Why the Boers attacked—Interesting versions—A general surprise—Joubert's promise—Boer tactics reconsidered—Erroneous estimates—Under cover of night—A bare-footed advance—The Manchesters surprised—The fight on Waggon Hill—In praise of the Imperial Light Horse—A glorious band—The big guns speak—Lord Ava falls—Gordons and Rifles to the rescue—A perilous position—The death of a hero—A momentary panic—Man to man—A gallant enemy—Burghers who fell fighting—The storming of Cæsar's Camp—Shadowy forms in the darkness—An officer captured—"Maak Vecht!"—Abdy's guns in play—"Well done, gunners!"—Taking water to the wounded—Dick-Cunyngham struck down—Some anxious moments—The Devons charge home—A day well won
When Mr. Pearse spoke of the comparative calm which marked the closing days of 1899 as deceptive, he was right, and events promptly proved him so. On 6th January the Boers, as has been said, made a most determined attempt to bring the siege of Ladysmith to an end by storming the British defences. Why the enemy should have allowed so long an interval to elapse since their half-hearted effort of 9th November, is difficult to imagine. Dingaan's Day (16th December) was originally fixed for the attack, but Schalk-Burger was diverted from his purpose by the attempt made by Sir Redvers Buller to force the passage of the Tugela. The projected onslaught on the besieged town having once been abandoned, it was generally believed that the Boers would be too intent on watching the movements of the relief column to trouble about attacking Ladysmith in force. According to one report an imperative order from President Kruger precipitated matters, while another story is to the effect that a bogus despatch purporting to be from Sir George White to Sir Redvers Buller, brought about the sudden change in the enemy's tactics. This despatch, so the story runs, asked that relief might be sent at once as the ammunition was exhausted, and it was impossible for the garrison to hold out in the event of the town being attacked. The native runner, to whom the document was entrusted, was instructed to proceed in the direction of the Boer lines, and so faithfully complied with his orders that both runner and despatch fell into the hands of the enemy. If the Boers were led to attack by any such ruse they were completely disillusioned as to the capabilities of Sir George White's forces. Be it said to their credit that, whatever their hopes of an easy victory, they quitted themselves like men when they realised their tremendous mistake. The long fierce struggle is vividly described in the following letter written two days after:—
Saturday's stubborn fight was a surprise in more senses than one. Nobody here had credited the Boers with a determination to attack, unless chance should give them overwhelming superiority in all respects, and for that chance they have waited so supinely that it seemed probable the game of long bowls with heavy artillery, varied by "sniping" from behind rocks a mile off, would continue to be played day after day in the hope of starving us into subjection, before Sir Redvers Buller could bring up his relieving force. Everybody knew that issue to be well-nigh impossible, because our resources are far from starvation point yet, and it is inconceivable that eight or ten thousand British soldiers could be hemmed in by three times their number of Boers, and compelled to yield without a desperate fight in the last extremity. We were fully aware that if ever an opening offered for the Boers to creep up within shorter range, under cover, and without being seen, they would be prompt to take advantage of it, in expectation of bringing off another Majuba, and that is a danger to which our extenuated defensive lines necessarily expose us, but we trusted with justice, as events have proved, to the steadiness and discipline of well-trained troops, to hold the Boers in check wherever they might gain any temporary advantage, and drive them back at the bayonet's point. That they would even push an attack to storming point few if any among us believed, for the simple reason that rifles are of no use against cold steel when combatants come to close quarters. The Boers know that well enough. Their only hope in attack therefore rests on the chance of being able by stealth to seize an advantageous position whence they may bring a deadly rifle fire to bear on the defenders, whom they hope by this means to throw into panic.
