Estcourt, November 17,1899
THERE is a trite proverb about the pitcher that goes to the well. The armoured train has gone forth once too often and too far. Unattended, unaided by cavalry, patrols, or guns, it has been battered by the enemy, and in part captured, and soldiers and civilians have been made prisoners. I confess I never saw anything but risk in going by the train* unless the utmost prudence was exercised. On the occasions when I journeyed therein, Captain Hensley, of the Dublin Fusiliers, who was in charge usually, was wont to stop the train, dismount, and proceed with one or two men on foot to scout the more dangerous overlooking hills, before steaming beyond them. As a matter of fact, also, when Colenso was barred against us by the crossing of the enemy's commandoes to his side, bringing guns with them, there was no particular object to be gained in running down-grade north of Frere. Nay, hard as it may seem to say so, I will add, in the interests of faithful record, that the verbal and well-understood headquarters instructions were that the train should not be run beyond Frere, unless upon some express orders or for some special cause. Last Wednesday the train was run as far as Chieveley, about six miles north of Frere, and on returning was fired upon, overturned, and most of its living freight were made prisoners by a large body of Boers. But every story in its place in these rough, day-by-day jottings.
Those who slept with their boots off last Monday night were not disturbed save by the chill, damp, unseasonable weather. The wind blowing over the snow-clad Drakensberg Mountains swept chill under tents and blankets. Rain and mist, rivalling anything to be experienced north of the Grampians, had settled upon the land, obscuring hill and vale. It was cruel to be kind, for under these influences black and ordinarily bare red and brown wastes were being converted into green, succulent pastures. Later, morning gave a breathing space of less moisture-laden atmosphere, but the afternoon and night of Tuesday fully restored the watery balance against us. That was discomfort enough, surely. Bang! bang! in the forenoon went the alarm guns upon the west of the railway, a signal that the enemy were approaching. In a minute all was rush and scurry, the soldiers running to seize their arms, and the transport men and coolies to their posts, yoking teams and getting ready ammunition mules, watercarts, dhoolies, and stretchers. Colonel Martyn had gone out with his mounted men to the east of Frere, and the picquets upon the hills had reported having seen small bodies of Boers. Tents were struck, and everything was quickly prepared for defence.
As the pleasant umbrageous village, but thoroughly South African town of Estcourt, lies in the rolling hollows by the Bushman's River, the troops had to be sent out—some to the left, front, and right, to secure the loftier, down-like sweeps. Those to the east were over a mile away. The higher rough hills were still farther afield, but the smallness of Colonel Long's force forbade extending his lines so far. As Major-General Hildyard had returned to Maritz-burg, Colonel Long, R.A., was Brigadier and Commandant. Behind Estcourt is a moderately elevated ridge, midway up which stands Fort Durnford, known in connection with the Zulu War. It is an enclosure rather than a fort, with two rough stone buildings, and the place is now used as a police barracks and jail. There it was determined that if hard pressed the troops should retire and cover the railway and road bridges to the south as long as possible.
