The Third Crossing of the Tugela—Colenso—February 20, 1900— The Occupation of Colenso—Four more consecutive days-Fighting—Onderbrook Spruit—Wynne’s Hill—Langerwachte Spruit—Hedge Hill—Hart’s Hill—How the Inniskillings were almost annihilated—Back again across the Tugela.
Some hours before the dawn of February 20 the Rifle Reserve Battalion marched out from their bivouac on the village of Colenso, with the Royal Lancaster Regiment acting as supports. As anticipated, Colenso was weakly held; a few Boers in the village fled, and after a small amount of desultory rifle-fire the place was in our possession. Shortly after daybreak, while the men were preparing their breakfasts, an alarm was given to the effect that a considerable force was advancing on our outposts from the direction of Chieveley. At the same time the 6-inch gun at Chieveley fired, and a shell burst close by in the village. Our glasses, however, showed that the advancing men were clothed in khaki, and that they were not burghers. As they neared we could make out the scouts, advance-guard, flankers, and supports, and in the van rode an officer, with polished straps and sword glittering in the morning sun. This was General Fitzroy Hart, and the troops were the gallant Irish Brigade. We immediately got into signalling communication with them, and with General Buller s headquarters, and received a message from the latter place to withdraw and leave General Hart in possession. After breakfast I had a walk round Colenso and its environs south of the Tugela, which were historically interesting on account of the action of December 15. The village had been shamefully looted and polluted. What had once been a peaceful and picturesque little hamlet was now a mass of foetid ruins. In anticipation of our occupation, the enemy had dragged their dead horses [Some Boer prisoners were afterwards employed, while waiting for their train to Durban, by the officer in charge to drag these putrid horses away and bury them] thus the 'biter was bit' for the work was anything but pleasant, the stench being intolerable into the interior of the houses, and they lay in the rooms among broken furniture and debris. The corrugated-zinc roofs had been torn off the buildings, all the available woodwork had been removed for fuel, windows and doors were wantonly smashed. In front of the village lay the lines of trenches from which on the date of the battle there had come that deadly hail of bullets which had caused the loss of our two batteries. The donga from which Major Babtie, R.A.M.C., had sortied and gained his Victoria Cross was still littered with the accoutrements of our men and artillery horses. During the afternoon some of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry forded the drift at Colenso, and occupied the kopjes unopposed, with the exception of a few sniping shots, but were afterwards driven out. Welcome reinforcements arrived in the course of the day in the form of four naval 12-pounders, the 4th Mountain Battery, and the Pontoon and Balloon Sections Royal Engineers. The south side of the Tugela was then entirely cleared of the enemy, and a heavy battery established on the spurs of Hlangwane.
General Buller now determined to cross the Tugela. This was his third crossing, for it will be remembered that his first was at Trichardt’s Drift (January 17), and his second at Potgeiter’s Drift and Molen’s Drift (February 5); it was not fated, however, to be his final crossing, as we shall see hereafter.
He determined to cross from the Hlangwane plateau. To ford the river it was necessary to throw a pontoon bridge across, as both the railway and the ordinary road bridge had been destroyed, and would require a long time for repair. It will be seen by the map facing p. 198 that the main road from Colenso to Ladysmith passes west of Colenso and the Tugela; another path runs close to the western side of the railway, and is represented by a dotted line. To reach either of these he could cross the river at Colenso, where the river runs north and south—an easy route—or further down at Railway Hill, nearer Ladysmith, where it runs east and west To cross at the latter place it would be necessary to spend valuable time in roadmaking, the country being very rugged, and the banks of the river precipitous. In favour of crossing at Colenso: firstly, it could be done more quickly; secondly, a well-constructed road lay at the other side; and, thirdly, the Intelligence Department reported—and of this there was ocular evidence—that the enemy were in full retreat Against the crossing at Colenso was the fact that the army would have to move up a triangular defile commanded by precipitous hills like Doom Kloof, from which the enemy could enfilade our troops with guns, so placed as to be under cover from our artillery on Monte Cristo and Hlangwane. A crossing at Railway Hill in preference to Colenso had been strongly advocated. In support of this was urged the absolute safeness of that route, as the crossing would be commanded on all sides by our guns, and the enemy could make no opposition except with his artillery. The fact that our troops could get on the line and advance along the railroad was another supposed advantage. Against these suggestions were opposed, firstly, the delay in making a new road, and, secondly, the fact that the railroad was useless, as we had neither any rolling-stock nor the means of putting any on it, for the line was disconnected from the south by the destruction of Colenso railway-bridge. I have discussed this subject at some length on account of its bearing on future events. General Buller determined finally to cross at Colenso, and we shall see the consequences that followed.
The Engineers threw a pontoon bridge across the Tugela about a quarter of a mile north of Fort Wylie; the river here was about 98 yards wide, and the water of considerable depth, with a strong current. The Fifth Division were the first to cross, General Coke’s Brigade getting orders to reconnoitre the hills north of Fort Wylie, and then to advance for the same purpose towards Onderbrook Spruit. The Eleventh Brigade, after a circuitous and weary march under a blazing sun, passed along the new road from the Gomba valley, and crossed the pontoon early in the morning. During a halt near Fort Wylie I was able to examine this hill. It was honeycombed with trenches, delved out of the rocky hillside, and affording perfect shelter from shell-fire, thus accounting for the enemy enduring so much of it Miles of trenches also lined the river-bank, and, owing to the presence of a network of dongas, which joined the river at right angles, the entrance and exit of Boers could not be seen. Another rural camp lay behind Fort Wylie, composed of huts, partly made of loose stones, sods and bushes, with dry ox-hides spread over them; some were roofed with loose sheets of corrugated zinc, others with doors tom from buildings; all sorts of household utensils and furniture lay about—chairs, sofas, pianos, tables and beds. One of the last-named, a double one, I saw set up under a tree, with its late occupant’s portmanteau open upon it-—he had evidently left in a hurry. Food and ammunition were strewn everywhere. Some Royal Engineers were already engaged in repairing the railway-line, a train for this purpose having arrived at Colenso from Chieveley. The Colenso railway-bridge was a perfect ruin, the whole five spans of ironwork having been blown to pieces with dynamite by the enemy, and one stone pillar entirely demolished. A temporary tresde bridge was about to be erected; the material for this was on its way from Durban. The telegraph-line had also to be repaired, and to effect this object Corporal Adams, of the Royal Engineers, swam the river, taking with him the wire, which was at least 200 yards long. It was the same corporal who swam across the Little Tugela for a similar purpose. Coke’s Brigade had in the meanwhile advanced to the kopjes north of Colenso, our artillery supporting them, and dropping lyddite shells to search the hills to the north, including Grobelar’s Kloof. The 2nd Somerset Light Infantry, despite the caution exercised in the general advance, got into a very warm corner in the afternoon; advancing to clear some kopjes on the right front for our artillery, they came within range of Boers entrenched on Grobelars Kloof. Suddenly they were subjected to a heavy long-range Creusot and Mauser fire within 200 yards. The battalion had to endure this for nearly five hours, and sustained serious casualties. Three officers were killed—Captain S. L. V. Crealock and Lieutenants V. F. A. Keith-Falconer and J. C. Parr; the wounded included Captain C. G. Eiger and Captain R. E. Holt, R.A.M.C., the medical officer attached to the regiment, the latter being mortally wounded; he died during the night, notwithstanding all available medical skill [The Royal Army Medical Corps had five officers killed, and lost a similar number from disease, during the Natal campaign]. The casualty list among the Somerset men was lengthy, and some of the other regiments engaged also suffered. The Rifle Brigade had Lieutenant W. R. Wingfield Digby and eleven men wounded; the Dorsets, Lieutenant F.. Middleton wounded; Colonel Reeves, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and Captain H. G. C. Phillips, of General Coke’s Staff, were also wounded. Although it was the first time the Somersets had been under fire in the campaign, the men behaved splendidly, and held their position until dark, when they got orders to retire. The enemy fired volleys upon the vacated positions during the night. During the fighting many cases of individual gallantry occurred: Colour-Sergeant French took command of his company when both his company officers were struck down; Private Hutchins was conspicuous in distributing ammunition to the firing line and carrying up reserve ammunition under a very heavy fire. Both were awarded the distinguished service medal for their behaviour on this occasion [Lieutenants C. B. Prowse, C. H Little, Sergeants Hewlett and Oakes, and Privates Culland and Marsh, were also mentioned for gallantly].