That was the plan they tried on Saturday, being urged to it, as we have since learned, by peremptory orders and fair promises from Joubert, who is said to have watched the fight from a distance. That, however, seems improbable, if Sir Redvers Buller was at the same time threatening a movement against the Tugela Heights, though it is certain that Joubert attached great importance to this attack on Ladysmith, because he had written a letter ordering De Villiers to capture Bester's Ridge, at all costs, with his commando of Free State Boers, and promising that those who succeeded in winning that position should be released from further service. This anxiety to get hold of a range which includes Cæsar's Camp and Waggon Hill, and commands Ladysmith at a range of 5000 yards, can be easily understood, but the urgency demanding any sacrifice of life, provided that end were attained, suggests many possibilities, and gives to Saturday's fight exceptional significance as a probable turning-point in the Natal Campaign, which has hitherto gone in favour of our foes, notwithstanding the victories we have gained over them in isolated actions. Dundee and Elandslaagte, like Lord Methuen's fights on the Modder River, added lustre to our army, by showing what British soldiers can do in assaulting positions against the terrific fire from modern magazine rifles, but it cannot be said that we have profited by them while our enemies are able to keep us here cut off from all communications except by heliograph or search-light signals, and have yet force enough to interpose a formidable line of resistance between Ladysmith and Sir Redvers Buller's column.
There cannot be many Boers in any position surrounding this place, but their mobility gives them the power of concentrating quickly at any point that might be threatened, and this for all practical purposes increases their numbers threefold. As Colonel F. Rhodes put it in one of his quaintly appropriate phrases, "We are a victorious army besieged by an inferior enemy." But there are Boers in twice our own strength near at hand, if, not actually all in the investing lines. The Tugela Heights are scarcely twelve miles off as the crow flies, and this distance might be covered by a Boer commando in less than two hours, so that a thousand men or more moving from one of our enemy's columns to another, could be brought into a fight in time to turn the tide against either Ladysmith or its relieving force as occasion might prompt. For attacking a particular point this mobility would give enormous advantages if the Boers only knew how to make full use of them, and carried arms on which they could rely for hand-to-hand fighting, in the critical moment of pushing an attack home.
As it is they trust to tactics that have stood them well in previous campaigns against British soldiers and natives, their object being to gain some commanding position, whence, without being seen, they may pour a deadly fire on their astonished foes, and thus cause a panic retreat that might be turned into a disorderly rout by a sudden rush of reinforcing Boers or a terrific storm of bullets from several quarters at once. Reasoning from experience they hope to make history repeat itself in another Majuba Hill. One would have thought that the fights at Elandslaagte and Dundee would dispel delusions of that kind based on the assumption that Tommy Atkins will not stand up against rifle bullets at short range from Boers whom he cannot see if they but steal upon him and open fire where he least expects to find them.
Probably there were erroneous estimates on both sides, but at any rate it is certain that our foes were confident of being able to win by massed surprise, and their effort was made with an adroitness not less astonishing than the audacity of its conception. After this it will be ridiculous for anybody to contend that the Boers are not brave fighters, though they lack the daring by which alone fights like that of Saturday can be decided. Their tactics have changed little since the old days, and it remains true now as then that they are an offensive but not an attacking force. Having gained by stealth the positions that were supposed to command our outpost defences on Cæsar's Camp and Waggon Hill, they acted from that moment as if on the defensive, trusting for victory not to any forward movement of their own but to the belief that our men would give way, and might then be rolled back in panic upon Ladysmith by thousands of mounted Boers who awaited that turn of events to make their meditated dash. Such undoubtedly was the plan conceived by Free State and Transvaal commanders at the Krygsraad when Joubert, Prinsloo, Schalk-Burger, Viljoen, and other leaders met together in council some days ago. The manner of its execution may be conjectured by the light of subsequent events.
The attack began before daybreak with a determined attempt to capture the whole range of Bester's Ridge, which is divided officially into Cæsar's Camp and Waggon Hill, forming the southern chain of our defences, and held by the outposts of Colonel Ian Hamilton's Brigade. Seventy of the Imperial Light Horse held Waggon Hill with a small body of bluejackets and a few Engineers having charge of the 4.7 naval gun, which they had brought up overnight for mounting in that position, but it still remained on a bullock waggon. Next to them were several companies of the King's Royal Rifles under Colonel Gore-Browne, while the Manchester Regiment held Cæsar's Camp with pickets pushed forward to the southern crest and eastern shoulder. Nearly the whole length of ridge hence to Waggon Hill is a rough plateau, strong but presenting little cover from artillery fire or the rifles of any foe bold enough to scale the heights under cover of darkness. It was scarcely entrenched at all, having only a few sangars dotted about as rallying-points. The Boer movements were marked by a searchlight from Bulwaan, which played for hours in a curious way across Intombi Hospital Camp to the posts occupied by our men, intensifying the obscurity of all-surrounding blackness.
