Little anxiety was felt in England on the

outbreak of war. We should make no headway (the more cautious said) until the arrival of the Army Corps, but we should at least hold our own unless it were at Mafeking. The Boers, it was thought, had let slip their opportunity. Had they sent their ultimatum a month' earlier, they might have lost an excuse for war, but they would certainly have conquered a colony. Happily, Natal was no longer defenceless. Sir George White was there in command of one of the finest armies ever seen in South Africa. The military authorities had had ample warning, and there were no beleaguered garrisons at Potchefstroom or Pretoria, as in the last war, to tempt them to generous rashness. If Sir George Colley had sought to force Laing’s Nek and invade the Transvaal with an army of fourteen hundred men, what fear was there that Sir George White would not hold his own with fourteen thousand, and these disposed presumably for the purposes of scientific defence, some fifty miles to the rear of our headquarters in the last war? Only a very few in England troubled to inquire further into the facts, and the feeling of security was strengthened by the first reports of Dundee and Elandslaagte. The retreat from Dundee was, for most of us in England, the first unmistakable proof that our dispositions in Northern Natal were unsound. A little later Nicholson’s Nek converted the field army for the defence of Natal into the garrison of an unimportant town, and Colenso put all Englishmen in the fear of a great military calamity, a fear which tightened its grip upon us as week succeeded week and Ladysmith was still unrelieved.

It is easy now to read the warnings of the map. A better field than Natal for the operations of the allies could not have been designed. No other British colony has two frontiers, one with the Transvaal and another with the Orange Free State, nowhere else could the allies, advancing each from his own base, combine in a simultaneous forward movement. The ground, moreover, suits Boer tactics, and the very shape of the frontiers, which already north of the Tugela seemed to yield and contract under growing pressure from either flank, plainly invited those enveloping movements which are the beginning and end of Boer strategy. Indeed, had the allies neglected all their other frontiers and thrown their whole strength into Natal, they might still have overrun the colony, and exchanged shots at Durban with the fleet itself. The siege of Mafeking was the first and the greatest mistake made by the Boers in the war.

The colonists of Northern Natal, as was natural for men who lived over the embers of the last war, were the first to realise their danger, and as early as May, 1899, the mining interests of Dundee and Newcastle represented to the Natal Ministry their defenceless condition. But the strategic conditions of Northern Natal were then imperfectly understood by the British Government. Any invasion of Natal, replied Sir Alfred Milner to the Natal Ministry, when he learned the fears of the colonists, would of course be resisted by the whole forces of the Empire, and Mr. Chamberlain telegraphed approval of his reply. To the Colonial Office it was only a patriotic truism, but it was very much more to Natal. It was in fact construed as a pledge that no portion of Natal should be abandoned for lack of preparation or for the general purposes of the campaign. But as the danger of war grew more real, it was seen that the pledge—if pledge it was in intention—could not possibly be redeemed. A whole army corps would scarcely have sufficed to bar all those doors into Natal, each liable to spring open at any moment and admit an enemy to the defender’s flank or rear. Concentration of our military strength in Natal and a policy of vigorous offence might have solved the problem of defence, and satisfied the pledge ; but it had been decided for very good military reasons that the offensive operations should be directed not from Natal but from Cape Colony. And so what seemed a political truism in May was military folly in October. The practical question was not whether all Natal should be defended in the event of war, but how much should be abandoned.

Not without some complaints from the colonists Charlestown and Newcastle were abandoned, and our most northern military station was fixed at Dundee, forty-six miles north of Ladysmith, and sixty miles south of Laing’s Nek. The defence of Dundee was a concession to the mining interest, but Sir George White had doubts of its propriety from the moment of his arrival in Natal. Dundee might have served as an advance post against invasion from the Transvaal alone; but when it became certain that the Free State would fight, and that Ladysmith would be threatened not only from the north, but from the Drakensberg Passes on the west as well, its retention offended against his military instinct. On the evening of October 10th, the day on which the Ultimatum was received, he approached the Governor, and forcibly urged the withdrawal of the garrison. Unfortunately the Natal Ministry was too deeply committed to let Dundee go the way of Newcastle and Charlestown. Political reasons were urged against the abandonment ; and Sir George White yielded against his better judgment. Thirty-six hours later the Boers invaded Natal.

