The March of the Fifth Division from Estcourt to Frere—The Advance of the First Army Corps from Frere to the Tugela—The First Crossing of the Tugela.
Reveille sounded at 3 a.m. on January 9, in the camp of Sir Charles Warren's Division at Estcourt, and amid torrents of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, the tracks covered with mud and slush, officers and men got to arms, and, in accordance with orders received from headquarters the night before, tents were struck. We all performed our duty in a downpour of rain, some striking tents, some taking a hasty morning meal; others, who had had former experience of South African weather, donning their great-coats. The advance-guard, consisting of a few companies of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, were already on their way; the main body was to fall in on the road over the Little Bushman River; the transport was to park near the stream. Eventually we made a good start; but about seven miles further on we had again to cross the Bushman River, now in flood; this was not until mid-day, owing to the necessity of having the country scouted by men in skirmishing order, the roads, if we may so call them, being merely cattle-tracks, full of holes, covered with boulders, and even ant-hills, over which the transport-waggons rumbled on their way, inches deep in slush, wetting the men’s legs halfway to the knee. No regular drill formation could be kept; if the men had tried to keep their line, they would have had to jump small ponds on the roadway, or else walk through them regardless of consequences. When we reached the Little Bushman River, we could see our scouts and advance-guard in possession of the hills on the opposite side. This river, which can usually be easily forded, had, owing to the rain of the night before, risen so high as to be impassable to our infantry; and the strength of the current and the presence of sharp, rugged rocks rendered it impossible to make use of the pontoon carried by the brigade.
The Royal Engineers came forward and took soundings, soon getting a rope across by which several men tried to pass; but these nearly lost their lives, for the current was extremely swift So it was decided to wait for a decrease in the depth, as it is usual for the streams in this country to drop and rise in a few hours’ time. We waited nearly four hours in a downfall of rain, the troops walking about to keep themselves warm. The ground on which they halted was soft, and so much cut up by waggons that they were practically standing in slush, to which must be added the discomfort of wet clothes. Khaki drill when wet in the presence of a breeze acts as a refrigerator, and in later operations during the campaign the authorities have appreciated this fact, and have stopped the issue of that material, substituting serge in its place. Most of the men had left their great-coats with the waggons, permission to do so, both as regards coats and blankets, having been granted since the earlier engagements of the war, when it was found that, under a tropical sun, men harassed by the weight of their accoutrements, besides some 150 rounds of ammunition, came into camp tired out, and often useless for night pickets.
As the river began to subside, the waggons were able to cross, but not without difficulty, die Kaffir drivers leading the oxen being up to their shoulders in water. It was now resolved to attempt the bridging the river with waggons; four of these being unladen, they were firmly tied end to end across the stream and the oxen outspanned. Over this impromptu bridge the troops were marched, keeping their feet with difficulty on the slippery boards. It was laughable to see them scrambling across, and listen to their casual remarks to one another, such as, 4 What price Westminster Bridge?’etc. It took some hours for the transport to get over, and of necessity some of the troops had to be detained to protect it. I was ordered to push on with the ambulance-waggons to Frere with as little delay as possible. The contents of the vehicles were chiefly a few footsore men, and of the rest the majority were reservists, in whom the quiescent germs of Indian fevers had been called again to life. These latter lay shivering, wrapped up in the Government blankets provided in every bearer company’s equipment.
We arrived at Frere Camp at 6 p.m., and got both man and beast well looked after and fed in Major Kirkpatrick’s Hospital (No. 4 Stationary). By the time I had had a talk with the Staff, and obtained some light refreshment, I found that the Fifth Division had pitched tents, and had settled down to their dinner of fried bacon and biscuit—rather an odd dinner after a hard day’s march; but the fresh meat that was to have met us on our arrival in Frere had miscarried, Heaven knows where, and so, being fagged and weary after our journey, we could well relish any kind of meal. Both man and beast got their well-deserved sleep that night; but we were not destined to stay long in Frere, for next morning, January io, General Buller’s entire force, with the exception of the troops under Barton demonstrating before Colenso, and those on the line of communications along the railway, struck camp, and marched out at twelve noon, under a blazing sun, in the direction of Springfield, sixteen miles distant. This was to be the first move in Sir R. Buller's second attempt to cross the Tugela, an attempt which was eventually to end in a retirement, preceded by that heavy casualty list pertaining to the Spion Kop operations. At last the First Army Corps had got on their way, comprising heavy artillery, field artillery, cavalry, mounted and ordinary infantry, a long column of commissariat, another long column of hospital equipment, field hospitals, bearer companies, the Royal Engineers with their balloon, pontoon, telegraph, and various other sections, also unwieldy traction engines, more ornamental than useful, when off a road, in a country like South Africa.
