" The soul of man is to its own work as the moth that frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate."—RUSKIN.
After the armoured train disaster, near Chieveley, the Boers, elated by their success, continued to advance towards Estcourt. The whole of the northern half of Natal was in their hands, and they now commenced to commit those atrocities which marred their otherwise courageous behaviour during this war. They went out in bands of two or three hundred, ruthlessly looting every deserted farmstead they came across, and wantonly destroying anything they could lay their hands on. All cattle, horses, and sheep that they could capture they took and sent over the Drakensberg into the Orange Free State. The Dutch farmers in Natal of course remained on their farms and were unmolested by the Boers. A few of the English farmers also remained, and these were likewise not interfered with, except that the Boers appropriated almost the whole of their live-stock.
Weenen, a village seventeen miles to the north-east of Estcourt, was occupied by the Boers on Friday afternoon, November 17th. As soon as it was announced that the Boers were approaching, the few Natal Mounted Police stationed there left immediately for Estcourt. The magistrate, Mr. M. R. N. Matthews, and a few other Government officials, however, decided to remain. A despatch rider soon arrived, under a flag of truce, from the commander of the Boer force, and inquired whether the village was defended or not. Having ascertained that no opposition would be made to the enemy's entry, he retired, and within an hour a Boer commando entered, and galloping up to the Court House, dismounted, threw their hats into the air and sang the " Volkslied." They then entered into the shops and houses, taking possession of blankets, provisions, boots, clothes, and anything that would be of any service to them, loading their booty on to waggons which they had seized in the neighbourhood. The public-houses were also burst open, and the liquor freely distributed, causing a riotous scene to quickly ensue—drunken Boers wandering about in a most disgusting condition.
Major - General Hildyard, C.B., who had taken over the command at Estcourt on November 13th, took every precaution to avoid a surprise attack from the Boers, who were now known to be in all directions around Estcourt. On Saturday, November 18th, the alarm of three guns again boomed forth over the town, and the troops stood to arms. Away on a ridge four miles distant could be seen a strong force of Boers approaching, with the evident intention of attacking the town. The Dublin Fusiliers, who had already taken up an advanced position in the direction of the enemy, were now heard to fire three or four long-range volleys into them, and at the same time a naval gun which was mounted near the town sent a shell into the midst of a group of the enemy's scouts, scattering them in all directions and killing two or three. The Boers were evidently astounded at the accuracy of the British gunner and also at the long range of the gun, for they immediately retired and were seen no more that day.
On the following day also a skirmish took place to the south of Estcourt near Willow Grange, between Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry and a large force of the Boers, in which the latter were forced to retire in the direction of Weenen. But, although the enemy were repulsed at many points, they continued to advance around Estcourt, and on Tuesday afternoon, November 21st, Estcourt, like Ladysmith, became completely invested by a strong force of Boers. The enemy had taken up a position on the railway line to the north of Highlands station, severing the telegraph wires, destroying the railway line, and cutting off all communication with the rest of the world.
The next position occupied by British troops between Estcourt and Pietermaritzburg was at the Mooi River station, twenty miles to the south of Estcourt, where General Barton was in command of a comparatively small force of regulars and volunteers. A most efficient scout service was, however, kept up to warn the camp on the approach of the enemy. The Rifle Associations were called out on active service, and being composed of local farmers they rendered most valuable assistance on account of their knowledge of the surrounding country.
The inhabitants of the farms in the district were in a great state of consternation and excitement, for the raiding parties of the enemy were travelling from farm to farm capturing the whole of the live-stock that they came across, and ruthlessly destroying the homesteads. The farmers could not understand why the military authorities were apparently sitting still at Mooi River station instead of sending out troops to resist the marauders. The road going south from Mooi River to Nottingham Road presented a most remarkable appearance, for it was crowded with thousands of horses, cattle, and sheep being driven by the flying farmers to positions of safety from the Boer raiders.
The enemy were not long in attacking the camp at Mooi River after the investment of Estcourt, for on the following day—Wednesday November 22nd—at 1.30 p.m., a shell came whizzing over and landed in the hotel grounds near to the railway station. It was soon followed by others ; and the enemy were now seen to be located at the head of the long valley in which the British camp was situated. General Barton at once placed his force in carefully selected positions. The artillery were stationed on the ridge at the back of the hotel, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry moved off to the right and left flanks, and the infantry occupied the trenches.
The Boers now finding that their artillery fire was not replied to, advanced, and took up a position on a kopje almost within rifle range, evidently thinking that the British force was without artillery. They were quickly disillusioned, however, for two 15-pounders rapidly sent among them a dozen shrapnel shells, causing them to scatter helter-skelter, and disappear out of range as soon as possible. This artillery had fortunately arrived from England only two days previously, and the enemy were probably unaware of its existence, which would account for the confident manner in which they approached the British force.
