[Footnote 86: See maps Nos. 3, 5, and the panoramic sketch.]
[Sidenote: Connection with Chap. II.]
The last four chapters have dealt with subjects affecting the whole course of the war, the theatre of operations, the two opposed armies, and the British navy. The present one, which describes the first action in the campaign, connects immediately with the second, that on the outbreak of the war, taking up the narrative from the time when, as a consequence of the conference at Maritzburg between the Governor (Sir W. Hely-Hutchinson), Sir George White, Sir A. Hunter and Maj.-Genl. Sir W. Penn Symons, the latter officer had been despatched to take over the command at Dundee while Sir George White had gone to Ladysmith.
[Sidenote: Arrival, Oct. 12th/99 of Symons at Dundee.]
On October 12th, the day when the British agent quitted Pretoria, Major-General Sir W. Penn Symons arrived at Dundee, and took over command of 3,280 infantry, 497 cavalry and eighteen guns from Brigadier-General J. H. Yule. He had gained his point. Dundee was to be held, and held by him. As early as the 13th news came that a strong commando was concentrating at the Doornberg east of De Jager's Drift, and that small parties of the enemy had been sighted four miles north of Newcastle, whilst to his left rear the Free Staters were reported so close to Ladysmith, and in such strength, as to cause Sir George White to recall one of Symons' own battalions, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, to strengthen a column which was pushed out on October 13th towards Tintwa Pass to get touch with the enemy. This column failed, however, to observe even patrols of the enemy, and the Dublin Fusiliers returned to Dundee by train the same night. On this day the enemy fell upon a piquet of Natal Policemen posted at De Jager's Drift, and made them prisoners. A patrol of the 18th Hussars proceeding to reconnoitre the spot next day, the 14th, came upon a scouting party of forty of the enemy a mile on the British side of the Buffalo. On the 16th a fugitive from Newcastle announced the arrival of a commando, 3,000 strong, before Newcastle, another in Botha's Pass, whilst across Wools Drift, on the Buffalo, six miles of wagons had been seen trekking slowly southwards. If the left, then, was for the moment clear, it was plain that strong bodies were coming down on Symons' front and right, a front whose key was Impati, a right whose only bulwark was the hill of Talana.
[Footnote 87: For composition of this force see Appendix 3.]
[Footnote 88: Composition: 5th Lancers, detachment of 19th Hussars, Natal Mounted Rifles, three batteries Royal Field artillery, 1st Liverpool, 1st Devonshire, 2nd Gordon Highlanders.]
[Sidenote: Oct. 12th Joubert also starts.]
Joubert quitted Zandspruit on the 12th October, and was at Volksrust in the evening, with the forces of Generals Kock and Lukas Meyer thrown widely forward on his right and left flanks respectively. Kock, coming through Botha's Pass with his motley foreign levies, halted for the night at the mouth of the defile, whilst the units of the left horn of the invading crescent, reinforced this day by the commandos of Middelburg and Wakkerstroom, lay under Meyer some forty miles eastward, some in Utrecht, some in Vryheid, and some already at the concentration point, the Doornberg. On the 13th, whilst the wings remained quiescent, Joubert, with the main column, occupied Laing's Nek, having first, either by an excess of precaution, or from a fear lest the gap between him and Meyer were too great, made good that formidable obstacle by a turning movement around the left and over the Buffalo at Wools Drift; this was executed by his advance guard (Pretoria, Boksburg, part of Heidelberg, Standerton, Ermelo) under Erasmus. But though a coal-truck drawn by cables through the long tunnel, which penetrated the Nek, proved it to be neither blocked nor mined, this stroke of fortune rather increased than allayed the caution of the Boer General, to whom, grown old in Native wars, nothing appeared more suspicious than an unimpeded advance against an enemy. On the 14th he was still on the Nek, whilst Erasmus moved timidly on Newcastle, and Kock, who remained on the Ingagane, despatched a reconnoitring party of the German Corps along the Drakensberg, to gain touch with Trüter's Free Staters at Müller's Pass. This patrol, riding back next day, found Newcastle occupied by the commandos of Erasmus. The little town was almost empty of inhabitants, and the burghers wrought havoc amongst the deserted shops and houses. Not all the remonstrances of their officers, nor the general order from Headquarters, nor even the heavy wrath of their Commandant-General, who arrived in the town on the 18th, could stop their ruthless plundering, and by nightfall the township was a scene of sordid devastation.
