place, many of
the British were British South Africans, who knew that in the neighbouring
countries which gave them birth the most liberal possible institutions had been
given to the kinsmen of these very Boers who were refusing them the management
of their own drains and water supply. And again, every Briton knew that
But it is a poor cause which cannot bear to fairly state and honestly consider the case of its opponents. The Boers had made, as has been briefly shown, great efforts to establish a country of their own. They had travelled far, worked hard, and fought bravely. After all their efforts they were fated to see an influx of strangers into their country, some of them men of questionable character, who outnumbered the original inhabitants. If the franchise were granted to these, there could be no doubt that though at first the Boers might control a majority of the votes, it was only a question of time before the newcomers would dominate the Raad and elect their own President, who might adopt a policy abhorrent to the original owners of the land. Were the Boers to lose by the ballot-box the victory which they had won by their rifles? Was it fair to expect it? These newcomers came for gold. They got their gold. Their companies paid a hundred per cent. Was not that enough to satisfy them? If they did not like the country why did they not leave it? No one compelled them to stay there. But if they stayed, let them be thankful that they were tolerated at all, and not presume to interfere with the laws of those by whose courtesy they were allowed to enter the country.
That is a fair statement of the Boer position, and at first sight an impartial man might say that there was a good deal to say for it; but a closer examination would show that, though it might be tenable in theory, it is unjust and impossible in practice.
In the present crowded state of the world a policy of Thibet may be carried out in some obscure corner, but it cannot be done in a great tract of country which lies right across the main line of industrial progress. The position is too absolutely artificial. A handful of people by the right of conquest take possession of an enormous country over which they are dotted at such intervals that it is their boast that one farmhouse cannot see the smoke of another, and yet, though their numbers are so disproportionate to the area which they cover, they refuse to admit any other people upon equal terms, but claim to be a privileged class who shall dominate the newcomers completely. They are outnumbered in their own land by immigrants who are far more highly educated and progressive, and yet they hold them down in a way which exists nowhere else upon earth. What is their right? The right of conquest. Then the same right may be justly invoked to reverse so intolerable a situation. This they would themselves acknowledge. 'Come on and fight! Come on!' cried a member of the Volksraad when the franchise petition of the Uitlanders was presented. 'Protest! Protest! What is the good of protesting?' said Kruger to Mr. W. Y. Campbell; 'you have not got the guns, I have.' There was always the final court of appeal. Judge Creusot and Judge Mauser were always behind the President.
Again, the argument of the Boers would be more valid had they received no benefit from these immigrants. If they had ignored them they might fairly have stated that they did not desire their presence. But even while they protested they grew rich at the Uitlander's expense. They could not have it both ways. It would be consistent to discourage him and not profit by him, or to make him comfortable and build the State upon his money; but to ill-treat him and at the same time to grow strong by his taxation must surely be an injustice.
And again, the whole argument is based upon the narrow
racial supposition that every naturalised citizen not of Boer extraction must
necessarily be unpatriotic. This is not borne out by the examples of history. The
newcomer soon becomes as proud of his country and as jealous of her liberty as
the old. Had President Kruger given the franchise generously to the Uitlander,
his pyramid would have been firm upon its base and not balanced upon its apex.
It is true that the corrupt oligarchy would have vanished, and the spirit of a
broader more tolerant freedom influenced the counsels of the State. But the
republic would have become stronger and more permanent, with a population who,
if they differed in details, were united in essentials. Whether such a solution
would have been to the advantage of British interests in
So much upon the general question of the reason why the Uitlander should agitate and why the Boer was obdurate. The details of the long struggle between the seekers for the franchise and the refusers of it may be quickly sketched, but they cannot be entirely ignored by any one who desires to understand the inception of that great contest which was the outcome of the dispute.
At the time of the Convention of Pretoria (1881) the rights
of burghership might be obtained by one year's residence. In 1882 it was raised
to five years, the reasonable limit which obtains both in
In 1890 the inrush of outsiders alarmed the Boers, and the franchise was raised so as to be only attainable by those who had lived fourteen years in the country. The Uitlanders, who were increasing rapidly in numbers and were suffering from the formidable list of grievances already enumerated, perceived that their wrongs were so numerous that it was hopeless to have them set right seriatim, and that only by obtaining the leverage of the franchise could they hope to move the heavy burden which weighed them down. In 1893 a petition of 13,000 Uitlanders, couched in most respectful terms, was submitted to the Raad, but met with contemptuous neglect. Undeterred, however, by this failure, the National Reform Union, an association which organised the agitation, came back to the attack in 1894. They drew up a petition which was signed by 35,000 adult male Uitlanders, a greater number than the total Boer male population of the country. A small liberal body in the Raad supported this memorial and endeavoured in vain to obtain some justice for the newcomers. Mr. Jeppe was the mouthpiece of this select band. 'They own half the soil, they pay at least three quarters of the taxes,' said he. 'They are men who in capital, energy, and education are at least our equals.
What will become of us or our children on that day when we
may find ourselves in a minority of one in twenty without a single friend among
the other nineteen, among those who will then tell us that they wished to be
brothers, but that we by our own act have made them strangers to the republic?'
Such reasonable and liberal sentiments were combated by members who asserted
that the signatures could not belong to law-abiding citizens, since they were
actually agitating against the law of the franchise, and others whose
intolerance was expressed by the defiance of the member already quoted, who
challenged the Uitlanders to come out and fight. The champions of exclusiveness
and racial hatred won the day. The memorial was rejected by sixteen votes to
eight, and the franchise law was, on the initiative of the President, actually
made more stringent than ever, being framed in such a way that during the
fourteen years of probation the applicant should give up his previous
nationality, so that for that period he would really belong to no country at
all. No hopes were held out that any possible attitude upon the part of the
Uitlanders would soften the determination of the President and his burghers.
One who remonstrated was led outside the State buildings by the President, who
pointed up at the national flag. 'You see that flag?' said he. 'If I grant the
franchise, I may as well pull it down.' His animosity against the immigrants
was bitter. 'Burghers, friends, thieves, murderers, newcomers, and others,' is
the conciliatory opening of one of his public addresses. Though
This settled animosity was deplorable, but not unnatural. A man imbued with the idea of a chosen people, and unread in any book save the one which cultivates this very idea, could not be expected to have learned the historical lessons of the advantages which a State reaps from a liberal policy. To him it was as if the Ammonites and Moabites had demanded admission into the twelve tribes. He mistook an agitation against the exclusive policy of the State for one against the existence of the State itself. A wide franchise would have made his republic firm-based and permanent. It was a small minority of the Uitlanders who had any desire to come into the British system. They were a cosmopolitan crowd, only united by the bond of a common injustice. But when every other method had failed, and their petition for the rights of freemen had been flung back at them, it was natural that their eyes should turn to that flag which waved to the north, the west, and the south of them--the flag which means purity of government with equal rights and equal duties for all men. Constitutional agitation was laid aside, arms were smuggled in, and everything prepared for an organised rising.
The events which followed at the beginning of 1896 have been so thrashed out that there is, perhaps, nothing left to tell--except the truth. So far as the Uitlanders themselves are concerned, their action was most natural and justifiable, and they have no reason to exculpate themselves for rising against such oppression as no men of our race have ever been submitted to. Had they trusted only to themselves and the justice of their cause, their moral and even their material position would have been infinitely stronger. But unfortunately there were forces behind them which were more questionable, the nature and extent of which have never yet, in spite of two commissions of investigation, been properly revealed. That there should have been any attempt at misleading inquiry, or suppressing documents in order to shelter individuals, is deplorable, for the impression left--I believe an entirely false one--must be that the British Government connived at an expedition which was as immoral as it was disastrous.
It had been arranged that the town was to rise
upon a certain night, that
The Uitlanders have been severely criticised for not having
sent out a force to help Jameson in his difficulties, but it is impossible to
see how they could have acted in any other manner. They had done all they could
to prevent Jameson coming to their relief, and now it was rather unreasonable
to suppose that they should relieve their reliever. Indeed, they had an
entirely exaggerated idea of the strength of the force which he was bringing,
and received the news of his capture with incredulity. When it became confirmed
they rose, but in a halfhearted fashion which was not due to want of courage,
but to the difficulties of their position. On the one hand, the British
Government disowned Jameson entirely, and did all it could to discourage the
rising; on the other, the President had the raiders in his keeping at
To the raiders themselves the President behaved with great
generosity. Perhaps he could not find it in his heart to be harsh to the men
who had managed to put him in the right and won for him the sympathy of the
world. His own illiberal and oppressive treatment of the newcomers was
forgotten in the face of this illegal inroad of filibusters. The true issues
were so obscured by this intrusion that it has taken years to clear them, and
perhaps they will never be wholly cleared. It was forgotten that it was the bad
government of the country which was the real cause of the unfortunate raid.
From then onwards the government might grow worse and worse, but it was always
possible to point to the raid as justifying everything. Were the Uitlanders to
have the franchise? How could they expect it after the raid? Would
The raiders were sent home, where the rank and file were very properly released, and the chief officers were
condemned to terms of imprisonment which certainly did not err upon the side of
severity. Cecil Rhodes was left unpunished, he retained his place in the Privy
Council, and his Chartered Company continued to have a corporate existence.
This was illogical and inconclusive. As Kruger said, 'It is not the dog which
should be beaten, but the man who set him on to me.' Public opinion--in spite
of, or on account of, a crowd of witnesses--was ill informed upon the exact
bearings of the question, and it was obvious that as Dutch sentiment at the
Cape appeared already to be thoroughly hostile to us, it would be dangerous to
alienate the British Africanders also by making a martyr of their favourite
leader. But whatever arguments may be founded upon expediency, it is clear that
the Boers bitterly resented, and with justice, the immunity of
In the meantime, both President Kruger and his burghers had
shown a greater severity to the political prisoners from
The raid was past and the reform movement was past, but the causes which produced them both remained. It is hardly conceivable that a statesman who loved his country would have refrained from making some effort to remove a state of things which had already caused such grave dangers, and which must obviously become more serious with every year that passed. But Paul Kruger had hardened his heart, and was not to be moved. The grievances of the Uitlanders became heavier than ever. The one power in the land to which they had been able to appeal for some sort of redress amid their grievances was the law courts. Now it was decreed that the courts should be dependent on the Volksraad. The Chief Justice protested against such a degradation of his high office, and he was dismissed in consequence without a pension. The judge who had condemned the reformers was chosen to fill the vacancy, and the protection of a fixed law was withdrawn from the Uitlanders.
A commission appointed by the State was sent to examine into
the condition of the mining industry and the grievances from which the
newcomers suffered. The chairman was Mr. Schalk Burger, one of the most liberal
of the Boers, and the proceedings were thorough and impartial. The result was a
report which amply vindicated the reformers, and suggested remedies which would
have gone a long way towards satisfying the Uitlanders. With such enlightened
legislation their motives for seeking the franchise would have been less
pressing. But the President and his Raad would have none of the recommendations
of the commission. The rugged old autocrat declared that Schalk Burger was a
traitor to his country for having signed such a document,
and a new reactionary committee was chosen to report upon the report. Words and
papers were the only outcome of the affair. No amelioration came to the
newcomers. But at least they had again put their case publicly upon record, and
it had been endorsed by the most respected of the burghers. Gradually in the
press of the English-speaking countries the raid was ceasing to obscure the
issue. More and more clearly it was coming out that no permanent settlement was
possible where the majority of the population was oppressed by the minority.
They had tried peaceful means and failed. They had tried warlike means and
failed. What was there left for them to do? Their own country, the paramount
The British Government and the British people do not desire
any direct authority in
There could be no question of a plot for the annexation of
It was in April 1899 that the British Uitlanders sent their
petition praying for protection to their native country. Since the April
previous a correspondence had been going on between Dr. Leyds, Secretary of
State for the
But now to this debate, which had so little of urgency in it
that seven months intervened between statement and reply, there came the
bitterly vital question of the wrongs and appeal of the Uitlanders. Sir Alfred
Milner, the British Commissioner in
On June 12th Sir Alfred Milner received a deputation at
A dispatch from Sir Alfred Milner, giving his views upon the situation, made the British public recognise, as nothing else had done, how serious the position was, and how essential it was that an earnest national effort should be made to set it right. In it he said:
'The case for intervention is overwhelming. The only
attempted answer is that things will right themselves if left alone. But, in
fact, the policy of leaving things alone has been tried for years, and it has
led to their going from bad to worse. It is not true that this is owing to the
raid. They were going from bad to worse before the raid. We were on the verge
of war before the raid, and the
'The spectacle of thousands of British subjects kept permanently in the position of helots, constantly chafing under undoubted grievances, and calling vainly to her Majesty's Government for redress, does steadily undermine the influence and reputation of Great Britain within the Queen's dominions. A section of the press, not in the Transvaal only, preaches openly and constantly the doctrine of a republic embracing all South Africa, and supports it by menacing references to the armaments of the Transvaal, its alliance with the Orange Free State, and the active sympathy which, in case of war, it would receive from a section of her Majesty's subjects. I regret to say that this doctrine, supported as it is by a ceaseless stream of malignant lies about the intentions of her Majesty's Government, is producing a great effect on a large number of our Dutch fellow colonists. Language is frequently used which seems to imply that the Dutch have some superior right, even in this colony, to their fellow-citizens of British birth. Thousands of men peaceably disposed, and if left alone perfectly satisfied with their position as British subjects, are being drawn into disaffection, and there is a corresponding exasperation upon the part of the British.
'I can see nothing which will put a stop to this mischievous
propaganda but some striking proof of the intention of her Majesty's Government
not to be ousted from its position in
Such were the grave and measured words with which the British pro-consul warned his countrymen of what was to come. He saw the storm-cloud piling in the north, but even his eyes had not yet discerned how near and how terrible was the tempest.
Throughout the end of June and the early part of July much
was hoped from the mediation of the heads of the Afrikander Bond, the political
union of the
But this fair prospect was soon destined to be overcast.
Questions of detail arose which, when closely
examined, proved to be matters of very essential importance. The Uitlanders and
British South Africans, who had experienced in the past how illusory the
promises of the President might be, insisted upon guarantees. The seven years
offered were two years more than that which Sir Alfred Milner had declared to
be an irreducible minimum. The difference of two years would not have hindered
their acceptance, even at the expense of some humiliation to our
representative. But there were conditions which excited distrust when drawn up
by so wily a diplomatist. One was that the alien who aspired to burghership had
to produce a certificate of continuous registration for a certain time. But the
law of registration had fallen into disuse in the
The suggestion of this joint commission has been criticised
as an unwarrantable intrusion into the internal affairs of another country. But
then the whole question from the beginning was about the internal affairs of
another country, since the internal equality of the white inhabitants was the
condition upon which self-government was restored to the
A long delay followed upon the proposal of the Secretary of
the Colonies. No reply was forthcoming from
In the meantime a fresh dispatch had arrived from the Transvaal which offered as an alternative proposal to the joint commission that the Boer Government should grant the franchise proposals of Sir Alfred Milner on condition that Great Britain withdrew or dropped her claim to a suzerainty, agreed to arbitration, and promised never again to interfere in the internal affairs of the republic. To this Great Britain answered that she would agree to arbitration, that she hoped never again to have occasion to interfere for the protection of her own subjects, but that with the grant of the franchise all occasion for such interference would pass away, and, finally, that she would never consent to abandon her position as suzerain power. Mr. Chamberlain's dispatch ended by reminding the Government of the Transvaal that there were other matters of dispute open between the two Governments apart from the franchise, and that it would be as well to have them settled at the same time. By these he meant such questions as the position of the native races and the treatment of Anglo-Indians.
On September 2nd the answer of the Transvaal Government was
returned. It was short and uncompromising. They withdrew their offer of the
franchise. They re-asserted the non-existence of the suzerainty. The
negotiations were at a deadlock. It was difficult to see how they could be
re-opened. In view of the arming of the burghers, the small garrison of
On September 8th there was held a Cabinet Council--one of
the most important in recent years. A message was sent to
The British Government, however, was prepared to accept the five years' 'franchise' as stated in the note of August 19th, assuming at the same time that in the Raad each member might talk his own language.
'Acceptance of these terms by the South African Republic would at once remove tension between the two Governments, and would in all probability render unnecessary any future intervention to secure redress for grievances which the Uitlanders themselves would be able to bring to the notice of the Executive Council and the Volksraad.
'Her Majesty's Government are increasingly impressed with the danger of further delay in relieving the strain which has already caused so much injury to the interests of South Africa, and they earnestly press for an immediate and definite reply to the present proposal. If it is acceded to they will be ready to make immediate arrangements. . .to settle all details of the proposed tribunal of arbitration. . .If, however, as they most anxiously hope will not be the case, the reply of the South African Republic should be negative or inconclusive, I am to state that her Majesty's Government must reserve to themselves the right to reconsider the situation de novo, and to formulate their own proposals for a final settlement.'
Such was the message, and
The message sent from the Cabinet Council of September 8th was evidently the precursor either of peace or of war. The cloud must burst or blow over. As the nation waited in hushed expectancy for a reply it spent some portion of its time in examining and speculating upon those military preparations which might be needed. The War Office had for some months been arranging for every contingency, and had made certain dispositions which appeared to them to be adequate, but which our future experience was to demonstrate to be far too small for the very serious matter in hand.
It is curious in turning over the files of such a paper as the 'Times' to observe how at first one or two small paragraphs of military significance might appear in the endless columns of diplomatic and political reports, how gradually they grew and grew, until at last the eclipse was complete, and the diplomacy had been thrust into the tiny paragraphs while the war filled the journal. Under July 7th comes the first glint of arms amid the drab monotony of the state papers. On that date it was announced that two companies of Royal Engineers and departmental corps with reserves of supplies and ammunition were being dispatched. Two companies of engineers! Who could have foreseen that they were the vanguard of the greatest army which ever at any time of the world's history has crossed an ocean, and far the greatest which a British general has commanded in the field?
On August 15th, at a time when the negotiations had already
assumed a very serious phase, after the failure of the
'The Prime Minister desires me to urge upon you by the
unanimous advice of the Ministers that sufficient troops should be dispatched
to Natal immediately to enable the colony to be placed in a state of defence
against an attack from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. I am informed
by the General Officer Commanding, Natal, that he will not have enough troops,
even when the Manchester Regiment arrives, to do more than occupy Newcastle and
at the same time protect the colony south of it from raids, while Laing's Nek,
Ingogo River and Zululand must be left undefended. My Ministers know that every
preparation has been made, both in the Transvaal and the
In answer to these and other remonstrances the garrison of
As to the disposition of these troops a difference of
opinion broke out between the ruling powers in
Such an event as the siege of the town appears never to have been contemplated, as no guns of position were asked for or sent. In spite of this, an amount of stores, which is said to have been valued at more than a million of pounds, was dumped down at this small railway junction, so that the position could not be evacuated without a crippling loss. The place was the point of bifurcation of the main line, which divides at this little town into one branch
running to Harrismith in the
For purposes of comparison we may give some idea of the
forces which Mr. Kruger and Mr. Steyn could put in the field, for by this time
it was evident that the Orange Free State, with which we had had no shadow of a
dispute, was going, in a way which some would call wanton and some chivalrous,
to throw in its weight against us. The general press estimate of the forces of
the two republics varied from 25,000 to 35,000 men. Mr. J. B. Robinson, a
personal friend of President Kruger's and a man who had spent much of his life
among the Boers, considered the latter estimate to be too high. The calculation
had no assured basis to start from. A very scattered and isolated population,
among whom large families were the rule, is a most difficult thing to estimate.
Some reckoned from the supposed natural increase during eighteen years, but the
figure given at that date was itself an assumption. Others took their
calculation from the number of voters in the last presidential election: but no
one could tell how many abstentions there had been, and the fighting age is
five years earlier than the voting age in the republics. We recognise now that
all calculations were far below the true figure. It is probable, however, that
the information of the British Intelligence Department was not far wrong.
According to this the fighting strength of the Transvaal alone was 32,000 men,
and of the
At the risk of a tedious but very essential digression,
something must be said here as to the motives with which the Boers had for many
years been quietly preparing for war. That the Jameson raid was not the cause
is certain, though it probably, by putting the Boer Government into a strong
position, had a great effect in accelerating matters. What had been done
secretly and slowly could be done more swiftly and openly when so plausible an
excuse could be given for it. As a matter of fact, the preparations were long
antecedent to the raid. The building of the forts at
But if it was not the raid, and if the Boers had no reason
to fear the British Government, with whom the Transvaal might have been as
friendly as the
In the very nature of things a huge conspiracy of this sort
to substitute Dutch for British rule in
'I met Mr. Reitz, then a judge of the Orange Free State, in Bloemfontein between seventeen and eighteen years ago, shortly after the retrocession of the Transvaal, and when he was busy establishing the Afrikander Bond. It must be patent to every one that at that time, at all events, England and its Government had no intention of taking away the independence of the Transvaal, for she had just "magnanimously" granted the same; no intention of making war on the republics, for she had just made peace; no intention to seize the Rand gold fields, for they were not yet discovered. At that time, then, I met Mr. Reitz, and he did his best to get me to become a member of his Afrikander Bond, but, after studying its constitution and programme, I refused to do so, whereupon the following colloquy in substance took place between us, which has been indelibly imprinted on my mind ever since:
'REITZ: Why do you refuse? Is the object of getting the people to take an interest in political matters not a good one?
'MYSELF: Yes, it is; but I seem to see plainly here between the lines of this constitution much more ultimately aimed at than that.
'MYSELF: I see quite clearly that the ultimate object aimed
at is the overthrow of the British power and the expulsion of the British flag
'REITZ (with his pleasant conscious smile, as of one whose secret thought and purpose had been discovered, and who was not altogether displeased that such was the case): Well, what if it is so?
'MYSELF: You don't suppose, do you, that
that flag is going to disappear from
'REITZ (with the same pleasant self-conscious, self satisfied, and yet semi-apologetic smile): Well, I suppose not; but even so, what of that?
'MYSELF: Only this, that when that struggle takes place you and I will be on opposite sides; and what is more, the God who was on the side of the Transvaal in the late war, because it had right on its side will be on the side of England, because He must view with abhorrence any plotting and scheming to overthrow her power and position in South Africa, which have been ordained by Him.
'REITZ: We'll see.
'Thus the conversation ended, but during the seventeen years that have elapsed I have watched the propaganda for the overthrow of British power in South Africa being ceaselessly spread by every possible means--the press, the pulpit, the platform, the schools, the colleges, the Legislature--until it has culminated in the present war, of which Mr. Reitz and his co-workers are the origin and the cause. Believe me, the day on which F.W. Reitz sat down to pen his ultimatum to Great Britain was the proudest and happiest moment of his life, and one which had for long years been looked forward to by him with eager longing and expectation.'
Compare with these utterances of a Dutch politician of the
Cape, and of a Dutch politician of the
'I think it too soon to speak of a United South Africa under
one flag. Which flag was it to be? The Queen of England would object to having
her flag hauled down, and we, the burghers of the
'The dream of our life,' said another, 'is a union of the
States of South Africa, and this has to come from within, not from without.
When that is accomplished,
Always the same theory from all quarters of Dutch thought, to be followed by many signs that the idea was being prepared for in practice. I repeat that the fairest and most unbiased historian cannot dismiss the conspiracy as a myth.
And to this one may retort, why should they not conspire?
Why should they not have their own views as to the future of
Leaving these wider questions of politics,
and dismissing for the time those military considerations which were soon to be
of such vital moment, we may now return to the course of events in the
diplomatic struggle between the Government of the
There were few illusions in this country as to the
difficulties of a
Already there were indications that the colonies appreciated
the fact that the contention was no affair of the mother country alone, but
that she was upholding the rights of the empire as a whole, and might fairly
look to them to support her in any quarrel which might arise from it. As early
as July 11th,
On September 18th the official reply of the Boer Government
to the message sent from the Cabinet Council was published in
In the meantime, upon September 21st the Raad of the Orange
Free State had met, and it became more and more evident that this republic,
with whom we had no possible quarrel, but, on the contrary, for whom we had a
great deal of friendship and admiration, intended to throw in its weight
against Great Britain. Some time before, an offensive and defensive alliance
had been concluded between the two States, which must, until the secret history
of these events comes to be written, appear to have been a singularly rash and
unprofitable bargain for the smaller one. She had nothing to fear from
The tone of President Steyn at the meeting of the Raad, and
the support which he received from the majority of his burghers, showed
unmistakably that the two republics would act as one. In his opening speech
Steyn declared uncompromisingly against the British contention, and declared
that his State was bound to the
On October 3rd there occurred what was in truth an act of
war, although the British Government, patient to the verge of weakness, refused
to regard it as such, and continued to draw up their final state paper. The
mail train from the Transvaal to
On October 2nd President Steyn informed Sir Alfred Milner
that he had deemed it necessary to call out the
It was on October 9th that the somewhat leisurely
proceedings of the British Colonial Office were brought to a head by the
arrival of an unexpected and audacious ultimatum from the Boer Government. In
contests of wit, as of arms, it must be confessed that the laugh has been
usually upon the side of our simple and pastoral South African neighbours. The
present instance was no exception to the rule. While our Government was cautiously
and patiently leading up to an ultimatum, our opponent suddenly played the very
card which we were preparing to lay upon the table. The document was very firm
and explicit, but the terms in which it was drawn were so impossible that it
was evidently framed with the deliberate purpose of forcing an immediate war.
It demanded that the troops upon the borders of the republic should be
instantly withdrawn, that all reinforcements which had arrived within the last
year should leave
'10th October.--Her Majesty's Government have received with
great regret the peremptory demands of the Government of the South African
Republic, conveyed in your telegram of the 9th October. You will inform the
Government of the South African Republic in reply that the conditions demanded
by the Government of the
And so we have come to the end of the long road, past the
battle of the pens and the wrangling of tongues, to the arbitration of the
Lee-Metford and the Mauser. It was pitiable that it should come to this. These
people were as near akin to us as any race which is not our own. They were of
the same Frisian stock which peopled our own shores. In habit of mind, in
religion, in respect for law, they were as ourselves.
Brave, too, they were, and hospitable, with those sporting instincts which are
dear to the Anglo-Celtic race. There was no people in
the world who had more qualities which we might admire, and not the least of
them was that love of independence which it is our proudest boast that we have
encouraged in others as well as exercised ourselves. And yet we had come to
this pass, that there was no room in all vast
It was on the morning of October 12th, amid cold and mist, that the Boer camps at Sandspruit and Volksrust broke up, and the burghers rode to the war. Some twelve thousand of them, all mounted, with two batteries of eight Krupp guns each, were the invading force from the north, which hoped later to be joined by the Freestaters and by a contingent of Germans and Transvaalers who were to cross the Free State border. It was an hour before dawn that the guns started, and the riflemen followed close behind the last limber, so that the first light of day fell upon the black sinuous line winding down between the hills. A spectator upon the occasion says of them: 'Their faces were a study. For the most part the expression worn was one of determination and bulldog pertinacity. No sign of fear there, nor of wavering. Whatever else may be laid to the charge of the Boer, it may never truthfully be said that he is a coward or a man unworthy of the Briton's steel.' The words were written early in the campaign, and the whole empire will endorse them to-day. Could we have such men as willing fellow-citizens, they are worth more than all the gold mines of their country.
This main Transvaal body consisted of the commando of
Pretoria, which comprised 1800 men, and those of Heidelberg, Middelburg,
Krugersdorp, Standerton, Wakkerstroom, and Ermelo, with the State Artillery, an
excellent and highly organised body who were provided with the best guns that
have ever been brought on to a battlefield. Besides their sixteen Krupps, they
dragged with them two heavy six-inch Creusot guns, which were destined to have
a very important effect in the earlier part of the campaign. In addition to
these native forces there were a certain number of European auxiliaries. The
greater part of the German corps were with the
The men might, by all accounts, be divided into two very different types. There were the town Boers, smartened and perhaps a little enervated by prosperity and civilisation, men of business and professional men, more alert and quicker than their rustic comrades. These men spoke English rather than Dutch, and indeed there were many men of English descent among them. But the others, the most formidable both in their numbers and in their primitive qualities, were the back-veld Boers, the sunburned, tangle-haired, full-bearded farmers, the men of the Bible and the rifle, imbued with the traditions of their own guerrilla warfare. These were perhaps the finest natural warriors upon earth, marksmen, hunters, accustomed to hard fare and a harder couch. They were rough in their ways and speech, but, in spite of many calumnies and some few unpleasant truths, they might compare with most disciplined armies in their humanity and their desire to observe the usages of war.
A few words here as to the man who led this singular host.
Piet Joubert was a
Besides this northern army there were two other bodies of
burghers converging upon
A few words now as to the disposition of the British forces,
concerning which it must be borne in mind that Sir George White, though in
actual command, had only been a few days in the country before war was
declared, so that the arrangements fell to General Penn Symons, aided or
hampered by the advice of the local political authorities. The main position
was at Ladysmith, but an advance post was strongly held at Glencoe, which is
five miles from the station of
The main body of the army remained at Ladysmith. These consisted of the 1st Devons, the 1st Liverpools, and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, with the 1st Gloucesters, the 2nd King's Royal Rifles, and the 2nd Rifle Brigade, reinforced later by the Manchesters. The cavalry included the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 5th Lancers, a detachment of 19th Hussars, the Natal Carabineers, the Natal Mounted Police, and the Border Mounted Rifles, reinforced later by the Imperial Light Horse, a fine body of men raised principally among the refugees from the Rand. For artillery there were the 21st, 42nd, and 53rd batteries of field artillery, and No. 10 Mountain Battery, with the Natal Field Artillery, the guns of which were too light to be of service, and the 23rd Company of Royal Engineers. The whole force, some eight or nine thousand strong, was under the immediate command of Sir George White, with Sir Archibald Hunter, fresh from the Soudan, General French, and General Ian Hamilton as his lieutenants.
The first shock of the Boers, then, must fall upon 4000 men. If these could be overwhelmed, there were 8000 more to be defeated or masked. Then what was there between them and the sea? Some detachments of local volunteers, the Durban Light Infantry at Colenso, and the Natal Royal Rifles, with some naval volunteers at Estcourt. With the power of the Boers and their mobility it is inexplicable how the colony was saved. We are of the same blood, the Boers and we, and we show it in our failings. Over-confidence on our part gave them the chance, and over-confidence on theirs prevented them from instantly availing themselves of it. It passed, never to come again.
The outbreak of war was upon October 11th. On the 12th the
Boer forces crossed the frontier both on the north and on the west. On the 13th
Two days later, on the early morning of October 20th, the forces came at last into collision. At half-past three in the morning, well before daylight, the mounted infantry picket at the junction of the roads from Landmans and Vants Drifts was fired into by the Doornberg commando, and retired upon its supports. Two companies of the Dublin Fusiliers were sent out, and at five o'clock on a fine but misty morning the whole of Symons's force was under arms with the knowledge that the Boers were pushing boldly towards them. The khaki-clad lines of fighting men stood in their long thin ranks staring up at the curves of the saddle-back hills to the north and east of them, and straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the enemy. Why these same saddle-back hills were not occupied by our own people is, it must be confessed, an insoluble mystery. In a hollow on one flank were the 18th Hussars and the mounted infantry. On the other were the eighteen motionless guns, limbered up and ready, the horses fidgeting and stamping in the raw morning air.
And then suddenly--could that be they? An officer with a telescope stared intently and pointed. Another and another turned a steady field glass towards the same place. And then the men could see also, and a little murmur of interest ran down the ranks.
A long sloping hill--Talana Hill--olive-green in hue, was stretching away in front of them. At the summit it rose into a rounded crest. The mist was clearing, and the curve was hard-outlined against the limpid blue of the morning sky. On this, some two and a half miles or three miles off, a little group of black dots had appeared. The clear edge of the skyline had become serrated with moving figures. They clustered into a knot, then opened again, and then--
There had been no smoke, but there came a long crescendo
hoot, rising into a shrill wail. The shell hummed over the soldiers like a
great bee, and sloshed into soft earth behind them. Then
another--and yet another--and yet another. But there
was no time to heed them, for there was the hillside and there the enemy.
So at it again with the good old murderous obsolete heroic tactics of the
British tradition! There are times when, in spite of science and book-lore, the
best plan is the boldest plan, and it is well to fly straight at your enemy's
throat, facing the chance that your strength may fail before you can grasp it.
The cavalry moved off round the enemy's left flank. The guns dashed to the
front, unlimbered, and opened fire. The infantry were moved round in the
direction of Sandspruit, passing through the little town of
Two military facts of importance had already been disclosed.
One was that the Boer percussion-shells were useless in soft ground, as hardly
any of them exploded; the other that the Boer guns could outrange our ordinary
fifteen-pounder field gun, which had been the one thing perhaps in the whole
British equipment upon which we were prepared to pin our faith. The two
batteries, the 13th and the 69th, were moved nearer, first to 3000, and then at
last to 2300 yards, at which range they quickly dominated the guns upon the
hill. Other guns had opened from another crest to the east of Talana, but these
also were mastered by the fire of the 13th
The first thousand yards of the advance were over open grassland, where the range was long, and the yellow brown of the khaki blended with the withered veld. There were few casualties until the wood was reached, which lay halfway up the long slope of the hill. It was a plantation of larches, some hundreds of yards across and nearly as many deep. On the left side of this wood--that is, the left side to the advancing troops--there stretched a long nullah or hollow, which ran perpendicularly to the hill, and served rather as a conductor of bullets than as a cover. So severe was the fire at this point that both in the wood and in the nullah the troops lay down to avoid it. An officer of Irish Fusiliers has narrated how in trying to cut the straps from a fallen private a razor lent him for that purpose by a wounded sergeant was instantly shot out of his hand. The gallant Symons, who had refused to dismount, was shot through the stomach and fell from his horse mortally wounded. With an excessive gallantry, he had not only attracted the enemy's fire by retaining his horse, but he had been accompanied throughout the action by an orderly bearing a red pennon. 'Have they got the hill? Have they got the hill?' was his one eternal question as they carried him dripping to the rear. It was at the edge of the wood that Colonel Sherston met his end.
From now onwards it was as much a soldiers' battle as Inkermann. In the shelter of the wood the more eager of the three battalions had pressed to the front until the fringe of the trees was lined by men from all of them. The difficulty of distinguishing particular regiments where all were clad alike made it impossible in the heat of action to keep any sort of formation. So hot was the fire that for the time the advance was brought to a standstill, but the 69th battery, firing shrapnel at a range of 1400 yards, subdued the rifle fire, and about half-past eleven the infantry were able to push on once more.
Above the wood there was an open space some hundreds of yards across, bounded by a rough stone wall built for herding cattle. A second wall ran at right angles to this down towards the wood. An enfilading rifle fire had been sweeping across this open space, but the wall in front does not appear to have been occupied by the enemy, who held the kopje above it. To avoid the cross fire the soldiers ran in single file under the shelter of the wall, which covered them to the right, and so reached the other wall across their front. Here there was a second long delay, the men dribbling up from below, and firing over the top of the wall and between the chinks of the stones. The Dublin Fusiliers, through being in a more difficult position, had been unable to get up as quickly as the others, and most of the hard-breathing excited men who crowded under the wall were of the Rifles and of the Irish Fusiliers. The air was so full of bullets that it seemed impossible to live upon the other side of this shelter. Two hundred yards intervened between the wall and the crest of the kopje. And yet the kopje had to be cleared if the battle were to be won.
Out of the huddled line of crouching men an officer sprang shouting, and a score of soldiers vaulted over the wall and followed at his heels. It was Captain Connor, of the Irish Fusiliers, but his personal magnetism carried up with him some of the Rifles as well as men of his own command. He and half his little forlorn hope were struck down--he, alas! to die the same night--but there were other leaders as brave to take his place. 'Forrard away, men, forrard away!' cried Nugent, of the Rifles. Three bullets struck him, but he continued to drag himself up the boulder-studded hill. Others followed, and others, from all sides they came running, the crouching, yelling, khaki-clad figures, and the supports rushed up from the rear. For a time they were beaten down by their own shrapnel striking into them from behind, which is an amazing thing when one considers that the range was under 2000 yards. It was here, between the wall and the summit, that Colonel Gunning, of the Rifles, and many other brave men met their end, some by our own bullets and some by those of the enemy; but the Boers thinned away in front of them, and the anxious onlookers from the plain below saw the waving helmets on the crest, and learned at last that all was well.
But it was, it must be confessed, a Pyrrhic victory. We had our hill, but what else had we? The guns which had been silenced by our fire had been removed from the kopje. The commando which seized the hill was that of Lucas Meyer, and it is computed that he had with him about 4000 men. This figure includes those under the command of Erasmus, who made halfhearted demonstrations against the British flank. If the shirkers be eliminated, it is probable that there were not more than a thousand actual combatants upon the hill. Of this number about fifty were killed and a hundred wounded. The British loss at Talana Hill itself was 41 killed and 180 wounded, but among the killed were many whom the army could ill spare. The gallant but optimistic Symons, Gunning of the Rifles, Sherston, Connor, Hambro, and many other brave men died that day. The loss of officers was out of all proportion to that of the men.
An incident which occurred immediately after the action did much to rob the British of the fruits of the victory. Artillery had pushed up the moment that the hill was carried, and had unlimbered on Smith's Nek between the two hills, from which the enemy, in broken groups of 50 and 100, could be seen streaming away. A fairer chance for the use of shrapnel has never been. But at this instant there ran from an old iron church on the reverse side of the hill, which had been used all day as a Boer hospital, a man with a white flag. It is probable that the action was in good faith, and that it was simply intended to claim a protection for the ambulance party which followed him. But the too confiding gunner in command appears to have thought that an armistice had been declared, and held his hand during those precious minutes which might have turned a defeat into a rout. The chance passed, never to return. The double error of firing into our own advance and of failing to fire into the enemy's retreat makes the battle one which cannot be looked back to with satisfaction by our gunners.
In the meantime some miles away another train of events had
led to a complete disaster to our small cavalry force--a disaster which robbed
our dearly bought infantry victory of much of its importance. That action alone
was undoubtedly a victorious one, but the net result of the day's fighting
cannot be said to have been certainly in our favour. It was
One company of mounted infantry (that of the Rifles) had been told off to form an escort for the guns. The rest of the mounted infantry with part of the 18th Hussars (Colonel Moller) had moved round the right flank until they reached the right rear of the enemy. Such a movement, had Lucas Meyer been the only opponent, would have been above criticism; but knowing, as we did, that there were several commandoes converging upon Glencoe it was obviously taking a very grave and certain risk to allow the cavalry to wander too far from support. They were soon entangled in broken country and attacked by superior numbers of the Boers. There was a time when they might have exerted an important influence upon the action by attacking the Boer ponies behind the hills, but the opportunity was allowed to pass. An attempt was made to get back to the army, and a series of defensive positions were held to cover the retreat, but the enemy's fire became too hot to allow them to be retained. Every route save one appeared to be blocked, so the horsemen took this, which led them into the heart of a second commando of the enemy. Finding no way through, the force took up a defensive position, part of them in a farm and part on a kopje which overlooked it.
The party consisted of two troops of Hussars, one company of mounted infantry of the Dublin Fusiliers, and one section of the mounted infantry of the Rifles--about two hundred men in all. They were subjected to a hot fire for some hours, many being killed and wounded. Guns were brought up, and fired shell into the farmhouse. At 4.30 the force, being in a perfectly hopeless position, laid down their arms. Their ammunition was gone, many of their horses had stampeded, and they were hemmed in by very superior numbers, so that no slightest slur can rest upon the survivors for their decision to surrender, though the movements which brought them to such a pass are more open to criticism. They were the vanguard of that considerable body of humiliated and bitter-hearted men who were to assemble at the capital of our brave and crafty enemy. The remainder of the 18th Hussars, who under Major Knox had been detached from the main force and sent across the Boer rear, underwent a somewhat similar experience, but succeeded in extricating themselves with a loss of six killed and ten wounded. Their efforts were by no means lost, as they engaged the attention of a considerable body of Boers during the day and were able to bring some prisoners back with them.
The battle of Talana Hill was a tactical victory but a
strategic defeat. It was a crude frontal attack without any attempt at even a
feint of flanking, but the valour of the troops, from general to private,
carried it through. The force was in a position so radically false that the
only use which they could make of a victory was to cover their own retreat.
From all points Boer commandoes were converging upon it, and already it was
understood that the guns at their command were heavier than any which could be
placed against them. This was made more clear on
October 21st, the day after the battle, when the force, having withdrawn
overnight from the useless hill which they had captured, moved across to a
fresh position on the far side of the railway. At four in the afternoon a very
heavy gun opened from a distant hill, altogether beyond the extreme range of
our artillery, and plumped shell after shell into our camp. It was the first
appearance of the great Creusot. An officer with several men of the
While the Glencoe force had struck furiously at the army of Lucas Meyer, and had afterwards by hard marching disengaged itself from the numerous dangers which threatened it, its comrades at Ladysmith had loyally co-operated in drawing off the attention of the enemy and keeping the line of retreat open.
On October 20th--the same day as the Battle of Talana
Hill--the line was cut by the Boers at a point nearly midway between
On the evening of that day General French, with a strong
reconnoitering party, including the Natal Carabineers, the 5th Lancers, and the
21st battery, had defined the enemy's position. Next morning (the 21st) he
returned, but either the enemy had been reinforced during the night or he had
underrated them the day before, for the force which he took with him was too
weak for any serious attack. He had one battery of the
Some at least of the men were animated by feelings such as
seldom find a place in the breast of the British soldier as he marches into
battle. A sense of duty, a belief in the justice of his cause, a love for his
regiment and for his country, these are the common incentives of every soldier.
But to the men of the Imperial Light Horse, recruited as they
were from among the British refugees of the
It was about eight o'clock on a bright summer morning that
the small force came in contact with a few scattered Boer outposts, who retired,
firing, before the advance of the Imperial Light Horse. As they fell back the
green and white tents of the invaders came into view upon the russet-coloured
hillside of Elandslaagte. Down at the red brick railway station the Boers could
be seen swarming out of the buildings in which they had spent the night. The
But the busy, smoky little seven-pounder guns were soon to meet their master. Away up on the distant hillside, a long thousand yards beyond their own furthest range, there was a sudden bright flash. No smoke, only the throb of flame, and then the long sibilant scream of the shell, and the thud as it buried itself in the ground under a limber. Such judgment of range would have delighted the most martinet of inspectors at Okehampton. Bang came another, and another, and another, right into the heart of the battery. The six little guns lay back at their extremest angle, and all barked together in impotent fury. Another shell pitched over them, and the officer in command lowered his field-glass in despair as he saw his own shells bursting far short upon the hillside. Jameson's defeat does not seem to have been due to any defect in his artillery. French, peering and pondering, soon came to the conclusion that there were too many Boers for him, and that if those fifteen-pounders desired target practice they should find some other mark than the Natal Field Artillery. A few curt orders, and his whole force was making its way to the rear. There, out of range of those perilous guns, they halted, the telegraph wire was cut, a telephone attachment was made, and French whispered his troubles into the sympathetic ear of Ladysmith. He did not whisper in vain. What he had to say was that where he had expected a few hundred riflemen he found something like two thousand, and that where he expected no guns he found two very excellent ones. The reply was that by road and by rail as many men as could be spared were on their way to join him.
