The medical relief of Ladysmith—General Butter's advance through Northern Natal—The clearing of the Biggarsberg—The engagement of Helpmakaar—Laing’s Nek—Botha’s Pass—The advance through the Orange Free State—Battle of Alleman’s Nek—The advance into the Transvaal.
A brief summary of the problem the Royal Army Medical Corps had to face during and after the final operations for the relief of Ladysmith may be of interest. During the fourteen days' fighting prior to the relief the evacuation of General Buller’s field hospitals was much simplified by their proximity to the railway; all cases, however, had to be carried by hand to railhead, which, owing to the destruction of the Colenso bridges, commenced at the southern side of the Tugela. These cases, after crossing the river by pontoon or ferry boats, were placed in ambulance trains, two of which were running in Natal up to the relief, one being under Major Brazier Creagh, R.A.M.C., and another under Captain Leuman, I.M.S. Both had accommodation for about seventy-two lying-down cases; a third train, ' Princess Christian' under Lieutenant-Colonel Forrester, R.A.M.C., arrived in March, having accommodation for ninety lying-down cases. Before we entered Ladysmith, there were 4,500 patients in General Buller s hospitals, a number which strained their accommodation to the utmost In Ladysmith there were 2,000 patients, and at least another 2,000 who should have been in hospital.
Owing to the exposure and insanitary conditions of the Tugela valley, polluted as it was by dead animals and Boer offal, an epidemic of sickness was also anticipated among the relieving troops. As it was manifestly impossible from a sanitary point of view to use any of the Ladysmith hospitals or pitch new ones in the vicinity of that town, otherwise than provisionally, the medical problem became complex and beset with difficulties. In order to meet the strain, the line of communication hospitals were evacuated to ships at Durban. A splendid fleet of six hospital ships — Lismore Castle, Nubia, Orcana, Avoca, Simla — with an average capacity for 30 officers and 240 men, existed, and a fortnightly service to England was from this time initiated. In addition to this fleet, the Princess of Wales and Maine, and the private yachts of Sir Samuel Scott and Mr. Jesse Coope, were of great assistance, and as pressure increased sufficient transports were fitted up to enable the maintenance of a weekly service to England. A large convalescent depot was established at Mooi River, with accommodation for 50 officers and 1,500 men, this being midway between the base hospitals at Maritzburg, with an accommodation of such elasticity as to bear almost any strain, under Colonel Johnston, R.A.M.C., and the stationary hospitals at Estcourt and Chieveley, the latter under Major Kirkpatrick, R.A.M.C., each with 920 beds. In ‘Tin Town' camp outside Ladysmith, a general hospital of 1,000 beds was speedily improvised under Major Westcott, R.A.M.C., and from Colenso a stationary hospital under Major F. A. B. Daly, R.A.M.C., was moved to Modder Spruit. Thus, by the careful organization of 7,000 beds on the lines of communication, and a number of mobile field hospitals with the troops, the medical relief of Ladysmith was carried out by a master hand without a hitch, and what might have resulted in an epidemic of enteric was avoided. It is not to be denied that the strain on the already undermanned R.A.M.C. staff was at times so severe that it was on the verge of collapse; but one and all worked in harmony, and with cooperation union gave strength; besides, General Buller backed us in all things; he gave us a 'free hand’: that was all we wanted; we did the rest.
On March 3 General Buller received from Lord Roberts orders for the Natal Field Force to remain in the vicinity of Ladysmith, and to act strictly on the defensive; accordingly, this force was spread out over a large area within the following positions: Tugela River, Sunday's River, Elandslaagte, Smith’s Crossing, Acton Homes, and the line of railway communication South. Except for a few affairs of outposts, the force remained inactive, but the rest was much needed, the entire army having an opportunity to refit, not only in clothes, but also in boots, which were much needed. During this period the enemy, having recovered their shattered morale in their mountain fastnesses of the Drakensberg and Biggarsberg, began to look about for fresh positions to entrench, and by the middle of March it was calculated that they had collected to the number of 12,000 in a heavily entrenched position on the Biggarsberg. Owing to Lord Roberts’ advance on the Free State capital, this force gradually decreased.
The Second Division under Lyttelton and the Fifth Division under Warren, along with the Naval Brigade, Dundonald’s Mounted Brigade, and Dartnell’s Natal Volunteer Brigade (Natal Carbineers, Umvoti Mounted Rifles, Border Mounted Rifles) had their fancied security rudely disturbed in camp at Elands-laagte at 7.45 a.m. on April 10 by the Boers opening fire from four different positions, Jhe first couple of dozen shells fell among the tents of the 2nd Devons and 2nd West Yorks in Hildyard’s Brigade. At this hour the majority of the troops were at drill and manoeuvre on the plain in front of the camp; back they came; tents were rapidly struck, and the men were moved to broken ground for cover. The Naval Brigade had quickly located the enemy’s guns, and a few minutes after the first shell was thrown into camp were busy replying with their 47 and 12-pounder guns. Their shooting was excellent, and the Boer fire quickly lessened; they silenced altogether the closest and most annoying gun of the enemy, which did not trouble us again during the day.
On May 2 General Buller received orders to occupy the enemy’s attention on the Biggarsberg. A few days’ delay was, however, necessary to collect the transport oxen, which, owing to difficulties with lung sickness, and want of grass and water, had been sent south of Ennersdale. On May 7 the army commenced its advance from Ladysmith, and partly to deceive the enemy, partly to meet a threatened attack on our right, a feint towards Elandslaagte was first made.
The column, however, changed direction on May 9, and on the evening of the next day the Sunday’s River Drift, on the Ladysmith-Helpmakaar Road, was reached. At this place the following force was concentrated:
Cavalry under Lord Dundonald (Dundonald’s Mounted Brigade and Dartnell's Natal Volunteer Brigade).
