'The best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley.
And lea'e us naught but grief and pain
For promised joy.'
On January 30th we were reinforced by a draft of 400 men, principally militia reservists, who were brought up by Captain Venour. They were a welcome addition, being a physically fine body of men, and, although their training was naturally not so good as that of their 'regular' comrades, they proved equally brave and ready to follow their officers.
The battalion shifted its camp on January 29th to Spearman's Hollow, where it stayed a week. It was here that Sir Redvers Buller visited every brigade in turn, and made his speech stating that the fighting around Spion Kop had enabled him to discover the key to Ladysmith. He had earned the gratitude of the men by putting them on extra rations, and was always a warm favourite with the rank and file, who love a brave man and instinctively know one.
On February 2nd the regiment left Spearman's Hollow for Spearman's Hill, and, on the afternoon of Sunday, February 4th, marched with the rest of the brigade towards Potgieter's Drift. The trek was a short one, and at 6 p.m. we bivouacked behind Swaartz Kop. At nightfall the officers were assembled and informed of the proposed operations for the next day. The idea was to make a feint attack on Brakfontein and then assault Vaal Krantz, the capture of which, it was thought, would break the enemy's line.
We rose at dawn on the 5th, had a comfortable breakfast, (p. 056) and only moved off about 7 a.m., just as the heavy artillery on Mount Alice and Swaartz Kop began the fight by shelling Brakfontein. The hills around rolled with the thunder of the guns, while the faint echoes of the lyddite explosions on the distant ridges formed a piano accompaniment. With this music in its ears, the battalion marched through the gap between Mount Alice and Swaartz Kop by the road leading to Potgieter's Drift. There was a short halt made at the gap, from which a splendid view of the battlefield was obtainable. Immediately below stretched the silver line of the Tugela, with all its many loops and twistings visible. Beyond came a small brown ridge, which had evidently been held by our troops, since a few biscuit-tins glistened on the near slope. Further away was the background formed by the Boer position, extending in a gigantic curve from Spion Kop on the spectator's left to the lofty mass of Doorn Kloof on his right, the centre being formed by Brakfontein and Vaal Krantz, over both of which heavy columns of smoke were hanging. The Lancashire Brigade had commenced the feint attack, and its extended lines could be plainly seen as they advanced slowly in succession, while behind them the batteries of field artillery had unlimbered on the plain, and were already shelling the Boer trenches.
After a short pause the regiment began to descend the hill. The 5th Brigade was following the 4th, both of them marching in 'fours.' Before reaching the drift, the head of the column wheeled to the right and proceeded along the narrow plain between the Tugela and Swaartz Kop. The sight of that long winding line must have been a great temptation to the Boer gunners, but they remained silent. Not even a rifle had spoken. It was only when the Lancashire Brigade began to retire that the enemy disclosed himself. Then Brakfontein spluttered with musketry, and the Boer artillery vented its wrath on the batteries dotted over the plain. But both our infantry and gunners seemed to treat (p. 057) the fusillade with contempt. The former marched back without apparently quickening their pace, and the latter, limbering up, trotted off to support the attack on Vaal Krantz. This hill was being literally covered with shells, and soon had the appearance of a smoking volcano.
About 1 p.m. the Durham Light Infantry filed over the pontoon under Swaartz Kop, and extended for the attack. At the same time we were moved to a position below the southern end of the Kop in order to cover by long-range rifle-fire the right of the 4th Brigade. 'B' company fired a few volleys at some invisible snipers on the slopes of Doorn Kloof, but with this exception we did not come into action.
Watched by the whole army the Durhams advanced against Vaal Krantz, which they took about 4 p.m. amidst the cheers of the onlookers. But with this success the operations practically ended for the day.
The battalion remained all the afternoon in the same position, and then finally bivouacked there, having luckily succeeded in communicating with the transport, so that the men had blankets. Its outposts were pushed well round the southern slopes of Swaartz Kop, thus overlooking the Tugela. A reconnoitring patrol was fired on from the left bank, but otherwise the night passed without incident.
We did not move on the 6th, and had practically nothing to do. The artillery on both sides fired continually, although the damage done must have been very small in proportion to the noise and expenditure of ammunition.
