IN the meantime the force at Ladysmith had not been idle. The Boers having severed railway communication between Ladysmith and Dundee, it was the object of General Sir George White to restore that communication, if possible. On Friday, October 20th, the day following the capture of Eland's Laagte by the Boers, a reconnaissance in force was made towards that place to ascertain the position and strength of the enemy. General French was in command of the force, which travelled to within five miles of Eland's Laagte and then returned to Ladysmith, having ascertained the manner in which the Boer commando was located.
Early the next morning—Saturday, October 21st—a strong force was organised to proceed to Eland's Laagte to attack the Boer position. The Imperial Light Horse and the Natal Volunteer Field Artillery were sent on as an advance guard to reconnoitre. They managed to work their way to within sight of the Eland's Laagte station without being observed by the Boers, which was accounted for by the fact that the Boer sentries had imbibed too freely of the whisky which they had looted at the hotel in Eland's Laagte. As the British began to descend the ridge towards the station they were observed by Colonel Schiel and others who were loitering around the station. Immediately Colonel Schiel gave the word of command to retire to the hills, where the main body of the commando was situated about a mile and a half to the south-east of the station. The Natal Field Artillery, who had now taken up a position within range of the station, sent a well-directed shell crashing through the goods shed. The Boers having fled, the English prisoners, who had been confined in the station, immediately tried to find a _ place of safety from the British shells, which were
falling around. They accordingly rushed to the bed of a stream near, in which they took shelter; but they found that they were accompanied by the armed Boer who had been placed as a guard over them, with instructions to shoot them if they attempted to escape. Here a difficulty arose. The Boer naturally felt rather loth to carry out this bloody deed of shooting down a dozen men, so in his dilemma he appealed to the station-master, Mr. Atkinson, to suggest a way out of the difficulty; and the station-master, with a reasonableness of suggestion born of the critical position in which he was placed, advised the guard to hide his rifle. So the following arrangement was come to : that, should a force of Boers come upon this party-in the stream, the guard would see that the British were not badly treated; and that, should British troops come first, then the guard would also be protected. The rifle and bandolier of the Boer were accordingly taken, as well as the white helmet of the station-master, as being too official-looking, and they were all buried in the bed of the stream. Hardly had these precautions been taken than a force of armed men appeared at a short distance.
The eyes of the whole party were at once strained to try and detect whether the approaching force was British or Boer. They were soon challenged, however, in English by the soldiers, who happened to be a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse. The Boer was now handed over to be taken in charge by the British, being assured that he need not be anxious as to his personal safety.
The Boer guns in the meantime had been brought into action. They were splendidly placed on stony kopjes in the ridge to the south-east of the railway station. They were skilfully managed by German gunners, the shells from them being well directed. Other Boer guns were placed on Jonono's Kop to the north-west of the station, and these as well assisted in shelling the small British force. A well-directed shell from one of their guns fell right among the horses of the Natal Field Artillery, another shell upset a waggon, and as it was found that the British guns were of too short range to reach the Boer positions the Artillery and Imperial Light Horse had to retire out of range of the Boer guns to await reinforcements from Ladysmith.
The force which had been organised in Ladysmith during the early morning was now slowly making its way towards the scene of the expected battle. The artillery and cavalry journeyed along the main road, winding in and out and up and down, along stony ridges, ever looking out for the expected foe. The infantry travelled in trains, preceded by an armoured train, mounted scouts being out on both sides to avoid a surprise attack.
The cavalry consisted of the 5th Lancers, and one squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards ; the artillery were the 2ist and 22nd Field Batteries ; while the infantry were composed of the Devonshire Regiment, a half battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, and also a half battalion of the Manchester Regiment, making in all a force of nearly 3,000 men. General French was in command of the whole force, with Colonel lan Hamilton in charge of the infantry. General Sir George White was present, but did not assume direction of the fight, having entrusted the entire control to General French.
