On October 20th--the same day as the Battle of Talana Hill--the line was cut by the Boers at a point nearly midway between Dundee and Ladysmith. A small body of horsemen were the forerunners of a considerable commando, composed of Freestaters, Transvaalers, and Germans, who had advanced into Natal through Botha's Pass under the command of General Koch. They had with them the two Maxim-Nordenfelds which had been captured from the Jameson raiders, and were now destined to return once more to British hands. Colonel Schiel, the German artillerist, had charge of these guns.
On the evening of that day General French, with a strong reconnoitering party, including the Natal Carabineers, the 5th Lancers, and the 21st battery, had defined the enemy's position. Next morning (the 21st) he returned, but either the enemy had been reinforced during the night or he had underrated them the day before, for the force which he took with him was too weak for any serious attack. He had one battery of the Natal artillery, with their little seven-pounder popguns, five squadrons of the Imperial Horse, and, in the train which slowly accompanied his advance, half a battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Elated by the news of Talana Hill, and anxious to emulate their brothers of Dundee, the little force moved out of Ladysmith in the early morning.
Some at least of the men were animated by feelings such as seldom find a place in the breast of the British soldier as he marches into battle. A sense of duty, a belief in the justice of his cause, a love for his regiment and for his country, these are the common incentives of every soldier. But to the men of the Imperial Light Horse, recruited as they were from among the British refugees of the Rand, there was added a burning sense of injustice, and in many cases a bitter hatred against the men whose rule had weighed so heavily upon them. In this singular corps the ranks were full of wealthy men and men of education, who, driven from their peaceful vocations in Johannesburg, were bent upon fighting their way back to them again. A most unmerited slur had been cast upon their courage in connection with the Jameson raid--a slur which they and other similar corps have washed out for ever in their own blood and that of their enemy. Chisholm, a fiery little Lancer, was in command, with Karri Davis and Wools-Sampson, the two stalwarts who had preferred Pretoria Gaol to the favours of Kruger, as his majors. The troopers were on fire at the news that a cartel had arrived in Ladysmith the night before, purporting to come from the Johannesburg Boers and Hollanders, asking what uniform the Light Horse wore, as they were anxious to meet them in battle. These men were fellow townsmen and knew each other well. They need not have troubled about the uniform, for before evening the Light Horse were near enough for them to know their faces.
It was about eight o'clock on a bright summer morning that the small force came in contact with a few scattered Boer outposts, who retired, firing, before the advance of the Imperial Light Horse. As they fell back the green and white tents of the invaders came into view upon the russet-coloured hillside of Elandslaagte. Down at the red brick railway station the Boers could be seen swarming out of the buildings in which they had spent the night. The little Natal guns, firing with obsolete black powder, threw a few shells into the station, one of which, it is said, penetrated a Boer ambulance which could not be seen by the gunners. The accident was to be regretted, but as no patients could have been in the ambulance the mischance was not a serious one.
But the busy, smoky little seven-pounder guns were soon to meet their master. Away up on the distant hillside, a long thousand yards beyond their own furthest range, there was a sudden bright flash. No smoke, only the throb of flame, and then the long sibilant scream of the shell, and the thud as it buried itself in the ground under a limber. Such judgment of range would have delighted the most martinet of inspectors at Okehampton. Bang came another, and another, and another, right into the heart of the battery. The six little guns lay back at their extremest angle, and all barked together in impotent fury. Another shell pitched over them, and the officer in command lowered his field-glass in despair as he saw his own shells bursting far short upon the hillside. Jameson's defeat does not seem to have been due to any defect in his artillery. French, peering and pondering, soon came to the conclusion that there were too many Boers for him, and that if those fifteen-pounders desired target practice they should find some other mark than the Natal Field Artillery. A few curt orders, and his whole force was making its way to the rear. There, out of range of those perilous guns, they halted, the telegraph wire was cut, a telephone attachment was made, and French whispered his troubles into the sympathetic ear of Ladysmith. He did not whisper in vain. What he had to say was that where he had expected a few hundred riflemen he found something like two thousand, and that where he expected no guns he found two very excellent ones. The reply was that by road and by rail as many men as could be spared were on their way to join him.
Soon they began to drop in, those useful reinforcements--first the Devons, quiet, business-like, reliable; then the Gordons, dashing, fiery, brilliant. Two squadrons of the 5th Lancers, the 42nd R. F. A. , the 21st R. F. A. , another squadron of Lancers, a squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards--French began to feel that he was strong enough for the task in front of him. He had a decided superiority of numbers and of guns. But the others were on their favourite defensive on a hill. It would be a fair fight and a deadly one.
It was late after noon before the advance began. It was hard, among those billowing hills, to make out the exact limits of the enemy's position. All that was certain was that they were there, and that we meant having them out if it were humanly possible. 'The enemy are there,' said Ian Hamilton to his infantry; 'I hope you will shift them out before sunset--in fact I know you will. ' The men cheered and laughed. In long open lines they advanced across the veld, while the thunder of the two batteries behind them told the Boer gunners that it was their turn now to know what it was to be outmatched.
