[Footnote 154: See maps Nos. 10 and 10 (a).]
[Sidenote: The Boer position Nov. 23rd/99.]
Lord Methuen's dispositions for attack were necessarily determined by the ground which the Boers had taken up to oppose his advance. Some two miles to the south-east of Belmont station a hill, in form like a sugar-loaf, rises abruptly about 280 feet above the veld. From it extends northwards a broken line of kopjes which for several miles runs parallel with the railway in its course from Orange River station to Kimberley. Twelve hundred yards to the north of the "Sugar Loaf" there is a precipitous hill of nearly equal height, which acquired the name of the "Razor Back." The northern side of it overhangs a steep ravine, some 600 yards wide. The most important feature of the range, termed "Mont Blanc" by Lord Methuen, stretches northward from beyond this ravine for three miles. It is irregular in outline and broadens on its northern face to a width of a mile. Its average height may be taken at 300 feet above the plain. To the south and west its slopes are very steep; on the east they present fewer difficulties; on the north they are comparatively easy. Between Mont Blanc and the railway is a secondary line of heights about a mile and a half long, of an average width of 1,200 yards. The northern portion of this western range is a steep-sided, flat-topped hill, called "Table Mountain" in the orders for the battle; it lies about a mile due west of the central portion of Mont Blanc. Its average height is perhaps 100 feet lower than Mont Blanc, but here and there its surface is broken by knolls which dominate not only the plateau itself, but the surrounding country in every direction. A well-defined depression, almost amounting to a valley, running from south-east to north-west, separates Table Mountain from the southern half of the western heights. To these the name of "Gun Hill" has been given. Gun Hill consists of a series of undulations, bounded on the west and south by kopjes, in places as precipitous as the sides of Table Mountain, and varying in height from 80 to 120 feet above the plain. After the engagement the most southerly of these knolls became known to Lord Methuen's force as "Grenadier Hill." The valley between Mont Blanc and the western range is open, but intersected by deep dongas running from the north and north-east. The hills in both lines of heights are covered with huge iron-stone boulders, in places so steeply piled that men have to climb them on hands and knees, and their indented outlines form many salients from which cross fire can be poured on troops advancing to the attack.
[Sidenote: Position as presented to the assailants Nov. 23rd.]
As seen from the railway, the direct line of advance on Kimberley, the Mont Blanc range stands out of the veld like a fortress. This, the main range, is surrounded on the south and east by a level plain which affords advancing troops no cover from fire. Its western face, fronting the railway, has as natural outworks the heights of Table Mountain and Gun Hill. Thus, when Lord Methuen at first designed to drive off the Boers who flanked and menaced his further progress, the nearest part of the enemy's position to him was Gun Hill, and beyond this, further north, was Table Mountain, while supporting these from the east was the main ridge of Mont Blanc. Therefore, in order to clear away the enemy thus threatening him on his right, it was necessary first to arrange the positions of rendezvous so that the division should be arrayed against the hills about to be assailed. Thus the 9th brigade on the left of the attack looked towards Table Mountain. The Guards on the right, that is, to the south of the 9th brigade, similarly faced Gun Hill. The Guards were both nearer to the part to be assailed by them, and more immediately opposite to it, than was the 9th brigade to the object of its attack.
[Sidenote: Mode of attack as designed.]
The 9th brigade was to assault the western face of Table Mountain, while the Guards' brigade attacked Gun Hill. As soon as the enemy had been driven off Table Mountain, the 9th brigade was to move eastwards, swinging its left round so as to attack Mont Blanc from the north, while supported by the fire of the Guards from the eastern side of Gun Hill. The 75th battery on the left, the Naval guns and the 18th battery on the right, were to co-operate with the infantry by searching the heights with shrapnel. The mounted troops were to guard the flanks, prevent the escape of the enemy to the east, and, if possible, capture the Boer laager. With this object, two squadrons of the 9th Lancers under Colonel B. Gough were to be on the left flank of the 9th brigade, with one and a half companies of mounted infantry; while the remaining squadron of the 9th Lancers, a company of M.I. and Rimington's Guides, the whole under Major M. F. Rimington, were to work on the outer flank of the brigade of Guards. The troops were to march off from their respective rendezvous at 3 a.m. By this attack on Mont Blanc from the north, after the outworks of Table Mountain and Gun Hill had been carried, the Boers would be driven, not back along the railway towards Kimberley, but eastwards, well off Lord Methuen's proposed line of advance.
