Potgieter's Drift (Tugela River), January 22,1900
THERE has been one week of battling, fire, wounding, and death, without a decisive battle, but it is part of our new tactics to wear out and down the Boers' opposition with as little damage and loss as possible to ourselves. As I write the booming of our cannon resounds from Colenso to Waggon Drift and along the Acton Homes road. Natal is a country of magnificent distances, pleasing to the eyes, but fatiguing to body and mind when they have to be traversed so much. I and others realise this, for we have daily to journey on horseback eight or ten miles away to watch the progress of Sir Charles Warren's turning movement, and back here in the evening to despatch our very meagre wires descriptive of the fight. Chieveley and Colenso are relatively so unimportant for the moment —the force there being a mere stand-by, holding the line of communication—that I and others have scratched that factor out of ordinary consideration; yet for days past General Barton's command there, and the naval gunners, have been bombarding and bustling those of the enemy in that vicinity who dare to show their heads or cross the Tugela to threaten a raid or attack on our posts. With steady shooting of cannon and rifles the Tommies have taught the Boers to be not too venturesome and to keep under cover. So, also, within the last few days even, the excitement of bombarding the Boer works opposite Potgieter's Drift by the big naval guns, and the hardy advance into the enemy's trenches under Brakfontein by Lyttelton's Brigade, has paled in interest before the bigger and more momentous operations being conducted by Sir Charles Warren to turn the Boers' right.
To that quarter have we ridden with exemplary regularity and buoyant hopefulness in order to be in at the big battle of the war; but day by day, although in all conscience the contest has been bitter and grim, it has not yet been on the grand firework scale which the situation and numbers of combatants arrayed against each other apparently warranted. Beyond doubt the Boers have far more men under arms than heretofore they have been credited with. They have well-nigh exhausted all the powers of commandeering. Every able-bodied male from fifteen to sixty—school-boys and old men included —has been ordered out, and foreigners have also been pressed into service. As the enemy usually fight on the defensive, and are very mobile, that means our strength, under all military rules, should outnumber theirs at least three to one. We are to-day but little superior to them in numbers in this part of the country. As for cannon, it is little short of a scandal, after the lead the Sirdar gave the Woolwich people with lyddite and machine-guns—although the latter did not get to the front in the Soudan—that the Army artillery with Buller only comprises the 15-pounders and one 5-inch howitzer battery.
The week's campaign can be told concisely. On Tuesday, January 16, firing was heard around Ladysmith by us at Potgieter's, and we could see the big Boer guns upon Bulwana sending shells into the town. The sun was shining brightly, and the heliograph men were able to interchange messages with Ladysmith, which flashed back from near Bester's Farm to Mount Alice, or, as it will likely come to be known in future, Naval Guns Hill, which overlooks Potgieter's Drift. From there you see in a huge semicircle an amphitheatre of hills: Spion Kop upon the left, in front the lower range of Brakfontein, and to your right the spurs of hills running westward from Grobler's Kloof and Colenso. Spion Kop is a sort of Arthur's Seat in its way, with a table-capped top, furrowed and scored with dongas and protruding rocks, and streaked with walls and trenches. That was the barrier Buller was set to scale or break through, in order to succeed in relieving Ladysmith. Naturally, the generals looked the ground carefully over and glanced aside to see if there was not some way round. Meanwhile troops and stores were being concentrated at Springfield, by the Little Tugela. The wily Boer was on the alert. However secret we fancied our movements had been, he was upon the hilltops watching us, and by means of beacon and grass-fires signalling in his own way our whereabouts, numbers, and doings.
Our naval guns, the two 47-pounders from Mount Alice, and the eight 12-pounders from a lower spur, had for days shelled the Boer lines. Swartz Kop and the adjacent crests only command the actual flat crossing at Potgieter's, not the encircling hills beyond the river bends. At 2.30 p.m. Lyttelton's Brigade fell in to force the passage of the Tugela. The arrangement was that two battalions should cover the crossing of their comrades. Slowly at length the long lines of infantry, in part extended and others in column of route, moved onward. Very steadily, where the track was obstructed by bush and rocks, did the troops defile towards the low ground. Accompanied by a few troopers to act as scouts, a battery and a small pontoon train, they wound down the paths among the wooded foothills leading to Potgieter's Drift and Ferry. The river was relatively high, and only just fordable below the inner bend, where there is an accumulation of boulders and four small grassy islets. As the troops emerged from behind Mount Alice and came into view, the Boers began hastening forward on horseback to occupy their defensive works. Neither with invariable discretion nor astuteness were the soldiers led. In many instances their whereabouts could easily have been kept hidden from the ever-watchful, prying Boer, who has always, in this campaign, seen the enemy fail to play the war game. He himself is rarely to be seen, unless in the action, for he has mastered the art of keeping his dispositions an almost profound secret. Now he allows himself no rest, day or night, Saturday or Sunday, till he has built himself into dangerous (to us) security. We do next to nothing in that direction, and achieve the usual result.