The idea was to take the position by a front and a flank attack, but there seems to have been some difficulty in determining which was the front and which the flank. In fact, it was only by trying that one could know. General White with his staff had arrived from Ladysmith, but refused to take the command out of French's hands. It is typical of White's chivalrous spirit that within ten days he refused to identify himself with a victory when it was within his right to do so, and took the whole responsibility for a disaster at which he was not present. Now he rode amid the shells and watched the able dispositions of his lieutenant.
About half-past three the action had fairly begun. In front of the advancing British there lay a rolling hill, topped by a further one. The lower hill was not defended, and the infantry, breaking from column of companies into open order, advanced over it. Beyond was a broad grassy valley which led up to the main position, a long kopje flanked by a small sugar-loaf one Behind the green slope which led to the ridge of death an ominous and terrible cloud was driving up, casting its black shadow over the combatants. There was the stillness which goes before some great convulsion of nature. The men pressed on in silence, the soft thudding of their feet and the rattle of their sidearms filling the air with a low and continuous murmur. An additional solemnity was given to the attack by that huge black cloud which hung before them.
The British guns had opened at a range of 4400 yards, and now against the swarthy background there came the quick smokeless twinkle of the Boer reply. It was an unequal fight, but gallantly sustained. A shot and another to find the range; then a wreath of smoke from a bursting shell exactly where the guns had been, followed by another and another. Overmatched, the two Boer pieces relapsed into a sulky silence, broken now and again by short spurts of frenzied activity. The British batteries turned their attention away from them, and began to search the ridge with shrapnel and prepare the way for the advancing infantry.
The scheme was that the Devonshires should hold the enemy in front while the main attack from the left flank was carried out by the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the Imperial Light Horse. The words 'front' and 'flank,' however, cease to have any meaning with so mobile and elastic a force, and the attack which was intended to come from the left became really a frontal one, while the Devons found themselves upon the right flank of the Boers. At the moment of the final advance the great black cloud had burst, and a torrent of rain lashed into the faces of the men. Slipping and sliding upon the wet grass, they advanced to the assault.
And now amid the hissing of the rain there came the fuller, more menacing whine of the Mauser bullets, and the ridge rattled from end to end with the rifle fire. Men fell fast, but their comrades pressed hotly on. There was a long way to go, for the summit of the position was nearly 800 feet above the level of the railway. The hillside, which had appeared to be one slope, was really a succession of undulations, so that the advancing infantry alternately dipped into shelter and emerged into a hail of bullets. The line of advance was dotted with khaki-clad figures, some still in death, some writhing in their agony. Amid the litter of bodies a major of the Gordons, shot through the leg, sat philosophically smoking his pipe. Plucky little Chisholm, Colonel of the Imperials, had fallen with two mortal wounds as he dashed forward waving a coloured sash in the air. So long was the advance and so trying the hill that the men sank panting upon the ground, and took their breath before making another rush. As at Talana Hill, regimental formation was largely gone, and men of the Manchesters, Gordons, and Imperial Light Horse surged upwards in one long ragged fringe, Scotchman, Englishman, and British Africander keeping pace in that race of death. And now at last they began to see their enemy. Here and there among the boulders in front of them there was the glimpse of a slouched hat, or a peep at a flushed bearded face which drooped over a rifle barrel. There was a pause, and then with a fresh impulse the wave of men gathered themselves together and flung themselves forward. Dark figures sprang up from the rocks in front. Some held up their rifles in token of surrender. Some ran with heads sunk between their shoulders, jumping and ducking among the rocks. The panting breathless climbers were on the edge of the plateau. There were the two guns which had flashed so brightly, silenced now, with a litter of dead gunners around them and one wounded officer standing by a trail. A small body of the Boers still resisted. Their appearance horrified some of our men. 'They were dressed in black frock coats and looked like a lot of rather seedy business men,' said a spectator. 'It seemed like murder to kill them. ' Some surrendered, and some fought to the death where they stood. Their leader Koch, an old gentleman with a white beard, lay amidst the rocks, wounded in three places. He was treated with all courtesy and attention, but died in Ladysmith Hospital some days afterwards.
In the meanwhile the Devonshire Regiment had waited until the attack had developed and had then charged the hill upon the flank, while the artillery moved up until it was within 2000 yards of the enemy's position. The Devons met with a less fierce resistance than the others, and swept up to the summit in time to head off some of the fugitives. The whole of our infantry were now upon the ridge.