To understand the reason of this attack by the enemy, and to avoid considering it a mere rear-guard action, our present position must be remembered. Our main army had left the high ground which they had spent seven days in fighting for. We had now crossed the river and entered that tunnelled defile which I have already attempted to describe, and our artillery was beginning to be withdrawn from the commanding hills from which it could enfilade the enemy’s trenches on the west of the river. The Boers, seeing all this, and noting that they could turn our advance into a frontal attack if they returned, having had a rest, and finding they were not pursued, promptly came back— at first only to the number of some 5,000, but, as time will show, in greater force during the next few days. The Rifle Reserve Battalion bivouacked near Fort Wylie that night; it rained considerably, and we had little cover and no blankets. Towards midnight, while in a sound sleep, I was hurriedly awakened by an orderly with a message for all the available medical officers attached to regiments to turn out Being already fully dressed, even to my boots, I was able to follow him to the next regiment, which was the Royal Lancaster, and was here joined by Captain Tyacke, R.A.M.C. The order stated that as medical arrangements had broken down, and as there were numbers of wounded lying out on the hills, all medical officers to whom the order was presented were to turn out and follow the bearer. Our guide told us he was bringing us to the Somersets, and eventually, after several hours’ exposure to rain and cold, staggering over rocks and bushes, colliding with trees, falling into dongas, and last, but not least, being sniped by the enemy and challenged by our outposts, we arrived at the ground, and found our errand a fruitless one, as all the wounded had attended to, and promptly too, by the medical officers of their own brigade. We went on, however, to the Eleventh Brigade bivouacs, and there found that Major Winter’s bearer company had already pitched its tents in the dark, and had organized a field hospital, as no other had as yet crossed the Tugela. Here the wounded, having been duly treated, were all in bed [This incident is of interest in view of the recent suggestions of amalgamation of a field hospital and a bearer company in war. Under present conditions each, being a separate unit, can act independently. A bearer company can always act temporarily as a very mobile field hospital, and when not required to move wounded in action, it can camp alongside its field hospital and share its duties. Under an amalgamation mobility would suffer, as, owing to a division of instruments, drugs, surgical dressings, and cooking utensils, much delay would ensue].
By daybreak on February 22, the ninth consecutive day of the fighting, practically the whole force and its transport, with the exception of some of the heavy guns, three field batteries, and Barton’s Brigade, had crossed to the west side of the Tugela over the pontoon. The positions taken up by our artillery were as follows: The 19th and 63rd Batteries Royal Field Artillery were at the sharp angle of the river near Onderbrook Spruit bridge, on the south side of the river; the 73rd, 28th, 78th, and 7th Batteries Royal Field Artillery took up a position among the kopjes north of Fort Wylie; the Howitzer Battery was exactly under Fort Wylie. Across the river two 47 and four naval 12-pounders, with the 64th Battery Royal Field Artillery, were in position on Hlangwane Hill or its slopes. Extra reinforcements came up to join the main army in the shape of the Irish Brigade under General Hart, and the First Cavalry Brigade with 'A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery.
The morning was passed by the entire army under rifle and shell fire, which mainly came from the direction of Grobelar’s Kloof. After breakfast the Rifle Reserve Battalion moved forward from the hill on which we had bivouacked the night before, up the valley, parallel to the railway and the river. From a high kopje, which we now occupied, I had a good view of the Boer front, and could from my position actually see, aided by my glasses, the enemy working a 15-pounder Creusot gun. It was in the open, near the far end of the road which ran up the valley, being placed behind a stone wall, which had two openings for the muzzle. Before firing the gunners ran it forward by hand, and after each discharge they ran it back in a similar manner. The gun was worked by only three men, and I could see neither gun team nor waggon in the vicinity. Its flash was very small, and it evidently fired smokeless powder, as no vapour was perceptible, but it threw up an appreciable quantity of dust in its recoil. The position of this gun was reported to our artillery, who promptly dropped a few shells near it, and we had the satisfaction of seeing it hurried back over the hill crest, where it disappeared. Some Boers at the end of the valley next attracted our attention. They were toiling hard with pick and shovel, digging and throwing up clouds of red dust; indeed, they were making trenches as if their lives depended on their exertions. One party, a large one, working on the side of a steep green hill to our right front, attracted most of our notice. The trench, a long one, ran up along the side of the hill; halfway up the trench some of them had hung their coats on a tall mimosa-bush. Another message was sent to the battery below, and a few more shells were dropped in the vicinity of the burghers, who disappeared like rabbits. Towards mid-day firing became very rapid on both sides, and shells kept crossing over the summit of the kopje on which we sat. The enemy concentrated their fire mainly on the pontoon over which the transport was crossing, and near which a number of 'Tommies' were bathing in the river, and, although they made good practice, little harm was done. It was an amusing sight! First to hear a shell whistling high over our heads, and, after a preliminary duck in case it was going to burst, to hear it pass in the direction of these bathers, and then to turn round and watch them, immediately they heard it coming, dive deep under water like a flock of dabchicks, till it exploded with a roar either in the water, throwing up a geyser of foam, or on the banks, where a volume of black mud was scattered all around. The field hospital where Major Moir, R.A.M.C., and Major Winter’s bearer company had pitched tents near the pontoon got its share of shells also. Our artillery all round kept searching the enemy’s position on the kopjes facing us, and at intervals the large 6-inch gun at Chieveley sent its huge shells screaming high in the air over our heads, reaching almost, it seemed to us, into Ladysmith. As they hurtled along, one could hear the ‘Tommies' exclaim: 'Good luck to you, chum, and a good big bag!’ and I must say we all inwardly re-echoed the wish. After our mid-day meal, the Rifle Reserve Battalion got orders to advance with its brigade on a ridge that has variously been described as Wynne’s Hill or Green Hill; the former title I think the more appropriate, as it was on this hill that that gallant and courteous officer, General A. S. Wynne, whom we all loved so much, was wounded on this day during the attack. Major-General Wynne had been appointed to command the Eleventh Brigade since Major-General Woodgate’s fatal day on Spion Kop; he had previously to this acted as General Buller’s Chief of Staff. The kopjes which I have mentioned had during the morning been prepared by our artillery for an infantry attack. The 61st Howitzer Battery of six guns had been firing lyddite, covering the whole of the kopjes in such a way that for the enemy to remain was to court death. The South Lancashires and the Royal Lancasters led; behind them came the 3rd King’s Royal Rifles, the Rifle Brigade, and the Rifle Reserve Battalion; Hildyard’s Brigade acted as supports.
The men moved out in companies in wide skirmishing order, drawing the enemy’s fire, which increased as we proceeded, causing several casualties. One of the first hit was a sergeant, whom I had to attend; he was struck by a bullet through the knee. The journey was a hard one, and was made more difficult by the uneven nature of the ground over which we had to advance. Owing to this, and to the terrific nature of the rifle-fire, the regimental mules, carrying reserve ammunition, had to be left under cover. I had also to give orders for the mules carrying my surgical and medical panniers to remain behind temporarily with my horse, while I took personally, and with my orderlies, a limited supply of surgical dressings. It was a most exciting experience, advancing on foot in the midst of the infantry, and as it was in the least protected places that the majority of the casualties occurred, I had a hot time, having to make a temporary delay to put on a bandage now and then, and then follow on as quickly as I could run, after seeing the case had been sent to the rear. The fighting was the most spirited which had taken place since the week began. The infantry marched on unconcernedly in the midst of the enemy’s fire, some of them even seeking for unexploded shells as trophies. Three heavy guns, at least, were firing on us from Grobelar's Kloof, which dominated our left A deadly Mauser hail of bullets was coming from the same place—from Wynne’s Hill in our direct front, and from Hedge Hill and Hart’s Hill on our right front. Our principal objectives were Wynne’s Hill and Hedge Hill, the latter a long hog-backed hill running north and south, with an inclination west, and completely commanding the valley of the Langerwachte Spruit Towards two o’clock General Wynne was hit with a bullet in the thigh; he passed me on a stretcher, and after a momentary pause, finding he had been cared for, I doubled up after my battalion, who had taken up a position among the kopjes. Wounded men now began to pour in, to whom I attended irrespective of regiment, as is the rule in action. All the available stretchers were soon used up, and, acting on my Commanding Officer’s advice, I selected a place of greater safety, and removed to it the surplus cases.
