After the retirement from Intabamnyama and Spion Kop, General Buller decided to withdraw the whole of the troops to the south side of the Tugela. Sir Charles Warren therefore at once withdrew his men from the camp at Venter Spruit, near Acton Homes ; and by January 27th, the whole column had moved across, taking with them all the transport. The retirement was most successful, and was carried out in a masterly manner. No opposition was made by the Boers, who had evidently suffered severely during the five days' fighting.
The second attempt at the relief of Lady-smith had failed ! Utterly failed! During those ten days the Tugela River had been successfully crossed, and after five days' continuous fighting the enemy's main position had been captured ; but now the British were resting quietly and sadly on the south side of the river! The price paid for their temporary victory had been great, for the casualty list numbered 1,660, of whom 300 were killed, including 32 gallant British officers. But the stout British hearts were not cowed; their faces did not express despair. They longed to be again in the fray to effect the relief of their beleaguered comrades, who they knew were now beginning to realise the terrible hardships of a lengthy siege.
The following week passed quietly, the men taking a much-needed rest after the exceptionally heavy and protracted fighting on and around Spion Kop. On Sunday afternoon, February 4th, however, it became evident that General Buller was contemplating another move, for a portion of the infantry and artillery marched towards Potgieter's Drift and bivouacked for the night. On Monday morning they crossed the river at the drift and advanced towards the enemy's front or central position on the Brakfontein Ridges. The naval guns on Zwartkop commenced a heavy fire of lyddite shells at 7 a.m., to which there was no response until the field batteries and the Lancashire Regiment had advanced to within range of the Boer rifles, when a deadly fusilade of shot and shrapnel was poured into them. A halt was made, and the artillery, although exposed to the heavy fire of the enemy, commenced to rake the Boer trenches with bursting shells. This was kept up until 1.30 p.m., when the order was given to retire, which had to be carried out under a tremendous cross-fire ; fortunately, however, comparatively few casualties occurred.
This frontal attack had, however, only been a feint on the part of General Buller to occupy the attention of the Boers while the real attacking party crossed the river at Skiet's Drift, to the east of Zwartkop. At this point, during the morning, the Engineers had rapidly constructed a pontoon bridge, over which the Durham Regiment passed and proceeded north wards to attack the enemy's positions on the eastern extremity of the Brakfontein Ridges, called Vaal Krantz, and also the Krantz Kloof Kopjes. The Durhams, who formed the advance party of General Lyttleton's Brigade, and who were supported by the Rifle Brigade, now pushed rapidly on towards Vaal Krantz, being subjected the while to a deadly rifle fire. They pressed steadily on, disregarding the whistling bullets and shrieking shells, until at last, fixing bayonets and cheering at the top of their voices, they charged the enemy on the top of the hill crest. The Boers, however, would not wait for the cold steel, but bolted precipitately to their main position on the Brakfontein. A few wounded and unwounded Boers were captured, and the remainder in their flight were subjected to a hot fusilade from the Durhams. The Devons also advanced and captured an adjoining kopje, driving the Boers before them. As night fell the British hearts were hopeful, feeling that they had now established themselves with a firm footing on the north side of the Tugela River.
The gallant soldiers on the captured positions did not rest during this Monday night, although they were tired with the hard day's fighting, for they knew that on the morrow they would be attacked by the enemy. The night was therefore spent in erecting schanzes and making shelters for protection from artillery fire.
The Boers also were preparing for the morrow. During the night they moved a number of heavy guns and machine guns from the west to positions commanding the captured hills; so that on the return of daylight next morning the British infantry found they were exposed to a terrible cross-fire of shot and shell opened upon them. But nobly unheeding the withering fire, they advanced during the day and took another kopje.
At four o'clock the same afternoon a brave attempt was made by 600 of the enemy to recapture the lost positions, but they were repulsed with heavy loss. The artillery fire during the day had been working havoc among the infantry. The enemy had fixed a disappearing gun on Doom Kloof Hill, to the east, which fired a too-pound shell, and which defied the British gunners on Zwartkop to locate its position ; but during the afternoon a column of smoke shot up into the air, like a great waterspout, indicating that its ammunition magazine had been blown up by a shell from the naval guns.
On Wednesday morning the position remained unchanged, the soldiers having again to endure a hot cross-fire from the enemy. General Buller, finding that the Boers were so strongly entrenched in a semicircle round the captured hills, decided to withdraw, as, although it might be possible to force a passage through to Ladysmith, it would cost probably 4,000 lives, which would be too great a sacrifice. It would also require a very strong force to keep open the Lines of Communication unless the Boers were completely routed and cleared from the district. During Wednesday night, therefore, the troops were withdrawn from Vaal Krantz—the position which had been won so bravely—and brought across the river. The withdrawal was successfully performed, every transport waggon crossing the river safely. It is needless to say that the disappointment among the men was bitter, but General Buller was acting wisely, as subsequent events proved.