[Footnote 89: See Appendix 4.]
[Sidenote: Joubert's net.]
On the afternoon of the 16th Joubert called a council of war. So far he had been without any settled scheme, and, owing to the straggling and indiscipline of his burghers, the march was rapidly becoming unmanageable. The commander, whose plans and army require consolidation after but four days, may well look with foreboding upon the campaign he has taken in hand, and Joubert was as little hopeful as any invader in history. Nevertheless, at Newcastle he devised a net which, had it been cast as he designed, might by entangling one British force beyond salvation, have weakened another beyond repair and perhaps have laid Natal at his feet. Whilst Erasmus with his 5,000 men moved straight down upon Dundee, Kock with 800 riflemen, composed of Schiel's Germans, Lombard's Hollanders, and 200 men of Johannesburg under Viljoen, with two guns, was to reconnoitre towards Ladysmith, gaining touch with the Free Staters at Van Reenen's and the other passes of the Drakensberg. He was then to take up a position in the Biggarsberg range, cutting the railway between Dundee and Ladysmith. Thus isolated, the garrison of Dundee appeared to be at the mercy of a combined attack by Erasmus from the north, and Lukas Meyer from the east.
[Sidenote: Slow movement of Boers.]
Kock and Erasmus had left the neighbourhood of Newcastle on the 17th, and on the afternoon of the 18th the latter's advance guard came into collision with a squadron of the 18th Hussars, from Dundee, north of Hatting Spruit. Meanwhile Meyer, who was much behindhand with his concentration, lay so close in his camp at the Doornberg, that the British patrols scouted up to De Jager's Drift again without opposition. Meyer still lacked two commandos (Krugersdorp and Bethel) and four guns, and as his transport animals were in a deplorable condition, it was with relief rather than with impatience that he watched the tardiness of his coadjutors. His missing units arrived in the evening, however; Erasmus' advanced guard was close behind Impati on the morning of the 19th, and Meyer then issued orders for a march.
[Sidenote: Sir George White recalls Dundee detachment.]
Meanwhile, on the 15th October, an officer of the Headquarter staff visited Dundee, and on his return to Ladysmith was questioned by Sir G. White as to the state of the defences existing at the post. To his surprise he learnt that, properly speaking, no defences existed at all--no position, no entrenchments, and, most important of all, no assured and defended supply of water. His instructions, in short, conditional upon which alone he had consented to the retention of Dundee, had not been carried out. Not until three days had elapsed, however, did he telegraph to Sir W. Penn Symons that, failing an assurance of compliance, Dundee must be evacuated at once. In answer, Symons admitted that he could not give the required assurance, and must therefore carry out the order to retire. At the same time he stated his requirements in the matter of rolling-stock for the withdrawal of military stores and the non-combatant inhabitants of Dundee. This reply raised a new point. To send the whole of the rolling-stock--and nothing less would suffice--would be to expose it to the gravest danger, for the railway line was in hourly insecurity. Two hours after the despatch of his first telegram, therefore, Sir George White sent a second, which became the determining factor of subsequent events.
"With regard to water, are you confident you can supply your camp for an indefinite period? The difficulties and risk of withdrawing of civil population and military stores are great. The railway may be cut any day. Do you yourself, after considering these difficulties, think it better to remain at Dundee, and prefer it?"
[Sidenote: Cancels recall.]
Sir W. Penn Symons replied as follows: "We can and must stay here. I have no doubt whatever that this is the proper course. I have cancelled all orders for moving."
The question thus finally decided for good or ill, Sir George White sent a third telegram:
"I fully support you. Make particulars referred to by me as safe as possible. Difficulties and disadvantages of other course have decided me to support your views."
[Sidenote: Symons faces a known situation.]
Sir W. Penn Symons, his only fear about Dundee--that of being withdrawn from it--thus finally removed, turned to the front again to face the converging enemy with equanimity. His information continued to be full and accurate. Erasmus' advance, Meyer's concentration at the Doornberg, Kock's circuitous passage over the Biggarsberg, were all known to him. On October 19th he received detailed warning that an attack was to be made on him that very night by Erasmus from the north, Meyer from the east, and Viljoen from the west. By midday, communication by rail with Ladysmith was cut off--not, however, until a party of fifty of the 1st King's Royal Rifles had returned in safety from a visit to Waschbank, where they had rescued some derelict trucks left by a train, which, having been fired on at Elandslaagte, had dropped them for greater speed. Three companies 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which had been railed to the Navigation Collieries, north-east of Hatting Spruit, at 3 a.m., to bring back eight tons of mealies which the General was unwilling to leave for the enemy, also returned in safety.
