After the reverse at Colenso, nearly four weeks elapsed before Sir Redvers Buller was ready to move again for the relief of Ladysmith. The interval passed in receiving reinforcements, and in accumulating a transport service which should enable the army to perform a long flanking march, for, the frontal attack upon the Boer centre having failed, and its difficulties been not only recognised but demonstrated, the purpose was now to turn their right flank by way of Springfield, some twenty miles to the north-east of Frere, crossing thence the Tugela by a ford six miles distant, known as Trichardt's Drift, and following the Acton Homes road. The army would thus pass round Spion Kop and gain the open plain north of the mountain thus named.
While this movement was in progress, but before crossing the river, a reserve supply for seventeen days was accumulated at Springfield. It may be assumed therefore that this represents the conditions which Sir Redvers Buller thought requisite to his projected operation. The necessity of depending chiefly upon the slow-moving ox-wagons, and their comparatively small capacity, made the organising of the train tedious and difficult. "To forward supply alone," wrote Buller, "took 650 ox-wagons, and as between Frere and Springfield there are three places where all the wagons had to be double-spanned, and some required three spans, some idea of the difficulties may be formed." A correspondent with the army states that the wagons "can only be depended upon to haul not more than 600 pounds each." To lessen this great inconvenience road traction-engines were employed with success. The same writer says of these that "they can easily haul twelve tons, and on a flat, dry veldt strip along at a brisk eight miles an hour. They leisurely descend into spruits—beds of streams—roll across, and wheel up stiff long climbs like flies walking up a wall. They are not quite helpless, even when the ground has been soaked by rain."
While these preparations were making, the besieged had to resign themselves to further weary endurance. "Sir Redvers Buller," writes a correspondent within, "has sent a heliograph message bidding us wait in patience for another month until siege artillery can reach him." The bombardment was maintained by the Boers with increased but monotonous regularity, intensified from time to time as movements among Buller's troops led them to strengthen their forces upon the Tugela, with a consequent weakening of those of investment.
The firm resolve manifested by the British Government and people after the repulse at Colenso, and the enlargement at once given to the scale of the war and to the contemplated reinforcements, showed that, unless the garrison was speedily reduced, it would probably be relieved by sheer weight of numbers. In short, the opportunity for a decisive blow possibly now existed, but, if not quickly improved, would certainly pass away for ever. The motive for the assault that soon followed is not positively known; but, if the Boer information of the damage done by their shells, and of the food and ammunition supply in the town, was as accurate as it is believed to have been, they knew that neither bombardment nor hunger could reduce the place before the dreaded power of the outside enemy received full development. Ladysmith was to them like a dead weight round the neck of a swimmer struggling for life under other disadvantages. It is unnecessary to seek any further reason for the assault of January 6, by whomsoever first commanded. The words attributed to Joubert's order, "Ladysmith must be taken before Wednesday"—the faint echo, perhaps, of Wellington's "Ciudad Rodrigo must be stormed this evening"—needed only to be supplemented by the words, "or never," to express a military argument to which no valid reply could be made. As the commander of the New Orleans forts said, "There will be no to-morrow unless so and so is done at once."
Reluctant, therefore, though the Boers as a race have shown themselves to offensive tactics and to assault, the necessities of the case compelled them. In their plan, and in its execution, they showed all the courage, all the tenacity, heretofore displayed in their defensive operations, as well as the peculiar, stealthy rockcraft of a nation of hunters, which has equally characterised them. It is not, however, too much to add that at the supreme moment, when man stands foot to foot and eye to eye, and when the issue depends upon superior aggressive momentum of temperament, the national trait, whether original or acquired, asserted itself; and the heroes who had scaled the heights barefoot, and clung with undying resolution to their rocky cover, exchanging shots almost muzzle to muzzle, did not muster the resolution which might, or might not—the true soldier recks not which at such an hour—have carried them, more than decimated, but triumphant, across the belt of withering fire to victory. The reply of the British colonel on the other side of the sixty yards of plateau that separated the opponents, "We will try"—a phrase which Americans will remember fell in the same tongue from the lips of our own Colonel Miller at Lundy's Lane—expressed just the difference. Of the three companies who then rose to their feet on Wagon Hill and rushed, every officer fell and fifty-five of the men; but the bayonets of the survivors reached the other side, and there followed the inevitable result. The men that would not charge fled.
