" And what didst thou say, O my soul, Upon that mystic strife ? I said, that Life was only Death, That only Death was Life." E. B. BROWNING.
Friday, December 15th, was the day chosen by General Sir Redvers Buller on which to attack the Boer strongholds, and effect the relief of Ladysmith. It was the day which had been anxiously waited for by all loyal colonists, and which was longed for by those confined in Ladysmith who were so gallantly and bravely holding out against the besieging enemy. Each and all had faith in General Buller, and in the sterling British soldiers that composed the relieving force; and the general hope and opinion was that success would be bound to attend their efforts. At three o'clock in the morning the whole force marched out of the Chieveley camp in the direction of Colenso, and pitched camp again about half-way to Colenso. At about 5.40 a.m. the naval guns, which had taken up positions commanding the Boer entrenchments on the north side of the Tugela River, opened fire—a fire which was continued throughout the whole of the battle, and which was the most potent factor employed by the British force that day.
General Buller had dispositioned his forces in the following manner: General Hart with a strong force, termed the Irish Brigade, was to try and force a passage through a drift on the Tugela two miles west of Colenso; General Hildyard, with the English Brigade, was ordered to occupy Colenso village, and from there to attempt the crossing over the Tugela by the bridge on the main road, which was still intact; General Lyttleton was to follow up and be in readiness to support either of these columns ; while General Barton, with a composite brigade of cavalry, consisting of regulars and volunteers, was to attack the Boers' left flank on Umhlangwana Hill, and drive them over the Tugela.
The enemy, as on the two previous days, again appeared to disregard the firing from the British artillery, by offering no response. The infantry therefore advanced in their various columns to make the attack. All went well until they had arrived well within range of the Mauser rifles, and then, as if by a given signal, the hills burst forth with the roar of battle. A deadly hail of shell, shrapnel, and bullets fell on and around the advancing infantry from an apparently invisible foe. The enemy were splendidly concealed, lying in trenches which had. been excavated out of the sides of the hill, also behind rocks and stones, while many were lying on the banks of the river. They had consequently a distinctly overwhelming advantage, from a strategical point of view, for their natural fortresses seemed to be, humanly speaking, impregnable.
General Hart pressed bravely forward on the left, in spite of the deadly hail of lead, until at last the Dublin Fusiliers and Connaught Rangers, who were leading, reached the drift. Here the water, being so deep through the Boers having dammed it just below, rendered the river impassable; barbed wire entanglements had also been placed in the river to render any attempt at crossing more ineffectual. Some of the brave soldiers, however, swam across, but only to find, on reaching the opposite side, that there were Boer trenches within 200 yards of them, from which a most deadly fusilade of bullets began to mow them down. And now these courageous men, seeing it was impossible to advance, commenced to recross the river. Of the many badly wounded most were drowned, being unable to resist the swiftly flowing current.
General Buller, convinced now that it would be impossible for the left flank to effect a crossing, ordered General Hart to retire, during which retirement many more casualties occurred.
General Hildyard, in the centre, had advanced across an open stretch of undulating ground, exposed the while to the Boer fire, and the West Surrey Regiment had occupied Colenso, where shelter was obtained from the withering rifle fire. Just to the right of Colenso, also, the 14th and 66th Batteries of Field Artillery, under Colonel Long, had taken up a position, well within range of both the enemy's artillery and rifles. Colonel Long, in advancing to this position, which was within 700 yards of the entrenched Boers on the slopes of the Umhlangwana, was doubtless unaware of the proximity of the enemy, his object being evidently to render the artillery fire more effective in shelling the Boers in Fort Wylie, which lay 1,300 yards to the north. The enemy's rifle fire, however, was too accurate and disastrous, for the gunners began to fall rapidly on all sides. Notwithstanding this they stuck bravely to their guns, firing for at hour and a half, until their ammunition was entirely spent—the ammunition carts having been obliged to retreat. Most of the gunners and their officers, including Colonel Long, had by this time been either killed or wounded, and the remainder, dragging the wounded with them, took shelter in a donga close by.
