The Night Attack on Spion Kop—The Engagement on the Plateau and on the Twin Peaks—The Return across the Tugela.
The operations of which I am now about to treat are probably more interesting than any others undertaken in the campaign, and have formed the text for all sorts of comments and articles, favourable or otherwise. Many foolish things have been written and spoken about Spion Kop by 'arm-chair critics'
‘Who never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle know,
More than a spinster.’
It is not my present purpose to participate in these disputes, though perhaps better informed on the matter than some who have done so; rather do I intend to deliver 'a round unvarnished tale' of what I saw and noted at the time, when 'Tommy' of the line and his colonial confreres upheld their reputation as 'an old and haughty nation proud in arms' while contending with a stubborn foe under almost insurmountable difficulties.
On the morning of January 23 the Commander-in-Chief had an interview with Sir Charles Warren, who was in charge of the force, and assented to the proposed attack on Spion Kop. He suggested that General Woodgate should be placed in command of the attacking party, and detailed Lieutenant-Colonel A’Court, of the Headquarter Staff, to accompany General Woodgate as Staff Officer.
General Warren, together with some of his staff, went out early to reconnoitre Spion Kop. Two ways were seen to lead to the summit, one on its south-west face, and one on its south-eastern from the direction of Trichardt’s Drift. The former was visible to the enemy; the latter, not being exposed either to the view or fire of the Boers, appeared to the General the more suitable.
At mid-day Major-General Sir E. Woodgate sent for Colonel Bloomfield, who commanded the Lancashire Fusiliers, and told him that Spion Kop was to be taken that night, and, as he 4 must have tried troops ’ for such a hazardous operation, he had determined that the Lancashire Fusiliers should lead the way. At 3.40 p.m. the following orders were issued by the Brigade Major of the Eleventh Brigade:
'1. The G.O.C. has decided to seize Spion Kop this night.
‘2. The following troops will compose the force:
' Royal Lancaster Regiment (6 companies).
' 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers.
' Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, 180 men.
' Half Company of 37th Company R.E.
‘3. The above troops will rendezvous at White’s Farm, about 1/2 mile N.E. of Pontoon Bridge, at 7 p.m.
'4. Extra ammunition will be carried on the mules supplied by the 10th Brigade.
'5. One day's complete rations will be carried. Waggons with supplies of great-coats will be brought up as soon as possible without exposure; also water-carts and machine guns.
'6. The South Lancashire Regiment will hand over six mules, three to each battalion, for water-carrying purposes.
'7. Pack mules will be utilized for carrying water in waterproof sheets.
'8. Twenty picks and twenty shovels to be carried in regulation stretchers.
'9. Password, 'Waterloo.' '
With regard to these orders, No. 3 was modified later, the rendezvous being changed to a spot north of White’s Farm. Order No. 7 was found impracticable, waterproof sheets being useless as water-bags; accordingly, biscuit-tins were tried as improvised tanks. They were not a success, as, owing to the steep nature of the hill, the tins were tilted to all sorts of angles, and no water reached the summit but that in the men’s water-bottles. A little was brought up next day.
General Warren’s original plan, as before stated, was that the attack should be made from the southeastern slopes. But as late as seven o’clock that evening General Woodgate announced that he had decided to attack Spion Kop from its other side—that is, from the south-western aspect Colonel Thorneycroft, immediately on hearing of this change of plan, rode on ahead, made a sketch, and took bearings as full as the very brief African twilight allowed, of the landmarks and best route by which to ascend the hill.
The south-western slope of Spion Kop presents the following characteristics: From base to summit it is in all places steep, and may be divided into thirds for the purposes of description. Three humps first catch the eye; the first is surmounted by two trees, the second by a cluster of about half a dozen more, and the third hump forms the ‘hog-back’-shaped summit. The ground at the base is broken by dongas and rocks; from this a number of Kaffir paths lead to several kraals, which are situated at the junction of the lower and middle third of the hill; two dongas lie to the right of these, and one on the left. From the Kaffir kraals the ascent becomes very steep and rough, owing to the presence of huge boulders. Above this the first hump is met with, its two trees growing on a little plateau with a hollow on their left. The second hump now begins; the ascent is again steep and rocky; its summit passes upwards as a green, sloping glacis, at the upper end of which is the small belt of trees. From these trees the third hump rises, and is devoid of cover—no rocks, no vegetation, nothing but red clay, caked hard in the sun, and small pebbles on the surface. This third hump, while forming the summit of the hog s back, is not the actual summit of Spion Kop—a fact the troops subsequently learnt to their cost.
The rendezvous where the troops assembled was a long rocky ravine at the north of White’s Farm. This glen led to the base of Spion Kop, and was near General Warren’s main camp. Here the column was joined by some additional troops, two companies of the South Lancashire Regiment having been detailed as reinforcements. During the halt the officers explained the dangers to be avoided in the ascent The men were warned not to talk, no pipes were to be lit, nor were any kind of lights permitted. Should the enemy attack them, bayonets alone were to be used; on no account was rifle-fire allowable without orders.
There was some discussion as to who should lead the column, and finally Colonel Thorneycroft, who appears to have been one of a few, if not the only one present, who had seen both the eastern and western sides of this unknown mountain, was selected for the very difficult and responsible position of taking this force of 1,600 men up an unknown mountain in the dark, along an ill-marked sheep-path—a path which in many parts was extremely dangerous from its proximity to precipitous, rocky declivities, in some places even cliffs, on both sides of the southwestern slopes. It is said that two native guides were appointed to accompany the column, but one bolted and the other was incompetent
Each regiment of the attacking force brought with it its own medical officer. The medical officer of a battalion is equipped with two panniers, one containing splints, bandages, and instruments; the other holding medicines, stimulants, and a reserve of comforts, such as Bovril, etc. The order of march was thus arranged: Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry (18 officers and 180 men); the Lancashire Fusiliers; the Royal Lancaster Regiment (six companies); the South Lancashire Regiment (two companies); Royal Engineers (half of the 37th Company); mules, etc.
The column started a little after half - past ten, Colonel Thorneycroft, assisted by Lieutenant Farquhar and Lieutenant Gordon Forbes, leading. The Lancashire Fusiliers, with General Woodgate at their head, rifle in hand—all the officers carried rifles—formed the advance-guard for the first half-mile. A halt was then made, and Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry was sent ahead. The night was extremely dark, though the stars gave a faint light whenever the drizzling rain permitted.
The column moved on again, across the valley, along an ill-defined track—so narrow was it that movement in single file, and frequent halts to allow the sections to close up, were necessary. At the bottom of the hill another halt was made to await the scouts' report that all was clear, as there was nothing but the dim, vague outline of the mountain to guide the stumbling steps of the troops. Here the skill and resource of Colonel Thorneycroft showed to advantage. Occasionally he would halt his men and go on with a chosen band (Lieutenants Farquhar and Gordon Forbes and Privates Shaw and Macadam) for 100 or 200 yards to feel the way, and then come back and lead the column forward.
