It has been explained in Chapter V. of this volume that on the 18th October, a week after White's arrival in Ladysmith, he had found himself obliged finally to sanction the proposal of Penn Symons to remain at Dundee, and that on the following day he had received news of the cutting of the railway pine between the two places. The natural conclusion was that the Boers were trying to surround Symons and attack one-third of the British force separately, while holding off the remaining two - thirds from coming to its assistance.
This was in fact precisely what they were doing, the Boer Commander-in-Chief—General Joubert, a cautious old veteran of the last war — had crossed the northern border of Natal on the 12th October, but moving slowly, with extreme circumspection for fear of a surprise, had got no farther than Newcastle, about thirty miles, by the 16th. There, finding that there seemed to be no prospect of an attack on the part of the British, he made up his mind to strike a blow, and orders were issued for an advance.
This was to take place in three columns. One, the left, under Lukas Meyer, apparently consisting of four or five thousand men, was to march down outside the eastern frontier of Natal until it reached a point nearly due east of Dundee; the centre column, under Erasmus, five thousand strong, was to move straight down on Dundee from the north, and occupy the Impati Hill due north of the British camp; the third column, under Kock, less than a thousand men, was to make a wide sweep to the right, get into touch if possible with the Free State men in the western passes, and then, taking up a position in the Biggarsberg, to cut the railway line below Dundee. On the night of the 19th the three columns were to close on Dundee, and to attack Symons simultaneously from north, east, and west. As Symons had with him about 3280 infantry, 497 cavalry, and 18 guns, it was calculated that he would be attacked by more than double his numbers, and that the cutting of the railway would prevent any help coming to him until too late.
The Boer leaders carried out their encircling movements with success, and on the 19th were all their appointed stations, with the railway duly cut at Elandslaagte, twenty-five miles from Glencoe. Symons, it appears, had good information, and was fully aware of their plan ; but, relying with confidence upon the fighting power of his force, he made no attempt to thwart it, and waited in his camp until they should come within striking distance, when he hoped to fall upon them and deal a heavy blow at one or more of their converging columns as they tried the difficult task of meeting from three directions at night on the field of battle. An excellent tactician, with a high reputation for his skill in handling troops on the field, and a poor opinion of the fighting capacity of Boer levies in the open, he had little doubt of the result.
It must have been an anxious time for White in Ladysmith, especially after he received news of the fall of Elandslaagte; for not only was Dundee in peril, but the Free State Boers were threatening Ladysmith from the west, and he learnt that another Boer force was threatening the Colonial capital— Pietermaritzburg—from the east.
On the morning of the 20th October, at 5.30 a.m., the blow fell, for he then received a telegram from Glencoe — "Boers shelling camp with big guns. Troops moving out"; and at intervals during the day came further news showing that a severe action was in progress. Towards evening the news was so far satisfactory that the Boers were reported to have been attacked and driven out of an almost in- accessible position, retiring eastward ; but it was also reported that our losses had been heavy, and that General Penn Symons himself had been mortally wounded. Altogether the news was not cheering. The actual course of the fighting and its result must now be described.
The isolation of Symons and his brigade from Ladysmith, at a distance of more than forty miles, had been in itself a matter to cause serious anxiety, as the whole course of White's correspondence clearly showed. The news that the force was not strongly entrenched or provided with an assured water supply had naturally increased that anxiety; and the information which White received of the nature of the position was doubly disquieting, for the camp selected by Symons — between Dundee and Glencoe junction—was in a valley almost; surrounded by hills, which seemed to offer to a superior force supplied with a heavier artillery formidable opportunities of surrounding the British and obliging them to fight at a disadvantage. White did not know the ground accurately, for, overworked as he was, during the week following the outbreak of war, with the task of putting Ladysmith and its long line of communications into a condition of safety, he had not been able to go up to Dundee. But he must have known that the position was a doubtful one. He could only trust to the proved tactical skill of his lieutenant, and the probable lack of such skill among the untried Boer commanders, to give Symons the chance for which he longed of smiting the enemy in detail. Symons himself rightly believed that the enemy would show little cohesion in attack, and had no belief in, or at all events no fear of, his alleged superiority in heavy guns.
