OCCUPATION OF LADYSMITH
On the 1st March I intended to advance to attack Bulwana; but some of Burn-Murdoch’s scouts, who had got up the mountain in the night, reported at daybreak that it was evacuated, and that no enemy was visible on our right. Heavy rain had fallen in the night. I ordered an advance on Nelthorpe, where was the drift over the Klip River, though at the time it was impassable. Colonel Rawlinson and a correspondent had ridden into our camp from Ladysmith during the night, and I at once rode back with them into that town. On meeting General White I learnt that he had sent a force out to the Newcastle Road, where he said there was a large Boer laager and Boers in force. Calling up Major Williams, 13th Hussars, whose squadron formed the left of the right pursuing brigade, I told him to proceed at once with it to the place where General White’s troops were said to be in action, to get round and beyond them if possible, and to send to me in Ladysmith as soon as possible a report as to whether any enemy worth pursuing were within reach or in sight. Before I left Ladysmith that afternoon I received a report from Lord Dundonald that he was pressing forward to Van Reenen’s Pass with no enemy in front of him. He sent in two ambulances which he had taken beyond Dewdrop. I received reports also from Major Williams that there was no one but a very small rearguard among the hills on the Cundycleugh Road in front, and from General Bum-Murdoch that all was clear to Modder River. I then returned to Nelthorpe.
Passing through Ladysmith, on my way I met Colonel Stoneman, and asked him for how much longer he could really have kept the garrison. He replied: “The garrison, sir, could have lived for three weeks longer, but the natives and sick in hospital would have been starved to death a fortnight earlier.” On my return to my camp I was glad to be able to telegraph to England that 73 wagons, the first nine of which contained hospital supplies, were then entering Ladysmith.
CORRESPONDENCE WITH LORD ROBERTS AS TO FUTURE POLICY
Early on the 2nd March I ascended Bulwana Hill. It was an extraordinary good day for seeing. Van Reenen’s Pass was perfectly clear with the exception of some wagons at the extreme top, and there was not a soul to be seen in the direction of Sunday River on the enemy’s line of retreat to Dundee and Newcastle. I moved my camp that evening to Ladysmith, and on the morning of the 3rd sent the following telegram (No. 214) to. Lord Roberts: —“ I find that the defeat of the Boers is more complete than I had dared to anticipate. This whole district is completely clear of them, and except at the top of Van Reenen’s Pass, where several wagons are visible, I can find no trace of them. Their last train left Modder Spruit about one o’clock yesterday (Note.—This telegram was written on the 2nd), and they then blew up the bridge. They packed their wagons six days ago, and moved them north of Ladysmith, so I had no chance of intercepting them, but they have left vast quantities of ammunition of all sorts, entrenching tools, camp and individual necessaries. They have got away all their guns but two. My troops want a week’s rest, boots and clothes. The Ladysmith garrison wants a fortnight’s food and exercise. I do not think there is any chance of the enemy making a stand this side of Laing’s Nek. I ask authorities here consider that it will be impossible for the enemy to collect more than one-half of the force that is now dispersed from here. Will you advise me what course you wish pursued? My own view would be that we should send three brigades to occupy Northern Natal, to restore order and repair the railway, and with two divisions attack the three passes, Tintwa. Van Reenen’s, and Bezeidenhout, and pass through one of them the division you wish sent to your side; or, in the alternative of your not wanting a division, that the force here should reoccupy Northern Natal and the Wakkerstroom-Vryheid district of the Transvaal. The latter is the alternative I incline to as likely to be most objectionable to the enemy.”