[Sidenote: Strength and disposition of Boers.]
The enemy under Jacobus Prinsloo consisted of the Jacobsdal, Winburg, Fauresmith and Bloemfontein commandos, with detachments from Kroonstad, Hoopstad and Boshof. It is difficult to arrive at an exact conclusion as to their strength, for the Boers themselves do not agree as to the number of burghers who took part in the action. Their estimates vary from 2,100 to 2,500 men, with two field guns and a pom-pom. Their artillery, however, hardly fired at all, nor were the reinforcements which De la Rey brought from Kimberley actively engaged. The exact ground held by each commando cannot be accurately stated, but their approximate dispositions are shown upon the maps No. 10 and 10(a). There is some reason to believe that the Boer general had intended to throw part of his right wing across the railway, as trenches were found west of the line, so constructed as to bring flanking fire against an attack on Table Mountain; but whether these works were occupied on the morning of the 23rd cannot be ascertained. That the enemy had posts along the line to the north of Belmont is proved by the fact that one of these parties was captured by Colonel Gough's detachment of mounted men.
[Sidenote: 3.15 a.m. Nov. 23rd. Attack begins.]
The troops left their bivouacs about 2 a.m. on the 23rd, reached their respective rendezvous at the time appointed, and at about 3.15 moved off towards the various parts of the enemy's position, to the attack of which they had been assigned.
[Sidenote: Guards move against Gun Hill.]
In the assault on Gun Hill by the brigade of Guards, the two battalions of the Coldstream Guards were in reserve; the 1st battalion Scots Guards and the 3rd battalion Grenadier Guards were detailed to deliver the attack. As the latter battalions, moving in line of quarter-column, reached the wire fences along the railway line, they demolished them or scrambled through them as best they could and then deployed into fighting formation. Four half companies, extended to five paces, formed the firing line of each battalion, supported at 200 paces distance by the remainder of these four companies, also extended to five paces. The battalion reserve, which followed about 200 paces behind the supports, consisted of four companies, which moved in the same formation as the leading companies but with a smaller extension between the men. As soon as the deployment was completed the advance began, and the troops moved forward through the darkness, over ground fairly open, but here and there made difficult by rocks and ant-bear holes. The only sound to be heard was the steady tramp of feet, which in the stillness of the night could be distinguished many hundred yards away by the 9th brigade. In admirable order, with their intervals and distances well maintained, the long lines of men advanced, straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the kopjes they were to attack, and wondering when the Boers would open fire upon them. They had not long to wait. Towards 4 a.m., when the outlines of the hills began dimly to appear against the first glimmer of dawn, a violent burst of musketry rang out. Each rifle as it flashed against the dark background showed where it had been discharged. The enemy were thus seen to be dotted at irregular intervals in two tiers on the skyline and the upper slopes of the heights.
[Footnote 155: In some cases it was found that the wires were too strong to be cut by the wire-cutters.]
[Sidenote: Attack of Scots Guards.]