'A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery.
Second Infantry Division (complete), with Divisional Cavalry.
Two 4'7 guns, No 6 Company and Four 12-pounder Quick-firing guns, No 2 Company - Western Division Royal Garrison Artillery.
61st Howitzer Battery Royal Field Artillery.
Three Vickers-Maxims (pom-poms).
Supply Column, with ten days' supply.
On May 11 the force marched due east to Waschbank River, where it came into contact with small parties of the enemy. Owing to the extremely mountainous nature of the country, it took twenty-two hours' continuous marching for the entire force to cover the nine miles between Sunday’s River Drift and Waschbank River. On this day General Hildyard, who had replaced General Warren in command of the Fifth Division, moved out a mixed body of troops of his command from Elandslaagte to Indodo Mountain, partly for the purpose of constructing a road, and partly to cover the left flank of the main advance.
On the 12th General Buller’s force advanced in a south-easterly direction to Vermaak’s Kraal, which was reached by a diversion from the main-road, this being necessary in order to avoid coming under fire from the enemy’s guns on the high ridges of the Biggarsberg, which lay parallel to the line of march. The whole of the supply park was left at Waschbank, as well as two field-guns (Royal Field Artillery), two quick-firing 12-pounders (Royal Garrison Artillery), and a detachment of the Third Mounted Brigade.
At Vermaak’s Kraal the main force bivouacked within 7,300 yards of the Biggarsberg, which here rises almost perpendicularly from the lower country, except where the road goes up Britte’s Pass. As there was absolutely no water at the bivouac, the oxen and horses had to be sent three miles farther, to Vermaak’s Platz. During the afternoon the enemy were seen mounting a gun on the top of the spur nearest the bivouac, and, in addition to the unpleasant nature of the camp, there seemed every prospect of its being bombarded from the mountain-tops at any moment. To protect the bivouac, two 47 guns were mounted in epaulments facing the enemy’s gun.
At daylight on the 13th the troops resumed their march in a more easterly direction, away from the line of the enemy’s guns, two of which opened fire at 8 a.m. on the tail of the column, wounding slightly two men of the Durhams; our long-range guns, under Major Talbot, R.A., silenced them by the fifth round, and, as was afterwards ascertained, badly damaged one. The enemy made no further resistance for a time. The hills flanking Britte’s Pass were now reconnoitred, and being reported clear, an advance was made up the road by the mounted troops, while the baggage and supply columns were parked at the entrance to the defile under a guard of one battalion, one battery Royal Field Artillery, and the two divisional squadrons of cavalry. The army was now opposite the left flank of the enemy’s position, under Uithoek Mountain, a lofty bastion of the south-west end of the Biggarsberg, which commands the Helpmakaar plateau, from which it is separated by a narrow Nek. This mountain is almost unclimbable, but on Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry scrambling up the Boers were forced to retire.
Sir Redvers Buller now ordered General Hamilton, with three battalions of the Second Brigade, to scale the heights, and to assault the south-west crest of the main plateau. Simultaneously with this infantry assault some other bodies of troops were set in motion against the plateau from other directions, and, owing to the nicety of co-operation, the main object aimed at—the turning of the Biggarsberg—was achieved.
For some weeks past Colonel Bethune had been holding Greytown and the line of the Tugela; his command had been directed to go forward from these positions concurrently with the main advance on Vermaak’s Kraal, and Dundonald’s cavalry joined hands with Bethune about twelve o’clock on this day. During the night before Colonel Bethune had seized with his left the hills that commanded the southern sides of the pass, up which General Buller’s force had to advance. On these hills Lieutenant Tandy’s two 12-pounders were mounted. At 11.20 a.m. the main attack was delivered as follows: General Buller, with the Fourth Infantry Brigade and Corps Artillery, advanced up the pass, and Lord Dundonald’s Brigade seized each successive hill-top. Colonel Bethune advanced at the same time by the Pomeroy Road, whilst the Second Infantry Brigade attacked the plateau from the Nek of Uithoek Hill. The enemy, who were in force on the plateau, seeing the converging columns, and afraid of having their retreat cut off, made little stand; their extended line of long-built entrenchments was rushed by the South African Light Horse, and by 2 p.m. the edge of the difficult Helpmakaar defile was ours. Commandant Ben Viljoen, who led the Boers, did not retire a moment too soon; had he waited to engage Bethune’s force, General Buller would have caught him on his flank, and vice versa. The enemy now retired to the high hills immediately in front of Helpmakaar village, and took up another position. Dundonald’s Brigade rapidly pushed on against this. When the summit of Britte’s Pass was reached, Boers were seen galloping in all directions; this was particularly noticeable in the village of Helpmakaar, about 4,000 yards away: here there seemed to be great confusion and excitement 'A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery, which was with Dundonald’s Brigade, now received orders to push forward; it came into action in front of a line of wood, and was for some time under a very nasty enfilade fire from a pom-pom, which was so well concealed that it could not be located. The remainder of our artillery having arrived, the enemy’s position was shelled from both flanks, and the front by Lieutenant-Colonel Paget’s Brigade Division Royal Field Artillery, two 12-pounders under Major Curtis, R.A., and two similar guns under Lieutenant Tandy, R.G.A., with Bethune’s force behind cover of a crest to the south. Our artillery practice was very good, and we heard afterwards that two of the enemy’s guns had been damaged. No further attack was made that day, and, owing to the want of water on the spot, the bulk of the troops had to bivouac at the bottom of the pass, detachments being left above to hold the plateau.
