Potgieter's Drift, Tuesday, January 23, 1900
THREE months have all but passed since Ladysmith was invested. I was never of those who believed that the Boers would be driven away within a week. There were no grounds, so far as I could see, for such a view. It would take, I ventured to think, at least a month to bring troops forward and prepare them to disperse the beleaguering enemy. That period has been considerably overstepped, owing to many causes : delay in arrival of reinforcements and material, and the advent of the wet season. In London I heard much, "on authority," as to the best time for marching an army in South Africa, and as to the ways and means of making a speedy end of the business; but the differences between plans and practice, prediction and performance, have been wide as the poles asunder. Was the specially-garnered intelligence wrong, or, as I have heard asserted here, authentic and full, only the officials at home wilfully blundered in face of the stored knowledge ? From what has occurred in the field I am not disposed hurriedly to accept the plea that Pall Mall was kept well advised. The state of the official mind in London was like that of the gentleman escaping from Ladysmith by one of the last passenger trains. As it was creeping guardedly along near Nelthorpe, a station that the Boers could have tapped on October 30, bang! bang! bang! went something stunningly loud. " Ah!" he said, recovering himself, " it is all right now. There are the fog-signals to show us the line is clear." Whereat the other passengers howled derisively, and said, " It is the Boers' guns turned on us." And a second or so later, bang! bang! a shot passed through the upper work of the compartment, and the gentleman who thought they were fog-signals was, with others, looking under the seats with great earnestness for something they had not lost On that and other occasions the ordinary train-drivers and stokers behaved with conspicuous courage, running the gauntlet of Boer artillery and rifles.
It may be a moot point whether it is truest wisdom in certain operations of war to make haste slowly. Wellington more than once successfully adopted that method, Napoleon rarely ; but great commanders before and since Fabius have chosen to fasten their faith upon the tactics of delay. Let me break aside to say there is only one thing to be dreaded in this war, and it is dreaded by the military —that people at home may spoil all by tiring of it and seeking to hatch another addled peace. The British soldier may take a time that seems unbearable to some folk, but he will accomplish the task set him.
Sir Charles Warren continued his steady daily hammering of the strong Boer lines north of Trieghaardt's Drift and Farm, just east of the Springfield-Acton Homes road, from daybreak until sunset. The mountains and rocks rang with the clamour of cannon and rifles. Six batteries of field-guns and the 50-pounder howitzer battery searched the ground, dropping shells in and around the Boers' countless trenches, forts, dongas, and hiding-places. Six or eight miles away to the east the naval guns, 12-pounders, and the two 4.7's from Mount Alice and near Swartz Kop, kept the enemy in front of Potgieter's Drift upon the alert. Lyttelton's Light Brigade, lining the detached hills north of the drift, also stirred them up with occasional demonstrations and rifle-fire. The balloon assisted in the manoeuvres, and it chanced to get an ugly rip one day from a smaller Boer shell. The rent was quickly patched, but the supply of storage-tubes with gas to reinflate was, it seems, inadequate. Clery's division was practically incorporated with that under Warren, and the whole placed under Sir Charles's personal command. He had, I am informed, a very free hand from General Buller, who kept his headquarters at Spearman's, and rode over from time to time to look after the operations taking place on his left The scheme, as plainly as could be, was to turn the Boers out of the mountains west of Potgieter's Drift, and so free that flank, and leave the army a relatively open field for the march upon Ladysmith. The operation would, moreover, roll the Boers away from the direct roads to Tintwa and Van Reenen's Passes. Our success would mean the driving of the enemy—Free Staters and Transvaalers—eastward towards Onderbrook, Grobler's Kloof, and Bulwana. There they would have to fight us with their line of retreat menaced and their supplies possibly cut off, or use their greater mobility and hurry north to Eland's Laagte [Ed - Elandslaagte] and Newcastle.
