Ladysmith, October, 1899
WAR marches with uncertain strides. But a week or so ago very few people in England believed that a serious conflict between Briton and Boer was impending. The general opinion was, even in military circles, that the nominal issues under discussion would not require the arbitrament of the sword. England had been led to the parting of the ways by the moving spirits in the Great Conspiracy against British rule in South Africa. The choice had to be made of abdication of her position as the Paramount Power in the country, or the gage of war, for which her enemies had long made secret and abundant preparation. It has become a habit, if not a maxim, of political parties at home, never to do anything until they are compelled to, more particularly not to vote a farthing of money in the nature of security against war risks. And, in this instance, as has happened before, even leisurely diplomacy outpaced military preparedness. With suddenness the Boer executive launched their ultimatum, and, long before the time-limit named had expired, actual hostilities had been sprung upon the country. Seizure of strategic positions, and the capture of the Harrismith train on October 10, are among instances. Since that date many things have happened, and the initial advantages, which it was feared by all who knew the real state of affairs would belong to the Boers, have become apparent to everybody. Had the necessary fiats gone forth in the beginning for the instant strengthening, by Imperial troops, of the South African garrison, say, by one or two army corps, the public exchequer would have benefited in the immediate future. In war delays are costly, as well as dangerous, expedients.
From north, west, and east the Boers advanced into Natal. Orange Free State commandoes rode in from the Drakenberg Passes near Harrismith, down Van Reenen's and Tintwa; Joubert's motley forces, from Volksrust, by Laing's Nek and the Ingogo; whilst Lucas Meyer's men crossed the Buffalo from Utrecht and Vryheid. The invasion of Natal was begun, the capture of the northern corner of this colony, its coalfields, towns, and connecting railway branches being their immediate objective. They professed to have come to stay, and proceeded to live upon the country. What they needed they took from the people—sometimes on paper promise to pay; more often without. Wide distinctions were made between loyal British colonists and Boer sympathizers. The property of the latter has almost invariably been left intact, but everything they cared to lay their hands upon, whether in store, dwelling, or field, has been forcibly rifled from the former. It is hard to fully convey to the mind of peaceful-living folk in England how a colonist feels who has had his homestead wrecked, his cattle lifted and killed, when he finds himself stripped penniless of the fruits of forty years' unremitting toil. And your Natal colonist, conscious that Fate had some such cruel chance in store for him, because of the desperate unpre-paredness of the country, yet preferred the hazard of war to the continuance of peace that was no peace in South Africa. In darkness or disaster, he wants no truce, but trusts that England will sternly see the thing through. Strange that those who know the Boers longest and best should like them least!
The broken, hilly nature of the northern part of Natal, hemmed in as it is upon either side by the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, puts it very much at the mercy of a big mobile force, such as that of the Boer commandoes. A military leader with dash could have done far more mischief than the enemy have yet succeeded in inflicting upon this practically defenceless region. There is reason, therefore, to be thankful that matters are no worse. On the other hand, given an alert, daring General, a moderately strong body of troops, and freedom of action, the Boers might have been made to suffer far more, and been hammered in detail. Having put our hands to the plough, there should be no turning back. The war must be pushed through to a successful issue, and one of the means to that end should be to borrow a leaf out of the American General Ulysses Grant's plan of campaign—have no exchanging of prisoners. Nobody was more abused than he for dispensing with all exchange cartels, forcing either side to maintain tens of thousands of prisoners of war. It was a terrible hardship to the captives and their friends, but it was a very effective means of hastening the overthrow of the Confederacy, for the available manhood strength to draw upon in the Southern States was limited, whilst in the North they had but to call for men to get them.
To save the coalfields of Natal and the important town of Dundee it was decided to send a small column there. The district is relatively populous and rich, and is the centre of the largest and best steam and household coalfields. So utterly unprepared for war were the authorities that at no time have the Government railways ever had by them more than a fortnight's reserve of fuel. The fact has been denied by the military, but is incontrovertible all the same. With the shutting down of the pits, the last of which are only as far south as Eland's Laagte [Ed - Elandslaagte], near Ladysmith, resort must be had to imported fuel. Apart from any other question, there was a strategical gain in holding a position in the Glencoe district, which is close to Dundee. It blocked the routes from the north and east of the Transvaal Boers, from Newcastle and the Utrecht Bridge over the Buffalo River. True, Sir George White, or part of his Staff, hesitated about dividing the British force, leaving part in Ladysmith camp and forming a new post near Dundee. To General Sir Penn Symons was assigned the task and post of honour. With four splendid battalions of infantry, three batteries of artillery, the 18th Hussars, and various bodies of Volunteers and Natal Police, a position was chosen about one and a half mile west of Dundee, on the north side of the Glencoe branch line. There supplies and munitions of all kinds necessary for the force, sufficient for two months, were quickly conveyed by rail. Unfortunately, the lofty Impati Mountain stood but 4000 yards off, upon the north of the railroad and camp. Outposts visited the summit, but it was not attempted to erect any defensive works there or elsewhere. The defects of Dundee camp are exaggerated in the old camp at Ladysmith, which is the most indefensible position for a military camp I have ever seen. But we are told the ground at Ladysmith was chosen and bought years ago for its convenience to water and town, and not for strategical value. It has none.