All we know absolutely is that long before dawn Free Staters were in possession of the western end of Bester's Ridge, where Waggon Hill dips steeply down from the curiously tree-fringed shoulder in bold bluffs to a lower neck, and thence on one side to the valley in which Bester's Farm lies amid trees, and on the other to broad veldt that is dominated by Blaauwbank (or Rifleman's Ridge), and enfiladed by Telegraph Hill—both Boer positions having guns of long range mounted on them; and at the same time Transvaalers, mostly Heidelberg men, had gained a footing on the eastern end of the same ridge where boulders in Titanic masses, matted together by roots of mimosa trees, rise cliff-like from the plain where Klip River, emerging from thorny thickets, bends northward to loop miles of fertile meadow-land before flowing back into the narrow gorge past Intombi Spruit Camp. How the Boers got there one can only imagine, for neither the Imperial Light Horse pickets on Waggon Hill, nor the Manchesters holding the very verge of that cliff which we call Cæsar's Camp and the Kaffirs Intombi, nor the mixed force of volunteers and police watching the scrub lower down, saw any form or heard a movement during the night. It was intensely dark for two or three hours, but in that still air a steenbok's light leap from rock to rock would have struck sharply on listening ears. Those on picket duty aver that not a Boer could have shown himself or passed through the mimosa scrub without being challenged. Yet four or five hundred of them got to the jutting crest, of Cæsar's Camp somehow, and to reach it they must either have crossed open ground or climbed with silent caution up the boulder-roughened steeps.
An explanation may perhaps be found in the fact that a Boer takes off his boots or vel-schoon when there is noiseless stalking to be done. Going over the battlefield afterwards I noticed that where dead Boers were lying thickest about the salient angle of that eastern space, all were bare-footed. Boots and even rubber-soled canvas shoes had been taken off for the climb, and these lay in pairs beside the bodies, just as they had been placed when the fight began. And the spots on which these Boers lay seemed to indicate that they must have scaled the steep just where a sentry among the rocks on top would have found most difficulty in seeing anything as he peered over jutting edges into the darkness below. At any rate the Manchester picket was surprised before dawn, as I shall describe presently, though it should have been put on the alert by rifle firing an hour earlier away on Waggon Hill, where the fight began between two and three o'clock. Then, however, it seemed little more than the sniping between outposts, to which custom has made all of us somewhat inattentive, and nobody thought for a moment that a picket of Imperial Light Horse had been practically cut off before the Boers fired a shot or our own men had given an alarm.
Waggon Hill was at that moment the key of a very critical situation, and had the Light Horse been seized by panic, or given way an inch, the Boers might possibly have brought enormous numbers up to that commanding crest and enfiladed the rear of Cæsar's Camp. We know now that thousands of Free Staters were waiting in the kloofs between Mounted Infantry Hill and Middle Hill, not two miles distant, for the opportunity which, they had no doubt, would be opened up to them by the success of five or six hundred tough veterans who had volunteered to win that position or die in the attempt. They had, however, to reckon with men whose gallantry was proved at Elandslaagte and the night attack on Gun Hill—men who are endowed with the rare quality which Napoleon the Great called "two o'clock in the morning courage." One has to praise the Imperial Light Horse so often, that reiteration may sound like flattery. But they deserve every distinction that can be given to them for having by superb steadiness, against great odds, saved the force on Bester's Ridge from a very serious calamity, if not from actual disaster. They must share the credit to some extent, however, with two small bodies of men already mentioned, who happened to be on Waggon Hill neither for fighting nor watch-keeping—the few bluejackets of H.M.S. Powerful in charge of the big gun which had been brought up that night for mounting there, and the handful of Royal Engineers under Lieutenants Digby-Jones and Dennis, preparing the necessary epaulements for that weapon. When firing began, the gun being still on its waggon, all that could be done was to outspan its team of oxen. Then bluejackets and sappers, seizing each his rifle, took their places behind slight earthworks, prepared to fight it out manfully. The only tribute they need ask for is that their roll of dead and wounded may be borne in memory. Out of thirty all told, the Royal Engineers lost two officers killed and fifteen men wounded. Of the few sailors, one was killed and one wounded. This record seems hard to beat; but the Imperial Light Horse could point to heaps of dead and maimed in proof of the dauntless stand they made, for the living continued to fight where their gallant comrades fell, scorning to quit an inch of ground to the Boers, though they knew by the rifle fire flashing round them in the darkness that they were hopelessly outnumbered from the first. Their brigadier speaks of them as men with no nerves at all. When one was hit, another stepped quietly up to his place and went on shooting as if at target-practice, though he had no more cover than a small stone to lie behind; and this happened not once but a score of times, the officers taking an equal share in the fight with their men, who speak with pride of the gallantry shown by Captains de Rothe and Codrington, Lieutenants Webb, Pakeman, Adams, Campbell, and Richardson, and the active veteran Major Doveton, who cheered his men on after he had received two bullet wounds, one of which shattered his fore-arm and shoulder.
