'I am ready to halt.'—Ps. xxxviii. 17.
On the morning of October 21st, Colonel Yule, who, as senior officer, had taken over command of the brigade, received the news that a Boer commando, under General Joubert, was advancing by the Newcastle road. As the camp was within long-range artillery fire from Impati Mountain, the brigade moved off at a moment's notice to the south and took up a defensive position. The tents were left standing, but each man carried a waterproof sheet, a blanket, and great-coat, while the waggons, massed in rear, had three to four days' supplies. Soon after 4:30 p.m. the enemy appeared on Impati, and at once opened fire with a big gun, probably a forty-pounder. The shells at first fell in the vacated camp, but the Boer artillerymen quickly discovered the brigade, and made good practice, although they caused but slight damage. Our batteries attempted to reply, but were outranged, their shells falling far short. Luckily for us a mist came on, and the Boer gun ceased firing.
As soon as night fell the troops began to entrench themselves, for the situation of the brigade was sufficiently unpleasant. In front was an enemy with superior numbers and heavier artillery, and in rear, between Dundee and Ladysmith, another hostile force of unknown strength. To make matters worse, it rained persistently and the night was cold. About 3 a.m. the brigade retreated to Indumana Kopje, some one and a half miles to the south-east of the camp. Here a new position was taken up before dawn, the guns and transport being massed behind the hill in order to be out of sight from Impati.
(p. 017) Early in the morning of the 22nd, the spirits of the small force were raised by the news of the victory at Elandslaagte. This caused great delight among the men: they were proud of their own victory at Talana, and this further success roused them to a still higher pitch of enthusiasm. The strategic side of the situation seldom appeals to the rank and file, and the consequence was that when the retreat was commenced they were under the impression that they were being led to yet another victory. When they were undeceived, they were undoubtedly very savage, especially so at, what seemed to them, the callous desertion of their wounded comrades in Dundee.
Since it was possible that some of the defeated Boers might be retreating through the Biggarsberg, a demonstration towards Glencoe Junction was ordered, the troops detailed being the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the 60th Rifles, one battery, and some cavalry. No time was given for breakfasts, but the detachment moved off at 8 a.m. with the battalion as advance guard. On arriving within 1500 yards of the Junction, the battery shelled a party of the enemy on a hill to the west of the railway, a proceeding which promptly provoked an answer from the Boer gun on Impati, but another timely mist and rain saved the detachment from this unwelcome attention. No Boers were seen in the pass, so the force, with the battalion as rearguard, returned to Indumana Kopje at 12.30 p.m., when they were able to obtain dinners, the majority of the men having been without food for twenty-four hours.
At 9 p.m. that evening orders were issued for the reoccupation of Talana Hill by the whole force, but the various commanding officers were informed confidentially that Colonel Yule's real intention was a retreat to Ladysmith by the Helpmakaar road. It was an extremely dark night, and the battalion occupied nearly two hours in collecting the companies and reaching the place of assembly at (p. 018) the foot of the kopje. It was not until after 11 p.m. that the brigade actually started on the retreat in the following order: 1st 60th Rifles (advance-guard), 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 13th Battery, Mounted Infantry, Transport, 67th and 69th Batteries, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 18th Hussars, 1st Leicestershire Regiment (rearguard). The force occupied about four miles of road. The route was through Dundee, over Sand Spruit, and down the Helpmakaar road through the Coalfields village. It was impossible to find an opportunity for a return to the camp, which was left standing. All the tents, stores, and baggage, together with the wounded, were left to the enemy. The battalion thus lost its band instruments and camp equipment, while the officers had to sacrifice all their personal kit, and many articles belonging to the mess. The waggons carried nothing but supplies, and no one in the force was able to take away anything beyond what he carried on his person.
The column marched throughout the night, and far into the morning of the 23rd, only halting at 10 a.m., when (p. 019) dinners were eaten on the high ground south of Blesbok Pass, about fifteen miles from Dundee. That the Boers were watching the retreat was proved by one of their heliographs trying to 'pick up' the column. The march was resumed after a two hours' rest, and continued to Beith (twenty-one miles from Dundee), where, at 3 p.m., another halt was made. The men cooked their teas, and had a chance of a brief sleep, but at 11 p.m. they had to start again. The road, a very bad one, lay through the pass leading to the Waschbank River. The battalion formed the advance-guard, with two Natal mounted policemen as guides. It was a weary tramp, for, owing to the wretched road, long halts were necessary in order to allow the waggons to close up. At dawn, the 18th Hussars took over the duties of advance-guard, and were supported by 'F' company, under Captain Hensley.
