London: August 10, 1900.
Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton was born at Corfu in 1853. His father, the late Colonel Christian Monteith Hamilton--then a captain, but who eventually commanded the 92nd Highlanders--was the eldest son of John George Hamilton and of Christina Cameron Monteith, daughter of Henry Monteith of Carstairs, sometime Member of Parliament for Lanarkshire. His mother, the late Maria Corunia Vereker, was daughter of John, third Viscount Gort, by Maria O'Grady, daughter of Viscount Guillamore.[#] The Hamilton family is one of the elder branches of the Scottish Hamiltons, and represents the male line of the Hamiltons of Westport. One of his ancestors on his father's side, a Colonel Hamilton, was for several years an aide-de-camp of the first Duke of Marlborough, and it was therefore something in the nature of a coincidence when Ian Hamilton found the present Duke of Marlborough serving in a similar capacity on his staff. It would not be quite correct to call him a pure Celt, but some notice should be taken by those interested in these questions that his blood is mostly Celtic: both of his grandmothers, Monteith and O'Grady, being of Celtic stock, Scottish and Irish respectively.
When Ian Hamilton was born his father was serving with a detachment of the 92nd Highlanders at Corfu. His mother died in 1856, and for the next ten years, the father being constantly on duty with the regiment, he and his younger brother, Vereker Hamilton, who was born in 1856, lived with their grandparents at Hapton, in the Holy Loch in Argyllshire. Such a childhood on moor and loch in a fine wild country was likely to develop and brace nerve and muscle, and stir the keen blood inherited from many generations of warlike ancestors. He was educated first at Cheam, and as he grew sufficiently old at Wellington College. Here he was very happy, and although he was not especially noted for industry, his success in the examinations at the end of each term excused any neglect in its course. In 1872 he passed the tests for the army, and, according to the system at that time in force, was offered the choice of going to Sandhurst or living for a year abroad to learn a foreign language thoroughly. The cadet chose the latter, and was sent to Germany. Here he had the good luck to make the close friendship of a most distinguished old man. General Dammers was a Hanoverian who had fought against the Prussians at Langesalze, and who, refusing a very high command under the Prussians, lived at Dresden. Although he himself remained aide-de-camp to the ex-King of Hanover, he became the centre of a group of Hanoverian officers who had entered the Saxon service. He was thus in touch with the latest school of military thought, stimulated to its utmost activity by the lessons of the great war which had lately been concluded. From General Dammers, Ian Hamilton learned the German language, military surveying, something of military history, and something doubtless of strategy and the art of war. The year thus passed very profitably. On his return to England, however, the War Office announced that they had changed their minds and that for the future everybody must go through Sandhurst. Such protests as his father, himself an officer, was entitled to make were overruled by the authorities, and Ian Hamilton embarked upon his military career having lost, through no fault of his own, one year of seniority--a year which Fortune had perhaps even then determined to restore to him manifold.
In 1873 he entered the 12th Foot, and after some months joined his father's old regiment, the 92nd. At first with the 92nd, and after 1881 with the 2nd battalion of the regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, Ian Hamilton followed the drum from garrison to garrison, going through the military routine, and plodding slowly up the first few steps of the long ladder of promotion. From the very first he interested himself in musketry. He became himself a keen and good rifle shot, and not with the military rifle alone. He spent a long leave in Kashmir on the fringe of the snows, and made a remarkable bag. Indeed, some of his heads attained nearly to the record dimensions, and one big single-horned markhor enjoyed the actual supremacy for several months.
Then came the Afghan war. Ian Hamilton, although only an infantry soldier, became aide-de-camp, with Brabazon as Brigade Major, to the unfortunate commander of the British Cavalry Brigade. Early in the campaign he was stricken down with fever, and so avoided being drawn into the controversy which raged for several years in military circles around the actions in the Chardeh valley. It would indeed have been unfortunate if at this early stage in his career he had been led into any antagonism to the great General with whom his fortunes were afterwards so closely associated.
