Crowe: Chapter VIII - Awaiting reinforcements — Christmas carnival in camp—Summary of current events—Desperate assault on Ladysmith
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December 16th, 1899, to January 9th, 1900
The Naval Brigade, after the battle, received the honour of occupying with their guns the most advanced position facing Colenso during the somewhat monotonous wait for the advent of reinforcements. The Fifth Division, under Lieu-tenant-General Sir Charles Warren, had been ordered to proceed to Natal to augment General Buller's army there, and until this force arrived at the front, no further attempt to relieve Ladysmith was possible.
On Sunday morning, early, December 17th, during an eclipse of the moon, the two 4'7's and the 12-pounder units of Lieutenants Wilde, Richards, and Burne moved back from Shooters Hill to Gun Hill, where, having placed the guns in position, this portion of the Naval Brigade encamped until January 10th. Ogilvy's 12-pounder battery returned with the bulk of the relief army to Frere. Hildyard's and Barton's Infantry Brigades, Lord Dundonald's mounted troops, and a Field Battery, comprised the defensive force left behind at Chieveley Camp, besides the naval guns.
Except for an occasional skirmish between the outposts and scouting patrols, and the normal bombardment of the Boer works by the Naval Battery, much of which was of a spasmodic nature, nothing of much import occurred to call for comment.
Commander Limpus again prosecuted his scientific researches, the result of his labour being the completion of a telescopic survey of the surrounding country—a work of inestimable value. Always on the alert for any new movement, he observed that the road bridge over the Tugela was proving too serviceable to the Boers, and a very undesirable advantage for them to possess. General Buller said it must be destroyed. Accordingly, the fate of the bridge—a fine iron structure supported by stone piers—was delivered over to the precision of fire of the 4'7 guns. At a range of 7660 yards, Lieutenant Hunt and C.P.O. Stephens undertook the work of demolition. Upwards of thirty projectiles were fired, and the bridge itself was struck several times ; but its destruction proved a matter of difficulty, owing to the fact that the object was nearly in an alignment with the line of fire. In this instance, a change of gun brought with it a change of luck ; the other 4'7 was given a turn, and scored a splendid success. Lieutenant and captain of gun again competed, not exactly making a contest of it, but for other reasons easily understood by artillerists. C.P.O. Bate fired first—hit the bridge. Lieutenant England followed with the next round—also hit the bridge. Then Bate took deliberate aim as if his very existence was staked on his second shot. Bang went the gun, smash went a stone pier, down went the bridge with a run, and up went a ringing cheer—which is exactly what happened, despite the unintentional rhyme. The Boers, in large numbers, were actually seen taking a keen interest in the prize firing ; the prize here being, the honour of having disconcerted the enemy, and of receiving the general's approbation. It would be woe indeed to an enemy's ship that by chance presented its broadside to such individual shooting as had been exhibited lately, even at these four-and-a-quarter-mile ranges.
This daily practice invariably attracted a large concourse of military spectators, who, on hearing the battery " piped to quarters," would make a bee-line for Gun Hill to witness the firing. Often unsuspecting groups of busy Boers, digging away in a trench, or fortifying a kopje, would suddenly cease operations on hearing the warning shriek of a shell, and scatter in all directions. Sadly ludicrous at times were their tactics, for occasionally the direction of the wind would cause a lyddite shell to take them unawares and explode within death distance ; an ambulance testifying to the result.
Nocturnal as well as daily practice was also carried out at irregular intervals, and at uncertain hours. Not unfrequently during a middle watch the sepulchral stillness of the veldt would be suddenly broken by the roar of the 4'7 guns, sending several rounds of lyddite shells into the enemy's positions, where, on bursting, they produced a sort of pyrotechnic display. The explosion would cause the surrounding hills to echo loudly with weird resonant war notes which were heard for a score or more miles around.
This intermittent day and night firing must have seriously disturbed the tranquillity of the Boer camps. The slumbers of our own troops were also much interfered with, though they, of course, knew the cause of the firing, and stood in no dread of its murderous effects.
Continuous firing having worn out one of the 4'7 guns, another one to replace it was wired for from Durban. Two were immediately forwarded by Captain Scott, into whose liberal interpretation of the demand it was easy to read a recommendation not to save the shell or the enemy, for want of new guns. They arrived late one afternoon. Without delay Commander Limpus issued brigade stations for " evolution." Within an hour the worn-out gun was down to the railway—half a mile away—and a new gun taken up the hill and mounted ready for service. No sheers or tripods were used, the guns being solely man-handled and parbuckled in and out of the trucks. Captain Jones said, " Well done! " and, remembering the weight of a 4'7 gun (over two tons) it was undoubtedly well done.
