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The Great Boer War by Arthur Conan Doyle

Part 4 out of 11

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fell back upon Belmont. The rebel prisoners were sent down to Cape
Town for trial. The movement was covered by the advance of a force
under Babington from Methuen's force. This detachment, consisting
of the 9th and 12th Lancers, with some mounted infantry and G troop
of Horse Artillery, prevented any interference with Pilcher's force
from the north. It is worthy of record that though the two bodies
of troops were operating at a distance of thirty miles, they
succeeded in preserving a telephonic connection, seventeen minutes
being the average time taken over question and reply.

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
Dordrecht was the centre, exercised the troops in irregular

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 Springfield on the west to Weenen
on the east. A few plundered farmhouses and a small list of killed
and wounded horsemen on either side were the sole result of these
spasmodic and half-hearted operations.

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 York and Lancaster. The division also
included the 14th Hussars and the 19th, 20th, and 28th batteries of
Field Artillery. Other batteries of artillery, including one
howitzer battery, came to strengthen Buller's force, which amounted
now to more than 30,000 men. Immense transport preparations had to
be made, however, before the force could have the mobility
necessary for a flank march, and it was not until January 11th that
General Buller's new plans for advance could be set into action.
Before describing what these plans were and the disappointing fate
which awaited them, we will return to the story of the siege of
Ladysmith, and show how narrowly the relieving force escaped the
humiliation--some would say the disgrace--of seeing the town which
looked to them for help fall beneath their very eyes. That this did
not occur is entirely due to the fierce tenacity and savage
endurance of the disease-ridden and half-starved men who held on to
the frail lines which covered it.



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 Sedan, or even with an Ulm;
but such matters are comparative, and the force which laid down its
arms at Nicholson's Nek is the largest British force which has
surrendered since the days of our great grandfathers, when the
egregious Duke of York commanded in Flanders.

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,
Lombard's Kop, and the other positions from which the town might be
shelled. Whether these might or might not have been successfully
held has been much disputed by military men, the balance of opinion
being that Bulwana, at least, which has a water-supply of its own,
might have been retained. This question, however, was already
academic, as the outer hills were in the hands of the enemy. As it
was, the inner line--Caesar's Camp, Wagon Hill, Rifleman's Post,
and round to Helpmakaar Hill--made a perimeter of fourteen miles,
and the difficulty of retaining so extensive a line goes far to
exonerate General White, not only for abandoning the outer hills,
but also for retaining his cavalry in the town.

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
of the Klip River, is a broad green plain, some miles in extent,
which furnished grazing ground for the horses and cattle of the
besieged. Beyond it rises into a long flat-topped hill the famous
Bulwana, upon which lay one great Creusot and several smaller guns.
To the north, on Pepworth Hill, was another Creusot, and between
the two were the Boer batteries upon Lombard's Kop. The British
naval guns were placed upon this side, for, as the open loop formed
by the river lies at this end, it is the part of the defences which
is most liable to assault. From thence all round the west down to
Besters in the south was a continuous series of hills, each crowned
with Boer guns, which, if they could not harm the distant town,
were at least effective in holding the garrison to its lines. So
formidable were these positions that, amid much outspoken
criticism, it has never been suggested that White would have been
justified with a limited garrison in incurring the heavy loss of
life which must have followed an attempt to force them.

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 Brabant, the son of the General who did such good service
at a later stage of the war, was a heavy price to pay for the
knowledge that the Boers were in considerable strength to the

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
Lombard's Kop and the town, on the north-east, were the Devons. To
the north, at what seemed the vulnerable point, were the Rifle
Brigade, the Rifles, and the remains of the 18th Hussars. To the
west were the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, and 5th Dragoon Guards.
The rest of the force was encamped round the outskirts of the town.

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

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 Natal. Had they done so it
is hard to see what could have prevented them from riding their
horses down to salt water. A few odds and ends, half battalions and
local volunteers, stood between them and Durban. But here, as on
the Orange River, a singular paralysis seems to have struck them.
When the road lay clear before them the first transports of the
army corps were hardly past St. Vincent, but before they had made
up their mind to take that road the harbour of Durban was packed
with our shipping and ten thousand men had thrown themselves across
their path.

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 Orange Free State--a dangerous precedent when
the tables should be turned. With amazing assurance the burghers
pegged out farms for themselves and sent for their people to occupy
these newly won estates.

