When on the evening of the 20th October Brigadier-General Yule marched back his weary troops from Talana Hill to the camp at Dundee, in a storm of rain, he was far from feeling triumphant over the success of the day. He did not yet know of the mishap which had befallen Moller's cavalry, and the 5eft or eastern wing of the Boer advance had no .doubt been driven off; but their centre had been threatening him all day from the Impati Hill, and he knew that their right held the railway about Elandslaagte. He had never liked the position at Dundee, and though the enemy on Impati had acted timidly, instead of making a bold attack on the camp while he was away at Talana, he could not tell what strength they might show next day. It was believed that they had heavy guns against which his field pieces would be unable to hold their own. He was in bad health, moreover, and unfit for much exposure to the prevailing cold and rain.
Nevertheless he was reluctant to abandon Dundee, for with a superior enemy about him, and the railway e-one, this meant the abandonment of wounded and stores, and of the collieries on which Natal depended. Next morning therefore, the 21st October, Yule set to work to find a fresh defensive position beyond the range of bombardment from Impati, and in the course of the afternoon he hoped that he had done so. He was quickly undeceived, for before his troops had been an hour in their new lines shells from heavy guns began to fall among them, causing some casualties, and when the British guns endeavoured to reply it was found that they could not get within a mile of the enemy's pieces. The position was evidently untenable for long, but until nightfall it was held without severe loss, and then the enemy's fire slackened and ceased.
In the course of the afternoon Yule had telegraphed to Ladysmith describing the situation, and asking for reinforcements. He was told in reply that Sir George White was at Elandslaagte, where the Ladysmith troops were in action, and that the request for reinforcements would be submitted to him; but the tone of the reply was not encouraging, and Yule rode out for the second time, in heavy rain, to try whether he could find ground to the southward out of range of the heavy guns. During the night and the early morning of the 22nd October the troops and transport were withdrawn to a fresh position some two miles distant.
There, two or three hours after their arrival, Yule received news of the victory at Elandslaagte the day before; and hoping that he might be able to cut off some-of the beaten enemy, he set his force in motion again and marched boldly on Glencoe junction, though this brought his force once more under the guns on Impati. He did not suffer much from their fire, for heavy mist soon settled down upon the mountain, and concealed his movements from the enemy's gunners; but it was ascertained that some of the Boers from Impati had now occupied in strength the low hills about Glencoe, and that there were no fugitives from Elandslaagte to cut off. Yule therefore marched his men back to their morning's camp, where they arrived early in the afternoon. The soldierly attempt to co-operate with the troops at Elandslaagte had proved unavailing.
Yule now had to make up his mind with regard to the possibility of holding Dundee, and having received no further reply to his request for reinforcements he came to the reluctant conclusion that the enemy's superiority in numbers and artillery precluded the hope of a successful attack. He decided, therefore, that his best course was to retire on Ladysmith, while retirement was still possible, and he was on the point of informing Sir George White of this decision when he received White's reply, which put an end to all further doubt. It ran as follows :—
I cannot reinforce you without sacrificing Ladysmith and the Colony behind. You must try and fall back on Ladysmith. I will do what I may to help you when nearer.
It was evident, the enemy being where he was, that the only chance of a successful retreat was by the Dundee-Helpmakaar road, lying some ten miles to the east of the railway, and reaching Ladysmith from that side. To gain the Helpmakaar road, or at all events to lay in a stock of supplies for the march, the retreating force had in the first instance to make its way back to the old camp of the 19th October, where nothing was now standing but the hospital tents, and thence to turn sharp to the southward. The intention was not to march by Helpmakaar itself, which would involve a long and useless detour, but to follow the Dundee-Helpmakaar road so long as it lay about parallel to the railway, and then diverging to the right at Beith, to keep parallel to the railway, and, crossing the Waschbank river, to make Ladysmith by a road which cut off a large part of the distance. It was a risky march, for several serious obstacles, among them the eastern part of the Biggarsberg range, lay across the route; and the enemy, if in possession of the railway line, might at any moment strike the right of the column, while the forces of Lukas Meyer and Erasmus would presumably follow up the retreating troops with the utmost speed, a speed much greater than that of marching infantry. There was nothing else to be done, but it was an anxious operation, and evidently the first essential of success was to march at once, and gain a long start during the night of the 22nd October.
This was accomplished. Sir Frederick Maurice's 'History of the War in South Africa' describes m the following words the critical night march :—
No sooner had darkness fallen than Major Wickham, of the Indian Commissariat, taking with him thirty - three waggons guarded by two companies of the Leicestershire Regiment, left the hill and moved with great precaution into the deserted camp. The convoy performed its short but dangerous journey without attracting the attention of the enemy, and the waggons, after being quickly loaded with as many stores as the darkness, the confusion of the levelled tents, and limited time made possible, were drawn up on the outskirts to await the passage of the column. At 9 p.m. the whole force fell in. The night was fine but intensely dark, and the units had some difficulty in reaching their stations in the carefully arranged order of march. At 9.30 p.m., all being ready, the column, guided by Colonel Dartnell, (Chief of the Natal Mounted Police, afterwards Brigadier-General Sir J. G. Dartnell, K.C.B., C.M.G.) went quietly down the mountain-side towards Dundee, the southern boundary of which it was necessary to skirt to gain the Helpmakaar road. By 11.15 p.m. the last company was clear of the mountain, and, striking the track to Dundee at the foot of Indumeni, the troops passed close to the bivouac ground of the 21st October. Outside the town Major Wickham's convoy stood waiting, and when, at the right moment, the signal was given, the above-mentioned waggons fell into their place in the line of march. The pace was rapid, despite the impenetrable gloom. Skirting Dundee, the route turned sharply south-east, around the corner of the Helpmakaar road. On the edge of the town the precaution was taken to cut the telegraph wire to Grey town. By 4.30 a.m., October 23rd, the leading files, having traversed safely the defile of Blesboklaagte, had made good twelve miles of the road to Helpmakaar, fourteen miles from the starting-point.