About midnight the kraals were reached. Above these the hill rises abruptly, and the difficulty was increased by the presence of a heavy mist. The two trees on the plateau of the second hump were next reached, then the steep, rugged rocks. Never were orders of a night attack better obeyed; yet the noise of the men’s nailed boots on the rocks must have awakened any Boer, had the wind not been in our favour. Slowly but surely they clambered up. Nothing was now visible save the glowing embers of the fires of the British camp in the valley, and the ‘dash-dot’ twinkle from a signaller’s lamp on Three Tree Hill, saying that all was well below. In many places here the men had to go on all fours, and constant delays were unavoidable in order to prevent men getting lost, although the formation of ‘double files’ was kept as far as practicable.
The second hump, with its belt of trees, was next reached—barely visible, so thick had the fog become. Here the leading files halted, and Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry extended as far as the ground permitted, in such a way as to draw a complete cordon around any outlying Boer picket. The Lancashire Fusiliers were now in four successive lines, or double companies, with 100 yards or so between each, the men in single rank. Several more halts were necessary owing to the mist, lest any error should occur in the direction taken by the advance line, or lest the column should be made the target of a flank fire from any of the enemy’s outposts—a most disagreeable event in a night attack.
As the false crest of the hill was attained, almost the whole of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry had extended along it; behind them came their supports, and the other regiments in long lines, following. Not a sound was to be heard save the faint grating of boot-soles on the hard ground, now that the rocks were passed, and the occasional yelp of a dog below in the Kaffir kraals. Hereabouts a large white spaniel bounded up in the dark—whence it came no one knew; for the moment discovery seemed certain, but the creature allowed itself to be caught quietly by one of the men.
Suddenly, as Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry were within some twenty yards below the sky-line, a hoarse guttural voice from their left front shouting, ‘Wikom dar?’ twice, in quick succession, came with startling emphasis. Some say it was a Kaffir sentry, others a Boer; but so clear was the challenge that everyone near the head of the column heard it. Obedient to the orders previously issued, every man threw himself flat on the ground. It was well they did so, for a second later a whole picket of some twenty Boers fired rapidly, their rifles flashing irregularly in the inky darkness. The discharge lasted but a few minutes, and as the clicking of the bolts of the Mauser weapons told the anxious listeners that the enemy were refilling their magazines, the order ‘Charge!' was given. As the whole front - line surged forward with a cheer, one officer, an athlete—Lieutenant Awdry, of the Lancashire Fusiliers—out-distanced the rest. Cold steel was too much—the Boers broke cover and fled; not, however, before Lieutenant Awdry had bayoneted a burly Dutchman in a trench, and a few others were killed in the melee, as they scampered through the rocks. Excepting these, the whole Boer picket, numbering seventy-five men of the Vryheid commando, got away along the mountain-tops—some of them evidently in their stocking-feet, for boots were found left behind—by paths and tracks they knew by heart from their three weeks’ residence on the hill.
It had been arranged that when the summit was in our hands a signal by lantern was to be sent to camp; but this being impossible, owing to the density of the fog, three resounding cheers were given instead, and these brought the news to the anxious watchers below at 4 a.m. Immediately the British batteries on Three Tree Hill woke all the camp as their guns belched forth. They had been trained the evening before on the whole length of the Boer position facing this hill, the very site of our field-guns having been marked, and these being now worked in the dark by means of clinometers, it was hoped that by searching the reverse slopes of the Boer position with their fire they would prevent reinforcements being sent up to the point of attack.
It was now almost dawn, and the troops on the summit set about entrenching. The dense fog, hitherto the friend of the attacking party, now became their deadliest foe, for it was impossible to see in what direction the trenches should be made in order to face the enemy. Time, however, could not be lost, as it was impossible to see what positions commanded a field of fire; the utmost that could be done was to fortify what appeared—or, rather, what was felt—to be the crest line. A trace was laid down by the Royal Engineers, men got to work with picks and shovels, and what rocks and clumps of earth could be found were placed along the trace. The ground was so hard and rocky that pick and shovel were of little avail, and what stuff could be collected was of the scantiest and poorest material—a spadeful of earth here and there. This trench, when dawn broke forty minutes later, [About 4.40 a.m] measured from end to end about 200 yards; at its left or western end it was slightly curved. The protection it afforded, while fairly sufficient from rifle-fire in front, was utterly inadequate to shelter men from flank fire or any kind of shells. It faced what was thought to be the Boer position.
General Woodgate had placed his troops, in reference to this trench, as follows: The Lancashire Fusiliers were given the right; Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry occupied the centre, the left centre, and obtuse angle; and the Royal Lancasters and South Lancashires the left The exact situation of the companies of the Lancashire Fusiliers from right to left—or, roughly, from south-east to north-west—was C, F, A and G Companies, then Thorneycrofts. In rear of these, in a sort of rough echelon from the left, came B, D, E and H as supports to the forward companies. The troops, as soon as they had been allotted sections of the defence, proceeded to improve their positions as best they could.
As dawn began to break, a mounted Boer—some say a Kaffir—rode up to within a few yards of our men at work to join his picket. While the soldiers ran for their rifles he discovered his mistake, and made off, followed by a few harmless shots.
Sentries were now pushed forward to avoid any further interruption, and some Boer ponies were taken. The enemy had by this time recognised the gravity of their position, and General Botha had received the report of our arrival on Spion Kop. He hastily collected his men under cover of the fog, and got reinforcements and big guns up from Acton Homes, posting them silently on the back of Green Hill, the eastern knuckle of the Taba Myama ridge, which lies north-west of Spion Kop, without disclosing their movements to the British.
Our scouts, who had pushed forward along the ridge, found that while the position occupied by our troops was the highest part of the plateau, it in no way commanded the ascent on the Boer side, as this side broke off precipitously 180 yards lower down. While the Royal Engineers were busy improving the meagre entrenchments, the heavy mist began to clear. It was now half-past seven o’clock, and immediately the foglike curtain rolled off the summit, exposing our troops to the full view of the enemy. The Boers opened a heavy fire; so severe was it that our working party and outposts were forced to stop work, and take what cover they could on the barren plateau. Following this outburst of rifle-fire three guns and a pom-pom opened from cuttings under cover on the northwestern slope of Green Hill, at a range of not more than 3,000 yards. Another pom-pom opened from the north-east of the Spion Kop plateau.
The position of the troops and the nature of the hill were now for the first time apparent. The British were in the centre of a plateau some 900 yards broad by 500 yards long; 180 yards in front of their hastily-formed entrenchments was an indefinite rolling crest, with absolutely no cover; in front of this, the ground, in the form of a barren glacis, swept down; at the bottom was a steep ravine, with a small conical kopje on its far side, 800 yards off. The sides of the glacis and the ravine were too steep to allow of any movement of the enemy below being seen; in fact, the Boers were able to creep up to within 50 yards of the troops under cover of dead ground, quite invisible until they lifted their heads above the kloof.