[Sidenote: Meyer Oct. 19th moves forward.]
[Sidenote: Oct. 20th, 2.30 a.m., seizes Talana.]
At sundown on October 19th, Lukas Meyer left his bivouac with about 3,500 men and seven guns. De Jager's Drift was crossed about 9 p.m.; then, pressing through the Sunday's river south-west of Maybole farm, Meyer's force emerged on to the bleak expanse of veld stretching east of Dundee. The Boer scouts, moving parallel to and north of the Landman's Drift road, drew with great caution towards Talana. At 2.30 a.m. a party of burghers came upon a British piquet of the Dublin Fusiliers mounted infantry, commanded by Lieut. C. T. W. Grimshaw, at the junction of the road with the track to Vant's Drift. Shots were exchanged, the piquet disappeared, and the Boer advance guard was upon the flat summit of Talana an hour before dawn, with Dundee sleeping five hundred feet below. Close on the heels of the scouts pressed the Utrecht and Wakkerstroom commandos, under Commandants Hatting and Joshua Joubert, of about 900 and 600 men respectively, with some 300 Krugersdorpers under Potgieter in addition, and a few men of the Ermelo commando. The rest of the main body, consisting of the Vryheid commando (600 men, under Van Staaden), the Middelburg commando (some 900 men, under Trichardt), portion of the Swazi Police, portion of the Piet Retief commando (170 men, under Englebrecht), and odd men of the Bethel and other absent commandos, made their way rapidly across the Dundee road, and took up position on the heights south of it. Of the artillery, two field-pieces (Creusot 75 m/m) were hauled into a depression nearly at the rear edge of the top of Talana, a "pom-pom" (37·5 m/m Vickers-Maxim) pushed forward to the advanced crest of the same eminence, and the remainder, consisting of two Krupps (75 m/m) and two more pom-poms, sent across under charge of the Vryheid men to their position to the south.
[Footnote 90: See map No. 5.]
[Sidenote: The ground of Talana.]
Talana Hill, situated about 5,000 yards east of the British camp, from which it was separated by the wire-intersected environs of Dundee and by the sunken bed of the Sand Spruit, was peculiarly adapted for defence. From the summit a precipitous rocky face dropped on the Dundee side to a nearly flat terrace, 160 feet below it, whose fifty to eighty yards of width were commanded throughout by the boulder-strewn brow of the mountain. A low stone wall bounded this terrace at its outer edge, immediately below which the hillside again fell suddenly, affording from ten to fifteen yards of ground dead to the crest directly above it, but vulnerable to fire, both from Lennox Hill, a slightly higher eminence on the other side of a Nek to the south-east, and from a salient protruding from the northern extremity of the hill. From the wall bounding the upper terrace, however, other walls, running downhill, intersected this face of the mountain at right angles, and served as low traverses affording some protection from flanking fire. These formed the enclosures of Smith's farm, a group of tree-encircled buildings around an open space at the base of the mountain, near its centre, and some 400 feet below its summit. Below, and on either side of the homestead stood copses of eucalyptus trees, which, roughly in all some 500 yards square, occupied the top of the glacis whose base was the Sand Spruit, which 800 yards of bare and open grassland separated from the edge of the wood.
[Footnote 91: A sketch of the position, as seen from the side of the British advance from Dundee, will be found in the case of maps accompanying this volume.]
[Sidenote: Symons receives the news.]
Such was the position crowned by the Boer commandos in the first light of October 20th. Swift as had been its captors, news of their success was at once in the hands of the British commander. At 3 a.m. a sergeant from Grimshaw's piquet, which had been surprised at the cross roads, hurried into camp and reported the approach of the enemy in force across the veld. Sir W. Penn Symons thereupon ordered two companies of the Dublin Fusiliers to turn out in support. The rest of the camp slept undisturbed, and the two companies, stumbling through the dark and obstructed suburbs of Dundee, gained the shelter of the Sand Spruit, where they found Grimshaw already arrived. The first shots had stampeded his horses, which had galloped back to Smith's Nek, the col between Talana and Lennox Hills. Retiring on foot, the piquet had gained the Nek, recovered its horses, and making its way first to Smith's farm, and thence to the cover of the Sand Spruit, had turned and faced the enemy as he appeared over the crest of Talana Hill.
