Potgieter's Drift, January 25, 1900
THERE are sad hearts, angry souls, humbled and raging spirits everywhere—in the officers' as well as the men's quarters of General Buller's force. And for a good cause. Yesterday, with great toil, endurance, and sustained heroism, part of the troops by night assault carried Spion Kop, the rugged, lofty southern ridge of an irregular mountainous chain, beneath which winds the Tugela. In Basuto tongue it is called " Thaba Emunyama," the black mountain. Thaba Emunyama was the veritable master-key of the military situation, and, as I saw, had been won and kept in the most hardy manner. For nearly a week there had been a certain beating about here and there upon our left, six miles west of Potgieter's, with more or less desperate fighting daily, amongst the lumpy, rock-strewn foothills and sprawling mountainous shoulders of the main chain, which has its crests 1500 feet and more above the rushing river. The troops had made way five miles or so, the desperate Dublins (Fusiliers) always in the thick of the fray. But at the end of our guns we were still confronted by large bodies of Boers, whilst the curved lines of General Warren's corps—for Clery was acting under him—were endangered as they grew weakly long. Add to that the risk run from the hump-backed and rocky ledges of Spion Kop and Thaba Emun-yama, which menacingly overlooked Warren's right, nay, his whole disposition. To Sir Charles had been entrusted the difficult task of clearing the ranges of the enemy upon his more immediate front and left. Generals Lyttelton and Coke were to have held and threatened the Boers from Potgieter's. Coke's Brigade was, however, withdrawn three days ago and sent to reinforce Warren. With wise deliberation General Warren had set about his work. Making haste slowly, perhaps, it could be urged, too guardedly, he was careful of his men, and with relatively small losses daily forced the Boers back step by step. Then it was decided to do that which, but for our caution or courtesy, could have been more easily accomplished a week earlier. But this may seem captious.
The time has come when the truth must be written without hesitation or regard for individuals. A most serious crisis has arisen in the conduct of the war. It depends upon how the difficulties are grappled with whether the war will be brief and victorious for our arms, or prolonged, sanguinary, and pregnant with consequences which probably none can foresee. I will disclose my mind and feeling in the matter. When, after returning from the vicinity of Spion Kop yesterday, where I interchanged a few friendly observations with Sir Charles Warren, regretting, among other things, the lack of more and better cannon and a balloon, all was well upon Spion Kop. The ridges had been cleared of the enemy. Their excellent artillery was comparatively quiet, and we were establishing our hard-won ground in solid strength, sending up engineers and guns. It was 6 p.m. when I left to cross the Tugela and get back to the wires at Buller's headquarters, eight miles away. Almost needless now to say, few or no facilities are afforded journalists with this force either to collect or to transmit news. We are placed at least two miles from the headquarters camp, beside smallpox-invested native kraals, and have to ride that distance to and fro when telegrams have to be sent, in order to get the Press Censor's sign-manual for the matter permissible upon the wires. And there has been another official censor set up at Cape Town, via which, by " order," all our telegrams must be sent I have told you already that the Natal Government Telegraph's officials have, on more than one occasion, signified their readiness to the General to lay lines accompanying the force afield, and deal at once with all military and private work, without restriction as to number of words. But, " No," say the military; and now, with capable soldier-telegraphists, the best of apparatus, they daily flout us with the observation, " The wires are crowded." We cannot, as a rule, send more than 150 words a day, but sometimes, as special favour, 350 are allowed us. To be exact, I should state that we may go back to Frere, a score of miles, and, with the Censor's approval—that is, the General's—add another 200 words on great occasions.