The men were always on their mettle whenever some special service required extraordinary exertion ; but on their backs enjoying camp life when off duty. With no decks to holystone ; no brightwork to polish ; no routine of clockwork precision to worry about; campaigning is indeed a welcome diversion to the sailor. Changes agreeable to the inner man are no less welcome. The field ration was a perfect table d'hote menu in comparison with the eternal sameness of a man-of-war bill of fare, which is officially seasonable in all climates, from "Greenland's icy mountains "to "India's coral strands ;" indeed the romance of war was being aptly illustrated in all its phases, from fascinating fighting to festive feeding.
Christmas Day is usually associated with the latter item, and right royally was the brigade enabled to observe it, thanks to the many thoughtful and generous spirits left on board who had not quite forgotten their chums at the front. Many were the hampers and cases marked " For the Naval Brigade, from Durban friends," that also reached the camp for the December 25th celebration, besides the over-sea packages that opportunely arrived from relatives and friends at home. In fact a steady flow of useful gifts—books, magazines, pipes, tobacco, socks, etc., continued to arrive for several weeks; delayed owing to the stupendous traffic dealt with on the single track railway. One thoughtful gentleman sent pipe-lighting lenses to the brigade, which proved a boon and were an excellent substitute for matches, these luciferous articles being noted for their scarceness and liability to be either begged, borrowed or purloined, with complete unconcern.
It can do no harm casually to mention here, that, to the vast majority, nothing was prized so much as the illustrated magazine and weekly newspaper literature, Navy and Army Illustrated, Tit Bits, Lloyds, etc.; and the indispensable pipes and tobacco luxuries. Food of any description sent from over-sea was practically superfluous, and often arrived in an unconsumable state. Clothing, except socks and certain underwear, cannot be carried ; and books are too cumbersome and too tedious to read, except for the very few.
Times have changed considerably. The present commissariat and supply departments of the British Army arc not those of Crimean history, but are systems nearly approaching a state of perfection ; at any rate, to the Naval element they appeared admirably organized institutions. The charges directed against Field Hospitals find no favour with those of the Naval Brigade who became reluctant guests for long and short periods of the " Red Cross Corps" (the R.A.M.C.). Obviously, the luxurious accommodation and comforts of Haslar or Netley Hospitals were not found in a Field Hospital, but such comfort and professional attention as were consistent with circumstances were certainly obtained. Though the summit of perfection has not yet been reached, to expect much more than now exists from the members of this noble profession, to whom legions of men owe life and limb, is to indulge the Utopian dreams of unpractical individuals who do not know what war really is. Unsolvable problems must ever encompass any system for dealing with sick and wounded in either Naval or Military warfare, because the ever-changing conditions of war make war, per se, the sole arbiter of what can and what cannot be done.
Reverting to Christmas Day with its associations, a sort of mutual armistice seemed to exist, for neither Briton or Boer appeared anxious to disturb the Peace and Goodwill that are observed by Christian communities on this natal day. Church parties in the early morning—camp sports in the afternoon—open-air smoking concerts in the early evening— convivial tent parties later on, these were the occupations of the Chieveley and Frere camps this Christmas Day, 1899. On the glorious South African veldt, so often depicted in romance, the camp sports were held, taking in every variety of competition from steeple-chasing to the inevitable obstacle race. The Naval Brigade, of course, entered zealously into all the fun, but could not forego the Naval time-honoured copper-punt party, even at terra firma races ; a gun-carriage in this instance supplying the place of the punt. Concerning these sports Mr. Bennet Burleigh, the genial Daily Telegraptis war correspondent, to whom much of their success was due, wrote:1—
" Christmas and Boxing Days, as I have indicated, were ushered in by the drums and fifes merrily making the rounds. There are those who prefer the gentler home waits; but there is that peculiarity about fife and drum, those irritant early awakers from sleep, that their martial pulsations catch the heart and set the blood aglow thumping through the veins to their rhythmic beating. 'Jack's the lad for work, and Jack's the lad for play,' and our bluejackets were the boys who provided the lighter vein of amusement. Christmastide in South Africa, and Natal in particular, has been frizzling hot. Here the sun was over the yardarm. A band of jolly Jack Tars made the round of the camp, capering and singing, preceded by a sailor on horseback bearing a Union Jack and followed by nearly half a score of messmates making ridiculously rough weather on muleback. The sailors seated on a gun-carriage were two. Of their number, one represented John Bull, the other, a marine, personated Oom Paul—whom the tars and soldiers generally prefer to call ' Ole Kroojer.' Kruger had his hat, pipe, and umbrella, and real good fun the sailors made of the business, John Bull giving ' Kroojer' no end of nasty knocks, and occasionally sitting upon his chest, whilst Pat and Sandy further fairly bedevilled the wretched one. The tars and soldiers sang bravely during the marchings, and at the sports ' Rule Britannia' set to new words, and all the popular catchy airs of the day, were laid under tribute to enable the men to describe with gusto what they had in store for Kruger."
