Ladysmith, October 25, 1899.
WHILST hard knocks were being given and received both by Briton and Boer at Dundee, those with General Sir George White's main column at Ladysmith were not altogether idle. Detachments of cavalry, gallant Natalian Volunteers, Border Mounted Rifles, Carbineers, Imperial Light Horse, and others, together with squadrons of 5th Lancers and 5th Dragoon Guards, as well as a few Hussars, were daily made to cast wide afield to ascertain the enemy's whereabouts. Here and there they had little skirmishes with Boer patrols, in which the best of the fight was rarely with the enemy. Ladysmith was a big camp, and the town of one or two streets was filled by day and night with nondescript visitors who came and went at their own sweet will, and of whom many were actively in sympathy with the enemy. Their intelligence department certainly never had much need to stand in want of full information upon any subject connected with the British arms. But there, as some official said, " England is a great and powerful nation, and can afford to overlook many of the questionable doings of Boers or their spies." Perhaps; but not even military chiefs have the right lightly to contribute to the making of widows and orphans, be they those even of the humblest Tommy. I said from the first, Ladysmith camp was an untenable position. Placed, like the town itself, in low ground, it is begirt by rough, rocky hills, every one of which is overlooked and commanded by ridges and mountains dotted around all the points of the compass, except a narrow strip of level upon the south side. In successive rude Titanic steps the Drakensberg and Biggarsberg ranges descend into this region of Natal.
When it was made clear that the Boers were really bent upon invasion in force, and large bodies of them were almost within striking distance, the military stores depot was moved from the old camp to ground around the railway goods sheds. Perhaps it would be more correct to write that room was found there for the newer and larger consignments of munitions of war, including rations and forage, and the supplies sent to the old camp were retransported back to town. In fact, quite recently the camp itself was hastily evacuated, many tents being left standing, and much personal baggage was allowed to lie about all night quite unguarded, at the mercy of pilfering Kaffirs or marauders. The troops were moved into town, and small camps were formed upon the east and south sides of Ladysmith. Next day most of the tents and baggage were brought in, but why the camp was so hastily evacuated I have never been able to learn authoritatively. It was subsequently re-occupied. Major-General French, attended by Major Haig, arrived in Ladysmith on or about October 19. Next day he proceeded on a reconnaissance with part of his cavalry command and a battery of field artillery up the Newcastle Road towards Eland's Laagte [Ed - Elandslaagte]. There was a little skirmishing at various points, particularly just beyond Modder's Spruit, where the Boers were caught and smartly shelled and driven back beyond Eland's Laagte. Four of their scouts were caught by our troopers. I rode with the latter, who dismounted, and were engaged more than once with their carbines while the Mounted Volunteers used their rifles. We had a few casualties, and the Boers surely lost a good many more than our men. It was ascertained that bodies of the enemy were moving south and eastward. Towards nightfall the Boers were reinforced by several commandoes bearing Transvaal flags, and our cavalry slowly returned to town.
Early on Saturday, October 21, before daybreak, General French led out towards Eland's Laagte squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards, 5th Lancers, one Field Battery (151b.), the Natal Mountain Battery, various detachments of Mounted Volunteers, including the Imperial Light Horse under Colonel Chisholm and Major Sampson, and half of the Manchester Regiment. The infantry were moved out by rail, most of them riding in the armoured train, of which the iron sides of the loopholed trucks and engine are painted khaki. For causes easy to understand, when the nature of the country is considered, our armoured trains have to move forward very gingerly. Still, each one of the three here has been under rifle-fire, and the men manning them have given a warm reception to the Boers. The latter, however, are difficult to coax to close quarters. Tommy is fond of an occasional trip in the armoured trains. His whimsicalities are drawn and written all over the iron plates. Here is " One for Oom Paul "—
"The Fusiliers that guard this train
Must hold their own with might and main ;
Take good aim, and make shots tell,
And send all Dutchmen straight to-"
—a very warm place.
