By a process of elimination Buller hoped in time to find the road to Ladysmith. He had tried in succession, but without success, Colenso, Potgieter's Drift, and Trickhardt's Drift. He now informed White that he intended to make another attempt, but Lord Roberts advised him to postpone it until his own advance should draw off the Free Staters and weaken the barrier on the line of the Tugela.
The situation in the besieged town was growing worse every day, but a proposal made by White as well as by the War Office that the garrison should endeavour to break out, was not sanctioned by Lord Roberts. White also was opposed to Buller's making another attempt to cross the Tugela, as he considered that the force would be more usefully employed in preventing the enemy from concentrating on Ladysmith.
[Map, p. 98.]
Buller's new plan was an advance by way of Vaalkrantz. Here the river winds in two salient loops towards the north, with a re-entrant loop between them, and there is a slight break in the heights on the left bank. The Brakfontein ridge slopes down towards Vaalkrantz Hill, between which and Green Hill there is a dip through which a road passes on to the open ground towards Ladysmith, eleven miles distant.
Buller proposed to occupy the ridge of Vaalkrantz with artillery, and after a feint attack on the Boer position on Brakfontein, to push through under cover of the guns. It was believed that the enemy's extreme left lay on Vaalkrantz, which was commanded by Mount Alice and Zwart Kop. Lord Roberts when informed of the project was not hopeful of its success, but did not veto it, although he thought that Buller would be better advised to abstain from offensive tactics.
The feint attack on Brakfontein was to be made by seven Field Batteries and a Brigade of Infantry, and was to be continued long enough to convince the enemy that it was "meant". It was then to be withdrawn and the real attack set in motion. The advance of the feint would be covered by heavy guns posted on Mount Alice, and concealed batteries on Zwart Kop would open on Vaalkrantz in support of the real attack.
The bulk of the infantry was posted in the east loop, so as to appear ready to cross the river and support the feint attack between the loops. As soon as the guns had driven the enemy into their trenches on Brakfontein, a pontoon bridge was to be thrown across the river south of Hunger's Drift, and the guns on Zwart Kop were to open on
Vaalkrantz, and when this had been sufficiently bombarded, it would be carried by the infantry, and guns would be brought up to enfilade the Boer line; while the cavalry "when feasible" would push through under the ridge and threaten it from the rear.
It was a pretty tactical scheme, with much of the War-Game about it, and it depended for its success upon the practicability of using Vaalkrantz as an artillery position, and upon the correctness of the assumption that the enemy was not in force eastward of it.
Buller was not successful in placing his guns on Zwart Kop unnoticed by the enemy, who was warned in time. After Spion Kop, Botha went to Pretoria, and Schalk Burger took furlough. B. Viljoen was now in command. He saw the danger and applied to Joubert at Ladysmith for help, who thought he was over-anxious but sent him a heavy gun. Little however would have been done but for the intervention of the two civilian Presidents. Steyn appealed to Kruger who, having tried without success to induce Joubert to take command on the Upper Tugela, fell in with Steyn's suggestion that Martin Prinsloo, a Free Stater, should go there; and Botha was ordered back from Pretoria. Prinsloo took command of the Brakfontein position, Viljoen remaining on Vaalkrantz.
At sunrise on February 5 began Buller's third attempt to relieve Ladysmith. Wynne, who had succeeded Woodgate in command of the 11th Brigade, advanced in two lines up the slope towards Brakfontein, supported by the fire of forty-four guns. Nearly six hours passed before any reply was vouchsafed by the enemy. At mid-day some guns on Wynne's left front opened on the batteries, but not a shot was fired by the Boers in the trenches.
Already one field battery had been detached from the left of the line of guns, the first movement in the real attack, and had taken up a position to cover the pontoon troop which was throwing a bridge across the Tugela near Hunger's Drift. At noon the completion of the bridge was signalled to the feint attack. The batteries fronting the Brakfontein ridge were withdrawn, and Wynne's brigade which, having been marched up the slope, was now marched down again, came under a heavy but almost innocuous infantry fire, which at last broke out on Brakfontein.
