Hospital ship 'Maine': March 5, 1900.
At half-past twelve on the 23rd General Hart ordered his brigade to advance. The battalions, which were sheltering among stone walls and other hastily constructed cover on the reverse slope of the kopje immediately in front of that on which we stood, rose up one by one and formed in rank. They then moved off in single file along the railroad, the Inniskilling Fusiliers leading, the Connaught Rangers, Dublin Fusiliers, and the Imperial Light Infantry following in succession. At the same time the Durham Light Infantry and the 2nd Rifle Brigade began to march to take the place of the assaulting brigade on the advanced kopje. Wishing to have a nearer view of the attack, I descended the wooded hill, cantered along the railway—down which the procession of laden stretchers, now hardly interrupted for three days, was still moving—and, dismounting, climbed the rocky sides of the advanced kopje. On the top, in a little half-circle of stones, I found General Lyttelton, who received me kindly, and together we watched the development of the operation. Nearly a mile of the railway line was visible, and along it the stream of Infantry flowed steadily. The telescope showed the soldiers walking quite slowly, with their rifles at the slope. Thus far, at least, they were not under fire. The low kopjes which were held by the other brigades shielded the movement. A mile away the river and railway turned sharply to the right; the river plunged into a steep gorge, and the railway was lost in a cutting. There was certainly plenty of cover; but just before the cutting was reached the iron bridge across the Onderbrook Spruit had to be crossed, and this was evidently commanded by the enemy's riflemen. Beyond the railway and the moving trickle of men the brown dark face of Inniskilling Hill, crowned with sangars and entrenchments, rose up gloomy and, as yet, silent.
The patter of musketry along the left of the army, which reached back from the advanced kopjes to Colenso village, the boom of the heavy guns across the river, and the ceaseless thudding of the Field Artillery making a leisurely preparation, were an almost unnoticed accompaniment to the scene. Before us the Infantry were moving steadily nearer to the hill and the open ground by the railway bridge, and we listened amid the comparatively peaceful din for the impending fire storm.
The head of the column reached the exposed ground, and the soldiers began to walk across it. Then at once above the average fusillade and cannonade rose the extraordinary rattling roll of Mauser musketry in great volume. If the reader wishes to know exactly what this is like he must drum the fingers of both his hands on a wooden table, one after the other as quickly and as hard as he can. I turned my telescope on the Dutch defences. They were no longer deserted. All along the rim of the trenches, clear cut and jet black, against the sky stood a crowded line of slouch-hatted men, visible as far as their shoulders, and wielding what looked like thin sticks.
Far below by the red ironwork of the railway bridge—2,000 yards, at least, from the trenches—the surface of the ground was blurred and dusty. Across the bridge the Infantry were still moving, but no longer slowly—they were running for their lives. Man after man emerged from the sheltered railroad, which ran like a covered way across the enemy's front, into the open and the driving hail of bullets, ran the gauntlet and dropped down the embankment on the further side of the bridge into safety again. The range was great, but a good many soldiers were hit and lay scattered about the ironwork of the bridge. 'Pom-pom-pom,' 'pom-pom-pom,' and so on, twenty times went the Boer automatic gun, and the flights of little shells spotted the bridge with puffs of white smoke. But the advancing Infantry never hesitated for a moment, and continued to scamper across the dangerous ground, paying their toll accordingly. More than sixty men were shot in this short space. Yet this was not the attack. This was only the preliminary movement across the enemy's front.
The enemy's shells, which occasionally burst on the advanced kopje, and a whistle of stray bullets from the left, advised us to change our position, and we moved a little further down the slope towards the river. Here the bridge was no longer visible. I looked towards the hill-top, whence the roar of musketry was ceaselessly proceeding. The Artillery had seen the slouch hats, too, and forgetting their usual apathy in the joy of a live target, concentrated a most hellish and terrible fire on the trenches.