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 Table Mountain saw the smoke of a great steamer coming
past Robben Island. It was the 'Roslin Castle' with the first of
the reinforcements. Within the week the 'Moor,' 'Yorkshire,'
'Aurania,' 'Hawarden Castle,' 'Gascon,' 'Armenian,' 'Oriental,' and
a fleet of others had passed for Durban with 15,000 men. Once again
the command of the sea had saved the Empire.

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 Southern Natal.
From below, trainload after trainload of British regulars were
coming up to the danger point, feted and cheered at every station.
Lonely farmhouses near the line hung out their Union Jacks, and the
folk on the stoep heard the roar of the choruses as the great
trains swung upon their way. From above the Boers were flooding
down, as Churchill saw them, dour, resolute, riding silently
through the rain, or chanting hymns round their camp fires--brave
honest farmers, but standing unconsciously for mediaevalism and
corruption, even as our rough-tongued Tommies stood for
civilisation, progress, and equal rights for all men.

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 Free State acknowledge that the ruin which had come upon them
was a just retribution for the excesses of Natal.]

The next British post behind Hildyard's at Estcourt was Barton's
upon the Mooi River, thirty miles to the south. Upon this the Boers
made a half-hearted attempt, but Joubert had begun to realise the
strength of the British reinforcements and the impossibility with
the numbers at his disposal of investing a succession of British
posts. He ordered Botha to withdraw from Mooi River and begin his
northerly trek.

The turning-point of the Boer invasion of Natal was marked, though
we cannot claim that it was caused, by the action of Willow Grange.
This was fought by Hildyard and Walter Kitchener in command of the
Estcourt garrison, against about 2000 of the invaders under Louis
Botha. The troops engaged were the East and West Surreys (four
companies of the latter), the West Yorkshires, the Durban Light
Infantry, No. 7 battery R.F.A., two naval guns, and some hundreds
of Colonial Horse.

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 Surreys and the Yorkshires behaved very well, but
were placed in a difficult position and were badly supported by the
artillery. Martyn's Mounted Infantry covered the retirement with
great gallantry, but the skirmish ended in a British loss of
fourteen killed and fifty wounded or missing, which was certainly
more than that of the Boers. From this indecisive action of Willow
Grange the Boer invasion receded until General Buller, coming to
the front on November 27th, found that the enemy was once more
occupying the line of the Tugela. He himself moved up to Frere,
where he devoted his time and energies to the collection of that
force with which he was destined, after three failures, to make his
way into Ladysmith.

One unexpected and little known result of the Boer expedition into
Southern Natal was that their leader, the chivalrous Joubert,
injured himself through his horse stumbling, and was physically
incapacitated for the remainder of the campaign. He returned almost
immediately to Pretoria, leaving the command of the Tugela in the
hands of Louis Botha.

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 South Africa from Cape
Town northwards. South Africa is the keystone of the Empire, and
for the instant Ladysmith was the keystone of South Africa. But the
courage of the troops who held the shell-torn townlet, and the
confidence of the public who watched them, never faltered for an

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 gallant
Henderson, is the cheap price for the best-planned and most dashing
exploit of the war. Secrecy in conception, vigour in
execution--they are the root ideas of the soldier's craft. So
easily was the enterprise carried out, and so defective the Boer
watch, that it is probable that if all the guns had been
simultaneously attacked the Boers might have found themselves
without a single piece of ordnance in the morning. [Footnote: The
destruction of the Creusot was not as complete as was hoped. It was
taken back to Pretoria, three feet were sawn off the muzzle, and a
new breech-block provided. The gun was then sent to Kimberley, and
it was the heavy cannon which arrived late in the history of that
siege and caused considerable consternation among the inhabitants.]