An hour’s halt was made at 5 p.m. for the evening meal, consisting of the usual 'bully beef’ and biscuit, and also for the purpose of letting the baggage clear the drift near Frere Station. When one considers that there were 650 ox-waggons of supplies alone, not to mention waggons containing men’s kits, ammunition, and various other kinds of equipment, the reader can perhaps realize what the baggage of 20,000 men is [Such a baggage train, end to end, extended sixteen miles]. At dusk there came on a thunderstorm, being, as is usual in Natal, accompanied by a perfect deluge of rain; so we were all treated to another wetting. A temporary block occurred on the road, and my Commanding Officer sent me back to carry a message to one of the officers in charge of the transport. I had to ride some four or five miles, passing great masses of cavalry horses, artillery drivers, and so on, all jammed together. I was riding a small Basuto pony, a dwarf beside a cavalry charger, and at times it seemed as if the very life would be crushed out of us when we found ourselves jammed in between huge horses and ox-waggons; and here I must remark that the oxen have a nasty habit of prodding out sideways with their horns, to pass the time, so to speak, when on the march. I often wondered what the result would be should my pony become the object of such attentions. Further on along the road, in the inky darkness of the thunderstorm, the silence was suddenly broken by the terrific roar of a line of traction engines appearing on the scene. My pony got on its hindlegs, took fright, and bolted out on the veldt amongst rocks and ant-hills, and it was some time before I could rejoin the column.
At midnight the rain abated somewhat, and we were again all brought to a standstill. A block had occurred on the road, but no information came back as to the cause, nor orders as to what we were to do— whether we were to go to sleep and outspan the animals, or whether we were to continue the march. Therefore the whole column stood for some hours in a state of watchful expectation. Several bodies of troops passed us, light groups of infantry chiefly, having but little equipment. There also marched by the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps, 1,400 strong, who had been embodied by Colonel Gallwey, Principal Medical Officer of Natal, with pay at the rate of five shillings a day. These men were enlisted at Durban and Maritzburg, and consisted chiefly of refugees from the Transvaal who had been turned out of that country by the late South African Government. On their journey down they received a certain amount of harsh treatment from the Boer inhabitants of the various towns through which they passed. I saw them now for the first time; they were dressed in ordinary clothes, but the Government had given them a fair amount of equipment, each man having received a couple of blankets, a waterproof sheet, a haversack, and a pair of boots. They carried all their belongings with them, and truly it was a curious sight to see them marching past, four deep, not keeping step nor any kind of military formation, some of them encumbered with small portmanteaus, hand-bags, and various kinds of parcels, their white mackintosh sheets rolled around their shoulders, their haversacks bulging and hung round with bundles of various little odds and ends, including small pots and kettles. These were the men who were to make for themselves a reputation second to none in the Natal Army [The stretcher-bearers did all the hand-carrying work. The corps was divided into four companies, each under the control of two combatant officers (unarmed); each company was again subdivided into sections of six men, each section having its own stretcher and section leader, the latter being picked men and receiving increased pay. - When Ladysmith was relieved, this corps was disbanded, as the combatant officers who looked after the companies had to join their regiments in Ladysmith. Most of the stretcher-bearers were re-enlisted into a new corps which was called the Imperial Bearer Corps].
