Council of War at Venter's Spruit—The Engagement of Venter's Spruit or Taba Myama, January 20—Bastion Hill—Three Tree Hill
The plan of operation for the next week’s work, terminating on the fatal January 24, requires close attention, and the accompanying map at p. 31 should be constantly referred to.
As before mentioned, Sir Charles Warren received certain instructions from General Buller on January 15, when he marched out from Springfield in command of the whole force, which amounted to an Army Corps (less one brigade). These instructions were to the effect that after the Tugela was crossed at Trichardt’s Drift General Warren was to proceed, refusing his right (namely, Spion Kop) and bring his left forward, to gain the open plain north of Spion Kop.
Reference to the above-named map will show that two roads are available from Trichardt’s Drift to the plain north of Spion Kop—one by Acton Homes, the other by Fairview and Rosalie. The first-named road, a good one, describes two sides of a triangle before the plain is reached, and was therefore too long; the second is the more direct route, but a very difficult one for a large number of waggons, unless the enemy were thoroughly cleared out of Spion Kop, which is only a little over a mile distant, and completely commands the road. The circuitous route by Acton Homes was chosen by General Warren, as General Buller in his instructions had recommended that Spion Kop should be avoided.
On January 19 General Warren’s turning movement began. His troops left their bivouac at 5 a.m., and went forward in open formation towards Venter’s Spruit. Fences and ditches had to be levelled in many places to allow of the advance of the accompanying field-guns and transport, which were in the centre of the broad line formed by our front At Venter’s Spruit a halt was made while a road was being constructed by the Engineers on the slopes of a hill over the spruit, to permit of some guns being brought to the summit From the top of this hill I obtained a good view of the Taba Myama range, against which we were to advance. This range stretched for some six miles across our front from Acton Homes on our left to Spion Kop on the right; it is fiat-topped, suggesting a sort of tableland. Its slopes rise abruptly from the plain in its entire extent, except near Spion Kop, where a number of small intervening kopjes hide the nature of the ground; the most prominent and largest of these kopjes was called Three Tree Hill, and became of importance later on. Towards the left, or western end of the Taba Myama ridge, a remarkable buttress-like hill known as Bastion Hill stood prominently out Between this and Three Tree Hill the range is split up by long, serpentine gorges, running in a north-westerly direction.
Below the range lay a flat and fertile plain, meadowed with tall, flowing grass and occasional mealie-fields. Several good farms were also scattered about, surrounded by fruit-trees, the golden tint of the already ripe apricots being clearly visible through our field-glasses.
Two brigades of infantry were sent forward, and occupied the slopes north of Wright’s Farm, and soon long-range rifle-fire was drawn from the enemy, who were posted on Three Tree Hill and Taba Myama; through our glasses we could see a good number of their men on Bastion Hill [This hill has also been called Sugar-loaf Hill, Conical Hill, or Childe’s Kopje, by various writers] some of whom were riding leisurely about, and others industriously digging trenches.
During the firing the baggage had been packed at Venter’s Spruit, which was made the headquarters of the main army for the day. In the afternoon our artillery commenced shelling the hills, but failed to draw the enemy’s gun-fire. In the meanwhile Dundonald’s Brigade, which had been holding the position captured by them on the 18th, near Acton Homes, were calling for reinforcements and artillery. They could not advance without artillery, as they were faced by two long-range Boer guns, one on each side of the road. This brigade now mustered but about 800 men, say 650 rifles. Besides the regiments moved away on the 18th, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry had been recalled on the 19th, to rejoin the Royal Dragoons on the right The brigade was thus reduced from six to two and a half regiments, and as a brigade was paralyzed, not in energy or dash, but in strength. Little did we guess the advantage they had gained; if luck were ever against an army, it was the Army of Natal, as from hostile sources I afterwards learnt that up to General Buller’s arrival at the Tugela, on the 17th, the right wing of the Boer forces numbered not less than 8,000. It held a line of positions overlooking the Tugela from Acton Homes on the west to Vaal Krantz on the east, where it joined the main force at and about Colenso and Ladysmith. Seeing General Buller’s move on the 17th, the Boers thought it was a feint to cover a real attack from the direction of Potgeiter’s Drift, at which Lyttelton’s Brigade had crossed on the 16th, and above which on Spearman’s Hill all our long-range guns had been mounted, a movement the enemy did not fail to perceive. These operations, in addition to the fact that the shortest and best road to Ladysmith passed by Potgeiter’s Drift, made the enemy mass their greatest strength to face this place, withdrawing their men from all other positions in order to do so. Having done this, it occurred to them that General Buller might come along the Acton Homes road, as such a move would enable him, by stretching out the Boer line, to thereby weaken it and break through at some point. To avoid this a force with a few long-range guns was sent off to watch Acton Homes; it was this force that came into contact with Dundonald’s Brigade on the 18th, and the apprehension entertained by the Boers that General Buller was going to break through their lines at Acton Homes almost became a certainty to them when Dundonald’s Brigade drove them out of the pass near that place by occupying a commanding ridge. This ridge was the only position on their right the enemy were afraid of, and, recognising this danger, they reinforced their right flank as soon as possible.