Warren had sent part of his cavalry around upon his extreme left, but Lord Dundonald, who commands the troopers, was not permitted to take them far in case of traps. Perhaps it will be said that they were needed in the hills; but that is nonsense. Our troopers cannot yet, like some of the Alpine and German specially trained corps, slide down mountains upon horseback. I am not seeking to minimise the work done by the cavalry—far from it; they have scored more than one of the undeniable small successes our troops have gained. The infantry for the rough ground, the horsemen for more open country. Yet have they also done good service as scouts and skirmishers—Regulars and Colonials—and even tackled the enemy posted upon hills; but then they usually went forward on foot when the Boers had to be dislodged by rifle-fire. I saw the gallant Royals lining two miles of rocky ridges to protect Warren's right from any sudden incursion of the Boers from the mountain fastness of Spion Kop. One of the results of the operations of Friday, January 19, was to lead Sir Charles to pull in his left and stick more determinedly to the work of clearing the hills by frontal attack. Still, it was with his left that he pushed hardest with Hildyard's and Hart's Brigades—the latter thrown farthest forward. Woodgate's Brigade was upon the right, and in support. Par parenthhe, it is one of the peculiarities of the new Cape censorship that, not even after the act, are we permitted to wire which brigade or battalion or battery was engaged. Cavalry, infantry, and Warren's are the broad, wide phrases we must adopt.
There was heavy cannon-firing all along our and the Boer lines on the 19th inst., backed with much sniping and rifle-shooting. In the result Warren had advanced considerably and secured a firmer grip of the ridges. Our men had to bivouac, as before, amongst the rocks and upon the stony slopes of the Spion Kop clubbed ranges in front. There was a ridge within 3000 yards of the main crest, running east and west, whereon the Boers had concentrated in strength. The ridge upon our front referred to, having three mimosas growing upon the summit, was called Three Tree Hill. It was determined to advance at night and seize the position. Supported by Woodgate, Hart's Brigade marched forward at 3 a.m.f and four of our batteries, with the howitzers, acquired, almost without a shot, new, better, and more defensible ground. Following up that success at 6 a.m., our guns began sharply, from Potgieter's to Trieghaardt's, bombarding the Boers. During the night, as I have indicated, there had been some " sniping;" but the Boers dread the dark and British bayonets so much that they did little harm. Upon no occasion have they waited voluntarily until our men could cross steel with them. To incontinently bolt has also been their unvarying practice whenever our shell-fire penetrated to their lurking-places.
After a heavy bombardment the brigades began to advance slowly. Woodgate's men faced partly to the east, as well as north. Hildyard's Brigade went forward to menace the Boer right and turn the western ridge called by us, from its marked shape, Bastion Hill. Major-General Hart, waving his sword, was leading his men on once more in rather close formation for the work in hand. The Irish Brigade, full of undamped ardour despite the miserable night, bore onward with the rattle of musketry, independent and volley firing. The noise was as that of a heavy battle. The Boers contested every inch of ground and rock-cover, but gradually were forced back. Again and again there were wild Irish rushes and cheers, and bit by bit the position was improved, and the advanced parties linked together. The Boers used their cannon, our lost 15-pounders, their Creusot guns, and the nerve-racking " Pom-pom" Maxim-Nordenfelt cannon, which whirls a score of shells into the air, hurtling to make havoc at almost the same instant
Once more the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers got into the thick of the battle, and, as a consequence, suffered rather severely. Faultlessly brave litde Captain Hensley, with whom I have been often in the armoured train and afield, was killed outright, shot in the head. Another officer or two of the regiment were wounded, and a number of casualties occurred amongst the non-commissioned officers and men. But there was no thought of flinching or turning back in the Irish Brigade: and Inniskillings, Connaught Rangers, and Irish Fusiliers kept what they took, and asked to be led forward to get more. It was their day out, the men said, and they were for paying the Boers back in kind for compliments passed at Dundee, Ladysmith, and Colenso; and they did in considerable measure, shooting with rapid and good aim at the Boers firing from trenches and walls. With the least luck, and the support of the rest of Clery and Warren's men, they would, I fancy, that day have won the whole line of Boer works.
