Estcourt, Friday, November 24, 1899
ESTCOURT awoke last Wednesday to the consciousness that it was invested. No trains, no newspapers, no mails, no telegraphic communication, made it evident that something worse than an omnibus or cab - strike had occurred. Uneasy groups of townsfolk, with refugee farmers, discussed the question of the proximity and intentions of the Boers, and what would happen within the next half-hour or so. They were so engrossed that, for an appreciable interval—a quarter of an hour, less or more—the vital issue of breakfasting was neglected. He who doubted that the enemy was in evidence was bidden mount the nearest vantage-ground and satisfy himself by a look at the Boers, who were creeping about like ants along the adjacent ridges. Speculation as to their numbers was fearsomely elastic, stretching to almost the whole male population of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. The military were busy, thinking only of work, medals, and honours, counting horses and stores, and debating ways and means of defence. Colonists and Uitlanders enjoyed a wider range of topics. Besides Boer and British plans, they talked about the wicked crassness of the Imperial and local Governments for having neglected their invaluable counsel for ages, and for failing to make full preparations for these inevitable evil days. But, ah! their rulers were to be commiserated, for none of them possessed the personal and intimate knowledge of Colonials of the low trickiness of the Boers. Natalian hearths and homes had been pillaged, and herds looted; but a day of reckoning would assuredly come, despite the transitory successes of the enemy. What was needed was not more soldiers, but fighting officers, who would risk losing any number of men. 14 Chaps like the leaders of their own Volunteers," etc. Chaffing aside, Majors McKenzie, Bethune, and others of them, have given abundant proofs of being amongst the bravest of the brave. Such were the opinions of the men in the streets, and, like most slop-made views, of little real value. That the situation involved the consideration of other and larger issues never recurred to them, nor that it might be the wisest plan not to harass or drive the enemy away from Mooi River or Estcourt until General Clery had completed all his preparations for the advance. Certainly that view did not approve itself to their minds. Neither did the bigger interests of the Ladysmith garrison strongly appeal to their imaginations as compared with their own particular environment.
The air was still on Wednesday morning, and the day gave promise of being of tropical sultriness. Heaped masses of clouds hung near the Drakens-berg, seemingly as solid as those precipitous walled mountains. There was in their vaporous form and darkness presage of further fearful thunderstorms. We could hear the deep thud, thudding of the big guns pulsating over the hills from Ladysmith. Further fighting was surely in progress there. Major-General Hildyard, having ascertained that the Boers under Joubert were but eight miles from Estcourt, called a council of war, whereat it was decided to go out and attack the enemy. A night assault was held to be the surest way of dealing effectively with the Boers and capturing their guns. To get the men within easier reach of the enemy's laager, the troops were marched back in the direction of Willow Grange. Colonel Martyn proceeded in the forenoon with a small body of cavalry to reconnoitre the ground around M'Konghlwani, or Hill of the Mist, a conical mount, also sometimes known as Beacon Hill. Three miles to the westward, holding lofty stony ridges, was the main body of the Boers, 4000 or 5000 strong, and commanded by Joubert in person.
At 3 p.m., with the Volunteer cavalry scouting in front, the troops advanced, accompanied by General Hildyard. The force selected consisted of the Queen's (West Surrey) on the left, and upon the right and centre the West Yorks and East Surrey. There were also the 7th Field Battery Royal Artillery, and one of the 12-pounder naval guns, with a detachment under Lieutenant James, R.N. Moving onward without check, with a thin wide front deployed for action, the men got within a mile of Willow Grange. The manner in which the Boers fight has made it necessary for our troops to adopt the old Peninsular system of tactics—namely, of advancing in aggressive skirmishing lines. Brave and resourceful, the British soldier in those days won deserved laurels for himself, his Generals, and country. Handled in the same way, as he will be hereafter in this country, the enemy will learn he can beat them at their own game.