During the next few days the words of the song "Jack's the lad for work "were fully exemplified in the deed, for some 2000 fathoms of six-inch rope were worked into mantlets for covering the engine of another armoured train, that was intended to run towards the Tugela as an auxiliary for assisting reconnaissances. The open country just here rather favoured its intended vocation, and in fact some good results afterwards rewarded its promoters. C.P.O. Baldwin had charge of preparing this work, which on completion, transformed the engine into a monstrosity resembling a French poodle.
Naturally after the fight, many of the fighters assumed the common role freely adopted by numerous versatile and irresponsible individuals, known as amateur generals or strategic experts. Yet, be it said, the presumptuous vapourings of some few pusillanimous strategists, who only fight in their imaginations, and who, with an affected gift of prescience, pen condemnatory or laudatory articles after every battle according to its results, were never once heard. No one, however, seemed prepared to combat the general regret that Hlangwani Hill was not made the main point first selected for general assault, for upon the seizure of this hill the whole issue of the battle appeared to depend. But subsequent experience also partly demonstrated that the subjugation of Hlangwani and the successful occupation of the Fort Wylie kopjes might have been a short-lived victory. It is an open question, considering the number of troops at General Buller's disposal, and the stubborn and unrelenting tenacity afterwards displayed by the Boers among these hills and kopjes, if the frontal advance could have been persisted in, and an enforced withdrawal south of the river still have been a possible con-tingence. These positions only formed the lower tier of the series of hills which rose higher and higher until Grobelars and Pieters Hills were reached. This hypothesis seems as much to the point as some others that have been advanced ; certainly not as ludicrous as many.
Stories, of course, spun round the camp-fires were innumerable. One instance will bear relating of how discipline of the highest order was exhibited by the personnel of an ammunition supply waggon of Colonel Long's batteries. When the shock of battle occurred, these waggons were quickly sent a short distance to the rear, to take up a position in front of the donga that was affording shelter to the wounded and cover for unemployed men. With courage of the ancient Spartans, the men stuck to this position in spite of the hail of shrapnel, pom-pom, and bullets that drummed around and among them, notwithstanding the fact that their presence there had, owing to the guns being placed out of action, become of no avail. Petty Officer Taylor called Lieutenant Ogilvy's attention to them, and he went to inquire for the officer in command. " I am in charge," said a superior non-commissioned officer, " all my officers being either killed or wounded." " Then why don't you get what men and horses you have intact under cover in the donga ?" queried Lieutenant Ogilvy. " My orders, sir, are to remain here until I receive instructions to move elsewhere," respectfully replied the non-com. "All right," the lieutenant answered, " I will assume the responsibility, and give you the necessary order to get under cover as quickly as possible." The non-com. thanked the lieutenant, and immediately gave the orders which took his small command into the shelter of the donga.