[Sidenote: The morning parade dismissed.]
At 5 a.m. the British troops stood to arms as usual. It was a wet and misty morning. As the men, few of whom knew of the occurrences of the night, waited in quarter-column, to a few keen ears came the fitful sound of musketry from the east. It was the fire of Grimshaw's piquet just then at bay below Talana. The parade having been dismissed, at 5.20 a message from Headquarters assured commanding officers that all was clear. A few companies moved directly from their lines for skirmishing drill around the camp, the men of others hung about in groups expecting the word to fall in for a similar purpose; the horses of two of the three batteries, and all the transport animals, filed out to water a mile and a half away. Suddenly at 5.30 a.m., the mist upon Talana, wasting before the rising sun, lifted and revealed the summit alive with figures.
[Sidenote: The Boers make their presence known.]
Ten minutes later the report of a gun sounded from the top, and a projectile fell into the western enclosures of the town. Others, better aimed, followed in quick succession; the camp came under a rapid bombardment, accurate but harmless, for the small common shell from the enemy's field-pieces failed to explode on impact with the sodden ground. The cavalry and the mounted infantry, whose horses had remained in camp, moved out of sight behind a stony kopje in front of it; the infantry, already equipped, fell rapidly into their places, each company before its own line of tents, and were immediately marched at the "double" into the shelter of a ravine some 200 yards to the south of the camp, where fighting formations were organised.
[Sidenote: Symons prepares to clear Talana.]
The General had already decided upon an assault. Before the infantry were clear of camp he called out the artillery. Whilst the 67th battery, whose horses were now hurrying back from water, replied to the Boer shells from the gun-park itself, the 69th battery, already horsed, waiting neither for its wagons nor an escort, galloped out along the road to the railway station, swept through the town, and swinging sharply to the right at the south-eastern extremity, came into action on a roll of the veld immediately west of the colliery extension railway line. As it advanced the Boers turned their guns upon it, but within twenty minutes of the falling of the first shell in camp, the 69th commenced a rapid and effective fire at 3,750 yards upon the crest. Ten minutes later the 13th battery wheeled into line alongside the 69th. In five minutes more the practice of the Boer ordnance dropped to spasmodic bursts; in five more it was temporarily silenced. Meanwhile the General, who had ridden out soon after the batteries, had set his infantry in motion, and so fast did they go forward that before the 69th had ended its first round they were already almost beyond Dundee.
[Sidenote: He guards against Erasmus and gives orders for attack.]
To the 67th battery and the 1st Leicestershire regiment, with one company from each of the other battalions, was now entrusted the defence of the camp from the expected attack of Erasmus from Impati. An officer of the King's Royal Rifles carried the orders to the cavalry from the General: "Colonel Möller is to wait under cover, it may be for one or two hours, and I will send him word when to advance. But he may advance if he sees a good opportunity. The M.I. are to go with the 18th Hussars." The Royal Dublin Fusiliers were first in the bed of the spruit at about 6.30 a.m., picking up the two companies which had lain there since 4.30 a.m. in support of Grimshaw's piquet. By 7 a.m. the whole of the infantry were in security in the same shelter, 1,600 to 2,000 yards from the crest of the position. General Penn Symons himself then rode down thither, and sending for commanding officers, detailed orders for the assault. The Dublin Fusiliers were to form the first line, with the King's Royal Rifles in support, the Royal Irish Fusiliers in reserve. Brigadier-General Yule would command the attack.
[Sidenote: Infantry push up the hill.]
[Sidenote: A treacherous donga.]
At 7.20 a.m. the right-hand company of the Dublin emerged from the Sand Spruit, the men extended to ten paces interval, and steadily in quick-time moved towards the boundary of the wood. The other companies, advancing in order from the right, soon followed. Before the last of them was fairly clear, the King's Royal Rifles were released and pressed forward. On the appearance of the first lines, a hot fire, direct from Talana itself and crosswise from Lennox Hill on the right, quickly caused casualties. Eager to be at closer quarters, the men increased their pace, breaking from quick-time into the double, and from that to a swift run upon the edge of the wood. A low stone wall, topped by a broken-down fence of wire which ringed the copse on this side, was tumbled flat, and the foremost soldiers of the Dublin, pouring through the thicket, penetrated to the wall and hedge on the farther side. Here their line was prolonged by the King's Royal Rifles, who had come through the wood on the right. In front of this line the crest of Talana was 550 yards distant. With the Dublin Fusiliers, the general trend had been towards the left; now after a short pause at the edge of the plantation they attempted to push on in that direction. Enticed by a donga, which, quitting the wood at its northern angle, looked like a covered way towards the crest of the hill, the three leading companies ("A." "F." and "G.") worked steadily along it in hopes of arriving within striking distance of the enemy under comparative shelter. But the watercourse not only faded to nothing before it reached the terrace wall, but was open to the enemy's view and enfiladed by his musketry throughout its length. A storm of bullets descending into it when it teemed with men, brought down many and checked further progress.