There was one chance of success, and only one. Sir George White saw that the difficulties of transport through the mountain passes would prevent the Boers from entering Natal in a single column ; and that if they wished to make full use of the strategic advantages of their positions, they would have to invade in at least three columns—a column through the Drakensberg Basses on the west, another from the north, and perhaps a third from the Buffalo Drifts on the east. His single chance lay in taking these columns in detail. If he could force the Free State Boers to an engagement, and defeat them, he might hope to draw some of the Transvaal Boers from Natal into the Free State, or if they left their allies in the lurch, and persisted in the invasion, he could leave a small garrison at Ladysmith and hurry the main body of his army up to Dundee and the Biggarsberg. But if these, as one may suppose, were the hopes that induced him to consent to the retention of Dundee, a very few days must have convinced him that they were not destined to be fulfilled. The Free State Boers remained in the shelter of the difficult country at the foot of the Drakensberg Passes, obstinately declining an engagement, yet never ceasing to menace Ladysmith. It soon became obvious that the Boers were aware of the fault in our dispositions, and were no less anxious than Sir George White to take the opposing forces in detail. There were at this time nine thousand men at Ladysmith, and four thousand, under General Symons, were encamped along the short branch line between Glencoe and Dundee. The isolation of General Symons became the first object of the invasion.

The Transvaal Boers entered Natal in three columns. 'The main column under General Joubert crossed Laing’s Nek and occupied Charlestown, and, a day or two later, Newcastle. Another column under Viljoen entered by Botha’s Pass, moved south through the Biggarsberg, and cut the railway between Glencoe and Ladysmith. At the same time a column from Wakkerstroom crossed the Buffalo River, which forms the frontier of Natal to the east, and advanced upon Dundee. The plan was to attack Dundee simultaneously from the north and the east, while the Free State Boers held Sir George White at Ladysmith, and Viljoen’s force prevented the retreat of the garrison south, or the arrival of any small reinforcements that could be spared from Ladysmith.

Fortunately, the movements were badly timed. Lukas Meyer seized Talana Hill before dawn on Friday, October 20th. Viljoen had already succeeded in cutting the railway at Elandslaagte in the afternoon of Thursday, but the main body under Joubert did not reach Dundee until Saturday. This was the first of the two blunders that saved the garrison.

General Symons’s pickets had been falling back for some days along the road from Newcastle before the main Boer army advancing from the north, and Viljoen’s force had given notice of its approach by driving in an outpost at Glencoe on its way southwards to Elandslaagte. But the first warning of danger from the east was not given until early in the morning on the day of the attack, when a Mounted Infantry picket near one of the Buffalo Drifts was fired upon and forced to retire. At five o’clock all General Symons’s men were under arms, and a few minutes later the Boer artillery opened fired from Talana Hill, east of the town, at a range of three thousand yards. An artillery duel followed, and just before nine General Symons gave the order for an attack on the hill. There was not a moment to lose, for General Symons did not know how soon the more formidable attack from the north might be delivered. Leaving the Leicestershire Regiment to guard the camp, he moved out against the hill with his other battalions, the King’s Rifles, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Talana is a hill eight hundred feet high, situated on the north side of a nek which the east road crosses before it dips down to the Buffalo River. It is a typical South African hill, with a broad, flat top, and a precipitous ascent up the last few hundred feet. Round the base of the steep slope runs a stone wall, and the lower and gentler slopes are clothed with a wood. The wood was easily gained by the advancing troops, but for a long time the exposed belt between the wood and the stone wall was impassable ; here it was that the gallant Symons, who had advanced with his reserves into the firing line, fell mortally wounded.

At the wall another long halt occurred, but by half-past eleven our artillery had silenced the enemy’s guns and was able to move forward to within a range of a mile. The fire from the top of the hill now slackened, and the infantry rushed forward, scaling the precipitous slopes on hands and knees. Talana Hill was won. It was a great achievement, but it was sadly marred by the loss of Symons and by the events of the afternoon. When the artillery reached the nek, the Boers were flying round the far side of the hill in parties of fifty and a hundred within easy range, but the fugitives escaped under a white flag. Later in the day Colonel Moller, who early in the morning had moved round the hill with the 18th Hussars in order to intercept the retreat, came into contact with the main Boer force to the north, and was forced to surrender with two hundred men. Our losses were forty-five killed and 184 wounded, besides the prisoners; and though Lukas Meyer’s column was completely broken up, the fate of Colonel Moller and the Hussars warned General Yule, who had succeeded General Symons, that a more formidable attack might begin at any moment.