Lord Roberts replied on the same day (No. 315): “ I do not think it would be wise now to embark on extensive operations in Natal, which is evidently extremely suitable for the enemy’s tactics and very difficult for our troops. To force Passes of Drakensberg would be undoubtedly a very hazardous operation, and would probably enable Boers with small force to hold up very much larger number of our men for some considerable time. Force in Natal three months ago consisted of four divisions of infantry and two brigades of cavalry. It is probably now not of greater strength than three divisions infantry and one brigade cavalry, besides local mounted troops. Two of these divisions with brigade of cavalry should, I imagine, suffice for protection of such portion of Natal as would insure safety of railway towards Van Reenen’s Pass, on the understanding that the Natal Field Force is to act strictly on the defensive until such time as operations of this column have caused enemy to withdraw altogether from or considerably reduce their numbers in Drakensberg Passes. Remaining division should be despatched at once to East London—this portion of Cape Colony has from the first been left dangerously weak. It is most desirable that it should be strengthened sufficiently to drive enemy beyond Orange River, for until this is done and railway communication opened to the position I purpose to take up on the line a little to south of Bloemfontein, my force will be in a somewhat risky situation, cut off from its base, and with main Boer army collected in its immediate front. Be good enough therefore to despatch one of your divisions with least possible delay to East London. I should' like it to be accompanied by its brigade of artillery if this will leave you with sufficient proportion of guns, but if you consider you cannot spare any guns, you can keep brigade of artillery. Any mounted troops you can send will be most acceptable. There are very few with Gatacre at present.”
On the 3rd March my troops moved through Ladysmith and took up positions beyond the Ladysmith garrison lining the streets. I was shocked to see how attenuated the men were, and I perceived that they were very much weaker than I had been led to, expect. I ordered a medical inspection. The past fortnight’s fighting and the relief of Ladysmith had added to my hospital population some 3,500 sick and wounded. Fortunately we had prepared hospital Ships, and to a considerable extent evacuated our hospitals in anticipation, but the strain was very great: for well as the lntombi Hospital had been kept it was evident that immediate removal from that foul ground was the only hope of life for most of its starved and fever-stricken inhabitants.
On the 4th I was able to send the following report to Lord Roberts (No. 0436): “All the enemy who left by Van Reenen’s Bass have now crossed into the Free State, principally men of the Harrrismith and Kroonstad commandoes, and some of the Rustenburg one. These last had lost their way. Prinsloo is in command on the Berg (Drakensberg), and some at any rate of the passes have been put into a state of defence. My scouts are on the Berg, and the whole of Natal between Ladysmith and the Orange Free State boundary at Van Reenen’s, and to the south of that line, is reported clear of the enemy. My scouts that have gone towards Dundee and Helpmakaar have not yet reported. None of the Transvaalers are now south of the Biggarsberg. Their commandoes are scattered and mixed, and the men have told natives that as all their commanders and field cornets have galloped off, they do not know where they are going. All that are left are a few ambulances with sick and wounded, from which the mules have been taken to draw baggage wagons. One commando is on its way to Cundycleugh, and small parties of the enemy are reported to have retreated by all the Drakensberg passes. We cannot hear of any formed body anywhere, and it is not anticipated they will hold any position on the Biggarsberg.”
On the 5th March (No. 217) I acknowledged Lord Roberts’ telegram (315), saying: “ I note your wishes, I will send at once the Fifth Division and 14th Hussars, as both units have detachments at the Cape. I wish to keep the artillery and Royal Engineers of the division. Of the Ladysmith force the infantry will not be fit for some time; their cavalry and infantry will require, I think, six weeks—they say three months—before they can move.” I continued, “ The Boers are in full retreat, and it is highly desirable to reoccupy Dundee, and if possible Newcastle, and repair the. line. I am now through the mountains, and can get round the Biggarsberg through a fairly open country. I hold Weasel’s Nek and Acton Homes, and expect to hear to-day my scouts have occupied the Pass of Glencoe. I propose to move forward as soon as I have got boots for the men to reoccupy Dundee. This is the best defensive measure I can take.”
Lord Roberts replied on the 6th (No. 349) directing me to send the Fifth Division and 14th Hussars to East London. As the Boer force seemed to be broken up he approved of my occupying Dundee, and, if possible, Newcastle, but forbade any attempt on the Drakensberg.