Of this affair, in which Ladysmith most nearly touched ruin, the salient details only must be briefly told. The part of the British defences chosen for the Boer assault was a ridge two miles south of the town, in length some 4,500 yards,—over two and a half miles,—and 600 feet high. Its general direction is east and west, but in contour it is slightly concave towards the south, whence the assailants came. In the centre, this crescent, having a comparatively easy incline, is more readily swept by fire, and approach is more easily seen. The Boers consequently chose to ascend by the horns, which are very precipitous, and where, therefore, if no noise is made, detection is not easy and aim is extremely difficult. Above the ridge thus described rose three eminences, of 100 feet or more. That on the east was Cæsar's Camp, about 1,500 yards long by 700 wide; next, and 400 yards distant, Wagon Hill, two-thirds the size; and close to this, and at the extreme west, Wagon Hill West, scarcely more than a knob, but very steep.
The Boer plan was to seize the two extremities by a night attack of picked men, who, when they had made good their hold, would be reinforced rapidly from a main body assembled behind hills some two miles south. Against Wagon Hill went 300 men, who, on reaching the foot, took off their shoes and divided into two parties, one of which climbed noiselessly Wagon Hill, the other Wagon Hill West. They came as a complete surprise upon the British outposts. Wagon Hill West was held by two squadrons, about 70 men, of Natal troopers—the Imperial Light Horse; Wagon Hill proper by a half-battalion of infantry. It happened, however, by fortunate coincidence, that it had been decided to mount that night a naval gun upon Wagon Hill West. This, with an escort of engineer troops, a half company of infantry, and some seamen—in all sixty rifles—had reached the foot of the hill by 2.30 A.M., the hour the attack was made.
Alarm was taken only an instant before the Boers were upon the garrison. The rush and fire followed so instantly that the defenders were driven in disorder over the crest, leaving it in the hands of the enemy, who captured a lieutenant and sixteen men—thirteen of them wounded. Amid the surprise and confusion, and the black darkness, the gun escort, under two young lieutenants of engineers, held firm, affording a rallying point for the routed garrison; and this mixed body, steadying itself under cover on the reverse side of the hill, stood fast and waited events. The Boers, also expectant, instead of pursuing their success, retired and sought cover on the outer slope; a narrow sixty yards of summit alone separating the opponents.
Somewhat less of success attended the surprise on Wagon Hill proper. Nevertheless, there also the Boers effected a lodgment on the plateau, and along the nek connecting with Wagon Hill West. A group of stragglers, from the Imperial Light Horse and the Wagon Hill garrison, had got together among the boulders of a knoll off the latter hill, near the nek, and thence kept up a cross-fire on Wagon Hill West. The Boers doing the same from their side, that summit was untenable to either party. Here, at the west end of Wagon Hill, the two lines were but 30 yards apart. To the eastward, towards Cæsar's Camp, as the plateau widened, the space increased to 100 yards. The danger to the British in this situation was, that if the knoll were lost, Wagon Hill West, losing the support of its fire, would probably fall with it. Wagon Hill proper would then be taken in flank as well as in front, and so rendered untenable; while Wagon Hill once gone, Cæsar's Camp would be exposed to a like concentration and probably to the same fate. Deprived of the ridge, the British line of defences would be broken and the enemy established on a commanding height in easy range—5,000 yards—of the town. Two or three desperate attempts to reinforce the knoll by crossing the open were therefore made by small parties, but these were cut down, the officers leading them being killed. At this time the colonel, two majors, and four other officers of the Light Horse were hit. It was to this resolute tenure of the key of the situation by a handful of men that Sir George White referred in a speech at Belfast. "On January 6th, which has been alluded to as a tight day, had it not been for the Imperial Light Horse, Joubert might have been spending his Sunday (January 7) where I spent mine. I think I may say of them they were the bravest men I ever had under my command." Colonel Ian Hamilton, the brigadier in command on the ridge, also wrote of them, "It will be made quite clear in my despatch that the Imperial Light Horse were second to none. No one realizes more clearly than I do that they were the backbone of the defence during that long day's fighting." In other parts of the field also the British loss of officers at this moment was heavy.
At dawn the lines lay as described, but reinforcements were being hurried to the British, the greater part directed on Cæsar's Camp. The Boers did not move during this critical period, relying upon their deadly fire, maintained by veterans in cover-taking and marksmanship. More than this was needed. In such a state of the national cause, the crests should have been attempted at all risks; and at all risks the forlorn hopes should have received immediate substantial support. In cases like this, national temperament tells; there was by them no such rush as those in which the British officers had dared to fail. By 8 A.M., more or less, Wagon Hill and Wagon Hill West had received, or saw coming, reinforcements of a half battalion of infantry and two fresh squadrons of the Imperial Light Horse. The Boers, however, were also pushing men up. Under these conditions no further advance was tried from either line, but the firing continued incessant and unpitying. By 10 A.M. the British force had so increased that the Boer fire was considerably slackened.