After a somewhat hurried examination of the ground, I decided on moving these under cover of the railway embankment alongside the Onderbrook Spruit, on the right of my battalion, and here I remained for some time. Towards evening my supply of bandages and dressings began to show signs of running short; I therefore sent one of my orderlies back to fetch the panniers which contained the reserve supply, telling him to bring the mules up along the eastern side of the railway embankment, which afforded a little cover. I also told him to bring up my Red Cross flag, which I had left behind. After a short delay he returned with a small party carrying the panniers, for owing to the severity of the fire from the mountain-tops no mules could be safely brought along. As the sharpness of the fire increased, and as several of the Natal stretcher-bearers had been wounded in my dressing-station, I left it and looked out for a better shelter, for I had received a message from my Commanding Officer that the regiment would occupy their present position for the night. Close by was the Onderbrook Spruit; but although affording excellent cover, it was not suitable for a dressing-station, as entrance and exit were too difficult for stretcher cases, from the precipitous nature of its banks. The railway-bridge over this spruit also afforded excellent cover underneath, but the former difficulties prevailed for stretcher cases. About 100 yards further ahead was a small culvert, and I noted that with a little manual labour it could be converted into an admirable dressing-station. 1 accordingly got a number of Natal stretcher-bearers to accompany me, and with a few borrowed shovels and picks constructed a fairly smooth path from the railway embankment down to the culvert, and removed the barbed-wire fences on both sides of the line. Although all the time under a brisk rifle-fire, the men set to their task cheerfully and energetically. Never can I look back on these men, who went by the name of 'body-snatchers,’ without thinking how much we all owe to them. When all was completed, I removed my materials to the culvert, and having hoisted the flag, I sent word to my Commanding Officer as to my exact position, so that he could let his company officers know where to direct their wounded. He sent back word approving of my change of site.
The position of a medical officer during an engagement is of the utmost moment. It is a grave and responsible post, and its choice must rest entirely with the medical officer himself, as the Commanding Officer of a fighting unit is necessarily otherwise fully engaged. To facilitate the choice, a medical officer should be, in all cases, previously informed of the general plan and scope of the proposed fight. Knowing this, he would be enabled to select a position from which he could exercise his skill in the best and safest way, not only for himself, but for his patients. That a medical officer should be up in the firing line, moving from company to company, is impossible. If he is brought there, he gets cuts off with some individual company, and from his isolation, so to speak, can render little assistance to other companies. I do not desire to criticise; but I think it my duty to say, in view of future events, that it was inattention to this circumstance that lost us several of our medical officers during the campaign. The national and glorious traditions of the British Army have been, and always will be, such that no officer or man, be he combatant or otherwise, will, if opportunity presents, hesitate for a moment to help a wounded fellow-creature. This is not individual bravery: it is the national spirit But a Commanding Officer who places his regimental medical officer in a position where the life of, perhaps, the only skilled factor of surgical treatment is in jeopardy is not acting in a way, to say the least of it, most beneficial to those who may happen to be wounded in the regiment with whose care he is entrusted. I do not say, for one instant, that this has been done except thoughtlessly; but it has been done, and many valuable lives have been sacrificed as a consequence.
But to return to the fight. As I have already mentioned, the Onderbrook Spruit railway-bridge was about 100 yards from my dressing-station. From that station all the stretcher-bearers, after their burdens had been dressed, had to pass over the bridge in returning to Major Moir’s and other field hospitals near the pontoon. On the red ironwork of this bridge, which was clearly visible from where I stood, the enemy for some reason had concentrated their fire. What their object was I cannot say; but perhaps it was because they saw several small bodies of troops coming over to reinforce our men who were on the kopjes at the other side. The Boer trenches on the hills were within less than 2,000 yards; the Mauser rifle is sighted to this range, but will kill at another 1,000. Many casualties occurred on this bridge, not alone among the troops coming up, but also among the stretcher-bearers, and even the wounded. It was a regular death-trap, but not a man flinched. I saw a regiment coming up along the line; I cannot recall its name, but as well as I remember it was the ill-fated Inniskillings. They came along in single file to make way for the line of stretchers passing on to the hospitals, not heeding any suggestions of the bearers as to danger. On they came, some smoking their pipes, some passing jocular remarks to the wounded to ‘Buck up, chum, or you will soon be dead!' all cheery. Suddenly a crackle of musketry; the enemy had seen them, and several fresh cases were brought in for treatment. More than sixty men have been recorded as having been shot on this bridge. As the tail of this regiment passed over the enemy turned a pom-pom on the bridge, and the marks produced by the shells on the ironwork remain unto this day.
Later on a big, burly, khaki-clad man with a brassard on his arm caught my eye, coming towards the bridge. I gave him a warning shout; he heeded it not, and still sauntered on under rifle and pom-pom fire. When he came up I recognised this intrepid person as Father Reginald Collins, one of our Army Chaplains; he had come to look after his flock and to give the doctors a hand. Not long after another solitary visitor came up along the line, walking briskly, a tall, stalwart figure with his helmet drawn down somewhat over his eyes. He stopped a stretcher-party, and evidently, from something they said to him, looked up at the hilltops. As he crossed the bridge the pom-pom spoke again; it had the range to a nicety. The figure stopped and shook his fist at the heights, and came on unscathed. Yet, as if to mock him, the small shells flew all round him, and on his arrival at my dressing-station I saw it was Colonel Allin, the Principal Medical Officer of the Field Army. Having inspected my supply of dressings, he put some in his pocket, and hurried on to see that all his other officers had what they needed. From this time onwards a continuous stream of cases kept pouring in, and I got most valuable assistance from the volunteer stretcher-bearers, whose self-sacrifice and devotion to the wounded will for ever remain in the minds of all who came into contact with them. Captain Tyacke, R.A.M.C., of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, which was close by, joined hands with me, and worked with indefatigable skill to lighten what was becoming an enormous strain.
I will now return to describe what was going on in the fighting line. The Eleventh Brigade had advanced and taken Wynne’s Hill after considerable opposition. This brigade and Lyttelton’s Second Division now pressed on towards Hedge Hill, which was partly taken; but our men were eventually driven by severe enfilade and reverse fire; they managed, however, to retain part of the south end, which, though not giving us the hill itself, denied it to the enemy. Some of the Field Artillery, in moving up closer to support the infantry, came under a heavy fire. One shell, bursting among the team of one of the guns of the 7th Battery Royal Field Artillery, killed almost all the horses. Driver M. Harding, R.F.A., with admirable coolness and gallantry, extricated the wheel horses, single-handed, and drove his gun into action with one pair only (for this action he was mentioned in General Buller’s despatches). At dusk the enemy made a fierce and furious counter-attack all along our lines. Above the roar of artillery, in which our howitzers joined by firing salvos of lyddite, the crackle of musketry was deafening; lyddite shells bursting on the Boer trenches lit up the whole horizon like lightning. This fusillade continued for several hours. In the darkness the enemy tried to rush the outposts of the 3rd King’s Royal Rifles, who were on our left. Nothing daunted, the small party got into them with the bayonet, and retook the ridge, running forward a little too far, perhaps, in doing so, and getting cut off from their supports. Here they remained for some time under a heavy fire, without food or water, waiting for help; but none coming, they were ordered to retire. Again a heavy enfilade fire. The East Surreys came to their assistance, and they in turn got cut off, and had to be extricated by the Devons. The Royal Lancasters, who occupied a forward position under Grobelar’s Kloof, were twice attacked during the night. The Boers here again came resolutely to close quarters, discharging their rifles at the Lancasters, who rushed on with fixed bayonets, driving the enemy back, and firing volleys after them as they retreated. The enemy returned some hours afterwards, when the same scene was enacted. The Rifle Reserve Battalion also had a bayonet charge, and sixteen men of the regiment showed blood on their weapons afterwards. The night passed in my dressing-station was full of exciting incidents. During the counter-attack at dusk a heavy rifle-fire opened on it from both sides of the river; the origin of this was a small candle, which had been lit to examine cases. All that went back had to be examined by us on the way, and as this could not be done without a light, things began to look serious. Dark lanterns are not supplied by the Government as part of a regimental medical officer’s equipment So a substitute had to be discovered. The plan I adopted was to put a candle, stuck rigid by its own grease, inside a helmet; this, with a piece of brown paper pinned across in which was a small aperture, made an excellent lantern, and cases could be inspected by its dim light in a sheltered place. The mere striking of a match by one of the stretcher-bearers was followed by an immediate volley. Sniping was kept up all night, some of the bullets that hit the railway-bridge and adjacent rocks going off with a bang and a flash of light. Whether these bullets were really explosive ones I cannot positively say, but it is probable that they were. Many bullets that hit the rocks near did not behave in the same way. Varied were the sounds the missiles made, some whistling, others humming, some ending their course in a dull thud, others, probably ricocheting ones, passing by, purring or screaming. The rifle reports also varied, the individual Mauser discharge, with its double report, 'pit! pot!’ contrasting markedly with the more solid and duller ‘bang!’ of the Martini rifle; the pom-pom, with its hyena-like laugh of five notes; the Maxim, with its deadly spitting fire—its report can be well simulated by rapidly drumming one finger on a table; and, last but not least, the fire of our Lee-Metfords, which can be imitated by similarly drumming all fingers at once.