The infantry, having arrived at a point along the railway line within two or three miles of the Boer position, disentrained and joined the cavalry and artillery. It was a novel sight to see the trains disgorging themselves of this khaki-clad army of British soldiers—a sight so widely different from the same army when in its martial-like red-coat. The innovation has doubtless saved the life of many a brave soldier during this awful campaign. Of all colours red is the one which is distinguishable at the furthest distance, and had the British been clothed as in previous South African wars, their brilliant coats against the greensward would have afforded excellent targets for the Boer sharpshooters. Nothing in connection with that little army appeared to have been neglected in this respect, for not only were the men clothed in khaki, but guns, gun-carriages, ammunition waggons, transport waggons, all had received attention from the painter with his pot of light brown paint. But wait! for see yonder those gallant Gordon Highlanders, impatient at the delay, longing to get at the Boers with their bayonets. True they have coats of khaki on their backs! but what of their legs? Can they leave off those long-loved kilts for the sake of making themselves less conspicuous to their enemy ? Never ! " Hamper not my legs," they say, " with tight-fitting 'breeks' and entangling 'putties,' for to-day we have to avenge ' Majuba Hill,' when many a gallant Gordon comrade fell."
It was now half-past two o'clock in the afternoon, and General French immediately commenced to place his men in battle array. The artillery took up a position on a ridge 4,000 yards away from the Boer kopje, where shells at once began to fall around them; but they soon responded. A big artillery duel ensued for some time, which enabled the infantry and cavalry to take up their positions. The Imperial Light Horse moved away to the right flank, while the 5th Lancers and 5th Dragoon Guards worked round to the left between the Eland's Laagte station and the Boer positions. The Manchesters and Gordon Highlanders took up a position on the right near the Imperial Light Horse, and the Devonshire Regiment occupied the centre facing the front of the Boer position.
The Boer guns were splendidly served, shells bursting on all sides; but, taking advantage of every lull, the British guns kept limbering up and advancing to closer positions. The Imperial Light Horse on the extreme right soon came into action with the enemy, but the artillery was brought to bear upon the Boers who were engaging them, causing them to speedily retire. The infantry were now fast approaching the foot of the ridge of hills on which the Boers were entrenched, when suddenly a heavy shower of rain, as so frequently happens during a battle, burst over the field, drenching the combatants and partially obscuring the one from the other. But notwithstanding the inconvenience of dripping clothes and slippery foothold, the artillery continued to thunder forth its death-dealing missiles, and the infantry plodded on to assail their foe in the strongholds above.
At last the boulder-strewn slopes of the hills were reached, and the infantry commenced their terrible task of storming the hill. They were now within range of the Mauser bullets, and another storm burst upon them—but this time it was a storm of lead, which seemed to pour forth from the boulders above. Men staggered and fell, but supports from behind pushed up into their places, and so the line advanced. Soon a projecting stratum of rock was reached on the face of the hill, which afforded temporary cover. But on ! On ! Ever onwards ! Again into that whistling hail of lead sped the gallant soldiers. The command to " Fix bayonets!" was sounded, and men, callous to threatening death, heeding not the deadly bullets which flew around, willingly obeyed that welcome sound, and charged nobly forward. They were now transformed into a surging wave of human beings—Devons and Manchesters, Gordons and Light Horse—the latter having forsaken their horses and clubbed their guns—all inextricably mixed, each doing his utmost to reach the common foe. It was an awful moment ! Men rushing into the very jaws of death ! But there was no faltering, that hail of lead could not check the onward rush, which now commenced to sweep all before it. The Boers, flinching at the glint of the polished bayonets, turned and fled, only to be pursued by their gallant victors.
On arriving at the top of the ridge, the Boers were seen to be fleeing down the other side with the greatest speed to their camp, which had been concealed from view in the valley. But they were not to escape in this manner, for there, beyond them, could be seen approaching the Lancers and Dragoon Guards, who fell upon them with their lances and swords, riding through them three times, doing terrible execution, and chasing the remainder on into the darkness which now fell around.
It was a brief battle, but it had been terribly severe. Many brave deeds had been performed, and many a poor soldier lay dead or dying. The wounded were stretched on the battlefield— darkness having come on—exposed to the cold, driving, misty rain which had set in. It was an awful experience for those who moved in and out among them, trying to alleviate their suffering. The order had been given for all the wounded to be taken down to the Boer camp, which had been captured, where fires were lighted to create warmth in the enfeebled bodies of these suffering men. It was a most difficult task, but nobly did the" stretcher-bearers perform their duty, groping their way up and down the boulder-strewn hill, searching for the wounded, and carrying them to the camp.