But even so these dour fighters were not beaten. They clung desperately to the further edges of the plateau, firing from behind the rocks. There had been a race for the nearest gun between an officer of the Manchesters and a drummer sergeant of the Gordons. The officer won, and sprang in triumph on to the piece. Men of all regiments swarmed round yelling and cheering, when upon their astonished ears there sounded the 'Cease fire' and then the 'Retire. ' It was incredible, and yet it pealed out again, unmistakable in its urgency. With the instinct of discipline the men were slowly falling back. And then the truth of it came upon the minds of some of them. The crafty enemy had learned our bugle calls. 'Retire be damned! shrieked a little bugler, and blew the 'Advance' with all the breath that the hillside had left him. The men, who had retired a hundred yards and uncovered the guns, flooded back over the plateau, and in the Boer camp which lay beneath it a white flag showed that the game was up. A squadron of the 5th Lancers and of the 5th Dragoon Guards, under Colonel Gore of the latter regiment, had prowled round the base of the hill, and in the fading light they charged through and through the retreating Boers, killing several, and making from twenty to thirty prisoners. It was one of the very few occasions in the war where the mounted Briton overtook the mounted Boer.
'What price Majuba? ' was the cry raised by some of the infantry as they dashed up to the enemy's position, and the action may indeed be said to have been in some respects the converse of that famous fight. It is true that there were many more British at Elandslaagte than Boers at Majuba, but then the defending force was much more numerous also, and the British had no guns there. It is true, also, that Majuba is very much more precipitous than Elandslaagte, but then every practical soldier knows that it is easier to defend a moderate glacis than an abrupt slope, which gives cover under its boulders to the attacker while the defender has to crane his head over the edge to look down. On the whole, this brilliant little action may be said to have restored things to their true proportion, and to have shown that, brave as the Boers undoubtedly are, there is no military feat within their power which is not equally possible to the British soldier. Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, fought on successive days, were each of them as gallant an exploit as Majuba.
We had more to show for our victory than for the previous one at Dundee. Two Maxim-Nordenfeld guns, whose efficiency had been painfully evident during the action, were a welcome addition to our artillery. Two hundred and fifty Boers were killed and wounded and about two hundred taken prisoners, the loss falling most heavily upon the Johannesburgers, the Germans, and the Hollanders. General Koch, Dr. Coster, Colonel Schiel, Pretorius, and other well-known Transvaalers fell into our hands. Our own casualty list consisted of 41 killed and 220 wounded, much the same number as at Talana Hill, the heaviest losses falling upon the Gordon Highlanders and the Imperial Light Horse.
In the hollow where the Boer tents had stood, amid the laagered wagons of the vanquished, under a murky sky and a constant drizzle of rain, the victors spent the night. Sleep was out of the question, for all night the fatigue parties were searching the hillside and the wounded were being carried in. Camp-fires were lit and soldiers and prisoners crowded round them, and it is pleasant to recall that the warmest corner and the best of their rude fare were always reserved for the downcast Dutchmen, while words of rude praise and sympathy softened the pain of defeat. It is the memory of such things which may in happier days be more potent than all the wisdom of statesmen in welding our two races into one.
Having cleared the Boer force from the line of the railway, it is evident that General White could not continue to garrison the point, as he was aware that considerable forces were moving from the north, and his first duty was the security of Ladysmith. Early next morning (October 22nd), therefore, his weary but victorious troops returned to the town. Once there he learned, no doubt, that General Yule had no intention of using the broken railway for his retreat, but that he intended to come in a circuitous fashion by road. White's problem was to hold tight to the town and at the same time to strike hard at any northern force so as to prevent them from interfering with Yule's retreat. It was in the furtherance of this scheme that he fought upon October 24th the action of Rietfontein, an engagement slight in itself, but important on account of the clear road which was secured for the weary forces retiring from Dundee.
The army from the Free State, of which the commando vanquished at Elandslaagte was the vanguard, had been slowly and steadily debouching from the passes, and working south and eastwards to cut the line between Dundee and Ladysmith. It was White's intention to prevent them from crossing the Newcastle Road, and for this purpose he sallied out of Ladysmith on Tuesday the 24th, having with him two regiments of cavalry, the 5th Lancers and the 19th Hussars, the 42nd and 53rd field batteries with the 10th mountain battery, four infantry regiments, the Devons, Liverpools, Gloucesters, and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the Imperial Light Horse, and the Natal Volunteers--some four thousand men in all.
The enemy were found to be in possession of a line of hills within seven miles of Ladysmith, the most conspicuous of which is called Tinta Inyoni. It was no part of General White's plan to attempt to drive him from this position--it is not wise generalship to fight always upon ground of the enemy's choosing--but it was important to hold him where he was, and to engage his attention during this last day of the march of the retreating column. For this purpose, since no direct attack was intended, the guns were of more importance than the infantry--and indeed the infantry should, one might imagine, have been used solely as an escort for the artillery. A desultory and inconclusive action ensued which continued from nine in the morning until half-past one in the afternoon. A well-directed fire of the Boer guns from the hills was dominated and controlled by our field artillery, while the advance of their riflemen was restrained by shrapnel. The enemy's guns were more easily marked down than at Elandslaagte, as they used black powder. The ranges varied from three to four thousand yards. Our losses in the whole action would have been insignificant had it not happened that the Gloucester Regiment advanced somewhat incautiously into the open and was caught in a cross fire of musketry which struck down Colonel Wilford and fifty of his officers and men. Within four days Colonel Dick-Cunyngham, of the Gordons, Colonel Chisholm, of the Light Horse, Colonel Gunning, of the Rifles, and now Colonel Wilford, of the Gloucesters, had all fallen at the head of their regiments. In the afternoon General White, having accomplished his purpose and secured the safety of the Dundee column while traversing the dangerous Biggarsberg passes, withdrew his force to Ladysmith. We have no means of ascertaining the losses of the Boers, but they were probably slight. On our side we lost 109 killed and wounded, of which only 13 cases were fatal. Of this total 64 belonged to the Gloucesters and 25 to the troops raised in Natal. Next day, as already narrated, the whole British army was re-assembled once more at Ladysmith, and the campaign was to enter upon a new phase.