It is all downright nonsense, or something else, this so-called preventive means against wire-blocking. General Buller has the right, which he and the military nowadays invariably use, of signalling " Clear the lines "—i.e. putting aside all messages until his despatches are sent through. But more is done; the military absolutely keep back all our telegrams from the wires until their own despatches are most deliberately written out and sent off. More than once in this Natalian campaign have our messages been absolutely refused, or not transmitted for days in succession. Recently we were bottled up for a whole week, although the Boers knew all about the Army's movements. But where is the use of a Press Censor if he cannot erase information in " wires" that might assist the enemy ? Neither in the German nor any army—no, nor upon any campaign I wot of—have such stringent measures been taken with correspondents in the field to burke their communications. There is such a thing as living in a fool's paradise of exclusive official despatches, as the public may some day in cosdy panic find out. To-day I had seriously contemplated sending, on my own and others' behalf, the following telegram to the Prime Minister and Colonial Secretary:—
" SIR,—Time has come when our country's paramount interests force us to protest against the unreasonable, persistent tampering with and suppression of war news which we believe to be of vital importance that the public should know. The facts that we seek to disclose are such as are fully and daily known to the enemy, but our people, whom they far more deeply concern, are kept in total, probably fatal, ignorance. We raise no complaint of personal nature, although causes for such exist, but the obstacles interposed to our discharge of grave public duties at this juncture compel us to withdraw from General Buller's field force, and, in order to regain our freedom as correspondents, to proceed to the confines of civic government."
We have preferred to remain with the troops, but, none the less, endeavour to have our grievances redressed, awaiting the issue with patience and confidence.
On Tuesday, January 23, there was a conference among the generals upon the field towards the close of the day's operations. War, somehow, ultimately adapts itself to periods and measurements of time on our side, which the Boer, not perhaps ungratefully, falls in with. We begin hammering at daybreak, lull up about 9 a.m. for a while for breakfast, then from noon or thereabouts till 1.30 p.m., and on again until near sundown, when everybody, by consent, prepares for dinner and such rest as veldt and rocks afford. It was decided to take Spion Kop, advancing in the night up to the southern shoulders of Thaba Emunyama. To Major-General Woodgate was assigned the onerous responsibility of capturing the position. His brigade had been moving along upon the right, whilst General Warren was endeavouring to turn the Boer right by seizing the ridges overlooking the Acton Homes road. About six o'clock in the evening the assaulting column paraded. It consisted of Thorneycroft's mounted infantry, the Lancashire Fusiliers, one company (the 17th) Royal Engineers, six companies of the Royal Lancashire, and two companies of the South Lancashire Regiment. Colonel k Court, of Buller's Staff, accompanied General Woodgate. Without native or other guides the force proceeded in the gloaming down the slopes, moving rearward along the deep dongas, to get upon the south side of Thaba Emunyama. Painfully going forward, scrambling over boulders and rocks in the darkness, the column, in two thin lines, silently, slowly neared the mountain. No smoking, no talking—the orders not to fire but use the bayonet—the men held grimly onward. Almost every man carried a rifle, including General Woodgate. Two days earlier I had said to Colonel Burn-Murdoch, of the " Royals," whose dragoons were guarding Warren's extreme right, that the Boers had neglected to place guns upon Thaba Emunyama, or to hold it in strength. Pointing to it, I had suggested that three of his troopers might creep up in the daylight by the reverse slope and see what was happening. There were, it is true, a dozen places along the mountain's sides where a few men could have defeated hundreds, and made half a dozen Thermopylaes against as many armies. On slight incidents great issues oft revolve. Reaching and beginning to scale the almost precipitous sides of the mountain—for in the cheerless, misty, starless night the troops did not hit off" the easiest ascent—a large white spaniel came up and began capering around the head of the column, where General Woodgate, Colonel a Court, and Thorneycroft were. What was to be done with it, for it was worse than the dog upon the racecourse ? A single yelp from the animal would have betrayed the column to the Boers and to defeat. It could not be shot nor safely knocked upon the head. The trouble was solved by giving it to a soldier to pet and fondle, a string was put around its neck, and it was quietly led off. Whenever a difficult part was reached, Thorneycroft went ahead with two or three of his men to discover the best way of surmounting the obstacle, or ascertaining if Boers lay behind interposing ledges. General Woodgate, though far from well, had persisted in leading his men. In steep places he had, in several instances, to be pushed and pulled to assist him onward.
