Pietermaritzburg, November 3, 1899
EVENTS in this part of the field of war have tripped over each other in the running, and it is difficult to make record of them. Personally, I am writing in the greatest haste, having had little time for rest, let alone letter-writing, since the victorious column was retired from Eland's Laagte [Ed - Elandslaagte] on October 21. There were wounded friends to see to, Boer prisoners to learn something from, and an effort had to be made to reopen communications with the correspondent tied up in Dundee. What with the blocking of the cables and the hanging up of Press messages for twenty-two hours, and the refined particularities of the military Press censors lest the British public should know anything in detail or general which got published broadcast in the South African newspapers, a journalist's life was not a happy one. He was an object of more suspicion, or, at any rate, more to be guarded against, than any of the hundred and one Boer spies and sympathizers that went in and out, strutting about unhampered. Nay, I have since reason to know absolutely that they and others sent innocent-looking private telegrams which imparted exact news of all that was going forward and that the military wished to keep secret One good thing was done in Ladysmith ; although there was no secure provision for defensive works made, the Army surgeons, at any rate, provided wisely and well for the reception and treatment of the expected wounded. Churches, the Town Hall, schoolrooms, and other buildings were turned into carefully fitted-up hospitals, and tents and marquees were erected hard by for an overflow. An engine and dynamos were got and erected, and the larger hospital lit by electric light. The operating rooms were provided with every known scientific appliance, and even the Rontgen ray apparatus was made ready for instant use.
On the Sunday following Eland's Laagte there were big church parades. But meanwhile the patrols were keeping an eye upon the enemy, and occasionally exchanging shots. By Monday, October 23, native and Boer rumours begun to flow afresh that the enemy were moving forward. The Free State Boers and General Joubert's column were said to be drawing nearer, and the Natal police reports confirmed the news. So far the Boers have interposed little obstacle to the going to and fro of Kaffirs. Rather, I should say, they let them pass out of their lines, but are chary of allowing them to return. On Tuesday morning, October 24, General White, accompanied by Generals Hunter and French, set out with a column of all arms along the Newcastle road. It was in orders that the force was to proceed to Modder's Spruit, ten miles north, and there bivouac, remaining out for three days if necessary and giving the enemy battle. We heard afterwards that the object was to divert Joubert and the Free Staters' attention from the Dundee column, then making its way back to rejoin the Ladysmith command. A start was made at 5 a.m. The 5th Lancers were told off to keep connection up the left with Ladysmith, the 19th Hussars to watch our left front, a few of the 5th Dragoon Guards and Volunteer mounted bodies our front and right. We had got no great distance from town—about five miles out—when the enemy were heard firing upon our scouts. Here is the composition of General White's force, not including the armoured train :— 5th Dragoon Guards, 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Natal Carbineers, Border Mounted Rifles, Natal Mounted Rifles, Imperial Light Horse and Mounted Infantry, two batteries of Field Artillery, and 10th Mountain Battery; and for infantry, the Devons, 2nd King's Royal Rifles, Liverpools, and Gloucesters.
Very speedily it was found that the Boers had chosen a position upon the hills on the west side of the railway. Whether they were part of Joubert's forces or Free Staters was not very clear, but the evidence pointed to their mainly belonging to Transvaal commandoes, who were effecting a junction with their neighbours. While the cavalry held them upon the right, the guns went forward and returned the enemy's fire. The Boers had moved to the north-west of Modder's Spruit, and were holding a bold hill near Pepworth and Reid's Farm, known locally as Tintwainyona (Zulu, "touch the birds"). To the south-west was a lower hill called Notwatshyan, both standing to the eastward of Matowans Hook, which is marked upon good maps. By 7.20 the cavalry action became quite brisk, and as the infantry marched up at 8.15 a.m. the Boers began dropping harmless shells near them. A battery of ours trotted forward from the low ground regardless of their fire, and came into action upon a ridge south of their position, the range 2500 yards. Their shooting was splendid, and before 8.35 they had silenced the Boer guns and cleared the hill, top and sides, of all curious onlookers. To thoroughly brush the hill a second battery, our 2nd Field Battery, opened at 8.45 from a position facing Tintwainyona. The Boers could be seen streaming to the rear, and moving over upon Notwatshyan. Our infantry were sent in facing the two hills, and it was put about that the position would be taken by assault. Part of the Gloucesters were upon the left, near the Neck, or Pepworth and Reid's Farm, which the Boers had looted that and the previous day. Next the Gloucesters were the Devons, the Rifles, and some more of the Gloucesters (one company), with the Liverpools in reserve.