General Warren, having examined, during the 19th, the country through which he had to pass, held a council of war in the evening, and it was decided that the Acton Homes route to Ladysmith was too long, and the more direct route, a road leading north-east, which branches off from a point east of Three Tree Hill, passing over Fairview and through Rosalie, was decided upon.® This latter road being a very difficult one for a large number of waggons, unless the enemy were thoroughly cleared out, General Warren decided that the whole of the transport should be sent back across the Tugela. The march through could then be attempted without impedimenta, with three or four days’ food in the men’s haversacks. General Warren now decided to adopt special arrangements, which would involve his stay at Venter’s Laager for two or three days; to secure his camp he gave General C. F. Clery instructions to attack the Boer positions the next day, by a series of outflanking movements, and placed two infantry brigades and six batteries of artillery at his disposal. During the night General Woodgate’s Brigade seized Three Tree Hill, a spot of great importance, being, as it were, a stepping-stone to the crescentic?amphitheatre of high, frowning hills which lie between Spion Kop on the east and Bastion Hill on the west
At daybreak of January 20 the forward movement was at last begun, and on this day the important action known as Venter’s Spruit was destined to be fought As the events of January 24 (Spion Kop) overshadow the week, the important affair just named, which so nearly terminated in a tactical success, has never received full credit, its story being engulfed, as it were, in the annals of the Majuba-like proceedings at Spion Kop.
The attack opened by all the batteries (7th, 19th, 28th, 63rd, 73rd, 78th Royal Field Artillery and heavy guns, navals from Spearman’s and howitzers from Potgeiter’s) shelling the enemy’s position, accurate practice being made. Sir Charles Warren in the early morning of the 20th collected Lord Dundonald’s Cavalry from the position he had occupied. Ladysmith had heliographed that the Boers were being strongly reinforced at Acton Homes by 1,500 or 2,000 men. As Lord Dundonald withdrew his force from their positions near Acton Homes, he left a small post to show themselves on the hill-tops, so as to make the Boers imagine the position to be still occupied, and in order to assist Sir Charles Warren in the attack on Taba Myama he sent the Composite Regiment to demonstrate up the Acton Homes road, while, with the remainder of his force, now consisting of only 500 men, he proceeded unnoticed behind the low hills until opposite Bastion Hill, which lay between the enemy’s right and centre. It was about 9.30 a.m. when the South African Light Horse, one squadron of the 13th Hussars, and four machine-guns, determined to push their reconnaisance into an attack and seize Bastion Hill. The Composite Mounted Infantry, who were watching the extreme left, and Thorneycrofts Mounted Infantry, who were keeping touch with the infantry on the right, were directed to give support if, at one o’clock, all was clear in their front.
At ten o’clock Lord Dundonald with the South African Light Horse moved against Bastion Hill, but determined not to press the attack if the Boers were found in force. Two squadrons of this regiment, under Major Childe, dismounted and made a frontal advance, covered by the fire of two other squadrons under Colonel Byng, within effective range, from a wood about 1,000 yards distant. As the last-named squadrons moved off, one of the enemy’s guns, the first that day, opened fire upon them; the shell, bursting within 100 yards of the target, did no damage, owing to the wide open order adopted by the Colonial Cavalry. Ten or eleven shells followed, every one of which fell within 100 yards of their ranks, but, owing to the scattered formation of the men, only two horses were killed. The horses were now placed under cover, and the dismounted men, reaching the wood, opened a long-range rifle-fire pn the hill, which was returned from the summit.'The machine-guns, three in number, were sent for—the 13th Hussars’ Maxim under Lieutenant Clutterbuck, one of Lord Dundonald’s 'galloping’ Colts under Captain Hill, M.P.,and the South African Light Horse Maxim, all under Major Villiers. These were fetched up to the wood by Lieutenant Winston Churchill, S.A.L.H., and immediately opened fire on the sky-line at 2,000 yards. Their noise attracted the attention of the Boer gunners to the westward, and shell after shell from the enemy dropped with remarkable accuracy into the wood where the horses of the 13th Hussars were taking cover; one was killed here by a shell that failed to explode. As these horses were being galloped off to better cover, another shell fell within a yard of the leader, a moving target at 7,000 yards showing the accuracy of the enemy’s fire.
In the meanwhile the two attacking squadrons were climbing Bastion Hill. Owing to its precipitous nature there was a considerable extent of dead ground, which rendered the upward advance easy. Corporal Tobin, of the South African Light Horse, arrived at the summit ten minutes in advance of his comrades or any others. He waved his ostrich-plumed felt hat on the top of his rifle as a signal to the machine-guns in the wood below to divert their fire from the summit It was a grand sight, this khaki-clad trooper, all alone on the summit, waving his ostrich-plumed hat to urge his comrades to follow; and it is pathetic to record that this man, whose bravery is mentioned in General Buller’s despatches, met his death on the following day on this same hill.
