Estcourt, Monday, November 27th, 1899.

What am I to say of the work of our Intelligence Division? Willow Grange had been surprised by one body of the Boers while our mounted forces had been watching another body five miles away. Of course we have not had enough mounted scouts, and the lack has been solely a misfortune. But then we have not had proper maps of Natal either, and that lack has been worse than misfortune. To-day, for the first time, maps have been distributed to non-staff officers, and these are merely copies of a quite unmilitary map (without contours and the like) in the library at Estcourt. No doubt our maps of the Transvaal are excellent, but to go without maps of one’s own country is the same presumptuous mistake that the French committed in the Franco-German War.

The Intelligence Division in its highest form is the diplomatic corps of the army; its members should be resourceful and experienced. For some weeks the head of the Intelligence Division here has been a lieutenant. That he should have been chosen at all for work so responsible, even when the field of choice was small, is to his great credit, and therefore these remarks are certainly not in the nature of detraction. He has been extraordinarily industrious; so close indeed has he been kept to his work that he has scarcely had time to ride a mile outside the village. But however able, however industrious, a lieutenant cannot have the resource of experience and the wisdom of age; and ought not one to be satisfied that the head of the Intelligence Division has all those qualities which are the outcome of ability, native wit, diverse information, knowledge of men, experience of life? [I have since learned that Lieutenant Campbell, the officer referred to above, had travelled in the Transvaal before the war, and had made an estimate of the Boer strength in men and guns which has been completely vindicated. It anything he overestimated the numbers, and said that the artillery might become quite efficient with a little more practice. The Intelligence Division disregarded this report, and a “Confidential Report” was given to officers, which gave the traditional underestimate of the Boer numbers, and said that the guns were to a considerable extent rusty and useless.—J. B. A.]

Whether or not it was the fault of the Intelligence Division, the Boers were safely on the top of Brynbella Hill, a position after their own hearts. The Boers demand one virtue, and with this they will not dispense, in any place which they make a camping ground. It must be a hill connected with another hill and commanded by it; that is to say, it must be a ridge, or series of ridges, and not an isolated peak. If they are driven from their first position they have not only the next to retire to, but from the next (and this is the heart of the matter) they can make the first position untenable by the enemy who has taken it.

Brynbella was a sound choice, and the action proved it so. It is true that with the bayonet British troops can drive the Boers from a steep position nearly every time, but it is generally done with great loss to us, and at the top we find that the Boers are no longer there. Perhaps we are even told afterwards that “the Boers showed no disposition to fight.” No, they did not show a disposition to fight according to our rules, but that is not a consideration which makes our loss more tolerable, any more than it is easier to bear a wound made by a thrust unpractised by the fencing masters. There is only one sane conclusion—to take one almost inaccessible position after another by the assaults of infantry is a glorious but unprofitable task. We must use more and more cavalry and mounted infantry for quickness of mobilisation and pursuit, and we must make up our minds to lose many of them. This is not a Soudan campaign moving like a steam roller across the desert; this is not a campaign in which we can make our railway constantly follow us; it is here, there, and everywhere, and it can conceivably be carried through well only by mounted forces.

In my last letter I left the Boers who surprised Willow Grange encamped on Brynbella Hill. We in Estcourt, by our abandonment of Willow Grange, were cut off from all communication, and it seemed that in a few hours Estcourt would be another Ladysmith—a cup in which troops should sit patiently while shells were dropped into it from the hills. This, I say, seemed likely to happen unless something were done to prevent it. Already the Boers were moving on the long back of Brynbella towards Estcourt. Now what was done is the story of the Willow Grange engagement.

On Wednesday, November 22nd, at 2 p.m., troops marched out of Estcourt towards the Boer position. The plan was to occupy and place a naval gun on the boldest hill outside Estcourt, the hill known variously as Beacon Hill (a name which is the gift of this campaign), Klobber’s Kop, Griffin’s Hill, or Umkumwana, which means the Hill of Mists. Beyond Beacon Hill, south-westwards, there is a comparatively low ridge with easy grass country sloping away from it on both sides, and beyond that again is Brynbella, not pointing its nose towards one, as I had seen it from Willow Grange, but presenting to Beacon Hill the extent of its long steep flanks.

The Natal Carbineers led the way out of Estcourt, and were followed by a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, the East Surreys, the West (Yorks, the 7th Battery R.A., the Natal Royal Rifles, and the Durban Light Infantry. Two spans of oxen, the bluejackets belonging to the naval gun, and the Carbineers all tried their tempers and their strength before the twelve-pounder was got to the top of the Hill of Mists. The hill was enveloped now with nothing so gentle as mists, but with hail (the accompaniment of a tremendous thunderstorm) that brought men to a standstill as against a wall and bruised their hands and faces.