Our men advanced to the ridge, but received orders to go no further. The distance from the foot of the hill varied, as the ridge ran, from 1200 to 1600 yards. A wearisome day ensued, each side potting at the other, and the guns now and again banging away. I looked into the valley, and saw a Boer waggon 200 yards below that had been caught between the forces. No one stood near it, and so some of the Volunteers went down to examine its contents. The Boers gave them a warm reception, a number of their sharpshooters being concealed behind walls and rocks; and I, too, was glad to hobble back, for at 900 yards their shooting was passably good. Between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. part of our left tried to pass up a donga and scale Tintwainyona from the southern end. Instantly bands of Boers, unseen before, arose around Notwashyan and caught them, sharply checking the movement. But there was no desire evinced to get to serious business with the enemy, and so, although the fusillade grew very hot between then and noon, it was but an interchange of shots, void of special significance. A Maxim or two was pressed into service, but they merely added to the din, without increasing the casualties of the enemy very materially. What was done in that way was accomplished by the gunners and the rifle-fire.Unhappily, towards the latter part of the day (and, it is said, without orders), a company of the Gloucesters proceeded up the valley and came under cross-fire, when they suffered severely, among their killed being the Colonel, E. P. Wilford. General White and Staff watched the action throughout. About 2.15 p.m. the whole force was slowly withdrawn, the Boers meanwhile firing briskly and trying to turn our left in vain. Thereafter all the troops returned quietly to Ladysmith, the Boers not following up; it was stated that the object of the march was achieved, namely, to prevent the Boers moving to attack the returning Dundee column. Our total losses killed and wounded were over the hundred. I can form no accurate judgment of what casualties the enemy sustained, but they were not inferior to our own, for our shrapnel was fatal.
On October 25 our cavalry were out again, and ambulances assisted in bringing in the wounded. A detachment also made junction with the Dundee column. Next day General Yule's men came in, and proceeded to occupy the old camp. On Friday, October 27, news was brought that the Boers were to the east of Mounts Umbulwana and Lombard or Lombards Kop, both of which are but a little way to the east of Ladysmith, and were practically the keys of the town upon that side. Small forts manned with good guns would have kept an enemy from hastily attacking from that direction. It was said that it was Lucas Meyer's men who had hurried after the Dundee column. On the north and west the enemy's laagers or camps were reported to have been pitched nearer Ladysmith. There was a report, too, that they were moving to Pieter s Crossing, or Nelthorpe, to sever the line to Maritzburg. Before daybreak General French occupied both Lombard's and Bulwana Kops with strong cavalry picquets. In the forenoon he advanced with a column, including the Lancers, Dragoons, Volunteer mounted troops, three batteries, and most of Colonel Ian Hamilton's infantry brigade, beyond Bulwana. Passing through the neck between Lombard's Kop and Bulwana, provided as before with three days' emergency rations, the column went several miles to the southeast. The troopers were in time to meet and drive back a number of Boers riding towards Nelthorpe by way of the south end of Bulwana. It was found that the enemy's laagers stretched away to the eastward, and that there were between 3000 and 4000 Boers, with at least one battery. The infantry secured a good position, and desultory rifle firing began between the advance lines, and continued till near sunset
There were no orders to attack upon our side, and it looked as if the enemy would not be easily got at. The force bivouacked in the valley behind (east of) Bulwana. During the evening General French and Colonel Hamilton arranged a plan of night attack. At 3 a.m. the infantry were to assault the enemy's position with the bayonet, whilst the cavalry stormed their laagers. Just about 2 a.m., as they were preparing to start, orders came from headquarters for the column to return at once to Ladysmith. They arrived in town by daylight. That night (Saturday, October 28) we learned that the Boers had broken the inlet pipes of the reservoir water supply, and that Ladysmith would have to turn to wells and the shallow, turbid river for that commodity. Sunday, October 29, was a needed day of rest for the troops, many of whom had been either marching, or called upon to stand to arms, for hours at a stretch, often for half the night.