As the South African Light Horse took the hill —which proved to be a position of great importance, for by our holding it the Boers were prevented from bringing a gun on to it, as they were about to do, and if they had succeeded would have enfiladed the whole of the infantry advance—Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry and the rest of the 13th Hussars galloped up in support. In the meanwhile the infantry had advanced to the attack on the enemy’s centre. General Clery disposed his troops as follows: General Hild-yard, with the Queen's East Surrey, West Surrey, and West Yorks, was on the left (next Lord Dundonald’s Brigade); General Hart’s Irish Brigade—Dublin Fusiliers, Inniskilling Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, and Border Regiment—occupied the centre; while the Lancashire Brigade, under General Woodgate, consisting of York and Lancaster, Lancashire Fusiliers, Royal Lancasters and South Lancashires, were on the right. Of the actual attacking party, only two of the regiments in the last-named brigade formed part—the Lancashire Fusiliers and the York and Lancaster Regiment, who were lent from the Eleventh Brigade to Major-General Hart, commanding the Fifth Brigade.
At daybreak General Hart advanced up the long spur of the Taba Myama ridge, which runs from Coventry’s Farm northwards, and halted under cover some 2,500 yards from the enemy’s trenches. General Hart selected the two Lancashire battalions for the firing line. The Lancashire Fusiliers were placed on the right, and the York and Lancaster Regiment on the left, the line of separation being indicated by a clump of bushes among some rocks. A donga was to mark the extreme right line of advance for the Lancashire Fusiliers. Two companies of the latter, when extended, fitted into the allotted space, and when the extension was completed Colonel Bloomfield, who commanded this regiment, received orders from General Hart to bring both the companies up to the bushes on the left, and occupy the rocks there. A movement to the left was necessary to effect this, and while it was being carried out the two companies came under a severe fire at about 1,500 yards range. Six or seven casualties occurred as they crossed a patch of white flowers, which was evidently a range mark to the enemy. The result of this movement was that, while about 100 of the Lancashire Fusiliers could use their rifles, about 800 more were unable to fire, and offered an excellent target to the enemy, who did not neglect their opportunity. The Lancashire Fusiliers’ casualty roll for the day was seven officers wounded, eighteen non-commissioned officers and men killed, and between eighty and ninety* wounded. Notwithstanding their awkward position, the admirable demeanour of the men is worth recording. The officers' mess servants and company cooks got breakfast ready at the rendezvous, and brought it up to the firing line in the most light-hearted and unconcerned manner, regardless of the heavy fire they must endure.
General Hart’s second line consisted of the Border Regiment and Dublin Fusiliers, with the Connaughts and Inniskillings in reserve. General Hildyard’s Brigade was placed between Lord Dundonald’s Brigade on the extreme left flank and General Hart’s Brigade on the right. Hildyard’s firing line comprised the Queen’s. As the infantry slowly picked their way up the ridge, taking whatever cover they could, the enemy opened a long-range rifle discharge from the whole length of their position. This was soon followed by their artillery, but, though their marksmanship was excellent, many of the shells failed to burst. Two high-velocity guns and some pom-poms were brought into action by the Boers. One of their first shrapnel shells accounted for half a dozen or more of our men. Our Field Artillery [The 7th, 63rd, 73rd, and 78th Batteries Royal Field Artillery. The 61st Howitzer Battery also came up later. The 19th and 28th Batteries were brought up, but afterwards moved to the left] who had been in action on Three Tree Hill since 10.20 a.m., redoubled their efforts. Their view was obscured in front by the face of the Taba Myama ridge, the average range of which was 2,600 yards from this. Only some of the enemy’s trenches were visible, the majority being behind the sky-line, and the fine effect of their shells could only be gauged by information signalled back by the attacking infantry when any particular spot was shelled, and the enemy’s rifle-fire slackened as the result. If the Boer fire became too hot from any particular place, the artillery turned their attention to it, and this mutual co-operation between both arms undoubtedly had good effects. Owing to the fact that signalling had been done away with in the Horse and Field Artillery shortly before the commencement of the war, signallers had now to be borrowed from the infantry, which handicapped the gunners, and unfortunately caused delay. Meanwhile our guns fired incessantly, the men working at high pressure all along the line.
About 3 p.m. the troops under General Hart, harassed by the uncomfortable nature of their position, determined to clear the enemy from their right. As the Irish and Lancashire men burst forth with a mighty shout to clear the crest, they were met by a tremendous fire from the ridges behind. The front line lost heavily, and a similar fate would have befallen the second had they not been stopped in time, for it was found that behind the first crest lay 1,000 yards of tableland, from the north of which rose a second ridge, crescent in shape, and not before visible from any part of the British position. From this ridge, which completely commanded the plateau, the enemy poured a murderous fire—shrapnel and rifle—and it seemed at one time that General Hart’s men must be annihilated; but the batteries on Three Tree Hill came to their assistance, and turned all their energy on what, to them, was at any rate an invisible target. The ground in front of the advance became a whirlwind of dust as the shrapnel rained upon it. To harass our troops still more, the enemy set fire to the grass, which, being dry and long, blazed furiously, sending up dense volumes of smoke, through which friend and foe emptied their magazines. Some of the wounded suffered in the flames.
The enemy now turned their whole attention to the infantry along the crest line, directing a most accurate fire on all who showed themselves on the plateau.