At the end of this first vigorous week of hostilities it is interesting to sum up the net result. The strategical advantage had lain with the Boers. They had made our position at Dundee untenable and had driven us back to Ladysmith. They had the country and the railway for the northern quarter of the colony in their possession. They had killed and wounded between six and seven hundred of our men, and they had captured some two hundred of our cavalry, while we had been compelled at Dundee to leave considerable stores and our wounded, including General Penn Symons, who actually died while a prisoner in their hands. On the other hand, the tactical advantages lay with us. We had twice driven them from their positions, and captured two of their guns. We had taken two hundred prisoners. and had probably killed and wounded as many as we had lost. On the whole, the honours of that week's fighting in Natal may be said to have been fairly equal--which is more than we could claim for many a weary week to come.
Sir George White had now reunited his force, and found himself in command of a formidable little army some twelve thousand in number. His cavalry included the 5th Lancers, the 5th Dragoons, part of the 18th and the whole of the 19th Hussars, the Natal Carabineers, the Border Rifles, some mounted infantry, and the Imperial Light Horse. Among his infantry were the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the King's Royal Rifles, fresh from the ascent of Talana Hill, the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the Devons who had been blooded at Elandslaagte, the Leicesters, the Liverpools, the 2nd battalion of the King's Royal Rifles, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, and the Gloucesters, who had been so roughly treated at Rietfontein. He had six batteries of excellent field artillery--the 13th, 21st, 42nd, 53rd, 67th, 69th, and No. 10 Mountain Battery of screw guns. No general could have asked for a more compact and workmanlike little force.
It had been recognised by the British General from the beginning that his tactics must be defensive, since he was largely outnumbered and since also any considerable mishap to his force would expose the whole colony of Natal to destruction. The actions of Elandslaagte and Rietfontein were forced upon him in order to disengage his compromised detachment, but now there was no longer any reason why he should assume the offensive. He knew that away out on the Atlantic a trail of transports which already extended from the Channel to Cape de Verde were hourly drawing nearer to him with the army corps from England. In a fortnight or less the first of them would be at Durban. It was his game, therefore, to keep his army intact, and to let those throbbing engines and whirling propellers do the work of the empire. Had he entrenched himself up to his nose and waited, it would have paid him best in the end.
But so tame and inglorious a policy is impossible to a fighting soldier. He could not with his splendid force permit himself to be shut in without an action. What policy demands honour may forbid. On October 27th there were already Boers and rumours of Boers on every side of him. Joubert with his main body was moving across from Dundee. The Freestaters were to the north and west. Their combined numbers were uncertain, but at least it was already proved that they were far more numerous and also more formidable than had been anticipated. We had had a taste of their artillery also, and the pleasant delusion that it would be a mere useless encumbrance to a Boer force had vanished for ever. It was a grave thing to leave the town in order to give battle, for the mobile enemy might swing round and seize it behind us. Nevertheless White determined to make the venture.
On the 29th the enemy were visibly converging upon the town. From a high hill within rifleshot of the houses a watcher could see no fewer than six Boer camps to the east and north. French, with his cavalry, pushed out feelers, and coasted along the edge of the advancing host. His report warned White that if he would strike before all the scattered bands were united he must do so at once. The wounded were sent down to Pietermaritzburg, and it would bear explanation why the non-combatants did not accompany them. On the evening of the same day Joubert in person was said to be only six miles off, and a party of his men cut the water supply of the town. The Klip, however, a fair-sized river, runs through Ladysmith, so that there was no danger of thirst. The British had inflated and sent up a balloon, to the amazement of the back-veld Boers; its report confirmed the fact that the enemy was in force in front of and around them.
On the night of the 29th General White detached two of his best regiments, the Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters, with No. 10 Mountain Battery, to advance under cover of the darkness and to seize and hold a long ridge called Nicholson's Nek, which lay about six miles to the north of Ladysmith. Having determined to give battle on the next day, his object was to protect his left wing against those Freestaters who were still moving from the north and west, and also to keep a pass open by which his cavalry might pursue the Boer fugitives in case of a British victory. This small detached column numbered about a thousand men--whose fate will be afterwards narrated.
