Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz—General Buller withdraws the troops and moves once more on Colenso—We hold Springfield Bridge—Buller's successful attack on Hussar Hill, Hlangwane, and Monte Christo—Relief of Kimberley.
Monday, 22nd January.—We placed the battery of six guns at daybreak in a kloof between two kopjes, in a half-moon formation, commanding the old position near Spion Kop, at about 4,500 yards, mine being in the centre. I was in charge all day and fired shots at intervals. The wind was too high for balloon reconnoitring. My first shot, a shrapnel, at the left part of Spion Kop, disabled twenty of the enemy digging in the trenches, so we were afterwards told by native scouts; and we were praised by those looking on for our accurate firing. We had now our telescopic sights on the guns, and very good ones on the whole they were, although we found the cross wires too thick and therefore hid an object such as a trench which at long range looks no more than a line. I found my deflection by a spirit-level on the trail, to test the inclination of the wheels one way or the other. There was very heavy fighting to-day on our left. Sir Charles Warren is in fact forcing his way on, and we hear reports of 400 of our fellows being killed and wounded, and the Boer trenches being taken by bayonet charges. So far as we know, General Buller's object is to outflank the (p. 034) Boers on the left, and then when Sir Charles Warren has done this, to attack in front and cut them off.
Tuesday, 23rd January.—Another day, alas, red with the blood of our poor fellows. Sir Charles Warren continued his operations at 1 p.m., and from then till midnight the fight raged. Musketry and guns booming all round, the Maxims and Vickers 1-pounder guns, being specially noticeable. At daylight we ourselves stood to guns and concentrated our fire on the Boer trenches and positions to the front and right, in order to draw the enemy away from Warren's force; while the Infantry with us (Rifle Brigade, King's Royal Rifles, Durhams and Scottish Rifles) made a demonstration in force to within 2,000 yards of the main trenches under cover of our fire. The attack under Warren got closer and closer each hour, and we could watch our fellows, apparently the Lancashire Brigade, storming the top of Spion Kop, in which, I afterwards heard, my father's old regiment (the Lancashire Fusiliers) bore a splendid part. Meanwhile our own attack on the Brakfontein trenches was withdrawn, and we brought our guns into action on the left to assist the operations on Spion Kop but soon had to desist for fear of hitting our own men. The fight raged all day and was apparently going well for us. At 4 p.m. came a message from General Buller ordering the King's Royal Rifles and Scottish Rifles to storm Spion Kop from our side, which they did, starting from our guns and making a prodigious climb right gallantly in a blazing heat and suffering a considerable loss. Poor Major Strong, with whom I had just breakfasted, was one of the wounded and, to my great sorrow, died of his wound. Our guns meanwhile were searching all the valleys and positions along the eastern slopes of Spion Kop; but it was all unavailing, as we were apparently forced to retire after heavy losses during the (p. 035) night. We ourselves were all dead beat, but had to be up all night with search-lights working on the Boer main position; but what of poor Warren's force after five days' constant marching and fighting!
Wednesday, 24th January.—No more firing and many rumours; but at last it was a great surprise and blow to us to hear a confirmation of the report that Warren's right had been forced to abandon Spion Kop during the night, and to be also told that we ourselves were to go back to our old plateau in the rear. I had my guns dragged up to Criticism Kop with great labour by eighty of the Durhams, who are now our escort; and with the Rifle Brigade we hold the three advanced hills here, while Ogilvy has been moved back across the river. We hear of a loss of some 1,600 men, the poor 2nd Bn. of the Lancashire Fusiliers specially suffering heavily; there is therefore great depression among all here, a cessation of fire being ordered, and nothing in front of us except ambulances. Our mail came in during the evening and I was very pleased to get letters from Admiral and Mrs. Douglas. We feared a night attack, so had everything ready for the fray. I was on the watch all night with Whyte, but our search-light kept off the danger and all remained quiet.
Thursday, 25th January.—A quiet day, the Boers and our own ambulance parties burying the dead on Spion Kop. And so went the next few days, we shelling the Boers at intervals although sparingly. Rumour says that General Buller is confident of beating the Boers in one more try, and is shortly going to try it. May the key fit the (p. 036) lock this time! He seems determined, and we all hope he will be at last successful.
Monday, 29th January.—We are firing as usual. Colonel Northcote of the Rifle Brigade came over from his kopje to see me, and I proposed the construction of two rifle-proof gun pits on the river bank, to which he agreed. A very hot day and raining heavily at night.