The Boer war of 1881 found Hamilton still a subaltern. He was ordered to South Africa with his regiment, and went full of eager anticipation. The regiment, composed almost entirely of soldiers inured to the hardships and disdainful of the dangers of war, was in the most perfect condition to encounter the enemy, and, as is usual in British expeditions on the outward voyage, they despised him most thoroughly. It was not to be dreamed of that a parcel of ragged Boers should stand against the famous soldiers of Kabul and Kandahar. They discussed beforehand the clasps which would be given upon the medal for the campaign. They were to be Laing's Nek, Relief of Potchefstroom, and Pretoria 1881. No one had then ever heard the name of Majuba Mountain. Yet there was to be the first encounter between Highlanders and Dutchmen.
The dismal story of Majuba is better known than its importance deserves. Had that action been fought in this war it would perhaps have gone down to history as the affair of the 27th of February. Instead, it was accepted as a stricken field, and might, such was the significance that was attached to it, have changed the history of nations. It needs no repetition here save in so far as it is concerned with Ian Hamilton. Majuba Mountain may in general terms be described as a saucer-topped hill. Sir George Colley and his six hundred soldiers, picked from various units (that all might share the glory), sat themselves down to rest and sleep, and dig a well in the bottom of the saucer. One weak picket of Gordon Highlanders was thrust forward over the rim on to the outer slope of the hill to keep an eye on those silent grey patches which marked the Boer laagers far below. Hamilton was the subaltern in command. As the day gradually broke and the light grew stronger, he saw from the very lifting of the curtain the course of the tragedy. Boers awoke, bustled about their encampments; looked up just as Symons' Brigade looked up on the morning of Talana Hill, and saw the sky-line fringes with men. More bustle, long delay, much argument and hesitation below, a little boasting rifle fire from some of the British soldiers: 'Ha, ha! got you this time I think!'--and then, straggle of horsemen riding in tens and twenties towards the foot of the mountain. Hamilton reported accordingly. The action of Majuba Hill had begun. Pause.
There was--so it has been described to me--a long donga that led up the steep slope. Into the lower end of this the Boer horsemen disappeared. Hamilton moved his score of men a little to their right, where they might command this zig-zag approach as much as the broken ground would allow, and reported again to the General or whoever was directing affairs--for Colley, wearied with the tremendous exertion of the night climb, was sleeping--'Enemy advancing to attack.' He also made a few stone shelters. Pause again. Suddenly, quite close, darting forward here and there among the rocks and bushes of the donga--Boers! Fire on them, then. The Gordons' rifles spluttered accordingly, and back came the answer hot and sharp--a close and accurate musketry fire pinning the little party of Regulars to the earth behind their flimsy shelters. No one could show his head to fire. Soldiers would hold a helmet up above the sheltering stone and bring it down with two and three bullets through it. Could half a company fight a battle by itself? What were others doing? Hamilton felt bound to send another report. He left the half company in charge of the sergeant, got up, ran up the slope, and dropped into safety the other side of the saucer-shaped rim. The distance was scarcely forty yards, yet two bullets passed through his kilt in crossing it. Where was the General? A staff officer, ignorant and therefore undisturbed, said that the General was sleeping. 'He knew,' said the staff officer, 'what was going on. No need for a subaltern of Highlanders to concern himself.' Hamilton returned, running the gauntlet again, to his men. The fire grew hotter. The Boers began to creep gradually nearer. Their front attack widened and drew around the contours of the hill. Were all the force asleep? One more warning at any rate they should have. Again he darted across the open space with the swish of bullets around him. Again he found the staff. But this time they were annoyed. It is such a bore when young officers are jumpy and alarmist. 'It's all right,' they said: and so it was within the saucer. The bullets piped overhead as the wind howls outside the well-warmed house. But a sudden change impended.