It will be seen from the accompanying map that to the north of the British camp, at a distance of about 5000 yards, was the Impati mountain—a flat-topped mass some 1200 or 1300 feet above the valley; while to the east of the camp rise the hills of Talana and Lennox—the former about 4000 yards distant and 600 feet in height, the second somewhat lower and slightly more distant. The road across the plain to the eastward runs between these two hills, over a pass known as Smith's Nek. At the western foot of this Nek is a wood and enclosure generally called Smith's Farm. Both the Lennox and Talana hills are rugged and difficult of access. Between Talana and Impati is a piece of open ground over a mile in width.
Apparently no cavalry picket was pushed out beyond Talana, as Symons wished to keep his small cavalry force fresh for action; but a mounted infantry picket was stationed at a point about two miles to the eastward.
On the evening of the 19th October General Lukas Meyer's troops, to the number of 3500 or 4000, with six guns, mustered for a night march to Talana, and moving steadily to the westward reached the foot of the hill an hour before daybreak. Some of them had come upon the mounted infantry picket, which retired upon Smith's Nek, sending in word to the British camp. The Boers had then pushed on, and before sunrise had crowned both the Talana and Lennox hills, dragging up some of their guns with them. They were then in a position to shell the British camp, though at a considerable range.
Symons had not been in the smallest degree alarmed by the report sent in by the mounted infantry picket. He sent out a small reinforcement; but evidently thinking that he had to do with nothing more than a reconnoitring party, he made no arrangements for a general action, and the brigade stood to arms as usual at 5 a.m., with no knowledge of what had occurred or of the work before it. The parade was soon dismissed. The bulk of the artillery horses and the transport animals moved out to water at some distance from the camp, and the infantry began to fall in for skirmishing drill.
Such was the state of affairs when suddenly, about 5.30 a.m., the sun broke through the mist which had hidden Talana Hill, and, as it lifted, the summit was seen to be covered with men. Almost at the same moment the sound of a gun was heard, and a Boer shell dropped into the camp. Others soon followed. No harm was done, but the surprise was complete.
In such a contingency Symons was at his best, and his orders were instantaneous. For the defence of the camp against an attack from the Impati Hill, one of his four battalions of infantry and a battery of artillery were told off, with a company from each of the other battalions. The cavalry and mounted infantry, under Colonel Moller of the 18th Hussars, were to wait under cover until they received the order to advance, unless Moller saw a good opportunity. With the remainder of the infantry and artillery Talana was at once to be assaulted. By 7 a.m., so rapid had been the whole of the preparations, the assaulting infantry were all assembled in the bed of the so-called Sand Spruit, a watercourse about a mile from the crest of the enemy's position, and more than that distance from the camp, while the 69th and 13th batteries of artillery had already for the time silenced the enemy's guns.
The infantry then received detailed orders for the actual assault. The Dublin Fusiliers were to form the first line, the King's Royal Rifles in support, the Royal Irish Fusiliers in reserve. Brigadier-General Yule was to command the attack.
By 7.20 a.m. the leading companies emerged from the Sand Spruit, and under a heavy fire from the summit of Talana, as also from the Lennox Hill on their right, pushed forward into the wood and enclosures of Smith's Farm, and eventually reached a line only 550 yards from the crest of Talana. Here, however, they were checked for a time by the front and flank fire poured upon them by the hidden Boers, and in spite of messages from Symons urging an immediate advance, the line remained stationary. It seemed that the attack had spent its force, and that the final rush to the summit was beyond the powers of the outnumbered troops.
This was more than Symons could stand, and at nine o'clock, in spite of all remonstrances, he rode forward into the wood. There he dismounted, and pressing in among the men, urged them on to a fresh effort. It was the last of the many brave acts which had marked his life. Facing the enemy, and encouraging all about him by his words and example, he was struck in the stomach by a Boer bullet, and had to leave the fighting line.
Directing Brigadier General Yule to proceed with the attack, he turned and walked calmly to the rear. Then, meeting his horse, he mounted, and not until he had passed entirely through the troops was any sign of suffering allowed to escape him. At the station of the Bearer Company he dismounted, and was carried to the dressing - station in a dhoolie. Five minutes later, at 9.35 a.m., the surgeon pronounced his wound to be fatal, and the news was telegraphed to Ladysmith (Official History of the War).
