For two or three days after the safe arrival of the Dundee column in Ladysmith the troops composing that column, and the transport animals, were in no state for fresh exertions. Though the march from Dundee had not been a very long one—a little over sixty miles—and no opposition had been encountered, yet the column had had six days and nights of trying work, beginning with the hard fight at Talana and ending with the mud and misery of the last night. Men and animals required two or three days of complete rest.
White had no intention of keeping them long unemployed. " I have a fine force now, and will use it," he wrote; but before making another effort to meet and beat in the open the converging Boer forces, he thought it desirable to get the Dundee column thoroughly fit. In the meantime his cavalry under General French were making reconnaissances with the view of finding a favourable opportunity for a blow, and the Boers were closing in. On the 27th October White writes to his wife :—
The English mail goes to-day, and I must send you one line to say that the enemy is appearing in great numbers on the east & north-east of Ladysmith. I have been receiving reports all night, & before this reaches you there will be important events. I hope we may come well through it. I will try to hit hard, but the difficulty is to get a fair chance of hitting at anything sufficiently definite to mean an important & lasting success. I think it quite possible the postal & telegraphic communication may be cut before long. If so, I hope you will keep up a good heart, but it will all be finished one way or another before this reaches you. The troops have had terrible hard work. My best love to you & all my children. . . .
On the 29th October the long-expected opportunity seemed to have arrived. After Rietfontein the Transvaal Boers had joined hands with the Free Staters, and there was no longer any possibility of decisively beating either of the two forces while they were apart; but they still acted more or less separately, and it was possible that an attack upon one of the two might not immediately be met by a counter-attack on the part of the other. The Free Staters lay to the west and north-west of Ladysmith, the Transvaal men to the east and north-east. According to the information brought in by the cavalry the right of the Transvaal forces had now occupied in large numbers, with guns, two hills marked on the appended map as Long Hill and Pepworth Hill, only three or four miles out of Ladysmith. Behind each of these hills was a large camp or laager. It seemed that if Long Hill and then Pepworth Hill could be carried, the Transvaal right might be driven in upon its centre, and the whole rolled up to the eastward away from the Free Staters, who would then be isolated.
The fight at Rietfontein had shown that the Boers might guard the laagers by occupying with comparatively small detachments positions which would prevent the British cavalry unaided from getting round to them. It was thought desirable, therefore, while the main British force was preparing for an attack in the morning upon the two hills, that a body of infantry should be sent during the night to push out to the north-west of the enemy's hills, and take up such a position as would not only cover the left flank of the British advance from any action on the part of the Free State Boers, but enable the cavalry to debouch upon some open ground beyond the Transvaal enemy, and complete his discomfiture if the hills should be carried.
In order to gain a decisive success if possible, White determined to employ in the attack practically the whole of his troops, a small number only being left in Ladysmith to guard against a coup de main from the westward. It was to be no half measure, but a bold fighting stroke, driven home with all his strength.
White's dispositions were as follows :— The force, already mentioned, which was to cover the left flank, consisted of the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1st Gloucester, with No. 10 Mountain Battery. It was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel F. R. C. Carleton. The force was to move out at 10 p.m. on the 29th October, and, marching due north by a watercourse called Bell's Spruit, was to gain the crest of a pass about seven miles from Ladysmith known as Nicholson's Nek, and there establish itself. Nicholson's Nek was the gate by which the cavalry was to issue upon the rear of the Boers, and Carle ton was to hold the gate open.
To cover the British right a cavalry brigade under General French, comprising the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, and a Natal regiment commanded by Colonel Royston, was to move out early in the morning, and occupying before dawn some ridges north-east of the point marked on the map as Gun Hill, was to demonstrate against the enemy's left.
Between these two flanking forces the main attacking force was to be formed up in two bodies.
The first of these, the "8th brigade," commanded by Colonel G. G. Grimwood, was to consist of five infantry battalions—namely, the 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the 1st Leicestershire, the 1st King's (Liverpool), and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Attached to this brigade were to be three batteries of Royal Field Artillery and the Natal Field Battery. The infantry battalions of this command were not in full strength, as nine companies were left behind to hold Ladysmith.
The second body of the main attacking force, the "7th brigade," commanded by Colonel Ian Hamilton, was to consist of four infantry battalions—namely, the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, 1st Devonshire, 1st Manchester, and 2nd Rifle Brigade. Attached to this force were to be three batteries of Royal Field Artillery and a body of cavalry consisting of the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 18th Hussars, and the Imperial Light Horse, with two companies of mounted infantry.
