Movement to Hussar Hill—Events of 14th to 28th February
On the 14th I moved to Hussar Hill, and commenced the occupation of positions for attack on Cingolo, Monte Christo and Hlangwane Mountains. During the 13th and l4th Sir George White reported continual and increasing concentrations of the enemy in front of me. On the 15th Lord Roberts replied, No. 156, to my telegrams, Nos. 199 and 200, that he had no wish that I should adhere to a passive defence, and left it to me to do whatever I thought best, relying on my assurance that I would not compromise my force.
On the 12th February Lord Roberts informed me that he had entered the Orange Free State with a large force.
On the same day I reconnoitred the approaches to Hlangwane.
I found, as I thought, not more than 1,500 men, with two or three guns in the position, but the ground was fearfully rugged, covered for the most part with dense bush, and would evidently be very difficult to approach.
On the 13th the day was so intensely hot that I did not allow the infantry to move.
On the 14th we occupied Hussar Hill, and on the 15th I threw my right forward to turn the enemy’s left. But the heat was so great and so trying to the men in the waterless bush that I halted the troops when the movement was about half completed, and ordered them to bivouac where they stood.
The 16th being again a blazing hot day, we did not leave our positions. Intelligence came that Lord Roberts had occupied Jacobsdaal and that French had entered Kimberley. Sir George White also reported (No.70) that the enemy had begun to retire northward with waggons, and that not fewer than 2,000 men were moving towards Cundycleugh, having first set fire to several farms in Dewdrop Valley. This was great news, and I felt certain that we were going to be successful. On the same day (No. 71) he reported: “ I think another attack here quite possible. Have strengthened defences, and will try to give a good account of ourselves; but men are on very short allowance, and are consequently very weak. We are eating our horses. We have no grain left for animals, and grass is very scarce.”
On the 17th I occupied Cingolo Hill, and threw my mounted men well to the right, sweeping the country between the Blaauwkrantz and Tugela Rivers. On the 17th I reported to Lord Roberts (No. 205) that I had been engaged all this week in trying to force my way nearer to Ladysmith, that my losses were very small, but that I expected a heavier engagement on the morrow.
On the 18th I assaulted and took Monte Christo and manoeuvred the enemy out of the Hlangwane position.
On the 19th Lord Roberts informed me (No. 170) that the moment was favourable for an attempt to relieve White, as Cronje was almost surrounded by his troops. He added some information as to the withdrawal of Lucas Meyer, with 3,000 men, from Ladysmith to help Cronje. This did not accord with my own intelligence. On this day we cleared the Boers from the south bank of the Tugela, and I advanced my left from Chieveley to Colenso. General White reported more waggons trekking north.
On the 20th I ascended Monte Christo, and made careful reconnaissance for a route for my further advance. It was clear that I must occupy Colenso, and, attacking from there, take a hill on the north bank of the Tugela between Onderbrook and Langewacht Spruits before any further advance in the direction of Bulwana Hill would be possible. It also appeared to me that certainly one- half, if not the whole, of the enemy’s main fortified position on the north side of the Tugela was vulnerable only to attack from the south-west, or, in other words, from Colenso; for the nature of the ground about the bank of the river forbade any attempt to force its passage from the south.
During the night of the 20th-21st the whole of the immense Boer laagers between us and Ladysmith, as well as those visible from Monte Christo to the north of Ladysmith, were broken up and removed.
On the 21st I threw a bridge across the Tugela west of Hlangwane, and occupied the position which I had intended to have taken on the 15th December, if I had delivered my attack on that day. I was pleased to find that my reconnaissance made at that time proved to be accurate. Though the Boers had guns on the hills all round us, we were perfectly safe in that position, and I was able to establish there a supply depot and hospital. I also ordered a force which I had stationed at Greytown to advance by Tugela Drift (which is the first practicable road that crosses the Tugela east of Colenso) upon Helpmakaar.