The casualties sustained by the British were 250 killed and wounded, but the Boers must have suffered quite as severely from the effects of the lyddite shells, and also from the rifle fire during their attack on Tuesday afternoon.
The third attack had now been made, and, as on the two previous occasions, it had failed. It seemed incredible that this vast British army of trained soldiers should be thwarted and checked in this way by the undisciplined hordes of Boers and foreign mercenaries ; and the knowledge of this fact made it all the more galling to British pride. The imperturbable General Buller, however, was not at all disconcerted at these temporary failures. He fully realised the stupendous and almost impossible task before him, but did not shrink from again attempting to relieve the besieged garrison. His plans were soon formed. The whole of the column moved back again eastwards to Chieveley, to the old camp south of Colenso.
General Buller now decided to attack the enemy on its extreme left flank, and drive it in on its centre, instead of making another frontal attack, which had proved so disastrous on December 15th at Colenso. Accordingly on Wednesday, February 14th, a strong force of cavalry, supported by infantry, moved out of Chieveley at seven o'clock in the morning and marched direct to Hussar Hill—a Boer position five miles to the north-east. The movement was so smartly performed that the Boers were taken unawares, and the hill was captured by ten o'clock with very little resistance. In front of Hussar Hill now lay the Inhlangwana Mountain, which was due east of Colenso, and was strongly fortified by the enemy. To the east of Inhlangwana were the Monte Cristo and Cingolo hills, which formed the Boers' extreme left positions.
On the following day, Thursday, the infantry again advanced, with the cavalry on the right flank, towards the Cingolo hills. The country was most difficult to march over, being covered with the thorny mimosa tree, so that progress was necessarily slow. The Boers also kept up a continuous rifle fire, which hampered very much the advancing infantry ; but the progress was steady and sure, no turning back taking place. By Saturday the foot of the Cingolo range was reached, and although a stubborn resistance was made by the entrenched enemy, the infantry did not flinch, but marched up the hill, undeterred by the deadly hail of lead, and captured the position, the Boers flying in great confusion to Monte Cristo in the rear.
Success appeared to be at last attending the Relief Column, which was doubtless attributable to its being on the enemy's extreme flank, thus avoiding a murderous cross-fire. News was also received at this time of the relief of Kimberley on February 15th, which put renewed vigour into the men, and buoyed them up for the difficult task before them.
No time was lost. On the following day— Sunday, February 18th—General Lyttleton again advanced with his brigade from Cingolo and attacked Monte Cristo, which was also taken at the point of the bayonet. On Monte Cristo were found several Boer camps, which had been left intact through the hasty retreat of the occupants. Waggon-loads of ammunition were also found lying about which they had been obliged to leave in their flight. The filthy condition in which the camps were found surprised the British soldiers ; every place was in a most insanitary state, the stench arising therefrom being noticeable at a great distance.
The Inhlangwana Mountain now lay exposed to attack on two sides, and on the following day, Monday, the Boer trenches were searched so thoroughly with lyddite and shrapnel that on the advance of the British infantry with fixed bayonets the Boers fled, crossing the Tugela River over a flimsily constructed bridge, thus forsaking their last position on the south side of the river. Colenso was also occupied simultaneously by a force of infantry from Chieveley.
On the Inhlangwana Mountain were also found Boer camps, which had been hastily forsaken. A large quantity of provisions had been left behind, also tents, rifles, ammunition, and 1,700 pickaxes and shovels, which had been used in making the trenches. The village of Colenso presented a sad sight, for every house was more or less ruined. Everything of any value within the houses had been smashed or torn to atoms. In the station-master's office his papers were torn and strewn about the floor, and in the centre of the room was the partially decomposed carcass of a horse which had been tied by the halter to the letter-press and there left to die, probably of starvation. The railway bridge over the Tugela River was also completely destroyed ; the whole village and surroundings thus presenting a scene of wanton destruction.
The enemy's artillery now commenced to shell the British on the Inhlangwana and in Colenso; but the gallant troops were intent on victory, and nothing would deter them from following up their recent successes with still further success. On Wednesday, February 2ist, Sir Charles Warren's division crossed the river on a pontoon bridge, and immediately rushed the neighbouring kopjes, completely routing the Boers, who, however, made a very stubborn resistance. Fort Wylie was also occupied, the effects of lyddite being very visible on the shattered earthworks. The Boer strongholds were now exposed to view, and it was wonderful to see how extensive and carefully prepared were the trenches and bombproof chambers in which the enemy had taken shelter. A network of barbed-wire entanglements ran round the foot of each of the hills and along the river to prevent the charges of the infantry.
On the following day a further advance took place, and a determined attack was made on Grobelaar's Kloof Hill; but this strong position the infantry were unable to take, having to retire with heavy loss.
In front of the British force now stretched tier upon tier of undulating ridges and kopjes all occupied by the Boers, whose chief positions were Grobelaar's Kloof Hill on the near left, and Umbulwana Hill on the far right, on which could be seen the guns firing into Ladysmith.