Some hours before daylight on the next day (May 14th) the mounted troops left their bivouacs, forming up behind the wood on the top of the hill. It was a question whether there would be an infantry engagement to take the enemy’s second position, or, should he have left it, a cavalry pursuit. At daylight our scouts reported that the Boers had 'cleared,’ and Dundonald’s Brigade was at once ordered to pursue. Why the enemy ever evacuated this position with such little resistance, which was an extremely strong one, and on which they had constructed really fine defence works, is hard to tell; but they rarely did anything of this kind without good reason, and it is probable that the commencement of an advance of a force up the railway-line, though its progress was slow, was most certainly causing the enemy concern as to his line of communication.
On swept Lord Dundonald’s cavalry through Helpmakaar village, and on, on, on, deploying into a broad front of regiments preceded by scouts. At length the rattle of the Mauser showed that the enemy was caught up. Without a moment’s delay squadrons of Thorneycroft’s Regiment, or Byng’s South African Light Horse, or Gough’s Regular Mounted Infantry, or Natal Volunteers, were galloping round their flanks and pouring volleys into the hostile forces. At one stand alone dear old Tommy Atkins of Gough’s Regulars let them have about seventy rounds a man. The enemy were caught up at Zwart Kop, at Spion Kop, and at Blesboklaagte. At Spion Kop the Chestnut Troop [‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery obtained this name from the colour of its horses as far back as the Peninsular War, and has retained it ever since] came into action, a good fight seemed imminent, and Colonel Parsons, C.R.A., sent for another battery from the infantry division, which was miles behind. As the 7th Battery Royal Field Artillery bore in sight after a splendid gallop, the Boer made up his mind not to stand: away he went, and our cavalry pushed on again. The real excitement of the day now began, for the cavalry again took up the scent and started the pursuit in earnest at a gallop. The weather was warm, and the enemy set fire to the dry veldt grass on both sides of the road over a great breadth of country.
A pursuit such as was now being carried on was glorious in its danger and excitement. From high ground here and there could be seen masses of horsemen, with our men hot on their heels; then the Boers tried to stem the torrent once more, but in vain, for their flanks were soon turned. Our horsemen strained every nerve, for the word was passed from General to Colonels, and Colonels to officers and men, ‘Get on, fire away, don’t rest or stop, but ride on, on, on!’ Then the Boers tried a ruse. They had hitherto made their stand on rocky kopjes easily discernible; this time they stood on the flat under cover of the smoke, letting our men get close to them, and then pouring in a volley. Luckily, the smoke obscured their view; only a few men and horses were hit. ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery, which was near by, had its Sergeant-Major hit, and one or two horses, but came into action ‘action front' and saved the situation. A few of the enemy’s horses were shot, and a few prisoners taken in consequence, and on again swept the cavalry through flame and smoke, the charred veldt grass blowing into the men’s faces, filling their eyes, mouths, and nostrils, singeing the legs of the horses and the hair of the men, and giving the brigade the appearance of an army of demons. Six miles from Dundee the enemy took up another strong position on the further side of a deep ravine, from the other side of which their artillery came into action with a wild fire, which became wilder still when they saw the irregulars and Natal Volunteers creeping round the flanks.
It was now getting late, and Lord Dundonald had received orders to pursue no further than this point, as the enemy's transport had been sent to the rear on the 12th; but, late as it was, a portion of the cavalry got to the other side of the defile that evening, and its patrols were in Dundee the following morning at daybreak. It was in describing this pursuit that Sir Redvers Buller wired home a despatch to England saying: 'Dundonald’s Cavalry pursued the enemy through fire' and smoke for 40 miles in a waterless country. I consider his pursuit a very fine performance.' There is no doubt whatever that this excellent piece of work turned the Boer retreat into a rout and saved Dundee from being sacked and looted, as all the Boers now thought of was to get to the other side of Laing's Nek. How many of them were killed none will ever know; according to custom, they took nearly all their dead along with them. As a spectacle no one will ever forget this memorable day, the whole veldt blazing, and rolling clouds of smoke covering the country for miles and miles—the double rattle of the Mauser and the answering storm from the British rifles as now and anon a regiment gets the range of Brother Boer, who, coming into loyal Natal at a walk to loot and pillage and wreck, and drive the British into the sea, was now leaving at a gallop bit by bit— the once boastful commandos losing their cohesion as our cavalry drove them out of British territory, with a dash and a rush that left no time to get orders, no time to be rallied, and no time even for thought. The cavalry fell back three miles for water and bivouac, and early the following morning—May 15—the whole force entered Dundee, and the right of the Fifth Division advanced to Waschbank.
Orders were sent to the Fifth Division at Indodo Mountain to occupy Wessel’s Nek, and to the supply park at Waschbank to march at once to Beith by Van Tonder’s Pass, which was the main-road from Waschbank to Dundee, and along which the enemy had expected General Buller to advance north; and in anticipation of this they had fortified it strongly. This road, the historic one along which General Yule’s army passed in its retreat from Dundee to Ladysmith on October 21, 1899, passes through a frightful gorge, each side of which was heavily entrenched with sangars and gun emplacements. Now that General Buller had turned the Biggarsberg position, it had to be evacuated by the Boers.
On May 16 the cavalry occupied Danhauser and Glencoe, and the supply columns, which had refilled at Beith from the supply park, rejoined the main column.
The enemy having completely evacuated the Biggarsberg, General Bullet's main force marched next day to Danhauser, where they bivouacked.
At 2 am., in the dark of the morning of the 18th, Dundonald marched on Newcastle, followed by the infantry. The post was occupied without opposition at mid-day, and the Union Jack again hoisted, to be hauled down no more.