Towards the east, a long, narrow neck, with cliffs on its southern side, faced our plateau, and an easy incline on the northern or Boer side, which we could not see, and which permitted easy movement of their artillery, connected the plain with two peaks—the Twin Peaks, as they have been called—of the mountain proper. These peaks, being higher than the plateau, command it, and, being at right angles, enfilade it. They more or less face Potgeiter’s Drift over the Tugela, from which they ascend almost precipitously, and are continuous with a low range of hills on the east, known as the Brakfontein range.
To the north-west or left of Spion Kop plateau, almost in line with the Twin Peaks, and thus again at right angles to our position, lies the Taba Myama ridge. The western or terminal kopje is called Green Hill, a position of some importance, being strongly fortified with trenches and gun emplacements. These were constructed by the enemy some days before, not, as some writers have said, to command Spion Kop, but rather to prevent the approach of any force along the Fairview and Rosalie Road from Trichardt’s Drift Green Hill is separated from the Spion Kop plateau by a deep kloof, affording much dead-ground cover from any fire directed from the centre of the plain or from any part of Three Tree Hill.
Thus it can be seen that our troops in the middle of the Spion Kop plateau were liable to attack from three sides, viz., from their front, their right front, and their left front. They were also liable to receive gun and rifle enfilade fire on both their flanks, as well as on their front. We shall now see what they had actually to sustain, and how they bore it.
From the time the Boers first opened fire it had become evident that the long trench which had been constructed in the dark afforded no view of the enemy, thus offering no proper advantage to the troops which occupied it. Another attempt was therefore made to occupy the opposite crest, from which the sappers and their escort had been driven. From Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry a party, under Captain Bettington and Lieutenant Grenfell, were sent to the left, and another, under Captains Petre and Knox-Gore and Lieutenant F. Ellis, to the left front; and some companies of the Lancashire Fusiliers to the right front, and of the Royal Lancaster Regiment to the right Boers could here be seen about 3,000 yards away, coming up the northern slopes of Spion Kop; this body of men belonged to the Carolina commando. They were some 500 strong, and were led by Commandant Prinsloo, a very able officer, who had been ordered by General Schalk Burger to retake the hill.
At the same time the Heidelberg commando had been sent to reinforce their comrades on Green Hill.
About 8.30 am. Colonel Bloomfield, who had noticed another large party of the enemy coming along a path, reported the fact to General Woodgate. The General came up to the spot where Colonel Bloomfield had been on the look-out, and while they were watching the path General Woodgate was mortally wounded in the head above the right eye. The command of the troops on the hill now devolved on Colonel Crofton, of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, he being the senior officer present. Colonel Bloomfield, having told him what had happened, asked if he had any special orders for the Lancashire Fusiliers, to which he answered that he (Colonel Crofton) should signal down to say that they were ‘hard pressed and needed reinforcements.’
The Boer rifle and shell fire now became more intense, as they had by this time got all their guns into position, causing considerable discomfiture to the troops on the plateau by cross-fire. The position of the enemy’s guns was as follows: General Schalk Burger, who was in command of the Boer left, holding the ridge formed by the Twin Peaks, had two big guns behind the north-east peak and a pom-pom behind the north-west peak; the Boer centre, which was occupied by General Louis Botha, and which was south of Coventry’s Farm, had one gun and a pom-pom; behind and to the west of Green Hill, which formed the enemy’s left, were two more pieces [Ascertained from reliable Boer sources]. It is said that four of these guns were part of the capture made from us at Colenso on December 15, and that a Creusot 94-pounder was in action on the north-west The naval guns on Gun Hill by Trichardt’s Drift answered, but so well were the hostile guns masked that our gunners could not possibly see them, and so good was their cover that our shells either fell short or passed over them. The enemy’s rifle-fire at this time was chiefly directed against the plateau from Green Hill at the north-west, from the hump at the north, from the Twin Peaks and the slopes which stretch towards Brakfontein on the east—that is, from our left front, front, right, and right rear.
By nine o’clock some of the Boers had reached the rocks which fringed the summit of the steep kloof at die north end of the plateau. They had crept up unobserved under cover of the dead ground, and were being rapidly reinforced, especially about our right front. At the same time our firing line was suffering, and fresh troops were doubling forward as opportunity allowed. One section of Thorneycroft s Mounted Infantry, under Lieutenants Hill-Trevor and MacCorquodale (the latter officer had only joined his regiment from England in the darkness of the night before), were on the left-front crest line; this entire section and both officers were wiped out On the left of these was another section of the same regiment, under Lieutenant Grenfell; this officer, who had been shot in the leg and again in the arm, was about to get his wounds bandaged by Sergeant Just, when another bullet struck him in the head and killed him. Sergeant Just was struck by a shell in his side [From the Nineteenth Century Magazine by permission]. A sergeant of the Royal Engineers was seen lying beside two dead soldiers; Colonel Bloomfield noticed that his canteen was glittering in the sun, and possibly drawing fire: he told him to put it out of sight. Receiving no answer, he found that this unfortunate man had been hit by a shell, which had touched his spine and completely paralyzed him.
General Woodgate, since receiving the wound in his head, which afterwards proved mortal, had been removed to the dressing-station on the south end of the plateau. While here, he ordered the following message to be heliographed to General Warren: ‘ We are between a terrible cross-fire, and can barely hold our own. Water is badly needed. Help us.’ The heliograph as this message was being sent was struck by a shell and smashed; the signaller, however, gallantly continued, and finished it by means of his flags.
Somewhere about ten o'clock Lieutenant Sargeant, I.S.C. (attached to Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry), led a sortie with twenty of his company to obtain a lodgment on some rocks on the right front of the ridge, this spot at the time being unoccupied by our men. It was gained, and only just in time, for some of the enemy had reached it. It is told in the T.M.I. [From the Nineteenth Century Magazine, by permission] that a certain Private Bradford had just reached a rock, and had cautiously pushed his rifle over it preparatory to raising his head to aim; it struck something soft, and in his excitement the rifle went off The soft substance was the waistcoat of a Boer, who was simultaneously putting up his rifle to fire from the same rock. In this object he failed, as he was unintentionally shot dead. Lieutenant Sargeant s party found it impossible to hold their rocks for any time; almost immediately some of the enemy had crept round his right, enfilading our men in such a way that they had to retire to the trench with a loss of half their number. The Boers at once occupied this position, and brought a heavy enfilade fire to bear on the rest of the crest line. Colonel Thorneycroft, who was in the trench, seeing this, ordered all the men surrounding him—some twenty of his own regiment and another twenty of the Lancashire Fusiliers—to charge. He led them himself. On the left of the crest line three officers were firing alone, and around them were the bodies of their own men, dead, dying, and wounded. One of them was Captain Knox-Gore; the second, Lieutenant Flower Ellis; the third, Lieutenant Newnham. The last-named had propped himself up against a rock, for he had been wounded in two places, and was bleeding to death. As he continued firing, a third bullet killed him.