Sir George White learned on Thursday night that Viljoen’s column had cut the line between Ladysmith and Dundee, and a reconnaissance by General French on Friday discovered the enemy’s position near the Elandslaagte collieries. A second reconnaissance, the next morning, showed that the enemy was in greater strength than had been expected, and reinforcements were hastily sent up the line. The Boers occupied a strong position on a ridge which lies at right angles with the railway line, and about two thousand yards distant from it. Sir George White came up with the reinforcements, but he generously yielded the direction of the operations to General French.

It was decided to make a combined frontal and flank attack on the Boer position. The frontal attack was assigned to the Devonshire Regiment, which was skilfully led by Major Park across the plain to the foot of the ridge held by the Boers, where it lay in extended formation, taking cover behind ant-hills. Meanwhile the Manchester and the Gordons, supported by the Imperial Light Horse, were marching along a rocky spur of the main ridge to turn the enemy’s left. At the beginning of the march they found good cover behind the boulders, but about three-quarters of a mile from the enemy’s camp they came to a patch of ground two hundred yards wide, destitute of cover and dusted with bullets. Across this they ran, bending under the storm, to the cover of a shoulder of the hill, up the shoulder, and on to the plateau beyond, down again into a fold of the hill, and then up the final ascent. The Devons now took up the attack from the front, and the enemy’s position was carried at the point of the bayonet. And so was won the most complete British victory of this war before the relief of Kimberley. Out of a force barely exceeding 1,000 men the Boers lost ioo killed, 10S wounded, and 188 prisoners, including Commandants Schiel and Kock ; and their camp, with all its equipment and two guns, was captured. Our losses were fifty-five killed and 207 wounded.

The troops bivouacked on the field under pouring rain. The same night found General Yule’s men also away from their camp, bivouacking on the open hill-side. Joubert’s long-range guns had opened fire from Mount Impati on our troops at Dundee in the afternoon, just when the Highland and Manchester regiments were reaching the summit of the Elandslaagte hills, and the victors of Talana had been forced to abandon their camp and to move out of range. The blunder of occupying Dundee had been expiated, but not vindicated. Relief from Ladysmith was impossible with the Free State forces still undefeated, and for General Yule to hold Dundee without reinforcements was equally impossible. There was no alternative but retreat, and retreat in the face of an enemy superior in numbers is one of the most difficult of all military operations.

There are two roads from Dundee to Ladysmith. The shorter runs west to Glencoe Junction, and then turns south through a gap on the Biggarsberg, crossing and recrossing the railway line until Ladysmith is reached. The other road runs southeast in the direction of Helpmakaar, and turns abruptly west at Beith. The first road was blocked by the enemy at Glencoe Pass, but by a strange oversight the second had been left unguarded. This was the second blunder that saved the garrison at Dundee. At nine o’clock on Sunday night, General Yule’s column started on its perilous retreat, and at dawn the next day it had travelled eight miles. The rains had converted the whole countryside into a quagmire; but General Yule pushed on. A march in the afternoon brought the column to the cross-roads at Beith. The march had not yet been molested, but Waschbank Pass, the most critical part of the journey, lay ahead. Prudence counselled another night march, and on Tuesday morning—only five days after the brilliant engagement at Dundee— the troops encamped in open country near Waschbank Spruit, now swollen to a torrent.

No attempt had yet been made by the Transvaal Boers to follow up the retreat; but on Tuesday the Free State Boers threatened to cross the main road between Glencoe and Ladysmith, and assail the flank of the retreating column. Sir George White accordingly moved out from Ladysmith and fought a flank action at Rietfontein, on the northern slopes of Intin-tanyone, to cover the retreat. His object was attained, and two days later General Yule’s troops entered Ladysmith by the road over Lombard’s Nek, travel-stained and dog-tired, but still unbeaten by the enemy.