Hamilton rejoined his men just as the Boers attacked at all points. The little picket of Highlanders, utterly unable to withstand the weight of the enemy's advance, ran back to the rim of the saucer intermingled with the Boers, who fired their rifles furiously at them, even putting the muzzles to the men's heads and so destroying them. In Sir William Butler's book, written almost entirely with the view of exonerating Sir George Colley, it is suggested that his advanced picket fell back in a panic. The truth is that they were swept backward by overwhelming force after they had three times reported to the General the development of a heavy attack. Of the seventeen men under Ian Hamilton in this advanced position twelve were shot dead.
The survivors of the picket with the pursuing Boers reached the rim together, and became visible to the main force. Astounded by this apparition, the troops who were lying down in the saucer rose up together, and, some accoutred, some with their coats off, Highlanders, sailors, and linesmen, ran forward and fired a ragged volley. The Boers immediately lay down and replied, causing heavy loss. A furious musketry fight followed between the Dutch in cover along the rim and the British among the rocks across the centre of the saucer. This was ended by the appearance of other Boers on the high ground at the northern end of the plateau. Without orders or order, exposed to a terrible fire, ignorant of what was required of them, the soldiers wavered. One last chance presented itself. Hamilton rushed up to the General in the impetuosity of youth: 'I hope you'll forgive my presumption, sir, but will you let the Gordon Highlanders charge with the bayonet?'
'No presumption, young gentleman,' replied Colley, with freezing calmness. 'We'll let them charge us, and then we'll give them a volley and a charge.'
On the word the whole scene broke into splinters. The British troops abandoned their positions and fled from the ground. The Boers, standing up along the rim, shot them down mercilessly--sporting rifles, crack shots, eighty yards' range. Hamilton saw a figure scarcely ten yards away aiming at him, raised the rifle he found himself somehow possessed of to reply. Both fired simultaneously. The British officer went down with his wrist smashed to pieces. He rose again: the rear crest was near. The last of the fugitives were streaming over it. One dash for liberty! The fire was murderous. Before the distance was covered his tunic was cut by one bullet, his knee by another, and finally a splinter of rock striking him behind the head brought him down half stunned to the ground--luckily behind the shelter of a small rock.
The firing stopped. The Boers began to occupy the position. Two discovered the wounded man. The younger, being much excited, would have shot him. The elder restrained him. 'Are you officer, you damned Englishman?' said they.
'Give your sword.'
Now Hamilton's sword had belonged to his father before him. He replied by offering them money instead.
'Money!' they cried; 'give it up at once,' and were about to snatch it away when a person of authority--it is said Joubert himself--arrived. 'Voorwarts,' he said to the burghers, and in spite of their desire to plunder he drove them on. Hamilton thanked him. 'This is a bad day for us.'
'What can you expect,' was the answer characteristic of the Boer--the privileged of God--'from fighting on a Sunday?'
Then they collected the prisoners and helped Hamilton to walk back to the British position. Colley lay dead on the ground. The Boers would not believe it was the General. 'Englishmen are such liars.' Hector Macdonald--grim and sad--hero of the Afghan war, now a prisoner in the enemy's hand, watched the proceedings sullenly. The Boers picked out the surrendered prisoners. They looked at Hamilton. He was covered with blood from head to foot They said: 'You will probably die. You may go.' So he went; staggered, and crawled back to camp, arrived there delirious the next morning. The wrist joint is composed of eight separate bones. The bullet, breaking through, had disarranged them sadly, had even carried one or two away. If he had consented to amputation he would soon have been convalescent. But a soldier must preserve all he can. What with fever and shock he nearly died. For six months he was an invalid. But the hand was saved, so that now the General can hold an envelope between his paralysed and withered fingers, and sometimes hold a cigarette. For all other purposes it is useless, and when he rides it flaps about helplessly--a glorious deformity.