It was a great loss, but Symons had succeeded in concealing his wound from the men, and in response to his appeals they pushed forward from the cover of the wood, the King's Royal Rifles leading. Then followed a long and severe contest for the crest of the Talana Hill, our people gaining ground slowly and being often checked, but moving gradually forward until, soon after one o'clock, there was a final rush, and Talana was in their hands. The Boers on the Lennox Hill seeing this gave way also, and before two o'clock the whole of Lukas Meyer's force was streaming away in full flight across the plain to the eastward.
Then followed one of those incidents which have so often saved a beaten force from destruction. As the victorious infantry looked down from the heights they had stormed upon a plain covered with fugitives, they expected to see our cavalry sweeping over it in fierce pursuit. But no cavalry were visible. The artillery were soon on the summit of Smith's Nek, and in a position to shell the flying enemy with deadly effect; but to the amazement of all, the guns remained silent. At the critical moment some message proposing an armistice to collect the wounded had been received from the Boers, and the artillery commander, in doubt whether the action was to continue, held his fire. The Boers, all mounted men, retreated rapidly, and were soon out of effective range, escaping the heavy loss which ought to have been inflicted upon them. Though the victory had been won, the fruits of it, in so far as the guns could ensure them, had been thrown away.
In the meantime what had become of the cavalry? They had won, and lost, such an opportunity as rarely fell to our mounted men in the course of this war. As the attack on Talana developed and the Boers began to show signs of wavering, which some of them did very early in the day, the cavalry, consisting apparently of three squadrons of the 18th Hussars, with some mounted infantry, had moved round the Boer right and taken up a position to the right rear of the Talana Hill, where they were ideally placed. The enemy's line of retreat lay at their mercy, and behind the hill stood herds of saddled ponies, whose masters were holding the summit against our attacking infantry. If our troopers had been kept together ready for a charge across the line of retreat when the Boers came down the hill, as was done next day at Elandslaagte, or had even opened fire on, and shot or stampeded, the Boer ponies, the results must have been very serious to the enemy. But neither of these courses was taken. Colonel Moller, who no doubt, like most of our people at that time, underrated the fighting capacity of the Boers, seems to have thought that he could safely divide his force and deal with both sections of the enemy at the same time. He therefore detached Major Knox, first with one squadron, and then with two squadrons and a troop, to the rear of Lennox Hill, while he himself boldly took up a position with the remainder, some-thing over two hundred men, astride of the Boer line of retreat from Talana, in the open plain. Here he was attacked by the enemy, whose retreating swarms were not to be stopped by so small a party, and was himself forced to seek safety in a rapid retirement. Knox, also pressed, extricated himself; but Moller, trying to get round to the camp by a long detour to the north, was cut off by Boers descending from Impati, and, being eventually surrounded by a force with guns, was forced to surrender. Nine officers and over two hundred men laid down their arms.
This, the first serious surrender of the war, was a deplorable ending to a day which, in spite of the initial surprise, had at one time seemed likely to end in a brilliant success for the British arms.
As it was, Talana can hardly be regarded as a satisfying victory. It is true that the confidence of. Symons in the tactical superiority of British troops over Boers had in a sense been demonstrated. Our guns and infantry had attacked and put to flight a force exceeding them in numbers, and holding a strong position, another body of the enemy being held off while the defeat was inflicted. And with any ordinary good fortune, the loss sustained by the defeated force would have been much heavier than it was. It is true also that the confidence of the Boers was much shaken by the way in which Talana was stormed, and that Lukas Meyer's men were demoralised by their failure to hold their own against the despised "Ruinek." But the fact remains that including Moller's men, our losses were to the Boer losses in the proportion of more than three to one, and that the defeat of Lukas Meyer's force, though unquestionable, was not crushing. The first of the four actions fought by White's troops in the open had not resulted in decisive success.
As for the ill-fated commander, it is easy to criticise his temperament and his dispositions. He was perhaps too confident in the superior fighting power of British soldiers, too eager for a chance of showing it, not careful enough in taking all possible precautions against a reverse. But he was an accomplished and skilful soldier, as well as a brave and forward one; and it will be a bad day for the British army if ever men of his stamp become fewer. With a little better fortune he might have risen, deservedly, to a high place in the ranks of our famous fighting men.