" Storm'd at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell." TENNYSON.
After the arrival of the Dundee column in Ladysmith a cessation of hostilities occurred Tor a few days, giving the whole of the troops a well-earned rest. The population of Ladysmith had largely increased, owing to the influx of farmers from the districts around seeking protection, who unfortunately had to leave their stock behind on their farms.
The Boers, however, were not idle during those few days, for the main Transvaal commando was now arriving, and the whole force of Boers was gradually hemming in Ladysmith on the north, north-east, and west sides. On Sunday, the 2gth of October, it was discovered that the Boers had cut off the water supply by removing pipes at the intake ; but this did not cause much alarm, as the Klip River runs through the town, and would supply all water necessary for man and beast.
The Boers could also be descried from Lady-smith mounting large guns on neighbouring hilltops, evidently preparing to make an attack upon the town. A close watch, however, was kept upon all their movements, so that it would be impossible for the British garrison to be surprised. A captive war balloon was sent up each day, and it aided very much in watching the operations of the Boers, which would otherwise have been hidden from view.
Sir George White having heard through his intelligence department that General Joubert intended to combine his forces with those of the Orange Free State, and to attack Ladysmith on Monday, October 3Oth, decided to proceed out of the town and check, if possible, any further advance, and avoid the bombardment of a town containing a large civilian population. Accordingly on Sunday night, October 29th, the troops were detailed off to take up various positions outside the town.
Away to the extreme left, in a north-westerly direction, a column was detached, consisting of the loth Mountain Battery, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Gloucestershire Regiment. The remainder of the troops were distributed in positions, under cover, on the north and north-east sides, close up to the hills occupied by the Boers.
As the grey dawn gradually burst forth into the brilliant light of the tropical sun, the Boers began to discern the forms of the various companies of British soldiers in the positions they had taken up. The batteries of artillery were also seen drawn up on a low-lying hill to the north-north-east of Ladysmith, and without delay, at 5.15 a.m., the Boer artillery boomed forth, with rolling peals of thunder, sending shell after shell into the British artillery and into the slumbering town. The British guns soon responded, and it was not long before a terrific artillery duel raged, which lasted until about midday.
The Boer forces numbered between 20,000 and 30,000, and their fighting line extended for about fourteen miles in the form of a semicircle running from the west of Ladysmith, round the north to the north-east. They were using twenty-four big guns, besides the machine guns, which did such terrible execution. The big guns included a large siege gun, which was posted on a high ridge to the north of Ladysmith, and which was nicknamed by the soldiers, " Long Tom." This gun proved to be most troublesome, for its shells were continually dropping in and around Ladysmith, and none of the British guns was capable of throwing a shell anywhere near it.
The object of General Sir George White was to try and drive the Boer flanks in on their centre, and then charge their position with infantry ; but this proved to be an impossible task owing to the great distance over which the Boers had extended themselves. The main centre column remained under the excellent cover afforded by a ridge on the western side of the Modder Spruit. They were there during most of the engagement waiting for the artillery to prepare the way for an advance. To the right and left sorties were made towards the Boer positions, but in each case the Boers proved too strong, owing to the immense advantage of their natural strongholds, and the British had to retreat. It was during these retreats that most of the casualties occurred. On the right flank the Leicesters and King's Royal Rifles, supported by the Lancers and Hussars, occupied the hill called Lombaard's Kop, which has given its name to the battle, and here they were subjected to a very heavy rifle and artillery fire from the enemy. On the left flank also, General Sir George White was informed, through the medium of the captive balloon, that a portion of his column was hard pressed, but by immediately despatching reinforcements they were enabled to retire. It now became apparent to Sir George White that his forces were insufficient to storm the Boer positions, and so at about noon the order was given to retire on Ladysmith. Sir George White remained and personally conducted the retirement from the positions of shelter, which was successfully performed.
During the engagement, at about ten o'clock, a naval brigade from H.M.S. Powerful, arrived from Durban by train, and quickly placing two long-range 12-pounders in position, responded vigorously to the Boer " Long Tom "; their fire was most effective, for after firing eight shots, the Boer gun was placed out of action, shells dropping into the parapet where it was entrenched and wrecking it.
Thus ended the battle of Lombaard's Kop. Although the result was indecisive, the Boers were checked for awhile in their onward career, and suffered also considerably from the accuracy and severity of the British artillery fire. But we have yet to relate a disastrous incident which occurred during the day in another portion of the extended battlefield. As previously stated, a column consisting of the loth Mountain Battery, the Gloucesters, and the Royal Irish Rifles, had been despatched in a north-westerly direction to hold a position called Nicolson's Nek, which ran in between 'the main forces of the Orange Free State and those of the South African Republic. Leaving Ladysmith on Sunday evening at ten o'clock, they pushed steadily on into the broken, hilly country to take up the position allotted to them, Lieut.-Colonel Carleton being in command, with Major Adye, D.A.A.G., as Staff officer.
