[Footnote 259: See maps Nos. 9 and 16.]
[Sidenote: French's operations during Lord Roberts' voyage.]
[Sidenote: He worries Schoeman out of Rensburg.]
[Sidenote: and pursues him to Colesberg.]
Whilst Lord Roberts was on his voyage to the seat of war, the three portions of the army which had sustained severe checks were chiefly employed in recuperating and receiving reinforcements. General French, on the other hand, was continuing his successful operations. These, therefore, with the exceptions mentioned in the last chapter, alone represent the active work in the field in South Africa between the time of the decision of the Cabinet appointing the new Commander-in-Chief and his arrival at Cape Town. The task of General French at Arundel was now as important as the strength of his command seemed inadequate to perform it. The enemy on his front formed one of four invading columns, three of which had already been victorious. Schoeman had, therefore, strong reasons for wishing to emulate the prowess of Cronje at Magersfontein, of Botha at Colenso, and of the fortunate trio at Stormberg. French had to deal with an opponent whose confidence must now be presumed to be at its height. Moreover, reinforcements might reach the Boer leader at any moment. It had become more than ever necessary to paralyse him before he could initiate even the semblance of an organised incursion into territory where disloyalty might largely increase his numbers in a night. Only by incessant activity could French hope to attain this object, and fortunately the force under his command, if small, was suitable both in composition and spirit to that most difficult of military operations, the surveillance and protection of a large area by mobility alone. His dispositions, detailed in Chapter XVII., whilst they denied a front of nearly forty miles to the enemy, effectually covered the Hanover Road-Naauwpoort-Rosmead line of railway. The area occupied by the Boers round Rensburg was, like that of the British, bisected by the railway. It was roughly as follows:--On the west of the line lay some 800 Transvaalers with a long-range gun; on the east about 2,000 Free Staters, with two guns, were partly entrenched, whilst 600 burghers guarded the Boer Headquarters at Colesberg and their line of retreat. Against the enemy, thus distributed, French now began a series of reconnaissances and rapid movements in force, which, directed against Schoeman's flanks and rear, and often against his convoys, left him no peace. Some of these expeditions, notably an attack by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and a battery R.H.A. on December 18th against the Boer left rear, led to brisk skirmishing; but the British losses were always trifling, and Schoeman, continually forced to show his hand, eventually wearied of his insecurity. On the 29th he abandoned Rensburg, and fell back by night upon Colesberg. At daybreak on the 30th, French followed in pursuit with the Carabiniers, New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and two guns R.H.A. and, reaching Rensburg at 7 a.m., soon regained touch with the enemy upon the ridges south-west of Colesberg. A demonstration by the artillery disclosed a strong position, strongly held. Colesberg town lies in a hollow in the midst of a rough square of high, steep kopjes, many of them of that singular geometrical form described in Chapter III. Smaller kopjes project within rifle range from the angles of the square, whilst 2,000 yards west of its western face a tall peak, called Coles Kop, rises abruptly from the encircling plain, and dominates the entire terrain. The isolation of this hill was doubtless the reason why it was not occupied by the Boers. They were in strength everywhere along the hilly ramparts around Colesberg. French, therefore, perceiving the formidable nature of this "natural fortress," contented himself with seizing a group of hills (Porter's Hill) 2,000 yards south-west of the south-western angle. Here he planted artillery, and, leaving Porter with the above mounted troops in observation, himself returned to Rensburg siding, which he made his Headquarters, calling up the main body from Arundel.
[Footnote 260: Despatch, February 2nd, 1900.]
[Sidenote: French decides to attempt Colesberg.]
The rearward concentration of the enemy at Colesberg, in itself a partial triumph for the British Commander, had now cleared the situation, and opened to General French the final object defined by his instructions. The arrival of reinforcements, moreover, seemed to warrant a serious attempt upon Colesberg. The third squadrons of the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and 10th Hussars, which had been wrecked in the transport Ismore, had joined on the 18th and 21st December, the 1st Suffolk regiment from Naauwpoort on the 26th, and Rimington's Guides (173 strong) on the 28th, the 1st Essex regiment from De Aar relieving the Suffolk at Naauwpoort.
[Footnote 261: "To seize and hold Naauwpoort, and whenever possible to push on and gain possession of Colesberg." Despatch, February 2nd, 1900.]
[Sidenote: Dec. 31st/99 to Jan. 1st, 1900, makes night attack on McCracken's Hill and takes it.]