The army of Natal had fought three successful actions merely to secure the concentration for which Sir George White had pleaded before the war began. Its victories had been barren. It is true that no retreat from Dundee would have been possible but for the victory of Elandslaagte, and had General Symons—left alas ! at Dundee to die in the enemy’s hands—delayed a few hours to make the attack on Talana Hill, there would have been no garrison of Dundee to retreat. But these results were not the genuine ripe fruits of victory, for they might have been gathered without cost before the war began. Nor if we attach importance to the good moral effects of victory, however barren it may be of material results, can we deny the bad moral effects of a retreat, however skilfully conducted. General Yule’s retreat was a miracle of good luck and good management, and its merits have not been esteemed as they deserve. But its effect was none the less to depress spirits, and not all Joubert’s courtesy could quite reconcile the troops to the hard necessity of abandoning their wounded. The explanation of our strategic defeat most affected at the time in England was that the Boer operations were the conception of a military genius, and many guesses were made at his name. But that theory will not bear examination. The general plan was good, but its execution was marred by several blunders. Two detachments had been exposed to defeat in detail, and the garrison of Dundee had, after all, been allowed to escape. Not until the battles of Nicholson’s Nek and Farquhar’s Farm did the Boer leaders display really high qualities of generalship in the field. But the Boer blunders, great as they were, availed us nothing after our cardinal blunder in attempting to hold Dundee.

Sir George White had now concentrated his forces at Ladysmith. Unfortunately, his position was by no means so favourable as it would have been had the concentration been effected before the war broke out. A fortnight had been lost, and time is never so valuable as at the beginning of a campaign ; the necessity of watching Dundee had prevented him from giving his undivided attention to the Free State Boers on his left flank ; the railway line had been kept free for the retreat of the Dundee garrison until it was too late to destroy it, and the Boers were now advancing rapidly along it. In war it is never possible wholly to repair the ill effects of faulty dispositions. Sir George White had barely time to unite his forces before the Boers were upon him. General Yule’s wearied troops were still resting after their arduous march when Sir George White made his first reconnaissance of the main Boer army under Joubert. Closer acquaintance, moreover, with the country round Ladysmith must have filled him with serious misgivings for the future. The strategic position of the town was not unimportant, for it was the junction of the railways from the Free State and the Transvaal. But it was not a good military centre for the defence of Natal, and a worse place to defend against attack could hardly have been found. Surrounded on all sides by tiers of hills, an outer tier much too wide to defend, and an inner tier still too extensive for defence by a comparatively small army, and commanded by the outer tier, Ladysmith invited a siege, and was ill-adapted to sustain it. Sir George White must often have looked anxiously at Bulwana and Lombard’s Kop. When once the Boers had obtained possession of that outer circle of hills and mounted their guns of position upon it, a field force in Ladysmith, equipped with ordinary field artillery, would be virtually caught in a trap ; and but for Sir George White’s prescience in sending for naval guns nothing could have saved Ladysmith. The outer circle of hills not only increased the difficulties of defending the town against a siege, but also made an admirable screen for the movements of the enemy ; and already the Free State Boers had begun cautiously to work round his left in the direction of Colenso. He badly missed the protection of some natural barrier, such as a river or a chain of mountains ; and, indeed, had he been free to select his position he might perhaps have retired behind the Tugela. But he was never free. Stores had been accumulated in the town ; so long as there was a garrison at Dundee, retreat south of the Tugela had been out of the question, and when the concentration had been effected it was too late to think of withdrawal. And when he remembered how the people of Natal believed that we had promised to defend all their frontiers, how disappointed they had been when Charlestown and Newcastle were abandoned, and how they had held out for the protection of Dundee, how could he entertain the idea of a hurried retreat from Ladysmith just after Dundee had been sacrificed ? Sir George White, then, was irrevocably committed to the defence of Ladysmith.

To act strictly on the defensive was to be surrounded ; and it was impossible for the general of a victorious army to submit to that without a struggle. Sir George White had already, when he sent for the naval guns, foreseen the possibility of a siege. But his army was still the field army for the defence of Natal, not the garrison of Ladysmith ; and only by a policy of vigorous offensive could he preserve the freedom of movement that was so necessary if Natal south of the Tugela were to be protected from invasion. He decided, therefore, to strike before the enemy could close round him.