It was well for our troops that the majority of them could not be seen, but the continuous swish of bullets passing overhead forbade any further advance. Most of the enemy's shells either failed to burst or passed over into the valley; otherwise the casualty list would have been much heavier, for many of the gorges under the steep crest were literally packed with the battalions who were acting as supports. Fortunately, these were not visible to the enemy. That they suspected their presence, however, was manifest by the careful and systematic way in which the Boer guns searched the reverse slopes of the ridge. It was while this was taking place that one of the most pathetic incidents of the day occurred. The enemy's guns had begun to shell Bastion Hill. The first few shells went over its summit, and skimmed into the valley below without doing any harm; the next—a percussion shell—burst on the summit: the gunners had now found their range. This was soon followed by a time shrapnel, which exploded accurately just behind the British position on the crest. It was a searcher. The Boer gunner could not possibly see anyone here from his post; he merely used his best judgment, and fired on chance, but he succeeded. Major Childe, of the South African Light Horse, who led the party which took the hill earlier in the day, was sitting, partly sheltered by the rocks, on this dangerous ground, and was instantly killed by a fragment, which entered his brain. Half a dozen troopers of his regiment, who were close to him, were seriously wounded [ Major Childe’s curious presentiment of impending death may be added to many other well-attested examples. It is recorded that he discussed it with his brother officers on the night before, requesting as a wordplay upon his own name that the inscription, 'Is it well with the child? It is well’ (2 Kings iv. 26) should be placed over his grave. This was done, and to-day there stands a little wooden cross at the foot of Bastion Hill—the hill he took and held—bearing this very epitaph.]. Privates J. Burgess, H. Maddox, A. Penfold, and J. Phister (all stretcher-bearers of the Queen’s), with Major Hind, R.A.M.C., gallantly volunteered to ascend Bastion Hill and bring down the body of Major Childe. On the plateau they were exposed to a heavy fire [Mentioned for gallantry in Sir Charles Warren’s despatch, February 1, 1900].
During the afternoon General Lyttelton’s force at Potgeiter’s Drift made an effective demonstration against the enemy’s position facing them. Here a large force of Boers lay entrenched on the slopes of Spion Kop and its eastern continuation, Brakfontein. General Lyttelton s plan was directed to retain the enemy in their positions here, and to hinder them from reinforcing the Boers on Taba Myama, thereby materially assisting General Warren. The 61st Howitzer Battery and the naval guns covered the infantry advance, and Bethune’s Mounted Infantry reconnoitred down the Tugela on the east, to protect their right flank. Reaching Skiet Drift, they found the enemy in force. General Lyttelton’s infantry, having come within 1,500 yards of the enemy’s trenches, opened long firing, but as their orders were to effect nothing but a reconnaissance, they retired later with two killed and fifteen wounded.
The Eleventh Brigade headquarters had during the day been with the artillery on Three Tree Hill. The Royal Lancaster and South Lancashire Regiments acted as escort to the field-guns; the Eleventh Brigade bearer company had its ambulance-waggons drawn up under the crest. From this point we had an excellent view of the engagement, which was particularly interesting, being to most of us our baptism of fire. When our artillery commenced shelling the Boer trenches on the Taba Myama ridge, which was less than 2,000 yards distant, the shells were invisible till they exploded. We could see them tearing great holes in the hillside, and sending up clouds of red dustfwhen they burst from the ground^ When time shrapnel was used, it exploded some 20 feet in air, over the target aimed at; all one could see was a flash, not always visible except against a dark background, or as a small convoluting globe of pure white smoke. If the ground under the ‘cone of dispersion' of the shrapnel bullets is visible, little clouds of dust thrown up by the individual pellets as they strike the soil can be perceived. The shells went through the air with a scream that reminded me of rockets, and it was possible to calculate the range at which they burst by timing the interval between the report of discharge from the gun and the bursting report. The artillery practice was very accurate, and the coolness of the gunners, standing by their guns with absolutely no cover, was admirable, although they were subjected during all the afternoon to a continuous long-range rifle and shell fire, which must have been very trying.
Luckily no casualties of any moment occurred here, and as there was a surplus of surgeons, I had but little to do, and was able to watch the infantry attack. As General Hart’s left advanced from the valley up the southern slopes of the Taba Myama, inclining to their left — that is, towards Bastion Hill — skirmishers went out, and soon a general engagement commenced. General Hart’s main body had massed on the reverse slopes of the last-named hill, and very quickly his Maxims went into action —rat-tat-tat-tat-tat! They made fine music, the report being totally different from that of the rifles, although the ammunition is exactly similar to that used in our Lee-Metford weapons. The sounds follow in rapid and regular succession as the trigger of the gun is pressed. All along the sky-line we could see the ragged outline of Boer sangars (stone walls thrown up as fortifications), and in many places long red mounds, which indicated the presence of trenches. The aspect of the troops massed on the slopes was that of a great body of ants, large and small, the latter being men, the former animals and vehicles; for some ammunition mules, Maxim mules, and even ambulances, had climbed up. Outside the main body the specks grew thinner and thinner, and in the firing line they became invisible, except at times, when a thin, scattered line of khaki-coloured specks, almost particles, might be seen springing into sight from some cover, then flitting rapidly forward, and disappearing with the same rapidity as they threw themselves prone on the ground to recommence firing. ‘Tommy ’ had gained at Colenso, on December 15, valuable experience, which he had not been slow to turn to advantage. He was now learning to dodge behind available cover as if to the manner born. But, being of the attacking party, this did not equalize matters, as he had at times to expose himself while advancing, whereas the Boer could lie content and in safety in a well-constructed trench, or behind a sangar or a rock, where even shrapnel could not harm him. Each time these infantry became visible, it was possible through field-glasses to distinguish the dust thrown up in little clouds all round them as the enemy’s bullets struck the ground.