At daybreak on the 31st the General made in person a close reconnaissance of the enemy's position, and at noon he issued orders for an offensive movement. The most vulnerable, indeed, the only vulnerable portions of the bulwark of hills, seemed to be the kopjes previously described as projecting from the square, especially those upon the western face. These gained, it would be possible to push northward along the flank, threatening the Colesberg road bridge and the enemy's line of retreat, regarding the safety of which the Boers had shown themselves peculiarly sensitive. Seeking a base from which to attack these outlying kopjes, French settled upon Maeder's farm, lying five miles west-south-west of Colesberg, and at 4 p.m. a squadron 10th Hussars moved thither as a screen to the main body, which marched an hour later, and arrived at the farm between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., the troops bivouacking there under arms. At midnight the men were roused, and at 12.30 a.m., January 1st, the column, led by the wing of the Royal Berkshire, set out in thick darkness towards the enemy. The route taken ran for two and a half miles on Colesberg, and then north-east across the veld, past the east of Coles Kop. The infantry marched in profound silence; even the regimental carts were dropped behind, lest the noise of the wheels should betray the design. It was not until the leading companies at 3.30 a.m. were close to the base of the hill to be attacked, that a loud shout and a scattered fire of rifles from the right front broke the stillness, and showed that the enemy had detected the advance. Major McCracken, who had so organised the march of the Berkshire as to be ready for this, extended his ranks to two paces interval, and, without awaiting his supports, which had been delayed by the darkness, ordered the charge. Thereupon the enemy's piquet fled, and the Royal Berkshire, just as day dawned on January 1st, 1900, gained, without opposition, the crest of the hill, henceforward to be known as McCracken's Hill.
[Footnote 262: Composition:--Inniskilling Dragoons, 10th Hussars, ten guns R.H.A., one company M.I., with four companies, 2nd Royal Berkshire regiment, under Major F. W. N. McCracken, the whole under command of Lieut.-Col. R. B. W. Fisher, 10th Hussars. Two days' supplies, went with the force and half the infantry were carried in wagons.]
[Footnote 263: Order of march:--Point of M.I., half battalion R. Berkshire, remainder M.I., 10th Hussars, R.H.A., Inniskilling Dragoons.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 1st, 1900. Colesberg is shelled whilst Fisher works round the north towards the bridge road on Boer right, and Porter acts against their left.]
This point being won, General French immediately despatched Colonel Fisher on from the place, where he had halted with his cavalry, past Coles Kop towards the north-west corner of the heights encircling Colesberg, with orders to establish a squadron at the corner, and to work round the northern face against the Boer right. In this duty Fisher was only so far successful as to get his patrols astride the track to Colesberg road bridge, failing to secure the hills commanding the northern exits from the town. To distract attention from this movement, and to clear the kopjes on McCracken's front, ten guns had previously been placed opposite the western face of the Colesberg heights, and as soon as it became light enough, these opened a heavy bombardment. The enemy responded at once with field guns and a pom-pom from higher ground, and for three hours the batteries endured a galling fire of great accuracy, the Boer pom-pom especially bespattering the line of guns with a continuous stream of projectiles. Not until the Horse artillery had expended 1,043 rounds of shrapnel did the enemy's gunners desist. During this time Colonel Porter, based on Porter's Hill, was operating vigorously against the enemy's left. He had moved out overnight with two squadrons 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers), one company New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and two guns, R.H.A. Reinforcing these mounted troops, Porter made a determined effort against the outworks of the Schietberg at the south-western angle of the Colesberg heights. But the Boers were here in strength, and the New Zealanders, after a gallant attack up the stiff slopes, were compelled to fall back upon Porter's Hill, whence for the rest of the day Porter engaged, though he could not dislodge, large numbers of the enemy.
[Sidenote: Boers try to retake McCracken's Hill, but fail.]
Meanwhile the wing of the Royal Berkshire regiment had not been left in peaceful possession of McCracken's Hill. To the east, and between this hill and Colesberg, another height of similar command was strongly held by the enemy, who not only opened a troublesome fire at daybreak, but a little later attempted first a counter-attack up the steep re-entrants to the north-east, or left, of the infantry, and next an enveloping movement around the right.
[Sidenote: The first attempt stopped by Fisher's appearance, after evacuation of the hill had been ordered.]
[Sidenote: Rimington's Guides and Porter's men stop the second.]