Meanwhile the afternoon had been passing. The Infantry had filed steadily across the front, and the two leading battalions had already accumulated on the eastern spurs of Inniskilling Hill. At four o'clock General Hart ordered the attack, and the troops forthwith began to climb the slopes. The broken ground delayed their progress, and it was nearly sunset by the time they had reached the furthest position which could be gained under cover. The Boer entrenchments were about four hundred yards away. The arête by which the Inniskillings had advanced was bare, and swept by a dreadful frontal fire from the works on the summit and a still more terrible flanking fire from the other hills. It was so narrow that, though only four companies were arranged in the firing line, there was scarcely room for two to deploy. There was not, however, the slightest hesitation, and as we watched with straining eyes we could see the leading companies rise up together and run swiftly forward on the enemy's works with inspiring dash and enthusiasm.
But if the attack was superb, the defence was magnificent; nor could the devoted heroism of the Irish soldiers surpass the stout endurance of the Dutch. The Artillery redoubled their efforts. The whole summit of the hill was alive with shell. Shrapnel flashed into being above the crests, and the ground sprang up into dust whipped by the showers of bullets and splinters. Again and again whole sections of the entrenchments vanished in an awful uprush of black earth and smoke, smothering the fierce blaze of the lyddite shells from the howitzers and heavy artillery. The cannonade grew to tremendous thundering hum. Not less than sixty guns were firing continuously on the Boer trenches. But the musketry was never subdued for an instant. Amid the smoke and the dust the slouch hats could still be seen. The Dutch, firm and undaunted, stood to their parapets and plied their rifles with deadly effect.
The terrible power of the Mauser rifle was displayed. As the charging companies met the storm of bullets they were swept away. Officers and men fell by scores on the narrow ridge. Though assailed in front and flank by the hideous whispering Death, the survivors hurried obstinately onward, until their own artillery were forced to cease firing, and it seemed that, in spite of bullets, flesh and blood would prevail. But at the last supreme moment the weakness of the attack was shown. The Inniskillings had almost reached their goal. They were too few to effect their purpose; and when the Boers saw that the attack had withered they shot all the straighter, and several of the boldest leapt out from their trenches and, running forward to meet the soldiers, discharged their magazines at the closest range. It was a frantic scene of blood and fury.
Thus confronted, the Irish perished rather than retire. A few men indeed ran back down the slope to the nearest cover, and there savagely turned to bay, but the greater part of the front line was shot down. Other companies, some from the Connaught Rangers, some headed by the brave Colonel Sitwell, from the Dublin Fusiliers, advanced to renew—it was already too late to support—the attack, and as the light faded another fierce and bloody assault was delivered and was repulsed. Yet the Irish soldiers would not leave the hill, and, persuaded at length that they could not advance further, they lay down on the ground they had won, and began to build walls and shelters, from behind which they opened a revengeful fire on the exulting Boers. In the two attacks both colonels, three majors, twenty officers, and six hundred men had fallen out of an engaged force of scarcely one thousand two hundred. Then darkness pulled down the curtain, and the tragedy came to an end for the day.
All through the night of the 23rd a heavy rifle fire was maintained by both sides. Stray bullets whistled about the bivouacs, and the South African Light Horse, who had selected a most sheltered spot to sleep in, had a trooper hit. There were a certain number of casualties along the whole front. As soon as it was daylight I rode out with Captain Brooke to learn what had happened in the night. We knew that the hill had not been carried before dusk, but hoped, since the combatants were so close together, that in the darkness the bayonet would have settled the matter.
We had just reached the hollow behind the advanced kopje from which I had watched the attack on the previous evening, when suddenly a shrapnel shell burst in the air above our heads with a sharp, startling bang. The hollow and slope of the hill were crowded with Infantry battalions lying down in quarter column. The bullets and splinters of the shell smote the ground on all sides. We were both mounted and in the centre of the cone of dispersion. I was immediately conscious that nothing had happened to me, though the dust around my horse was flicked up, and I concluded that everyone had enjoyed equally good fortune. Indeed, I turned to Brooke, and was about to elaborate my theory that shrapnel is comparatively harmless, when I saw some stir and turmoil and no less than eight men were picked up killed or wounded by this explosion. I have only once before seen in war such a successful shell, and on that occasion I was studying the effect from the other side.
