" There stood a hill not far, whose grisly top Belch'd fire and rolling smoke." MILTON.
Friday, October 20, 1899, was the day on which the first battle was fought on Natal soil, and the commencement of many a terrible fight during this sanguinary Boer War in South Africa.
As stated in our last chapter, Dundee was prepared for the attack which it was known might take place at any moment, as the Boer commandoes were now rapidly closing in on their objective—the military camp at Dundee. But still, notwithstanding the preparedness of the British, the attack came as a great surprise. At about two o'clock on Friday morning the pickets on the eastern side, on the road leading to the Buffalo River, were fired on, some being killed and others wounded. One, however, escaped and returned to camp to report to General Sir William Penn-Symons, who was, as stated, in charge of the British forces. Immediately the whole force stood to arms and waited for day to break. The morning was damp and foggy, the hills around being obscured for awhile from the inhabitants and military in Dundee, the town being situated on a low-lying ridge surrounded by high hills. At 5.30 a.m., however, the clouds lifted, revealing to each of the rival armies the position of its opponent.
The Boers, who had marched through the night from their fortified laager near the Buffalo, had taken up their position on two precipitous hills which overlooked Dundee and the camp beyond. These hills, which lay to the north-east of Dundee, were named respectively Talana Hill and Dundee Kopje, and between them in a narrow. neck passed the road to the Buffalo and also the partially constructed railway to Vryheid.
As the mists gradually lifted the British could descry on these hills the forms of the Boers moving about in large numbers, evidently preparing for battle. There was now no pause, no delay; the Boers broke the solemn silence of the dull, grey morn by sending a shell screeching over the town towards the camp, a distance of two and a half miles. This shell, which acted as a range-finder, was followed by others in quick succession, which began to drop about the camp, doing little damage beyond knocking over a few tents and frightening some of the horses. Within seven minutes from the firing of the first shell a welcome sound was heard in the response from the British guns, which had taken up their positions between the camp and the town. And now commenced a mighty artillery duel.
The cannon roared forth with their deafening reports and the shells hissed and shrieked overhead, passing backward and forward over the town. Never before in the history of the world had these peaceful hills and dales around Dundee been awakened with the thunder of war. The hills seemed to be belching forth from their bowels the pent-up energy of ages, The sound rolled along in surging waves of reverberating echoes—a very Pandemonium!
It soon became apparent, however, to the onlookers in the town below that the firing from the Boer artillery was slackening, and gradually it ceased entirely, not to be "heard again. Marvellous indeed had been the accuracy and precision of the firing of the British gunners, for of the eight guns of the Boer forces every one had been disabled and thrown out of action. This remarkable achievement had been accomplished in thirty-five minutes from the commencement of the reply of the British guns to the Boer artillery.
In the meantime General Penn-Symons had arranged the troops in battle array. The transport animals, with detachments of cavalry and mounted infantry, were despatched to a position of safety at the back of the camp. The Leicestershire regiment took up a position under cover to protect the camp from any attempt at a surprise attack in the rear. On the left a squadron of the 18th Hussars, with several troops of mounted infantry—the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers and the 1st King's Royal Rifles—were sent off to attack the Boers' right flank. Another squadron of the 18th Hussars with the remainder of the mounted infantry moved off to the British right flank. The 13th Field Battery under Major Dawkins, and the 6gth Field Battery under Major Wing, took up a position to the south of the town, on a slope facing the Boer positions ; while the infantry, consisting of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the King's Royal Rifles, and the Royal Irish Fusiliers formed the main centre attacking column. The 67th Field Battery was stationed near the Leicesters to assist in repulsing any attack which might be made upon the camp.
The two batteries, having moved away from the camp, naturally drew the Boer fire towards them, so that after this the camp was free from shells.