By that time the sun was rising above Bulwaan in a halo of orange, crimson, and purple, and men could count the grim faces of their enemies. Ladysmith was aroused at dawn by the rattle of incessant rifle fire rolling along Bester's Ridge from end to end. Up to that time no big guns had spoken on either side, and people came out of their houses slowly, in sulky humour at having their rest disturbed before the conventional hour for shelling to begin. While they listened to the continuous crackling as of damp sticks in a huge bonfire, few among them realised that the sounds indicated anything more serious than a Boer demonstration which would fizzle out quickly, and even when bullets began to fall in the town itself, or went whistling away overhead, the only comment made was that Mauser rifles must have a marvellous range if they could send bullets so far beyond the ridge aimed at.
Bulwaan's 6-inch Creusot opened fire as the sun rose behind it in a splendour of orange and crimson clouds. The white smoke changed to wreaths of blue and deep purple against that glowing sky, while people waited to hear the gurgling scream of a shell. It did not come the way they expected, but burst above the dark crest of Cæsar's Camp. Then the watchers, relieved because the big guns had found other occupation than battering down houses, went back to bed or to their morning baths, little thinking that the fate of Ladysmith was at the moment dependent on men who lay among rocks, or behind grass tussocks, looking through rifle sights at such short range that they could almost see the colour of each other's eyes.
Colonel Hamilton, who had ridden out with his staff, and accompanied by Colonel F. Rhodes, to the highest knoll of Bester's Ridge, grasped the situation quickly and ordered up reinforcements. The Boers who had crept round the crest of the eastern steep, which I have called by its Kaffir name Intombi, were even then almost up to the camp that Colonel Hamilton had quitted half an hour earlier, but screened from the Manchester battalion's fire by a swell of the ground in front. Their further progress, however, was stayed by a counter attack from Border Mounted Rifles and Natal Volunteers whom Colonel Royston brought up to reinforce the Frontier Police under Major Clark, who had been holding that point with dogged determination since dawn. The brigadier, seeing that for a time no headway was being made by the enemy against Cæsar's Camp, turned his attention towards Waggon Hill and sent Lord Ava forward to reconnoitre from the spot where Colonel Edwardes, with the main body of Imperial Light Horse, reduced to less than half its original strength by losses in former actions, was making a gallant effort to relieve the remnants of two squadrons from their perilous plight on Waggon Hill. Lord Ava watched its issue from the fighting line beside men with whom he had scaled the rough heights of Elandslaagte and the stiffer steeps of Gun Hill. As he raised himself upon a small boulder to look through glasses at the enemy, who were pouring in a hail of bullets from a distance of little more than 150 yards, a bullet struck him in the forehead, and there he lay, apparently lifeless, with every sense dead to the din of war about him. A few minutes later Colonel Frank Rhodes heard that a staff-officer had been hit. He came at once to the conclusion that it was the young friend who had been his companion daily since they sailed from England early in September. As he went forward to make sure, Lieutenant Lannowe, of the 4th Dragoon Guards, aide-de-camp to Colonel Hamilton, joined him, and these two, passing unscathed across the shot-torn slopes, found Lord Ava lying sorely wounded, but still alive, where Boer bullets were falling thickest about the Imperial Light Horse. They carried him to a place of less danger, and there Colonel Rhodes bandaged the wound, while a skilful surgeon's aid was being summoned. By that time Majors Julian, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Davis, medical officer of the Imperial Light Horse, had their hands full, having rendered aid to many wounded men under the heaviest fire, utterly regardless of danger to themselves. The first operation, without which recovery would have been hopeless, was, however, performed there, while Mauser bullets whistled through the air, and Lord Ava, still unconscious, was borne from the field.