> Battle has also its amusing side—so at least thought the men of Ogilvy's battery, who laughed heartily when they witnessed a shell explode into the officers' food-basket and scatter its contents into space. Also the impromptu war-dance, performed by the few Kafir drivers who involuntarily remained behind, being too timorous to run away, was the cause of some occasional mirth. Every shell that burst near them caused each to spring in the air and yell, then finally grin when he found himself still alive. To avoid being shot, with childlike innocence, they wrapped their blankets around them, covered their faces with both hands, and shut their eyes, which act provoked not a few frolicsome bluejackets slyly to throw pebbles at them, in order to get a repetition of their fantastic leap-yell-and-grin performance. Still, these sons of Ham were otherwise useful, and proved faithful fellows when properly treated; and the man who can provide humour on a battlefield is a valuable asset to his officers. It was also difficult to suppress a smile at the antics performed by the oxen—poor devils—when a bullet entered their "stern-walk." They would then behave as if possessed with satanic imps, and tax the agility of a bull-fighter to steer clear of them. In the oxen, also, were embodied a most useful, patient, enduring, and absolutely necessary creature. Another true yarn showing the light side of nature under adverse conditions seems too piquant to be omitted. With a blood-bespattered face and a roguish grin, one of the Dublin Fusiliers, sauntering along from the waning contest, stopped and asked for a " dthrink of warter" from the naval water-cart, then half empty, with no hope of replenishment in view. He was told that only to wounded men could water be given, unless an officer gave express permission. " Then, me sonny-boy, give me a dthrink quick, for I am both wounded and a commanding officer; all me officers and non-coms, are either kilt or wounded, and I'm the senior private of me battalion," naively-asserted this son of Erin. Needless almost to add, he got his drink, for he was really severely wounded in one arm, and slightly in the head—a fact difficult to reconcile with his good humour. After quenching his thirst—always an agonzing torment with a wounded man—he was given a " chew of rale ship's," and then directed to his "command;" but before departing he said, " So long, Navee chapsies ; I'll be sorree for the Boors when Buller gets his back up "—a remark that produced a roar of laughter from dozens of parched throats.
Concerning the conduct of the wounded, the stoical behaviour of the vast majority deserves special recognition. Declining attention until others had received surgical succour, officers remained gentlemen to death. For the same reason, rank and file incurred grave risks and endured intense pains to allow a married comrade or company chum to have the benefit of science first. Callous indifference to wounds, and eagerness to learn of the progress of the battle, was no uncommon part played by both officers and men when balanced between life and death. Such was the testimony of Surgeon Macmillan and his trusty medical henchman, Walter Attree, who, after Ogilvy's battery had retired out of the danger zone, rendered professional help to their army colleagues, and assisted to pass several hundred wounded cases through the " first-aid" rendezvous at Platelayer's Hut to the field-hospitals in rear.
One other diverting incident seems worth reciting. While awaiting an oxen team to haul the last 12-pounder gun back to camp, a certain battery of artillery trundled across the veldt from Hlangwani direction, taking up a position near the solitary naval gun. " Action right! " shouted the battery commander, who then asked Petty Officer Taylor if his gun was beyond range of the enemy's artillery fire. " Yes, sir ; all right here," replied Taylor—words scarcely spoken before a 45-pound shell from a Boer " Long Tom " contradicted them by exploding among the new target that the battery, nicely wheeled into line, had offered. " Confound your yarn ! " yelled out the battery commander to Taylor. " What the devil do you mean by giving me such rotten information?" " Well, sir," responded Taylor, who could not refrain from smirking at the incident, " 'Long Tom' hadn't fired at my gun for a long time, so I thought he'd piped down." But this typical captain of gun also remarked, sotto voce, to his No. 2, " I wonder if he expected me to stop the darned gun from firing into his blessed circus ? "—a remark that, as no damage to either man, horse, or gun had occurred, produced a subdued spurt of grinning among the other volatile sailors.
A propos of these field batteries, they were galloped into action, the guns unlimbered, and fire opened with a precision that elicited the admiration of all who admire spontaneous courage. Saddles were emptied, men, horses, and guns disappeared in clouds of shell-dust, to re-emerge again and again, loading, laying, and firing as steadily as if at manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain. Few will forget also how the infantry stuck to their hot work. It was indeed a revelation which proved that British pluck and endurance have not yet been civilized away, and so long as such valorous troops exist, the bugbear of invasion need have no terrors for us ; nor will British soil ever witness the horrors of war with its rigorously enforced martial laws. But militia, yeomanry, and volunteers must not forget that their respective quota of the repellent force is necessary to preserve our " tight little island." The Fleet will act its part; the regulars will, and must, bear the fighting heat of the day ; but for the volunteer defensive force of the country is left a large share of the burden of patriotically defending our shores and historical liberties. To keep the Empire intact, Britain's insularity must be kept inviolate, and patriotism and disciplined pluck are the two essentials that together can preserve our Imperial greatness.