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

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 Transvaal
secretary), who was present. According to his account there were
but eight Boers present, but assertion or contradiction equally
valueless in the darkness of such a night, and there are some
obvious discrepancies in his statement. 'We fired among them,' says
Reitz. 'They stopped and all cried out "Rifle Brigade." Then one of
them said "Charge!" One officer, Captain Paley, advanced, though he
had two bullet wounds already. Joubert gave him another shot and he
fell on the top of us. Four Englishmen got hold of Jan Luttig and
struck him on the head with their rifles and stabbed him in the
stomach with a bayonet. He seized two of them by the throat and
shouted "Help, boys!" His two nearest comrades shot two of them,
and the other two bolted. Then the English came up in numbers,
about eight hundred, along the footpath' (there were two hundred on
the hill, but the exaggeration is pardonable in the darkness), 'and
we lay as quiet as mice along the bank. Farther on the English
killed three of our men with bayonets and wounded two. In the
morning we found Captain Paley and twenty-two of them killed and
wounded.' It seems evident that Reitz means that his own little
party were eight men, and not that that represented the force which
intercepted the retiring riflemen. Within his own knowledge five of
his countrymen were killed in the scuffle, so the total loss was
probably considerable. Our own casualties were eleven dead,
forty-three wounded, and six prisoners, but the price was not
excessive for the howitzer and for the morale which arises from
such exploits. Had it not been for that unfortunate fuse, the
second success might have been as bloodless as the first. 'I am
sorry,' said a sympathetic correspondent to the stricken Paley.
'But we got the gun,' Paley whispered, and he spoke for 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

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 Kimberley is said to have slain nine and
wounded seventeen. In Ladysmith too there are days to be marked in
red when the gunner shot better than he knew. One shell on December
17th killed six men (Natal Carabineers), wounded three, and
destroyed fourteen horses. The grisly fact has been recorded that
five separate human legs lay upon the ground. On December 22nd
another tragic shot killed five and wounded twelve of the Devons.
On the same day four officers of the 5th Lancers (including the
Colonel) and one sergeant were wounded--a most disastrous day. A
little later it was again the turn of the Devons, who lost one
officer killed and ten wounded. Christmas set in amid misery,
hunger, and disease, the more piteous for the grim attempts to
amuse the children and live up to the joyous season, when the
present of Santa Claus was too often a 96-pound shell. On the top
of all other troubles it was now known that the heavy ammunition
was running short and must be husbanded for emergencies. There was
no surcease, however, in the constant hail which fell upon the
town. Two or three hundred shells were a not unusual daily
allowance. The monotonous bombardment with which the New Year had
commenced was soon to be varied by a most gallant and
spirit-stirring clash of arms. On January 6th the Boers delivered
their great assault upon Ladysmith--an onfall so gallantly made and
gallantly met that it deserves to rank among the classic fights of
British military history. It is a tale which neither side need be
ashamed to tell. Honour to the sturdy infantry who held their grip
so long, and honour also to the rough men of the veld, who, led by
untrained civilians, stretched us to the utmost capacity of our

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 Heidelberg (Transvaal)
and Harrismith (Free State) contingents, led by de Villiers. They
were supported by several thousand riflemen, who might secure their
success or cover their retreat. Eighteen heavy guns had been
trained upon the long ridge, one end of which has been called
Caesar's Camp and the other Waggon Hill. This hill, three miles
long, lay to the south of the town, and the Boers had early
recognised it as being the most vulnerable point, for it was
against it that their attack of November 9th had been directed.
Now, after two months, they were about to renew the attempt with
greater resolution against less robust opponents. At twelve o'clock
our scouts heard the sounds of the chanting of hymns in the Boer
camps. At two in the morning crowds of barefooted men were
clustering round the base of the ridge, and threading their way,
rifle in hand, among the mimosa-bushes and scattered boulders which
cover the slope of the hill. Some working parties were moving guns
into position, and the noise of their labour helped to drown the
sound of the Boer advance. Both at Caesar's Camp, the east end of
the ridge, and at Waggon Hill, the west end (the points being, I
repeat, three miles apart), the attack came as a complete surprise.
The outposts were shot or driven in, and the stormers were on the
ridge almost as soon as their presence was detected. The line of
rocks blazed with the flash of their guns.

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
Lancashire men pulled themselves together and held on strenuously
to those which remained. The crash of musketry woke the sleeping
town, and the streets resounded with the shouting of the officers
and the rattling of arms as the men mustered in the darkness and
hurried to the points of danger.

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 Battery, which was
exposed to an even more searching fire than the 53rd. Any one who
has seen the iron endurance of British gunners and marvelled at the
answering shot which flashes out through the very dust of the
enemy's exploding shell, will understand how fine must have been
the spectacle of these two batteries working in the open, with the
ground round them sharded with splinters. Eye-witnesses have left
it upon record that the sight of Major Blewitt strolling up and
down among his guns, and turning over with his toe the last fallen
section of iron, was one of the most vivid and stirring impressions
which they carried from the fight. Here also it was that the
gallant Sergeant Bosley, his arm and his leg stricken off by a Boer
shell, cried to his comrades to roll his body off the trail and go
on working the gun.

