Passage of Tugela forced and Colenso occupied—Another move back across the river to Hlangwane and Monte Christo—The Boers at length routed and Ladysmith is relieved—Entry of Relief Force into Ladysmith—Withdrawal of H.M.S. Terrible's men to China—I spend a bad time in Field Hospital—General Buller's army moves forward to Elandslaagte—Boers face us on the Biggarsberg.
Thursday, 22nd February.—General Buller occupied Colenso, and wired to our Commandant to join him with his whole force. The Cavalry left at 5 a.m. and at 2 p.m. the rest of us moved off, my guns being escorted by the York and Lancasters, with the Imperial Light Infantry in rear, the whole under Colonel Fitzpatrick. We made a quick march to beyond Pretorius' farm where we camped for the night.
Friday, 23rd February.—Off at daylight in a beautiful cool morning. On the west of the hill, where we rested to water and feed the oxen, Colenso was plainly visible, and we found heavy shelling going on. We reached Chieveley at 10 a.m. and going up to our old friend, Gun Hill, we joined Drummond with the 6" Q.-F. gun, and pitched our camp. The 6" gun looked a regular monster on its field carriage, and fired several times at Grobler's Hill, at 15,000 yards; I was struck by its smart crew of bluejackets and stokers, but the gun is much too far off the enemy. An English mail came in to-day.
(p. 046) Saturday, 24th February.—General Buller is shelling hard the kopjes at Pieters beyond Colenso, but our Infantry do not seem to be gaining an inch. As my guns were in reserve, I went up by train to Colenso, with Captain Patch, R.A. We were much interested, as we saw all the now famous spots where we had shelled the place out in December and January—the village and hotel being in ruins, and everything wantonly sacked and destroyed. I never saw such a scene in my life; pianos pulled to pieces and furniture smashed up. I went on to the pont where Lieutenant Chiazzari was in charge, and met many wounded being carried across to the ambulance train; among others were General Wynne, and a poor officer of the Lancashire Brigade just dying with a bullet in his chest, also young Hodson of the Terrible ill with fever. We crossed the Tugela on planks over the ruins of the fallen railway bridge with a swirling torrent about a foot below us, as the river was now in flood. It was sad to see this magnificent bridge with all its spans blown up and fallen across the river, and one buttress demolished. Patch and I climbed up the kopjes beyond, saw the Boer system of trenches, and inspected the places where they had blasted the reverse slopes of the kopje, perpendicularly cut behind, and had got under safe cover from shell. The panorama of battle which spread out in front of us was most impressive with shells bursting close to us; our firing line was some two miles on, resting on small kopjes near Pieters that were taken during the night; our guns, great and small, were massed in or beyond Colenso behind small kopjes which gave a certain amount of cover; on the left were the 4.7 guns and four 12-pounders, then the 4.5 guns; and two miles to the right were other field batteries and Ogilvy's four 12-pounders across the river on Hlangwane, making some eighty guns in all. Behind the (p. 047) kopjes were massed our men in reserve, besides all the Horse Artillery and Cavalry and wagons. There was now very heavy Boer shelling over Colenso, giving our men a bad time of it; for instance the whole of our 5" crew of garrison gunners were killed and wounded by a shrapnel, and many of the 4.7 men were hit about the same time. Our own shelling was magnificent and deadly, all our fire being concentrated at one kopje about 6,000 yards off; the musketry fire was also very heavy all along the line. I never saw such a fine sight before. I returned from Colenso to my guns about 3 p.m., in an ambulance train, with Major Brazier Creagh. We are losing about 450 men a day and are advancing very slowly, while the Boers appear to be bringing up more guns on our left. No news from Ladysmith, but we were all glad to hear the brilliant news of the capture of Cronje and all his force by Lord Roberts, and the cheering in the fighting line on the news being communicated was wild. A very heavy musketry fire raged all night, and the Inniskillings in a night attack on Railway Hill lost a lot of men, in fact were cut up.
Sunday, 25th February.—Once more the Commander-in-Chief found his position untenable, and half of the guns were withdrawn in the night across to our side of the Tugela on to Hlangwane; all the wagons and stores were also shifted out of Colenso and the majority of the troops moved to the right to the Hlangwane and Monte Christo slopes. Colenso was still held in force however by the 10th Brigade under General Talbot Coke. Two of our 4.7 guns on platform mountings were now ordered up to Hlangwane from our hill, and were got into position with much labour at 2,500 yards by Lieutenant Anderton, Natal Naval Volunteers; they did very good work at that decisive range. There was to-day what we called a Boer (p. 048) Sunday, that is, a cessation of firing on both sides after a hard ten days of it; the day was wet and we were all washed out of our tents, some of which were blown clean down.