The cavalry left Newcastle at dawn the following morning (19th) for Laing’s Nek, twenty-five miles distant At Ingogo some waggons, prisoners, and rifles were captured. As the prisoners stated that some of the Boer transport was only an hour ahead, and encountered difficulties in getting up Laing’s Nek, Lord Dundonald pushed on. At the foot of Majuba the cavalry came into action with the enemy; and though Laing’s Nek was heavily entrenched, as
was also Majuba Mountain on the west of the road, and Pougwane Mountain on the east, the enemy having constructed a huge gun emplacement on the latter hill, clearly visible to the naked eye, and said to contain a huge 12-inch Creusot, Lord Dundonald could not resist the temptation of galloping a portion of the Chestnut Troop close to Majuba and the Nek, thus giving this splendid battery the honour of firing the first British shells heard there since the disastrous year of 1881. It did one's heart good to see our shells going over the Nek and on to the slopes of Majuba, wherever Boers showed on the sky-line. After about three hours' desultory rifle-fire from both sides, which failed to draw any artillery response from the enemy, Dundonald determined to proceed to his bivouac on the north bank of the Ingogo, his instructions being not to advance on the Nek if it were strongly held. As our guns limbered up to retire, the enemy galloped forward in numbers along the ravines of the Buffalo on the east, and down the kloofs of Majuba on the west, trying to cut them off, only to receive the rifle-fire of Gough’s Regiment, with Major Mackenzie’s Natal Carbineers on one side and the South African Light Horse on the other, who were lying hidden and biding their opportunity. Accordingly the guns were quietly taken away to the music of the Lee-Metfords saying, 1 So far, Friend Boer, but no further.' It was well Dundonald had provided for this retirement, for the enemy opened a very hot fire, and it afterwards transpired that some 5,000 Boers were lying in ambush on both these flanks, and were waiting their time until our brigade had ascended Laing’s Nek to surround them, in which case nothing could have saved us from annihilation! Before dark the Fourth Infantry Brigade arrived at Ingogo River, where they bivouacked. Thus it had come to pass that after ten days' operations the British flag once again fluttered over the whole of Northern Natal, as far north as Laing’s Nek.
General Buller’s turning movement of the Biggars-berg had been a complete success; the invader had been driven back, but his flight being so rapid, he suffered but little loss. The moral effect of the British advance was, however, tremendous, as many of the Natal rebels returned to their allegiance, and, what was also a new era to the Natal Army, the victory was an almost bloodless one on our side. It was now found necessary for the army to halt for some days to allow of the railway from Elandslaagte to be repaired, as it had been badly damaged in many places by the enemy, more especially about Glencoe. Our provisions, being exhausted, had to be renewed; and until the line was repaired this was tedious and heavy work, for every form of supplies had to be brought up in waggons.
During the next few days the army halted, and the enemy concentrated to the number of some 8,000 on the Transvaal frontier with about thirteen to fifteen guns in well-selected positions, while some 6,000 Free Staters were on the north-east corner of the Free State, of whom at least 3,000 were holding Botha's Pass and its vicinity. Thus the Boer Army held an almost impregnable position, stretching from Poug-wane Mountain on the east, across Laing’s Nek to Majuba, which formed the centre, and from Majuba south-westwards to Quagga's Nek in the Drakensberg, and from this following the Drakensberg chain well to the south of Botha's Pass. The total length of the
Boer position was over forty miles, but seeing that it was absolutely impossible to transport from the Natal side, except where three roads left that colony— Laing’s Nek, Quagga’s Nek, and Botha’s Pass—the enemy again had the advantage of us, as from the heights of their crescentic position, in some parts 6,900 feet, they could note our road of approach, and concentrate at any point with rapidity. A turning movement from the east by General Buller was useless, if not impossible, as the country east of Poug-wane is without roads, broken, and bush-covered; a frontal attack on Laing’s Nek, even supported by artillery, would mean a casualty list of at least 3,000 men, and a turning movement to the west could only be effected through Quagga’s Nek or Botha’s Pass, from both of which it could be altered again into a frontal attack. To outwit Brother Boer, General Buller decided to divert his attention, and to do this more especially from the flank which he meant to strike. We shall see how this plan succeeded.
On May 2nd, the railway being repaired up to Newcastle, and a reserve of twenty-one days’ supply of food for the force having been collected, General Buller played his first card. General Hildyard was sent with a strong force from Newcastle across the Buffalo at Wool’s Drift towards Utrecht, a Transvaal town near the eastern frontier of Natal, and on the enemy’s left Bank. Another force under General Lyttelton was sent north-east to Dornberg, where the enemy had formed a strong laager. The main army in the meanwhile held their old positions at Ingogo and Inkwelo, and our artillery on the latter hill engaged the Creusot posted on Pougwane almost daily in an artillery duel. To the enemy on the hills one of two movements seemed about to be made— either a frontal attack on Laing’s Nek under cover of a feint from the east, or a turning movement from the east, to neither of which would they have objected. The Dornberg was evacuated by the enemy on General Lyttelton crossing the Buffalo, and he then turned north and came up on the left flank of General Hildyard, who had occupied the town of Utrecht without opposition. This being the first town in the Transvaal occupied by the Natal Field Force, the following proclamation was posted:
‘The troops of Queen Victoria are now passing through the Transvaal. Her Majesty does not make war on individuals, but is, on the contrary, anxious to spare them, as far as may be possible, the horrors of war. The quarrel England has is with the Government, not with the people of the Transvaal.
'Provided they remain neutral, no attempt will be made to interfere with persons living near the line of march; every possible protection will be given them, and any of their property that it may be necessary to take will be paid for. But, on the other hand, those who are thus allowed to remain near the line of march must respect and maintain their neutrality; and the residents of any locality will be held responsible, both in their persons and their property, if any damage is done to railway or telegraph, or any violence done to any member of the British forces in the vicinity of their homes.
On May 30 General Buller, hearing that Lord Roberts had occupied Elandsfontein Junction, sent a flag of truce to the Commandant at Laing’s Nek to ask him, now that his communications were cut, whether his struggle was worth continuing. The Commandant (Botha) replied that he would refer the question to his General.