A force of the Devonshires was now despatched to assist the artillery, but though many attempts were made to recover the abandoned guns it was found impossible to do so, two only being rescued which belonged to the 66th Battery. Conspicuous bravery was shown these attempts by Captains Congreve, Reed and Schofield, and Lieutenant Roberts, the son of Lord Roberts, the latter being mortally wounded.
The cavalry force on the right was also unable to effect the occupation of Umhlangwana Hill, for the Boers on their left made a strong flank movement which the cavalry had to resist. The ground to the south of the hill was perfectly clear and open, so to have reached the hill they would have been exposed the whole while to the enemy's rifle fire, which would have caused an enormous loss of life.
General Buller, who had been riding backward and forward conducting the battle, being often in the thickest of the fight, now came to the conclusion that it would be useless to press the attack further owing to the loss of the artillery, without which it would be almost impossible for the infantry to storm the enemy's positions. The order to retire was consequently given, which was reluctantly carried out by the brave British soldiers, who were longing to get within charging distance to rout the enemy and effect, if possible, the relief of their beleaguered comrades in Ladysmith. Thus at two o'clock in the afternoon the battle ceased, the enemy appearing to be quite ready to desist from further fighting, having no doubt lost heavily in their trenches from the effects of the lyddite from the naval guns. The gunners, however, of the abandoned artillery who had taken shelter in the donga, along with the infantry who came to their relief, were unable to retire, being covered by the enemy's guns, and were quickly surrounded by a force of mounted Boers, who ordered them to surrender; and this they were obliged to do, after a slight resistance, to prevent annihilation. Colonels Hunt and Bullock, with 330 others of rank and file, were consequently taken prisoners.
The day had been intensely hot, the heat adding very much to the almost impossible task set the attacking army ; but all had fought well, none had flinched in face of a most deadly hail of bullets and shell. The enemy also had resisted the attack with remarkable courage and persistency, assisted by the advantage of practically impregnable positions. They numbered at least 14,000 men, which was not less than the attacking force.
The British loss was 165 killed, 670 wounded, and 332 missing, the latter having been taken prisoners by the enemy; besides which 10 guns were lost and one was damaged so as to be rendered useless, and had to be abandoned. The Boer loss could not have fallen far short of that of the British, for the effect of the artillery fire must have been most disastrous to those in the trenches. The whole front of the Boer position was dotted continually with puffs of smoke and clouds of dust occasioned by the bursting shrapnel and lyddite shells.
As soon as the British retired from the field parties of Boers advanced and stripped many of the dead of their outer clothing and boots, consequently removing the identification tickets which were sewn in their coats, thus causing much trouble to the military authorities in preparing the lists of casualties.
As the day gradually began to close the naval guns boomed defiantly forth on the enemy's positions, giving a last intimation that 'the British troops, although temporarily checked, were not discouraged, but would beat back those who at present barred their advance.
Early on Saturday morning the advanced camp was removed again to Chieveley to await further developments, and on Sunday an armistice was proclaimed so that each side might uninterruptedly bury its dead.
It was a cruel blow to the British in South Africa, and also to the whole Empire, to hear of this reverse, which followed so closely the reverses sustained by General Gatacre and Lord Methuen in the Cape Colony. But confidence in the British troops was in no way shattered, and hope was still maintained by all that Ladysmith would soon be relieved. The troops themselves, maddened at the temporary check, were longing to get within bayonet reach of the enemy.
A practical cessation of hostilities now occurred for a whole month, except for skirmishes, which were continually taking place between the British and Boer outposts. But although General Buller was apparently in active, plans were being formed and preparations made for another attack on the enemy's positions to effect the relief of Ladysmith.
