On the 23rd October, when White knew that Yule's column had marched out of Dundee and was in full retreat for Ladysmith, his anxiety on their account was naturally great; and it was increased by the news received that day that Free State forces from the west had pushed out to the north of Ladysmith, threatening or occupying a portion of the railway line near Elandslaagte. As will be seen from the map, this movement not only brought the Free State Boers into a position from which they could join hands with the Transvaal Boers if the latter were pushing on straight down the railway line, but also placed them on the right flank of Yule's column. As the Free State forces were estimated at 9000 men, this constituted a serious threat, and called for prompt action.
It had throughout been White's hope that he might be able to strike separately at the two wings of the enemy, defeating either the Transvaal forces or the Free Staters, or both, while they were still out of touch with each other. He had so far failed to get in a stroke at the Free Staters. The Transvaal Boers had been hit fairly hard both at Talana and Elandslaagte, but the Free Staters had eluded him. Their present action seemed to afford him a possible opportunity, for they were said to be in strength within ten miles or so of Ladysmith, holding the Intintanyoni Hill, close to the railway; and it appeared to him that by moving out with a considerable body of troops to the east of the railway he might not only prevent any attack by the Free Staters upon Yule's line bf .retreat, but also possibly deal them a severe blow. His main object was to fulfil his promise to Yule, " I will do what I may to help you when nearer," for the safe retirement of the Dundee column, and the consequent addition of 4000 men to his own force in Ladysmith, were matters of the first importance ; but he did not lose sight of the chance that while covering Yule's retreat he might also do evil to the Free Staters.
On the 24th October, at 5 a.m., White moved out of Ladysmith with a force of over 5000 men, composed of the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Imperial Light Horse, Natal Mounted Rifles, three batteries of artillery, and four battalions of infantry—namely, the 1st Liverpool, 1st Devon, 1st Gloucestershire, and 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps. This force comprised about half of White's troops in Ladysmith, and was the largest body of men yet brought against the Boers in the field.
It had advanced nearly six miles, covered by a screen of mounted men, when it came into touch with the enemy, who were found to be holding a line of rugged heights, some six miles in length, lying almost parallel to the railway and about two miles to the north-west of it. The centre of this line was formed by Intintanyoni, rising some four hundred feet above the railway, and was flanked to right and left by other considerable hills covered with boulders and grass. Between the Boer position and the railway was a low ridge, on which lay the farm house of Rietfontein. From the crest of this ridge the ground sloped gently down towards Intintanyoni, and then rose again steeply, the face of the hill itself being rough and broken. A valley of a thousand yards or more in breadth lay between the two crests. The Boers in position numbered 6000 men, under command of General Cronje. In rear of their fighting position lay their " laagers" or field bases, with their tents, ammunition, and supplies, while small parties of the enemy were thrown out in advance of the fighting position along the Rietfontein ridge and other low hills.
It was with these advanced detachments that our people first came into conflict, the mounted troops in front being met about 7 a.m. by rifle fire from the heights on their left. They immediately pushed forward across the railway, drove back the small parties annoying them, and extended themselves in a long line facing the Boer position, so as to cover the front and both flanks of the British force. The infantry and guns then advanced straight on the Boer centre. It may be said at once that no serious effort was made during the day to get round the enemy's flanks and fall upon his laagers, the only way in which a really decisive blow could have been inflicted upon him. The cavalry guarding the British right were, it is true, ordered by White during the course of the action to turn the Boer left if possible and make an attempt on his laagers ; but it was found on trial that in order to prevent any such attempt the enemy had occupied a position north of Intintanyoni which was too strong to be passed, or to be taken without heavy loss. The turning movement was therefore given up, and White confined himself to his primary object, the holding of the enemy's force, so as to obviate any attack by the Boers upon the Dundee column.
With this object the British infantry was pushed on towards Bietfontein, and shortly before 8 a.m. two Boer guns on Intintanyoni opened fire upon them. These guns were immediately engaged and silenced by the British artillery, and the infantry advanced in security up the slope of the Rietfontein ridge until they reached the crest. The Gloucester and Liverpool Regiments, which were leading, then came under heavy rifle fire from Intintanyoni and lay down to reply, while the artillery took up positions in support, and began shelling the enemy's line at short range, under 2000 yards. The loss on the British side was not heavy, but the interchange of fire across the valley nevertheless became so hot that the Devonshire Regiment, which had been in support below the crest, was brought up into the firing line to the left of the Gloucesters; half the King's Royal Rifles, which had been left in charge of the baggage, moving up to take the place of the Devons. Before midday the Boers seemed to have had enough of the unequal contest. Their two guns, dominated by the greatly superior artillery of the British, were silent; and their riflemen, whose position was searched from end to end by the shrapnel, had almost ceased firing. Their line was in fact pinned down, and it seemed evident that any attempt on their part to interfere with Yule's, retreat was now out of the question. White's main object had been attained.
It was at this time, in all probability, though I have been unable to find evidence of the precise hour, that White made his attempt to work his cavalry round their left and get in upon their laagers. However this may be, it was certainly no part of his plan of battle to make a direct frontal attack upon Intintanyoni across the bullet-swept valley ; and it must have been with intense surprise and regret that he suddenly found himself committed to something of the kind. No one knows the reason, but to quote Sir Frederick Maurice:—
Shortly before midday Colonel E. P. Wilford, commanding the 1st Gloucestershire, taking a company of his battalion and the regimental Maxim gun, dashed out of cover down the open slope as if to assault. Another half company of the battalion moved on ahead to cut a wire fence which obstructed the front.
A squadron of the Imperial Light Horse joined in the attack. It was quickly counter-ordered, but not until the gallant Wilford himself and six men had been filled and about forty wounded, the Boers having at once reopened fire. The incident was doubly unfortunate, not only because of the useless loss, but because the enemy, naturally enough, imagined that they had repulsed or prevented a general assault, and were elated in consequence. They at once began to threaten the British left with an outflanking attack; and though this was soon stopped by the Natal Mounted Rifles, who made a dashing counter-attack, and by the fire of the guns, under which the dry grass upon Intintanyoni and the heights on the Boer right burst into flames, the effect of Wilford's movement was undeniably bad. After an hour or two the Boer fire died down again, and eventually ceased on almost all the line ; upon which White, his chief purpose attained, gave the order for a general retirement. It was carried out for the most part with smoothness and ease; and the day's loss, 114 killed and wounded, was not heavy. But the losses of the Free Staters had been even smaller than those of the British, in spite of the preponderating British artillery; and they had never understood White's real object, for they imagined the Dundee column had already got into Ladysmith. They therefore supposed that White had attacked 4hem in force and been beaten off, and they followed up with such vigour the cavalry who were covering the retreat that some of the troopers got back with difficulty. Rietfontein therefore was not a striking success, for it is doubtful whether in any case the Free Staters would ever have found Yule; and they were certainly encouraged by the apparent inability of the British to make them give ground in the open. All that can be said is that any possible danger to Yule was warded off, and his retreat effectually secured.