This excellent piece of night work, largely due to the local knowledge and energy of Colonel Dartnell, but creditable to all concerned, was the salvation of Yule's column. After three or four hours rest, the troops started again, and by 12.30, "a blazing sun beating upon the treeless downs," they had made about another five miles. Yule's position was still very hazardous, for before him lay "a defile known as Van Tonders Pass, deep and difficult, some six miles in length" ; and the troops, fatigued by the hard work they had done during the last three days and nights, badly needed rest. But before their retreat was discovered they had put nearly twenty miles between them and their pursuers, and they had now a fair chance of reaching unmolested the open country beyond the Biggarsberg, where if attacked they would not have to fight under such a disadvantage as in the mountains.
I have said that the well-executed night march was the salvation of the column, but this is perhaps too much to say. What probably contributed quite as much to the success of the difficult retreat was the effect produced upon the enemy by the fight at Talana. The evacuation of Dundee and Yule's retreat became known to Erasmus and Lukas Meyer late on the morning of the 23rd. For a force of Boers, all mounted on hardy ponies, to cover twenty miles between noon and sunset would have been no extraordinary feat. But Lukas Meyer, though ordered to pursue " with a thousand men," marched late and slowly, and failed to overtake the column; while Erasmus did not even start in pursuit until the 24th October, and then marched by the road west of the railway, where he had no chance of seeing the retreating troops. There can be little doubt that neither of the Boer Generals had any keen desire to come to close quarters with the men who had stormed Talana Hill. If they had wished to do so they had ample time, for Yule's force did not reach Ladysmith until the 26th October. The Boers seem to have been content to let Yule go, and " thank God they were rid of a knave."
The retreat has so often been described that it seems unnecessary to describe it again in detail. Yule got safely through the Van Tonders Pass on the night of the 23rd October. On the morning of the 24th he reached the Waschbank river, and, hearing the sound of heavy firing to the westward, came to the conclusion that White was fighting an action somewhere near the railway line. Though ill and spent with fatigue, Yule rode out with some mounted men and guns to co-operate if possible, but in the afternoon the firing died away, and he returned to camp. On the morning of the 25th he marched again, and, having made another eleven or twelve miles, was preparing to pass the night in camp, when he received orders from Sir George White to effect a junction at once with a column sent out from Ladysmith, and to push on straight without further halt. The night march which followed was a distressing one—for rain came down in torrents, turning the road into a sea of mud, through which the weary troops and transport animals struggled in the darkness. There was much confusion, and morning found the column terribly exhausted. But it was safe, and White's orders were justified by results, for in spite of the cautious nature of their advance, the Boers under Erasmus had on the 26th reached a point from which, if so disposed, they could have attacked Yule's flank in force, and to quote Sir Frederick Maurice, " only operations from Ladysmith on the largest scale could have extricated him." It was perhaps fortunate for him, and for the whole garrison of Ladysmith, that the night march was made. Every man of the reunited force was soon to be needed.
It may be observed that though Yule's retirement from Dundee was a toilsome operation, the miseries of the troops were not so great as they have been represented. The retiring force did not lose a man or an animal. All the more credit was due to Yule.
During this time White had found little time for letter - writing, but the following is a letter written to his wife on the 23rd October:—
To Lady White.
Ladysmith, 23rd Oct. 99.
Every day brings me new losses, and I can ill spare the men gone. . . .
I was forced by political considerations to leave the Dundee force there, though against my convictions. They are now in full retreat, & have had to abandon their wounded & stores. . . . Johnny Hamilton did splendidly at Elands Laagte on Saturday. It was the most bitterly contested action I was ever in. The Gordons lost 13 officers. . . .
I have just returned from visiting the leading men of the Boer wounded. One man is a splendid fellow, Pretorius.
His brother was killed on Saturday, & he has several wounds. He grasped my hand, & expressed great gratitude for what we had done for him. ...
I am very tired, & my staff are worse. We start fighting again at 5 to-morrow. By the time you get this fresh troops should have landed, if we can hold our own till then. . . .
He was much worried at this time by urgent requests for troops to garrison the colonial capital, which was supposed to be threatened. The anxiety in Maritzburg was natural, and to the civilian mind a local show of force is always comforting. The comfort is a delusive one, as White knew. He writes on the 25th October :—
I try to point out that we have but one chance, & that is to give me sufficient troops with which to strike out boldly. If they have two or three regiments to guard Maritzburg they will not save it if I am beaten, but they might enable me to give the enemy a hard, or even decisive blow. While I can go out & fight the colony remains unconquered. If I am held in or beaten in the field England will have to reconquer Natal from the sea. The consequences of this would be most lamentable even after the reconquest.
It is necessary now to go back a day or two and describe the fight of the 24th October, to which reference has already been made. It was the third of White's fights in the open, in pursuance of his steady determination to strike a hard blow if possible at the converging forces of the enemy while they were still apart. Talana on the 20th and Elandslaagte on the 21st had been victories, but not decisive victories. White still hoped for something more.