To the Boers it appeared that another attack, determined while it lasted, but devoid of backbone, had been kept at bay. The guns on Zwart Kop opened on Vaalkrantz as soon as the detached battery was seen to be in motion; and the other batteries came into action as they arrived from the Brakfontein demonstration. There was some annoyance from casual rifle fire and a Maxim posted on the heights S.E. of the loop, but it did not seriously interfere with the work of the bridge-builders.
The rules of the game were strictly obeyed, and there was "a thorough preparation by artillery" before the infantry was allowed to advance. The movement was delayed until half a hundred guns were playing upon Vaalkrantz and the chance of a celer et audax exploit was lost. At 2 p.m. Lyttelton with two battalions of the 4th Brigade was permitted to cross the pontoon and with these he worked up under the protection of the left bank, and emerging upon Munger's Farm, rose thence to the southern edge of Vaalkrantz, and took hold of the ridge. Here he was joined by a battalion of Hildyard's Brigade, whose original orders to occupy Green Hill were cancelled, and later on by the remaining battalions of his own brigade; which Buller, wavering for a time, had held back, as the pontoon and the open ground were under fire from the right flank. At 4 p.m. Lyttelton was established on the main hill of Vaalkrantz, and during the night the position was entrenched. The occupation, however, brought two facts to light. Half a mile to the north of the main hill was another hill, only a few feet lower, unapproachable and in the enemy's possession; and it was not practicable, as Buller had hoped, to bring up artillery on to the position seized by Lyttelton.
At daylight on February 6, the situation was favourable to the Boers. Botha had arrived and had taken over the command from Prinsloo. The heavy gun sent from Ladysmith had been mounted on Doom Kop, which was now held by reinforcements under L. Meyer; other good positions east of Vaalkrantz had been strengthened; and some of the guns on the Brakfontein position had been moved round. Vaalkrantz standing between Doorn Kop and the Twin Peaks, was shelled simultaneously from the left front, and the right rear, as well as from Green Hill;28 it seemed as if Spion Kop were about to be repeated.
Buller opened on Green Hill with artillery, and on the hill north of the main hill of Vaalkrantz, in the hope of making the North Hill assailable. In view of a retirement, a pontoon bridge was, at Lyttelton's request, thrown across the river under the main ridge. He discouraged a proposal made by Buller to attack the North Hill by a force creeping along the foot of the westward slope of Vaalkrantz, covered by fire from the ridge.
Buller was now stalemated. The artillery fire had not cleared the way to the North Hill, and Lyttelton was unable to move on it, but he said that he could hold on for the rest of the day if no more artillery were brought to bear on him from the S.E.
Finally Buller determined to shift the responsibility. He reported the capture of Vaalkrantz to Lord Roberts, and in effect asked what he should do with the white elephant. To carry out his plan would "cost from 2,000 to 3,000 men," and he was "not confident of success." Was Ladysmith worth it? Yes, replied Lord Roberts without hesitation, Ladysmith was worth it and it must be done.
In the evening Lyttelton, having thwarted an attempt by the enemy to recover Vaalkrantz, was relieved by Hildyard. On the following afternoon, Buller, in spite of Lord Roberts' message, made up his mind to withdraw. Further reconnaissances had shown that the North Hill, even if taken, could hardly be held. A council of war was summoned, at which, as might have been anticipated, Hart alone was for persevering, and at which Warren again put forward the scheme rejected by Buller at Frere, but now gladly adopted by him, of advancing on Ladysmith by way of Hlangwhane.
Orders were issued for the withdrawal of the force from Vaalkrantz during the night. It was skilfully carried out, and Buller was once more ferrying his men across the Tugela, having for the third time failed to reach Ladysmith.
On February 8 the Army was retracing its steps on the road by which four weeks before it had marched from Springfield to Potgieter's Drift; and on the 11th it was concentrated at Chieveley, from which eight weeks before it had been thrown at the Colenso heights. All the Tugela operations had been conducted in a rarified medium. Want of determination, want of system, the absence of maps, the lack of a sufficient staff, were responsible for two months of misadventure. Buller, like the Boers, was easily discouraged by failure, but unlike them was unable to quicken himself readily for a renewed effort. He lost confidence in himself, and then in his subordinates. Like a nervous child, he opened the door of a dark chamber, but was afraid to enter. The terror of the unknown drove him back in a panic. When his plans, which were usually well thought out, miscarried, he became peevish, and scarcely made an attempt to reconstruct them. Only an Army of which the backbone was the stolid, unimaginative Englishman of the lower classes, and which believed that its leader was doing his best, could have remained undemoralized by the campaign on the Tugela.