On this day Lord Roberts informed me that “ lots of special trains ” were running from Natal with strong reinforcements to offer determined opposition to his advance. This information was in part confirmed on this same day by intelligence of my own (which I at once reported to Lord Roberts, No. 20G) to the effect that the Bethlehem, Heilbron, and Senekal commandoes had returned by train from Spion Kop to the Orange Free State in the previous week. These were the men who had borne the brunt of the fighting at Spion Kop, and I had reason to believe that they had no eagerness for more. When I moved from Spearman’s I had left a considerable force at Springfield, partly to cover my left from any possible raid by way of Hungerspoort, but chiefly to retain as many Boers as possible in the Spion Kop and Brackfontein (?) position. I was now able to withdraw my detachments from Springfield, but I did not lack employment for them, for my information from Sir George White did not agree with that of Lord Roberts. On the same day he (Sir George White) reported first (73 P) that reinforcements for the enemy had been seen disembarking at Modder River Station, and that others had been observed moving south by way of Bulwana; and secondly (74 P), “We can detect no sign of enemy retreating; all indications point the other way.”
On the 22nd I attacked and took the hills between Onderbrook and Langewacht Spruits, but the high mountains on my immediate loft, front and the fire from thence prevented the occupation from being so complete as I had hoped. We maintained, however, the positions that we had captured, though the enemy were so close to our defences that we could only supply or relieve our firing line during the night. On this day, Sir George White reported, No. 75, “All Orange Free State Boers gone; South African Republic Boers collected two miles west of Pieters.” This exactly coincided with my information.
On the 23rd I pushed a brigade forward to seize the position east of Langewacht Spruit. The advance was very difficult. The troops had to creep up along the railway, which in two places was swept by the fire of Boer pom-poms invisible to us; but between their courage and a liberal use of sand-bags they managed to get along. Their advance was, however, very slow, and it was late before even two battalions of the five that I intended to employ were concentrated in the position from whence the assault was to be made. Not liking to lose the day, the General in command directed these two battalions to assault the position. They failed to take the whole of it, but they took and hold enough ground to render possible an attempt to cross the Tugela to the East. General White reported, No. 76 : “I know you are beating the enemy. Stick to them. I carried out a small operation this morning, but my men are so weak from insufficient and inferior food that they are unfit for the field; horses more so.” Bethune, who commanded the force at Greytown, reported that he had begun his advance from Tugela Drift on the 22nd. Late on this day General White reported movements of the enemy towards Bulwana, towards Onderbrook, towards Potgieter’s, and of 1,500 men east towards Helpmakaar.
After nightfall the enemy vigorously attacked all our positions. There was heavy firing, with some bayonet fighting, all the night, and much firing the following day (24th), but in the evening we held everything that we had won, and had, perhaps, gained something in addition. I reconnoitred the Tugela carefully from Colenso to Manxa Nest, selected a point for another crossing, commenced the formation of a road to reach it, chose gun-positions for all the artillery for the main assault, and began the movement of troops necessary to that end. The river was high, and having only one pontoon bridge, I was obliged to withdraw from Colenso the troops and guns required before transferring the bridge to its new position.
On the 25th, being Sunday, at the instance of the enemy, an armistice till sunset was agreed upon, in order to collect the dead and wounded of the last two days’ fighting, who had been lying out between the lines. We had just heard that Cronje was surrounded, and I caused this news to be communicated as publicly and as often as possible to all the Boers with whom we conversed. As one man they absolutely refused to credit the possibility of Cronje’s surrender, retorting that Cronje had captured hundreds of waggons containing the whole of our supplies, that Lord Roberts had ordered a retirement, and that he would probably retire. We refused to believe their story as absolutely as they to believe ours. During the day the road to the bridge was made, and movements of troops towards our right flank steadily continued. The enemy, having no particular reason for keeping quiet, stretched their legs after the irksome enforced concealment of the last six days. Hundreds of Boers appeared like magic, as it were, from the ground. This was of immense advantage to us, since we were able to locate every sangar and entrenchment that bore upon the lino of our intended attack. These were all noted and named, and their exact range from our different gun positions was calculated.
I received a telegram from Lord Roberts, No. 175, saying that as soon as I relieved Ladysmith he hoped I would be able to send him a Division of Infantry; one would afford him material assistance. In reply, No. 210, I said, “ I will send every man I can spare as soon as I can get to Ladysmith. I think I shall get there, but the enemy has called up his outlying detachments to replace those sent to the Orange Free State, and is making stubborn resistance, while the country is extraordinarily difficult. We have been fighting continuously for 72 hours, have been repulsed in one attack, and have repulsed three made on us. To-day I am making a new road to get our artillery forward, and if I succeed we shall be in a distinctly more favourable position, The strain on the troops is very great, but they are equal to everything, and I think they feel as I do, that though it is hard work we ought to succeed this time.”