Within forty-eight hours after the expiry of their war ultimatum the Boers had invaded Natal upon three sides. They crept up to the Natal Police patrols, an excellent body of mounted men, and succeeded in taking the stations, and in some instances capturing the troopers. For some obscure reason the orders given the police were to retire, and not fire unless fired upon by the enemy. By October 13, advanced parties of the Boers were before Newcastle, and within a few miles of Dundee, and not far to the west of Ladysmith. Indeed, on that day Sir George White led a column of all arms seven miles out from Ladysmith camp towards Besters Station, to engage them, as it was given out that they were coming on in force. After hanging about upon the hills all day the troops were marched back to quarters the same evening. Yet we had gone prepared to bivouac. On the same date the advance of Lucas Meyer's Utrecht-Vryheid commando caught five Natal Police at De Jager's Drift, which the enemy crossed en route for Dundee. Joubert's column from the north took the undefended and deserted town of Newcastle on the 14th, Policeman Poole riding over to Dundee to warn General Symons and the garrison of their advent The Boers found a score or so of white residents in Newcastle, whom they treated fairly well, with the exception of Chief of Police Macdonald. Most of the inhabitants, as I have indicated, had fled south on their approach, including the mayor, a canny Scot, who, when banteringly advised to remain and deliver up the keys of office to the Boers, cried : " Me stay; let them catch me if they can ! They'll no see my feet for stoor "—i.e. dust. He got away.
I went upon the armoured train on Sunday, October 15, paying a flying visit to Dundee. The countryside thereabout is as green and charming as any in Natal, and the farmers are well-to-do. Coal-getting, though done upon a large scale, is also dug over a wide area, and consequently the face of Nature has not been defaced and smudged as in the "Black Country." From what had occurred previously, and has since transpired, evidently the Boers' plan of operations is prompted by some person or persons possessed of tactical skill. They have cleverly screened their front, and their separate columns have contrived to synchronize their concerted movements. On Tuesday, October 17, Joubert's forces were crossing the Ingagane; Meyer, with 5000 men, was advancing towards Dundee, extending his left towards Helpmaakar, menacing Greytown, and the Free State Boers were actively hostile around Acton Homes and Besters, both west of Ladysmith. Precautions were taken in Dundee to send off women and children and the property of the banks. Next day, October 18, Boer scouts had been seen close to Dundee, and as far down the railway as Eland's Laagte. The armoured trains, of which there are three, with carriages loopholed for musketry, but with no provision for cannon or Maxims, were put in commission. But the severe gradients, curves, and cuttings are against these being of any real help in Natal, and they have been of little service in the campaign so far.
By October 19 the enemy had completed his preparations for delivering his attack upon Dundee and its subsequent attempted investment. A small body from Joubert's force captured the passenger train at Eland's Laagte Station, about eighteen miles north of Ladysmith, severing General Sir George White's communications with General Penn Symons' column at Dundee. One of the Daily Telegraphs correspondents managed to get through to Glencoe upon the earlier train, which was fired upon by the enemy; but the handful of Boers were driven off by the use of a revolver and rifle, backed by the pluck of the engineer, who put on all steam. Strangely enough, whilst the Boers severed direct telegraphic and rail communication at Eland's Laagte betwixt Ladysmith and Dundee camps, they overlooked the telegraph wire by way of Helpmaakar, Grey town to Maritzburg, from Glencoe and Dundee. Without fighting an action General White could not restore touch with General Symons. On Friday, October 20, a reconnoitring mounted force proceeded from Ladysmith towards Eland's Laagte. The history of that enterprise may be told at once. Our cavalry, regulars, and volunteers pressed on beyond Modder's Spruit and to Eland's Laagte, finding at first but few Boers at the latter place. But the enemy were soon reinforced, and our troopers retired towards dusk to Ladysmith. Meanwhile the battle of Dundee was in progress.