Wednesday, 31st January.—We have orders to watch carefully the right of the Boer position. I let Mr. Whyte fire a dozen shells, which he did very well, and I finished my gun pits, and very good ones they are. Just at dark up came an officer from General Buller with an order that we were to retire our Naval guns at daybreak to the plateau, which we had to do much to our disappointment, moving off at daybreak next morning and taking the guns in a punt across the river. I learnt to my great sorrow that poor Vertue of the Buffs, my friend of Ceylon days when he was an A.D.C. to the General there, was killed at Spion Kop, and I am much depressed as I liked and admired him immensely.
Friday, 2nd February.—The Boers are busy burying their dead on Spion Kop under a flag of truce, so we have a quiet day and no firing.
Saturday, 3rd February.—The troops are all again on the move; no less than nine field batteries are pushed over the river with some Battalions of Infantry, while Boers are on the sky-line at all points watching us.
Sunday, 4th February.—Sir Charles Warren arrived on our gun plateau with his Staff, and pitched his camp close to my guns. I found that Sir Charles knew my father, and he told me that the Boers had had a severe knock at Spion Kop and were ready to run on seeing British bayonets; he spoke of his plans for the morrow and of our prospective share in them. My share is to be a good (p. 037) one, as I am to have an independent command and am so actually named in the general orders for battle. I went over the plan of battle carefully with Captain Jones, R.N., and our Commander, who thought Pontoon No. 3 was the weak spot.
Monday, 5th February.—A fateful day of battle. At daybreak we stood to our guns, but it was not till 6.30 a.m. that our Artillery, no less than seven batteries, advanced under cover of our fire. On the left were the 4.7 guns on Signal Hill; my two 12-pounders were on the gun plateau in the centre, and on the right, on Zwartz Kop, were six more of our 12-pounders under Ogilvy. The broad plan of attack was a feint on the left and then a determined right attack. This developed slowly; the Artillery and Infantry advanced, and we all shelled as hard as we could for some hours, when the Infantry laid down just outside effective rifle range from the Brakfontein trenches, and the Artillery, changing front to right, withdrew from the left, except one battery, to assist in the centre attack on Vaal Krantz. Our Naval guns went on shelling the left where the Boer guns were well under cover and were very cleverly worked. About 12 noon the Infantry withdrew from the left and it was evident that our feint had fully succeeded in its object, i.e., to get the enemy drawn down to their trenches and stuck there. The Artillery, after crossing No. 2 Pontoon, were drawn up in the centre shelling Vaal Krantz, while Lyttelton's Brigade was pushed forward to attack it and succeeded in reaching the south end of it. Our own firing on the left was incessant. I found afterwards that I had fired 250 rounds during the day, and I had many messages as to its direction and effect from Sir Charles Warren, and General Talbot-Coke, who was just behind us with his Staff. Little firing during the night. Very tired.
(p. 038) Tuesday, 6th February.—At it again at daylight, the Boers commencing from their 100 lb. 6" Creusot at 6,000 yards to the east of Zwartz Kop. I had suddenly got orders during the night from Sir Charles Warren to move my guns off the plateau and join Buller's force at daybreak at the east foot of Zwartz Kop, so I moved off at the time named, feeling very thankful that I had my extra oxen to do it. We had some miles to go, over a vile road, and on the way we passed the 7th Battery R.A. and some Cavalry and ambulances. All this, meeting us on a narrow and badly ordered road, delayed us so much that it was 8 a.m. before I was able to report my guns to the Commander-in-Chief, which I did personally; he turned round and said, rather pleased, "Oh, the Naval guns are come up," and, pointing me out the Boer 6" Creusot and a 3" gun enfilading our Artillery, he asked me if I could silence them; the 6" was at 6,500 yards and the 3" at 10,000 yards, so I replied, "Yes, the 6"," and by the General's order I brought my guns into action about 200 yards away from him and his Staff. As I was preparing to fire my right gun, bang came a 100 lb. shell right at it, striking the ground some twenty yards in front and digging a hole in the ground of about six feet long, covering us with dust, although happily the shell did not burst but jumped right over our heads. This was followed by a shrapnel which burst, but the pieces also went right over our heads. After hard pit digging, I tried for the 3" at 9,000 yards, with full lengthening pieces, with my left gun, but I could not range it; so we kept up a hot fire with both guns on the Boer Creusot, which was also being done by the two 5" guns in front of us and by our Naval battery on the top of Zwartz Kop. We silenced this gun from 8.