From 6 p.m. until 3.40 a.m., in the thin rain and chilly mists, toiling along, the force had marched, the distance altogether not more than six miles. They were near the top, by a flat where grow half a dozen or more dwarf but bushy mimosa trees, now covered in yellow-button blossoms, sweeting the air with their perfume. The Lancashire Fusiliers had taken their place in the front for the crucial moment, and the summit was near. Suddenly, through the ghostly mist, a piping Dutch voice cried, " Halt! who goes there ? " Some officer, probably General Woodgate, yelled back, " Waterloo!"—the countersign. Instantly there were forks of flame, and a dozen or score of Boer rifles were discharged within fifty yards into the faces of the soldiers. Hastily the enemy fired, emptying their Mauser magazines, as hurriedly, with cheer and shout, the Lancashire lads and their comrades bounded forward up over rocks and boulder to administer the bayonet The Boers ran off, scattering in all directions; but Lieutenant Audrey managed to bayonet one in the trench, who, perhaps, was slower than his fellows to cut, and one or two others were caught in their flight by the men.
Behind a wall further on five Boers lay hid, trying to use their rifles. They also broke away. Colonel k Court tried his Mauser pistol, but the safety-catch was set, so, grabbing a big stone, he bowled one of the Boers over, hitting him over the head. Then, the mountain-top cleared of Boers, the engineers and men set to work to construct trenches for holding the position against any attempt of the enemy to recapture the place. Ammunition and guns were sent for, and preparations made for keeping the mountain which, as Colonel k Court assured me, could have been " held till Doomsday against all comers." Happily, too, a spring was discovered, so that there was no lack of water. For four hours the work of trench-making proceeded without interruption. The howitzers, and two of the 15-pounder batteries, with Warren's corps, near Fair View, west of Spion Kop, in answer to the musketry, began shelling the neck of land connecting the northern with the southern spurs, to check any attempt of the Boers to send reinforcements across to attack Thaba Emunyama. From above Potgieter's the naval 4.7-inch guns later on helped to guard the same passes against intruders.
Daylight came tardily. Banks and wreaths of cloud and mist clung to the mountains, lazily waving their fleecy fringes in the idle air. The mist had helped us; it was now the Boers' turn. Through it crept the best of the Free State marksmen. From behind great rocks and boulders they commenced at dawn potting at our men, who had neglected to explore and occupy the whole crest up to the northern neck. The twenty or fifty Boers swelled in numbers. Their mode of skirmishing was ingenious. Whilst a mere handful, a dozen or more, were sniping, the majority sat with their backs against the rocks, under safe cover, holding their rifles between their knees. Whenever our men sought to make a forward rush, then all the Boers instantly became alert, and joined in potting, as fast as they were able, the soldiers running in upon them. With the clearing away of the mist and the growing light, the crackling of musketry swelled into one continuous roar. Amongst the first to fall were Drummer Greig and a private of the Fusiliers, both killed with explosive bullets. Many such were used against our men. From front, right, and left flanks the Boer marksmen sniped at long ranges from the safe cover of trenches, forts, and rocks. At 6 a.m. their guns began playing upon the mountain. Few or no guns had the Boers when we reached Potgieters, but the weary delay had given them time to construct trenches and forts, and to drag over guns from Colenso and Ladysmith. Sir George White had also sent a message by helio that the enemy were reinforcing their lines with men and a number of guns. From 7 a.m. till dusk the battle had made changes. Through it all our soldiers behaved like heroes, with a courage and dash that none could surpass. Rained upon from three sides, a hellish tornado of fire, of bullet and shell, that pierced and shattered our soldiers by scores, again and again they would run, charging forward, as desperately in face of death as ever did the fiercest of Dervishes. They were man and man upon their mettle, and it rang through and through, exquisite as true-tempered steel. Glory and honour to them, who only needed leaders and direction! All that flesh and blood could do, and more, they accomplished.