I rode out to the east of Estcourt, and from the high ground saw, but 2500 yards away, a party of about 100 Boers upon Mount Bombomvula. They could be noticed surveying the ground in every direction, as if selecting a position. Some rode along the flat top of the hill, others came down its side, and entered the farm buildings of Mr.Hodson. Our cavalry exchanged a few shots with them during the forenoon and afternoon. The troopers turned the hill, and the Boers upon Bombomvula having galloped off, and the others showing no signs of coming on, the majority of the infantry were withdrawn to their camps. Strong outposts, however, were left to guard the position, and these settled to duty, drenched and cold in the pouring rain, keeping watch and ward for us without a murmur—nay, I think, rather pleased that their posts enabled them to have the first chances of getting in a few shots in the expected battle. But the troops —the Dublin Fusiliers, the Durham Light Infantry, and others who had returned to camp—were no better off than their comrades upon the hills. In the rain and mire they had to hang about, for their tents had been struck. There was, however, an order that tents should be repitched, but they were scarcely up before it was rescinded; and through a terrible day and night, as best they could, the men had to wait for dawn and better weather. Yet all this was in a town where there were many deserted sheds, warehouses, and private dwellings, enough and to spare to afford shelter to all the men. No other army that I can think of at the moment would, in time of war, have been left locked out from available billeting places. Ultimately many of their commanders saw to it that their men found some cover under the railway sheds and the verandahs along the main thoroughfare. The event of the week has been the attack upon the armoured train. On Wednesday morning it was ordered out at 5 a.m. to proceed carefully from point to point to Frere. Under Captain Haldane, of the Gordon Highlanders, who for the time was attached to the Dublin Fusiliers, seventy-two noncommissioned officers and men of that battalion, with Lieutenant Frankland, forty-five non-commissioned officers and men of the Durban Light Infantry, under Captain Wylie and Lieutenant Alexander, and five bluejackets from her Majesty's ship Tartar, under a petty officer, manned the train. Besides these were the engine hands and seven platelayers to repair damages. Mr. Winston Churchill, of the Morning Post, also rode upon the train. Correspondents were wont to proceed in rotation upon the trips, but that morning others whose turn it was, either too sleepy or indifferent, did not embark. A Scotch or Glasgow telegraphist in the Natal Government employ also accompanied the troops, so as to wire back any information either from the ptations or by hitching on to the telegraph lines en route. The train stopped for a few minutes at Ennersdale, the first station, and about seven miles north. From there a message was sent back that the line was clear, and, receiving authority, the train proceeded onward to Frere, the next station. There another brief stoppage was made, and the police patrol, being interrogated, stated that they had seen no Boers, although it was known that a few of the enemy had occupied a farm but four miles off the previous night A wire was sent in to headquarters from Frere that all was clear, and, without waiting for any reply, the train ran on to Chieveley. On the way several natives tried to warn the train back. At Chieveley Station about 300 Boers were seen upon both sides of the line, but some distance away, riding furiously towards Frere, as if to intercept the return of the train. It consisted of, in front, an open flat truck, upon which was a 7-pounder manned by the bluejackets. Next it was an armoured truck with some of the Dublins. Behind that was the engine and tender, and again came two armoured trucks and an open flat truck with railway plant. In the rear armoured trucks were a few of the Dublins, the Durbans, and the railway staff.
Three miles nearer Frere, rounding a curve, and under the slope of a hill, the Boers poured volleys at the train, and at the same moment a repeating 3-pounder Maxim-Nordenfeldt cannon began blazing at them. Two similar guns also opened fire on the devoted train. Suddenly, in a moment, and without warning, as the train was steaming rapidly back—it is a single line—a point was reached where the Boers had removed the fish-plates and propped up one side of the lines with stones. Instantly the flat rear truck—then in front, as the engine was backing—jumped the metals, followed by the next two trucks. They ran, bumping, for a little distance; then the flat truck and the armoured truck next turned over, throwing all the occupants into the field. The flat truck turned over, wheels uppermost, whilst the top-heavy armoured carriage almost turned a complete somersault. Luckily the engine and tender and the other trucks kept the metals. A platelayer was killed outright, being pinned under the waggon; but most of the others miraculously escaped with a shaking and slight bruises. Then it was that the Boers began firing shells and bullets, faster than ever, at those struggling upon the ground, striving to free themselves from the wreckage. With magnificent intrepidity, although being shot at from three sides, the Dublins and Volunteers began returning the enemy's fire, taking what little shelter they could alongside the line. Mr. Winston Churchill and Lieutenant Frankland clambered out of the truck next the gun, and, proceeding to the derailed waggons, called for volunteers to assist in clearing the line. A score of willing hands responded, Captain Wylie and others of the Durban Light Infantry assisting. Amid a hail of bullets and bursting 3-pounders the flat truck was tilted over, and a few men released. Then they tried to push away the armoured truck, but it was too heavy for their united efforts. Churchill and the others encouraged the men, rallying them again and again.