At five o'clock on the morning of the 30th the Boers, who had already developed a perfect genius for hauling heavy cannon up the most difficult heights, opened fire from one of the hills which lie to the north of the town. Before the shot was fired, the forces of the British had already streamed out of Ladysmith to test the strength of the invaders.
White's army was divided into three columns. On the extreme left, quite isolated from the others, was the small Nicholson's Nek detachment under the command of Colonel Carleton of the Fusiliers (one of three gallant brothers each of whom commands a British regiment). With him was Major Adye of the staff. On the right British flank Colonel Grimwood commanded a brigade composed of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the King's Royal Rifles, the Leicesters, the Liverpools, and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In the centre Colonel Ian Hamilton commanded the Devons, the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the 2nd battalion of the Rifle Brigade, which marched direct into the battle from the train which had brought them from Durban. Six batteries of artillery were massed in the centre under Colonel Downing. French with the cavalry and mounted infantry was on the extreme right, but found little opportunity for the use of the mounted arm that day.
The Boer position, so far as it could be seen, was a formidable one. Their centre lay upon one of the spurs of Signal Hill, about three miles from the town. Here they had two forty-pounders and three other lighter guns, but their artillery strength developed both in numbers and in weight of metal as the day wore on. Of their dispositions little could be seen. An observer looking westward might discern with his glass sprays of mounted riflemen galloping here and there over the downs, and possibly small groups where the gunners stood by their guns, or the leaders gazed down at that town which they were destined to have in view for such a weary while. On the dun-coloured plains before the town, the long thin lines, with an occasional shifting sparkle of steel, showed where Hamilton's and Grimwood's infantry were advancing. In the clear cold air of an African morning every detail could be seen, down to the distant smoke of a train toiling up the heavy grades which lead from Frere over the Colenso Bridge to Ladysmith.
The scrambling, inconsequential, unsatisfactory action which ensued is as difficult to describe as it must have been to direct. The Boer front covered some seven or eight miles, with kopjes, like chains of fortresses, between. They formed a huge semicircle of which our advance was the chord, and they were able from this position to pour in a converging artillery fire which grew steadily hotter as the day advanced. In the early part of the day our forty-two guns, working furiously, though with a want of accuracy which may be due to those errors of refraction which are said to be common in the limpid air of the veld, preserved their superiority. There appears to have been a want of concentration about our fire, and at some periods of the action each particular battery was firing at some different point of the Boer half-circle. Sometimes for an hour on end the Boer reply would die away altogether, only to break out with augmented violence, and with an accuracy which increased our respect for their training. Huge shells--the largest that ever burst upon a battlefield--hurled from distances which were unattainable by our fifteen-pounders, enveloped our batteries in smoke and flame. One enormous Creusot gun on Pepworth Hill threw a 96-pound shell a distance of four miles, and several 40-pound howitzers outweighted our field guns. And on the same day on which we were so roughly taught how large the guns were which labour and good will could haul on to the field of battle, we learned also that our enemy--to the disgrace of our Board of Ordnance be it recorded--was more in touch with modern invention than we were, and could show us not only the largest, but also the smallest, shell which had yet been used. Would that it had been our officials instead of our gunners who heard the devilish little one-pound shells of the Vickers-Maxim automatic gun, exploding with a continuous string of crackings and bangings, like a huge cracker, in their faces and about their ears!
Up to seven o'clock our infantry had shown no disposition to press the attack, for with so huge a position in front of them, and so many hills which were held by the enemy, it was difficult to know what line of advance should be taken, or whether the attack should not be converted into a mere reconnaissance. Shortly after that hour, however, the Boers decided the question by themselves developing a vigorous movement upon Grimwood and the right flank. With field guns, Maxims, and rifle fire, they closed rapidly in upon him. The centre column was drafted off, regiment by regiment, to reinforce the right. The Gordons, Devons, Manchesters, and three batteries were sent over to Grimwood's relief, and the 5th Lancers, acting as infantry, assisted him to hold on.
At nine o'clock there was a lull, but it was evident that fresh commandoes and fresh guns were continually streaming into the firing line. The engagement opened again with redoubled violence, and Grimwood's three advanced battalions fell back, abandoning the ridge which they had held for five hours. The reason for this withdrawal was not that they could not continue to hold their position, but it was that a message had just reached Sir George White from Colonel Knox, commanding in Ladysmith, to the effect that it looked as if the enemy was about to rush the town from the other side. Crossing the open in some disorder, they lost heavily, and would have done so more had not the 13th Field Battery, followed after an interval by the 53rd, dashed forward, firing shrapnel at short ranges, in order to cover the retreat of the infantry. Amid the bursting of the huge 96-pound shells, and the snapping of the vicious little automatic one-pounders, with a cross-fire of rifles as well, Abdy's and Dawkins' gallant batteries swung round their muzzles, and hit back right and left, flashing and blazing, amid their litter of dead horses and men. So severe was the fire that the guns were obscured by the dust knocked up by the little shells of the automatic gun. Then, when their work was done and the retiring infantry had straggled over the ridge, the covering guns whirled and bounded after them. So many horses had fallen that two pieces were left until the teams could be brought back for them, which was successfully done through the gallantry of Captain Thwaites. The action of these batteries was one of the few gleams of light in a not too brilliant day's work. With splendid coolness and courage they helped each other by alternate retirements after the retreating infantry had passed them. The 21st Battery (Blewitt's) also distinguished itself by its staunchness in covering the retirement of the cavalry, while the 42nd (Goulburn's) suffered the heaviest losses of any. On the whole, such honours as fell to our lot were mainly with the gunners.