On June 2 General Buller and Assistant-Commandant-General Christian Botha (brother of Louis Botha) met under the shadows of Majuba. General Buller offered the following terms to the Boers, viz., that their homes should be unmolested provided they dispersed, leaving their artillery where it stood, but that they might take their smaller arms with them. Commandant Edwards (Botha’s Chief of Staff) said that the Transvaal Government would have to be informed of this proposal. Consequently, an armistice was agreed upon up to the evening of June 5, on which day Botha wrote declining General Buller s terms. On the evening of this day General Hildyard, marching rapidly from Utrecht, bivouacked at De Wet’s Farm, which lies beside the Newcastle-Laing’s Nek Road, where the road to Botha’s Pass branches off to the west. Under cover of darkness this force moved unobserved towards Botha’s Pass, and on June 6 General Hildyard occupied Van Wyk’s height, south of the road leading to the pass, with the South African Light Horse, the 13th Battery Royal Field Artillery, and the 2nd Middlesex Regiment, the whole under General Coke. Later in the day the enemy, being reinforced, made a stubborn attempt to retake this hill, firing the grass in all directions, and attacking under cover of the smoke; the S.A.L.H., however, held their ground with the loss of one killed and nine wounded.
During the night the two remaining battalions of the Tenth Brigade, two 47 guns, and two long-range 12-pounders, were sent to reinforce General Coke. Captain Jones, R.N., states that the mounting of the naval guns on Van Wyk’s Hill was the toughest job he had through the whole campaign.
To support General Coke’s right flank, two 47 guns and two 12-pounders, Royal Garrison Artillery, with one battalion of the Eleventh Brigade, took up a position about a mile to the west of the Botha's Pass and Newcastle cross-roads. Two 5-inch guns, Royal Garrison Artillery, were moved preparatory to placing them on the south-west spur of Inkweloane Mountain. The following troops had been concentrated by this time in the vicinity of Van Wyk’s Hill:
Second Cavalry Brigade (Colonel Brocklehurst).
South African Light Horse.
Eleventh Brigade (Major-General Wynne).
13th and 16th Batteries Royal Field Artillery.
Two 47 guns Royal Garrison Artillery.
Two 12-pounders Royal Garrison Artillery.
Divisional troops Fifth Division
Divisional headquarters Fifth Division.
Orders were issued for the Second Infantry Brigade (Colonel Hamilton), with the 7th and 64th Batteries Royal Field Artillery, the 61st Howitzer Battery, and two pom-poms, under Lieutenant-Colonel Paget as Divisional Commander, to join the Fifth Division the next day (8th), and for the Brigade under Dundonald, with ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery, to march at the same time from Ingogo Drift to Spitz Kop. Both these forces were to be under General Hildyard’s orders.
At daylight on June 8 General Hildyard assembled his Brigadiers and artillery commanders on Van Wyk, and explained his plan of action for the assault of Botha's Pass. About five miles from the summit of the pass the Ingogo River runs in a gorge between Van Wyk and Spitz Kop, and through this gorge the road lies in a deep cutting. The South African Light Horse were to occupy Spitz Kop and clear the way for the infantry, who were to debouch from the gorge and deploy in the more open ground between Van Wyk and the Drakensberg. A well-marked track down the berg, due west of Spitz Kop, was to be the dividing line between the attacks of the Second and Eleventh Brigades. About io a.m. the South African Light Horse occupied Spitz Kop without opposition, and on the infantry coming up they crossed their front as a screen and covered the left of the advance. About 10.45 a.m. the Eleventh Brigade advanced, covered by the fire of our artillery, whose position at this time was as follows: nth and 69th Batteries Royal Field Artillery and two naval 12-pounders on Van Wyk; two 5-inch Royal Garrison Artillery on the spur of Inkwe-loane; two long-range 12-pounders on a spur of Ink-welo, under Captain Davidson, R.A.; the 63rd Battery Royal Field Artillery on Mount Prospect; the 7th, 61 st and 64th Batteries Royal Field Artillery and two pom-poms advanced with the infantry of the Second Brigade. After extending, the Second and Eleventh Brigades advanced, and made rapid progress up the very steep hills Ranking the pass. Simultaneously Lord Dundonald’s Third Mounted Brigade advanced from Ingogo Drift over an extremely rough piece of ground against the summits of Inkweloane. So rapid and so resolute was the advance of the infantry, that before the enemy seemed to realize what was in progress our troops were in possession of the whole of the lower crest line of the Drakensberg from Inkweloane to Botha’s Pass. But few casualties occurred on our side, this being due to the fact that the Boers were seen scampering in all directions to get cover, being quite unable to face our artillery fire on this exposed crest of the mountain range. Once the Second and Eleventh Brigades reached the crest they were subjected to a considerable amount of rifle, shell, and pom-pom fire, but this, being inaccurate and evidently hurried, did but little damage. The Second Brigade suffered a temporary check, as they found themselves faced by heavy entrenchments on the south-west of Inkweloane, from which place a pompom was actively firing. Lieutenant-Colonel Paget was unable to bring any of his field-guns up in support, owing to the steepness of the ascent, but he got a pom-pom dragged up by 100 men of the Devons. This gun immediately coming into action, and supported by an advance company of the Eleventh Brigade on the left of the pass, which enfiladed these entrenchments, drove the enemy out of them for a while; but under cover of a grass fire, which forced our men back, the Boers reoccupied them for a short time, and thus covered the retirement of their guns and waggons. Meanwhile, Lord Dundonald’s Brigade had reached the crest of Inkweloane; this mountain being extremely steep, the infantry had to advance for a time without their artillery, and the enemy noting this brought out a pom-pom in the open on the summit of the hill, which was a tableland, and opened fire at its extreme range, thus being safe from our riflemen. Such a display sorely tempted all who saw it, and Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows, R.H.A., at once got a fatigue party together, and with the assistance of many willing hands two 15-pounders of the Chestnut Troop were hauled to the summit; they were run forward to a barbed-wire fence, the frontier boundary between Natal and the Orange Colony: this was cut down, and on the enemy’s own country our artillery came into action. Three thousand yards away was the pom-pom; with my glasses, as I stood beside our guns, its gunners were clearly visible; it was firing on Thorneycroft’s men, who were lying in the open; so intently were the gunners engaged that the presence of our 15-pounders was as yet unnoticed. Our range-finders take their distance, the guns are ‘laid' the lanyard is pulled, Bang! goes 15-pounder No. 1, Bang! goes its companion: both shells burst close to the pom-pom. A commotion is seen around that gun—pom-pom-pom-pom-pom—its flash is visible; in less than a second it seems—whit! whit! whit! bang! bang! bang! bang! —the shells burst all around us. Such audacity does not last long; two more shells and that pom-pom gun is hit, it collapses: the gunners of ‘A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery do not wear the ‘crossed cannons’ on their sleeves for naught [Worn by the men of a battery who have won a prize for shooting at a practice camp].