Monday, 26th February.—The attack still hangs fire while our troops are being massed on Hlangwane and Monte Christo. The shelling of Colenso by the Boers is still going on pretty heavily, and one only wonders how Naval 12-pounders like ours can be left here as they are, no less than six of our guns doing nothing at all. Drummond left the 6" gun under me for a time; and, on spotting a Boer gun on Grobler's Hill, I let drive at 15,000 yards, 28° elevation. As the shot only fell some 200 yards short, I recommended a move to closer range, but the gun eventually never was moved closer. While on Gun Hill we had several civilians from Pietermaritzburg and Durban looking on at the fighting. A very wet night, which made our positions a swamp, but I was warmed by a warning to be ready to move my own guns to the front.
Tuesday, 27th February.—A wire was handed to me in the night to join the 10th Brigade with the Yorks and Lancasters, and off we went at 6 a.m. in good spirits but in a thick drizzle of rain, passing along the eastern slope of Hlangwane and winding up a fearful road to the front. The Yorks and Lancasters at this point suddenly turned off, and feeling that something was going wrong I halted my guns and rode on to the Headquarters Staff, about half a mile on, finding the Infantry attack just about to commence, the men all looking very weary, and no wonder. I spoke to Ogilvy, who was there with his guns, and afterwards to General Buller, who was standing quite close surveying the general attack of our Infantry on the centre and right 3,000 yards ahead of us. The guns were giving the Boers lyddite and shrapnel, and the fighting line were (p. 049) cheering as kopje after kopje was taken. It was evident to my unpractised eye that we had the Boers on the run at last. I told the Commander-in-Chief that my guns had arrived, when he replied, "Why, you should be in Colenso," and turned to his Staff, saying that some mistake had been made. I therefore showed my written orders, and after reading them, the General said, "It is not your fault, but march to Colenso as quickly as possible"; and he detached Lord Tullibardine to show us the way; I had seen a good deal of him at Springfield. "The Pontoon bridge is up," he added; "you must use the Boer pont and so ferry across the Tugela." So off we went, and got to Colenso at 2 p.m. after a very hot march.
The ground at the railway crossing which we had to cross was being heavily and accurately shelled, so leaving my gun train for a time in a spot safe from the bursting shrapnel I rode on to prepare the pont for our crossing the river. We got the first gun over to the Colenso side of the river after hard work, the rotten bank giving way and the gun being half submerged in the water; then the somewhat unhandy soldiers in charge of the pont capsized a team of gun oxen when half-way across the river by rocking the pont, and, nearly drowning the poor oxen, swam ashore themselves and left them to their fate. It was now 5 p.m. and as there were no men to do anything it was an impossible position, with the pont sunk in the middle of the flooded river; so that at dusk, after telling some soldiers who had come up from General Coke's Brigade in response to my request what to do to right the pont, I drew up my remaining gun and wagons on the south bank, and put the gun which was already across the river out of action under a guard below the river bank in case of any Boer swoop on it.
Wednesday, 28th February.—A red-letter day. Before (p. 050) daylight I set my men to work to bale out the pont and to get my second gun across the river with 100 rounds of ammunition, and also off-loaded and got over a spare wagon and 250 rounds more. All this was a terrible hard job; two empty military wagons trying to get across the drift at this spot were carried away before my eyes and only picked up a quarter of a mile down stream. At 11 a.m. I was able at last to march on to join General Coke's Brigade in Colenso, and to get my guns into position. I was very exhausted and was feeling rather ill, but I was able to dine with the General under a tarpaulin and had much talk over old times in the Mauritius in 1898. It was a very wet evening, and my men who were bivouacking with no tents had a bad time of it. The sudden cessation of firing most of the day seemed to foreshadow some change at the front, and we found afterwards to our joy that a detachment of the Imperial Light Horse under Lord Dundonald had ridden into Ladysmith at 6 p.m. unmolested by the Boers who were reported to be in full retreat.