White must have been now uneasy for his position, and it had become apparent that his only course was to fall back and concentrate upon the town. His left flank was up in the air, and the sound of distant firing, wafted over five miles of broken country, was the only message which arrived from them. His right had been pushed back, and, most dangerous of all, his centre had ceased to exist, for only the 2nd Rifle Brigade remained there. What would happen if the enemy burst rudely through and pushed straight for the town? It was the more possible, as the Boer artillery had now proved itself to be far heavier than ours. That terrible 96-pounder, serenely safe and out of range, was plumping its great projectiles into the masses of retiring troops. The men had had little sleep and little food, and this unanswerable fire was an ordeal for a force which is retreating. A retirement may very rapidly become a rout under such circumstances. It was with some misgivings that the officers saw their men quicken their pace and glance back over their shoulders at the whine and screech of the shell. They were still some miles from home, and the plain was open. What could be done to give them some relief?
And at that very moment there came the opportune and unexpected answer. That plume of engine smoke which the watcher had observed in the morning had drawn nearer and nearer, as the heavy train came puffing and creaking up the steep inclines. Then, almost before it had drawn up at the Ladysmith siding, there had sprung from it a crowd of merry bearded fellows, with ready hands and strange sea cries, pulling and hauling, with rope and purchase to get out the long slim guns which they had lashed on the trucks. Singular carriages were there, specially invented by Captain Percy Scott, and labouring and straining, they worked furiously to get the 12-pounder quick-firers into action. Then at last it was done, and the long tubes swept upwards to the angle at which they might hope to reach that monster on the hill at the horizon. Two of them craned their long inquisitive necks up and exchanged repartees with the big Creusot. And so it was that the weary and dispirited British troops heard a crash which was louder and sharper than that of their field guns, and saw far away upon the distant hill a great spurt of smoke and flame to show where the shell had struck. Another and another and another--and then they were troubled no more. Captain Hedworth Lambton and his men had saved the situation. The masterful gun had met its own master and sank into silence, while the somewhat bedraggled field force came trailing back into Ladysmith, leaving three hundred of their number behind them. It was a high price to pay, but other misfortunes were in store for us which made the retirement of the morning seem insignificant.
In the meantime we may follow the unhappy fortunes of the small column which had, as already described, been sent out by Sir George White in order, if possible, to prevent the junction of the two Boer armies, and at the same time to threaten the right wing of the main force, which was advancing from the direction of Dundee, Sir George White throughout the campaign consistently displayed one quality which is a charming one in an individual, but may be dangerous in a commander. He was a confirmed optimist. Perhaps his heart might have failed him in the dark days to come had he not been so. But whether one considers the non-destruction of the Newcastle Railway, the acquiescence in the occupation of Dundee, the retention of the non combatants in Ladysmith until it was too late to get rid of their useless mouths, or the failure to make any serious preparations for the defence of the town until his troops were beaten back into it, we see always the same evidence of a man who habitually hopes that all will go well, and is in consequence remiss in making preparations for their going ill. But unhappily in every one of these instances they did go ill, though the slowness of the Boers enabled us, both at Dundee and at Ladysmith, to escape what might have been disaster.
Sir George White has so nobly and frankly taken upon himself the blame of Nicholson's Nek that an impartial historian must rather regard his self-condemnation as having been excessive. The immediate causes of the failure were undoubtedly the results of pure ill-fortune, and depended on things outside his control. But it is evident that the strategic plan which would justify the presence of this column at Nicholson's Nek was based upon the supposition that the main army won their action at Lombard's Kop. In that case White might swing round his right and pin the Boers between himself and Nicholson's Nek. In any case he could then re-unite with his isolated wing. But if he should lose his battle--what then? What was to become of this detachment five miles up in the air? How was it to be extricated? The gallant Irishman seems to have waved aside the very idea of defeat. An assurance was, it is reported, given to the leaders of the column that by eleven o'clock next morning they would be relieved. So they would if White had won his action. But--
The force chosen to operate independently consisted of four and a half companies of the Gloucester regiment, six companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and No. 10 Mountain Battery of six seven-pounder screw-guns. They were both old soldier regiments from India, and the Fusiliers had shown only ten days before at Talana Hill the stuff of which they were made. Colonel Carleton, of the Fusiliers, to whose exertions much of the success of the retreat from Dundee was due, commanded the column, with Major Adye as staff officer. On the night of Sunday, October 29th, they tramped out of Ladysmith, a thousand men, none better in the army. Little they thought, as they exchanged a jest or two with the outlying pickets, that they were seeing the last of their own armed countrymen for many a weary month.