Both enterprises finally failed; but about 7 a.m., so insecure seemed the situation of the Berkshire, that the General sent orders to McCracken to evacuate. At that moment Fisher's appearance upon the heights to the north-west somewhat after relieved the pressure, and McCracken, receiving to his satisfaction permission to retain what he had won, soon had his command so safely entrenched against musketry and shell fire, that, for the next forty-three days, during which it never ceased, his casualties numbered but eighteen. So passed the day without further incident until, late in the afternoon, Schoeman suddenly led a column, about 1,000 strong, out of the south-eastern corner of the Colesberg enceinte, making as if to envelop the British right. Fortunately, Rimington's Guides, who had been posted overnight at Jasfontein farm, six miles east of Rensburg, to watch this flank, detected the Boer advance. Simultaneously the troops at Porter's Hill saw it also, and Schoeman, confronted by both detachments, retired to Colesberg. Thus by evening French, though disappointed with the results north of the town, where he had hoped to secure "Grassy" (later Suffolk) Hill, had cut off Colesberg from the rest of the colony on the south and west. His intercepting line ran north as far as Kloof camp. As all the troops were thus fully occupied, French asked for reinforcements with which to "manoeuvre the enemy out of his position." Schoeman himself, at the same time, was demanding assistance from the Boer Headquarters to enable him to hold his ground.
[Footnote 264: Casualties, January 1st:--Killed, one officer; wounded, six officers, twenty-one N.C.O.s and men; missing, one man.]
[Footnote 265: The former received the 1st Essex regiment, two companies 1st Yorkshire regiment, 4th battery R.F.A., and the Household cavalry composite regiment; the latter the Johannesburg Police under Van Dam, and a commando under Commandant Grobelaar. The reinforcements reached the two opponents on January 4th, 5th and 6th.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 4th, 1900. Schoeman attacks French's left, obtains a momentary advantage, but completely fails.]
Next day (January 2nd) General French delegated the command of the left attack to Major-General Brabazon, with Headquarters at Maeder's farm, and relieved the cavalry at Kloof camp by four companies of the 1st Suffolk regiment, one squadron alone remaining there to act as a screen to the northern flank. This day and the next passed uneventfully. Early in the morning of the 4th, Schoeman, baulked in his attempt of the 1st January against the British right, dashed suddenly from his lines with a thousand men against the left, and all but rolled it up. Eluding the cavalry piquets posted on the outer flank of the Suffolk, the burghers galloped for a line of kopjes which ran east and west across the left and left rear of Kloof camp, into which they therefore looked from the flank, and partially from the rear. The enemy's artillery at once opened fiercely from their main position upon the entrenchments of the Suffolk, who, assailed from three directions, were for some time seriously threatened. Much depended upon the action of the next few minutes. French's front line was for the moment truly outflanked, and, were the enemy to establish himself where he was, nothing would remain but a speedy and difficult evacuation of the ground hitherto held, right back to Porter's Hill. The tables were quickly turned. General French, who was riding up from Rensburg, at this moment reached Porter's Hill, and immediately telegraphed to Maeder's farm for all the troops to turn out and move on Coles Kop. He also ordered two companies of the Royal Berkshire regiment from McCracken's Hill to reinforce the threatened point, and the 10th Hussars, a squadron 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, and two guns R.H.A. to advance upon the right of the Boer attack. Four guns had already opened against their centre from in front of Coles Kop. These movements chilled the Boers, who, especially alarmed at the approach of the cavalry from the direction of Windmill camp, abandoned the most advanced points they had reached, hotly pursued by the 10th Hussars on one flank and "B." squadron Inniskillings on the other. Yet some of them soon turned, and, standing on rocky hills, attempted to cover the flight of the rest, by checking the 10th Hussars. Colonel Fisher thereupon dismounted his men, and leading a charge on foot, brilliantly drove off the Boer rearguard and sent them after their comrades, whilst the Inniskillings continued the pursuit, getting amongst the fugitives with the lance. Still a part of the enemy, about 200 in number, clung stoutly to the broken hills in spite of the severe cross fire of the artillery. About 1 p.m., therefore, the General ordered Capt. H. de B. de Lisle to dislodge this remnant with 200 mounted infantry. De Lisle, using all the advantages of the ground, skilfully manoeuvred his men, mounted, till he was within a distance convenient for attack. His dismounting was the signal for another break away of at least half of those fronting him, and the mounted infantry, in open order, scaled the hill with fixed bayonets against the remainder. There was a short encounter, but De Lisle's men were not to be denied, twenty-one prisoners falling into their hands as they cleared the summit. The rest of the Boers scattered in flight, and by 2 p.m. Schoeman's attempt was over. His failure had cost him ninety killed and wounded, and the loss of some forty prisoners.
[Footnote 266: Casualties, January 4th:--Killed, one officer, six N.C.O.s and men; wounded, two officers and thirteen N.C.O.s and men.]
[Sidenote: French, Jan. 5th, issues orders for attack on Grassy Hill next day.]