Grimwood's brigade was to take Long Hill, the artillery of both brigades uniting to clear the way for his infantry, Hamilton's brigade remaining in reserve. Long Hill taken and held, Hamilton in his turn was to advance, with the support of the united artillery, and take Pepworth Hill. That done, his cavalry was to move round by Nicholson's Nek, held by Carleton's force, and fall upon the enemy's rear, thus completing the victory.
Grimwood's brigade moved out shortly after midnight, and an hour before dawn he was in his prescribed position to the south-east of Long Hill. But he then found that he had with him three only of his five battalions, the Liverpools and the Dublin Fusiliers having diverged to the left in the darkness, following some of the artillery, and thus got separated from him. To make matters worse, he found, as day broke, that French's cavalry, which was to have covered his right, was not to be seen. It had remained in and about the points marked on the map as Lombard's Kop and Umbulwana, and Grimwood's right was exposed to attack.
Meanwhile Hamilton, moving out about 4 a.m. to his assigned position at the point marked on the map as Limit Hill, where he was to await the development of Grimwood's attack on Long Hill, received news that something had gone wrong with Carleton's column on his left. A muleteer of the 10th Mountain Battery came in with the information that during the night march the battery mules had stampeded and broken away. This man's account was confirmed by an officer attached to the Gloucester regiment, and before dawn it gradually became clear that the guns and ammunition of the battery had been wholly or partially lost.
Altogether the situation when day broke was far from satisfactory, and it was soon evident that the projected attack was not to be carried out on the lines laid down. Nevertheless, when the light became strong enough, the British artillery opened fire on Long Hill, and the engagement began. It was then found that the Boer guns had been withdrawn from the hill, and that it was apparently unoccupied, while on the other hand a heavy gun, firing a 96-pound shell, opened from Pepworth Hill, and was soon supported by six guns of smaller calibre, but all outranging the British field guns. These now pushed forward to closer range, and succeeded in temporarily silencing the Boer guns on Pepworth Hill; but other hostile guns opened in different parts of the field, and before long the British batteries had to be sent away in various directions to keep down the Boer fire.
The fact was that Grimwood had been outflanked by the Boer left, and that a sharp attack was being delivered upon his right; and the brigade, swept by rifle and artillery fire, found itself forced to swing round and form a fresh front to the eastward instead of the north-west. Eventually it was able to join hands with French's cavalry in its right rear, which had vainly tried to push forward as originally intended, and now found itself assailed about Lombard's Kop, the mobile enemy even trying to get round it to the southward. At the same time fresh bodies of Boers moving down from the northward near Pepworth's Hill threatened Grimwood's left.
So the fight went on through the morning, Hamilton's reserve brigade being gradually diminished in numbers by the despatch of cavalry, guns, and infantry to meet demands for reinforcements, until at about eleven o'clock it became clear that all hope of carrying out the plan for a serious offensive blow at the enemy was out of the question. The Boers were held, and unable to advance any further; but they were too strong to be beaten.
Meanwhile Colonel Knox, who had been left in command at Ladysmith, reported that the small force at his disposal was seriously threatened by the Free Staters; and to crown all, White had received trustworthy information that Carleton had lost his battery and was in a critical position near Nicholson's Nek.
There was nothing to be done but to recognise the failure of the offensive scheme, and to retire into Ladysmith. With a sore heart White gave the order, and covered by the fire of the batteries the withdrawal began. At the same time White sent a heliograph message to Carleton: "Retire on Ladysmith as opportunity offers." The ill-fated Carleton was then holding a boulder-strewn hill five or six miles away to the northward, surrounded by a force of Boer riflemen through which he had no chance of breaking his way. He
"called for signallers to read the message, but so deadly was the fire that three men were wounded in succession, and one man thrice, as they stood by Carleton spelling out the signal." (Sir Frederick Maurice.)
His own heliograph had been lost in the stampede of the mules, and he could not acknowledge the order. Nor, as he well knew, could he hope to carry it out. Without relief from Ladysmith his force was doomed.
The disengagement and retreat of White's main body was effected with no great difficulty, and without heavy casualties. The British batteries had hard work in covering the retreat, and all of them—especially, perhaps, the 13th and 53rd—went through some moments of peril; but they did their work admirably, and the pursuing enemy were effectually held off. By 2.30 p.m. the troops were all back in their camps. A couple of disabled Maxims had been left behind, with a shattered limber and a store waggon. Otherwise the enemy had not a trophy to show.
While the fight was in progress White received a very useful reinforcement. Six days before, in view of the heavy guns which the Boers were said to be bringing with them from the north, he had, on the suggestion of Sir Henry Rawlinson, asked the Admiral in naval command at the Cape to send him a heavy gun detachment. This detachment, under the command of Captain the Honourable Hedworth Lamb ton, was got ready and sent off with remarkable promptitude, and arrived in Ladysmith at 10 a.m. on the morning of the 30th October. It came into action within two hours, and very soon silenced the Boer guns on Pepworth Hill. The value of the naval guns during the next three months was incalculable.
