Ch 7: With General Buller at the Front

On December 6th a service was held over the graves of the first heroes to fall in the relief of Ladysmith, the victims of the armoured train disaster. Over two thousand troops attended, with General Hildyard, Colonel Cooper, Prince Christian Victor, and many other officers. Doctrinal differences are forgotten in war, and since Dublins and Colonials lay together, Father Mathews, the plucky chaplain of the Fusiliers, and Rev. Mr. Twemlow, of the Colonials, combined for a simple and touching service, a possible tribute to the reunion of Christendom. As the farewell volleys echoed over the kopjes, the bugles softly sounding the "last post," distant minute guns boomed at Ladysmith as if conscious of the ceremony, and a salvo of heaven’s artillery reverberated through the mountains, typifying the insignificance of man in all his martial power.
   The commander-in-chief arrived at Frere during the early hours of the 6th, the eager troops turning out in the darkness to give their leader a welcome that must have touched his soldier heart. Sir Redvers Buller has earned no feather-bed honours; his have been won with the sword in a literal sense, and "Tommy Atkins," who is a connoisseur of generals, had and has unbounded confidence in him as a leader. On the morrow he was to celebrate his sixtieth birthday; twenty years before, he had spent that anniversary in South Africa, at no great distance from Frere, fighting the Zulus to save the Boers from annihilation. In the ranks General Buller is respected as a stern disciplinarian; one who combines the essential qualities for a commanding general, the strict discipline of the soldier, toned with tactful geniality as an administrator.
   A few hours after his arrival in camp, General Buller accompanied Lord Dundonald’s cavalry brigade in a reconnaissance along the Tugela. The force halted on a ridge within range of Colenso, and the staff carefully studied the Boer position, apparently unnoticed by the enemy. The fords of the river were carefully noted, and the party returned safely, to formulate the plan of attack.
   Little definite news could be gleaned from Ladysmith; occasional runners made their way through the lines with despatches, and winged messengers of the pigeon post organised by Mr. Hirst sometimes escaped the Boer rifles and brought down missives in safety. But after many attempts and repeated failure through the weather, Captain Cayzer of the Dragoons finally established heliograph communications with White, from Mount Umkolanda near Weenen. A naval searchlight of 40,000 candle power was also rigged to overcome solar reticence in flashing despatches to the besieged, though Ladysmith could not answer in kind, and the Boers sometimes spoiled the effect by a powerful acetylene searchlight.
   So far as we could ascertain, the garrison was holding out bravely. The town had been heavily shelled throughout November, but the losses had been comparatively small. On November 4th White had asked permission to send women and children south, but Joubert refused. He finally agreed to respect a mutual district near Bulwhana for non-combatants, though his indiscriminate gunners dropped several shells into the settlement, which the facetious "Tommies" named "Funkumdorf." Despite continual protest the military hospitals were also shelled repeatedly, several patients and some nurses being killed. On the 9th the Boers had attempted to rush the town, but the attack was repulsed after severe fighting and loss on both sides. After this, Joubert decided to reduce Ladysmith by investment, and detached many commandoes to carry the war south and prevent the approach of relief. On the 18th a shell killed Dr. Stark, the well known naturalist, who was overtaken by war while completing his history of South African birds. The continued shelling had caused remarkably small loss, however, but scarcity of food, dearth of pasture for the cattle and horses, and the contamination of the water supply by Boer camps higher up the Klip caused the only dread for the future. Many women and children were enduring the rigours of the siege, and several had died of disease and wounds.
   On the 10th news was heliographed from Ladysmith of two successful sorties made by the garrison to destroy the enemy’s artillery. The first assault took place on the night of the 7th. To preclude espionage, orders were only issued after "Lights out!" had sounded and the garrison retired. Two squadrons each of the Light-horse, Natal Carbineers, and Mounted Rifles, with sections of the diminished gunners of the 10th Mountain Battery and Royal Engineers were selected. Under General Hunter, with Major Henderson and twelve guides of the Intelligence Department, this force moved out at 11 pm. against the Boer lines at Lombard’s Kop, seven miles distant. They passed between the Boer outposts successfully, and reached the foot of Gun Hill without discovery. A squadron of the Rifles under Rethman covered the left flank, a squadron each of the three forces held the right, under Colonel Royston, to guard against advance from the main laager at Bulwhana. One hundred each Carbineers under Major Addison, and Light Horse under Major Edwards then crawled up the position on their hands and knees, with General Hunter and the guides.