The rain still kept on, and some of the men lay down in their wet clothes on the wet grass, and were soon snoring in heaps on the wayside, poor fellows! quite fagged out after the last two days' heavy marching. As I rode by the pontoon, which was slung up in sections in different waggons, I saw some —’cuter, perhaps, than the rest—climb up the waggons and get into the great pontoon boats under their tarpaulin coverings for shelter and repose. Eager to be at the front, and afraid of going to sleep on the wayside lest they should be left behind, they at any rate were going to see the business through and get a cheap drive. I almost wished I could do likewise, but duty, and expectation of a further advance at any minute, forbade such a step. For hours we waited, smoking and talking, and it was here that I had my first opportunity of making the acquaintance of that veteran army chaplain of Egyptian and Soudan fame—Father Reginald Collins—an acquaintance which ripened into closer friendship later on, as we were destined to be together throughout General Buller’s campaign to the very end. We chatted, while walking our horses about to keep them from chill, and after a while, weary with waiting, we both lay down in our great-coats, amid the slush by the wayside, our horses’ reins looped round our spurs to prevent them straying, and thus endeavoured to obtain a rest.
Sleep we had none, for at 4.30 a.m., as dawn was breaking, the column moved on again. It was only then we heard that the stoppage of the column was due to some heavy ammunition-carts having been bogged in a drift, and so tightly were they stuck that three separate teams of oxen had to be yoked together t6 get them out. Over kopje and veldt, bog and rocks, the march was resumed without a stop until mid-day, when, coming to another spruit near Pretorius Farm, we found the drift of the same name flooded. The indefatigable Engineers were hard at work with pick and shovel, making a road to the waterside; another party of the same corps were throwing a pontoon bridge across the river. The Naval Brigade, cheerful as usual, and smoking their inevitable clays, were hauling over their long needle-like guns, showing the army that the sister service could at times, at any rate, dispense with horses. General Buller, as was his practice whenever obstacles were met with on the march, was standing on the bank over the river, organizing and directing the passage of the transport. Along the riverside the infantry were Ailing their water-bottles, or lying about in the sun, letting its genial warmth dry their still wet khaki A group of Connaught Rangers, hard bronzed-faced fellows with grizzly beards, and uniforms stained with stiff work at Colenso, in the historic fight of December 15, were holding forth and laying down the law to an admiring crowd of fresh recruits, who surrounded them with gaping mouths and glistening eyes. Pretorius Farm—a corrugated-metal-roofed house, with a few outhouses—lay on the other side of the river. Here a temporary food depot had been formed by the Army Service Corps, and we were enabled to draw some rations—‘bully beef,’ biscuit, and jam—but were told not to delay in order to eat them for the present, as we were to hurry on to Spring-field, where an engagement was hourly expected.
The day was now intolerably warm, and the heat of a tropical sun began to make itself felt by the infantry. The road was inches deep with brick-red-coloured dust, the air full of it, kicked up by marching men and moving animals; it filled our eyes, ears, noses, and mouths, it caked on our perspiring faces, it filled the boots of the infantry, clogging their socks and making them cut through, owing to the friction of the sock on the boot, exposing the bare skin, which then blistered on the leather. The army, indeed, had a general terra-cotta appearance from their dust-like covering. My own mouth and eyes were parched, my nose and cheeks blistered, and grew so painful that I could not bear to touch them. Yet on we had to march, and it was only towards the journey’s end that a few men began to fall out of the ranks and rest on the roadside. Some were footsore, others were exhausted from the heat, and a few even showed signs of sunstroke. As I rode by alongside the ambulance-waggons I had to stop and examine each man, and give the bad cases a lift; in fact, nearly all got a lift for a short distance, though room had often to be made for fresh arrivals. However, all got some relief, and even a short rest in comfort under the friendly canvas roof of an ambulance is not to be despised, for a man can loosen his straps and boots, and get, at any rate, time to munch a biscuit or smoke a quiet pipe, both of which a soldier fondly loves.
As we neared Springfield, I had my first opportunity of seeing the army in full battle array, the cavalry and Mounted Infantry well on ahead scouting, the infantry deploying in long lines across the country on each side of the road as far as the eye could see; the field batteries sedately traversing the open veldt, regardless of rugged ground and ploughed fields. Barbed wire in fences and in long loose coils scattered about in the tall grass bothered them at times; this constant source of annoyance to horses had been thrown about by the enemy in many places. Each mounted party had to be furnished with a pair of wire-clippers to overcome the nuisance.