Other noises met our ears, now strained to their highest pitch—the monotonous croaking of the frogs in the Tugela, the chirruping of the crickets, an everlasting din; a battery of artillery thundering along the railway-line in the dark: goodness knows where they came from or what they were trying to do [It appears that this was the 28th Battery Royal Field Artillery on its way out of a cul-de-sac, in which it had been caught the day before]. They seem to gallop as they pass the bridge over our heads, sending down showers of clay and loose stones, the drivers shouting, whips cracking, lots of choice language; they pass as quickly as they come. Such are the sounds of war on this night, and, notwithstanding, still comes that continuous stream of stretchers, those khaki-clad, blood-stained bundles—poor fellows who, though suffering, weary, hungry and thirsty, never grumble, and are all patient and ready to wait their turn with 'the doctor'.
It seemed to us that we two doctors would not be able to cope with the amount of work. The strain was very great, owing to the scattered position of the regiments among whom the casualties occurred, so that in many instances their own officers were, in fact, cut off and isolated from their out-lying companies. Owing to the accumulation of cases, many of the stretchers had to be laid on the ground on a level place to wait their turn to be brought in under the arch, where they were examined and passed out from the other side. A couple of the stretcher-bearers were specially appointed to regulate the traffic, and to see that no blockage or congestion occurred at either the entrance or the exit of our station. Our medical orderlies gave us the greatest possible assistance; from their previous training they were quite adept at bandaging, and many of the stretcher-bearers were commandeered for the same work and for other duties. The river was only some 20 yards distant, and supplied water which, though not very pure, was refreshing for the patients, both internally and externally.
Many of the wounds were of a ghastly and terrible character, numbers of them being caused by expanding bullets. Not a few of the officers and men who passed through, some wounded, others dying, others dead, were almost unrecognisable, although many of them we had known personally in the course of the campaign. I saw sundry old friends. Major E. W. Yeatherd, of the Royal Lancasters, was carried in semi-conscious, shot through the head; he was as kind and as gallant an officer as I ever had the honour to meet. I had come out with him and his regiment on the same transport, and had been in close connection with his regiment during the campaign.
The total casualties among officers and men for the day were calculated to be about 300. Information from Boer sources state that the Middelburg and Ermelo commandos bore the brunt of the day's fighting. Mr. Schalk Burger was also said to have left Pretoria for Ladysmith, and a long Boer ambulance to have started for the same place. The Boers lost heavily, leaving many dead on the ground, amongst whom was a grandson of Mr. Kruger.
Towards dawn of the 23rd active hostilities recommenced; at first it was only a steady splutter of musketry, but as light came on the guns joined in. An officer of the East Surrey led a bayonet charge to force back some Boers who had crept up close to our outpost during the night In this charge he himself was wounded, and before he could be carried off the field was hit again and again, receiving ten separate wounds in all. He was carried into my dressing-station, being accompanied by Lieutenant Morton, R.A.M.C., who was the East Surrey medical officer. Between us we dressed his wounds, some of which were of a very serious nature; his right arm had been broken in several places by expanding bullets. Many more wounds caused by these came in. About the same time an officer of the Rifle Reserve Battalion was shot through the palm of the hand by an expanding bullet; the aperture of entrance was as small as a pea, but the exit on the back of the hand was larger than a five-shilling piece, with fracture of the bones of three fingers and copious haemorrhage, which took me some time to control. He was also shot through the knee with an ordinary Mauser bullet.
One of the first things I had to do when there was sufficient light was to inspect what available medical and surgical materials I had left at my disposal after the night’s work. Having done this, I sent back an orderly with a note to Colonel Allin, P.M.O., summarizing my position and materials, and requesting the despatch of further supplies; I also requisitioned for a couple of dark lanterns, some cooking utensils, and a further supply of stimulants and 1 comforts ’ for the wounded. These were all promptly sent, and later on Colonel Allin himself came to inspect my post. During a temporary decrease in the stream of wounded I managed to find time to run down to the river’s edge just below the celebrated Tugela Falls, and there get a cooling and refreshing wash; but even this was denied me in comfort, as a few snipers on the hills opened fire on me. As neither Captain Tyacke nor myself had had any food or sleep during the night, we were pretty well 'done up.’ A welcome surprise came to us, however, about ten o’clock, when Lieutenant M. White, one of the officers of my regiment, brought me some 'bully’ and biscuit from the regimental supply, thoughtfully sent by my Commanding Officer; this food, with a slab of chocolate dissolved in dirty Tugela water, I divided with Captain Tyacke, who had had the misfortune not to receive his own ration, and we were both much refreshed by the meal.
It is now necessary for me to return to the story of the day’s fighting. In the early morning both cavalry brigades got orders to cross the pontoon at Colenso,
Dundonald’s Brigade crossed at 8 a.m. under shellfire, massed under shelter at Fort Wylie, and at once proceeded to protect the left flank from the hundreds of Boer sharpshooters who were in the high hills, and who rapidly advanced whenever they saw a chance of doing damage. Our heavy 5-inch guns also crossed and came into action near this place. One of them had a particularly 'hot time' after crossing. During the morning our artillery thoroughly searched by shell-fire all the enemy’s positions near Langerwachte Spruit, as well as all the dongas leading to it, this making us anticipate a further advance of the infantry, who were in much the same positions as on the evening of the 22nd. It seemed that the enemy had been reinforced during the night, not only in men but in guns. The main road, west of the line which ran up the river valley, seemed to be one of their favourite targets; the Boer gunners had its range to a nicety, and made most accurate shooting from the hills. At one part of this road in particular, where it crossed a small hill, I noticed that every passer-by had to run the gauntlet I saw a battery of artillery passing this place; each gun and waggon put on a sprint as it came to the marked spot, and fortune favoured them, with the exception of the last waggon; all but this got by, either passing too soon or too late for the arrival of the shell evidently meant for each; there was a distinct pause between each attempt to pass. The last waggon, as it reached the summit of the incline, paused; probably a horse stumbled. Swish! bang! a Creusot shell is planted into the middle of the team; it explodes with a flash and a cloud of white smoke, mixed with red dust from the road; when this has cleared away, three horses are seen down with their riders; one driver gets up, the other lies motionless— he is dead. A rush and a commotion is visible, as, with wonderful promptitude, the survivor, joined by some others, stands to his horses; the dead ones are pulled aside, the living whipped up, and, with a cheer, the waggon is on its way again, under the fire of a couple more shells, which do no damage. The next to cross this spot is a regimental ammunition cart, a Kaffir, accompanying it, sitting on the top yelling, screeching, and whipping up his mules. Suddenly he turns a summersault off his perch; some infantry, who are marching alongside the cart and acting as escort, get the mules by their bridles and hurry on the team; one of them picks up the Kaffir, and, seeing the Red Cross flag, takes him down to me. His face is covered with blood, it is already clotting in his hair, his eyes are bathed in it, yet all the while he is grinning, laughing, and chattering, abusing Dutchmen, and wiping off the blood with his hand. A small dark punctured aperture is barely visible above his ear; but when the blood is cleared away a lump is apparent, and something can be rocked about in it between the finger and thumb. A nick with a lancet exposes an object glistening in the lump; a little pressure gently applied, and out shells a Mauser bullet. I hand him this trophy, for they all want such curios; he looks at it and turns it over in his hand, and then puts it in his mouth for want of a better pocket. An antiseptic compress of cyanide gauze is put on the wounds, and a tight bandage round the head; then, before I have time to stop him, he is off and away, in the direction of his waggon, singing as if nothing had happened him, to show his trophy round. He is a lucky man to have a thick head, for one-sixteenth of an inch more of angular impact and that bullet would have entered his brain. My next two cases were both officers of the Rifle Reserve Battalion, Lieutenant H. W. Dumaresq, 1st R.B., and Lieutenant G. C. Kelly, and K.R.R. Both these officers were severely hit while assisting wounded in the firing line, the former in the arm and the latter in the thigh. Another arrival, amongst a fresh batch of wounded which came in, was a sergeant of the same regiment; he had been struck by a bullet in the side of his head, which had passed right through, blinding both eyes and opening the nasal passages on the way. I forget his name, but his pitiable regret at having to leave his comrades in the firing line, and his appeal that his ammunition should be sent back to them, remain in my memory.