Thursday, 1st March.—Everything seems to feel dull and unprofitable; all the country round is deserted and Colenso is almost unbearable from the odour of dead horses. At about 11 a.m. the pickets reported Boers in force coming down Grobler's Kloof, but the party turned out to be our own men; some of the garrison Cavalry, in fact, riding in from Ladysmith, who told us that the Boers were in full retreat. In the afternoon I rode round Colenso. What a scene of desolation and dirt; huts and houses unroofed and everything smashed to pieces! Long (p. 051) lines of abandoned trenches, and the perpendicular shelters which the Boers had blasted out behind all the kopjes against shell fire plainly showed how well they knew how to protect themselves. The trenches, about a mile long, in the plain to the right of Colenso are very deep and are sandbagged; parts of them are full of straw; many shelters are erected in them; and holes are burrowed out and strewn with chips of cartridges and pieces of shell, bottles, and every imaginable article. Being somewhat curious as to the effect of our shelling which had gone on from the 10th December to the 12th January at this line of trenches, I rode along them and came to the conclusion that not one of our shells had actually hit these splendid defences, although no doubt our fire annoyed and delayed the workers in them. I picked up many curios here.
Friday, 2nd March.—Not a Boer to be seen within miles. Very hot and odoriferous here, and I feel queer and tired out although fortunately able to lie down all day. In the middle of the night had a sudden and alarming attack of colic and was in great agony. I really thought I was done for, but my men gave me hot tea and mustard and water which did me good.
Saturday, 3rd March.—Woke up feeling weak and ill, but as luckily there was no work on hand I was able to lay still under an ammunition wagon and was much revived with some champagne which my best bluejacket named House got for me from my friend Major Brazier Creagh of the Hospital train. The doctor from the Middlesex lines who came to see me in the evening told me he had been into Ladysmith and had found the garrison looking very feeble; the Cavalry were hardly able to crawl and could not therefore pursue the Boers; the rations had been reduced to one and a half biscuits per day per man in addition to sausages and soup called Chevril, made (p. 052) from horseflesh. It seems that Ladysmith could have held out for another month, but the garrison had, after our failure at Spion Kop, given up all hope of our relieving them. Poor chaps! they have had an awful time of it. We learn that the Boers had left a huge unfinished dam of sandbags across the Klip River so as to flood out our shelter near the banks of the town; another week would have seen this really marvellous work completed; but luckily, as it was, our friends had to decamp in a hurry, leaving tents, wagons and ammunition strewn all over the neighbourhood; I wish I could add guns, but none were found, and I fear that the retreat took place for one reason only, viz., Kruger's fear of being cut off by Lord Roberts at Laing's Nek. Except for this I doubt whether we should ever have moved the Boers out of the Colenso position with our 30,000 men; indeed, I hear that the German Attaché said it was a wonder, and that his people would not have attempted it under ten times the number. As it is, we are all glad that General Buller has succeeded.
Tuesday, 6th March.—Nothing special to note except that wagons and ambulances have been pouring out of Ladysmith down Grobler's Hill during the last few days.
Wednesday, 7th March.—In the afternoon General Coke kindly came to wish me good-bye as his Brigade had received orders to sail for East London, and at the same time gave me orders to proceed to Ladysmith. Meanwhile the Naval Brigade under Lionel Halsey passed our camp on the way to Durban, and we drew up to cheer them and received their cheers in return. Poor fellows, they looked as weak as rats.
Thursday, 8th March.—We left Colenso at 5.30 a.m. with the 73rd Field Battery for Ladysmith. We were much interested on the Grobler's Hill road to see the Boer trenches and shelters, which were simply marvellous and (p. 053) made the place impregnable. The trenches were blasted out of solid rocks, some 6 feet, and some 6 to 8 feet thick, of solid rock and boulder; these were all sandbagged, fitted with shelters with burrowed-out holes, and were extended for a front of half a mile facing Colenso. On the other side of the road, slightly higher up, was another line of similar trenches, while the road itself was defended by a series of stone conning towers—to use a Naval term—all loopholed and commanding the entire passage. It was a wonderful revelation to us after the "prepare to dig trench" exercise prescribed by our own drill book. The Governor of Natal, Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, happened to ride by when our Naval guns were drawn up, and when he found that I was in command he sent for me, was very kind, and said he would write to my father to tell him he had seen me. Although still feeling ill from dysentery I tried not to make much of it, but I could no longer ride my horse so got on a wagon. We moved on to Ladysmith at 4 p.m. and were much interested in the various hills and positions en route; we passed over Cæsar's camp, which we found a very straggling uninteresting sort of place. The town itself lay on the left and was now used as a hospital; we passed along over the iron bridge where the troops from India were encamped, and much admired their khaki tents and green ambulances; and climbing the hill leading to the convent to join our Naval camp we found Ogilvy in command, who said, much to my regret, that the men of the Terrible who manned my own and their guns, were ordered to be withdrawn for service in China.