After some months of doubt as to whether he should leave the army and throw himself entirely into the literary pursuits which had always possessed for him a keen attraction, Hamilton decided to remain a soldier.
He next saw service in the Soudan: he was not intended to make this campaign, for the battalion to which he belonged was serving in India, and there has always been much jealousy between the Indian and the Egyptian British officer. But he happened to be coming home on leave, and when the steamer reached Suez it occurred to him to ask himself why he should not go up the Nile with the columns which were being formed. He got out of the ship accordingly and ran across the sands to the train which was standing in the station. Had he not caught it he would have returned to the ship. But he was in time. Next day he arrived in Cairo, and while waiting there for his luggage he applied for employment. It was refused, officers were not allowed to volunteer. The Gordon Highlanders, his only hope, had their full complement of officers. They had no vacancy for him. Hamilton did not, however, give up his idea easily. He resolved to travel as far as Wady Halfa and renew his application there. He journeyed south with Colonel Burnaby, and after a week of train and river-boat arrived at the whitewashed mud huts in the midst of a vast circle of sand which marked the base of the British Expeditionary forces, both desert and river columns.
What followed has happened so often that it is well worth the attention of young officers. Be it always remembered that the regulations of the army are formed to make all people quite alike one uniform pattern and on one level of intelligence--not yet the highest. You do not rise by the regulations, but in spite of them. Therefore in all matters of active service the subaltern must never take 'No' for an answer. He should get to the front at all costs. For every fifty men who will express a desire to go on service in the mess or the club, and will grumble if they are not selected, there is only about one who really means business and will take the trouble and run the risk of going to the front on the chance. The competition is much less keen when you get there. I know something of this myself, and am convinced of its truth.
The subaltern really stands on velvet in the matter. If he succeeds all is well. If he gets rebuked and ordered down, he must try again. What can the authorities do? They cannot very well shoot him. At the worst they can send him back to his regiment, stop his leave for six months, and some choleric old martinet who was a young man once, though he had half forgotten it, will write in some ponderous book in Pall Mall against the offender's name: 'Keen as mustard--takes his own line--to be noted for active service if otherwise qualified.'
Of course everyone was delighted to see Hamilton at Wady Halfa. They appointed him to a vacancy which had meanwhile occurred in the Gordon Highlanders, and gave him a company and a boat in the River Column. Through all the hard campaign that followed he served with credit. The fortunes of the troops who worked their way up the Nile have not been so closely studied as those of the columns which plunged into the desert and fought at Abu Klea and Abu Kru. But it was nevertheless one of the most picturesque enterprises of our military history. The broad boats toiling forward against the current of the river, making perhaps three miles a day, obstructed by frequent cataracts and menaced continually by the enemy, the scouts on the banks, the lines of men on the tow ropes, the red sand of the desert, the hot steel sky, and the fierce sunlight slanting in between rocks of the Nile gorge, are materials from which a fascinating sketch might be painted. Hamilton's boat became somehow the head of the rear column. At length there came a day when they told of expected opposition, dervish encampments, and a certain rocky ridge said to be lined with riflemen. The leading column of boats was hurried forward. By some mischance Hamilton's boat became the rear boat of the leading column. At any rate, his company alone of the Gordon Highlanders fought in the action of Kirbeckan next day. Nothing succeeds like success. Hamilton received the Distinguished Service Order for his services.
After the Nile Expedition of 1885 had reached its sad conclusion, Hamilton returned to India and became an aide-de-camp on the staff of Lord Roberts, who was then commanding the Madras army. The question of musketry training for Infantry was at that time much discussed, and Lord Roberts was determined to do something to improve the shooting of the British army. In his book 'Forty-one Years in India' he tells us how he and his staff formed themselves into a team and had many exciting rifle matches with the regiments in the Madras command. In all this Hamilton's skill with the rifle and the keen interest he had always shown for musketry--his first regimental appointment had been to be Musketry Instructor--stood him in good stead, and when Lord Roberts became Commander-in-Chief in India his aide-de-camp, who had meanwhile served in the Burmah campaign, was made Assistant Adjutant-General for Musketry.