No sooner had the gun achieved the summit than the Boers fired three shells at it, and as many were returned by the twelve-pounder. Then night closed in; the troops, except the Carbineers, bivouacked, drenched and overwrought, in their positions; the Carbineers returned into Estcourt with marks of the storm on their bodies—one with his forehead cut from a hailstone two inches in diameter, another with his helmet dented and his thumb enormously swollen, and so on; and as for the horses, it was with difficulty that they had been prevented from stampeding. Till 2 a.m. on Thursday morning the bivouacking troops travestied rest by lying in the open in a storm memorable for violence. Rain fell continuously; the skies were splitting from end to end with that sound, common to near and virulent thunder, which suggests the rending of canvas. The men were without their coats; in their thin khaki uniforms, many of them, as an officer told me in the morning, groaned aloud in an abandonment of misery and cold. And this was their preparation for an act—the assault of Brynbella in the dark— which required a sublime example of “2 a.m. courage.”

The attack was made by the West Yorks and East Surreys, who advanced in alternate companies up either side of the long wall which continued to the top of the hill. They had been told to keep a bright look-out for the enemy, and did so with such zeal that a few of them thought they saw Boers at the bottom of the hill! There was panic firing for a few moments by both regiments, and in each regiment some men were killed down there by shots fired from the other, but Colonel Kitchener simply marched straight on with great coolness, and actually did not allow this sad mistake to delay the advance for more than a couple of minutes. The casualties inflicted in this manner were the only injuries received by our men in the assault, for the single Boer sentry who gave the alarm was instantly shot through the heart, and the enemy disappeared incontinently on to the second ridge of the hill, leaving behind them several ponies, about 200 saddles, some equipment, and the sentry’s body. Light dawned on the position as it was won, and discovered the main body of the enemy in considerable strength more than 2,000 yards away.

Soon the Boers, true to their tactics, began to shell and make untenable the position which they had just left. And under the shell fire came forward their riflemen; Mauser bullets were added to the shower of assorted missiles from a Hotchkiss, a Vickers-Maxim, and Krupp fieldpieces. A long wall across the brow of Brynbella would have been a reasonable protection to our infantry had not the Boers crept far enough round the hill to open an enfilading fire. I scarcely know on the evidence which to say was the better—the Boers’ rifle or artillery fire. Both were first-rate, and if many of the shells did not burst that was not through the fault of the gunners, but through the venality of a contractor.

About 6 a.m. our infantry on Brynbella were ordered to retire from their little inferno. Heaven help them in their retreat across the large open patch of grass behind the wall! That was bullet-swept; but bullets are invisible; it was enough for the eye of one watching from Beacon Hill, as I did, to see that the ground leaped in fountains where the shells struck.

When the retreat was commanded, seven men of the West Yorks did not—some say would not —hear the order, and in a brave little detached body continued long to fire on the advancing Boers. But the fact is that most of our infantry on Brynbella were staggered with exhaustion, and they were ordered to retire for food and rest as much as for their salvation. The Queen’s and the Borders, who were on Beacon Hill, were not used in any practical sense as supports. Back across the low ridge and the open grassland lying between Brynbella and Beacon Hill came the retreating infantry, and the shells followed them as they came. Here, there, over, and in between went the shells, and the whole expanded and dotted field of infantry moved slowly homewards untouched. It is this marvellous restraint of a well-directed shell-fire that always makes a battle seem an incredible thing. Happily the Boers did not fire shrapnel, and common shell that does not even explode on striking—that is to say, which injures you only if it hits you bodily in its passage —is almost negligible.

It was not really till the infantry had retired that the mounted troops went seriously forward. Round the flanks of Beacon Hill they advanced in two columns; that on the right was exposed to shell-fire which looked searching, but was actually ineffective, and the column did not go very near the enemy’s position. The column on the left, small and heroic, was what held one’s eyes. Up the shoulders of Brynbella it went; the men dismounted in the last hollow and advanced on foot till they actually reached the position just abandoned by the West Yorks and East Surreys, not even knowing, as they told me afterwards, that it was an untenable place.

