Mahan: Chapter VII - Natal Campaign. the Unsuccessful British Attempts To Turn The Boers' Right Flank At Spion Kop And At Vaal Krantz
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On the 9th of January, 1900, the Fifth Division of the British Army, which, under Lieut.-General Sir Charles Warren, had been assembling at Estcourt, marched out for Frere, where General Buller's headquarters had been established after the battle of Colenso. Arriving the same evening, it started the next day for Springfield, the movement being followed by the whole army, except the 6th Brigade, left at Chieveley, and such other troops as were needed to protect the railroad to Durban against raids. To control the action of the mass of the Boers, dependence could be placed upon the operation in progress for turning their right flank, to resist which and to maintain the siege of Ladysmith would require all the force at their disposal.
The abortive issue of this British undertaking, and of its sequent operation against Vaal Krantz in the same quarter, removes the necessity of giving minute details in a narrative which does not profess to be a critical military study, but merely seeks to present a clear analytical account of the various transactions.
It is necessary first to understand the principal features of the country. In general directions, as far as effective, the movement followed the valley of the Tugela. In this, ten miles west of Colenso, there is a sharp bend at nearly right angles. There the stream for a stretch of six miles has run south by east, while above it the river bed again, as below, lies east and west, but is excessively tortuous, winding back and forth among hills which on one side or the other come down close to the water's edge. It was at Trichardt's Drift, about seven miles above—west of—this north and south stretch, that the British army was to make, and did make, its crossing; purposing thereby to turn the flanks of the Boer positions, which in a general sense followed the north bank of the Tugela.
The conditions leading to the choice of this point appear to have been as follows. Eastward of the north and south stretch just specified, and as far as to the Ladysmith railroad, the mountain ranges north of the river are not only high, but wide, broken, and intricate, ending in Grobler's Kloof and the other kopjes mentioned in describing the positions at Colenso. The reverse slopes of this broken region are full six miles north of the river's course. The map shows the district almost wholly bare of roads, an indication that it is unsuited to large military operations. Upstream of the stretch, the ranges, though steep and broken, are very much narrower. Three miles west of it, at Potgieter's Drift, a road passes through from Springfield to the plain beyond at Brakfontein, showing a considerable depression at this point. By this road was made the second unsuccessful attempt of the campaign, towards Vaal Krantz.
Four miles higher up, at Trichardt's Drift the chain leaves the river, trending north-north-west for eight miles, with a breadth which, beginning with three miles at the south, narrows to one and a half, with lessening elevation, towards the north end, where it drops to the plain. The western slope of this eight mile spur, over the southern part of which, contrary to first intention, the British attack was actually made, is precipitous near the summit; lower down it is more gradual, but still steep. A mile from the foot of the spur, and parallel to it, runs a stream called Venter's Spruit, which enters the Tugela from the north-west a little above Trichardt's. Six miles from the ford, between spur and spruit, is Acton Homes, the point designated by Buller as the first objective of the army, whence the range was to be crossed. The change of direction noted at Trichardt's gives to the whole range, from Colenso to Acton Homes, the character of an arc of a circle, on the interior of which, considered as a defensive position, the Boers moved, with the additional advantage of being all mounted men. Near the southern end of the spur, but well to its eastern edge, is the lofty eminence called Spion Kop, which played so important a part in the operation as it ultimately developed.
At Acton Homes roads meet from north, south, east and west; a fact which sufficiently indicates the importance of the point and the comparatively favourable nature of the surroundings for operations—for roads usually seek the easiest ground. From it two start east for Ladysmith, crossing the spur by different ways, and uniting some eight miles beyond in the plain lying west of Ladysmith, where the network of communications shows the relatively open character of the country. It was by one or both of these roads that Buller purposed to advance.
On the 12th of January the 5th Division reached Springfield, and on the 13th the whole army was assembled there or at Spearman's Hill, near Potgieter's Drift, where Buller established his headquarters. The hills there on the south side of the river were fortunately secured, and naval batteries placed upon them commanding the opposite heights. The turning movement by way of Acton Homes was then committed by Sir Redvers Buller to Sir Charles Warren, who on the 15th of January received—to quote his own words—"secret instructions to command a force to proceed across the Tugela, near Trichardt's Drift, to the west of Spion Kop, recommending me to proceed forward, refusing my right (Spion Kop), and bringing my left forward to gain the open plain north of Spion Kop ... I was provided with four days' rations, with which I was to cross the Tugela, fight my way round to north of Spion Kop, and join your column opposite Potgieter's." This, therefore, was Buller's plan; the spur was to be turned rather than forced. It appears to have been his sustained purpose to leave the execution to Warren, interfering himself not at all or the very least possible. The force employed on the expedition has been nowhere found officially stated. Warren himself says that his own command "amounted to an army corps less one brigade," which, including all arms and the medical and supply services, would be about 30,000 men—an estimate that appears rather too high. The one brigade remained with Buller at Spearman's Camp.