At Estcourt Sir Charles Warren, in charge of the Fifth Division, which was arriving from England, was preparing his force, 10,000 strong, for a forward movement. His men, having just landed from a sea voyage, were naturally, on account of the forced inactivity, unfit for hard work. But with judicious drilling they were soon ready for the fray, and longing to be at the front.
General Buller, shortly after the battle of Colenso, moved back from the Chieveley camp with most of the troops to Frere railway station, which was six miles to the south, where a large camp was formed. He, however, left a strong force at Chieveley to occupy the attention of the Boers while these other movements were being carried out, and shelling was kept up by the naval guns daily on small groups of the enemy who were seen working in their trenches strengthening their positions.
It now began to be freely rumoured that Sir Charles Warren would move to the north-east with his column, passing through the village of Weenen, and attempt to enter Ladysmith from the east. The rumour was allowed to circulate freely uncontradicted, .which was a very fortunate circumstance, for it tended to mislead the Boers in their defensive operations. Sir Redvers Buller, however, after consultation with Sir Charles Warren, had decide to go in the opposite direction, i.e., higher u the Tugela River instead of down. Accordingly, on January 5, 1900, scouting parties commenced to scour the country toward Springfield—a hamlet seventeen miles to the north-west of Frere—in view of an intended advance in that direction.
Just about this time, on January 10th, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener arrived at Cape Town to take over supreme command in South Africa, and General Sir Redvers Buller was able to devote his whole attention to the operations proceeding in Natal and more especially to the relief of Ladysmith. On Tuesday, January 9th, Sir Charles Warren moved from Estcourt to Frere with his division, and on the following day the main column left Frere in the direction of Springfield. It was a memorable sight watching the army move out, with its train of transport stretching for miles and miles, The transport consisted of 500 waggons, each being drawn by about eighteen oxen. A few traction engines were also used, as far as the state of the roads would allow, which were of course considerably cut up by this unusual amount of traffic, the drifts causing a great deal of trouble.
Lord Dundonald, in charge of the cavalry, went in advance, and by Wednesday evening had passed Springfield and taken up a position on the mimosa-covered ridges of Zwartkop, overlooking the Tugela, distant two miles to the north, along whose banks could be seen the Boer camps. The main column, with the long tail of transport, followed as rapidly as possible, and by Friday evening the last waggon had trekked into Spearman's Camp, which had been formed on the southern slopes of Mount Alice, a group of hills overlooking Potgieter's Drift in the Tugela below. The march had been most successful, for the enemy had not hampered them in any way, the Boers having evidently decided to now confine their main operations to the north side of the Tugela River.
General Buller immediately prepared his force to attack the enemy, who could be seen holding strong positions on the hills and mountains on the opposite side of the river. The naval guns were placed in commanding positions on Mount Alice, where they were within range of Spion Kop—the strongest position of the enemy—and where they could also protect the drift below during the passage of the troops. General Buller then made an inspiring address to his men, telling them that there must be no retiring, but an onward march to the relief of their brave comrades in Ladysmith. He also warned them against the treacherous use of the white flag by the Boers, stating that from his own personal experience it was already stained with the blood of two gallant British officers, beside many men, in this campaign.
The naval guns and artillery soon commenced to shell the enemy's positions, and on Tuesday, January 16th, a forward move was made. General Lyttleton, in charge of brigade, crossed the river at Potgieter's Drift. His men joined rifles, and thus passed over in a continuous string, wading through the swift current, which came up to their waist: In front of them stretched a line of kopje occupied by the Boers, and to the left, three miles away, rose Spion Kop, commanding the neighbouring country for miles around.
