Invasion of Natal—Joubert's commandoes and plans—The English forces in Dundee and Ladysmith—Scene of the impending battle described—Talana Hill—sketch of General Lukas Meyer.
While events were taking place, as related, on the Western border, the main burgher forces, under the immediate command of Joubert, had moved southward into Natal, across the pass known as Laing's Nek. Not expecting any serious attempt on the part of the enemy to defend Charlestown, the Commandant-General had Newcastle as his objective; a small town distant about twenty-five miles from Laing's Nek, and where a body of Colonial troops had been for some time watching for movements from the Transvaal. Charlestown had also been occupied by the British, but they fell back on Newcastle on learning of the advance of General Jan Kock through Botha's Pass with the Johannesburg and Band commandoes. The village was found by the Boers to have been looted by Kaffirs and Coolies after the departure of the English forces.
The country through which the burghers were to force their way to meet the enemy is remarkable for its superb mountain scenery and for its historic associations. The road from Standerton through Volksrust crosses the Drakensberg range and goes on to Newcastle and Ladysmith by the pass of Laing's Nek. The Nek is over 4,000 feet above the level of the sea, and is an opening in the range seven miles long, which ends on the west in an imposing mountain with precipitous sides and some wooded ravines. This hill is Majuba. The summit is more or less table-shaped, and the view from it embraces the magnificent alpine prospect of the towering Drakensbergs to the west and south, and a country of diversified picturesqueness to the east, with defiles and valleys through which the Buffalo River winds its way southward to the Tugela; separating in its course the Utrecht and Vryheid (Transvaal) districts from the northeastern frontier of Natal—a country of mountains and ridges, of kopjes, valleys, and grassy plateaus, with its bracing altitudes and inspiring natural panorama. Down from these heights, and past Majuba, Joubert and his burghers rode resolutely on the 12th and 13th of October to encounter the forces of the British Empire and to decide again, and perhaps forever, whether Boer or Briton shall rule the Transvaal.
While the Commandant-General was advancing upon the English positions from the north by the direct road from Volksrust, a small force under Field Cornet Botha, forming part of the Vryheid commando, had crossed the Natal border at De Jager's Drift, on the Buffalo River, on a reconnaissance. Six frontier police were taken without any resistance by Botha's men on touching Natal soil, and he thus shared with De la Rey the credit of making the first haul of British prisoners.
On the 15th of October scouts brought tidings to Newcastle of the British positions to the south as far as Glencoe Junction and Dundee. The enemy's outposts at Dannhauser, on the railway line twelve miles south of Newcastle, had fallen back on Glencoe on learning that Jan Flock and Viljoen's column of Johannes-burgers had swept southward over the Biggarsbcrg to the west of Glencoe, and were believed to be intent on forming a junction with Prinsloo's Free Staters, who had entered Natal through Van Reenan's Pass. The main British camp was located on the road from Glencoe Junction to Dundee, where General Penn Symons was in command of a combined infantry and cavalry force estimated at 6,000 men, and four batteries of field artillery.
It was decided by the Boer generals to make an attack upon Penn Symons on the morning of Friday, the 20th, from two hills, one to the east and one to the northwest of Dundee, which the English had left unguarded on the flanks of their position. General Lukas Meyer, with 2,500 burghers and four guns, was to advance on the Transvaal side of Buffalo River as far as Doornberg, east of Dundee, and in a night march from thence to reach Craigside, or Talana Hill, on the early morning of the appointed day.
Commandant Erasmus, with 3,000 men and Trichardt's artillery, was to proceed south from Dannhauser along the railway, and, striking eastward from the line a few miles north of Glencoe, make (also under cover of a night march) for the heights of Impati, which overlooked the British position to the west; the plan being to deliver a simultaneous blow at Penn Symons from the hills to his right and left.
From telegrams left behind at Dundee after the battle about to be described, and which fell into Boer hands, the English general appeared to be in complete ignorance of Joubert's movements up to the 18th. He was also uncertain as to his ability to hold the place if attacked by the Boers. The following messages were sent by him to General White and to the Chief of Staff at Ladysmith:
" Glencoe Camp, October 18th.