Luckily for us, a brief thunderstorm came on, with rain and hail, at 4 p.m., and that served to screen for a time Lyttelton's operations. There were changes of direction, and what not, as the column advanced. On reaching the fertile flat-lands—meadows, and ploughed ground hard by the river—the troops broke up into a series of lines, in snake-like form. The infantry proceeded towards the ford and the ferry. It was intended that the latter should be chiefly used, the few pontoons being merely for boating to and fro. But the Engineers could make no hand at first with the ferry, which apparently was a fixture. For over an hour we waited at the bank. At last a score or so of bluejackets, including some men of the Colonial Naval Brigade, under Lieutenant Chiazzari, who knew how to work ferry-boats and ropes, went to the soldiers' assistance, and in a twinkling put matters to rights. Worse remained. The Engineers had gone down without ropes or stakes, both of which should have been used to mark the ford and assist the infantry in crossing. In a swift-rushing stream, with the water far over the waist, it is no easy matter to keep your direction and footing, and a staked safety-line would have been of the greatest help. Somehow the Engineers— that strictly scientific branch of the service—presumably well read in Army books, though you would rarely suspect it of many of them — knew less than nothing about the working of a hawser-ferry. Yet, rope-ferries are of ancient origin, and still in common use in many countries. Much has been left undone by the Engineers in road-making and mending. There is a conviction abroad that the meagre patching they do here and there could have been better and more cheaply carried out by a few score mechanics.
Whilst the ferry stuck, at 5 p.m., the Scottish Rifles and the Rifle Brigade went along the meadows and fields. A few rifle-shots were fired at them by the Boers. Two private soldiers—I wish I had their names—thereafter moved down the twenty or thirty-feet steep banks towards the drift into the roaring Tugela. They waded breast-deep, and, going from island to island, ultimately reached the opposite bank. Then they returned to guide their comrades. Taking hands, with their rifles over their backs, and in double chain, the men slowly forded the Tugela. One or two came near drowning, and the chains were temporarily broken; but, although a rifle and a few cartridges were lost, the courage and resource of the troops saved their fellows from a watery grave. Broken chains were made good by men who had crossed rushing into the water to grab their floundering comrades' hands. As soon as companies crossed, they lined the banks until the remainder of their battalions were over. Then they advanced in attack formation for over one mile, and occupied a series of low, rocky hills reaching across the tongue of land upon the north bank, less than two miles from the main Boer trenches and forts. It was 6 p.m. before the first ferry-load crossed, but thereafter, the sailors having arrived upon the scene, half a company at a time were taken over, and by 3.30 a.m. all the horses, waggons, guns, and men had been conveyed across. There was a little sniping, but that was put a stop to by our men rushing the Boer trenches, which were found tenantless. The brigade, however, elected to hold only the first rocky ridges a mile from the river; the others, a mile further, being too directly under the main positions of the enemy. A slight diversion had been created in favour of Lyttelton's crossing by General Hildyard threatening to ford the drift. The operations were conducted without any loss in men or horseflesh.
Wednesday, January 17,1900.
During the night a howitzer battery had been sent over by ferry to reinforce Lyttelton. At 5.40 a.m. the naval guns opened a heavy and searching cannonade upon the Boer works, ranging 47-lb. lyddite shells 11,000 or 12,000 yards from Alice Hill. Spion Kop was bombarded, and so was Brakfontein, and everywhere where the Boers were to be seen toiling at the construction of trenches or redoubts; and the howitzer battery chipped in, adding to the terrible din of cannons' roar, at 6.15 a.m. Volcano-like eruptions of brown cloud-dust and rocks were thrown high into the air wherever the lyddite shells burst, and their effect was visible upon the Boers, who skipped out of range of the deadly howitzers whenever possible. I saw a man blown into the air, as a Highlander tosses the caber from his hands, by the explosion of the 50-lb. lyddite shell in a Boer trench. There can be little doubt, from the accuracy of their fire and the swiftness of the enemy's scurries from cover to cover, that the artillery was doing much execution. Strange to say, the howitzers quite held their own with the big naval guns in the accuracy and destructiveness of their fire.
