Boer victory at Tatham's Farm—Joubert grants White's requests for armistice and establishment of hospital camp-British forces in Ladysmith—Description of Ladysmith—Joubebt's mistaken policy in investing place-plan of investment-Boer visitors—Mr. Steevens' description of town's condition-Skirmish between Blake's brigade and the Royal Irish—Joubert vetoes Blake's proposition to drop dynamite bombs into town—Natal Volunteers disable Boer's Long Tom—Other sorties—Repulse of Boer attack on the Platrand—General White's report—Incidents of the fight.
Some attempts to prevent the investment of Ladysmith had been made by General White after his defeat at Modderspruit on the 30th of October. They were in the nature of reconnaissances in force to find out the disposition of Joubert's lines, and to obstruct as far as possible the obvious intention of the Boer general to work round to the south of the town, and cut the British connection with Colenso. The first of these efforts was made the day following the Modderspruit battle, and resulted in an artillery duel between the English naval guns and Trichardt's Creusots, with little or no loss to either side except in shells and ammunition. On the 2nd of November a large force of Lancers and other cavalry advanced as far as Tatham's Farm, near Besters, where they encountered the Free Staters under Martinus Prinsloo and Commandant Nel. A brief but fierce fight ensued, the Free Staters crying, "No quarter to the butchers of Elandslaagte!" as they shot down their foes. The Lancers suffered heavily, and were ultimately driven back to Ladysmith. Both sides have claimed the victory in this engagement; the English reports asserting that the Boer camp had been captured, while the Free Staters declared they had only fallen back for a time to entice the Lancers into a tight place. This has been a favorite maneuver of the Boers throughout the war, and it was its adoption on this occasion which induced the English to claim the honor of the fight. After this encounter White and his army became isolated, and the siege of Ladysmith began.
The British general asked for and obtained an armistice after the three days' fighting around Ladysmith which began at Modderspruit and ended at Tatham's Farm. It was a cool request in view of the rough handling which his forces had received, and was not altogether justified by the number of British killed and wounded. Had Lord Roberts been in Joubert's place, with a Boer request for a similar cessation of hostilities, it would not have been granted. His reply would have been, " We must fight it out," and this ought to have been Joubert's answer, as it was the advice of all his younger officers. Joubert also agreed to a proposal to transfer the sick and wounded from Ladysmith to a neutral position four miles southeast of the town. To this hospital camp a train ran every day during the siege, and, as the site of the camp was near to Bulwana Hill, where the Boers held their most important position, White had a means in this arrangement by which he could be informed daily of the movements of his opponents at the one point in the Boer investment of the town which was the most vulnerable to attack from a relieving force from the south. Louis Botha and all the other Boer officers were strongly opposed to so dangerous a concession being made to so unscrupulous a foe, but Joubert's word in military matters was law with President Kruger. General White's proposal was therefore agreed to, and the English hospital camp near the Intombi Spruit remained a source of vexation and weakness to the Boer forces during the whole time of the siege.
The following forces in men and guns were comprised in the Ladysmith garrison: The 13th, 21st, 42nd, 53rd, 67th, and 69th batteries of Royal Field Artillery, with a battery of naval guns, and No. 10 Mountain Battery; in all, 48 guns.
The cavalry and infantry, with local Natal Volunteers, included the 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards, 5th and 16th Lancers, 11th, 18th, and 19th Hussars, 1st Battalion Royal West Surrey Regiment, 1st (King's) Liverpool Regiment, 1st Devonshire Regiment, Somersetshire Light Infantry, 1st Leicestershire Regiment, 1st Scottish Rifles, 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps, 1st Manchester Regiment, 2nd Gordon Highlanders, 1st Rifle Brigade, 2nd Rifle Brigade, Imperial Light Horse, Natal Volunteer Force, 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, 2nd West Biding Regiment, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps, etc.; in all, according to Boer estimates, between 12,000 and 13,000 troops, not including civilian combatants.