Monday, October 30, was the day of the battle of Ladysmith. The genesis of that event was that now, as the enemy was near in sufficient numbers, was the time to deliver a crushing blow, after which no Boer would be seen for a time within twenty miles of the town. The plan, apparently, was to deal alike with the Boers under Lucas Meyer on the eastward, the Free Staters towards Nicholsons Nek on the north-west, and the Transvaalers under Joubert about Modder's Spruit It had been evident to me and others upon Sunday, if not Saturday, that the Boers were occupying a barn-roof-shaped hill this side of Tintwainyona, or Pepworth and Reid's Place, sometimes called Signal Hill. Nay, there was little question but that they had brought down and mounted a big gun there—their 40-pounder—and, having chosen their position, meant worrying Ladysmith.
The dispositions for attack of each of the separate bodies of troops named were as follows:— Under Lieut.-Colonel Carleton, assisted by Major Adye, of the Staff: No. 10 Mountain Battery, a few Hussars, six companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, four and a half companies of the Gloucesters, with the usual details, supplies, and ambulance, were to leave the camp about midnight and proceed in the direction of Nicholson's Nek, to occupy a position calculated to protect the old camp and block the flight of the Boers from Modder's Spruit. Under Major-General Hunter, a small cavalry force, mostly of Volunteers, two field batteries, the Natal Mountain Battery, and an infantry brigade under Colonel Grimwood, made up of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade. The Leicesters and Liverpools started at 2 a.m. to attack or hold in check General Lucas Meyer's commando east of Bulwana. That force, it was found, had swelled to 7000 men with two batteries. By an unlucky accident a battery and the Liverpools passed down the west side of Bulwana instead of following their comrades through the neks between Lombard's Kop and Bulwana, and were unable to assist them at a critical juncture. General White himself conducted two infantry brigades, Colonel Ian Hamilton's and Colonel Howard's, with the regular cavalry under General French, six batteries of Field Artillery, with a large following of ambulance waggons, dhooli bearers, reserve ammunition, etc., before daybreak along the Newcastle Road. All the troops carried three days' supplies.
Cleverly and silently the central column, under General White, was led and screened under the crest of a low, rocky ridge to the right of the railway, and about 2500 yards from the Boer central position upon Signal Hill. That natural obstacle presents the end of its barn-shaped top towards Ladysmith, whereas Bulwana trends in parallel line with the railway. The batteries were sent by a circuit to our right front, and found ground in a low slope behind a screen of scrub mimosa. It did not strike me as being a particularly good position, for the range was long (about 4000 yards, I think), the Boer hill was high, and could not be raked, whilst it was difficult to discern the exact effect of their own fire. Part of Howard's infantry, the 1st and 2nd Battalions King's Royal Rifles, and the Dublin Fusiliers went forward to support the guns, and turn the enemy's left by-and-by. Hamilton's brigade (Gordons, Devons, 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade, and the Manchester) lay with the Ambulance Column under the low hill close by the roadway, about two and a half miles from town. Upon their left front lay the enemy, south-east of Mata-wan's Hook, their chief laager, which I saw hidden behind a spacious amphitheatre-like crest, nearNotwatshyan, but to the south of it. The spot was well selected, for there was good grazing and plenty of water near, whilst they overlooked and commanded the railway and the road to the north. Possibly, catching sight of the war balloon, which had been making observations on Sunday, and was again making an ascent near the railway station, or it may have been the stream of waggons coming over the ridge behind which Ladysmith lies, the Boers began the action at 5.10 a.m. by hurling a shell from their 40-pounder, or " Long Tom," as it had come to be known by. With a loud screech the missile plunged down near the railway, but did not burst. They followed this prelude up with several other rounds, dropping the shells near the station, sending several into the town, and one or two towards cavalry seen on our left rear. None of the residents had left Ladysmith; but, as few of the Boer shells exploded, the people took the bombardment very coolly. An old lady had one of them come hurtling through her house. " Oh," she said, " this is a little too warm;" so she took her canary bird, walked out, and sat down under the hill on the north side of the town.