On the 7th we heard that Joubert had come in person and stopped the flight of the Transvaalers. It was really Kruger. I telegraphed on that day (No. 219) to Lord Roberts : “ Position now definitely ascertained. Large commando under Prinsloo at top of Van Reenen’s Pass entrenching and mounting guns, small commando on the Tintwa, other passes not yet defended. Joubert turned retreating Transvaalers back from Ingagane. Now at least four commandoes, probably 7,000 in all, entrenching and mounting guns on the line—One Tree Hill—Hlatikulu—Glencoe; Dundee and Helpmakaar are also occupied. My cavalry are at Besters, on Sunday River, and at Meran, and 500 men are advancing from Greytown on Pomeroy. In my opinion Drakensberg Passes easier to attack than Biggarsberg. To take Harrismith would help my operations in the west and would probably cause enemy to evacuate Biggarsberg. I shall not though be able to attack either Berg, for three weeks, till Ladysmith garrison are fit for the field ” (i.e.. assuming the Fifth Division are withdrawn).
By the 9th I began to feel the pressure of the returning enemy, and I telegraphed to Lord Roberts, whose troops had by this time occupied Burghersdorp that I thought the Fifth Division would be of more value to him if left with me than if sent to East London. I said: “ I fear that if I remain sedentary the Boers will commence raiding, and I think I ought to repair the line to Elandslaagte, and strike at Dundee through Beith. This would turn enemy’s position, and probably save the railway line to Newcastle.”
On the 10th Lord Roberts (No. 403) authorised me to delay the departure of the Fifth Division, adding, “There is no objection to active operation in Natal, but no attempt should be made to force the Drakensberg until I am able to act on this side of the passes.” He added on the 11th (No. 421) that the Boer forces in Natal were evidently stronger than I thought after the relief of Ladysmith, and that he had heard that Kruger and Joubert were still hopeful of obtaining a seaport (?) in that direction. I at once recalled the Fifth Division, some of whom were already on board ship. On the 12th Lord Roberts (No. 432) again warned me against any operations in the Drakensberg, adding that it was doubtful whether he could leave Bloemfontein for three weeks or a month.
On the 13th I telegraphed (No. 221) to Lord Roberts that I intended to complete the railway to Elandslaagte and to force the enemy to evacuate Helpmakaar and the Glencoe defile, my great object being to drive the enemy back from the railway, to which they were doing immense damage. I told him that he might rely on me that no operations of mine should risk danger to Southern Natal.
On the 19th March (No. 223) I reported that the enemy in front of me had considerably increased, that the Ladysmith garrison were still unfit for the field, and that I regretted the loss of the 14th Hussars, which on the 17th had again been ordered away be Cape Colony.
On the 23rd March, Lord Roberts (No. 613) telegraphed that he did not think I had more than from 8,000 to 10,000 Boers in front of me, as Joubert was collecting all the forces that he could near Kroonstad to check his advance, that he had great difficulties, and was short of supplies, remounts, and clothing. He added “I shall be surprised if the passes are not practically clear, as we near Kroonstad."
On the 24th I replied (No. 226), “ Could I be of any use to help you with supply? In five days from the start I would got up Oliver’s Hoek, in four days more I should have turned Van Reenen’s, and if my information as to the state of the railway is correct, in eight days more it should be opened to Harrismith, say 17 days, or perhaps three weeks from the start. When the line is opened I ought to be able to put up daily 400 tons, say two days supply for 70,000 men, and 10,000 horses into Harrismith.” I added that I thought 14,000 Transvaalers had been in my front, but there were indications that they were thinking of moving.
On the 24th March Lord Roberts asked me if I had sufficient transport to move two divisions of infantry, with a proportion of artillery, and 1,000 cavalry, into the Free State, if called upon, I replied on the 25th (No. 227), saying that before answering as to “ sufficient transport ” I must ask him how many days’ supply I should have to take with me, in what direction I was to move, and whether I urns (?? does not make sense) to continue to supply myself from Natal, or could draw from some advanced post in the Orange Free State.