Friday, 9th March.—Having struggled long against my dysentery I am now compelled to go on the sick list; and feel it to be a great blow, after all my trouble and training, that my Terrible bluejackets are to go. Good fellows. It (p. 054) seems bad for the force, putting aside all personal reasons, that all our trained men now well up to the country we fight in, should thus suddenly have to go, and that Mountain Battery gunners and others should be sent to fill their place. The men, however, seem glad to go back to their ships after all their severe work; and indeed the bluejacket is in some respects an odd composition; he turns up trumps when there is work to be done, but he is not always content with existing conditions and likes changes! Sir Redvers Buller is very pleased with us, so says the Naval A.D.C., and the telegrams just read out to the Naval Brigade from home are extremely complimentary.
They are (1) from the Queen—"Pray express my deep appreciation to the Naval Brigade for the valuable service they have rendered with their guns"; (2) from Admiral Harris—"The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty desire me to express to the Naval and Marine officers and Bluejackets and Marines who have been engaged in the successful operations in Natal and Cape Colony, the sense of their great admiration for the splendid manner in which they have upheld the traditions of the service, and have added to its reputation for resourcefulness, courage and devotion"; (3) from the Vice-Admiral Commanding Channel Squadron—"Very hearty congratulations from officers and men to Naval Brigade." We were all pleased at these wires, and especially that, among others, Sir Harry Rawson had not forgotten us.
Saturday, 10th March.—Alas, at last I have to go to our Field Hospital much against my will, while to add to my sorrow all my good men of the Terrible are starting off to rejoin their ship. We were all glad to-day to hear of Ogilvy's promotion to Commander for distinguished service in the field. He thoroughly deserves it.
Tuesday, 13th March, to Thursday, 22nd.—A bad time, (p. 055) and I can hardly walk a few yards without being tired. While in hospital, about the 15th, a frightful hailstorm came on, the hailstones being as big as walnuts and even as golf balls; the horses in camp broke loose and stampeded, tents were blown down and flooded; several poor enteric patients died from the wetting, and we had a very bad time. Meanwhile important changes have gone on; Ladysmith has been emptied of Sir George White's troops; Sir Charles Warren and General Coke are gone to Maritzburg; the Naval Brigade is broken up, and our Naval guns are turned over, alas, to Artillery Mountain Batteries. Captains Scott and Lambton are made C.B.'s; the Powerful has left for England, and the Terrible leaves for China; our flag is hoisted at Bloemfontein, and the tone of the Foreign Press has altered; still more troops are pouring out from England, and we hear that 40,000 more men are to be landed before April, which is a very good precaution.
Friday, 23d March.—There are rumours that the Boers have evacuated the Biggarsberg hills, and at any rate all our troops are moving on to Elandslaagte. The Dublins celebrated St. Patrick's Day on the 17th with great éclat, and all the Irish soldiers throughout Natal wore the shamrock. They have behaved splendidly all through the operations and it is a pity that the Irish nation is not more like the Irish soldier.
Sunday, 25th March.—Out of hospital to-day, but so weak that I can hardly walk a yard, so I have to give in and go down country much against my will. General Kitchener of the West Yorks told me of a private house of the Suttons' at Howick, near Maritzburg, and strongly advised me to go there; so I left Ladysmith on the 27th and got a warm welcome from the Honourable Mr. and Mrs. Sutton and their family who were most kind; and (p. 056) on the best of foods I soon began to pick up. The house is a very pretty combined country and farm house facing the Howick Falls, 280 feet high, of the Umgeni River. While here news came of the disaster at Sanna's Post and the capture of 500 of the Irish Rifles at Reddesberg, so we are all disappointed and think the end of the war further off than we thought. My twenty-seventh birthday on the 1st April passed quietly in this peaceful spot, and after a pleasant stay I left on the 13th, my lucky day, fairly well, although still a stone under weight. I was very sorry to leave my more than kind friends and hope to meet them again some day.