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 Free State shot Miller-Wallnut dead, Ian Hamilton
fired at de Villiers with his revolver and missed him. Young
Albrecht of the Light Horse shot de Villiers. A Boer named de
Jaeger shot Albrecht. Digby-Jones of the Sappers shot de Jaeger.
Only a few minutes later the gallant lad, who had already won fame
enough for a veteran, was himself mortally wounded, and Dennis, his
comrade in arms and in glory, fell by his side.

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 Klip River, never again to be
accounted for in the lists of their field-cornet. The majority
splashed through, found their horses in their shelter, and galloped
off across the great Bulwana Plain, as fairly beaten in as fair a
fight as ever brave men were yet.

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, Adams and Packman of the Light Horse, the chivalrous
Lafone--we had to mourn quality as well as numbers. The grim test
of the casualty returns shows that it was to the Imperial Light
Horse (ten officers down, and the regiment commanded by a junior
captain), the Manchesters, the Gordons, the Devons, and the 2nd
Rifle Brigade that the honours of the day are due.

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 London
papers. For the first time the very suggestion that the campaign
might be above our strength was made to the public. And then at
last there came the official news of the repulse of the assault.
Far away at Ladysmith, the weary men and their sorely tried
officers gathered to return thanks to God for His manifold mercies,
but in London also hearts were stricken solemn by the greatness of
the crisis, and lips long unused to prayer joined in the devotions
of the absent warriors.



Of the four British armies in the field I have attempted to tell
the story of the western one which advanced to help Kimberley, of
the eastern one which was repulsed at Colenso, and of the central
one which was checked at Stormberg. There remains one other central
one, some account of which must now be given.

It was, as has already been pointed out, a long three weeks after
the declaration of war before the forces of the Orange Free State
began to invade Cape Colony. But for this most providential delay
it is probable that the ultimate fighting would have been, not
among the mountains and kopjes of Stormberg and Colesberg, but amid
those formidable passes which lie in the Hex Valley, immediately to
the north of Cape Town, and that the armies of the invader would
have been doubled by their kinsmen of the Colony. The ultimate
result of the war must have been the same, but the sight of all
South Africa in flames might have brought about those Continental
complications which have always been so grave a menace.

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 South Africa has for once proved not the
grave but the cradle of a reputation, had before the war gained
some name as a smart and energetic cavalry officer. There were some
who, watching his handling of a considerable body of horse at the
great Salisbury manoeuvres in 1898, conceived the highest opinion
of his capacity, and it was due to the strong support of General
Buller, who had commanded in these peaceful operations, that French
received his appointment for South Africa. In person he is short
and thick, with a pugnacious jaw. In character he is a man of cold
persistence and of fiery energy, cautious and yet audacious,
weighing his actions well, but carrying them out with the dash
which befits a mounted leader. He is remarkable for the quickness
of his decision--'can think at a gallop,' as an admirer expressed
it. Such was the man, alert, resourceful, and determined, to whom
was entrusted the holding back of the Colesberg Boers.

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 Colesberg lies in a basin surrounded by a
ring of kopjes, and the possession by us of any one of them would
have made the place untenable. The plan has been ascribed to
Colonel Watson of the Suffolks, but it is time that some protest
should be raised against this devolution of responsibility upon
subordinates in the event of failure. When success has crowned our
arms we have been delighted to honour our general; but when our
efforts end in failure our attention is called to Colonel Watson,
Colonel Long, or Colonel Thorneycroft. It is fairer to state that
in this instance General French ordered Colonel Watson to make a
night attack upon the hill.

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 Butler, was
struck down. The other companies had retired, however, and the dawn
found this fringe of men, most of them wounded, lying under the
very rifles of the Boers. Even then they held out for some time,
but they could neither advance, retire, or stay where they were
without losing lives to no purpose, so the survivors were compelled
to surrender. There is better evidence here than at Magersfontein
that the enemy were warned and ready. Every one of the officers
engaged, from the Colonel to the boy subaltern, was killed,
wounded, or taken. Eleven officers and one hundred and fifty men
were our losses in this unfortunate but not discreditable affair,
which proves once more how much accuracy and how much secrecy is
necessary for a successful night attack. Four companies of the
regiment were sent down to Port Elizabeth to re-officer, but the
arrival of the 1st Essex enabled French to fill the gap which had
been made in his force.