It was not alone the deadly " Pom-pom," the Maxim-Nordenfelt machine-cannon of the Boers, bursting a trail of twenty or more shells suddenly and almost simultaneously in their midst, they had to withstand ; they were harrowed and ploughed with 6-inch shells and shrapnel from the captured Colenso 15-pounders. And the tale of their endurance is not told. By some cruel mischance our own gunners burst their missiles amongst them. Blame not the gunners unquestioningly. Things had been done in a hugger-mugger fashion, and they had no precise information imparted to them as to the object and scope of the day's operations. Later they were, for the most part, quite unaware of the movement led by General Lyttelton, which resulted in the capture of the northern spurs of Spion Kop. The consequence was that the Scottish Rifles and the 3rd King's Royal Rifles suffered from our own shrapnel bursting over the reverse slopes. It was not until 5 p.m., when General Warren arrived upon the scene where the batteries were, that their fire was stopped. In war, more than all else, cohesion of purpose, co-operation, and combination are wellnigh indispensable. Therein our professionals should have far excelled over the Boers. Therein, as with our guns—howitzers excluded—we have signally lagged behind them. From far and changing ranges the enemy's cannon ever and again battered our troops lying in the trench or among the rocks of Thaba Emunyama. But, try as they did, our gunners could not locate the positions taken up by the enemy's artillery. They searched the ground far and near with shell-fire, shrapnel, percussion, and lyddite. The wily Boer, with his more modern cannon, long range, and possibly greater art in hiding, had things his own way. His two or three Maxim-Nordenfelt were worth all our six batteries, and more when it came to the crucial stage of rapping advancing infantry, besides offering our gunners no mark or indication of their whereabouts.
About 10 a.m. General Woodgate, whilst giving instructions to the firing-line, close to which he stood all the time, was shot in the eye. He fell, and turning, said, " I'm hit." From the first it was seen that the wound was mortal. The volunteer ambulance-men, recruited in Natal, chiefly from ex-Randites, were early upon the hill with Major Walters. With conspicuous bravery at Colenso, Fairview, and Spion Kop they have borne wounded men almost from the firing-lines to the field hospitals. They also have had their repeated toll to pay in killed and wounded, for without hesitation the Boers have fired upon the Red Cross flags and ambulance-* bearers. General Woodgate was attended by a surgeon, and then sent down the precipitous slopes of Thaba Emunyama. He lived, but was unconscious, for several hours. Colonel Blomfield, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who took over the command at once, sent for ammunition and reinforcements, saying that, without these, it would be impossible to hold on. Major-General Coke, about noon, was ordered up the mountain with his brigade. Meantime, a stream of wounded men, some in stretchers, others walking or hobbling along, assisted by comrades and ambulance-men, were coming down the mountain-side. Mules with ammunition and food were in another line creeping upwards. Under the dip, where the mimosa blossomed, a temporary dressing-station was established. Another, with two big flags, was placed amidst an outcrop of rocks on the south-eastern face. In smoke, dust, and danger how the surgeons and their assistants wrought to alleviate suffering! Their labours are worthy an epic. There the Army surgeons, here Mr. Treves, at Ladysmith, Estcourt, and elsewhere distinguished civilian physicians are more than seconding the efforts of the P.M.O. (Principal Medical Officer Gallwey) and his staff to save life and limb.
The Middlesex Regiment, the Dorset—the latter in their dark khaki or chestnut—and the Somerset, under Major-General Coke, went forward to scale the mountain and save the situation. Coke became the division leader, and Colonel Hill, of the Middlesex, looked after the brigade. Upon the plateau beneath the trees grazed a band of captured Boer ponies, and thither wended the toiling reinforcements. An artillery officer had been sent up by Colonel k Court with a helio to signal to the batteries below, so as to direct their fire. But it was late in the day ere he arrived, and there was evident want of better signalling arrangements, by flag as well as heliograph, between those upon the mountain and the troops around, whether of Warren or the Naval Brigade upon Mount Alice. And still the din, the awful diapason of battle, clang and broke in volcanic bursts through all. Men stormed and swore, sweated and wrought, bled in gushes, fell silently in death, or were blown to pieces; and meanwhile the Tugela gurgled and sang over its rocky bed, birds twittered in the trees of Trieg-haardt's deserted homestead, and the turtle-doves cooed in the orchards their everlasting love-songs. They vexed the strained air and nerves, for were not our countrymen unsparingly giving their life's blood in a cause worth dying for ?—England and Liberty against the crass Boerdom of the Middle Ages.