Not since 1815—Waterloo year—until the present war, has the Empire had its vitality assailed, or endured such trials as followed those three successive reverses — Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso. These misfortunes produced a gloomy picture for the whole Empire to contemplate.
Following the investment of three British towns, three disasters had befallen British troops, nearly three thousand losses had resulted, and consequently the British Empire had become aroused to a sense of the magnitude of the South African struggle. Begun with an enthusiastic optimism, the war had suddenly and unexpectedly developed into a military and political problem which not even its most pessimistic opponent could claim to have foreseen.
The British people being agreeably unused to hearing of British reverses, those of Cape Colony had caused considerable consternation ; but the Colenso repulse had produced a deep and depressing shock of mortification. Excessive consideration for alien opinions and the feelings of the Boer Republics had prevented timely and adequate war preparations from being made ; and this had been mainly responsible for a series of humiliating reverses, loss of imperial prestige, and an exposure to grave disaster of our South African forces, which was averted principally through lack of military spirit and enterprise of the enemy—the interdict of Fate.
These calamities caused the Imperial Government to reverse their policy of fatal magnanimity and optimism, the country quickly becoming reassured by the decisive action which was immediately taken. The pick of British generals and the flower of the British army were requisitioned. Recognizing that Natal with its military difficulties would seriously demand all General Buller's capacity and personal presence, Field Marshal Lord Roberts was sent out as Commander-in-Chief in South Africa; General Lord Kitchener (then Sirdar of the Egyptian army) being appointed chief of the staff. The sixth division were even now at sea; the seventh division and large reinforcements of other branches of the army were soon after despatched with great promptitude ; and another division was prepared to follow when ready. The militia were embodied, several battalions being ordered abroad to relieve the regulars; besides which, many units ot yeomanry and volunteers, who loyally offered their services, were sent to the seat of war. The British colonies, also, all offered to assume a share of Imperial responsibility; each sending its respective contingent to the Cape with healthy despatch. Those military misfortunes had aroused a wave of patriotism throughout the Empire that stands unparalleled in history. That depressing "Black Week" of December, 1899, was, the nativity of a solid and cohesive Imperialism.
Both the military and political situation in South Africa had become of the gravest intensity. The Cape Dutch became suspiciously restless. Wavering loyalists developed into avowed rebels ; and rebels into outlawed enemies. Moreover, the natives gave cause for serious consideration. British rule was still favoured by the majority, but recent events might easily have caused the black races to transfer their allegiance to the apparently dominant Dutch. Abroad also, with few exceptions, the gravity of the crisis was regarded with a certain pessimistic view, the significance of which was very obvious.
The Imperial political barometer stood indeed very low just at this period, but it began to rise with the arrival of Lord Roberts at Cape Town on January 10th. For the present, however, Lord Roberts will be left concentrating his grand army at the Modder River, and preparing those strategic plans which took the British triumphantly into Pretoria. But before this culminating event was to happen considerable difficulties had to be overcome, and much severe fighting, especially in Natal, loomed ahead. Imperilled garrisons also had to be relieved to obviate further loss of military prestige. Between the British generals and the goal of success there lay military problems requiring consummate skill to solve. There was a numerous and well-appointed enemy to defeat, possessed of exceptional mobility, who, ignoring modern military tactics, yet possessed a special aptitude for defensive fighting; who had bases everywhere, and blood relations or compatriots in almost every habitation and farmstead throughout the whole field of operations. Such was the crisis that enveloped the Empire at the close of 1899.
Ladysmith—the centre of gravity of the world's attention—was, on January 6th, again heavily but unsuccessfully assaulted by the enemy. This was the second attempt to capture the town since the investment; a previous effort having been made on November 9th.
On this occasion the Boer commandant-general seemed resolved on attempting a coup de main on the town, acting as he was on imperative instructions from the executive at Pretoria to capture Ladysmith at all costs. Contrary to their hitherto fighting traditions, the Boers devised a secret night attack that very nearly succeeded.
The main point for assault selected was a commanding ridge, situated about two and a half miles southward of the town, which it commanded. Near its two extremes are two elevated positions—Caesar's Camp on the eastern end and Waggon Hill on the western ; both entrenched separate commands. General White (Desp. March 23rd, 1900), wrote—
" On January 6th the enemy made a most determined but fortunately unsuccessful attempt to carry Ladysmith by storm. Almost every part of my position was more or less heavily assailed, but the brant of the attack fell upon Caesar's Camp and Waggon Hill. . . ."