The Scots Guards, who were marching on the point marked +c+ on map No. 10, were within about 150 yards of the foot of the kopje, and had hardly fixed bayonets, when the enemy opened upon them. Col. A. H. Paget ordered the charge to be sounded, and, with a ringing cheer, his men carried the hill with comparatively small loss, to find themselves exposed, not only to frontal but to cross fire from both flanks. The musketry from the right ceased as soon as the Grenadiers stormed the kopjes which they attacked, while, thanks to the initiative of Bt. Lt.-Col. W. P. Pulteney, that from the left was checked. This officer, whose company was on the left of the line of the Scots Guards, found himself under heavy fire from the kopje marked +d+. Advancing against it he dislodged its defenders, who, in their precipitate retreat to Table Mountain, left some thirty ponies behind them. Colonel Pulteney mounted as many of his men as possible upon them, galloped in pursuit across the valley, then dismounted and worked up the kopje at the south-western angle of Table Mountain (+b+ on map No. 10), until he was stopped by the enemy concealed amongst its boulders.
[Sidenote: of Grenadiers.]
The front line of the Grenadiers was about 350 yards from the kopjes when they first came under fire. To close with their enemy, the men were ordered to double and then instinctively quickening their pace they arrived panting at the foot of the hills, which loomed black and threatening before them. Under a very heavy fusilade, which at times came from both flank and front, the Grenadiers carried the position, but not without considerable loss in officers and men. They were led by Col. E. M. S. Crabbe, who fell wounded within a few feet of the top of the kopje, and were reinforced as they reached the summit by the battalion reserve under Major D. A. Kinloch. The Boers fought gallantly on this part of the field; some indeed, as was also the case on Table Mountain, clung so tenaciously to their defences that they perished by the bayonet. As soon as the ground to the front of the Grenadiers and Scots Guards had been cleared of the enemy, both battalions were re-assembled by their commanding officers.
[Sidenote: The left attack.]
Thus on the right the battle so far had developed in substantial agreement with Lord Methuen's plans. On the left also matters were going well, but more slowly than the General had anticipated. At the time when fire was opened on the Guards, the leading battalions of the 9th brigade were crossing the railway line which lay between their rendezvous and their object, the western side of Table Mountain. They were guided by Lieut. F. L. Festing, Northumberland Fusiliers. The Northampton was on the right, the Northumberland Fusiliers on the left, both in column of double companies, with increased distances between the companies. In the same formation the Yorkshire Light Infantry followed as reserve to the brigade about 1,000 yards in rear. In rear of this battalion were two companies of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. After passing through the railway fence both the leading battalions extended from their left, with the result that the Northumberland Fusiliers somewhat overlapped the Northampton. To correct this, the former battalion was ordered to take ground towards Belmont station, and in doing so was exposed to heavy, but ill-aimed, fire. The direction of the Northampton advance exposed the right of their leading line to the Boer musketry on Gun Hill, from which they suffered until the Guards captured that part of the position. The greater part of the Northumberland Fusiliers pushed forward against the south-west corner of Table Mountain, but were temporarily checked by heavy fire from outlying rocks and knolls. One or two misdirected British shells also contributed to delay the progress of the battalion, but the forward movement of the Northampton, some of whom charged with the bayonet, against the northern end of Gun Hill drove away the parties of Boers opposing the Northumberland Fusiliers, who were then able to continue their attack on Table Mountain. Two companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers, under Major the Hon. C. Lambton, had been left in reserve on the western side of the railway near Belmont station. When, about 5 a.m., the sun rose just behind Table Mountain, Major Lambton realised that, with the light shining straight in their faces, his men could not see to shoot. He therefore moved his two companies up the railway to the point marked +a+, and then across the open veld to ground from which, unbaffled by the morning sun, he was able to pour heavy volleys upon the burghers opposed to the main attack of his battalion. His flanking fire largely contributed to dislodge the Boers from Table Mountain, while the 75th battery, from the neighbourhood of the railway, played upon the north-west face of this portion of the western range. The positions occupied by the detachment of Northumberland Fusiliers and by this battery will be found on map No. 10 (a).
[Footnote 156: The half-battalion Loyal North Lancashire regiment had been left at Witteputs as baggage guard.]
[Sidenote: Left attack continued.]