Soon they began to drop in, those useful reinforcements--first the Devons, quiet, business-like, reliable; then the Gordons, dashing, fiery, brilliant. Two squadrons of the 5th Lancers, the 42nd R.F.A., the 21st R.F.A., another squadron of Lancers, a squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards--French began to feel that he was strong enough for the task in front of him. He had a decided superiority of numbers and of guns. But the others were on their favourite defensive on a hill. It would be a fair fight and a deadly one.
It was late after noon before the advance began. It was hard, among those billowing hills, to make out the exact limits of the enemy's position. All that was certain was that they were there, and that we meant having them out if it were humanly possible. 'The enemy are there,' said Ian Hamilton to his infantry; 'I hope you will shift them out before sunset--in fact I know you will.' The men cheered and laughed. In long open lines they advanced across the veld, while the thunder of the two batteries behind them told the Boer gunners that it was their turn now to know what it was to be outmatched.
The idea was to take the position by a front and a flank attack, but there seems to have been some difficulty in determining which was the front and which the flank. In fact, it was only by trying that one could know. General White with his staff had arrived from Ladysmith, but refused to take the command out of French's hands. It is typical of White's chivalrous spirit that within ten days he refused to identify himself with a victory when it was within his right to do so, and took the whole responsibility for a disaster at which he was not present. Now he rode amid the shells and watched the able dispositions of his lieutenant.
About half-past three the action had fairly begun. In front of the advancing British there lay a rolling hill, topped by a further one. The lower hill was not defended, and the infantry, breaking from column of companies into open order, advanced over it. Beyond was a broad grassy valley which led up to the main position, a long kopje flanked by a small sugar-loaf one Behind the green slope which led to the ridge of death an ominous and terrible cloud was driving up, casting its black shadow over the combatants. There was the stillness which goes before some great convulsion of nature. The men pressed on in silence, the soft thudding of their feet and the rattle of their sidearms filling the air with a low and continuous murmur. An additional solemnity was given to the attack by that huge black cloud which hung before them.
The British guns had opened at a range of 4400 yards, and now against the swarthy background there came the quick smokeless twinkle of the Boer reply. It was an unequal fight, but gallantly sustained. A shot and another to find the range; then a wreath of smoke from a bursting shell exactly where the guns had been, followed by another and another. Overmatched, the two Boer pieces relapsed into a sulky silence, broken now and again by short spurts of frenzied activity. The British batteries turned their attention away from them, and began to search the ridge with shrapnel and prepare the way for the advancing infantry.
The scheme was that the Devonshires should hold the enemy in front while the main attack from the left flank was carried out by the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the Imperial Light Horse. The words 'front' and 'flank,' however, cease to have any meaning with so mobile and elastic a force, and the attack which was intended to come from the left became really a frontal one, while the Devons found themselves upon the right flank of the Boers. At the moment of the final advance the great black cloud had burst, and a torrent of rain lashed into the faces of the men. Slipping and sliding upon the wet grass, they advanced to the assault.
And now amid the hissing of the rain there came the fuller,
more menacing whine of the Mauser bullets, and the ridge rattled from end to
end with the rifle fire. Men fell fast, but their comrades pressed hotly on.
There was a long way to go, for the summit of the position was nearly 800 feet
above the level of the railway. The hillside, which had appeared to be one
slope, was really a succession of undulations, so that the advancing infantry
alternately dipped into shelter and emerged into a hail of bullets. The line of
advance was dotted with khaki-clad figures, some still in death, some writhing
in their agony. Amid the litter of bodies a major of the
Gordons, shot through the leg, sat philosophically smoking his pipe.
Plucky little Chisholm, Colonel of the Imperials, had fallen with two mortal
wounds as he dashed forward waving a coloured sash in the air. So long was the
advance and so trying the hill that the men sank panting upon the ground, and
took their breath before making another rush. As at Talana Hill, regimental
formation was largely gone, and men of the Manchesters, Gordons, and Imperial
Light Horse surged upwards in one long ragged fringe, Scotchman, Englishman,
and British Africander keeping pace in that race of death. And now at last they
began to see their enemy. Here and there among the boulders in front of them
there was the glimpse of a slouched hat, or a peep at a flushed bearded face
which drooped over a rifle barrel. There was a pause, and then with a fresh
impulse the wave of men gathered themselves together
and flung themselves forward. Dark figures sprang up from the rocks in front.
Some held up their rifles in token of surrender. Some ran with heads sunk
between their shoulders, jumping and ducking among the rocks. The panting breathless
climbers were on the edge of the plateau. There were the two guns which had
flashed so brightly, silenced now, with a litter of dead gunners around them
and one wounded officer standing by a trail. A small body of the Boers still
resisted. Their appearance horrified some of our men. 'They were dressed in
black frock coats and looked like a lot of rather seedy business men,' said a
spectator. 'It seemed like murder to kill them.' Some surrendered, and some
fought to the death where they stood. Their leader Koch, an old gentleman with
a white beard, lay amidst the rocks, wounded in three places. He was treated
with all courtesy and attention, but died in
In the meanwhile the Devonshire Regiment had waited until the attack had developed and had then charged the hill upon the flank, while the artillery moved up until it was within 2000 yards of the enemy's position. The Devons met with a less fierce resistance than the others, and swept up to the summit in time to head off some of the fugitives. The whole of our infantry were now upon the ridge.
But even so these dour fighters were not beaten. They clung desperately to the further edges of the plateau, firing from behind the rocks. There had been a race for the nearest gun between an officer of the Manchesters and a drummer sergeant of the Gordons. The officer won, and sprang in triumph on to the piece. Men of all regiments swarmed round yelling and cheering, when upon their astonished ears there sounded the 'Cease fire' and then the 'Retire.' It was incredible, and yet it pealed out again, unmistakable in its urgency. With the instinct of discipline the men were slowly falling back. And then the truth of it came upon the minds of some of them. The crafty enemy had learned our bugle calls. 'Retire be damned! shrieked a little bugler, and blew the 'Advance' with all the breath that the hillside had left him. The men, who had retired a hundred yards and uncovered the guns, flooded back over the plateau, and in the Boer camp which lay beneath it a white flag showed that the game was up. A squadron of the 5th Lancers and of the 5th Dragoon Guards, under Colonel Gore of the latter regiment, had prowled round the base of the hill, and in the fading light they charged through and through the retreating Boers, killing several, and making from twenty to thirty prisoners. It was one of the very few occasions in the war where the mounted Briton overtook the mounted Boer.
'What price Majuba?' was the cry raised by some of the infantry as they dashed up to the enemy's position, and the action may indeed be said to have been in some respects the converse of that famous fight. It is true that there were many more British at Elandslaagte than Boers at Majuba, but then the defending force was much more numerous also, and the British had no guns there. It is true, also, that Majuba is very much more precipitous than Elandslaagte, but then every practical soldier knows that it is easier to defend a moderate glacis than an abrupt slope, which gives cover under its boulders to the attacker while the defender has to crane his head over the edge to look down. On the whole, this brilliant little action may be said to have restored things to their true proportion, and to have shown that, brave as the Boers undoubtedly are, there is no military feat within their power which is not equally possible to the British soldier. Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, fought on successive days, were each of them as gallant an exploit as Majuba.
We had more to show for our victory than for the previous
In the hollow where the Boer tents had stood, amid the laagered wagons of the vanquished, under a murky sky and a constant drizzle of rain, the victors spent the night. Sleep was out of the question, for all night the fatigue parties were searching the hillside and the wounded were being carried in. Camp-fires were lit and soldiers and prisoners crowded round them, and it is pleasant to recall that the warmest corner and the best of their rude fare were always reserved for the downcast Dutchmen, while words of rude praise and sympathy softened the pain of defeat. It is the memory of such things which may in happier days be more potent than all the wisdom of statesmen in welding our two races into one.
Having cleared the Boer force from the line of the railway, it is evident that General White could not continue to garrison the point, as he was aware that considerable forces were moving from the north, and his first duty was the security of Ladysmith. Early next morning (October 22nd), therefore, his weary but victorious troops returned to the town. Once there he learned, no doubt, that General Yule had no intention of using the broken railway for his retreat, but that he intended to come in a circuitous fashion by road. White's problem was to hold tight to the town and at the same time to strike hard at any northern force so as to prevent them from interfering with Yule's retreat. It was in the furtherance of this scheme that he fought upon October 24th the action of Rietfontein, an engagement slight in itself, but important on account of the clear road which was secured for the weary forces retiring from Dundee.
The army from the
The enemy were found to be in
possession of a line of hills within seven miles of Ladysmith, the most
conspicuous of which is called Tinta Inyoni. It was no part of General White's
plan to attempt to drive him from this position--it is not wise generalship to
fight always upon ground of the enemy's choosing--but it was important to hold
him where he was, and to engage his attention during this last day of the march
of the retreating column. For this purpose, since no direct attack was
intended, the guns were of more importance than the infantry--and indeed the
infantry should, one might imagine, have been used solely as an escort for the
artillery. A desultory and inconclusive action ensued which continued from nine
in the morning until half-past one in the afternoon. A well-directed fire of
the Boer guns from the hills was dominated and controlled by our field
artillery, while the advance of their riflemen was restrained by shrapnel. The
enemy's guns were more easily marked down than at Elandslaagte, as they used
black powder. The ranges varied from three to four thousand yards. Our losses
in the whole action would have been insignificant had it not happened that the
Gloucester Regiment advanced somewhat incautiously into the open and was caught
in a cross fire of musketry which struck down Colonel Wilford and fifty of his
officers and men. Within four days Colonel Dick-Cunyngham, of the Gordons,
Colonel Chisholm, of the Light Horse, Colonel Gunning, of the Rifles, and now
Colonel Wilford, of the Gloucesters, had all fallen at the head of their
regiments. In the afternoon General White, having accomplished his purpose and
secured the safety of the
At the end of this first vigorous week of hostilities it is
interesting to sum up the net result. The strategical advantage had lain with
the Boers. They had made our position at
Sir George White had now reunited his force, and found
himself in command of a formidable little army some twelve thousand in number.
His cavalry included the 5th Lancers, the 5th Dragoons, part of the 18th and
the whole of the 19th Hussars, the Natal Carabineers, the Border Rifles, some
mounted infantry, and the Imperial Light Horse. Among his infantry were the
Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the King's Royal Rifles, fresh
from the ascent of Talana Hill, the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the Devons
who had been blooded at Elandslaagte, the Leicesters, the Liverpools, the 2nd
battalion of the King's Royal Rifles, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, and the
Gloucesters, who had been so roughly treated at Rietfontein. He had six
batteries of excellent field artillery--the 13th, 21st, 42nd, 53rd, 67th, 69th,
and No. 10 Mountain
It had been recognised by the British General from the
beginning that his tactics must be defensive, since he was largely outnumbered
and since also any considerable mishap to his force would expose the whole
But so tame and inglorious a policy is impossible to a
fighting soldier. He could not with his splendid force permit himself to be
shut in without an action. What policy demands honour may forbid. On October
27th there were already Boers and rumours of Boers on every side of him.
Joubert with his main body was moving across from
On the 29th the enemy were visibly converging upon the town. From a high hill within rifleshot of the houses a watcher could see no fewer than six Boer camps to the east and north. French, with his cavalry, pushed out feelers, and coasted along the edge of the advancing host. His report warned White that if he would strike before all the scattered bands were united he must do so at once. The wounded were sent down to Pietermaritzburg, and it would bear explanation why the non-combatants did not accompany them. On the evening of the same day Joubert in person was said to be only six miles off, and a party of his men cut the water supply of the town. The Klip, however, a fair-sized river, runs through Ladysmith, so that there was no danger of thirst. The British had inflated and sent up a balloon, to the amazement of the back-veld Boers; its report confirmed the fact that the enemy was in force in front of and around them.
On the night of the 29th General White detached two of his best regiments, the Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters, with No. 10 Mountain Battery, to advance under cover of the darkness and to seize and hold a long ridge called Nicholson's Nek, which lay about six miles to the north of Ladysmith. Having determined to give battle on the next day, his object was to protect his left wing against those Freestaters who were still moving from the north and west, and also to keep a pass open by which his cavalry might pursue the Boer fugitives in case of a British victory. This small detached column numbered about a thousand men--whose fate will be afterwards narrated.
At five o'clock on the morning of the 30th the Boers, who had already developed a perfect genius for hauling heavy cannon up the most difficult heights, opened fire from one of the hills which lie to the north of the town. Before the shot was fired, the forces of the British had already streamed out of Ladysmith to test the strength of the invaders.
White's army was divided into three columns. On the extreme
left, quite isolated from the others, was the small Nicholson's Nek detachment
under the command of Colonel Carleton of the Fusiliers (one of three gallant
brothers each of whom commands a British regiment). With him was Major Adye of
the staff. On the right British flank Colonel Grimwood commanded a brigade
composed of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the King's Royal Rifles, the
Leicesters, the Liverpools, and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In the centre
Colonel Ian Hamilton commanded the Devons, the Gordons, the Manchesters, and
the 2nd battalion of the Rifle Brigade, which marched direct into the battle
from the train which had brought them from
The Boer position, so far as it could be seen, was a
formidable one. Their centre lay upon one of the spurs of Signal Hill, about
three miles from the town. Here they had two forty-pounders and three other
lighter guns, but their artillery strength developed both in numbers and in
weight of metal as the day wore on. Of their dispositions little could be seen.
An observer looking westward might discern with his glass sprays of mounted riflemen
galloping here and there over the downs, and possibly small groups where the
gunners stood by their guns, or the leaders gazed down at that town which they
were destined to have in view for such a weary while. On the dun-coloured
plains before the town, the long thin lines, with an occasional shifting
sparkle of steel, showed where Hamilton's and Grimwood's infantry were
advancing. In the clear cold air of an African morning every detail could be
seen, down to the distant smoke of a train toiling up the heavy grades which
lead from Frere over the
The scrambling, inconsequential, unsatisfactory action which ensued is as difficult to describe as it must have been to direct. The Boer front covered some seven or eight miles, with kopjes, like chains of fortresses, between. They formed a huge semicircle of which our advance was the chord, and they were able from this position to pour in a converging artillery fire which grew steadily hotter as the day advanced. In the early part of the day our forty-two guns, working furiously, though with a want of accuracy which may be due to those errors of refraction which are said to be common in the limpid air of the veld, preserved their superiority. There appears to have been a want of concentration about our fire, and at some periods of the action each particular battery was firing at some different point of the Boer half-circle. Sometimes for an hour on end the Boer reply would die away altogether, only to break out with augmented violence, and with an accuracy which increased our respect for their training. Huge shells--the largest that ever burst upon a battlefield--hurled from distances which were unattainable by our fifteen-pounders, enveloped our batteries in smoke and flame. One enormous Creusot gun on Pepworth Hill threw a 96-pound shell a distance of four miles, and several 40-pound howitzers outweighted our field guns. And on the same day on which we were so roughly taught how large the guns were which labour and good will could haul on to the field of battle, we learned also that our enemy--to the disgrace of our Board of Ordnance be it recorded--was more in touch with modern invention than we were, and could show us not only the largest, but also the smallest, shell which had yet been used. Would that it had been our officials instead of our gunners who heard the devilish little one-pound shells of the Vickers-Maxim automatic gun, exploding with a continuous string of crackings and bangings, like a huge cracker, in their faces and about their ears!
Up to seven o'clock our infantry had shown no disposition to press the attack, for with so huge a position in front of them, and so many hills which were held by the enemy, it was difficult to know what line of advance should be taken, or whether the attack should not be converted into a mere reconnaissance. Shortly after that hour, however, the Boers decided the question by themselves developing a vigorous movement upon Grimwood and the right flank. With field guns, Maxims, and rifle fire, they closed rapidly in upon him. The centre column was drafted off, regiment by regiment, to reinforce the right. The Gordons, Devons, Manchesters, and three batteries were sent over to Grimwood's relief, and the 5th Lancers, acting as infantry, assisted him to hold on.
At nine o'clock there was a lull, but it was evident that
fresh commandoes and fresh guns were continually streaming into the firing
line. The engagement opened again with redoubled violence, and Grimwood's three
advanced battalions fell back, abandoning the ridge which they had held for
five hours. The reason for this withdrawal was not that they could not continue
to hold their position, but it was that a message had just reached Sir George
White from Colonel Knox, commanding in Ladysmith, to the effect that it looked
as if the enemy was about to rush the town from the other side. Crossing the
open in some disorder, they lost heavily, and would have done so more had not
the 13th Field Battery, followed after an interval by the 53rd, dashed forward,
firing shrapnel at short ranges, in order to cover the retreat of the infantry.
Amid the bursting of the huge 96-pound shells, and the snapping of the vicious
little automatic one-pounders, with a cross-fire of rifles as well, Abdy's and Dawkins'
gallant batteries swung round their muzzles, and hit back right and left,
flashing and blazing, amid their litter of dead horses and men. So severe was
the fire that the guns were obscured by the dust knocked up by the little
shells of the automatic gun. Then, when their work was done and the retiring
infantry had straggled over the ridge, the covering guns whirled and bounded
after them. So many horses had fallen that two pieces were left until the teams
could be brought back for them, which was successfully done through the
gallantry of Captain Thwaites. The action of these batteries was one of the few
gleams of light in a not too brilliant day's work. With splendid coolness and
courage they helped each other by alternate retirements after the retreating
infantry had passed them. The 21st
White must have been now uneasy for his position, and it had become apparent that his only course was to fall back and concentrate upon the town. His left flank was up in the air, and the sound of distant firing, wafted over five miles of broken country, was the only message which arrived from them. His right had been pushed back, and, most dangerous of all, his centre had ceased to exist, for only the 2nd Rifle Brigade remained there. What would happen if the enemy burst rudely through and pushed straight for the town? It was the more possible, as the Boer artillery had now proved itself to be far heavier than ours. That terrible 96-pounder, serenely safe and out of range, was plumping its great projectiles into the masses of retiring troops. The men had had little sleep and little food, and this unanswerable fire was an ordeal for a force which is retreating. A retirement may very rapidly become a rout under such circumstances. It was with some misgivings that the officers saw their men quicken their pace and glance back over their shoulders at the whine and screech of the shell. They were still some miles from home, and the plain was open. What could be done to give them some relief?
And at that very moment there came the opportune and unexpected answer. That plume of engine smoke which the watcher had observed in the morning had drawn nearer and nearer, as the heavy train came puffing and creaking up the steep inclines. Then, almost before it had drawn up at the Ladysmith siding, there had sprung from it a crowd of merry bearded fellows, with ready hands and strange sea cries, pulling and hauling, with rope and purchase to get out the long slim guns which they had lashed on the trucks. Singular carriages were there, specially invented by Captain Percy Scott, and labouring and straining, they worked furiously to get the 12-pounder quick-firers into action. Then at last it was done, and the long tubes swept upwards to the angle at which they might hope to reach that monster on the hill at the horizon. Two of them craned their long inquisitive necks up and exchanged repartees with the big Creusot. And so it was that the weary and dispirited British troops heard a crash which was louder and sharper than that of their field guns, and saw far away upon the distant hill a great spurt of smoke and flame to show where the shell had struck. Another and another and another--and then they were troubled no more. Captain Hedworth Lambton and his men had saved the situation. The masterful gun had met its own master and sank into silence, while the somewhat bedraggled field force came trailing back into Ladysmith, leaving three hundred of their number behind them. It was a high price to pay, but other misfortunes were in store for us which made the retirement of the morning seem insignificant.
In the meantime we may follow the unhappy fortunes of the
small column which had, as already described, been sent out by Sir George White
in order, if possible, to prevent the junction of the two Boer armies, and at
the same time to threaten the right wing of the main force, which was advancing
from the direction of Dundee, Sir George White throughout the campaign
consistently displayed one quality which is a charming one in an individual,
but may be dangerous in a commander. He was a confirmed optimist. Perhaps his
heart might have failed him in the dark days to come had he not been so. But
whether one considers the non-destruction of the Newcastle Railway, the
acquiescence in the occupation of Dundee, the retention of the non combatants
in Ladysmith until it was too late to get rid of their useless mouths, or the
failure to make any serious preparations for the defence of the town until his
troops were beaten back into it, we see always the same evidence of a man who
habitually hopes that all will go well, and is in consequence remiss in making
preparations for their going ill. But unhappily in every one of these instances
they did go ill, though the slowness of the Boers enabled us, both at
Sir George White has so nobly and frankly taken upon himself
the blame of Nicholson's Nek that an impartial historian must rather regard his
self-condemnation as having been excessive. The immediate causes of the failure
were undoubtedly the results of pure ill-fortune, and depended on things
outside his control. But it is evident that the strategic plan which would
justify the presence of this column at Nicholson's Nek was based upon the
supposition that the main army won their action at
The force chosen to operate independently consisted of four
and a half companies of the
The road was irregular and the night was moonless. On either side the black loom of the hills bulked vaguely through the darkness. The column tramped stolidly along, the Fusiliers in front, the guns and Gloucesters behind. Several times a short halt was called to make sure of the bearings. At last, in the black cold hours which come between midnight and morning, the column swung to the left out of the road. In front of them, hardly visible, stretched a long black kopje. It was the very Nicholson's Nek which they had come to occupy. Carleton and Adye must have heaved a sigh of relief as they realised that they had actually struck it. The force was but two hundred yards from the position, and all had gone without a hitch. And yet in those two hundred yards there came an incident which decided the fate both of their enterprise and of themselves.
Out of the darkness there blundered and rattled five horsemen, their horses galloping, the loose stones flying around them. In the dim light they were gone as soon as seen. Whence coming, whither going, no one knows, nor is it certain whether it was design or ignorance or panic which sent them riding so wildly through the darkness. Somebody fired. A sergeant of the Fusiliers took the bullet through his hand. Some one else shouted to fix bayonets. The mules which carried the spare ammunition kicked and reared. There was no question of treachery, for they were led by our own men, but to hold two frightened mules, one with either hand, is a feat for a Hercules. They lashed and tossed and bucked themselves loose, and an instant afterwards were flying helter skelter through the column. Nearly all the mules caught the panic. In vain the men held on to their heads. In the mad rush they were galloped over and knocked down by the torrent of frightened creatures. In the gloom of that early hour the men must have thought that they were charged by cavalry. The column was dashed out of all military order as effectively as if a regiment of dragoons had ridden over them. When the cyclone had passed, and the men had with many a muttered curse gathered themselves into their ranks once more, they realised how grave was the misfortune which had befallen them. There, where those mad hoofs still rattled in the distance, were their spare cartridges, their shells, and their cannon. A mountain gun is not drawn upon wheels, but is carried in adjustable parts upon mule-back. A wheel had gone south, a trail east, a chase west. Some of the cartridges were strewn upon the road. Most were on their way back to Ladysmith. There was nothing for it but to face this new situation and to determine what should be done.
It has been often and naturally asked, why did not Colonel Carleton make his way back at once upon the loss of his guns and ammunition, while it was still dark? One or two considerations are evident. In the first place, it is natural to a good soldier to endeavour to retrieve a situation rather than to abandon his enterprise. His prudence, did he not do so, might become the subject of public commendation, but might also provoke some private comment. A soldier's training is to take chances, and to do the best he can with the material at his disposal. Again, Colonel Carleton and Major Adye knew the general plan of the battle which would be raging within a very few hours, and they quite understood that by withdrawing they would expose General White's left flank to attack from the forces (consisting, as we know now, of the Orange Freestaters and of the Johannesburg Police) who were coming from the north and west. He hoped to be relieved by eleven, and he believed that, come what might, he could hold out until then. These are the most obvious of the considerations which induced Colonel Carleton to determine to carry out so far as he could the programme which had been laid down for him and his command. He marched up the hill and occupied the position.
His heart, however, must have sunk when he examined it. It was very large--too large to be effectively occupied by the force which he commanded. The length was about a mile and the breadth four hundred yards. Shaped roughly like the sole of a boot, it was only the heel end which he could hope to hold. Other hills all round offered cover for Boer riflemen. Nothing daunted, however, he set his men to work at once building sangars with the loose stones. With the full dawn and the first snapping of Boer Mausers from the hills around they had thrown up some sort of rude defences which they might hope to hold until help should come.
But how could help come when there was no means by which they could let White know the plight in which they found themselves? They had brought a heliograph with them, but it was on the back of one of those accursed mules. The Boers were thick around them, and they could not send a messenger. An attempt was made to convert a polished biscuit tin into a heliograph, but with poor success. A Kaffir was dispatched with promises of a heavy bribe, but he passed out of history. And there in the clear cold morning air the balloon hung to the south of them where the first distant thunder of White's guns was beginning to sound. If only they could attract the attention of that balloon! Vainly they wagged flags at it. Serene and unresponsive it brooded over the distant battle.
And now the Boers were thickening round them on every side. Christian de Wet, a name soon to be a household word, marshaled the Boer attack, which was soon strengthened by the arrival of Van Dam and his Police. At five o'clock the fire began, at six it was warm, at seven warmer still. Two companies of the Gloucesters lined a sangar on the tread of the sole, to prevent any one getting too near to the heel. A fresh detachment of Boers, firing from a range of nearly one thousand yards, took this defence in the rear. Bullets fell among the men, and smacked up against the stone breastwork. The two companies were withdrawn, and lost heavily in the open as they crossed it. An incessant rattle and crackle of rifle fire came from all round, drawing very slowly but steadily nearer. Now and then the whisk of a dark figure from one boulder to another was all that ever was seen of the attackers. The British fired slowly and steadily, for every cartridge counted, but the cover of the Boers was so cleverly taken that it was seldom that there was much to aim at. 'All you could ever see,' says one who was present, 'were the barrels of the rifles.' There was time for thought in that long morning, and to some of the men it may have occurred what preparation for such fighting had they ever had in the mechanical exercises of the parade ground, or the shooting of an annual bagful of cartridges at exposed targets at a measured range. It is the warfare of Nicholson's Nek, not that of Laffan's Plain, which has to be learned in the future.
During those weary hours lying on the bullet-swept hill and listening to the eternal hissing in the air and clicking on the rocks, the British soldiers could see the fight which raged to the south of them. It was not a cheering sight, and Carleton and Adye with their gallant comrades must have felt their hearts grow heavier as they watched. The Boers' shells bursting among the British batteries, the British shells bursting short of their opponents. The Long Toms laid at an angle of forty-five plumped their huge shells into the British guns at a range where the latter would not dream of unlimbering. And then gradually the rifle fire died away also, crackling more faintly as White withdrew to Ladysmith. At eleven o'clock Carleton's column recognised that it had been left to its fate. As early as nine a heliogram had been sent to them to retire as the opportunity served, but to leave the hill was certainly to court annihilation.
The men had then been under fire for six hours, and with their losses mounting and their cartridges dwindling, all hope had faded from their minds. But still for another hour, and yet another, and yet another, they held doggedly on. Nine and a half hours they clung to that pile of stones. The Fusiliers were still exhausted from the effect of their march from Glencoe and their incessant work since. Many fell asleep behind the boulders. Some sat doggedly with their useless rifles and empty pouches beside them. Some picked cartridges off their dead comrades. What were they fighting for? It was hopeless, and they knew it. But always there was the honour of the flag, the glory of the regiment, the hatred of a proud and brave man to acknowledge defeat. And yet it had to come. There were some in that force who were ready for the reputation of the British army, and for the sake of an example of military virtue, to die stolidly where they stood, or to lead the 'Faugh-a-ballagh' boys, or the gallant 28th, in one last death-charge with empty rifles against the unseen enemy. They may have been right, these stalwarts. Leonidas and his three hundred did more for the Spartan cause by their memory than by their living valour. Man passes like the brown leaves, but the tradition of a nation lives on like the oak that sheds them--and the passing of the leaves is nothing if the bole be the sounder for it. But a counsel of perfection is easy at a study table. There are other things to be said--the responsibility of officers for the lives of their men, the hope that they may yet be of service to their country. All was weighed, all was thought of, and so at last the white flag went up. The officer who hoisted it could see no one unhurt save himself, for all in his sangar were hit, and the others were so placed that he was under the impression that they had withdrawn altogether. Whether this hoisting of the flag necessarily compromised the whole force is a difficult question, but the Boers instantly left their cover, and the men in the sangars behind, some of whom had not been so seriously engaged, were ordered by their officers to desist from firing. In an instant the victorious Boers were among them.
It was not, as I have been told by those who were there, a sight which one would wish to have seen or care now to dwell upon. Haggard officers cracked their sword-blades and cursed the day that they had been born. Privates sobbed with their stained faces buried in their hands. Of all tests of discipline that ever they had stood, the hardest to many was to conform to all that the cursed flapping handkerchief meant to them. 'Father, father, we had rather have died,' cried the Fusiliers to their priest. Gallant hearts, ill paid, ill thanked, how poorly do the successful of the world compare with their unselfish loyalty and devotion!
But the sting of contumely or insult was not added to their
misfortunes. There is a fellowship of brave men which rises above the feuds of
nations, and may at last go far, we hope, to heal them. From every rock there
rose a Boer--strange, grotesque figures many of them--walnut-brown and
shaggy-bearded, and swarmed on to the hill. No term of triumph or reproach came
from their lips. 'You will not say now that the young Boer cannot shoot,' was the
harshest word which the least restrained of them made use of. Between one and
two hundred dead and wounded were scattered over the hill. Those who were
within reach of human help received all that could be given. Captain Rice, of
the Fusiliers, was carried wounded down the hill on the back of one giant, and
he has narrated how the man refused the gold piece which was offered him. Some
asked the soldiers for their embroidered waist-belts as souvenirs of the day.
They will for generations remain as the most precious ornaments of some
colonial farmhouse. Then the victors gathered together and sang psalms, not
jubilant but sad and quavering. The prisoners, in a downcast column, weary,
spent, and unkempt, filed off to the Boer laager at Waschbank, there to take
At the end of a fortnight of actual hostilities in
The exact position at the end of this fortnight of hard
slogging was that a quarter of the colony of
Leaving Ladysmith now apparently within the grasp of the Boers, who had settled down deliberately to the work of throttling it, the narrative must pass to the western side of the seat of war, and give a consecutive account of the events which began with the siege of Kimberley and led to the ineffectual efforts of Lord Methuen's column to relieve it.
On the declaration of war two important movements had been
made by the Boers upon the west. One was the advance of a considerable body
under the formidable Cronje to attack
The troops which Colonel Kekewich had at his disposal
consisted of four companies of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (his own
regiment), with some Royal Engineers, a mountain battery, and two machine guns.
In addition there were the extremely spirited and capable local forces, a
hundred and twenty men of the
A small reinforcement of police had, under tragic
circumstances, reached the town. Vryburg, the capital of British Bechuanaland,
lies 145 miles to the north of
Up to the end of October the situation was so dangerous that
it is really inexplicable that no advantage was taken of it by the enemy. Our
main force was concentrated to defend the Orange River railway bridge, which
was so essential for our advance upon
The first collision between the opposing forces at this part
of the seat of war was upon November 10th, when Colonel Gough of the 9th
Lancers made a reconnaissance from Orange River to the north with two squadrons
of his own regiment, the mounted infantry of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the
Royal Munsters, and the North Lancashires, with a battery of field artillery.
To the east of
On November 12th Lord Methuen arrived at Orange River and
proceeded to organise the column which was to advance to the relief of
The force which gradually assembled at
Extreme mobility was aimed at in the column, and neither
tents nor comforts of any sort were permitted to officers or men--no light
matter in a climate where a tropical day is followed by an arctic night. At
daybreak on November 22nd the force, numbering about eight thousand men, set
off upon its eventful journey. The distance to Kimberley was not more than
sixty miles, and it is probable that there was not one man in the force who
imagined how long that march would take or how grim the experiences would be
which awaited them on the way. At the dawn of Wednesday, November 22nd, Lord
Methuen moved forward until he came into touch with the Boer position at
The force of the Boers was much inferior to our own, some
two or three thousand in all, but the natural strength of their position made
it a difficult one to carry, while it could not be left behind us as a menace
to our line of communications. A double row of steep hills lay across the road
It was a soldiers' battle in the good old primeval British
Lord Methuen's intention had been an attack from front and from flank, but whether from the Grenadiers losing their bearings, or from the mobility of the Boers, which made a flank attack an impossibility, it is certain that all became frontal. The battle resolved itself into a number of isolated actions in which the various kopjes were rushed by different British regiments, always with success and always with loss. The honours of the fight, as tested by the grim record of the casualty returns, lay with the Grenadiers, the Coldstreams, the Northumberlands, and the Scots Guards. The brave Guardsmen lay thickly on the slopes, but their comrades crowned the heights. The Boers held on desperately and fired their rifles in the very faces of the stormers. One young officer had his jaw blown to pieces by a rifle which almost touched him. Another, Blundell of the Guards, was shot dead by a wounded desperado to whom he was offering his water-bottle. At one point a white flag was waved by the defenders, on which the British left cover, only to be met by a volley. It was there that Mr. E. F. Knight, of the 'Morning Post,' became the victim of a double abuse of the usages of war, since his wound, from which he lost his right arm, was from an explosive bullet. The man who raised the flag was captured, and it says much for the humanity of British soldiers that he was not bayoneted upon the spot. Yet it is not fair to blame a whole people for the misdeeds of a few, and it is probable that the men who descended to such devices, or who deliberately fired upon our ambulances, were as much execrated by their own comrades as by ourselves.
The victory was an expensive one, for fifty killed and two hundred wounded lay upon the hillside, and, like so many of our skirmishes with the Boers, it led to small material results. Their losses appear to have been much about the same as ours, and we captured some fifty prisoners, whom the soldiers regarded with the utmost interest. They were a sullen slouching crowd rudely clad, and they represented probably the poorest of the burghers, who now, as in the middle ages, suffer most in battle, since a long purse means a good horse. Most of the enemy galloped very comfortably away after the action, leaving a fringe of sharpshooters among the kopjes to hold back our pursuing cavalry. The want of horsemen and the want of horse artillery are the two reasons which Lord Methuen gives why the defeat was not converted into a rout. As it was, the feelings of the retreating Boers were exemplified by one of their number, who turned in his saddle in order to place his outstretched fingers to his nose in derision of the victors. He exposed himself to the fire of half a battalion while doing so, but he probably was aware that with our present musketry instruction the fire of a British half-battalion against an individual is not a very serious matter.
The remainder of the 23rd was spent at Belmont Camp, and
next morning an advance was made to Enslin, some ten miles further on. Here lay
the plain of Enslin, bounded by a formidable line of kopjes as dangerous as
The advance had been on the line of the
These remarks upon shrapnel might be included in the account
of half the battles of the war, but they are particularly apposite to the
action at Enslin. Here a single large kopje formed the key to the position, and
a considerable time was expended upon preparing it for the British assault, by
directing upon it a fire which swept the face of it and searched, as was hoped,
every corner in which a rifleman might lurk. One of the two batteries engaged
fired no fewer than five hundred rounds. Then the infantry advance was ordered,
the Guards being held in reserve on account of their exertions at
The battle of Enslin had cost us some two hundred of killed and wounded, and beyond the mere fact that we had cleared our way by another stage towards Kimberley it is difficult to say what advantage we had from it. We won the kopjes, but we lost our men. The Boer killed and wounded were probably less than half of our own, and the exhaustion and weakness of our cavalry forbade us to pursue and prevented us from capturing their guns. In three days the men had fought two exhausting actions in a waterless country and under a tropical sun. Their exertions had been great and yet were barren of result. Why this should be so was naturally the subject of keen discussion both in the camp and among the public at home. It always came back to Lord Methuen's own complaint about the absence of cavalry and of horse artillery. Many very unjust charges have been hurled against our War Office--a department which in some matters has done extraordinarily and unexpectedly well--but in this question of the delay in the despatch of our cavalry and artillery, knowing as we did the extreme mobility of our enemy, there is certainly ground for an inquiry.
The Boers who had fought these two actions had been drawn
mainly from the Jacobsdal and Fauresmith commandoes, with some of the burghers
from Boshof. The famous Cronje, however, had been descending from
The march from
On Monday, November 27th, at early dawn, the little British army, a dust-coloured column upon the dusty veld, moved forwards again towards their objective. That night they halted at the pools of Klipfontein, having for once made a whole day's march without coming in touch with the enemy. Hopes rose that possibly the two successive defeats had taken the heart out of them and that there would be no further resistance to the advance. Some, however, who were aware of the presence of Cronje, and of his formidable character, took a juster view of the situation. And this perhaps is where a few words might be said about the celebrated leader who played upon the western side of the seat of war the same part which Joubert did upon the east.
Commandant Cronje was at the time of the war sixty-five years of age, a hard, swarthy man, quiet of manner, fierce of soul, with a reputation among a nation of resolute men for unsurpassed resolution. His dark face was bearded and virile, but sedate and gentle in expression. He spoke little, but what he said was to the point, and he had the gift of those fire-words which brace and strengthen weaker men. In hunting expeditions and in native wars he had first won the admiration of his countrymen by his courage and his fertility of resource. In the war of 1880 he had led the Boers who besieged Potchefstroom, and he had pushed the attack with a relentless vigour which was not hampered by the chivalrous usages of war. Eventually he compelled the surrender of the place by concealing from the garrison that a general armistice had been signed, an act which was afterwards disowned by his own government. In the succeeding years he lived as an autocrat and a patriarch amid his farms and his herds, respected by many and feared by all. For a time he was Native Commissioner and left a reputation for hard dealing behind him. Called into the field again by the Jameson raid, he grimly herded his enemies into an impossible position and desired, as it is stated, that the hardest measure should be dealt out to the captives. This was the man, capable, crafty, iron-hard, magnetic, who lay with a reinforced and formidable army across the path of Lord Methuen's tired soldiers. It was a fair match. On the one side the hardy men, the trained shots, a good artillery, and the defensive; on the other the historical British infantry, duty, discipline, and a fiery courage. With a high heart the dust-coloured column moved on over the dusty veld.
So entirely had hills and Boer fighting become associated in
the minds of our leaders, that when it was known that
The army had been reinforced the night before by the welcome
addition of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which made up for the losses
of the week. It was a cloudless morning, and a dazzling sun rose in a deep blue
sky. The men, though hungry, marched cheerily, the reek of their tobacco-pipes
floating up from their ranks. It cheered them to see that the murderous kopjes
had, for the time, been left behind, and that the great plain inclined slightly
downwards to where a line of green showed the course of the river. On the
further bank were a few scattered buildings, with one considerable hotel, used
as a week-end resort by the businessmen of
His dispositions had been both masterly and original. Contrary to the usual military practice in the defence of rivers, he had concealed his men upon both banks, placing, as it is stated, those in whose staunchness he had least confidence upon the British side of the river, so that they could only retreat under the rifles of their inexorable companions. The trenches had been so dug with such a regard for the slopes of the ground that in some places a triple line of fire was secured. His artillery, consisting of several heavy pieces and a number of machine guns (including one of the diabolical 'pompoms'), was cleverly placed upon the further side of the stream, and was not only provided with shelter pits but had rows of reserve pits, so that the guns could be readily shifted when their range was found. Rows of trenches, a broadish river, fresh rows of trenches, fortified houses, and a good artillery well worked and well placed, it was a serious task which lay in front of the gallant little army. The whole position covered between four and five miles.
An obvious question must here occur to the mind of every non-military reader--Why should this position be attacked at all? Why should we not cross higher up where there were no such formidable obstacles?' The answer, so far as one can answer it, must be that so little was known of the dispositions of our enemy that we were hopelessly involved in the action before we knew of it, and that then it was more dangerous to extricate the army than to push the attack. A retirement over that open plain at a range of under a thousand yards would have been a dangerous and disastrous movement. Having once got there, it was wisest and best to see it through.
The dark Cronje still waited reflective in the hotel garden. Across the veld streamed the lines of infantry, the poor fellows eager, after seven miles of that upland air, for the breakfast which had been promised them. It was a quarter to seven when our patrols of Lancers were fired upon. There were Boers, then, between them and their meal! The artillery was ordered up, the Guards were sent forward on the right, the 9th Brigade under Pole-Carew on the left, including the newly arrived Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. They swept onwards into the fatal fire zone--and then, and only then, there blazed out upon them four miles of rifles, cannon, and machine guns, and they realised, from general to private, that they had walked unwittingly into the fiercest battle yet fought in the war.
Before the position was understood the Guards were within seven hundred yards of the Boer trenches, and the other troops about nine hundred, on the side of a very gentle slope which made it most difficult to find any cover. In front of them lay a serene landscape, the river, the houses, the hotel, no movement of men, no smoke--everything peaceful and deserted save for an occasional quick flash and sparkle of flame. But the noise was horrible and appalling. Men whose nerves had been steeled to the crash of the big guns, or the monotonous roar of Maxims and the rattle of Mauser fire, found a new terror in the malignant 'ploop-plooping' of the automatic quick-firer. The Maxim of the Scots Guards was caught in the hell-blizzard from this thing--each shell no bigger than a large walnut, but flying in strings of a score--and men and gun were destroyed in an instant. As to the rifle bullets the air was humming and throbbing with them, and the sand was mottled like a pond in a shower. To advance was impossible, to retire was hateful. The men fell upon their faces and huddled close to the earth, too happy if some friendly ant-heap gave them a precarious shelter. And always, tier above tier, the lines of rifle fire rippled and palpitated in front of them. The infantry fired also, and fired, and fired--but what was there to fire at? An occasional eye and hand over the edge of a trench or behind a stone is no mark at seven hundred yards. It would be instructive to know how many British bullets found a billet that day.
The cavalry was useless, the infantry was powerless--there
only remained the guns. When any arm is helpless and harried it always casts an
imploring eye upon the guns, and rarely indeed is it that the gallant guns do
not respond. Now the 75th and 18th Field Batteries came rattling and dashing to
the front, and unlimbered at one thousand yards. The naval guns were working at
four thousand, but the two combined were insufficient to master the fire of the
pieces of large calibre which were opposed to them. Lord Methuen must have
prayed for guns as
Now it was guns against guns, and let the best gunners win!