As General Barton thought that the Boers would probably renew the attack on the following day, the troops stood to arms before daybreak, as a safeguard against surprise. Shortly before five o'clock what had been expected happened, for three shells landed in quick succession in the vicinity of the camp, followed shortly afterwards by others. The Boer artillery was slightly nearer than it had been on the previous day. . The battery of artillery now was divided, two guns taking up a position to the right, two to the left, and two remaining by the hotel. Firing was then commenced by the guns on either flank, but it was found that they were of too short range to reach the enemy's position, and so they retired on the main body. Although the Boers continued shelling with their long-range gun they did not approach any nearer, probably preferring not to come within range of the British guns. Their shells were, however, practically harmless, generally burying themselves in the earth without exploding ; and at about noon the enemy withdrew towards Estcourt.
No further attack was made on Mooi River Camp, nor did the enemy proceed any further south, for they no doubt found that, having had to leave strong besieging forces at Ladysmith and Estcourt, they were insufficient in number to meet the reinforcements arriving from England, and the various local volunteer corps which had been lately formed. Their hope was, however, that Ladysmith and Estcourt would soon surrender, when they would be enabled to continue their triumphal march to the coast. These ambitious desires of the Boers seemed to have taken a firm hold of them, and also of most of the local Dutch farmers, some of the latter, sad to relate, joining the invading forces and assisting the enemy in fighting against the British, under whose government they had enjoyed every privilege. One Natal Dutchman at this period, evidently thinking that the Boers were going to be victorious, and would establish Dutch supremacy throughout the whole of South Africa, wrote to his neighbour—an English farmer—and offered him ten pounds for his large farm, at the same time pointing out that he would get nothing for it after the war was over, as it would be taken from him. We must now turn our attention to Estcourt, which we left invested by the enemy on Tuesday, November 2ist. On the following morning it was found that the enemy had advanced considerably nearer the town, their main position being in the direction of Willow Grange southwards. Not the slightest alarm was exhibited, however, by the troops or civilians, for all had perfect confidence in General Hildyard and in the men under him.
It was not long before the General confirmed the opinion held of him, for he decided to at once attack the Boer position, hoping to stop their further advance on the town and prevent them from mounting their guns in positions commanding the town and camp. Accordingly, on Wednesday afternoon at two o'clock, a strong force moved out of Estcourt with the object of occupying a high hill called Beacon Hill, seven miles away, near Willow Grange. The Boers were strongly entrenched on two hills near Beacon Hill.
The force, which consisted of regulars and Natal Volunteers, had an exceedingly trying march, for at four o'clock an exceptionally heavy thunderstorm burst upon them, accompanied by a most severe shower of hail, some of the stones being two inches in diameter. The ground was quickly rendered sodden and slippery, greatly impeding the movements of the battery of artillery and of the naval gun. The Bluejackets, however, who were in charge of the naval gun, pushed manfully on, and by 6 p.m. had scaled the steep slopes of Beacon Hill and placed the gun in position. The Boers, however, were keenly watching their movements, and, immediately on the naval gun reaching its position, commenced to shell it. The naval gun replied with two or three shots, but soon darkness fell and all became quiet. The troops now bivouacked for the night, trying to obtain the best shelter possible from the pelting rain, but forsaking all hopes of sleep under such unfavourable conditions.
At 2 a.m. on Thursday they were again on the move, the West Yorks and East Surreys, 1,100 strong, commencing to work round to the left of the enemy's position and scale the hill occupied by them. The hill was successfully scaled and they were close upon the Boer sentries when one of the men let off his rifle by mistake, which aroused the Boers and gave them warning. Bayonets were at once fixed and the enemy's camp was charged; but the Boers were already in full retreat down the opposite side, leaving behind them about fifty horses and the whole of the camp equipment, which fell into the hands of the British.
Daylight broke shortly after the capture of the camp, when it was found that the enemy commanded the captured hill from their main position, and the infantry were exposed to a deadly fire from machine and long-range guns. A portion of the mounted Boers now attempted to assault the hill, but they were repulsed with heavy loss. The position was, however, considered untenable, so at six o'clock General Hildyard gave the order to retire on Beacon Hill, where the naval gun, although outranged by the enemy's Krupp gun, had been doing considerable execution among the Boers. The troops were now gradually withdrawn towards Estcourt, and by midday the battle had ceased. The British loss was 15 killed and 72 wounded ; Major Hobbs and 7 men of the West Yorks having also been taken prisoners by the enemy.
This movement, which had been carried out under the personal direction of General Hildyard, with Colonel Kitchener in command of the front ranks, while not an actual victory, had results of the greatest importance. The Boer force, 7,000 strong, which had been detached from Ladysmith to overrun Natal, met with such severe and determined opposition by the British at Mooi River and Estcourt that it commenced to retrace its steps to Colenso to assist in destroying the Ladysmith garrison first before attempting to advance further into Natal.
It came as a relief and surprise to the inhabitants of both Mooi River and Estcourt to hear that the enemy were in full retreat. On Saturday the vedettes returned to the Estcourt camp to report that the enemy, with a large number of waggons, were proceeding in a north-westerly direction towards Colenso. An armoured train steamed from Mooi River towards Escourt to repair the line, and on Sunday, November 26th, telegraphic and railway communication were restored between Mooi River and Estcourt.
