Spearman's Hill: January 13, 1900.
Secrets usually leak out in a camp, no matter how many people are employed to keep them. For two days before January 10 rumours of an impending move circulated freely. There are, moreover, certain signs by which anyone who is acquainted with the under machinery of an army can tell when operations are imminent. On the 6th we heard that orders had been given to clear the Pietermaritzburg hospitals of all patients, evidently because new inmates were expected. On the 7th it was reported that the hospitals were all clear. On the 8th an ambulance train emptied the field hospitals at Frere, and that same evening there arrived seven hundred civilian stretcher-bearers—brave men who had volunteered to carry wounded under fire, and whom the army somewhat ungratefully nicknames the 'Body-snatchers.' Nor were these grim preparations the only indications of approaching activity. The commissariat told tales of accumulations of supplies—twenty-one days' packed in waggons—of the collection of transport oxen and other details, meaningless by themselves, but full of significance when viewed side by side with other circumstances. Accordingly I was scarcely surprised when, chancing to ride from Chieveley to Frere on the afternoon of the 10th, I discovered the whole of Sir Charles Warren's division added to the already extensive camp.
This was the first move of the complicated operations by which Sir Redvers Buller designed to seize the passage of the Tugela at Potgieter's Ferry: Warren (seven battalions, comprising Coke's and Woodgate's Brigades and five batteries) from Estcourt to Frere. When I got back to Chieveley all was bustle in the camp. Orders to march at dawn had arrived. At last the long pause was finished; waiting was over; action had begun.
So far as Chieveley was concerned, the following was the programme: Barton's Brigade to entrench itself strongly and to remain before Colenso, covering the head of the line of communications, and demonstrating against the position; Hildyard's Brigade to move westward at daylight on the 11th to Pretorius's Farm; cavalry, guns, and baggage (miles of it) to take a more circuitous route to the same place. Thither also Hart was to move from Frere, joining Hildyard and forming Clery's division. Warren was to rest until the next day. The force for the relief of Ladysmith, exclusive of Barton's Brigade and communication troops, was organised as follows:
Commander-in-Chief: SIR REDVERS BULLER
CLERY'S DIVISION Warren's Division
consisting of consisting of
Hildyard's Brigade, Lyttelton's Brigade,
Hart's Brigade, Woodgate's Brigade,
1 squad. 13th Hussars, 1 squad. 15th Hussars,
3 batteries, 3 batteries,
Coke's Brigade (3 battalions),
1 field battery R.A.,
1 howitzer battery R.A.,
2 4.7-inch naval guns and Naval Brigade,
8 long-range naval 12-pounder guns,
1 squadron 13th Hussars,
1st Royal Dragoons.
4 squadrons South African Light Horse.
1 squadron Imperial Light Horse.
Bethune's Mounted Infantry.
Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry.
1 squadron Natal Carabineers.
1 squadron Natal Police.
1 company K.R.R. Mounted Infantry.
6 machine guns.
Or, to sum the whole up briefly, 19,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 60 guns.
All were busy with their various tasks—Barton's Brigade entrenching, making redoubts and shelter pits, or block-houses of railway iron; the other brigades packing up ready for the march as night closed in. In the morning we started. The cavalry were responsible for the safety of the baggage convoy, and with Colonel Byng, who commanded the column, I waited and watched the almost interminable procession defile. Ox waggons piled high with all kinds of packages, and drawn sometimes by ten or twelve pairs of oxen, mule waggons, Scotch carts, ambulance waggons, with huge Red Cross flags, ammunition carts, artillery, slaughter cattle, and, last of all, the naval battery, with its two enormous 4.7-inch pieces, dragged by long strings of animals, and guarded by straw-hatted khaki-clad bluejackets, passed in imposing array, with here and there a troop of cavalry to protect them or to prevent straggling. And here let me make an unpleasant digression. The vast amount of baggage this army takes with it on the march hampers its movements and utterly precludes all possibility of surprising the enemy. I have never before seen even officers accommodated with tents on service, though both the Indian frontier and the Soudan lie under a hotter sun than South Africa. But here to day, within striking distance of a mobile enemy whom we wish to circumvent, every private soldier has canvas shelter, and the other arrangements are on an equally elaborate scale. The consequence is that roads are crowded, drifts are blocked, marching troops are delayed, and all rapidity of movement is out of the question. Meanwhile, the enemy completes the fortification of his positions, and the cost of capturing them rises. It is a poor economy to let a soldier live well for three days at the price of killing him on the fourth. 
We marched off with the rearguard at last, and the column twisted away among the hills towards the west. After marching about three miles we reached the point where the track from Frere joined the track from Chieveley, and here two streams of waggons flowed into one another like the confluence of rivers. Shortly after this all the mounted forces with the baggage were directed to concentrate at the head of the column, and, leaving the tardy waggons to toil along at their own pace, we trotted swiftly forward. Pretorius's Farm was reached at noon—a tin-roofed house, a few sheds, a dozen trees, and an artificial pond filled to the brim by the recent rains. Here drawn up in the spacious plain were the Royal Dragoons—distinguished from the Colonial Corps by the bristle of lances bare of pennons above their ranks and by their great horses—one squadron of the already famous Imperial Light Horse, and Bethune's Mounted Infantry. The Dragoons remained at the farm, which was that night to be the camping place of Clery's division. But all the rest of the mounted forces, about a thousand men, and a battery of artillery were hurried forward to seize the bridge across the Little Tugela at Springfield.
