Estcourt, November 21, 1899
WITH the enemy at the gates, criticism seems almost out of place. But, as a people, we are so much the stronger that, if we prove true to ourselves, the result will justify the assumption of our task to rectify the wrongs of fellow-countrymen living within the borders of the Empire. It is necessary to speak out There is much that should be plainly told, unless it is permissible knowingly to keep silent and let things drift from bad to worse. As you are aware, there is an active censorship of Press telegrams. Yet England is a long way off and messages travel slowly. Now it is again sought to establish a censorship over letters to the Press. How that is going to serve the narrow purpose of certain of the military in these days of ready publication in print, unless it is supplemented by an inspection and censorship of all private correspondence, it is difficult to comprehend. They will have to open and deal with such supposititious letters as this: " My own dear Mother—We have had a rare treat and doing. You know the—battalion; it is fairly rotten, and one or two of the batteries are no better. It happened this way—" And so on. Perhaps the best means to adopt to prevent all possibility of the circulation of matter by newspapers, calculated to assist the enemy, would be to establish the censorship in London and abolish it abroad. I am naturally only dealing with home publication, which alone concerns me at the moment Other interests, other methods. A London censorship at least would ensure that people at home would not be misinformed, or kept too much and too long in the dark respecting the actual progress of their war. Besides, there would be the further advantage that it would free the minds and hands of officers upon active service from much uncongenial and thankless labour, and enable them to devote their energies and abilities to more important military duties. The question of what should or should not be made public could then be amicably discussed by editors and the War Office authorities, far from the scene of operations. I take it that, somehow, under such conditions, things that should be known at home would get talked about, if only privately.
I have written about the total lack of reliable maps of Natal. There are very few copies of any kind yet in the hands of our officers, and most of the correspondents are in the same plight, although I have been more fortunate in that respect. There are colonels and majors, not to speak of those of lower rank, who do not possess a useful map of this colony. It reminds one of the almost similar incident in the Franco-German War, when our worthy Gallic neighbours had reams of maps of German territory, but none of their own country. Let us now record the laugh against ourselves, with this item thrown in, that the Intelligence Department of the War Office have been making a special study of South Africa and its affairs for quite fifteen years.
Somehow the quality and quantity of the Boer artillery had come to be overlooked apparently, for its excellence, so far as accurate shooting and the hardihood of their gunners are concerned, has been one, among others, of the surprises of the war. Whilst we have shown all our old conservative fidelity to ancient models, or slight modifications of them, the Boers have boldly acquired the newest and latest types of cannon and machine guns. The wondrous rapidity with which they have moved their cannon, whether long-range or quick-firing, from place to place in this difficult country, dragging their artillery to the summit of what look like almost inaccessible hilltops, is an object-lesson of what can be done by hardy and intelligent fighters. The only thing on our side, so far, that has in any way matched the Boers' handling of their guns, has been accomplished by the bluejackets of Her Majesty's ships Powerful and Tartar. As for the crew of Her Majesty's ship Tartar^ under Lieutenant James, R.N., they have, by means of oxen, dragged their two heavy long-range ship's 12-pounders from place to place for the defence of Estcourt. Up and down hill they have gone, repeatedly constructing new works and shelling the enemy ungrudgingly whenever occasion offered. Yet, confessedly, the range of the Boer Creusot 12-pounder or 9-centi-m6tre gun is several thousand yards greater than theirs. Can it be that our cordite is inferior in ballistic qualities to the granulated Continental types of smokeless powder ?
And if I were asked to indicate what I thought were the conspicuously weak features, so far disclosed in the conduct of the campaign in Natal, I would aver that they were indecision and want of mobility when the troops take the field. The former of these defects may be assumed to be eradicable, the latter a somewhat confirmed and almost constitutional British army malady. But either view is a too hasty generalization. In practice, I fear, it is likely to be found more difficult to cure a habit of hesitancy in certain leaders— who, when troops are deliberately sent to engage, yet delay to "strike home"—than by marching rapidly to move our soldiers over wide stretches of country. As in Indian frontier fighting, the baggage must be cut down to the lowest living limits, and carried like the ammunition, upon pack mules. That may mean that our men, like the Boers, may have to travel and go into action in practically little more than what they stand up in. In that way even the British Tommy could manage to get near enough his enemy to teach them that dragging cannon and looting cattle is an unprofitable game, not to be conducted without risk and hard knocks. But, better than all, would be what has been foreseen and preached upon for years—a vast increase in the number of our mounted infantry. Were we to pay our troopers five shillings a day, an amount many of the Colonial horsemen receive, what an incomparable army of mounted men Britain could place in the field!
