FIRST IMPRESSIONS—UNDER FIRE—THE 12-POUNDERS IN THE ACTION OF OCTOBER 30—A GENERAL RETIREMENT—THE FIRST WOUNDED—MOVING THE 4.7's—THE FIRST CAMP.
' HULLO, who are you chaps ?' said a hard-worked sergeant of the Army Service Corps, as the truck-loads of strange-looking khaki-clad figures, with their straw hats enveloped in brown-stained linen covers, drew up near the detraining platform. ' Oh’ answered the loquacious yeoman of signals,' don't you know who we are ? We're the Naval Brigade from the "Powerful’" with a 'and-don't-you-forget-it' kind of air. 'How's the fight going?' 'Oh, we're knocking spots out of them, and our cavalry are chasing them round the back of that hill’ pointing to a long flat-topped mountain to .the eastward. ' Didn't you see any of them running away as you came along ?' One had to acknowledge missing the entertaining spectacle, and further conversation was put a stop to by the trains moving on into the station.
The arrival was heralded by a few shells from what was afterwards ascertained to be the Boer 6-inch gun, the same weapon which had played a prominent part in forcing our troops to evacuate Dundee a few days before, and which had already been christened and soon became celebrated as ' Long Tom of Pepworth Hill.' The shells, with a sickening scream, passed close over the railway station, causing a universal' ducking' of heads amongst the officers and men who were hurriedly detraining, and it was with curiously inquiring expressions on their faces that they watched these deadly missiles burst a few hundred yards away in an open space where there was no chance of their damaging anybody. ' That's all right,' said one of the midshipmen, with a smile of satisfaction upon his youthful countenance ; ' we've been under fire and we shall get the medal anyhow!'
The general feeling manifest amongst the townspeople, with whom one entered into conversation appeared to be one of the utmost astonishment and surprise, that a lot of farmers should have the supreme audacity to actually bombard the town. They were so astonished as to be almost amused, and seemed quite confident that the advent of naval guns was just the one thing necessary to put a stop to such a foolish ' error of judgment' on the part of the enemy.
The detraining platform was quite close to one of the main roads through the town, and if the previous information was correct, it appeared to the ' simple sailor,' from the continual stream of ambulance wagons and dhoolies full of wounded coming down this road from the fight, that if a victory was being won, it was at a somewhat heavy price.
This was no time, however, to stand still and talk and be fired at, and in a very short time definite orders were received, and three 12-pounders were unloaded from the train and sent out into the midst of the fight which was proceeding on the northern side of the town, a boy on a bicycle going on ahead to show the way. The wooden trail of each gun carriage was lashed to the back of a wagon drawn by sixteen oxen, the wagon thus occupying the position of the limber of an ordinary field gun. With the ammunition following in other wagons, this curious-looking procession proceeded rapidly along the Newcastle Road for two miles, amidst a continuous roar of musketry in the distance on their left front (the Gloucester and Irish Fusiliers in their disastrous position at Nicholson's Nek), the din of the artillery firing shrapnel shell at Long Tom, and the still greater din of Long Tom returning their fire. Finally the guns arrived at a position on the southern side of Limit Hill, where they ' unlimbered ' and prepared to engage Long Tom, over the crest of the hill.
No sooner were they ready to fire, than up dashed an A.D.C. from Colonel Knox, under whose direction the guns were being advanced, to say that as the Boers were threatening the town on the left, a general retirement of our troops had been ordered and was already in progress, and on somebody venturing to doubt this hardly credible intelligence, he remarked, ‘ Well, we are only waiting for our right to retire.' The right did retire a few moments afterwards, rather hurriedly, with Long Tom's 94-lb. shells bursting amongst them, so there was nothing for it but to attach the trails of the 12-pounders to the wagons again and retire also, the ammunition wagons being sent on ahead and one company of bluejackets, under Lieutenant Hodges, covering the retirement.
The guns came under a heavy and accurate fire from Long Tom as they got into the open, and the foremost one was overturned by a bursting shell, one wheel being knocked off the carriage, and three of the bluejackets wounded. ' Where are the gun's crew ?' asked Captain Lambton, as he came galloping up amidst the smoke and dust of the shell; ‘ have they deserted their gun ?'
‘I am afraid they are all badly wounded, sir,' said the Gunner.
'Good,’ was the answer; 'that is better than running away from their gun.'
Fearing it would fall into the hands of the enemy, steps were immediately taken to render this gun useless, and the ‘ striker,' by the action of which the cartridge is exploded, was taken out of the breechblock, and an attempt made to damage the screw threads inside the breech with stones (they were luckily easily repaired afterwards). The oxen which had been dragging this gun had bolted in the general excitement, but a fresh team was procured, and with the assistance of the company who were covering the retirement, the gun was righted, the wheel put on the carriage, and the whole dragged to a place of comparative safety on Gordon Hill.
The other two 12-pounders had meanwhile unlimbered and come into action on the level plain in front of Gordon Hill, and had opened such an accurate fire on Long Tom's position with common shell that, at the third shot, the officer in the war balloon, who was watching the progress of the battle, reported that the enemy's gun was ‘knocked out’ and that the gun's crew had taken to their heels. The range was between 6,000 and 7,000 yards, and the honour of laying and sighting the guns so accurately belongs to Mr. Sims, the Gunner of the Brigade. A few more shots were fired at Long Tom without eliciting any reply, and the fight practically ceased with the silencing of this gun. [Whatever damage was done to this gun it could not have been considerable, as, though silenced for the remainder of the day, it opened fire again early on the following morning.]