Meanwhile the Dublins, Durbans, and a few others were pouring volleys into the almost unseenBoers hidden behind the rocks, about iooo yards away. Independent firing was also being kept up at them, and the bluejackets, bravely commanded by their petty officer—who was the incarnation of coolness—got their 7-pounder into action. They sent two, if not three, well-aimed shells at the Boers, several hundred of whom lined the hills. But just then a shot from the enemy's 3-pounder or field-gun hit the small naval 7-pounder, knocked gun and carriage on to the veldt, and wounded several of the seamen. But the men were not a whit beaten. Sergeant E. Basset, of the Dublins, standing up, shouted his orders to the men, giving them the direction and ranges in the coolest manner. Nearly everybody had clambered out of the armoured trucks, which were being pelted with the enemy's shells. The " character" of the Dublins, Private Kavanagh—that day one of the stretcher - bearers — chaffed and encouraged his comrades, telling them the Boer shells could hit nothing. He it was who at Dundee, after the long day's battle, being asked if he was hungry and did not wish for something to eat, said, " No. How can I with my mouth full?" "Full!" said his officer—" what do you mean ? " " Why, my heart's been in it all day, sir!" replied Kavanagh, with a grin. And so the "hard case" of his battalion shouted and joked, walked about amid a tempest of bullets, and stirred the gallant, glorious Dublins to shoot well and thrue. The trucks could not be man-handled, so engine-driver Wegner and his mates uncoupled the waggons that had been in front, ran them down the line a little way, and commenced to butt and smash a road through the overturned waggons. By dint of pulling back with chains and smashing forward, the engine and tender won past the wreckage. Then they tried to return and pick up the other two waggons, the armoured and flat truck, but they were baulked by one of the others having swung round across the line, and finding the coupling-chains smashed. Captain Wylie, who had been shot through the leg early in the action, got Sergeant Tod, of the Durbans, to place some stones to protect his head as he lay upon the ground. Scarcely had Tod done so and turned to help the other wounded, when a shell knocked Captain Wylie's little parapet away, and Tod was himself thrown up by a kick from a piece of the projectile which hit him severely. All the wounded, with the help and direction of Churchill, were placed upon the tender. Meanwhile the engine was struck in several places by shells. The feed-injector was broken. A shell passed through a corner of the tender, killing one of the wounded men and maiming others as they lay prone upon the coal-sacks, whilst another missile struck the smoke-box, and missed penetrating the boiler by the merest shave, but it started a leak or two. Wegner, the driver, was hit and stunned by a piece of shell. Then, there being no more to be done, the engine and tender, with its freight of fully a score wounded and well—there were a dozen injured—steamed on to Ennersdale and then to Frere to summon assistance.
Those left behind spread out along the line were still blazing away at the Boers, fighting as a forlorn hope, whilst the train drew off. Several of the Durbans and Dublins followed it a little way on foot, shooting at the enemy as they slowly retired. At Frere it was found that the station hands and police had gone and taken the telegraph instruments with them. Those McArthur took out with him had been broken in the action, and, there being no other way out of it, with their mangled freight of dead and wounded, engine and tender steamed back into Estcourt. Mr. Churchill, however, after handing in his revolver and field-glasses, said he was going back to the scene to assist the wounded and stand by the men. The last seen of him was as he trudged alone away down into the arena of battle, where the shot and shell were still screaming, splintering rock and ploughing the ground. A few of the luckier fugitives passed him on the way, but failed to turn him back from his purpose. A small body of Mounted Volunteers, who rode out from Estcourt and Frere, got upon the right flank of the Boers, and inflicted some loss upon the enemy before they were compelled to retire before superior numbers.