At 6 p.m. we reached Springfield and halted. As a night attack was expected from the enemy, no tents were allowed to be pitched, and after the evening meal a few of us compared notes round a small camp-fire, hidden away in the rocks to avoid attracting rifle-fire. I then learned that the enemy had been altogether surprised at our advance, and had retired before our troops, only one man being reported killed on our side. Wrapped in my great-coat, I lay down, dead beat, for a few hours' sleep; I was very tired, not having had any repose the night before, and very little on the previous one.
The animals were to be let out to graze until i a.m., and were then to be inspanned and prepared to resume the advance or possibly to face a morning fight. The surgeons were specially warned to have everything ready, so we laid out our boxes containing instruments and bandages in anticipation of coming events. This, however, was an unnecessary precaution, as we did not move off until 4 a.m., and the enemy kept at a respectful distance.
At dawn on January 12 we crossed the Little Tugela, a river of no mean size — 80 yards wide. It had already been crossed the day before by Lord Dundonald and his Cavalry Brigade, who, finding the bridge intact and unoccupied, had left 300 men and two guns to protect it, while he, with 700 men and four guns, had pushed on with his characteristic dash, and seized the important position of Spearman’s Hill, which commands Potgeiter's ferry over the Tugela. From this hill he got into helio communication with Ladysmith, so the country on this side of the Tugela, at any rate, was safe. The bridge over the Little Tugela was a fine structure of iron and stone, and it was a wonder to all that the enemy had not destroyed it, and thereby delayed our advance. As I rode over, I little thought of the very different circumstances under which we were destined to recross it later on, as time will show. We marched from 4 a.m. until mid-day, when a halt was made, as is usual, near a stream, so that the men could wash and feed, and the transport animals could water, outspan, and graze. We halted right in front of a nice little farm, unoccupied, the inhabitants having fled at the Boer approach. The marks of the invader met our eyes everywhere — broken furniture, smashed crockery, damaged household goods. That the place had been recently occupied by the enemy was manifest, for the fresh remains of fires, chickens’ heads, feathers and bones, old boots, tin cans and ragged clothes, lay about everywhere, reminding one of what is to be seen in country byways at home after a night’s occupation by a wandering band of gipsies or tinkers. General Woodgate made the farm the headquarters of his telegraphic staff during the day. After dinner the main body crossed the drift. The ambulances were put to one side to let the more important units go by.
At last our turn came, and the ambulances crossed in safety, wobbling like huge ships in the breakers, their Red Cross flags bobbing and nodding in the evening breeze, the Kaffir drivers screeching, whistling, and flogging their mules with their long cane sjamboks. The mules themselves were regardless of everything but the presence of water, which they eagerly drank, and, not satisfied even then, would lie down and attempt to roll, making a hideous tangle of their harness, and causing no end of trouble and delay. On the far side of the river there was a high, grassy incline, surmounted by hills. On this the Eleventh Brigade pitched their tents and camped for the night, the Fourth Brigade advancing further to join hands with Dundonald.
About 6 p.m. we heard a loud explosion in the distance, which was evidently due to the enemy blowing up some bridge or other structure ahead. While having a wash-down, the brigade bugler sounded the joyful call of 1 Letters, and there was a rush from all sides and cheers echoing all round the hills as the men made for the postman’s tent What is a more joyful event, or what relieves more delightfully that dreary monotony that we all, at some time or other, are bound to feel while abroad, than the arrival of a letter from home—that little link which binds our hearts to the old country, and is always a ray of sunshine to a soldier in the field?
I had the good luck to get one—my first letter from home after months of waiting and bitter disappointment, owing to changes of address and alterations in the nomenclature of brigades. I tore it open, read it, and turned it over, and finally re-read it several times, and then gave verbal expression to my objection to the absurdly large modern round-hand penmanship, which occupies so much space on paper, thus curtailing the contents.
That evening General Buller issued a proclamation in Army Orders to be read to the men on parade. The troops were warned not to allow themselves to be deceived by the enemy by means of the white-flag trick. Should a white flag be displayed, it was to mean nothing, unless the force displaying it threw down their arms and held up their hands at the same time. The troops were also to guard against being misled by false words of command or false bugle-sounds, such as the enemy had practised with success earlier in the campaign. Men were not to be surprised by a sudden volley at close quarters: should such occur, there was to be no hesitation: they were not to turn from it, but to rush at it, for such a rush was the road to victory and safety, being the one thing the enemy could not stand, as it brought us to close quarters with them. General Buller also reminded the troops that they were now advancing to the relief of Ladysmith, where, surrounded by superior forces, their comrades had been gallantly defending themselves for the past ten weeks, and that we were fighting, not only in defence of our flag against an enemy who had forced war on us, but also for the health and safety of our comrades in Ladysmith.