Very soon I noticed other specks, solitary ones and slightly larger, moving out My glasses showed these to be stretcher-bearers, who had their work cut out for them on that hill. Throughout the day these stretcher-bearers, the majority of whom were the civilians mentioned in the last chapter, excited the utmost admiration and praise. They went forward, solidly and unflinchingly, to the very firing line, and could be seen bending over the fallen, tending and removing the wounded with a devotion so faithful and a coolness so superb, amidst a hail of bullets and shells, that unfortunately many paid dearly for their self-sacrifice[ Six reported as killed, and twelve wounded, on this occasion]. The Boers fired on them without the least hesitation; either they could not or would not see the Red Cross brassard worn on their left arm. From experience gathered later on at Spion Kop, on the 25th, to which reference will be subsequently made, I have come to the conclusion that the Red Cross, which is a small one, fitting into a circle of an inch and a half in diameter, could not be seen by the enemy at the range within which these men were shot down, and it may have been difficult to recognise a khaki-coloured stretcher. Had each stretcher-party carried a Red Cross flag on a lance, I am quite certain, from the opinion I formed of Louis Botha and his men on the 25th, that no such accidents would have occurred.
Shortly afterwards I had to attend to several men who had been wounded close by me. The first case was that of a man shot through the chest, just half an inch from his heart—a close shave. I dressed him, gave him a little brandy, and wrote out a surgical tally [Every surgeon carries a note-book with perforated pages that tear out. The page, being mounted on linen, can either be buttoned on the wounded man’s tunic by a slit at one end or pinned on. Written on this are the wounded man’s name, number, rank, regiment, nature and degree of wound, and treatment adopted. I found such labels of great convenience during the pressure of a general engagement; and as one can tell at a glance whether a case has been already seen by a surgeon, much time is thus saved], which I fastened to a button on his tunic, and sent him on to Major Moir’s Hospital. He afterwards recovered. There were several others to whom I attended, injured in many different ways, but all very cheerful, smoking their pipes and indifferent to their wounds. One young fellow had been struck by a long-range Mauser bullet in the chest, directly over the heart He had been temporarily stunned by the force of the blow, but on recovering consciousness inquisitively felt the wound with his fingers while I cut up his shirt with my scissors. Before I could prevent him he had reached the bullet and pulled it out Luckily, it was a spent bullet, and had not penetrated far, for the wound was but half an inch deep. That missile he kept as a trophy. Another man was carried in on a stretcher; he was rolling about and in great pain. I asked him where he was hit; he said in his liver, and pointed to the wrong side of his body. I opened his tunic, and found his wound had been dressed—‘by a chum/ he said. He had a wound right enough, but it was not that which was giving him his agony: this was a safety-pin which his devoted friend, in his anxiety to fasten the bandage, had actually fixed in the skin of the poor fellow’s left side!
After awhile, Major Winter, my Commanding Officer, sent me with four ambulance-waggons to remove some wounded from our firing line, on the summit of Three Tree Hill. The road was a very bad and steep one, and it took sixteen mules all their energy to get each waggon up. Our artillery and their escort were on the summit, firing at the enemy on the opposite ridge, and drawing their fire, as they were in full view; around the guns the infantry were lying, and it was here that the wounded were awaiting removal. The road to the top ascended the side of the hill in full view of the enemy’s trenches, not more than 2,000 yards away; before it reached the summit it took a zigzag turn behind the crest, by which it was protected to a certain extent Getting all four ambulance waggons into line, we made a dash across the open and up the side of the hill. Many bullets were whistling overhead, all high and stray shots. Had the Boers wished, they could have shot down all our mules with the greatest ease as we slowly ascended the hill, but they must have seen the Red Cross flags fluttering on our ambulances and respected them. I thought at the time that their fire actually became more subdued as we passed up that road.
When we arrived at the summit, behind the crest of which I drew up the waggons, perceiving it was the centre of the enemy’s fire—a perfect hail of bullets whistling over—I observed the infantry escort of the guns variously occupied. Some, those on the crest, were firing their rifles from behind lightly-constructed sangars; others, lying below the crest in the blazing sun, were playing cards, smoking, and chaffing each other. Occasionally one would rise and walk up to the crest line, and, though warned, recklessly expose himself to the full view of the enemy, for no other reason than to see what was going on. In this way several men were ‘picked off’ by the Boer sharp-shooters. I saw a sergeant walk up with a canteen of tea in his hand; while standing up there, open to the aim of hostile marksmen, not 2,000 yards away, he was shot through his stomach when in the act of finishing his drink. This unfortunate man died that evening.
