Frere, January 9, 1900
Some failures are creditable, but most are otherwise. As to the first mischance that befell the attempt of General Buller before Colenso, on December 15 last, I have said all that is needed for a while, both by way of description and comment This time everything indicates that Sir Redvers Buller is determined to make assurance doubly sure. Sir Charles Warren's division has been added to the strength of the command, and that, with General Clery's troops, brings up the number that General Buller can put in the field to over 30,000 men. There is, however, a paucity in the regulation proportion of cannon, even including the naval guns. This is the more conspicuous in that the Boer positions are strong in themselves naturally, and have been made much more so by numerous and well-placed defensive works. To shake the defenders and unsettle their marksmanship they would, in the ordinary course, be hammered by a severe bombardment That is scarcely possible under the circumstances, and I am inclined to the view that General Buller is not a devout believer in the supreme efficacy of the cannon's deadly roar and rattle. The stern infantry, with bullet and bayonet, can, undoubtedly, alone set the seal of victory on any great action, and the British soldier will not fail Queen or country when duty calls. But even in battle economy of life is no minor consideration. Why and wherefore we have made haste slowly to the relief of Sir George White and his garrison is, more or less, still the secret of the Generals. Until the causes that have contributed to the delay, and the nature of their plans are disclosed, criticism is absurd and impossible; but the determined assault made by the enemy last Saturday upon Ladysmith shows that we are not yet beyond the risk of accidents. Nor can even the cleverest military leaders eliminate all hazard of mishap.
To-day the second forward movement for the relief of Ladysmith has been begun, and that in the face of very bad weather. Last night, about nine o'clock, a violent thunderstorm broke over the whole district between Estcourt and the Tugela, probably extending to Mooi River and Ladysmith. The rain fell in torrents, and has continued without intermission. Until two o'clock this afternoon water has poured in sheets down the hillsides and slopes, flooding the ordinary dry spruits and river-beds from bank to bank. Around the tents the ground has been pounded into quagmires, and the soldiers under bell-roofed or little patrol canvas shelters have had a damp, sorry time. Last night there was a curtailed "sing-song" in the Composite Rifle Battalion. Everybody who could sought shelter, but for the hundreds upon outpost and picquet-duty there was nothing better than blankets and greatcoats, and trenches turned into water-holes. As little as possible can the elements be considered in campaigning, so, at an early hour this morning, through the rain and mud, Sir Charles Warren's division set out from Estcourt to join the two brigades here at Frere. One brigade and the guns came by way of Ennersdale—a round of twelve miles—whilst the other took the more direct road. They had a terrible time scrambling up and down the steeper slopes and wading through the spruits. The column which came via Ennersdale got in about 2 p.m., together with most of the cavalry and artillery. The gunners and horses had as much as they could do getting the batteries along. As for the second column, it was hung up for a while three miles out from Frere. There is a deep ravine at that part which can usually be crossed dryshod, but to-day the engineers reported the water ten feet deep in the spruit Some fun was poked, later on, at the engineers' soundings when it was seen that an old farmer rode his horse across the drift, the water showing under two feet of depth.
Warren's men have come prepared for thorough soldiering, the whole division marching without tents. Indeed, it is the announced purpose of the General Commanding that the Relief Column shall move forward without tents, and with but a week's rations. The rain held off for rather less than two hours. It is now falling again, and shows every sign of lasting throughout the night. As for Warren's division, they have but the blanket and greatcoat, and must bivouac upon the wet ground. To-morrow, unless the weather upsets all of General Buller's well-kept secret plans, I hear the remainder of the army will move forward. The soldiers are all cheery enough—glad, I think, that the prolonged inaction is at an end. Their quarters hum with banter and song, suggesting the sound that prevails on a market day. The lads are drenched to the skin, to the marrow—surely campaigning with a vengeance ! By that same capacity of undergoing hardship with a light heart their fixity of purpose may be gauged. English, Irish, Scotch, Welsh, all are alike eager to show the Boer that in British " rooineks " he has met more than his match. That petty prejudices at home should deny the meed of praise to such men, fighting to increase the surety and blessing of united Empire, seems inconceivable.