My respect for modern artillery was mightily increased by this example of its power. Two more shells followed in quick succession. The first struck down four men, and broke in two the leg of an Infantry officer's charger, so that the poor beast galloped about in a circle, preventing his rider from dismounting for some time; the second shore along the Howitzer Battery, killing one soldier and wounding an officer, five soldiers, and three horses. All this occurred in a space of about two minutes, and the three shells between them accounted for nineteen men and four horses. Then the gun, which was firing 'on spec,' and could not see the effect of its fire, turned its attention elsewhere; but the thought forced itself on me, 'Fancy if there had been a battery.' The crowded Infantry waiting in support would certainly have been driven out of the re-entrant with frightful slaughter. Yet in a European war there would have been not one, but three or four batteries. I do not see how troops can be handled in masses under such conditions, even when in support and on reverse slopes. Future warfare must depend on the individual.
We climbed on to the top of the kopje, which was sprinkled with staff officers and others—all much interested in the exhibition of shell fire, which they discussed as a purely scientific question. Inniskilling Hill was still crowned with the enemy, though they no longer showed above their trenches. Its slopes were scored with numerous brown lines, the stone walls built by the attacking brigade during the night, and behind these the telescope showed the Infantry clustering thickly. The Boers on their part had made some new trenches in advance of those on the crest of the hill, so that the opposing firing lines were scarcely three hundred yards apart, which meant that everyone in them must lie still or run grave risks. Thus they remained all day, firing at each other continually, while on the bare ground between them the dead and wounded lay thickly scattered, the dead mixed with the living, the wounded untended, without dressings, food, or water, and harassed by the fire from both sides and from our artillery. It was a very painful thing to watch these poor fellows moving about feebly and trying to wriggle themselves into some position of safety, and it reminded me of the wounded Dervishes after Omdurman—only these were our own countrymen.
It seems that a misunderstanding, of the rights and wrongs of which the reader shall be himself a judge, arose with the enemy. When day broke, the Boers, who were much nearer to the wounded than were our troops, came out of their trenches with a Red Cross flag, and the firing thereupon ceased locally. Our people ought then to have been ready to come forward with another Red Cross flag, and an informal truce might easily have been arranged for an hour or two. Unfortunately, however, there was some delay on our part. The Boers therefore picked up their own wounded, of whom there were a few, gave some of our men a little water, and took away their rifles. All this was quite correct; but the Boers then proceeded to strip and despoil the dead and wounded, taking off their boots and turning out their pockets, and this so infuriated the watching soldiers behind the wall that they forthwith fired on the Boers, Red Cross flag notwithstanding. This, of course, was the signal for fighting to recommence fiercely, and during the day neither side would hear of parley. The Boers behaved cruelly in various instances, and several wounded men who tried to crawl away were deliberately destroyed by being shot at close quarters with many bullets.
During the 24th there was heavy firing on both sides, but no movement of infantry on either. The army suffered some loss from the Boer artillery, particularly the automatic guns, which were well served, and which enfiladed many of our positions on the slopes of the low kopjes. In this way Colonel Thorold, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and other officers, met their deaths. The casualties were principally in Hildyard's English and Kitchener's Lancashire Brigades. Hart's six battalions found good cover in the gorge of the Tugela.
Sir Redvers Buller now saw that his plan of filing his army round the angle of the river and across the enemy's front would, in any case, be very costly, and was perhaps impossible. He, therefore, determined to get back to the Hlangwani plateau, and try the extreme left of the enemy's position. He had the strategic advantage of being on interior lines, and was consequently able to move his troops with great ease from one flank to the other. His new plan was to pass the brigades of his left and centre across the pontoon bridge from the left to the right, so that Hart, who was formerly the extreme right, would now become almost the extreme left, and, having thus extended his right arm, to cross the river where it flowed east and west, and make a still wider swoop on the enemy's flank.
The first thing to do was to move the heavy guns, and this, with certain redistributions of the cavalry, occupied the whole day. A long-range four-gun naval battery was established on the western slopes of the Monte Cristo ridge. Another similar battery was placed on the spurs of Hlangwani. The 4.7-inch naval guns and the 5 in. fortress battery were brought into line in the centre of the Hlangwani plateau. All this was good. The big guns were getting back on to the big hills. The firing, which continued all day, swelled into a roar towards night as the Boers made vigorous attempts to drive Hart's Brigade from its lodgments. They were, however, foiled in their endeavour to squeeze in between the troops and the river.