[Sidenote: K.R.R. and Dublin reach edge of wood.]
[Sidenote: K.R.R. hold Smith's farm.]
Of the King's Royal Rifles, four companies, under Colonel R. H. Gunning, advancing through the right-hand half of the plantation, found themselves amongst the Dublin Fusiliers at its forward edge, and became in part intermingled with them. The three remaining companies moved upon the buildings of Smith's farm, and gained the front and right edges. Somewhat ahead of the general line, this portion of the force was enfiladed from the crest of Talana on its left, and from Lennox Hill on its right, and received so hot a cross-fire that it was ordered to fall back to the cover of the farm walls. This it did with the loss of three officers and many men; but from their more secure location the Rifles here began a telling reply, both upon the crest in front and upon the clouds of sharpshooters which hung upon the summit and slopes of Lennox Hill.
[Sidenote: "B." and "H." of R.I.F. on left of wood.]
[Sidenote: Maxims at S.E. angle.]
Lieut.-Colonel F. R. C. Carleton, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, immediately on entering the plantation, had detached two of his companies ("B." and "H.") to line the left face of the wood, whence they could watch the open ground beyond that flank. These sent volleys against the enemy's right upon Talana. The remainder were held in reserve, as ordered, amongst the small dongas and depressions in the wood. The Maxim guns of all three battalions moved to the south-eastern angle of the wood, and opened at 1,700 yards upon Smith's Nek and Lennox Hill to their right front and right, doing much to alleviate the musketry which came incessantly from these flanking and partially invisible eminences.
[Sidenote: 69th and 13th batteries change their ground.]
[Sidenote: Reduced fire.]
[Sidenote: Symons gives impulse.]
[Sidenote: He receives his mortal wound.]
Such was the situation at eight o'clock. At that hour the 69th and 13th batteries, quitting the position from which they had silenced the Boer artillery, moved through the town, and unlimbered on rising ground between the eastern boundary of Dundee and the Sand Spruit. Thence they opened again, the 69th upon Talana at 2,300 yards, the 13th upon Lennox Hill at 2,500. Though they and their escort of King's Royal Riflemen were targets for both hills, their practice was admirable, and had it been more rapid, must speedily have smothered the enemy's fire. But the artillery commander, fearing to run short, and knowing his inability to replenish, was obliged continually to check expenditure. For a time the fight remained stationary. The momentum of the attack had died away, and Yule found it impossible to get it in motion again at once, in spite of numerous messages he received from Sir W. Penn Symons urging immediate advance. At 9 a.m. the infantry being still inert, the patience of the General was exhausted. Despite the remonstrances of his staff, he, with three staff officers and orderlies, rode into the wood, and, dismounting, hurried into the foremost lines of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, at its northern angle. Calling to these to "push on!" he then pressed along inside the boundary, animating by word and gesture all the troops he passed, and halted for a moment to face the hill a little beyond where the afore-mentioned donga disappeared into the wood. Here Major F. Hammersley, of his staff, was wounded, and, immediately after, the General himself was shot in the stomach. Directing Brigadier-General Yule to proceed with the attack, he turned and walked calmly to the rear. Then, meeting his horse, he mounted, and not until he had passed entirely through the troops was any sign of suffering allowed to escape him. At the station of the Bearer company he dismounted, and was carried to the dressing station in a dhoolie. Five minutes later, at 9.35 a.m., the surgeon pronounced his wound to be fatal, and the news was telegraphed to Ladysmith.
[Footnote 92: There were for each gun 154 rounds, including 60 reserve.]
[Sidenote: His impulse tells.]
[Sidenote: K.R.R. seize wall of upper terrace.]
[Sidenote: R.I.F join and also threaten Boer right.]