Shortly after noon the firing upon Warren's left came closer. Towards the centre the South African Light Horse, under Major Byng, were skirmishing towards Bastion Hill, trying to come up with the Irish Brigade that had by this got well in upon the centre. The Boers clung about the kopjes and dongas, firing in murderous fashion at all detached bodies, but retreating or lying low whenever threatened by infantry in numbers or shaken up by our shrapnel. These sharpshooters were well-nigh as elusive as the air to the grasp of the hand. The Colonial troopers crept in upon Bastion Hill. Its slopes are like a glacis and its long summit as level as an earthwork. Trooper Tobin bravely rode his charger to the top, and, being mistaken for a Boer, was fusilladed and nearly shot for his daring act. Finding the crest unoccupied, he waved his feathered wideawake for his comrades to advance. In a few minutes Bastion Hill was ours, and the pressure upon Hart's Brigade was much relieved.
Advancing along the slopes the troopers came under a heavy fire of musketry, and were hustled by the Pom-pom gun's shells. Major Childe, leader of 11A " Squadron, was shot through the body, terribly shattered, and instantly killed. He was formerly in the Royal Horse Guards, and latterly was in the Shropshire Yeomanry. Strange to say, he had a fixed presentiment that he would be killed that day. Only the night previous he had confided to his friends the conviction that his end was near, and he would not again escape alive. They tried to laugh him out of the belief as an idle fancy; but, although he bantered them in turn, he assured them the decree was certain, and begged them, as a favour, to put these words of Scriptural quotation, besides his name, upon his grave, " Is it well with the child ? It is well." Next day he was buried in a rudely-fenced-about grave. Upon a wooden headboard was the text quoted and the name, " Major C. B. Childe, killed January 20, 1900." From the battlefield that day many kind friends and gallant men found resting-places among the silent ones, but yet not to utter silence, for their lives remain eloquent. Lord Dundonald read the funeral service over Major Childe's body; they were once schoolfellows. Youth to full manhood the steps are not so wide apart when looked back upon, and there were sobs and tears in that sad last farewell, and I think the service was read or thought out to the end.
Let us turn away from these new-made graves, where there were no firing-parties, but only wet, weary eyes for Hensley, the Dublin " Boys," and many more, as there were for Childe; and Father Matthew Collins and the other clergymen gave such comfort to mourners as their creeds afford.
By 3 p.m. on January 20 Hildyard had established his left flank. A commando of 500 or more Boers threatened his left, and caused a halt for a while; but nothing came of the menace, and the enemy had to retire and keep to their hills. With bursts and lulls the battle drawled along throughout the rest of the afternoon, until it dropped to sleep about sunset. The " Body-snatchers," as they are irreverently called—namely, the 1200 men of the volunteer ambulance recruited in the Natal towns— did splendid service. Their behaviour was as brave as at Colenso. Forward they went up to the firing-lines to assist in bringing in the wounded, and, as at Colenso, they paid the penalty of their devotion. Several were killed and nearly a score wounded, for the Boers never hesitate to fire, regardless of Red Cross flags, upon all and sundry at the front They have, however, more than once, to our knowledge, sheltered their movements and fed their fighting-men by means of the Red Cross ambulances. One of the volunteer stretcher-bearers—a man named Robertson, an ex-coffeehouse-keeper in Durban— whilst calling to his comrades to " Come on, and never mind the Boers!" was shot through the head with an expanding bullet The wound was terrible and immediately fatal. Our casualties ran into hundreds — probably they were about 50 killed and 300 wounded. I will add that the whole week's fighting, up to date, has cost less than ioco in total casualties.
Whilst Warren, with whom I was, kept pushing on, Major-General Lyttelton demonstrated with two battalions of his brigade against the Boer lines before Potgieter's Drift. They went forward towards the enemy's trenches as if to attack, but halted near the second line of low ridges, 1500 yards short of them, and engaged in a lively interchange of rifle-shots. It was never intended to do more than keep too many Boers from leaving the position to withstand Warren, and possibly in that respect the movement succeeded to a modified extent. The rain-storm that set in about 4 p.m. on the 20th inst., though of brief duration, helped to taper off the fighting for the day.