As Colonel Thorneycroft and his gallant band of forty men rushed by, Knox-Gore stood up and shouted something inaudible in the uproar, and pointed to his right; he was immediately shot dead. Lieutenant Ellis still continued firing, but was never afterwards seen alive. As the attacking party surged forward they were nearly all shot down; Colonel Thorneycroft, stumbling, sprained his ankle and fell. It was thought at the moment that he was dead, but he urged his men forward as he lay. An officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers headed another party out; he was hit and fell dead. Lieutenant Wade, of the Royal Lancasters, hastened to take his place, and was killed by his side. Lieutenant Nixon of the same regiment went out to fetch Wade, thinking he was wounded, and was himself shot through the arm, and nearly bled to death, the main artery being severed. This officer’s wound I afterwards dressed myself. Major Ross, of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, was also slain [Poor Major Ross was a great exponent of the game of draughts; I had many a game with him on board the transport Dilwara on our passage out. It appears that be was considered too ill (being laid up with dysentery) to join his regiment in the march up on the night of the 23rd, but somehow or other he slipped out unawares, and, though hardly able to walk, climbed the hill and reached the firing line of that fire-swept plateau on the morning of the 25th]. Lieutenant-Colonel Bloomfield was severely injured, and was carried back to the trench in a most gallant manner by Major Tidswell and Sergeant Lightfoot of his regiment.
At about 10.30 a.m. it is stated [‘With Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry on Spion Kop,’ by L. Oppenheim, Nineteenth Century, January, 1901. (By permission.)] that Colonel Crofton, who had taken the General’s place, gave the following to the Signalling Officer, Captain Martin (Royal Lancaster Regiment): 1 General Woodgate killed; reinforcements urgently needed/ This wording of a message, which correctly described the situation, though in error as regards General Woodgate’s condition, is certified both by Colonel Crofton and by Captain Martin themselves. It was not written down owing to the exigencies of the moment, and was apparently altered in transmission; for the above was not the wording of the message which General Warren is said to have received, which was as follows: ‘Reinforce at once, or all lost. General dead'. A similar missive is said to have been sent to headquarters. Sir Charles Warren sent the following reply to Colonel Crofton: [‘With Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry on Spion Kop,’ by L. Oppenheim, Nineteenth Century, January, 1901. (By permission.)]. I am sending two battalions, and the Imperial Light Infantry are on their way up. You must hold on to the last. No surrender/ General Warren immediately ordered General Coke to proceed to Colonel Crofton’s assistance, and to take command of the troops. He started at once, and brought the 2nd Middlesex and 2nd Dorset Regiments with him.
General Buller was watching the engagement at the signalling-station at Spearman’s when Colonel Crofton’s message arrived; he read it, and at that moment he could see that our men on the top had given way, and that efforts were being made to rally them. He accordingly telegraphed to General Warren: 'Unless you put some really good hard fighting man in command on the top, you will lose the hill. I suggest Thorneycroft. General Warren accordingly heliographed to Spion Kop: 'With the approval of the Commander-in-Chief, I place Lieutenant-Colonel Thorneycroft in command of the summit with the local rank of Brigadier-General.’ From the hour Colonel Thorneycroft was appointed Brigadier-General in command of the top, until 10.30 p.m., when Lieutenant Winston Churchill brought up a note, no message of any kind reached him from General Warren.
General Warren’s order was received by Colonel Thorneycroft about a quarter to twelve, under the following circumstances: He was lying, disabled from his sprained ankle, surrounded by his men, firing at a range of 150 yards on the enemy, who were on their left front. A man ran up with the message, and as he commenced to speak was shot dead through the head, and fell across the Colonel with his errand unfulfilled. A few minutes later Lieutenant Rose, of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, crept up, and from cover of a rock shouted through the din: ‘ Sir C. Warren has heliographed to say you are in command. You are a General!’ He also added that the right was hard pressed, and that he had seen reinforcements coming up the hill
The state of affairs at this time was extremely critical. The enemy were occupying part of the crest line, 150 yards away; on the left they were to some extent held in check by the remnants of Captain Petre's men, who had been driven back to some rocks midway between it and our main trench. The Boer artillery were raking the little plateau by their crossfire. Colonel Thorneycroft sent Lieutenant Rose to order the first of the reinforcements to go to the right. This happened to be the Imperial Light Infantry, a regiment 700 strong, made up of Colonists and Imperial refugees from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, recruited chiefly at Durban and Maritzburg. These had arrived on the first shoulder of Spion Kop about 10 a.m., where they had received orders to remain until required; but even here a good many spent bullets reached them. At 10.30 F and H Companies received orders to support the firing line on the plateau; they had not yet been under fire, and as they pushed on many a poor fellow was laid low, but the others never flinched. Reinforcements were badly needed, and these men, many of whom on their way to Natal had suffered those insults from the Transvaal inhabitants at the various stations which were recorded in our daily papers at the time of Kruger's famous ultimatum, were now eager to wipe them out On reaching the firing line they were sent to the right
At noon the din was terrific, the roaring of the guns on both sides completely silencing the reports of smaller weapons. Now and again, however, during a momentary pause, it was possible to make out the barking pom - pom - pom - pom - pom of the Vickers-Maxim or the tat-tat-tat-tat of the smaller Maxim. It is recorded that the uproar was so great that Colonel Crofton, of the Royal Lancasters, failing to make an order to advance heard by some of the troops at a critical moment, a bugler boy of the 'King's Own,’ hearing the order, promptly grasped the situation, and took the initiative on the impulse of the moment, and, standing up, sounded the advance, which, being clearly audible above the din, had the desired effect: the whole company immediately rushed the crest
About noon I noticed a curious spectacle, the details of which I have never been able to fathom. I was lying among some rocks, which afforded good shelter, and were fairly comfortable, notwithstanding the abominable stench of some dead animals, which had been killed by shell-fire some days ago, and during a temporary lull in my duties was scanning the plateau with my field-glasses. I had a good view of both the northern and south-western slopes that led to it, as well as of the level ground itself. Suddenly there was an increase of rifle-fire, and I noticed some of our men on the southern end of the plateau charge forward to the northern end. Then what seemed a huge body of men—our men, for I could see their helmets—stood up on the summit and moved as a body to the north, some running, others walking—almost, it seemed, leisurely. A terrific discharge was poured on these; the whole eminence seemed a smoking, seething inferno of bursting shells. I could see men falling like corn to a reaping machine, for a moment; then smoke and dust thrown up by the bursting missiles obscured everything but their flashes. This continued for a short time, then partly cleared, and I observed a large body of men, whether British or Boers I could not distinguish, rush down the northern slope, which was behind the plateau.