The life of the General was not thrown away; his action had immediate effect. Before he had quitted the wood a dying man, parties of soldiers were already pushing forward from its front wall across the 100 yards of bullet-swept flat intervening between them and the first slopes of Talana proper. On the right, the first to break cover, four and a half companies of the King's Royal Rifles emerged in small parties from Smith's farm. Leaving there two companies in support, they pushed up along the right side of the transverse wall, in full view of Lennox Hill, and suffering from its fire. So rapid were their movements that the Boer shooting was hasty and ill-aimed, and the losses were but few. Some distance forward they leapt across to the left of the transverse wall, and reconnoitring that bounding the upper terrace, found it, to their surprise, unoccupied by the enemy. Other groups, in response to signals, then worked their way upward, until soon a considerable number of Riflemen were under the wall. On their left the Royal Irish Fusiliers supported the attack. Two and a half companies ("E.," "F." and half of "C.") of this battalion had, when General Symons came to the front, been sent to the edge of the wood, and these, seeing what the Rifles had done, streamed straight up to the wall. "A." and half of "D." companies, which had been boldly and independently handled wide on the left, avoiding the dongas, pushed on gradually to well within five hundred yards of the enemy's extreme right, on which they brought their rifles to bear. The other half of "C." company, with men of other battalions, amounting to about one hundred in all, had lain with the three companies of King's Royal Rifles in the enclosure of Smith's farm, and advanced with them. One company ("B.") Royal Irish Fusiliers had been ordered forward on the left by General Symons himself immediately he arrived in the wood. This company, perceiving the fallacious donga winding apparently to the front, had dropped into it, and following it up with the same expectations as had encouraged the Dublin Fusiliers, was speedily in the same predicament at its open extremity. Another company ("H."), taking this route with many losses, was similarly blocked at the same point. But with the exception of these two companies, which could not move for a time, the advance of the King's Royal Rifles to the wall was strongly backed by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, whose men appeared from all the near parts of the hill to join in with the rest. With them ran many of the Dublin Fusiliers. This regiment, much entangled in the watercourse already mentioned and in others equally exposed and useless more to the right, could not progress, and, though a few men managed to reach the upper wall direct, it was only possible to do so by first going back to the edge of the wood, an attempt of great hazard.
[Footnote 93: The omission of the Boers to man this breastwork, situated as it was within 400 yards of the edge of the wood, and commanding every inch of the ground in front, was not owing to any fears on the part of Lukas Meyer as to its not being tenable. The orders of that general had been plainly that the wall was to be held, but as he did not remain to see them carried out, the burghers, fearing to hold what appeared to them isolated and inadequate cover, neglected it entirely.]
[Sidenote: Two hours check.]
[Sidenote: Guns gallop forward.]
[Sidenote: The Infantry dash in.]
[Sidenote: The onslaught having weakened, the Artillery opens fire again.]
The battle came to a standstill once more. The upper wall was won, but the heavy and incessant fusilade directed upon it and upon the ground below it, rendered its occupation precarious, and reinforcement a matter of extreme difficulty. Not until two hours had passed were sufficient men collected under it to render the last stage possible, and the long delay cost many casualties. At 11 a.m. the officer commanding the artillery received a request by flag-signal to cease firing, as the assault was about to be delivered. He did so; but time to acquire strength was still needed, and the artillery, itself harassed by musketry, re-opened. At 11.30 a.m. the order was repeated, and once more Colonel E. H. Pickwoad stopped his guns. Immediately after, the batteries galloped forward, awaking against themselves the full energy of all parts of the Boer line. They crossed a wide donga and came into action again on the flat plain between the Sand Spruit and Talana, sending their shells clear over and past the left edge of the wood at a range of 1,400 yards from the crest of the enemy's stronghold. Under the rapid bombardment the Mausers slackened and at last were silent. For the third time the order was signalled to cease firing. It was duly obeyed. Colonel Gunning, of the King's Royal Rifles, who had called up his two supporting companies from Smith's farm, passed the word, "Get ready to go over!" The men rose to their knees; then, at the command "Advance!" scrambled and fell over the obstacle. A blaze burst from the crest as the first figures wavered on the wall, and many fell backward dead or wounded. Some could not surmount the obstruction, which in parts was over-high for vaulting; some, falling on the far side, picked themselves up and were struck down in the first leap of their charge. A few, more fortunate, held on. But the onset had not much weight, and losses quickly lightened it still further. Many of the Boers had fled at the first sight of the soldiers rushing forward, but of those who remained, not a few actually came towards them, and shot rapidly point-blank at the assailants, who were clawing their way up the last precipitous rampart of the natural fortress. The artillery, therefore, knowing only that the onslaught had been checked, about 12.30 p.m. re-opened with quick and devastating rounds. But during the charge, the light had been bad, and the gunners had not all observed the foremost groups of their comrades lying amongst the rocks close to the crest. Soon shell after shell burst amongst the latter.