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

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
Colesberg, which could not however, for humanitarian and political
reasons, be shelled.

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 Cape Town to aid General Roberts in the
elaboration of that plan which was soon to change the whole
military situation in South Africa.

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 India, being the last arrivals.
But very much stronger reinforcements had arrived for the Boers--so
strong that they were able to take the offensive. De la Rey had
left the Modder with three thousand men, and their presence infused
new life into the defenders of Colesberg. At the moment, too, that
the Modder Boers were coming to Colesberg, the British had begun to
send cavalry reinforcements to the Modder in preparation for the
march to Kimberley, so that Clements's Force (as it had now become)
was depleted at the very instant when that of the enemy was largely
increased. The result was that it was all they could do not merely
to hold their own, but to avoid a very serious disaster.

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

But the Worcester men were steady old soldiers, and the battalion
contained no less than four hundred and fifty marksmen in its
ranks. Of these the companies upon the hill had their due
proportion, and their fire was so accurate that the Boers found
themselves unable to advance any further. Through the long day a
desperate duel was maintained between the two lines of riflemen.
Colonel Cuningham and Major Stubbs were killed while endeavouring
to recover the ground which had been lost. Hovel and Bartholomew
continued to encourage their men, and the British fire became so
deadly that that of the Boers was dominated. Under the direction of
Hacket Pain, who commanded the nearest post, guns of J battery were
brought out into the open and shelled the portion of the kopje
which was held by the Boers. The latter were reinforced, but could
make no advance against the accurate rifle fire with which they
were met. The Bisley champion of the battalion, with a bullet
through his thigh, expended a hundred rounds before sinking from
loss of blood. It was an excellent defence, and a pleasing
exception to those too frequent cases where an isolated force has
lost heart in face of a numerous and persistent foe. With the
coming of darkness the Boers withdrew with a loss of over two
hundred killed and wounded. Orders had come from Clements that the
whole right wing should be drawn in, and in obedience to them the
remains of the victorious companies were called in by Hacket Pain,
who moved his force by night in the direction of Rensburg. The
British loss in the action was twenty-eight killed and nearly a
hundred wounded or missing, most of which was incurred when the
sangars were rushed in the early morning.

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 of Australia and
New Zealand. In a host which held many brave men there were none
braver than they.

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 Free State. Clements drew in his wings hurriedly and
concentrated his whole force at Rensburg. It was a difficult
operation in the face of an aggressive enemy, but the movements
were well timed and admirably carried out. There is always the
possibility of a retreat degenerating into a panic, and a panic at
that moment would have been a most serious matter. One misfortune
occurred, through which two companies of the Wiltshire regiment
were left without definite orders, and were cut off and captured
after a resistance in which a third of their number was killed and
wounded. No man in that trying time worked harder than Colonel
Carter of the Wiltshires (the night of the retreat was the sixth
which he had spent without sleep), and the loss of the two
companies is to be set down to one of those accidents which may
always occur in warfare. Some of the Inniskilling Dragoons and
Victorian Mounted Rifles were also cut off in the retreat, but on
the whole Clements was very fortunate in being able to concentrate
his scattered army with so few mishaps. The withdrawal was
heartbreaking to the soldiers who had worked so hard and so long in
extending the lines, but it might be regarded with equanimity by
the Generals, who understood that the greater strength the enemy
developed at Colesberg the less they would have to oppose the
critical movements which were about to be carried out in the west.
Meanwhile Coleskop had also been abandoned, the guns removed, and
the whole force on February 14th passed through Rensburg and fell
back upon Arundel, the spot from which six weeks earlier French had
started upon this stirring series of operations. It would not be
fair, however, to suppose that they had failed because they ended
where they began. Their primary object had been to prevent the
further advance of the Freestaters into the colony, and, during the
most critical period of the war, this had been accomplished with
much success and little loss. At last the pressure had become so
severe that the enemy had to weaken the most essential part of
their general position in order to relieve it. The object of the
operations had really been attained when Clements found himself
back at Arundel once more. French, the stormy petrel of the war,
had flitted on from Cape Town to Modder River, where a larger prize
than Colesberg awaited him. Clements continued to cover Naauwport,
the important railway junction, until the advance of Roberts's army
caused a complete reversal of the whole military situation.