I thought the enemy's position had been carried, but saw no more, as at this moment I received an order from Major Winter, R.A.M.C., respecting the removal of some wounded, which necessitated my going to the foot of the hill. On the way I met several stretcher-parties carrying awful burdens; one man had had both his legs shattered by a shell, and haemorrhage was coming on. I managed to comfort him somewhat, put on a couple of tourniquets, and sent him on to the field hospital. As we went on to the hill, we met many similar cases, nearly all the results of shell-fire, and all too hideous to describe. At length we came to a deep, rocky spruit bed, with a little stream trickling down below. As the ambulances had been unable to cross this, they had waited on the side nearest the field hospital, and I sent a 'memo' back to Major Winter, asking for what surgical instruments, bandages, splints, and stimulants, I thought would be sufficient; 1 also asked for some spare men, including a cook. As the path crossing the bed of this spruit was the chief means of communication between the main army and the troops on Spion Kop, and as the ambulances of the Tenth Brigade (Captain Martin) and the Eleventh Brigade (Major Winter) could ply to and from their brigade hospitals to their side of the drift, I considered this the most suitable place available for a dressing-station. Accordingly, I selected a small hillock on the Spion Kop side with a cutting behind it, affording, as I thought, safe shelter from fire. But as all the stray shells and bullets that missed Spion Kop kept dropping about us, I moved further on, selecting a pass more directly under the hill, and along which ran the only path to or from the plateau. This pass was overhung by steep clay banks, on the top of which I fixed up a Red Cross flag. Cases now began to pour down from the hill on stretchers, and I soon ran short of my first supply of bandages; I sent to Major Winter for a new supply, which came up together with three men, one of whom was a cook, who brought some Bovril and other comforts for the sick. He lit a fire under the bank of my pass, which faced the hill. Suddenly the Boers made us their target, and three bullets went into the fire, scattering the sticks. Fortunately, at the time the cook was talking to me at some distance from the fire, and so the bullets went clear of us. 1 have reason to believe that this discharge was not drawn by the Red Cross flag, but was due to some infantry who strolled over to see what we were doing, and whom 1 promptly ordered away. A few moments after the enemy dropped five pom-pom shells in quick succession close by, but they fell short and did no harm. This sort of thing went on around us for the rest of the day, but we did our dressings under cover of the bank. From this time onward the wounded came through my dressing-station, as the pass was the only exit from the hill. 1 thus saw every case, some of them being mutilated beyond description. About one-third had been seen and bandaged by the regimental surgeons or by some of our stretcher-bearers under Captain Kelly, R.A.M.C., and these, of course, had only to be glanced at to see that the bandages were still in position and that bleeding had stopped. Others, poor lads! had got some comrades to bandage up their wounds, or had done it themselves; in some cases the men used their putties, for, as is often the case in the hurry of a fight on a hot day, the men take off their khaki jackets and throw them aside, and forget them as they advance. This is an important loss, for every soldier has a little pocket in the lower comer of his tunic, in which he carries a packet called the first field dressing, which comprises a roller bandage, a pad of gauze, another of wool, a piece of jaconet waterproof, and two safety-pins, together with a calico card on which are inscribed his name, number, regiment, and next-of-kin; therefore, if these are lost, it may lead to his non-identification if killed, and if wounded to his bleeding to death.
Fully 350 wounded and those who had died on the way passed through my hands during the evening. The stooping entailed in bandaging such a number of cases was very fatiguing, and some of those who were helping me fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. The darkness of the night added to my trouble, for the only two lanterns that I had were so bad that I could hardly discern what I was doing, and had often to work more by touch than by sight The cheerfulness of the wounded struck me as being remarkable, men with shattered wounds smoking their pipes, and, although starving, not a grumble audible. Luckily, I had chosen a good place for a water-supply, and I had plenty of brandy and gallons of beef-tea. The kindness of the stretcher-bearers, many of whom belonged to the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps, was splendid. Many a poor man shot in the morning in the front-trenches, who could not be reached, and who had lain, as was often the case, in the blazing sun all day without food and water, and then in the cold of the night without his coat, and shivering, was rolled up in the stretcher-bearers’ coats, and his wound bound with the bearer’s only towel or only handkerchief, which was lost to its owner when the case was passed on. Officers and men, their faces caked with red dust, and their clothes torn by shot and shell, were indistinguishable as they were carried in, except for their helmets and boots. One old colonial in Thorneycroft’s, with a gray beard, walked down by the help of his rifle. He was a mass of wounds!—one ear pierced by one bullet, his chin, neck, and chest also shot right through by others, his back and legs torn by shell. He came in saying that he had just dropped in to have a finger off—it was so shattered he could not pull a trigger, and it got in the way of the next finger, which he could use; also that he wanted to get back up the hill to pay the d--- Dutchmen out of course I did not let him return to the fighting line.
At 1.20 p.m. General Warren heliographed to ascertain whether Colonel Thorneycroft had assumed command, and at the same time asked General Coke to give him his views on the situation on Spion Kop. Getting no reply, he asked whether General Coke was there, and subsequently received his report of the situation. The latter stated that unless artillery could silence the enemy’s guns the men on the summit could not stand another complete day’s shelling, and that the situation was extremely critical.
The 2nd Middlesex Regiment were the first of General Coke’s Brigade to reach the plateau; this they accomplished about 1.30 p.m. About the same time a nasty 1 regrettable incident ’ was narrowly averted by the gallantry and presence of mind of Colonel Thorneycroft. About thirty men of various regiments were on the point of surrendering; their rifles lay on the ground, and they were advancing unarmed towards the enemy’s position. Coming out to meet them were some armed Boers, and others were advancing behind, all waving white rags. Suddenly, from some thirty yards in the rear of our men, a soldier, whose stature made him everywhere conspicuous, rushed forth, limping on a stick. He pounced, like a hawk, on the Boer leader—a Transvaaler, by name De Koch, in whose words I shall continue the story of what happened (as De Koch afterwards described it to a British officer in the Biggarsberg): 'We had got up, and we should have had the whole hill' he said 'The English were about to surrender, and we were all coming up, when a great big, angry, red-faced soldier ran out of the trench on our right and shouted, 'I’m the Commandant here; take your men back to h------, sir' I allow no surrenders.' The 'great big, angry, red-faced soldier’ was Colonel Thorneycroft, who, after delivering his ultimatum, hobbled back to the thirty men and ordered them to follow him, and 'not to hesitate a second'. He brought them back to where the first company of the new reinforcements, the Middlesex Regiment, were lying, behind the top of the hill, and re-formed them with this company, ordering the lot to rush the plateau, and then reoccupy the trench and the crest beyond, which they did, led by himself.
About 2 p.m. an odd incident occurred. Some 170 of our men in an advanced position had been captured, and were being brought down the back of the hill; our fire had of necessity to slacken in some of the advanced trenches to avoid shooting these men as they passed across the field of fire, and as some of the enemy were within 30 yards during the pause, both sides put up their heads, and, seeing one another, a repartee ensued. It was during this that the so-called 'white flag' incident occurred. The Boers, supposing the morale of our men to be shattered, endeavoured to start a conversation to gain time for more of their own party to come up, under cover of the dead ground at their rear. The moment the prisoners disappeared, these Boers, who were apparently deeply engaged in conversation, advanced, and some of our men did likewise. Each side now appeared to have thought that the other was about to surrender. After much shouting, neither showing any sign of giving in, bring recommenced at short range, which resulted in many casualties on both sides. Meanwhile Colonel Thorneycroft and the company of the Middlesex Regiment had reoccupied the trench and the crest line; that, at any rate, was safe for the time being. On the left side of the crest there was some slight protection from a fold in the ground to its right, which ran obliquely to the trench in the rear.