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. when it again opened on us (with its huge puff of black powder showing up (p. 039) finely), but without doing us much harm. At 11 a.m. the Boers brought some field guns up at a gallop to Vaal Krantz, running them into dongas or pits about 6,000 yards away from us, and then sending shrapnel into our troops on the Kop and trying to have a duel with us; we quickly silenced them, however, as well as a Pom-pom in a donga about 4,000 yards off, and they beat a retreat over the sky-line. I here found my telescopic sight very useful for observing every movement while personally laying guns. The General sent me many messages by his Staff, and was pleased at our driving off the guns. As the day passed, the cannonade became fast and furious and our attack advanced but slowly; we silenced most of the Boer guns by 5 p.m. and slept that night as we stood. I had the Boer 100 lb. 6" shell (which had fallen close to us without bursting) carried up the hill to show the Commander-in-Chief and Staff; they were all interested but rather shy of it, but one of them took a photo. We picked up many fragments of shells which had fallen close to us during the day and from which all of us had narrow escapes, for we were in a warm corner. General Hildyard and Staff who were sitting close by us at one part of the day had a 100 lb. shell fired over them which just missed Prince Christian.
Wednesday, 7th February.—Dawn found us still fighting on this the last day of our attempt to relieve Ladysmith from this side; heavy firing commenced at daybreak, and we did our best to keep down the Boer fire, the 4.7 Naval gun on Signal Hill making fine practice. Meantime our troops now on Vaal Krantz, viz., Hildyard's East Surreys, Devons, and West Yorks, pushed the attack or held their trenches under heavy fire, while we were trying to silence the enemy's guns. By this time the long range of hills to the east of Brakfontein was all ablaze from our shells, (p. 040) and also one flank of Vaal Kop. All looked lurid and desolate, and at times the cannonading was terrific, the Boer 6" with its black powder vomiting smoke and affording an excellent mark. At 4 p.m. the Engineer balloon went up in our rear to reconnoitre, and brought down a disheartening report of unmasked Boer guns and positions which would enfilade our advance from here all the way to Ladysmith; so that after a Council of War the Commander-in-Chief decided to retire the troops; my orders from Colonel Parsons, R.A., being to make preparations to withdraw my two guns to Spearman's Kop as soon as the moon rose, and to cover the retirement. In fact, according to his words the Council of War decided that while we could get through to Ladysmith from here, we should be hemmed in afterwards owing to the new positions disclosed by Phillips' balloon report. It was just dusk; Infantry and Artillery were being hastily moved up to cover the retirement, and after loading up our ammunition off we ourselves went. My poor men were very done up after the constant marching, firing, and working ammunition of the last three days; we had, in fact, shot off no less than 679 rounds, and the sun was awful the whole time. The withdrawal was very well carried out in the dark; we ourselves followed the ammunition column, and the Field Artillery followed us. As the foot of Gun Hill was completely blocked I brought my guns out down by the Tugela, ready to cover the troops; and we slept as we stood, while a constant stream of Artillery, Infantry, and ambulances were struggling to get up the steep hill; indeed, it was a most memorable day and night. Poor Colonel Fitzgerald of the Durhams was carried past me in a stretcher about 5 p.m. shot in the chest with a Mauser. I had known him before when holding the kopjes over the river with his regiment; he insisted on talking to me and (p. 041) sat up to have a cup of tea, and I was glad to hear afterwards that he had eventually recovered. Our total casualties for the three days were about 350; our Infantry had done brilliantly; and, while we were all savage at having to withdraw, we were confident that the Commander-in-Chief knew best, and indeed it seems from information received later on that he did the right thing.
Thursday, 8th February.—At daylight the Boer 6" went on shelling us at 10,000 yards but did little damage, so I got up the hill about 9 a.m. after a hasty breakfast, and passing Sir Charles Warren's tent got into my old position on the plateau, finding the 7th Battery R.A. holding the hill close alongside. My men were quite done up, so that the temporary rest was acceptable, although we had to keep a sharp look-out, and twice silenced Boer guns firing on our Infantry at 6,500 yards from Spion Kop. At noon the kopjes in front were evacuated, our pontoon taken up, and the Boer punt sunk by gunpowder. So good-bye to the Tugela once more; all our positions gone and the Boers down again at the river. At dusk I got permission to withdraw my guns over the ridge on account of sniping, and it was well I did so as the Boers came very close to us during the night.