General Wynne’s Brigade had in the meanwhile seized the top of the pass, with the South African Light Horse on their left. The mounted men now pursued the enemy, who were retreating westward for some miles over the flat tablelands of the berg. Owing to the intensity of the smoke created by grass fires, our artillery and Brocklehurst’s Brigade were unable to co-operate, it being impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Night coming on, the troops bivouacked on the positions they had captured, and although the baggage was ordered up, the roads were so difficult that few, if any, got either food, blankets, or greatcoats. Being mid-winter, the night was bitterly cold, and every drop of water froze; we lay in the crisp, frosty grass, under the icy blasts of the Drakensberg, with only what warmth huddled frames could produce at an altitude of over 6,000 feet. General Hildyard's plan for the day had worked without a single flaw; it had been so directed that his centre of attack had come exactly against the enemy’s flank, while his left on swinging round had rendered the Boer position untenable, although it had been most carefully prepared with miles of 4 foot 6 inch trenches, and several very strong gun positions. The casualties were: two men killed and one officer and twelve men wounded. During the night the men of the Naval Brigade, under Captain Jones, R.N., moved their guns from Van Wyk. This was a most laborious task, and these men had now been working for thirty-six hours; the Tenth Brigade also moved down from the same hill.
On June 9 the entire day was spent in moving the waggons up the path, which, being very steep, necessitated the use of double teams. Nothing was seen of the enemy, and the troops halted, with the exception of the Eleventh Brigade, which marched along the road towards Gans Vlei for some five miles.
On the 10th the forward movement was resumed, and on the advance-guard reaching Uys Farm, some few miles south of Gans Vlei, a mountain close by, to the east of the farm, was found to be held by the enemy. Against this hill the South African Light Horse were sent forward, supported by our heavy artillery, which were near the head of the columns, and they drove the Boers out. While bivouacs were being taken up, a movement of hostile forces across our front, from east to north, was reported. The Eleventh Brigade and the artillery were sent forward, the Second Cavalry Brigade were sent to our left front, and the South African Light Horse to the north. This checked the enemy, who retired to the hills on the east; some of the South African Light Horse got heavily engaged until dusk, losing six killed and seven wounded. The Boers left on the hill twenty-two dead, who were buried by our men. That night, the force having reached the extreme northern point of its turning, bivouacked in Transvaal territory, on the northern spurs of Ike-tini Mountain. The route to be followed next day turned to the east, over some six miles of rolling plain, bounded on the north-east by a high mountain chain, through which only one road led, crossing Alleman’s Nek. This position was held by the enemy in force, and three miles beyond this lay Volksrust Plain.
At 5.45 a.m. on June it, General Hildyard, accompanied by his staff, left his bivouac and proceeded to a ridge, where the General explained his plan of attack. Wynne’s Brigade were sent forward to occupy some low hills to the left, and cover that flank with Brocklehurst’s Cavalry Brigade on their extreme left. The baggage was moved forward and parked under cover of these troops, who remained stationary while the centre and right of the army made a wheeling movement, Coke’s and Hamilton’s Brigades moving in succession, Wynne’s Brigade becoming a rear-guard. After marching about five miles, Alleman’s Nek came in sight, but it was found to be held in greater force than had been anticipated, as were also the hills to our right, against which Dundonald’s Mounted Brigade were advancing. At 11 a.m. the heavy guns were moved forward to a small rolling eminence in the plain, in front of the Nek itself, and orders were issued for Coke’s and Hamilton’s Brigades to advance to the attack, the latter being on the left, and the former on the right. One pom-pom was sent with the Queen’s, and another with the Devons, who were to cover our left flank.
While these operations were in progress, Dundonalds Brigade, which was covering the advance on our right, became hotly engaged with the enemy on the high mountains south of the Nek; Brocklehurst’s Cavalry Brigade, which had advanced on our extreme left, also became engaged. The army was thus brought into action on both flanks, which were distant some seven miles from each other. The infantry in the centre having advanced sufficiently to clear their front, Lieutenant-Colonel Paget moved two batteries forward, the 7th and 64th; as they hastened onward the Boers opened with a pom-pom, which Colonel Paget located, and on which he turned his own, and immediately after his field-guns also opened fire on it. Meanwhile our heavy artillery were pounding away in the rear at the Boer position, and some 200 of the enemy could be seen leaving a conical hill which they had occupied beside the Nek. These men afforded the gunners an excellent target. The enemy’s pompom was soon seen galloping away, but escaped unscathed, owing to some difficulty in range. General Buller now ordered Colonel Paget to move his batteries forward and to the left, and brought up two long-range 12-pounders and the 61st Howitzer Battery. Under the fire of these guns our infantry advanced within 1,000 yards of the base of the hills, and here lay down in the long veldt grass, which was particularly thick and dry. Meanwhile Dundonald’s Brigade were hotly engaged in an extremely hilly country on the right flank, but pressure was relieved on word being sent back to 'A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery that the enemy were collecting in force on a certain kloof; the guns were turned on this spot, and terrible damage was inflicted on a large number of Boers and their horses which were sheltering there, and could not get away owing to the rifle-fire of our mounted men. The guns of ‘A' Battery now joined in the general fusillade—the conical hill on the Nek itself, and the hills on each side of the road. The shooting was magnificent, the blue - nosed shrapnel shells bursting all over the hill-tops, and the lyddite of the howitzers and long-range guns rising in huge volumes from the surrounding kloofs.