Among the garrison of the first-named position was a detached party of the Powerfuls and Natal Naval Volunteers with a 12-pounder gun. On Waggon Hill, in addition to its proper occupants, other Power/ids were, by chance, enabled to render some excellent service during the most critical portions of the fight. The general relates—
" Waggon Hill was held as usual by three companies 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps, and a squadron Imperial Light Horse. A detachment Natal Naval Volunteers, with a 3-pounder Hotchkiss gun, had been sent there on the evening of January 5th, and two naval guns, one a 4'7-inch and the other a 12-pounder, were in process of transfer to the hill during the night. These guns were accompanied by naval detachments and a working party of Royal Engineers and Gordon Highlanders, who were consequently on Waggon Hill when the attack commenced at 2.30 a.m. on the morning of January 6th.
The attack was suddenly launched with a fierce determination to rush this position—the key of Ladysmith. Completely surprised, the garrison fell back in great confusion before the onslaught of the stormers. The said gun-mounting party, however, swiftly realizing the position, formed a rallying base and checked the stormers' onward rush. The Boers themselves, also surprised at the steadfastness of this unexpected defence, as swiftly retired back to the crest over which they had come. Some sixty or seventy yards only separated the rival forces ; at certain places on the ridge the distance was even but thirty yards. It was half an hour later before the attack burst on Caesar's Camp, no doubt purposely delayed so that the British attention might be riveted to the fighting on the Waggon Hill end of the ridge. Here also the contest for some time was very desperate.
Strong reinforcements were hurried to these hard-pressed positions, and to other points along the ridge. Daylight also made it possible for the cavalry and artillery to act in their respective capacities; the latter opportunely covering and assisting the defending troops from end to end of the ridge, and successfully checking the enemy from assailing the flanks. The enemy's artillery were also vigorously employed, most of them raking with great intensity the plateau and British side of the ridge, while other guns—especially Long Tom on 'Bulwana—briskly shelled the field batteries and other defensive positions, and even the town itself.
At over 9000 yards the Powerful*s other 4'7 at Cove Redoubt made a dead set at "Long Tom," it being stated that " it was mostly owing to Lieutenant Halsey's gun that the Boer 6-inch made such erratic and harmless shooting." A naval long 12-pounder was fortunate enough partially to silence a Boer 4*5 gun situated on Surprise Hill, by sending a shell direct into its embrasure at 4000 yards range.
After detailing the disposition of his troops, and relating the close and deadly nature of the fighting that had occurred up to 8 a.m., the general wrote :—
" Meanwhile the 21st and 42nd Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, and the naval 12-pounder on Caesar's Camp, were in action against Mounted Infantry Hill and the scrub on either side of it, and were of great assistance in keeping down the violence of the enemy's fire."
Later, some ineffective charges were made to drive the enemy back over the crests, but the hail of shell and bullets kept the fighting stationary and indecisive for some two hours or more.
By middle forenoon, however, good progress was made ; the Boers were driven from the most dangerously held vantage points to below the crest-line, the fighting in consequence lessening in severity. It was but a lull, for at high noon the enemy developed another resolute assault on Waggon Hill, the sudden and terrific hail of fire forcing the defenders again to give way. But before the enemy could reap the full advantage of their well-devised attempt to rerush the position, our troops were rallied, the crest again occupied, and the enemy driven back. Swiftly executed, courageously frustrated, this second onslaught was a critical phase of the battle. With the Waggon Hill end in the enemy's possession, the rest of the ridge would have become perilously insecure. Caesar's Camp, on the opposite end, could hardly hope to have withstood the transverse and convergent fire that would have assailed them; and had this position also fallen, the town must assuredly have been captured. Other defensive positions around the town were also being severely assailed, but were gallantly held secure.
From now till late afternoon the fight was maintained by a deadly fire from resolutely handled rifles, when, at 3.30 P.M., a violent storm of wind and rain broke over the bloody conflict. In the middle of this visitation, which lasted about three hours, and while it was at its very worst, a third attempt to rush Waggon Hill was made. For the third time our troops were driven off, but were a third time successfully rallied, and recaptured the lost crest-line.