On the evening of January 16 this brigade, the 4th, under Lyttelton, covered by the naval batteries, crossed at Potgieter's Drift, and established itself in kopjes a mile north of the river. The movement was a feint on the Brakfontein Road, and was continued the following days to draw attention from the true attack by Warren. The latter crossed on the 17th at Trichardt's, occupied the hills on the north side commanding the ford, and pushed the cavalry as far as Acton Homes, which they entered without serious opposition, but were soon after withdrawn. That night and the 18th the wagon train passed over, and on the 19th two brigades advanced farther and occupied some hills on the right.
During the 19th Warren made up his mind that the plan "recommended" him was not practicable without modification, and, after consulting his principal subordinates, telegraphed that evening to Buller as follows: "I find there are only two roads north of the Tugela by which we could possibly get from Trichardt's Drift to Potgieter's—one by Acton Homes, the other by Fair View and Rosalie. The first I reject as too long; the second is a very difficult road for a large number of wagons unless the enemy is thoroughly cleared out. I am, therefore, going to adopt some special arrangement which will involve my stay at Venter's Laager for two or three days. I will send in for further supplies and report progress." Explained by other remarks of Warren's in his despatches, this appears to mean that the easier road by Acton Homes was thought by him too long for his division to traverse with the food they could carry in their haversacks, and that it was therefore necessary to take the shorter, which leaves the main road three miles from Trichardt's, and strikes directly over the range, passing north, and within three miles, of Spion Kop. To do this the men would carry four days' rations, and the wagons be returned south of the Tugela. First of all, however, the positions in front must be captured, including Spion Kop.
The above telegram was the only report made at this period by Warren to his superior. Various operations went on during the next three days, presumably pursuant of the purpose stated in Warren's subsequent account of his proceedings—"We must first capture the position in front of us." The estimate of their effect by Buller, who was at the scene on the 21st and 22nd, is best given in the words of his report to Lord Roberts. "I went over to Sir C. Warren on the 23rd. I pointed out to him that I had no further report and no intimation of the special arrangements foreshadowed by his telegram of the 19th, that for four days he had kept his men exposed to shell and rifle fire, perched on the edge of an almost precipitous hill, that the position admitted of no second line, and the supports were massed close behind the firing line in indefensible formations, and that a panic or sudden charge might send the whole lot in disorder down the hill at any moment. I said it was too dangerous a situation to be prolonged, and that he must either attack or I should withdraw his force. I advocated, as I had previously done, an advance from his left." This last phrase does not make certain whether Buller's judgment coincided with that of Warren concerning the impracticability of the Acton Homes route, but it seems to indicate that it did not.
Warren replied that he had intended to assault Spion Kop the night before, but had not done so because the general told off for the work wished first to reconnoitre the ground. It was decided that the attack should be made that night, and General Woodgate was detailed for the command at Buller's "suggestion"—or, to use Warren's words, "the Commander-in-Chief desired."
The assault was made that night and was entirely successful, the British gaining possession of the summit and remaining there all next day. It was found, however, that the Boers had guns in position on neighbouring heights within effective range. It was possible also for the Boer riflemen, with their extraordinary aptitudes for stalking, to maintain a perpetual fire from well-covered positions; whereas, to whatever cause attributable, there does not seem to have been a well-organised plan to provide artificially and rapidly the shelter which the flat bare tops of South African mountains do not naturally extend. General Woodgate was mortally wounded at 10 A.M. Reinforcements were then on the way, and when his fall was reported, General Coke, with two fresh regiments, was sent to assume command. He heliographed down at 2 P.M. that unless the enemy's guns could be silenced the men could not hold the place under another day's shelling. Some hours later, at 9.30 P.M., he was called down to make a personal report of the conditions.
Towards nightfall Warren made arrangements to send up two naval 12-pounders, a mountain battery, and a heavy working party under engineer direction to organise field protection—a provision that should have formed part of the original plan—elaborated through four days of operations. Before these reached the summit, and in ignorance that they were on the way, Colonel Thorneycroft, left in command by Coke's departure, decided that the position was untenable, and soon after 9.30 P.M. evacuated it. Upon this Sir Redvers Buller commented: "Preparations for the second day's defence should have been organised during the day, and have been commenced at nightfall. As this was not done I think Colonel Thorneycroft exercised a wise discretion." From this judgment Lord Roberts dissented vigorously. "I am of opinion that Lieut.-Colonel Thorneycroft's assumption of responsibility and authority was wholly inexcusable. During the night the enemy's fire could not have been formidable, and ... it would not have taken more than two or three hours at most to communicate by messenger with General Coke or Sir C. Warren, and to receive a reply. General Coke appears to have left Spion Kop at 9.30 P.M. for the purpose of consulting with Sir Charles Warren, and up to that hour the idea of a withdrawal had not been entertained. Yet, almost immediately after General Coke's departure Colonel Thorneycroft issued an order, without reference to superior authority, which upset the whole plan of operations, and rendered unavailing the sacrifices which had already been made to carry it into effect." In face of this severe, and in the author's judgment merited, condemnation, it would be less than just not to quote also Lord Roberts' further words. "Lieut.-Colonel Thorneycroft appears to have behaved in a very gallant manner throughout the day, and it was doubtless due in great measure to his exertions and example that the troops continued to hold the summit until directed to retire."