[Sidenote: It checks both sides.]
A signaller of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, standing up near the top of the hill, attracted the attention of the artillerymen, but was unable to make them understand his message. Another of the same regiment failed similarly from the wall. As the discharges, destroying both combatants alike, became more overwhelming, both drew back. On the extreme right a few of the Rifles still clung on. At first the Boers melted from the front alone, but the shrapnel beat all over the hill, and the retreat became a run before the rear edge was reached.
[Sidenote: The final charge.]
Behind the wall the regimental commanders, taking the cessation of Boer fire as signal for a last successful attack, met in hasty conference, and agreed to lead their men forward simultaneously. Soon after 1 p.m. the whole British line surged over the wall, and clambering up the hill, flooded its flat summit from end to end.
[Sidenote: The Boers abandon Lennox Hill.]
[Sidenote: Cavalry and guns both fail to make defeat crushing.]
[Sidenote: A fatal error.]
From Lennox Hill this final charge was marked, and in a few moments it, too, was empty of Boers. Before 2 p.m. the entire position was won, and Brigadier-General Yule, to whom the loss of General Symons had given the command, at once ordered the artillery to the summit of Smith's Nek, from whence they might shell the now flying foe. The cavalry, looked for amongst the defeated Boers, who covered the plain for miles in the direction of the Buffalo river, were nowhere to be seen. On the guns then rested the last hope of confirming the victory, but they, having gained the Nek, were, to the wonderment of all, pointed silently at the receding commandos. Doubt had at this critical moment assailed the artillery commander. Just before the final stroke, about 1.30 p.m., a message, purporting to come from Lukas Meyer, proposing an armistice to look for the wounded, had passed through his hands on its way to the General. No authoritative information as to its having been accorded or not having reached him, he, with other officers, became uncertain as to the propriety of continuing the battle. At this time a bystander exclaimed that the Boer hospital was retreating before him, and believing that he himself saw red-crossed flags waving over the Boer column moving slowly away within shrapnel range, his hesitation deepened. He refrained from opening fire, and the Boer army, defeated, but not crushed, made despondently, but without further losses, for the laager under the Doornberg, from which it had marched the night before.
[Sidenote: The return to camp.]
Brigadier-General Yule, beset with anxiety concerning the Boer army, which had menaced his flank all day from Impati, had no thought but to secure his men in quarters before night and the still expected attack fell upon them together. The infantry, therefore, after searching the hill for wounded, were sent from the field. By 6 p.m., as evening fell amid a storm of rain, all were back in camp. The mounted troops alone, unseen since the early morning, did not return to their lines, nor was there any sign of them until, at 7 p.m., two squadrons of the 18th Hussars, under Major Knox, reported themselves. No more came in that night, nor next morning, nor at any time.
[Sidenote: Möller's disastrous day.]
The brief orders given to Colonel Möller at the commencement of the action have already been detailed, and even before the enemy's guns were silenced that officer began to put them into execution with promise of brilliant results. As early as 5.45 a.m. he despatched a squadron of the 18th Hussars, with instructions to move round the northern extremity of Talana, and report if it were possible to take ground on the flank from which the enemy's retreat or, at least, his loose ponies might be threatened. The reconnaissance was perfectly successful. Moving northwards a mile down an arm of the Sand Spruit, under the harmless fire of two guns, Major E. C. Knox guided his squadron across the watercourse, and hidden, by the mist from Impati, by a spur from Talana, turned north-east. Then crossing the main spruit, above the point where its northerly trend is deflected by the spurs of the two mountains, he swung boldly south-east and, unperceived by the enemy, seized a kopje from which he could actually look into the right rear of their position upon Talana, only 1,200 yards distant to the south-west. Behind the mountain stood herds of saddled ponies, whose masters lay out of sight in action along the western crest. A message despatched to Colonel Möller informing him of this achievement, and asking for reinforcements, brought to the spot another squadron of the 18th and the regimental machine gun, with the section of the King's Royal Rifles mounted infantry. These made their way at first through a sharp fire from the pom-pom near the northern end of Talana, but, like their predecessors, were neglected as soon as they moved out of sight around the spur swelling up from the Sand Spruit to the right flank of the Boer fastness. Shortly afterwards, in response to a message from the General, who thought that the enemy's guns, now suddenly silent, were being withdrawn, and that a general retreat would shortly follow, Colonel Möller himself hurried after with the remaining squadron of the 18th and the mounted infantry company of the Dublin Fusiliers. The cavalry were now in rear of the flank of an enemy already wavering, and certain to fly shortly, whose lines of retreat would be at their mercy, whose means of retreat, the ponies, they could already partially destroy. But here, Möller, refusing the requests of his subordinates to be allowed to open fire on the closely-packed ponies on Talana, first despatched a squadron under Major Knox towards the rear of Talana, then himself quitted his vantage ground and lined up his force in some plough land towards Schultz' farm, and later in the open veld astride of the Landman's Drift road, two and a half miles in rear of the centre of the Boer position. Whilst moving in accordance with these dispositions, a section of the Dublin Fusiliers mounted infantry, turning aside to assail a party of Boers in a small farmhouse on the flank, captured seven of them.