By the evening of the 13th all the troops had arrived at Springfield and Spearman’s Hill, and supplies of food were well forward. In the meanwhile a dashing little episode was taking place at the Tugela. Six of the South African Light Horse swam the river, and seized the ferry punt on the opposite side. Some Boers concealed in the rocks opened a brisk fire on the naked men, but could not prevent them from bringing the boat safely to the British side.
The following day General Buller rode out at dawn from the farmhouse at Springfield where he had passed the night, accompanied by only a chosen few, and proceeded to Spearman’s Hill, where he spent several hours closely examining the hills on the far side of the Tugela with his telescope.
For two days most of us had a rest in camp, enjoying the luxury of tents. I amused myself during my spare time in interviewing several native chiefs, whose kraals were in the vicinity. One old Zulu, a headman, as 1 could see from the ring round his head, told me in broken English that the Boers had removed a gun which they had mounted on the hill over the camp before our arrival. He was a fine old warrior, and showed with pride some scars on his side and leg which were the result of wounds received in the last Zulu War. He brought out all his family to be photographed, and did his best to persuade us to drink some Kaffir beer, a sour beverage made from fermenting Kaffir corn. This we declined, even though he assured us that it was a splendid cure for dysentery.
This chiefs son lived in the next kraal. He was a tall, well-built Zulu, with a young wife and three children—two girls and a boy. On my asking him which sex he preferred, he pointed to the girls, and explained that he would get a good price for them when marriageable. It is the habit amongst the Kaffir tribes of South Africa to purchase their wives, and I believe no limit is placed to the number each chief can have, provided he buys them. Twenty oxen, this man told me, was the average price.
I had the pleasure on this occasion of meeting Mr. Frederick Treves, the eminent London surgeon. He was attached to No. 4 Stationary Hospital, which had already spread out its canvas. The little red capes of the army nurses relieved our eyes after the continual sight of nothing but khaki, and seemed a connecting link between the great army roughing it in the field and the nation at home, living, as it might well seem to us, in the lap of luxury.
On January 16 several important movements of troops took place; but before I attempt to describe them I must first remind the reader that our camp at Springfield was in full view of the Boer pickets on the surrounding high hills, and every move in camp could be seen by the enemy. We, in turn, could constantly perceive small scouting-parties of Boers on the eminences, and so each side watched the other. The first move of note happened on the afternoon of the 16th. Lyttelton’s Brigade left Spearman’s Hill, where they had been encamped, and marched to theTugela, which they crossed at Potgeiter’s Drift, and then seized a small line of kopjes on the other side. The Naval Brigade mounted some guns on Spearman’s Hill. Lord Dundonald’s cavalry, with the exception of Bethune’s Mounted Infantry, were ordered to march at 5.30 p.m. with five days’ rations and 150 rounds of ammunition per man, and with only what they stood in—tents, blankets, and waterproof sheets were to be left behind. The camp was to be left standing in full view of the Boer outposts on Spion Kop.
The main body at Springfield received sudden orders to parade at 5.45 p.m. and be prepared for a night march, all tents to be left in position; we were also told not to take heavy kits, as we would probably be back next day. The men left their great-coats behind. In my innocence I took with me hardly anything, as I thought the less my horse had to carry the less worry I would have; indeed, we all expected to be out for one day, not longer. A company of men from each regiment setting out was to stay behind to protect the camp. These were to bustle about in the morning and show themselves plainly to the enemy on the hills. A few buglers were left behind to blow bugle-calls at the usual hours; others were to light fires; in fact, those who remained were to show as much activity as possible. The result aimed at was to deceive Brother Boer in the morning as he looked from the hills, and make him think the army was still occupying the camp, which in reality the main body had quitted under cover of darkness. It was near dusk when we fell in. Brother Boer on the hills was deceived. He no doubt said, 'Look at the d----d Roineks at their evening drill!' and went to sleep content after his nightly hymn. It was dark when we eventually marched off, and the route followed was so planned as to keep the men in the shadows of the hills. After going for about seven miles, fresh orders were issued, and instead of marching for Spearman’s Hill, as we originally expected, wg moved off in a totally different direction. As we proceeded, the column was joined by troops from different centres. The night was a glorious one for a night march. A full moon peeped out occasionally through heavy clouds, the atmosphere was fresh and dry, the light just sufficient to show up obstacles, the distant eminences clouded and silent, yet now and then one would ride into a barbed-wire fence or stumble over an anthill.