Buller possessed one quality which to a great extent outweighed his shortcomings as a military commander: namely the power of inspiring confidence. His men believed in him, and would do anything for him. They liked him for his bluff, John-Bullish, and rampant manner. The enlisted man is a curious differentiation from the class to which he belongs. His democratic instincts become less acute when he shoulders the Lee-Metford, and he readily accommodates himself to the will of a benevolent despot of robust appearance, and blunt and somewhat contemptuous address; whom in fact he prefers to the ascetic, dispassionate General Officer of quiet habit and speech.
The criticisms passed upon Buller were far more friendly in the men's than in the officers' bivouacs. Possibly the men's opinions, as being the more natural and spontaneous, were also the more correct. The enemy conducted the war upon principles which were strange to the British Army, and to which it had to adapt itself painfully; and the men seem to have recognized sooner than the professors the difficulties of the situation, and to have been less intolerant of ill-success.
Few general officers have ever revealed in their official communications more of the workings and the moods of their minds than did Buller in Natal. His telegrams and despatches always reflected the thoughts of the moment. After the Colenso fight, he candidly referred to it as my "unfortunate undertaking of to-day." Six days before the Vaalkrantz affair he told Lord Roberts that "this time I feel fairly confident of success"; and on the eve of the attack he said that "while I have every hope of success, I am not quite certain of it."
After the retirement, it was, "wherever I turn I come upon the enemy in superior force to my own." He subjected his personal and individual ideas and feelings to no restraint, and they incontinently leavened all his messages which were now confident, now diffident, and now querulous, and which read as if they were quotations from his private diary. From Vaalkrantz he heliographed to White that the enemy was too strong for him, and that the "Bulwana big gun is here"; and could White suggest anything better than an advance by way of Hlangwhane? In his telegrams from Chieveley to Lord Roberts, he complained of want of support, and of the feebleness of the resistance made by the Ladysmith garrison, which he professed to believe did not detain more than 2,000 men. Yet in recording his weakness, it must in justice be said that he gained and never lost the confidence of the rank and file of the relieving force, and that under any other leader it would probably have succumbed to its misfortunes.
On February 12 the re-concentration of Buller's Army at Chieveley was complete. The enemy's front had been greatly strengthened since the attack on Colenso. The Boers saw what Buller could not be persuaded to believe, that Hlangwhane was the key of the position, and extended their line thence in a curve through Green Hill and Monte Cristo, with a detached post outside it on Cingolo. These four hills and the ground between them Buller proposed to occupy, and then pass between Cingolo and Monte Cristo to a drift of the Tugela N.E. of Monte Cristo, cross the river and advance by the Klip Riyer on Bulwana. The two "iron bridges" at Colenso were impassable, but the Boers had thrown a bridge across near Naval Hill by which, and also by a ferry higher up, communication was kept up with their left flank.
The initial movement on February 12 was made appropriately enough by Dundonald, who two months before had seen the value of the Hlangwhane position, and who now perhaps as he marched out, realized the truth of the proverb tout vient à ce qui sait attendre. He occupied Hussar Hill temporarily as a reconnaissance to give Buller an opportunity of surveying the ground over which he was about to operate. The Intelligence officers reported that the enemy was strongly posted at several points within the area and unmasked some of his slim tricks. In order to conceal the line of the trenches, the excavated earth was piled up some distance towards the front, and tents not intended for occupation were pitched to divert fire from the positions in which he lay. The war-craft which comes by instinct to nationalities not in an advanced state of civilization and leading simple lives face to face with wild animals and native tribes, and which the conventionally trained European soldier only learns by experience, strengthened the Boer commandos without an augmentation of individuals liable to be killed or wounded. The veld trenches which kept Methuen at arm's length at Magersfontein and the Boer devices on the Tugela seem to show that War is not a Science, but an Art, easily acquired by unprofessional soldiers.