During this (January 4th) and the two following days, the requested reinforcements, in number some 1,500 men of all arms, arrived. With this accretion of strength it was now possible to renew the offensive, and General French at once turned his attention to the capture of Grassy Hill (Suffolk Hill on map No. 16), which he had early marked as the key to the Boer stronghold. This height lay at the junction of the roads leading respectively to Colesberg road bridge and to Norval's Pont, both of which it commanded. Fisher's operations on the left flank on January 1st had been designed to seize this important point, and without it there was little hope of forcing the enemy from Colesberg. On the 5th, whilst all the artillery shelled the hill, French made a personal and careful reconnaissance, and on his return to Headquarters issued orders for an attack next day. It was to be based on Kloof camp, whence a force of all arms under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel F. J. W. Eustace, R.H.A., was to be in readiness to start at 5 a.m. As before, the 1st cavalry brigade and the post at Porter's Hill were to co-operate to the southward, both to divert attention from the true attack, and to prevent the enemy withdrawing his guns.
[Footnote 267: During the reconnaissance, Lieutenant Sir J. P. Milbanke, Bart., 10th Hussars, the General's A.D.C., was severely wounded whilst rescuing a dismounted trooper under heavy fire, an act for which he subsequently received the Victoria Cross.]
[Footnote 268: Composition:--
10th Hussars, 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, eight guns R.H.A. 4th battery Royal Field artillery, three companies M.I. Detachments 1st Suffolk and 2nd Royal Berkshire regiments.]
[Sidenote: Lt.-Col. Watson volunteers to take the hill, and is granted leave to try.]
[Sidenote: Watson during night, 5th to 6th Jan. attacks and fails.]
Lt.-Colonel A. J. Watson, commanding the 1st Suffolk regiment at Kloof camp, who had frequently reconnoitred Grassy Hill in company with General French, had from the first expressed his belief that he could capture it with his battalion. On the previous day (5th January) his remaining half-battalion had joined him, and during an interview with Eustace in the evening regarding the arrangements for next day, he asked the latter to obtain from the General leave for him to rush the position in the night with four companies. Eustace, though he did not share the confidence of the infantry commander, nevertheless carried the request to Headquarters. As a result, about 8 p.m., a message was sent to Watson authorising him to attack the hill if he saw a favourable chance. He was first, however, to inform the General and all troops in the vicinity of his intention. No more was heard of Watson and the Suffolk regiment until, about 3 a.m. on the 6th, a crash of rifle fire, breaking the silence from the direction of Grassy Hill, proclaimed that the attack had been delivered. The sound was clearly heard by General French and his staff who were riding up from Headquarters to witness the day's operations. Halting below Coles Kop, French immediately sent Eustace forward to get the guns into action, but soon afterwards received intelligence that the Suffolk were returning to camp, and that their colonel and 120 officers and men were missing. The attempt on Grassy Hill had failed, and the plan for the day was shattered before it had been properly set on foot.
[Sidenote: Watson's attempt.]
Having obtained the General's sanction, Watson, overlooking perhaps the attached conditions, had eagerly prepared to avail himself of it. The key of the whole situation seemed to be within his reach, and he determined not to lose the chance of seizing it. Not until 11.30 p.m., when they were roused from sleep to form up their companies, had even his own officers any inkling of the project on foot, and when, an hour later, under cover of profound darkness, four companies (305 officers and men) moved noiselessly out of camp, the soldiers for the most part marching in soft deck shoes, the least sanguine felt assured at least of secrecy. The formation was quarter-column in the following order of companies, "H." "D." "A." "B."; the men's bayonets were fixed. The Colonel, who was carrying a long white stick as a distinguishing mark, moved in front of his command and felt for the route. When about half way, a halt was called and Watson, sending for his officers, told them for the first time on what they were bent, and ordered, as the attack formation, column of companies at fifty paces distance. The advance was then resumed. The march seemed unduly long. The route to Grassy Hill from the British lines was more than twice the supposed length. In the darkness and over the difficult ground, it was impossible to maintain distances for any time at all, so that column had again contracted to quarter-column before the hill was reached. Arrived at the foot, there was a short halt in a donga. Then the ascent, which from the halting-place was at once very steep and covered with boulders, was essayed. Higher up, more gentle gradients led to the summit. Scarcely had the leading companies, somewhat disordered by the severe climb, emerged upon the easier ground near the top, when a single shot from a Boer sentry rang out close in front of the foremost files. It was instantly followed by a blaze of musketry which leaped from the whole crest. A volley so sudden and heavy could only come from men prepared for action; it was evident that the advance of the Suffolk was not only detected but awaited. Nevertheless, "H." company, supported by "D.," immediately dashed forward, at once losing both its officers and many men, the regimental adjutant and another officer being struck down at the same moment. Watson, recognising the preparations made to