The few bluejackets, Gordons, Imperial Light Horse, and Engineers, under Lieutenant Digby-Jones, R.E., were still holding their ground manfully on the extreme westerly crest of Waggon Hill. The Boers were within point-blank range of them on two sides, while beyond the crest and down into Bester's Valley hundreds of others were waiting for the first sign of panic among our men to rush the position, but held in check by a company of the 60th Rifles and a few Light Horse occupying a small sangar on that side. The ridge, however, was being shelled by the enemy's guns from Middle Hill and Blaauwbank with such accuracy that many of our men were wounded by that fire, but not a Boer was hit, though the fighting lines were less than 100 yards apart. The 21st Battery Field Artillery, out in comparatively open ground beyond Range Post, swept with shrapnel the slopes and kloofs of Mounted Infantry Hill on one side, and Major Goulburn's battery, the 42nd, searched the reverse slope of that knoll, smiting the head of a movement by which our foes tried to strengthen their attack. The Natal artillery had done similar service at an earlier stage against another body, and though under heavy rifle fire they still stuck to their guns manfully. Our naval 12-pounder mounted near this battery, but having double the range, played upon Middle Hill, trying by rapid and accurate fire to silence the big Creusot gun there, or baffle its aim.
This was the favourable opportunity seized by Colonel Hamilton for sending forward Major Miller-Wallnutt with one company of Gordons to reinforce the little group of bluejackets, Light Horse, Engineers, and Highlanders who were fighting so desperately hard to beat the Boers back. A little later Major Campbell reached Waggon Hill with four companies of the "Second Sixtieth," but their fire failed to dislodge the Boers, and the Gordons, under Miller-Wallnutt, were being sorely pressed, the Boers having a number of picked shots among the rocks on two sides whence they could bring a deadly fire to bear on the flanks of any force that might attempt to cross the open ground between. General Hamilton, however, seeing that risks must be taken, or the Gordons would be in perilous plight, sent two companies of Rifles forward in succession, but smitten in front by artillery fire from Middle Hill and Blaauwbank, while their flanks were raked by rifle bullets, they halted and took such cover as could be found among small stones. A company being then called upon to rush the open space, Lieutenant Todd asked for permission to try first with a small body, and this being granted he led a mere handful of ready volunteers forward. The gallant young officer, however, had not gone many yards before he was shot dead, and the men fell back disheartened by the loss of one whom they would have followed anywhere, because they recognised in him the qualities of a born leader.
After that there were moments of humiliation when it seemed as if the possibility of holding Waggon Hill hung upon a mere chance. Once surprised by finding Boers within fifty yards, the whole forward line of Rifles and Highlanders gave way, retiring over the crest with a precipitancy that threatened to sweep back supports and all in a general confusion. But it was no more than a momentary panic, such as the best troops in the world may be subject to, and our men were quick to rally when they heard themselves called upon for another effort, and saw officers springing up the hill again towards that shot-fretted crest where several Engineers and bluejackets, with the Imperial Light Horse, still clung as if they had looked on Medusa's head, and become part of the rocks among which they lay, only that their forefingers were playing about the triggers, ready in a moment to give back shot for shot to the Boers. And when deeds of heroism were being performed by Major Miller-Wallnutt; Lieutenant Digby-Jones, R.E., Gunner Sims of the Royal Navy, and Lieutenant Fitzgerald, 11th Hussars, who met their enemies face to face, the irregular troopers were not slow to take their part in fighting at close quarters. Trooper Albrecht, of the Imperial Light Horse, especially distinguished himself by shooting two of the Boers who were at that moment within a few yards of Digby-Jones with rifles levelled, and the young Engineer lieutenant, whose repeated acts of bravery might have merited the Victoria Cross, accounted for the other before he in turn was mortally wounded. Many tough old Free State Boers, who took all the brunt of fighting on this hill, behaved with the greatest intrepidity, winning admiration from foes who were yet eager to try a death-grip with them.