Advancing very rapidly the Volunteer Cavalry, under Colonel Royston, with the Natal battery, drove in the Boer outposts at Modder's Spruit. A little later, or about 6.30 a.m., from a ridge 1500 yards off, the gunners began dropping shells around Eland's Laagte station. It was a complete surprise visit. Had the troops been on the kopje twenty minutes earlier the Boers would have been caught eating their breakfast. The screech of the first
shell brought the enemy out-of-doors, from the village houses and the railway buildings, and as quickly as legs could speed they went north, towards a rough group of hills about a mile and a half away on the east side of the line. The direct approach led over flat, broken, alluvial ground, cut up by gulleys. Between two low mountain chains rose a well-marked conical hill, beneath which laagered Boer waggons showed where lay the enemy's camp. Our cavalry and batteries advanced, fusillading and pounding the fleeing enemy, and assailing his camp, which began swarming with men like an angry beehive. The first good piece of luck was that nearly all the prisoners caught by the Boers when they seized Eland's Laagte station and the collieries and captured the two trains, came running in. Among them were the proprietor, manager, and foremen of the mines, Mr. Mitchell Innes, Mr. D. Harris, and others, and the railroad officials, together with a Boer sergeant and his fifteen prisoners. From these we learned of the strength and disposition of the Boer forces, namely, about 2000 men, with three or more field guns. The escaped fugitives and several Boer prisoners were at once sent back into Ladysmith. I gleaned from them at the moment that General Kock was in command of the post, that Commandant de Miellof and the German Colonel (?) Schiel, with many of the Johannesburg commando, were in front of us. Mr. Harris told me that they had all—some thirty-seven British subjects—been court-martialed the previous day. They were brought before General Kock, who sat at a table eating a mutton-chop with several of his associates. As the General disdained to speak English, an interpreter was brought in, and through the latter they were warned and counselled neither to attempt to escape nor hold communication with the British. An oath also was exacted from them that they would do nothing calculated to injure the Republics, and would obey their officers. The Boers obtained 300 pounds of dynamite from the mines' magazine, but Mr. Harris happily managed to hide from them several hundredweight of gunpowder.
Realizing from their scouts that they had only a small force before them, the Boer leaders rallied their men, and opened a hot fire with cannon, maxims, and small arms from their position at our advancing troops. Their horsemen hurried forward to throw themselves as skirmishers upon our flanks. Within an hour General French had to withdraw his men stage by stage. Our little 7-pounder guns were using black powder, disclosing their whereabouts, whereas the excellent 9-centim^tre guns of the enemy, fired from cover, were not easy to locate. We were hard pressed back to the high ground north of Modders Spruit, the Boer cannon upsetting a limber and waggon, but failing to reach the armoured train. Then, the ground favouring a defensive fight, the troops were halted and extended, so as to protect front and flanks. The Boers did not attempt to bring on their cannon, so our batteries and troopers were able to effectively stop the enemy's further advance. Having means to tap the wires, General French sent in a report to Sir George White, and asked for small reinforcements to enable him to carry the Boer position. From 9 a.m. until i p.m. the troops remained almost idle, the Boers evincing a distaste for our shrapnel; it had caught numbers of them upon the hillsides north-east of Modder's Spruit, which flows eastward.