Saturday, 14th April.—Reached Elandslaagte and rejoined the Naval Brigade at the foot of the historical kopje which the Gordons and Devons stormed in October last. The 4.7's are on top in sandbagged emplacements, and the 12-pounders are in other positions on the right. We are with General Clery, in General Hildyard's Brigade, and we hold the right while Sir Charles Warren holds the left, of our long line of defence. The Boers face us a long way off on kopjes north of us beyond a large plain.
Sunday, 15th April (Easter Day).—All quiet here. About lunch time Commander Dundas and Lieutenants Buckle and Johnson of the Forte arrived to pay us a visit, and they were all very interested in what I and others were able to show them.
Tuesday, 17th April.—I feel much stronger and better now. Orders having come for General Clery's Division to withdraw to Modder Spruit, it did so at 6 p.m., leaving the Rifle Brigade and Scottish Rifles with us, all under General Coke.
Friday, 20th April.—Nothing moving in front. I have been given James's guns to command as he has slight fever, and I have had all the work and worry of dragging (p. 057) them up this kopje, making roads and gun emplacements which are now too elaborate for my liking. Generals Hildyard and Coke came to look at my gun positions and said they were both glad to see me again; they have always been considerate and perfect to work under. General Hildyard has now Sir Charles Warren's (the Fifth) Division. I am very glad to be under him, although sorry that Sir Charles Warren leaves us, which he does to administer the Free State. Some sensation in camp to-day at Lord Roberts' comments on Spion Kop; undoubtedly he is very sharp and mostly right; he is now our one great hope out here and seems to be afraid of no one.
Saturday, 21st April.—At daybreak we were hurried out by reports of Boers in force to the front, and we saw several hundreds on the kopjes at 8,000 to 10,000 yards. We are now in a position on the hill where Elandslaagte was fought. The graves of some of our own men are here. In the centre of the hill are those of the Boers, and the remains of hundreds of dead horses and cattle are still lying about. The collieries of Elandslaagte lie two miles to our left; and further again to the left are the 5" military guns and two 12-pounders in emplacements, while our own Naval 12-pounders and the 4.7's are on this hill. Our right flank for some reason seems to be left practically undefended. At 7 a.m. the Boers brought a 15-pounder Creusot down on this flank and threw several shells just over us at 4,800 yards; our 4.7's and one of my own 12-pounders replied with shrapnel and silenced it. The Boers appear to be in force in front, moving backwards and forwards through Wessels Nek, so we have kept up a desultory fire all day. At night they fired the grass in front of us for about four miles; we were up all night expecting a night attack, but none came; we were (p. 058) well prepared for it, as the hill was defended by some 300 men in all round the guns.
Sunday, 22nd April.—At daylight stood to our guns in a heavy mist but no Boers reported. Received a box of fresh food from one of my kind friends, Mrs. Moreton, daughter of Mrs. Sutton of Howick.
Monday, April 23rd to Friday 27th.—Boers reported to be returning on Newcastle. The long-expected presents from England for the Naval Brigade from our good friends Rev. A. Drew, Miss Weston, Lady Richards, and Mr. Tabor, have at last reached us from Durban, where they have been lying for upwards of four months. As we have only sixty bluejackets left up here we are overloaded. I took some tobacco, a beautiful pipe in case, some books, and a neck scarf. After all this kindness from friends at home what can we do for them in return? Poor James, and also my servant Gilbert, have gone to hospital with enteric. I am myself not much up to the mark but am thankful to have command of guns again, and so try to keep well.
Monday, 30th April.—No events of importance during the last few days. Weather a trifle cooler. I rode over to the hospital on Saturday to see Gilbert who is very bad, poor fellow, and will have to go home. I gave him clothes and books and tried to cheer him up a bit. On my return I found a fine large parcel of clothes from my own people at home. Took the Naval Brigade to Church yesterday and marched past General Hildyard afterwards.
Sunday, 6th May.—Nothing has been stirring during this past week, and we are getting rather weary of the quiet. We have news from home of the Queen's inspection at Windsor of the Powerful men and of a fierce debate in Parliament on the Spion Kop despatches. We had our own Church service to-day.
Footnote 3: The number of killed, wounded, and missing in the Natal Field Force, in the operations thus briefly alluded to, from Colenso (15th December, 1899) to the Relief of Ladysmith (28th February, 1900), amounted to 301 officers and 5,028 men.