General White forced to fight—The order of battle—Leviathan—The Boers reinforced—A retrograde movement—How Marsden met his death—Naval guns in action—A night of disaster—Who showed the white flag?—A truce declared—A humiliating position
October 31.—If the action on Rietfontein, or Pepworth's Farm ridges, a week ago was the great score for us that official reports represent, in that it checkmated all possible efforts of the Boers to intercept Brigadier-General Yule's column on its march from Dundee, there can be no doubt that the tables were turned upon us effectually yesterday. Not only did our attempt to beat one of the enemy's columns in detail, and capture the heavy Creusot guns that had been harassing us, fail through misdirection, but when attacked in turn by Boer reinforcements, our troops were untimely ordered to abandon a position that they had held for four hours without serious loss, and this gave moral, if not material victory to the enemy. Successful in every fight up to that point, we are now in the humiliating position of finding ourselves practically invested by a Boer force that will not attack except by artillery fire at long range, and whose leader has the power temporarily, at any rate, to choose the fighting ground that suits Boer tactics best if we decide to take the offensive. Not only so, but our little army here has suffered a great disaster in the loss of two gallant regiments, one of which had only ten days earlier gained for itself proud distinction by being first to crown the heights of Talana, near Dundee, where British infantry proved worthy of its most glorious traditions. As a purely defensive measure, if nothing more, the fight of yesterday was forced upon us. Like some other operations in this brief but eventful campaign, it came too late, but, whether timely or not, a battle was inevitable unless we meant to sit down tamely and be battered at.
Yesterday morning, long before daybreak, our force was on the move, intent upon outflanking positions which the Boers held two days earlier. Colonel Grimwood, with one brigade consisting of the 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the Leicestershire and the Liverpool battalions, took up a position on open ground near Lombard's Kop, supported by a regiment of cavalry, the Border Mounted Rifles, and the Natal Carbineers with three batteries. A fourth battery was posted on a green kopje almost directly in line between Lombard's Kop and Rietfontein Hill. Colonel Ian Hamilton, with the second infantry brigade, consisting of the Gordon Highlanders, Rifle Brigade, Manchesters, and 1st Devons, formed a strong reserve behind the long ridge connecting these points with their left on the Newcastle road, where the Imperial Light Horse were held ready for action when the proper time should come.
At four o'clock in the morning our infantry were all in position for the fight, as it had been originally planned. Half an hour later they exchanged shots with a few Boers scattered about kopjes in their front, and from that moment, until nearly noon, they remained practically under fire, never budging an inch, but remaining immovable, except when a change of front became necessary to meet the Boer reinforcements, and that was effected by an advance. Up to that point everything seemed to be going in our favour. When there was daylight enough for gunners to see clearly, the 42nd Battery, posted at the eastern end of a green kopje that forms an irregular spur of Rietfontein Hill, but at a much lower elevation, opened fire on that ridge where the Boers had planted Long Tom.
It was interesting to watch shot after shot fall nearer the mark around it as the gunners picked up the range, until one shell struck and burst close to "Long Tom's" embrasure. Then the battery took to firing shrapnel, which were so well timed that one could see projectiles from the six guns in succession bursting at intervals along Rietfontein's level crest, which must have been raked from end to end with a shower of shrapnel bullets. The enemy's leviathan sent two shots at this battery, without effect, and then turned its fire upon Ladysmith town again, not with malicious intent, perhaps, but aiming to hit either the balloon or the railway station, where, in addition to naval guns, there happened to be stores of forage and other things that might easily have been set aflame by shells.
Notwithstanding this demonstration, our force was making steady progress towards an envelopment of the main Boer position at half-past seven in the morning. Immediately after that, however, prospects changed with the appearance of formidable reinforcements for the Boers, marching apparently from the direction in which a large camp had been seen two days earlier. They came into action on our right flank with a brisk rifle fire, followed by the deep notes of artillery. In intervals between the regular roar of field guns came the sledgehammer "thud! thud! thud!" from an automatic gun, which Tommy Atkins, with his aptitude for expressive phrases, promptly christened "Pom! Pom!" and that name sticks to it with unpleasant associations, for the Boers had not only one but many automatons of the same pattern. Like the heavier field-piece, "Pom! Pom!" throws shells that burst badly, but throws them with great accuracy, so that scores of shots in rapid succession fell among our batteries whenever they advanced to a fresh position, or changed ground in hope of keeping down that harassing fire.
At this time the Border Mounted Infantry and Natal Carbineers made frequent dashes to secure advantageous points, and the Boers were at one time so hard pressed that they gave ground hurriedly before an attempt of the 60th Rifles to gain a rough crest which took the long hollow behind Lombard's Kop in reverse. Then the enemy's reinforcements falling back somewhat threatened our right flank, and Sir George White, reluctant to prolong his already attenuated line, met that movement only by sending the Carbineers round Lombard's Kop, and bringing up the Imperial Light Horse in support.
About this time the Gordon Highlanders and Manchester battalion were drawn forward from Hamilton's Brigade to the green tree-fringed kopje, on the ridge of which our 42nd Battery still maintained its position, playing effectively upon "Long Tom." It looked as if Sir George meant to reinforce his fighting line, and try a decisive counter-stroke, by throwing all the weight he could against the Boer left wing, which was either wavering or executing some wily movement that had the appearance of a retirement. But unluckily at this critical moment the 60th Rifles and Leicestershire men began to fall back from the position they had gained, which was immediately occupied by Boer riflemen, and the 60th, exposed to a storm of bullets from three sides, came across open ground in very loose formation. We presently learned that the order had been sent for them "to retire on the balloon," Sir George White having apparently resolved upon concentration by a retrograde movement.
