Chieveley Camp, Friday, December 22
SINCE last Friday's battle our advanced camp has remained about two miles north of Chieveley Station; that is, we have withdrawn our front about one and a half miles—no more. The troops now occupy a higher and more commanding upland ridge. It has this, amongst other advantages, that whilst the Boer 100-pounder Creusot guns cannot easily worry our men, because the range is so great from the top of Grobler's Hill, the 4.7-inch naval guns can rake the foot-hills and trenches opposite Colenso with lyddite. Almost daily, but at irregular intervals, the naval guns, 4.7's and 12-pounders, have a little practice on their own account at the enemy's works. Sometimes they wreck a trench or shelter, and then can be seen for a few minutes groups of startled Boers bounding away across the rough country and making a bee-line for the nearest big hills. Excellent as the weapons of the bluejackets are, their shooting is not always what it ought to be. That condition of mediocrity is chiefly owing to the uneven platform from which the guns are fired, and the fact that not the champion gunners, but others are often keen to try their skill in sighting.
Save for the firing of the naval guns, there is a dearth of military enterprise and activity in the camps far from pleasing to the active, restless spirits. The latter wish to be doing something all the time to harass and disturb the Boers. And if a few of the brigadiers and most of the colonels had their way, by night and by day the enemy would be treated to surprises wherein lead and steel would play a conspicuous part At Chieveley Camp there are still the Earl of Dundonald's cavalry, Major-Generals Hildyard's and Barton's infantry brigades, and several batteries. Hart's and Lyttelton's brigades are back at Frere, where General Buller has again taken up his headquarters in the station-master's house. The 1st Dragoons (the Royals) are there also. Lieut-General Clery is staying at Chieveley Camp. From what I have seen in the way of preparation, supplies, and transport, a big and more important movement forward than the last is being made ready. Forage, provisions, ammunition, and waggons are being got together at Estcourt, as well as Frere and Chieveley, for the impending advance. We hear that Sir Charles Warren's division is en route to this place. Indeed, part of his infantry have already arrived (the Somersets), and to-day one of the howitzer batteries reached Estcourt, whence it will march by road to Chieveley. I am told that there are only three howitzer batteries to come out. That is all that England has available of the new and terrible engine of war! The excuse is that it takes some little time to train the gunners. And yet it is some time since the value of the 50-pounder lyddite howitzers was proved in battering the Mahdi's tomb at Omdurman. But it was ever thus in Pall Mall, and ever will be whilst public outcry is content to resolve itself into a mere roar of indignation or a sob of despair.
There is a great outcry in Natal at the miscarriage of last Friday's operations and the loss of the ten guns, the whole of the 14th Battery and four guns of the 66th Battery of Field Artillery. The Colonials had looked with great confidence to the repulse of the Boers and the opening of the road to Ladysmith. Maritzburg and Durban, which are hotbeds of rumour and its companions, bumptiousness and panic, have been denouncing General Buller. The bar-room and street generals have expressed their highly-flavoured views upon his mistakes, and shown how they would have done better with their left hands. Utter nonsense is noisily talked everywhere. General Buller, to whom I have not had an opportunity of speaking since the fight, and by whom, therefore, I am neither directly nor indirectly inspired, struck when a British officer, under the circumstances, was bound to deal his blow. That it failed to get home was not altogether his fault. Ladysmith is being besieged. The only real way to relieve its garrison is to sweep aside the enemy who block the main roads thereto. There would be no real gain in trying to slip past the Boers into Ladysmith. General Buller's task is to smash the beleaguering enemy. The garrison, be they in what strength they may, can be trusted to do their best without Buller having first to place his men by their side.
It had been better, I think, had General Buller confined himself to one turning movement—that upon his right. Hart's attempt to cross Bridle Drift was foredoomed to failure. Amongst several reasons for want of success, therefore, was the fact that the position of the enemy's guns was unknown, and the Boer trenches had not been adequately searched by a heavy artillery fire. For weeks I had looked upon Hlangwane Hill on the east as the key of the situation. From there Grobler's Hill, and the whole of the Boer trenches opposite Colenso, would have been taken in flank and reverse. A line of cleavage would also have been driven in between the Free State and Joubert's men, and the Bulwan Mountain itself taken in reverse. When the Earl of Dundonald and Major-General Barton between them did next to nothing in the way of seriously tackling Hlangwane, the action resolved itself into an indifferent reconnaissance in force. But the Boers knew the value of the Hlangwane position better, for it has afforded another line of advance or retreat across the Big Tugela besides that at Colenso. They have made a drift or ford below Pieter's Crossing, and supplemented the facilities for getting over it by the erection of a temporary bridge.