On the same day General Sir Charles Warren moved westwards with a strong force, and commenced crossing the river by a pontoon bridge, constructed by the Royal Engineers, at Triegardt's Drift, which was seven miles from Potgieter's Drift. The crossing was successfully performed, and by Thursday the whole column was across and moving towards Acton Homes. The cavalry under Lord Dundonald had gone forward, and on Thursday attacked a strong party of Boers to the west of Acton Homes, driving them from their position, killing and wounding 20, and taking 15 prisoners. It was on Saturday, however, when the actual fighting commenced. General Hart, with the Infantry Brigade, moved out at an early hour and attacked the Boers on the Rangeworthy Ridges to the north-east of Acton Homes. A most stubborn resistance was made by the Boers, but they were gradually beaten back, being shelled with a furious cannonade of artillery while the infantry were advancing. The Dublin Fusiliers captured Three Tree Hill at the point of the bayonet; the South African Light Horse were instrumental in the capture of Bastion Hill; and other positions were also gallantly taken by the remaining infantry. As night fell it found the British infantry far advanced into the Boer lines, and as they lay down in the enemy's trenches the Boers sniped at them by moonlight. It had been a hard day's work, and they had been badly off for drinking water, but it was only the commencement of a five days' continuous battle in which many lives were lost.
General Lyttleton on this Saturday had made a reconnaissance in force from his position near Potgieter's Drift, to divert, if possible, the attention of a portion of the Boers from General Warren's movement. The naval guns had also kept up a furious shell fire upon Spion Kop and neighbouring Boer positions, and, although they were entrenched, they must have lost heavily.
At sunrise on Sunday the fighting was resumed, and continued almost incessantly until Tuesday afternoon, ridge after ridge being gallantly charged and captured by the impetuous infantry.
The enemy's main position was now reached, which was a high range of hills called Intabamnyama, three miles in length, and terminating at its eastern extremity in a precipitous knob, or kopje, called Spion Kop. These hills lay exactly between the positions occupied by Sir Charles Warren and General Lyttleton.
On Tuesday afternoon Sir Charles Warren decided to make a night attack upon the enemy's position in front of him on Inta-bamnyama. Accordingly a force of infantry, headed by Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, who left their horses at the camp, started at sunset and commenced to climb up the long, rugged face of the hill which towered in front of them.
General Woodgate was in charge of the assailing force, which passed silently on through the pitchy darkness which enshrouded everything. No pipes were lit, and no sound was made, but a sharp look-out was kept for the Boer pickets.
At two o'clock on Wednesday morning, January 24th, the edge of the tableland was reached, and suddenly they were challenged in Dutch by a sentry, who at once fired his rifle and ran back. The Boers on hearing the rifle report, jumped up in great fright from the sleep and ran off, followed by the infantry with fixed bayonets. There was a great state of confusion, for above the shouts of the men could also be heard the shrieks of women, who had been sleeping in the Boer trenches. The soldiers now took possession of the trenches and when daylight began to dawn they commenced digging more trenches for their protection.
It was no sooner light, however, than the enemy began sending into them a withering rifle fire, and as the morning mists gradually dispersed a terrific shell and Maxim-Nordenfeldt fire began to play havoc among their rank The men now began to fall fast, and it seemed as though the position would be almost untenable. A message, however, was heliographed across the river to Mount Alice, and another to Sir Charles Warren, asking for reinforcements, which arrived after awhile and helped to hold the position. It was a terrible struggle! The British were unable to get any artillery up the hill, and had to depend entire on their rifles. The water-carriers also we unable to ascend, so that the soldiers had to fight throughout the whole day under a broiling sun without anything to quench their thirst.
The battle raged incessantly throughout the whole day, being the most severe which had yet been fought in this campaign. The naval guns from Mount Alice assisted very materially by dropping lyddite shells among the Boers. The enemy, however, fought most courageously, trying to recover the lost position and to drive the British from Intabamriyama. At last, however, they had recourse to treachery. Slinging their rifles on their backs and waving a white flag, a number of them approached to within a short distance of the foremost trench occupied by the British. The latter, thinking the Boers intended to surrender, fixed bayonets and advanced to capture them. Immediately, however, on exposing themselves, a deadly hail of shell, shrapnel, and rifle bullets was poured into them from the enemy's position, causing them to retreat with heavy loss.