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

Clery's Division.
Hildyard's Brigade.
2nd West Surrey.
2nd Devonshire.
2nd West Yorkshire.
2nd East Surrey.
Hart's Brigade.
1st Inniskilling Fusiliers.
1st Border Regiment.
1st Connaught Rangers.
2nd Dublin Fusiliers.
Field Artillery, three batteries, 19th, 28th, 63rd; one squadron
13th Hussars; Royal Engineers.

Warren's Division.
Lyttelton's Brigade.
2nd Cameronians.
3rd King's Royal Rifles.
1st Durham Light Infantry.
1st Rifle Brigade.
Woodgate's Brigade.
2nd Royal Lancaster.
2nd Lancashire Fusiliers.
1st South Lancashire.
York and Lancasters.
Field Artillery, three batteries, 7th, 78th, 73rd; one squadron
13th Hussars.

Corps Troops.
Coke's Brigade.
Imperial Light Infantry.
2nd Somersets.
2nd Dorsets.
2nd Middlesex.
61st Howitzer Battery; two 4.7 naval guns; eight naval 12-pounder guns;
one squadron 13th Hussars; Royal Engineers.

1st Royal Dragoons.
14th Hussars.
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 Tugela River which is called Potgieter's Drift. General
Buller's apparent plan was to seize this, together with the ferry
which runs at this point, and so to throw himself upon the right
flank of the Colenso Boers. Once over the river there is one
formidable line of hills to cross, but if this were passed there
would be comparatively easy ground until the Ladysmith hills were
reached. With high hopes Buller and his men sallied out upon their

Dundonald's cavalry force pushed rapidly forwards, crossed the
Little Tugela, a tributary of the main river, at Springfield, and
established themselves upon the hills which command the drift.
Dundonald largely exceeded his instructions in going so far, and
while we applaud his courage and judgment in doing so, we must
remember and be charitable to those less fortunate officers whose
private enterprise has ended in disaster and reproof. There can be
no doubt that the enemy intended to hold all this tract, and that
it was only the quickness of our initial movements which
forestalled them. Early in the morning a small party of the South
African Horse, under Lieutenant Carlisle, swam the broad river
under fire and brought back the ferry boat, an enterprise which was
fortunately bloodless, but which was most coolly planned and
gallantly carried out. The way was now open to our advance, and
could it have been carried out as rapidly as it had begun the Boers
might conceivably have been scattered before they could
concentrate. It was not the fault of the infantry that it was not
so. They were trudging, mud-spattered and jovial, at the very heels
of the horses, after a forced march which was one of the most
trying of the whole campaign. But an army of 20,000 men cannot be
conveyed over a river twenty miles from any base without elaborate
preparations being made to feed them. The roads were in such a
state that the wagons could hardly move, heavy rain had just
fallen, and every stream was swollen into a river; bullocks might
strain, and traction engines pant, and horses die, but by no human
means could the stores be kept up if the advance guard were allowed
to go at their own pace. And so, having ensured an ultimate
crossing of the river by the seizure of Mount Alice, the high hill
which commands the drift, the forces waited day after day, watching
in the distance the swarms of strenuous dark figures who dug and
hauled and worked upon the hillsides opposite, barring the road
which they would have to take. Far away on the horizon a little
shining point twinkled amid the purple haze, coming and going from
morning to night. It was the heliograph of Ladysmith, explaining
her troubles and calling for help, and from the heights of Mount
Alice an answering star of hope glimmered and shone, soothing,
encouraging, explaining, while the stern men of the veld dug
furiously at their trenches in between. 'We are coming! We are
coming!' cried Mount Alice. 'Over our bodies,' said the men with
the spades and mattocks.

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 peak of Spion Kop forming the left corner of
it. If once that main ridge could be captured or commanded, it
would carry them halfway to the goal. It was for that essential
line of hills that two of the most dogged races upon earth were
about to contend. An immediate advance might have secured the
position at once, but, for some reason which is inexplicable, an
aimless march to the left was followed by a retirement to the
original position of Warren's division, and so two invaluable days
were wasted. We have the positive assurance of Commandant Edwards,
who was Chief of Staff to General Botha, that a vigorous turning
movement upon the left would at this time have completely
outflanked the Boer position and opened a way to Ladysmith.

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 left of Warren's advance.