Whether at Dundee, Ladysmith, Estcourt, or elsewhere, to the seaboard and Durban, there has been a worrying, too frequent change of plans, by no means all of which were rendered necessary by the enemy's movement and surprises. When I recall Dundee, I must emphasise that neither I nor any one else has done anything but tardy justice to Colonel Dartnell, of the Natal Police. That splendid veteran was the genius and real planner and guide, as Major-General Yule himself has often declared, of the retirement from Glencoe. In the battle he was as good as a brigade, and in the retreat he was indefatigable in securing the safe arrival of the column in Ladysmith. But to the question of indecision. Work done yesterday or to-day has too often been ordered to be undone in the course of the next few hours. Men have been marched out early and late, in all weathers, to give battle, and, after being kept upon the ground, marched back to camp without being allowed to fire a shot. As with the infantry, so it has been with the artillery. There have been occasions when such procedure was wise and unavoidable, but in the majority of instances reliable intelligence and thorough scouting would have saved many harassing marches and wretched bivouacs. Nay, for want of a little prescience on the part of one or two battalion commanders, their men have lain out overnight upon the hillsides, chilled and soaked to the skin, without blankets, overcoats, food, or cheering tea. And their camp was but a few miles away, and there was no enemy interposing to threaten the safety of supply waggons or coffee kettles.
The War Office, apparently, is not always exacting enough to require that the standard of efficiency in every battalion shall be of the highest grade, or to insist upon the direct personal responsibility of the. commanding officers. In two weeks one mounted Volunteer force has had its camp changed fifteen times! Nay, there are instances where linesmen's tents have been ordered, struck, packed, unpacked, repitched, struck, and so on again—twice, yea! thrice, within twenty-four hours. As to our acquired immobility. It appears that each infantry battalion requires nine waggons, capable of carrying 4000 lbs. apiece^ Nor is that all that is set apart for the transport of their stores and equipment. There are, besides these, two Scotch carts, one water-cart, and two ammunition carts. A tolerably long train these make, and, as they are set down authoritatively as indispensable, our armies don't move until they get them. Except— except when circumstances alter cases. It is for the want of transport, more than all else, that the operations of commanders are said to have been sadly hampered, plans abandoned, and successes in battle minimized or lost. But to that should be added the Boer white-flag dodge, as at the first battle of Dundee, when, under the then Colonel Yule's direct orders, the officers of two of our field batteries and three Maxims ranged in line saw with mortification the enemy fleeing across the front of their guns, and but 500 yards off; and they were precluded from firing a single shot to check the flight.
The waggons enumerated, for which instead of nine drawn by mules may be substituted six waggons drawn by oxen, do not include the artillery train and other transport. If the railway transport fail us, or if it is allowed to fail us, then in this season of heavy thunderstorms, swollen streams, and bad roads, the hauling by waggons will become a serious impediment to the mobility of the troops. The chief business of a soldier is to fight, and he must somehow be got to the scene of operations and made use of, in sharp and decisive actions. Our soldiers, I emphatically repeat, are eager and capable of settling the issue, but they are beginning to share the widening Colonial belief that there is too much delay in forcing conclusions with the active and wily Boers. It is to be regretted that the real character of the task set the troops was not better understood by the home authorities. There has been a deal of penny wise and pound foolishness in this very matter of over-the-sea transport, and the use of mounted troops. A week won by the employment of the best ocean steamships would have meant millions sterling saved to the Colonists, besides tending to shorten the duration of the war. It is an unpleasant reflection to think that to-day so many thousands of splendid British troops are shut up under Sir George White in Ladysmith by an undisciplined army of Boers, mere farmers, who do not greatly outnumber the soldiers. And, in all likelihood, something of the same sort may now happen any day at Estcourt. This is, indeed, menacing the head of the relief column and delaying its starts
To the Natalians, who wish to fight the Boers on every conceivable occasion, the outlook is depressing. And I agree with them thus far, that vigorous measures should be taken in order to put a stop to the free running and raiding of the Boers in this Colony. There is a large native population, and a not inconsiderable number ofBoer settlers in South Africa, and the moral effect of the enemy's doings in Natal upon them must not be left out of consideration, even by the military. There is a call for younger and more vigorous leaders, but I have yet to learn that age is a barrier to the exercise of the greatest military qualities—dogged resolution and swiftness in dealing with an enemy. I am more than sanguine that once General Sir Redvers Buller is enabled to move forward, he will quickly put an end to the existing deplorable situation. He is a stern, fighting soldier, as well as an experienced and masterly leader of troops, who will stand no nonsense nor brook incapables. With him in the field the Boers' long innings will be finally closed.