Whilst this demonstration was proceeding near Potgieter, Sir Charles Warren, with his guns and part of Clery's Division, advanced towards a drift near Trieghaardt's Farm, commonly so called, six miles west of Mount Alice. It was upon the direct Acton Homes road, and led to the rough ground, foothills, and detached ranges behind, on the west of Spion Kop. The possession of these, it was trusted, would drive the Boers from the vicinity of Potgieter's, and Spion Kop must fall into our hands. By 8 a.m. Sir Charles had his vanguard on the flat land, leading directly to Trieghaardt's Drift. He personally selected suitable crossing-places, and within an hour afterwards had two excellent pontoon and trestle-work bridges spanning the Tugela, and a roadway cut into the bank. A few Boers from Trieghaardt's Farm buildings, spinneys, and orchards, as well as from a Kaffir kraal in rear, offered feeble opposition. A trifle of section-volleys and a dusting of shrapnel from Warren's guns killed and dispersed the pugnacious obstruction. By 10 a.m. Warren's columns had crossed the Tugela in strength, and the naval guns from Mount Alice had materially helped to achieve that result. The Boers dropped a shell or two, but they fell comparatively harmless. Firing practically ceased for a while about midday, and Sir Charles was allowed to get his troops quietly towards their intended bivouac. That night, at 9.15, we were allowed to wire home the first brief intimation of what had happened since our departure from Frere a week previously. During the night a few shots were fired from our batteries to bother the entrenching Boers.
Thursday, January 18,1900.
This was a relatively quiet day all round. There were the wonted matutinal sounds of bombardment at Ladysmith and from Mount Alice. There was much proclamation of war and death by artillery. The balloon section, which had crossed Potgieter's with Lyttelton, sent up their translucent aerostat, and from the aeronaut we learned that he could discern as yet no guns in the enemy's works. Yet they were there all the same, but well hidden, as we knew from native eye-witnesses. That our advance was alarming the enemy was evident from the re-awakened vigour of their shelling Ladysmith all round, particularly from Mount Bulwana. In the afternoon our naval guns and howitzers hotly cannonaded the Boer lines before Spion Kop and Brakfontein. A few more of the enemy were knocked about in their trenches, and again we sustained no loss. In order to see a demonstration made against the Brakfontein works I crossed the Tugela. I had the ill-luck, whilst trying to keep my belongings and saddle-bags dry, to have my horse wander aside from the ford and plunge himself and me into eight feet of water, with all my gear, books, and equipment. We had to swim for it—I alongside gripping the reins. Together we got out, wet and dirty, but not demoralised, nor a button the less.
With the Scottish Rifles on the left, the 60th next them, the balloon and howitzers to their right, and, on the farthest flank east, the 1st Rifle Brigade, we went forward under a heavy fire. The troops advanced in excellent, thin, widely-separated lines. The howitzers made the enemy's trenches and walls reel, and must have caused many casualties, but the effort failed to draw the Boer gunners. So, after going ahead over a mile, the troops halted for the night. Our casualties were slight—two men wounded—so aptly has Tommy acquired the Boers' take-cover tactics. Lyttelton's Light Brigade longed to assault the works upon Brakfontein, but, as it was not down in the programme, their hands had to be stayed. During the day Warren was establishing his camp and position, so little was done in this direction beyond a series of brisk, prolonged skirmishes in the hills behind Spion Kop with sniping Boers.