Widely apart, ten paces separating man from man, in single line, with similar lines following at intervals of from 50 to 150 yards, as the nature of the ground and cover required, forward went our gallant khaki-clad infantry. Hither and thither, a few troopers of the various detachments of Natal Volunteer corps had ridden ahead to peer over kopjes and crests, and make sure that no Boer commandoes were lying hidden to spring ambuscades upon the soldiers. From all I saw, our horsemen—Natalians, and the one body of Regulars, a company of King's Royal Rifles mounted infantry, and the linesmen— were calmly, impassively confident in themselves and indifferent to the enemy's fire, rifle or cannon. Nay, they absolutely jeered, and made contemptuous remarks, later on, at the way in which the Boer shells plumped into the ground without hurting anybody. Most of the enemy's missiles failed to explode, and even those which burst rarely did more than bespatter the nearest men with mud, or shy stones about our ears. I noted also that the British officer had wisely transmogrified himself; so that it was impossible for the Boers' selected marksmen any longer to distinguish, by outward appearances, even a battalion commander from an ordinary " Tommy." Numbers of the officers also carried rifles—swords and Sam Brown belts being now a thing of the past. Surely so sensible a rule, which circumstances have so suddenly forced the authorities to adopt, and which puts it out of the power of an enemy to tell an officer from a private, unless he gets close enough to inspect the shoulder-straps, will be incorporated in the "Queen's Army Regulations." It is a subject upon which I have hammered, ineffectually, for years.
Behind the scouts, upon the left, marched part of the Queen's, anxious to re-occupy Willow Grange. They held onward until they had secured the low ridges commanding the railway station. To their right, and thrown back so as to face to the westward, were the remainder of the column — theWest Yorks and East Surrey, with the naval-gun detachment. Their immediate objective was, as I have stated, M'Konghlwani, or Mountain of the Mist Thither, trekked by thirty oxen, guided by Major McKenzie, the big naval 12-pounder was being dragged. Half the ascent had not been gained when the threatened storm burst in wildest fury. The lightning was vivid and incessant, frequently dashing earthward in double zigzag rails of fire. With crash and roar more deafening than the heaviest artillery, the thunder burst and rolled. Rain fell in torrents and sheets. Betwixt recurrent waterspouts there were uncanny, well-nigh murderous hailstorms. The rounded, hardened ice-pellets were larger than ordinary marbles. For over three hours the first of the hailstorms lasted, chunks of ice falling in myriads, in size from a pigeon's to a hen's egg, injuring men and driving the horses nearly frantic. It had been a sombre afternoon, and an unparalleled stormy night was creeping on, made lurid by lightning. Not in forty years, the Colonists declare, has a week of such wild, cyclonic weather been experienced in Natal. The sides of M'Konghlwani were as a cascade, but through all pressed onward the indomitable infantry and the sailors with their gun.
Somebody in one of the battalions fancied he saw Boers, and fired a volley or two. Whether it was the noise of the rifles, the cries of the oxen-drivers, or from information conveyed by their own scouts— more probably the latter—the enemy commenced firing a long-range gun, a " Long Tom." Their shells were well aimed, falling upon the reverse slope of Beacon Hill One of them struck the ground but ten feet from the naval gun and limber. No attention, however, was paid to the shell-fire, but drivers and bluejackets, assisted by dismounted troopers, wrestled with the wheels, and bounced them as best they could over the boulders and angular pieces of rock. Many times the gun was in jeopardy, and nearly "took charge" to trundle downhill, but it was blocked and checked always in the nick of time. Once it tumbled completely over, and was only righted with great difficulty by sheer manual strength. When, finally, it was hauled to the top of Beacon Hill, Lieutenant James sent three shells hurtling across to the Boers, 4000 yards away, upon an opposite roof-like range. That sufficed, for the enemy did not return the fire, and peace, save for the elements, was secured for hours.
The troops had marched from Estcourt in the lightest of kits, and many of them had but little food in their haversacks. Cold and wet, without blankets or waterproof sheets, they strove as best they could to pass the weary, dreadful night Bluejackets, gunners, cavalry, and infantry, when the brief slumber of fatigue and exhaustion had been snatched, had to rise and stamp and shiver to keep their blood in circulation. About 2 a.m. General Hildyard had ordered that the final movement should begin. In the darkness the troops " fell in," and, led by guides, went forward to try if possible to carry the enemy's main position by assault, and capture their guns. The West Yorks were upon the right of the line, the East Surrey, with the " Queens," on the centre and left. Later on the Border Regiment came up in support Picking their way down the rough, rock-strewn hillside, then across the intervening low ground, dongas and all, they began to climb the barn-roof-like mountain where the Boers had been in force the previous evening.