Here Hendrick Truiter fought as he did at Majuba in the forefront, and got off scot-free, though he presents a target many cubits broad; gigantic John Wessels of Van Reenan's; Commandants De Jaagers and Van Wyck, both killed; Wepenaar, who seemed to exercise authority above them all; and Japic de Villiers, Commandant of the Wetzies Hoek district, a man among men in his disregard of danger. When he fell dead, after making his way close up to our sangar and shooting Major Miller-Wallnutt, the Orange Free State lost one of its foremost citizens and bravest fighters. If the supports swarming thickly in Bester's Valley and the kloofs behind Mounted Infantry Hill had come on with anything like the determination shown by the intrepid 500 who first seized Waggon Hill, there must have been many anxious moments for our General. As it was we had regained and still held the position, but without driving the Boers from their hiding-places within fifty yards of the crest.
But now it is time that we should turn our attention to a post three miles eastward, where an equally stubborn fight had been waged about Intombi Spur, and the fringes of a plateau, 800 yards wide, in front of the Manchester Battalion sangars on Cæsar's camp. There the pickets had been surprised, just about the time of relief, half an hour before dawn. There are differences of opinion, and some acrimonious discussions as to the means by which 500 Boers of the Heidelberg Commando, under Greyling, had succeeded in getting to a position which commanded much of that plateau before anybody had the slightest suspicion that enemies were near. At the outset I suggested an explanation which seems to be strengthened by every fact that I can gather. They came barefooted up the cliff-like face of Intombi Spur on its southern side, and crept round near its crest until they had command of the whole shoulder, practically cutting off the Manchester sentries from their pickets, but taking care to raise no premature alarm. Their rule apparently was to wait for the sound of firing on Waggon Hill, whereby our attention might be diverted that way, and then to begin their own attack on a weakened flank.
This is nearly what happened, except that the Manchesters were put on the alert by signs of an attack about Waggon Hill more serious than any preceding it, and made preparations for strengthening their own outpost line. But it was then too late. The Boers were upon them, ready to open fire from behind rocks. As Lieutenant Hunt-Grubbe was coming forward to examine the sentries, shadowy forms sprang out of the darkness and surrounded him. Then one who was in the uniform of a Border Mounted Rifleman called to the picket, "We are the Town Guard! surrender!" The sergeant, however, was not to be caught in that trap, but replied, "We surrender to nobody," and then ordered his men to fire. In a moment the air was torn by bullets from all sides, and the picket fell back fighting towards its own supports, not knowing then that the young officer had been left a prisoner in the enemy's hands. He was well treated by his captors, except that they kept him under fire from his own men so long as a forward position could be maintained, and when that became too hot they forced him to creep back with them to the cover of other rocks. He did not want much forcing, being glad enough to wriggle across the intervening space, where bullets fell unpleasantly thick, as fast as possible. There he lay close, but kept his eyes open, and saw something that may furnish a key to the success of Transvaal Boers in scaling a difficult height that must have been quite strange to them.
Prominent in one group was a young man whom Hunt-Grubbe thought he recognised. For a long time the face puzzled him, but at last he remembered having seen a counterfeit presentment of it, or one very similar, in a photographic group of the Bester family. A Bester would know every rock and cranny of that hill with a familiarity which would make light or darkness indifferent to him. Lieutenant Hunt-Grubbe made mental notes also of Boer tactics, by which they gave a great impression of numbers. A group would gather at one point and keep up rapid firing for some time, then double under cover to some rocks thirty yards off, and discharge their rifles there, but always taking care not to throw any shots away.
In spite of these dodges and good shooting, however, the Boers could make no headway against the Manchesters, who were by this time extended across the stony plateau under fire from Boer guns posted among trees on the far side of Bester's Valley. Neither side in fact could move either to advance or retire without exposing itself on open ground. Therefore they stayed blazing away at each other until the grey dawn gave place to swift sunrise. Then the Boers, who had a heliograph with them behind Intombi Spur, flashed to Bulwaan the signal "Maak Vecht," and our friend "Puffing Billy"—as the big 6-inch Creusot is called—promptly made fight in a way that was astonishing in a weapon whose grooves must be worn nearly smooth by frequent firing. He threw shell after shell with vicious rapidity and remarkable accuracy on to the plateau of Cæsar's Camp, but the shells fortunately did not fall among our men or burst well.