On February 14 the movement began and a front at Hussar Hill was taken up, but owing to the heat and the scarcity of water, little was done during the next two days, except a bombardment of the Boer trenches and gun positions. The advance of the relieving force has been likened to the deliberate progression of a steam roller.
Clery having been invalided, the IInd Division was temporarily under the command of Lyttelton, whose orders for February 17 were to move upon Cingolo Nek and Green Hill. Dundonald was instructed to work in rear of the infantry and outflank any detachment of the enemy that might appear on the Nek. But Dundonald was not a military pedant devoid of initiative and tied to the letter of his instructions, and when the difficulties of the ground broke the touch between him and Lyttelton he was perhaps not sorry to find himself disengaged; and when he saw that the Boers were entrenched on Cingolo Ridge, he attacked instead of outflanking it.
While the commando on the ridge was occupied with the infantry, it was suddenly surprised from the flank by Dundonald's men, and was driven out of the trenches. Meanwhile one of Lyttelton's battalions, which in ignorance of Dundonald's movement, had been sent to clear Cingolo of some Boers who were firing on the advance and checking it, found when it reached the ridge that it had been forestalled in the capture.
When Lyttelton became aware that the enemy had been expelled, he proposed to avail himself of the success without delay, and push on to the Nek and Monte Cristo, while Warren's Vth Division attacked Green Hill; but Buller objected to an advance which could not be completed before nightfall. Lyttelton bivouacked S.W. of the ridge and Dundonald on the detached hill at its northern end. During the night, field guns were brought up the slopes and with much difficulty emplaced in a position from which shell fire could be directed on Monte Cristo.
If the movement of the day was not remarkable for speed and enterprise, it was at least directed with skill and without excessive caution; and Dundonald showed that his military spirit had not been chilled by previous rebuffs, one of them administered almost on the spot where he was now in activity.
At daylight on February 18, the movement was resumed, the immediate objective being the capture of Monte Cristo and Green Hill. One brigade was sent through the Nek on to the eastward slopes of Monte Cristo, while the other attacked the hill from the south. With the help of the ever-ready Dundonald the IInd Division established itself on the main hill of the ridge early in the afternoon. The Fusilier Brigade of the Vth Division was meanwhile acting in support; and advancing as soon as Monte Cristo was seen to be occupied, easily took hold of Green Hill. The enemy was now expelled from all the positions commanding the proposed line of advance over the Nek, and was retreating westward towards the positions near the right bank of the Tugela, but no attempt was made to pursue him. The motto of Buller's Army was festina lente and its track towards Ladysmith was in zigzag.
On the following day Hlangwhane was occupied by the British troops, and before noon on February 20, all the Boers had withdrawn to the left bank of the Tugela, and Buller was favourably placed for the advance by way of the Klip River on Bulwana. A reconnaissance, however, caused him to change his mind and to resume the movement at an acute angle by doubling back towards Hlangwhane and crossing the river by a pontoon bridge west of the hill.
His new plan was to capture a position between the Onderbroek and Langewacht Spruits, which appeared from a distance to be one hill, but which in reality was two, Wynne's Hill and Horseshoe Hill, which were separated by a donga. On the morning of February 21 he signalled his intentions to White, saying that he thought he had "only a rearguard before him"29 and that he hoped to be in Ladysmith next day.
After the capture of Monte Cristo and the Hlangwhane position, some of the commandos seem to have trekked away towards the north, and even Botha for a time appears to have lost heart and to have suggested to Joubert that the siege of Ladysmith should be raised. The Boer leaders had already, like King Arthur,
Heard the steps of Modred in the west,
and their army in Natal had been weakened, before Buller's final advance, by the departure of commandos going to succour their brethren not only on the Modder, but also in the Cape Colony.
The situation on the Tugela was reported to Pretoria almost simultaneously with the news that Cronje was hemmed in at Paardeberg. But owing it may be to the distance which intervened between Kruger and the scene of action, the dour old voortrekker of Colesberg would not hear of any voluntary retirement before the enemy who had driven him out of the Cape Colony sixty years before. He sent an appeal to the Boers of the Tugela which, in an intense human document, displayed his steadfast and touching faith, and which might have been addressed by his prototype Cromwell to the Ironsides.