Colonel Thorneycroft now directed company after company of the Middlesex Regiment, as they arrived, to each threatened point, and thus by about 2.30 p.m. the whole front-line was held again.
Colonel Thorneycroft about this time wrote a message to General Warren stating that the Boer guns to the north-west of the plateau were sweeping the hill-top, and asking for our artillery to silence them, or that more infantry might be sent up to attack them, as the force he had at his disposal was in itself inadequate to hold so laige a perimeter. He also drew attention to his heavy casualty list, and to the fact that the troops were badly in need of water. As the man who carried this note passed down the hillside, he was stopped by General Talbot Coke, who had arrived at the belt of trees, and whose arrival was unknown to Colonel Thorneycroft. He read the note, and added a postscript to the effect that he had ordered the King’s Royal Rifles and the Scottish Rifles to reinforce, and that the Middlesex and Dorset Regiments, with the Imperial Light Infantry and 120 men of Bethune’s Mounted Infantry, had arrived as reinforcements, and that our troops appeared to be holding their own at the time he wrote.
About three o’clock the Scottish Rifles, as they arrived on the plateau, were sent out by companies to right and left. Colonel Cooke, of this regiment, being senior to Colonel Thorneycroft, some discussion arose as to who was in command of the hill, and Colonel Cooke went to ask General Coke to solve the matter. He, however, declared that Colonel Hill, of the Middlesex Regiment, was in command, though it was shortly afterwards settled for certain that Colonel Thorneycroft had been appointed.
At about half-past three the intensity of the enemy’s fire again increased: the Boers, by concentrating their shell-fire, were trying to retake the plateau. From this hour on to sunset a perfect tornado of shells kept bursting amongst the troops on the hill, at the rate of some seven or eight per minute. It is doubtful whether, in the records of civilized warfare, troops have ever before been exposed to similar conditions. Without sleep the night before, without water [General Woodgate had reported this as early as to a.m., and a few tins had been sent up on mules; little, however, reached the top, as some of the mules fell down the hill, and what was left was used for the wounded], without cover, with a limited supply of food [As the 'bully' beef served out to many of the men was in tins, which one man was supposed to carry up the hills and divide with others, it is hardly necessary to add that many of these tins never reached their destination.], under a blazing hot African sun, the British and Colonial infantry, unable to move forward, still held their ground. No other troops in the world would have done so. The sufferings of the wounded under these circumstances were too horrible to be described, many of them being shot over and over again, as they attempted to crawl, and even the torpor of death did not protect their poor lifeless frames.
About four o’clock Colonel Bethune (16th Lancers) made his way up from the valley to General Coke, who was by the trees on the hillside, and volunteered to take his Mounted Infantry to assist Colonel Thorneycroft.
It is now necessary, in order to follow subsequent events, to pause in my narrative of the work done on the plateau of Spion Kop, and to follow the movements of another body of troops, who were operating against the eastern end of the hill, which is surmounted by the Twin Peaks. And in order to detail the manner in which they reached this place, it is essential to explain their movements earlier in the day.
At ten on the morning of the 24th, Lieutenant-Colonel Buchanan-Riddell, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles, received orders from General Lyttelton, who was in charge of the Fourth Brigade, to march from Spearman’s Hill, cross the Tugela at Kaffir Drift, advance on Spion Kop from the south-east, and take its two northern peaks, which I have called the Twin Peaks. Having successfully crossed the Tugela, the right half of this battalion under its Colonel, and the left half under its senior Major (Major Bewicke-Copley), divided, to allow of the front half advancing against the northern peak, and the left half against the southern elevation, the latter being central in position between the former and the plateau, which at this time was occupied by Colonel Thorneycroft.
About mid-day each half-battalion advanced to the attack, with two half-companies in the firing line, the left half-companies of each being in local support, one company finding left and right support, and one company in reserve—all at wide intervals and distances [Wide intervals and distances means that as the men advanced there were some fifteen paces between each man; such a precaution is absolutely necessary in modern war]. The Boers were holding both objectives and the crest line between them, also some trenches and rocks halfway up. On the hill which the left half-battalion was ordered to attack stood a machine-gun in action. The hillside was almost perpendicular in places, therefore the ascent was made very slowly; the supports fired over the heads of the attacking line advancing up the spur; the reserves took up the fire when the supports became merged into the fighting line. The trenches on the right hill were turned, one after another, under a heavy flanking fire, Captain R. H. Beaumont and Lieutenant D. H. Blundell, of A Company, leading the assault, until the former was wounded. When the right half-battalion neared the top, the left half directed its fire in support. The right half now 'fixed swords' and charged the height, led by Major W. S. Kays and Lieutenant R. F. Manly-Sims, of B Company, the Boers only leaving as the men’s swords appeared over the crest line. This was at 4.45 p.m. A quarter of an hour later the left half-battalion, under Major A. Bewicke-Copley, with F Company leading under Lieutenants the Hon. R. Cathcart and H. Wake, and closely supported by H Company under Captain H. C. Warre, captured the left hill. From the summit a Boer camp behind each hill could be seen, and a certain number of Boers retiring. The Boer trenches were found to be skilfully constructed by blasting and pick; they were about 4 feet 6 inches deep. The battalion now remained for some time under a galling discharge from both flanks, and it was noticeable that this was principally directed against the officers; they were able, however, to stop the fire of some Boer machine-guns 150 yards in their front, also to keep down the fire of some of the enemy, which was turned on Colonel Thorneycroft s right Bank, as his men were still holding the plateau.
General Schalk Burger was in command of the hostile forces, which included, among others, the Carolina commando, against whom the King’s Royal Rifles had made such a successful attack, having practically turned the enemy’s left flank on Spion Kop, notwithstanding that Botha had sent reinforcements against them. From Boer sources it appears that Botha was at his wits’ ends for men, when a panting rider from Schalk Burger reached him with an urgent message for help. Botha immediately ordered what troops he could spare to reinforce, and amongst them the Utrecht commando. Commandant Edwards, Botha’s Chief of Staff, was sent by his General with some of these to the neck between the plateau and General Burger’s late position; he states that he and his force were able to keep Major Bewicke-Copley’s men for a time from working round the Boer left It was at this juncture that Commandant Edwards was wounded by a bullet and had to leave the firing line, returning to General Botha, who had remained near Coventry’s Farm.