It was with scant warning the attack upon Dundee commenced. General Symons reposed, and deservedly, the highest confidence in his troops, keeping his men in a practically open camp. Outposts were placed some distance off upon the lesser surrounding hills. Meyer made his first essay from the west side of Dundee, by way of Mount Talana, or Smith's Hill, a bold ridge rising over 700 feet from the back of the town. At 2 a.m. of Friday, October 20, one of the picquets of the Dublin Fusiliers were fired on by Boer scouts. They returned the fusillade and maintained their ground. Towards dawn, or near 5 a.m., the camp and town were startled by the discharge of Boer cannon placed upon Smith's Hill, which is scarcely a mile and a half east of Dundee. Their shells came hurtling over the town and dropping into camp. Very few of the missiles burst, and, as the aim besides was bad, they inflicted little hurt. According to rule, the troops had been standing to arms awaiting daybreak. Without a moment's hesitation General Symons ordered the Hussars, mounted infantry detachments, two field batteries, and three infantry battalions forward to carry the Boer position. The Leicesters and one battery were left behind as a camp guard, whilst the 1st Battalion King's Rifles (1st B. K.R.R.C.), the Dublin and Royal Irish Fusiliers advanced to dislodge the enemy.
Moving to the north of the town, the 13th and 69th Field Batteries speedily got to work, tearing the enemy with shrapnel. The Boers fought their guns at first for all they were worth; but the British shells taking heavy toll in killed and wounded, by 7.30 a.m. the enemy's batteries were silenced. Meanwhile the infantry had advanced unseen along a donga on the north, and emerged within range of Talana—the Rifles on the right, the Dublins upon the left, whilst the Royal Irish Fusiliers were in support A battery galloped forward, passing through the town, and took new ground to the right, where, at 3000 yards range, they made the slopes and top of Smith's Kopje perilously uncomfortable. A squadron of the 18th Hussars and some mounted infantry went to the left to harass the enemy's reserves. Going forward in open skirmish order the Rifles and Fusiliers proceeded right across Smith's Farm towards Talana. From the hilltop and its sides, from every coign of cover, the Boers used their Mausers, firing rapidly and continuously. Their nearest marksmen were still 1500 yards away. In front of the troops was an open strip of flat land about 500 yards broad, and void of cover. Barbed-wire fencing girt the meadow. With little bidding, the soldiers made a rush across the open and gained the edge of a 200-yard-wide belt of scrub wood running along the side of the hill. The Boers used their magazine rifles, firing rapidly as our men doubled forward, inflicting a good many casualties. Bravely the Indian hospital contingent, with native dhoolie bearers, followed to pick up the wounded.
The Boer rifle fire never slackened, but their guns and supports upon the hilltop were receiving constant chastisement from our batteries. Colonel Dartnell, chief of the Natal police, a veteran soldier, was present, and, knowing the district, was able to give invaluable assistance to the troops. General Penn Symons, with his wonted gallantry, continually exposed himself, hastening the delivery of the assault He was begged by friends more than once to keep in the background, for plainly Boer sharpshooters were marking him down. With his staff, he rode forward across the open strip, getting into the wood cover untouched. But the Boers, reinforced and more determined, strove to drive the soldiers backward. Fire as they would, Tommy Atkins never budged, returning shot for shot with interest; but the casualties on both sides were swelling rapidly. The Rifles brought their Maxim into play, relieving some little of the pressure. At 8 a.m. our batteries took up a position within 1200 yards of the foe, shaking them with salvoes of shrapnel. Soon afterwards, whilst standing in an exposed glade of the wood, hurrying his men onward,General Symons was shot in the stomach. He made little of the wound for a while, telling officers and men to push ahead. Colonel Dartnell stood by him, assisting him to sit his horse, which he led off under a galling fire. But the shower of bullets that laid the General low also made havoc amongst his staff, only three officers escaping uninjured. Later on, Colonel Dartnell brought Major Hammersley, who was severely wounded, out of the ring of fire.