We had eighteen field-guns and the naval pieces against the concealed cannon of
the enemy. Back and forward flew the shells, howling past each other in
mid-air. The weary men of the 62nd
As the afternoon wore on, a curious condition of things was
established. The guns could not advance, and, indeed, it was found necessary to
withdraw them from a 1200 to a 2800-yard range, so heavy were the losses. At
the time of the change the 75th
But in the meantime there had been a development upon the
left which was to turn the action into a British victory. At this side there
was ample room to extend, and the 9th Brigade spread out, feeling its way down
the enemy's line, until it came to a point where the fire was less murderous
and the approach to the river more in favour of the attack. Here the
Yorkshires, a party of whom under Lieutenant Fox had stormed a farmhouse,
obtained the command of a drift, over which a mixed force of Highlanders and
Fusiliers forced their way, led by their Brigadier in person. This body of
infantry, which does not appear to have exceeded five hundred in number, were assailed both by the Boer riflemen and by the
guns of both parties, our own gunners being unaware that the Modder had been
successfully crossed. A small hamlet called Rosmead formed, however, a point
d'appui, and to this the infantry clung tenaciously, while reinforcements
dribbled across to them from the farther side. 'Now, boys, who's for otter
hunting?' cried Major Coleridge, of the
'Hollo, here is a river!' cried Codrington when he led his forlorn hope to the right and found that the Riet had to be crossed. 'I was given to understand that the Modder was fordable everywhere,' says Lord Methuen in his official despatch. One cannot read the account of the operations without being struck by the casual, sketchy knowledge which cost us so dearly. The soldiers slogged their way through, as they have slogged it before; but the task might have been made much lighter for them had we but clearly known what it was that we were trying to do. On the other hand, it is but fair to Lord Methuen to say that his own personal gallantry and unflinching resolution set the most stimulating example to his troops. No General could have done more to put heart into his men.
And now, as the long weary scorching hungry day came to an end, the Boers began at last to flinch from their trenches. The shrapnel was finding them out and this force upon their flank filled them with vague alarm and with fears for their precious guns. And so as night fell they stole across the river, the cannon were withdrawn, the trenches evacuated, and next morning, when the weary British and their anxious General turned themselves to their grim task once more, they found a deserted village, a line of empty houses, and a litter of empty Mauser cartridge-cases to show where their tenacious enemy had stood.
Lord Methuen, in congratulating the troops upon their
achievement, spoke of 'the hardest-won victory in our annals of war,' and some
such phrase was used in his official despatch. It is hypercritical, no doubt,
to look too closely at a term used by a wounded man with the flush of battle
still upon him, but still a student of military history must smile at such a
comparison between this action and such others as Albuera or Inkerman, where
the numbers of British engaged were not dissimilar. A fight in which five
hundred men are killed and wounded cannot be classed in the same category as
those stern and desperate encounters where more of the victors were carried
than walked from the field of battle. And yet there were some special features
which will differentiate the fight at
The honours of the day upon the side of the British rested with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 2nd Coldstreams, and the artillery. Out of a total casualty list of about 450, no fewer than 112 came from the gallant Argylls and 69 from the Coldstreams. The loss of the Boers is exceedingly difficult to gauge, as they throughout the war took the utmost pains to conceal it. The number of desperate and long-drawn actions which have ended, according to the official Pretorian account, in a loss of one wounded burgher may in some way be better policy, but does not imply a higher standard of public virtue, than those long lists which have saddened our hearts in the halls of the War Office. What is certain is that the loss at Modder River could not have been far inferior to our own, and that it arose almost entirely from artillery fire, since at no time of the action were any large number of their riflemen visible. So it ended, this long pelting match, Cronje sullenly withdrawing under the cover of darkness with his resolute heart filled with fierce determination for the future, while the British soldiers threw themselves down on the ground which they occupied and slept the sleep of exhaustion.
Lord Methuen's force had now fought three actions in the
space of a single week, losing in killed and wounded about a thousand men, or
rather more than one-tenth of its total numbers. Had there been evidence that
the enemy were seriously demoralised, the General would no doubt have pushed on
at once to
It was the more necessary that
Reinforcements were now reaching the
On the morning of Saturday, December 9th, the British General made an attempt to find out what lay in front of him amid that semicircle of forbidding hills. To this end he sent out a reconnaissance in the early morning, which included G Battery Horse Artillery, the 9th Lancers, and the ponderous 4.7 naval gun, which, preceded by the majestic march of thirty-two bullocks and attended by eighty seamen gunners, creaked forwards over the plain. What was there to shoot at in those sunlit boulder-strewn hills in front? They lay silent and untenanted in the glare of the African day. In vain the great gun exploded its huge shell with its fifty pounds of lyddite over the ridges, in vain the smaller pieces searched every cleft and hollow with their shrapnel. No answer came from the far-stretching hills. Not a flash or twinkle betrayed the fierce bands who lurked among the boulders. The force returned to camp no wiser than when it left.
There was one sight visible every night to all men which
might well nerve the rescuers in their enterprise. Over the northern horizon,
behind those hills of danger, there quivered up in the darkness one long,
flashing, quivering beam, which swung up and down, and up again like a seraphic
sword-blade. It was
About three in the afternoon of Sunday, December 10th, the force which was intended to clear a path for the army through the lines of Magersfontein moved out upon what proved to be its desperate enterprise. The 3rd or Highland Brigade included the Black Watch, the Seaforths, the Argyll and Sutherlands, and the Highland Light Infantry. The Gordons had only arrived in camp that day, and did not advance until next morning. Besides the infantry, the 9th Lancers, the mounted infantry, and all the artillery moved to the front. It was raining hard, and the men with one blanket between two soldiers bivouacked upon the cold damp ground, about three miles from the enemy's position. At one o'clock, without food, and drenched, they moved forwards through the drizzle and the darkness to attack those terrible lines. Major Benson, R.A., with two of Rimington's scouts, led them on their difficult way.
Clouds drifted low in the heavens, and the falling rain made the darkness more impenetrable. The Highland Brigade was formed into a column--the Black Watch in front, then the Seaforths, and the other two behind. To prevent the men from straggling in the night the four regiments were packed into a mass of quarter column as densely as was possible, and the left guides held a rope in order to preserve the formation. With many a trip and stumble the ill-fated detachment wandered on, uncertain where they were going and what it was that they were meant to do. Not only among the rank and file, but among the principal officers also, there was the same absolute ignorance. Brigadier Wauchope knew, no doubt, but his voice was soon to be stilled in death. The others were aware, of course, that they were advancing either to turn the enemy's trenches or to attack them, but they may well have argued from their own formation that they could not be near the riflemen yet. Why they should be still advancing in that dense clump we do not now know, nor can we surmise what thoughts were passing through the mind of the gallant and experienced chieftain who walked beside them. There are some who claim on the night before to have seen upon his strangely ascetic face that shadow of doom which is summed up in the one word 'fey.' The hand of coming death may already have lain cold upon his soul. Out there, close beside him, stretched the long trench, fringed with its line of fierce, staring, eager faces, and its bristle of gun-barrels. They knew he was coming. They were ready. They were waiting. But still, with the dull murmur of many feet, the dense column, nearly four thousand strong, wandered onwards through the rain and the darkness, death and mutilation crouching upon their path.
It matters not what gave the signal, whether it was the flashing of a lantern by a Boer scout, or the tripping of a soldier over wire, or the firing of a gun in the ranks. It may have been any, or it may have been none, of these things. As a matter of fact I have been assured by a Boer who was present that it was the sound of the tins attached to the alarm wires which disturbed them. However this may be, in an instant there crashed out of the darkness into their faces and ears a roar of point-blank fire, and the night was slashed across with the throbbing flame of the rifles. At the moment before this outflame some doubt as to their whereabouts seems to have flashed across the mind of their leaders. The order to extend had just been given, but the men had not had time to act upon it. The storm of lead burst upon the head and right flank of the column, which broke to pieces under the murderous volley. Wauchope was shot, struggled up, and fell once more for ever. Rumour has placed words of reproach upon his dying lips, but his nature, both gentle and soldierly, forbids the supposition. 'What a pity!' was the only utterance which a brother Highlander ascribes to him. Men went down in swathes, and a howl of rage and agony, heard afar over the veld, swelled up from the frantic and struggling crowd. By the hundred they dropped--some dead, some wounded, some knocked down by the rush and sway of the broken ranks. It was a horrible business. At such a range and in such a formation a single Mauser bullet may well pass through many men. A few dashed forwards, and were found dead at the very edges of the trench. The few survivors of companies A, B, and C of the Black Watch appear to have never actually retired, but to have clung on to the immediate front of the Boer trenches, while the remains of the other five companies tried to turn the Boer flank. Of the former body only six got away unhurt in the evening after lying all day within two hundred yards of the enemy. The rest of the brigade broke and, disentangling themselves with difficulty from the dead and the dying, fled back out of that accursed place. Some, the most unfortunate of all, became caught in the darkness in the wire defences, and were found in the morning hung up 'like crows,' as one spectator describes it, and riddled with bullets.
Who shall blame the Highlanders for retiring when they did?
Viewed, not by desperate and surprised men, but in all calmness and sanity, it
may well seem to have been the very best thing which they could do. Dashed into
chaos, separated from their officers, with no one who knew what was to be done,
the first necessity was to gain shelter from this deadly fire, which had
already stretched six hundred of their number upon the ground. The danger was
that men so shaken would be stricken with panic, scatter in the darkness over
the face of the country, and cease to exist as a military unit. But the
Highlanders were true to their character and their traditions. There was
shouting in the darkness, hoarse voices calling for the Seaforths, for the
Argylls, for Company C, for Company H, and everywhere in the gloom there came
the answer of the clansmen. Within half an hour with the break of day the
Fortunately the guns were at hand, and, as usual, they were
quick to come to the aid of the distressed. The sun was hardly up before the
howitzers were throwing lyddite at 4000 yards, the three field batteries (18th,
62nd, 75th) were working with shrapnel at a mile, and
the troop of Horse Artillery was up at the right front trying to enfilade the
trenches. The guns kept down the rifle-fire, and gave the wearied Highlanders
some respite from their troubles. The whole situation had resolved itself now
into another Battle of Modder River. The infantry, under a fire at from six
hundred to eight hundred paces, could not advance and would not retire. The
artillery only kept the battle going, and the huge naval gun from behind was
joining with its deep bark in the deafening uproar. But the Boers had already
learned--and it is one of their most valuable military qualities that they
assimilate their experience so quickly--that shell fire is less dangerous in a
trench than among rocks. These trenches, very elaborate in character, had been
dug some hundreds of yards from the foot of the hills, so that there was hardly
any guide to our artillery fire. Yet it is to the artillery fire that all the
losses of the Boers that day were due. The cleverness of Cronje's disposition
of his trenches some hundred yards ahead of the kopjes is accentuated by the
fascination which any rising object has for a gunner. Prince Kraft tells the
story of how at Sadowa he unlimbered his guns two hundred yards in front of the
As the day wore on reinforcements of infantry came up from the force which had been left to guard the camp. The Gordons arrived with the first and second battalions of the Coldstream Guards, and all the artillery was moved nearer to the enemy's position. At the same time, as there were some indications of an attack upon our right flank, the Grenadier Guards with five companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry were moved up in that direction, while the three remaining companies of Barter's Yorkshiremen secured a drift over which the enemy might cross the Modder. This threatening movement upon our right flank, which would have put the Highlanders into an impossible position had it succeeded, was most gallantly held back all morning, before the arrival of the Guards and the Yorkshires, by the mounted infantry and the 12th Lancers, skirmishing on foot. It was in this long and successful struggle to cover the flank of the 3rd Brigade that Major Milton, Major Ray, and many another brave man met his end. The Coldstreams and Grenadiers relieved the pressure upon this side, and the Lancers retired to their horses, having shown, not for the first time, that the cavalryman with a modern carbine can at a pinch very quickly turn himself into a useful infantry soldier. Lord Airlie deserves all praise for his unconventional use of his men, and for the gallantry with which he threw both himself and them into the most critical corner of the fight.
While the Coldstreams, the Grenadiers, and the Yorkshire Light Infantry were holding back the Boer attack upon our right flank the indomitable Gordons, the men of Dargai, furious with the desire to avenge their comrades of the Highland Brigade, had advanced straight against the trenches and succeeded without any very great loss in getting within four hundred yards of them. But a single regiment could not carry the position, and anything like a general advance upon it was out of the question in broad daylight after the punishment which we had received. Any plans of the sort which may have passed through Lord Methuen's mind were driven away for ever by the sudden unordered retreat of the stricken brigade. They had been very roughly handled in this, which was to most of them their baptism of fire, and they had been without food and water under a burning sun all day. They fell back rapidly for a mile, and the guns were for a time left partially exposed. Fortunately the lack of initiative on the part of the Boers which has stood our friend so often came in to save us from disaster and humiliation. It is due to the brave unshaken face which the Guards presented to the enemy that our repulse did not deepen into something still more serious.
The Gordons and the Scots Guards were still in attendance upon the guns, but they had been advanced very close to the enemy's trenches, and there were no other troops in support. Under these circumstances it was imperative that the Highlanders should rally, and Major Ewart with other surviving officers rushed among the scattered ranks and strove hard to gather and to stiffen them. The men were dazed by what they had undergone, and Nature shrank back from that deadly zone where the bullets fell so thickly. But the pipes blew, and the bugles sang, and the poor tired fellows, the backs of their legs so flayed and blistered by lying in the sun that they could hardly bend them, hobbled back to their duty. They worked up to the guns once more, and the moment of danger passed.
But as the evening wore on it became evident that no attack
could succeed, and that therefore there was no use in holding the men in front
of the enemy's position. The dark Cronje, lurking among his ditches and his
barbed wire, was not to be approached, far less defeated. There are some who
think that, had we held on there as we did at the
About half-past five the Boer guns, which had for some unexplained reason been silent all day, opened upon the cavalry. Their appearance was a signal for the general falling back of the centre, and the last attempt to retrieve the day was abandoned. The Highlanders were dead-beat; the Coldstreams had had enough; the mounted infantry was badly mauled. There remained the Grenadiers, the Scots Guards, and two or three line regiments who were available for a new attack. There are occasions, such as Sadowa, where a General must play his last card. There are others where with reinforcements in his rear, he can do better by saving his force and trying once again. General Grant had an axiom that the best time for an advance was when you were utterly exhausted, for that was the moment when your enemy was probably utterly exhausted too, and of two such forces the attacker has the moral advantage. Lord Methuen determined--and no doubt wisely--that it was no occasion for counsels of desperation. His men were withdrawn--in some cases withdrew themselves--outside the range of the Boer guns, and next morning saw the whole force with bitter and humiliated hearts on their way back to their camp at Modder River.
The repulse of Magersfontein cost the British nearly a
thousand men, killed, wounded, and missing, of which over seven hundred
belonged to the Highlanders. Fifty-seven officers had fallen in that brigade
alone, including their Brigadier and Colonel Downman of the Gordons. Colonel
Codrington of the Coldstreams was wounded early, fought through the action, and
came back in the evening on a Maxim gun. Lord Winchester of the same battalion
was killed, after injudiciously but heroically exposing himself all day. The
Black Watch alone had lost nineteen officers and over three hundred men killed
and wounded, a catastrophe which can only be matched in all the bloody and
glorious annals of that splendid regiment by their slaughter at Ticonderoga in
1757, when no fewer than five hundred fell before Montcalm's muskets. Never has
In his comments upon the battle next day Lord Methuen was said to have given offence to the Highland Brigade, and the report was allowed to go uncontradicted until it became generally accepted. It arose, however, from a complete misunderstanding of the purport of Lord Methuen's remarks, in which he praised them, as he well might, for their bravery, and condoled with them over the wreck of their splendid regiments. The way in which officers and men hung on under conditions to which no troops have ever been exposed was worthy of the highest traditions of the British army. From the death of Wauchope in the early morning, until the assumption of the command of the brigade by Hughes-Hallett in the late afternoon, no one seems to have taken the direction. 'My lieutenant was wounded and my captain was killed,' says a private. 'The General was dead, but we stayed where we were, for there was no order to retire.' That was the story of the whole brigade, until the flanking movement of the Boers compelled them to fall back.
The most striking lesson of the engagement is the extreme bloodiness of modern warfare under some conditions, and its bloodlessness under others. Here, out of a total of something under a thousand casualties seven hundred were incurred in about five minutes, and the whole day of shell, machine-gun, and rifle fire only furnished the odd three hundred. So also at Ladysmith the British forces (White's column) were under heavy fire from 5.30 to 11.30, and the loss again was something under three hundred. With conservative generalship the losses of the battles of the future will be much less than those of the past, and as a consequence the battles themselves will last much longer, and it will be the most enduring rather than the most fiery which will win. The supply of food and water to the combatants will become of extreme importance to keep them up during the prolonged trials of endurance, which will last for weeks rather than days. On the other hand, when a General's force is badly compromised, it will be so punished that a quick surrender will be the only alternative to annihilation.
On the subject of the quarter-column formation which proved so fatal to us, it must be remembered that any other form of advance is hardly possible during a night attack, though at Tel-el-Kebir the exceptional circumstance of the march being over an open desert allowed the troops to move for the last mile or two in a more extended formation. A line of battalion double-company columns is most difficult to preserve in the darkness, and any confusion may lead to disaster. The whole mistake lay in a miscalculation of a few hundred yards in the position of the trenches. Had the regiments deployed five minutes earlier it is probable (though by no means certain) that the position would have been carried.
The action was not without those examples of military virtue which soften a disaster, and hold out a brighter promise for the future. The Guards withdrew from the field as if on parade, with the Boer shells bursting over their ranks. Fine, too, was the restraint of G Battery of Horse Artillery on the morning after the battle. An armistice was understood to exist, but the naval gun, in ignorance of it, opened on our extreme left. The Boers at once opened fire upon the Horse Artillery, who, recognising the mistake, remained motionless and unlimbered in a line, with every horse, and gunner and driver in his place, without taking any notice of the fire, which presently slackened and stopped as the enemy came to understand the situation. It is worthy of remark that in this battle the three field batteries engaged, as well as G Battery, R.H.A., each fired over 1000 rounds and remained for 30 consecutive hours within 1500 yards of the Boer position.
But of all the corps who deserve
praise, there was none more gallant than the brave surgeons and ambulance
bearers, who encounter all the dangers and enjoy none of the thrills of
warfare. All day under fire these men worked and toiled among the wounded.
Beevor, Ensor, Douglas, Probyn--all were equally devoted. It is almost
incredible, and yet it is true, that by ten o'clock on the morning after the
battle, before the troops had returned to camp, no fewer than five hundred
wounded were in the train and on their way to
Some attempt has now been made to sketch the succession of
events which had ended in the investment of Ladysmith in northern
In a future chapter it will be recorded how the Army Corps
After the declaration of war there was a period of some
weeks during which the position of the British over the whole of the northern
The other British force which faced the Boers who were
advancing through Stormberg was commanded by General Gatacre, a man who bore a
high reputation for fearlessness and tireless energy, though he had been
criticised, notably during the Soudan campaign, for having called upon his men
for undue and unnecessary exertion. 'General Back-acher' they called him, with
rough soldierly chaff. A glance at his long thin figure, his gaunt Don Quixote
face, and his aggressive jaw would show his personal energy, but might not
satisfy the observer that he possessed those intellectual gifts which qualify
for high command. At the action of the
General Gatacre was nominally in command of a division, but
so cruelly had his men been diverted from him, some to Buller in
The fact that he was about to do so, and even the hour of
the start, appear to have been the common property of the camp some days before
the actual move. The 'Times' correspondent under the date December 7th details
all that it is intended to do. It is to the credit of our Generals as men, but
to their detriment as soldiers, that they seem
throughout the campaign to have shown extraordinarily little power of
dissimulation. They did the obvious, and usually allowed it to be obvious what
they were about to do. One thinks of Napoleon striking at
The force with which General Gatacre advanced consisted of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, 960 strong, with one Maxim; the 2nd Irish Rifles, 840 strong, with one Maxim, and 250 Mounted Infantry. There were two batteries of Field Artillery, the 74th and 77th. The total force was well under 3000 men. About three in the afternoon the men were entrained in open trucks under a burning sun, and for some reason, at which the impetuous spirit of the General must have chafed, were kept waiting for three hours. At eight o'clock they detrained at Molteno, and thence after a short rest and a meal they started upon the night march which was intended to end at the break of day at the Boer trenches. One feels as if one were describing the operations of Magersfontein once again and the parallel continues to be painfully exact.
It was nine o'clock and pitch dark when the column moved out of Molteno and struck across the black gloom of the veld, the wheels of the guns being wrapped in hide to deaden the rattle. It was known that the distance was not more than ten miles, and so when hour followed hour and the guides were still unable to say that they had reached their point it must have become perfectly evident that they had missed their way. The men were dog-tired, a long day's work had been followed by a long night's march, and they plodded along drowsily through the darkness. The ground was broken and irregular. The weary soldiers stumbled as they marched. Daylight came and revealed the column still looking for its objective, the fiery General walking in front and leading his horse behind him. It was evident that his plans had miscarried, but his energetic and hardy temperament would not permit him to turn back without a blow being struck. However one may commend his energy, one cannot but stand aghast at his dispositions. The country was wild and rocky, the very places for those tactics of the surprise and the ambuscade in which the Boers excelled. And yet the column still plodded aimlessly on in its dense formation, and if there were any attempt at scouting ahead and on the flanks the result showed how ineffectively it was carried out. It was at a quarter past four in the clear light of a South African morning that a shot, and then another, and then a rolling crash of musketry, told that we were to have one more rough lesson of the result of neglecting the usual precautions of warfare. High up on the face of a steep line of hill the Boer riflemen lay hid, and from a short range their fire scourged our exposed flank. The men appear to have been chiefly colonial rebels, and not Boers of the backveld, and to that happy chance it may be that the comparative harmlessness of their fire was due. Even now, in spite of the surprise, the situation might have been saved had the bewildered troops and their harried officers known exactly what to do. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it appears now that the only course that could commend itself would be to extricate the troops from their position, and then, if thought feasible, to plan an attack. Instead of this a rush was made at the hillside, and the infantry made their way some distance up it only to find that there were positive ledges in front of them which could not be climbed. The advance was at a dead stop, and the men lay down under the boulders for cover from the hot fire which came from inaccessible marksmen above them. Meanwhile the artillery had opened behind them, and their fire (not for the first time in this campaign) was more deadly to their friends than to their foes. At least one prominent officer fell among his men, torn by British shrapnel bullets. Talana Hill and Modder River have shown also, though perhaps in a less tragic degree, that what with the long range of modern artillery fire, and what with the difficulty of locating infantry who are using smokeless powder, it is necessary that officers commanding batteries should be provided with the coolest heads and the most powerful glasses of any men in the service, for a responsibility which will become more and more terrific rests upon their judgment.
The question now, since the assault had failed, was how to extricate the men from their position. Many withdrew down the hill, running the gauntlet of the enemy's fire as they emerged from the boulders on to the open ground, while others clung to their positions, some from a soldierly hope that victory might finally incline to them, others because it was clearly safer to lie among the rocks than to cross the bullet-swept spaces beyond. Those portions of the force who extricated themselves do not appear to have realised how many of their comrades had remained behind, and so as the gap gradually increased between the men who were stationary and the men who fell back all hope of the two bodies reuniting became impossible. All the infantry who remained upon the hillside were captured. The rest rallied at a point fifteen hundred yards from the scene of the surprise, and began an orderly retreat to Molteno.
In the meanwhile three powerful Boer guns upon the ridge had opened fire with great accuracy, but fortunately with defective shells. Had the enemy's contractors been as trustworthy as their gunners in this campaign, our losses would have been very much heavier, and it is possible that here we catch a glimpse of some consequences of that corruption which was one of the curses of the country. The guns were moved with great smartness along the ridge, and opened fire again and again, but never with great result. Our own batteries, the 74th and 77th, with our handful of mounted men, worked hard in covering the retreat and holding back the enemy's pursuit.
It is a sad subject to discuss, but it is the one instance
in a campaign containing many reverses which amounts to demoralisation among
the troops engaged. The Guards marching with the steadiness of
It is not for the historian--especially for a civilian
historian--to say a word unnecessarily to aggravate the pain of that brave man
who, having done all that personal courage could do, was seen afterwards
sobbing on the table of the waiting-room at Molteno, and bewailing his 'poor
men.' He had a disaster, but Nelson had one at Teneriffe and Napoleon at
It is not to the detriment of an enterprise that it should be daring and call for considerable physical effort on the part of those who are engaged in it. On the contrary, the conception of such plans is one of the signs of a great military mind. But in the arranging of the details the same military mind should assiduously occupy itself in foreseeing and preventing every unnecessary thing which may make the execution of such a plan more difficult. The idea of a swift sudden attack upon Stormberg was excellent--the details of the operation are continually open to criticism.
How far the Boers suffered at Stormberg is unknown to us,
but there seems in this instance no reason to doubt their own statement that
their losses were very slight. At no time was any body of them exposed to our
fire, while we, as usual, fought in the open. Their numbers were probably less
than ours, and the quality of their shooting and want of energy in pursuit make
the defeat the more galling. On the other hand, their guns were served with
skill and audacity. They consisted of commandos from Bethulie, Rouxville, and
This defeat of General Gatacre's, occurring, as it did, in a disaffected district and one of great strategic importance, might have produced the worst consequences.
Fortunately no very evil result followed. No doubt the
recruiting of rebels was helped, but there was no forward movement and Molteno
remained in our hands. In the meanwhile Gatacre's force was reinforced by a
fresh battery, the 79th, and by a strong regiment, the Derbyshires, so that
with the 1st Royal Scots and the wing of the Berkshires he was strong enough to
hold his own until the time for a general advance should come. So in the
Stormberg district, as at the
Two serious defeats had within the week been inflicted upon
the British forces in
It was upon October 30th that Sir George White had been
thrust back into Ladysmith. On November 2nd telegraphic communication with the
town was interrupted. On November 3rd the railway line was cut. On November
10th the Boers held Colenso and the line of the Tugela. On the 14th was the
affair of the armoured train. On the 18th the enemy were
near Estcourt. On the 21st they had reached the
But the task was as severe a one as the most fighting General could ask for. On the southern side the banks formed a long slope which could be shaved as with a razor by the rifle fire of the enemy. How to advance across that broad open zone was indeed a problem. It was one of many occasions in this war in which one wondered why, if a bullet-proof shield capable of sheltering a lying man could be constructed, a trial should not be given to it. Alternate rushes of companies with a safe rest after each rush would save the troops from the continued tension of that deadly never ending fire. However, it is idle to discuss what might have been done to mitigate their trials. The open ground had to be passed, and then they came to--not the enemy, but a broad and deep river, with a single bridge, probably undermined, and a single ford, which was found not to exist in practice. Beyond the river was tier after tier of hills, crowned with stone walls and seamed with trenches, defended by thousands of the best marksmen in the world, supported by an admirable artillery. If, in spite of the advance over the open and in spite of the passage of the river, a ridge could still be carried, it was only to be commanded by the next; and so, one behind the other, like the billows of the ocean, a series of hills and hollows rolled northwards to Ladysmith. All attacks must be in the open. All defence was from under cover. Add to this, that the young and energetic Louis Botha was in command of the Boers. It was a desperate task, and yet honour forbade that the garrison should be left to its fate. The venture must be made.
The most obvious criticism upon the operation is that if the
attack must be made it should not be made under the enemy's conditions. We seem
almost to have gone out of our way to make every obstacle--the glacislike
approach, the river, the trenches--as difficult as
possible. Future operations were to prove that it was not so difficult to
deceive Boer vigilance and by rapid movements to cross the Tugela. A military
authority has stated, I know not with what truth, that there is no instance in
history of a determined army being stopped by the line of a river, and from
The force which General Buller led into action was the
finest which any British general had handled since the battle of the
Cavalry was General Buller's weakest arm, but his artillery
was strong both in its quality and its number of guns. There were five
batteries (30 guns) of the Field Artillery, the 7th, 14th, 63rd, 64th, and
66th. Besides these there were no fewer than sixteen naval guns from H.M.S.
'Terrible'--fourteen of which were 12-pounders, and the other two of the 4.7
type which had done such good service both at Ladysmith and with
The work which was allotted to the army was simple in
conception, however terrible it might prove in execution. There were two points
at which the river might be crossed, one three miles off on the left, named
Bridle Drift, the other straight ahead at the
It is so difficult to make a modern battle intelligible when fought, as this was, over a front of seven or eight miles, that it is best perhaps to take the doings of each column in turn, beginning with the left flank, where Hart's Irish Brigade had advanced to the assault of Bridle Drift.
Under an unanswered and therefore an unaimed fire from the heavy guns the Irish infantry moved forward upon the points which they had been ordered to attack. The Dublins led, then the Connaughts, the Inniskillings, and the Borderers. Incredible as it may appear after the recent experiences of Magersfontein and of Stormberg, the men in the two rear regiments appear to have been advanced in quarter column, and not to have deployed until after the enemy's fire had opened. Had shrapnel struck this close formation, as it was within an ace of doing, the loss of life must have been as severe as it was unnecessary.
On approaching the Drift--the position or even the existence of which does not seem to have been very clearly defined--it was found that the troops had to advance into a loop formed by the river, so that they were exposed to a very heavy cross-fire upon their right flank, while they were rained on by shrapnel from in front. No sign of the enemy could be seen, though the men were dropping fast. It is a weird and soul-shaking experience to advance over a sunlit and apparently a lonely countryside, with no slightest movement upon its broad face, while the path which you take is marked behind you by sobbing, gasping, writhing men, who can only guess by the position of their wounds whence the shots came which struck them down. All round, like the hissing of fat in the pan, is the monotonous crackle and rattle of the Mausers; but the air is full of it, and no one can define exactly whence it comes. Far away on some hill upon the skyline there hangs the least gauzy veil of thin smoke to indicate whence the six men who have just all fallen together, as if it were some grim drill, met their death. Into such a hell-storm as this it was that the soldiers have again and again advanced in the course of this war, but it may be questioned whether they will not prove to be among the last of mortals to be asked to endure such an ordeal. Other methods of attack must be found or attacks must be abandoned, for smokeless powder, quick-firing guns, and modern rifles make it all odds on the defence!
The gallant Irishmen pushed on, flushed with battle and careless for their losses, the four regiments clubbed into one, with all military organisation rapidly disappearing, and nothing left but their gallant spirit and their furious desire to come to hand-grips with the enemy. Rolling on in a broad wave of shouting angry men, they never winced from the fire until they had swept up to the bank of the river. Northern Inniskilling and Southern man of Connaught, orange and green, Protestant and Catholic, Celt and Saxon, their only rivalry now was who could shed his blood most freely for the common cause. How hateful seem those provincial politics and narrow sectarian creeds which can hold such men apart!
The bank of the river had been gained, but where was the ford? The water swept broad and unruffled in front of them, with no indication of shallows. A few dashing fellows sprang in, but their cartridges and rifles dragged them to the bottom. One or two may even have struggled through to the further side, but on this there is a conflict of evidence. It may be, though it seems incredible, that the river had been partly dammed to deepen the Drift, or, as is more probable, that in the rapid advance and attack the position of the Drift was lost. However this may be, the troops could find no ford, and they lay down, as had been done in so many previous actions, unwilling to retreat and unable to advance, with the same merciless pelting from front and flank. In every fold and behind every anthill the Irishmen lay thick and waited for better times. There are many instances of their cheery and uncomplaining humour. Colonel Brooke, of the Connaughts, fell at the head of his men. Private Livingstone helped to carry him into safety, and then, his task done, he confessed to having 'a bit of a rap meself,' and sank fainting with a bullet through his throat. Another sat with a bullet through both legs. 'Bring me a tin whistle and I'll blow ye any tune ye like,' he cried, mindful of the Dargai piper. Another with his arm hanging by a tendon puffed morosely at his short black pipe. Every now and then, in face of the impossible, the fiery Celtic valour flamed furiously upwards. 'Fix bayonets, men, and let us make a name for ourselves,' cried a colour sergeant, and he never spoke again. For five hours, under the tropical sun, the grimy parched men held on to the ground they had occupied. British shells pitched short and fell among them. A regiment in support fired at them, not knowing that any of the line were so far advanced. Shot at from the front, the flank, and the rear, the 5th Brigade held grimly on.
But fortunately their orders to retire were at hand, and it is certain that had they not reached them the regiments would have been uselessly destroyed where they lay. It seems to have been Buller himself, who showed extraordinary and ubiquitous personal energy during the day, that ordered them to fall back. As they retreated there was an entire absence of haste and panic, but officers and men were hopelessly jumbled up, and General Hart--whose judgment may occasionally be questioned, but whose cool courage was beyond praise--had hard work to reform the splendid brigade which six hours before had tramped out of Chieveley Camp. Between five and six hundred of them had fallen--a loss which approximates to that of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein. The Dublins and the Connaughts were the heaviest sufferers.
So much for the mishap of the 5th Brigade. It is superfluous to point out that the same old omissions were responsible for the same old results. Why were the men in quarter column when advancing against an unseen foe? Why had no scouts gone forward to be certain of the position of the ford? Where were the clouds of skirmishers which should precede such an advance? The recent examples in the field and the teachings of the text-books were equally set at naught, as they had been, and were to be, so often in this campaign. There may be a science of war in the lecture-rooms at Camberley, but very little of it found its way to the veld. The slogging valour of the private, the careless dash of the regimental officer--these were our military assets--but seldom the care and foresight of our commanders. It is a thankless task to make such comments, but the one great lesson of the war has been that the army is too vital a thing to fall into the hands of a caste, and that it is a national duty for every man to speak fearlessly and freely what he believes to be the truth.
Passing from the misadventure of the 5th Brigade we come as
we move from left to right upon the 4th, or Lyttelton's Brigade, which was
instructed not to attack itself but to support the attack on either side of it.
With the help of the naval guns it did what it could to extricate and cover the
retreat of the Irishmen, but it could play no very important part in the
action, and its losses were insignificant. On its right in turn Hildyard's
English Brigade had developed its attack upon Colenso and the bridge. The
regiments under Hildyard's lead were the 2nd West Surrey, the 2nd Devons (whose
first battalion was doing so well with the Ladysmith force), the East Surreys,
This consisted of the important body of artillery who had been told off to support the main attack. It
comprised two field batteries, the 14th and the 66th, under the command of
Colonel Long, and six naval guns (two of 4.7, and four 12-pounders) under
Lieutenant Ogilvy of the 'Terrible.' Long has the record of being a most
zealous and dashing officer, whose handling of the Egyptian artillery at the
battle of the Atbara had much to do with the success of the action.
Unfortunately, these barbarian campaigns, in which liberties may be taken with
impunity, leave an evil tradition, as the French have found with their
Algerians. Our own close formations, our adherence to volley firing, and in
this instance the use of our artillery all seem to be legacies of our savage
wars. Be the cause what it may, at an early stage of the action Long's guns
whirled forwards, outstripped the infantry brigades upon their flanks, left the
slow-moving naval guns with their ox-teams behind them, and unlimbered within a
thousand yards of the enemy's trenches. From this position he opened fire upon
But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the
tide of battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example of
the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. Not even Mercer's
famous description of the effect of a flank fire upon his troop of horse
For two hours the little knot of heart-sick humiliated officers and men lay in the precarious shelter of the donga and looked out at the bullet-swept plain and the line of silent guns. Many of them were wounded. Their chief lay among them, still calling out in his delirium for his guns. They had been joined by the gallant Baptie, a brave surgeon, who rode across to the donga amid a murderous fire, and did what he could for the injured men. Now and then a rush was made into the open, sometimes in the hope of firing another round, sometimes to bring a wounded comrade in from the pitiless pelt of the bullets. How fearful was that lead-storm may be gathered from the fact that one gunner was found with sixty-four wounds in his body. Several men dropped in these sorties, and the disheartened survivors settled down once more in the donga.
The hope to which they clung was that their guns were not really lost, but that the arrival of infantry would enable them to work them once more. Infantry did at last arrive, but in such small numbers that it made the situation more difficult instead of easing it. Colonel Bullock had brought up two companies of the Devons to join the two companies (A and B) of Scots Fusiliers who had been the original escort of the guns, but such a handful could not turn the tide. They also took refuge in the donga, and waited for better times.
In the meanwhile the attention of Generals Buller and Clery had been called to the desperate position of the guns, and they had made their way to that further nullah in the rear where the remaining limber horses and drivers were. This was some distance behind that other donga in which Long, Bullock, and their Devons and gunners were crouching. 'Will any of you volunteer to save the guns?' cried Buller. Corporal Nurse, Gunner Young, and a few others responded. The desperate venture was led by three aides-de-camp of the Generals, Congreve, Schofield, and Roberts, the only son of the famous soldier. Two gun teams were taken down; the horses galloping frantically through an infernal fire, and each team succeeded in getting back with a gun. But the loss was fearful. Roberts was mortally wounded. Congreve has left an account which shows what a modern rifle fire at a thousand yards is like. 'My first bullet went through my left sleeve and made the joint of my elbow bleed, next a clod of earth caught me smack on the right arm, then my horse got one, then my right leg one, then my horse another, and that settled us.' The gallant fellow managed to crawl to the group of castaways in the donga. Roberts insisted on being left where he fell, for fear he should hamper the others.
In the meanwhile Captain Reed, of the 7th
We have now, working from left to right, considered the operations of Hart's Brigade at Bridle Drift, of Lyttelton's Brigade in support, of Hildyard's which attacked Colenso, and of the luckless batteries which were to have helped him. There remain two bodies of troops upon the right, the further consisting of Dundonald's mounted men who were to attack Hlangwane Hill, a fortified Boer position upon the south of the river, while Barton's Brigade was to support it and to connect this attack with the central operations.
Dundonald's force was entirely too weak for such an operation as the capture of the formidable entrenched hill, and it is probable that the movement was meant rather as a reconnaissance than as an assault. He had not more than a thousand men in all, mostly irregulars, and the position which faced him was precipitous and entrenched, with barbed-wire entanglements and automatic guns. But the gallant colonials were out on their first action, and their fiery courage pushed the attack home. Leaving their horses, they advanced a mile and a half on foot before they came within easy range of the hidden riflemen, and learned the lesson which had been taught to their comrades all along the line, that given approximately equal numbers the attack in the open has no possible chance against the concealed defence, and that the more bravely it is pushed the more heavy is the repulse. The irregulars carried themselves like old soldiers, they did all that mortal man could do, and they retired coolly and slowly with the loss of 130 of the brave troopers. The 7th Field Battery did all that was possible to support the advance and cover the retirement. In no single place, on this day of disaster, did one least gleam of success come to warm the hearts and reward the exertions of our much-enduring men.
Of Barton's Brigade there is nothing to be recorded, for
they appear neither to have supported the attack upon Hlangwane Hill on the one
side nor to have helped to cover the ill-fated guns on the other. Barton was
applied to for help by Dundonald, but refused to detach any of his troops. If
General Buller's real idea was a reconnaissance in force in order to determine
the position and strength of the Boer lines, then of course his brigadiers must
have felt a reluctance to entangle their brigades in a battle which was really
the result of a misunderstanding. On the other hand, if, as the orders of the
day seem to show, a serious engagement was always intended, it is strange that
two brigades out of four should have played so insignificant a part. To
Barton's Brigade was given the responsibility of seeing that no right flank
attack was carried out by the Boers, and this held it back until it was clear
that no such attack was contemplated. After that one would have thought that,
had the situation been appreciated, at least two battalions might have been
spared to cover the abandoned guns with their rifle fire. Two companies of the
Scots Fusiliers did share the fortunes of the guns. Two others, and one of the
Irish Fusiliers, acted in support, but the brigade as a whole, together with
the 1st Royals and the 13th Hussars, might as well have been at
And so the first attempt at the relief of Ladysmith came to an end. At twelve o'clock all the troops upon the ground were retreating for the camp. There was nothing in the shape of rout or panic, and the withdrawal was as orderly as the advance; but the fact remained that we had just 1200 men in killed, wounded, and missing, and had gained absolutely nothing. We had not even the satisfaction of knowing that we had inflicted as well as endured punishment, for the enemy remained throughout the day so cleverly concealed that it is doubtful whether more than a hundred casualties occurred in their ranks. Once more it was shown how weak an arm is artillery against an enemy who lies in shelter.
Our wounded fortunately bore a high proportion to our killed, as they always will do when it is rifle fire rather than shell fire which is effective. Roughly we had 150 killed and about 720 wounded. A more humiliating item is the 250 or so who were missing. These men were the gunners, the Devons, and the Scots Fusiliers, who were taken in the donga together with small bodies from the Connaughts, the Dublins, and other regiments who, having found some shelter, were unable to leave it, and clung on until the retirement of their regiments left them in a hopeless position. Some of these small knots of men were allowed to retire in the evening by the Boers, who seemed by no means anxious to increase the number of their prisoners. Colonel Thackeray, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, found himself with a handful of his men surrounded by the enemy, but owing to their good humour and his own tact he succeeded in withdrawing them in safety. The losses fell chiefly on Hart's Brigade, Hildyard's Brigade, and the colonial irregulars, who bore off the honours of the fight.
In his official report General Buller states that were it not for the action of Colonel Long and the subsequent disaster to the artillery he thought that the battle might have been a successful one. This is a hard saying, and throws perhaps too much responsibility upon the gallant but unfortunate gunner. There have been occasions in the war when greater dash upon the part of our artillery might have changed the fate of the day, and it is bad policy to be too severe upon the man who has taken a risk and failed. The whole operation, with its advance over the open against a concealed enemy with a river in his front, was so absolutely desperate that Long may have seen that only desperate measures could save the situation. To bring guns into action in front of the infantry without having clearly defined the position of the opposing infantry must always remain one of the most hazardous ventures of war. 'It would certainly be mere folly,' says Prince Kraft, 'to advance artillery to within 600 or 800 yards of a position held by infantry unless the latter were under the fire of infantry from an even shorter range.' This 'mere folly' is exactly what Colonel Long did, but it must be remembered in extenuation that he shared with others the idea that the Boers were up on the hills, and had no inkling that their front trenches were down at the river. With the imperfect means at his disposal he did such scouting as he could, and if his fiery and impetuous spirit led him into a position which cost him so dearly it is certainly more easy for the critic to extenuate his fault than that subsequent one which allowed the abandoned guns to fall into the hands of the enemy. Nor is there any evidence that the loss of these guns did seriously affect the fate of the action, for at those other parts of the field where the infantry had the full and unceasing support of the artillery the result was not more favourable than at the centre.
So much for Colenso. A more unsatisfactory and in some ways inexplicable action is not to be found in the range of British military history. And the fuller the light which has been poured upon it, the more extraordinary does the battle appear. There are a preface and a sequel to the action which have put a severe strain upon the charity which the British public has always shown that it is prepared to extend to a defeated General. The preface is that General Buller sent word to General White that he proposed to attack upon the 17th, while the actual attack was delivered upon the 15th, so that the garrison was not prepared to make that demonstration which might have prevented the besiegers from sending important reinforcements to Botha, had he needed them. The sequel is more serious. Losing all heart at his defeat, General Buller, although he had been officially informed that White had provisions for seventy days, sent a heliogram advising the surrender of the garrison. White's first reply, which deserves to live with the anecdote of Nelson's telescope at his blind eye, was to the effect that he believed the enemy had been tampering with Buller's messages. To this Buller despatched an amended message, which with Sir George White's reply, is here appended:
Message of December 16th, as altered by that of December 17th,
'I tried Colenso yesterday, but failed; the enemy is too strong for my force except with siege operations, and these will take one full month to prepare. Can you last so long?
'How many days can you hold out? I suggest you firing away as much ammunition as you can, and making best terms you can. I can remain here if you have alternative suggestion, but unaided I cannot break in. I find my infantry cannot fight more than ten miles from camp, and then only if water can be got, and it is scarce here. Whatever happens, recollect to burn your cipher, decipher, and code books, and all deciphered messages.'