A telegram (No. 654) from Lord Roberts crossed my No. 227, and in reply to my No. 226 approved my proposition of opening a supply depot at Harrismith. In reply (No. 229) I said that I would try what I could do, but that I could not start for a week, being compelled to wait for remounts, because Warren, who was to hold Natal, was dissatisfied, and perhaps rightly, with the number of mounted men that I proposed to leave with him. The crux of the situation at this moment was an uncertainty as to the actual date on which the Volunteers and Irregulars, who had gone south to refit, would rejoin me.
This telegram again crossed a message from Lord Roberts (No. 669). He said that any force coming from Natal would have to make its own arrangements for its supplies as far as Kroonstad should it go west, or to the Vaal River if it went north. He added that looking to the difficulty of supplies, I was to send only one division over the passes, since Natal must be occupied, and the lines of railway leading to the Transvaal repaired and guarded. I replied on the 27th (No. 230), showing why I thought his proposal was impracticable. At that moment Lord Roberts could hardly hold his own at any distance outside Bloemfontein, and I thought that it would be a most hazardous operation for me to march a single division, insufficiently equipped with mounted men, and encumbered with a large supply train, for 100 miles through the enemy’s country; while to follow it with a supply column would be certainly impossible. In reply (No. 692) Lord Roberts withdrew his proposition, being apparently under the impression that it was through my fault that he had made it. I regret that my suggestions herein should have been misunderstood. I had at the moment no idea of Lord Roberts’ intentions; but I took it for granted that his first care would be to clear his flanks and communications. To assist him in this I offered to provision Harrismith. So much I could have done with safety, and, as I hoped, to the furtherance of the general scheme of operations; but until Lord Roberts was in a position to advance from Bloemfontein it would have .been dangerous for me to have undertaken more.
When I proposed to him to send the division for which he asked me through the passes, I assumed that it would join hands with the right of Lord Roberts’ line. But to send a division, isolated and unsupported, into the middle of the Free State would have been, in my view, to court disaster.
On the 31st March (No. 234) I telegraphed to Lord Roberts proposing to start on the 6th April. I told him that I expected to clear the country south of Newcastle in ten days from the start, and that as soon as I had accomplished this I should be able to attack the Drakensberg Passes with two divisions.
On the 1st April (C 789) Lord Roberts approved of this plan.. On the 2nd April (C 798), he withdrew this approval, ordered me to give up my intention of advancing towards Newcastle, and directed me to advance from Natal with all speed on Harrismith for the enemy’s position at Ladybrand must be taken at any cost.
I replied on the 2nd (No. 235) that I would do as he directed, and move on the 6th or 7th, but that I did not like the operation, and that it would be better, and take very little more time, for me to swing round by Newcastle, and so clear my front before attacking the passes. (The situation had materially changed since I sent No. 219 on the 17th March.) On the 3rd April Lord Roberts discussed the military aspects of my position in his 821; and on the 4th in my 236, I replied that I adhered to my opinion, but was ready to follow his instructions, and I asked for a definite expression of opinion as to what course I was to pursue.
In reply, on the 4th April, Lord Roberts said the situation had changed, that he desired I would send Hunter’s Division and the Imperial Light Horse to East London with least possible delay, and that I was to act purely on the defensive for some time to come.
I replied on the 5th (238) that I would send the troops at once, except the field hospital, which should follow as soon as I could possibly clear it.
On the 7th April, at the instance of General Hunter, I sent to Lord Roberts (No. 240), saying that in seven days from the start I could clear the Biggarsberg; and in 14 days from the start ought to be in possession of the Drakensberg.
The division and the Imperial Light Horse were sent off at once, and, drawn on I think by their removal, the enemy on the 10th April attacked my right flank in considerable force.