Potgieter's or Spearman's, February 1, 1900
"ONCE more unto the breach." There are signs of and preparations for another immediate advance. General Buller has declared, in as many words, to the troops upon parade, that Ladysmith shall be relieved. Not beaten, but angry and sullen the men were led back from Colenso and the Spion Kop. I have written more than once telling how eagerly the soldiers have sought to be allowed to go on and fight their way forward. Why, I well-nigh credit the remark, that if we were to say to the army, " Fall out, to-day, lads, but be sure and fall in to-morrow afternoon at Ladysmith," they would set to work in their own way and get there somehow, and in time. That may be only an indication of the measure of my faith in the average Mr. Thomas Atkins, but I have seen quite enough of late to confirm me in my good opinion of that individual's disinterested and steadfast valour. Since the withdrawal of Warren's and Clery's divisions from the north bank of the Tugela at Trieghaardt's Drift, they have been living apart and resting. Sir Charles, who commanded both bodies of troops in the week of battles, has his quarters five miles away, near Springfield, while Sir Francis Cornelius Clery is encamped with his two brigades two miles due west of Spearman's Farm. During the last two days, by means of substantial drafts from home—over 3000 men having arrived—the numerical losses by war and sickness have been made good. The 14th Hussars have come in to swell the mounted branch of the service, and there have been arrivals to fill up the ranks of Regulars and Colonial troopers. Buller's artillery has also been added to by a battery of 5-inch siege-guns, and also a Field and Horse Artillery battery respectively. To-day Coke's Brigade had been moved over towards Potgieter's to be nearer the point of attack, and the cavalry have gone out upon the low ground, where they can be more quickly used to demonstrate or turn the enemy's flanks.
There is much that needs full and patient inquiry in connection with the Spion Kop disaster—of things of omission as much as of commission. A heavy knock administered to the Boers, or a sharp and decisive victory, such as we all hope for, would, mayhap, relegate useful inquiry to the Greek Kalends. But that ought not to be, for, as the future belongs to our nation, it must not lose thought of the past In a time like this carping criticism seems hateful; but here is none of it, only the account of what has actually happened. Colonel Thorneycroft was, by General Buller's direction, placed in command upon Spion Kop after the terrible wounding of General Woodgate. When, after the weary day's hammering and pounding from Boer shells, night fell, the question of retirement from Spion Kop was discussed by Thorneycroft and some of the commanding officers. It is said there was a division of opinion, and the casting vote was left to Colonel Crofton, of the Lancashires, who gave it for withdrawal. The men had suffered terribly, and there had been more than once counsel raised for retirement Unfortunately the single trench made upon Spion Kop in the dark had not been dug in the right place, and throughout the long day, even in the firing lulls, the soldiers failed to take advantage of the time to dig with their knives and tins rifle-pits or erect stone defences, either of which would have afforded almost sure protection against the enemy's shrapnel and quick-firing cannon.
True, there had been havoc wrought, and the sights were gruesome upon Spion Kop—mounds of heaped dead slaughtered by artillery. But soldiers must needs accustom themselves to that sort of spectacle. Many of the fatal casualties were caused by the enemy's shell-fire, the "pompom " in particular doing most hurt Men's bodies were dismembered and shattered, the place being a veritable shambles towards the afternoon, and all for the simple reason that means were not taken to secure good cover. A few of the men found protection by piling their dead comrades' bodies before them. Somehow, our soldiers, by dint of perverse training, have imbibed the idea that there is something cowardly and sneakish about sitting behind cover in the field; or, at any rate, if they have to get into trenches and works, it is the Royal Engineers' province to provide these defences. From Father Collins and others, who assisted in burying the dead and removing the wounded from Spion Kop, it has been gathered that 243 bodies of our soldiers were laid in the trench and covered up. The work they had so stubbornly defended was turned into their grave. From some of the Boers it was ascertained that their exact loss in killed was 151. That does not include 200 slain, on their own admission, upon the other parts of the spacious battlefield. The enemy assisted, as I have already said, in removing our wounded and burying our dead, but kept our ambulance people from going near their own men or helping them in any way. As usual, the Boers professed to deplore the war, which they said was made by the capitalists. They would rather return to their farms and enjoy peace, but they meant to fight and be at us until we were tired and gave in. God Almighty was with them, and they were quite sure of victory. One of the brilliant feats of the day was the upward rush of the Scottish Rifles. Two battalions in front were hesitating about facing the tornado of bullet and shell. With a resounding cheer they bounded forward, and at a critical period in the afternoon retook and re-established the possession of Spion Kop in our hands. It was one of our blunders that there were far too many troops sent to hold Spion Kop. Well-entrenched, 500 men could have bidden all the hosts of the Boers defiance. Unless it was meant to send them forward to clear the enemy from the ranges at once, it was obviously an error to have so packed the mountain-top and sides with nearly two brigades. Had the troops but waited throughout the night until the guns and Engineers arrived, the whole situation of affairs would have been completely changed. I met the Mountain Battery, on the evening of the battle, on its way up. The naval guns were a little further off, and the Engineers were also on the march. Then I and everybody thought that the firing had been practically finished for the day, and that Warren's preparations for the absolute holding of Spion Kop would be carried through before morning. That, in that event, the Boers must beat a retreat all along the line none could doubt. It was about 7.30 p.m. when Lieut-Colonel Thorneycroft began putting his order into execution. The men retired gradually, and were in no wise, it seems, pressed or attacked by the Boers. By 9.30 p.m. nearly all of them had withdrawn from the summit, but a force still rested under the dip of the hill near the trees. The sharp rifle-firing everybody heard was from another part of the battlefield, and was solely due to a scare of a night-attack in the Boer trenches and camps.