As General Buller now found that it would be too difficult a task to force a way into Ladysmith by Grobelaar's Kloof Hill on the left, he determined to move towards Pieter's station on the right.
On Friday, February 23rd, General Hart, with the Irish Brigade, moved off to attack the enemy on Railway Hill and Pieter's Hill to the south-east of Pieter's station. In advancing they had to cross a bridge on the railway line, also an exposed piece of country beyond, where they were subjected to a most searching fire. They continued advancing, however, up Railway Hill, in spite of the hail of lead, and by sundown had reached the top, driving out the Boers and occupying their trenches.
As Saturday dawned they found that the enemy were on three sides of them, and the position was almost untenable on account of their cross-fire. Many of our brave men were shot as they lay in the trenches. The Inniskillings were almost wiped out, nearly every man of them having been either killed or wounded in the charge or while in the trenches. During the morning General Lyttleton's Brigade relieved them, but it was found that it would be impossible to advance further along the ridge, as the Boers were so securely entrenched.
On Sunday morning an armistice was asked for by the Boers to bury their dead, which was granted for a period of twelve hours. A strange stillness therefore hung around during this peaceful Sabbath day, which was the more marked after the continuous roar of battle during the past eleven days.
General Buller now saw that it would be inadvisable to press this attack from the west towards Pieter's Hill, and so decided to withdraw most of the men and attack from the south-east of the hill. On Monday, therefore, under cover of the artillery fire, which continued all day, the transport on the north side of the river recrossed over the pontoon bridge
and moved lower down. During Monday night the pontoon bridge was also moved and re-erected about two miles further down the river opposite Pieter's Hill. The field guns, mountain batteries, howitzers, and naval guns, were all placed in commanding positions on the northern slopes of Inhlangwana and Monte Cristo, facing the Boers on Railway Hill and Pieter's Hill opposite.
As the sun burst forth on Tuesday morning, February 27th, so also burst forth the roar of battle. The long array of artillery simply poured forth a continuous stream of lyddite, shrapnel, and common shells into the hills opposite, which were occupied by the enemy. To see the shells bursting among the trenches it seemed impossible that anything could live. Under cover of this terrible artillery fire the infantry brigades commenced to advance at ten o'clock.
General Barton's Brigade on the right climbed the steep sides of Pieter's Hill, while the remainder attacked Railway Hill. From the distance it looked like one long line of moving khaki, two miles in extent. There was now no stopping them ; they had been given the word to advance, and on they went. They heeded not the bullets from the Boer rifles, or the "pom-pom" shells from the Maxim-Nordenfeldts. It was, without doubt, the most magnificent charge of the whole campaign. It was irresistible! The Boers could not stand before it! They turned and fled! Trench after trench was captured, and where any resistance was shown by the Boers they were immediately bayonetted. By five o'clock the hills were captured, and the enemy was in full retreat. It was a proud moment to every British heart to see the gallant infantry standing on the sky-line of the captured positions waving their helmets on their bayonet-points ; and a mighty cheer rose from the artillery gunners in the valley below—a cheer that caused a thrill of joy to run through every brave heart that witnessed the scene. It was Amajuba Day ! — the nineteenth anniversary of the day when so many of our gallant men fell in the defence of Amajuba Hill. Truly this was a glorious way of blotting out the sad memories of that day. Never again would the Boers be able to boast of Amajuba Hill, for on this nineteenth anniversary they had been driven from almost impregnable positions like chaff before the wind.
The victory was complete. The enemy's defence was utterly broken. The effect of the lyddite was horribly manifest in the enemy's trenches. In some cases the corpses were yellow from the fumes, and in others the mangled remains indicated how terrible were its destructive powers. Many dead were found in the trenches. In one place was the body of a woman of fifty, and in another a young woman wounded in the chest, who stated that her husband had made her fight as she was a good shot. She died the next day. Sixty prisoners were taken, hundreds were killed, and the remainder had fled.
The British casualties for the fortnight's fighting, commencing on February 14th, amounted to no officers killed and wounded, and 1,500 men. These numbers, though apparently large, were really small when we consider the terrible amount of severe fighting which was gone through.
On Tuesday night, after their defeat, the Boers commenced to remove their camps and trek away. During Wednesday long strings of waggons could be seen making towards the north of Ladysmith, and others in the direction of the Drakensberg, westwards.
On Wednesday morning General Buller's main column made its way towards Ladysmith, winding along over the steep and stony hills around Pieter's station. It met with but slight resistance from a few mounted Boers who were protecting the rear of their transport column. The British force was now eager to reach Ladysmith, which was but a few miles off, with only small parties of straggling Boers between, and as the Cavalry Brigade, under Lord Dundonald, was nearing the town, the Imperial Light Horse and Natal Carbineers simply broke and galloped off towards the town, reaching it at six o'clock in the evening.
Ladysmith was relieved!