Ladysmith was the third most important place in Natal, ranking next after Durban and Maritzburg. It had a white population of some 3,000, with 2,000 natives and some East Indians. The town is situated on Klip River, a tributary of the Tugela, and lies part in a hollow and part on the side of a ridge within a semicircle of surrounding hills. The Klip winds its way from the west by the south and east side of the town, with banks standing twenty or thirty feet above the level of the stream. These steep banks naturally played an important part in General White's plans for the defense of his garrison. Hills and ridges encircle the town at a distance of four or five miles towards each point of the compass. The hills dominated the place and gave to Joubert's two large Creusot six-inch guns positions from which it was easily shelled with such long-range pieces. The open character of the ground, however, within the perimeter of the actual lines of investment, offered the English general every protection against the fear of assault by surprise, while affording him ample latitude for defensive and offensive siege operations as well. Ridges south and west of the town gave him strong natural positions on which to build redoubts and other protection for his naval guns, while equally well-sheltered places were found for the smaller field artillery. Huge stores of ammunition and other war material had been accumulated, along with adequate food provision for emergencies, and, thus situated and provided for, General White was enabled to withstand even the long siege to which his well-equipped garrison was subjected.
This siege has been one of the few real British triumphs of the war; but a triumph by virtue of endurance rather than by any striking military performance, and chiefly owing to the lamentable blunder, military and political, by which General Joubert played into the hands of his adversary's purpose. General White has clearly explained what his governing object was in consenting to so large a force of British troops submitting to so long a siege: " I was confident of holding out at Ladysmith as long as might be necessary, and I saw clearly that so long as I maintained myself there i could occupy the great mass of the Boer armies, and prevent them sending more than small flying columns south of the Tugela, with which the British and Colonial forces in my rear, aided by such reenforcements as might be shortly expected, could deal without much difficulty."—(Lieutenant-General Sir George White to Field Marshal Lord Roberts, South African Despatches, Vol. XL, p. 15.)
Joubert deluded himself with the notion that the successful keeping of 12,000 soldiers of the Queen inside of Ladysmith would result in a second post-Majuba peace compact. He died broken-hearted with the knowledge that his policy had been the means of tying up " the great mass of the Boer, armies " in the task of watching one English general, while Botha, Cronje, and De la Rey had to fight three armies, one of them four times as large as General White's, with " the small flying column " which were spared from the field of siege operations in Natal.
Joubert's chief positions in his lines of investment arc roughly indicated in the points of the compass. Pepworth Hill, north of the town; Lombard's Kop, east; Onderbroek Kop, south; and a series of strong ridges to the west—the average distance from Ladysmith being four or five miles. Bulwana Hill, to the southeast, and Surprise Hill, to the northwest, were a little out of the compass bearings, but the guns on each of these hills played a very prominent part in the siege, being some 7,000 or 8,000 yards' distance from the town.
Joubert's head laager was at Modderspruit Station, behind Pepworth Hill, and a system of field telegraphy organized by Lieutenant Faff enabled him to keep in constant touch with all points of the besieging lines. His commandoes were those with which he had invaded Natal, and fought the engagement at ifodderspruit on the 31st of October; less, however, by the forces lent to Botha for the dash on Estcourt, and for the subsequent and brilliant campaign on the Tugela against Buller. It is almost incredible that so astute a general as Joubert could have delegated the task of opposing the advance of an army, first of 20,000 and then of 30,000 men and fifty guns, to a body never stronger than 5,000 burghers, with six or seven guns at the most, while retaining an equal number of men, and fully seventeen of the best guns of the Transvaal artillery for the task of hemming in General White and the British field force of Natal. Such, however, were the measures to which the ill-advised siege of Ladysmith committed the Republics in face of three other advancing armies having Pretoria as their ultimate objective.
Two " Long Toms," two fifteen-pound Creusots, four seven-pound Krupps, two Krupp howitzers, and seven pom-poms—in all, seventeen guns—were in the service of the besiegers during the early part of the investment. The two six-inch guns were first placed on Pepworth apd Bulwana hills, the former being subsequently removed to Lombard's Kop. The entire artillery forces were under the control of Colonel Trichardt, Majors Wolmarans and Erasmus, Captain Pretorius, and Lieutenant Du Toit; Pretorius leaving the lines round Ladysmith with General Botha when the Tugela campaign was decided upon in November, and Wolmarans taking charge of Botha's guns at Spion Kop.