He rebuked the burghers for their cowardice, which he attributed to the waning of their trust in the power of the Almighty to help them in their distress, and with many instances and quotations from Holy Writ, he adjured them to stand fast in faith. He was confident that the cause which he in all sincerity believed to be the cause of the Church of Christ would prevail in the end, and justifiably encouraged by successes in the field against superior numbers he exhorted the commandos to endure without flinching the purification by fire. Kruger's passionate appeal availed, and the waverers returned to their posts. The incident disclosed the power of the factor of moral force, wherein the Boer strength lay; and it will in a great measure account for the prolongation of the war. When their cause seemed hopeless, they comforted themselves with the honest and irradicable belief that its righteousness was the assurance of final success. Though most of their leaders were incompetent, though they themselves were easily discouraged; disobeyed orders; often malingered and mutinied; quitted the field with their wagons which they were reluctant to abandon, under such frivolous pretexts that the verlafpest or leave-plague became a bye-word; though time after time their power of resistance seemed to be exhausted; though in their thousands they were distributed over the British Empire as prisoners of war; though their confident expectation of European intervention was not realized; though they were always greatly outnumbered; they continued stubbornly to defy for the space of two years and seven months the most numerous and the most efficient Army which has ever left the shores of Great Britain, until at last they were worn down by mechanical friction and attrition, and not by the stroke of war. When the Boers were driven out of the Hlangwhane positions, they took up a new position facing S.E. on the left bank of the Tugela. Their right was near the head of Hart's loop, and their centre came within a few hundred yards of the river at Wynne's Hill, whence the line was carried on towards Pieter's Hill.
At noon on February 21 Buller began once more to send his men across the Tugela, intending to content himself that day with establishing his force "comfortably" on the position north of the railway bridge enclosed by the bend of the river, which was now free of the enemy. He ordered Talbot Coke with the 10th Brigade of Warren's Division to pass over the Colenso Kopjes on to the open ground beyond, from which the Onderbroek valley could be enfiladed by artillery. He had received information that the enemy were there in force, and in the belief that "what Boers there were, were hiding in that kloof," he changed his plan of moving northwards at once on Wynne's Hill.
On February 21 Coke advanced in three lines, but soon after he had cleared the hilly ground, his scouting line came under fire from the Grobelaar slopes, and his right flank was also involved from the direction of Wynne's Hill. His Brigade was pinned to the ground by rifle and shell fire until nightfall, when it was retired to the Colenso Kopjes, where Wynne's Brigade of Warren's Division had arrived during the afternoon.
The route march to Ladysmith was checked. Instead of a mere rearguard to be driven in, as Buller had fondly believed, a strongly posted line, extending nearly four miles S. W. from Wynne's Hill, had to be attacked. The enemy had been so much encouraged by the failure of Coke's movement, that Botha telegraphed to Kruger that he had hopes of a "great reverse."
Warren thought that it would be necessary to diverge from the advance and take the Grobelaar slopes, and White reported that Boer reinforcements were coming in from the north. Towards evening on February 21, it seemed not unlikely that another Colenso, Spion Kop, or Vaalkrantz would soon be debited to Buller. The line of approach to Ladysmith was held by the enemy, and the British Army of relief, the greater part of which had crossed to the left bank of the Tugela, was entangled in the Colenso Kopjes, and the river loop.
Warren's general idea for the 22nd, of which Buller approved, was to attack Wynne's Hill with the 11th Brigade, leaving Horseshoe Hill to be dealt with by the artillery. Although the Boers on the Grobelaar slopes had been well pounded for some hours by the field batteries, Wynne considered that it would be unsafe to advance unless these slopes were actually taken, but he was overruled. He had also been promised support on his left rear, but only two of the battalions detailed for the purpose were at hand and these were fully occupied in offering a front to the Boers on Grobelaar, while the movement was in progress; and he advanced against the enemy's centre unsupported except by the long range fire of a brigade on Naval Hill across the river.
He had expected that the promised supports would secure his left flank by seizing Horseshoe Hill, and in default he was compelled to detach a portion of his own scanty force against it. At sunset the cutting edge of the advancing wedge was touching the enemy, but was unable to break into him, and Briton and Boer were face to face on Wynne's Hill and on Horseshoe Hill.