Friday, 9th February.—Got orders from the Commander-in-Chief to withdraw with others on to Springfield Bridge; we were almost the last guns off, and had a hot march of eight miles escorted by a party of the Imperial Light Infantry under Captain Champneys. How we did enjoy a bathe from the river bank, as well as our sleep that night! It was all quite heavenly.
Saturday, 10th February.—About 9 a.m. I was ordered by Colonel Burn-Murdoch of the Royal Dragoons to bring my guns up to his entrenched camp behind the (p. 042) bridge to assist in its defence. I had breakfast with him and he seemed very nice. He is now Brigadier-General and Camp Commandant, and we are left in defence here, to protect Buller's left flank, with "A" Battery Horse Artillery, the 2nd Dragoons and 13th Hussars, the Imperial Light Infantry, and the York and Lancasters. The rest of the troops had all gone to Chieveley. The day was very hot again, and I was very glad to give the men another rest, with fresh butter, milk, chickens, and fruit to be had, brought in by Kaffirs from neighbouring farms. Just think of it!
Sunday, 11th February.—Again very hot. About 7 a.m. there was a heavy rifle fire to the N.E.; our Cavalry pickets were in fact attacked, and as I saw Boers on the sky-line, I got leave to open fire, but did no damage, as the hill, we afterwards found out, was some eight miles off. So much for African lights and shades, which, after eight months' experience of them, are most deceptive. It turned out that our Cavalry pickets had been surprised by the Boers unmounted in a donga, and unluckily Lieutenant Pilkington and seven men were taken prisoners, and several men wounded—a bad affair.
Monday, 12th February.—Another awfully hot day which made me feel feverish. We were busy in fortifying our gun positions, but otherwise I had a quiet day in the mess of the York and Lancasters, a very nice regiment. At 4 p.m., much to our joy, rain and thunder came on and cleared the heavy air. Glad to hear that a Naval 6" gun has been sent up to the front at last, and that Lord Roberts had entered the Orange Free State with a large force.
Tuesday, 13th February.—Still very hot, although again a welcome thunderstorm in the afternoon. Busy with (p. 043) fortifying and with taking more gun ranges with a mekometer borrowed from the York and Lancasters.
Wednesday, 14th February.—The Boers appeared in considerable force on the sky-line to the left of Portjes Kopje about 8 a.m. I was summoned with others by Colonel Burn-Murdoch to a Council of War, and afterwards rode out with him and Staff to reconnoitre the enemy and to look at country for gun work. We pushed up to a farm about 1,600 yards from the enemy; we were fired on at that distance and all returned about 4 p.m., when it was decided to attack the Boers next day. They are some 9,000 yards off the camp, and seem to have no guns. During our reconnoitring we saw a hare on the Kop, the first game I have come across as yet in South Africa.
Thursday, 15th February.—At 6 a.m. the Horse Artillery and Cavalry were pushed out to attack, and my guns advanced to a kopje at 8,000 yards. But to our annoyance the Boers had made off during the night and we had nothing to do. We received an English mail to-day, much to our delight, and it brought a sketch in the Daily Graphic of my father inspecting a detachment of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. My servant Gilbert in hospital with fever, poor fellow.
Friday, 16th February.—A red-letter day, and all quiet in camp. Fitted rollers under my gun trails. News came that General French had relieved Kimberley, and there was much cheering in camp.
Sunday, 18th February.—We heard heavy firing all day, which turned out to be General Buller attacking Hlangwane and Monte Christo Hills, to the right of the Boer position at Colenso, but on our side of the river. The positions were brilliantly taken at the point of the bayonet; and all in camp are very cheerful at hearing of Cronje being in full retreat, Magersfontein evacuated, (p. 044) and Methuen free to move. This must be the beginning of the end. Raining hard, for the rains of February are on us at last.
Tuesday, 20th February.—Still heavy rain and tropical heat. Our trenches full of water. Heavy firing on Colenso side and good news of Buller's advance.
Footnote 2: Having lost over 100 officers and men killed and wounded at Venter's Spruit, the 2nd battalion of the regiment went subsequently into action at Spion Kop 800 strong, and only 553 answered the roll call next day.