The besieging forces were roughly divided into four main laagers, corresponding in location more or less to the points of the compass, the guns being distributed accordingly—Joubert to the north, Schalk Burger east, Lukas Meyer south, and Prinsloo, with the Free State contingent, to the west. These divisions, however, were more nominal than otherwise, as the splendid mobility of both mounted men and artillery enabled Joubert to quickly concentrate his forces at any point where an emergency demanded such a measure. It was this feature of the Boer tactics which deceived General White into believing he was opposed by "25,000 men!" —a modest estimate of his opponent's strength which left Buller, Gatacre, Roberts, French, and Methuen almost without Boers to fight.
The only serious injury done to Ladysmith during the siege was by the Long Toms from Bulwana and Lombard's Kop. Those magnificent siege guns were placed on these elevated hills under the superintendence of Mr. Sam Leon, of the firm of Leon and Grunberg, engineers, formerly agents of the famous Creusot Company.
During November the Boer laagers around Ladysmith attracted visitors of both sexes from the Transvaal; non-combatants who traveled down to witness the siege. The prowess of " Long Tom," which was a legendary rather than actual record of his doings against the imprisoned Rooineks, made the two guns on Lombard's Kop and Bulwana objects of almost religious regard for the holiday-seekers. Ladies by the hundred came from Johannesburg and Pretoria to enjoy the sensation of besieging an English army, and to experience the satisfaction of touching the big Creusot gun. The natural pride of the Boer, always strongly felt if seldom expressed in speech or act, was impossible to disguise in those who witnessed the plight of the Ladysmith garrison, hemmed in by the brothers, husbands, and sons of the patriotic women of the Transvaal. The bravery of the sons of the veldt was borne testimony to in the plight of the English troops cooped up within the British town, and mothers returned home to repeat the story of what they had seen to the young lads, whose longings were thereby excited to go likewise and fight the Rooinek foe.
The condition to which Ladysmith had been reduced, even as early as November, has been pithily described by the late Mr. G. W. Steevens, the noted war correspondent, who died subsequently as a fever victim of the siege:
" Deserted in its markets, repeopled in its wastes, here ripped with iron splinters, there again rising into rail-roofed, rock-walled eaves; trampled down in its gardens, manured where nothing can ever grow; skirts hemmed with sandbags, and bowels bored with tunnels—the Boers may not have hurt us, but they have left their mark for years on Ladysmith. They have not hurt us much, and yet the casualties mount up. Three to-day, two yesterday, four dead or dying, and seven wounded with one shell—they are nothing at all, but they mount up. I suppose we stand at about fifty now (November 26), and there will be more before we are done with it." (" From Cape Town to Ladysmith," p. 131.)
With a garrison which did not hope to effect its own unaided relief, and an investing force which was not allowed to attempt to carry the town by assault, there were few serious engagements which require recording in the story of the siege. The investment was carried on in the most leisurely and routine manner possible from day to day, Sunday being regularly observed as a holiday for the gunners. So methodical became the work of penning in White and his forces that the burghers in large numbers were in the habit of visiting their families hundreds of miles away, of going home to attend to farms and business matters, and returning again for a spell of besieging Ladysmith. In fact, the shutting up of an English army in a British town was turned into a military picnic by the investing Boers.
The Irish Brigade, saving the portion who volunteered to assist in the battle of Colenso, was attached to Joubert's main laager, under the direction of Colonel Trichardt, of the Artillery, throughout the whole of the siege. The men had therefore taken part in only a few of the regular engagements previous to the advance of Roberts on Pretoria. Blake's men amused themselves occasionally by sending challenges to the Anglo-Irish in the enemy's ranks, kindly informing them what the " boys" with the Boers were intent on doing with their recreant countrymen should they intrude their 19noses outside the lines of Ladysmith. Responsive messages in a similar strain came back, and, according to an account given by one of Blake's officers, chance brought about " a meeting " between the challenging Irishmen during one of the sorties from the town. The narrative relates that Blake and his brigade were in charge of a small hill which flew the green flag, in advance of Colonel Trichardt's camp, when a large body of the Royal Irish were seen to be making for the kopje, where a gun had previously been placed. Blake enjoined his men to resort to the following stratagem so as to bring the " Royals" as near as possible to the hilltop before firing: A third of the brigade showed themselves under the flag and fired rather wildly at the advancing troops; then, on these reaching the bottom of the kopje, the men with the flag were seen to run to the rear. The Irish Tommies came panting up the side, shouting for the " flying Fenians " to stand. They stood; the Tommies came on to the very crest of the hill, when up sprang Blake and his command, and sent the contents of their Mausers almost point blank into the ranks of the "Royals," who raced down the kopje much quicker than they had mounted, leaving a dozen of their comrades to the subsequent attention of the Boer ambulance.