Reinforcements were brought up and defences were constructed during the night, while the Boers continually fired upon the confused units labouring in the darkness. The enemy had an entrenched position on Hart's Hill which enfiladed Wynne's Hill, and which Warren had not been able to take, as Buller hoped, with the 11th Brigade.
Next morning the 5th Brigade under Hart, which was in reserve near the river loop,
was sent against Hart's Hill. He advanced, wherever possible, under cover of the steep left bank of the river along a trail so narrow that the men were compelled often to move in single file; and at one place, where the Langewacht Spruit enters the Tugela, it was necessary to make a detour and cross the spruit by the railway bridge, and to quit the dead ground and emerge on to a defile under heavy fire. The advance of the Brigade was retarded by the stringing out of the battalions, and from time to time Hart's Hill was shelled without seriously harming the enemy, who as usual was not posted on the apparent crest, but some distance in rear of it.
Two battalions of the 4th Brigade, which had been lent to Hart, were so far behind that as only two or three hours of daylight remained, he decided to attack without them. For impetuous gallantry the advance of the Irish regiments was not surpassed by any other exploit in the War. Working up on difficult ground to the sound of the Regimental calls, and then almost brought to a standstill by the barbed wire fences of the railway, which became a trap of death, they rushed the slope, pushing the enemy's outposts before them, and won the crest: and then in the failing light which compelled the supporting artillery to discontinue the bombardment and relieve the enemy from the pressure of shrapnel, they saw the Boer positions still above them. The crest was false.
It was a cruel disappointment to brave men who had struggled so well, but they did not flinch. A charge was made across the plateau, but it soon was withered by fire and few of the men reached the Boer trenches. Two more battalions of the 4th Brigade arrived at dawn, but the reinforcement came too late. The troops were reorganized, as far as possible, on the slope leading down from the crest, but were eventually compelled to retire across the railway to the lower ground by flanking fire, which Hart succeeded in silencing, and was able to reoccupy the dead ground below the false crest with fresh troops.
The failure of the attack did not deter Buller from pursuing his plan, and on February 24 he proposed to renew it and to operate against Railway Hill, which stands fourth in the line of hills running in a N.E. direction from Horseshoe Hill to Pieter's Hill; but by Hart's suggestion the movement was postponed, and in the end, abandoned. The greater part of his Brigade was dangerously and densely posted on the lower ground, and when during the night a surprise party of Boers opened fire, there was some fear of a general panic. The situation was precarious. The Boer line had not been pierced: on each side it outflanked Buller and fronted the Tugela loops in which the greater portion of his force was huddled. It was fortunate for him that DeWet had gone to the Modder.
On the night of February 24 began the third movement in zigzag. The general direction of the first was N.E.; of the second W.S.W.; of the third East. It was discovered that there was a path by which troops could pass east of Naval Hill down to the right bank out of the enemy's reach, and that they could cross the Tugela by pontoon. Buller then determined to transfer the bulk of his force back to the Hlangwhane side of the river over the pontoon bridge by which he had crossed to the left bank three days before. The plan involved not only the concentration of a clubbed and unwieldy force on the right bank, but also the necessity of keeping it there until the passage of the last detail allowed the pontoon bridge to be taken up and moved to the new place of crossing, three miles below.
An armistice, restricted to the arena of the recent fighting, was granted by the Boers on February 25, for the purpose of bringing away the wounded and burying the dead; and during the barter of news on the very narrow strip which separated the British fallen from the enemy's positions, the burghers refused to believe that Cronje was surrounded at Paardeberg, and retorted that Lord Roberts had lost all his transport and supplies at Waterval Drift, and was helpless.
The cessation of the music of war during the armistice dismayed the garrison of Ladysmith, which feared that it must indicate another failure; for owing to spies and the leakage of plans, Buller was afraid of informing White fully of his position and intentions, and during the final advance he usually restricted himself in his heliograms to the expression of his hopes or to the reasons for their non-fulfilment.