From Sir G. White to Sir R. Buller. December 16th, 1899.
'Yours of today received and understood. My suggestion is
that you take up strongest available position that will enable you to keep
touch of the enemy and harass him constantly with artillery fire, and in other
ways as much as possible. I can make food last for much longer than a month,
and will not think of making terms till I am forced to. You may have hit enemy
harder than you think. All our native spies report that your artillery fire
made considerable impression on enemy. Have your losses been very heavy? If you
lose touch of enemy, it will immensely increase his opportunities of crushing
me, and have worst effect elsewhere. While you are in touch with him and in
communication with me, he has both of our forces to reckon with. Make every
effort to get reinforcements as early as possible, including
Much allowance is to be made for a man who is staggering under the mental shock of defeat and the physical exertions which Buller had endured. That the Government made such allowance is clear from the fact that he was not instantly recalled. And yet the cold facts are that we have a British General, at the head of 25,000 men, recommending another General, at the head of 12,000 men only twelve miles off, to lay down his arms to an army which was certainly very inferior in numbers to the total British force; and this because he had once been defeated, although he knew that there was still time for the whole resources of the Empire to be poured into Natal in order to prevent so shocking a disaster. Such is a plain statement of the advice which Buller gave and which White rejected. For the instant the fate not only of South Africa but even, as I believe, of the Empire hung upon the decision of the old soldier in Ladysmith, who had to resist the proposals of his own General as sternly as the attacks of the enemy. He who sorely needed help and encouragement became, as his message shows, the helper and the encourager. It was a tremendous test, and Sir George White came through it with a staunchness and a loyalty which saved us not only from overwhelming present disaster, but from a hideous memory which must have haunted British military annals for centuries to come.
The week which extended from December 10th to December 17th,
1899, was the blackest one known during our generation, and the most disastrous
for British arms during the century. We had in the short space of seven days
lost, beyond all extenuation or excuse, three separate actions. No single
defeat was of vital importance in itself, but the cumulative effect, occurring
as they did to each of the main British forces in
It is singular to glance at the extracts from the European
press at that time and to observe the delight and foolish exultation with which
our reverses were received. That this should occur in the French journals is
not unnatural, since our history has been largely a contest with that Power,
and we can regard with complacency an enmity which is the tribute to our
On the whole, the energetic mood of the nation was reflected by the decided measures of the Government. Before the deep-sea cables had told us the lists of our dead, steps had been taken to prove to the world how great were our latent resources and how determined our spirit. On December 18th, two days after Colenso, the following provisions were made for carrying on the campaign.
1. That as General Buller's hands were full in
2. That all the remaining army reserves should be called out.
3. That the 7th Division (10,000 men) should be despatched
4. That considerable artillery reinforcements, including a howitzer brigade, should go out.
5. That eleven Militia battalions be sent abroad.
6. That a strong contingent of Volunteers be sent out.
7. That a Yeomanry mounted force be despatched.
8. That mounted corps be raised at the discretion of the
9. That the patriotic offers of further contingents from the colonies be gratefully accepted.
By these measures it was calculated that from seventy to a hundred thousand men would be added to our South African armies, the numbers of which were already not short of a hundred thousand.
It is one thing, however, to draw up paper reinforcements,
and it is another, in a free country where no compulsion would be tolerated, to
turn these plans into actual regiments and squadrons. But if there were any who
doubted that this ancient nation still glowed with the spirit of its youth his
fears must soon have passed away. For this far-distant war, a war of the unseen
foe and of the murderous ambuscade, there were so many volunteers that the
authorities were embarrassed by their numbers and their pertinacity. It was a
stimulating sight to see those long queues of top-hatted, frock-coated young
men who waited their turn for the orderly room with as much desperate anxiety
as if hard fare, a veld bed, and Boer bullets were all that life had that was
worth the holding. Especially the Imperial Yeomanry, a corps of riders and
shots, appealed to the sporting instincts of our race. Many could ride and not
shoot, many could shoot and not ride, more candidates were rejected than were
accepted, and yet in a very short time eight thousand men from every class were
wearing the grey coats and bandoliers. This singular and formidable force was
drawn from every part of
Without waiting for these distant but necessary
reinforcements, the Generals in
The monotony of the long wait was broken by one dashing raid
carried out by a detachment from
Encouraged by this small success, Methuen's cavalry on January 9th made another raid over the Free State border, which is remarkable for the fact that, save in the case of Colonel Plumer's Rhodesian Force, it was the first time that the enemy's frontier had been violated. The expedition under Babington consisted of the same regiments and the same battery which had covered Pilcher's advance. The line taken was a south-easterly one, so as to get far round the left flank of the Boer position. With the aid of a party of the Victorian Mounted Rifles a considerable tract of country was overrun, and some farmhouses destroyed. The latter extreme measure may have been taken as a warning to the Boers that such depredations as they had carried out in parts of Natal could not pass with impunity, but both the policy and the humanity of such a course appear to be open to question, and there was some cause for the remonstrance which President Kruger shortly after addressed to us upon the subject. The expedition returned to Modder Camp at the end of two days without having seen the enemy. Save for one or two similar cavalry reconnaissances, an occasional interchange of long-range shells, a little sniping, and one or two false alarms at night, which broke the whole front of Magersfontein into yellow lines of angry light, nothing happened to Methuen's force which is worthy of record up to the time of that movement of General Hector Macdonald to Koodoosberg which may be considered in connection with Lord Roberts's decisive operations, of which it was really a part.
The doings of General Gatacre's force during the long
interval which passed between his disaster at Stormberg and the final general
advance may be rapidly chronicled. Although nominally in command of a division,
Gatacre's troops were continually drafted off to east and to west,
so that it was seldom that he had more than a brigade under his orders. During
the weeks of waiting, his force consisted of three field batteries, the 74th,
77th, and 79th, some mounted police and irregular horse, the remains of the
Royal Irish Rifles and the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Scots,
the Derbyshire regiment, and the Berkshires, the whole amounting to about 5500
men, who had to hold the whole district from Sterkstroom to East London on the
coast, with a victorious enemy in front and a disaffected population around.
Under these circumstances he could not attempt to do more than to hold his
ground at Sterkstroom, and this he did unflinchingly until the line of the Boer
defence broke down. Scouting and raiding expeditions, chiefly organised by
Captain De Montmorency--whose early death cut short the career of one who
possessed every quality of a partisan leader--broke the monotony of inaction.
During the week which ended the year a succession of small skirmishes, of which
the town of
On January 3rd the Boer forces advanced and attacked the camp of the Cape Mounted Police, which was some eight miles in advance of Gatacre's main position. The movement, however, was a half-hearted one, and was beaten off with small loss upon their part and less upon ours. From then onwards no movement of importance took place in Gatacre's column until the general advance along the whole line had cleared his difficulties from in front of him.
In the meantime General Buller had also been playing a
waiting game, and, secure in the knowledge that Ladysmith could still hold out,
he had been building up his strength for a second attempt to relieve the
hard-pressed and much-enduring garrison. After the repulse at Colenso,
Hildyard's and Barton's brigades had remained at Chieveley with the mounted
infantry, the naval guns, and two field batteries. The rest of the force
retired to Frere, some miles in the rear. Emboldened by their success, the
Boers sent raiding parties over the Tugela on either flank, which were only
checked by our patrols being extended from
Time here as elsewhere was working for the British, for reinforcements
were steadily coming to Buller's army. By the new year
Sir Charles Warren's division (the 5th) was nearly complete at Estcourt, whence
it could reach the front at any moment. This division included the 10th
brigade, consisting of the Imperial Light Infantry, 2nd Somersets, the 2nd
Dorsets, and the 2nd Middlesex; also the 11th, called the Lancashire Brigade,
formed by the 2nd Royal Lancaster, the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, the 1st South
Lancashire, and the
Monday, October 30th, 1899, is not a date which can be
looked back to with satisfaction by any Briton. In a scrambling and ill-managed
action we had lost our detached left wing almost to a man, while our right had
been hustled with no great loss but with some ignominy into Ladysmith. Our guns
had been outshot, our infantry checked, and our cavalry paralysed. Eight
hundred prisoners may seem no great loss when compared with a
Sir George White was now confronted with the certainty of an
investment, an event for which apparently no preparation had been made, since
with an open railway behind him so many useless mouths had been permitted to
remain in the town. Ladysmith lies in a hollow and is dominated by a ring of
hills, some near and some distant. The near ones were in our hands, but no
attempt had been made in the early days of the war to fortify and hold Bulwana,
After the battle of Ladysmith and the retreat of the British, the Boers in their deliberate but effective fashion set about the investment of the town, while the British commander accepted the same as inevitable, content if he could stem and hold back from the colony the threatened flood of invasion. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday the commandoes gradually closed in upon the south and east, harassed by some cavalry operations and reconnaissances upon our part, the effect of which was much exaggerated by the press. On Thursday, November 2nd, the last train escaped under a brisk fire, the passengers upon the wrong side of the seats. At 2 P.M. on the same day the telegraph line was cut, and the lonely town settled herself somberly down to the task of holding off the exultant Boers until the day--supposed to be imminent--when the relieving army should appear from among the labyrinth of mountains which lay to the south of them. Some there were who, knowing both the enemy and the mountains, felt a cold chill within their hearts as they asked themselves how an army was to come through, but the greater number, from General to private, trusted implicitly in the valour of their comrades and in the luck of the British Army.
One example of that historical luck was ever before their eyes in the shape of those invaluable naval guns which had arrived so dramatically at the very crisis of the fight, in time to check the monster on Pepworth Hill and to cover the retreat of the army. But for them the besieged must have lain impotent under the muzzles of the huge Creusots. But in spite of the naive claims put forward by the Boers to some special Providence--a process which a friendly German critic described as 'commandeering the Almighty'--it is certain that in a very peculiar degree, in the early months of this war there came again and again a happy chance, or a merciful interposition, which saved the British from disaster. Now in this first week of November, when every hill, north and south and east and west, flashed and smoked, and the great 96-pound shells groaned and screamed over the town, it was to the long thin 4.7's and to the hearty bearded men who worked them, that soldiers and townsfolk looked for help. These guns of Lambton's, supplemented by two old-fashioned 6.3 howitzers manned by survivors from No. 10 Mountain Battery, did all that was possible to keep down the fire of the heavy Boer guns. If they could not save, they could at least hit back, and punishment is not so bad to bear when one is giving as well as receiving.
By the end of the first week of November the Boers had
established their circle of fire. On the east of the town, broken by the loops
The first few days of the siege were clouded by the death of Lieutenant Egerton of the 'Powerful,' one of the most promising officers in the Navy. One leg and the other foot were carried off, as he lay upon the sandbag parapet watching the effect of our fire. 'There's an end of my cricket,' said the gallant sportsman, and he was carried to the rear with a cigar between his clenched teeth.
On November 3rd a strong cavalry reconnaissance was pushed
down the Colenso road to ascertain the force which the enemy had in that
direction. Colonel Brocklehurst took with him the 18th and 19th Hussars, the
5th Lancers and the 5th Dragoon Guards, with the Light Horse and the Natal
Volunteers. Some desultory fighting ensued which achieved no end, and was
chiefly remarkable for the excellent behaviour of the Colonials, who showed
that they were the equals of the Regulars in gallantry and their superiors in
the tactics which such a country requires. The death of Major Taunton, Captain
Knapp, and young
By the end of this week the town had already settled down to the routine of the siege. General Joubert, with the chivalry which had always distinguished him, had permitted the garrison to send out the non-combatants to a place called Intombi Camp (promptly named Funkersdorp by the facetious) where they were safe from the shells, though the burden of their support still fell of course upon the much-tried commissariat. The hale and male of the townsfolk refused for the most part to avoid the common danger, and clung tenaciously to their shot-torn village. Fortunately the river has worn down its banks until it runs through a deep channel, in the sides of which it was found to be possible to hollow out caves which were practically bomb-proof. Here for some months the townsfolk led a troglodytic existence, returning to their homes upon that much appreciated seventh day of rest which was granted to them by their Sabbatarian besiegers.
The perimeter of the defence had been divided off so that
each corps might be responsible for its own section. To the south was the
Manchester Regiment upon the hill called Caesar's Camp. Between
There appears to have been some idea in the Boer mind that the mere fact that they held a dominant position over the town would soon necessitate the surrender of the army. At the end of a week they had realised, however, just as the British had, that a siege lay before both. Their fire upon the town was heavy but not deadly, though it became more effective as the weeks went on. Their practice at a range of five miles was exceedingly accurate. At the same time their riflemen became more venturesome, and on Tuesday, November 7th, they made a half-hearted attack upon the Manchesters' position on the south, which was driven back without difficulty. On the 9th, however, their attempt was of a more serious and sustained character. It began with a heavy shell-fire and with a demonstration of rifle-fire from every side, which had for its object the prevention of reinforcements for the true point of danger, which again was Caesar's Camp at the south. It is evident that the Boers had from the beginning made up their minds that here lay the key of the position, as the two serious attacks--that of November 9th and that of January 6th--were directed upon this point.
The Manchesters at Caesar's Camp had been reinforced by the 1st battalion 60th Rifles, who held the prolongation of the same ridge, which is called Waggon Hill. With the dawn it was found that the Boer riflemen were within eight hundred yards, and from then till evening a constant fire was maintained upon the hill. The Boer, however, save when the odds are all in his favour, is not, in spite of his considerable personal bravery, at his best in attack. His racial traditions, depending upon the necessity for economy of human life, are all opposed to it. As a consequence two regiments well posted were able to hold them off all day with a loss which did not exceed thirty killed and wounded, while the enemy, exposed to the shrapnel of the 42nd battery, as well as the rifle-fire of the infantry, must have suffered very much more severely. The result of the action was a well-grounded belief that in daylight there was very little chance of the Boers being able to carry the lines. As the date was that of the Prince of Wales's birthday, a salute of twenty-one shotted naval guns wound up a successful day.
The failure of the attempt upon Ladysmith seems to have convinced the enemy that a waiting game, in which hunger, shell-fire, and disease were their allies, would be surer and less expensive than an open assault. From their distant hilltops they continued to plague the town, while garrison and citizens sat grimly patient, and learned to endure if not to enjoy the crash of the 96-pound shells, and the patter of shrapnel upon their corrugated-iron roofs. The supplies were adequate, and the besieged were fortunate in the presence of a first-class organiser, Colonel Ward of Islington fame, who with the assistance of Colonel Stoneman systematised the collection and issue of all the food, civil and military, so as to stretch it to its utmost. With rain overhead and mud underfoot, chafing at their own idleness and humiliated by their own position, the soldiers waited through the weary weeks for the relief which never came. On some days there was more shell-fire, on some less; on some there was sniping, on some none; on some they sent a little feeler of cavalry and guns out of the town, on most they lay still--such were the ups and downs of life in Ladysmith. The inevitable siege paper, 'The Ladysmith Lyre,' appeared, and did something to relieve the monotony by the exasperation of its jokes. Night, morning, and noon the shells rained upon the town until the most timid learned fatalism if not bravery. The crash of the percussion, and the strange musical tang of the shrapnel sounded ever in their ears. With their glasses the garrison could see the gay frocks and parasols of the Boer ladies who had come down by train to see the torture of the doomed town.
The Boers were sufficiently numerous, aided by their strong
positions and excellent artillery, to mask the Ladysmith force and to sweep on
at once to the conquest of
For a moment we may leave the fortunes of Ladysmith to
follow this southerly movement of the Boers. Within two days of the investment
of the town they had swung round their left flank and attacked Colenso, twelve
miles south, shelling the Durban Light Infantry out of their post with a
long-range fire. The British fell back twenty-seven miles and concentrated at
Estcourt, leaving the all-important Colenso railway-bridge in the hands of the
enemy. From this onwards they held the north of the Tugela, and many a widow
wore crepe before we got our grip upon it once more. Never was there a more
critical week in the war, but having got Colenso the Boers did little more.
They formally annexed the whole of Northern Natal to the
On November 5th the Boers had remained so inert that the
British returned in small force to Colenso and removed some stores--which seems to suggest that the original retirement was premature.
Four days passed in inactivity--four precious days for us--and on the evening
of the fourth, November 9th, the watchers on the signal station at
But, now that it was too late, the Boers suddenly took the initiative, and in dramatic fashion. North of Estcourt, where General Hildyard was being daily reinforced from the sea, there are two small townlets, or at least geographical (and railway) points. Frere is about ten miles north of Estcourt, and Chieveley is five miles north of that and about as far to the south of Colenso. On November 15th an armoured train was despatched from Estcourt to see what was going on up the line. Already one disaster had befallen us in this campaign on account of these clumsy contrivances, and a heavier one was now to confirm the opinion that, acting alone, they are totally inadmissible. As a means of carrying artillery for a force operating upon either flank of them, with an assured retreat behind, there may be a place for them in modern war, but as a method of scouting they appear to be the most inefficient and also the most expensive that has ever been invented. An intelligent horseman would gather more information, be less visible, and retain some freedom as to route. After our experience the armoured train may steam out of military history.
The train contained ninety Dublin Fusiliers, eighty Durban
Volunteers, and ten sailors, with a naval 7-pounder gun. Captain Haldane of the
Gordons, Lieutenant Frankland (Dublin Fusiliers), and Winston Churchill, the
well-known correspondent, accompanied the expedition. What might have been
foreseen occurred. The train steamed into the advancing Boer army, was fired
upon, tried to escape, found the rails blocked behind it, and upset. Dublins
and Durbans were shot helplessly out of their trucks, under a heavy fire. A
railway accident is a nervous thing, and so is an ambuscade, but the
combination of the two must be appalling. Yet there were brave hearts which
rose to the occasion. Haldane and Frankland rallied the troops, and Churchill
the engine-driver. The engine was disentangled and sent on with its cab full of
wounded. Churchill, who had escaped upon it, came gallantly back to share the
fate of his comrades. The dazed shaken soldiers continued a futile resistance
for some time, but there was neither help nor escape and nothing for them but
surrender. The most Spartan military critic cannot blame them. A few slipped
away besides those who escaped upon the engine. Our losses were two killed,
twenty wounded, and about eighty taken. It is remarkable that of the three
leaders both Haldane and Churchill succeeded in escaping from
A double tide of armed men was now pouring into
The invading force, the numbers of which could not have
exceeded some few thousands, formidable only for their mobility, lapped round
the more powerful but less active force at Estcourt, and struck behind it at
its communications. There was for a day or two some discussion as to a further
retreat, but Hildyard, strengthened by the advice and presence of Colonel Long,
determined to hold his ground. On November 21st the raiding Boers were as far
south as Nottingham Road, a point thirty miles south of Estcourt and only forty
miles north of the considerable city of Pietermaritzburg. The situation was
serious. Either the invaders must be stopped, or the second largest town in the
colony would be in their hands. From all sides came tales of plundered farms
and broken households. Some at least of the raiders behaved with wanton
brutality. Smashed pianos, shattered pictures, slaughtered
stock, and vile inscriptions, all exhibit a predatory and violent side to the
paradoxical Boer character. [Footnote: More than once I have heard the
farmers in the
The next British post behind Hildyard's at Estcourt was
Barton's upon the
The turning-point of the Boer invasion of
The enemy being observed to have a gun upon a hill within
striking distance of Estcourt, this force set out on November 22nd to make a
night attack and to endeavour to capture it. The hill was taken without
difficulty, but it was found that the gun had been removed. A severe
counter-attack was made at daylight by the Boers, and the troops were compelled
with no great loss and less glory to return to the town. The
One unexpected and little known result of the Boer
Leaving Buller to organise his army at Frere, and the Boer
commanders to draw their screen of formidable defences along the Tugela, we
will return once more to the fortunes of the unhappy town round which the
interest of the world, and possibly the destiny of the Empire, were centering.
It is very certain that had Ladysmith fallen, and twelve thousand British
soldiers with a million pounds' worth of stores fallen into the hands of the
invaders, we should have been faced with the alternative of abandoning the
struggle, or of reconquering
December 8th was marked by a gallant exploit on the part of
the beleaguered garrison. Not a whisper had transpired of the coming sortie,
and a quarter of an hour before the start officers engaged had no idea of it. O
si sic omnia! At ten o'clock a band of men slipped out
of the town. There were six hundred of them, all irregulars, drawn from the
Imperial Light Horse, the Natal Carabineers, and the Border Mounted Rifles,
under the command of Hunter, youngest and most dashing of British Generals.
Edwardes and Boyston were the subcommanders. The men had no knowledge of where
they were going or what they had to do, but they crept silently along under a
drifting sky, with peeps of a quarter moon, over a
mimosa-shadowed plain. At last in front of them there loomed a dark mass--it
was Gun Hill, from which one of the great Creusots had plagued them. A strong
support (four hundred men) was left at the base of the hill, and the others,
one hundred Imperials, one hundred Borders and Carabineers, ten Sappers, crept
upwards with Major Henderson as guide. A Dutch outpost challenged, but was
satisfied by a Dutch-speaking Carabineer. Higher and higher the men crept, the
silence broken only by the occasional slip of a stone or the rustle of their
own breathing. Most of them had left their boots below. Even in the darkness
they kept some formation, and the right wing curved forward to outflank the
defence. Suddenly a Mauser crack and a spurt of flame--then another and
another! 'Come on, boys! Fix bayonets!' yelled Karri Davies. There were no
bayonets, but that was a detail. At the word the gunners were off, and there in
the darkness in front of the storming party loomed the enormous gun, gigantic
in that uncertain light. Out with the huge breech-block! Wrap the long lean
muzzle round with a collar of gun-cotton! Keep the guard upon the run until the
work is done! Hunter stood by with a night light in his hand until the charge
was in position, and then, with a crash which brought both armies from their
tents, the huge tube reared up on its mountings and toppled backwards into the
pit. A howitzer lurked beside it, and this also was blown into ruin. The
attendant Maxim was dragged back by the exultant captors, who reached the town
amid shoutings and laughter with the first break of day. One man wounded, the
On the same morning (December 9th) a cavalry reconnaissance was pushed in the direction of Pepworth Hill. The object no doubt was to ascertain whether the enemy were still present in force, and the terrific roll of the Mausers answered it in the affirmative. Two killed and twenty wounded was the price which we paid for the information. There had been three such reconnaissances in the five weeks of the siege, and it is difficult to see what advantage they gave or how they are to be justified. Far be it for the civilian to dogmatise upon such matters, but one can repeat, and to the best of one's judgment endorse, the opinion of the vast majority of officers.
There were heart burnings among the Regulars that the colonial troops should have gone in front of them, so their martial jealousy was allayed three nights later by the same task being given to them. Four companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade were the troops chosen, with a few sappers and gunners, the whole under the command of Colonel Metcalfe of the same battalion. A single gun, the 4.7 howitzer upon Surprise Hill, was the objective. Again there was the stealthy advance through the darkness, again the support was left at the bottom of the hill, again the two companies carefully ascended, again there was the challenge, the rush, the flight, and the gun was in the hands of the stormers.
Here and only here the story varies. For some reason the
fuse used for the guncotton was defective, and half an hour elapsed before the
explosion destroyed the howitzer. When it came it came very thoroughly, but it
was a weary time in coming. Then our men descended the hill, but the Boers were
already crowding in upon them from either side. The English cries of the
soldiers were answered in English by the Boers, and slouch hat or helmet dimly
seen in the mirk was the only badge of friend or foe. A singular letter is
extant from young Reitz (the son of the
Amid the shell-fire, the scanty rations, the enteric and the dysentery, one ray of comfort had always brightened the garrison. Buller was only twelve miles away--they could hear his guns--and when his advance came in earnest their sufferings would be at an end. But now in an instant this single light was shut off and the true nature of their situation was revealed to them. Buller had indeed moved. . .but backwards. He had been defeated at Colenso, and the siege was not ending but beginning. With heavier hearts but undiminished resolution the army and the townsfolk settled down to the long, dour struggle. The exultant enemy replaced their shattered guns and drew their lines closer still round the stricken town.
A record of the siege onwards until the break of the New Year centres upon the sordid details of the sick returns and of the price of food. Fifty on one day, seventy on the next, passed under the hands of the overworked and devoted doctors. Fifteen hundred, and later two thousand, of the garrison were down. The air was poisoned by foul sewage and dark with obscene flies. They speckled the scanty food. Eggs were already a shilling each, cigarettes sixpence, whisky five pounds a bottle: a city more free from gluttony and drunkenness has never been seen.
Shell-fire has shown itself in this war to be an excellent
ordeal for those who desire martial excitement with a minimum of danger. But
now and again some black chance guides a bomb--one in five thousand perhaps--to
a most tragic issue. Such a deadly missile falling among Boers near
It may be that the Boers wished once for all to have done at
all costs with the constant menace to their rear, or it may be that the
deliberate preparations of Buller for his second advance had alarmed them, and
that they realised that they must act quickly if they were to act at all. At
any rate, early in the New Year a most determined attack was decided upon. The
storming party consisted of some hundreds of picked volunteers from the
Caesar's Camp was garrisoned by one sturdy regiment, the
Manchesters, aided by a Colt automatic gun. The defence had been arranged in
the form of small sangars, each held by from ten to twenty men. Some few of
these were rushed in the darkness, but the
Three companies of the Gordons had been left near Caesar's Camp, and these, under Captain Carnegie, threw themselves into the struggle. Four other companies of Gordons came up in support from the town, losing upon the way their splendid colonel, Dick-Cunyngham, who was killed by a chance shot at three thousand yards, on this his first appearance since he had recovered from his wounds at Elandslaagte. Later four companies of the Rifle Brigade were thrown into the firing line, and a total of two and a half infantry battalions held that end of the position. It was not a man too much. With the dawn of day it could be seen that the Boers held the southern and we the northern slopes, while the narrow plateau between formed a bloody debatable ground. Along a front of a quarter of a mile fierce eyes glared and rifle barrels flashed from behind every rock, and the long fight swayed a little back or a little forward with each upward heave of the stormers or rally of the soldiers. For hours the combatants were so near that a stone or a taunt could be thrown from one to the other. Some scattered sangars still held their own, though the Boers had passed them. One such, manned by fourteen privates of the Manchester Regiment, remained untaken, but had only two defenders left at the end of the bloody day.
With the coming of the light the 53rd Field Battery, the one
which had already done so admirably at Lombard's Kop, again deserved well of
its country. It was impossible to get behind the Boers and fire straight at
their position, so every shell fired had to skim over the heads of our own men
upon the ridge and so pitch upon the reverse slope. Yet so accurate was the
fire, carried on under an incessant rain of shells from the big Dutch gun on
Bulwana, that not one shot miscarried and that Major Abdy and his men succeeded
in sweeping the further slope without loss to our own fighting line. Exactly
the same feat was equally well performed at the other end of the position by
Major Blewitt's 21st
At the same time as--or rather earlier than--the onslaught upon Caesar's Camp a similar attack had been made with secrecy and determination upon the western end of the position called Waggon Hill. The barefooted Boers burst suddenly with a roll of rifle-fire into the little garrison of Imperial Light Horse and Sappers who held the position. Mathias of the former, Digby-Jones and Dennis of the latter, showed that 'two in the morning' courage which Napoleon rated as the highest of military virtues. They and their men were surprised but not disconcerted, and stood desperately to a slogging match at the closest quarters. Seventeen Sappers were down out of thirty, and more than half the little body of irregulars. This end of the position was feebly fortified, and it is surprising that so experienced and sound a soldier as Ian Hamilton should have left it so. The defence had no marked advantage as compared with the attack, neither trench, sangar, nor wire entanglement, and in numbers they were immensely inferior. Two companies of the 60th Rifles and a small body of the ubiquitous Gordons happened to be upon the hill and threw themselves into the fray, but they were unable to turn the tide. Of thirty-three Gordons under Lieutenant MacNaughten thirty were wounded. [Footnote: The Gordons and the Sappers were there that morning to re-escort one of Lambton's 4.7 guns, which was to be mounted there. Ten seamen were with the gun, and lost three of their number in the defence.] As our men retired under the shelter of the northern slope they were reinforced by another hundred and fifty Gordons under the stalwart Miller-Wallnutt, a man cast in the mould of a Berserk Viking. To their aid also came two hundred of the Imperial Light Horse, burning to assist their comrades. Another half-battalion of Rifles came with them. At each end of the long ridge the situation at the dawn of day was almost identical. In each the stormers had seized one side, but were brought to a stand by the defenders upon the other, while the British guns fired over the heads of their own infantry to rake the further slope.
It was on the Waggon Hill side, however, that the Boer
exertions were most continuous and strenuous and our own resistance most
desperate. There fought the gallant de Villiers, while Ian Hamilton rallied the
defenders and led them in repeated rushes against the enemy's line. Continually
reinforced from below, the Boers fought with extraordinary resolution. Never
will any one who witnessed that Homeric contest question the valour of our
foes. It was a murderous business on both sides. Edwardes of the Light Horse
was struck down. In a gun-emplacement a strange encounter took place at
point-blank range between a group of Boers and of Britons. De Villiers of the
There has been no better fighting in our time than that upon Waggon Hill on that January morning, and no better fighters than the Imperial Light Horsemen who formed the centre of the defence. Here, as at Elandslaagte, they proved themselves worthy to stand in line with the crack regiments of the British army.
Through the long day the fight maintained its equilibrium along the summit of the ridge, swaying a little that way or this, but never amounting to a repulse of the stormers or to a rout of the defenders. So intermixed were the combatants that a wounded man more than once found himself a rest for the rifles of his enemies. One unfortunate soldier in this position received six more bullets from his own comrades in their efforts to reach the deadly rifleman behind him. At four o'clock a huge bank of clouds which had towered upwards unheeded by the struggling men burst suddenly into a terrific thunderstorm with vivid lightnings and lashing rain. It is curious that the British victory at Elandslaagte was heralded by just such another storm. Up on the bullet-swept hill the long fringes of fighting men took no more heed of the elements than would two bulldogs who have each other by the throat. Up the greasy hillside, foul with mud and with blood, came the Boer reserves, and up the northern slope came our own reserve, the Devon Regiment, fit representatives of that virile county. Admirably led by Park, their gallant Colonel, the Devons swept the Boers before them, and the Rifles, Gordons, and Light Horse joined in the wild charge which finally cleared the ridge.
But the end was not yet. The Boer had taken a risk over this
venture, and now he had to pay the stakes. Down the hill he passed, crouching,
darting, but the spruits behind him were turned into swirling streams, and as
he hesitated for an instant upon the brink the relentless sleet of bullets came
from behind. Many were swept away down the gorges and into the
The cheers of victory as the Devons swept the ridge had heartened the weary men upon Caesar's Camp to a similar effort. Manchesters, Gordons, and Rifles, aided by the fire of two batteries, cleared the long-debated position. Wet, cold, weary, and without food for twenty-six hours, the bedraggled Tommies stood yelling and waving, amid the litter of dead and of dying.
It was a near thing. Had the ridge fallen the town must have
followed, and history perhaps have been changed. In the old stiff-rank Majuba
days we should have been swept in an hour from the position. But the wily man
behind the rock was now to find an equally wily man in front of him. The
soldier had at last learned something of the craft of the hunter. He clung to
his shelter, he dwelled on his aim, he ignored his dressings, he laid aside the
eighteenth-century traditions of his pigtailed ancestor, and he hit the Boers
harder than they had been hit yet. No return may ever come to us of their
losses on that occasion; 80 dead bodies were returned to them from the ridge
alone, while the slopes, the dongas, and the river each had its own separate
tale. No possible estimate can make it less than three hundred killed and
wounded, while many place it at a much higher figure. Our own casualties were
very serious and the proportion of dead to wounded unusually high, owing to the
fact that the greater part of the wounds were necessarily of the head. In
killed we lost 13 officers, 135 men. In wounded 28 officers, 244 men--a total
of 420, Lord Ava, the honoured Son of an honoured father, the fiery Dick-Cunyngham,
stalwart Miller-Wallnutt, the brave boy sappers Digby-Jones and Dennis,
In the course of the day two attacks had been made upon other points of the British position, the one on Observation Hill on the north, the other on the Helpmakaar position on the east. Of these the latter was never pushed home and was an obvious feint, but in the case of the other it was not until Schutte, their commander, and forty or fifty men had been killed and wounded, that the stormers abandoned their attempt. At every point the assailants found the same scattered but impenetrable fringe of riflemen, and the same energetic batteries waiting for them.
Throughout the Empire the course of this great struggle was
watched with the keenest solicitude and with all that painful emotion which
springs from impotent sympathy. By heliogram to Buller, and
so to the farthest ends of that great body whose nerves are the telegraphic
wires, there came the announcement of the attack. Then after an interval
of hours came 'everywhere repulsed, but fighting continues.' Then, 'Attack
continues. Enemy reinforced from the south.' Then 'Attack renewed. Very hard pressed.' There the messages ended for the day,
leaving the Empire black with apprehension. The darkest forecasts and most
dreary anticipations were indulged by the most temperate and best-informed
Of the four British armies in the field I have attempted to
tell the story of the western one which advanced to help
It was, as has already been pointed out, a long three weeks
after the declaration of war before the forces of the
The invasion of the Colony was at two points along the line of the two railways which connect the countries, the one passing over the Orange River at Norval's Pont and the other at Bethulie, about forty miles to the eastward. There were no British troops available (a fact to be considered by those, if any remain, who imagine that the British entertained any design against the Republics), and the Boers jogged slowly southward amid a Dutch population who hesitated between their unity of race and speech and their knowledge of just and generous treatment by the Empire. A large number were won over by the invaders, and, like all apostates, distinguished themselves by their virulence and harshness towards their loyal neighbours. Here and there in towns which were off the railway line, in Barkly East or Ladygrey, the farmers met together with rifle and bandolier, tied orange puggarees round their hats, and rode off to join the enemy. Possibly these ignorant and isolated men hardly recognised what it was that they were doing. They have found out since. In some of the border districts the rebels numbered ninety per cent of the Dutch population.
In the meanwhile, the British leaders had been strenuously endeavouring to scrape together a few troops with which to make some stand against the enemy. For this purpose two small forces were necessary--the one to oppose the advance through Bethulie and Stormberg, the other to meet the invaders, who, having passed the river at Norval's Pont, had now occupied Colesberg. The former task was, as already shown, committed to General Gatacre. The latter was allotted to General French, the victor of Elandslaagte, who had escaped in the very last train from Ladysmith, and had taken over this new and important duty. French's force assembled at Arundel and Gatacre's at Sterkstroom. It is with the operations of the former that we have now to deal.
General French, for whom
Although the main advance of the invaders was along the lines of the two railways, they ventured, as they realised how weak the forces were which opposed them, to break off both to the east and west, occupying Dordrecht on one side and Steynsberg on the other. Nothing of importance accrued from the possession of these points, and our attention may be concentrated upon the main line of action.
French's original force was a mere handful of men, scraped together from anywhere. Naauwpoort was his base, and thence he made a reconnaissance by rail on November 23rd towards Arundel, the next hamlet along the line, taking with him a company of the Black Watch, forty mounted infantry, and a troop of the New South Wales Lancers. Nothing resulted from the expedition save that the two forces came into touch with each other, a touch which was sustained for months under many vicissitudes, until the invaders were driven back once more over Norval's Pont. Finding that Arundel was weakly held, French advanced up to it, and established his camp there towards the end of December, within six miles of the Boer lines at Rensburg, to the south of Colesberg. His mission--with his present forces--was to prevent the further advance of the enemy into the Colony, but he was not strong enough yet to make a serious attempt to drive them out.
Before the move to Arundel on December 13th his detachment had increased in size, and consisted largely of mounted men, so that it attained a mobility very unusual for a British force. On December 13th there was an attempt upon the part of the Boers to advance south, which was easily held by the British Cavalry and Horse Artillery. The country over which French was operating is dotted with those singular kopjes which the Boer loves--kopjes which are often so grotesque in shape that one feels as if they must be due to some error of refraction when one looks at them. But, on the other hand, between these hills there lie wide stretches of the green or russet savanna, the noblest field that a horseman or a horse gunner could wish. The riflemen clung to the hills, French's troopers circled warily upon the plain, gradually contracting the Boer position by threatening to cut off this or that outlying kopje, and so the enemy was slowly herded into Colesberg. The small but mobile British force covered a very large area, and hardly a day passed that one or other part of it did not come in contact with the enemy. With one regiment of infantry (the Berkshires) to hold the centre, his hard-riding Tasmanians, New Zealanders, and Australians, with the Scots Greys, the Inniskillings, and the Carabineers, formed an elastic but impenetrable screen to cover the Colony. They were aided by two batteries, O and R, of Horse Artillery. Every day General French rode out and made a close personal examination of the enemy's position, while his scouts and outposts were instructed to maintain the closest possible touch.
On December 30th the enemy abandoned Rensburg, which had been their advanced post, and concentrated at Colesberg, upon which French moved his force up and seized Rensburg. The very next day, December 31st, he began a vigorous and long-continued series of operations. At five o'clock on Sunday evening he moved out of Rensburg camp, with R and half of O batteries R.H.A., the 10th Hussars, the Inniskillings, and the Berkshires, to take up a position on the west of Colesberg. At the same time Colonel Porter, with the half-battery of O, his own regiment (the Carabineers), and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, left camp at two on the Monday morning and took a position on the enemy's left flank. The Berkshires under Major McCracken seized the hill, driving a Boer picket off it, and the Horse enfiladed the enemy's right flank, and after a risky artillery duel succeeded in silencing his guns. Next morning, however (January 2nd, 1900), it was found that the Boers, strongly reinforced, were back near their old positions, and French had to be content to hold them and to wait for more troops.
These were not long in coming, for the Suffolk Regiment had arrived, followed by the Composite Regiment (chosen from the Household Cavalry) and the 4th Battery R.F.A. The Boers, however, had also been reinforced, and showed great energy in their effort to break the cordon which was being drawn round them. Upon the 4th a determined effort was made by about a thousand of them under General Schoeman to turn the left flank of the British, and at dawn it was actually found that they had eluded the vigilance of the outposts and had established themselves upon a hill to the rear of the position. They were shelled off of it, however, by the guns of O Battery, and in their retreat across the plain they were pursued by the 10th Hussars and by one squadron of the Inniskillings, who cut off some of the fugitives. At the same time, De Lisle with his mounted infantry carried the position which they had originally held. In this successful and well-managed action the Boer loss was ninety, and we took in addition twenty-one prisoners. Our own casualties amounted only to six killed, including Major Harvey of the 10th, and to fifteen wounded.
Encouraged by this success an attempt was made by the
Suffolk Regiment to carry a hill which formed the key of the enemy's position.
The town of
The result was disastrous. At midnight four companies in
canvas shoes or in their stocking feet set forth upon their venture, and just
before dawn they found themselves upon the slope of the hill. They were in a
formation of quarter column with files extended to two paces; H Company was
leading. When half-way up a warm fire was opened upon them in
the darkness. Colonel Watson gave the order to retire, intending, as it
is believed, that the men should get under the shelter of the dead ground which
they had just quitted, but his death immediately afterwards left matters in a
confused condition. The night was black, the ground broken, a hail of bullets
whizzing through the ranks. Companies got mixed in the darkness and
contradictory orders were issued. The leading company held its ground, though
each of the officers, Brett, Carey, and
In spite of this annoying check, French continued to pursue his original design of holding the enemy in front and working round him on the east. On January 9th, Porter, of the Carabineers, with his own regiment, two squadrons of Household Cavalry, the New Zealanders, the New South Wales Lancers, and four guns, took another step forward and, after a skirmish, occupied a position called Slingersfontein, still further to the north and east, so as to menace the main road of retreat to Norval's Pont. Some skirmishing followed, but the position was maintained. On the 15th the Boers, thinking that this long extension must have weakened us, made a spirited attack upon a position held by New Zealanders and a company of the 1st Yorkshires, this regiment having been sent up to reinforce French. The attempt was met by a volley and a bayonet charge. Captain Orr, of the Yorkshires, was struck down; but Captain Madocks, of the New Zealanders, who behaved with conspicuous gallantry at a critical instant, took command, and the enemy was heavily repulsed. Madocks engaged in a point-blank rifle duel with the frock-coated top-hatted Boer leader, and had the good fortune to kill his formidable opponent. Twenty-one Boer dead and many wounded left upon the field made a small set-off to the disaster of the Suffolks.
The next day, however (January 16th), the scales of fortune, which swung alternately one way and the other, were again tipped against us. It is difficult to give an intelligible account of the details of these operations, because they were carried out by thin fringes of men covering on both sides a very large area, each kopje occupied as a fort, and the intervening plains patrolled by cavalry.
As French extended to the east and north the Boers extended also to prevent him from outflanking them, and so the little armies stretched and stretched until they were two long mobile skirmishing lines. The actions therefore resolve themselves into the encounters of small bodies and the snapping up of exposed patrols--a game in which the Boer aptitude for guerrilla tactics gave them some advantage, though our own cavalry quickly adapted themselves to the new conditions. On this occasion a patrol of sixteen men from the South Australian Horse and New South Wales Lancers fell into an ambush, and eleven were captured. Of the remainder, three made their way back to camp, while one was killed and one was wounded.
The duel between French on the one side and Schoeman and
Lambert on the other was from this onwards one of maneuvering rather than of
fighting. The dangerously extended line of the British at this period, over
thirty miles long, was reinforced, as has been mentioned, by the 1st Yorkshire
and later by the 2nd Wiltshire and a section of the 37th Howitzer Battery.
There was probably no very great difference in numbers between the two little
armies, but the Boers now, as always, were working upon internal lines. The
monotony of the operations was broken by the remarkable feat of the Essex
Regiment, which succeeded by hawsers and good-will in getting two 15-pounder
guns of the 4th Field Battery on to the top of Coleskop, a hill which rises
several hundred feet from the plain and is so precipitous that it is no small
task for an unhampered man to climb it. From the summit a fire, which for some
days could not be localised by the Boers, was opened upon their laagers, which
had to be shifted in consequence. This energetic action upon the part of our gunners
may be set off against those other examples where commanders of batteries have
shown that they had not yet appreciated what strong tackle and stout arms can
accomplish. The guns upon Coleskop not only dominated all the smaller kopjes
for a range of 9000 yards, but completely commanded the town of
By gradual reinforcements the force under French had by the end of January attained the respectable figure of ten thousand men, strung over a large extent of country. His infantry consisted of the 2nd Berkshires, 1st Royal Irish, 2nd Wiltshires, 2nd Worcesters, 1st Essex, and 1st Yorkshires; his cavalry, of the 10th Hussars, the 6th Dragoon Guards, the Inniskillings, the New Zealanders, the N.S. W. Lancers, some Rimington Guides, and the composite Household Regiment; his artillery, the R and O batteries of R.H.A., the 4th R.F.A., and a section of the 37th Howitzer Battery. At the risk of tedium I have repeated the units of this force, because there are no operations during the war, with the exception perhaps of those of the Rhodesian Column, concerning which it is so difficult to get a clear impression. The fluctuating forces, the vast range of country covered, and the petty farms which give their names to positions, all tend to make the issue vague and the narrative obscure. The British still lay in a semicircle extending from Slingersfontein upon the right to Kloof Camp upon the left, and the general scheme of operations continued to be an enveloping movement upon the right. General Clements commanded this section of the forces, while the energetic Porter carried out the successive advances. The lines had gradually stretched until they were nearly fifty miles in length, and something of the obscurity in which the operations have been left is due to the impossibility of any single correspondent having a clear idea of what was occurring over so extended a front.