The enemy now began to shell Three Tree Hill, and I received my first real taste of shell-fire, which I did not in the least relish, especially the screeching whir-z-z! of a shell—the hissing sound of the last two letters of the word I use to represent the noise becoming intensified as the missile approaches. As the sound increases, so does the moral effect on the hearer; at least, this was my experience of artillery at that time, to which from henceforth I decided to accord profound respect Several of these shells fell right in the thick of the troops; failing to burst, they did no damage: one, however, did so, killing one man and wounding about half a dozen. Just before this incident a circumstance occurred which perhaps led up to it. Somebody had put up a hare, which ran right through the infantry. This was trying ‘Tommy’ too far; he could sit and shelter for most things, but a chase he could not resist. Nearly a hundred men jumped up and went after that hare, hallooing, throwing stones, sticks, 'bully’ beef tins, and even their helmets, after it, regardless of all danger. As it passed within 12 feet of where I was standing beside my pony, I knew it was safe, and felt glad when I saw it disappear from view down the hill.
Having filled the four ambulance-waggons with wounded, we made our way back to the bearer company’s dressing-station. The gauntlet had to be run again—down the hill this time. As the waggons emerged leisurely into the fire zone, the first, alongside which I was riding, had its axle damaged by a shell which burst underneath. Luckily, the axle was not broken, so we whipped up the mules, released the brakes, and went down that road like a ‘chute,’ arriving safely at the bottom. In a recess near a stream at the back of Three Tree Hill stood one solitary tent: it was the operating tent of the Eleventh Brigade bearer company. Here the cases had their wounds examined, to see if the dressings were in place. The wounded were given bovril, coffee, and something to eat; the badly injured got stimulants or hypodermic injections of morphia, if they required it. No operations were attempted here, owing to the very close proximity to the battlefield of the Eleventh Brigade Field Hospital, under Major Moir. Major Moir had commandeered the entire buildings of the deserted spacious homestead known as Coventry’s Farm on the 19th, and had set up his full complement of tents in the surrounding grounds. It was to this hospital that I brought my cases, and I found the surgeons extremely busy, as General Hart’s wounded were also arriving at the time.
It was now about 5 p.m., and the engagement was in progress, the Boer guns on the left still firing. At 6 p.m. the fire slackened, only to start again at 6.15 p.m. with renewed energy, and continuing till nightfall. Since General Hart’s assault had been countermanded, as before mentioned, his troops had merely held the positions gained, and contented themselves with long-range shooting. Towards evening General Hildyard extended his left, and drove back a small Boer force which threatened his left flank. At nightfall he sent one of his battalions—the Queen’s—to relieve the South African Light Horse on Bastion Hill, and thus enable them to descend to their horses, which had been left in the plain.
At 7.30 p.m., darkness setting in put an end to the day’s battle, and the infantry bivouacked on the ground they had won. The result of the day’s fighting was not satisfactory, for although we were in possession of the enemy’s front-line, it was of little value, seeing that the Boers held a still more strongly entrenched line beyond, with a comparatively flat country between our force and theirs. It is quite possible that they allowed us to obtain the footing we had won, for they must have seen that it would be impossible for us to bring our artillery into position so long as they held our right in check, while they would now have a safer and better opportunity of using their own guns.
The casualties in General Warren’s force from their arrival at Trichardt’s Drift to the evening of the 20th were: 34 killed, 293 wounded, and 2 missing. The majority of these occurred on the 20th, mainly in the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Border Regiment, the York and Lancaster Regiment, and the Dublin Fusiliers. The Lancashire Fusiliers had 18 killed and 89 wounded amongst the men, and the following officers wounded: Captains O. Wolley-Dod, J. N. Whyte, H. V. S. Ormond, R. B. Blunt; Lieutenants D. Campbell, E. J. Barrett, M. G. Crofton. The Dublin Fusiliers lost Captain Hensley, an officer greatly beloved; he had fought at Dundee, at Farquhar’s Farm, and at Colenso in the earlier stages of the war.
With the first streaks of daylight on Sunday, the 21 st, hostilities were resumed. Like the sound of splitting ice, volley after volley burst forth from the Boer ridge on General Hart’s men. Our artillery—six batteries—now joined in, which roused us all from our bivouacs, in time to see General Hildyard’s on the move. Three of his battalions were already in advance, and one, for which at present there was no room, was held in support under a flat-topped kopje. General Hildyard’s plan appeared to be as follows: To the east of Bastion Hill there ran a deep ‘reentrant/ which seemed to split the centre of the enemy’s position from their right. Into this General Hildyard was going to wedge his infantry, and cut the Boer position in two. Over the black plain, the grass of which had been burnt the day before, stream the three battalions, their khaki visible against the dark ground; another blast of musketry, and a shell or two, and figures fall; but the rush is not for a moment checked; a charge, a scuffle, and the ridge is reached, and a portion of it is British property. But this is of little use; another ridge, with an intervening plateau some 1,200 yards wide, is now seen for the first time. It is the Boer main position, and is immensely strong. To reach this, the third Boer line of defence, that glacis-like plateau, must be crossed. It is commanded by the heights, with their lines of low rock and earth redoubts, and trenches carefully prepared with overhead cover, so placed as to command all approaches with converging fire, and here and there with a cross-fire. The enemy knew what they were about when they let the British army plant its foot on Taba Myama ridge. They fully recognised the enormous strength of the positions behind it, on which they could fall back. Their General, Louis Botha, had spent his boyhood on the Tugela, had hunted buck on those very hills, and was now reaping the benefit of the knowledge he had then had opportunity to gain, and had not failed to grasp; while the British did not possess even a survey map of this, their own colony, but had to cut their way to knowledge— with their bayonets. Two ridges had already been won with loss of life, a third confronted us, and no one knew how many more might rise in the dozen miles between us and Ladysmith. Yet the infantry did not lose heart. Some officers of the Queen’s and West Yorks called for volunteers, and with fixed bayonets this gallant band tried to rush that distant ridge. As they passed from their recently-won crest line over that naked plateau, they were greeted by a deadly hail of Mauser bullets, followed by a steady roll of fire. The rush was disastrous; it could not succeed. More than half of that gallant band never returned alive; the remainder were too few to effect their purpose. Yet the attempt was made, and 'Tommy’ of the line was the 'Tommy' he has always been: he had followed his officer to the jaws of death.