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 Natal sky. The heavy naval guns on Mount
Alice (two 4.7's and eight twelve-pounders) were so placed as to
support either advance, and the howitzer battery was given to
Lyttelton to help the frontal attack. For two days the British
pressed slowly but steadily on to the Boers under the cover of an
incessant rain of shells. Dour and long-suffering the Boers made no
reply, save with sporadic rifle-fire, and refused until the crisis
should come to expose their great guns to the chance of injury.

On January 19th Warren's turning movement began to bring him into
closer touch with the enemy, his thirty-six field guns and the six
howitzers which had returned to him crushing down the opposition
which faced him. The ground in front of him was pleated into long
folds, and his advance meant the carrying of ridge after ridge. In
the earlier stages of the war this would have entailed a murderous
loss; but we had learned our lesson, and the infantry now, with
intervals of ten paces, and every man choosing his own cover, went
up in proper Boer form, carrying position after position, the enemy
always retiring with dignity and decorum. There was no victory on
one side or rout on the other--only a steady advance and an orderly
retirement. That night the infantry slept in their fighting line,
going on again at three in the morning, and light broke to find not
only rifles, but the long-silent Boer guns all blazing at the
British advance. Again, as at Colenso, the brunt of the fighting
fell upon Hart's Irish Brigade, who upheld that immemorial
tradition of valour with which that name, either in or out of the
British service, has invariably been associated. Upon the
Lancashire Fusiliers and the York and Lancasters came also a large
share of the losses and the glory. Slowly but surely the inexorable
line of the British lapped over the ground which the enemy had
held. A gallant colonial, Tobin of the South African Horse, rode up
one hill and signaled with his hat that it was clear. His comrades
followed closely at his heels, and occupied the position with the
loss of Childe, their Major. During this action Lyttelton had held
the Boers in their trenches opposite to him by advancing to within
1500 yards of them, but the attack was not pushed further. On the
evening of this day, January 20th, the British had gained some
miles of ground, and the total losses had been about three hundred
killed and wounded. The troops were in good heart, and all promised
well for the future. Again the men lay where they had fought, and
again the dawn heard the crash of the great guns and the rattle of
the musketry.

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
London which left the whole Empire in a hush of anticipation. Spion
Kop was to be attacked that night.

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 South Lancashires, 180 of Thorneycroft's, and half a
company of Sappers. It was to be a North of England job.

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 Lancashire
men were shot down. The others spread out and held on, firing
occasionally at the whisk of a rifle-barrel or the glimpse of a
broad-brimmed hat.

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 Dorsets, and the Somersets,
together with the Imperial Light Infantry. The addition of this
force to the defenders of the plateau tended to increase the
casualty returns rather than the strength of the defence. Three
thousand more rifles could do nothing to check the fire of the
invisible cannon, and it was this which was the main source of the
losses, while on the other hand the plateau had become so cumbered
with troops that a shell could hardly fail to do damage. There was
no cover to shelter them and no room for them to extend. The
pressure was most severe upon the shallow trenches in the front,
which had been abandoned by the Boers and were held by the
Lancashire Fusiliers. They were enfiladed by rifle and cannon, and
the dead and wounded outnumbered the hale. So close were the
skirmishers that on at least one occasion Boer and Briton found
themselves on each side of the same rock. Once a handful of men,
tormented beyond endurance, sprang up as a sign that they had had
enough, but Thorneycroft, a man of huge physique, rushed forward to
the advancing Boers. 'You may go to hell!' he yelled. 'I command
here, and allow no surrender. Go on with your firing.' Nothing
could exceed the gallantry of Louis Botha's men in pushing the
attack. Again and again they made their way up to the British
firing line, exposing themselves with a recklessness which, with
the exception of the grand attack upon Ladysmith, was unique in our
experience of them. About two o'clock they rushed one trench
occupied by the Fusiliers and secured the survivors of two
companies as prisoners, but were subsequently driven out again. A
detached group of the South Lancashires was summoned to surrender.
'When I surrender,' cried Colour-Sergeant Nolan, 'it will be my
dead body!' Hour after hour of the unintermitting crash of the
shells among the rocks and of the groans and screams of men torn
and burst by the most horrible of all wounds had shaken the troops
badly. Spectators from below who saw the shells pitching at the
rate of seven a minute on to the crowded plateau marvelled at the
endurance which held the devoted men to their post. Men were
wounded and wounded and wounded yet again, and still went on
fighting. Never since Inkerman had we had so grim a soldier's
battle. The company officers were superb. Captain Muriel of the
Middlesex was shot through the check while giving a cigarette to a
wounded man, continued to lead his company, and was shot again
through the brain. Scott Moncrieff of the same regiment was only
disabled by the fourth bullet which hit him. Grenfell of
Thorneycroft's was shot, and exclaimed, 'That's all right. It's not
much.' A second wound made him remark, 'I can get on all right.'
The third killed him. Ross of the Lancasters, who had crawled from
a sickbed, was found dead upon the furthest crest. Young Murray of
the Scottish Rifles, dripping from five wounds, still staggered
about among his men. And the men were worthy of such officers. 'No
retreat! No retreat!' they yelled when some of the front line were
driven in. In all regiments there are weaklings and hang-backs, and
many a man was wandering down the reverse slopes when he should
have been facing death upon the top, but as a body British troops
have never stood firm through a more fiery ordeal than on that
fatal hill. . .