The battalions, who were attacked frontally, lay down with fixed bayonets and prayed that the Boers might be encouraged by their silence to make an assault. The latter, however, were fully aware of the eagerness of the soldiers for personal collision, and kept their distance. The firing on both sides was unaimed, and very little harm was done. No one, however, had much sleep. The condition of the wounded, still lying sore and thirsty on the bare hillside, was now so shocking that Sir Redvers Buller was forced, much against his inclination, at dawn on the 25th, to send in a flag of truce to the Boer commander and ask for an armistice. This the Boers formally refused, but agreed that if we would not fire on their positions during the day they would not prevent our bearer companies from removing the wounded and burying the dead.
The arrangement worked well; the enemy were polite to our medical officers, and by noon all the wounded had been brought down and the dead buried. The neglect and exposure for forty-eight hours had much aggravated the case of the former, and the bodies of the dead, swollen, blackened, and torn by the terrible wounds of the expansive bullets, now so generally used by the enemy, were ugly things to see. The fact that no regular armistice was agreed on was an advantage, as we were not thereby debarred from making military movements. The Boers improved their entrenchments, and Sir Redvers Buller employed the day in withdrawing his train across the river. This movement, seeming to foreshadow another retreat, sorely disquieted the troops, who were only reassured by the promise of a general onslaught from the other flank at no distant time.
The strange quiet of this Sunday, the first day since the 14th of the month unbroken by musketry and cannonade, was terminated at nine o'clock at night.
The Boers had seen the waggons passing back over the bridge, and were anxious to find out whether or not the infantry were following, and if the low kopjes were evacuated. They therefore opened a tremendous magazine fire at long range on the brigades holding the line from Colenso village to the angle of the river. The fusillade was returned, and for ten minutes the musketry was louder than at any other time in this campaign. Very few casualties occurred, however, and after a while the Boers, having learned that the positions were still occupied, ceased firing, and the British soon imitated them, so that, except for the ceaseless 'sniping,' silence was restored.
At dawn on the 26th the artillery re-opened on both sides, and during the day a constant bombardment was maintained, in which we, having more guns, fired the greater number of shells, and the Dutch, having larger targets, hit a greater number of men. The losses were not, however, severe, except in view of the fact that they had to be endured by the infantry idly and passively.
Considerable movements of troops were made. Colenso and the kopjes about Fort Wylie were converted into a bridgehead, garrisoned by Talbot Coke's Brigade. A new line of communications was opened around the foot of Hlangwani. A pontoon bridge (B) was arranged ready to be thrown below the falls of the river, not far from the still intact Boer bridge. Hildyard's English Brigade stood fast on the advanced low kopjes forming the extreme left of the line. Hart's command held its position about the slopes of Inniskilling Hill and in the gorge of the river. Barton's Fusilier Brigade, Kitchener's Lancashire Brigade, and the two remaining battalions of Norcott's (formerly Lyttelton's) Brigade crossed the old bridge to the Hlangwani plateau.
All was now ready for the final attack on the left of the Pieters position, and in spite of the high quality of the Infantry it was generally recognised throughout the army that the fate of Ladysmith must depend on the success of the next day's operations. The spirit of the army was still undaunted, but they had suffered much from losses, exposure, and disappointment.
Since January 11, a period of more than six weeks, the troops had been continuously fighting and bivouacking. The peaceful intervals of a few days had merely been in order to replenish stores and ammunition. During this time the only reinforcements to reach the army had been a few drafts, a cavalry regiment, a horse battery, and some heavy guns. Exclusive of the 1,100 casualties suffered at Colenso in December, the force, rarely more than 20,000 men, had had over 3,500 killed and wounded, had never had a single gleam of success, and had hardly seen the enemy who hit them so hard.
Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Krantz, and the third day at Pieters were not inspiring memories, and though everyone was cheered by the good news of the entanglement of Cronje's army on the western side, yet it was felt that the attempt to be made on the morrow would be the last effort the Natal Field Army would be asked or allowed to make. And oppressed by these reflections we went anxiously to rest on the eve of Majuba Day.