So on we ride, 'trot and walk,' lightly and easily over the good turf, and winding in scattered practical formations among the beautiful verdant hills of Natal. Presently we topped a ridge and entered a very extensive basin of country—a huge circular valley of green grass with sloping hills apparently on all sides and towards the west, bluffs, rising range above range, to the bright purple wall of the Drakensberg. Other valleys opened out from this, some half veiled in thin mist, others into which the sun was shining, filled with a curious blue light, so that one seemed to be looking down into depths of clear water, and everyone rejoiced in the splendours of the delightful landscape.
But now we approached Springfield, and perhaps at Springfield we should find the enemy. Surely if they did not oppose the passage they would blow up the bridge. Tiny patrols—beetles on a green baize carpet—scoured the plain, and before we reached the crease—scarcely perceptible at a mile's distance, in which the Little Tugela flows—word was brought that no Dutchmen were anywhere to be seen. Captain Gough, it appeared, with one man had ridden over the bridge in safety; more than that, had actually explored three miles on the further side: did not believe there was a Boer this side of the Tugela: would like to push on to Potgieter's and make certain: 'Perhaps we can seize Potgieter's to-night. They don't like having a flooded river behind them.' So we come safely to Springfield—three houses, a long wooden bridge 'erected by public subscription, at a cost of 4,300l.'—half a dozen farms with their tin roofs and tree clumps seen in the neighbourhood—and no Boers. Orders were to seize the bridge: seized accordingly; and after all had crossed and watered in the Little Tugela—swollen by the rains to quite a considerable Tugela, eighty yards wide—we looked about for something else to do.
Meanwhile more patrols came in; all told the same tale: no Boers anywhere. Well, then, let us push on. Why not seize the heights above Potgieter's? If held, they would cost a thousand men to storm; now, perhaps, they might be had for nothing. Again, why not? Orders said, 'Go to Springfield;' nothing about Potgieter's at all. Never mind—if cavalry had never done more than obey their orders how different English history would have been! Captain Birdwood, 11th Bengal Lancers, glorious regiment of the Indian frontier, now on Lord Dundonald's staff, was for pushing on. All and sundry were eager to get on. 'Have a dash for it.' It is very easy to see what to do in the field of war until you put on the thick blue goggles of responsibility. Dundonald reflected, reflected again, and finally resolved. Vorwärts! So on we went accordingly. Three hundred men and two guns were left to hold the Springfield bridge, seven hundred men and four guns hurried on through the afternoon to Potgieter's Ferry, or, more properly speaking, the heights commanding it, and reached them safely at six o'clock, finding a strong position strengthened by loopholed stone walls, unguarded and unoccupied. The whole force climbed to the top of the hills, and with great labour succeeded in dragging the guns with them before night. Then we sent back to announce what we had done and to ask for reinforcements.
The necessity for reinforcements seemed very real to me, for I have a wholesome respect for Boer military enterprise; and after the security of a great camp the dangers of our lonely unsupported perch on the hills came home with extra force. 'No Boers this side of the Tugela.' How did we know? We had not seen any, but the deep valleys along the river might easily conceal two thousand horsemen. I said to myself, the Boer has always a reason for everything he does. He left the Springfield bridge standing. It would have cost him nothing to blow it up. Why, then, had he neglected this obvious precaution? Again, the position we had seized had actually been fortified by the enemy. Why, then, had they abandoned it to a parcel of horsemen without a shot fired? I could quite understand that the flooded Tugela was not a satisfactory feature to fight in front of, but it seemed certain that they had some devilry prepared for us somewhere. The uninjured bridge appeared to me a trap: the unguarded position a bait. Suppose they were, we should be attacked at daylight. Nothing more than a soldier should always expect; but what of the position? The line we had to hold to cover the approaches to our hill-top was far greater than seven hundred men could occupy. Had we been only cavalry and mounted men we could have fallen back after the position became untenable, but we were encumbered with four field-guns—a source of anxiety, not of strength. So I began to long for infantry. Two thousand good infantry would make everything absolutely secure. And ten miles away were infantry by thousands, all delighted to march every mile nearer the front.
We passed a wet and watchful night without food or sleep, and were glad to find the break of day unbroken by the musketry of a heavy attack. From our lofty position on the heights the whole country beyond the Tugela was spread like a map. I sat on a great rock which overhung the valley, and searched the landscape inch by inch with field glasses. After an hour's study my feeling of insecurity departed. I learned the answer to the questions which had perplexed the mind. Before us lay the 'devilry' the Boers had prepared, and it was no longer difficult to understand why the Springfield bridge had been spared and the heights abandoned.