After passing the Orange Free State railway junction the force, which numbered 1,100, continued on up the valley of the Bell Spruit. The march was successfully performed through the enemy's lines, and the hill was reached at two o'clock in the morning; but a most unfortunate calamity occurred during the ascent. The Mountain Battery was leading and the infantry following, when suddenly some large boulders were rolled in among the battery mules, causing them to stampede. It was very evident that this had been done by the Boer pickets, for at the same time rifle shots were heard close at hand. The mules, having turned in their fright, rushed violently through the advancing column in the rear, knocking many of the men over in the pitchy darkness. Colonel Carleton, however, despite the loss of the guns, decided to proceed with the duty which had been allotted to him by the General.
On re-forming at the top of the hill it was found that the mules had decamped with the whole of the guns, the reserve rifle ammunition, and the drinking water. The men, however, at once set to work to build sangars, and to render the position as defensible as possible.
The day soon dawned, and the weakness of the position was revealed to the Boers, who were ensconced on hills some 1,500 yards to the west and south-west, and who immediately commenced firing at the British soldiers.
It soon became evident to Colonel Carleton that unless General Sir George White was successful in his main attack upon the Boer centre, his party would be in rather a desperate plight. And thus it proved, for as soon as the Boers found that it was impossible for the main British army to advance they concentrated a large force round Colonel Carleton at Nicol-son's Nek and hemmed him in.
The fighting now became very severe. The advanced firing line of the Gloucesters and Fusiliers had to retire to the main body, where a most determined stand was made, and where men began to fall quickly. The ammunition was quickly being exhausted. The brave Colonel decided to use it to the last round, and then to make a bayonet charge through the surrounding Boers, and escape with as many men as possible. Suddenly, however, to the surprise of all, word was passed along the line to surrender, for the white flag had been raised. Men screamed in anger, to think that the white flag should be raised over a British force nearly a thousand strong. Others refused to obey, and continued to fire at the enemy. It transpired that a captain of the Gloucesters, being seriously wounded, ordered the flag to be raised, without consulting the Colonel in command.
The Boers now closed in and ordered the men to lay down their arms, which were taken possession of by the exultant victors. Then they proceeded to loot the dead bodies of the British soldiers, taking first the water-bottles and boots, for their own veld-schoens were in a most dilapidated condition. The unwounded British were drawn up and marched off, . two abreast, the mounted Boers lining up on either side. This, then, was the first disaster of any importance to the British forces, and what made it the more galling was that they had surrendered to an undisciplined force of Boers.
The total British casualties to the whole force at Ladysmith on this day, at ,both the battle of Lombaard's Kop and the Nicolson's Nek disaster, were 60 killed, 230 wounded, and 900 prisoners taken by the Boers—a loss which could be ill-afforded by the comparatively small garrison at Ladysmith.
The civilians in Ladysmith had remained remarkably cool and free from panic during the bombardment, most of them having taken up a position on an adjoining hill to watch the progress of the combatants. Orders were now given by the General for all non-residents to leave the town, so that within the next two days the population considerably decreased, and the town was practically rid of many Boer spies who had been lurking around.
On Tuesday, the day following the battle, an armistice was asked by the Boers, so that there might be a cessation of hostilities while they collected and buried their dead—a fact which proved that they also had lost heavily from the accurate fire of the British guns.
Ladysmith now began to prepare itself for further bombardment, as it was found that the British had been unable to repulse the Boer forces. The banks sent off their securities, and business was almost entirely suspended. On Tuesday evening four long trains with over 2,000 of the inhabitants steamed out to the south, and the town began to present a very deserted appearance.
The Boers were now rapidly enclosing the town, intending to invest it. They took possession of every prominent hill near, mounting guns, digging trenches, and building san-gars behind which to hide when firing. On Thursday, November 2nd, the Boers had worked round to the south side of the town, placed guns on a hill commanding Fort Molyneux, which was occupied by a detachment of the Durban Light Infantry, who had Colenso as their base. At about half-past two on this day, a strong force of Boers, numbering 2,000, attacked these volunteers in Fort Molyneux, attempting to cut them off from Colenso. A stubborn fight ensued, which would have ended disastrously for the Durban Light Infantry had not an armoured train arrived from Colenso with a detachment of the Dublin Fusiliers, who covered their retreat from the fort.
During this engagement the last train which left Ladysmith passed down the line close to the scene of the fighting, having been fired on by Boer artillery near Nelthorpe station. It was now decided to evacuate Colenso, and retreat on Estcourt, as it was found that the Boers were attempting to surround the village with an overwhelming force, and also with guns which far out-ranged those of the British. Accordingly during the night, amid a scene of great commotion and activity, the whole of the inhabitants entrained in special trains for the south.