Just as Colonel Metcalfe arrived at Cæsar's Camp, with four companies of the Rifle Brigade to reinforce and prolong our fighting line, the Boer gunners turned their attention to another point, where, in the low ground among trees by Klip River, Major Abdy was bringing the 53rd Field Battery into action. This proved to be the turning-point of the fight on the eastern spur of Bester's Ridge.
Those six guns began throwing time-shrapnel with beautiful precision just where Boers were thickest. Not a shell seemed to be misplaced, so far as one could judge, and successive bursts and showers of shrapnel seemed to wither the immense thickets near Intombi's crest. "Puffing Billy" turned with an angry growl on Abdy's battery, and this was followed by many shells fired so rapidly that one began to think the gun must split under that strain. It went on firing, however, and shell after shell dropped close to our battery when it was unlimbered on an open space among mimosa trees. At last a shell burst under one of the guns, shrouding it and the gunners in a cloud of mingled smoke and mud. Everybody watched anxiously to see who was hit or what had happened. The gun, they thought, must surely be disabled, but just as they were saying so there came a flash out from that cloud. The artillerymen had coolly taken aim while splinters were flying round them or hitting comrades, and we saw the shell, aimed under those conditions, burst exactly in the right place. It was a splendid example of nerve and steadiness under difficulties, and some spectators, at least, cheered it with cries of "Well done, gunners." So the 53rd Battery remained in action, doing splendid service by shelling the Boers on Intombi Spruit and beating back all attempts of Boer supports to scale the height that way. "Puffing Billy" went on firing from Bulwaan all this while, and is said to have got off over 120 rounds during the fight, but its shooting became very erratic and totally ineffective, while our guns were doing great execution.
It was from smaller Boer guns and Mauser rifles that the four companies of the Rifle Brigade suffered heavily in their attempt to drive the enemy from Cæsar's Camp plateau into Bester's Valley. One party was smitten heavily while moving forward in a gallant advance to get within charging distance. The shattered remnant took cover behind a small ridge of stones, beyond which there was a little open ground, where Lieutenant Hall and another wounded officer lay. Repeated attempts made to bring in these officers failed, because directly a man lifted himself above the stones he became the target for twenty Boer rifles. The colour-sergeant of Mr. Hall's company, however, crawled across that ground, to and fro, three times in as many hours, taking water to the wounded officers, who lay there under scorching sunshine, unable to move because even an uplifted hand was enough to draw the Boer fire on helpless wounded. Lieutenant Hall, whose arm was bleeding badly, turned over, apparently to bandage it, and another bullet struck him. Such was the fate of many brave fellows that day, whose stricken state should have appealed to the mercy of their enemies, but the Boers, unable to advance, and afraid to retreat so long as daylight lasted, were seemingly so suspicious of all movements that they saw in every wounded man a possible foe lurking there for his chance to get a shot at them. The same excuse, however, cannot be pleaded for one Free State burgher, who, lying down behind a maimed trooper of the Light Horse, kept up a fire to which our own men could not reply without fear of hitting their unlucky comrade.
After the Rifle Brigade had got into action, Colonel Dick-Cunyngham advanced with three companies of Gordon Highlanders from their camp in the plain to take the Boers on Intombi spur in flank. He had scarcely ridden two hundred yards when he fell mortally wounded by a stray bullet, and the Gordons marched on, leaving behind them the intrepid leader whom every man would have followed cheerfully into the thickest fight. They gained the crest, and Captain Carnegie's company sprang eagerly forward to charge in among the Boers who held Lieutenant Hunt-Grubbe prisoner. Him they recovered after close conflict, in which Captain Carnegie was wounded and Colour-Sergeant Price had three bullet-holes in him, but not before he sent a bayonet-thrust into the forehead of one Boer with the full force of his strong arm. But the Gordons could do no more then than lie down among the rocks they had gained and take part in pot-shooting at the enemy, who dared not budge.