It is now necessary to return to the troops on the plateau. At 6.30 p.m. General Warren asked General Coke if he could keep two battalions on the summit, removing the remainder out of reach of shells, also whether two battalions would suffice to hold the point; this was in accordance with a telegram on the subject sent to General Warren by the Commander-in-Chief. Also at 6.30 p.m. Colonel Thorneycroft sent a written message to General Warren, in which he stated that the troops which had marched up the hill the night before (Lancashire Fusiliers, Royal Lancaster Regiment, and Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry) were quite done up; they had had no water, and ammunition was running short Colonel Thorneycroft considered that even with the reinforcements which had arrived, it would be impossible to permanently hold the hill as long as the enemy’s guns were unsilenced. He stated that the Boers had three long range and three short range guns, with several pom-poms, continuously bombarding the plateau since 8 o’clock that morning, and that his casualties were very heavy; so much so, that if they went on at the present rate he could barely hold out He again asked for water, and requested that more stretcher-bearers should be sent up. 'The situation' he said, 'is critical'.
At about the same hour Major Bewicke-Copley received orders for the 3rd King’s Royal Rides to retire after dark from the position they had so heroically carried—namely, the Twin Peaks of Spion Kop— and this battalion, with the exception of a few men killed and wounded, whom they were then unable to bring, recrossed the Tugela by midnight practically unmolested. About nightfall—7.30 p.m.—Colonel Thorneycroft consulted with the senior officers on the hill-top. The meeting was held in a hollow by the dressing-station, and lasted only a few minutes. He told them he thought it impossible to continue to hold the hill, and asked them their opinion. All expressed their concurrence with his views, so Colonel Thorneycroft now decided on a retirement, and this was carried out during the night.
It is now necessary to consider the events which were taking place during the darkness of night in the Boer lines. After Major Copley’s force had taken the Twin Peaks of Spion Kop, thereby driving back Schalk Burger’s men, and also compelling his artillery to retire, the Boers considered their position extremely serious. At 3 o’clock in the morning of the 25 th General Botha held a council of war with his chief officers, at which he is said to have pronounced the Boer position as ‘hopeless,' the fact of our troops occupying the Twin Peaks having so demoralized the enemy that all Botha's men are reported to have left Spion Kop in the darkness, his waggons also being in full retreat Two items of information saved the Boer situation. The first was the announcement by Commandant Edwards, Botha’s Chief of Staff, that he had heard it was not possible for the British to remain on Spion Kop, they being unable to hold their ground from lack of water, and that General Woodgate was dead. It also happened that two Boers, contrary to orders, had ventured on Spion Kop during the night to recover the body of a comrade, who had been shot the day before; having found it, they came back with the information that the Twin Peaks had been evacuated.
The relinquishment of the Twin Peaks of Spion Kop by our troops was considered by the Boers as fatal to us. I was told later in the day, while a prisoner, that, had this post been held and reinforced, their case would have been hopeless, and they could never have retaken the hill, for in doing this the tables would have been turned, seeing they would have been subjected to a cross-fire from one of the very positions from which they had enfiladed the plateau. What really happened, they told me, was that, while the British were retiring down one side, their opponents were retreating down the other, and I have since learnt that the latter were completely exhausted and incapable of further fighting.
So it seems that the Twin Peaks of Spion Kop were really the key to Ladysmith. Encouraged by this information, General Botha issued an order at 3.30 on the morning of the 25th to withdraw every available man from Acton Homes, for the purpose of making a final dash to retake the plateau and the Twin Peaks.
I shall now return to my personal narrative. About midnight Colonel Allin, the Principal Medical Officer of the Field Force, passed through my station on his way to the summit. Shortly after this the small regulation lantern gave out, and, as it had been in the darkness the sole means of directing the wounded to the dressing-station and allowing their wounds being dressed, work had to be carried out under difficulties, and the pass often became blocked. Our trouble was still further increased by the passage of the whole of the troops from the plateau in their retirement from the hUl, all having to march through the dressing-station; finally a climax was reached, when word was sent back that no more stretcher cases were to be sent across the drift until the Engineers had completed a road on which they were working. This necessitated all stretcher cases being retained, and as they came in they were laid out in rows among the rocks on each side of the path, as the track had to be kept clear.
Men, mules, Maxims, heliographs, all went by, and by dint of much shouting were kept clear of the long lines of stretchers on either hand. In one place I had collected the more severe cases; officers and men lay side by side. On one stretcher lay General Wood-gate’s A.D.C., the sole surviving Staff Officer of the Eleventh Brigade; he was severely wounded, and had staggered into the dressing-station in a state of collapse from loss of blood. Having had his haemorrhage stopped and taken a little stimulant, this officer would fain have returned to the trenches, and was only prevented from doing so by a hypodermic of morphia.
When I left camp in the morning, as I expected to get back before dark, I had put on the lightest of clothes, thin drill khaki and a flimsy vest, in anticipation of the usual terrific heat from the mid-day sun; now, however, as the cold air of the night began to make itself apparent, I felt almost frozen. We had neither blankets nor great-coats; our only substitute was the empty canvas bags which the troops fill with clay for entrenching purposes; many of these lay about, and afforded some warmth when placed under our tunics and held in place by the tightening of our belts. J ust before daybreak a heavy dew came on, accompanied by a further fall of temperature. The dawn breaking lit up the ghastly faces of the patients around, and I gave orders for a fresh supply of Bovril and coffee to be served out to them, of which I also partook. This was my first meal since breakfast the day before; immediately after I sent all the wounded down the hill to the drift I then got all the stretcher parties I could muster, and visited the ill-fated plateau. On this spot not a living soul, either Briton or Boer, was moving. A death-like silence reigned. Terrible indeed was our work here. In die still, obscure morning light we set to work in the trenches; wounded, dying and dead lay intermingled, and as we sorted them some unwounded men were found in a state of utter collapse and exhaustion from their ordeal on the previous day.
We had been but a short time engaged, when the death-like silence that reigned was interrupted by a hoarse cry to our front; I could not catch the words at once, but on its repetition it was more audible— 'Hands up!’ On looking up I found we were surrounded on all sides; we were prisoners. As I was the only unwounded officer with the party, I advanced to parley: explanation was useless. I said I was a doctor, but the man to whom I spoke laughed and pointed to my sleeve. I glanced at it; my brassard was gone. We were marched off under an armed guard to the back of the plateau, where some more Boers were standing, of whom I counted about thirty in all. Very soon more came up, and I spoke to one who wore a brassard; he was, he told me, a Boer doctor with an Edinburgh qualification. I satisfied him as to my identity, and he sent a message to his Commandant for our release.