The scenes which were witnessed were 01 the most harrowing description. During the night wounded men came crawling in, being attracted by the camp-fires. The wounded Boers were not neglected either, for no distinction was made by Tommy Atkins between his own comrades-in-arms and the enemy who but an hour or two before had been seeking his life. Indiscriminately they were carried down as they were picked up on the field, and taken to the camp for surgical treatment. The next day ambulance trains arrived from Ladysmith and conveyed the wounded and prisoners intc the town.
Although the loss of the British was large the Boers lost more heavily. Besides 2oc Boer prisoners who were captured, they los 100 killed and 200 wounded. The Boe commando, which was under General Kock was a portion of General Joubert's mail Transvaal commando, and consisted of ; German corps under Colonel Schiel, , Hollander corps under Commandant Lombaard, and the Johannesburg corps, under Ben Viljoen. General Kock was killed, an his son, Judge Kock, and Colonel Schiel were taken prisoners. Two quick-firing Nordenfeldt guns were also captured, which were taken by the Boers from Dr. Jameson at the time of his memorable invasion of the Transvaal in 1896. Some Transvaal and Orange Free State flags which had been taken were also proudly waved by the returning troops as they entered Ladysmith on Sunday morning. The victory over the Boers had been most complete, for they lost not only the whole of their camp equipment, with waggons of looted property and provisions, but the train with military stores which had been captured by them at Eland's Laagte station two days previously was retaken, and the English prisoners were also liberated.
As stated the British loss was severe, 50 being killed and 210 wounded. The Gordon Highlanders were the principal sufferers, their casualties having occurred mainly during their gallant charge upon the Boer stronghold—a charge which will ever be remembered as one of the most brilliant on record performed by British soldiers, and one which proves that courage and daring are not lacking in the modern soldier. A most deplorable incident occurred in the death of Colonel Scott-Chisholme, who was killed while leading the Imperial Light Horse, of which corps he was the commandant. Having been struck by a bullet and knocked over, he recovered somewhat, and springing again to the head of his men, led them gallantly forward ; but he was soon struck again in a vital part, and while being carried from the field by a brave trooper was hit a third time in the head and killed instantaneously, the trooper being also wounded. Many instances of conspicuous bravery on both sides were witnessed ; for, although the Boers were beaten and had to retire, they had fought with most determined bravery, and had resisted to their utmost the attack of the British—their honour being only lessened by the fact that the position in which they had placed themselves was one of exceptional strength and almost impregnable to an assailing foe.
Sunday, the day following the battle, was naturally a time of rejoicing throughout the Colony. In Ladysmith the crowds thronged the streets to witness the arrival of the Boer prisoners, who were conducted from the trains to the gaol. While the white people remained silent, the natives, with shouts of derision, called upon the captive Boers to produce their passes —being a mockery of the custom in vogue in Johannesburg, where the natives were continually being called upon by the Boers to produce their passes or certificates of registration.
This reverse to the Boer forces acted as a check, but only as a temporary one, for the Orange Free State commandoes were slowly but surely concentrating on Ladysmith from the west, while the main Transvaal commando in the north was coming south, having Lady-smith as its objective.
As stated in the previous chapter, the Dundee column under General Yule had evacuated that town on the evening of the 22nd, and was now approaching Ladysmith. The Boers, having taken possession of Dundee, left a landdrost and other officials in charge and proceeded to combine with the Orange Free State commandoes in attacking Lady-smith. The progress made by General Yule's column was naturally very slow, owing to the pace at which the commissariat waggons travelled ; communication was, however, continually kept up with Sir George White in Ladysmith, the road to that town being clear before them. It became apparent, however, to Sir George White that the Boers intended to prevent if possible the conjunction of General Yule's column with the base in Ladysmith, for a large force of Boers was known to have taken up a strong position near the railway line half-way between Ladysmith and Eland's Laagte. Acting on this information, General Sir George White moved out of Ladysmith early on Tuesday morning, October 24th, to attack this commando, with a strong British force of all arms. The Boers, who were estimated to number about 8,000, had taken up a strong position on the farm Rietfontein, in a group of hills named Tinta Inyoni and Matiwane's Hoek, situated about two miles to the south-west of Modder Spruit.
The British force consisted of the 5th Lancers and igth Hussars, with the following artillery: 42nd and 53rd Batteries and the loth Mountain Battery; also the following-infantry regiments: the Devonshires, the Gloucesters, the Liverpools, and the 2nd King's Royal Rifles, with various troops of mounted infantry. The volunteer corps which also took part in the engagement were the Natal Carbineers, the Border Mounted Rifles, the Natal Mounted Rifles, and the Imperial Light Horse.