Owing to the arrival of Lieutenant Morton, R.A.M.C., who joined our dressing-station, Captain Tyacke and myself were able to take things somewhat easier during the morning, and got a short rest in turns. The fight was still, however, progressing, and Mr. Winston Churchill, in 'London to Ladysmith,’ correctly summarizes the condition of affairs about mid-day as follows:
‘Mr. Churchill found General Buller and his Staff in a somewhat exposed position, whence an excellent view could be obtained. The General displayed his customary composure, and told him (Mr. Churchill) that he had just ordered General Hart’s Brigade, supported by two battalions from Lyttelton’s Division, to assault Hart’s Hill. “ I have told Hart to follow the railway; I think he can get round their left flank under cover of the river-bank,” he said; "but we must be prepared for a counter-attack on our left as soon as they see what I’m up to.” General Buller then made certain dispositions of his cavalry, which brought the South African Light Horse close to the wooded kopje on which they stood; Sir Redvers Buller’s plan was as follows: On the 22nd he had taken the low kopjes, and his powerful artillery gave him complete command of the river gorge behind the kopjes, which acted as a kind of shield; he proposed to advance his infantry until the angle of the river was passed and there was room to stretch out his, till then, cramped right arm and reach round the enemy’s left on Hart's Hill, and so crumple it This perilous and difficult task was entrusted to the Irish Brigade, which comprised the Dublin Fusiliers, the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, and the Imperial Light Infantry, who had temporarily replaced the Border Regiment— in all about 3,000 men, supported by 2,000 more. Their Commander, General Hart, was one of the bravest officers in the army, and it was generally felt that such a leader and such troops could carry the business through if success lay within the scope of efforts.'
The story of the storming of Hart’s Hill by the Irish Brigade may be told at some length, for was it not this incident, following as it did the noble work done by the same men at the battle of Colenso on December 15 of the previous year, and again at Taba Myama on January 20 of the present one—followed, as it was fated to be yet again by another event on the 27th—that moved our late lamented Sovereign with tears to exclaim: 'Oh, my poor Irish!' and afterwards, as a sign of her Royal approval and appreciation of their services, to visit their country, and to embody the Irish Guards as a commemoration?
At 12.30 General Hart ordered his brigade to advance from where they had been resting for a short while near Colenso, to the railway-line. They passed along this bullet-swept path over the Onderbrook Spruit bridge, the Inniskillings leading, and the other regiments following. Every man of the brigade had therefore to run the gauntlet of the Boer marksmen, and numbers dropped on the bridge, where the enemy’s bullets were falling thick. Some fifty men were put out of action [An act of gallantry was displayed at this spot as the Inniskillings crossed. Private Nesbitt fell badly wounded on the middle of the bridge. With considerable courage Private Thompson of the same regiment ran back and removed his comrade, though under a heavy fire, to a place of safety] in the race over the bridge to the rendezvous further on, notwithstanding that some of the Royal Engineers had already begun to put sandbags on the sides of the ironwork as a protection from the rifle-fire. It was while fixing these sand-bags that Sergeant-Major J. H. Smith and Sapper Trash, R.E., displayed such conspicuous gallantry that their services were mentioned by General Buller in his despatches relating to this day. Until the bridge was sand-bagged only one man was allowed to cross at a time. Further on the Langerwachte Spruit had to be crossed under similar difficulties, and the three leading battalions congregated under cover of the eastern spurs of Hart’s Hill, where they rested for some time.
In the meanwhile General Lyttelton in person moved up the Durham Light Infantry and the 2nd Rifle Brigade to the advance line of kopjes beyond Onderbrook Spruit The artillery continued their work until dark, when they 'ceased fire,’ as the light did not then permit them to distinguish friend from foe. The infantry attack did not commence until 5.30. Hart’s Hill rises from the Tugela about a mile above the Onderbrook Spruit bridge. It is perhaps best described as triangular in form, with one angle running to the river. From the latter it rises abruptly by a series of rugged boulder-strewn, very steep steps to a false crest line about 300 feet or so above the Tugela. On the summit of this line there appeared a small elongated mound, in reality belonging to the true crest line, which is 400 yards away. Between the latter (on which lay the highest Boer trenches) and the false crest there was a glacis-like slope over which troops would have to pass absolutely unsheltered to reach the true crest, which rose from the far end abruptly. At the north-western end of the hill there was a thick thorn kloof; near this a portion of the enemy under Commandant Dupreez was located, while a little further to the rear was another kloof, in which the enemy’s Creusots were under cover. Such was the position the Irish Brigade were expected to storm against the finest defensive marksmen in the world.
Inniskillings leading, headed by their gallant Colonel, and Connaughts and the other regiments supporting, the first (or what I have termed the false) crest was reached. Up to this the advance had been somewhat covered, but the moment the enemy sighted the Irish climbing the hill they opened a heavy fusillade, to which the attacking party replied. Up, up they rushed, making the best of what cover they had, until the first crest was reached. The ground available here was so narrow that, though only four companies of the Inniskillings were in the firing line, there was scarcely room for half that number to deploy. The stem part of the attack only now began. Here the glacis-like slope faced them, over which they had to pass to reach the goal. With rifles at the 'ready' and cool as ever, the Inniskillings cleared the crest. A long Boer trench confronted them, and as they passed on their way to rush it some of them came to grief over some wire fencing, and Boer bullets found their victims. There was not, however, the slightest wavering, and as we watched them with straining eyes through our glasses against the dim sky-line, for light was now fading, we could see the gallant Inniskillings pass swiftly forward with a dash and enthusiasm almost cruel to watch, for at the moment a roar of musketry loud as a thunder-clap echoed on our ears, the whole Boer position blazed into one continuous stream of fire, and the figures of the front line of that gallant regiment fell like com in front of a mowing-machine. They had been exposed to what was, perhaps, the heaviest frontal and enfilade rifle-fire from each flank that had fallen to the lot of British troops in the campaign [The Boers could be seen standing up, and from the extraordinary rapidity of the fire they must have had loaders with spare rifles to hand up from the trenches]. Never faltering at the sight of the fate of the first line, the second rushed headlong on. A cheer that reached the ears of the army below noted the fact that the first trench had been reached and carried at point of the bayonet A few of the survivors, who had been in this trench before the charge, and had been coolly standing up between the bursting of our lyddite shells and firing down on the advancing troops, had fled. They saw that nothing could stop it, and, as the bayonets seemed already within striking distance, they jumped up, standing irresolute for the moment, and finally bolted up the hill for dear life, to join their comrades on the top. With another cheer the Inniskillings followed these fleeing men, with a recklessness that cost them dear, and attempted to rush the top of the hill. They met with a momentary success, as the enemy could not fire until their brethren were out of the way; and then there came another swish of Mauser bullets, and another line of our officers and men went down, and what was left of that gallant band, which had done all that human courage and endurance could do, lay on that bullet-swept glacis, and emptied their magazines as best they could at the dark slouch hats momentarily exposed on the battlements above.
In that gallant charge the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers lost some 200 men, while of the officers engaged their Colonel (Lieutenant-Colonel Thackeray), Major F. A. Sanders, Lieutenant W. O. Stuart, were killed, and Major C. J. L. Davidson, Captain R. M. Foot, and Lieutenants J. Evans, J. M. Crawford, C. Ridings, H. P. Pott, J. G. Devenish and G. D. V. Steward, were wounded, and Lieutenant T. A. D. Best was missing.