Colonel Blake's plan for forcing an issue with the garrison in the early days of the siege was to fly from Lombard's Kop, Bulwana, and other hills, huge kites having as weights for tails small dynamite bombs which could be dropped perpendicularly on to gun redoubts, trenches, and the town. To this proposal Joubert would lend no sanction whatever. He pointed out that the English, tho very unscrupulous, had made no use of dynamite bombs from their balloons, while, in addition, he declared that he had searched the Scriptures in vain for any record of the use of dynamite in the fighting related in the Old Testament. This last objection was conclusive.
Three times during November something more than the regulation daily bombardment came off in small engagements; in the first of which the Boers claimed the honors of the day, and the English the other two. In December the garrison, learning doubtless of the departure of several commandoes southward to meet Buller, developed more daring in their night adventures towards the Boer positions. They had a very justifiable grudge against the Long Tom on Lombard's Kop for its constant attention to the citizens and soldiers of the beleaguered town. It was resolved to make a midnight attack upon the gun, and the comparative smallness of the force which undertook the dangerous task testifies to the belief in Boer circles that the whole affair was suggested by treachery on the part of some enemy in the Pretoria laager. It is evident anyhow that the guarding of the big gun was most carelessly conducted, or such a humiliating stroke against its protection could not have rejoiced the hearts of the successful assailants.
A large number of these were Natal Volunteers, who, on being challenged by burgher sentinels at the foot of the hill, replied in the Taal, " All right," and were stupidly allowed to proceed. They climbed the hill, shot down the few burghers who were in immediate attendance on the gun, and, in the most cool and daring manner, not only smashed the breech mechanism of " Tom," but punched the date of the transaction into the side of the monster. A howitzer on the same hill was likewise injured, while part of a Maxim gun was carried back as a trophy by the triumphant troops. This exploit created great indignation in the Boer laagers, and the officer who was then in charge of the guns on Lombard's Kop was court-martialed, and suspended for a short time for the carelessness which had contributed to the success of General Hunter's midnight adventure. " Long Tom " was disabled, and had to be sent to Pretoria for repairs. Messrs. Leon and Grunberg soon fixed him all right again, and in the course of a fortnight he was on his way to Kimberley to make things a little more lively for Cecil Rhodes' city.
Three days after the surprise at Lombard's Kop, another attempt of a similar nature was made on a hill north of the town, where a howitzer was located, but the attempt only partly succeeded in this case, no real injury being done to the gun, while the 600 troops who had taken part in the enterprise were surrounded on coming down the hill, and driven with a loss of some seventy of their number back to Ladysmith.
A week later a still less successful but equally daring exploit was attempted in a surprise attack upon a small outpost of the Standerton commando. The night was pitch dark, and this aided the purpose of the attacking party. They were unobserved by the possibly dozing sentinels until within a distance of fifty yards of the sangars behind which the burghers were lying. The startling cry of " Hands up!" was answered, however, by five shots from the awakened Boers. They were surrounded by some 500 of their enemies, and, finding retreat cut off, they neither asked for quarter nor did anything else but pour the contents of their rifles into the ranks of the foes. The laager near by was aroused by the fire, and the attacking party hastily retired on Ladysmith. On the arrival of the burghers who were defending the gun, which was the main object of the sortie from the town, the five men of the brandwacht were found dead, but around them in a circle also lay the dead bodies of fifteen British soldiers. These adventures on the part of a garrison believed to be reduced to a state of privation by the siege created so strong a feeling among the burghers for something more effective being attempted against the town than the routine attentions of Long Tom, that Joubert's objections to a direct assault were swept aside. The victories of Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso were deemed to be so many reflections upon the inactivity of 5,000 or 6,000 men around Ladysmith, and it became necessary to show the Republics what the men of Modderspruit could do. Colonel Villebois-Mareuil had arrived on the scene, and, after making himself acquainted with White's plan of defense in an inspection of the English lines, strongly urged the Commandant-General to sanction the demand in the laagers for the delivery of a decisive blow. He drew up a re-port on the enemy's positions and of how the assault should be made, and this was in due course submitted to a kriegsraad for consideration. Joubert still strongly objected to the proposal, tho not to the extent of absolutely vetoing it. His reasons for refusing to sanction the assault after the first great chance which followed.