To-night the first portion of the Relief Force leaves Frere Camp, going out Springfield way. Cavalry, guns, and a supply column march together £o seize and keep Swartz Kop, whilst the infantry follow closely behind. A similar, and even more serious, demonstration will be made towards the east, or against Hlangwane Hill. There the Boers holding that corner this side of the Tugela must, with the river in flood, be completely isolated from their friends upon the north bank. Another chance is now afforded General Buller to capture the 1500 or 2000 Boers entrenched in that rough ground. We were to have carried the position upon a recent occasion, but the rapid fall of the Tugela restored the enemy's communications. To-day these are quite severed, the bridge of boats is gone, and the river quite unfordable, for the big Tugela goes roaring down in full. With Hlangwane in his hands, General Buller would turn the Colenso lines, and the 4.7-inch naval guns could send shells to Nelthorpe, or within the range of White's 45-pounders. The Royals and nearly all the cavalry leave us to-night, and the troops at Chieveley Camp are also, I learn, making ready at Frere. All extra blankets and stores have been called in and packed, and it may be taken for granted that to-morrow there will be sounds of battle resounding along the Tugela. Generals Lyttelton and Hart, with their brigades, go forward. The camps have all been put into a defensive state by means of trenches and small redoubts, so that the line of communications can be securely held by the troops already ordered to remain behind for that purpose. No enterprising or raiding bands of Boers can, therefore, take any advantage of the movement of the army to the front
Last Saturday something unusual was proceeding at Ladysmith. The sounds of cannonading and musketry reached even to Frere, for the morning was still and clear. Shortly after 2 a.m. the silence of night was riven by the heavy shock of big guns booming. The thunder of artillery was continuous, and swelled as the day wore on. Soon it was plain that no sortie was in progress, but some desperate attack by the enemy, who were, no doubt, seeking to forestall the work of the Relief Column. The heliograph was in operation, and General Buller quickly knew what was happening at Ladysmith. We, too, learned that the Boers had attacked the town on all sides, but that their chief effort was directed to securing Caesar's Camp. That is one of the various Aldershot names given to spots around Ladysmith. The topography of that militant town, however, has no resemblance to this place, as Caesar's Camp, Ladysmith, is a barren-sided, flat-topped hill, rising several hundred feet above the arid low hills, south or south-by-west of the town. It was late in the day of disaster and investment before that ridge, which is almost a mile long, was duly fortified. The position gives command of the town from the south, and would have uncovered the quarters of the troops screened amongst the bush and windings of the Klip River. Nay; it would have opened to sure gun-range the streets and buildings of Ladysmith. Caesar's Camp, therefore, had to be held at almost any cost to the garrison. Bravely, as it turned out, did the troops, though sore pressed, answer the call of duty and hurl back the assaults of the Boers. I rode over to Chieveley to be nearer the scene. As I have already explained, we Press correspondents have to camp at Frere, in the vicinity of the headquarters of the Press censor, who, in the present instance, is an affable, fair-dealing officer, Major Jones, of the Wiltshire Regiment. The hard orders of the day also forbid us to proceed beyond the outposts, or to accompany small columns or reconnoitring bodies of troops. In plain words, we are allowed out only when there is a general advance or big movement afoot. If Sir Redvers himself rides out with a body of troops we are forbidden to go abroad with the detachment. Our wires are held until the official despatches are prepared and transmitted. These have priority over all messages, and there is often a glut of three or five days' matter upon the cables, and so our wires run lagging far behind. But there is another kind of hampering to which it is useless to refer just now.