During the night a mysterious heliograph was seen twinkling and blinking away on the left flank. After some difficulty it was ascertained that it was communicating with the farm of a man named Potgieter, professedly a British subject. He was, in fact, caught in flagrante delicto in full communication with the unknown Boer signaller, and paid for his crime with his life.
At 10 a.m. on the 24th, the head of the column reached the Waschbank (thirty-six miles), crossed, and halted on the south side of the river. The waggons were not over until 12.30 p.m. A welcome meal and a bathe in the stream refreshed the men, some of whom had had no proper sleep for three nights. Heavy firing was heard from the direction of Ladysmith, and the mounted troops, with the artillery, were sent off to reconnoitre and see if they could render any assistance to Sir George White. They met with nothing, however, and returned before 5 p.m. Meanwhile the infantry had also been disturbed, for at 2 p.m. they recrossed the river in order to occupy a better position to oppose a (p. 020) rumoured pursuit of the Boers. As the latter did not appear, the river was again forded at 4 p.m., and only just in time. A violent thunderstorm burst, and the water rose ten feet in two hours. 'H' company, under Lieutenant Shewan, and a patrol of the 18th Hussars were left on the north bank, and were thus cut off from the main body for several hours.
It rained in torrents until 11 p.m., and the battalion, formed in quarter-column, had to lie down in pools of water, and get what sleep it could. At 5 a.m. on the 25th, in bright sunshine, the retreat was resumed. 'H' company crossed to the south bank a few minutes before the column moved off, although the water was still up to the men's waists. The Dublin Fusiliers formed the rearguard, and marched till mid-day, when Sunday's River (forty-eight miles) was reached. 'A' company remained on the north bank to cover the crossing of the waggons, and at 2.30 p.m. the column went on, only halting at 4.30 for tea. Everybody hoped to have a long rest here, but at 6.30 p.m. Major Bird was sent for, and informed that, as the Boers were in close pursuit, a night march was necessary.
The brigade accordingly started at 7 p.m., at the same moment that heavy rain began to fall. The road quickly became inches deep in mud, every one was soon wet to the skin, and the night was so dark that a man in each section of fours had to hold on to the canteen strap of the man in front in order to keep the proper direction. As an additional evil, the battalion was still rearguard, which is generally the most tiring position in a column. Halts were frequent, and the men were so exhausted that many of them, when they stopped for a moment, fell down in the mud and slept. Soon after midnight the 18th Hussars, who were keeping connection between the Irish Fusiliers and the rearguard, disappeared. It was so dark that the latter could have no certainty of being on the right road, but was obliged to (p. 021) struggle on blindly. Majors Bird and English established a code of signals by whistle, in order to keep the companies closed up. Dawn still found the battalion marching, dead tired, but luckily in its proper place behind the column, and without a man missing. It was not until 8 a.m. on the 26th that this wearisome march ended. Then Modderspruit, seven miles north of Ladysmith, and sixty-five from Dundee, was reached, and the men sank down, too weary to care about anything. After a brief interval, however, they recovered sufficiently to eat their bully beef and biscuits. It had been a trying march for all, although the column had accomplished only twelve miles in eleven hours. As an instance of the general weariness, it is recorded that a subaltern, during the meal, was asked to pass the mustard, and fell asleep with his arm outstretched and the mustard-pot in his hand.
But the brigade was still not allowed to rest. At 11 a.m. it was on the 'trek' again, and marched till 2 p.m., when the long retreat came to an end, and Ladysmith was entered. Here the Devonshire and Gloucestershire Regiments earned the undying gratitude of the regiment by providing officers and men with a meal, as well as by pitching a camp for them.
On arriving at Ladysmith, tents, equipment, mules, and, in fact, all that had been lost at Dundee, were issued, and the battalion went into camp near the cemetery.
The column was fortunate in having Colonel (now General) Dartnell with it. This officer, after serving with distinction for many years in the regular army, had, on retirement, settled down in Natal, where he was, previous to the war, in command of the Natal Police. A great hunter and fisherman, he knew every inch of the country, knowledge which proved of invaluable assistance in the trying march.