Several cases of conspicuous gallantry which occurred at this period of the day are worthy of record. Lieutenant A. M. Boyall, [Mentioned for gallantry in Sir Charles Warren’s despatch, February 1, 1900] of the Queen’s, conducted a patrol to within 500 yards of the Boer trenches, to examine the ground for an advance. Out of sixteen men he had only one killed and two wounded, although exposed all day to the full view of the enemy on open ground on a grass slope. His conduct showed exceptional coolness and intelligence. Private J. Morant [Mentioned for gallantry in Sir Charles Warren’s despatch, February 1, 1900, and in General Butler’s despatch, March 30,1900] of the same regiment, carried back a message from Lieutenant Boyall under very heavy fire, and wawounded. Private Powell, of the Queen’s, twice carried water to wounded men lying out in the open under similar circumstances. Colour-Sergeant Kingsley, of the same regiment, when his company was unexpectedly caught by a very severe cross-fire which wounded both his officers, showed coolness and intelligence in withdrawing his men steadily to cover, and gallantry in bringing his Captain to a place of shelter when mortally wounded. Sir Charles Warren recommended this non-commissioned officer for the medal for distinguished conduct in the field. Lieutenant H. W. Smith, [Mentioned for gallantry in Sir Charles Warren's despatch, February 1, 1900] of the 2nd Queen’s, who had advanced to a donga in front of the Boer position, after being shot through the chest (the bullet coming out through his back), continued to lead his men until he fell exhausted, and then took cover above the donga till 3 p.m., when he contrived to get into it He remained there with one man till dark, after his company had been relieved, and had sufficient strength to walk almost to hospital, having set his soldiers a splendid example of coolness, courage, and endurance.
That such cases of devotion as I have described should be appreciated at their proper value is made evident when I state that many of the wounded who lay out, exposed in the open, were shot at, and hit, over and over again by the enemy in attempting to drag their maimed and exhausted frames to cover.
I have since learned from Boer sources that on this day three of the Boer scouts—Roos, Felchtkimp, and Hinton [Jack Hinton afterwards gained notoriety as a train-wrecker] managed to get on a ridge near Acton Homes, which had been captured from Botha the day before, and plant the Transvaal flag on the summit. The nature of the ground was such that few or many in number would have been equally hidden, and for a long time these three men diverted the fire of the British guns from a spot where Major Wolmerans was erecting a protection for a pom-pom on the top of another high spur; when they were satisfied that their tactics had achieved their object, they succeeded in regaining their lines. Had we known that in the interval this position was practically defenceless, it would have been stormed and taken, and it is highly probable that the two Boer guns would have been captured; and had the ridge been seized at that moment, the right wing of the Boer Army would have been in a precarious situation, for any force that had taken it could have also taken the pass near Acton Homes, from which they could have outflanked the enemy on Taba Myama, which in turn enfiladed Spion Kop. As it was, Boer reinforcements having come up from Colenso and other places, the fight continued at Acton Homes on the 22nd and 23rd, many of their men having been withdrawn from Spion Kop to that place. Their Acton Homes position seemed to them of great value, because they still expected that General Buller would try to force his way at that spot, and thought that he had abandoned the idea of breaking through elsewhere.
In the meanwhile Lord Dundonald’s cavalry were guarding the left flank; later on, however, it became apparent that the enemy were massing in this quarter; they were evidently becoming more afraid of a turning movement from the direction of Acton Homes. By General Buller’s desire General Warren moved two of his field batteries from the British right to give additional support to the troops on the left, and, as he found it impossible to proceed without howitzers, he telegraphed for four from the 61st Battery, at Potgeiter’s. These guns, however, did not come up until next morning. The two field batteries arriving at our left flank acted in conjunction with the cavalry, but found it impossible to reach the enemy’s long-range guns, which outranged them; it was also impossible to advance to close quarters, as they would then have been within rifle range. When General Hildyard's men captured the ridge already referred to, these batteries were unable to take advantage of the situation, the ascent to the Taba Myama being too precipitous.