On Friday morning early the Boers commenced shelling the deserted village, being unaware of its evacuation by the British, which had been so successfully performed during the night.
Ladysmith was now cut off! The Boers had severed the lines of communication, and practically the whole of the British force in Natal was shut up in the beleaguered town, leaving the remainder of the Colony in an almost defenceless condition. The news came as a shock to all in Natal—as a cruel blow to the national pride of the loyal colonist. Could it be possible that the Boer threat would be fulfilled, in which they said they would overrun Natal, and soon be " eating fish and drinking coffee at the seaport of Durban ? Most anxiously were reinforcements looked for from England, as it was known that they would be the only means of preventing dire disaster to the Colony.
Before Ladysmith was invested a sharp engagement had taken place about four miles to the west of Ladysmith on a ridge of hills to the north of Bester's farm, in which the British gained a brilliant success. The Free State Boers had placed a large camp on these hills, which General Sir George White determined to capture if possible. A force was sent out at dawn, consisting of the Lancers, the Hussars, the Natal Carbineers, the Natal Border Mounted Rifles, and a Field Battery, General French being in command. At the same time, the attention of the Boers on the north and east was occupied by firing on them with the naval guns.
The Boers appear to have been completely unaware of the object of the approaching force, for the artillery drew up within good range and commenced to drop shells into the Boer camp before they appeared to make preparations to resist the attacking force. They soon, however, replied from fortified positions on the hill, and a hot artillery duel ensued for a time. The cavalry now rapidly approached the Boer camp under cover of the artillery fire, and during a temporary lull in the firing they rushed forward, storming the laager and driving the Boers irresistibly before them. The whole camp and equipment were captured, and many Boers—wounded and slain—were found lying within the laager; thus attesting to the accuracy of the artillery fire.
General French, after gaining this brilliant success, returned quickly to Ladysmith and left there by the noonday train for Durban, where he took ship for the Cape Colony to join the main column under General Sir Redvers Buller, who had just arrived from England. The train by which General French left was the one which we mentioned previously as being the last train to leave Ladysmith before the complete investment by the Boers.
We will now leave for awhile the strong garrison under General Sir George White in Ladysmith with a large civilian population— left to the horrors and privations of a dreaded siege—and turn our attention to the remainder of the Colony of Natal and relate now it fared under the merciless depredations and raiding of the rapacious Boers.
Estcourt, a village on the main railway line, forty-three miles south of Ladysmith, now became the headquarters of the remaining troops in Natal. Brigadier-General Wolfe Murray, R.A., was in command, and preparations were made to resist any further advance southwards of the Boer commandoes. All persons of a suspicious character and nonresidents were ordered to leave the town. The military authorities were enabled to carry out more effectually their designs, by reason of the existence of martial law, which had been proclaimed throughout Natal and Zululand on October 23rd. The Boer intelligence department was consequently very much hampered through this strict enforcement of martial law, but still it was marvellous how they obtained information of military movements—people of Dutch sympathy appearing to abound at all points.
On the appearance of the Colenso column in Estcourt on November 3rd a slight panic was naturally caused, and stores were closed for the rest of the day. The people hearing of the investment of Ladysmith, and seeing that Colenso had been evacuated, knew that there would be nothing to prevent the Boers from attacking Estcourt.
The inhabitants of Maritzburg and Durban were also worked into a state of nervous excitement, for it was known by all that it was the intention and boast of the Boers to occupy the seat of Government—Pietermaritz-burg—and then to proceed to Durban, the seaport; it now appeared as though there was a great probability of their plans being successful. The only hope was for the speedy arrival of reinforcements from England.
The Boers, however, now lost a brilliant opportunity, for instead of following up the successful investment of Ladysmith by invading immediately the comparatively unprotected portions of Natal and taking possession of the large towns, they remained for awhile in the vicinity of Ladysmith with their whole force intent on destroying the British garrison or causing it to surrender. It was ten days before an advance was made on their part. In the meantime active preparations were made at Estcourt and the Mooi River railway station for their reception. Each day an armoured train with a strong force patrolled the railway line in the direction of Colenso to ascertain the Boer movements. At first it was enabled to proceed across the Tugela, at Colenso ; but soon the Boers took possession of Colenso and destroyed the line, and the train could not proceed much beyond the Chieveley station. Boers were frequently observed in the distance riding about in small parties, but they seldom came within rifle range.
On November 13th as the armoured train arrived in the vicinity of Chieveley a party of men, 60 in number, were observed some distance off signalling to the train that they were the "Imperial Light Horse," but as their movements appeared suspicious no reply was sent. It then became clear that they were a party of Boers trying to lead the train on into an ambuscade. The train consequently retired towards Estcourt.