The infantry now commenced to move forward towards the Boer positions, gradually working their way through and around the town, under the enemy's rifle fire, until they arrived at a large stream running through the wide flat at the lower end of the town. This stream afforded excellent shelter from the Boer rifles ; but still the order was to advance. There was no faltering! At the word of command they went gallantly forward in open skirmishing order across this exposed flat towards the foot of the hill on which the Boers were so strongly ensconced. The Mauser bullets now began to fall on all sides as thick as hail in a hailstorm. The din of battle was terrible; the whole of the atmosphere seemed to be vibrating with the whiz of the bullets, the crack of the rifles, the screech of the shells, and the roar of the field guns. It was on this flat that the British casualties commenced, men dropping on all sides before this hail of bullets. But soon a plantation of trees, which stood at the foot of Talana Hill, and which stretched partly up the hillside to a farmhouse belonging to Mr. Piet Smith, was reached. A stone wall ran along the lower side of this plantation, behind which the infantry took shelter (at 7.30 a.m.) and rested awhile, having been fighting for two hours.
The Boers, who numbered 6,000, were led by General Lucas Meyer, and were principally from the Vryheid district. They were now lying in force on the south-eastern slopes of Talana Hill and Dundee Kopje, and also on the neck between. They were splendidly concealed on the boulder-covered sides of these hills, hiding as they always do behind a small mound of stones, and sending forth a death-dealing fusilade into the approaching enemy.
The British infantry at the foot of the plantation now jumped the low stone wall and pressed on through the trees. The bullets whizzed overhead, snapping the branches, stripping off the leaves, and occasionally killing a man. But soon the plantation was crossed, and here they were fortunate in finding another stone wall running along the upper side of the trees, behind which shelter was taken pending the order to advance.
The two batteries of artillery which had been stationed on the south side of the town had, in the meantime, limbered up and passed rapidly through the town, taking up positions on the eastern side of the stream within easy ' range of the Boer positions, and from here they simply poured their shells on to the top and sides of the hill, dealing death to many a Boer and also checking any attempt on their part to advance.
During a lull in the firing, which occurred at about nine o'clock, General Penn-Symons and Staff rode rapidly across the open plain, over which the infantry had previously passed, and took protection in the plantation. A most determined effort was made by the Boers, during this ride, to shoot the General. The air literally streamed with bullets which came from the Boer sharpshooters who were ensconced so safely behind stones on the side of the hill; but, providentially, the General and his Staff arrived unhurt at the plantation.
The General, having now reached the fighting line, gave orders that the hill must be taken. Calling out to the King's Royal Rifles who were near, he shouted, " Forward the Rifles, the gallant 6oth, and take that hill !" The men, inspired by the General's words, went forward nobly to death or victory. In returning down the plantation, and while passing through a gap in the trees, the General received a bullet wound in the groin, which unfortunately was destined to prove fatal. Notwithstanding this he rode gallantly back across the flat, with his Staff beside him, as though nothing had happened.
The infantry under Brigadier-General Yule were now steadily moving up the hill, taking advantage of every bit of cover, such as ant-heaps or stones; but the men now began to fall fast, as the Boers were firing at close range. Onward they pushed, however, nothing daunted, climbing the precipitous face of the hill, with comrades falling at their sides, until they reached another stone wall situated nearly at the summit of the hill, behind which another halt was made. The artillery at the foot of the hill had kept up an incessant shell fire upon the Boers, and it was chiefly owing to their excellent firing that the infantry were enabled to perform this almost impossible task of storming the hill in face of such a formidable enemy.
While the infantry were still in this position behind the wall a most regrettable incident occurred, occasioned probably through a mistake made by the British signallers. During a temporary lull in the firing a portion of the infantry crept up silently along a washout, or donga, towards the crest of the hill, but finding that at this point the Boers were too numerous to attempt a charge they were compelled to retreat to the stone wall again. It was during this retreat that they were fired on by their own artillery at the foot of the hill, the gunners evidently thinking that they were Boers attacking the infantry. The mistake was soon discovered, but not before causing severe loss, as one shell alone killed eight of the retreating men.