receive him, seeing from the confusion which had arisen the futility of so informal an attack, directed a retirement, intending, doubtless, no more than that his men should temporarily seek the cover of the dead ground from which they had just climbed. But such instructions, at such a time, were more easy to obey than to understand. Whilst some fell back but a short distance, many made their way to the foot of the hill, and so to the camp. Some again were unable to retreat under the tremendous fusilade, and together with those who had not heard the word of command, or did not credit it, held on in front, and suffered losses rapidly. In short, for a few moments, though the officers worked hard to restore regularity, confusion reigned in the column, whilst the Boer fire continued to rake it without cessation. Watson then desired the commander of the third company, ("A."), to support "H." company upon the crest. Captain C. A. H. Brett, having extricated about half his men from the press, pushed out to the right flank and advanced. A storm of fire, delivered at a few yards' range, met this attempt, and here, as before, all the officers (three) and many of the rank and file fell before they could close. Still Watson, whose gallantry compelled order wherever his influence could be felt, strove to retrieve the situation. Going back a little, he called up the rear company ("B.") and led it forward in person, making for the right front. Again a murderous fire shattered the effort, and no sooner had Watson disposed the remnants of "B." company on the crest, than he himself fell dead just as dawn appeared. Only about 100 officers and men were now scattered over the hill, many of them wounded, but opposing as hot a fire as they could deliver to the invisible enemy who was firing point blank into them. The pouches of the dead were rifled for cartridges with which to continue the struggle; but no hope remained; even the shrapnel of Eustace's artillery, which now opened from Kloof camp, became an added danger: while the Boers, aided by the increasing light, shot with ever-increasing accuracy. About 4.30 a.m. the survivors, ninety-nine in number, of whom twenty-nine were wounded, surrendered.
[Footnote 269: Casualties, January 6th:--
Killed: Five Officers; thirty-two N.C.O.s and men. Wounded and taken prisoners: Three Officers; twenty-six N.C.O.s and men. Unwounded and taken prisoners: Two Officers; sixty-eight N.C.O.s and men. Wounded and returned to camp: One Officer; twenty-two N.C.O.s and men. The Boers stated their losses as one officer and eight men killed, seventeen men wounded.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 6th.]
In the evening the 1st Essex relieved the 1st Suffolk at Kloof camp, the latter battalion being sent first to Rensburg, and subsequently to the lines of communication to be re-officered.
[Sidenote: Jan. 7th, 1900. French reconnoitres Boer left.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 9th. Slingersfontein Farm on Boer left occupied.]
It was now evident to General French that the Boer right was so strong and so watchful as to be proof against either stratagem or open attack. He therefore turned at once to the other flank for opportunities, seeking by a reconnaissance on the 7th January a suitable point to the eastward from whence to threaten the enemy's rear along the line of the Norval's Pont railway. The operation, which was carried out under long-range fire both of artillery and rifles, disclosed the fact that owing to lack of water none of the kopjes that were near enough to the line were tenable as permanent posts. At Slingersfontein farm, however, eleven miles south-east of Colesberg, and seven miles from the nearest point of the Norval's Pont line, an excellent position was found. On January 9th it was occupied by two squadrons Household cavalry, three squadrons the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers), the N.S.W. Lancers and four guns, under command of Colonel Porter. To divert attention from this movement, the whole of the enemy's western flank was bombarded by twelve guns disposed from Kloof camp to Porter's Hill, whilst a section R.H.A. and a squadron 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons made an attack on the southern front above Palmietfontein farm, drawing in reply the fire of two field guns and two pom-poms.
[Footnote 270: Casualties, January 7th:--One officer and four men missing.]
[Footnote 271: Casualties, January 9th:--Two men wounded; seventeen battery horses were struck by shells during this engagement.]
[Sidenote: Feeling the enemy's left, Jan. 11th.]
During the 8th and 9th the 1st Yorkshire regiment arrived, and was posted at Rensburg. On the 10th Schoeman also received reinforcements from Norval's Pont, and these he placed so as to cover the railway south of Joubert siding, opposite to Porter, who turned out his men at Slingersfontein to stop further advance southward. French, on the 11th January, made a reconnaissance, employing the whole of Porter's force in an attempt to turn the left of this new development of the enemy. But the Boers, after a short retirement, received further strong reinforcements from Norval's Pont, and prolonging the threatened left, showed a bold front. French, therefore, who had no intention of becoming seriously engaged, ordered Porter to return to Slingersfontein. An attempt by Major A. G. Hunter-Weston, R.E., to reach the railway line round the enemy's left flank, and destroy the telegraph wire, was foiled at Achtertang when on the very point of success. A Boer laager was in fact close at hand. At the same time Captain de Lisle, pushing out from the extreme left towards Bastard's Nek, reconnoitred the country to the northward, and found the enemy in strength along the line Bastard's Nek--Wolve Kop--Spitz Kop--Plessis Poort.