the battle of Modderspruit was neglected, were sound and unassailable. The conditions were all favorable for such an action then. The two forces were almost equal in strength, and the enemy were disheartened over the loss of Dundee and the defeat of the 30th of October. These conditions did not again prevail after White had had time enough, unwisely given to him in a three days' armistice —and in a Sunday every week—to entrench himself on the Plat-rand, and in the steep sides of the Klip Kiver. He had also been allowed to disembarrass himself of his sick and wounded, and to erect a " neutral" hospital under the protection of Bulwana Hill, from whence his spies, under the guise of sick patients, could send him daily reports of the Boer movements in and around the most important point of Joubert's line of investment. Moreover, the besieging forces, after the termination of the armistice following Modderspruit, were numerically unequal to the work of carrying Ladysmith by storm. Such a task, to promise reasonable chances of success, should not be faced with, at least, less than twice the number of the defending garrison, and Joubert never again had 8,000 burghers before Ladysmith after the Tugela column under Louis Botha had been deducted from the forces which won the battle of Modderspruit. In fact, the average strength of the Commandant-General's army surrounding White, from the 1st of December to the raising of the siege, would not be more than 6,000 men, while at times it was—unknown to the garrison, presumably—down as low as 4,000 burghers.
These facts were not fully appreciated by Villebois-Mareuil when he pressed so urgently, in his report to Joubert, for the storming of the town. He had, however, found that White's officers relied more upon their belief in the well-known objections of Joubert to sanction hazardous enterprises than upon their strength and re-sources against any determined assault, and the prevalence of this feeling of moral security on the enemy's part was Villebois' strongest ground for urging a well-planned attack by way of a double surprise.
Villebois felt keenly the apparent want of confidence in his military judgment shown by Joubert and Schalk Burger. He looked on their reluctance to act on his report upon the Ladysmith defenses as a mistrust of his capacity. In this he was mistaken. No foreign officer who had come to the Transvaal commanded as much confidence and respect, and the ultimate adoption of his scheme showed how unfounded were his suspicions.
In judging rather severely the military shortcomings of Boer generals, he forgot to place himself in their position, and to obtain thus a fairer standpoint for his criticism of their methods. They had beaten the English at Dundee, Modderspruit, Magersfontein, Stormberg, Willow Grange, and Colenso by Boer tactics. They had lost at Elandslaagte, largely through Uitlander tactics and imprudence, while the Scandinavian methods at Magersfontein, heroic and magnificent tho they undoubtedly were, would have meant another defeat, if generally followed, where the cooler and better-calculated Boer methods achieved a brilliant victory over immense odds. It was these considerations which influenced Joubert and Burger when weighing Villebois' plans and proposals, and not any want of confidence in his own earnestness and military judgment. In fact, what Tacitus said of the Batavian ancestors of the Boers applied to the farmer generals of the little Republics: " Others go to battle, these go to war! "
It was finally agreed to make a surprise attack upon the Platrand which was the key to Ladysmith. This elevated ridge is flat-topped in formation, two or three miles long, 600 or 700 feet high, sloping up from the town in the southeastern direction, with the Klip River running between its eastern end and the two hills of Lombard's Kop and Bulwana. It was strongly fortified with redoubts, chanzas, and rifle-pits, and defended by the naval guns, and by White's strongest posts. On the reverse, or southern side, it sloped down in the direction of one of the Boer laagers, and was approached by a deep spruit running north from Grobler's Kloof into the Klip River, and also by several narrow valleys formed by the southern spurs of the " Platkop," as the Boers named the long hill. Villebois-Mareuil's practised military eye had noted the cover for a movement by a surprise force thus offered in the bed of the spruit and the kloofs of the Platrand, and his plan of attack was suggested accordingly. A body of men from Lombard's Kop, on the east, was to move south of the English hospital camp, cross the railway, and make for the Fouries' Spruit alluded to, where another force from the laager at Grobler's Kloof, and also from Botha's camp on the Tugela, would be met. These men would ascend the spruit behind Caesar's Camp, and rush the first English entrenchments, which, if gained, would mask the assailants against the English guns further west on the hill. Simultaneously the Free Staters of the west laager, under De Villiers and Nel, were to advance on Wagon Hill, the extreme western height of the Platrand, and re-peat the attack to be made at the other extremity. The Pretoria laager, to the north of Ladysmith, was to cooperate as occasion might require, the object being to carry the assault from positions south and west which offered the best cover for the advancing burghers. The assault was to be delivered under the shelter of darkness on the early morning of the 6th of January, and every, precaution was taken against knowledge of the intended coup leaking out.