Some companies from the Connaught Rangers and 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, headed by Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. H. Sitwell, D.S.O., of the latter regiment, advanced to renew the attack; but it was futile, as darkness had now come on. This attacking party likewise fared badly. Colonel Sitwell was killed, and the Dublins also had Lieutenants A. F. Hill, A. Brod-hurst-Hill, F. B. Lane, and J. T. Dennie wounded, and Captain S. C. Maitland (2nd Gordons, attached) killed. The men lost 8 killed, 62 wounded.
The Connaught Rangers had Lieutenants J. L. T. Conroy, R. W. Harding, H. Moore - Hutchinson, A. Wise, A. J. Lambert, and Captain E. M. Woulfe Flanagan (5th Battalion, attached), wounded. The loss among the men was 19 killed, 106 wounded.
The Imperial Light Infantry had Major Hay wounded, and among the men 19 were killed, 105 wounded, and 8 missing.
[Some of these casualties occurred on the 24th]
It had been General Buller’s intention (see Natal Despatch No. 3, paragraphs 29, 30) that this attack on Hart’s Hill should have been made by the whole five battalions, but General Hart advanced when only two battalions were up, thinking his supports would soon follow. General Hart’s actual attack was made by the Inniskillings and Connaughts, supported by only half the battalion of the Dublin Fusiliers, and though the assault was delivered with the utmost gallantry, the men failed to reach the 'true crest’ of the hill. The regiments, as I have already mentioned, suffered severely, but their loss was not fruitless. Their gallantry gained for us a lodgment on the hill, which insured our ultimate success on the succeeding days.
During the night heavy sniping was continuous all along our line. The enemy made a heavy attack on our left, and a good deal of hand-to-hand fighting took place, prisoners being taken and retaken, and several bayonet charges delivered. The Rifle Reserve Battalion on one occasion withheld their fire, and waited in their sangars till the enemy were within 20 yards; then, charging them with their bayonets, repulsed the assailants. The enemy also attacked the position taken by General Hart, and were driven back. Some time near midnight General Hart visited my dressing-station, and asked for stretcher-parties to be sent out to his hill, saying there were a number of wounded lying out unattended to. Although extremely busy with the numerous cases coming in to the dressing-station, I called for volunteers, and set out at once, carrying one dark lantern and about a dozen stretcher-squads, manned by the Natal Volunteer Bearers and some of the regulars. We ascended the hill where the Irish Brigade had lost so heavily, and succeeded in carrying back in the dark a good many of the more severe cases, notwithstanding desultory sniping and the necessity of extreme caution with the lantern. All went well until an unfortunate incident occurred. I had to delay over one case which was lying out some distance from the lower crest of the hill. This patient I thought was unconscious, though in reality he was dead. I had handed my dark lantern, with its shutter closed, to one of my party, to enable me to determine by nearer examination whether there was any sign of life in the motionless form, which was still warm. The man holding the lantern, either by accident or thinking to help me, released the shutter, when a broad beam of light flashed out, and this was immediately followed by a volley from the enemy's trenches in our direction. The holder of the lantern was shot dead, and two more stretcher-bearers were wounded. Had not the bullets gone for the most part high, and the lantern been extinguished in its fall, more casualties might have occurred. As it was, we had all to lie close behind what scanty cover we could crawl to for over an hour, and make our way back as quietly as we could, for it was utterly impossible to recover any more wounded, the enemy being thenceforward on the alert. On our way down towards the Langerwachte Spruit we heard some groaning, and, proceeding in the direction of the sound, one of the party stumbled over a stretcher on the ground. On that stretcher lay an unconscious man. His head was partially bandaged, and beside the stretcher lay the two bearers. One of these had been shot dead, and the other was lying in a pool of blood groaning. He had been struck by a bullet through the thigh, the bone being badly broken, which rendered him helpless. We removed both cases, and the poor fellow, who was conscious, told me that he and a comrade had been shot down while dressing the unconscious man’s head. The handles of the stretcher had been splintered by the volley.
Throughout the day and night of the 23rd a number of cases of conspicuous gallantry took place. The list of these is long, owing to the large number of regiments in the fighting line, and would in all probability have been much longer but for the mortality among those who were in a position to report them. Conspicuous for their attention to the wounded, carrying them under fire from the firing line to a place of safety, were Lieutenant Inkson, R.A.M.C., who received a Victoria Cross, also Lance-Sergeant Knight (2nd West Surrey), Lance-Corporals Stebbing and Robins (2nd Devons), Lance-Corporal Cleland and Private Thompson (1st Inniskilling Fusiliers), Lance-Corporal Hendrick (1st Kings Royal Rifles), Private Kenny (1st Connaught Rangers), Privates J. Brown and T. Adams (Rifle Reserve Battalion). The two last-named men I myself had the opportunity of bringing forward, and they were the only two whose names I could remember, as owing to the continuous strain of my own work I had neither time nor means of compiling or finding out the names of a multitude of deserving soldiers who rendered aid. These two, however, had made themselves so very conspicuous all through the day and following night that I recognised their faces while holding a medical inspection of the regiment on the following day. They were both afterwards rewarded with the Distinguished Service Medal for their work on this occasion, and right well did they earn this highly coveted decoration. General Buller also mentioned Lance-Corporals Fisher and Parris, of the 2nd East Surrey Regiment—the former for gallantry in working a machine-gun, and the latter for courage in carrying messages under heavy fire; both these men also got the Distinguished Service Medal.
Besides the casualties I have mentioned on pp. 180 and 181 as occurring on this day, I must name Lieutenant C. H. Hinton (2nd East Surrey) killed, and Captain P. V. W. Vigors (2nd Devons) wounded.
By dawn on the 24th the Irish Brigade had thrown up lines of sangars all along their position on Hart’s Hill. Daylight also found the enemy prepared; in the night they had dug some fresh trenches closer to the position held by our troops, so close that the opposing firing lines were within 300 yards of each other. On the open space between Briton and Boer lay the wounded, dying, and dead of the previous day’s carnage. It was at the first light of day that there occurred an incident of such a barbarous and unhuman nature that I almost hesitate to record it. It has already received considerable publicity, and, though not a spectator of it myself, I have every reason, from careful inquiry at the time and afterwards, to believe it absolutely true.
The Boers, who were much nearer the wounded Inniskillings than were their comrades, came out with a Red Cross flag, and firing thereupon ceased, locally. After picking up their own wounded, they gave some of our men a little water, took away their rifles, and started despoiling dead and wounded, taking off their boots and emptying out their pockets; this so infuriated some of our men that they forthwith fired on the Boers, Red Cross flag notwithstanding.
This, of course, was the signal for fighting to recommence fiercely, and neither side would hear of parley. The Boers behaved brutally, and several wounded men who tried to crawl away were deliberately shot at close quarters with many bullets. Comment on this is, I think, superfluous. Where, in the annals of civilized warfare, has the like ever been found? Picture the feelings of the agonized spectators, when they saw their comrades, their own brothers in arms, as they lay wounded only a few yards away, being pillaged, undressed, and heartlessly deprived of their only protection from a tropical sun. Is there reason to doubt that if any soldiers were in a like position it would be impossible to restrain a similar retaliation? It may be argued that our troops had no right to fire on the Red Cross flag, but where in the Geneva Convention do we find that that flag covers pillage and robbery? Then for the enemy to run back to their trenches, and, looking towards our lines, seeing a wounded man perhaps within a few feet of safety after an arduous crawl on his hands and knees, a task which had taken him hours to accomplish, or seeing another, a motionless, exhausted, semi-conscious form, holding up his hands for water, to wreak their vengeance on such poor creatures—riddle them with bullets—murder them as they lay! Was it any wonder that, watching this, the rage of the army rose to boiling pitch? Not only did these inhuman outrages occur to the Irish Brigade, but other regiments report them on this day.
A private of the King’s Royal Rifles stated that he was taken prisoner about 5 a.m. on the 23rd by the Boers, being too far in front of his company to retire. He was released about 10 a.m. on the 25th. During this time he was kept in the Boer trenches without food or drink. There were a number of our wounded lying close to the trenches, and asking for water all the time, which was always refused. If any of the wounded moved, they were shot at Most of them died for want of assistance, as they lay there for two days and two nights. The Boers (who seemed to have a fair knowledge of English) said, 'Let them die', and give them no water.