General Buller is a stern fighter, an indomitable man of more than bulldog pertinacity. Once launched into a fight, it is gall and wormwood to him to let go. I have seen him often in battle, and recognized his many admirable qualities as soldier and leader. How great, then, his courage must be —courage which subjugated his own temperament— when, seeing last Friday that, as things had shaped themselves, the contest must drive from bad to worse, he, with bold resolution, decided to stop the action. Men were being sacrificed, more would fall, and the Boer position would not be taken before nightfall. No; not for hours thereafter, for there were many trenches to be carried and high hills to be climbed ere the whole position could be considered as safely won. Yes; the troops could have held on till nightfall by the banks of the Tugela, and after dark the ten guns might have been withdrawn. But these things would have had to be done under a withering artillery and rifle-fire directed from the Boer works. It may be assumed that fire would have grown in weight and danger, and might have been aggravated by an attack upon our right and the cutting of our line of communication. There is something, then, of moment to be said on both sides, and General Buller by his order reduced the check to an affair of relatively minor importance, delivering the men from what might have been the graver risk of a big retrograde movement with an enemy hanging upon our flanks.
And though I have said so much, yet I am free to confess the guns could have been withdrawn ; but at a price. Were they worth it ? Our remaining artillery could have concentrated their fire upon Fort Wylie ridge and the adjacent slopes and trenches, whilst the infantry raked the tops of the walls and trenches with their rifle-fire. That might have succeeded; but there was also the danger that it would have given time to the Boers to bring more men and guns into the field. I must also add that it was during the actual retiring movement, not in their advance, that the three brigades engaged sustained the heaviest part of their losses.
There is little to add to my last letter as to the general conduct of the battle. It was the " Queen's," otherwise the West Surrey, which was on the right of Hildyard's brigade. Neither that battalion nor the Devons were to have gone east of the railway. Both did, and chiefly because the ground was too circumscribed for the wide deployment necessary in engaging an enemy that shoots with much precision, and uses magazine-rifles. As the Boers never charge, there is no need for men to mass together, even in single line. The Queen's and Devons, like other battalions that day, got somewhat intermingled. Both, with magnificent hardihood, walked erect, hastening not a step, but, as though going out on an Aldershot field-day, strode down into Colenso and the river's bank. With death filling the air and tearing the ground, onward they went, the most superb spectacle of invincible manhood. Common soldiers in stained, creased khaki uniforms, homeliest of drab—they were heroes bound to command the admiration of the world. The Colonel of the Queen's, like other commanding officers, begged to be allowed to try and save the guns, or, at any rate, to be permitted to stay in Colenso until nightfall. Their total casualties were eighteen killed, 170 wounded.
The story of the lost two batteries is an epic, the mere dry bones of which I give, not even artistically put together. There is so much doing hour by hour to engage attention that, to draw out a rounded chronicle of Friday's, or any day's big fight, needs a wrench to get away from the events of the moment. From Captain Herbert, R.A., and Captain Fitzpatrick, a New Zealander, I have gathered some details beyond what actually fell under my personal observation. There was a clump of timber about a mile east of Colenso by the Tugela's margin. Near there, it was thought, would be a good position for the two batteries—14th and 66th Royal Artillery —of the brigade division. The third battery was further still to the right, near Dundonald's cavalry. Not a sign did the enemy give of their presence; and still our big guns, the naval 4.7-inch lyddite throwers and the naval 12-pounders, pitched projectiles into the Boer works. Colonels Long and Hunt were both with the two batteries. Long sent Captain Fitzpatrick, who was mounted, to the 5th Queen's or Devons, asking them to send two companies to scour the wood. It is said that a major promised to send the men, but they did not put in an appearance in time. Meanwhile, as I have before related, the two batteries were advancing on their own responsibility between Barton's and Hildyard's brigades. It was not till later that the Scottish and Irish Fusiliers ranged themselves some distance behind, and in support of the batteries. The six naval 12-pounders, under Lieutenant James, un-limbered ultimately 400 yards behind, and on the right of the two field batteries, and the Fusilier battalions named were in rear of them. On the right of Barton's line in echelon were the Royal Fusiliers.