To one watching the column it was a very picturesque scene: the Royal Artillery, their huge horses, the rattling of their chains, the rumble, rumble of the gun-wheels; the lances of the cavalry; the nodding cocks' feathers in the plumed hats of the South African Light Horse waving in the warm night breeze. Our ambulances jogged along merrily, bumping up and down, the Red Cross flags flapping and fluttering, and the Kaffir boys plying sjamboks and swearing at their companions as one team of mules fouled another. One could write a book about mules and their mulish ways, always ready to kick and stampede on the -slightest opportunity, always ready to eat, or to roll in dust, mud, or water.
The column halted. A whispered conversation took place between the leaders; dark, mounted figures, silhouetted against the silvery clouds, galloped up and down the ranks, whispering orders to the officers. Strict silence was to be maintained, as the enemy were near; all pipes were to be extinguished; no matches were to be lit or lights shown; the Kaffir drivers were not to crack their whips nor yell at their teams; no talking was to be allowed. In passing frowning hills and rugged valleys, one now waited in watchful expectancy of a dose of Mauser hail; one imagined posts as men, bushes as guns; a click of a wheel seemed the cocking of a rifle, the thud of a hoof the booming of a gun. The main body came to a halt before dawn; behind, and sheltered by, a ridge of grassy, rocky hills, on which the artillery mounted their guns in the dark, we were told to let the men eat their breakfasts. Our bugler boy, a lad of thirteen, fresh from Aldershot, hearing the order, started blowing the well-known 'Cook-house' call, as was his wont each morning on receipt of such an order. Fortunately, he was stopped just in time, or the result might have been disastrous to the secrecy of the march. His bugle was taken from him and put out of harm’s way.
At dawn the infantry advanced in long lines across the kopjes, and the white canvas hoods were ordered to be removed from the ambulance-waggons, as they were deemed to be too conspicuous. From the hilltops I had a good view—my first—of the Tugela winding erratically like a huge tortuous snake in its dying agonies through the valley below. Little dots in long extended lines were advancing on Trichardts Farm near the riverside—these were the infantry; other dots in closer formation, moving more rapidly and appearing larger and darker, were flitting through the scrub—these were the Irregular Cavalry. A few scattered rifle-shots now fell on our ears, then a rattle of musketry. Brother Boer had been drawn at last Another volley! Was it from the farm? Yes, I was correct; half a dozen men galloped away, pursued by a larger body at close range. I lost sight of them in the trees. It was a party of Boers surprised at their morning meal by some of the Light Horse. The former had fired a volley at 300 yards; our men had replied. No one was hit A few more 'Pit! pots!' [The report of discharge of the Mauser rifle has this double note when heard at a distance, whereas the Lee-Metford rifle has but a single note; this difference is, I believe, due to a space existing between the inner and outer coats of the Mauser, which is not present in the other rifle] — long-range Mauser shots—from the opposite bank of the river; one man of the Devons was shot dead by a stray bullet at some 2,000 yards. The enemy had crossed, and Trichardt’s Drift over the Tugela was in our hands. The artillery now began to shell the other side of the river; scrub, bushes, mealie-fields—all in turn were carefully searched with shrapnel, but with no result: the Boers had fled. The morning sun blazed forth in all its splendour, the doves cooed, the birds sang. Everyone was in the best of spirits; the long-wished-for river was ours.