About 1.40 p.m. our long-awaited reinforcements arrived, some by road, the infantry by rail. They included another British field battery of 15-pounders, several squadrons of the Dragoons, Lancers, and Volunteers, with some of the Devons and Gordon Highlanders. Our infantry now numbered two and a half battalions, and was under the command of Colonel Ian Hamilton, whose practical knowledge and experience of Boer tactics has led him never to send his men forward to fight in close Aldershot formations. His successful plan is to let the infantry advance in very widely separated skirmish order—line following line at intervals sufficient to secure cover, fill up gaps, and yield support when necessary. The infantry were detrained on the east of the railway over a mile south of Modder's Spruit At once the Imperial Light Horse, the Natal Mounted Rifles, with others, followed by the 5th Lancers, rode eastward towards the low hills where a few Boers had ventured down under wall cover to bushwhack the patrols and trains. These the volunteers sent helter-skelter, after a few shots, into the hill fastnesses. The Manchester regiment and the Gordons set their faces eastward, and began smartly ascending the ridges running about a mile away, and parallel with the railway, whilst the Devons marched upon the low ground bordering the east side of the line. Behind them moved a field battery, whilst the Natal mountain guns went with their compatriot volunteers to scale the eastern ridges which trended north in almost unbroken crests to the Boer position at Eland's Laagte. The 5th Dragoon Guards, with a few squadrons of volunteers and a field battery, moved forward upon our left. Roughly the advance was, on the extreme right, the Imperial Light Horse and Volunteers, supported by the Mounted Battery and 5th Lancers. Behind these, in order named, though that was the result of a slight error, were the Manchesters, on the right, and the Gordons on the left. Again, in the valley on the Highlanders' left were the stout-backed Devons, with the battery, and farther left, across the railway, the Dragoon Guards and others. General White, with his staff, arrived upon the field about 4 p.m. He remained for an hour watching the operations, but did not take the direction of affairs from General French. It was a pretty panoramic show from 2 p.m. until 3 p.m., for the sun still shone, to see the troops marching onward, line following line along the valley up the bare slopes, and sweeping over the crests of the hills. Cavalry, guns, and infantry, they held along as if it had been a home field-day, the whip-like snapping of rifles and the wild-bee hum of the bullets neither disturbing their drill-like order, nor the rhythm and swing of their marching strides. But soon there was another song to sing, as the darkening thunder-clouds gathered, and evening began setting in ere the afternoon was spent The Boer fire upon the eastern ridges grew in volume, though as yet it gained little in accuracy and deadliness. At 3.20 p.m. one of our batteries began firing, throwing shrapnel far beyond the spruit, and searching the ridges in front of the advancing infantry. Five minutes afterwards the Boer cannon paid our troops a similar compliment, though for the most part their shells failed to burst, and many plugged harmlessly into the veldt. My cart and horses came in for much attention from their gunners, and it had to be sent to the rear for a while, as it had several close shaves from the Boer shells. I continued on afoot with the infantry, keeping with the Devons until later in the action, when, like others, I climbed the ridge. As soon as the Manchesters and the Gordons reached the main hill chain, which was studded with angular chunks of rock and stone, the battle of Eland's Laagte became an affair of deadly earnest Bravely pushing ahead upon the extreme right, the Imperial Light Horse came under the shell fire of the Boer guns, and were held and turned for a short time by the enemy's sharpshooters. But the British infantry, sweeping onward, relieved the pressure, and subsequently the Light Horse did as much for their soldier comrades.
The artillery and infantry fire by 4 p.m. had reached the whirlwind stage, the fight raging from end to end of our lines. But Tommy was out for the day, and meant to beat the Boers; and so, in the storm and driving tropical rain, he pushed ahead, the enemy skipping from cover to cover, like rabbits when the hunt is on. Our gunners, as the range diminished, almost mastered the Boer artillery fire, and did not omit to search the rocky cover in front of the advancing infantry. Sweeping all before them, the Gordons and Manchesters went on, the Devons, as yet scarcely engaged, but performing the indispensable duty of guarding the flank and menacing the enemy by a direct frontal attack. As they drew in to the Boer camp, every soldier of them secured cover by lying prone behind one or other of the innumerable ant-hills that dotted the plain. These little mounds of hard mud are here from eighteen to thirty inches in height, and quite bullet-proof. But, as the Boers said afterwards, it was impossible to see the khaki-clad infantry when they lay down. The Highlanders afforded the best mark when they stood up to advance, because of their kilts and sporrans. Perhaps the military authorities may note that there is no good reason why, upon active service, they should not don khaki kilts and sporrans. If Guardsmen may change their coats and trousers, Highlanders should be permitted to change their kilts for the nonce. So, too, the officers were marked down by their swords and Sam Brown belts, and parties of Boers, told off to shoot leaders, found no difficulty in distinguishing officers from privates. Many years ago I suggested the wisdom of replacing the sword by a light repeating rifle. I see that Colonel Baden-Powell has done so with the Mafeking force.