[Footnote 272: Casualties, January 11th:--Wounded, five men; missing, one man.]
[Sidenote: Butcher places 15-pr. on precipitous height. Jan 11th.]
Whilst these affairs were in progress, a feat astonished both sides alike by its triumph over difficulty. Major E. E. A. Butcher, R.F.A., commanding the 4th Field battery, placed a 15-pr. gun upon the peak of Coles Kop, a kopje already described as standing by itself in the plain to the west of Colesberg. Rising to a height of 600 feet, its sides varying from the almost perpendicular to a slope of 30°, and covered with boulders, the hill presented a formidable climb even to an unhampered man, and its use for any purpose but that of a look-out post seemed impossible. Nevertheless, aided by detachments of the R.A., R.E., and Essex regiment, Butcher had his gun on the summit in three hours and a half. The supply of ammunition for it, and of rations for the gunners, were more serious problems even than the actual haulage of the piece itself. These were ingeniously solved by the installation of a lift composed of wires running over snatch-blocks affixed to standards, which were improvised from steel rails, and driven in, in pairs, five yards apart, both at the top and bottom of the kopje. Those at the top were wedged into natural fissures in the rocks, the bottom pair being driven twelve inches into the ground, and held upright by guy-ropes fixed to bollards or anchorages. To the top of each upright was lashed a snatch-block, over which, from summit to base of the hill, were stretched the carrying wires. Along these, suspended by blocks and tackle, loads up to thirty pounds in weight were hauled by means of a thin wire, which was wound upon a drum fixed between, and passed through, pulleys attached to the top of each of the two upper standards. The lift was so contrived as to be double-acting, the turning of the drum and a ratchet causing one wire bearing its load of supplies to ascend, whilst another descended, the hill.
[Sidenote: It has immediate effect. Jan. 12th.]
At 6 o'clock next morning this gun opened upon a laager in the very midst of the enemy's main position. The effect was instantaneous; the Boers, thunderstruck by the sudden visitation of shrapnel, which came they knew not whence, abandoned their camp and fled to the kopjes for shelter. Another laager, 2,000 yards more distant, then became the target with the same result, the enemy's doubt as to the situation of the gun being deepened by the simultaneous practice of two 15-prs. fired from the plain below the kop. A few days later Butcher succeeded in getting a second gun up the hill, and by means of his great command, forced the Boers to shift every laager into sheltered kloofs, and caused them considerable losses.
[Sidenote: Jan. 14th. A flying column under Allenby threatens Boer connection with the bridge.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 15th. Boers attack Slingersfontein.]
[Sidenote: The Boers are repulsed.]
On Jan. 14th, a flying column under Major E. H. H. Allenby (Inniskilling), marched northward along the Seacow river. Turning to the east, he demonstrated against the enemy's communications at the Colesberg road bridge, at which about twenty shells were fired at 5,000 yards' range. The Boers thereupon appeared in three bodies in greatly superior numbers, and Allenby, having taken five prisoners, fell back, easily avoiding an attempt to cut him off. This reconnaissance had the effect of causing the enemy to cease to use the wagon road for transport purposes. Next day (15th) the Boers retaliated by a determined attack on the isolated post at Slingersfontein, held on that day by a half company 1st Yorkshire regiment, commanded by Captain M. H. Orr and a company (58 men) New Zealand Mounted Rifles under Captain W. R. N. Madocks, R.A. (attached). These had their trenches above the farm, the New Zealanders upon the eastern and the Yorkshire upon the western sides of a steep and high hill, the lower slopes of which were largely dead ground to those in the defences. Other kopjes, accessible to the Boers, were within rifle range. The position was thus to the Boer rifleman an ideal one for the most exceptional of his fighting practices, the close offensive. In the subsequent attack, every detail was typical of his methods on such occasions. At 6.30 a.m. a long-range sniping fire began to tease the occupants of the hill. They vainly searched amongst the broken kopjes for sight of an enemy. Growing, certainly, but almost imperceptibly, in volume and accuracy, this fire was directed chiefly at the New Zealanders on the east, and by 10 a.m. had become so intense that an attack in that direction seemed imminent. Meanwhile, a body of the enemy had been crawling from exactly the opposite quarter towards the western side, upon which they succeeded in effecting a lodgment unseen. They then began to climb, scattering under cover of the boulders. Not until they were close in front of the sangars of the Yorkshire regiment was their presence discovered by a patrol which Madocks had sent from his side of the hill. Thereupon the Boers opened a hot fire, striking down both the officer and the colour-sergeant of the Yorkshire, whose men, taken by surprise and suddenly deprived of their leaders, fell into some confusion. The Boers then occupied the two foremost sangars. The hill seemed lost. Then Madocks, hearing the outburst on the further side from him, took a few of his men and hurried round to assist, appearing amongst the Yorkshire just as the enemy were all but into them. Rallying the soldiers, and perceiving the Boers a few yards away behind the rocks, he immediately ordered a charge, and followed by a few, cleared the enemy out of the nearer of the two abandoned sangars. The Boers continued to shoot rapidly from the wall beyond, and Madocks, a few moments later, charged again. Accompanied this time by but three men, he closed to within a few feet of the more distant sangar. Two of the men with him were here killed, and Madocks, seeing the uselessness of remaining, made his way back again to the sangar in rear with his sole companion, called together the rest of the Yorkshire detachment, and began hurriedly to strengthen the wall under a searching fire. At this moment a party of his own New Zealanders, for whom he had sent back, doubled up to the spot, and led by himself, whilst a storm of bullets broke over them from the surrounding kopjes, charged down on the Boers with fixed bayonets. The enemy fled at once, rising from behind the stones upon the hillside. Pursued by volleys from the crest of the British position, they made their way back to their lines, leaving twenty-one dead upon the field.
