MOVEMENT TO SPRINGFIELD, NATAL
The 5th Division had arrived at Estcourt early in January, and on the 2nd I sent a heliogram to Sir George White that I adhered to my plan for crossing the Tugela at Potgieter’s Drift, and hoped to start on the 8th. I visited Sir Charles Warren at Estcourt, and discussed the plan with him. He moved on the 7th; but heavy rain on the 6th and 7th brought all the rivers up to flood level, and delayed his march.
On the 9th he arrived at Frere, and on that day I reported (No. 149) that I had received from two distinct sources a statement of the number which the State Secretary had relied on putting into the field, and that there were probably 120,000 men then in the field against us, of whom about 46,000 were then in Natal and on its borders. In reply (No. 81), the Secretary of State said that my numbers must be incorrect, but that he recognised the difficulty of the situation. Subsequent history has shown that my numbers were more nearly correct than was supposed.
On the 10th the column moved from Frere, on Springfield. I issued a memorandum urging, among other things, upon the men that, if surprised by a sudden volley they should not turn from it, but rush at it.
By the 11th we had seized the south bank of the Tugela at Potgieter’s. The only road by which I could advance north of the river from that drift led into a re-entering angle of the enemy’s defences. After a careful reconnaissance I discovered a far better crossing by Trichard’s Drift, five miles to westward.
Having thoroughly discussed my plans with Sir Charles Warren, and ascertained his entire concurrence with them, I reported these to the Secretary of State, No. 154, and to Lord Roberts, who had just arrived at Cape Town. In reply, Lord Roberts, in his No. 5, said, “ Now that you have gone so far to help White, I hope he will be able to help you by making a strong sortie as soon as Warren is engaged with the enemy.” I replied, No. 157 : “ White has told me to expect very little help from him, so I think it probable I shall be unaided from Ladysmith in carrying out operations for its relief.” He replied, 16th January, No. 6: “Am concerned to hear you can expect very little help from White, as that is the sole chance of Ladysmith being relieved; Surely he must make an effort to co-operate with Warren as he approaches Ladysmith.”
On the same day Sir George White requested me (48P, 16th January), if I had any doubt of being able to get through to Ladysmith, to put the case to Roberts and ask for more troops. He reported that his force was much played out, that he had 2,400 sick, and that if I were repulsed Ladysmith would be in a bad way. On the 17th, in my No. 158, I repeated Sir George White’s telegram to Lord Roberts, saying that the relief of Ladysmith from my then position was doubtful, but that I questioned if I could do better with a larger force, as the difficulty of supply where I was was enormous, and that Warren agreed with me that it was better to go on as I was, and to risk it.
Events of 17th to 27th January, 1900
Accordingly, on this same day (17th January) General Warren crossed at Trichard’s Drift by a pontoon bridge and the drift. He met with very slight opposition, but remained during that day and the 18th passing over his baggage. I reconnoitred the position in front of Potgieter’s in force, so as to be prepared with a point of attack as soon as Warren’s advance should have made any impression upon the right of that position. On the 19th Lord Dundonald, with Warren’s cavalry, moving northward, had taken the right flank of the Boer position, whereas General Warren had advanced to the westward and was crossing Venters Spruit. I was dissatisfied with Warren’s operations, which seemed to me aimless and irresolute. Dundonald’s movement was a decided success, and should have been supported by artillery, while Warren’s infantry should have attacked the salient, which Dundonald’s success had left exposed.
On that evening I debated with myself whether or not I should relieve Warren of his command; but the question was less simple than it appears at first sight. Had he been sent out to me on the same footing as any other officer I should not have hesitated—or, either, I should never have entrusted him with this command at all. But he had been sent out to me as my appointed second in command, and with orders from the Government that he should supersede Methuen; and though I had successfully combated this order as to Methuen, another equally precise had been substituted for it, namely, that wherever employed, General Warren should hold the position to which his rank entitled him. It is true that I disapproved of his first two days’ work in the first command that he had ever held under me, but I did not think that this was sufficient justification for his removal, in the face of the direct instructions which I had received from the Secretary of State for War.