About 1 p.m., as 1 was eating my lunch beside the horse guns, a Boer shell, the first of the day, came screaming overhead. It was fired by a high-velocity gun on the right of the Nek, and struck the ground 50 yards behind me, amongst a mass of infantry, taking a man's head clean off his body before it burst. This shell was quickly followed by a second, which came in the same line, bursting 15 yards behind the guns. The latter shell made me move on. Then came a third, which burst between the two centre guns, showing they now had our range. Shell number four was dropped between the two right guns, and shell number five beside the two left guns, showing that the enemy were at any rate impartial in selection. These five shells had followed one another with but a few seconds’ interval; they all burst, but, save in the first instance, no damage was done. Colonel Burrows having located this gun, ‘ A ’ Battery opened fire on it, and silenced it for a time. Almost simultaneously with the report of the first Boer Creusot the deafening roar of a heavy cannonade and rifle-fire reached our ears. Looking towards the direction whence it came, a striking spectacle met our gaze. The infantry were lying in some half-dozen long lines across the plain, 2,000 yards or less from the base of the hill, and about 3,000 yards from us. As at Colenso and at Vaal Krantz, the enemy, having first allowed the front lines to advance within rifle-shot unmolested, now opened a heavy fire; dropping among them were showers of pom-pom shells, stray larger ones, and a hail of bullets. Suddenly the whole plain seemed ablaze with fire and smoke. To everyone’s dismay, the rank, dry grass was seen to be on fire. Great volumes of smoke rose to the sky—the firing redoubled. God help the unfortunate infantry! But no, the wind is blowing toward the Boers. Seeing the gravity of their situation when the heavy fire began, some infantry officers had lighted the grass themselves to enable their men to take cover in the smoke. The ruse succeeded well, and what might have caused a heavy casualty list was thus averted. At 2.30 p.m., under cover of this veldt fire, which was smoking the enemy from their lairs, the infantry advanced to the attack. With the Dorsets leading, Coke’s Brigade rushed the hills on the right of the Nek; simultaneously Hamilton’s Brigade, led by the Queen’s, rushed the hill on the left of the Nek, our artillery all the while bombarding the hill-tops. By 5 p.m. the position was carried; the 2nd Dorset and 2nd Middlesex Regiments had secured the crest line of the hills south of the Nek, and the Second Brigade had taken those to its left. Meanwhile, on the right front and flank a severe fight was taking place between the enemy on the eminences and Dundonald’s Brigade; but the Boers having fired all the hills, thereby burning some of their own wounded, it was impossible to see anything. The 1st Dublin Fusiliers, who were the connecting link between the right of Coke’s Brigade and the left of Dundonald’s Mounted Brigade, not to be denied, joined in this quarrel; and the combined action of the Irishmen with the colonials and ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery, who had moved to the right, resulted in the enemy being beaten all along the position. The Boers now rapidly retired. The cavalry, with two guns and a pom-pom, were sent in pursuit, but owing to grass fires and smoke their line of retreat could not be followed. At 8 am. the entire force bivouacked on Alleman’s Nek. Our casualties for the day were 3 officers and 20 men killed and 5 officers and 115 men wounded.
On June 12 the force moved towards Volksrust, near Sandspruit; a large body of the enemy crossed our front, moving northwards. Some of the South African Light Horse and two guns of Battery, under Lieutenant Weber, were sent forward to intercept them, but the Boers got away, partly round the spur at Sandspruit, and partly by Houtnek. Two of the colonial guides pushed forward into Volksrust; they had no supports, and nearly paid dearly for their daring. While they were demanding the surrender of the town, some armed Boers, rushing from a house, called 'Hands up!’ One of the guides, without taking any heed of this demand, drawing his revolver, opened fire from his saddle. His first bullet smashed the Boer leader’s jaw, the second the Field-Cornet’s shoulder. The rest fled, and the two wounded were led back triumphantly to camp.
We learnt that, owing to our having taken the enemy’s position at Alleman’s Nek, they had hurriedly evacuated Laing’s Nek, that post being now untenable.
During the day General Clery telegraphed to General Buller that he had occupied it, the Natal Volunteers being the first up. We bivouacked for the night about four miles from Volksrust, and during the 13th occupied Sandspruit, Volksrust, and Charlestown, and General Clery’s (Second) Division marched through Laing’s Nek. This division had been left to divert the enemy’s attention at the last-named place when the dash for Botha’s Pass was made, and since then it had halted on Ingogo Heights, Inkwelo, and Mount Prospect, where our force was bombarded daily by the Long Tom on Pougwane, which was able to burst time shrapnel at 9,600 yards range; two officers and four men were wounded by this gun. How the enemy removed this weapon so rapidly as they did on the night of the nth was a marvel to all. However, they abandoned the traction-engine which had pulled it up that mountain, and left it beside the gun emplacement at Pougwane.