Undeterred, the Rifles and Fusiliers once more hastened forward and began to climb the steep sides of Talana, under a murderous fusillade of the Boers. Progress was slow, but doggedly the infantry pressed on. By 10 a.m. advanced parties, by rushes from cover to cover, finally gained the shelter of a loy stone wall, 500 feet below the crest-line. The troops were spread far apart, but intuitively knot after knot reinforced the daring men holding the wall. Thereafter the Boers were met on more advantageous terms, and they soon began to suffer. The firing became desultory, the Tommies waiting to see a head to hit it. Gradually Rifles and Fusiliers mingled, and at a quarter-past high noon had crept up to within a few yards of the crest. Until 1.30 p.m. they lay there, their number all the while being added to, and the batteries, from a fresh position, bursting shrapnel all over the summit of Talana. Then the " Charge " sounded, and a miscellaneous body, chiefly of Rifles, with Fusiliers, stormed the last thirty yards, to find on gaining the top that the Boers were well started in full retreat on the run. A few were shot down, but the majority had decamped, taking their guns. Their dead and wounded, rifles, ammunition, saddlery stores, etc., lay about in endless confusion. So ended the more stirring part of the battle and storming of Dundee Hill. The enemy, following their wonted custom, had removed the most of their dead and wounded. Two miles to the eastward, looking from Talana, could be seen the principal hospital of the routed Boers. A few prisoners were taken, two of whom were Cape Colony Boers, and a third was from Natal. Our casualties were about forty-five killed and a hundred and eighty wounded. Beyond doubt the enemy suffered far more severely. It had rained heavily the night before, but the weather cleared on the morning of the battle. Dundee was jubilant, and the townsfolk lined the streets and cheered the returning victorious troops on their way to camp.
But for an untoward incident, which there seems every reason to credit, the army of Lucas Meyer might have been put out of future reckoning in the war. When the hill was stormed, the Boers there displayed a white flag, and that the men took as indicating complete surrender. Later on, the flying Boers descending the hillside also waved a white flag. They, however, did not halt, but streamed off to the rear, passing unmolested under the noses, so to speak, of a battery; it was but 500 yards away, and beyond the cavalry escort Both had orders not to attack, as it was believed the Boers had made up their minds to yield themselves prisoners. Later on, it was made clear they had intended nothing of the kind. A few of the Hussars and the Mounted Infantry in another part of the field succeeded in getting at the fugitives and inflicting loss; but Colonel Moller, with several other officers, and about eighty men of the 18th Hussars and Mounted Infantry, riding out too far, lost his way and got cut off and captured, much to the chagrin of the rest of the column. It has since been learned they are prisoners in Pretoria. The Boers, however, soon rallied. They had an armistice on Saturday to bring in the wounded and bury the dead. Reinforcements arrived, possibly including commandoes from Joubert's column. They changed their position, and, although still near Smith's Hill, sent a large force to occupy the big, lofty Impati mountain, 4000 yards north of the camp. From there they reopened with cannon, this time a 40-pounder—a "Long Tom"—upon town and camp. The place became untenable, and Colonel Yule, who succeeded General Symons in command, moved the force to the south side of the railway, going into quarters near the collieries. The more seriously wounded, including the General, were placed in the Dundee public buildings, from which the Red Cross flag was displayed. There was an attempt made to remove the two months9 supplies to the new camp, but the enemy's fire rendered it impracticable. On Sunday the troops strove to save the situation, but a report got abroad—unfounded, I am told— that the column was short of ammunition, having no more than would suffice to fight another such battle. Thereupon the resolve was taken to evacuate the place and march by the heavy roundabout Helpmaakar road and Washbank Valley back to Ladysmith, to rejoin General White's immediate command. All the sick and wounded it was determined to leave behind, in charge of the Army doctors, who volunteered to remain and do their duty.
Silently at dusk, on Sunday, October 22, Yule's column returned to their old camp, recovered some more ammunition, and took three or four days' emergency rations. Thereafter, in the dark and the rain, the force retraced their steps, and, passing south amid the wild, rocky hills, started for Ladysmith. Stores, tents, and all baggage, except what officers and men stood up in, were left behind. By daybreak on Monday morning the column was nine miles away. That they had gone was unknown to most of the townsfolk left in Dundee. When they awoke to the fact, the majority hurried south on their account. The Boers, puzzled at the situation, did not descend into Dundee until nearly eleven sum., and then they found so much to take in eatables and drinkables and general loot that they were in no haste to follow Yule's force. In terribly wet weather, over bemired tracks and rough boulders, through narrow, mountainous passes, General Yule's men toiled, marching usually all night long. Had the enemy waylaid them upon the way a calamity must have ensued, for in one part of the Washbank Gorge the pass was but little over 100 yards wide, and the rocks rose almost perpendicularly upon either side for three miles. We at Ladysmith knew something of their coming via the Greytown-Maritzburg telegraph. To the intense relief of all in Ladysmith, Colonel Dartnell rode into that place on Tuesday, October 24, arriving at 1 p.m. with the news that he had left Yule's column twenty miles out, all well, though wet and weary. The same day he returned to them, escorting a supply and relief force. Next day many of the men arrived, and upon Thursday, the 26th, we welcomed them all safely in.