The stubborn resistance of the defenders of Table Mountain greatly delayed its complete occupation by the British troops; indeed, it required the united exertions of the Northumberland Fusiliers, of part of the Northampton, of several companies of the Guards, and of two companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry to drive the Boers completely off the plateau. When the attack of the Northumberland Fusiliers upon the south-western corner of Table Mountain was checked, the Brigadier had brought up from his reserve half a battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. under Col. C. St. L. Barter. It had entered the depression between Table Mountain and Gun Hill in the formation which the battalion had assiduously practised for several years--waves of double companies, in single rank, with an interval of 8 to 10 paces between the men. Being struck in the flank by musketry from Table Mountain, two companies turned and joined in the attack on that plateau. In the course of the fight on Table Mountain Major-General Fetherstonhaugh was severely wounded, and the command of the brigade devolved upon Lieut.-Col. C. G. C. Money, Northumberland Fusiliers.
[Sidenote: Coldstream are diverted from support of 9th brigade.]
[Sidenote: They carry Razor Back and Sugar Loaf.]
The original orders for the battle had directed that, when the Grenadier and Scots Guards had carried Gun Hill, the two Coldstream battalions should reinforce them and support the 9th brigade in the attack on Mont Blanc. When, therefore, Gun Hill appeared to be occupied by his leading battalions, Major-General Colvile ordered the Coldstream to advance, the 1st battalion on the right, the 2nd on the left, but as they approached Gun Hill they came under a heavy fire from the Razor Back and the Sugar Loaf. To meet this attack they changed front half right, and gradually inclined still more to this direction until the Razor Back and Sugar Loaf Hills became the objects of their attack. General Colvile, desiring to arrest this movement, which threatened to become a purely frontal attack over most unfavourable ground, despatched his brigade-major, Captain H. G. Ruggles-Brise, to halt these two battalions. Ruggles-Brise succeeded in reaching the 2nd battalion, and led part of them back to Gun Hill, whence a portion of them, under command of Major H. Shute, were immediately despatched by Major-General Colvile to re-establish connection with the 9th brigade. This detachment gradually worked northwards towards Table Mountain, and joining hands with Brevet Lieut.-Col. Pulteney's company of Scots Guards, to which reference has already been made, took part in the capture of the northern extremity of the western range. But the remainder of the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream under Lieut.-Col. H. R. Stopford, and the 1st battalion, under Lieut.-Col. A. E. Codrington, were beyond recall; they pressed forward, and, materially aided by the fire of the 18th battery, assaulted and carried the Razor Back and Sugar Loaf kopjes. Captain J. T. Sterling, who commanded a company of the reserve of the 1st Coldstream, marching in rear of the remainder of the battalion, became aware that the hills to the south of the Sugar Loaf were occupied by Boers. Fearing that these burghers might attack Codrington in flank, Sterling, deviating from his proper line of advance, moved his men against them, in rushes of sections, at five paces interval, and using independent fire. That there were many of the enemy opposed to him is proved by the fact that he lost 20 men out of his company, 110 strong; but his prompt action prevented the counter-stroke which he had anticipated.
[Sidenote: Lord Methuen therefore changes his plan of attack.]
[Sidenote: Capture of Table Mountain and Mont Blanc.]
In consequence of this unexpected development in the battle, Lord Methuen, abandoning his intention of attacking Mont Blanc from the north, determined to support the Coldstream battalions, by launching every available man to reinforce their attack upon the main ridge. The Grenadiers and Scots Guards moved down into the valley which lies between the two ranges, and, to minimize the effect of the plunging cross fire from the heights of Mont Blanc and Table Mountain, passed it as rapidly as possible in three widely-extended lines. The valley once traversed, the Boer musketry ceased to be dangerous, but its passage cost the Grenadiers nearly as dear as their capture of the kopjes of Gun Hill. He also called up his last reserve, half a battalion of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the two companies of the Munster Fusiliers, and threw them into the fight, on the left of the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Thus, on the right of the field of battle were long lines of skirmishers, either crossing the valley or actually ascending its northern heights, while on the left a fierce fight was raging between the 9th brigade and the stalwart defenders of the crags and works on the plateau of Table Mountain. Gradually the Boers at these points weakened, and then retreated in all haste to the valley, where, pursued by long-range volleys, they mounted their ponies and disappeared among the kopjes of the main range. Then the 9th brigade, following them across the valley, scaled the steep slopes of Mont Blanc, and those of the enemy who were still holding this kopje, fell back before them, and galloped off to the east and north-east, under the heavy fire of the infantry.