On January 25th French sent Stephenson and Brabazon to push
a reconnaissance to the north of Colesberg, and found that the Boers were
making a fresh position at Rietfontein, nine miles nearer their own border. A
small action ensued, in which we lost ten or twelve of the Wiltshire Regiment,
and gained some knowledge of the enemy's dispositions. For the remainder of the
month the two forces remained in a state of equilibrium, each keenly on its
guard, and neither strong enough to penetrate the lines of the other. General
French descended to
Reinforcements were still dribbling into the British force,
Hoad's Australian Regiment, which had been changed from infantry to cavalry,
and J battery R.H.A. from
The movements of De la Rey were directed towards turning the right of the position. On February 9th and 10th the mounted patrols, principally the Tasmanians, the Australians, and the Inniskillings, came in contact with the Boers, and some skirmishing ensued, with no heavy loss upon either side. A British patrol was surrounded and lost eleven prisoners, Tasmanians and Guides. On the 12th the Boer turning movement developed itself, and our position on the right at Slingersfontein was strongly attacked.
The key of the British position at this point was a kopje held by three companies of the 2nd Worcester Regiment. Upon this the Boers made a fierce onslaught, but were as fiercely repelled. They came up in the dark between the set of moon and rise of sun, as they had done at the great assault of Ladysmith, and the first dim light saw them in the advanced sangars. The Boer generals do not favour night attacks, but they are exceedingly fond of using darkness for taking up a good position and pushing onwards as soon as it is possible to see. This is what they did upon this occasion, and the first intimation which the outposts had of their presence was the rush of feet and loom of figures in the cold misty light of dawn. The occupants of the sangars were killed to a man, and the assailants rushed onwards. As the sun topped the line of the veld half the kopje was in their possession. Shouting and firing, they pressed onwards.
While this action was fought upon the extreme right of the
British position another as severe had occurred with much the same result upon
the extreme left, where the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment was stationed. Some
companies of this regiment were isolated upon a kopje and surrounded by the
Boer riflemen when the pressure upon them was relieved by a desperate attack by
about a hundred of the Victorian Rifles. The gallant Australians lost Major
Eddy and six officers out of seven, with a large proportion of their men, but
they proved once for all that amid all the scattered nations who came from the
same home there is not one with a more fiery courage and a higher sense of
martial duty than the men from the great island continent. It is the misfortune
of the historian when dealing with these contingents that, as a rule, by their
very nature they were employed in detached parties in fulfilling the duties
which fall to the lot of scouts and light cavalry--duties which fill the
casualty lists but not the pages of the chronicler. Be it said, however, once
for all that throughout the whole African army there was nothing but the utmost
admiration for the dash and spirit of the hard-riding, straight-shooting sons
It was evident from this time onwards that the turning
movement had failed, and that the enemy had developed such strength that we
were ourselves in imminent danger of being turned. The situation was a most
serious one: for if Clements's force could be brushed aside there would be
nothing to keep the enemy from cutting the communications of the army which
Roberts had assembled for his march into the
Whilst Methuen and Gatacre were content to hold their own at the Modder and at Sterkstroom, and whilst the mobile and energetic French was herding the Boers into Colesberg, Sir Redvers Buller, the heavy, obdurate, inexplicable man, was gathering and organising his forces for another advance upon Ladysmith. Nearly a month had elapsed since the evil day when his infantry had retired, and his ten guns had not, from the frontal attack upon Colenso. Since then Sir Charles Warren's division of infantry and a considerable reinforcement of artillery had come to him. And yet in view of the terrible nature of the ground in front of him, of the fighting power of the Boers, and of the fact that they were always acting upon internal lines, his force even now was, in the opinion of competent judges, too weak for the matter in hand.
There remained, however, several points in his favour. His excellent infantry were full of zeal and of confidence in their chief. It cannot be denied, however much we may criticise some incidents in his campaign, that he possessed the gift of impressing and encouraging his followers, and, in spite of Colenso, the sight of his square figure and heavy impassive face conveyed an assurance of ultimate victory to those around him. In artillery he was very much stronger than before, especially in weight of metal. His cavalry was still weak in proportion to his other arms. When at last he moved out on January 10th to attempt to outflank the Boers, he took with him nineteen thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry, and sixty guns, which included six howitzers capable of throwing a 50-pound lyddite shell, and ten long-range naval pieces. Barton's Brigade and other troops were left behind to hold the base and line of communications.
An analysis of Buller's force shows that its details were as follows:--
Clery's Division. Hildyard's Brigade.
1st Inniskilling Fusiliers.
1st Border Regiment.
Field Artillery, three batteries, 19th, 28th, 63rd; one squadron 13th Hussars; Royal Engineers.
3rd King's Royal Rifles.
1st Rifle Brigade.
York and Lancasters. Field Artillery, three batteries, 7th, 78th, 73rd; one squadron 13th Hussars.
Corps Troops. Coke's Brigade. Imperial Light Infantry.
61st Howitzer Battery; two 4.7 naval guns; eight naval 12-pounder guns;
one squadron 13th Hussars; Royal Engineers.
1st Royal Dragoons.
Four squadrons South African Horse. One squadron Imperial Light Horse. Bethune's Mounted Infantry. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry. One squadron Natal Carabineers. One squadron Natal Police. One company King's Royal Rifles Mounted Infantry. Six machine guns.
This is the force whose operations I shall attempt to describe.
About sixteen miles to the westward of Colenso there is a
ford over the
Dundonald's cavalry force pushed rapidly forwards, crossed
the Little Tugela, a tributary of the main river, at
On Thursday, January 12th, Dundonald seized the heights, on
the 13th the ferry was taken and Lyttelton's Brigade came up to secure that
which the cavalry had gained. On the 14th the heavy naval guns were brought up
to cover the crossing. On the 15th Coke's Brigade and other infantry
concentrated at the drift. On the 16th the four regiments of Lyttelton's
Brigade went across, and then, and only then, it began to be apparent that
Buller's plan was a more deeply laid one than had been thought, and that all
this business of Potgieter's Drift was really a demonstration in order to cover
the actual crossing which was to be effected at a ford named Trichard's Drift,
five miles to the westward. Thus, while Lyttelton's and Coke's Brigades were
ostentatiously attacking Potgieter's from in front, three other brigades (Hart's,
Woodgate's, and Hildyard's) were marched rapidly on the night of the 16th to
the real place of crossing, to which Dundonald's cavalry had already ridden.
There, on the 17th, a pontoon bridge had been erected, and a strong force was
thrown over in such a way as to turn the right of the trenches in front of
Potgieter's. It was admirably planned and excellently carried out, certainly
the most strategic movement, if there could he said to have been any strategic
movement upon the British side, in the campaign up to that date. On the 18th
the infantry, the cavalry, and most of the guns were safely across without loss
of life. The Boers, however, still retained their formidable internal lines,
and the only result of a change of position seemed to be to put them to the
trouble of building a new series of those terrible entrenchments at which they
had become such experts. After all the combinations the British were, it is
true, upon the right side of the river, but they were considerably further from
Ladysmith than when they started. There are times, however, when twenty miles
are less than fourteen, and it was hoped that this might prove to be among
them. But the first step was the most serious one, for right across their front
lay the Boer position upon the edge of a lofty plateau, with the high
A small success, the more welcome for its rarity, came to
the British arms on this first day. Dundonald's men had been thrown out to
cover the left of the infantry advance and to feel for the right of the Boer
position. A strong Boer patrol, caught napping for once, rode into an ambuscade
of the irregulars. Some escaped, some held out most gallantly in a kopje, but
the final result was a surrender of twenty-four unwounded prisoners, and the
finding of thirteen killed and wounded, including de Mentz, the field-cornet of
Heilbron. Two killed and two wounded were the British losses in this
well-managed affair. Dundonald's force then took its position upon the extreme
The British were now moving upon the Boers in two separate
bodies, the one which included Lyttelton's and Coke's Brigades from Potgieter's
Drift, making what was really a frontal attack, while the main body under
Warren, who had crossed at Trichard's Drift, was swinging round upon the Boer
right. Midway between the two movements the formidable bastion of Spion Kop
stood clearly outlined against the blue
On January 19th
The operations of this day began with a sustained cannonade
from the field batteries and 61st Howitzer Battery, which was as fiercely
answered by the enemy. About eleven the infantry began to go forward with an
advance which would have astonished the martinets of Aldershot, an irregular
fringe of crawlers, wrigglers, writhers, crouchers, all cool and deliberate,
giving away no points in this grim game of death. Where now were the officers
with their distinctive dresses and flashing swords, where the valiant rushes
over the open, where the men who were too proud to lie down?--the tactics of
three months ago seemed as obsolete as those of the Middle
Ages. All day the line undulated forward, and by evening yet another strip of
rock-strewn ground had been gained, and yet another train of ambulances was
bearing a hundred of our wounded back to the base hospitals at Frere. It was on
Hildyard's Brigade on the left that the fighting and the losses of this day
principally fell. By the morning of January 22nd the regiments were clustering
thickly all round the edges of the Boer main position, and the day was spent in
resting the weary men, and in determining at what point the final assault
should be delivered. On the right front, commanding the Boer lines on either
side, towered the stark eminence of Spion Kop, so called because from its
summit the Boer voortrekkers had first in 1835 gazed down upon the promised
land of Natal. If that could only be seized and held! Buller and Warren swept
its bald summit with their field-glasses. It was a venture. But all war is a
venture; and the brave man is he who ventures most. One fiery rush and the
master-key of all these locked doors might be in our keeping. That evening
there came a telegram to
The troops which were selected for the task were eight
companies of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, six of the 2nd Royal Lancasters, two
of the 1st
Under the friendly cover of a starless night the men, in Indian file, like a party of Iroquois braves upon the war trail, stole up the winding and ill-defined path which led to the summit. Woodgate, the Lancashire Brigadier, and Blomfield of the Fusiliers led the way. It was a severe climb of 2000 feet, coming after arduous work over broken ground, but the affair was well-timed, and it was at that blackest hour which precedes the dawn that the last steep ascent was reached. The Fusiliers crouched down among the rocks to recover their breath, and saw far down in the plain beneath them the placid lights which showed where their comrades were resting. A fine rain was falling, and rolling clouds hung low over their heads. The men with unloaded rifles and fixed bayonets stole on once more, their bodies bent, their eyes peering through the mirk for the first sign of the enemy--that enemy whose first sign has usually been a shattering volley. Thorneycroft's men with their gallant leader had threaded their way up into the advance. Then the leading files found that they were walking on the level. The crest had been gained.
With slow steps and bated breath, the open line of skirmishers stole across it. Was it possible that it had been entirely abandoned? Suddenly a raucous shout of 'Wie da?' came out of the darkness, then a shot, then a splutter of musketry and a yell, as the Fusiliers sprang onwards with their bayonets. The Boer post of Vryheid burghers clattered and scrambled away into the darkness, and a cheer that roused both the sleeping armies told that the surprise had been complete and the position won.
In the grey light of the breaking day the men advanced along the narrow undulating ridge, the prominent end of which they had captured. Another trench faced them, but it was weakly held and abandoned. Then the men, uncertain what remained beyond, halted and waited for full light to see where they were, and what the work was which lay before them--a fatal halt, as the result proved, and yet one so natural that it is hard to blame the officer who ordered it. Indeed, he might have seemed more culpable had he pushed blindly on, and so lost the advantage which had been already gained.
About eight o'clock, with the clearing of the mist, General
Woodgate saw how matters stood. The ridge, one end of which he held, extended
away, rising and falling for some miles. Had he the whole of the end plateau,
and had he guns, he might hope to command the rest of the position. But he held
only half the plateau, and at the further end of it the Boers were strongly entrenched.
The Spion Kop mountain was really the salient or sharp angle of the Boer
position, so that the British were exposed to a cross fire both from the left
and right. Beyond were other eminences which sheltered strings of riflemen and
several guns. The plateau which the British held was very much narrower than
was usually represented in the press. In many places the possible front was not
much more than a hundred yards wide, and the troops were compelled to bunch
together, as there was not room for a single company to take an extended
formation. The cover upon this plateau was scanty, far too scanty for the force
upon it, and the shell fire--especially the fire of the pom-poms--soon became
very murderous. To mass the troops under the cover of the edge of the plateau
might naturally suggest itself, but with great tactical skill the Boer advanced
line from Commandant Prinsloo's Heidelberg and Carolina commandos kept so
aggressive an attitude that the British could not weaken the lines opposed to
them. Their skirmishers were creeping round too in such a way that the fire was
really coming from three separate points, left, centre, and. right, and every
corner of the position was searched by their bullets. Early in the action the
gallant Woodgate and many of his
From morning to midday, the shell, Maxim, and rifle fire swept across the kop in a continual driving shower. The British guns in the plain below failed to localise the position of the enemy's, and they were able to vent their concentrated spite upon the exposed infantry. No blame attaches to the gunners for this, as a hill intervened to screen the Boer artillery, which consisted of five big guns and two pom-poms.
Upon the fall of Woodgate, Thorneycroft, who bore the
reputation of a determined fighter, was placed at the suggestion of Buller in
charge of the defence of the hill, and he was reinforced after noon by Coke's
brigade, the Middlesex, the
The position was so bad that no efforts of officers or men
could do anything to mend it. They were in a murderous dilemma. If they fell
back for cover the Boer riflemen would rush the position. If they held their
ground this horrible shell fire must continue, which they had no means of
answering. Down at Gun Hill in front of the Boer position we had no fewer than
five batteries, the 78th, 7th, 73rd, 63rd, and 61st howitzer, but a ridge
intervened between them and the Boer guns which were shelling Spion Kop, and
this ridge was strongly entrenched. The naval guns from distant
There remains the debated question whether the British guns could have been taken to the top. Mr. Winston Churchill, the soundness of whose judgment has been frequently demonstrated during the war, asserts that it might have been done. Without venturing to contradict one who was personally present, I venture to think that there is strong evidence to show that it could not have been done without blasting and other measures, for which there was no possible time. Captain Hanwell of the 78th R.F.A., upon the day of the battle had the very utmost difficulty with the help of four horses in getting a light Maxim on to the top, and his opinion, with that of other artillery officers, is that the feat was an impossible one until the path had been prepared. When night fell Colonel Sim was despatched with a party of Sappers to clear the track and to prepare two emplacements upon the top, but in his advance he met the retiring infantry.
Throughout the day reinforcements had pushed up the hill,
until two full brigades had been drawn into the fight. From the other side of
the ridge Lyttelton sent up the Scottish Rifles, who reached the summit, and
added their share to the shambles upon the top. As the shades of night closed
in, and the glare of the bursting shells became more lurid, the men lay
extended upon the rocky ground, parched and exhausted. They were hopelessly
jumbled together, with the exception of the
Before evening fell a most gallant and successful attempt had been made by the third battalion of the King's Royal Rifles from Lyttelton's Brigade to relieve the pressure upon their comrades on Spion Kop. In order to draw part of the Boer fire away they ascended from the northern side and carried the hills which formed a continuation of the same ridge. The movement was meant to be no more than a strong demonstration, but the riflemen pushed it until, breathless but victorious, they stood upon the very crest of the position, leaving nearly a hundred dead or dying to show the path which they had taken. Their advance being much further than was desired, they were recalled, and it was at the moment that Buchanan Riddell, their brave Colonel, stood up to read Lyttelton's note that he fell with a Boer bullet through his brain, making one more of those gallant leaders who died as they had lived, at the head of their regiments. Chisholm, Dick-Cunyngham, Downman, Wilford, Gunning, Sherston, Thackeray, Sitwell, MacCarthy O'Leary, Airlie--they have led their men up to and through the gates of death. It was a fine exploit of the 3rd Rifles. 'A finer bit of skirmishing, a finer bit of climbing, and a finer bit of fighting, I have never seen,' said their Brigadier. It is certain that if Lyttelton had not thrown his two regiments into the fight the pressure upon the hill-top might have become unendurable; and it seems also certain that if he had only held on to the position which the Rifles had gained, the Boers would never have reoccupied Spion Kop.
And now, under the shadow of night, but with the shells
bursting thickly over the plateau, the much-tried Thorneycroft had to make up
his mind whether he should hold on for another such day as he had endured, or
whether now, in the friendly darkness, he should remove his shattered force.
Could he have seen the discouragement of the Boers and the preparations which
they had made for retirement, he would have held his ground. But this was
hidden from him, while the horror of his own losses was but too apparent. Forty
per cent of his men were down. Thirteen hundred dead and dying are a grim sight
upon a wide-spread battle-field, but when this number is heaped upon a confined
space, where from a single high rock the whole litter of broken and shattered bodies
can be seen, and the groans of the stricken rise in one long droning chorus to
the ear, then it is an iron mind indeed which can resist such evidence of
disaster. In a harder age
How shall we sum up such an action save that it was a gallant attempt, gallantly carried out, and as gallantly met? On both sides the results of artillery fire during the war have been disappointing, but at Spion Kop beyond all question it was the Boer guns which won the action for them. So keen was the disappointment at home that there was a tendency to criticise the battle with some harshness, but it is difficult now, with the evidence at our command, to say what was left undone which could have altered the result. Had Thorneycroft known all that we know, he would have kept his grip upon the hill. On the face of it one finds it difficult to understand why so momentous a decision, upon which the whole operations depended, should have been left entirely to the judgment of one who in the morning had been a simple Lieutenant-Colonel. 'Where are the bosses?' cried a Fusilier, and the historian can only repeat the question. General Warren was at the bottom of the hill. Had he ascended and determined that the place should still be held, he might have sent down the wearied troops, brought up smaller numbers of fresh ones, ordered the Sappers to deepen the trenches, and tried to bring up water and guns. It was for the divisional commander to lay his hand upon the reins at so critical an instant, to relieve the weary man who had struggled so hard all day.
The subsequent publication of the official despatches has
served little purpose, save to show that there was a want of harmony between
Buller and Warren, and that the former lost all confidence in his subordinate
during the course of the operations. In these papers General Buller expresses
the opinion that had
On account of the crowding of four thousand troops into a space
which might have afforded tolerable cover for five hundred the losses in the
action were very heavy, not fewer than fifteen hundred being killed, wounded,
or missing, the proportion of killed being, on account of the shell fire,
abnormally high. The Lancashire Fusiliers were the heaviest sufferers, and
their Colonel Blomfield was wounded and fell into the hands of the enemy. The
Royal Lancasters also lost heavily. Thorneycroft's had 80 men hit out of 180
engaged. The Imperial Light Infantry, a raw corps of
General Buller had lost nearly two thousand men since he had
crossed the Tugela, and his purpose was still unfulfilled. Should he risk the
loss of a large part of his force in storming the ridges in front of him, or
should he recross the river and try for an easier route elsewhere? To the
surprise and disappointment both of the public and of the army, he chose the
latter course, and by January 27th he had fallen back, unmolested by the Boers,
to the other side of the Tugela. It must be confessed that his retreat was
admirably conducted, and that it was a military feat to bring his men, his
guns, and his stores in safety over a broad river in the face of a victorious
enemy. Stolid and unmoved, his impenetrable demeanour restored serenity and
confidence to the angry and disappointed troops. There might well be heavy
hearts among both them and the public. After a fortnight's campaign, and the
endurance of great losses and hardships, both Ladysmith and her relievers found
themselves no better off than when they started. Buller still held the
commanding position of
Neither General Buller nor his troops appeared to be dismayed by the failure of their plans, or by the heavy losses which were entailed by the movement which culminated at Spion Kop. The soldiers grumbled, it is true, at not being let go, and swore that even if it cost them two-thirds of their number they could and would make their way through this labyrinth of hills with its fringe of death. So doubtless they might. But from first to last their General had shown a great--some said an exaggerated--respect for human life, and he had no intention of winning a path by mere slogging, if there were a chance of finding one by less bloody means. On the morrow of his return he astonished both his army and the Empire by announcing that he had found the key to the position and that he hoped to be in Ladysmith in a week. Some rejoiced in the assurance. Some shrugged their shoulders. Careless of friends or foes, the stolid Buller proceeded to work out his new combination.
In the next few days reinforcements trickled in which more than made up for the losses of the preceding week. A battery of horse artillery, two heavy guns, two squadrons of the 14th Hussars, and infantry drafts to the number of twelve or fourteen hundred men came to share the impending glory or disaster. On the morning of February 5th the army sallied forth once more to have another try to win a way to Ladysmith. It was known that enteric was rife in the town, that shell and bullet and typhoid germ had struck down a terrible proportion of the garrison, and that the rations of starved horse and commissariat mule were running low. With their comrades--in many cases their linked battalions--in such straits within fifteen miles of them, Buller's soldiers had high motives to brace them for a supreme effort.
The previous attempt had been upon the line immediately to
the west of Spion Kop. If, however, one were to follow to the east of Spion
Kop, one would come upon a high mountain called Doornkloof. Between these two
peaks, there lies a low ridge, called Brakfontein, and
a small detached hill named Vaalkranz. Buller's idea was that
if he could seize this small Vaalkranz, it would enable him to avoid the high
ground altogether and pass his troops through on to the plateau beyond.
He still held the Ford at Potgieter's and commanded the country beyond with
heavy guns on
The getting of the guns up Swartz Kop was a preliminary
which was as necessary as it was difficult. A road was cut, sailors, engineers,
and gunners worked with a will under the general direction of Majors Findlay
and Apsley Smith. A mountain battery, two field guns, and six naval 12-pounders
were slung up by steel hawsers, the sailors yeo-hoing
on the halliards. The ammunition was taken up by hand. At six o'clock on the
morning of the 5th the other guns opened a furious and probably harmless fire
upon Brakfontein, Spion Kop, and all the Boer positions opposite to them. Shortly
afterwards the feigned attack upon Brakfontein was commenced and was sustained
with much fuss and appearance of energy until all was ready for the development
of the true one. Wynne's Brigade, which had been Woodgate's, recovered already
from its Spion Kop experience, carried out this part of the plan, supported by
six batteries of field artillery, one howitzer battery, and two 4.7 naval guns.
Three hours later a telegram was on its way to
While the attention of the Boers was being concentrated upon
About midday the infantry began to stream across the bridge, which had been most gallantly and efficiently constructed under a warm fire, by a party of sappers, under the command of Major Irvine. The attack was led by the Durham Light Infantry of Lyttelton's Brigade, followed by the 1st Rifle Brigade, with the Scottish and 3rd Rifles in support. Never did the old Light Division of Peninsular fame go up a Spanish hillside with greater spirit and dash than these, their descendants, facing the slope of Vaalkranz. In open order they moved across the plain, with a superb disregard of the crash and patter of the shrapnel, and then up they went, the flitting figures, springing from cover to cover, stooping, darting, crouching, running, until with their glasses the spectators on Swartz Kop could see the gleam of the bayonets and the strain of furious rushing men upon the summit, as the last Boers were driven from their trenches. The position was gained, but little else. Seven officers and seventy men were lying killed and wounded among the boulders. A few stricken Boers, five unwounded prisoners, and a string of Basuto ponies were the poor fruits of victory--those and the arid hill from which so much had been hoped, and so little was to be gained.
It was during this advance that an incident occurred of a more picturesque character than is usual in modern warfare. The invisibility of combatants and guns, and the absorption of the individual in the mass, have robbed the battle-field of those episodes which adorned, if they did not justify it. On this occasion, a Boer gun, cut off by the British advance, flew out suddenly from behind its cover, like a hare from its tussock, and raced for safety across the plain. Here and there it wound, the horses stretched to their utmost, the drivers stooping and lashing, the little gun bounding behind. To right to left, behind and before, the British shells burst, lyddite and shrapnel, crashing and riving. Over the lip of a hollow, the gallant gun vanished, and within a few minutes was banging away once more at the British advance. With cheers and shouts and laughter, the British infantrymen watched the race for shelter, their sporting spirit rising high above all racial hatred, and hailing with a 'gone to ground' whoop the final disappearance of the gun.
The Durhams had cleared the path, but the other regiments of Lyttelton's Brigade followed hard at their heels, and before night they had firmly established themselves upon the hill. But the fatal slowness which had marred General Buller's previous operations again prevented him from completing his success. Twice at least in the course of these operations there is evidence of sudden impulse to drop his tools in the midst of his task and to do no more for the day. So it was at Colenso, where an order was given at an early hour for the whole force to retire, and the guns which might have been covered by infantry fire and withdrawn after nightfall were abandoned. So it was also at a critical moment at this action at Vaalkranz. In the original scheme of operations it had been planned that an adjoining hill, called the Green Hill, which partly commanded Vaalkranz, should be carried also. The two together made a complete position, while singly each was a very bad neighbour to the other. On the aide-de-camp riding up, however, to inquire from General Buller whether the time had come for this advance, he replied, 'We have done enough for the day,' and left out this essential portion of his original scheme, with the result that all miscarried.
Speed was the most essential quality for carrying out his
plan successfully. So it must always be with the attack. The defence does not
know where the blow is coming, and has to distribute men and guns to cover
miles of ground. The attacker knows where he will hit, and behind a screen of
outposts he can mass his force and throw his whole strength against a mere
fraction of that of his enemy. But in order to do so he must be quick. One tiger
spring must tear the centre out of the line before the flanks can come to its
assistance. If time is given, if the long line can concentrate, if the
scattered guns can mass, if lines of defence can be reduplicated behind, then
the one great advantage which the attack possesses is thrown away. Both at the
second and at the third attempts of Buller the British movements were so slow
that had the enemy been the slowest instead of the most mobile of armies, they
could still always have made any dispositions which they chose.
The brigade then occupied Vaalkranz and erected sangars and dug trenches. On the morning of the 6th, the position of the British force was not dissimilar to that of Spion Kop. Again they had some thousands of men upon a hill-top, exposed to shell fire from several directions and without any guns upon the hill to support them. In one or two points the situation was modified in their favour, and hence their escape from loss and disaster. A more extended position enabled the infantry to avoid bunching, but in other respects the situation was parallel to that in which they had found themselves a fortnight before.
The original plan was that the taking of Vaalkranz should be the first step towards the outflanking of Brakfontein and the rolling up of the whole Boer position. But after the first move the British attitude became one of defence rather than of attack. Whatever the general and ultimate effect of these operations may have been, it is beyond question that their contemplation was annoying and bewildering in the extreme to those who were present. The position on February 6th was this. Over the river upon the hill was a single British brigade, exposed to the fire of one enormous gun--a 96-pound Creusot, the longest of all Long Toms--which was stationed upon Doornkloof, and of several smaller guns and pom-poms which spat at them from nooks and crevices of the hills. On our side were seventy-two guns, large and small, all very noisy and impotent. It is not too much to say, as it appears to me, that the Boers have in some ways revolutionised our ideas in regard to the use of artillery, by bringing a fresh and healthy common-sense to bear upon a subject which had been unduly fettered by pedantic rules. The Boer system is the single stealthy gun crouching where none can see it. The British system is the six brave guns coming into action in line of full interval, and spreading out into accurate dressing visible to all men. 'Always remember,' says one of our artillery maxims, 'that one gun is no gun.' Which is prettier on a field-day, is obvious, but which is business--let the many duels between six Boer guns and sixty British declare. With black powder it was useless to hide the gun, as its smoke must betray it. With smokeless powder the guns are so invisible that it was only by the detection with powerful glasses of the dust from the trail on the recoil that the officers were ever able to localise the guns against which they were fighting. But if the Boers had had six guns in line, instead of one behind that kopje, and another between those distant rocks, it would not have been so difficult to say where they were. Again, British traditions are all in favour of planting guns close together. At this very action of Vaalkranz the two largest guns were so placed that a single shell bursting between them would have disabled them both. The officer who placed them there, and so disregarded in a vital matter the most obvious dictates of common-sense, would probably have been shocked by any want of technical smartness, or irregularity in the routine drill. An over-elaboration of trifles, and a want of grip of common-sense, and of adaptation to new ideas, is the most serious and damaging criticism which can be levelled against our army. That the function of infantry is to shoot, and not to act like spearmen in the Middle Ages; that the first duty of artillery is so far as is possible to be invisible--these are two of the lessons which have been driven home so often during the war, that even our hidebound conservatism can hardly resist them.
Lyttelton's Brigade, then, held Vaalkranz; and from three parts of the compass there came big shells and little shells, with a constant shower of long-range rifle bullets. Behind them, and as useful as if it had been on Woolwich Common, there was drawn up an imposing mass of men, two infantry divisions, and two brigades of cavalry, all straining at the leash, prepared to shed their blood until the spruits ran red with it, if only they could win their way to where their half-starved comrades waited for them. But nothing happened. Hours passed and nothing happened. An occasional shell from the big gun plumped among them. One, through some freak of gunnery, lobbed slowly through a division, and the men whooped and threw their caps at it as it passed. The guns on Swartz Kop, at a range of nearly five miles, tossed shells at the monster on Doornkloof, and finally blew up his powder magazine amid the applause of the infantry. For the army it was a picnic and a spectacle.
But it was otherwise with the men up on Vaalkranz. In spite of sangar and trench, that cross fire was finding them out; and no feint or demonstration on either side came to draw the concentrated fire from their position. Once there was a sudden alarm at the western end of the hill, and stooping bearded figures with slouch hats and bandoliers were right up on the ridge before they could be stopped, so cleverly had their advance been conducted. But a fiery rush of Durhams and Rifles cleared the crest again, and it was proved once more how much stronger is the defence than the attack. Nightfall found the position unchanged, save that another pontoon bridge had been constructed during the day. Over this Hildyard's Brigade marched to relieve Lyttelton's, who came back for a rest under the cover of the Swartz Kop guns. Their losses in the two days had been under two hundred and fifty, a trifle if any aim were to be gained, but excessive for a mere demonstration.
That night Hildyard's men supplemented the defences made by Lyttelton, and tightened their hold upon the hill. One futile night attack caused them for an instant to change the spade for the rifle. When in the morning it was found that the Boers had, as they naturally would, brought up their outlying guns, the tired soldiers did not regret their labours of the night. It was again demonstrated how innocuous a thing is a severe shell fire, if the position be an extended one with chances of cover. A total of forty killed and wounded out of a strong brigade was the result of a long day under an incessant cannonade. And then at nightfall came the conclusion that the guns were too many, that the way was too hard, and down came all their high hopes with the order to withdraw once more across that accursed river. Vaalkranz was abandoned, and Hildyard's Brigade, seething with indignation, was ordered back once more to its camp.
The heroic moment of the siege of Ladysmith was that which witnessed the repulse of the great attack. The epic should have ended at that dramatic instant. But instead of doing so the story falls back to an anticlimax of crowded hospitals, slaughtered horses, and sporadic shell fire. For another six weeks of inactivity the brave garrison endured all the sordid evils which had steadily grown from inconvenience to misfortune and from misfortune to misery. Away in the south they heard the thunder of Buller's guns, and from the hills round the town they watched with pale faces and bated breath the tragedy of Spion Kop, preserving a firm conviction that a very little more would have transformed it into their salvation. Their hearts sank with the sinking of the cannonade, and rose again with the roar of Vaalkranz. But Vaalkranz also failed them, and they waited on in the majesty of their hunger and their weakness for the help which was to come.
It has been already narrated how General Buller had made his
three attempts for the relief of the city. The General who was inclined to
despair was now stimulated by despatches from Lord Roberts, while his army, who
were by no means inclined to despair, were immensely
cheered by the good news from the
On February 9th the movements were started
which transferred the greater part of the force from the extreme left to the
centre and right. By the 11th Lyttelton's (formerly Clery's) second
What Buller had seen during the hour or two which he had spent with his telescope upon Hussar Hill had evidently confirmed him in his views, for two days later (February 14th) the whole army set forth for this point. By the morning of the 15th twenty thousand men were concentrated upon the sides and spurs of this eminence. On the 16th the heavy guns were in position, and all was ready for the advance.
Facing them now were the formidable Boer lines of Hlangwane Hill and Green Hill, which would certainly cost several thousands of men if they were to take them by direct storm. Beyond them, upon the Boer flank, were the hills of Monte Christo and Cingolo, which appeared to be the extreme outside of the Boer position. The plan was to engage the attention of the trenches in front by a terrific artillery fire and the threat of an assault, while at the same time sending the true flank attack far round to carry the Cingolo ridge, which must be taken before any other hill could be approached.
On the 17th, in the early morning, with the first tinge of
violet in the east, the irregular cavalry and the second division (Lyttelton's)
with Wynne's Brigade started upon their widely curving flanking march. The
country through which they passed was so broken that the troopers led their
horses in single file, and would have found themselves
helpless in face of any resistance. Fortunately, Cingolo Hill was very weakly
held, and by evening both our horsemen and our infantry had a firm grip upon
it, thus turning the extreme left flank of the Boer position. For once their
mountainous fortresses were against them, for a mounted Boer force is so mobile
that in an open position, such as faced
Even now, however, the Boer leaders had apparently not realised that this was the main attack, or it is possible that the intervention of the river made it difficult for them to send
reinforcements. However that may
be, it is certain that the task which the British found awaiting them on the
18th proved to be far easier than they had dared to hope. The honours of the
day rested with Hildyard's English Brigade (East Surrey, West Surrey,
By February 20th the British had firmly established themselves along the whole south bank of the river, Hart's brigade had occupied Colenso, and the heavy guns had been pushed up to more advanced positions. The crossing of the river was the next operation, and the question arose where it should be crossed. The wisdom which comes with experience shows us now that it would have been infinitely better to have crossed on their extreme left flank, as by an advance upon this line we should have turned their strong Pieters position just as we had already turned their Colenso one. With an absolutely master card in our hand we refused to play it, and won the game by a more tedious and perilous process. The assumption seems to have been made (on no other hypothesis can one understand the facts) that the enemy were demoralised and that the positions would not be strongly held. Our flanking advantage was abandoned and a direct advance was ordered from Colenso, involving a frontal attack upon the Pieters position.
On February 21st Buller threw his pontoon bridge over the river near Colenso, and the same evening his army began to cross. It was at once evident that the Boer resistance had by no means collapsed. Wynne's Lancashire Brigade were the first across, and found themselves hotly engaged before nightfall. The low kopjes in front of them were blazing with musketry fire. The brigade held its own, but lost the Brigadier (the second in a month) and 150 rank and file. Next morning the main body of the infantry was passed across, and the army was absolutely committed to the formidable and unnecessary enterprise of fighting its way straight to Ladysmith.
The force in front had weakened, however, both in numbers and in morale. Some thousands of the Freestaters had left in order to defend their own country from the advance of Roberts, while the rest were depressed by as much of the news as was allowed by their leaders to reach them. But the Boer is a tenacious fighter, and many a brave man was still to fall before Buller and White should shake hands in the High Street of Ladysmith.
The first obstacle which faced the army, after crossing the
river, was a belt of low rolling ground, which was gradually cleared by the
advance of our infantry. As night closed in the advance lines of Boers and
British were so close to each other that incessant rifle fire was maintained
until morning, and at more than one point small bodies of desperate riflemen
charged right up to the bayonets of our infantry. The morning found us still
holding our positions all along the line, and as more
and more of our infantry came up and gun after gun roared into action we began
to push our stubborn enemy northwards. On the 21st the
Brigadier Fitzroy Hart, to whom the assault was entrusted, is in some ways as singular and picturesque a type as has been evolved in the war. A dandy soldier, always the picture of neatness from the top of his helmet to the heels of his well-polished brown boots, he brings to military matters the same precision which he affects in dress. Pedantic in his accuracy, he actually at the battle of Colenso drilled the Irish Brigade for half an hour before leading them into action, and threw out markers under a deadly fire in order that his change from close to extended formation might be academically correct. The heavy loss of the Brigade at this action was to some extent ascribed to him and affected his popularity; but as his men came to know him better, his romantic bravery, his whimsical soldierly humour, their dislike changed into admiration. His personal disregard for danger was notorious and reprehensible. 'Where is General Hart?' asked some one in action. 'I have not seen him, but I know where you will find him. Go ahead of the skirmish line and you will see him standing on a rock,' was the answer. He bore a charmed life. It was a danger to be near him. 'Whom are you going to?' 'General Hart,' said the aide-de-camp. 'Then good-bye!' cried his fellows. A grim humour ran through his nature. It is gravely recorded and widely believed that he lined up a regiment on a hill-top in order to teach them not to shrink from fire. Amid the laughter of his Irishmen, he walked through the open files of his firing line holding a laggard by the ear. This was the man who had put such a spirit into the Irish Brigade that amid that army of valiant men there were none who held such a record. 'Their rushes were the quickest, their rushes were the longest, and they stayed the shortest time under cover,' said a shrewd military observer. To Hart and his brigade was given the task of clearing the way to Ladysmith.
The regiments which he took with him on his perilous enterprise were the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, the 1st Connaught Rangers, and the Imperial Light Infantry, the whole forming the famous 5th Brigade. They were already in the extreme British advance, and now, as they moved forwards, the Durham Light Infantry and the 1st Rifle Brigade from Lyttelton's Brigade came up to take their place. The hill to be taken lay on the right, and the soldiers were compelled to pass in single file under a heavy fire for more than a mile until they reached the spot which seemed best for their enterprise. There, short already of sixty of their comrades, they assembled and began a cautious advance upon the lines of trenches and sangars which seamed the brown slope above them.
For a time they were able to keep some cover, and the casualties were comparatively few. But now at last, as the evening sun threw a long shadow from the hills, the leading regiment, the Inniskillings, found themselves at the utmost fringe of boulders with a clear slope between them and the main trench of the enemy. Up there where the shrapnel was spurting and the great lyddite shells crashing they could dimly see a line of bearded faces and the black dots of the slouch hats. With a yell the Inniskillings sprang out, carried with a rush the first trench, and charged desperately onwards for the second one. It was a supremely dashing attack against a supremely steady resistance, for among all their gallant deeds the Boers have never fought better than on that February evening. Amid such a smashing shell fire as living mortals have never yet endured they stood doggedly, these hardy men of the veld, and fired fast and true into the fiery ranks of the Irishmen. The yell of the stormers was answered by the remorseless roar of the Mausers and the deep-chested shouts of the farmers. Up and up surged the infantry, falling, rising, dashing bull-headed at the crackling line of the trench. But still the bearded faces glared at them over the edge, and still the sheet of lead pelted through their ranks. The regiment staggered, came on, staggered again, was overtaken by supporting companies of the Dublins and the Connaughts, came on, staggered once more, and finally dissolved into shreds, who ran swiftly back for cover, threading their way among their stricken comrades. Never on this earth was there a retreat of which the survivors had less reason to be ashamed. They had held on to the utmost capacity of human endurance. Their Colonel, ten officers, and more than half the regiment were lying on the fatal hill. Honour to them, and honour also to the gallant Dutchmen who, rooted in the trenches, had faced the rush and fury of such an onslaught! Today to them, tomorrow to us--but it is for a soldier to thank the God of battles for worthy foes.
It is one thing, however, to repulse the British soldier and it is another to rout him. Within a few hundred yards of their horrible ordeal at Magersfontein the Highlanders reformed into a military body. So now the Irishmen fell back no further than the nearest cover, and there held grimly on to the ground which they had won. If you would know the advantage which the defence has over the attack, then do you come and assault this line of tenacious men, now in your hour of victory and exultation, friend Boer! Friend Boer did attempt it, and skilfully too, moving a flanking party to sweep the position with their fire. But the brigade, though sorely hurt, held them off without difficulty, and was found on the morning of the 24th to be still lying upon the ground which they had won.
Our losses had been very heavy, Colonel Thackeray of the Inniskillings, Colonel Sitwell of the Dublins, three majors, twenty officers, and a total of about six hundred out of 1200 actually engaged. To take such punishment and to remain undemoralised is the supreme test to which troops can be put. Could the loss have been avoided? By following the original line of advance from Monte Christo, perhaps, when we should have turned the enemy's left. But otherwise no. The hill was in the way and had to be taken. In the war game you cannot play without a stake. You lose and you pay forfeit, and where the game is fair the best player is he who pays with the best grace. The attack was well prepared, well delivered, and only miscarried on account of the excellence of the defence. We proved once more what we had proved so often before, that all valour and all discipline will not avail in a frontal attack against brave coolheaded men armed with quick-firing rifles.
While the Irish Brigade assaulted Railway Hill an attack had
been made upon the left, which was probably meant as a demonstration to keep
the Boers from reinforcing their comrades rather than as an actual attempt upon
their lines. Such as it was, however, it cost the life of at least one brave
soldier, for Colonel Thorold, of the Welsh Fusiliers, was among the fallen.
The army was now at a deadlock. Railway Hill barred the way, and if Hart's men could not carry it by assault it was hard to say who could. The 24th found the two armies facing each other at this critical point, the Irishmen still clinging to the slopes of the hill and the Boers lining the top. Fierce rifle firing broke out between them during the day, but each side was well covered and lay low. The troops in support suffered somewhat, however, from a random shell fire. Mr. Winston Churchill has left it upon record that within his own observation three of their shrapnel shells fired at a venture on to the reverse slope of a hill accounted for nineteen men and four horses. The enemy can never have known how hard those three shells had hit us, and so we may also believe that our artillery fire has often been less futile than it appeared.
General Buller had now realised that it was no mere rearguard action which the Boers were fighting, but that their army was standing doggedly at bay; so he reverted to that flanking movement which, as events showed, should never have been abandoned. Hart's Irish Brigade was at present almost the right of the army. His new plan--a masterly one--was to keep Hart pinning the Boers at that point, and to move his centre and left across the river, and then back to envelope the left wing of the enemy. By this manoeuvre Hart became the extreme left instead of the extreme right, and the Irish Brigade would be the hinge upon which the whole army should turn. It was a large conception, finely carried out. The 24th was a day of futile shell fire--and of plans for the future. The heavy guns were got across once more to the Monte Christo ridge and to Hlangwane, and preparations made to throw the army from the west to the east. The enemy still snarled and occasionally snapped in front of Hart's men, but with four companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade to protect their flanks their position remained secure.
In the meantime, through a contretemps between our outposts and the Boers, no leave had been given to us to withdraw our wounded, and the unfortunate fellows, some hundreds of them, had lain between the lines in agonies of thirst for thirty-six hours--one of the most painful incidents of the campaign. Now, upon the 25th, an armistice was proclaimed, and the crying needs of the survivors were attended to. On the same day the hearts of our soldiers sank within them as they saw the stream of our wagons and guns crossing the river once more. What, were they foiled again? Was the blood of these brave men to be shed in vain? They ground their teeth at the thought. The higher strategy was not for them, but back was back and forward was forward, and they knew which way their proud hearts wished to go.