The news of the disaster to the train caused a shock to the little garrison, all of whom were anxious to be led out to their comrades' rescue. But it could not be; larger interests held the commander's hands, no doubt, and the firing which we had all heard went on for some little time longer, and then ceased. Subsequently an ambulance train was sent out, under Surgeon-Captain Briscoe, to bring in the wounded. The Boers met him, but declined to give any information or return a man until General Joubert had been communicated with. The officer was told to return next day, when an answer would be given him. He did so, taking as before medicines and stretchers with him ; but the answer was that the wounded and prisoners would be sent to Pretoria. Incidentally, Surgeon-Captain Briscoe learned that, according to the Boers, three of our men had been killed and twelve wounded. That does not include those killed and wounded brought in by the engine and tender. The exact number missing are—Dublin Fusiliers, two officers (Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Falkland) and forty-five non-commissioned officers and men; Durban Light Infantry, twenty-four non-commissioned officers and men missing. During the afternoon and evening several of the men straggled back, including a platelayer or two. There are four platelayers missing, and Mr. Winston Churchill, about whom the Boers would give no information beyond saying that the list and report of the affair would appear in the Pretoria newspapers. In periods of great excitement small matters become lost to the recollection. Of those I interrogated very few agreed as to various details of the disaster. The telegraphist, Mr. R. T. McArthur, furnished, perhaps, the clearest and most succinct account. He said:—
"We left Estcourt at 5.30 a.m., and ran on to Ennersdale, and reported by wire, ' All clear' Shortly before reaching Frere we met and spoke to some of the Natal Police, who had been bivouacking upon the kopjes. They told us the Boers had all gone back the previous night. Then we went to Frere, where we wired the General, ' All well ' and without waiting for a reply ran on to Chieveley. Shortly before entering that station we saw fifty Boers going west at a canter with some waggons, as we thought. We waited a few minutes at Chieveley, and then started back. About three miles out, or two miles north of Frere, we noticed several hundred Boers about 800 yards off, on the west side. Then we saw more on the east of the line. They began firing at us, first with rifles and then with Maxim-Nordenfeldt cannon. One of their shots made a big dent in the rear armoured truck, but did not enter. Their guns were behind the kopje; at least, two repeating cannon, which shot a steady flame, and a heavier piece that threw shrapnel at us. But a few yards on our rear, then, the front truck ran off the line, shaking and jolting terribly, and ours, the next or armoured one, followed suit, and soon all three left the rails. The next thing I knew we were all upset, and, strangely, only one man was killed. We all scrambled out. Sitting down, the soldiers began firing volleys at the Boers, who responded by peppering us with more shot and shell. In about five minutes Mr. Churchill came from what had been the front of the train, took charge, and asked for volunteers to shift the trucks. About fifteen men helped to do so, but the waggons were too heavy to move. Then the engine managed to smash through, breaking them up, and getting knocked about in doing so. All this was done under heavy fire. We tried to couple up the trucks that had been in front, but could not, the line being blocked. Then, picking up all the wounded we could see, we started for Frere to get assistance. My instruments were smashed, and we found those at Frere had been carried off by the police for safe keeping. From there we pushed ahead to Ennersdale, whence I wired to the General, giving him a few details. We had several men shot down whilst we were putting the wounded on the tender, although our troops did their best to cover the operation by firing volleys. Several of the shells struck the telegraph wires and poles, cutting and knocking down the line."
Wednesday was a sad, weary night in Estcourt. The rain fell continually, and the troops were soaked and covered with mud. An order was issued for the women and children to leave the town, and there were preparations made for the troops to retire upon Mooi River. Finally sterner and wiser counsels prevailed, and a rallying position was chosen, as I have said, upon Fort Durnford, or the kopje that stands over it, and which commands the railway station and bridges. Next day (Thursday) we heard the Boers were coming on; but they, perhaps, like ourselves, were busy trying to dry their clothes and other belongings, for the day turned out, in its earlier part, light and warm. Happily, too, further reinforcements arrived in the shape of two battalions, and more were hourly expected. To-day (Friday) we learn still that the Boers are but six miles away, and mean surely to attack us to-morrow. If their numbers are as stated, it is to be hoped they may. One of the events of the morning was the capture of two Boers by two Mounted Police: Sergeant Fisher and Trooper Sullivan. The constables had been out scouting near Gornton, about twelve miles off, when they saw a party of forty Boers riding to intercept them. They descended to the road, and made for Estcourt Before them appeared two Boers, riding leisurely in the same direction, with their rifles slung over their backs. Ere the Boers could un-sling their Mausers the policemen's revolvers were at their heads, and both burghers promptly surrendered. Taking possession of their enemies' Mausers, the police drove their captives at the gallop towards this place. For four miles they were pursued and heavily fired upon by the party that tried to trap them, but Fisher and Sullivan continued to bring in their prisoners. The latest incident, as I write, is the arrival of two Kaffir messengers sent from Ladysmith yesterday by the military. Both bring official news. The garrison is all right, and the troops continue to inflict much punishment upon the enemy. Each day there is an artillery duel going forward, and occasionally infantry firing, in which, of late, Sir George White's force has had much the best of the game. By way of finale, is it not a little odd that the War Office has forgotten to provide the officers with a supply of military maps of Natal ? It so happens at the moment that even colonels are unable to procure trustworthy maps, either military or ordinary, for the good reason that there are none left on stock anywhere.