On Sunday, 21st inst., the bombardment of the Boer lines was duly resumed. The same field batteries, 13th, 63rd, 7th, and 78th, with the 6ist howitzer battery, shelled the enemy's lines from Three Tree Hill, and in front of it. As the trees afforded too good a landmark to the enemy, they were cut down. About 11 a.m. the troops again began pressing forward, coming into short ranges from 800 to 400 yards from the Boer trenches and cover. The Dublins, under Colonel Cooper, on their own account raised a yell, and carried a small trench upon their front with the bayonet. Mr. Boer had spent his night fortifying himself more deeply than ever. Sir George White had signalled that the wily enemy was reinforcing and bringing up guns. Sir Charles Warren estimated that they had two big Creusot guns, two 15-pounders, besides some of our captured field-guns, two Pom-pom cannon, and numerous Maxims in their works opposite him. Our men were cheery and well satisfied. It was a reasonably fair game of war. " Not like Colenso," the soldiers said, " where we were in the open and the Boers all hidden. We can now take cover as well as they, for it is here to take." Very well, indeed, did many of the battalions now advancing from point to point engage the Boers at their own particular game, and the Boers have confessed that our men's fire is deadly, and that they had no idea Tommy could shoot so straight.
The day was excessively hot, and the troops had to fight under a really blistering sun, but they never faltered. General Hart was, as before, in the van, telling his men that the Boers could not shoot for nuts. In order not unduly to expose them he sent most of his Staff back under cover: one of them, absolutely worn out with the heat and over-exertion, had a slight sunstroke, and had to be treated. Amongst the not severely wounded were Colonel Bruce Hamilton and Major McGregor, of General Clery's staff. The Devons, with another battalion and two batteries, moved out upon the plain to the left (west) to deal with a second supposed flanking attempt of the enemy. As before, it was effectually checked. One poor man Father Matthew told me he had seen and spoken with, a private soldier. " Where were you shot, my man ? " asked the clergyman. In a rich brogue, unimpaired by his injuries or facial bandages, the Irishman, for such he was, answered,141 was shot in the head. It took my left eye out, carried it into my mouth, and I spat it out with three teeth." He did not seem to mind much, and will, I learn, recover. " But we gave it to them Boers, this time, and I am content," he remarked.
That Sunday was a day of biting rifle-fire, and one had to cling close to the rocks. A companion who was lying low said to some one who wished to use his field-glasses, "Oh, you may have them altogether. I don't want to look any more."
On the 19th and 23rd insts. there was bombarding and small demonstrations made by General Barton's Brigade, lying at Chieveley, against Colenso, but only a few of his troops went out upon either occasion. On January 19 half a troop of the South African Light Horse advanced towards Robertson's Drift, which is nearly opposite Grobler's Kloof. Acting under orders, they went close up to the river bank, where they came under a fierce fusillade. Seven of their horses were shot in a detachment of ten troopers. The three other troopers galloped back for assistance, whilst the dismounted men took cover and returned the Boer fire. Our infantry advanced, but did not get close enough to afford the whole an opportunity to retire from the position at the end of the day. Only one other got away, and the remaining six, of whom one or more were wounded, were made prisoners by the Boers. Something of the same kind very nearly occurred on the 23rd in a reconnaissance towards Hlangwane; but the troopers on that occasion, although under a telling fire, managed to escape with the help of their own comrades. On January 22 three companies of rifles made a little demonstration from Potgieter's in the interests of Warrens advance, but it was an unimportant affair. Tuesday, January 23, was much as the other days in the day-by-day fighting of Warren's command, yet progress, though slow, was made. It was, however, not a hard day for the men, but rather one of relatively easy going. A party of signallers was nearly cut off. Five of the men so employed during the hard days of fighting were wounded, and one was killed.
So, down to the evening of January 23, stands the chronicle of war with Buller's force.