Silence had been well maintained, and no alarm, so far, had been raised by the Boer sentries. The hope was to close in, so that only the bayonet need be brought into requisition. Step by step the soldiers drew nearer to the crest as the first faint glimmer of dawn streamed in the sky. The West Yorks had turned the west side of the mountain by 3.30 a.m. Upward they had climbed without halting. They crossed a shoulder, near a wall, and came into view upon the skyline, whilst the East Surreys were struggling up the opposite slope. Either through the challenge of a Boer patrol, or through mistake, a shot or two were fired, and these were followed up by a volley from the Surrey men into the West Yorks. At the same instant the troops, believing they were quite near the summit, cheered, and, with gleaming bayonets, rushed tp carry the position. There were a few dropping shots, direction was lost in one corner, and some of the soldiers upon the left, in the dark, ran into the outlying sections of the West Yorks nearest them. A collision was just averted, but not before several of our men were wounded by bayonet and rifle at the hands of comrades. Rapid explanations saved the situation, and, in a breath, forward at the double ran the troops to the tiptop of the ridge. Then only a handful of Boers remained, and were soon disposed of, one of their dead being a big artillery-man, whose clothes bore the name of Adolph Krantz. With their customary cunning, the enemy had shifted their quarters to the rear after dark. Your Boer in his strategy is much like the American Indian, whose camp-fires burn in one place whilst he goes to sleep in another. Even by day he strives to conceal his real position, by occupying ground in front or to right or left, which he relinquishes when pressed, as these points are usually commanded from his laager. In this case their camp was upon an even higher hill, a mile or so in the rear.
So far as could be seen the tally of Boer dead did not exceed three or four, and we took but one prisoner. Our own loss up till that moment was even less, two killed and six or eight wounded. Subsequently I learned that as the result of the day's action the enemy had lost thirty-three killed, or, at any rate, they had dug and made use of that number of graves. At 2.30 a.m. the foreign officer commanding the Boer artillery, six guns, objecting to the weakness of the escort left to guard the battery, withdrew his cannon from the hilltop to the second position. It was solely owing to that circumstance that the assault did not result in the capture of the whole of the Boer cannon upon our front. General Joubert was in command in person, and had with him about 6000 men, whilst at no great distance there was another commando with six guns. Hearing the oncoming British infantry, the few hundreds of Boers holding the crest fled pellmell downhill, leaving behind them over sixty horse, many rifles, saddles, and several waggons, together with a quantity of personal belongings. Amongst the horses were two with side-saddles, showing that ladies had been visiting the Boer camp and had left in a hurry, preferring to race downhill afoot. In the dark it was not seen that the horses were nearly all riderless. They were in the rush fired into, and about a score were shot, killed and wounded. The others, however, were captured and brought into Estcourt.
It has been one of the eye-openers to some of our people to see how quickly the Boers have managed to haul their big guns about from place to place, even dragging them to the top of what look like inaccessible hills. The smart manner in which the " Long Tom " and other guns were sent down in time to escape the clutches of the West Yorks, who marched and fought magnificently, is astonishing. Considering the roughness of the descent they could only have passed the infantry by a few minutes at most. In range their French and Krupp guns greatly exceed our own field artillery of similar calibre, and no fault can be found with the accuracy of the enemy's aiming. I do not speak of the Natalian 7-pounder muzzle-loaders, or our ditto mountain guns, which do not merit serious consideration. They are of no practical value in a war of this kind or against white men. The sooner all such army weapons are converted into kerbstone corner-protectors the better for the troops. It is not a pleasant spectacle to see, as I have seen, guns of that kind, with a range of but a little over 3000 yards, again and again quite outclassed by Boer cannon. The Natalian gunners for competency and pluck leave nothing to be desired, but they should have been armed with batteries of a more modern type. But are our own home Volunteer artillery much better off in that respect ? If so, it is a recent change.