We learned that Lord Dundonald, with 500 Colonial cavalry, had reached Acton Homes, and all but succeeded in trapping 400 Boers. Major Mackenzie of the Carbineers had, it seems, got leave to take a kopje, likely, as he thought, to be made use of by an oncoming commando. There was a gallop for the position, and the Colonials got there before the Boers, and unseen by the enemy. Dundonald made dispositions to surround them, but just as the Boers came up to within 300 yards an excited trooper of the Imperial Light Horse, it is said, fired his rifle and alarmed the enemy. Most of them galloped away back, but a volley from our troopers killed eighteen Boers; and twenty-three wounded and unwounded prisoners were taken. Three were Free Staters, and the others were from Pretoria. The dead were counted, and the survivors all brought into the headquarters camp at Spearman's. Our total casualties were but two. Several important burghers were amongst the killed, including De Villiers, who was in Joubert's confidence. Three of the captured were Germans, and half of the eighteen wounded spoke good English. Most of the Boers expressed thankfulness at being taken, as they were now done with fighting for the war. Lord Dundonald asked permission to remain and defend Acton Homes, but was recalled by Sir Charles Warren to protect the left flank. A helio message had been received from Sir George White to the effect that a commando of at least 2000 Boers, with guns, were marching from Ladysmith to surround Dundonald's small force.
Friday, January 19, 1900
There was more fighting to-day, but it also was unimportant, beyond leading up to a more serious encounter. Lyttelton had returned to his first line after having, during the night, with a rush and rattle of battle, carried the nearest Boer trenches. The position, however, was too close to the enemy's extensive and strong lines to be safe for so small a force. They sustained no loss whatever, for the Boers had vacated the trenches. There were sounds of firing at Colenso and Ladysmith, but neither was out of the ordinary hammering. Our naval guns also took up their diurnal duty of knocking the Boer works and walls about, throwing shells astounding distances at waggons and horsemen crossing the veldt Warren prosecuted his turning movement, sending his right and centre well in, whilst Hildyard on the left, with Hart's Brigade, moved forward. Clearly the object in view was to seize Bastion Hill, as we have dubbed it from its shape, and roll up the Boer right towards Spion Kop, over the direct Ladysmith road via Potgieter's.
Warren's outstretched lines of the previous day had been pulled in a little. General Buller and staff had, as customary, ridden over to watch what was going forward. But Warren was left all the same with a free hand. " Make haste slowly " would stand for his method of dealing with the Boers and their opposition. On the right Major-General Woodgate's Lancashire Brigade, with the 13th Hussars, were watching Spion Kop. Throughout the day there was sharp rifle-firing between the advanced parties on both sides. Although the Boers had all the advantages of commanding ground and good shelter, they were step by step forced back upon the outer semicircle of lofty ridges stretching from Fairview to Spion Kop. We sustained some slight loss, but bivouacked upon the enemy's ground. During the day Sir George White's big guns' shells dropped within four miles of the farthest range of our naval guns. I learn that there are seventy special relief waggons filled with stores accompanying our column to Ladysmith. Mr. Goldmann and I have the Daily Telegraph relief waggon with extras here ready to go forward.
Saturday, January 20, 1900.
General Warren advanced his whole force and engaged in a very sure and deliberate battle against the strongly entrenched Boer lines. At daybreak the din began with the cannonade of six batteries, into which the naval guns from Mount Alice interjected frequent forcible clamour. The disposition of Warren's force was as before stated. Upon Hart's Brigade fell the brunt of the fighting, for they had to make progress upon the left. It was a long, noisy, ding-dong action, lasting from sunrise to sunset and even into the night, for of late the Boers have betaken themselves to the resort of the weak and despairing—sniping. By night they used their cannon with some effect against us, including several of the captured 15-pounders from Colenso. The shrapnel burst fairly well, and caused the death of the only officers—Captain Hensley, Dublins, besides Major Childe, of the South African Light Horse—who were killed. Our losses in wounded were heavy, amounting to over 200 officers and men. About eighteen men were killed. Happily the wounds are mostly trivial, and the medical opinion is that the men will be fit for duty again in three weeks.
The story of the battle is too long and too full of details for this letter. One of the pluckiest deeds of the day was the act of Trooper Tobin, of the South African Light Horse, who captured the position of Conical Hill. He rode to the top alone, and finding but six Boers there, got his comrades up and secured that strategic point just east of the outer range called Bastion Hill. Since then Warren has been reinforced with men and guns, including the lyddite battery. The howitzers have sorely shaken the Boers, and the position is being slowly but surely wrested from the enemy. During the last few days, or since Friday, our total losses have been kept well down under the hundred. The troops are in excellent spirits, pleased beyond measure at being able to engage the Boers upon anything like fair terms. Our men's dash and dexterity are admirable.