On the 20th I went over and saw Warren. He had that day attacked the salient and taken it, but instead of supporting Lord Dundonald, he had induced him to fall back from the position which he had occupied on the 19th. Again the same difficult question confronted me. General Warren was evidently not carrying out the orders which he had received from me, and in which he had signified his full concurrence. I saw, for my own part, that the advantages for which I had hoped from his crossing had been let slip, and that my own plan of operations had been hopelessly wrecked. It was open to me to take over his command myself, but in that case I should not be able to direct the most important and the most critical part of the whole movement, namely, the flank attack from Potgieter’s. This, if it were to be successful with the few troops at my disposal, must be watched for and timed to the minute. It was possible that Warren might work more kindly for a plan of his own than he had worked for mine. His force was in good position, and might yet be successful. In any event, whether successful or not, the troops would spend some little time under fire in fairly close contact with the enemy, and would thus gain comparatively cheaply that battle training in which I knew them most deficient. I concluded to leave Warren to pursue his work, merely suggesting to him certain changes in the posting of his troops for the greater security of his position. I then returned to my former station to watch for my chance.
On the 21st and 22nd I sent General Warren reinforcements for which he had asked, and urged him to attack. On the 23rd I walked round General Warren’s firing line. I afterwards pointed out to him that his troops were getting stale, and that his positions were insecure, and told him that unless he could attack ha must withdraw. he represented the disadvantages of an attack, but proposed the occupation of Spion Kop. This, he said, he had intended to effect on the previous night without reference to me; but General Coke, to whom be had given the order, had refused to occupy the hill, because he had never reconnoitred the approach. I did not like the proposal, saying that I always dreaded mountains, but after considerable discussion I agreed to bis suggestion. Spion Kop was occupied by his troops that night.
The next morning opened unfortunately for us, as the mountain at daybreak was clouded by a dense fog, rendering it impossible to place the troops effectively on the summit, which they had gained with practically no loss. As the mist drifted away they were exposed to a severe fire. General Woodgate was put out of action by a wound, and considerable disorder ensued. On the previous evening General Warren had placed General Talbot Coke in command of the right attack, including Spion Kop. A telegram for reinforcements from the top of the hill reached General Warren. Thereupon he appealed, not to me, but to the nearest Brigadier, who at once made arrangements which committed beyond recall all the mounted men, as well as two out of four battalions, which I had kept in hand. In these circumstances I had not sufficient troops to make a counter-attack, and could do nothing but wait till nightfall. Had the troops held Spion Kop during the night the operation might, I think, possibly have proved successful. The officer who was placed in command at the top of the hill made several efforts to communicate his situation to General Warren, but received no reply. General Coke went up the hill, but made no dispositions to improve the defence, and returned to consult with General Warren. General Warren had. meanwhile changed his camp, and could not be found till late. Finally, when instructions were at length sent up the hill, the garrison had quitted it. I left my camp before daylight on the 25th. As I approached Warren’s headquarters a messenger met me with the intelligence that the hill had been evacuated. I at once resumed command, and proceeded to withdraw the troops, which I did during the following night, without loss.
I was not altogether dissatisfied with the results, as a whole, of Spion Kop. My men bad gained immensely in knowledge of war and in confidence in themselves and their officers. They had fought well, and I was certain that they had inflicted on the enemy not only an immense loss in moral, but actually a greater loss than they had themselves sustained in men. Events proved my opinion to be correct. None of the commandoes with which we were engaged at Spion Kop came again into action against us (so far as I could learn) for at least a year.
On the 25th January, No. 169, I reported to Lord Roberts and General White my withdrawal across the Tugela, and said I meant to have one more try at Ladysmith. Lord Roberts, on the 26th, in his No. 26, expressed his regret that Spion Kop had been abandoned, adding: “ Unless you feel fairly confident of being able to relieve Ladysmith from Potgieter’s Drift, would it not be better to postpone the attempt until I am in Orange Free State? I am hopeful to move about 5th February, and my force on north of Orange River should cause enemy to lessen their hold in Natal.” On the following day he again telegraphed, saying that by the 28th February he expected to be near Bloemfontein, having relieved Kimberley, and that his threatening Bloemfontein would relieve the hostile pressure in Natal.
The War Office at this time proposed that White should attempt to cut his way out of Ladysmith and join me. In reply, No. 171, I informed both War Office and Lord Roberts that I thought White could not break out—that he had eaten his horses or starved them. I added: “ It wants two set battles to relieve White. I could always make a certainty of the first, but the necessity for the second stops me. If, for example, I succeed here, and then fail at Roodepoort, I shall be left with, perhaps, 3,000 wounded, a demoralised force, short of water, and sixteen miles from anywhere.”
On the 27th Sir George White informed me that if I tried again and failed, Ladysmith was doomed. He could feed the men for another month, but not the horses, and without guns his force could do nothing. He asked if I did not think he ought to abandon Ladysmith, and try to join me, though he did not conceal that his numbers were reduced to 7,000 men, and they weak and morally played out. On the same day the War Office withdrew their suggestion that White should break out.