'Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment.'—Job, xxxii. 9.
The stay at Estcourt (November 3rd to 26th) was a period of great anxiety and hard work. That there was cause for anxiety may be easily understood when the state of affairs is remembered. The Army Corps had not yet arrived from England, nor could any fresh troops be expected before the 10th. The Boers had invaded Natal, had shut up in Ladysmith the only British army in the field, and could still afford to send five or six thousand men against Maritzburg. The Estcourt garrison alone stood in their way.
There were necessarily many outposts, and tours were long and frequent. Thunderstorms, Natal thunderstorms, visited the town with painful regularity, and rendered piquet work even more uncomfortable than usual. It was a period of strained waiting, when every one wondered whether a Boer commando or a British brigade would be the first arrival. Reliable news was scarce, though rumours of every kind were rife.
The battalion was encamped in the market square, while the officers inhabited a small room encumbered with planks. Trenches covered the town to the north and north-east, and were pushed forward some two miles on the Weenen road. The citadel, so to speak, was the sugar-loaf hill, on which Lieutenant James, R.N., constructed, towards the middle of the month, emplacements for his two naval twelve-pounders. These guns arrived on November 14th, a welcome addition to the garrison, which had been strengthened on the 13th by the (p. 029) West Yorkshire Regiment. These reinforcements came at an opportune moment, for the Boers had at last moved forward and on November 14th their patrols were close to Estcourt. Their approach caused a certain amount of alarm, and at first the evacuation of the town was proposed. The camp was even struck, and a great part of the baggage was put on to trains which were kept ready in the station. Later on other counsels prevailed, and tents were raised again. It had rained most of the day, and a general wetting was the chief result of this 'scare.' The Boers quickly made their presence felt, and the next day inflicted a severe blow on the garrison.
Our mounted troops had been busily engaged in reconnaissance work, and in an evil hour it occurred to the authorities that the armoured train was also an excellent means of gaining news. Captain Hensley had taken it to Colenso on the 5th and 6th, and on the latter day surprised a party of Boers engaged in looting the village. The dispatch of the train, unsupported by any mounted troops, soon became almost a matter of daily routine. This defiance of common sense could have only one result. On November 15th, Captain Haldane, of the Gordon Highlanders, went out in the train with 'A' company and some men of the Durban Light Infantry. He reached Frere and, learning from a Natal policeman that the front was clear, pushed on to Chieveley. Here he saw in the distance a small body of the enemy moving southwards, and, having telegraphed the information to Estcourt, turned back. But as the train was running down a steep gradient the Boers suddenly opened fire with two guns from a ridge to the west of the line. Almost immediately afterwards the train was derailed by stones placed on the line, and the leading truck upset, thus stopping the engine.
It was a predicament trying to the nerves of even the bravest. The Boer shells were well aimed, and came in quick succession. But Captain Haldane and his men did all that could be done. Lieutenant Frankland directed from the rear truck a vigorous fire, which kept the enemy at a respectful distance, and even made them shift their gun. Meanwhile Mr. Winston Churchill, who had accompanied the expedition as a Press correspondent, collected some men and set to work to push the derailed truck off the line. They were exposed to a heavy fire, but eventually succeeded in their task. The train began to move again; luck did not, however, favour them, for the coupling between the engine and rear truck was broken by a shell. Then Captain Haldane ordered the engine to return to Estcourt with as many wounded men as possible, while he attempted with the remainder of the force to reach Frere station. The engine reached Estcourt, but Captain Haldane was not so fortunate. The men left the trucks and started to run along the line. No sooner did our rifle-fire cease than the Boers galloped down the hill and, before Captain Haldane could realise the danger, they were among the men, and he had no course open but to surrender. The casualties of 'A' company were three men killed, four or five wounded, and forty-two prisoners. Private Kavanagh afterwards received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his gallantry on this occasion. The sound of the Boer guns could be distinctly heard at Estcourt, and great anxiety was felt. A little group of officers assembled in the trenches to the west of the station, and eagerly scanned the country through their glasses. Nothing could be seen, and the firing had ceased. Suddenly through the air rang the shrill whistle of an engine, and at the sound every one gave a sigh of relief. It was the armoured train, and all was well. Another whistle, and round a sharp curve steamed the engine—but, alas! without the trucks. It was evident that a disaster had occurred, (p. 031) although particulars were not received until late in the afternoon; while it was weeks later before the list of casualties could be ascertained. Luckily this mishap occurred when the situation had in other respects improved. The Army Corps was landing, and troops were being pushed forward as quickly as possible. On the 16th, Estcourt was reinforced by the 2nd Queen's and 2nd East Surreys of General Hildyard's brigade, and General Barton's Fusilier brigade was assembling at Mooi River.
The Boers were thus too late, and so lost the opportunity of capturing Maritzburg. Although they doubtless knew of the arrival of fresh troops, they still advanced, and, moving round Estcourt, appeared on the hills to the north-west of Mooi River station. A detachment reconnoitred Estcourt on the 18th, but a couple of shells from Lieutenant James's naval guns induced them to stay at a distance.
The telegraph line south of the town was interrupted on the 22nd, and for a brief period the garrison was cut off from the rest of the world. But the action of Willow Grange, in which the battalion took no part, caused a retirement of the enemy, who retreated through Weenen on the 24th.
Their retreat was in no degree molested by our troops; but on November 26th the long-desired advance took place. It was an exhilarating feeling to leave Estcourt, and lose sight of those hills and trenches, the scene of so many weary vigils. The army did not, however, make a big stride forward. The advance was only to Frere, some ten miles nearer the Tugela.
As the column started at 8 a.m. there seemed every prospect of an easy day. But on active service it is never safe to assume anything. Although no opposition was met with, and the mounted troops hardly saw a Boer, the progress was very slow, and sunset found the rear of the column still three miles distant from Frere. The battalion had the ill-luck (p. 032) to be in the rearguard, behind a seemingly interminable line of transport. Then the inevitable drift intervened, and waggon after waggon broke down. Finally, part of the transport decided to halt till the morning, and the unfortunate rearguard was obliged to form a line of outposts. As the battalion transport was some distance in front, this meant no blankets, no food, nothing save a limited amount of Natal water. The men were not allowed to consume the emergency rations, and therefore had to suffer from cold and hunger. The night passed somehow, however, and with the break of day we marched into Frere, to find our waggons and obtain food.
Another monotonous fortnight was spent at Frere, the only excitement being the arrival of fresh troops and the building of a temporary railway bridge over the Blaukranz. The arrival of Sir Redvers Buller and his staff gave hopes of an early advance, and everybody discussed what our General ought to do, strategical plans becoming as numerous as sandstorms.
Since leaving Ladysmith, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers had not been attached to a brigade, and now that the Army Corps had come there were not wanting pessimists who foretold that as the battalion was nobody's child it would be sent to guard the lines of communication. Early in December, however, it was assigned to General Hart's 5th, or Irish, Brigade, in place of the 1st Battalion. The latter was ordered to send three companies, with a total strength of 287 men, to make up for the wastage of six weeks' operations. These companies, which were commanded by Major Tempest Hicks, arrived on December 7th, and were allowed at first to maintain a separate organization, so that the 2nd Battalion had eleven companies.The 5th Brigade was encamped close behind the ridge which lies to the north-west of the railway station. General Hart utilised the fortnight at Frere in making his battalions (p. 033) accustomed to his methods. Every day the whole brigade stood to arms an hour before dawn, and advanced up the slope of the ridge, where it stayed until scouts had reported the front all clear. The General was also very particular about the cleanliness of the camp, and made it a rule to go through the lines every morning.