In 1886 he married Jean, daughter of Sir John Muir, Baronet, of Deanston, Perthshire. He had now determined to persevere in the military profession, and devoted himself to it with great assiduity. His literary talents were turned to military subjects. He published a book on musketry in the army entitled 'The Fighting of the Future.' It was strong and well written. The introduction of the magazine rifle has modified many of his conclusions, but at the time the book attracted a great deal of attention. He found time, however, to write on other things, and there are still extant from his pen: 'A Jaunt in a Junk,' an account of a cruise which he made with his brother down the west coast of India; a volume of verses, 'The Ballad of Hadji and the Boar'; and one or two other writings. He preserved and extended his acquaintance with literary men, particularly with Andrew Lang, whom he powerfully impressed, and who inscribed a volume of poems to him in the following compulsive lines:
TO COLONEL IAN HAMILTON
To you, who know the face of war,
You, that for England wander far,
You that have seen the Ghazis fly
From English lads not sworn to die,
You that have lain where, deadly chill,
The mist crept o'er the Shameful Hill,
You that have conquered, mile by mile,
The currents of unfriendly Nile,
And cheered the march, and eased the strain
When Politics made valour vain,
Ian, to you, from banks of Ken,
We send our lays of Englishmen!
After doing much useful work in the Musketry Department he became one of the Assistant Quartermaster-Generals in India. From this office he managed to sally forth to the Chitral Expedition, for his services in which on the lines of communication he was made Commander of the Bath. He next became Deputy Quartermaster-General, and it was evident that if he chose to continue to serve in India he would ultimately become the head of the Department. In 1897 the Great Frontier War broke out. Hamilton was appointed to command one of the brigades of the Tirah Expeditionary Force. He was at the time on leave in England. He returned at speed, assumed command, and led his brigade through the Kohat Pass in the first movement of the general advance. It looked as if his chance in life had come. He had a magnificent force under him. He enjoyed the confidence of the General-in-chief, Sir William Lockhart, and only a few miles away the enemy awaited the advancing army on the heights of Dargai. The next morning his horse shied suddenly. He was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. They carried the brigadier away in a doolie, his brigade passed to another, and the campaign in Tirah was fought without him.
Ian Hamilton took this bitter disappointment with philosophical composure. 'Perhaps,' he said to me one day in Calcutta, 'I should have lost my reputation had I held my command.' But it was easy to see how much he felt the lost opportunity and the enforced inaction. At length his leg was mended--after a fashion. He persuaded a medical board to pass him as sound. The campaign continued. There was, however, no vacancy at the front. For several weeks he waited. Presently Sir Bindon Blood--who was preparing for his invasion of Buner, and who knew Hamilton well--applied for him to command his lines of communication. Obstacles were, however, raised by the Indian War Office, and the proposal fell through. At last, in February, when it seemed certain that a spring campaign must be undertaken against the Afridis, Sir William Lockhart decided to replace General Kempster by some other brigadier, and Ian Hamilton was again sent to the front. The hopes or fears of a further campaign proved unfounded. The Afridis gradually paid their toll of rifles, and their jirgahs made submission. The fighting was practically over. Yet in much skirmishing as occurred while Hamilton's brigade were holding the advanced posts in the Bara valley his care and eagerness attracted attention, and, small as was his share in the campaign, Sir William Lockhart gave him an honourable mention in the despatches.
On the restoration of order along the North-West Frontier Hamilton was offered the temporary position of Quartermaster-General in India. Anxious, however, for home employment, and fully alive to the importance of not becoming too closely identified with any particular military set, he declined this important office and proceeded to England on a year's leave. After some delay he was appointed commandant of the School of Musketry at Hythe, and from this post he was twice withdrawn to command brigades at the Manoeuvres. When Sir George White was sent to Natal in September 1899 Hamilton accompanied him as Assistant Adjutant-General. The War Office are therefore entitled to plume themselves upon his successes, for he is one of the few men originally appointed who have increased their reputation.