On the morning of the 25th, seeing that Spion Kop was no longer held, Buller assumed command in person, and began to withdraw to the south of the Tugela. This movement was completed on the 27th, the troops reaching their new camps by 10 A.M. of that day.
Thus, unfortunately, ended in failure an expedition concerning which Lord Roberts wrote, "The attempt was well devised, and I agree with Sir Redvers Buller in thinking that it ought to have succeeded." He continues, "That it failed may, in some measure, be due to the difficulties of the ground, and the commanding positions held by the enemy, probably also to errors of judgment and want of administrative capacity on the part of Sir Charles Warren. But, whatever faults Sir Charles Warren may have committed, the failure must also be ascribed to the disinclination of the officer in supreme command to assert his authority and see that what he thought best was done, and also to the unwarrantable and needless assumption of responsibility by a subordinate officer."
It would be presumptuous and unbecoming in an officer not of the land service to express an opinion upon the difficulties of detail encountered in the various operations of this week's work. But the points selected for criticism in the expressions of Lord Roberts just quoted belong to the fundamentals, common to both military professions. The generous wish of Sir Redvers Buller to leave his subordinate untrammelled discretion in the management of an operation intrusted to him, was pushed to an extreme, and was maintained, as is plainly evidenced by his own dispatch, after confidence was shaken. The situation was one familiar, on a smaller scale, to every officer who has ever had command. It is difficult at times to draw the line between fussy interference and reasonable superintendence; yet more difficult to determine the moment when a subordinate must be subjected to the mortification of virtual supersession in the control of a matter that has been committed to him. But these are, after all, only instances of embarrassments common to life, which increase in degree and in number as one mounts the ladder. Whatever may be said in favour of the fullest discretion to a subordinate out of signal distance—and very much indeed must be said for this—nothing can relieve a commander-in-chief only four miles distant of the responsibility, not for his own reputation—a small matter—but for his country's interests, in directing according to his own judgment the great operations of a campaign. However honourable to generosity, it is certainly carrying self-abnegation to an indefensible extreme to leave the decision of attack or withdrawal, of movement by direct attack or by flanking—"by the left"—to a junior, when one's self is on the spot, in actual conversation.
The action of Colonel Thorneycroft in withdrawing raises also the mooted question of when and how the assumption of responsibility in disobeying orders—express or implied, general or particular—is to be justified; a matter on which much unenlightened nonsense has lately been spoken and written in the United States. No general rule, indeed, can be laid down, but this much may surely be re-affirmed—that the justification of so serious a step must ever rest, not on the officer's opinion that he was doing right, but upon the fact, demonstrated to military judgment by the existing conditions, that he was right. Colonel Thorneycroft's intentions were doubtless of the best; the writer cannot but believe that Lord Roberts's sentence will be endorsed by the professions, for the reasons he himself gives.
After the withdrawal across Trichardt's Drift, a week was allowed for repose after the seven days' fighting just undergone. The attempt to reach Ladysmith was then renewed, taking the road by Potgieter's Drift to Brakfontein. It was decided first to get possession of Vaal Krantz, a height three or four miles east of Spion Kop, to the right of the road. The movement began on February 5th, under the immediate direction of Sir Redvers Buller. The same day Vaal Krantz was carried and occupied; but Buller was disappointed in the advantage he hoped from it. He reported that "it was necessary after seizing Vaal Krantz to entrench it as the pivot of further operations, but I found after trying for two days that, owing to the nature of the ground, this was not practicable; it was also exposed to fire from heavy guns which fired from positions by which our artillery was dominated."
As the projected advance depended upon the tenure of Vaal Krantz, and this could not be assured under the circumstances, the attempt had to be abandoned. On the evening of February 7 the British army again retired south of the Tugela, and thence returned to the camps at Chieveley, facing Colenso.
In the operations about Spion Kop from January 17-24, the British losses were: killed, officers 27, men 245; wounded, officers 53, men 1,050; missing and prisoners, officers 7, men 351. Total, 87 officers, 1646 men.
At Vaal Krantz, February 5-7, the losses were: killed, officers 2, men 23; wounded, officers 18, men 326; missing, men 5. Total, 20 officers, 354 men.