The 26th was occupied by the large movements of troops which so complete a reversal of tactics necessitated. Under the screen of a heavy artillery fire, the British right became the left and the left the right. A second pontoon bridge was thrown across near the old Boer bridge at Hlangwane, and over it was passed a large force of infantry, Barton's Fusilier Brigade, Kitchener's (vice Wynne's, vice Woodgate's) Lancashire Brigade, and two battalions of Norcott's (formerly Lyttelton's) Brigade. Coke's Brigade was left at Colenso to prevent a counter attack upon our left flank and communications. In this way, while Hart with the Durhams and the 1st Rifle Brigade held the Boers in front, the main body of the army was rapidly swung round on to their left flank. By the morning of the 27th all were in place for the new attack.
Opposite the point where the troops had been massed were three Boer hills; one, the nearest, may for convenience sake be called Barton's Hill. As the army had formerly been situated the assault upon this hill would have been a matter of extreme difficulty; but now, with the heavy guns restored to their commanding position, from which they could sweep its sides and summits, it had recovered its initial advantage. In the morning sunlight Barton's Fusiliers crossed the river, and advanced to the attack under a screaming canopy of shells. Up they went and up, darting and crouching, until their gleaming bayonets sparkled upon the summit. The masterful artillery had done its work, and the first long step taken in this last stage of the relief of Ladysmith. The loss had been slight and the advantage enormous. After they had gained the summit the Fusiliers were stung and stung again by clouds of skirmishers who clung to the flanks of the hill, but their grip was firm and grew firmer with every hour.
Of the three Boer hills which had to be taken the nearest
(or eastern one) was now in the hands of the British. The furthest (or western
one) was that on which the Irish Brigade was still crouching, ready at any
moment for a final spring which would take them over the few hundred yards
which separated them from the trenches. Between the two intervened a central
hill, as yet untouched. Could we carry this the whole
position would be ours. Now for the final effort! Turn every gun upon it, the
guns of Monte Christo, the guns of Hlangwane! Turn
every rifle upon it--the rifles of Barton's men, the rifles of Hart's men, the
carbines of the distant cavalry! Scalp its crown with the machine-gun fire! And
now up with you,
But there was never a doubt of it. Hardly for one instant
did the advance waver at any point of its extended line.
It was the supreme instant of the
Behind the line of hills which had been taken there extended
a great plain as far as Bulwana--that evil neighbour who had wrought such harm
upon Ladysmith. More than half of the Pieters position had fallen into Buller's
hands on the 27th, and the remainder had become untenable. The Boers had lost
some five hundred in killed, wounded, and prisoners. [Footnote: Accurate
figures will probably never be obtained, but a well-known Boer in
But here they miscalculated, and so often have we
miscalculated on the optimistic side in this campaign that it is pleasing to
find for once that our hopes were less than the reality. The Boers had been
beaten--fairly beaten and disheartened. It will always be a subject for
conjecture whether they were so entirely on the strength of the
And now the long-drawn story draws to a swift close. Cautiously feeling their way with a fringe of horse, the British pushed over the great plain, delayed here and there by the crackle of musketry, but finding always that the obstacle gave way and vanished as they approached it. At last it seemed clear to Dundonald that there really was no barrier between his horsemen and the beleaguered city. With a squadron of Imperial Light Horse and a squadron of Natal Carabineers he rode on until, in the gathering twilight, the Ladysmith picket challenged the approaching cavalry, and the gallant town was saved.
It is hard to say which had shown the greater endurance, the rescued or their rescuers. The town, indefensible, lurking in a hollow under commanding hills, had held out for 118 days. They had endured two assaults and an incessant bombardment, to which, towards the end, owing to the failure of heavy ammunition, they were unable to make any adequate reply. It was calculated that 16, 000 shells had fallen within the town. In two successful sorties they had destroyed three of the enemy's heavy guns. They had been pressed by hunger, horseflesh was already running short, and they had been decimated by disease. More than 2000 cases of enteric and dysentery had been in hospital at one time, and the total number of admissions had been nearly as great as the total number of the garrison. One-tenth of the men had actually died of wounds or disease. Ragged, bootless, and emaciated, there still lurked in the gaunt soldiers the martial spirit of warriors. On the day after their relief 2000 of them set forth to pursue the Boers. One who helped to lead them has left it on record that the most piteous sight that he has ever seen was these wasted men, stooping under their rifles and gasping with the pressure of their accoutrements, as they staggered after their retreating enemy. A Verestschagen might find a subject these 2000 indomitable men with their emaciated horses pursuing a formidable foe. It is God's mercy they failed to overtake them.
If the record of the besieged force was great, that of the
relieving army was no less so. Through the blackest depths of despondency and
failure they had struggled to absolute success. At Colenso they had lost 1200
men, at Spion Kop 1700, at Vaalkranz 400, and now, in this last long-drawn
effort, 1600 more. Their total losses were over 5000 men, more than 20 per cent
of the whole army. Some particular regiments had suffered horribly. The
On March 3rd Buller's force entered Ladysmith in state between the lines of the defenders. For their heroism the Dublin Fusiliers were put in the van of the procession, and it is told how, as the soldiers who lined the streets saw the five officers and small clump of men, the remains of what had been a strong battalion, realising, for the first time perhaps, what their relief had cost, many sobbed like children. With cheer after cheer the stream of brave men flowed for hours between banks formed by men as brave. But for the purposes of war the garrison was useless. A month of rest and food would be necessary before they could be ready to take the field once more.
So the riddle of the Tugela had at last been solved. Even
now, with all the light which has been shed upon the matter, it is hard to
apportion praise and blame. To the cheerful optimism of Symons must be laid
some of the blame of the original entanglement; but man is mortal, and he laid
down his life for his mistake. White, who had been but a week in the country,
could not, if he would, alter the main facts of the military situation. He did
his best, committed one or two errors, did brilliantly on one or two points,
and finally conducted the defence with a tenacity and
a gallantry which are above all praise. It did not, fortunately, develop into
an absolutely desperate affair, like Massena's defence of
Buller, like White, had to take the situation as he found
it. It is well known that his own belief was that the line of the Tugela was
the true defence of
Having taken his line, Buller set about
his task in a slow, deliberate, but pertinacious fashion. It cannot be
denied, however, that the pertinacity was largely due to the stiffening counsel
of Roberts and the soldierly firmness of White who refused to acquiesce in the
suggestion of surrender. Let it be acknowledged that Buller's was the hardest
problem of the war, and that he solved it. The mere acknowledgment goes far to
soften criticism. But the singular thing is that in his proceedings he showed
qualities which had not been generally attributed to him, and was wanting in
those very points which the public had imagined to be characteristic of him. He
had gone out with the reputation of a downright John Bull fighter, who would
take punishment or give it, but slog his way through without wincing. There was
no reason for attributing any particular strategical ability to him. But as a
matter of fact, setting the Colenso attempt aside, the crossing
for the Spion Kop enterprise, the withdrawal of the compromised army, the
Vaalkranz crossing with the clever feint upon Brakfontein, the final
operations, and especially the complete change of front after the third day of
Pieters, were strategical movements largely conceived and admirably
carried out. On the other hand, a hesitation in pushing onwards, and a
disinclination to take a risk or to endure heavy punishment, even in the case
of temporary failure, were consistent characteristics of his generalship. The
Vaalkranz operations are particularly difficult to defend from the charge of
having been needlessly slow and half-hearted. This 'saturnine fighter,' as he
had been called, proved to be exceedingly sensitive about the lives of his
men--an admirable quality in itself, but there are occasions when to spare them
to-day is to needlessly imperil them tomorrow. The victory was his, and yet in
the very moment of it he displayed the qualities which marred him. With two
cavalry brigades in hand he did not push the pursuit of the routed Boers with
their guns and endless streams of wagons. It is true that he might have lost
heavily, but it is true also that a success might have ended the Boer invasion
The relief of Ladysmith stirred the people of the Empire as
nothing, save perhaps the subsequent relief of
It has already been narrated how, upon the arrival of the army corps from England, the greater part was drafted to Natal, while some went to the western side, and started under Lord Methuen upon the perilous enterprise of the relief of Kimberley. It has also been shown how, after three expensive victories, Lord Methuen's force met with a paralysing reverse, and was compelled to remain inactive within twenty miles of the town which they had come to succour. Before I describe how that succour did eventually arrive, some attention must be paid to the incidents which had occurred within the city.
'I am directed to assure you that there is no reason for
apprehending that Kimberley or any part of the colony either is, or in any
contemplated event will be, in danger of attack. Mr. Schreiner is of opinion
that your fears are groundless and your anticipations in the matter entirely
without foundation.' Such is the official reply to the remonstrance of the
inhabitants, when, with the shadow of war dark upon them, they appealed for
help. It is fortunate, however, that a progressive British town has usually the
capacity for doing things for itself without the intervention of officials.
On October 12th, several hours after the expiration of Kruger's
ultimatum, Cecil Rhodes threw himself into
It was on October 15th that the fifty thousand inhabitants
The Boers in scattered bands of horsemen were thick around the town, and had blocked the railroad. They raided cattle upon the outskirts, but made no attempt to rush the defence. The garrison, who, civilian and military, approached four thousand in number, lay close in rifle pit and redoubt waiting for an attack which never came. The perimeter to be defended was about eight miles, but the heaps of tailings made admirable fortifications, and the town had none of those inconvenient heights around it which had been such bad neighbours to Ladysmith. Picturesque surroundings are not favourable to defence.
On October 24th the garrison, finding that no attack was
made, determined upon a reconnaissance. The mounted force, upon which most of
the work and of the loss fell, consisted of the Diamond Fields Horse, a small
On November 4th Commandant Wessels formally summoned the
town, and it is asserted that he gave Colonel Kekewich leave to send out the
women and children. That officer has been blamed for not taking advantage of
the permission--or at the least for not communicating it to the civil authorities.
As a matter of fact the charge rests upon a misapprehension. In Wessels' letter
a distinction is made between Africander and English women, the former being
offered an asylum in his camp. This offer was made known, and half a dozen
persons took advantage of it. The suggestion, however, in the case of the
English carried with it no promise that they would be conveyed to
It is difficult to allude to this subject without touching
upon the painful but notorious fact that there existed during the siege
considerable friction between the military authorities and a section of the
civilians, of whom Mr. Rhodes was chief. Among other characteristics
On November 7th the bombardment of the town commenced from
nine 9-pounder guns to which the artillery of the garrison could give no
adequate reply. The result, however, of a fortnight's fire, during which seven
hundred shells were discharged, was the loss of two non-combatants. The
question of food was recognised as being of more importance than the enemy's
fire. An early relief appeared probable, however, as the advance of
November 25th was a red-letter day with the garrison, who
made a sortie under the impression that
Again the siege settled down to a monotonous record of
decreasing rations and of expectation. On December 10 there came a sign of hope
from the outside world. Far on the southern horizon a little golden speck
shimmered against the blue African sky. It was
The New Year found the beleaguered city reduced to a quarter
of a pound of meat per head, while the health of the inhabitants began to break
down under their confinement. Their interest, however, was keenly aroused by
the attempt made in the De Beers workshops to build a gun which might reach
their opponents. This remarkable piece of ordnance, constructed by an American
named Labram by the help of tools manufactured for the purpose and of books
found in the town, took the shape eventually of a 28 lb. rifled gun, which
proved to be a most efficient piece of artillery. With grim humour, Mr.
Rhodes's compliments had been inscribed upon the shells--a fair retort in view
of the openly expressed threat of the enemy that in case of his capture they
would carry him in a cage to
The Boers, though held off for a time by this unexpected piece of ordnance, prepared a terrible answer to it. On February 7th an enormous gun, throwing a 96 lb. shell, opened from Kamfersdam, which is four miles from the centre of the town. The shells, following the evil precedent of the Germans in 1870, were fired not at the forts, but into the thickly populated city. Day and night these huge missiles exploded, shattering the houses and occasionally killing or maiming the occupants. Some thousands of the women and children were conveyed down the mines, where, in the electric-lighted tunnels, they lay in comfort and safety. One surprising revenge the Boers had, for by an extraordinary chance one of the few men killed by their gun was the ingenious Labram who had constructed the 28-pounder. By an even more singular chance, Leon, who was responsible for bringing the big Boer gun, was struck immediately afterwards by a long-range rifle-shot from the garrison.
The historian must be content to give a tame account of the
And at last the great day came. It is on record how dramatic
was the meeting between the mounted outposts of the defenders and the advance
guard of the relievers, whose advent seems to have been equally unexpected by
friend and foe. A skirmish was in progress on February 15th between a party of
the Kimberley Light Horse and of the Boers, when a new body of horsemen,
unrecognised by either side, appeared upon the plain and opened fire upon the
enemy. One of the strangers rode up to the patrol. 'What the dickens does K.L. H.
mean on your shoulder-strap?' he asked. 'It means Kimberley Light Horse. Who
are you?' 'I am one of the New Zealanders.' Macaulay in his wildest dream of
the future of the much-quoted New Zealander never pictured him as heading a
rescue force for the relief of a British town in the heart of
The population had assembled to watch the mighty cloud of
dust which rolled along the south-eastern horizon. What was it which swept
westwards within its reddish heart? Hopeful and yet fearful they saw the huge
bank draw nearer and nearer. An assault from the whole of Cronje's army was the
thought which passed through many a mind. And then the dust-cloud thinned, a
mighty host of horsemen spurred out from it, and in the extended far-flung
ranks the glint of spearheads and the gleam of scabbards told of the Hussars
and Lancers, while denser banks on either flank marked the position of the
whirling guns. Wearied and spent with a hundred miles' ride the dusty riders
and the panting, dripping horses took fresh heart as they saw the broad city
before them, and swept with martial rattle and jingle towards the cheering
crowds. Amid shouts and tears French rode into
To know how this bolt was prepared and how launched, the
narrative must go back to the beginning of the month. At that period
In order to draw the Boer attention away from the
thunderbolt which was about to fall upon their left flank, a strong
demonstration ending in a brisk action was made early in February upon the
extreme right of Cronje's position. The force, consisting of the Highland
Brigade, two squadrons of the 9th Lancers, No. 7 Co. Royal Engineers, and the
The four regiments which composed the infantry of the force--the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherlands, the Seaforths, and the Highland Light Infantry--left Lord Methuen's camp on Saturday, February 3rd, and halted at Fraser's Drift, passing on next day to Koodoosberg. The day was very hot, and the going very heavy, and many men fell out, some never to return. The drift (or ford) was found, however, to be undefended, and was seized by Macdonald, who, after pitching camp on the south side of the river, sent out strong parties across the drift to seize and entrench the Koodoosberg and some adjacent kopjes which, lying some three-quarters of a mile to the north-west of the drift formed the key of the position. A few Boer scouts were seen hurrying with the news of his coming to the head laager.
The effect of these messages was evident by Tuesday
(February 6th), when the Boers were seen to be assembling upon the north bank.
By next morning they were there in considerable numbers, and began an attack
upon a crest held by the Seaforths. Macdonald threw two companies of the Black
Watch and two of the Highland Light Infantry into the fight. The Boers made
excellent practice with a 7-pounder mountain gun, and their rifle fire,
considering the good cover which our men had, was very deadly. Poor Tait, of
the Black Watch, good sportsman and gallant soldier, with one wound hardly
healed upon his person, was hit again. 'They've got me this time,' were his
dying words. Blair, of the Seaforths, had his carotid cut by a shrapnel bullet,
and lay for hours while the men of his company took turns to squeeze the
artery. But our artillery silenced the Boer gun, and our infantry easily held
their riflemen. Babington with the cavalry brigade arrived from the camp about
1.30, moving along the north bank of the river. In spite of the fact that men
and horses were weary from a tiring march, it was hoped by Macdonald's force
that they would work round the Boers and make an attempt to capture either them
or their gun. But the horsemen seem not to have realised the position of the
parties, or that possibility of bringing off a considerable coup, so the action
came to a tame conclusion, the Boers retiring unpursued from their attack. On
Thursday, February 8th, they were found to have withdrawn, and on the same
evening our own force was recalled, to the surprise and disappointment of the
public at home, who had not realised that in directing their attention to their
right flank the column had already produced the effect upon the enemy for which
they had been sent. They could not be left there, as they were needed for those
great operations which were pending. It was on the 9th that the brigade
returned; on the 10th they were congratulated by Lord Roberts in person; and on
the 11th those new dispositions were made which were destined not only to
Small, brown, and wrinkled, with puckered eyes and alert
manner, Lord Roberts in spite of his sixty-seven years preserves the figure and
energy of youth. The active open-air life of
It is not only as a soldier, but as a man, that Lord Roberts
possesses some remarkable characteristics. He has in a supreme degree that
magnetic quality which draws not merely the respect but the love of those who
know him. In Chaucer's phrase, he is a very perfect gentle knight. Soldiers and
regimental officers have for him a feeling of personal affection such as the
unemotional British Army has never had for any leader in the course of our
history. His chivalrous courtesy, his unerring tact, his kindly nature, his
unselfish and untiring devotion to their interests have all endeared him to
those rough loyal natures, who would follow him with as much confidence and
devotion as the grognards of the Guard had in the case of the Great Emperor.
There were some who feared that in Roberts's case, as in so many more, the
donga and kopje of South Africa might form the grave and headstone of a
military reputation, but far from this being so he consistently showed a wide
sweep of strategy and a power of conceiving the effect of scattered movements
over a great extent of country which have surprised his warmest admirers. In
the second week of February his dispositions were ready, and there followed the
swift series of blows which brought the Boers upon their knees. Of these we
shall only describe here the exploits of the fine force of cavalry which, after
a ride of a hundred miles, broke out of the heart of that reddish dustcloud and
swept the Boer besiegers away from hard-pressed
In order to strike unexpectedly, Lord Roberts had not only
made a strong demonstration at Koodoosdrift, at the other end of the Boer line,
but he had withdrawn his main force some forty miles south, taking them down by
rail to Belmont and Enslin with such secrecy that even commanding officers had
no idea whither the troops were going. The cavalry which had come from French's
command at Colesberg had already reached the rendezvous, travelling by road to
Naauwpoort, and thence by train. This force consisted of the Carabineers, New
South Wales Lancers, Inniskillings, composite regiment of Household Cavalry,
10th Hussars, with some mounted infantry and two batteries of Horse Artillery,
making a force of nearly three thousand sabres. To this were added the 9th and
12th Lancers from
Two rivers, the Riet and the Modder, intervened between
But the march of this second day (February 13th) was a military operation of some difficulty. Thirty long waterless miles had to be done before they could reach the Modder, and it was possible that even then they might have to fight an action before winning the drift. The weather was very hot, and through the long day the sun beat down from an unclouded sky, while the soldiers were only shaded by the dust-bank in which they rode. A broad arid plain, swelling into stony hills, surrounded them on every side. Here and there in the extreme distance, mounted figures moved over the vast expanse--Boer scouts who marked in amazement the advance of this great array. Once or twice these men gathered together, and a sputter of rifle fire broke out upon our left flank, but the great tide swept on and carried them with it. Often in this desolate land the herds of mottled springbok and of grey rekbok could be seen sweeping over the plain, or stopping with that curiosity upon which the hunter trades, to stare at the unwonted spectacle.
So all day they rode, hussars, dragoons, and lancers, over the withered veld, until men and horses drooped with the heat and the exertion. A front of nearly two miles was kept, the regiments moving two abreast in open order; and the sight of this magnificent cloud of horsemen sweeping over the great barren plain was a glorious one. The veld had caught fire upon the right, and a black cloud of smoke with a lurid heart to it covered the flank. The beat of the sun from above and the swelter of dust from below were overpowering. Gun horses fell in the traces and died of pure exhaustion. The men, parched and silent, but cheerful, strained their eyes to pierce the continual mirage which played over the horizon, and to catch the first glimpse of the Modder. At last, as the sun began to slope down to the west, a thin line of green was discerned, the bushes which skirt the banks of that ill-favoured stream. With renewed heart the cavalry pushed on and made for the drift, while Major Rimington, to whom the onerous duty of guiding the force had been entrusted, gave a sigh of relief as he saw that he had indeed struck the very point at which he had aimed.
The essential thing in the movements had been speed--to reach each point before the enemy could concentrate to oppose them. Upon this it depended whether they would find five hundred or five thousand waiting on the further bank. It must have been with anxious eyes that French watched his first regiment ride down to Klip Drift. If the Boers should have had notice of his coming and have transferred some of their 40-pounders, he might lose heavily before he forced the stream. But this time, at last, he had completely outmanoeuvred them. He came with the news of his coming, and Broadwood with the 12th Lancers rushed the drift. The small Boer force saved itself by flight, and the camp, the wagons, and the supplies remained with the victors. On the night of the 13th he had secured the passage of the Modder, and up to the early morning the horses and the guns were splashing through its coffee-coloured waters.
French's force had now come level to the main position of
the Boers, but had struck it upon the extreme left wing. The extreme right
wing, thanks to the Koodoosdrift demonstration, was fifty miles off, and this
line was naturally very thinly held, save only at the central position of
Magersfontein. Cronje could not denude this central position, for he saw
Next morning the advance was resumed, the column being still
forty miles from
And now the force had a straight run in before it, for it
had outpaced any further force of Boers which may have been advancing from the
direction of Magersfontein. The horses, which had come a hundred miles in four
days with insufficient food and water, were so done that it was no uncommon
sight to see the trooper not only walking to ease his horse, but carrying part
of his monstrous weight of saddle gear. But in spite of fatigue the force
pressed on until in the afternoon a distant view was seen, across the reddish
plain, of the brick houses and corrugated roofs of
The war was a cruel one for the cavalry, who were
handicapped throughout by the nature of the country and by the tactics of the
enemy. They are certainly the branch of the service which had least opportunity
for distinction. The work of scouting and patrolling is the most dangerous
which a soldier can undertake, and yet from its very nature it can find no
chronicler. The war correspondent, like
A few more words as a sequel to this short
sketch of the siege and relief of
Lord Roberts's operations, prepared with admirable secrecy
and carried out with extreme energy, aimed at two different results, each of
which he was fortunate enough to attain. The first was that an overpowering
force of cavalry should ride round the Boer position and raise the siege of
The infantry force which General Roberts had assembled was a
very formidable one. The Guards he had left under
1st Northumberland Fusiliers, the 2nd
2nd Northamptons, and one wing of the Loyal North Lancashire
Regiment. These stayed to hold Cronje in his position.
There remained three divisions of infantry, one of which, the ninth, was made up on the spot. These were constituted in this way:
Sixth Division (Kelly-Kenny). 12th Brigade (Knox).
With these were two brigade divisions of artillery under General Marshall, the first containing the 18th, 62nd, and 75th batteries (Colonel Hall), the other the 76th, 81st, and 82nd (Colonel McDonnell). Besides these there were a howitzer battery, a naval contingent of four 4.7 guns and four 12-pounders under Captain Bearcroft of the 'Philomel.' The force was soon increased by the transfer of the Guards and the arrival of more artillery; but the numbers which started on Monday, February 12th, amounted roughly to twenty-five thousand foot and eight thousand horse with 98 guns--a considerable army to handle in a foodless and almost waterless country. Seven hundred wagons drawn by eleven thousand mules and oxen, all collected by the genius for preparation and organisation which characterises Lord Kitchener, groaned and creaked behind the columns.
Both arms had concentrated at Ramdam, the cavalry going down by road, and the infantry by rail as far as Belmont or Enslin. On Monday, February 12th, the cavalry had started, and on Tuesday the infantry were pressing hard after them. The first thing was to secure a position upon Cronje's flank, and for that purpose the 6th Division and the 9th (Kelly-Kenny's and Colvile's) pushed swiftly on and arrived on Thursday, February 15th, at Klip Drift on the Modder, which had only been left by the cavalry that same morning. It was obviously impossible to leave Jacobsdal in the hands of the enemy on our left flank, so the 7th Division (Tucker's) turned aside to attack the town. Wavell's brigade carried the place after a sharp skirmish, chiefly remarkable for the fact that the City Imperial Volunteers found themselves under fire for the first time and bore themselves with the gallantry of the old train-bands whose descendants they are. Our loss was two killed and twenty wounded, and we found ourselves for the first time firmly established in one of the enemy's towns. In the excellent German hospital were thirty or forty of our wounded.
On the afternoon of Thursday, February 15th, our cavalry,
having left Klip Drift in the morning, were pushing hard for
It has never been cleared up whence the force of Boers came
which appeared upon our rear on that occasion. It seems to have been the same
body which had already had a skirmish with Hannay's Mounted Infantry as they
went up from
If Lord Roberts needed justification for this decision, the
future course of events will furnish it. One of Napoleon's maxims in war was to
concentrate all one's energies upon one thing at one time. Roberts's aim was to
outflank and possibly to capture Cronje's army. If he allowed a brigade to be
involved in a rearguard action, his whole swift-moving plan of campaign might
be dislocated. It was very annoying to lose a hundred and eighty wagons, but it
only meant a temporary inconvenience. The plan of campaign was the essential
thing. Therefore he sacrificed his convoy and hurried his troops upon their
original mission. It was with heavy hearts and bitter words that those who had
fought so long abandoned their charge, but now at least there are probably few
of them who do not agree in the wisdom of the sacrifice. Our loss in this
affair was between fifty and sixty killed and wounded. The Boers were unable to
get rid of the stores, and they were eventually distributed among the local
farmers and recovered again as the British forces flowed over the country.
Another small disaster occurred to us on the preceding day in the loss of fifty
men of E company of
But great events were coming to obscure those small checks
which are incidental to a war carried out over immense distances against a
mobile and enterprising enemy. Cronje had suddenly become aware of the net
which was closing round him. To the dark fierce man who had striven so hard to
make his line of kopjes impregnable it must have been a bitter thing to abandon
his trenches and his rifle pits. But he was crafty as well as tenacious, and he
had the Boer horror of being cut off--an hereditary
instinct from fathers who had fought on horseback against enemies on foot. If
at any time during the last ten weeks
This movement was carried out on the night of February 15th, and had it been a little quicker it might have been concluded before we were aware of it. But the lumbering wagons impeded it, and on the Friday morning, February 16th, a huge rolling cloud of dust on the northern veld, moving from west to east, told our outposts at Klip Drift that Cronje's army had almost slipped through our fingers. Lord Kitchener, who was in command at Klip Drift at the moment, instantly unleashed his mounted infantry in direct pursuit, while Knox's brigade sped along the northern bank of the river to cling on to the right haunch of the retreating column. Cronje's men had made a night march of thirty miles from Magersfontein, and the wagon bullocks were exhausted. It was impossible, without an absolute abandonment of his guns and stores, for him to get away from his pursuers.
This was no deer which they were chasing, however, but
rather a grim old
On the night then of Friday, February 16th, Cronje lay upon
the northern bank of the Modder, with his stores and guns still intact, and no
enemy in front of him, though Knox's brigade and Hannay's Mounted Infantry were
behind. It was necessary for Cronje to cross the river in order to be on the
The nearest drift to Cronje was only a mile or two distant, Klipkraal the name; next to that the Paardeberg Drift; next to that the Wolveskraal Drift, each about seven miles from the other. Had Cronje pushed on instantly after the action, he might have got across at Klipkraal. But men, horses, and bullocks were equally exhausted after a long twenty-four hours' marching and fighting. He gave his weary soldiers some hours' rest, and then, abandoning seventy-eight of his wagons, he pushed on before daylight for the farthest off of the three fords (Wolveskraal Drift). Could he reach and cross it before his enemies, he was safe. The Klipkraal Drift had in the meanwhile been secured by the Buffs, the West Ridings, and the Oxfordshire Light Infantry after a spirited little action which, in the rapid rush of events, attracted less attention than it deserved. The brunt of the fighting fell upon the Oxfords, who lost ten killed and thirty-nine wounded. It was not a waste of life, however, for the action, though small and hardly recorded, was really a very essential one in the campaign.
But Lord Roberts's energy had infused itself into his
divisional commanders, his brigadiers, his colonels, and so down to the
humblest Tommy who tramped and stumbled through the darkness with a devout
faith that 'Bobs' was going to catch 'old Cronje' this time. The mounted
infantry had galloped round from the north to the south of the river, crossing
at Klip Drift and securing the southern end of Klipkraal. Thither also came
Stephenson's brigade from Kelly-Kenny's Division, while Knox, finding in the
morning that Cronje was gone, marched along the northern bank to the same spot.
As Klipkraal was safe, the mounted infantry pushed on at once and secured the
southern end of the Paardeberg Drift, whither they were followed the same
evening by Stephenson and Knox. There remained only the Wolveskraal Drift to
block, and this had already been done by as smart a piece of work as any in the
war. Wherever French has gone he has done well, but his crowning glory was the
The exertions which the mounted men had made in the relief
In the course of that night the British brigades, staggering with fatigue but indomitably resolute to crush their evasive enemy, were converging upon Paardeberg. The Highland Brigade, exhausted by a heavy march over soft sand from Jacobsdal to Klip Drift, were nerved to fresh exertions by the word 'Magersfontein,' which flew from lip to lip along the ranks, and pushed on for another twelve miles to Paardeberg. Close at their heels came Smith-Dorrien's 19th Brigade, comprising the Shropshires, the Cornwalls, the Gordons, and the Canadians, probably the very finest brigade in the whole army. They pushed across the river and took up their position upon the north bank. The old wolf was now fairly surrounded. On the west the Highlanders were south of the river, and Smith-Dorrien on the north. On the east Kelly-Kenny's Division was to the south of the river, and French with his cavalry and mounted infantry were to the north of it. Never was a general in a more hopeless plight. Do what he would, there was no possible loophole for escape.
There was only one thing which apparently should not have been done, and that was to attack him. His position was a formidable one. Not only were the banks of the river fringed with his riflemen under excellent cover, but from these banks there extended on each side a number of dongas, which made admirable natural trenches. The only possible attack from either side must be across a level plain at least a thousand or fifteen hundred yards in width, where our numbers would only swell our losses. It must be a bold soldier and a far bolder civilian, who would venture to question an operation carried out under the immediate personal direction of Lord Kitchener; but the general consensus of opinion among critics may justify that which might be temerity in the individual. Had Cronje not been tightly surrounded, the action with its heavy losses might have been justified as an attempt to hold him until his investment should be complete. There seems, however, to be no doubt that he was already entirely surrounded, and that, as experience proved, we had only to sit round him to insure his surrender. It is not given to the greatest man to have every soldierly gift equally developed, and it may be said without offence that Lord Kitchener's cool judgment upon the actual field of battle has not yet been proved as conclusively as his longheaded power of organisation and his iron determination.
Putting aside the question of responsibility, what happened
on the morning of Sunday, February 18th, was that from every quarter an assault
was urged across the level plains, to the north and to the south, upon the
lines of desperate and invisible men who lay in the dongas and behind the banks
of the river. Everywhere there was a terrible monotony about the experiences of
the various regiments which learned once again the grim lessons of Colenso and
While the infantry had been severely handled by the Boer riflemen, our guns, the 76th, 81st, and 82nd field batteries, with the 65th howitzer battery, had been shelling the river bed, though our artillery fire proved as usual to have little effect against scattered and hidden riflemen. At least, however, it distracted their attention, and made their fire upon the exposed infantry in front of them less deadly. Now, as in Napoleon's time, the effect of the guns is moral rather than material. About midday French's horse-artillery guns came into action from the north. Smoke and flames from the dongas told that some of our shells had fallen among the wagons and their combustible stores.
The Boer line had proved itself to be unshakable on each
face, but at its ends the result of the action was to push them up, and to
shorten the stretch of the river which was held by them. On the north bank
Smith-Dorrien's brigade gained a considerable amount of ground. At the other
end of the position the Welsh, Yorkshire, and
What had we got in return for our eleven hundred casualties? We had contracted the Boer position from about three miles to less than two. So much was to the good, as the closer they lay the more effective our artillery fire might be expected to be. But it is probable that our shrapnel alone, without any loss of life, might have effected the same thing. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it does certainly appear that with our present knowledge the action at Paardeberg was as unnecessary as it was expensive. The sun descended on Sunday, February 18th, upon a bloody field and crowded field hospitals, but also upon an unbroken circle of British troops still hemming in the desperate men who lurked among the willows and mimosas which drape the brown steep banks of the Modder.
There was evidence during the action of the presence of an
active Boer force to the south of us, probably the same well-handled and
enterprising body which had captured our convoy at Waterval. A small party of
This surprise of our cavalry post had more serious consequences than can be measured by the loss of men, for by it the Boers obtained possession of a strong kopje called Kitchener's Hill, lying about two miles distant on the south-east of our position. The movement was an admirable one strategically upon their part, for it gave their beleaguered comrades a first station on the line of their retreat. Could they only win their way to that kopje, a rearguard action might be fought from there which would cover the escape of at least a portion of the force. De Wet, if he was indeed responsible for the manoeuvres of these Southern Boers, certainly handled his small force with a discreet audacity which marks him as the born leader which he afterwards proved himself to be.
If the position of the Boers was desperate on Sunday, it was hopeless on Monday, for in the course of the morning Lord Roberts came up, closely followed by the whole of Tucker's Division (7th) from Jacobsdal. Our artillery also was strongly reinforced. The 18th, 62nd, and 75th field batteries came up with three naval 4.7 guns and two naval 12-pounders. Thirty-five thousand men with sixty guns were gathered round the little Boer army. It is a poor spirit which will not applaud the supreme resolution with which the gallant farmers held out, and award to Cronje the title of one of the most grimly resolute leaders of whom we have any record in modern history.
For a moment it seemed as if his courage was giving way. On Monday morning a message was transmitted by him to Lord Kitchener asking for a twenty-four hours' armistice. The answer was of course a curt refusal. To this he replied that if we were so inhuman as to prevent him from burying his dead there was nothing for him save surrender. An answer was given that a messenger with power to treat should be sent out, but in the interval Cronje had changed his mind, and disappeared with a snarl of contempt into his burrows. It had become known that women and children were in the laager, and a message was sent offering them a place of safety, but even to this a refusal was given. The reasons for this last decision are inconceivable.
Lord Roberts's dispositions were simple, efficacious, and
above all bloodless. Smith-Dorrien's brigade, who were winning in the Western
army something of the reputation which Hart's Irishmen had won in Natal, were
placed astride of the river to the west, with orders to push gradually up, as
occasion served, using trenches for their approach. Chermside's brigade
occupied the same position on the east. Two other divisions and the cavalry
stood round, alert and eager, like terriers round a rat-hole, while all day the
pitiless guns crashed their common shell, their shrapnel, and their lyddite
into the river-bed. Already down there, amid slaughtered oxen and dead horses
under a burning sun, a horrible pest-hole had been formed which sent its
mephitic vapours over the countryside. Occasionally the sentries
down the river saw amid the brown eddies of the rushing water the
floating body of a Boer which had been washed away from the
On Wednesday, the 21st, the British, being now sure of their
grip of Cronje, turned upon the Boer force which had occupied the hill to the
south-east of the drift. It was clear that this force, unless driven away,
would be the vanguard of the relieving army which might be expected to assemble
In the meantime the cordon was being drawn ever tighter, and the fire became heavier and more deadly, while the conditions of life in that fearful place were such that the stench alone might have compelled surrender. Amid the crash of tropical thunderstorms, the glare of lightning, and the furious thrashing of rain there was no relaxation of British vigilance. A balloon floating overhead directed the fire, which from day to day became more furious, culminating on the 26th with the arrival of four 5-inch howitzers. But still there came no sign from the fierce Boer and his gallant followers. Buried deep within burrows in the river bank the greater part of them lay safe from the shells, but the rattle of their musketry when the outposts moved showed that the trenches were as alert as ever. The thing could only have one end, however, and Lord Roberts, with admirable judgment and patience, refused to hurry it at the expense of the lives of his soldiers.
The two brigades at either end of the Boer lines had lost no chance of pushing in, and now they had come within striking distance. On the night of February 26th it was determined that Smith-Dorrien's men should try their luck. The front trenches of the British were at that time seven hundred yards from the Boer lines. They were held by the Gordons and by the Canadians, the latter being the nearer to the river. It is worth while entering into details as to the arrangement of the attack, as the success of the campaign was at least accelerated by it. The orders were that the Canadians were to advance, the Gordons to support, and the Shropshires to take such a position on the left as would outflank any counter attack upon the part of the Boers. The Canadians advanced in the darkness of the early morning before the rise of the moon. The front rank held their rifles in the left hand and each extended right hand grasped the sleeve of the man next it. The rear rank had their rifles slung and carried spades. Nearest the river bank were two companies (G and H.) who were followed by the 7th company of Royal Engineers carrying picks and empty sand bags. The long line stole through a pitchy darkness, knowing that at any instant a blaze of fire such as flamed before the Highlanders at Magersfontein might crash out in front of them. A hundred, two, three, four, five hundred paces were taken. They knew that they must be close upon the trenches. If they could only creep silently enough, they might spring upon the defenders unannounced. On and on they stole, step by step, praying for silence. Would the gentle shuffle of feet be heard by the men who lay within stone-throw of them? Their hopes had begun to rise when there broke upon the silence of the night a resonant metallic rattle, the thud of a falling man, an empty clatter! They had walked into a line of meat-cans slung upon a wire. By measurement it was only ninety yards from the trench. At that instant a single rifle sounded, and the Canadians hurled themselves down upon the ground. Their bodies had hardly touched it when from a line six hundred yards long there came one furious glare of rifle fire, with a hiss like water on a red-hot plate, of speeding bullets. In that terrible red light the men as they lay and scraped desperately for cover could see the heads of the Boers pop up and down, and the fringe of rifle barrels quiver and gleam. How the regiment, lying helpless under this fire, escaped destruction is extraordinary. To rush the trench in the face of such a continuous blast of lead seemed impossible, and it was equally impossible to remain where they were. In a short time the moon would be up, and they would be picked off to a man. The outer companies upon the plain were ordered to retire. Breaking up into loose order, they made their way back with surprisingly little loss; but a strange contretemps occurred, for, leaping suddenly into a trench held by the Gordons, they transfixed themselves upon the bayonets of the men. A subaltern and twelve men received bayonet thrusts--none of them fortunately of a very serious nature.
While these events had been taking place upon the left of the line, the right was hardly in better plight. All firing had ceased for the moment--the Boers being evidently under the impression that the whole attack had recoiled. Uncertain whether the front of the small party on the right of the second line (now consisting of some sixty-five Sappers and Canadians lying in one mingled line) was clear for firing should the Boers leave their trenches, Captain Boileau, of the Sappers, crawled forward along the bank of the river, and discovered Captain Stairs and ten men of the Canadians, the survivors of the firing line, firmly ensconced in a crevice of the river bank overlooking the laager, quite happy on being reassured as to the proximity of support. This brought the total number of the daring band up to seventy-five rifles. Meanwhile, the Gordons, somewhat perplexed by the flying phantoms who had been flitting into and over their trenches for the past few minutes, sent a messenger along the river bank to ascertain, in their turn, if their own front was clear to fire, and if not, what state the survivors were in. To this message Colonel Kincaid, R.E., now in command of the remains of the assaulting party, replied that his men would be well entrenched by daylight. The little party had been distributed for digging as well as the darkness and their ignorance of their exact position to the Boers would permit. Twice the sound of the picks brought angry volleys from the darkness, but the work was never stopped, and in the early dawn the workers found not only that they were secure themselves, but that they were in a position to enfilade over half a mile of Boer trenches. Before daybreak the British crouched low in their shelter, so that with the morning light the Boers did not realise the change which the night had wrought. It was only when a burgher was shot as he filled his pannikin at the river that they understood how their position was overlooked. For half an hour a brisk fire was maintained, at the end of which time a white flag went up from the trench. Kincaid stood up on his parapet, and a single haggard figure emerged from the Boer warren. 'The burghers have had enough; what are they to do?' said he. As he spoke his comrades scrambled out behind him and came walking and running over to the British lines. It was not a moment likely to be forgotten by the parched and grimy warriors who stood up and cheered until the cry came crashing back to them again from the distant British camps. No doubt Cronje had already realised that the extreme limit of his resistance was come, but it was to that handful of Sappers and Canadians that the credit is immediately due for that white flag which fluttered on the morning of Majuba Day over the lines of Paardeberg.
It was six o'clock in the morning when General Pretyman rode
up to Lord Roberts's headquarters. Behind him upon a white horse was a
dark-bearded man, with the quick, restless eyes of a hunter, middle-sized,
thickly built, with grizzled hair flowing from under a tall brown felt hat. He wore the black broadcloth of the burgher with a
green summer overcoat, and carried a small whip in his hands. His appearance
was that of a respectable
The Generals shook hands, and it was briefly intimated to
Cronje that his surrender must be unconditional, to which, after a short
silence, he agreed. His only stipulations were personal, that his wife, his
grandson, his secretary, his adjutant, and his servant might accompany him. The
same evening he was despatched to
A visit to the laager showed that the horrible smells which had been carried across to the British lines, and the swollen carcasses which had swirled down the muddy river were true portents of its condition. Strong-nerved men came back white and sick from a contemplation of the place in which women and children had for ten days been living. From end to end it was a festering mass of corruption, overshadowed by incredible swarms of flies. Yet the engineer who could face evil sights and nauseous smells was repaid by an inspection of the deep narrow trenches in which a rifleman could crouch with the minimum danger from shells, and the caves in which the non-combatants remained in absolute safety. Of their dead we have no accurate knowledge, but two hundred wounded in a donga represented their losses, not only during a bombardment of ten days, but also in that Paardeberg engagement which had cost us eleven hundred casualties. No more convincing example could be adduced both of the advantage of the defence over the attack, and of the harmlessness of the fiercest shell fire if those who are exposed to it have space and time to make preparations.
A fortnight had elapsed since Lord Roberts had launched his
forces from Ramdam, and that fortnight had wrought a complete revolution in the
campaign. It is hard to recall any instance in the history of war where a
single movement has created such a change over so many different operations. On
February 14th Kimberley was in danger of capture, a victorious Boer army was
facing Methuen, the lines of Magersfontein appeared impregnable, Clements was
being pressed at Colesberg, Gatacre was stopped at Stormberg, Buller could not
pass the Tugela, and Ladysmith was in a perilous condition. On the 28th
The surrender of Cronje had taken place on February 27th,
obliterating for ever the triumphant memories which the Boers had for twenty
years associated with that date. A halt was necessary to provide food for the
hungry troops, and above all to enable the cavalry horses to pick up. The
supply of forage had been most inadequate, and the beasts had not yet learned
to find a living from the dry withered herbage of the veld. [Footnote: A
battery which turned out its horses to graze found that the puzzled creatures
simply galloped about the plain, and could only be reassembled by blowing the
call which they associated with feeding, when they rushed back and waited in
lines for their nosebags to be put on.] In addition to this, they had been
worked most desperately during the fortnight which had elapsed. Lord Roberts
waited therefore at Osfontein, which is a farmhouse close to Paardeberg, until
his cavalry were fit for an advance. On March 6th he began his march for
The force which had been hovering to the south and east of
him during the Paardeberg operations had meanwhile been reinforced from
Colesberg and from Ladysmith until it had attained considerable proportions.