" From G.O.C. to Chief of Staff, Ladysmith.
" 1.35.—Large body of Boers reported by our patrols to be at Dannhauser. Our Basuto scouts say that they have seven guns with them, and that they are coming straight here to attack us. Our patrols are watching them now, and I have sent out a squadron of cavalry in support. Dannhauser is 14 miles from this camp. Dundee was cleared last night of undesirable men."
" 9.45.—Last patrol from the north has come in. There were no Boers at Dannhauser at 6 p.m. The officer in charge was told that many of the enemy at Ingagane had gone back to Newcastle. As a result of further inquiries I am convinced that, unless more rain falls, from want of water Dundee could not be invested by a large force for any length of time."
It will be seen from this official message of the English general that armed Kaffirs (all scouts are necessarily armed) were used by the English from the very outbreak of the war.
It appears from the following telegram that General White had contemplated the withdrawal of Penn Symons and his force from Dundee, on learning of the advance of Kock and Viljoen southward of Glencoe. The rapid advance of Joubert's column from Newcastle on the 19th frustrated this intention.
The telegram reads :
" Gleneoe Camp, 18th October, 3.26 a.m.
" From General Symons to Sir George White, Ladysmith.
" 1.33.—Urgent. Clear the line. I cannot fulfil the conditions you impose, namely, to strongly entrench myself here with an assured water supply within my position. I must therefore comply with your order to retire. Please to send trains to remove civilians that will remain in Dundee, our stores, and sick. I must give out that I am moving stores and camp to Glencoe Junction in view of attacking Newcastle at once.
"W. P. Symons, L.G."
The egregious Moneypenny, of the Johannesburg " Star," was likewise at fault in his journalistic scouting for the London '' Times " at Dundee, but from the concluding words in the following message it would appear that if he knew nothing about the movements of the Boers he still knew how to libel them :
" From Moneypenny, to ' Times,' London.
" Glencoe Camp, October 18th.—Attack this position, which thought possible last few days, seems not likely take place. No evidence enemy in force this side Newcastle, and patrols report small party which advanced Ingagane retiring. Vryheid commando believed near Landman's Drift. Beports state general drunkenness, laxity discipline, Boer camp Newcastle."
The British Military Censor was also already at work in his task of limiting the information which the British public was to be permitted to receive from English war correspondents, where they did not speak exclusively of British achievements. The following censored message fell into Boer hands at Glencoe :
" From Cumming, to ' Advertiser,' London.
" Report reached camp that Boers had been sighted seven miles out. Squadron 18th Hussars, under command Major Laming, rode out. The advanced officers' patrol under Lieutenant Cape, on reaching brow of hill beyond Hattingh Spruit Station, discovered strong advance party of enemy. (Censored: ' The Hussars patrol fell back, and Boers advancing swiftly poured in a scattering fire without dismounting at 400 yards.') "
Dundee is a pretty little town with about a hundred and fifty dwellings, three or four churches, and two or three small hotels. It is situated at the northeastern extremity of a semicircular area, almost surrounded by hills. The railway from Glencoe Junction cuts across this stretch of rugged veldt, which is also intersected by a spruit, a branch tributary of a small river that falls into the Buffalo a few miles east of the town. The distance across the plain from Glencoe to Dundee—that is, from southwest to east—is about seven miles; while the north to south distance is some five or six miles.
To the east of Dundee, at a distance of about three thousand yards, rises a square-topped hill to a height of twelve or fifteen hundred feet above the level of the town. To reach this hill from the town, you descend a sloping road for about a mile, and, crossing a small spruit and wire fence, you begin to ascend the grassy slopes of Talana Hill. On the side of the hill facing Dundee there is a plantation, some two hundred yards square, of closely-planted trees. The plantation does not reach to the top of the hill. To the right and left of these trees pathways lead to the summit of Talana, while an irregular fence of loose stones stretches across the face of the hill, starting from the wood and going round to the crest of the northern extremity.