The road was irregular and the night was moonless. On either side the black loom of the hills bulked vaguely through the darkness. The column tramped stolidly along, the Fusiliers in front, the guns and Gloucesters behind. Several times a short halt was called to make sure of the bearings. At last, in the black cold hours which come between midnight and morning, the column swung to the left out of the road. In front of them, hardly visible, stretched a long black kopje. It was the very Nicholson's Nek which they had come to occupy. Carleton and Adye must have heaved a sigh of relief as they realised that they had actually struck it. The force was but two hundred yards from the position, and all had gone without a hitch. And yet in those two hundred yards there came an incident which decided the fate both of their enterprise and of themselves.
Out of the darkness there blundered and rattled five horsemen, their horses galloping, the loose stones flying around them. In the dim light they were gone as soon as seen. Whence coming, whither going, no one knows, nor is it certain whether it was design or ignorance or panic which sent them riding so wildly through the darkness. Somebody fired. A sergeant of the Fusiliers took the bullet through his hand. Some one else shouted to fix bayonets. The mules which carried the spare ammunition kicked and reared. There was no question of treachery, for they were led by our own men, but to hold two frightened mules, one with either hand, is a feat for a Hercules. They lashed and tossed and bucked themselves loose, and an instant afterwards were flying helter skelter through the column. Nearly all the mules caught the panic. In vain the men held on to their heads. In the mad rush they were galloped over and knocked down by the torrent of frightened creatures. In the gloom of that early hour the men must have thought that they were charged by cavalry. The column was dashed out of all military order as effectively as if a regiment of dragoons had ridden over them. When the cyclone had passed, and the men had with many a muttered curse gathered themselves into their ranks once more, they realised how grave was the misfortune which had befallen them. There, where those mad hoofs still rattled in the distance, were their spare cartridges, their shells, and their cannon. A mountain gun is not drawn upon wheels, but is carried in adjustable parts upon mule-back. A wheel had gone south, a trail east, a chase west. Some of the cartridges were strewn upon the road. Most were on their way back to Ladysmith. There was nothing for it but to face this new situation and to determine what should be done.
It has been often and naturally asked, why did not Colonel Carleton make his way back at once upon the loss of his guns and ammunition, while it was still dark? One or two considerations are evident. In the first place, it is natural to a good soldier to endeavour to retrieve a situation rather than to abandon his enterprise. His prudence, did he not do so, might become the subject of public commendation, but might also provoke some private comment. A soldier's training is to take chances, and to do the best he can with the material at his disposal. Again, Colonel Carleton and Major Adye knew the general plan of the battle which would be raging within a very few hours, and they quite understood that by withdrawing they would expose General White's left flank to attack from the forces (consisting, as we know now, of the Orange Freestaters and of the Johannesburg Police) who were coming from the north and west. He hoped to be relieved by eleven, and he believed that, come what might, he could hold out until then. These are the most obvious of the considerations which induced Colonel Carleton to determine to carry out so far as he could the programme which had been laid down for him and his command. He marched up the hill and occupied the position.
His heart, however, must have sunk when he examined it. It was very large--too large to be effectively occupied by the force which he commanded. The length was about a mile and the breadth four hundred yards. Shaped roughly like the sole of a boot, it was only the heel end which he could hope to hold. Other hills all round offered cover for Boer riflemen. Nothing daunted, however, he set his men to work at once building sangars with the loose stones. With the full dawn and the first snapping of Boer Mausers from the hills around they had thrown up some sort of rude defences which they might hope to hold until help should come.
But how could help come when there was no means by which they could let White know the plight in which they found themselves? They had brought a heliograph with them, but it was on the back of one of those accursed mules. The Boers were thick around them, and they could not send a messenger. An attempt was made to convert a polished biscuit tin into a heliograph, but with poor success. A Kaffir was dispatched with promises of a heavy bribe, but he passed out of history. And there in the clear cold morning air the balloon hung to the south of them where the first distant thunder of White's guns was beginning to sound. If only they could attract the attention of that balloon! Vainly they wagged flags at it. Serene and unresponsive it brooded over the distant battle.