This army, under the leadership of De Wet, had taken up a strong position a few
miles to the east, covering a considerable range of kopjes. On March 3rd a
reconnaissance was made of it, in which some of our guns were engaged; but it
was not until three days later that the army advanced with the intention of
turning or forcing it. In the meantime reinforcements had been arriving in the
British camp, derived partly from the regiments which had been employed at
other points during these operations, and partly from newcomers from the outer
Empire. The Guards came up from Klip Drift, the City Imperial Volunteers, the
Australian Mounted Infantry, the Burmese Mounted Infantry and a detachment of
light horse from
The position which the enemy had taken up at Poplars Grove
(so called from a group of poplars round a farmhouse in the centre of their
position) extended across the
Lord Roberts's plan was absolutely simple, and yet, had it been carried out as conceived, absolutely effective. It was not his intention to go near any of that entanglement of ditch and wire which had been so carefully erected for his undoing. The weaker party, if it be wise, atones for its weakness by entrenchments. The stronger party, if it be wise, leaves the entrenchments alone and uses its strength to go round them. Lord Roberts meant to go round. With his immense preponderance of men and guns the capture or dispersal of the enemy's army might be reduced to a certainty. Once surrounded, they must either come out into the open or they must surrender.
On March 6th the cavalry were brought across the river, and in the early morning of March 7th they were sent off in the darkness to sweep round the left wing of the Boers and to establish themselves on the line of their retreat. Kelly-Kenny's Division (6th) had orders to follow and support this movement. Meanwhile Tucker was to push straight along the southern bank of the river, though we may surmise that his instructions were, in case of resistance, not to push his attack home. Colvile's 9th Division, with part of the naval brigade, were north of the river, the latter to shell the drifts in case the Boers tried to cross, and the infantry to execute a turning movement which would correspond with that of the cavalry on the other flank.
The plan of action was based, however, upon one supposition which proved to be fallacious. It was that after having prepared so elaborate a position the enemy would stop at least a little time to defend it. Nothing of the sort occurred, however, and on the instant that they realised that the cavalry was on their flank they made off. The infantry did not fire a shot.
The result of this very decisive flight was to derange all calculations entirely. The cavalry was not yet in its place when the Boer army streamed off between the kopjes. One would have thought, however, that they would have had a dash for the wagons and the guns, even if they were past them. It is unfair to criticise a movement until one is certain as to the positive orders which the leader may have received; but on the face of it it is clear that the sweep of our cavalry was not wide enough, and that they erred by edging to the left instead of to the right, so leaving the flying enemies always to the outside of them.
As it was, however, there seemed every possibility of their getting the guns, but De Wet very cleverly covered them by his skirmishers. Taking possession of a farmhouse on the right flank they kept up a spirited fire upon the 16th Lancers and upon P battery R.H.A. When at last the latter drove them out of their shelter, they again formed upon a low kopje and poured so galling a fire upon the right wing that the whole movement was interrupted until we had driven this little body of fifty men from their position. When, after a delay of an hour, the cavalry at last succeeded in dislodging them--or possibly it may be fairer to say when, having accomplished their purpose, they retired--the guns and wagons were out of reach, and, what is more important, the two Presidents, both Steyn and Kruger, who had come to stiffen the resistance of the burghers, had escaped.
Making every allowance for the weary state of the horses, it
is impossible to say that our cavalry were handled with energy or judgment on
this occasion. That such a force of men and guns should be held off from an
object of such importance by so small a resistance reflects no credit upon us.
It would have been better to repeat the
The victory, if such a word can apply to such an action, had cost some fifty or sixty of the cavalry killed and wounded, while it is doubtful if the Boers lost as many. The finest military display on the British side had been the magnificent marching of Kelly-Kenny's
6th Division, who had gone for ten hours with hardly a halt. One
9-pound Krupp gun was the only trophy. On the other hand, Roberts
had turned them out of their strong position, had gained twelve or fifteen miles on he road to Bloemfontein, and for the first time shown how helpless a Boer army was in country which gave our numbers a chance. From now onwards it was only in surprise and ambuscade that they could hope for a success. We had learned and they had learned that they could not stand in the open field.
The action of Poplars Grove was fought on March 7th. On the 9th the army was again on its way, and on the 10th it attacked the new position which the Boers had occupied at a place called Driefontein, or Abram's Kraal. They covered a front of some seven miles in such a formation that their wings were protected, the northern by the river and the southern by flanking bastions of hill extending for some distance to the rear. If the position had been defended as well as it had been chosen, the task would have been a severe one.
Since the Modder covered the enemy's right the turning
movement could only be developed on their left, and Tucker's Division was
thrown out very wide on that side for the purpose. But in the meanwhile a
contretemps had occurred which threw out and seriously hampered the whole
British line of battle. General French was in command of the left wing, which
included Kelly-Kenny's Division, the first cavalry brigade, and Alderson's
Mounted Infantry. His orders had been to keep in touch with the centre, and to
avoid pushing his attack home. In endeavouring to carry out these instructions
French moved his men more and more to the right, until he had really squeezed
in between the Boers and Lord Roberts's central column, and so masked the
latter. The essence of the whole operation was that the frontal attack should
not be delivered until Tucker had worked round to the rear of the position. It
is for military critics to decide whether it was that the flankers were too
slow or the frontal assailants were too fast, but it is certain that
Kelly-Kenny's Division attacked before the cavalry and the 7th Division were in their place. Kelly-Kenny was informed that the
position in front of him had been abandoned, and four regiments, the Buffs, the
The action was strategically well conceived; all that Lord Roberts could do for complete success had been done; but tactically it was a poor affair, considering his enormous preponderance in men and guns. There was no glory in it, save for the four regiments who set their faces against that sleet of lead. The artillery did not do well, and were browbeaten by guns which they should have smothered under their fire. The cavalry cannot be said to have done well either. And yet, when all is said, the action is an important one, for the enemy were badly shaken by the result. The Johannesburg Police, who had been among their corps d'elite, had been badly mauled, and the burghers were impressed by one more example of the impossibility of standing in anything approaching to open country against disciplined troops, Roberts had not captured the guns, but the road had been cleared for him to Bloemfontein and, what is more singular, to Pretoria; for though hundreds of miles intervene between the field of Driefontein and the Transvaal capital, he never again met a force which was willing to look his infantry in the eyes in a pitched battle. Surprises and skirmishes were many, but it was the last time, save only at Doornkop, that a chosen position was ever held for an effective rifle fire--to say nothing of the push of bayonet.
And now the army flowed swiftly onwards to the capital. The
indefatigable 6th Division, which had done march after march, one more
brilliant than another, since they had crossed the Riet River, reached Asvogel
Kop on the evening of Sunday, March 11th, the day after the battle. On Monday
the army was still pressing onwards, disregarding all else and striking
straight for the heart as Blucher struck at
On the same evening Major Hunter-Weston, an officer who had
already performed at least one brilliant feat in the war, was sent with
Lieutenant Charles and a handful of Mounted Sappers and Hussars to cut the line
to the north. After a difficult journey on a very dark night he reached his
object and succeeded in finding and blowing up a culvert. There is a Victoria
Cross gallantry which leads to nothing save personal decoration, and there is
another and far higher gallantry of calculation, which springs from a cool
brain as well as a hot heart, and it is from the men
who possess this rare quality that great warriors arise. Such feats as the
cutting of this railway or the subsequent saving of the
The action of Driefontein was fought on the 10th. The
advance began on the morning of the 11th. On the morning of the 13th the
British were practically masters of
Some trenches had been dug and sangars erected to the
north-west of the town; but Lord Roberts, with his usual perverseness, took the
wrong turning and appeared upon the broad open plain to the south, where
resistance would have been absurd. Already Steyn and the irreconcilables had
fled from the town, and the General was met by a deputation of the Mayor, the
Landdrost, and Mr. Fraser to tender the submission of the capital. Fraser, a
sturdy clear-headed Highlander, had been the one politician in the
It was at half-past one on Tuesday, March 13th, that General
Roberts and his troops entered Bloemfontein, amid the acclamations of many of
the inhabitants, who, either to propitiate the victor, or as a sign of their
real sympathies, had hoisted union jacks upon their houses. Spectators have
left it upon record how from all that interminable column of yellow-clad weary
men, worn with half rations and whole-day marches, there came never one jeer,
never one taunting or exultant word, as they tramped into the capital of their
enemies. The bearing of the troops was chivalrous in its gentleness, and not
the least astonishing sight to the inhabitants was the passing of the Guards,
the dandy troops of
It was just a month after the start from Ramdam that Lord
Roberts and his army rode into the enemy's capital. Up to that period we had in
Africa Generals who were hampered for want of troops, and troops who were
hampered for want of Generals. Only when the Commander-in-Chief took over the
main army had we soldiers enough, and a man who knew how to handle them. The
result was one which has not only solved the question of the future of
7th was the action of Poplars Grove with heavy marching; on March
10th the battle of Driefontein. On the 11th and 12th the infantry
covered forty miles, and on the
13th were in
From the moment that Lord Roberts with his army advanced from Ramdam all the other British forces in South Africa, the Colesberg force, the Stormberg force, Brabant's force, and the Natal force, had the pressure relieved in front of them, a tendency which increased with every fresh success of the main body. A short chapter must be devoted to following rapidly the fortunes of these various armies, and tracing the effect of Lord Roberts's strategy upon their movements. They may be taken in turn from west to east.
The force under General Clements (formerly French's) had, as
has already been told, been denuded of nearly all its cavalry and horse
artillery, and so left in the presence of a very superior body of the enemy.
Under these circumstances Clements had to withdraw his immensely extended line,
and to concentrate at Arundel, closely followed by the elated enemy. The
situation was a more critical one than has been appreciated by the public, for
if the force had been defeated the Boers would have been in a position to cut
Lord Roberts's line of communications, and the main army would have been in the
air. Much credit is due, not only to General Clements, but to Carter of the
Wiltshires, Hacket Pain of the
The Boer idea of a strong attack upon this point was
strategically admirable, but tactically there was not sufficient energy in
pushing home the advance. The British wings succeeded in withdrawing, and the
concentrated force at Arundel was too strong for attack Yet there was a time of
suspense, a time when every man had become of such importance that even fifty
Indian syces were for the first and last time in the war, to their own supreme
gratification, permitted for twenty-four hours to play their natural part as
soldiers. [Footnote: There was something piteous in the chagrin of these fine
Sikhs at being held back from their natural work as soldiers. A deputation of
them waited upon Lord Roberts at
On February 27th, Major Butcher, supported by the
Inniskillings and Australians, attacked Rensburg and shelled the enemy out of
it. Next morning Clements's whole force had advanced from Arundel and took up
its old position. The same afternoon it was clear that the Boers were retiring,
and the British, following them up, marched into Colesberg, around which they
had manoeuvred so long. A telegram from Steyn to De Wet found in the town told
the whole story of the retirement: 'As long as you are able to hold the
positions you are in with the men you have, do so. If not, come here as quickly
as circumstances will allow, as matters here are taking a serious turn.' The
whole force passed over the
During the long period which had elapsed since the repulse at Stormberg, General Gatacre had held his own at Sterkstroom, under orders not to attack the enemy, repulsing them easily upon the only occasion when they ventured to attack him. Now it was his turn also to profit by the success which Lord Roberts had won. On February 23rd he re-occupied Molteno, and on the same day sent out a force to reconnoitre the enemy's position at Stormberg. The incident is memorable as having been the cause of the death of Captain de Montmorency [Footnote: De Montmorency had established a remarkable influence over his rough followers. To the end of the war they could not speak of him without tears in their eyes. When I asked Sergeant Howe why his captain went almost alone up the hill, his answer was, 'Because the captain knew no fear.' Byrne, his soldier servant (an Omdurman V.C. like his master), galloped madly off next morning with a saddled horse to bring back his captain alive or dead, and had to be forcibly seized and restrained by our cavalry. ], one of the most promising of the younger officers of the British army. He had formed a corps of scouts, consisting originally of four men, but soon expanding to seventy or eighty. At the head of these men he confirmed the reputation for desperate valour which he had won in the Soudan, and added to it proofs of the enterprise and judgment which go to make a leader of light cavalry. In the course of the reconnaissance he ascended a small kopje accompanied by three companions, Colonel Hoskier, a London Volunteer soldier, Vice, a civilian, and Sergeant Howe. 'They are right on the top of us,' he cried to his comrades, as he reached the summit, and dropped next instant with a bullet through his heart. Hoskier was shot in five places, and Vice was mortally wounded, only Howe escaping. The rest of the scouts, being farther back, were able to get cover and to keep up a fight until they were extricated by the remainder of the force. Altogether our loss was formidable rather in quality than in quantity, for not more than a dozen were hit, while the Boers suffered considerably from the fire of our guns.
On March 5th General Gatacre found that the Boers were retreating in front of him--in response, no doubt, to messages similar to those which had already been received at Colesberg. Moving forward he occupied the position which had confronted him so long. Thence, having spent some days in drawing in his scattered detachments and in mending the railway, he pushed forward on March 12th to Burghersdorp, and thence on the 13th to Olive Siding, to the south of the Bethulie Bridge.
There are two bridges which span the broad muddy Orange
River, thick with the washings of the
In this they were singularly favoured by fortune. On the
arrival of a small party of scouts and of the
The Boers were in a trench commanding the bridge, and their brisk fire made it impossible to cross. On the other hand, our rifle fire commanded the mine and prevented any one from exploding it. But at the approach of darkness it was certain that this would be done. The situation was saved by the gallantry of young Popham of the Derbyshires, who crept across with two men and removed the detonators. There still remained the dynamite under the further span, and this also they removed, carrying it off across the bridge under a heavy fire. The work was made absolutely complete a little later by the exploit of Captain Grant of the Sappers, who drew the charges from the holes in which they had been sunk, and dropped them into the river, thus avoiding the chance that they might be exploded next morning by shell fire. The feat of Popham and of Grant was not only most gallant but of extraordinary service to the country; but the highest credit belongs to Nolan-Neylan, of the Police, for the great promptitude and galantry of his attack, and to McNeill for his support. On that road bridge and on the pontoon bridge at Norval's Pont Lord Roberts's army was for a whole month dependent for their supplies.
On March 15th Gatacre's force passed over into the
In the meantime the colonial division of that fine old
African fighter, General Brabant, had begun to play its part in the campaign.
Among the many judicious arrangements which Lord Roberts made immediately after
his arrival at the
Aided by the accurate fire of the 79th R.F.A., the colonials
succeeded, after a long day of desultory fighting, in driving the enemy from
his position. Leaving a garrison in Dordrecht Brabant followed up his victory
and pushed forward with two thousand men and eight guns (six of them light
7-pounders) to occupy Jamestown, which was done without resistance. On March
10th the colonial force approached Aliwal, the frontier town, and so rapid was
the advance of Major Henderson with
So much for the movements into the Free
State of Clements, of Gatacre, and of
General Buller made no attempt to harass the retreat of the
Boers, although in two days no fewer than two thousand wagons were counted upon
the roads to
General Lyttelton's Division had camped as far out as
Elandslaagte with Burn Murdoch's cavalry, while Dundonald's brigade covered the
space between Burn Murdoch's western outposts and the Drakensberg passes. Few
Boers were seen, hut it was known that the passes were held in some strength.
Meanwhile the line was being restored in the rear, and on March 9th the gallant
White was enabled to take train for
On April 10th the Boers descended from their mountains and
woke up our sleepy army corps by a brisk artillery fire. Our own guns silenced
it, and the troops instantly relapsed into their slumber. There was no movement
for a fortnight afterwards upon either side, save that of Sir Charles Warren,
who left the army in order to take up the governorship of British Bechuanaland,
a district which was still in a disturbed state, and in which his presence had
a peculiar significance, since he had rescued portions of it from Boer
domination in the early days of the Transvaal Republic. Hildyard took over the
command of the 5th Division. In this state of inertia the Natal force remained
until Lord Roberts, after a six weeks' halt in Bloemfontein, necessitated by
the insecurity of his railway communication and his want of every sort of
military supply, more especially horses for his cavalry and boots for his
infantry, was at last able on May 2nd to start upon his famous march to
Pretoria. Before accompanying him, however, upon this victorious progress, it
is necessary to devote a chapter to the series of incidents and operations
which had taken place to the east and south-east of
One incident must be recorded in this place, though it was
political rather than military. This was the interchange of notes concerning
peace between Paul Kruger and Lord Salisbury. There is an old English jingle
about 'the fault of the Dutch, giving too little and asking too much,' but
surely there was never a more singular example of it than this. The united
Presidents prepare for war for years, spring an insulting ultimatum upon us,
invade our unfortunate Colonies, solemnly annex all the portions invaded, and then,
when at last driven back, propose a peace which shall secure for them the whole
point originally at issue. It is difficult to believe that the proposals could
have been seriously meant, but more probable that the plan may have been to
strengthen the hands of the Peace deputation who were being sent to endeavour
to secure European intervention. Could they point to a proposal from the
Transvaal and a refusal from
The documents were as follow:--
'The Presidents of the
'The blood and the tears of the thousands who have suffered by this war, and the prospect of all the moral and economic ruin with which South Africa is now threatened, make it necessary for both belligerents to ask themselves dispassionately and as in the sight of the Triune God for what they are fighting and whether the aim of each justifies all this appalling misery and devastation.
'With this object, and in view of the assertions of various British statesmen to the effect that this war was begun and is carried on with the set purpose of undermining Her Majesty's authority in South Africa, and of setting up an administration over all South Africa independent of Her Majesty's Government, we consider it our duty to solemnly declare that this war was undertaken solely as a defensive measure to safeguard the threatened independence of the South African Republic, and is only continued in order to secure and safeguard the incontestable independence of both Republics as sovereign international States, and to obtain the assurance that those of Her Majesty's subjects who have taken part with us in this war shall suffer no harm whatsoever in person or property.
'On these conditions, but on these conditions alone, are we now as in the past desirous of seeing peace re-established in South Africa, and of putting an end to the evils now reigning over South Africa; while, if Her Majesty's Government is determined to destroy the independence of the Republics, there is nothing left to us and to our people but to persevere to the end in the course already begun, in spite of the overwhelming pre-eminence of the British Empire, conscious that that God who lighted the inextinguishable fire of the love of freedom in our hearts and those of our fathers will not forsake us, but will accomplish His work in us and in our descendants.
'We hesitated to make this declaration earlier to your Excellency as we feared that, as long as the advantage was always on our side, and as long as our forces held defensive positions far in Her Majesty's Colonies, such a declaration might hurt the feelings of honour of the British people. But now that the prestige of the British Empire may be considered to be assured by the capture of one of our forces, and that we are thereby forced to evacuate other positions which we had occupied, that difficulty is over and we can no longer hesitate to inform your Government and people in the sight of the whole civilised world why we are fighting and on what conditions we are ready to restore peace.'
Such was the message, deep in its simplicity and cunning in
its candour, which was sent by the old President, for it is Kruger's style
which we read in every line of it. One has to get back to facts after reading
it, to the enormous war preparations of the Republics, to the unprepared state
of the British Colonies, to the ultimatum, to the annexations, to the stirring
up of rebellion, to the silence about peace in the days of success, to the fact
that by 'inextinguishable love of freedom' is meant inextinguishable
determination to hold other white men as helots--only then can we form a just
opinion of the worth of his message. One must remember also, behind the homely
and pious phraseology, that one is dealing with a man who has been too cunning
for us again and again--a man who is as wily as the savages with whom he has
treated and fought. This Paul Kruger with the simple words of peace is the same
Paul Kruger who with gentle sayings insured the disarmament of
Foreign Office: March 11th.
'I have the honour to acknowledge your Honours' telegram dated March 5th from Bloemfontein, of which the purport was principally to demand that Her Majesty's Government shall recognise the "incontestable independence" of the South African Republic and Orange Free State as "sovereign international States," and to offer on those terms to bring the war to a conclusion.
'In the beginning of October last peace existed between Her
Majesty and the two Republics under the conventions which then were in
existence. A discussion had been proceeding for some months between Her
Majesty's Government and the South African Republic, of which the object was to
obtain redress for certain very serious grievances under which British
residents in the. Republic were suffering. In the
course of those negotiations the Republic had, to the knowledge of Her
Majesty's Government, made considerable armaments, and the latter had
consequently taken steps to provide corresponding reinforcements to the British
'Your Honours make some observations of a negative character
upon the object with which these preparations were made. I do not think it
necessary to discuss the questions which you have raised. But the result of
these preparations, carried on with great secrecy, has been that the
'In view of the use to which the two Republics have put the position which was given to them, and the calamities which their unprovoked attack has inflicted upon Her Majesty's dominions, Her Majesty's Government can only answer your Honours' telegram by saying that they are not prepared to assent to the independence either of the South African Republic or of the Orange Free State.'
With this frank and uncompromising reply the Empire, with the exception of a small party of dupes and doctrinaires, heartily agreed. The pens were dropped, and the Mauser and the Lee-Metford once more took up the debate.
On March 13th Lord Roberts occupied the capital of the
The streets of the little Dutch town formed during this
interval a curious object-lesson in the resources of the Empire. All the
scattered Anglo-Celtic races had sent their best blood to fight for the common
cause. Peace is the great solvent, as war is the powerful unifier. For the
British as for the German Empire much virtue had come from the stress and
strain of battle. To stand in the market
The greatest misfortune of the campaign, one which it was
obviously impolitic to insist upon at the time, began with the occupation of
Enteric fever is always endemic in the country, and
To return to the military operations: these, although they
were stagnant so far as the main army was concerned, were exceedingly and
inconveniently active in other quarters. Three small actions, two of which were
disastrous to our arms, and one successful defence
marked the period of the pause at
To the north of the town, some twelve miles distant lies the
These wandering patrols who kept the country unsettled, and
harassed the farmers who had taken advantage of Lord Roberts's proclamation,
were found to have their centre at a point some six miles to the north of Glen,
named Karee. At Karee a formidable line of hills cut the British advance, and
these had been occupied by a strong body of the enemy with guns. Lord Roberts
determined to drive them off, and on March 28th Tucker's 7th Division,
consisting of Chermside's brigade (Lincolns, Norfolks, Hampshires, and Scottish
Borderers), and Wavell's brigade (Cheshires, East Lancashires,
The movement was to be upon the old model, and in result it
proved to be only too truly so. French's cavalry were to get round one flank,
Le Gallais's mounted infantry round the other, and Tucker's Division to attack
in front. Nothing could be more perfect in theory and nothing apparently more
defective in practice. Since on this as on other occasions the mere fact that
the cavalry were demonstrating in the rear caused the complete abandonment of
the position, it is difficult to see what the object of the infantry attack
could be. The ground was irregular and unexplored, and it was late before the horsemen
on their weary steeds found themselves behind the flank of the enemy. Some of
them, Le Gallais's mounted infantry and Davidson's guns, had come from
In the meanwhile there had been a series of operations in
the east which had ended in a serious disaster. Immediately after the
occupation of Bloemfontein (on March 18th) Lord Roberts despatched to the east
a small column consisting of the 10th Hussars, the composite regiment, two
batteries (Q and U) of the Horse Artillery, some mounted infantry, Roberts's
Horse, and Rimington's Guides. On the eastern horizon forty miles from the
capital, but in that clear atmosphere looking only half the distance, there
stands the impressive mountain named Thabanchu (the black mountain). To all
Boers it is an historical spot, for it was at its base that the wagons of the
Voortrekkers, coming by devious ways from various parts, assembled. On the
further side of Thabanchu, to the north and east of it, lies the richest
grain-growing portion of the
Colonel Pilcher, the leader of the
Apparently the effect of Pilcher's exploit was to halt the
march of those commandos which had been seen trekking to the north-west, and to
cause them to swing round upon Thabanchu. Broadwood, a young cavalry commander
who had won a name in
The Boers are great masters in the ambuscade. Never has any race shown such aptitude for this form of warfare--a legacy from a long succession of contests with cunning savages. But never also have they done anything so clever and so audacious as De Wet's dispositions in this action. One cannot go over the ground without being amazed at the ingenuity of their attack, and also at the luck which favoured them, for the trap which they had laid for others might easily have proved an absolutely fatal one for themselves.
The position beside the Modder at which the British camped had numerous broken hills to the north and east of it. A force of Boers, supposed to number about two thousand men, came down in the night, bringing with them several heavy guns, and with the early morning opened a brisk fire upon the camp. The surprise was complete. But the refinement of the Boer tactics lay in the fact that they had a surprise within a surprise--and it was the second which was the more deadly.
The force which Broadwood had with him consisted of the 10th
Hussars and the composite regiment, Rimington's Scouts, Roberts's Horse, the
New Zealand and Burmah Mounted Infantry, with Q and U batteries of Horse
Artillery. With such a force, consisting entirely of mounted men, he could not
storm the hills upon which the Boer guns were placed, and his twelve-pounders
were unable to reach the heavier cannon of the enemy. His best game was
obviously to continue his march to
Broadwood's retreating column now found itself on a huge
plain which stretches all the way to
But in spite of the obvious there WERE Boers upon the plain, so placed that they must either bring off a remarkable surprise or be themselves cut off to a man. Across the veld, some miles from the waterworks, there runs a deep donga or watercourse--one of many, but the largest. It cuts the rough road at right angles. Its depth and breadth are such that a wagon would dip down the incline, and disappear for about two minutes before it would become visible again at the crown of the other side. In appearance it was a huge curving ditch with a stagnant stream at the bottom. The sloping sides of the ditch were fringed with Boers, who had ridden thither before dawn and were now waiting for the unsuspecting column. There were not more than three hundred of them, and four times their number were approaching; but no odds can represent the difference between the concealed man with the magazine rifle and the man upon the plain.
There were two dangers, however, which the Boers ran, and, skilful as their dispositions were, their luck was equally great, for the risks were enormous. One was that a force coming the other way (Colvile's was only a few miles off) would arrive, and that they would be ground between the upper and the lower millstone. The other was that for once the British scouts might give the alarm and that Broadwood's mounted men would wheel swiftly to right and left and secure the ends of the long donga. Should that happen, not a man of them could possibly escape. But they took their chances like brave men, and fortune was their friend. The wagons came on without any scouts. Behind them was U battery, then Q, with Roberts's Horse abreast of them and the rest of the cavalry behind.
As the wagons, occupied for the most part only by unarmed sick soldiers and black transport drivers, came down into the drift, the Boers quickly but quietly took possession of them, and drove them on up the further slope. Thus the troops behind saw their wagons dip down, reappear, and continue on their course. The idea of an ambush could not suggest itself. Only one thing could avert an absolute catastrophe, and that was the appearance of a hero who would accept certain death in order to warn his comrades. Such a man rode by the wagons--though, unhappily, in the stress and rush of the moment there is no certainty as to his name or rank. We only know that one was found brave enough to fire his revolver in the face of certain death. The outburst of firing which answered his shot was the sequel which saved the column. Not often is it given to a man to die so choice a death as that of this nameless soldier.
But the detachment was already so placed that nothing could save it from heavy loss. The wagons had all passed but nine, and the leading battery of artillery was at the very edge of the donga. Nothing is so helpless as a limbered-up battery. In an instant the teams were shot down and the gunners were made prisoners. A terrific fire burst at the same instant upon Roberts's Horse, who were abreast of the guns. 'Files a bout! gallop!' yelled Colonel Dawson, and by his exertions and those of Major Pack-Beresford the corps was extricated and reformed some hundreds of yards further off. But the loss of horses and men was heavy. Major Pack-Beresford and other officers were shot down, and every unhorsed man remained necessarily as a prisoner under the very muzzles of the riflemen in the donga.
As Roberts's Horse turned and galloped for dear life across the flat, four out of the six guns [Footnote: Of the other two one overturned and could not be righted, the other had the wheelers shot and could not be extricated from the tumult. It was officially stated that the guns of Q battery were halted a thousand yards off the donga, but my impression was, from examining the ground, that it was not more than six hundred.] of Q battery and one gun (the rearmost) of U battery swung round and dashed frantically for a place of safety. At the same instant every Boer along the line of the donga sprang up and emptied his magazine into the mass of rushing, shouting soldiers, plunging horses, and screaming Kaffirs. It was for a few moments a sauve-qui-peut. Serjeant-Major Martin of U, with a single driver on a wheeler, got away the last gun of his battery. The four guns which were extricated of Q, under Major Phipps-Hornby, whirled across the plain, pulled up, unlimbered, and opened a brisk fire of shrapnel from about a thousand yards upon the donga. Had the battery gone on for double the distance, its action would have been more effective, for it would have been under a less deadly rifle fire, but in any case its sudden change from flight to discipline and order steadied the whole force. Roberts's men sprang from their horses, and with the Burmese and New Zealanders flung themselves down in a skirmish line. The cavalry moved to the left to find some drift by which the donga could be passed, and out of chaos there came in a few minutes calm and a settled purpose.
It was for Q battery to cover the retreat of the force, and most nobly it did it. A fortnight later a pile of horses, visible many hundreds of yards off across the plain, showed where the guns had stood. It was the Colenso of the horse gunners. In a devilish sleet of lead they stood to their work, loading and firing while a man was left. Some of the guns were left with two men to work them, one was loaded and fired by a single officer. When at last the order for retirement came, only ten men, several of them wounded, were left upon their feet. With scratch teams from the limbers, driven by single gunners, the twelve-pounders staggered out of action, and the skirmish line of mounted infantry sprang to their feet amid the hail of bullets to cheer them as they passed.
It was no slight task to extricate that sorely stricken force from the close contact of an exultant enemy, and to lead it across that terrible donga. Yet, thanks to the coolness of Broadwood and the steadiness of his rearguard, the thing was done. A practicable passage had been found two miles to the south by Captain Chester-Master of Rimington's. This corps, with Roberts's, the New Zealanders, and the 3rd Mounted Infantry, covered the withdrawal in turn. It was one of those actions in which the horseman who is trained to fight upon foot did very much better than the regular cavalry. In two hours' time the drift had been passed and the survivors of the force found themselves in safety.
The losses in this disastrous but not dishonourable engagement were severe. About thirty officers and five hundred men were killed, wounded, or missing. The prisoners came to more than three hundred. They lost a hundred wagons, a considerable quantity of stores, and seven twelve-pounder guns--five from U battery and two from Q. Of U battery only Major Taylor and Sergeant-Major Martin seem to have escaped, the rest being captured en bloc. Of Q battery nearly every man was killed or wounded. Roberts's Horse, the New Zealanders, and the mounted infantry were the other corps which suffered most heavily. Among many brave men who died, none was a greater loss to the service than Major Booth of the Northumberland Fusiliers, serving in the mounted infantry. With four comrades he held a position to cover the retreat, and refused to leave it. Such men are inspired by the traditions of the past, and pass on the story of their own deaths to inspire fresh heroes in the future.
Broadwood, the instant that he had disentangled himself,
faced about, and brought his guns into action. He was not strong enough,
however, nor were his men in a condition, to seriously
attack the enemy. Martyr's mounted infantry had come up, led by the
Queenslanders, and at the cost of some loss to themselves
helped to extricate the disordered force. Colvile's Division was behind
Bushman's Kop, only a few miles off, and there were hopes that it might push on
and prevent the guns and wagons from being removed. Colvile did make an
advance, but slowly and in a flanking direction instead of dashing swiftly
forward to retrieve the situation. It must be acknowledged, however, that the
problem which faced this General was one of great difficulty. It was almost
certain that before he could throw his men into the action the captured guns
would be beyond his reach, and it was possible that he might swell the
disaster. With all charity, however, one cannot but feel that his return next morning,
after a reinforcement during the night, without any
attempt to force the Boer position, was lacking in enterprise. [Footnote: It
may be urged in General Colvile's defence that his division had already done a
long march from
The effect of the Sanna's Post defeat was increased by the
fact that only four days later (on April 4th) a second even more deplorable
disaster befell our troops. This was the surrender of five companies of
infantry, two of them mounted, at Reddersberg. So many surrenders of small
bodies of troops had occurred during the course of the war that the public,
remembering how seldom the word 'surrender' had ever been heard in our endless
succession of European wars, had become very restive upon the subject, and were
sometimes inclined to question whether this new and humiliating fact did not
imply some deterioration of our spirit. The fear was natural, and yet nothing
could be more unjust to this the most splendid army which has ever marched
under the red-crossed flag. The fact was new because the conditions were new,
and it was inherent in those conditions. In that country of huge distances
small bodies must be detached, for the amount of space covered by the large
bodies was not sufficient for all military purposes. In reconnoitring, in
distributing proclamations, in collecting arms, in overawing outlying
districts, weak columns must be used. Very often these columns must contain
infantry soldiers, as the demands upon the cavalry were excessive. Such bodies,
moving through a hilly country with which they were unfamiliar, were always
liable to be surrounded by a mobile enemy. Once surrounded the length of their
resistance was limited by three things: their cartridges, their water, and
their food. When they had all three, as at Wepener or
In the disaster at Reddersberg three of the companies were
of the Irish Rifles, and two of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers--the same
unfortunate regiments which had already been cut up at Stormberg. They had been
detached from Gatacre's 3rd Division, the headquarters of which was at
Springfontein. On the abandonment of Thabanchu and the disaster of Sanna's
Post, it was obvious that we should draw in our detached parties to the east;
so the five companies were ordered to leave Dewetsdorp, which they were
garrisoning, and to get back to the railway line. Either the order was issued too
late, or they were too slow in obeying it, for they were only halfway upon
their journey, near the town of
In a single week, at a time when the back of the war had seemed to be broken, we had lost nearly twelve hundred men with seven guns. The men of the Free State--for the fighting was mainly done by commandos from the Ladybrand, Winburg, Bethlehem, and Harrismith districts--deserve great credit for this fine effort, and their leader De Wet confirmed the reputation which he had already gained as a dashing and indefatigable leader. His force was so weak that when Lord Roberts was able to really direct his own against it, he brushed it away before him; but the manner in which De Wet took advantage of Roberts's enforced immobility, and dared to get behind so mighty an enemy, was a fine exhibition of courage and enterprise. The public at home chafed at this sudden and unexpected turn of affairs; but the General, constant to his own fixed purpose, did not permit his strength to be wasted, and his cavalry to be again disorganised, by flying excursions, but waited grimly until he should be strong enough to strike straight at Pretoria.
In this short period of depression there came one gleam of
light from the west. This was the capture of a commando of sixty Boers, or
rather of sixty foreigners fighting for the Boers, and the death of the gallant
Frenchman, De Villebois-Mareuil, who appears to have had the ambition of
Lord Roberts never showed his self-command and fixed purpose
more clearly than during his six weeks' halt at
A word as to the general distribution of
the troops at this instant while Roberts was gathering himself for his spring.
Eleven divisions of infantry were in the field. Of these the 1st (
There remained the three divisions in
To follow in close detail the movements of the Boers and the
counter movements of the British in the southeast portion of the
The main force of the Freestaters had assembled in the
north-eastern corner of their State, and from this they made their sally
southwards, attacking or avoiding at their pleasure the eastern line of British
outposts. Their first engagement, that of Sanna's
Post, was a great and deserved success. Three days later they secured the five
companies at Reddersberg. Warned in time, the other small British bodies closed
in upon their supports, and the railway line, that nourishing artery which was
necessary for the very existence of the army, was held too strongly for attack.
On this occasion, however, the Boers had undertaken a task
which was beyond their strength. The troops at Wepener were one thousand seven
hundred in number, and formidable in quality. The place had been occupied by
part of Brabant's Colonial division, consisting of hardy irregulars, men of the
stuff of the defenders of
At the same time, the Boers came on with every confidence of
victory, for they had a superiority in guns and an
immense superiority in men. But after a day or two of fierce struggle their
attack dwindled down into a mere blockade. On April 9th they attacked
furiously, both by day and by night, and on the 10th the pressure was equally
severe. In these two days occurred the vast majority of the casualties. But the
defenders took cover in a way to which British regulars have not yet attained,
and they outshot their opponents both with their rifles and their cannon.
Captain Lukin's management of the artillery was particularly skilful. The
weather was vile and the hastily dug trenches turned into ditches half full of
water, but neither discomfort nor danger shook the courage of the gallant
colonials. Assault after assault was repulsed, and the scourging of the cannon
was met with stolid endurance. The Boers excelled all their previous feats in
the handling of artillery by dragging two guns up to the summit of the lofty
Jammersberg, whence they fired down upon the camp. Nearly all the horses were
killed and three hundred of the troopers were hit, a number which is double
that of the official return, for the simple reason that the spirit of the force
was so high that only those who were very severely wounded reported themselves
as wounded at all. None but the serious cases ever reached the hands of Dr.
Faskally, who did admirable work with very slender resources. How many the
enemy lost can never be certainly known, but as they pushed home several
attacks it is impossible to imagine that their losses were less than those of
the victorious defenders. At the end of seventeen days of mud and blood the
brave irregulars saw an empty laager and abandoned trenches. Their own
resistance and the advance of
It may well be asked how for so long a period as seventeen
days the British could tolerate a force to the rear of them when with their
great superiority of numbers they could have readily sent an army to drive it
away. The answer must be that Lord Roberts had despatched his trusty
Brabant's force, with Hart's brigade, which had been
diverted on its way to
What held Lord Roberts's hand for some few days after he was
ready to strike was the abominable weather. Rain was
falling in sheets, and those who know South African roads, South African mud,
and South African drifts will understand how impossible swift military
movements are under those circumstances. But with the first clearing of the
clouds the hills to the south and east of
On April 20th, Rundle as he advanced found a force with
artillery across his path to Dewetsdorp. It is always difficult to calculate
the number of hidden men and lurking guns which go to make up a Boer army, but
with some knowledge of their total at Wepener it was certain that the force
opposed to him must be very inferior to his own. At Constantia Farm, where he
found them in position, it is difficult to imagine that there were more than
three thousand men. Their left flank was their weak point, as a movement on
that side would cut them off from Wepener and drive them up towards our main
force in the north. One would have thought that a containing force of three
thousand men, and a flanking movement from eight thousand, would have turned
them out, as it has turned them out so often before and since. Yet a long-range
action began on Friday, April 20th, and lasted the whole of the 21st, the 22nd,
and the 23rd, in which we sustained few losses, but made no impression upon the
enemy. Thirty of the 1st
On Sunday night (April 22nd) Pole-Carew sallied out from
On the Wednesday morning Rundle, with the addition of
Pole-Carew's division, was strong enough for any attack, while French was in a
position upon the flank. Every requisite for a great victory was there except
the presence of an enemy. The Wepener siege had been raised and the force in
front of Rundle had disappeared as only Boer armies can disappear. The combined
movement was an admirable piece of work on the part of the enemy. Finding no
force in front of them, the combined troops of French, Rundle, and Chermside
occupied Dewetsdorp, where the latter remained, while the others pushed on to
Thabanchu, the storm centre from which all our troubles had begun nearly a
month before. All the way they knew that De Wet's retreating army was just in
front of them, and they knew also that a force had been sent out from
While Rundle and French had advanced on Dewetsdorp as
described, the other force which was intended to head off De Wet had gone
direct to Thabanchu. The advance began by a movement of Ian Hamilton on April
22nd with eight hundred mounted infantry upon the waterworks. The enemy, who
held the hills beyond, allowed
Ian Hamilton, who had already done good service in the war,
having commanded the infantry at Elandslaagte, and been one of the most
prominent leaders in the defence of Ladysmith, takes from this time onwards a
more important and a more independent position. A thin, aquiline man, of soft
voice and gentle manners, he had already proved more than once during his
adventurous career that he not only possessed in a high degree the courage of
the soldier, but also the equanimity and decision of the born leader. A languid
elegance in his bearing covered a shrewd brain and a soul of fire. A distorted
and half-paralysed hand reminded the observer that
It is impossible to withhold our admiration for the way in which the Boer force was manoeuvred throughout this portion of the campaign. The mixture of circumspection and audacity, the way in which French and Rundle were hindered until the Wepener force had disengaged itself, the manner in which these covering forces were then withdrawn, and finally the clever way in which they all slipped past Hamilton, make a brilliant bit of strategy. Louis Botha, the generalissimo, held all the strings in his hand, and the way in which he pulled them showed that his countrymen had chosen the right man for that high office, and that his was a master spirit even among those fine natural warriors who led the separate commandos.
Having got to the north of the British forces Botha made no
effort to get away, and refused to be hustled by a reconnaissance developing
into an attack, which French made upon April 27th. In a skirmish the night
The Houtnek position is dominated upon the left of the
advancing British force by
The distribution of the troops on the eastern side of the
Before entering upon a description of that great and decisive movement, one small action calls for comment. This was the cutting off of twenty men of Lumsden's Horse in a reconnaissance at Karee. The small post under Lieutenant Crane found themselves by some misunderstanding isolated in the midst of the enemy. Refusing to hoist the flag of shame, they fought their way out, losing half their number, while of the other half it is said that there was not one who could not show bullet marks upon his clothes or person. The men of this corps, volunteer Anglo-Indians, had abandoned the ease and even luxury of Eastern life for the hard fare and rough fighting of this most trying campaign. In coming they had set the whole empire an object-lesson in spirit, and now on their first field they set the army an example of military virtue. The proud traditions of Outram's Volunteers have been upheld by the men of Lumsden's Horse. Another minor action which cannot be ignored is the defence of a convoy on April 29th by the Derbyshire Yeomanry (Major Dugdale) and a company of the Scots Guards. The wagons were on their way to Rundle when they were attacked at a point about ten miles west of Thabanchu. The small guard beat off their assailants in the most gallant fashion, and held their own until relieved by Brabazon upon the following morning.
This phase of the war was marked by a certain change in the temper of the British. Nothing could have been milder than the original intentions and proclamations of Lord Roberts, and he was most ably seconded in his attempts at conciliation by General Pretyman, who had been made civil administrator of the State. There was evidence, however, that this kindness had been construed as weakness by some of the burghers, and during the Boer incursion to Wepener many who had surrendered a worthless firearm reappeared with the Mauser which had been concealed in some crafty hiding-place. Troops were fired at from farmhouses which flew the white flag, and the good housewife remained behind to charge the 'rooinek' extortionate prices for milk and fodder while her husband shot at him from the hills. It was felt that the burghers might have peace or might have war, but could not have both simultaneously. Some examples were made therefore of offending farmhouses, and stock was confiscated where there was evidence of double dealing upon the part of the owner. In a country where property is a more serious thing than life, these measures, together with more stringent rules about the possession of horses and arms, did much to stamp out the chances of an insurrection in our rear. The worst sort of peace is an enforced peace, but if that can be established time and justice may do the rest.
The operations which have been here described may be finally
summed up in one short paragraph. A Boer army came south of the British line
and besieged a British garrison. Three British forces, those of French, Rundle,
and Ian Hamilton, were despatched to cut it off. It successfully threaded its
way among them and escaped. It was followed to the northward as far as the town
This small place, which sprang in the course of a few weeks
from obscurity to fame, is situated upon the long line of railway which
It is not clear why the imperial authorities should desire to hold this place, since it has no natural advantages to help the defence, but lies exposed in a widespread plain. A glance at the map must show that the railway line would surely be cut both to the north and south of the town, and the garrison isolated at a point some two hundred and fifty miles from any reinforcements. Considering that the Boers could throw any strength of men or guns against the place, it seemed certain that if they seriously desired to take possession of it they could do so. Under ordinary circumstances any force shut up there was doomed to capture. But what may have seemed short-sighted policy became the highest wisdom, owing to the extraordinary tenacity and resource of Baden-Powell, the officer in command. Through his exertions the town acted as a bait to the Boers, and occupied a considerable force in a useless siege at a time when their presence at other seats of war might have proved disastrous to the British cause.