Estcourt was relieved! The news caused a thrill of joy to pass throughout the whole of loyal Natal. The threatened danger was averted! Only a day or two previous it had seemed as though the enemy would march onward and take possession of the Colony, and finally of the whole of South Africa; but for some providential reason the tide was turned, the advance columns of the enemy were retreating on their main body, and South Africa was saved! The enemy might again try to advance southwards, but it would be too late, for strong reinforcements were now arriving from England. Their only chance was gone! A certain amount of preparation had been made in Pietermaritzburg and Durban to meet the expected foe, and it might have been possible to repel the enemy had these two towns been attacked. In Pietermaritzburg the prominent hill at the back of Fort Napier was fortified with embankments and trenches, and cannon were mounted on the summit. The local Rifle Associations, and the Home Guard were also undergoing severe training. In Durban a large number of naval guns were mounted in prominent positions along the Berea Ridge, and the men-of-war in the outer anchorage were ready to repel any foe that might appear. But fortunately, beyond allaying the fears of the inhabitants, the preparations were not needed.
Just at this juncture the Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, General Sir Redvers Buller, arrived from the Cape Colony, reaching Maritzburg on Saturday, November 25th, and his presence seemed to inspire confidence in the loyalists in Natal, who now looked forward to receiving news of British victories instead of Boer successes.
General Hildyard at Estcourt lost no-time in following up the retreating Boers. On Sunday morning tents were struck and the order was given for a forward march to Frere. At 8ca.m. the long column streamed out, and after a tiring march arrived at Frere at two o'clock in the afternoon.
All along the line of march were evidences of wanton destruction by the Boer commando. At each railway station the safes had been blown to pieces with dynamite ; the lamps and furniture had been smashed to atoms; the papers, tickets, and books had been torn to pieces and lay strewn over the floors. The farmhouses had also suffered in like manner, valued trinkets and ornaments lying smashed among the debris of furniture, &c. The doors and windows had been burst open and broken to pieces with crowbars. But it is impossible to adequately describe the heartrending scenes which were enacted. To understand fully the wanton devastation which had been made in many a. happy country home, it would be necessary to witness the scene of desolation.
The disloyal Natal Dutch appear to have been among the principal perpetrators of these acts of despoliation, for in many of their houses were afterwards found articles of furniture which had been taken from the homes of neighbouring English farmers. In one house were found five pianos, which had belonged to English homes in the district. But the enemy had not restricted these wicked acts of destruction to ' the interiors of the farmhouses only, for- in some cases orchards of young fruit trees had been chopped down and utterly destroyed, and iron rain-water tanks had been pierced through the sides, rendering them useless. Many a heart was bowed down with grief on beholding the home, which had meant years of work, thus destroyed in a few moments by a ruthless foe.
Much of the live-stock, that had not been driven away, had also been destroyed. Dead poultry were lying about in heaps at one farmstead, among them being fifty young turkeys. Cattle and sheep lay rotting in the paddocks. On another farm three hundred head of cattle and sheep had been destroyed with arsenical poison.
Truly it was a terrible scene ; and yet this destruction had been wrought by the offspring of a civilised European nation. The Law of Environment had here proved itself true in the evolution of this people dwelling among the savage and barbarous tribes of South Africa.
On the arrival of General Hildyard's column at Frere it was found that the Boers had destroyed the fine iron railway bridge. The girders connecting the masonry piers had been displaced by exploding ruberite under the ends of the girders. The engineering department, however, at once set to work to construct a temporary wooden bridge on trestles, which was completed within a week. And thus the trains containing the military stores, guns, ammunition, &c., were enabled to proceed onwards to Chieveley, where General Buller, who had now arrived at the front, was encamped.
A large number of troops were at this time arriving from England, and were being sent straight to the front, there to form the army which was to relieve Ladysmith. The enemy had taken up strong positions and cleverly entrenched themselves at and around Colenso, their strongest position being in the mountainous country, opposite Colenso, on the north side of the Tugela River.
Skirmishes were constantly taking place between small parties of British mounted troops and raiding parties of the enemy, who were retiring with looted cattle, many of which were retaken and brought to the British camp.
Heliographic communication with Ladysmith was now established from high hills to the south of Colenso. The flashlight was also used at night for the same purpose, so that General Buller was constantly informed of the condition of the besieged garrison.
A 'great battle was now imminent, for General Buller was fast completing the arrangements necessary for the proper manipulation of so vast an army. On Wednesday, December 13th, a reconnaissance in force towards Colenso was made by General Barton with thirty guns, which were fired at intervals into groups of Boers seen in the distance ; but although the firing was continued for two hours the Boers would not respond. On the following day the naval guns approached still nearer and shelled the enemy's positions with lyddite shells, and again there was no response. The Boers had evidently well concealed their guns, and did not wish to reveal their positions before the British attacked in earnest.