The two extremes of the Platrand were usually held by a few detachments of White's men, secure in the belief that the Boers would only continue their long range artillery fire in the day, and would not attempt to storm at night without bayonets. On the night previous to the attack being delivered, both the positions at Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill were reenforeed by guns and men; indicating that General White had learned of the contemplated assault on his southern defenses. His spies in the hospital camp near Bulwana must have obtained the information in some way from the Boer lines close by.
By two o'clock on the morning of the 6th of January the burghers chosen for the assault had all reached their respective rendezvous. The Utrecht men, with some Standerton and Wakkerstroom burghers, under the east slope of the Platrand; Villebois-Mareuil being a spectator, but not a participator; the men from Heidelberg were round to their right, a mile from the English hospital; and 1,000 of the Vryheid commando and 100 German Uitlanders had marched from Colenso to the spruit below Bester's Farm, having the Free State contingent under Wagon Hill, to their left.
The attack was made at the three points almost simultaneously, the Vryheiders leading and advancing up the slope of the hill from the south. The enemy was in no way taken by surprise, and the first burghers who cleared the crest fell before a well-directed fire from behind the outer lines of the British positions. But the burghers did not waver. They fired lying in many places within fifty yards of the Tommies, making gaps behind the chanzas wherever a head offered a target for an aim. The Utrecht men rushed the trenches in front of them, and poured a volley into the troops behind, who fled to the rear and were shot down as they ran, the burghers taking and holding the vacated trenches. Both here and in front of the Vryheid men Colonial troops were located. They hailed the burghers in the Taal, and told them " Not to shoot at your own people." This ruse did not, however, succeed, as the answering rifles gave the replies which in each place decided the immediate occupation of the crest-line of the Platrand.
The Free Staters had likewise captured the west end of Wagon Hill, led by the brave De Villiers, of Harrismith, and by four o'clock, as the light began to make all things visible, the lower part of the Platrand from east to west was in possession of the burghers. Thus the first line of the enemy's position on the hill was gallantly captured and held, but the English were by no means beaten off. They fell back to other entrenchments, nearer their guns, and clung to them with dogged tenacity until reenforcements came from the town below, and from other posts within the besieged area.
The flat top of the hill became a scene of the most determined fight which had taken place since the siege began, the combatants in several places being separated by only a few yards. The defenders of the hill had the service at close range of their naval and field guns, and it was this great advantage, coupled with a failure on the part of the Pretoria commando to succor the Free Staters on Wagon Hill, which enabled White ultimately to beat off the determined assault of his opponents. The fight at this end of the Platrand had been hot and furious from the beginning, the Free Staters repulsing every attempt made to break their hold on the hill. White hurled several detachments of Highlanders, King's Royal Rifles, and Imperial Light Horse against Commandant Nel and his brave Heilbron men—the men who had gallantly helped to storm Nicholson's Nek—but, tho subjected to a terrific fire from two batteries, a naval gun, and fully 2,000 of White's garrison, the Harrismith, Heilbron, Vredefort, and Kroonstad burghers heroically withstood the onslaught, and maintained their position for fully ten hours. Four times in succession during the continuous struggle on and around Wagon Hill did the English pluckily rush forward to recapture their ground, only to be shot back remorselessly by the intrepid burghers, until the hill in front of them was almost covered with dead and wounded Tommies.
The Boer guns from Bulwana rendered very little effective service to the burghers engaged in holding the west end of the Platrand. The distance, except to the eastern slope, where the Utrecht men easily held their ground under cover of Long Tom's shells, was too great for accurate shooting, while the enemy's whole batteries were on and around the Platrand within close reach of the men who had climbed and held the hill.