Colonel Baden-Powell is a soldier of a type which is
exceedingly popular with the British public. A skilled hunter and an expert at
many games, there was always something of the sportsman in his keen
appreciation of war. In the Matabele campaign he had out-scouted the savage
scouts and found his pleasure in tracking them among their native mountains,
often alone and at night, trusting to his skill in springing from rock to rock
in his rubber-soled shoes to save him from their pursuit. There was a brain
quality in his bravery which is rare among our officers. Full of veld craft and
resource, it was as difficult to outwit as it was to outfight him. But there
was another curious side to his complex nature. The French have said of one of
their heroes, 'Il avait cette graine de folie dans sa bravoure que les Francais
aiment,' and the words might have been written of Powell. An impish humour broke
out in him, and the mischievous schoolboy alternated with the warrior and the
administrator. He met the Boer commandos with chaff and jokes which were as
disconcerting as his wire entanglements and his rifle-pits. The amazing variety
of his personal accomplishments was one of his most striking characteristics.
From drawing caricatures with both hands simultaneously, or skirt dancing to
leading a forlorn hope, nothing came amiss to him; and he had that magnetic
quality by which the leader imparts something of his virtues to his men. Such
was the man who held
In a very early stage, before the formal declaration of war,
the enemy had massed several commandos upon the western border, the men being
drawn from Zeerust, Rustenburg, and Lichtenburg. Baden-Powell, with the aid of
an excellent group of special officers, who included Colonel Gould Adams, Lord
Edward Cecil, the soldier son of England's Premier, and Colonel Hore, had done
all that was possible to put the place into a state of defence. In this he had
immense assistance from Benjamin Weil, a well known South African contractor,
who had shown great energy in provisioning the town. On the other hand, the
South African Government displayed the same stupidity or treason which had been
exhibited in the case of
The garrison of the town, whose fame will certainly live in
the history of
On October 13th the Boers appeared before
On October 16th the siege began in earnest. On that date the Boers brought up two 12-pounder guns, and the first of that interminable flight of shells fell into the town. The enemy got possession of the water supply, but the garrison had already dug wells. Before October 20th five thousand Boers, under the formidable Cronje, had gathered round the town. 'Surrender to avoid bloodshed' was his message. 'When is the bloodshed going to begin?' asked Powell. When the Boers had been shelling the town for some weeks the lighthearted Colonel sent out to say that if they went on any longer he should be compelled to regard it as equivalent to a declaration of war. It is to be hoped that Cronje also possessed some sense of humour, or else he must have been as sorely puzzled by his eccentric opponent as the Spanish generals were by the vagaries of Lord Peterborough.
Among the many difficulties which had to be met by the defenders of the town the most serious was the fact that the position had a circumference of five or six miles to be held by about one thousand men against a force who at their own time and their own place could at any moment attempt to gain a footing. An ingenious system of small forts was devised to meet the situation. Each of these held from ten to forty riflemen, and was furnished with bomb-proofs and covered ways. The central bomb-proof was connected by telephone with all the outlying ones, so as to save the use of orderlies. A system of bells was arranged by which each quarter of the town was warned when a shell was coming in time to enable the inhabitants to scuttle off to shelter. Every detail showed the ingenuity of the controlling mind. The armoured train, painted green and tied round with scrub, stood unperceived among the clumps of bushes which surrounded the town.
On October 24th a savage bombardment commenced, which lasted
with intermissions for seven months. The Boers had brought an enormous gun
On October 31st the Boers ventured upon an attack on Cannon Kopje, which is a small fort and eminence to the south of the town. It was defended by Colonel Walford, of the British South African Police, with fifty-seven of his men and three small guns. The attack was repelled with heavy loss to the Boers. The British casualties were six killed and five wounded.
Their experience in this attack seems to have determined the
Boers to make no further expensive attempts to rush the town, and for some
weeks the siege degenerated into a blockade. Cronje had been recalled for more
important work, and Commandant Snyman had taken over the uncompleted task. From
time to time the great gun tossed its huge shells into the town, but boardwood
walls and corrugated-iron roofs minimise the dangers of a bombardment. On
November 3rd the garrison rushed the Brickfields, which had been held by the
enemy's sharpshooters, and on the 7th another small sally kept the game going.
On the 18th Powell sent a message to Snyman that he could not take the town by
sitting and looking at it. At the same time he despatched a message to the Boer
forces generally, advising them to return to their homes and their families.
Some of the commandos had gone south to assist Cronje in his stand against
On this date a vigorous attack was made upon one of the Boer
forts on the north. There seems to be little doubt that the enemy had some
inkling of our intention, as the fort was found to have been so strengthened as
to be impregnable without scaling ladders. The attacking force consisted of two
squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment and one of the Bechuanaland Rifles,
backed up by three guns. So desperate was the onslaught that of the actual
attacking party--a forlorn hope, if ever there was one--fifty-three out of
eighty were killed and wounded, twenty-five of the former and twenty-eight of
the latter. Several of that gallant band of officers
who had been the soul of the defence were among the injured. Captain
FitzClarence was wounded,
Even this heavy blow did not damp the spirits nor diminish the energies of the defence, though it must have warned Baden-Powell that he could not afford to drain his small force by any more expensive attempts at the offensive, and that from then onwards he must content himself by holding grimly on until Plumer from the north or Methuen from the south should at last be able to stretch out to him a helping hand. Vigilant and indomitable, throwing away no possible point in the game which he was playing, the new year found him and his hardy garrison sternly determined to keep the flag flying.
January and February offer in their records that monotony of
excitement which is the fate of every besieged town. On one day the shelling
was a little more, on another a little less. Sometimes they escaped scatheless, sometimes the garrison found itself the poorer
by the loss of Captain Girdwood or Trooper Webb or some other gallant soldier.
Occasionally they had their little triumph when a too curious Dutchman, peering
for an instant from his cover to see the effect of his shot, was carried back
in the ambulance to the laager. On Sunday a truce was usually observed, and the
snipers who had exchanged rifle-shots all the week met occasionally on that day
with good-humoured chaff. Snyman, the Boer General, showed none of that
The garrison, in the face of increasing losses and decreasing food, lost none of the high spirits which it reflected from its commander. The programme of a single day of jubilee--Heaven only knows what they had to hold jubilee over--shows a cricket match in the morning, sports in the afternoon, a concert in the evening, and a dance, given by the bachelor officers, to wind up. Baden-Powell himself seems to have descended from the eyrie from which, like a captain on the bridge, he rang bells and telephoned orders, to bring the house down with a comic song and a humorous recitation. The ball went admirably, save that there was an interval to repel an attack which disarranged the programme. Sports were zealously cultivated, and the grimy inhabitants of casemates and trenches were pitted against each other at cricket or football. [Footnote: Sunday cricket so shocked Snyman that he threatened to fire upon it if it were continued.] The monotony was broken by the occasional visits of a postman, who appeared or vanished from the vast barren lands to the west of the town, which could not all be guarded by the besiegers. Sometimes a few words from home came to cheer the hearts of the exiles, and could be returned by the same uncertain and expensive means. The documents which found their way up were not always of an essential or even of a welcome character. At least one man received an unpaid bill from an angry tailor.
In one particular
At this point some account might be given of the doings of
that northern force whose situation was so remote that even the ubiquitous
correspondent hardly appears to have reached it. No doubt the book will
eventually make up for the neglect of the journal, but some short facts may be
given here of the Rhodesian column. Their action did not affect the course of
the war, but they clung like bulldogs to a most difficult task, and eventually,
when strengthened by the relieving column, made their way to
The force was originally raised for the purpose of defending
On the war breaking out the first thought of the leaders in
The adventurous armoured train pressed on as far as Lobatsi,
where it found the bridges destroyed; so it returned to its original position,
having another brush with the Boer commandos, and again, in some marvellous
way, escaping its obvious fate. From then until the new year
the line was kept open by an admirable system of patrolling to within a hundred
miles or so of
While the railway line was held in this way there had been
some skirmishing also on the northern frontier of the
In the same region a small force under Captain Hare was cut
off by a body of Boers. Of the twenty men most got away, but the chaplain J.W.
Leary, Lieutenant Haserick (who behaved with admirable gallantry), and six men
were taken. [Footnote: Mr. Leary was wounded in the foot by a shell. The German
artillerist entered the hut in which he lay. 'Here's a bit of your work!' said
Leary good-humouredly. 'I wish it had been worse,' said the amiable German
gunner.] The commando which attacked this party, and on the same day Colonel
Spreckley's force, was a powerful one, with several guns. No doubt it was
organised because there were fears among the Boers that they would be invaded
from the north. When it was understood that the British intended no large
aggressive movement in that quarter, these burghers joined other commandos.
Sarel Eloff, who was one of the leaders of this northern force, was afterwards
Colonel Plumer had taken command of the small army which was
now operating from the north along the railway line with
In the meantime
April was a trying month for the defence. They knew that
On Saturday, May 12th, the attack was made at the favourite hour of the Boer--the first grey of the morning. It was gallantly delivered by about three hundred volunteers under the command of Eloff, who had crept round to the west of the town--the side furthest from the lines of the besiegers. At the first rush they penetrated into the native quarter, which was at once set on fire by them. The first building of any size upon that side is the barracks of the Protectorate Regiment, which was held by Colonel Hore and about twenty of his officers and men. This was carried by the enemy, who sent an exultant message along the telephone to Baden-Powell to tell him that they had got it. Two other positions within the lines, one a stone kraal and the other a hill, were held by the Boers, but their supports were slow in coming on, and the movements of the defenders were so prompt and energetic that all three found themselves isolated and cut off from their own lines. They had penetrated the town, but they were as far as ever from having taken it. All day the British forces drew their cordon closer and closer round the Boer positions, making no attempt to rush them, but ringing them round in such a way that there could be no escape for them. A few burghers slipped away in twos and threes, but the main body found that they had rushed into a prison from which the only egress was swept with rifle fire. At seven o'clock in the evening they recognised that their position was hopeless, and Eloff with 117 men laid down their arms. Their losses had been ten killed and nineteen wounded. For some reason, either of lethargy, cowardice, or treachery, Snyman had not brought up the supports which might conceivably have altered the result. It was a gallant attack gallantly met, and for once the greater wiliness in fight was shown by the British. The end was characteristic. 'Good evening, Commandant,' said Powell to Eloff; 'won't you come in and have some dinner?' The prisoners--burghers, Hollanders, Germans, and Frenchmen--were treated to as good a supper as the destitute larders of the town could furnish.
So in a small blaze of glory ended the historic siege of
Colonel Mahon, a young Irish officer who had made his
reputation as a cavalry leader in Egypt, had started early in May from
Kimberley with a small but mobile force consisting of the Imperial Light Horse
(brought round from Natal for the purpose), the Kimberley Mounted Corps, the Diamond
Fields Horse, some Imperial Yeomanry, a detachment of the Cape Police, and 100
volunteers from the Fusilier brigade, with M battery R.H.A. and pom-poms,
twelve hundred men in all. Whilst Hunter was fighting his action at Rooidam on
In the meantime Plumer's force upon the north had been
strengthened by the addition of C battery of four 12-pounder guns of the
Canadian Artillery under Major Eudon and a body of Queenslanders. These forces
had been part of the small army which had come with General Carrington through
But the gallant and tenacious Boers would not abandon their
prey without a last effort. As the little army advanced upon
So ended a singular incident, the defence of an open town which
contained no regular soldiers and a most inadequate artillery against a
numerous and enterprising enemy with very heavy guns. All honour to the towns folk who bore their trial so long and so bravely--and
to the indomitable men who lined the trenches for seven weary months. Their
constancy was of enormous value to the empire. In the all-important early month
at least four or five thousand Boers were detained by them when their presence
elsewhere would have been fatal. During all the rest of the war, two thousand
men and eight guns (including one of the four big Creusots) had been held
there. It prevented the invasion of
In the early days of May, when the season of the rains was
past and the veld was green, Lord Roberts's six weeks of enforced inaction came
to an end. He had gathered himself once more for one of those tiger springs
which should be as sure and as irresistible as that which had brought him from
On May 3rd the main force was assembled at Karee, twenty
miles upon their way. Two hundred and twenty separated them from
Roberts had prepared the way by clearing out the
south-eastern corner of the State, and at the moment of his advance his forces
covered a semicircular front of about forty miles, the right under Ian Hamilton
near Thabanchu, and the left at Karee. This was the broad net which was to be
swept from south to north across the
On May 3rd, the day of the advance from our most northern
post, Karee, the disposition of Lord Roberts's army was briefly as follows. On
his left was Hutton, with his mixed force of mounted infantry drawn from every
quarter of the empire. This formidable and mobile body, with some batteries of
horse artillery and of pom-poms, kept a line a few miles to the west of the railroad,
moving northwards parallel with it. Roberts's main column kept on the railroad,
which was mended with extraordinary speed by the Railway Pioneer regiment and
the Engineers, under Girouard and the ill-fated Seymour. It was amazing to note
the shattered culverts as one passed, and yet to be overtaken by trains within
a day. This main column consisted of Pole-Carew's 11th Division, which
contained the Guards, and Stephenson's Brigade (Warwicks, Essex, Welsh, and
Yorkshires). With them were the 83rd, 84th, and 85th R.F.A., with the heavy
guns, and a small force of mounted infantry. Passing along the widespread
British line one would then, after an interval of seven or eight miles, come
upon Tucker's Division (the 7th), which consisted of Maxwell's Brigade
(formerly Chermside's--the Norfolks, Lincolns, Hampshires, and Scottish
Borderers) and Wavell's Brigade (North Staffords, Cheshires, East Lancashires,
South Wales Borderers). To the right of these was Ridley's mounted infantry.
Beyond them, extending over very many miles of country and with considerable
spaces between, there came Broadwood's cavalry, Bruce Hamilton's Brigade
(Derbyshires, Sussex, Camerons, and C.I.V.), and finally on the extreme right
of all Ian Hamilton's force of Highlanders, Canadians, Shropshires, and
Cornwalls, with cavalry and mounted infantry, starting forty miles from Lord
Roberts, but edging westwards all the way, to merge with the troops next to it,
and to occupy Winburg in the way already described. This was the army, between
forty and fifty thousand strong, with which Lord Roberts advanced upon the
In the meantime he had anticipated that his mobile and
enterprising opponents would work round and strike at our rear. Ample means had
been provided for dealing with any attempt of the kind. Rundle with the 8th
The objective of the first day's march was the little town
The record of the army's advance is now rather geographical than military, for it rolled northwards with never a check save that which was caused by the construction of the railway diversions which atoned for the destruction of the larger bridges. The infantry now, as always in the campaign, marched excellently; for though twenty miles in the day may seem a moderate allowance to a healthy man upon an English road, it is a considerable performance under an African sun with a weight of between thirty and forty pounds to be carried. The good humour of the men was admirable, and they eagerly longed to close with the elusive enemy who flitted ever in front of them. Huge clouds of smoke veiled the northern sky, for the Boers had set fire to the dry grass, partly to cover their own retreat, and partly to show up our khaki upon the blackened surface. Far on the flanks the twinkling heliographs revealed the position of the wide-spread wings.
On May 10th Lord Roberts's force, which had halted for three
days at Smaldeel, moved onwards to Welgelegen. French's cavalry had come up by
road, and quickly strengthened the centre and left wing of the army. On the
morning of the 10th the invaders found themselves confronted by a formidable
position which the Boers had taken up on the northern bank of the
On May 11th Lord Roberts's army advanced twenty miles to Geneva
Siding, and every preparation was made for a battle next day, as it was thought
certain that the Boers would defend their new capital, Kroonstad. It proved,
however, that even here they would not make a stand, and on May 12th, at one
o'clock, Lord Roberts rode into the town. Steyn, Botha, and De Wet escaped, and
it was announced that the
Buller's force was also sweeping northwards, and the time
had come when the Ladysmith garrison, restored at last to health and strength,
should have a chance of striking back at those who had tormented them so long.
Many of the best troops had been drafted away to other portions of the seat of
war. Hart's Brigade and Barton's Fusilier Brigade had gone with Hunter to form
the 10th Division upon the
This line of rugged hills is pierced by only three passes,
each of which was held in strength by the enemy. Considerable losses must have
ensued from any direct attempt to force them. Buller, however, with excellent
judgment, demonstrated in front of them with Hildyard's men, while the rest of
the army, marching round, outflanked the line of resistance, and on May 15th
The Boers, whose force did not exceed a few thousands, were
now rolled swiftly back through
Buller was now moving with a rapidity and decision which
contrast pleasantly with some of his earlier operations. Although Dundee was
only occupied on May 15th, on May 18th his vanguard was in
It was on May 12th that Lord Roberts occupied Kroonstad, and
he halted there for eight days before he resumed his advance. At the end of
that time his railway had been repaired, and enough supplies brought up to
enable him to advance again without anxiety. The country through which he
passed swarmed with herds and flocks, but, with as scrupulous a regard for the
rights of property as
Lord Roberts's eight days' halt was spent in consolidating
the general military situation. We have already shown how Buller had crept
upwards to the Natal Border. On the west
On May 22nd the main army resumed its advance, moving
forward fifteen miles to Honing's Spruit. On the 23rd another march of twenty
miles over a fine rolling prairie brought them to
Preparations for resistance had been made on the line of the
railway, but the wide turning movements on the flanks by the indefatigable
French and Hamilton rendered all opposition of no avail. The British columns
flowed over and onwards without a pause, tramping steadily northwards to their
destination. The bulk of the Free State forces refused to leave their own
country, and moved away to the eastern and northern portion of the State, where
the British Generals thought--incorrectly, as the future was to prove--that no
further harm would come from them. The State which they were in arms to defend
had really ceased to exist, for already it had been publicly proclaimed at
Lord Roberts's tremendous march was now drawing to a close.
On May 28th the troops advanced twenty miles, and passed
The infantry, streaming up from the
Whilst this action of Doornkop was fought by the British
left flank, Henry's mounted infantry in the centre moved straight upon the
important junction of Germiston, which lies amid the huge white heaps of
tailings from the mines. At this point, or near it, the lines from
French was now on the west of the town, Henry had cut the
railway on the east, and Roberts was coming up from the south. His infantry had
covered 130 miles in seven days, but the thought that every step brought them
And now the last stage of the great journey had been
reached. Two days were spent at
On the last day of May two hundred Lancers under the command of Major Hunter Weston, with Charles of the Sappers and Burnham the scout, a man who has played the part of a hero throughout the campaign, struck off from the main army and endeavoured to descend upon the Pretoria to Delagoa railway line with the intention of blowing up a bridge and cutting the Boer line of retreat. It was a most dashing attempt; but the small party had the misfortune to come into contact with a strong Boer commando, who headed them off. After a skirmish they were compelled to make their way back with a loss of five killed and fourteen wounded.
The cavalry under French had waited for the issue of this
enterprise at a point nine miles north of
Whilst the cavalry had performed this enveloping movement
the main army had moved swiftly upon its objective, leaving one brigade behind
For a time it appeared that the entry was to be an absolutely bloodless one, but the booming of cannon and the crash of Mauser fire soon showed that the enemy was in force upon the ridge. Botha had left a strong rearguard to hold off the British while his own stores and valuables were being withdrawn from the town. The silence of the forts showed that the guns had been removed and that no prolonged resistance was intended; but in the meanwhile fringes of determined riflemen, supported by cannon, held the approaches, and must be driven off before an entry could be effected. Each fresh corps as it came up reinforced the firing line. Henry's mounted infantrymen supported by the horse-guns of J battery and the guns of Tucker's division began the action. So hot was the answer, both from cannon and from rifle, that it seemed for a time as if a real battle were at last about to take place. The Guards' Brigade, Stephenson's Brigade, and Maxwell's Brigade streamed up and waited until Hamilton, who was on the enemy's right flank, should be able to make his presence felt. The heavy guns had also arrived, and a huge cloud of debris rising from the Pretorian forts told the accuracy of their fire.
But either the burghers were half-hearted or there was no
real intention to make a stand. About half-past two their fire slackened and
Pole-Carew was directed to push on. That debonnaire soldier with his two
veteran brigades obeyed the order with alacrity, and the infantry swept over
the ridge, with some thirty or forty casualties, the majority of which fell to
In the early morning of June 5th, the Coldstream Guards were mounting the hills which commanded the town. Beneath them in the clear African air lay the famous city, embowered in green, the fine central buildings rising grandly out of the wide circle of villas. Through the Nek part of the Guards' Brigade and Maxwell's Brigade had passed, and had taken over the station, from which at least one train laden with horses had steamed that morning. Two others, both ready to start, were only just stopped in time.
The first thought was for the British prisoners, and a small
party headed by the Duke of Marlborough rode to their rescue. Let it be said
once for all that their treatment by the Boers was excellent and that their
appearance would alone have proved it. One hundred and twenty-nine officers and
thirty-nine soldiers were found in the Model Schools, which had been converted
into a prison. A day later our cavalry arrived at Waterval, which is fourteen
miles to the north of
In the centre of the town there is a wide square decorated or disfigured by a bare pedestal upon which a statue of the President was to have been placed. Hard by is the bleak barnlike church in which he preached, and on either side are the Government offices and the Law Courts, buildings which would grace any European capital. Here, at two o'clock on the afternoon of June 5th, Lord Roberts sat his horse and saw pass in front of him the men who had followed him so far and so faithfully--the Guards, the Essex, the Welsh, the Yorks, the Warwicks, the guns, the mounted infantry, the dashing irregulars, the Gordons, the Canadians, the Shropshires, the Cornwalls, the Camerons, the Derbys, the Sussex, and the London Volunteers. For over two hours the khaki waves with their crests of steel went sweeping by. High above their heads from the summit of the Raad-saal the broad Union Jack streamed for the first time. Through months of darkness we had struggled onwards to the light. Now at last the strange drama seemed to be drawing to its close. The God of battles had given the long-withheld verdict. But of all the hearts which throbbed high at that supreme moment there were few who felt one touch of bitterness towards the brave men who had been overborne. They had fought and died for their ideal. We had fought and died for ours. The hope for the future of South Africa is that they or their descendants may learn that that banner which has come to wave above Pretoria means no racial intolerance, no greed for gold, no paltering with injustice or corruption, but that it means one law for all and one freedom for all, as it does in every other continent in the whole broad earth. When that is learned it may happen that even they will come to date a happier life and a wider liberty from that 5th of June which saw the symbol of their nation pass for ever from among the ensigns of the world.
The military situation at the time of the occupation of
General Buller had spent the latter half of May in making
his way from Ladysmith to Laing's Nek, and the beginning of June found him with
twenty thousand men in front of that difficult position. Some talk of a surrender had arisen, and Christian Botha, who commanded
the Boers, succeeded in gaining several days' armistice, which ended in
The operations were now being conducted in that extremely
acute angle of
Had the Boers been the men of Colenso and of Spion Kop, this
storming of Alleman's Nek would have been a bloody business. The position was
strong, the cover was slight, and there was no way round. But the infantry came
on with the old dash without the old stubborn resolution being opposed to them.
The guns prepared the way, and then the Dorsets, the Dublins, the Middlesex,
the Queen's, and the
The whole series of operations were excellently conceived
and carried out. Putting Colenso on one side, it cannot be denied that General
Buller showed considerable power of manoeuvring large bodies of troops. The
withdrawal of the compromised army after Spion Kop, the change of the line of
attack at Pieter's Hill, and the flanking marches in this campaign of
Before briefly recounting the series of events which took
place upon the line of communications, the narrative must return to Lord
Leaving others to restore his broken communications, Lord
Roberts turned his attention once more to Botha, who still retained ten or
fifteen thousand men under his command. The President had fled from Pretoria
with a large sum of money, estimated at over two millions sterling, and was
known to be living in a saloon railway carriage, which had been transformed
into a seat of government even more mobile than that of President Steyn. From
Waterval-Boven, a point beyond Middelburg, he was in a position either to
continue his journey to
Botha and his stalwarts had not gone far from the capital.
Fifteen miles out to the east the railway line runs through a gap in the hills
called Pienaars Poort, and here was such a position as the Boer loves to hold.
It was very strong in front, and it had widely spread formidable flanking hills
to hamper those turning movements which had so often been fatal to the Boer
generals. Behind was the uncut railway line along which the guns could in case of need be removed. The whole position was
over fifteen miles from wing to wing, and it was well known to the Boer general
that Lord Roberts had no longer that preponderance of force which would enable
him to execute wide turning movements, as he had done in his advance from the
south. His army had decreased seriously in numbers. The mounted men, the most
essential branch of all, were so ill horsed that brigades were not larger than
regiments. One brigade of infantry (the 14th) had been left to garrison
Had Botha withdrawn to a safe distance, Lord Roberts would
certainly have halted, as he had done at
There had been some negotiations for peace between Lord
Roberts and Botha, but the news of De Wet's success from the south had hardened
the Boer general's heart, and on June 9th the cavalry had their orders to
French with his attenuated force found so vigorous a
resistance on Monday and Tuesday that he was hard put to it to hold his own.
Fortunately he had with him three excellent Horse Artillery batteries, G, O,
and T, who worked until, at the end of the engagement, they had only twenty
rounds in their limbers. The country was an impossible one for cavalry, and the
troopers fought dismounted, with intervals of twenty or thirty paces between
the men. Exposed all day to rifle and shell fire, unable to advance and
unwilling to retreat, it was only owing to their open formation that they
escaped with about thirty casualties. With Boers on his front, his flank, and
even on his rear, French held grimly on, realising that a retreat upon his part
would mean a greater pressure at all other points of the British advance. At
night his weary men slept upon the ground which they had held. All Monday and
all Tuesday French kept his grip at Kameelsdrift, stolidly indifferent to the
attempt of the enemy to cut his line of communications. On Wednesday,
During the two days that French had been held up by the Boer
By order of Lord Roberts the Guards were sent round early on
Tuesday, the 12th, to support the flank attack of Bruce Hamilton's infantry. It
was afternoon before all was ready for the advance, and then the
At four o'clock, as the sun sank towards the west, the tide
of fight had set in favour of the attack. Two more batteries had come up, every
rifle was thrown into the firing line, and the Boer reply was decreasing in
volume. The temptation to an assault was great, but even now it might mean
heavy loss of life, and
Such was the battle of Diamond Hill, as it was called from
the name of the ridge which was opposite to
When Lord Roberts had swept past to the north he had brushed
aside the flower of the
The Boers were in full retreat, but now, as always, they
were dangerous. One cannot take them for granted, for the very moment of defeat
is that at which they are capable of some surprising effort. Rundle, following
them up from Senekal, found them in strong possession of the kopjes at
Biddulphsberg, and received a check in his endeavour to drive them off. It was
an action fought amid great grass fires, where the possible fate of the wounded
was horrible to contemplate. The 2nd Grenadiers, the Scots Guards, the East
Yorkshires, and the
At the end of May, then, the Colonial Division, Rundle's Division, and Clements's Brigade held the Boers from Ficksburg on the Basuto border to Senekal. This prevented them from coming south. But what was there to prevent them from coming west, and falling upon the railway line? There was the weak point of the British position. Lord Methuen had been brought across from Boshof, and was available with six thousand men. Colvile was on that side also, with the Highland Brigade. A few details were scattered up and down the line, waiting to be gathered up by an enterprising enemy. Kroonstad was held by a single militia battalion; each separate force had to be nourished by convoys with weak escorts. Never was there such a field for a mobile and competent guerilla leader. And, as luck would have it, such a man was at hand, ready to take full advantage of his opportunities.
Christian de Wet, the elder of two brothers of that name,
was at this time in the prime of life, a little over forty years of age. He was
a burly middle-sized bearded man, poorly educated, but endowed with much energy
and common-sense. His military experience dated back to Majuba Hill, and he had
a large share of that curious race hatred which is intelligible in the case of
the Transvaal, but inexplicable in a Freestater who has received no injury from
De Wet's force was an offshoot from the army of Freestaters
under De Villiers, Olivier, and Prinsloo, which lay in the mountainous
north-east of the State. To him were committed five guns, fifteen hundred men,
and the best of the horses. Well armed, well mounted, and operating in a
country which consisted of rolling plains with occasional fortress kopjes, his
little force had everything in its favour. There were so many tempting objects
of attack lying before him that he must have had some difficulty in knowing
where to begin. The tinted spectacles were turned first upon the isolated town
Colvile with the Highland Brigade had come up from Ventersburg with instructions to move onward to Heilbron, pacifying the country as he passed. The country, however, refused to be pacified, and his march from Ventersburg to Lindley was harassed by snipers every mile of the way. Finding that De Wet and his men were close upon him, he did not linger at Lindley, but passed on to his destination, his entire march of 126 miles costing him sixty-three casualties, of which nine were fatal. It was a difficult and dangerous march, especially for the handful of Eastern Province Horse, upon whom fell all the mounted work. By evil fortune a force of five hundred Yeomanry, the 18th battalion, including the Duke of Cambridge's Own and the Irish companies, had been sent from Kroonstad to join Colvile at Lindley. Colonel Spragge was in command. On May 27th this body of horsemen reached their destination only to find that Colvile had already abandoned it. They appear to have determined to halt for a day in Lindley, and then follow Colvile to Heilbron. Within a few hours of their entering the town they were fiercely attacked by De Wet.
Colonel Spragge seems to have acted for the best. Under a
heavy fire he caused his troopers to fall back upon his transport, which had
been left at a point a few miles out upon the
They had the stronger motive for holding out, as they had
taken steps to convey word of their difficulty to Colvile and to
Colonel Spragge's men had held their own for the first three days of their investment, during which they had been simply exposed to a long-range rifle fire which inflicted no very serious loss upon them. Their principal defence consisted of a stone kraal about twenty yards square, which sheltered them from rifle bullets, but must obviously be a perfect death-trap in the not improbable event of the Boers sending for artillery. The spirit of the troopers was admirable. Several dashing sorties were carried out under the leadership of Captain Humby and Lord Longford. The latter was a particularly dashing business, ending in a bayonet charge which cleared a neighbouring ridge. Early in the siege the gallant Keith met his end. On the fourth day the Boers brought up five guns. One would have thought that during so long a time as three days it would have been possible for the officer in command to make such preparations against this obvious possibility as were so successfully taken at a later stage of the war by the handful who garrisoned Ladybrand. Surely in this period, even without engineers, it would not have been hard to construct such trenches as the Boers have again and again opposed to our own artillery. But the preparations which were made proved to be quite inadequate. One of the two smaller kopjes was carried, and the garrison fled to the other. This also was compelled to surrender, and finally the main kopje also hoisted the white flag. No blame can rest upon the men, for their presence there at all is a sufficient proof of their public spirit and their gallantry. But the lessons of the war seem to have been imperfectly learned, especially that very certain lesson that shell fire in a close formation is insupportable, while in an open formation with a little cover it can never compel surrender. The casualty lists (80 killed and wounded out of a force of 470) show that the Yeomanry took considerable punishment before surrendering, but do not permit us to call the defence desperate or heroic. It is only fair to add that Colonel Spragge was acquitted of all blame by a court of inquiry, which agreed, however, that the surrender was premature, and attributed it to the unauthorised hoisting of a white flag upon one of the detached kopjes. With regard to the subsequent controversy as to whether General Colvile might have returned to the relief of the Yeomanry, it is impossible to see how that General could have acted in any other way than he did.
Some explanation is needed of Lord Methuen's appearance upon
the central scene of warfare, his division having, when last described, been at
Boshof, not far from
A previous convoy sent to the same destination had less good
fortune. On June 1st fifty-five wagons started from the railway line to reach
Heilbron. The escort consisted of one hundred and sixty details belonging to
Two miles beyond Roodeval station there is a well-marked kopje by the railway line, with other hills some distance to the right and the left. A militia regiment, the 4th Derbyshire, had been sent up to occupy this post. There were rumours of Boers on the line, and Major Haig, who with one thousand details of various regiments commanded at railhead, had been attacked on June 6th but had beaten off his assailants. De Wet, acting sometimes in company with, and sometimes independently of, his lieutenant Nel, passed down the line looking fur some easier prey, and on the night of June 7th came upon the militia regiment, which was encamped in a position which could be completely commanded by artillery. It is not true that they had neglected to occupy the kopje under which they lay, for two companies had been posted upon it. But there seems to have been no thought of imminent danger, and the regiment had pitched its tents and gone very comfortably to sleep without a thought of the gentleman in the tinted glasses. In the middle of the night he was upon them with a hissing sleet of bullets. At the first dawn the guns opened and the shells began to burst among them. It was a horrible ordeal for raw troops. The men were miners and agricultural labourers, who had never seen more bloodshed than a cut finger in their lives. They had been four months in the country, but their life had been a picnic, as the luxury of their baggage shows. Now in an instant the picnic was ended, and in the grey cold dawn war was upon them--grim war with the whine of bullets, the screams of pain, the crash of shell, the horrible rending and riving of body and limb. In desperate straits, which would have tried the oldest soldiers, the brave miners did well. They never from the beginning had a chance save to show how gamely they could take punishment, but that at least they did. Bullets were coming from all sides at once and yet no enemy was visible. They lined one side of the embankment, and they were shot in the back. They lined the other, and were again shot in the back. Baird-Douglas, the Colonel, vowed to shoot the man who should raise the white flag, and he fell dead himself before he saw the hated emblem. But it had to come. A hundred and forty of the men were down, many of them suffering from the horrible wounds which shell inflicts. The place was a shambles. Then the flag went up and the Boers at last became visible. Outnumbered, outgeneralled, and without guns, there is no shadow of stain upon the good name of the one militia regiment which was ever seriously engaged during the war. Their position was hopeless from the first, and they came out of it with death, mutilation, and honour.
Two miles south of the Rhenoster kopje stands Roodeval station, in which, on that June morning, there stood a train containing the mails for the army, a supply of great-coats, and a truck full of enormous shells. A number of details of various sorts, a hundred or more, had alighted from the train, twenty of them Post-office volunteers, some of the Pioneer Railway corps, a few Shropshires, and other waifs and strays. To them in the early morning came the gentleman with the tinted glasses, his hands still red with the blood of the Derbies. 'I have fourteen hundred men and four guns. Surrender!' said the messenger. But it is not in nature for a postman to give up his postbag without a struggle. 'Never!' cried the valiant postmen. But shell after shell battered the corrugated-iron buildings about their ears, and it was not possible for them to answer the guns which were smashing the life out of them. There was no help for it but to surrender. De Wet added samples of the British volunteer and of the British regular to his bag of militia. The station and train were burned down, the great-coats looted, the big shells exploded, and the mails burned. The latter was the one unsportsmanlike action which can up to that date be laid to De Wet's charge. Forty thousand men to the north of him could forego their coats and their food, but they yearned greatly for those home letters, charred fragments of which are still blowing about the veld. [Footnote: Fragments continually met the eye which must have afforded curious reading for the victors. 'I hope you have killed all those Boers by now,' was the beginning of one letter which I could not help observing.]
For three days De Wet held the line, and during all that time he worked his wicked will upon it. For miles and miles it was wrecked with most scientific completeness. The Rhenoster bridge was destroyed. So, for the second time, was the Roodeval bridge. The rails were blown upwards with dynamite until they looked like an unfinished line to heaven. De Wet's heavy hand was everywhere. Not a telegraph-post remained standing within ten miles. His headquarters continued to be the kopje at Roodeval.
On June 10th two British forces were converging upon the
point of danger. One was
That wily and indefatigable man was not long out of our ken. On June 14th he appeared once more at Rhenoster, where the construction trains, under the famous Girouard, were working furiously at the repair of the damage which he had already done. This time the guard was sufficient to beat him off, and he vanished again to the eastward. He succeeded, however, in doing some harm, and very nearly captured Lord Kitchener himself. A permanent post had been established at Rhenoster under the charge of Colonel Spens of the Shropshires, with his own regiment and several guns. Smith-Dorrien, one of the youngest and most energetic of the divisional commanders, had at the same time undertaken the supervision and patrolling of the line.
An attack had at this period been made by a commando of some
hundred Boers at the
It was hoped now, after all these precautions, that the last
had been seen of the gentleman with the tinted glasses, but on June 21st he was
back in his old haunts once more. Honing Spruit Station, about midway between
Kroonstad and Roodeval, was the scene of his new raid. On that date his men
appeared suddenly as a train waited in the station, and ripped up the rails on
either side of it. There were no guns at this point, and the only available
troops were three hundred of the prisoners from
All these attacks, irritating and destructive as they were,
were not able to hinder the general progress of the war. After the battle of
Diamond Hill the captured position was occupied by the mounted infantry, while
the rest of the forces returned to their camps round
It was evident now to the British commanders that there would be no peace and no safety for their communications while an undefeated army of seven or eight thousand men, under such leaders as De Wet and Olivier, was lurking amid the hills which flanked their railroad. A determined effort was made, therefore, to clear up that corner of the country. Having closed the only line of escape by the junction of Ian Hamilton and of Buller, the attention of six separate bodies of troops was concentrated upon the stalwart Freestaters. These were the divisions of Rundle and of Brabant from the south, the brigade of Clements on their extreme left, the garrison of Lindley under Paget, the garrison of Heilbron under Macdonald, and, most formidable of all, a detachment under Hunter which was moving from the north. A crisis was evidently approaching.
On getting into touch with Clements, Paget sallied out from
Lindley, leaving the Buffs behind to garrison the town. He had with him
The place is surrounded by hills, and the enemy was found
strongly posted. Clements's force was now on the left and Paget's on the right.
From both sides an attempt was made to turn the Boer flanks, but they were
found to be very wide and strong. All day a long-range action was kept up while
Clements felt his way in the hope of coming upon some weak spot in the
position, but in the evening a direct attack was made by Paget's two infantry
regiments upon the right, which gave the British a footing on the Boer
position. The Munster Fusiliers and the Yorkshire Light Infantry lost forty
killed and wounded, including four officers, in this gallant affair, the
heavier loss and the greater honour going to the men of
The centre of the position was still held, and on the
morning of July 7th Clements gave instructions to the colonel of the Royal
Irish to storm it if the occasion should seem favourable. Such an order to such
a regiment means that the occasion will seem favourable. Up they went in three
extended lines, dropping forty or fifty on the way, but arriving breathless and
enthusiastic upon the crest of the ridge. Below them, upon the further side,
A word now as to that force under General
Hunter which was closing in from the north. The gallant and energetic
The net was now in position, and about to be drawn tight,
but at this last moment the biggest fish of all dashed furiously out from it.
Leaving the main Free State force in a hopeless position behind him, De Wet,
with fifteen hundred well-mounted men and five guns, broke through Slabbert's
Nek between Bethlehem and Ficksburg, and made swiftly for the north-west,
closely followed by Paget's and Broadwood's cavalry. It was on July 16th that
he made his dash for freedom. On the 19th Little, with
the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, had come into touch with him near Lindley. De Wet
shook himself clear, and with splendid audacity cut the railway once more to
the north of Honing Spruit, gathering up a train as he passed, and taking two
hundred details prisoners. On July 22nd De Wet was at Vredefort, still closely
followed by Broadwood, Ridley, and Little, who gleaned
his wagons and his stragglers. Thence he threw himself into the hilly country
some miles to the south of the
Leaving the indomitable guerilla in his hiding-place, the
narrative must return to that drawing of the net which still continued in spite
of the escape of this one important fish. On all sides the British forces had
drawn closer, and they were both more numerous and more formidable in quality.
It was evident now that by a rapid advance from
At every opening of the hills the British guns were thundering,
and the heads of British columns were appearing on every height. The Highland
Brigade had fairly established themselves over the
Boer position, though not without hard fighting, in which a hundred men of the
Highland Light Infantry had been killed and wounded. The Seaforths and the
On the 28th Clements was still advancing, and contracting
still further the space which was occupied by our stubborn foe. He found
himself faced by the stiff position of Slaapkrantz, and a hot little action was
needed before the Boers could be dislodged. The fighting fell upon
On July 30th the motley army which had held the British off
so long emerged from among the mountains. But it soon became evident that in
speaking for all Prinsloo had gone beyond his powers. Discipline was low and
individualism high in the Boer army. Every man might repudiate the decision of
his commandant, as every man might repudiate the white flag of his comrade. On
the first day no more than eleven hundred men of the Ficksburg and Ladybrand
commandos, with fifteen hundred horses and two guns, were surrendered. next day seven hundred and fifty more men came in with eight
hundred horses, and by August 6th the total of the prisoners had mounted to
four thousand one hundred and fifty with three guns, two of which were our own.
But Olivier, with fifteen hundred men and several guns, broke away from the
captured force and escaped through the hills. Of this incident General Hunter,
an honourable soldier, remarks in his official report: 'I regard it as a
dishonourable breach of faith upon the part of General Olivier, for which I
hold him personally responsible. He admitted that he knew that General Prinsloo
had included him in the unconditional surrender.' It is strange that, on
Olivier's capture shortly afterwards, he was not court-martialled for this
breach of the rules of war, but that good-natured giant, the Empire, is
quick--too quick, perhaps--to let byegones be byegones. On August 4th
Harrismith surrendered to Macdonald, and thus was secured the opening of the
Van Reenen's Pass and the end of the
Lord Roberts had now been six weeks in the capital, and
British troops had overrun the greater part of the south and west of the
Transvaal, but in spite of this there was continued Boer resistance, which
flared suddenly up in places which had been nominally pacified and disarmed. It
was found, as has often been shown in history, that it is easier to defeat a
republican army than to conquer it. From Klerksdorp, from Ventersdorp, from
Rustenburg, came news of risings against the newly imposed British authority.
The concealed Mauser and the bandolier were dug up once more from the trampled
corner of the cattle kraal, and the farmer was a warrior once again. Vague news
of the exploits of De Wet stimulated the fighting burghers and shamed those who
had submitted. A letter was intercepted from the guerilla chief to Cronje's
son, who had surrendered near Rustenburg. De Wet stated that he had gained two
great victories and had fifteen hundred captured rifles with which to replace
those which the burghers had given up. Not only were the outlying districts in
a state of revolt, but even round
Already at the end of June there were signs that the Boers
realised how helpless Lord Roberts was until his remounts should arrive. The
mosquitoes buzzed round the crippled lion. On June 29th there was an attack
upon Springs near
It is probable that all these demonstrations of the enemy
upon the right of Lord Roberts's extended position were really feints in order
to cover the far-reaching plans which Botha had in his mind. The disposition of
the Boer forces at this time appears to have been as follows: Botha with his
army occupied a position along Delagoa railway line, further east than Diamond
Hill, whence he detached the bodies which attacked Hutton upon the extreme
right of the British position to the south-east of