And now the Boers were thickening round them on every side. Christian de Wet, a name soon to be a household word, marshaled the Boer attack, which was soon strengthened by the arrival of Van Dam and his Police. At five o'clock the fire began, at six it was warm, at seven warmer still. Two companies of the Gloucesters lined a sangar on the tread of the sole, to prevent any one getting too near to the heel. A fresh detachment of Boers, firing from a range of nearly one thousand yards, took this defence in the rear. Bullets fell among the men, and smacked up against the stone breastwork. The two companies were withdrawn, and lost heavily in the open as they crossed it. An incessant rattle and crackle of rifle fire came from all round, drawing very slowly but steadily nearer. Now and then the whisk of a dark figure from one boulder to another was all that ever was seen of the attackers. The British fired slowly and steadily, for every cartridge counted, but the cover of the Boers was so cleverly taken that it was seldom that there was much to aim at. 'All you could ever see,' says one who was present, 'were the barrels of the rifles. ' There was time for thought in that long morning, and to some of the men it may have occurred what preparation for such fighting had they ever had in the mechanical exercises of the parade ground, or the shooting of an annual bagful of cartridges at exposed targets at a measured range. It is the warfare of Nicholson's Nek, not that of Laffan's Plain, which has to be learned in the future.
During those weary hours lying on the bullet-swept hill and listening to the eternal hissing in the air and clicking on the rocks, the British soldiers could see the fight which raged to the south of them. It was not a cheering sight, and Carleton and Adye with their gallant comrades must have felt their hearts grow heavier as they watched. The Boers' shells bursting among the British batteries, the British shells bursting short of their opponents. The Long Toms laid at an angle of forty-five plumped their huge shells into the British guns at a range where the latter would not dream of unlimbering. And then gradually the rifle fire died away also, crackling more faintly as White withdrew to Ladysmith. At eleven o'clock Carleton's column recognised that it had been left to its fate. As early as nine a heliogram had been sent to them to retire as the opportunity served, but to leave the hill was certainly to court annihilation.
The men had then been under fire for six hours, and with their losses mounting and their cartridges dwindling, all hope had faded from their minds. But still for another hour, and yet another, and yet another, they held doggedly on. Nine and a half hours they clung to that pile of stones. The Fusiliers were still exhausted from the effect of their march from Glencoe and their incessant work since. Many fell asleep behind the boulders. Some sat doggedly with their useless rifles and empty pouches beside them. Some picked cartridges off their dead comrades. What were they fighting for? It was hopeless, and they knew it. But always there was the honour of the flag, the glory of the regiment, the hatred of a proud and brave man to acknowledge defeat. And yet it had to come. There were some in that force who were ready for the reputation of the British army, and for the sake of an example of military virtue, to die stolidly where they stood, or to lead the 'Faugh-a-ballagh' boys, or the gallant 28th, in one last death-charge with empty rifles against the unseen enemy. They may have been right, these stalwarts. Leonidas and his three hundred did more for the Spartan cause by their memory than by their living valour. Man passes like the brown leaves, but the tradition of a nation lives on like the oak that sheds them--and the passing of the leaves is nothing if the bole be the sounder for it. But a counsel of perfection is easy at a study table. There are other things to be said--the responsibility of officers for the lives of their men, the hope that they may yet be of service to their country. All was weighed, all was thought of, and so at last the white flag went up. The officer who hoisted it could see no one unhurt save himself, for all in his sangar were hit, and the others were so placed that he was under the impression that they had withdrawn altogether. Whether this hoisting of the flag necessarily compromised the whole force is a difficult question, but the Boers instantly left their cover, and the men in the sangars behind, some of whom had not been so seriously engaged, were ordered by their officers to desist from firing. In an instant the victorious Boers were among them.
It was not, as I have been told by those who were there, a sight which one would wish to have seen or care now to dwell upon. Haggard officers cracked their sword-blades and cursed the day that they had been born. Privates sobbed with their stained faces buried in their hands. Of all tests of discipline that ever they had stood, the hardest to many was to conform to all that the cursed flapping handkerchief meant to them. 'Father, father, we had rather have died,' cried the Fusiliers to their priest. Gallant hearts, ill paid, ill thanked, how poorly do the successful of the world compare with their unselfish loyalty and devotion!
But the sting of contumely or insult was not added to their misfortunes. There is a fellowship of brave men which rises above the feuds of nations, and may at last go far, we hope, to heal them. From every rock there rose a Boer--strange, grotesque figures many of them--walnut-brown and shaggy-bearded, and swarmed on to the hill. No term of triumph or reproach came from their lips. 'You will not say now that the young Boer cannot shoot,' was the harshest word which the least restrained of them made use of. Between one and two hundred dead and wounded were scattered over the hill. Those who were within reach of human help received all that could be given. Captain Rice, of the Fusiliers, was carried wounded down the hill on the back of one giant, and he has narrated how the man refused the gold piece which was offered him. Some asked the soldiers for their embroidered waist-belts as souvenirs of the day. They will for generations remain as the most precious ornaments of some colonial farmhouse. Then the victors gathered together and sang psalms, not jubilant but sad and quavering. The prisoners, in a downcast column, weary, spent, and unkempt, filed off to the Boer laager at Waschbank, there to take train for Pretoria. And at Ladysmith a bugler of Fusiliers, his arm bound, the marks of battle on his dress and person, burst in upon the camp with the news that two veteran regiments had covered the flank of White's retreating army, but at the cost of their own annihilation.