In order to create something of a diversion for the help of the Ladysmith garrison, the troops at Chieveley were ordered to advance as if to attack Colenso lines. In the morning and forenoon bodies of Boers were seen leaving the trenches before Colenso, and galloping up the Ladysmith road, no doubt to reinforce their assaulting column. Here was a movement surely we should defeat and stop. About 2 p.m., therefore, a force of cavalry, three field batteries, and five battalions of infantry turned out as if to cross the Tugela. To help them the naval guns—45- and 12-pounders—began a heavy bombardment of the Boer lines. Lyddite and common shell were sent into Colenso, and over the river from Grower's Kloof to Hlangwane the ground was searched, and missiles were exploded by the river and in the enemy's works, causing, I am certain, not a few casualties. The Boers, fearing serious work was at hand, came riding back into their trenches. They have dug their cover so deep that it affords shelter to their horses as well. As Lord Dundonald, who commands the brigade of cavalry, was instructed to send a force, extended with 500 troopers in front, towards Colenso, and to protect the flanks with other regiments, the 13th Hussars rode westward, and occupied a crest in the direction of Springfield. Thorneycroft's Mounted Rifles went towards Hussar Hill, which lies a little south of the spur of Hlangwane.
The men were directed not to attack without special orders, but the Boers only waited until the horsemen got near enough, and then they fired their Mausers at our lads—Tommies and Colonials —from behind garden and house-walls in Colenso, from the banks of the river, and the trenches upon its northern margin. Luckily the enemy's fire was erratic and high. Behind the cavalry marched the infantry, and in the centre the three field batteries. The naval guns sent shell after shell screaming over our heads, picking out the spots where the Boers showed the most activity or curiosity. Major-General Hildyard employed three battalions, each of which advanced in widely extended and four separated successive single lines.
I should say the infantry walked forward, each man having his nearest comrade six full paces to right or left of him. With the stolid calm of the British soldier they trudged steadily forward up to and beyond the ground where, on December 15, the battle raged. The Boers poured a warm Mauser-fire out of their lines, but that made no difference to the steady, onward sweep. When they got within 1000 yards of the platelayer's house, close to Colenso, the men were ordered to take cover and go forward more slowly. Gradually they slipped in close enough to assist the naval gunners to clear out the few Boer marksmen from Colenso. Then the field batteries joined in the demonstration, limbering and firing from the west side of the railroad, not 1500 yards in rear of where Colonel Long's batteries had fought across the line a few weeks ago. With great rapidity and precision the gunners rained shrapnel and common shell all along the Boer position. Hlangwane and Grobler's Kloof came in for their share of the withering hail, but scarce a sign beyond their rifle-fire did the enemy vouchsafe. The troopers on our right, Hlangwane way, were shot at by the enemy, but the two battalions marched out in that direction, so their supports were not engaged. Colonel Reeves commanded in that part of the field, his men consisting of his own battalion— the Irish Fusiliers—with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in support Both battalions were in the same extended order as General Hildyard's, and, during the very one-sided action, lay prone upon the ground. At 5 p.m. the field batteries were taken on iooo yards nearer the Tugela. From there, for over an hour, they knocked the Boer lines about without receiving an answer in kind; nay, even the enemy's rifle-fire fell away into insignificance.
About 7 p.m., when rain had commenced falling, and the Boers had again shown they were not to be further drawn, the troops were ordered to retire to camp. Lieut.-General Clery was in command, and, like the celebrated General in the Peninsular War, who rode in cocked hat to draw the fire of the French guns, he went beyond the infantry towards the Tugela in yellow puggaree, with his whitey khaki coat, and his attendant staff. Even his presence failed to rouse the Boers to battle. So Colenso No. 2 drew blank, but in quite a different manner from the earlier occasion, for there were no casualties on our side. Next day (Sunday) all was profound peace, and, no doubt, in Ladysmith and in the Boer lines outside they were busy burying the dead and attending to the wounded. We heard rumours that General White had 1300 casualties, including fourteen officers killed and twenty-four officers wounded. On the other side 1500 Boers were accounted for, and Commandant de Villiers and many prominent Free Staters were killed. From Caesar's Camp Hill the Transvaalers had been twice driven. Their neighbours of the Orange Free State had scoffed at their want of courage, themselves clinging to Waggon Hill, the south-west spur of Caesar's. When the darkness and rain came together at 7.30 p.m. forward ran the Devons. Tight to their ground stuck the Boers, but into the trenches leapt the soldiers, bayoneting and stamping down into the two feet of water the wretched Free Staters. By order they had been put in the front of battle, and deadly had been their suffering. Several hundred prisoners were captured by General White's victorious troops.