The ground fell almost sheer six hundred feet to the flat bottom of the valley. Beneath, the Tugela curled along like a brown and very sinuous serpent. Never have I seen such violent twists and bends in a river. At times the waters seemed to loop back on themselves. One great loop bent towards us, and at the arch of this the little ferry of Potgieter's floated, moored to ropes which looked through the field glasses like a spider's web. The ford, approached by roads cut down through the steep bank, was beside it, but closed for the time being by the flood. The loop of river enclosed a great tongue of land which jutted from the hills on the enemy's side almost to our feet. A thousand yards from the tip of this tongue rose a line of low kopjes crowned with reddish stones. The whole tongue was virtually ours. Our guns on the heights or on the bank could sweep it from flank to flank, enfilade and cross fire. Therefore the passage of the river was assured. We had obtained what amounted to a practical bridgehead, and could cross whenever we thought fit. But the explanation of many things lay beyond. At the base of the tongue, where it sprang from the Boer side of the valley, the ground rose in a series of gentle grassy slopes to a long horseshoe of hills, and along this, both flanks resting securely on unfordable reaches of the river, out of range from our heights of any but the heaviest guns, approachable by a smooth grass glacis, which was exposed to two or three tiers of cross-fire and converging fire, ran the enemy's position. Please look at the sketch below, which shows nothing but what it is meant to.
It will be seen that there is no difficulty in shelling the Boers out of the little kopjes, of fortifying them, and of passing the army on to the tip of the tongue; but to get off the tongue on to the smooth plateau that runs to Ladysmith it was necessary to force the tremendous Boer position enclosing the tongue. In technical language the possession of the heights virtually gave us a bridgehead on the Tugela, but the debouches from that bridgehead were barred by an exterior line of hills fortified and occupied by the enemy.
What will Sir Redvers Buller do? In a few hours we shall know. To cross and deliver a frontal attack will cost at least three thousand men. Is a flank attack possible? Can the position be turned? Fords few and far between, steep banks, mighty positions on the further banks: such are some of the difficulties. But everyone has confidence in the general. An officer who had been serving on the Kimberley side came here. 'I don't understand,' he said, 'how it is you are all so cheerful here after Colenso. You should hear the troops at Modeler River.' But it is a poor army that cannot take a repulse and come up smiling, and when the private soldiers put their faith in any man they are very constant. Besides, Buller's personality impresses everyone with the idea of some great reserve of force. Certainly he has something up his sleeve. The move to Potgieter's has been talked of for a month and executed with the greatest ostentation and deliberation. Surely something lies behind it all. So at least we all believe, and in the meanwhile trust wholeheartedly.
But some part of the army will certainly cross at Potgieter's; and as I looked down on the smooth smiling landscape it seemed very strange to think that in a few days it would blaze into a veritable hell. Yet the dark lines of shelter trenches, the redoubts crowning the hills, the bristle of tiny black figures busily entrenching against the sky line, hundreds of horses grazing in the plain, all promised a fierce and stubborn defence. I turned about. The country to the southward was also visible. What looked to the naked eye like an endless thin rope lay streaked across the spacious veldt, and when I looked through the glass I saw that it was ten or twelve miles of marching men and baggage. The armies were approaching. The collision impended.
Nothing happened during the day except the capture of the ferry, which daring enterprise was carried out by volunteers from the South African Light Horse. Six swimmers, protected by a covering party of twenty men, swam the flooded Tugela and began to haul the punt back, whereat the Boers concealed in the kopjes opened a brisk fire at long range on the naked figures, but did not hit anyone nor prevent them all from bringing the punt safely to our side: a dashing exploit, of which their regiment—the 'Cockyolibirds,' as the army, with its customary irreverence, calls us on account of the cock's feather cockades we wear in our hats (miserable jealousy!)—are immensely proud.
The falling of the Tugela increased the danger of our position, and I was delighted when I woke up the next morning, the second of our adventurous occupation, to find Colonel Sandbach, to whom I had confided my doubts, outside my tent, saying 'I suppose you'll be happy now. Two battalions have arrived.' And, sure enough, when I looked southwards, I saw a steady rivulet of infantry trickling through the gorge, and forming a comfortable brown inundation in the hollow where our camp lay. A few minutes later Sir Redvers Buller and his staff rode up to see things for themselves, and then we knew that all was well.
The General made his way to the great stone we call the observatory, and lying down on his back peered through a telescope in silence for the best part of an hour. Then he went off to breakfast with the Cavalry Brigade staff. A few officers remained behind to take a still more exhaustive view. 'There'll be some wigs on that green before long.' 'What a wonderful sight it will be from here!' 'What a place to see a battle from!' Two artillerymen were loitering near. Said one: 'We ought to have the Queen up here, in her little donkey carriage.' 'Ah, we'd do it all right then,' replied his comrade. But when I looked at the peaceful plain and reflected on the storm and tumult presently to burst upon it, I could not help being glad that no gentle eye would view that bloody panorama.
This complaint was not in one respect justified by what followed, for after we left Spearman's we only saw our tents for a day or two, and at rare intervals, until Ladysmith was relieved.
Vide map, opposite p. 366, which will be found to illustrate the subsequent letters.