Next day I had an opportunity of walking over the enemy’s defences. The Laing’s Nek position is eminently strong by nature; it may be described as a semicircle of three miles of low hills, with high mountains at each end, and a central bastion hill. The mountain on the left is Majuba, and that on the right is Pougwane; both these hills command all approaches to either flank within at least three miles’ radius. This entire position was strongly fortified; the trenches, in some places three rows deep, were so arranged as to be invisible from the opposing front, and covered ways had been dug to enable the defenders to get in and out of them unseen by an attacking force. Several gun emplacements with bomb-proof shelters alongside had been hewn out of the solid rock. The slopes of Majuba, Laing’s Nek, Pougwane, and the deep gorge through which the Buffalo River flows, were one mass of such entrenchments; all the approaches to these positions had been burnt, in order that the khaki clothing might be distinctly seen. There was not half an acre of ground within this semicircle that did not come under frontal, cross, and enfilade fire; had any force attacked Laing’s Nek, the losses would have been terrific. It was well indeed that Lord Dun-donald, when he advanced on the Nek on May 19, had confined himself to reconnaissance, for had he gone on his Brigade would never have returned. Before the enemy retreated they had damaged the railway in many places, and had blown up the Laing’s Nek tunnel for some 200 feet at each end. These breaches were repaired before June 18 by the Royal Engineers, under Majors Irvine and Glubb [No less than seventy-two bridges and culverts were blown up by the Boers in Natal; besides these, the railway line was damaged in thirty-two different places].
On June 16 General Hildyard, with Dundonald’s Cavalry and Wynne’s Brigade, was sent from Volks-rust to Wakkerstroom, with a view to receiving surrenders. This expedition was most successful, 193 burghers surrendering in the first two days, with 197 rifles and over 80,000 rounds of ammunition. No opposition was met with. The Landdrost of Wakkerstroom, who submitted, was afterwards arrested by the Boers, tried for treason, and, it is said, shot.
In accordance with an order from Lord Roberts to advance on Standerton, General Buller collected his forces at Sandspruit on June 20, General Hildyard coming up from Wakkerstroom on the 19th, leaving it unoccupied, and General Clery from Laing’s Nek.
Next day (June 21) Paardekop, a small station halfway to Standerton, was reached by Dundonald’s Brigade and Clery’s Division about mid-day. A terrific explosion was heard at Standerton as the enemy blew up the railway-bridge over the Vaal River at that town. It was on this day that Lord Strathcona’s Horse joined General Buller’s army, from which they received an enthusiastic welcome. As this corps will constantly be referred to in subsequent passages, a brief summary of its history will not be out of place here. None of the soldiers of our colonies and dependencies deserve better of the Empire than the brave Canadians. Enthusiasm rose to its highest pitch throughout the dominion when it was learnt that the colony was to supply contingents to the Mother Country for service in South Africa. Amongst the first to be enrolled were Lord Strathcona’s Corps of Mounted Infantry, better known as Strathcona’s Horse. This regiment consisted of men—specially chosen for their physique and shooting and riding accomplishments—chiefly enrolled from the North-Western Provinces; most of them had had some experience of previous guerilla warfare such as that in which they were now destined to participate. One would certainly have picked them out anywhere as the -idial of men for a spell of the rough-and-tumble work offering itself in South Africa. The officers, like the men, were all picked Canadians; most of them had served in the North-West Police or the Canadian Militia, and had 'roughed it ’ in all parts of the dominion. The corps was commanded by Colonel S. B. Steele, who had himself seen active service in the North-West, and had already made his name as commander of Steele’s Scouts in Riel’s second rebellion. In this campaign he had been specially mentioned in despatches by the officer in command of the Western column—General Strange.
Strathcona’s (or as they were afterwards nicknamed, the 'Ikonas’) were, in great measure, a revival of Steele’s Scouts under their old leader, who had since served in the Rocky Mountains, and later as Commissioner of Mounted Police at the far-famed Klondyke. Strathcona’s Horse, from the day on which they joined Lord Dundonald’s Brigade, attracted keen attention from all; they were every way original —huge Canadian horses with huge Canadian saddles and wooden stirrups; but what probably drew the eye of the casual observer more than anything else were their lassos and their peculiarly-shaped slouch hats with pyramidally-dinted crowns, the brim of which, being stiff, jutted out all round like a halo. A fine battery of Maxims and a pom-pom followed in their wake— indeed, Lord Strathcona’s Horse had been equipped regardless of cost Lord Dundonald left bivouac at an early hour on June 22 with the Third Mounted Brigade, and arrived at Standerton by 4 p.m., having covered over thirty miles. Standerton surrendered without opposition, its officials having bolted half an hour before our arrival, previous to which they, in conjunction with those of the Netherlands Railway, did a considerable amount of wanton damage, burning a great quantity of stores, and damaging some dozen engines by removing their piston-rods.
Standerton, by the way, is a very picturesque town, situated on the banks of the Vaal River, well wooded, and encompassed by a few small hills, against which its red-brick, zinc-roofed buildings surrounded by verandas and its high-steepled Dutch churches stand out in pleasing relief. The well-built road-bridge over the Vaal River leading into the town was lined by townsfolk as Lord Dundonald’s dusty and thirsty column trotted in. Some of the young women wore red, white and blue ribbons in their hats or as rosettes; others showed a fourth—green. The force halted outside the place, where a camping-ground was selected. Lord Dundonald’s Provost-Marshal now distributed his military police throughout the town, with strict orders to see that the townsfolk were not annoyed by the too particular attentions of our troops. This forewarning, however, was unnecessary, for the Boer women, unasked, brought forward all kinds of provisions—fowls, eggs, milk, butter, coffee, bread, etc.—for sale, and reaped a golden harvest by asking exorbitant terms. I made the following purchases, prices of which may be of interest: Two small turkeys, 25s.; two loaves of bread, 3s.; two dozen eggs, 4s.; small sack of potatoes, 10s. The Boers were very anxious to know whether the Kruger coinage would be of any use after our occupation, and, while only too glad to pass it off on us, were most particular in taking nothing but British money in return.