Too much latitude has already been conceded to the Boers because of their great mobility and supposed high shooting qualities with the rifle. Tommy can, as I have repeatedly explained, now hold his own with that weapon, and whenever our soldiers get near enough the enemy to use the bayonet, the Boer on every occasion incontinently bolts. It is their guns and gunners who have really astounded everybody. They select good positions, move their cannon very smartly, fight hard, and aim with rare accuracy. Happily, the bursting qualities of their missiles are quite at fault. On the whole, of late the Boer artillerymen have shown themselves quite as good, and even better than some of our batteries, which we were all honestly wont to consider without flaw and the best in the world. These be unpleasant truths, but all the more need that they be turned to account by our artillerists.
It is surely matter for regret, and more particularly at this juncture, that General French's proposal to cut his way out of Ladysmith with most of the cavalry and a battery was not accepted. An it had been, the animals would not have been, figuratively, eating their heads off in a besieged town. The lessons of the Franco-German War taught that much. And, if they had been out, General Clery would have had a mounted force strong enough to have dispersed or cornered raiding Boer commandoes. Let this be said of the Boer, he is an astute, courageous foe, who has in some measure taken time by the forelock. True, he has also had great chances which he has quite missed taking advantage of. Once the war is ended by the restoration of British supremacy, I confidently predict that he will settle soberly down, returning to his farm and giving little or no further trouble to govern. He will, with his native quietude, accept the changed order of things the moment that he is made to realize the " rooineks " are quite his equals in courage and obstinacy, and are disposed to rule justly, without fear or favour.
As at Ladysmith, so at Estcourt, the means to ensure the safety of the place arrived not a moment too soon. The rule, without an exception, has been to delay things essential as long as possible. Take the cases of commissariat and ordnance supplies, some of which are by no means over ample at Estcourt. Ten days or more were wasted in cross-writing between here and Maritzburg for information why " such and such " were required, and what had been done with " such and such " things. Upon Major-General Hildyard returning hither, he instantly set about inspecting the outposts and acquiring a thorough knowledge of the surrounding country. He approved Colonel Long's plan of occupying the high ridge to the south-west of the town, which commands the railway and bridges over the Bushman's River, and turning the plateau and crests into a fortified camp. Our lines are long, but strong, more so than those of Ladysmith.
Small bodies of Boers had been seen in various directions; but it was not until last Saturday (November 18) they evinced any serious intention of coming to close quarters with the troops at Estcourt Patrols reported that they had destroyed part of the line near Frere, and looted that place, as well as Ennersdale, but six miles distant They were said to be part of some commando 1000 strong, or thereabouts, making down the Weenen Road, whilst a co-operating raiding Orange Free State commando, under Grobeler, was proceeding by the west side of Estcourt. Then news was signalled in from the outlying picquets that the Boers were advancing in force with several guns. At 9.30 a.m. the " assembly" was sounded, tents were struck in a twinkling, the camps disappeared, and the baggage was smartly packed. Meanwhile, most of the men had been paraded in marching order, and detachments been sent to strengthen the outposts. The main bodies were disposed to render prompt assistance upon the north, east, or west sides of the town. To keep open communications with Mooi River the West Yorks, under Colonel Kitchener, were stationed at Willow Grange, about six miles nearer Maritzburg.