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 Mount Alice did
what they could, but the range was very long, and the position of
the Boer guns uncertain. The artillery, situated as it was, could
not save the infantry from the horrible scourging which they were

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 Dorsets, whose cohesion may have been due to
superior discipline, less exposure, or to the fact that their khaki
differed somewhat in colour from that of the others. Twelve hours
of so terrible an experience had had a strange effect upon many of
the men. Some were dazed and battle-struck, incapable of clear
understanding. Some were as incoherent as drunkards. Some lay in an
overpowering drowsiness. The most were doggedly patient and
long-suffering, with a mighty longing for water obliterating every
other emotion.

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 Wellington was able to survey four
thousand bodies piled in the narrow compass of the breach of
Badajos, but his resolution was sustained by the knowledge that the
military end for which they fell had been accomplished. Had his
task been unfinished it is doubtful whether even his steadfast soul
would not have flinched from its completion. Thorneycroft saw the
frightful havoc of one day, and he shrank from the thought of such
another. 'Better six battalions safely down the hill than a mop up
in the morning,' said he, and he gave the word to retire. One who
had met the troops as they staggered down has told me how far they
were from being routed. In mixed array, but steadily and in order,
the long thin line trudged through the darkness. Their parched lips
would not articulate, but they whispered 'Water! Where is water?'
as they toiled upon their way. At the bottom of the hill they
formed into regiments once more, and marched back to the camp. In
the morning the blood-spattered hill-top, with its piles of dead
and of wounded, were in the hands of Botha and his men, whose
valour and perseverance deserved the victory which they had won.
There is no doubt now that at 3 A.M. of that morning Botha, knowing
that the Rifles had carried Burger's position, regarded the affair
as hopeless, and that no one was more astonished than he when he
found, on the report of two scouts, that it was a victory and not a
defeat which had come to him.

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

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 Warren's
operations been more dashing, he would have found his turning
movement upon the left a comparatively easy matter. In this
judgment he would probably have the concurrence of most military
critics. He adds, however, 'On the 19th, I ought to have assumed
command myself. I saw that things were not going well--indeed,
everyone saw that. I blame myself now for not having done so. I did
not, because, if I did, I should discredit General Warren in the
estimation of the troops, and, if I were shot, and he had to
withdraw across the Tugela, and they had lost confidence in him,
the consequences might be very serious. I must leave it to higher
authority whether this argument was a sound one.' It needs no
higher authority than common-sense to say that the argument is an
absolutely unsound one. No consequences could be more serious than
that the operations should miscarry and Ladysmith remain
unrelieved, and such want of success must in any case discredit
Warren in the eyes of his troops. Besides, a subordinate is not
discredited because his chief steps in to conduct a critical
operation. However, these personal controversies may be suffered to
remain in that pigeon-hole from which they should never have been

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
Rand refugees who were enduring their baptism of fire, lost 130
men. In officers the losses were particularly heavy, 60 being
killed or wounded. The Boer returns show some 50 killed and 150
wounded, which may not be far from the truth. Without the shell
fire the British losses might not have been much more.

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 Mount Alice, and this
was all that he had to show for such sacrifices and such exertions.
Once more there came a weary pause while Ladysmith, sick with hope
deferred, waited gloomily upon half-rations of horse-flesh for the
next movement from the South.



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

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 Mount Alice and at Swartz
Kop, so that he could pass troops over at his will. He would make a
noisy demonstration against Brakfontein, then suddenly seize
Vaalkranz, and so, as he hoped, hold the outer door which opened on
to the passage to Ladysmith.

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

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