[Sidenote: Boers escape untouched by shells or cavalry.]
Neither of the field batteries from their positions could see the Boers as they fled from Mont Blanc. The Naval guns, which had been successfully co-operating with the 18th battery in shelling the Boers on the crest line of Mont Blanc, were the artillery nearest to Lord Methuen's hand as, from the summit, he watched the retreating Boers. He called upon the Naval brigade to bring one of their guns on to the top of Mont Blanc, by the deep gorge which cuts into the western face of the main range. But the ground was impossible; the heavy gun could not be dragged up the mountain side, and the Boers effected their retreat without molestation from artillery fire. The 18th battery indeed joined with Major Rimington in a pursuit of the Boers eastwards, from the extreme south of the hills, but with horses exhausted by thirst and fatigue, nothing could be effected. The detachment of cavalry and mounted infantry on the left of the British line pushed some distance to the north-east; its appearance scattered considerable parties of the enemy who otherwise might have harassed the left flank, but with this exception its influence on the fight was small. About midday its progress was arrested by a very well handled flank or rearguard of the enemy in the neighbourhood of Swinkpan.
[Footnote 157: The 18th battery fired 141 rounds. For the greater part of the day it was in action at 1,375 yards.]
[Footnote 158: This water-hole is not shown on map No. 10; it appears on map No. 9.]
[Sidenote: End of action. Casualties, Nov. 23rd.]
By 10 a.m. the engagement was over, and by noon the greater part of the British force had returned to camp. After the action the outposts were furnished by the Northampton regiment, and half a battalion of the Scots Guards held Belmont station with a detached post on Table Mountain. The total loss of Lord Methuen's command was 3 officers and 51 N.C.O.s and men killed; 23 officers and 220 N.C.O.s and men wounded. The Grenadiers suffered more heavily than any of the other battalions. They lost 1 officer killed and 8 wounded, 2 mortally; 21 N.C.O.s and men killed and 107 wounded, 24 mortally. Of the Boers, it is known that more than 80 were killed, and 70 were taken prisoners. A large amount of cattle, a considerable number of ponies, and much ammunition were captured.
[Sidenote: An indecisive but in some ways satisfactory engagement.]
Though from the insufficient number of his mounted troops and from the want of horse artillery, Lord Methuen was unable to convert his successful engagement into a decisive victory, the action was satisfactory in many ways. The first advance was made in darkness, in a formation more extended than any practised at the same period in broad daylight by continental nations. Such men as became detached from their battalions promptly rallied upon the nearest officer of another corps. The leading of company officers when, in the stress of battle, they became separated from their battalions, and had thus to act entirely on their own initiative, was most satisfactory. As an instance of the manner in which troops become dispersed in modern engagements, it is well to record the movements of the companies of the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream Guards. One company joined or closely followed the Grenadiers in their attack on Gun Hill. Two companies worked with the Grenadiers in their attack on Mont Blanc. Three companies fought on Table Mountain. One company kept touch with the 1st battalion; another acted independently in clearing the eastern side of Gun Hill, and then fought on Table Mountain. The fire discipline proved distinctly good. Long range supporting fire, when the light permitted it, was freely employed. The arrangements by the R.A.M.C. for the removal of the wounded from the field of battle to the base hospitals were admirable.