Every one watched with special interest a duel between our heavy artillery and a large Boer gun which had suddenly been unmasked on Doorn Kloof. This gun fired black powder, and its discharge could be plainly seen, but it was apparently run up for every round behind a parapet. It displayed absolute impartiality in its attentions. One round would be directed against the infantry on Vaal Krantz, another covered with dust a field battery on the plain, a third (p. 058) just missed the battalion, while a fourth shell would crash among the trees on Swaartz Kop. All our heavy guns had a try at silencing it, and their efforts sometimes met with partial success. The Boer gun would cease firing for a time, but it always re-appeared when least expected. Towards the evening it became quite lively and put a shell through the pontoon bridge.
The night of February 6th-7th was spent in comparative peace, although the Boer artillery somewhat spoiled the first part of the night by shelling Vaal Krantz. February 7th was a repetition of the 6th, except that the gun on Doorn Kloof paid slightly more attention to our position. The Colonel found it necessary to post a man on the look-out, whose duty it was, on seeing the white puff of smoke, to blow a whistle, whereupon everybody sought the shelter of the nearest and largest boulder. But although, when the huge shell burst, the air seemed unpleasantly full of whizzing iron fragments, no damage was done, and the gun merely mitigated, to some extent, the monotony of idleness.
By this time it was clear that Sir Redvers Buller did not intend to press the attack home, and no one was surprised to find the army in retreat on the morning of the 8th. The battalion acted as rearguard and marched back between the river and Swaartz Kop in widely extended lines. The Boer guns on Doorn Kloof, the shoulder of Spion Kop, and Brakfontein shelled us on our way, and one man of the rear company ('H') was killed, this being our only casualty between February 5th and 8th. The heavy artillery on Mount Alice covered the retreat and prevented the enemy's guns from being too attentive.
The 5th Brigade halted at Springfield, and two days later went on to Pretorius' Farm. On the 18th it made a march of fourteen miles to the Blaukranz River, starting about 3.30 a.m. The day was hot, and as there was no water on the route the newly-joined militia reservists suffered considerably. (p. 059) After a rest of two days the brigade moved to a camp near Gun Hill at Chieveley, where the naval six-inch gun was in position.
The rest of the army was now engaged in the operations against Cingolo and Hlangwane, and the battalion occupied itself in guarding Chieveley, in beginning the construction of a railway to Hussar Hill, and in convoying ammunition to the latter place. This was a somewhat trying task, as during part of the way the convoy became the object of many a Boer shell. The operations against Cingolo and Hlangwane proved successful, and these positions were captured on the 19th. The next day General Hart took the regiment on a reconnaissance towards Colenso. It advanced cautiously on the west of the railway in column of extended companies. The village was found unoccupied, but a party of Boers, holding the horseshoe ridge on the left bank of the Tugela opened a vigorous fire. The leading companies at once doubled forward and lined the right bank, whence they answered the Boer marksmen. The left half-battalion remained in support behind the village. A detachment of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry appeared on the scene, and having forded the Tugela above the road bridge, turned the Boers out of their position. Later on in the afternoon a train steamed into Colenso station from Chieveley, and took us back just before dusk.
At 6 a.m. on February 21st, the Connaught Rangers and the Dublin Fusiliers went by train to Colenso, where they were joined by a battery. The horseshoe ridge on the left bank was being held by a detachment of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, but General Hart was desirous of crossing the river with at least part of his force. For this purpose he had brought on the train a boat, which was promptly launched. As, however, the boat was small, and hardly capable of holding more than four men, the General gave orders for the construction of a raft. After some trouble (p. 060) this was ready by 4 p.m., and some two hours later about seven companies of the Connaught Rangers had succeeded in reaching the left bank.
General Hart now received an order to cross early next morning, with three battalions of his brigade, the pontoon bridge, which had been constructed under Hlangwane. The regiment bivouacked in Colenso, and at 5 a.m. on February 22nd marched down the right bank and crossed the bridge. One company had been sent back to Chieveley for the purpose of striking the camp, and with the transport rejoined the battalion about 7 a.m., after the latter had crossed the bridge and taken up a position on the western side of the horseshoe ridge.
Here it stayed the whole day, all ranks passing the time in examining the Boer trenches, and picking up more or less worthless loot. Heavy fighting was taking place in front, but only an occasional shell fell near the ridge.