General Woodgate, who had conducted the attack so ably, was severely wounded, and Colonel Bloomfield took command. The latter also was wounded, and was succeeded by Colonel Crofton, who was likewise wounded,so terrific was the fire from the enemy. Colonel Thorneycroft, being the next in seniority, now took command, which he maintained to the close of the battle.
The incessant firing continued until 8 p.m. when darkness prevented further fighting. It now became apparent to Colonel Thorneycrof that it would be unwise to hold the position any longer, for without artillery it would be madness to attempt a further attack upon the enemy's positions. The men in the trenches were also famished for want of food, and parched with thirst. The Colonel therefore ordered the men to retire from the position which they had so gallantly won and so bravely held against such overwhelming odds. The men were loth to obey the command, but, finding that the Colonel had ordered it, they were obliged to comply, feeling that what had been so dearly bought was now being thrown back to the enemy.
General Lyttleton had also been engaged on the opposite side of the enemy's position. Towards midday he despatched the 3rd King' Royal Rifles — the gallant 6oth — under Colonel Riddell to attack Spion Kop from the east, and one of the most brilliant achievements of British arms was performed by them. The task set them seemed an impossible one. The mountain towered before them, presenting to their view its precipitous sides, up which it would be most difficult to climb even without opposition. But nobly did they face the dangers and difficulties of scaling the mountain side. For awhile they appeared to be unobserved, and climbed on unmolested, for probably the enemy were engaged too closely with Sir Charles Warren's column. Suddenly, however, as they approached the top, a perfect hail of shot and shell was poured into them. Nothing daunted, they pushed on, clambering up over rocks and boulders, with comrades falling on all sides, until the summit was reached; and there from below could be seen a rifleman standing on the mountain peak of Spion Kop, waving his arms in joy at being the first on the enemy's position. Truly it was a grand achievement, and one which should make the heart of every Briton glow with pride.
The British were now in possession of each end of the Boer position. Sir Charles Warren's party was entrenched on the western extremity of Intabamnyama, and the King's Royal Rifles were in possession of the eastern extremity— Spion Kop. The Boers, however, still clung tenaciously to the central portion between these two positions, whence they sent a deadly hail of missiles into the British on either side. They were also strongly entrenched on the north, being thus able to send in a withering cross-fire.
Colonel Riddell, as evening drew on, came to the same conclusion as Colonel Thorneycroft, that it would be disastrous to continue to hold Spion Kop, for it would be impossible to get guns up the steep sides. He therefore gave the order to retire, and almost immediately afterwards was killed by a bullet in the head.
General Buller, who had been closely watching the battle from across the river, was highly elated at the success of his assailing parties, and considered that he had now obtained the key to the position for relieving Ladysmith. Artillery were despatched to climb the western slopes of Intabamnyama during the night, to assist on the morrow in routing the enemy. Great was his surprise and bitter his disappointment, therefore, to hear during the night that the position had been evacuated. He immediately rode off to Sir Charles Warren, arriving at five o'clock on Thursday morning; but it was too late to effect anything—the position had been evacuated, and it would mean another great loss of men to attempt to recapture it.
Soon after sunrise the Boers could be seen again walking about on the highland, which, the day before, had been occupied by the British. On the arrival of daylight a few Boers who had remained on the mountain fired a volley into the British trenches, and, getting no response, approached—to find they had gone. We say a few Boers, for they, too, had practically evacuated their positions. Sir George White, from Ladysmith, had watched the progress of the battle, and in, the afternoon had seen the Boer laagers and camps broken up, and long streams of waggons trekking northwards. They, evidently, also felt obliged to retire. But on the morrow again, from Lady-smith, were seen the same waggons returning, and the Boers once again in the positions from which they had been driven.
The key to the position was relinquished!