By about twelve o'clock the artillery had worked such execution among the Boers that the order was given the infantry to charge the hill. It appeared to be an impossible task, but discipline, bravery, and British pluck accomplished the all but impossible. At receiving the word of command the men were up like rockets and over the wall, climbing up the precipitous hill, jumping from boulder to boulder. But hardly less brave were the Boers in their defence. A deadly fusilade of rifle bullets was fired into the advancing infantry, who were now fixing their bayonets as they approached the crest of the hill. The Boers, however, on finding that they could not check the determined rush of the gallant besiegers, turned and fled, leaving the position in charge of the noble British soldiers who had so bravely, in the face of death, fought their way from the plain below to the summit of Talana Hill. The Boers had everything in their favour. They had. placed themselves in an almost impregnable position ; they were also numerically superior, but when the cold steel of the British arms began to glint before their eyes all courage left them, their nerves would no longer permit of their taking a steady aim, and they fled like sheep from the slaughter. This gallant charge will therefore rank as one of the most brilliant achievements of British arms ; and Talana Hill, overlooking Dundee on the plain below, will ever be remembered by loyal colonists as the spot on which Amajuba Hill was avenged. The Boers on Dundee Kopje and the neck between, seeing that Talana Hill was captured by the British, likewise fled; but not before raising a white flag on a bamboo pole. This flag, which should have betokened a surrender, was merely shown to cover their retreat from the British fire. The General in command, hearing that the white flag had been raised, sent the word along the line to cease firing. Thus many of the Boers, who would have been mown down by the British rifles and machine guns which had been galloped up to neck, were enabled to escape unhurt.
During the progress of the fighting the 18th Hussars, under Lieut.-Col. Moller, together with the mounted infantry, who had been stationed on the left flank, had made a wide turning movement on the north of Talana Hill, and had come up in the rear of the Boers as they retreated, and were thus enabled to do much execution, following the flying army across the plain leading to the Buffalo River, near which was the Boer laager. The Hussars, after pursuing the Boers for awhile, turned to retrace their steps to Dundee, but having come by a very roundabout path, and not being familiar with the country, they lost themselves, and after wandering about for awhile came in touch with the pickets of another large Boer commando, under Commandants Groblaar and Triechardt. The Boers speedily manoeuvred their forces so as to surround this small detachment of British soldiers, who'on discovering this took cover in the homestead and cattle kraal of a farm close by belonging to Mr. Maritz. Here a gallant stand was made to keep off the overwhelming force of Boers, but presently a Krupp gun was brought to bear on them, and with the third shot a bomb was sent right into the kraal, which burst, causing much execution. Lieut.-Col. Moller, seeing that there was no possible chance of escape, and to save further loss of life, surrendered. Three of the cavalry were killed and nine wounded, besides twenty horses being shot. The Dutch thus captured 243 British soldiers, including nine officers, who were all despatched the next day, by train, to Pretoria as prisoners of war. This unfortunate incident in the otherwise victorious battle of Talana Hill can only be attributed to the negligence of the military authorities in not attaching to this force colonial guides with a thorough knowledge of the country.
Thus ended the battle of Talana Hill, the besieging Boer commando under General Lucas Meyer being effectively repulsed. The loss to the British force was 40 killed and 183 wounded, beside the casualties which occurred among the cavalry and the remainder who were taken prisoners ; the total loss therefore in killed, wounded, and prisoners, was 478. Against this, however, the Boers lost very heavily, their casualties amounting to 500, including 14 prisoners taken by the British.
The fighting lasted eight hours — from 5.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m.—and was splendidly conducted from a strategical point of view. General Sir William Penn-Symons exhibited in this battle a wonderful skill in the manoeuvring of troops, and it was the universal regret of all colonists and the military that his leadership was lost, and that he did not live to receive the honour and praise which he had so faithfully earned.