I ascended the low hill behind which the infantry lay. On Signal Hill I could make out considerable numbers of Boers peeping over walls and rough earthworks they had built. " Long Tom" was in a sort of circular-shaped pit, protected by thick walls, over which his long black muzzle pointed at an angle of 45° to the sky. At first they fired him with smokeless, but latterly black powder was used. Nearer the town on the crest were two 9-centim^tre guns, and at either end of the hill a machine cannon, protected by steel shields, stood in view. These, however, were not fired till later in the day. In a few minutes the Boer field-pieces began firing, directing their attention, after a while, chiefly to General White's right and guns. Our batteries got to work at 5.25 a.m., but very many of the shrapnel fell short, exploding harmlessly against the hillside. Now and again a shell would burst on the crest and clear away the Boer onlookers. As the morning wore on our fire grew hotter, but the enemy's artillerymen stuck manfully to their guns. "Long Tom" was soonest partially silenced, and those in the work must have suffered from the hail of shrapnel. But the gunners serving the field-pieces were of sterner stuff. Several of them were killed or wounded; but sometimes three men, sometimes but two, would come forward, load, lay, and fire their shells at our batteries. They were forced to seek shelter, duck, and hide; but again and again, till the end of the action, they would return and fire away at us. A Boer leader using field-glasses stood upon a wall between his field-pieces for hours, directing the action, and the batteries never once managed to reach him with shrapnel. I failed to understand what was amiss, because heretofore our artillery fire has been unequalled. Perhaps the longest interval during which the Boer guns were silenced was between 6.30 a.m. and 7.15 a.m. They were also breaking out afresh—first one, then the other—both using smokeless powder, but doing little actual damage with their shells. " Long Tom" burst forth anew at 7.45 a.m. They became silent only to break out later. I could see every movement of the enemy: when they fetched their ammunition, their scudding to the rear when our fire grew too warm, the arrival of reinforcements from the west, and their despatch of supports to the right and left.
It was in the form of an inverted letter U that General White strove to thrust back the Boers— Colonels Carleton upon the left, the main force in the centre, and Hunter on the right But the U got twisted into something like an S. Colonel Howard was ordered forward to the right of the guns, and with the Rifles, their Maxim, and the Dublins gained initial successes rapidly. He swung his troops over the low ground to the north and made a lodgment upon a low crest running east and west that would have carried him behind the north corner of Signal Hill. The Boers were evidently desperately apprehensive of this move and achievement. Hastily they summoned reinforcements, and after an hour or two stiff infantry fighting, they overlapped Howard's right and left Two more batteries were deflected to assist his advance, but the enemy in large numbers clung pertinaciously to their cover, and the field-pieces upon Signal Hill lent their friends what little aid they could. I am only describing one phase of the action—that which I saw nearest and best From early morning there had been heard heavy and continuous musketry firing in the direction taken by Carleton's column. The enemy could be detected clustering and swarming upon the hillsides in that vicinity. By-and-by one heard the boom of guns mingle with the sharp reverberation of the incessant musketry. This went on from before 6 a.m., and was loudest between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. So, too, we heard behind us the din of battle beyond Lombard's Kop, and we saw the cavalry flashing heliographic signals to the General. The clamour of battle, both there and upon our own front, came closer. The Boers also appeared to dread that we should pass by to the east, and so sent men into the low ground south of Pepworth and Reid's Farm to engage the outpost of the Devons.