The tug-of-war came in the darkening. Shouts and cheers mingled with badinage; Tommy Atkins called to Tommy as they hurried onward towards the highest shoulder. Downward the hill slopes, at first easily, then at a sharp angle, to the neck. The Boers made a fierce, plucky struggle to maintain their ground. I saw several of them standing up, evidently encouraging their fellows, and others came rushing in dozens up from the near slope to take their place in the battle. But the "independent" firing of our soldiers was sure and withering, and Boer after Boer, hit by Lee-Metfords, sank and fell, and the troops swept rapidly on. Then there was a roar like the noise of heavy ocean surge, and Highlanders and Manchesters, their now fixed bayonets gleaming in the flash of lightning and musketry, with Imperial Light Horse, ran forward, and the last ridge was won. Boers who had fought and shot down our men up till within fifteen paces of us now rose from the rocks, and throwing up their hands, asked for quarter. Colonel Hamilton and his officers saw and protected them, although these men scarcely deserved clemency under the ordinary war rules. Our losses, so far, had been comparatively few—nothing like so many as those of the enemy.
It was at this moment that something took place which might have proved disastrous but for the individual hardihood of the British soldier. In a few seconds after the top was gained, with another roar of cheering and shouting, Manchester and Highlanders ran charging down the hill. The Devons also rose and ran forward, now well within five hundred yards' fire, rapidly at the enemy upon their front. Two or three hundred of the Boers made a brief attempt to save the situation, but were beaten. Suddenly the fusillade almost ceased, and the bugles sounded " Cease fire," Colonel Hamilton and the officers shouting to the men to stop, as it was all over. The Boers had hoisted a white flag from near their camp laager. The Highlanders, who were well down the hill and exposed to fire upon their flank from a ridge to the north, stood up. All that went on was the blare of bugles, "Cease fire," blurred by broken musketry from other parts of the field, to right and left Suddenly there was sprung upon the troops a virulent fusillade of Mausers, directed by Boers, who had fled to the opposite crest in rear, from the neck, the conical hillsides, and further ridge. Officers and men dropped in every direction, and the tale of our killed and wounded rose by scores. There was practically no cover nearer than a hundred and fifty yards, and many of the soldiers had remained upon the crown of the ridge. Back, then, in groups helter-skelter the troops ran for shelter. Major Brook, who had been wounded going downhill, was luckily lifted up and carried back by Lord Ava and others, and placed behind a rock. That act resulted in the saving of his life. Without orders or word of command the Tommies halted upon the crest, faced about, and recommenced the fight, now thoroughly angry at the trick played them.
Evidently the Boers were fighting for night and opportunity to escape. They had miscalculated their weakness. Our right pushed in, so did the Devons, right up to the face of the camp, their fire scattering the Boers clinging to the rocks. Highlanders and Manchesters speedily settled the enemy, who had fallen back upon the conical hill, and the Devons soon disposed of the rest Dargai was not in it for the fierceness of the contest At last, near six o'clock, the Devons rose, cheered, and rushed the last defences of the Boers, getting first up to where two of the enemy's nine-centimetre guns were, the gunners, dead and dying, lying around. In the dark, stumbling, the Manchesters and Highlanders charged down nearly at the same moment, and Eland's Laagte was triumphantly won. The cavalry had been biding their time, and, although it was now almost pitch dark, the Dragoons on one hand, and the Lancers upon the other, rode into the flying Boers. A squadron of each got them with lance and sword, the former behind the hill, the other beyond Eland's Laagte Station. In the darkness they thrust and cut, following the enemy for two miles, stumbling forward. Near the enemy's hospital, in rear of the conical hill, a Boer ran out, shouting to the troopers, " Keep away, this is the hospital," whilst the flying enemy escaped around the tents, and the would-be philanthropist covertly fired his revolver from under his coat at the soldiers. He was caught in the act by an officer and shot dead.