There remains the story of Carleton's column—a melancholy story. The little force had moved off soon after 11 p.m., under the guidance of Major Adye, an energetic and capable officer of the Intelligence Department, and within two hours had arrived, in spite of the darkness, at the southern extremity of a height called Kainguba. At the northern end of this height, two miles away, was Nicholson's Nek. The advance of the column had not been detected by the enemy, and if it had marched straight on it would probably have reached Nicholson's Nek without trouble. But at this point the march was unfortunately stopped, Carleton being apprehensive lest he should find himself still in the defile when day broke. He decided, therefore, to occupy the Kainguba height, or a portion of it, on his left, and the head of the column was turned towards the steep ascent. It had climbed about two-thirds of the way up when there was a sudden uproar in the darkness, and a herd of animals came thundering down the hillside. What had happened no one knew; but the panic spread along the line of the ascending column, «,nd in a few seconds the whole, or almost the whole, of the battery and transport mules had broken loose and were galloping madly downhill, dashing aside in all directions the men of the two infantry regiments. When these assembled on the summit of the height, it was found that the mules with the column—over 200 in number—had nearly all disappeared, carrying off with them the reserve of ammunition and pieces of all the guns. The battery was, in fact, no longer in existence. Sending word by a native messenger to inform Sir George White of the mishap, and of the position in which the force now found itself, Carleton proceeded to entrench and to make such arrangements as he could for holding the hill. But without proper tools it was impossible to throw up effective defences, and the cover afforded was very poor, while the ground occupied was open to fire from several directions. Very soon dropping shots from the southwest showed that the presence of the troops had been discovered, and that the enemy was on their flank and rear. At 7 a.m. other bodies of Boers gathered on the heights to the eastward and opened fire from this side also. For some time the attack was not pressed home; but about nine o'clock the enemy began to gather about the northern end of Kainguba, while a force of Free Staters came in on their right, thus surrounding the column. After this fighting went on for some hours, the Boers gradually closing in and inflicting considerable loss, until, about half-past one o'clock, the end suddenly came. At that time Captains Duncan and Fyffe of the Gloucesters, Fyffe being wounded, found themselves isolated with six or eight men, holding a small native "kraal." The rest of the British force was now in rear of them, behind Some rising ground, and the little party appear to have believed that Colonel Carleton had taken his column from the hill, leaving them alone. Hopeless of being able to get away under the fire of several hundred Boer rifles, and feeling that further resistance was vain, they decided to surrender. Taking a towel from a man near him, Duncan tied it to his sword and held it up. In so doing Duncan intended only to surrender the kraal and the few men inside it; but immediately afterwards a bugle somewhere sounded the " Cease fire," and the Boers, imagining that the whole force was concerned, came forward, shouting and waving their hats, towards the point where Carleton was standing. He might still have repudiated the surrender, but he knew that such action on his part would be regarded as treachery, and that, moreover, the result could only be to prolong the fight for a very short time. He therefore himself called for the " Cease fire" to be sounded, and walking out towards the enemy handed his sword to a Boer commandant. 37 officers and 917 men became prisoners of war.
The news of this disaster—for the capture of two British battalions on the field of battle was a real disaster—came to White before the close of the day, and shocked him deeply. Coupled with the failure of his main force to inflict a defeat upon the enemy, it made a vast difference in the military position, not only because of the loss itself, but because it showed that the Boers were much more formidable than had been hitherto supposed. He knew, too, how serious the effect would be all over the world, especially, perhaps, in India, and his feelings on the evening of the 30th October were intensely bitter.
White was one of the most chivalrous of soldiers, and the last thought in his mind was to cast the blame upon his subordinates. The result of the day's fighting was reported to the War Office in the following words :—
No. 128 A of 30th October. I have to report a disaster to a column sent by me to take a position in the hills to guard the left flank of the troops in their operations to-day. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Gloucestershire Regiment, and No. 10 Mountain Battery, were surrounded in the hills, and after heavy losses had to capitulate. Losses not yet ascertained in detail. A man of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, employed as hospital orderly, came in under flag of truce with letter from the medical officer of the column, and asked for assistance to bury dead. I fear there is no doubt of the truth of report. I framed the plan in carrying out which this disaster occurred, and am alone responsible for that plan. No blame whatever attaches to the troops, as the position was untenable.