Riding forward, there was no difficulty in seeing the Boers and their method of advancing. Lines of scouts in twos, threes, and dozens, were cantering about in a semi-circle extending over five miles in length. On sturdy, smart ponies they edged forward, quickly but cautiously, getting upon every point from which a view could be obtained, and guardedly eschewing flat and open ground whenever practicable. Their main body got possession of the low, rough hills this side of Ennersdale and to the west of the railway. Their right was strongest, so as to keep a tight grip upon the hilly country stretching up to the Drakensberg. Silhouetted against the skyline, afoot and mounted, they swarmed like bees along the serrated crests of the kopjes. Extending from their left, in strings they made by way of gulleys towards the long, down-like ridge upon the north-east of the town. Half a hundred got upon the northern limit of it, and from a position near Hudson's Farm, surveyed what was visible, nearly all of Estcourt and our camp. Similar bands came into sight upon the western kopjes, and so infantry went forward to engage them. A few volleys fired at ranges from 900 yards and upward cleared the left, and our mounted police and Volunteers, with some of the Dublin Fusiliers, gave them a taste of their mettle upon the eastern ridges. Only a shot or two was returned by the enemy, who declined to permit our troops to get too close to them, for they fell back as the soldiers advanced. Two or three dismounted Boers who tried to sneak in closer than their comrades, on being seen and saluted with rifle fire, ran off to the rear.
At 10.20 a.m. it looked as if the Boers were, in fulfilment of their promise to the local farmers, really seriously trying to take Estcourt. The naval 12-pounder from the upper camp thereupon opened fire, sending a shell hurtling amongst them. It fell close to a stone wall, three miles out, where a body of Boers were congregated, throwing splinters and stones in all directions. Instantly the enemy scattered with a unanimity and suddenness unique and conspicuous. A few long-range volleys, 2900 yards, delivered from the Dublins' Lee-Metfords, increased their dispersal. By 11 a.m. they had evidently changed their minds, and were drawing off to the eastward and westward. Our Mounted Volunteers — we have only a few Regulars on horseback here—Mounted Infantry, and footmen moved forward to engage, but the enemy withdrew all along our front and flanks, and so by noon the main bodies returned to camp and dinner, only the outposts' supports being left out. There was no loss upon our side, but natives reported that several of the enemy had been killed and wounded, and amongst the trophies of war secured were a runaway Boer horse or two. We learned that the Boer commandoes had six small cannon, including a 7-pounder or two, and several Hotchkiss 3-pounder machine guns, besides one or two 9-centim^tre French cannon. The Boers continued raiding and looting, and left us in peace for the rest of the day.
Sunday, November 19, being in South Africa, as in Scotland, the " Sabbath," the Boers presumably were at church or holding conventicles, and enjoying, in their own peculiar way, psalmody and sermons. So, barring the prodigious hourly crop of camp and Kaffir-runner rumours and yarns, we were comparatively undisturbed. There was, however, no Sabbatarian pharisaism at Ladysmith, for we could hear the cannon pounding away there as usual. As the day wore on the Sabbath became apparently spent, and small bands of the enemy resumed looting and cattle-lifting. Reports came in that commandoes were moving in various directions towards Ulundi (west of Estcourt) and Hlati-kulu, where they had camps and laager for cattle, as well as towards Mooi River, Highlands, and Willow Grange. About sunset a few section volleys were fired by the West Yorks and the Queen's (West Surrey), who were guarding the railway at Willow Grange, at a handful of raiders, who retreated. It was said that the enemy upon the ridges near Highlands had guns, and that Joubert was either with them or on his way down to join them. The avowed intention of the Boer leader and his men was to capture Estcourt, Mooi River, and Maritz-burg, and so destroy all possibility of despatching a relief column to Sir George White's assistance.
But from Ladysmith news was brought the same evening that all was well, and they wished to open heliographic communication to co-operate with the expected relieving forces under General Clery. We were warned also that Estcourt was to be attacked. Our excellent Volunteer Cavalry, consisting of detachments of the Imperial Light Horse, Border Mounted Rifles, Natal Carbineers, a few police, with Bethune's Horse, the King's Royal Rifles Company of the Mounted Infantry, and two Natal 7-pounder field-guns, caught sight of a commando near Highlands. There was a prompt but brief interchange of shots, both parties retiring towards dusk. That same evening Colonel Kitchener ordered the evacuation of Willow Grange, so the West Yorks and Queen's came into Estcourt. Their arrival was a surprise and disappointment, for no one credited the rumours that the railway line had been cut by the enemy. The alarm caused led to the cessation of train traffic for many hours.