On the enemy's side, in spite of a strong line held in sufficient numbers, the moral position was weak. Botha, who commanded the Boer right, distrusted Meyer, who was in charge of the threatened left. The war-sick burghers skulked in their laagers, and it is said that even necessary movements within the line were not ordered, from a fear lest the burgher, when once on his feet, would march in the direction which soonest took him out of his enemy's reach. To Botha, Buller's retirement across the Tugela came as a gleam of hope. If it did not signify a retreat, as he suggested to Joubert, it at least indicated that the attack on the line of hills would not be immediately renewed.
On February 26, the preparations for the fifth attempt to relieve Ladysmith were completed. Horse, Field, Howitzer, Mountain, and Naval Guns, to the number of nearly three score and ten, were in position on the northern features of Hlangwhane, Naval Hill and Fuzzy Hill, and also on Clump Hill, N.W. of Monte Cristo. The relieving force was arranged in two commands; the troops west of the Langewacht Spruit being placed under Lyttelton, the rest being assigned to Warren. On Hlangwhane was Barton with the 6th Fusilier Brigade; and W. Kitchener, now in command of the 11th Brigade, was also on the right bank. On the left bank near Hart's Hill were Norcott and Hart with the 4th and 5th Brigades. Under Lyttelton was the 2nd Brigade, the 10th Brigade, though in his section, being placed under Warren's orders.
On the previous day, a mounted brigade had been sent to the east to deal with an expedition under Erasmus against the British lines of communication south of Colenso. He led it timidly, and it was easily checked, and the brigade was brought back to the river.
Buller's scheme for the operations of February 27, was an attack on Pieter's Hill by Barton, followed in succession by attacks on Railway Hill by Kitchener, and on Hart's Hill by Norcott, supported by artillery fire from the positions on the right bank. By the evening of February 26 the troops for the main attack had recrossed the Tugela, and the pontoon bridge west of Hlangwhane could now be removed. Early in the forenoon of February 27, it was thrown over the river S.E. of Hart's Hill, where the left bank afforded a covered way of approach to Pieter's Hill, and the fourth and final member of the zigzag advance was traced, on this occasion towards the north. For the seventh time Buller ferried the Tugela with his men, who impelled alternately by the impulse of his initiative and by the resilience of the enemy, had been tossed like a tennis ball from bank to bank at Trickhardt's Drift, Vaalkrantz, and Hlangwhane, yet whom nothing could dishearten. As they heard the news of Cronje's surrender at Paardeberg, they were crossing the newly placed pontoon bridge, and on it they set up a signpost bearing the legend "To Ladysmith."
Barton led the way across the bridge, then turning to the right, crept down the left bank of the river for two miles, and mounted the slopes of Pieter's Hill, when he became aware of the great strength of the Boer position. It was hedged in by a river, a wooded donga, and a valley; along its westward face ran a line of kopjes, ending in a detached rocky hill; and it was supported by fire from Railway Hill. The nearer kopjes were carried without much difficulty, but a sweeping movement to clear the plateau as with the swing of a scythe, was checked by heavy fire from the east, and failed to gather in the rocky hill which commanded the outlying kopjes, and which the enemy succeeded in reinforcing during the fight, and in holding for several hours.
Until the development of the attack on Railway Hill by Kitchener, Barton's Fusiliers were able to do little more than maintain themselves, as their reserves had been absorbed and their ammunition was running short. A final attempt was made, with partial success, at the close of the day, to occupy the rocky hill, but at the cost of many casualties. The enemy was not entirely expelled, but those who remained disappeared during the night.
Kitchener followed in Barton's track as far as the gorge which separates Pieter's from Railway Hill. In spite of the Boer rifles and of the shrapnel of the British gunners on the right bank playing upon the Hill, whose attention was eventually drawn to the situation by the bold advance of two companies to a position from which they could be seen and recognized through the gunners' telescopes, the eastward edge of Railway Hill was won. But a portion of Kitchener's command in rear was magnetically attracted away from the direction of the advance by a flanking fire from Hart's Hill and, by diverging towards it, broke the continuity of the line facing the position entrenched by the Boers. Kitchener was, however, able to fill the gap, and he expelled the burghers, most of whom fled before the charge got home; and Railway Hill was won.