The small force was only about 150 strong; there were some of the Imperial Light Horse, the mounted infantry of the King’s Royal Rifles under Captain Eustace, and the whole detachment was under Colonel Martyr. At the wall—always to be remembered by those who were there—the new force halted, and the I.L.H. were soon busy helping the wounded infantrymen, some of whom were not yet away from the hill. The miscellaneous Boer fire reopened; the 150 men were unsupported—they were, in fact “in the air”; in front of the wall the lead was strewed as though the place was a rifle butts. Yet a handful of men here and a handful there crept further along the back of the hill, using for cover patches of the diorite, or igneous boulders, which make rugged all the hills of Natal. Using the like cover, the Boer skirmishing lines came on too.

All this time I was on the top of Beacon Hill with the naval twelve-pounder. Desultory shots were fired from it, but the rest of the artillery scarcely came into action. We may as well have the truth—the “finest artillery in the world” did very little against the Boer guns; it was for the greater part outranged. I do not suppose a gunner has often had a more tantalising task than Lieutenant James had with his twelve-pounder that day on the Hill of Mists. Not one of the enemy’s guns could he see—could any of us see, though there was a good party of us gathered round the gun, and we lay flat on the ground for steadiness and devoured Brynbella with our glasses; not a flash, not a curl of gun-smoke, not an inkling of where the guns were, but there plain enough were the crash and reverberation in the opposite hill and the shells striking behind the wall on Brynbella or in the grassland (which was the line of retreat) below us.

An orderly came on to the hill. “The General’s compliments,” said he, and “he says will you please silence the enemy’s Vickers-Maxim.”

I remember James’s face of despair. He was tingling to do something, but where on earth was the enemy’s Vickers-Maxim?

“Look here,” he said to the orderly, “have you been out there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, you know where the enemy’s guns are?” “Oh, yes, sir;” and then with all the vague prolixity of the communicative private, the orderly began to tell us where the shells were striking, but little enough to guide us to their position.

“But the Vickers-Maxim—where is the Vickers-Maxim?”

“I don’t rightly know, sir-”

“Do you know what a Vickers-Maxim is?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, it’s the gun that goes pom-pom-pom— like that; now do you know?”

“No, sir.”

Despair settled on every one. James did all that he could in the circumstances; he shelled the two front lines of Boer skirmishers, one in a patch of boulders, the other in a donga which reached down the side of the hill. From both places we could see the little spirts of rifle smoke continually darting. First a “sighter” of common shell was fired; none of us saw it strike.

“Did any one see that?” James asked. I knew it was not above the Boer lines, as I had been watching there, and I told him so.

“It must have been below, then.”

The next shell struck just below the patch of boulders. After that the shells fired were shrapnel; they burst apparently over the Boer lines, and the skirmishers instantly rose up and ran back to a wall which lay behind them. These lines had come, I should say, within 800 yards of our forward skirmishers. These were the lines I had seen advancing the whole morning, but somehow, as I was told afterwards, a small party of Boers had got within 100 yards of our 150 men “in the air.” How did they do it? Well, one would have to be a Boer to know that. A little before noon our mounted troops were fairly retiring—the 150 “in the air” had done very well to take so long in finding out that their position was untenable—and when the Boers came to help them on their way with shells we saw for the first time the range of the enemy’s largest gun. The mounted infantry on the right side of Beacon Hill came nearer and nearer home, and the shells kept pace with them. Surely that last one was the limit of the gun’s range. No! There was another further, and then another further than that, and yet another further than the last, until the shells were falling over a mile and a half on the Estcourt side of Beacon Hill. Fortunately none of these burst. They were fired at a great elevation, I should think, for one that I had intimate knowledge of passed over the saddle of my pony as I was leading him down on the Estcourt side of Beacon Hill and ploughed up the ground a little way beyond, and this was on a steep part of the hill where none but a shell dropping from a height could come.

We all retired into Estcourt. The Boers did not follow us, for with them, as with the Turks, sluggishness is the counterpart of a stolid bravery. After a victory the Turk sits down, smokes, and perhaps observes a Bairam; the Boer lies down and sleeps; and in both cases exposed lines of communication are left uncut. To a layman who watched the Willow Grange engagement without understanding the intentions of General Hildyard it seemed that the result of the battle was this—a hill had been taken and was subsequently abandoned, and it had been proved that the Boers had a gun with a far longer range than had any of ours, and meanwhile the enemy had saved his position. And to obtain this result we lost twenty dead (that is to say, twenty were killed or afterwards died of their wounds), and about seventy wounded. To the layman, I say, it seemed that there had been a considerable loss to effect—well, nothing; but General Hildyard rode into Estcourt about lunch-time, looking well content, and he said that, though he deeply regretted the losses, he had achieved his object.