Our troops who lined the captured crest did very little "potting" at the enemy before they were "rattled" by Boer cannon, fired from the adjacent commanding ridge. Daylight had lighted up the situation, and something of the evil of the rain and cold had gone. The morning was comparatively calm and dry, and the light good. Smartly the Boer guns swept the crest held by our men, but doing relatively little hurt to anybody, as I have more than once remarked before. Whether from " Long Tom" or machine guns, the shells mostly " plugged " into the moist ground, and when they burst blew harmlessly upwards. But by-and-by the summit grew warmer, for the Boer marksmen found the range with their rifles. As the task set the men had been completed, and Boer commandoes were swarming in to reinforce Joubert, it was deemed wise, as without doubt it was, to retire towards Estcourt, where only two battalions and a few guns remained to hold that important position, and guard the bridges over the little Bushman's River. The East Surrey and the Queen's were withdrawn, and came in on the way for a sharp fusillade.
Meanwhile the West Yorks and detachments of the Volunteer Cavalry were engaged in checking the oncoming enemy and carrying back the dead and wounded. The bluejackets, with their 12-pounders upon Beacon Hill, were doing their best to stop the Boers, but failed to reach the enemy's big gun. A further difficulty was to locate the exact position of the Boer cannon. Our Field Battery, upon the same hillside, was withdrawn without firing a shot. In truth the battery referred to fell back before the West Yorks and parties of the cavalry had returned, much to the intense and partly openly-expressed mortification of many officers and men. It had been under fire, but had not replied, nor did it do so until towards the dose of the action. Men began to drop faster die captured kopje from Boer ballets. Colonel Kitchener ordered a general withdrawal, bat some few of his own and another command either did not hear the instruction or were too bitterly engrossed in the fierce contest. Over two score had already fallen, killed or wounded. Although die enemy regained the crest, several of the West Yorks and one or two others clang to the ground at one end for a little longer, and subsequently managed to get away. A few hundred yards downhill part of our men made pause near the wall to recover the rest of the dead and wounded who had fallen by die way. A Reservist and ex-London grocer, Private Burgoyne, a swart-bearded stalwart fellow, had his thigh-bone smashed and his ankle shot through. The wounded left limb was driven and twisted across die right leg as the soldier lay prone. Unable to straighten it, he called to a comrade to pull it over into its proper place. His mate obliged him, and Burgoyne never murmured, notwithstanding the pain it caused. Grasping his ride, he was able to load and fire twenty-five shots before the Boers retook the hiH He is sure that his aim was good and that he bowled at least four of the enemy over before he was taken prisoner.
A man of the East Surrey, "shinning" down, was cornered by a mounted Boer, who presented a rifle at him, and said. " You come with me." ** My rifle also happened to be loaded," said the Surrey man, as later on he recounted the adventure, " and it went off first He took a tumble, and I took his horse and came in on it, and here it is." Of course, discipline is not always either lynx-eyed or even two-eyed, and " Tommy " sold that Boer mount for "a bit" the same day, but he made one of his officers a present of the deceased Boer's rifle.
Scores of heroic deeds were performed, although at times the rifle-fire was so hot that it was not safe to put your finger upon the wall. The enemy also speedily brought up their repeating Hotchkiss 3-pounder cannon, and from the summit made the vicinity of the wall and hillside an Inferno. It had all been done within an hour, Bottomly, Chapman, and other Natal men strove to aid the wounded. The former tried to pull men through the wall, and failing to do so, boldly lifted at least one over into relative security. Others too feeble were hit where they lay on the exposed side of the wall. The Boers, the better to see and shoot at the retreating soldiers, actually stood up and fired their rifles. Then it was, had the field battery remained in position upon Beacon Hill slopes, that it could have wrought havoc amongst the enemy, and covered the withdrawal. Trooper Fitzpatrick, a brother of the author, was pierced through the brain with a Boer bullet whilst trying to succour the wounded. Other members of the Imperial Light Horse, to which corps he belonged, did equally noble work, at the same time fighting side by side with the West Yorks and the mounted infantry company of the King's Royal Rifles. But the place got far too hot; so, having sent down four dead and twenty wounded, troopers and footmen had to get away downhill as best they could. In the face of a terrible storm of Mauser bullets, followed for twelve or fourteen hundred yards farther, they got into the low ground going round the shoulders of Beacon Hill. But the enemy's guns pursued them with shrapnel and common shell, the Hotchkiss venomously following the troopers and linesmen. Lieutenant Davis, of the King's Royal Rifles, though under fire for the first time, when near the wall referred to, and within 300 yards of the enemy, dismounted and assisted a wounded man upon a horse which Private Trestrow had run and caught.