On Monday, November 20, fugitive farmers and storekeepers reported that there were Trans-vaalers with the Free Staters moving along south upon the west. The oft-discussed question whether Estcourt should be evacuated or defended was decided finally by General Hildyard in favour of holding on. We heard that the enemy had raided 12,000 cattle, which, at ^15 a head, will mean a tidy bill for compensation by-and-by. Another frequently debated subject, the advisability of enrolling all the local loyal farmers as scouts, or mounted Volunteers, was recommended by the General to the authorities. With their thorough knowledge of the topography of the district their services, as had been often pointed out, would be invaluable. From Ladysmith emerged the further news that General White's troops had inflicted considerable punishment upon the enemy whilst repulsing the assault made upon the town on the 8th and 9th inst. It was stated that the number of prisoners held, and the food supplies, were becoming matter for serious consideration. There was an absurd story tacked on, that Sir George White had warned General Joubert that if bombarding buildings occupied by non-combatants was continued he would place the prisoners in some of these houses. In the evening General Hildyard sent out a small body of troops to hold Willow Grange Station, the railway being still intact. A very early start was made on Tuesday, November 21, in order to locate and try to carry the camp of the Boer commandoes advancing towards Highlands, by the east of Estcourt By 3 a.m. I was on the road to Willow Grange, where I arrived within the next hour. There I found five companies of the Border Regiment, three companies of the East Surrey, one company of the Queen's, with two Natal 7-pounders, detachments of the Border Mounted Infantry, Imperial Light Horse, the Border Mounted Rifles, the Natal Carbineers and some of the King's Royal Rifles Mounted Infantry. Colonel Hinde, of the Border Regiment, commanded the force until the arrival of General Hildyard and Staff, and Colonel Martyn the mounted troops, who are fully as active and daring as the best Boer riders. Their bivouac had been cheerless, and the train from Estcourt with provisions being late in arriving, breakfast was delayed. However, before the morning had quite gone, the troops marched off along the main road towards Highlands. The troopers soon located the enemy, who were seen to be holding two long stony ridges four miles to the east of the roadway between Willow Grange and Mooi River. They were, so to speak, in the apex of a triangle. Mounting upon a rocky crest, about 3000 yards from their position, General Hildyard saw the Boer camp. The enemy evidently were confident that the long crests they held were safe from immediate capture, for their horses were grazing about, knee-haltered, as is the custom of the country, and culinary preparations were proceeding apace. They watched us nonchalantly in return, and despatched two or three scouts to make closer inspection, but the latter were persuaded to keep their distance. From either end the position could have been assailed and carried with relatively little loss had we possessed a field battery. About noon, it having been decided not to attack, the infantry, who had toiled out seven miles in the glare of the sun, were marched back to Willow Grange. The cavalry then moved about on their own account, and a portion of them, under Colonel Martyn, rode down towards Highlands Railway Station. Near there, late in the afternoon, they saw a very large Boer commando, with six guns, moving down from the west. A few shots were exchanged, and then, in danger of being caught betwixt two forces, the troopers retired. That same night all the troops at Willow Grange were ordered into Estcourt, where they arrived at a late hour.
During the afternoon and night one of the periodic, fierce thunderstorms, blown from the Drakensberg, burst upon us. It was accompanied by big hailstones and a deluge of rain. The Natalian hailstones are no mere marbles in size, but frequently range from the bulk of a pigeon's to a hen's egg. They come with a pelt, like a cobblestone in an Irish riot, and drive horses almost frantic. Need I add that they often pierce the universal corrugated iron roofs of Colonial buildings, and kill cattle in the fields. Whether it was the thunderstorm or the Boers, the telegraphic communication with Mooi River and the outer world was broken at 3.30 p.m. That same evening the last train from the south arrived at Estcourt, and reported the enemy closing in upon the railway. Later on we learned that it had been cut, and so we in Estcourt, in turn with Ladysmith, were being hemmed in and invested by the Boers. True, possible speedy relief from the other brigades, and batteries remaining at Mooi River and the capital, could be afforded if General Clery so willed it. But we all knew that it was part of his plan thoroughly to mobilize his whole available strength before advancing, either to our help or upon Ladysmith. So we were in for an investment, brief or protracted, and stock had to be taken of our means of resistance.
The position is extended, but naturally far preferable to Ladysmith. With five good Regular Infantry battalions, sundry Colonial Volunteer forces, foot and mounted, two naval guns and a detachment of bluejackets, a 7-pounder Natal battery, and No. 7 Field Battery, R.A., besides various other details, there was little doubt but that we could hold our ground. Under the careful eye of General Hildyard no reasonable precautions for ensuring the security of the place were overlooked. Nor has it been omitted to maintain communications by runners both with Ladysmith and Mooi River. Unfortunately, whilst the hills to the north hide us from Ladysmith, so do the Highland ranges prevent us from seeing and helioing to Mooi River.