Sir George White appeared on the scene as the damaged 12-pounder was being dragged to a place of security, and congratulated Captain Lambton on the splendid practice made, thanking him, saying that the Navy's opportune arrival had saved the situation. Though it was late in the progress of the fight, and the general retirement had actually been ordered when the naval 12-pounders arrived upon the scene of action, there is no doubt that the sudden appearance of long-range guns capable of paying the enemy back in his own coin, and of reaching with common shell a gun position, where he imagined himself to be out of range, caused him to reflect and pause in his intended swoop on the town.
The second company, under Lieutenant Halsey, ran out the naval field gun past Junction Hill and along the Newcastle road, but had not gone far when they were informed that they were 'running into the Boers,' so this gun also retired to Gordon Hill, and, being a gun of shorter range than the 'long' 12-pounders, did not come into action on that day.
While these exciting events were happening a few miles to the north of the town, the Gunnery Lieutenant had been taken out by the Officer Commanding R.E., and shown the position in which it was proposed to mount the first 4.7 gun, on a hill known as Cove Redoubt, a mile to the north-west of the town and occupied up to this time by the Natal Naval Volunteers with a 7-pounder; whilst down at the station the two Engineer officers, assisted by the 4.7 guns' crews, the gun-mounting party of stokers, and a yelling, chanting mob of Kaffir coolies, were employed the whole of this ' mournful Monday,' as the day was afterwards known, in getting the guns, gun-mountings, and the gear for building up the gun platforms, &c, &c, off the trains and into their respective wagons.
By 4 P.M. the two 4.7 guns and their mountings, ammunition, &c, occupying altogether eleven bullock-wagons, were ready to move off, but orders were received to wait till darkness set in to obtain greater security from the enemy's fire, and to move only one of the guns to its position that night, for no spot had yet been selected on which to mount the second. Lieutenant Hodges and his company, who had by this time come back from the fight, were left to guard the second gun ; and as soon as it was dusk the first and its gear, filling six wagons each drawn by sixteen oxen, started off for Cove Redoubt under the guidance of the Gunnery Lieutenant and a Colonial conductor, with a small party of bluejackets as an escort. The gun was not destined to get to its position that night, however, for the string of wagons had not gone very far when the foremost of them stuck in a very narrow passage across a gully, the efforts of the oxen to extract it proving useless, despite the frantic wielding of the long whips, and the abusive language of the Kaffir boys, whose final and most withering form of vituperation was to stigmatise each bullock separately as a ' Verdomde Doschman’—had they been working for the Boers under a similar condition of things he would have been called a ' Verdomde Rooinek.' The way for the remaining wagons being thus blocked through the sticking of the one in front, they were taken back and placed out of sight of the enemy under the friendly shelter of Gordon Hill for the night, the wagon which had caused all the trouble being left where it was, till daybreak and a double team of oxen enabled it to be moved away.
The two 12-pounders which had so successfully engaged Long Tom were dragged at dusk to the top of Gordon Hill, where the other 12-pounder, the field-gun, and the four Maxims had already been placed; and behind this formidable array of weapons of war, tents were pitched by the tired and travel-stained sailors; bread, tinned meat and coffee were served out, and, with the exception of the numerous sentries, all were soon asleep.
As the Brigade had brought no tents with it, it had to take what could be had on arrival at Ladysmith, and be thankful for them, though many were so thin and worn, and others so full of holes, that they were very little protection either from the sun or bad weather.
A rather amusing incident happened when the tents were ready to be served out to the men, who were somewhat scattered and hard to get together in the dark. One of the buglers who was gifted with exceedingly powerful lungs was ordered to sound the ' Assembly' so as to bring the men together, which he did with somewhat startling results, as not only did the bluejackets collect, but, in a few minutes, mounted officers and orderlies came galloping up from far and near with concerned expressions on their faces and anxious inquiries as to why ' the Alarm ' had been sounded. 'Alarm be damned,' said the lieutenant who had ordered it; ‘ that's what we call " the Assembly " in the Navy.'
The sentries on the camp and guns had to be particularly vigilant all through the night, for, apart from the fact that there were known to be many Boer sympathisers in the town, who would do any damage to the guns they possibly could do, if they only got the chance, it was thought very likely that the Boers after their success of the previous day might attempt to rush the town during the night. ' Powerful' and ' Terrible' were the password and countersign, and all night the sharp challenge, 'Halt! who goes there ?' kept ringing out as one or other of the bluejackets who had formed the escort for the 4.7 wagons, and had lost his way in the dark, came tumbling into camp.
'Halt! Who goes there?' 'Friend.' 'Halt, friend, and give the password.' 'Powerful' comes the weary reply. 'Advance, "Powerful," and give the countersign.' Up the slope of the hill comes the sailor, falling over rocks and boulders in the darkness, growling out as he rubs his injured limbs,' Terrible, Terrible; all right, Jerry, can't yer see it's me?' With one keen look at his face ‘ Jerry' passes him on to the next post, till he finally staggers into camp, as yet hardly appreciating the joys of war, and swearing softly to himself as he mutters,' Terrible ? I calls it 'orrible!' sinks down in the first convenient spot, and, with his straw hat for a pillow, sleeps the sleep of a tired-out man till daybreak.
The guns brought up to Ladysmith by the Naval Brigade:
Two 4.7 Q.F. guns, to be mounted on wooden platforms.
Three 12-pounder (weight, 12 cwt.) Q.F. guns on Percy Scott's field carriages.
One 12-pounder (weight, 8 cwt.) naval field gun. Four Maxims, three mounted on field carriages and one on a tripod stand.
Common shell – 200 rounds
Lyddite – 200 rounds
Shrapnel – 200 rounds
For 12 pounders:
Common shell – 788 rounds
Lyddite – 396 rounds
Case shot – 24 rounds
Lee-Metford ammunition, besides the 150 rounds carried by each man – 39,000 rounds
Maxim gun ammunition – 64,000 rounds
For revolvers – 5,400 rounds