Major Walter, in charge of the ambulance, sent out of the trenches with his men to look after the wounded, was hit and badly wounded. And the fight raged. Half a dozen times our men went forward to the northern shoulder of ThabaEmunyama. By 3 p.m. we were firmly set amongst the rocks overlooking the long, sloping neck where, maybe, a score of Boers or more found cover. Their slaughtering " Pom-pom" was unable to loosen our grip. As there were too many men on the mountain, the Dorsets were sent down—a prudent measure—and only the Middlesex and the Colonials (Imperial Light Infantry) remained with the remnant of the assaulting column. The screw-guns of the mountain battery were proceeding to scale the hill, and Lieutenant James, R.N., with two naval 12-pounders, hoped to get there also and deal with the Boer cannon raking the summit. Colonel Crofton of the Fusiliers had his wish, and men enough to hold the position. Thorneycroft's Colonials were doing their share. Sergeant Mason, an ex-Glasgow man and Durban hansom-cab driver, did some fine shooting. He, and other Colonials by adoption, are crack shots. Whilst potting Boers at 1500 yards range, he chanced to turn, and saw three creeping up the mountain-side upon his left rear. Dropping his sights he bowled one over, the man falling across a rock and never stirring, for he was shot through the heart. An instant later he fatally wounded the second, who tumbled headlong downhill. The third caught sight of his helmet and rifle, and dodged behind a boulder. Then a duel ensued between the twain—Sergeant Mason and the Boer. Every time Mason tried to peep round the Boer banged at him. The Sergeant returned the compliment. Five Mauser bullets were put through Mason's helmet, cutting his hair once or twice, but leaving him uninjured. Others came perilously near his throat, arm, and hands. Finally the Boer drilled a hole through Mason's shoulder. Wounded, he changed the rifle to his left, resting it upon the rock. A lucky shot of the Sergeant's touched the Boer, who fell forward with his head between the rocks. Then Mason "made siccar," putting a shot or two into the head, which never budged. Weak from loss of blood Mason arose, retired, had his wound dressed, and then walked out of the action.
Great things were happening on the Potgieter's side. Under General Bullers direction Lyttelton's light brigade advanced westward against the eastern slopes of the more northern spurs of Spion Kop. Covered by Bethune's Horse, about 4.30 p.m., the Scottish Rifles, and the 3rd King's Royal Rifles, advanced into the open to climb the conical hill and table-topped peaks. The Binterfontein and other trenches had been emptied to reinforce the Boers upon the larger ranges. Bothered with very little fire relatively, the Rifles, in pretty business-like skirmish-lines, brisklyadvanced. Their Maxims were well handled; so, indeed, were those of comrade-soldiers upon Spion Kop and on the western slopes. Under fire from our own shrapnel and the Boer batteries they hastened upward, onward. Boer Mausers did them some mischief, but nothing like the vexation of the shell-fire. The naval guns supported their admirable feat. Undaunted, the Scottish Rifles and the old 6oth did their duty, and gained the almost impregnable positions. Being on the spur farthest north and nearest the enemy, the 6oth had the hardest lot Their commanding officer, Colonel Riddell, was killed; and ere the order came later for them to withdraw from the hill, their total casualties numbered nearly 100, including four officers killed and five wounded. The capture of the northern spurs, had there been guns of ours upon Spion Kop, should, and I believe would, have settled the Boer game, and opened the road wide to Ladysmith for General Buller's army.
When I left the western base of Spion Kop, after 6 p.m., all was well. The gun and musketry-fire was almost quiescent Only at rare intervals did the " Pom-pom " break in, and as for the rifles, only the relentless snipers were shooting. The wounded were being brought down in hundreds; and, as I have said, the Mountain Battery was, with the naval guns, on its way towards Thaba Emunyama. An hour and a half later a disastrous change set in. The green troops, who had never been under fire, must, I suspect, have been shaken by the subsequent whirlwind of Boer shells and bullets that descended upon the mountain. I dislike to name any body in particular, Regulars or Colonials, for both for weary hours behaved magnificently, and means might have been more promptly adopted for helping them. The stories of scare and stampede, whether of the raw Imperial Light Infantry levies, or certain of the Regulars, may be brushed aside as unworthy of credence. That in the darkness a thawing and melting process set in, I can believe, but it was induced and aggravated by another circumstance—what I dare to call a fatal blunder. Seeing that the 6oth were in an exposed situation, where they could afford little help in the task of clearing the Boers off the hills, and that they would come under the shell and rifle-fire of both sides, an order was sent them to retire.