Help had been promised to the Irish Brigade by this morning, but up to between nine and ten o’clock no aid arrived. Yet they held their own in the firing line, as our infantry can, and about this hour, as if the Boers were determined to wipe them out, a rush was made on them by the enemy from the hill. At first they were forced to give way a little; but they knew their orders, and that their duty was to hold that hill for their Queen and for their General. Firing steadily and with accuracy their Lee-Metfords, they made the morning air ring out with a continual 'swish-swish’ of deadly hail; and once again the Boers turned tail, and once again they had to seek the cover of their rocks and sangars. It was only then—about ten o’clock —when this determined rush had been repulsed by those hungry and weary men, that General Hildyard’s battalions arrived on the scene. The Irishmen greeted them with a ringing cheer—not a cheer for the relief, but a cheer from assurance that the hill which they had gained at such sacrifice was to be held at all cost The Durham Light Infantry replaced the Inniskillings in the firing line, and the latter passed down the hill to obtain the rest that had been denied them in the night —a rest they badly needed and had so splendidly earned. Never, indeed, could Tennyson’s words be more suitably applied than to those heroes of the Irish Brigade who fell upon, or survived, the footing they gained and held on Hart’s Hill on the 23rd and 24th: 'When shall their glory fade'.
Yet, be it remembered, many of their fallen comrades, dead, wounded, and dying, still lay out under a scorching sun. Many attempts were made to rescue them; stretcher-bearers and medical officers who went out were fired upon, and were obliged to leave them unattended the whole day. Even the troops in the firing line tried to help them. The following men were conspicuous for their gallantry in this respect: Privates G. Bennett, J. Cottle, and J. S. Parker, of the Durhams, succeeded in removing several; Private R. Hunter, of the Imperial Light Infantry, while under a heavy fire, twice built sangars round wounded comrades; Private G. Reed, of the same regiment, while under a heavy fire, carried in a wounded Connaught Ranger to a place of safety, and remained with him after the other men had retired; Sergeant W. Langrish and Private W. Howe, of the 2nd Scottish Rifles, similarly rescued a wounded man.
I will now return to the more personal part of my narrative. With the coming of morning light, we forwarded those of the stretcher cases which were too serious to have been sent on in the dark. I had to bury several poor fellows who had been brought down dead to the dressing-station. Some of the stretcher-bearers dug the graves near the railway-arch, where they are to be seen to this day; a short service was read; letters, a few regimental buttons, or a medal-ribbon, taken from the stiff khaki-clad form to send to his relatives; and then the red South African soil was thrown in. Such was a soldier’s burial.
Early in the morning of the 24th, Wynne’s Eleventh Brigade, who had been for the last two days in the firing line, were relieved by another brigade from their arduous position, to enable them to get food and rest. As they passed back to shelter on the reverse slopes of the kopjes near Onderbrook Spruit, I got orders to rejoin my regiment at that place. This I did without delay, and after a wash and what seemed a rare good breakfast I set to to make out my casualty report for the last two days’ action. This was handed in to the Adjutant; and a quartette, comprising the Commanding Officer, Adjutant, Regimental Medical Officer, and Regimental Sergeant-Major, held consultation to prepare the final casualty roll to be sent in to headquarters. While this was being written, the men, who had by this time finished their breakfast, which to some was their first square meal for days, were scattered in groups round the dirty puddles of the spruit, washing, brushing, and cleaning themselves after two days’ absence from water.
During the morning I held a medical inspection of the men. They were all in fine form, notwithstanding their heavy fighting, and the ranks, though somewhat thinned, were none the worse for the exposure they had undergone. Fifty yards below us, on the slope of the hill, a field howitzer battery had taken up its position. It was the 61st Royal Field Artillery Battery under Major Gordon. All that day I had ample opportunity of watching and studying the manipulation and effects of these weird guns. They were very short, almost stumpy, of a large bore, 5 inches in diameter—a bore, therefore, rather larger than that of the heavy naval guns employed at field work. These howitzers were firing common shell weighing 50 pounds, and containing a bursting charge of lyddite of enormous power. To compensate for its low velocity, the gun is fired at a high angle, so that the shell may fall almost vertically. In this way the howitzer can search out rocks and trenches, its shells bursting with a terrific roar. The shells of this battery, as they left the guns, were clearly perceptible to the naked eye passing over our heads. The noise of discharge was terrific, and very trying to one’s nerves when caught unprepared. Usually, however, the officer’s warning to his men to fire the gun gave one time to prepare to meet the shock; otherwise, when it came unexpectedly the vibration was decidedly unpleasant.
The enemy were also busy returning the fire, shell after shell passing over our heads and bursting either behind the battery or short of it. One or two which burst among the men did heavy damage; eight of the infantry were killed or wounded by one shrapnel, seven men in the howitzer battery by another, and four by a third—all in the space of two minutes. As the gunners had no doctor attached, I had to clamber down to them and look after their wounded. One poor fellow, whom I had seen sitting on his red-lined great-coat near a gun eating his morning meal, was absolutely riddled by a high-velocity shrapnel. As the number of shells that kept falling among the Rifle Reserve Battalion seemed to increase rather than diminish, the officer commanding ordered the men to entrench and build sangars for protection. It was after these had been built that I was struck by a stray shrapnel bullet, which broke the top of my helmet but did no further damage, and later on, as if to impress me further, I was hit again. I was sitting behind a well-built sangar, on the back of which Major Stuart-Wortley had spread his great-coat to dry, and on rising a little to light my pipe was knocked head over heels by an explosion. A shell had struck and burst on the sangar behind my head, blowing the rocks that composed it, and Major Stuart-Wortley’s great-coat that covered it, to fragments; indeed, nothing of the latter could be found afterwards but the collar and shoulder-straps. These he preserved as a trophy. Either a piece of rock or a piece of shell or large stone struck me on the head, rendering me unconscious, and might have had more disastrous effects but for the protection of a thick cork helmet As, notwithstanding the protection of the sangars, several more of the men were hit, and as they were not required there, and were unable to rest in any degree of comfort, it was thought advisable to move the regiment round the hill a little further, where the ground was steeper and afforded better cover. Here we built fresh sangars, and rested more peaceably from fire for the remainder of the day; but the proximity of a score of putrid dead animals rendered our new site anything but pleasant, and the last danger was probably worse than the first.
The officers’ sangars were practically on the crest line, and we had a fine view of the valley, but had to lie very low, as bullets and shells kept continually passing over. When dinner-hour came it was quite a sight to observe the food passed up, first from the cook’s fire, and then along from one to another as we lay at full length on the ground. The howitzer battery that I have mentioned kept at work all day, and until within an hour of midnight, sometimes firing at minute intervals between each discharge. The Boers never seemed able to locate this battery, so well was it hid, and the only shells they put into it were stray ones. I was greatly struck with the systematic way in which the enemy’s guns searched the back of all the hills, every kloof and every valley. They fired as a rule three shells in quick succession, one short range, one long range, and one intermediate. These three shells would succeed each other in the same direction; then there would be a pause, and the enemy would search elsewhere. All day this artillery fire went on, the Boers constantly bringing guns into action and removing them directly ours found their position. They also kept up a constant and annoying long-range rifle-fire.
It was expected that General Buller would renew the attack on Hart’s Hill; but this was not done, although the troops there pushed on and reoccupied several of the trenches. No further movement of infantry took place during the day; but as they lay on the low kopjes some losses occurred from enfilade pom-pom fire among Barton’s Fusilier Brigade. These included Lieutenant-Colonel C. C. H. Thorold and Lieutenant F. A. Stebbing, of the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, and 6 men killed, and Lieutenants C. C. Norman and H. V. V. Kyrke, and 29 men wounded. Lieutenant G. E. S. Salt and Corporal W. Roberts, of this regiment, brought up their machine-gun by hand, remaining in action until the foresight was shot away and the gun rendered useless. Corporal Roberts was wounded; he afterwards received the Distinguished Service Medal. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers lost Lieutenant Torkington and 37 men wounded. The 1st Rifle Brigade had Captain F. Stone wounded.