Mr. Churchill [London to Ladysmith] records an incident that occurred on the left flank, which is instructive as contrasting the adeptness of the colonial compared with the regular in taking cover. Captain Stewart’s [Captain Stewart, after the relief of Ladysmith, commanded the Composite Mounted Infantry, and did good work in Lord Dundonald’s Brigade during General Buller’s final advance through the Transvaal] squadron of the South African Light Horse dismounted, held an advanced kopje all day long under a sharp fire, and never lost a man. Two hundred yards back was another kopje, held by two companies of regular infantry, under equal fire. The infantry had more than twenty men hit.
The casualties for the 21st amounted to 24 killed, 223 wounded, and 4 missing, General Hildyard’s Brigade bearing the heaviest loss. An example of the erratic nature of the long-range gun-fire of the enemy may be here recorded. A Major of the Royal Engineers, who had gone to see a patient in Major Moir’s Field Hospital, was killed by a shell which had travelled right over the Taba Myama ridge, and exploded beside the hospital.
As before, at the first glint of dawn on the 22nd rifle-fire commenced. The preceding night was occupied by both sides entrenching; now and again rifle-fire created alarms, for sometimes in the darkness the smallest sound will set a position ablaze with spluttering flame. As soon as light allowed, the guns which the enemy had mounted on their right the evening before, and which had been brought up with reinforcements from Spion Kop, set to work. Though they made most accurate shooting with their shell-fire, the slopes, behind which our men were taking cover, like flies on the side of a wall, were luckily too steep for effective results. Shortly after a fresh gun and a pom-pom chimed in from another invisible position on the Boer right. Four of the guns of the 61st Howitzer Battery, under Major Gordon, R.A., which had been telegraphed for from Potgeiter s Drift by General Warren, came up early in the morning. General Buller, arriving about the same time, directed General Warren to place two of them on the left, two having already been placed on the right flank. The howitzers frightened the enemy considerably, but could not range their guns. As the large 50-pound lyddite shells burst on the opposite ridge, throwing up great clouds of red dust, mixed with their dark brown or canary yellow fumes, according as this explosive detonated completely or otherwise, the Boers could be seen running from place to place to escape the effects of the missiles. Neither the howitzers nor the 15-pound field-guns could reach the enemy, and there were no long-range naval guns available.
General Warren held a consultation with the Commander-in-Chief after his arrival, and pointed out the difficulties which would attend a march accompanied by waggons along the road leading past Fairview, unless Spion Kop, which lay about 2,000 yards away, and commanded the track, were first taken. General Buller agreed to this, and it now became evident that this high mountain on our right, known as Intawanyama or Spion Kop, was the key of the Boer position, and whoever held this hill held the command of both roads to Ladysmith. General Warren accordingly summoned the Generals to a council of war. Three alternatives presented themselves: The first, a risky one, and one that might involve a heavy casualty list, was to assault, by a frontal attack, the present Boer position on the crest by moonlight; the second was to withdraw beyond the Tugela, and look elsewhere for another crossing; the third, which was resolved upon afterwards, was to attack Spion Kop by night, rush the Boer trenches with the bayonet, entrench and enfilade the Boer position during the day, and drag up guns by night. The problems to be solved would be, whether the troops could hold this hill for the day; whether it could be entrenched against the enemy’s shell and rifle fire; and, lastly, whether guns could be brought to its summit during the following night. The answers to these questions are now historical.
The result of the council of war was that Major-General Talbot Coke, whose brigade (the Tenth) had joined the main force from Potgeiter’s during the day, was directed by Sir Charles Warren to occupy Spion Kop that night, and orders were drawn up giving the necessary instructions. General Coke requested that the occupation might be deferred for a day, in order that he might make a reconnaissance with the officers commanding battalions to be sent there [Sir Charles Warren’s despatches, January 29, 1900].
It was also suggested by Colonel Thorneycroft [Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry on Spion Kop L. Oppenheim, Nineteenth Century, January, 1901] (whose Mounted Infantry, on account of their local knowledge, had been selected to supply a detachment to the attacking force) that the attack should be postponed until a thorough reconnaissance of the hill had been made. ‘ That evening' says Dr. Conan Doyle, [The Great Boer War A. Conan Doyle] 'there came a telegram to London which left the whole Empire in a hush of anticipation. Spion Kop was to be attacked that night. This telegram, we see, was not correct. Nothing of further interest occurred during the day. It is said that still further reinforcements of the enemy moved from Spion Kop to strengthen their right flank, as Botha still thought that General Buller would come by Acton Homes.
During the afternoon I was told off in charge of a convoy of nearly 200 wounded, which I brought safely to the Tugela, where I handed them over to Major Milward and Lieutenant Houghton, R.A.M.C. I also acted as postman for a number of officers and men who wished to send letters back for the English mail. At Trichardt’s Drift we met a large body of civilian stretcher-bearers in charge of Lieutenant Tyrell, of the 15th Lancers. The latter shared with me a tin of condensed milk (which we diluted with water), and in return I shared with him my ration biscuits; such was our dinner. Owing to the more protected dispositions of our troops under cover on Taba Myama during this day, and from the fact that no further frontal attack was made, they suffered comparatively slight losses. Not more than forty casualties occurred, the 1st Border Regiment heading the list with sixteen.