A victory is never assured until the field has been gone over. We had lost severely in killed and wounded. The Gordons went in 425 strong. Only three of the officers escaped untouched. Their casualties were 115, four officers killed and seven wounded. The Imperial Light Horse mustered 240. They lost Colonel Chishoim, and Major Sampson was severely wounded. Their casualties were eight killed and forty wounded, including eight officers. But the enemy had suffered far greater losses; nearly 200 of their dead lay upon the field, and their wounded must have totalled over thrice as many more. Most of their leaders had been killed, wounded, or were subsequently made prisoners. The roll of captives was a long one. Their leader, General Kock, lay dangerously wounded, and not far removed were his two brothers, a son, and a nephew. Colonel Schiel, Commandant Pinnaar, Joubert's nephew, De Witt Hamer, Ben Viljoen, Dr. Coster, and many others had been killed. There were all around the evidences of precipitate flight, loose horses, saddlery, their two cannon, personal baggage, arms, ammunition, and waggons. Underneath tents and waggons were lying wounded, unwounded, and dead Boers. Passing down the hill, I saw a stalwart elderly man, with full grey beard, lying wounded. Something possessed me to ask if he were Judge Kock. " No," he answered; "I am the father of Judge Kock. Will you get me a drink, and something to put under my head ? Your men have hurt me," he said, in excellent English. I then knew it was the Boer leader, or General, and I called out to the Staff. Meanwhile, he was assisted in every way possible, and a mattress was brought, on which he was laid, as he could not be moved in the dark over the steep rough ground. A tarpaulin was also spread over him to ward off the rain.
Having made up my mind to try and find my way back to town, pitch-dark as the night was, though nearly everybody else decided to bivouac upon the battlefield, General French dictated the following message, and gave it me to convey to Sir George White in Ladysmith: " I have taken the position. Rather severe losses. Brook wounded in the leg. Have taken enemy's artillery, three guns. Am occupying enemy's camp and securing hills around till morning. Shall wire you, if possible. I intend during night to place detachment in the station (railway) to secure same, and bring trains up into station; get ready to repair line at daybreak through to mines if possible. Shall try to move as many wounded as I can. Probably impossible to-night General Kock, father of Judge Kock, wounded."
I reached headquarters with the message, eighteen miles away, about 11.30 p.m., the roads being terrible and the spruits running free. Next morning I rode out to revisit the stricken field, where most of our men and the enemy's wounded had lain through the cold, wet, black, starless night—a woeful night of nights—their life's blood ebbing. For the un-wounded it was bad enough. Chilled and drenched to the skin, it was impossible, except by constant movement, to keep warm. For dying and wounded, calling for succour, their tortures must have been dreadful. A trooper of a Volunteer force, stretched alone away upon the hillside, recovering consciousness, fired his rifle over a dozen times to attract attention. He was nearly killed, for an alarm was created that the enemy were returning to " snipe; " but somebody went out, discovered the cause of the shooting, and brought the poor fellow in. I found General French and his whole force hastily evacuating the position, upon the strength of information and orders from headquarters. The enemy were said to be coming on again. Hurriedly the wounded were entrained and sent into Ladysmith. The enemy's guns, several of his battle-flags—at least three, probably five—and his waggons, and some of his stores, were also removed. Our cavalry were also recalled from pursuit, and returned with about 200 prisoners—an hour or so more would have doubled the number. So also would the victory have been more complete had darkness, on the night of the battle, not descended so swiftly. Unfortunately, some of the enemy's nine-centimetre cannon, and a quantity of ammunition, rifles, and cartridges, had to be left behind with other things, as there were no means of removing them. And it turned out there was no need for haste, as the Boers were nowhere near, and showed no disposition to dispute the, for us, victorious issue at Eland's Laagte. It was a hard-fought battle, won mainly by the British soldiers, the General having given them their direction and orders and left the result in their safe hands. Given a fair field, man to man, Tommy is more than a match for the Boer, even at the latter's own game—and the Boer now knows the fact.