Howard was being hard pressed on the right by 9 a.m., for some of Meyer's men were creeping over Lombard's Kop. Three batteries, the Gordons, and, later on, the Rifles, were sent to his assistance; but the Boers, too, had brought up guns, machine cannon, and many riflemen. There was a fearful threshing and spluttering as the Hotchkiss and Maxim cannon bang-banged their small shells at our infantry. It became known that Carleton's column was in a tight place, and that our column and Hunter's would probably return to Ladysmith. In truth, under the cross fire, Grimwood's infantry had fallen back upon the neck and slopes of Bulwana so fast that a number of waggons became stuck, and had to be abandoned in the deep spruit crossings. Still Howard did not feel inclined to stir, and Colonel Hamilton's column had as yet been hardly engaged or scratched. Their cover was good, and all day long the Boers never discovered where we lay on the reverse of the low crest, watching their every movement. At 9.50 p.m. "Long Tom" began again, and everybody was wondering when the bluejackets, long expected by many, would turn up with their big guns. It was about that very hour they arrived in Ladysmith, and detrained, bringing with them a battery of heavy long-range 12-pounders and two 4.7 quick-firing cannon. They detrained, secured ox-waggons, and had three of their 12-pounders upon the field shortly after 11 a.m., but they were turned back without getting a shot. By 10.45 *he battle on the right centre was raging fast and furious, rifles and cannon noisily contending. The order had gone forth, and very sedately, their dhoolie bearers, ammunition mules, and water-carts, in long, thin, skirmish lines, Howard's men were retiring. Fighting grimly, not hastening a step, but in slow march, they came in.
I had ridden over to see that corner of the field. The cool steadiness of the men was magnificent, and though the Boers fired rapidly, and their machine cannon made a tremendous row. the British soldiers took matters very leisurely. On the left the Rifles had a tight corner, where they were exposed to a cross fire; but they, too, dawdled along, and, like the others, took every precaution to bring in their wounded. In the bush and among the rocks possibly a few were left unseen. By 11.10 a.m. the retirement on the right was almost completed, Colonel Hamilton getting leave to hold the ridge on his front to cover the farther withdrawal of the force. The enemy did all they could, but our centre never budged, and held them easily, though they plunged shell after shell, with the whole power of their batteries—" Long Tom" included—at the troops. By i p.m. most of the troops were back within the so-called lines of Ladysmith, and Captain Lambton's bluejackets, with their 12-pounder from the hill, had silenced " Long Tom " and shut down their lesser-fry guns. A little later the column that went beyond Bulwana came in, and the fighting and firing, seven miles away, of Carleton's column went on until near 2 p.m., when they were forced to surrender to superior force. The bolting of the ammunition mules and No. 10 Battery mules was a serious misfortune, and might have induced them to turn back ; but possibly they calculated upon the success and advance of the central column to their relief. It has been no new feature for native drivers to bolt in a tight corner, and Carleton's column suffered from that unpreventable accident. It was a day of misadventures, all their actions miscarrying. The battle was waged over a circuit quite ten miles in length, in broken country.Our losses, fortunately, were relatively light, apart from the loss and capture of Carleton's column. The Boers' casualties in killed and wounded were not less than our own. Recognizing that, with the occupation of Mount Bulwana by the Boers, and the advance of Joubert and the Free Staters on the north and west, the investment of Ladysmith and General White's whole command was only a question of hours that evening, I left town, leaving, however, representatives behind to chronicle the progress of the siege. There is plenty of ammunition, forage, and provisions in the town to enable the garrison, if careful, to endure a two months' siege. The only pity is that all non-combatants, particularly women and children, were not ordered away when Dundee fell. Yesterday the Boers cut the railway and telegraph communication between Ladysmith and Maritzburg at Pieters Crossing. To-day (Friday), November 3, our little garrison has evacuated Colenso, and given over the possession of the big bridges over the Tugela to the enemy. Our troops are now trying to make a stand at Estcourt, whither I am proceeding, and hope to open some sort of communication with my friends in Ladysmith.