Therein lies the mystery and crux of all that ensued. So far as I am able to glean, the order in question was simply addressed to the "O.C." (officer commanding). But that it was meant that the 6oth should withdraw to the south and join the Scottish Rifles, as some say, seems open to question. What appears to have happened is this: In the death or absence of Colonel Riddell, Colonel Thorneycroft took the message, and read it to apply to the whole force upon the Spion Kop range. A retirement, which may have been a retreat, followed, and by 10 p.m., when the rifle-fire dwindled into sniping again, Thaba Emunyama was practically evacuated, only a handful of men remaining under the dip by the mimosa trees. There were those, I learn, who refused to take the order; but whether Major-General Coke acted upon it or not, we are all alike, officially and unofficially, in the dark. The37th Company of Royal Engineers had also been ordered up with the guns to further add to the defences of the mountain. Whatever may have been the case in Warren's camps around Potgieter's and Spearman's, we were in blissful or deplorable ignorance that the position had been evacuated, and was then occupied by the Boers. Thursday morning, 25th inst, told its own tale. As General Buller was setting out to ride over to Warren's force he, for the first time, heard of the disaster. Yet, as I have pointed out, the distances separating us are not great. There is a military telegraph wire, and from Buller's headquarters Thaba Emunyama is well within lamp-signalling range. Why, we have been here long enough to have laid and run a light tramway from Frere, which would have reduced the convoys, revolutionised transport, and made it incomparably easy for the surgeons to have sent the daily hundred or more sick and wounded to rail and hospitals in Maritzburg. Now they have to be jolted thither in ambulance and ox-waggons.
I dare say General Buller was dreadfully shocked and mortified. He rode off with his Staff, and has since spent the time with Warren's troops. Many of us imagined that, even then, victory would be wrested from defeat, and an attack made all along our lines upon the Boers, for more, rather than less, the fate of Ladysmith was trembling in the balance. But no; merely an occasional gun and rifle-shot Through glasses I could see hundreds of Boers upon Thaba Emunyama. A few helmeted Tommies moved about amongst them. The enemy could be seen picking up Lee-Metford rifles and cartridges, and assisting in bringing in wounded and dead to our dressing-stations and ambulances, some of which were upon the mountain. Their own ambulances were also busy collecting their wounded. Our loss is probably over 200 killed, and the total casualties quite 1600.
Several of the Boers had ridden on horseback up the mountain. General Louis Botha was there, showing we had been fighting the Free Staters. He was rather irate, and at first declared he would keep all the wounded in his own hands, and our ambulance-men, until we surrendered twenty-five prisoners taken at Acton Homes. Major Wright, of the Gordons, in charge of the Ambulance Corps, palavered for over an hour and a half, and ultimately Botha let them all go. He bade them, within twenty-four hours, remove themselves and all hospitals south of the Tugela, or he would fire upon them without exception. There was an armistice agreed upon, extending to-day from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m.; but it was long after that hour ere the last of the dead were buried, and the wounded brought downhill. Our men declared that they buried over 100 of our dead upon that part of Spion Kop, and saw at least fifty dead Boers.
Late in the dusk of evening the baggage and supplies-columns were sent back over the Tugela, both in Warren's and Lyttelton's forces. This foreshadows a retreat all along the line. But two things remain—either we must stand and fight, warning Sir George White to co-operate and cut his way out, or we must abandon him and Ladysmith to their fate. Which will it be ?
Latest, January 26th (Friday), 1900
Nothing could have been grander than the scaling of Spion Kop by the Scottish Rifles and the 60th, of glorious reputation. They dashed at and won the hills. They got within 150 yards of the farther Boer works and trenches, and begged to be allowed to go at them. But the order had come to retire. The men declined to stir, saying, " At terrible cost they had won the mountain," for the Scottish Rifles also lost heavily—three officers killed, four wounded, and seventy-seven men killed and wounded. Thrice was the order repeated, and the news communicated to them that our troops upon Thaba Emunyama had retreated. Major-General Grove was away, and Colonel Thorneycroft had just taken his men away, and was followed by Colonel Crofton, commanding the Lancashire Regiment The troops are concentrating here. I am just informed that our communications are cut between here and Frere. A body of 500 Boers have seized Doom Kop; but I make no question they will soon go, or be cut off. I am sending this by special messenger, and trust it may reach you and catch the outgoing mail steamer.