Once the troops had got near Beacon Hill they secured help and cover. The naval gun remained for some time banging at the enemy's guns, and probably put one of their lesser fry out of action. By 11 a.m. they were ordered in, and so slowly trekked with difficulty downhill towards Estcourt. Steadily, without flurry; our mounted volunteers and infantry retired, whilst the Boer threw shells from " Long Tom " hither and thither amongst men, waggons, and horses without causing half a dozen casualties. A medical officer and bearer-party were fired upon, and prevented from going to the assistance of the wounded, and the ambulance did not escape a spatter of bullets. Gradually the troops marched back up the Willow Grange-road into the camps, the enemy dropping shells to within half a mile of the position ordinarily held by our outlying pickets. Very few of the Boers, however, showed any real disposition to descend into the low ground and use their rifles. Less than a score of rounds from the field battery ended any such intention of theirs, and so by 1 p.m. the conflict closed. Strong outposts were maintained by the troops left behind in camp, whilst the weary, wet, and hungry West Yorks, Queen's, and East Surrey marched in to enjoy well-earned refreshment and repose. Our total losses in the battle of Beacon Hill were within one or so of sixteen killed and seventy-one wounded, besides a loss of seven prisoners. Among the latter were Major Hobbs, the second in command of the West Yorks, who, worn-out and unable to make his way downhill, it is said, stayed behind to help the wounded. I have since learned that he is well, and was taken by Joubert, via Weenen, to Colenso and Pretoria, a place which by-and-by should have its name most properly changed in honour of our Queen, and be known hereafter as " Victoria."
On Thursday evening one of the Army medical officers proceeded with ambulances to endeavour to bring in our wounded, and an engine ran down the line towards Willow Grange, to render assistance if necessary. But the Boers refused to permit of anything being done that day. On Friday Major Jennings, R.A.M.C., went out towards Willow Grange, to bring in the dead and wounded left out. A Boer medical officer had come in to the outposts about 2 p.m. the same day, bearing a letter, couched in his customary style, from General Joubert, offering to hand over our dead and wounded and asking us to return his. As we had none of theirs, that part of the arrangement was easily disposed of. Not until it was quite dark were the ambulance party led by a circuitous route to where the Boers had their laager. There six dead soldiers and a score of wounded were placed upon stretchers and carried downhill to the ambulances. The enemy bade Major Jennings return at once to Willow Grange or Estcourt, saying that they would not guarantee that the party would escape being fired upon if they failed to go away.
In the dark, finding the track as best they could, the ambulances were brought into Willow Grange. There were known to be seven or eight dead soldiers upon the sides of the battle-ground hill, but the night was too dark and the men too tired to attempt their recovery. It is satisfactory to know from Burgoyne and others that the Boers attended to them as promptly and kindly as to their own wounded, giving them brandy and beef-tea, and dressing and bandaging their wounds. Major Jennings said the dressings were plain, but in all cases had been put carefully and properly on, and, so far as he saw from the enemy's means, the wounded had received excellent treatment. Those left upon the hill had been, where possible, placed upon mattresses and covered with blankets, and supplied with proper nourishment. Burgoyne was complimented for his bravery, and for his fortitude in bearing their treatment without flinching and without the administration of anaesthetics. The Boer doctors certainly spoke highly of him, and shook him by the hand at parting; and it is said Joubert himself did the same, and called him " brave man." Happily, even in war the humane side of nature finds scope for goodly deeds.