During the afternoon a furious storm of rain swept across the battle-field, drenching both sides, but in no way abating the fury of the fight for the possession of the hill.
There can be no denying the courage and tenacity with which the garrison fought for the retention of the Platrand. Their fifty guns were, however, almost all employed, and to this overwhelming artillery fire was mainly due the repulse of the attack. The conviction is general among the Boer officers who led the assault, that, had the needed assistance from the north laager been given to the Free Staters, they could have held that end of the hill, and from thence have captured the town.
The moral effect of the storming of the Platrand was very marked on the English, who were cured by it of the superstition about Boers dreading a close encounter, and fearing to face fixed bayonets. Both the Utrecht men on the east, and the Harrismith burghers on the west side of the hill, rushed trenches and shot down Tommies armed with bayonets at a few yards distance.
The lesson learned on the Boer side from the fight was confirmatory of Joubert's view, that the Boer forces were not numerically strong enough for plans of assault requiring big battalions for the success of most risky enterprises, and for the certain losses which victory or defeat in attempting them always demand.
The attempt to storm the Platrand was the last serious engagement in or around Ladysmith until its relief was effected in February.
General White's report of his casualties in this battle says:
" Our losses, I regret to say, were very heavy, consisting of 14 officers and 135 non-commissioned officers and men killed, and 31 officers and 244 men wounded."
This very large percentage of killed as against wounded tells the story of the fierce character of the Boer attack. General White continues by saying:
" I have not been able to ascertain the actual loss of the Boers, but 79 bodies found within our lines were returned to them next day for burial, and native spies report that their total casualties could not be less than 700."
As against this Kaffir estimate of the injury inflicted on the Boers, the official lists of their losses, as published in the " Volksstem " of January 10 and 12, 1900, give the killed as 55, and the wounded as 135. The lists are exhaustive in supplying the names, full home address, and the commandoes of the men killed and wounded. The Free Staters were the heaviest losers, the Utrecht, Wakkerstroom, and Heidelberg burghers coming next in proportionate losses.
There are numerous heroes where all were brave in the Boer accounts of the Platrand fight. One old burgher, however, is accorded the palm by universal testimony among the commandoes for a magnificent display of daring, which unfortunately cost him his life. He was old Signatius Vermaak, of Ward 4, Vryheid, but was fighting with the Utrecht men in their attack on Caesar's Camp. He was Acting Field Cornet, a man of herculean proportions, and over sixty years of age. He dashed ahead of his men in the first rush for the enemy's trench, and in the half light of the dawn found himself confronted by three soldiers, who had missed him in their fire.
The old Boer knocked their bayonets aside with a sweep of his clubbed Mauser, and handed the three men over to his followers as prisoners. He was shot dead a few moments afterward as the burghers of his ward were clearing the trenches of their occupants. These were mainly Natal Volunteers and Police, who had tried in the darkness to make the advancing Boers believe they were friends and not enemies. The fight which ensued at that spot was of the most furious kind, and very few of the British Colonials lived to tell the tale of that short but sanguinary encounter round old Vermaak's body on that early Saturday morning on the slope of Caesar's Camp.
The Harrismith burghers had to lament the death of two of their splendid young officers, Field Cornets De Villiers and Lyon. De Villiers had scorned all screen and danger in his eagerness to come to close quarters with the enemy, and had several hand-to-hand combats with foemen during the morning. He was ultimately killed in one of the British attempts to regain the slope of Wagon Hill.
During the brief lull in the firing on Wagon Hill in the morning, the Harrismith men, under De Villiers, had made a dash across the open space between the trench they had taken and a redoubt from which a gun had been hurling shrapnel at the Boers along the crest of the hill. The distance to the gun was no more than 150 yards, and it was resolved to try and silence its barking. Already several of the Tommies who were serving the piece had been picked off by the burghers, as head or hand or body showed an object for a Mauser to fire at. De Villiers gave the word, and a dozen other men leaped out and ran to the redoubt, shouting " Hands up!" to the twelve Tommies who were left out of those who had worked and defended the piece during the morning. The gun, an Armstrong, was spiked, the rifles were taken, and the Tommies released; De Villiers and his companions returning back to their comrades without the loss of a single man.