While these things were happening on the west, Cæsar's Camp had been also the scene of a contest—serious, and for a moment apparently doubtful. At no time, however, was the peril here as great as on Wagon Hill. There the fight was lost, and there won. Meantime the Boer siege guns had opened upon the field of action with great effect, maintaining a vigorous fire throughout; and the British on their side had advanced field batteries in the plain, to sweep either flank of the threatened ridge, a measure which markedly curtailed the power of the enemy to send reinforcements to those already engaged on the heights. The Boers had also developed attacks upon the north and north-east of the town; but these, however intended, did not proceed beyond mere demonstrations.
At 2 P.M., on Wagon Hill West, a few Boers at last attempted what numbers should have tried hours before. It is trite to say that at such a crisis proverbial truths receive double emphasis. "Not to gain ground is to lose ground." "He who hesitates is lost." At the hour named, a number—eight, it is said—at their head De Villiers, a Free State commander, rose suddenly to their feet. The action, unexpected after so many passive hours, shook the steadiness of the British opposite. Some turned and ran down hill, but the Engineer detachment stood fast with fixed bayonets. An infantry major beside them fell, shot dead, but their own lieutenant, Digby Jones, a youth in his twenties, led them forward to the encounter. The parties met midway, but only one follower had kept on with Villiers. The Boer leader was killed by Jones, who himself dropped immediately after. His junior, Denniss, went out to look for him, and quickly shared his fate. So, after hours of steadfast bearing, died these gallant lads—not in vain. With them fell also fifteen out of their thirty sappers, wounded, but not all slain.
At 4 P.M. a rain-storm of exceptional violence, even for South Africa, burst over the ridge. In the midst of it the Boers on Wagon Hill West, whose numbers had increased beyond the British knowledge, again attempted a forward movement; again, so the accounts say, waverers were found on the British side; again their officers called them together; charge threatened was met with charge effected, and for the last time. Before the levelled bayonets the enemy turned and fled down hill to return no more.
The same opportunity of tempest was taken by the assailants on Wagon Hill to mass their forces. Then it was that the British commander on the spot asked Colonel Park whether, with the three companies of the Devonshire Regiment in reserve, he could clear the hill. "We will try," was the reply. The companies deployed in three lines, in extended order—six to eight paces between the men—and fixed bayonets. The enemy knew not what was coming, but their watch was untiring. When ready, "The Colonel rose to his feet, and the three companies rose with him as one man. With a cheer that foretold success, the Devons dashed into the open. The fire with which they were received was simply awful; it might have staggered any troops. Leaving the cover of the stones, the Boers stood upright and emptied their magazines into the advancing line. But it never wavered, never checked, though the ranks were sadly thinned. The Boers fled from the boulders which they had held with such tenacity throughout the day, and turned at bay upon the edge of the crest, hoping yet to stay the deadly rush of steel. They were augmented from below, but the stand was of no avail. Though charging, the Devons steadily changed front and bore down upon the hillside. The enemy broke and fled headlong down. The day was won. Such was their dread of the bayonet, they did not even attempt to rally in the spruits below, but, leaving prisoners and ammunition behind, without turning, made their way to their horses." A bayonet charge rarely is awaited.
Ladysmith was saved, but at heavy cost. The British loss in killed was—officers, 14; private men, 164; wounded officers, 33; privates, 287; of the latter, 4 officers and 25 men died of their wounds. The Boers' loss is not accurately known. A correspondent in Ladysmith has stated that Sir George White, having undertaken to deliver the bodies of those who fell within the British lines, 133 were so handed over from the top of the hill. This number was believed to be small compared to those slain on the retreat, on the slopes, and in the brush below. The streams being in flood from the rain, it was thought that many more were drowned. In estimating hostile losses, however, there is usually a tendency to exaggerate.
The Boers never again attempted assault.
Footnote 29: Burleigh, "Natal Campaign," p. 240.
Footnote 30: Burleigh's "Natal Campaign," p. 410.
Footnote 31: London Weekly Times, February 23, 1900. In default of official reports, the author has depended chiefly upon the Times correspondence, and upon "Four Months Besieged," by Mr. H. H. Pearse, correspondent of the Daily News.