The force, which was personally conducted by General Sir George White, had proceeded along the road towards Eland's Laagte for about seven miles when the scouts reported the existence of the enemy in the hills to the left of the railway line and road. Hardly had the column come to a standstill than the report of a cannon was heard from the left spur of a double-capped hill, named Matiwane's Hoek. The shell was very well directed, and fell among the horses of the 42nd Battery, but did no damage. Immediately the troops advanced in the direction of the Boer position. The wire fences running alongside the railway line were cut down, and the artillery and infantry moved across. The cavalry was thrown out on either flank to act as screens. The loth Mountain Battery was soon forging its way up a steep slope on to a low-lying stony ridge which led up to the Boer stronghold. Steadily did the battery mule, despised though he may be, toil up the hill carrying his portion of gun-carriage or gun. Their destination reached, the dismembered parts of the guns were rapidly put together by the alert gunners, and soon a response was made to the Boer guns.
The infantry now formed up, the Gloucesters being on the left and the Devons on the right, forming the firing line, with the King's Royal Rifles and Liverpools, respectively, as supports. The artillery were all this time pouring in shells upon the Boer position, and soon it was noticed that the central hill of the three on which the Boers were entrenched was on fire. The bursting shells had set the grass alight, and the crest of the hill was soon enveloped in smoke. The Boers had consequently to beat a hasty retreat, leaving the hill, but (it is hoped) not also their wounded, to the mercy of the flames.
The Gloucesters, who were advancing along the left side of the ridge, were unfortunately within too close range of the Boer rifles on Tinta Inyoni hill, and suddenly they found themselves exposed to a hail of Mauser bullets without any cover near. A hasty retreat had to be made, but not before they had lost 8 men killed and 59 wounded.
Away to the extreme left the Natal Volunteers were doing good work, carrying on a little engagement by themselves with a portion of the enemy who held a strong position on Tinta Inyoni. Having taken up a position, they opened fire on the enemy with Maxims, but finding that the distance was too great they were ordered to advance across an exposed flat of 700 yards in width to a kopje on the other side. Accordingly the Natal Carbineers on the left and the Border Mounted Rifles on the right sped across this flat, exposed the whole while to a very heavy fire from the enemy. They were hindered, however, in their progress by having to cut through a barbed wire fence, but at last reached cover with comparatively very few casualties. The position which they had gallantly gained was a strong one, and enabled them to give the Boers on the hill opposite a warm time, and to check a flank movement which they attempted to make on the main British force. They also soon discovered that the enemy's horses were exposed in a valley behind this hill, and accordingly their Maxim fire was turned upon them. The enemy seeing this, evacuated their position on the hill and flew to their horses, and fled with those of them which remained. Fifty bodies of dead Boers and twenty horses were found on this hill as a result of the volunteers' firing.
At two o'clock General White, seeing that the Boers had practically evacuated their positions, owing to the artillery practice, and withdrawn to their main commando in a strong position at the back of the hills, gave the order to cease firing and return to Ladysmith. It had been a hard day's work under a broiling tropical sun. The British casualties were 15 killed and 102 wounded, and as the hot and thirsty soldier made his way back to Lady-smith he was heard asking, " Why this waste of life ? What object have we attained?" But the far-seeing General was gratified at the day's work, for he had achieved a tactical success. The road was cleared—the road along which 4,000 brave men were dragging their weary feet! The Boers were driven westwards, while General Yule's column was coming in from the east. It was also estimated that the Boers had lost at least 300 killed and wounded. So the seemingly objectless cannonade had results which were of the greatest importance to the British cause.
General Yule's column, which, as previously stated, had left Dundee on Sunday night, October 22nd, had plodded steadily along, overcoming many difficulties, such as bad drifts and steep hills, and was now rapidly approaching Ladysmith. The reports of the cannon at the Tinta Inyoni fight on Tuesday were distinctly "heard, and cheered the men, making them anxious to join in. On the following day, Wednesday, a forced march was made, lasting through the night, and at dawn on Thursday morning, October 26th, the weary column commenced to wind its way into Ladysmith. Thus ended a most fatiguing, but successful march, for not a man fell out on the way.