From the heights over Trichardt’s Drift a splendid panoramic view of the Tugela and country north of the river could be obtained. Away on the western horizon, clearly defined against the blue Natal sky, stood out the jagged and fantastic outlines of the Drakensberg, reminding one of the marvellous conglomerate hills of Eastern Bokhara. These mountains, huge in size, some peaked, others flat-topped, others with summits like ruined battlements, all being a series of geological freaks, form an impregnable barrier between the late Orange Free State and Natal.
Stretching from the Drakensberg across our front ran another erratic chain of hills, varying in shape and size, rising in tiers above each other to the north, all barren, rocky, and apparently deserted. This was the Taba Myama ridge.
On the western end of the Taba Myama chain, near Acton Homes, there stands out a spur from the ridge, forming an exceedingly steep, almost precipitous natural fortress, known as Bastion Hill, also called by the troops Childe's [In commemoration of Major Childe, of the South African Light Horse, who was killed there] Kopje. On the eastern end of the same ridge there is another buttress-like projection, much higher, much more prominent, and much more formidable, than Bastion Hill. It lies about five miles north-west of Potgeiter’s Drift. A green-topped hill, shaped like a hog’s back, its precipitous sides show white glistening spots in the morning’s sun— quartz strata. A few isolated, stunted trees are to be seen against the sky-line, appearing like parasites on its huge form; away to the west of the hog’s back are its two pointed peaks. This is Spion Kop, a name of Dutch origin, as an old colonial told me, meaning Spy Hill, for it was from its heights that the Boer trekkers had, for the first time, in 1835, gazed upon the fertile plains of Natal. Little did they think then, little did we think now, that it was to be the last resting-place of many hundreds of the white race in the final struggle for supremacy between Briton and Boer.
We now descended to the farm at Trichardt’s Drift, which is worthy of description. It was built in the colonial style—a one-storied, airy house, with spacious verandas and numerous corrugated-zinc-roofed outbuildings, surrounded by well-tilled gardens and shaded by lime and apricot trees. There was also an artificial pond, from which a small stream trickled to join the great Tugela, only some eighty yards distant.
When I arrived at the farm I learnt from some Kaffir hands that the owners had left on commando; they had foolishly thrown in their lot with other rebels in the district, and had taken up arms against the soldiers of their Queen. Notwithstanding this, the farm was put under a guard, as is usual, to avoid giving the owners any ground for afterwards stating that pilfering by our troops had taken place in their absence. The interior was well furnished—a walnut piano, on which an officer was playing a popular air, numerous mahogany chairs and tables, all pointing to recent occupation by a well-to-do family.
Strolling to the river's side, I found the Royal Engineers busy in throwing a pontoon across. The river was about 80 yards wide, and bordered by steep banks covered with sedge, cacti-plants, and bushes. Numerous little birds of a brilliant scarlet plumage were flitting about in the reeds, singing and chattering with all their might. Fish life was also represented, for now and then a sudden dull splash on the smooth surface would betray the presence of some large sleepy denizen of the watery realm. It took twelve pontoon-boats, with their connecting-boards between, to bridge the river; and while this was being done I noticed Sir Redvers Buller sitting on a pile of planks intently watching the proceedings. The infantry got safely and quickly across. Woodgate’s and Hart's Brigades advanced to the hills on the north side, which they captured, and then the enemy could be seen retiring northward. The cavalry did not cross by the pontoon, but selected a place about a quarter of a mile lower down, a ford known as Waggon Drift. Across this at noon Dundonald’s Brigade made their passage, and a trooper of the 13th Hussars was washed down-stream and drowned. Captain Tremayne, of the same regiment, who gallantly tried to rescue him, was nearly drowned himself, and was carried unconscious to my ambulance-waggon. We had a good hour's work, with artificial respiration, hot drinks and hot bottles, before he opened his eyes, but he made a perfect recovery, and was none the worse for his gallant action.
During the afternoon the Engineers threw a second pontoon across the river, higher up than the other.
Over this the heavy transport, artillery, and waggons passed. During the night of the 17th and the day of the 18th the whole of the waggons belonging to the force were brought across the river, and the artillery placed in position outside Wright’s Farm.