General Louis Botha and his Staff now arrived; the former was pointed out to me—a good-looking man, with closely clipped beard and moustache, dressed in a brownish suit and wearing smart top-boots and spurs. He was unarmed, but a handsomely carved rifle, carried by a Kaffir, who also bore three bandoliers, was understood to be his. I explained my object on the hill to the General, and showed him the crested buttons on my tunic and some letters I had in my pocket, which satisfied him as to my identity. He immediately ordered my release—on parole not to leave the hill without his permission; he then very kindly gave me a cigarette, and sent to his camp close by for some coffee. In the interval that followed its arrival we engaged in conversation; he bitterly complained of what he asserted to be 'British barbarity' in our want of recognition of the Geneva Convention. I asked him to support this accusation by facts. He asserted that the British had ill-treated his wounded taken some days previously at Acton Homes, that ambulances taken from the Boers in the Orange Free State had been sent to Cape Town, and that prisoners were reported as having been tied by the British to their guns and pulled along the road. I asked him whether he could either corroborate these accusations personally or produce witnesses. He answered 'No’ but that they were common reports in his lines. I then told him that, having been one of the doctors who attended the Boer wounded taken at Acton Homes, I could refute his first charge as utterly untrue; the second charge I was unable to reply to; while the third was too utterly childish to be discussed. The General not only allowed us now to attend our wounded, but offered us every assistance, his men procuring water and helping to collect the cases. Permission was, however, refused to remove any of our wounded from the hill.
By 6 a.m. on the 25th some 500 Boers had collected on the plateau; they were all well dressed and clean. Most of them wore tweed suits, leggings, and spurs, and soft hats with the Transvaal colours round the brim; each had three or four well-stocked bandoliers containing some sixty cartridges apiece. Most of them spoke English, and entered readily into conversation with our men. Their occupations were varied: one, an old burgher with a long beard, got on a rock and preached a sermon for our benefit on the horrors of war; others assisted in collecting the wounded and the identification forms [The identification of soldiers killed in action is very laborious, and often quite impossible. The present identification-ticket is sewn in a special pocket in a soldier’s tunic; men often take off their coats in action, and they are temporarily mislaid, or their coats may be taken off to dress their wounds. Should such men be killed or die, all means of identification may be lost; such cases have occurred. If every man wore a metal disc bearing his name, number, and corps on a chain or cord round his neck, identification would at all times be certain, provided the disc was not carried away by shell-fire], letters, and other contents from the pockets of the dead, which, to their credit 1 must say, were handed over to us; others gathered up rifles, bayonets, water-bottles, and boots, which they retained. Trophy-hunters were cutting off officers' buttons and badges, and this, though galling to us, was in no case carried out with any show of exultance by the victors. Some other of our medical officers had also been 'held up' by the enemy at dawn, and between us all the wounded were collected and placed in a convenient position to be taken from the hill whenever permission should be granted.
About 10 a.m. Colonel Allin, Principal Medical Officer of the Field Force, arrived on the hill, and succeeded in obtaining leave to have our wounded removed. The work was carried out at once, and within an hour’s time every injured man was at the field hospitals.
On the morning of the 25th General Buller, finding that Spion Kop had been abandoned in the night, again assumed chief command, and decided to withdraw General Warren’s force. All the waggons of the Fifth Division were brought down to Trichardt’s Drift during the day, and had crossed about noon of the 26th. By double spanning the loaded ox-waggons got over at the rate of about eight per hour; the mule-waggons crossed by the pontoon bridge, all the animals having to be taken out and the vehicles run over by hand. For about seven hours of the night the drift could not be used, as it was dangerous in the dark; but the use of the pontoon went on by day and night. Besides machine-guns, six batteries of Royal Field Artillery and four howitzers, the following vehicles crossed: ox-waggons, 232; mule-waggons, 237. In addition the ambulances were working backwards and forwards, removing the sick and wounded. All the hospitals were cleared by 2 p.m., and all the wounded were across the Tugela, over which they had to be hand-carried, by 6 p.m.
While the retirement just described was taking place, a melancholy scene was being transacted on the plateau of Spion Kop. Early in the morning of the 25th, three army chaplains, the Rev. A. A. Gedge, the Rev. L. J. Matthews, and the Rev. Mr. Wainman, with a burial party of twenty-five men of the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps, proceeded to Spion Kop to fulfil the last sad duties connected with the burial of the dead. On the plateau they were joined by the Rev. R. C. Collins, who had been there since daybreak. Two large graves were at once made; in one twelve bodies were placed, and in the other forty-two. As the working party was small, and as the ground was as hard as iron, rendering it almost impenetrable to spades and pickaxes, many of which were broken in the attempt, advantage was taken of the shallow trenches thrown up by our men in the engagement of the day before; these were deepened, and another eighty-five bodies interred, thus bringing up the total buried on this day to 139. Though the enemy watched the proceedings and showed due respect and reverence, they rendered no assistance; and as darkness came on, Father Collins and the Rev. Mr. Gedge, seeing other bodies unburied, made arrangements with the Boer Commandant to come up on the following morning to finish their task.
Early on the morning of the 26th, nothing daunted, up the hill they went again with a small ‘scratch' burial party to resume the interments. Some delay ensued when they reached the plateau, as the naval guns and a Maxim were firing at that spot. On these ceasing fire the party moved on, led by Mr. Gedge, who bore a Red Cross flag. The summit was attained about 2.30 p.m. Here they were met by a Boer who stated there were over a hundred more bodies to inter. In a soft piece of ground that seemed like a filled-in trench, twenty-five of these were placed, but as a fog came on and light failed no further work was done that day. During all this time the retirement of General Warrens whole force was in progress. By 2 p.m. all the wounded on waggons were across the Tugela, and by 11.30 p.m. all the mule transport had crossed and the pontoon was clear for troops. The infantry near Taba Myama were the first to withdraw. In the inky darkness, under torrents of rain which soaked all to the very skin, regiment after regiment fell back in perfect order. Never in the history of the South African War did troops behave better than at this crisis. Worn and overstrained by ten days' hardships and continuous fighting, unwashed, and sleeping in their clothes, under ceaseless shell and rifle fire, fed on naught but 'bully’ and biscuit, their morale was still unshaken. About midnight a tremendous burst of rifle-fire lit up the entire face of the Boer position, and at the moment all expected that our passage to the river was about to be contested. However, the demonstration ceased as suddenly as it had commenced. It was evidently a false alarm, probably due to the enemy having heard the movements of the troops, and imagining that they themselves were about to be the object of a night attack. No finer opportunity did the Boer Army lose throughout the Natal campaign than on this occasion, when, with the hills commanding the river on the north in their hands, and with our force cut in two by the Tugela, they allowed General Buller to remove his entire transport without the loss of a pound of stores or a single casualty, along an ill-defined track, so obscure as to necessitate its being marked out by mounted men at intervals of 100 yards, to direct the columns to the river. With the first streaks of the gray dawn [After breakfast Father Collins and the Rev. Mr. Sorsbie, and four officers and 100 men of the 2nd Dorset Regiment, left camp near Trichardt's Drift with a pontoon party to complete the burials on Spion Kop. The hill was searched in all directions for any dead that remained, and eighty-four bodies were buried, these bringing up the total to 243. The casualties recorded from January 17 to 24 gave a total of 1,733, rod comprised 27 officers and 245 men killed, 53 officers and 1,050 men wounded, and 7 officers and 351 men missing] of the 27th, the last of the rearguard crossed the pontoon, and it was taken up by Major Irvine, R.E.