" At 5 p.m., Lieutenant-Colonel C. W. Park arrived at Waggon Hill with three companies 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, which I had ordered up as a reinforcement, and was at once directed by Colonel Hamilton to turn the enemy off the ridge with the bayonet.
The Devons dashed forward and gained a position under cover within 50 yards of the enemy. Here a fire fight ensued; but the Devons were not to be denied, and, eventually, cheering as they pushed from point to point, they drove the enemy not only off the plateau, but cleared every Boer out of the lower slopes and the dongas surrounding the position. ... At last, after fifteen hours of stubborn resistance by our men, and of continual effort on the part of the Boers, the enemy were driven off at all points during the same storm in which Waggon Hill was also cleared, as already described, their retreat being hastened by the heavy fire poured on them as they retired."
Thus Sir George White describes the closing incident of the battle.
Skilled generalship, brilliant deeds of heroism, indomitable courage, splendid endurance, and a providential storm, all combined, had saved Ladysmith from capture, and the Union Jack from being hauled down from over a British town.
In Chieveley Camp the fight caused considerable anxiety, speculation, and a co-operative movement of the troops. The intermittent booming of heavy guns roused out the slumbering camp, who gazed with wistful eyes towards 'Bulwana, from whence the flashes of the Boer " Long Tom " were plainly visible. With sunrise, the heliograph flashed the direful news of what had taken and what was then taking place. Succeeding messages, however, became reassuring, one conveying that Sir George White was confident of holding his own. After midday, further news was unobtainable, owing to the sun having become obscured by clouds. The situation, with its dread uncertainties, was keenly realized, as seldom has the fate of a single town had such vastly important bearing on the issues of a war.
To create a diversion in favour of the Ladysmith garrison, the troops were moved out shortly after noon towards the Colenso positions under cover of the naval guns. Shell, furious and fast, swept along the Boer line of works, while the force moved quickly forward in widely extended lines of attack. When near enough, the field batteries also opened a heavy fire, which drew upon them a long-range rifle fusilade.
Pressing onwards, the troops also got within the zone of fire, and still further forward went the artillery ; but the attack was not permitted to proceed. It was simply a demonstration. Its object was, no doubt, quite obvious to the enemy, considerable numbers of whom, nevertheless, it must have contained at Colenso who otherwise would have reinforced the assault on Ladysmith.
With dusk approaching, General Clery ordered a withdrawal to camp. Nothing further could be done but await the morrow's sun, whose rays controlled the helio news.
Near Weenen, several miles away eastward of Chieveley, stands the lofty Umkolanda Mountain, upon whose pinnacle-shaped summit were intrenched a gallant band of army signallers, under Captain Cayser, R.E., alone in the air. From here it was that the helio messages were transmitted to and from the beleaguered town and the camp. A more thrilling message no signaller ever repeated than the one next morning, which assured the camp, the empire, and the world, that Ladysmith's garrison had saved the honour of the flag.
To the querulous critic, who probably assimilates the smooth slopes of Portsdown Hills to the rugged, precipitous Colenso kopjes, and still unconscionably seeks explanation of why General Buller did not actively move on this occasion, the answer seems a very simple one. It was physically impossible, unless an ignominious defeat was the object in view. Every imaginable military obstacle opposed the venture. The bulk of the relief force was at Frere, twelve miles away, too immobile to carry out a swift tactical movement against an enemy so vastly superior in mobility, who could easily, as before, have met any frontal assault on their Tugela stronghold with impunity. The enemy had two alternatives for enforcing the submission of Ladysmith— assault or starve out; the obvious only at Colenso. This position must be defended by force. Therefore a hostile attack on Colenso, in preference to an assault on Ladysmith, would have demanded the primary attention of the Boer forces, whose numerical strength and mobility allowed them such option. All that could be done to co-operate with the Ladysmith garrison was done, except the offering up of a Napoleonic sacrifice to the fetish god of war.
The Ladysmith casualties totalled 500, among whom were scions of England's noblest blood, many colonial "Sons of the Empire," and brave regulars ; men who had voluntarily exposed their lives in obedience to the dictates of an inward martial spirit, which urged them to uphold a glorious tradition. The enemy also suffered heavily. Their conduct was that of a worthy foe. They had gallantly fought a good fight for a cause that, to them, was as holy as our own was just. Their losses were estimated at about 700.
Such is the price of Empire, and the cost of attempting its usurpation.
1 " The Natal Campaign," p. 225.