Early on the 18th Lord Dundonald’s Cavalry Brigade [Dundonald’s Brigade consisted of: 1st Royal Dragoons (480 strong), 13th Hussars (260), Composite Mounted Infantry (260), South African Light Horse (300), Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry (300), and 4 Colt guns] which had been augmented by the Royal Dragoons, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, and two squadrons of the 13th Hussars, moved off westward to guard the left dank of the army. Bethune’s Mounted Infantry were detached and sent to General Lyttelton at Potgeiter’s Drift Eager to draw first blood, Dundonald’s men pushed on for Acton Homes. Keeping behind the small hills which fringed the Tugela on its northern banks, this force almost surprised the right flank of the Boer army. Near Acton Homes some 300 Boers were observed to debouch from the right of their position on Taba Myama and proceed down the Acton Homes road. The two leading squadrons of the Composite Mounted Infantry (Natal Carbineers and Imperial Light Horse) were at once ordered to gallop and seize two kopjes through which the road passed. This they did, and had hardly taken up their positions when the enemy came up the road towards them, with their scouts only a few yards in advance of their main body. If our men had been patient, this force might have been allowed to advance within 20 yards, but a single rifle-shot rang out when they were about 70 yards off, and it was followed by a fusillade. The effect was instantaneous—a sudden halt, many empty saddles, while those who kept their seats faced about and galloped away. Those whose horses had been shot quickly took shelter among the rocks and answered our fire for some time, the Mounted Infantry Company, 2nd King’s Royal Rifles, assisted by a squadron of the South African Light Horse, outflanking this party. The Boers, seeing the game was up, surrendered. In this little action about fifty Boers were killed or captured, our loss being small.
Some time that morning a message was sent to Sir Charles Warren that it would be perfectly practicable to come round the range of hills towards Acton Homes, but that it would not be practicable to take the troops down the valley between the small range and the Taba Myama range, as they would be exposed to Boer fire. One or two important places on the line of advance were held by dismounted men left by the brigade, and the force continued its march in the Acton Homes direction.
A request was received by Dundonald’s Brigade later in the day from Sir Charles Warren to furnish 500 men at once to prevent his oxen being swept away, as there were no cavalry round the camp, and accordingly the 1st Royal Dragoons were sent back. Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, about 300 strong, had been left on the line of advance at Venter’s Spruit to hold some low hills, which it would have been very undesirable to let the enemy occupy. After the successful action at Acton Homes, a strong position was occupied commanding the road which circled up the north-west end of the Taba Myama range on its way to Ladysmith. Finding that the Boers had guns on this road, and as Dundonald had none, Sir Charles Warren was asked for artillery to knock out the Boer guns which were commanding the advance, and enable an outflanking movement Reinforcements were also necessary to hold the important position that had been occupied. But the guns were not sent, and the brigade was still further weakened.
Thirty of Dundonald’s prisoners were brought to General Warren’s camp during the night or, rather, about 2 o’clock in the morning, as I have cause to remember, for I was called from sleep to attend some of these wounded prisoners.
This incident did not slip my memory, and its record is of interest, for Commandant-General Louis Botha took occasion to refer to it later on in my presence. He stated, as one of the reasons why he would not let the army surgeons remove the wounded off Spion Kop after the engagement of January 24, that the British did not feed or treat his wounded well, and when asked to name any particular occasion he quoted January 18.
I was immediately able to inform him of the inaccuracy of this statement, and told him that I was only one of several other surgeons who attended those men, and that not only were they well fed and their wounds looked after, but many of the soldiers went out of their way to make them as comfortable as possible. However, more of this anon.
I will now briefly summarize the relative position of General Buller’s troops on the evening of the 18th.
His right flank, consisting of Lyttelton and Coke’s Brigades, with a howitzer battery, were at Potgeiter’s Drift.
The heavy naval guns, two 47’s and eight quick-firing 12-pounders, had been placed on Spearman’s Hill—a position which had the double advantage of commanding the approaches to both Trichardt’s and Potgeiter’s Drifts.
The main body of troops under General Warren were bivouacked on the north side of the Tugela opposite Trichardt’s Drift.
General Buller’s left flank extended as far as Acton Homes, being represented there by Lord Dundonald’s Cavalry Brigade. Thus, the Boer position, extending from Acton Homes to Potgeiter’s, was faced by three bodies of British troops, the movements of each body visible—clearly visible—to the outposts on the central observatory, Spion Kop.