Norcott's Brigade was nearer to its objective than either of the brigades which had preceded it, as it was lying south of Hart's Hill between the railway and the river; and although deprived of a considerable portion of his command by a demand for help which purported to have come from Railway Hill, he finished his task in three hours. He toiled up the dead ground to the apparent crest of Hart's Hill, and then came face to face with the higher position, which three days before had so cruelly baffled the Irish Brigade. But the Boers were not now in a mood to stay. The shrapnel from the right bank, which they had not to meet when Hart charged across from the crest in the failing light, was now hailing on them. All but a few stalwarts took to flight, and Hart's Hill was taken before sunset on February 27.
The capture of the hills supervening on the bad news from Paardeberg shattered the Boer Armies in Natal. Botha's left had been defeated; and although his right had not been seriously attacked by Lyttelton, but only prevented from effectively reinforcing the hill positions, it fell away towards the north. He was not able to stay the general retreat, but he hoped at least to join Joubert and cover it with the aid of the besieging force. Joubert, however, had already raised the Siege and was retreating towards Elandslaagte.
Next morning Barton on Pieter's Hill vainly appealed for permission to press forward, but Buller would only put the two mounted Brigades under Dundonald and Burn-Murdoch on to the enemy's trail. Dundonald made for Ladysmith, and Burn-Murdoch was instructed to act on the right front towards Bulwana, but was soon called upon to assist Dundonald in driving in a Boer rearguard. He then resumed his advance, and from the east covered Dundonald, who being fired on from Bulwana thought it advisable to send his Brigade to a safer position in rear, and having done so, rode on at the head of a body of colonial troops, and as the sun was setting on February 28, marched into Ladysmith and ended the four months' Siege. It was a fitting exploit to be performed by the grandson of that Lord Cochrane who at Aix Roads nearly a century before had similarly chafed and strained at the leash of a superior officer's reluctance.30 Burn-Murdoch came into action with a rearguard covering Bulwana, which was evacuated during the night. He bivouacked near the Klip River, and next morning proposed to pursue the enemy, but Buller whistled him to heel. The relieving force advanced with deliberation, and on March 3, entered Ladysmith, and unravelled the Natal entanglement which at one time seemed likely to wreck the South African Campaign.
The flight of the Boers continued for three days. Ladysmith, which lay directly in the line of the retreat, divided it into two streams, one of which flowed towards the Drakensberg, while the other went in the direction of Elandslaagte and Glencoe, some of the fugitives not outspanning until they reached Newcastle. So great was the demoralization that Kruger hurried down from Pretoria to Glencoe in the hope of staying it. He succeeded in persuading the burghers to hold the line of the Biggarsberg, but was almost immediately summoned away to the arena in the west; and only a few hours after he was upbraiding the fugitives from Ladysmith and the Tugela for their irresolution and want of faith, the fugitives of the Modder were streaming past him at Poplar Grove.
Buller has been severely criticized for allowing the Boers to retreat unpursued, taking with them all but two of their guns. Assuming however that his appreciation of the situation was correct, he probably acted wisely. He thought that his first duty was to put food into Ladysmith. All his guns, except one Field Battery at Colenso and one Horse Artillery Battery with Burn-Murdoch, as well as all his supply and regimental transport, were still on the right bank of the Tugela, for the crossing of which he had but one pontoon bridge. He therefore decided that the wagons must have precedence, and that the army must wait.
He was misled by his recollections and by his experience of the Parthian tactics of the burghers whom he commanded during the Zulu War of 1879, and from whom he says he learnt "all that he knew" about rearguards. He believed "that an attempt to force a Boer rearguard is merely a waste of men." Yet only a week had passed since he told White that he thought there was "only a rearguard" between him and Ladysmith.
Thus in the glamour of an ancient rearguard reputation the enemy disappeared.
Not the Green Hill near Spion Kop. There were several Green Hills on the left bank of the Tugela.
White, however, said that he saw no signs of a general retreat.
The Cochrane daring and resourcefulness were not confined to the men of the clan. During the Jacobite troubles Grizel Cochrane, when her father was sentenced to death for treason, turned highway-woman, and held up the coach which was bringing his death warrant from London, and abstracted it from the mail-bag.