This telegram, which soon became famous, was generous in the extreme, perhaps Quixotic; for White could not know at the moment how far the surrender might have been due to faulty dispositions on Carleton's part, or other circumstances for which he himself could not fairly be blamed. Yet it probably did more to disarm criticism and enhance his reputation than any more measured report would have done. " Voila un homme," the French said, with their quick sense of military honour; and "Voila un homme" was the general verdict in England and throughout the Empire. If White had sent his message after deliberate calculation of the course most likely to redound to his own advantage, he could not have chosen his words better. But in truth there was no such thought in his mind. His words were the first impulsive expression of his chivalrous nature, and they fully deserved to be received as they were received. Nothing shows more clearly what his real thoughts were than the letter which he wrote to his wife before he slept that night. With her, at least, there could be no question of writing for effect.
To Lady White.
30th October 1899.
It is doubly sad that the blow of my life has fallen upon me on this day (It was the eve of their wedding day.). I had promised myself the pleasure of wiring to you " Viretum," the word you wrote on a sheet of paper for me on the way down to Southampton. You kept a copy of it, but it means, " My very dear love to you on this day, & may I see you very soon."
The newspaper boys are now calling in London the terrible disaster that I have only heard of two hours ago. I must tell you the history of it.
I had collected all the troops in the colony of Natal here, & I felt it my duty to the colony to try & hit the Boers so hard that they would not pass Ladysmith & invade the colony south of it. I may tell you in confidence that most of my staff were opposed to going out to fight. They said, " Let us wait until the enemy is nearer, & then let us strike." I felt that this was to allow ourselves to be shut in & unable to strike out where we wished, so I insisted on fighting. I laid out a plan to attack a position which was held last night by the enemy with guns. ... As the attack on this position exposed my left flank to attack from the hills, I consulted a capital officer, Major Adye, who knew every inch of the ground, and he assured me he could, if a party marched at night, take a position which he & they could hold for two days at all events. I detailed the Gloucester Eegt., the Eoyal Irish Fusiliers, & a mountain battery. They started at 11 o'clock last night, & when I got up at half-past three o'clock this morning I was told that there had been some firing during the night march, & that the mules with guns had stampeded. This was an unlucky beginning, but as the Boers hate night fighting, & Major Adye, who was the guide in the affair, said he could do the advance at night, but not by day, I had adopted that course as the one by which the position could be gained with least loss.
I went out at 4 o'clock in the morning & was fighting all day. The men were tired & done. I think it is certain that my plans were betrayed to the enemy, as the position I had intended to burst upon at daylight had been evacuated in the night. They must have heard our plans. We were then attacked by the Boers & forced into a fight that had not been planned. I think we hit the Boers harder than they hit us, but they can outflank us & move much more rapidly, as they all ride ponies. I fought on till I saw our men were failing & could not get on, & then I withdrew them quietly. When I got home I visited the hospital & some corps that had had heavy losses, & then came to my quarters to hear that the two regts. I had sent on the separate duty had been surrounded & had to capitulate. It has been a knock-down blow to me, but I felt I had to make an effort, & thought this plan afforded a fair chance of military success.
It was my plan, & I am responsible, & I have said so to the Secretary of State, & I must bear the consequences. I could have shut myself up or even dealt half-hearted blows with perfect safety; but I played a bold game, too bold a game, & I have lost. I believe every move I made was reported to the Boers. They are brave & very intelligent, & very hard to give a decided beating to.
I think after this venture the men will lose confidence in me, & that I ought to be superseded. It is hard luck, but I have no right to complain. I have had a very difficult time of it. I don't think I can go on soldiering. My mind is too full of this to write about anything else. It is far into the night, but I don't expect to sleep, though I have been up since 3 a.m. The story of the fate of the 2 regiments is too horrible to me to tell you of. The papers will tell it with every detail.
The telegram was sent nevertheless. It ran: "Viretum, but very sad."
White soon found that neither his men nor his country had lost confidence in him. On the day after the fight he received from Lord Lansdowne a message which did more to comfort and help him than perhaps anything else could have done :—
Queen telegraphs to me as follows: "Am much distressed to hear of this sad news. Trust it will not dishearten troops at Ladysmith; feel every confidence in Sir George White, although he naturally takes all blame on himself; am anxiously awaiting further particulars."
And three days later came a second message :—
Queen telegraphs to me as follows: Begins, "The despatch from Sir G. White just sent this morning has been a great relief, and quite clears Sir G. White of blame.—V.K.I." Ends.
These prompt and generous words were the expression of the national feeling. But the fact remained that in the trial of strength between the two armies in the field the Boers had shown themselves to be the superior force. They had in the course of the day-thrown the British upon the defensive, and had inflicted upon White's troops a loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners of more than a tenth of the number engaged. No doubt the mishap to Carleton's column accounted for four-fifths of this loss; but still it was now evident that the British force in Natal could no longer entertain much hope of beating their enemy in the open.