Receiving a message in the words quoted, men naturally assumed that it meant a hasty retreat and not a retirement by successive lines of resistance. In some cases nerves overstrained by hours of inaction gave way, and a few men threw down arms or equipment in a momentary panic, abandoning even their Maxim gun for a time. This, however, was quickly checked by the example of cool comrades, who, spreading out in obedience to commands from their officers so that there might be wide intervals for the shots to pass through, walked slowly and steadily across the open veldt, where bullets were raining like hailstones. In that retirement Major Myres, of the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifles (60th), fell mortally wounded. Young Marsden, of the same battalion, going to the Major's assistance, knelt beside him, and bent over as if to bind up a wound. In that position he remained motionless so long that Lieutenant Johnson, who had been firing steadily with a wounded soldier's rifle until twice hit himself, went to see if he could give any help. He found his brother subaltern dead in the act of binding up a wound as he knelt over the dying field-officer's body. At that moment Lieutenant Johnson received his third wound, and had to be carried from the field by ambulance men.
Mounted infantry of the King's Royal Rifles and Leicestershire Regiment, with Natal and Border Mounted Rifles, covered this retirement until it passed beyond the new line formed by Gordons and Manchesters, so that Colonel Grimwood's Infantry Brigade, looking rather like broken troops in the loose irregularity of every company, was not called upon to rally or turn to face the enemy, but marched straight back towards the balloon, "Long Tom" opening fire upon them as they crossed a ridge, with marvellously exact knowledge of the range. Three shells burst close to groups of the 60th, many men being hit.
At that moment, however, the Boer gunners' attention was diverted to another point, where, from hills just in front of the town, and facing Rietfontein, Captain Lambton's 12-pounders opened. It was as great a surprise for us as for the Boers. We saw the shell explode just in front of "Long Tom's" epaulement, and heard a cheer from spectators, scores of the townspeople having gathered on a slope by Cove Hill to watch the scene, among them a crippled gentleman who has to be wheeled about in a Bath-chair. Nobody who does not know what sailors will accomplish in spite of difficulties could have believed that Captain Lambton would bring his guns into action so soon after reaching Ladysmith, and especially, as we heard afterwards, as one had been upset by a shell from "Long Tom" as it was being drawn across level ground slowly by a team of oxen. Evidently, however, the mishap had done no harm, for the bluejackets were manning two 12-pounders that showed no sign of damage, and both of them were making excellent practice. At the third round it planted a shell in the enemy's battery, and the fifth put "Long Tom" out of action for a time by disabling some of its gunners. Sir George White's gradual withdrawal of his forces to positions prepared for defence was therefore not harassed by shell fire from beyond the range of our own field batteries.
Quite apart from these operations, but intended to fit in with them, was the despatch of a flying column late on Sunday night to turn the enemy's right flank or cut off his line of retreat in the direction of Van Reenan's Pass. For either purpose, two battalions of infantry, though they might be the bravest and the best, with a mountain-battery of 7-pounders carried on mules, did not seem quite adequate, but Major Adye, of the Royal Irish Rifles, who acted as staff-officer guiding the column, was confident of success, and glad of the chance to be with two such battalions as the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters in such an enterprise.
Possibly all might have gone well with it but for a deplorable accident. In the dead of night some boulders rolling down from a hill startled the transport and mountain-battery mules, which stampeded, taking with them nearly all the reserve rifle ammunition. As to what happened after that, accounts vary greatly. Few of the Gloucester men or Royal Irish Fusiliers got back to tell the story, except as wounded men on parole, and they had not seen the whole thing through. It seems certain, however, from concordance of evidence, that the Gloucesters and Fusiliers, instead of outflanking the Boers, were actually between two strong bodies of Free State men, when they seized a strong position and established themselves there. At any rate, they were attacked in turn soon after daybreak by Boers who crept up the slopes in rear, firing on them from both flanks—some say all round. Notwithstanding this, the thousand men held their ground against odds until nearly every round of ammunition had been expended, and the casualties numbered nearly a hundred and fifty killed or wounded.
Both regiments begged that they might be allowed to charge the rough slopes from which the ceaseless stings of rifle-fire came, and the Fusiliers, whose colonel would have led them willingly enough, had their bayonets fixed, when some one hoisted the white flag, and by this act the remnants of two gallant regiments became prisoners of war. "Flags of truce!" said an "old brag" who recounted the story, with tears in his voice; "I wish they would leave the damned rags at home, or dye them all khaki colour, so that neither Dutchmen nor us could ever see them."
News of that disaster travelled fast. It was told on the battlefield in front of Ladysmith two hours later, and it probably had some effect on the fortunes of a fight that cannot be recalled by Englishmen with unmixed satisfaction. The result may be regarded as a drawn battle, in that each side remained at the finish in possession of its own position, but on us who watched every phase, first with confidence and then with increasing anxiety, the impression made was a very unpleasant one, closely akin to humiliation.
The Boers were left in command of heights on which, if given time, they may plant artillery to shell the town and camp with a fire to which we can make no effective reply until the quick-firing naval guns of heavy calibre and long range are mounted. Bluejackets have been working hard to that end all day, unmolested by the enemy, who have declared a truce for twenty-four hours in order that the wounded of both sides may be placed in comparative safety.
General Joubert has sent to us an ambulance with wounded under parole from the captured column, and in exchange his surgeons have taken a similar number of Boer wounded from our hospitals. All who have come in speak highly of the treatment they have received at the enemy's hands.