On the following day at about eleven o'clock the inhabitants of Estcourt were surprised by hearing the alarm of three guns fired from the camp by the Natal Field Artillery. The whole garrison immediately stood to arms, and the Carbineers, under Major McKenzie, the Imperial Light Horse under Lieutenant Bottomley, and certain mounted infantry with two guns of the Natal Field Artillery, the whole being under Colonel Kitchener, moved out in the direction of Weenen. They soon came in touch with a party of mounted Dublin Fusiliers, who had gradually been retreating, during the morning, before a large commando of Boers. On observing these reinforcements the Boers stopped, and after taking observations for awhile turned and retreated ; the British had consequently to retire on Estcourt, disappointed that the Boers had not shown fight.
Notwithstanding the fact that these Boers were seen in close proximity to Estcourt, on the following morning—Wednesday, November 15th—the armoured train again went forth in the direction of Colenso to reconnoitre. It consisted of five trucks and an engine with its tender, and contained 70 men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 54 of the Durban Light Infantry, 5 naval gunners from H.M.S. Tartar with one naval gun, and a few platelayers.
Leaving Estcourt at 5.30 a.m. it journeyed on as far as Chieveley station, where a party of about 200 Boers were observed watching the. train. These Boers now began to move towards Estcourt with the evident object of attempting to intercept the train. Captain Haldane, who was in charge, consequently gave the order to the engine-driver to reverse and retire towards Estcourt.
The train had proceeded about two miles on the homeward journey, when suddenly, to the surprise of all, a shower of shot and shell fell on and around the train. It was soon found that a large force of Boers had taken up positions both on the right and left of the line, and the train had now to run the gauntlet through Mauser bullets and bursting shells. It had not proceeded far, however, before the three trucks which were running in the front of the engine, —the latter being in the centre of the train— were derailed and thrown over, projecting the inmates in all directions. Fortunately the engine kept the rails, but the line was blocked in front by the derailed trucks.
It was a pitiable sight! A cold, drizzling rain was falling, accompanied by a terrific storm of lead and shells, and the train was blocked, with its human freight exposed to the death-dealing missiles. Truly it was a tight corner, and one which needed stout British hearts to grapple with the terrible circumstances. The men were not at a loss, however, how to proceed, for they immediately took up positions of shelter behind banks, the derailed trucks, and whatever else was available as cover, and commenced to reply to the Boer fire. The naval gun, which was in the rearmost truck, also fired, but as it was about to fire its fourth shot it was knocked out of action by a shell from the enemy's guns.
The Boers, as usual, were in strong positions, their artillery being on a hill covered with brushwood to the right of the train, while it was impossible to tell where the rifle shots came from owing to the smokeless powder used in the Mauser rifle. The men now began to fall to the Boer fire, and resistance seemed useless against such an overwhelming force, when Lieutenant Winston Churchill, the eldest son of the late Right Hon. Lord Randolph
Churchill, and correspondent of the Morning Post, gallantly stepped forward and called for volunteers to assist him in removing the derailed trucks, so as to enable the engine and remaining two trucks to escape. The men willingly responded, but it was perilous work, and it was during this time that most of the casualties occurred. After about an hour's hard work, with the assistance of the engine, which pushed from behind, the line was cleared, and the engine moved slowly forward over the portion of the rails which had been thrown out of gauge by the Boers, to cause this disaster. The two trucks in the rear had to be left, as a shell had smashed the foremost coupling. The rain of bullets and shells was still descending furiously on all sides. Captain Wylie, in command of the Durban Light Infantry, was wounded in the thigh just as the line was cleared ; the engine-driver was also hit on the head by a splinter from a bursting shell, and many others lay around wounded.
Most of the wounded were now picked up and placed on the engine and tender, while the remaining force commenced to fight its way to the bridge over the Blaauw Krantz River at the Frere station. The enemy now rushed towards the bridge to cut off, if possible, the escape. The engine managed to evade the Boers, leaving, however, most of the men retreating on foot to be taken prisoners.
The engine sped on towards Estcourt, which it reached at 10 a.m., carrying 15 of the wounded men. Stragglers from the re,-treating force came in during the day, but 57 prisoners were taken by the Boers, including Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Churchill, the latter having voluntarily left the engine at Frere station and returned along the line to assist the wounded who had been left at the scene of the disaster to the mercy of the enemy.
The prisoners, having been disarmed, were marched by the mounted Boers to the north of Ladysmith, whence they were sent by train to Pretoria. It is satisfactory, however, to relate that the gallant and courageous Lieutenant Churchill, unwilling to submit to imprisonment at the hands of the Boers, made a most daring escape, travelling from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay, and thence by ship to Durban, where he arrived about a month later.