On the night of the 26th-27th the pontoon bridge between Hlangwane and Colenso was taken up and relaid below the cataract. During the 26th a slow fire was kept up all day, in which the gunners obtained the exact ranges to the different sangars from their positions. All gun positions were connected by telegraph and signallers.
On the 27th we assaulted the Boer position with complete success. From my station on the south of the river I sent an order to General Lyttelton, who commanded the left of my line on the other side, to advance the moment that the assault was successful. Unfortunately, the order miscarried, and he maintained his position, keeping up a tremendous fire on the retreating enemy as they crossed his front. It was late in the afternoon before I could attempt to push forward our cavalry and artillery j and the moment that I crossed the river to direct their advance I found that the fire proceeding from our left was so severe that it was impossible for them to move through it. The rearguard of the retreating enemy was also firing heavily. The troops bivouacked in the positions which they had won.
At daylight on the 28th we began to improve the road, and the cavalry, and horse and field artillery commenced their passage of the river. The operation was not a rapid one, the north bank being so steep that it required two or three teams and a hundred men on the drag-ropes to get the guns and waggons up. By eleven o’clock the cavalry were advancing. In the early morning I received the following message from Sir George White (No. 78): — " I am now issuing only half pound of breadstuff daily; it is a very inferior meal. At this rate I can hold out till 1st April, not longer. Report to Roberts if you think necessary. I have 21,000 mouths to feed, counting children half rations.” I replied at once: “ I have 74 waggons of supplies for you, the arrival of which I can promise very shortly.” And immediately afterwards I telegraphed, “I beat the enemy thoroughly yesterday, and am sending my cavalry as fast as my bad road will admit of, to ascertain where they have gone to. I believe the enemy to be in full retreat.” On the same day General White reported (No. 79): — “ Following Boer movements observed between dawn and noon to-day: —From direction of Pieters to behind Bulwana 5 guns and 20 wagons, 300 men. From Onderbrook to Roodepoort and on the north-west, 5 guns, 120 waggons, 50 men.”
I had no doubt from what I saw, and from General White’s information, that the enemy were in full retreat, and retreating Boers are very difficult to catch, especially when they have 24 hours’ start of you. I divided my mounted men into two bodies, the Irregulars to go north and west, the Regulars to go north and east; and with the Regulars I sent the only horse artillery guns that I had. I thought it was possible they might come up about Modder River with such of the enemy’s guns as had been left in action to the last, and seeing that all the laagers had been moved clear away on the 20th, I considered that if they failed to catch the enemy at Acton Homes, on the Cunaycleugh. Road, or at Modder River, pursuit would be useless. Parthian tactics are those which long experience in native wars has made almost a second nature to the Boers. All that I know worth knowing about rearguards I learned from the Boers whom I commanded in 1879; and I was, and am still, deeply impressed with the belief that unless there is some paramount object to be gained, an attempt to force a Boer rearguard is merely a waste of men. Moreover, in the face of White’s telegram, the reprovisioning of Ladysmith became a matter of supreme importance. The river was high. The drifts were impassable. I had only one bridge, a pontoon- bridge, leaky, crazy, and worn out. The roads were execrable. Every gun and every vehicle, other than a provision-wagon, brought over that bridge meant nearly three-quarters of an hour’s delay in the reprovisioning of Ladysmith. The left division of the cavalry readied Ladysmith during the night, and reported that the whole of my left front was clear of the enemy. The right division crossed the Klip River, and were checked under the south-east corner of Bulwana by a very strongly posted rearguard of the enemy, who disclosed three guns and considerable rifle power. The country was covered with bush and much intersected with dongas. This rearguard stopped Burn-Murdoch, who commanded the cavalry on the right; but watching the action, I felt certain that the Boers would retire at dark. I was satisfied, too, that if I supported him with infantry I should lose many men and gain nothing, because any pursuit to be effective ought to have been by the west and not by the east side of Bulwana. About midday General Lyttelton’s Division came into line from the Colenso position.