Talana slopes down on the right (still looking at the hill from Dundee) over a nek to another kopje, at the foot of which there are some coal mines, about three miles south of the town. Beyond these mines the ground rises again to the Biggarsberg range in the direction of Helpmaakar and Ladysmith. Between the coal mines and Talana Hill, a roadway passes over the nek from Dundee, under the base of the hill, leading on to De Jager's Drift, across the Buffalo River and into the Transvaal.
To the left of Talana Hill (looking from Dundee) there rises Impati Hill; a valley three or four miles wide running in between the two hills towards Doornberg. Impati, like Talana, commands the town of Dundee completely, being about 6,000 yards away to the northwest. Impati at its highest point rises 1,000 feet above the level of the town, but a spur on its southern slope, in the direction of Glencoe, stands no higher than 400 or 500 feet over the ground on which the English camp was pitched. The camp was located on a spot gradually rising from the town, and on its western side, distant about 2,000 yards, in the direction of Glencoe.
Why a position was chosen on which to meet the advancing Boers that was dominated by two hills in the immediate direction of their' march, has not been explained in any English account of the two battles of Talana Hill and Dundee. It was possibly done in ignorance of the fact of the Boers possessing artillery with a range equal to the distance from Impati to General Penn Symons' location. In any case, there was no natural advantage in the English position which could not have been found anywhere behind, nearer to Glencoe. Two miles further away from Impati would have taken the British army beyond the reach of artillery on either hill, while it would have given the English general's mounted troops better ground on which to act if the Boer column should venture an attack on the town of Dundee from the Doornberg direction.
Another unexplained fact is even stranger still: no scouts hadbeen placed on either of the commanding hills to the right and left of the British camp! Two very unpleasant surprises, therefore, awaited the enemy, when, at five in the morning of the 20th of October, Captain Pretorius, of the Transvaal Artillery, sent a Creusot shell from the top of Talana Hill across the town of Dundee, clean into General Penn Symons' tents. The Boers were on the hill, and they possessed guns which could easily search the British position.
Lukas Johannes Meyer, who was to fight the first pitched battle of the war with the English as Commandant of the Southeastern Transvaal burghers, was born in 1851 in the Orange Free State. He removed in early life to Natal, and ultimately settled in the Vryheid district, near the Zulu border. He commanded a small force under Joubert in the War of Freedom in 1881, and was seriously wounded at Ingogo, in one of the encounters with General Colley's troops. A few years subsequently he volunteered along with some other adventurous spirits to fight for the Zulu chief, Dinizulu, in the latter's campaign against a rival claimant for Cetewayo's kingship of the warrior race of Dingaan and Chaka, and the victorious son of Cetewayo rewarded Meyer for his services by presenting him with the section of Zululand which was wedged in between the south of Swaziland and the northeast of Natal.
Meyer, being of an ambitious and romantic disposition, formed his territory into a small State, which he called " The New Republic." A large number of Boers from the Transvaal and Africanders from Cape Colony migrated to the new Boer country. Meyer, however, soon relinquished the idea of ruling a State by himself, and obtained the consent of his fellow-burghers to join their territory to that of the Transvaal. He was elected to represent the Vryheid district, the locality of the " New Republic," in the Volksraad at Pretoria, and had graduated by ability and popularity to the position of Chairman of the First Raad a few years before war was declared. He went to the front as Speaker of the Boer House of Commons.
Lukas Meyer has a striking appearance, being six feet four in height, and built in proportion, with a strong, handsome face, markedly German in features and expression. He is a man of good education, with cultured tastes, and was immensely popular among the Boers of his district, with whom he was known as " the Lion of Vryheid."
Daniel Erasmus, who at the head of the Pretoria and other commandoes, was to have cooperated with General Meyer in the attack on Dundee, had no record or qualification for his election to the position of Commandant other than his wealth. He is a tall, heavy-looking, dark man, aged about fifty, and unsoldierly in appearance.