As the various companies " fell in " after the fight to return to camp, some of them looked conspicuously small, for many of their brave comrades had fallen on the battlefield. But it was with proud hearts that these brave British soldiers returned, for they had upheld the honour of British pluck and daring; they had fought manfully for their Queen and country. The gallant " Dubs " whistled themselves back again, in their joy at knowing the enemy were defeated. Loudly were the troops cheered as they marched into Dundee; and well they might be, for had they not saved the town from impending destruction ?
The Indian hospital corps did excellent service by following after the troops during the fight and bringing in the wounded on stretchers for surgical treatment, thus rendering the extreme pain which they were suffering to be of as shortlived duration as possible.
A wave of enthusiasm swept throughout the whole of Natal during this memorable Friday, as news was received in the various parts of the Colony of the battle which was raging and of the reports of the British success. In the towns the one topic of conversation was the " Battle," and great was the jubilation and relief felt at the news of the brilliant success achieved by British arms at Dundee. A speedy termination of the war was prophesied on all sides, no one thinking that after such a serious reverse the Boers would rally again to oppose the British in any great conflict. But as a very rude awakening came the news within three days afterwards that Dundee had been evacuated. Men then looked with consternation into each other's faces. What could it mean ? After the glorious victory of Talana Hill! Dundee evacuated ! But sadly true was the news !
During the battle on Friday the main column under General Joubert had been approaching Dundee. There were thus 17,000 Boers in close proximity preparing to attack the comparatively small British force. On Friday night the Boers managed to mount a 40-pounder cannon in a sunken battery on the Impati Mountain, which commanded Dundee and the Glencoe Camp. On Saturday the shells from this cannon commenced to fall in both the camp and town. The British guns were outranged entirely by this Boer gun, being unable to come near it with their shells. The camp was consequently shifted to the south side of the railway line to avoid the Boer shells. General Yule, seeing that his force would soon be surrounded by an overwhelming army, decided that it would be the wisest action on his part to evacuate Dundee and fall back on Ladysmith. In performing this manoeuvre he was ably assisted by Colonel Dartnell, who was in charge of the Natal Volunteers, and who had a very intimate knowledge of the country and of the Boer methods of warfare.
The townspeople of Dundee were warned to leave on Saturday night. Just as darkness came on an officer arrived from General Yule with the message to Mr. Ryley, the Chairman of the Local Board, that the inhabitants were to leave immediately. A harrowing scene now commenced—people rushing about in wild excitement, trying to ascertain where and how they were to go. But soon they were ready. What few women were in the town were mounted on horses, while the men had to walk. It was a wretched night. The rain was pouring in torrents, and a cold wind was blowing, but still the word of command was to move onward; and so this miserable, woe-begone company of 300 people moved out into the pitch darkness to commence their flight to Ladysmith. Mr. Ryley acted as conductor to the party, and marshals were appointed, as well as guides, from among the men who knew the road. Some were insufficiently clad; all were practically without food; and there lay before them a journey of sixty weary miles before Ladysmith could be reached. It was a terrible experience.
On the following night at ten o'clock a start was also made, in absolute silence, by General Yule with his column. The order was given to the drivers of the transport waggons that not a match was to be struck and not a sound made in leaving Dundee, to avoid any chance of the Boers becoming acquainted with the movement. It was a big undertaking, leaving thus in the middle of the night, with an army of nearly 4,000 men and the attendant commissariat waggons, with guns and ammunition ; but fortunately it was successfully accomplished, and the British were miles away by sunrise, leaving the Boers to awake and find their prey flown.
It was a masterly move, and one which probably saved a terrible loss to the British forces, for the whole of this column might have been annihilated or taken prisoners. Instead, however, they joined the base at Ladymith, to assist there, in the near future, in withstanding the combined forces of the sister Republics.
Unfortunately, for want of sufficient transport, the officers and men lost their entire kit. Large quantities of military stores were also left behind, which were no doubt most acceptable to the Boers.