The Boers had already occupied the outer edge of the Intintanyone plateau to the north of Ladysmith, and were creeping round Lombard’s Kop and Bulwana on the east. This encircling movement Sir George White saw must be checked, or the naval guns which he had sent for would never reach him.

On the evening of October 29th Sir George White made his dispositions for attack. Five battalions of infantry under Colonel Grimwood, three regiments of cavalry under General French, and four batteries of field artillery, were to dislodge the Boers from Lombard’s Kop. A second column under Colonel Hamilton, consisting of four battalions of infantry, two regiments of cavalry, and four batteries of artillery, was to march due north to the enemy’s position on Intintanyone, holding the Boers in check, but not attacking unless the development of events elsewhere afforded a suitable opportunity. Obviously, it was vital to the success of these operations that the left flank should be made quite secure. Accordingly Colonel Carleton, with four and a half companies of the Gloucestershire Regiment, six companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and a Mountain Battery, was directed to march north along Bell’s Spruit and to seize Nicholson’s Nek—a gap in the hills north of Ladysmith which, if left unprotected, would have afforded the enemy a ready passage round to the west of Ladysmith. The object of this movement was not to turn the enemy’s position, but to prevent the enemy from turning ours. All three columns left Ladysmith in the early hours of October 30th.

Colonel Grimwood’s column reached Lombard’s Kop at dawn and found it evacuated. The abandonment of the Kop in the night by the Boers showed that they had had full information of our intended movements, and that their plan was to entice the column out in the hope of separating it from the centre. Even if they were not successful in that, the plan carried with it the advantage of drawing General White’s attention away from Colonel Carleton’s small column on the left, against which the Boers had already laid their plans. But these inferences, so obvious now, were by no means so obvious then. Finding Lombard’s Kop evacuated Colonel Grimwood’s column followed the Boers for six miles before a furious flank attack directed against the left of his column revealed their stratagem. Fortunately Sir George White, who was     with  the centre, realised the danger in time. He ordered Colonel Grimwood to retire, and despatched three out of the four regiments of infantry forming the centre to cover his retreat. The Boer attempt to pierce between the two wings was happily defeated, but our troops suffered severely, chiefly from the fire of the enemy’s guns of position. There was a critical period in the retirement ; but just when things were at their worst the Boer long range guns met   with  their match. The naval guns had arrived in Ladysmith that morning and were already in action. The two  wings were back again in Ladysmith by two o’clock in the afternoon. Sir George White had failed to prevent the occupation of Lombard’s Kop, and the occupation of the whole outer circle of hills by the enemy was now only a matter of time.

But what in the meantime had become of the Gloucestershires and the Royal Irish Fusiliers under Colonel Carleton? Earlier in the day there had been rumours of disaster. The mules of the Mountain Battery, it was said, had stampeded, and the column had lost all its ammunition. Two men of the Gloucestershire Regiment actually brought the story to our centre while it was lying at the foot of Intintanyone, waiting for the right wing to develop its attack. Either the story was not believed or it was assumed that Colonel Carleton would at once abandon his mission after the loss of his ammunition. But when the centre and right reached Ladysmith after the failure of our movement on Lombard’s Kop, it was found that Colonel Carleton’s column was still out. Anxiety deepened as the afternoon wore on and the column did not return ; and when night fell it was certain that we had suffered a great disaster. At half-past eleven Sir George White sat down in despair and wrote the noble despatch in which he announced the disaster and took upon himself the whole blame-for what had happened. Next morning General Joubert sent a messenger into Ladysmith under a flag of truce granting us permission to bury the dead and remove the wounded. Not until then was the full story of the disaster known in Ladysmith—how the mules had been stampeded by firing in the night, how the column had seized and entrenched a kopje two miles from the Nek only to find next morning that it was commanded on all sides by the Boers, and how the men had continued to fight until all the ammunition in their pouches was exhausted and there was no alternative but surrender. Our total losses on October 30th, in killed, wounded and missing, were over eleven hundred officers and men.

Two days later the investment of Ladysmith was complete. The relief of Ladysmith became the chief military interest of the war, the dearest wish of English-speaking people all over the world. How, after many failures, it was finally accomplished, is told in the pages that follow.

H. S.