Ian Hamilton's part in the Boer war is so well known that it will be unnecessary to do more than refer to it here. He displayed a curious facility for handling troops in close contact with the enemy, and practically from the beginning of the fighting he held the command of a brigade. It was Hamilton whose influence went so far to counteract the astounding optimism of the gallant Penn Symons. It was Hamilton who was to have led the bayonet attack by night on the Boer laagers two days before Talana Hill was fought. It was Hamilton to whom French entrusted the entire disposition of the Infantry and Artillery at Elandslaagte, who arranged the attack, rallied the struggling line, and who led the final charge upon the Boer entrenchment. Again after Lombard's Kop, when the army reeled back in disorder into Ladysmith, it was Hamilton's brigade which, judiciously posted, checked the onset of the victorious enemy. During the defence of Ladysmith Hamilton's section of the defence included Cæsar's Camp and Wagon Hill. He has been censured in the Press for not having fortified these positions on their outer crests, and it was said in the army after the 6th of January that this neglect caused unnecessary loss of life. How far this criticism may be just I do not now propose to examine. The arguments against entrenching the outer crest were that heavy works there would draw the enemy's artillery fire, and that the Imperial Light Horse, who were to have defended this section, said they preferred to avail themselves of the natural cover of rocks and stones. The reader would be well advised to defer judgment until some serious and historical work on the campaign in Natal is published. At present all accounts are based on partial and imperfect evidence, nor do I think that the whole true account of a single action has yet been written.
Whatever the rights of this question may be, it is certain that on the 6th of January Ian Hamilton, by his personal gallantry and military conduct, restored the situation on Wagon Hill. Indeed, the Homeric contest, when the British General and Commandant Prinsloo of the Free State fired at each other at five yards' range, the fierce and bloody struggle around the embrasure of the naval gun, and the victorious charge of the Devons, may afterwards be found to be the most striking scene in the whole war.
After the relief of Ladysmith, Roberts, who knew where to find the men he wanted, sent for Hamilton, much to the disgust of Sir Redvers Buller, who proposed to keep this good officer for the command of one of his own brigades. On reaching Bloemfontein he was entrusted with the organisation of the Mounted Infantry division, a post from which he could conveniently be drawn for any service that might be required. Of the rest some account will be found in these letters.
Ian Hamilton is, as the fine portrait by Sargent, reproduced as the frontispiece of this book, shows him, a man of rather more than middle height, spare, keen eyed, and of commanding aspect. His highly nervous temperament animating what appears a frail body imparts to all his movements a kind of feverish energy. Two qualities of his mind stand forward prominently from the rest. He is a singularly good and rapid judge of character. He takes a very independent view on all subjects, sometimes with a slight bias towards or affection for their radical and democratic aspects, but never or hardly ever influenced by the set of people with whom he lives. To his strong personal charm as a companion, to his temper never ruffled or vexed either by internal irritation or the stir and contrariness of events, his friends and those who have served under him will bear witness. He has a most happy gift of expression, a fine taste in words, and an acute perception of the curious which he has preserved from his literary days. But it is as a whole that we should judge. His mind is built upon a big scale, being broad and strong, capable of thinking in army corps and if necessary in continents, and working always with serene smoothness undisturbed alike by responsibility or danger. Add to all this a long experience in war, high military renown both for courage and conduct, the entire confidence and affection of the future Commander-in-Chief, the luck that has carried him through so many dangers, and the crowning advantage of being comparatively young, and it is evident that here is a man who in the years that are to come will have much to do with the administration of the British Army in times of peace and its direction in the field.
[#] Vide Peerage, Gort and Guillamore.