[Footnote 273: Composition: One squadron 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, one squadron 10th Hussars, two companies M.I., and two guns R.H.A.]
[Footnote 274: This battalion had joined on January 8th and 9th. On January 12th, 1st half-battalion Welsh regiment and a squadron 10th Hussars had also arrived; they were followed on the 14th by half a battalion, 2nd Worcestershire regiment.]
[Footnote 275: Casualties, January 15th:--
Killed, six N.C.O.s and men; wounded, one officer, five N.C.O.s and men. Boer losses: twenty-one killed: about forty wounded.]
[Sidenote: Arrival, Jan. 15th, of Clements, and fresh troops then and later to Jan. 21st, causes changes in dispositions.]
Whilst this affair was in progress, a welcome reinforcement arrived. Major-General R. A. P. Clements brought with him the 1st Royal Irish and the remainder of the 2nd Worcestershire of his brigade (12th), in all an addition of 18 officers and 874 men. Clements was immediately placed in command of the Slingersfontein area. This increase of strength enabled French to extend his right still further by moving Porter's command south-eastward to Potfontein farm, and that of Rimington, hitherto stationed at Jasfontein farm, to Kleinfontein farm, five miles north of Porter. For a time Rimington was able to station some Household cavalry in close touch with the enemy at Rhenoster farm, on the Bethulie road, but it was thought prudent to withdraw them on January 21st, as a commando of 1,000 men had gathered opposite the post. A demonstration by Porter towards Hebron farm on the 19th disclosed, about Keerom, south of Achtertang, a large Boer laager, which was shelled with effect. A deserter reported the enemy in this direction to consist of 6,000 men. During the next two days the following reinforcements reached the camp:--2nd Bedfordshire regiment, 2nd Wiltshire regiment, detachments of the 1st Essex and 1st Yorkshire regiments and details of Royal engineers and Army Service Corps, a total accession of about 50 officers and 1,900 men. Two howitzers, which had come up on the 18th, shelled Grassy Hill on the 19th and following days with effect, their fire being directed by telegraph from Coles Kop.
[Footnote 276: With the following:--1st Royal Irish and 2nd Worcestershire regiment, one squadron cavalry, one company New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and four guns.]
[Footnote 277: Three squadrons Carabiniers, two squadrons Household cavalry, N.S.W. Lancers, one company New Zealand Mounted Rifles and four guns.]
[Footnote 278: Rimington's Guides, one squadron Household cavalry, one company New Zealand Mounted Rifles.]
[Footnote 279: A section of the 37th Howitzer battery, from Modder River.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 24th. French seizes Bastard's Nek.]
Recognising that he was blocked to the eastward by the superior and apparently constantly increasing commandos, French now turned once more to the westward for a chance of gaining commanding positions, such as alone could enable him to manoeuvre the enemy from Colesberg. An opening seemed to offer, because of the reported partial or entire abandonment of the important defile known as Plessis Poort, through which ran the road from Colesberg northward to the bridge and Botha's Drift. The possession of this pass would not only cut the Boers' line of retreat and northerly communications, but would seriously imperil those leading to Norval's Pont; for high ground, running south-eastward from the Poort, in parts parallel to the road and railway, in parts impinging on them, practically commanded both for a distance of some twenty miles from Colesberg. French, therefore, determined to lose no time in reconnoitring and, if possible, seizing on so valuable a point, and on the evening of January 24th, despatched de Lisle to occupy Bastard's Nek, a defile cutting the same range as Plessis Poort, and five miles to the westward of it. This being safely effected, early on the 25th a strong column concentrated at the Nek. French's plan was as follows:--
[Footnote 280: Composition:--6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, 10th Hussars, a battery R.H.A., under Major-General Brabazon; four companies 1st Yorkshire, four companies 1st Essex, the 2nd Wiltshire regiment, the M.I., and a field battery, under Colonel T. E. Stephenson, 1st Essex regiment.]