I have said that General Buller knew nothing of the abandonment of Spion Kop until dawn upon the following morning. He was then mounted, and proceeding, as usual, towards the battlefield from near Spearman's, where he has still his headquarters. The distance was about six to eight miles. During the night, or, rather, at 1 a.m., after the battle-day, the 3rd Battalion King's Royal Rifles were also ordered back by Lieut-Colonel Thorneycroft Now Sir Charles Warren had given no instructions for the evacuation of either position, and, like Buller himself, was in total ignorance of what had been done in so surprising a fashion. Indeed, as I have shown, he was carrying forward means for the more complete possession of Spion Kop. I have told you also that in the morning, after daybreak, the enemy could scarcely credit their senses that our soldiers had left the hill-top. "Where are the soldiers?" the few Boer scouts who rode forward under the white flag asked our surgeons and ambulance men. " Gone!" "What for?" And subsequently it leaked out from several of them that they thought the position was lost, and they had begun trekking. There was talk amongst the leaders of renewing the attack, but the recovery of the wounded was in progress, and daylight would have disclosed the attempt to the Boers in ample time to have caused the assaulting columns terrible losses. So the scheme came to nothing, as did proposals for pushing in the left flank attack. There were sore spirits and cross tempers elsewhere, that and the next few days, than amongst the rank-and-file and company leaders. When the retreat was ordered Buller waited by the single part-pontoon part-trestle bridge, until everybody was got safely across. The day previous he had critically reexamined the positions held upon the left, and been repeatedly under the fire of the snipers. Indeed, at least one of the Generals and several of his staff had to get him to retire behind cover, as they thought he was unnecessarily risking himself.
I have some further details of our losses upon and around Spion Kop, You will find the letter-estimate of 1500, though still officially disputed, is not wide of the mark. The dead were 243 upon Spion Kop ridge alone. There was no great difficulty in counting them, for the men were heaped in corners, where they had been slain by the shells. One of the Army reforms somebody should turn their attention seriously to, is the modification or the abolition of the Royal Engineer branch of the service. It is a startling proposition, but hear the plea therefor. As railway experts and telegraphists they are neither as smart nor as useful at the work as the trained specialists of civil life, who can always be obtained in time of war. The field-companies of Royal Engineers absolutely stand in the way of doing that which every soldier should be taught to do for himself, promptly and swiftly, upon the field, i.e. constructing trenches, rifle-pits, walls, or whatever defensive or aggressive works may be requisite. Each infantry battalion carries trenching-tools, a Scotch cart with seventy spades, and so on. These are ample for all ordinary purposes, but the knowledge that trenching is your Sappers' special job, delays ready resort to these implements. All ordinary field-work the battalions should themselves be able to execute. Let there be 50 or 100 skilled men, chiefly accustomed to building operations, and a sailor or two included in each regiment. See that the men are trained workmen and given a higher rate of pay upon enlistment. Most of them, no doubt, would soon rise to the dignity of corporals and sergeants, but that would be a further gain to the service and to their usefulness. Save for ballooning, and one or two other highly technical branches connected with warfare, the big army of highly-paid engineers could be curtailed with profit to the Queen's service. I have only hastily outlined my view, but distinguished officers, to whom I have spoken upon the subject, agree that there is much to recommend the proposed reform.Except for the occasional shelling of the Boer lines before Potgieter's Drift from the naval guns upon Mount Alice, there has been nothing doing. The shells are distributed about, so that, wherever Boers are seen congregating or digging some new gun-pit or trench, they have a taste of the explosive force of the common and lyddite-shells from 12-pounders and 4.7 cannon. I see that, at last, the batteries are being increased to the east of Mount Alice and Signal Hill, and two guns are being placed upon Swartz Kop. These will, in a measure, enfilade the enemy's trenches at Brakfontein and across the Ladysmith road. Spion Kop will also come under their long-range, raking fire. The Boers are in a state of alarm, as may be judged from their watchfulness. General Buller's plans are to keep them on the tenterhooks as to his next move. On Tuesday a cavalry reconnaissance proceeded west to Honger's Poort, but they saw little of the enemy. This morning the troops at Chieveley have been again demonstrating, and there has been heavy artillery fire directed against the Colenso lines. In the language of one of the West Yorks, when he saw Buller s fine army, abundant artillery, and excellent cavalry, " I pity poor Kruger now!" The force here is in splendid condition, and there should be no hesitation or doubt of the final result.