Up to nearly four o'clock the position about Cæsar's Camp did not change, but on Waggon Hill there had been some alternations and anxious movements, while the Boers took positions only to be driven from them again. Then suddenly a great storm of thunder, hail, and rain swept over the hills, shrouding them in gloom, amid which the rifle fire broke out with greater fury than ever across Bester's Valley and the ground that had been stubbornly fought for so long. This sounded like an attack in force by fresh bodies of Boers who had made their way round from Bulwaan under cover of the hospital camp at Intombi Spruit. But they never came within a thousand yards of our position, and though their rifle fire at that range galled sorely, it was nothing more than a demonstration made in hope of enabling their comrades on the heights to extricate themselves. Interest then turned again to Waggon Hill, where, when the storm was raging most fiercely, part of our line fell back in error, but the Brigadier and his officers, going forward until within revolver range of the enemy, restored confidence at that point.
Then three companies of the Devon Regiment marching from their post at Tunnel Hill, a distance of four miles or more, ascended Waggon Hill, led by Colonel Park, to whom Brigadier-General Hamilton gave but one laconic order. Wanting no more than the word to go, the Devons shook themselves into loose column and swarmed forward for their first rush across the zone of Boer fire. Having gained a little cover they lay there a while, and began shooting steadily with slow, deliberate aim, even adopting quaint subterfuges to draw shots from the Boers before pulling trigger themselves. Then in the same loose but unwavering formation they dashed forward in another rush, the sergeants calling upon their comrades to remember that they were Devons, and every company cheering as it ran towards the enemy, whose fire began to get a bit wild. Another halt for firing in the same steady way, and then rising with unbroken front, though their company leaders had all been hit, the Devons straightened themselves for a charge. With bayonets bristling they sprang to the crest, and their cheers rang loud across the hills. A hail of bullets made gaps in their ranks, but they closed up and pressed forward, eagerly following their colonel. The Boers, unable to withstand any longer the sight of that fine front sweeping like fate upon them, fired a few hundred shots and fled down hill, followed by shots from the victorious Devons, who in a few minutes more had cleared the position of every Boer. That was the end of the fight, and though some enemies still clung to Intombi's crest waiting for darkness, their fire soon slackened, and the hard-fought battle ended in a complete defeat of the enemy at all points.
This brilliant victory, demonstrating to the Boers the vast difference between firing from cover on British assailants and attempts to storm positions held in force by our troops, cost the army at Lady smith 420 men in killed and wounded. The large proportion slain on the spot was remarkable, and was due, no doubt, to the close fighting. Fourteen officers were killed and 33 wounded, while the non-commissioned officers and men killed numbered 167, and the wounded 284. The killed included, besides Colonel Dick-Cunyngham, Major Mackworth of the 2nd Queen's; Lieutenant Hall, Rifle Brigade; Major Miller-Wallnutt, Gordon Highlanders; Lieutenant Digby-Jones and Lieutenant Dennis of the Royal Engineers, all of whom met death heroically; Captains Lafone and Field, who were shot down as they charged at the head of their regiment; and many gallant volunteers serving in the ranks of the Imperial Light Horse. One company of the Gordons at the close of the battle was commanded by a lance-corporal, who was the senior officer unwounded. The Imperial Light Horse was commanded by a junior captain, and could only muster about 100 men fit for duty out of nearly 500. As to the Boer losses, it is difficult to arrive at the truth. The Boer has to be badly beaten before he will acknowledge having suffered a reverse, and even in such cases every endeavour is made to hide the real facts of the case, and the acknowledgment is tardily and reluctantly offered. As supplementing his description of the memorable struggle, we take the following extracts from Mr. Pearse's diary:——
January 7.—I rode to-day over the battlefield, where dead Boers still lay unclaimed, but bearing on them cards that left no doubt about their identity. I learn that one of that brave little band, the Imperial Light Horse, wounded early in the fight, was tended gently by a Boer parson, who bound up his wounds and brought him water under a terrific fire. Struck by these acts of humanity and devotion to a high sense of duty, I made inquiries as to the Dutch parson's name. It was Mr. Kestel, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church at Harrismith, a Boer only by adoption, a Devonshire man by birth and descent.
There was to-day a solemn service of thanksgiving in the English Church. A Te Deum was impressively sung,—Sir George White and his Staff, at the Archdeacon's invitation, standing at the altar rails,—and was followed by "God Save the Queen."
January 8.—Sir Redvers Buller heliographed, congratulating Sir George White on the gallant defence of Ladysmith by this force, giving especial praise to the Devons for their behaviour, but making no mention of the Imperial Light Horse. An unfortunate omission.