[Sidenote: Jan. 25th. He strikes at Plessis Poort.]
[Sidenote: French avoids a trap, and returns to camp.]
Whilst the infantry, covered by a cross fire of artillery, pushed along the high ground towards Plessis Poort, the cavalry, diverging north-eastward, were to turn the Poort by the Boer right, and at the same time watch for any counter attack from the direction of the road bridge. To draw attention from these movements, demonstrations were to be made from every part of the British lines about Colesberg. As soon as it was light these operations began. Whilst McCracken, under cover of the howitzers and the two guns on Coles Kop, advanced from Kloof camp, whilst Clements, pushing out from Porter's Hill and Slingersfontein, shelled once more the laager at Keerom, and Porter from Kleinfontein, made as if to fall upon the railway towards Van Zyl siding, Brabazon's mounted force drew out to the northward, and Stephenson sent the infantry, the Essex leading, along the ridge towards the Poort. By 10 a.m. the four R.H.A. guns were in action against the Poort at a point 2,400 yards north-west of it. Brabazon's cavalry started late, owing to a delay on the part of the battalion told off to relieve the intermediate posts: the enemy, getting wind of his presence, advanced from the north with two guns, and from the east, and so delayed him that his turning movement was completed too late in the day to be utilised. Meanwhile the infantry, covered by the fire of the 4th battery, worked rapidly towards the Pass, driving scattered parties before them, and by 2 p.m. had reached favourable ground within 1,500 yards of it. Here Stephenson deployed the 2nd Wiltshire regiment, and sent it forward with orders to establish itself within 800 yards of the enemy, unless heavily fired upon whilst advancing. This the Wiltshire, moving in six lines 100 yards apart, did without loss, under a fire so trifling that the enemy seemed to be falling back, and Stephenson sent word to the General requesting permission to push the attack home. But French, who knew his opponents, had grown suspicious because of their silence. The hour was late, the cavalry turning movement had not been carried out, and finally instructions from the Commander-in-Chief had enjoined him to avoid serious fighting. At 4 p.m., therefore, he gave the order to retire, and the Wiltshire firing lines rose to obey. Scarcely had they done so, before a burst of fire, both of rifles and guns, from the enemy's ridges, showed the nature of the trap that had been prepared. But in spite of the heavy fusilade which followed them back, the Wiltshire, retiring as steadily as they had advanced, rejoined the column with a loss of but ten men wounded. The whole force then returned to its bivouacs.
[Footnote 281: See pages 434-5.]
[Sidenote: French, Jan. 29th, is summoned to Cape Town.]
This reconnaissance, though it failed to give General French the Poort, succeeded in disclosing to him the nature of the enemy's dispositions in this neighbourhood, especially of those behind the hitherto impenetrable Grassy Hill. Such knowledge might have gone far towards a solution of the problem which had so long engaged his energies, the ousting of the Boers from their stronghold on British territory. The more vital portion of his task, the prevention of a further inroad into the colony, he had already performed. He was now to be called away to a wider field. On January 29th he went down to Cape Town to receive instructions from the Commander-in-Chief. He returned to Rensburg on the 31st to break up his command. On February 6th he finally left Rensburg, after issuing an order in which he paid full tribute to the courage and energy of staff and troops, who had so long held in check "an enemy whose adroit skill in war demands the most untiring vigilance." With French went all the Regular cavalry, except two squadrons, and also the 1st Essex and 1st Yorkshire regiments, the half-battalion 1st Welsh regiment, and O. and R. batteries, R.H.A. Major-General Clements was left at Rensburg with the remainder.
[Footnote 282: Despatch, February 2nd, 1900.]
[Footnote 283: General Clements' command was as follows:--
Two squadrons 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. J. battery, R.H.A. 4th battery, R.F.A. A section, 37th Howitzer battery, Royal Field Artillery. The Australian M.I. (490 men). The Victorian M.I. (175 men). Mounted infantry (450 men). 2nd Bedfordshire regiment. 1st Royal Irish regiment. 2nd Worcester regiment. Half battalion 2nd Royal Berkshire regiment. 2nd Wiltshire regiment.]