That General Buller had devised some new plan was evident, for he had sent some of his artillery that morning back across the Tugela. Amongst the batteries that recrossed the pontoon was ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery. This being detached from the First Cavalry Brigade, it went into action as part of the corps of artillery north-west of Hlangwane, in a good position facing Railway Hill, Barton’s Hill being on their right front General Buller had noted that if he could effect a crossing of the river nearer to the east of Hart’s Hill he could turn the enemy’s left and drive him from his positions. At the General’s request the rugged steep banks of the Tugela from Hlangwane to Eagle’s Nest were searched by Lieutenant-Colonel Sandbach, R.E., for a roadway or a place possible to construct one. Colonel Sandbach found a Kaffir path which gave access to the river below the cataract, exactly at the back of General Hart’s position. General Buller decided to withdraw the brigades on the left and centre of his present position, bring them across the river, and leave behind only the troops on Hart’s Hill with their supports. The other troops crossing the river were to work round to Hart’s right, and turn the enemy’s left by a wide swoop on their flank. Hart’s Brigade, which up to this was General Buller’s extreme right, would by this movement become his extreme left. It would now be possible to take Hart’s Hill by a flanking movement instead of a frontal one, the latter being too costly, and perhaps impossible. That evening General Buller ordered the whole force, with certain exceptions, to be ready to march at dawn; he also ordered a road to be made to the river at the back of Hart’s Hill along the Kaffir path found by Colonel Sandbach. He withdrew the garrison from Frere and reduced that at Chieveley, calling up every gun and man he could muster to the fighting line. The sharp-sighted enemy had also noted that 'something was up’ on General Buller’s part They had seen our artillery recrossing the river; they had also seen our waggons going over. They thought of how they had let the 'Roineks’ slip across the Tugela after Spion Kop, and again after Vaal Krantz, and they were anxious to find out whether or not the infantry had evacuated the low kopjes, so in the dark, near midnight, they opened a terrific long-range fire all along their positions. We were rudely awakened from our dreams as we lay on the hard kopjes over Onderbrook Spruit. Some of the men were turned out and stood to arms, some returned the fire. For a short time the musketry was very heavy—the air sang with bullets, mostly high; but the enemy did not press the attack, being satisfied that the 'Roinek’ was not going to practise ‘ slimness ’ this time, at any rate, and that the army had no intention of slipping away during the dark hours, so they let us go to sleep again. The casualties on the 24th, besides those mentioned on pp. 191, 192, included Captain H. F. Warden (2nd West Surrey) wounded, and Lieutenant E. H. C. King (61st Battery Royal Field Artillery) wounded.
Sunday, the 25th, was a day of peace. General Buller sent a flag of truce to the Boer Commandants, Louis Botha and Lukas Meyer, to ask for an armistice to enable the wounded lying out on Hart’s Hill and other places to be brought in and to have the dead buried. An armistice the Boers formally refused, but agreed that if we made no attack on their positions during the day they would not prevent the wounded being brought away and the dead buried. The refusal of a regular armistice had advantages to both sides. General Buller was able to continue his movements of troops back across the river, and the Boers were able to improve their entrenchments. The Boers insisted on taking as prisoners all the men who were not very badly wounded. The sufferings of the wounded had been terrible. Exposed for forty hours under alternate rain and blazing sun, heat and cold, there they lay in blackened heaps, intermingled with the dying and already offensive dead. Without food or water [It is related that some of these unfortunate Inniskillings endeavoured to catch the rain that fell in a drenching shower on the 24th in their helmets], except in the case of a few men to whom it had been thrown by their comrades in the advanced trenches, they had to endure the fire both of friend and foe. The artillery appear to have been told to bombard the hill again on the 24th; they were, however, stopped by General Hart. The sufferings of these men must be almost without parallel in the annals of the war.
The temporary truce worked well, and it was a strange, weird thing to see mutual opponents talking and walking about on the very ground which the day before they had so strenuously battled for, and which two days later was to be again the theatre of bloodshed. Slouch-hatted Boers, with unkempt beards and ragged, faded civilian clothes, conversed freely with our helmeted, khaki-clothed officers and men. I saw General Lyttelton there, his tall figure the centre of a group. ‘When will it all be over?' said a Boer to someone. 'As soon as you’re tired of it and give in,’ was the reply. 'Fighting is our business and what we are paid for.’ In the afternoon, burials having been completed, the silence of the day still continued, and was only interrupted by the roaring of the Tugela below us and the singing of the birds in the mimosa-trees. Even to the latter the cessation of the continuous booming of guns and crackle of musketry was a relief.
During the day considerable movements in the disposition of General Buller’s forces took place. All the troops except two brigades and the 73rd Battery Royal Field Artillery recrossed to the eastern side of the Tugela. Two 47 naval guns on platform mountings arrived as reinforcements from Chieveley. Four naval guns were placed on the western slopes of Monte Cristo ridge, and a similar battery on the spurs of Hlangwane. The 5-inch siege battery and some 47 naval guns took up a position in line, in the centre of the Hlangwane plateau, and a number of field-guns were kept adjacent to this. Some of our men, who-had been taken prisoners by the enemy during the last few days and who had either escaped or had been released, rejoined. They brought in piteous stories of the treatment to which they had been subjected, and further evidence of the barbarity of the enemy to our wounded. One man of the Rifle Reserve Battalion told me he had been taken prisoner and detained all night. He saw dozens of our wounded lying out within 10 yards of the enemy’s trenches. He heard their groans and cries for water in the darkness, and the enemy had suffered them to die under their very eyes without any assistance or succour. He also stated that he saw a drummer-boy of the Royal Lancaster Regiment lying wounded near a trench; towards dusk a Boer walked out and shot him dead in cold blood. Another wounded Lancaster man who lay near, seeing this, raised himself with some exertion, clutched up his rifle, shot this Boer dead at 20 yards, and then fell back exhausted.
That night the Rifle Reserve Battalion received orders to bivouac on the hill where we had rested since the morning of the 24th, near the Onderbrook Spruit; we were to send all our baggage across the river during the hours of darkness, and follow on ourselves at daybreak. Of necessity, my medical and surgical panniers had to go with the baggage; they were packed with my kit and the regimental heliographs and other signalling apparatus in the Maltese cart. This cart met with an accident while crossing the pontoon in the dark: one of the boards of the great bridge, getting loose, terrified the mules; they stampeded, and, notwithstanding all attempts of the drivers and escort to steady them, plunged wildly into the river, which at this particular spot was very deep and swift. All was lost, except the mules, which broke loose.
About nine o’clock that night, while lying asleep alongside the other officers of the regiment behind the sangars of the top of the hill, I was awakened by sharp rifle-fire. As my perceptibility returned, I found that it was centred on us. The enemy were making a night attack under cover of a pitchy darkness, and probably with an idea that we would be unprepared after the day’s armistice. A large party of the Boers had crept up unobserved to the back of the hill on which the regiment lay. A challenge from our outposts was a signal for a volley of Mauser hail. Bullets came over us as thick as hail; it has never been my lot to experience the like before or since. Individual rifle-reports were indistinguishable, so rapid and so loud was the roar of musketry. They seemed to me to rebound from every stone of my sangar, the crevices between the rocks of which were lit up with the flashes of the musketry discharge ahead. Every crevice seemed magnified into a large loophole for a nickel-covered, uninvited visitor—perhaps a visitor of death. The officers around me were awake, too; they came out from under their great-coats, which were our only coverings, as all blankets had gone with the baggage. They were fully dressed and booted, for we had lain down as we stood. These officers had then a whispered conversation with their Commanding Officer, Major Stuart-Wortley, who, with his ever-conspicuous coolness, gave directions to each. They, having received their orders just as coolly, one by one made their way down the hill to their respective companies on hands and knees, for it was impossible to stand and live. Dim figures came up the hill in the same manner; no delay ensued, although the greatest caution had to be observed. These dark forms, who were the men of the regiment, lined our sangars (one lay each side of me); then the whispered order was passed along, 'Charge magazines,’ ‘Fix swords’ (the Rifle Brigade and King’s Royal Rifles always allude to their bayonets as 'swords’). Not a shot was to be fired without an order. As I lay still behind my sangar with the sturdy riflemen grasping their terrible weapons on either side, I was greatly impressed by the coolness of all, and the way in which things went like clockwork; never, indeed, had I appreciated the discipline of the British Army as I did on that night. My medical orderlies had also come up, and I hoped my first-aid stock would not run short, in view of any serious attack. After nearly an hour’s patient wait, during which I had to attend to a few cases—no serious ones—Major Stuart-Wortley passed along the line. He had located the position of the enemy, and after pointing it out to his officers, and being satisfied they had a good target, he gave the order to fire. Rifles and Maxims now belched out all along our lines, and continued for some time; eventually the enemy’s fire was got under, and towards midnight it ceased—they had retired.
Next morning a pile of dead horses in the valley showed us where the Boers had been, and that our fire had not been ineffective. No dead or wounded were visible; these had evidently been removed, according to custom.