[Sidenote: Knox's happy charge.]
Meanwhile the squadron under Knox, reconnoitring towards the rear of Smith's Nek, had been harassed by hostile patrols on its left flank. These were speedily dispersed with a loss of ten prisoners by the charge of a troop. But other and stronger patrols coming up from the direction of Landman's Drift hung so persistently on the flank that a charge by the whole squadron was necessary. It was completely successful, two of the enemy being killed and about twenty-five captured. The other patrols then drew off, and the squadron, finding nothing more to do, returned to hand over the prisoners. But Möller, seeing the enemy swarming about the rear of Lennox Hill, at once ordered Knox out again in that direction, this time with two squadrons and a troop, directing him to get behind the hill, which, in prolongation of Lennox Hill to the south, overlooks the coalfields on one side and on the other abuts on the heights of Halifax.
[Sidenote: Möller's surrender.]
He himself remained out in the open with his diminished force of mounted infantry and two troops of cavalry. Now the enemy were quitting Talana and Lennox Hills in numbers which increased momentarily, and when the mounted infantry opened fire upon them, they began to converge on the insignificant party which barred the road to safety. Möller at length perceived his danger, and commencing a series of rapid retirements towards the northern spur of Impati, fixed his only hope on the possibility of riding completely around that mountain, outwork though it was of the main Boer army in its descent from the frontier. In a spruit, a branch of the Sand river, which runs through Schultz' farm, the Maxim, outpaced and overdriven, stuck fast, and it was promptly attacked and captured by a party of twenty-five of the enemy who had descried its plight from Talana, its detachment holding out until all were killed or wounded. In this affair nine Boer prisoners were also released. About 1.15 p.m., a party of two hundred Boers was seen descending Impati through the collieries at its northern extremity. The mountain already held the enemy's van; Möller's retreat was cut off. Adelaide farm lay close ahead, and here for the first time he faced about for a stand. The men of the 18th Hussars, with the section of the King's Royal Rifles mounted infantry, and one of the Dublin mounted infantry, lined the farm walls; the remaining two sections of the mounted infantry of the Dublin Fusiliers held a small kopje, two hundred yards from the building. The Boers closed around in force and poured a bitter fusilade upon the troopers. A gun, which had opened ineffectively from the colliery, was then brought forward to 1,400 yards, and its projectiles shattered the buildings, and scattered the horses. In a few moments another gun opened more to the left and 1,100 yards distant. At 4 p.m. the white flag was by Möller's order waved in the farmyard, and he capitulated to Commandant Trichardt. Nine officers and 205 men laid down their arms after a loss of 8 men killed, 3 officers and 20 men wounded. This affair all but doubled the day's casualties, which now numbered 500.
[Footnote 94: For detailed casualties, see Appendix 6.]
[Sidenote: Knox wins his way home.]
Meanwhile Knox's two squadrons were in little less danger in the opposite direction. Attempting to intercept with dismounted fire parties of the enemy, who were retiring towards Halifax, the little force became the focus of every wandering party of the enemy, not only of those evacuating the positions of Talana and Lennox Hill, but also of many riding in from the Buffalo. For the hills and plain were full of Boers who had taken no part in the battle. But Knox was not to be trapped. Moving swiftly towards Malungeni, and favoured by a slight mist, he slipped away, though nearly surrounded, and halted for half an hour under cover. Then, whilst the Boers were puzzled by his circuitous track, he dashed westwards through their intervals and escaped.