That day there were manoeuvres which spelled delay in getting the brigade into position. Long determined to survey the ground himself, and sent forward some of his own mounted men, including an officer or two. These the Boers allowed to approach the river bank, and one of the scouts actually rode upon, and crossed to the further side of, the highway bridge spanning the Tugela. They returned and reported there were no Boers anywhere about, whereupon Colonel Long took the guns forward to within 600 yards of the Tugela and 1200 yards of Fort Wylie. As soon as the artillery horses had unlimbered the guns, and their drivers were taking them back, the Boers suddenly opened a terrible rifle-fire on the batteries. It came from Fort Wylie and the lower and adjacent ridges and trenches. The Boer guns also began a little later throwing shrapnel, and the machine-gun firing solid shot at them. But the gunners never flinched nor winced, buckling to their work like men who grip a heavy load. Nay, more; some of them in derision began to "field," as at cricket, with the badly-aimed spent shot of the machine-cannon. Running aside they would make a catch, and call, " How's that, umpire ?" Astounding, and yet more astounding, for this story is absolutely true! Boisterous and high, indeed, leapt the gunners' spirits. But their guns were all the while served accurately and hotly, and the ridge of Fort Wylie rang and hissed with the rush, burst, and splutter of shrapnel, mightily unsteadying and thinning the Boers' fire from there. Captains Goldie and Schrieber fell, struck dead. Within a quarter of an hour Colonel Long, their chief, was knocked over, shot through the arm and body, a bullet passing through his liver and kidneys. He was carried aside 200 yards into a shallow donga, where lay several of the Devons and others. There, wounded as he was, Colonel Long sent for help to overcome the enemy's rifle-fire. But it did not come, for there was a difficulty about quickly finding either General Buller or General Clery.
Colonel Hunt next fell, shot through both legs, and he also was carried to the donga. As the men were being shot down very rapidly—for the Boer fire was by that time increasing—Colonel Hunt advised that it would be better to abandon the guns. But Long's characteristic reply was, " Abandon, be damned! We never abandon guns." Subsequently Colonel Hunt called attention to the fact that it was no use firing; there were scarcely any men left, and next to no ammunition. After that an order was given to abandon the guns, which for over one hour had fought in face of the fiercest fusillade a battery ever endured. Yet, even then, all was not over, for four men persisted in serving two guns and remaining beside their cannon. One of either pair carried the shell; the others laid and fired their beloved 15-pounders. But two men were left. They continued the unequal battle. They exhausted the ordinary ammunition, and finally drew upon and fired the emergency rounds of case—their last shot Then they stood to " Attention" beside the gun, and an instant later fell pierced through and through by Boer bullets. These, I say, by the light of all my experience in war, these gunners of ours, are men who deserve monuments over their graves and even Victoria Crosses in their coffins.
Captains Herbert and Fitzpatrick rode with orders to General Clery, and returned to the batteries during the action. Herbert had his horse shot; in fact, he had three horses shot that day, and yet himself escaped unhurt. Captain Fitzpatrick rode out twice with orders. In the end those two officers found themselves in the little donga with many more wounded and unwounded. Colonel Long became delirious, constantly repeating, " Ah ! my gunners. My gunners are splendid! Look at them!"
About 3 p.m. they decided to make an attempt to ride out and rejoin the troops who had fallen back. The hail of fire was close and deadly; so much so that to peep above the donga was an invitation to death. Having shaken hands with one another and said good-bye, these officers resolved to attempt an escape. Captain Herbert rode off first, and had his third horse shot in the neck; but he got away clear. Ten minutes later Captain Fitzpatrick made essay. Bullets and shell rained around him, and a lucky small solid shot, striking between his horse's heels, put such mettle and speed into the animal that he was quickly borne into safety. The third officer had scarcely got a few yards from the donga when he was killed by a shell.