   At the challenge, "Wie kom daar?" the British halted for a moment, then crawled silently on, seizing the sentry as he peered into the darkness. He sobbingly begged for his life, and was led up with the troops. But his first challenge had awakened his sleeping companions and a voice cried, "Piet! Where art thou?" The cold muzzle of a carbine pressed behind his ear secured the silence of the trembling Piet. The guard, blaspheming after the religious spirit of the Boer, clambered down to find Piet, passing over the silent line before they discovered the enemy. Greatly bewildered they then raced down the steep hillside screaming, "The rooineks! The verdomde rooineks!" arousing their comrades on the hill. The British scrambled on breathlessly, and the thoroughly alarmed commando turned out to find the enemy upon them. They fired rapid volleys, to which the colonials replied, and checked the advance for a moment. Though the volunteers carried carbines only, General Hunter, who was leading them, played on the enemy’s horror of cold steel by the stentorian order, "Fix bayonets! Charge!" The line swept up with a cheer, the Boers flying precipitately to avoid the supposed "long knives."
   Only Major Henderson and Godson, a guide, had been wounded, but the major was the first to locate the famous "Long Tom," and the engineers were speedily at work. In these days of removable vents, "spiking the guns" is but a figment of the cheap romancer, and the glories effected by a tenpenny-nail belong to a past decade. Lieutenant Turner and two assistants, of the Royal Engineers, quickly removed the breech-block. "Long Tom" was plugged, and a charge of gun cotton placed in and around muzzle and breech. A 4.7 inch howitzer was simultaneously treated by Captain Faulk. The troops withdrew to a safe distance, Turner placed his cigar against the fuses, and three explosions announced to anxious Ladysmith that the first part of the enterprise was successful. The breech-fitting of the massive 40-pounder was torn out, the bore scored, the muzzle split, and the gun rendered useless. The Sappers completed the wreck with sledge-hammers, smashing the sights, recoil buffer, and elevating gear, removing the breech-block as a trophy. The howitzer was irretrievably ruined.
   The enemy had advanced from Bulwhana, and poured in a few volleys, killing two and wounding four; but after the explosions they rapidly retired and the victorious force descended the hill and returned to camp unmolested. As they left the hilltop, a trooper fell over a Maxim in the darkness. This was quickly secured, and on the following day it poured in bullets on its late owners.
   General White arranged a second sortie two nights later to destroy an annoying 4.7 inch howitzer on Surprise Hill, only three miles from camp. Colonel Metcalf with five hundred men of the Rifle Brigade followed Hunter’s tactics, and two companies of stormers reached the hilltop unobserved. The Boers, however, were bivouacked in force close behind the gun pit, and though they were surprised and retreated hurriedly, they sustained a heavy fire from a further position. Lieutenant Jones coolly placed charges round the howitzer under a spatter of bullets, and lit the fuse. It failed to explode, and other commandoes closed in, but the Rifles held their ground steadily while another charge was prepared and ignited, this time successfully demolishing the piece. The hill was now completely surrounded by Boers, and the protecting flanks were heavily engaged, but the Rifles charged with fixed bayonets and went through the enemy with a cheer, suffering considerable loss, however. An outlying picket, under the son of State Secretary Reitz, had taken refuge in the rocks close to the valley where the troops were re-forming. They inflicted further loss, killing Captain Paton and several men outright, but the British were soon clear and, leaving twenty men without arms to look after the wounded, they returned to camp. The storming party, two hundred strong, lost fifty nine men during the operation.
   At daybreak the incensed Boers found the detached party searching for wounded. Despite their object, they were made prisoners and sent to Pretoria, the wounded being left where they fell. The ambulance despatched from Ladysmith was also seized, and the surgeon and bearer company arrested. Several Boer officers had been severely disciplined for their failure to repel the first sortie, and the burghers were in a tearing rage at the second loss of artillery through their dilatoriness. Several threatened to shoot the wounded in reprisal, and some of the Red Cross men were roughly handled, but Schalk Burger, who was in command, finally allowed them to depart.
   Together with the morale boost of these valiant sorties, the garrison welcomed the news that the relief column was being rapidly mobilised and ready to strike; spirits in Ladysmith were high and failure was not thought of. These successes, however, were soon to be overshadowed by a series of critical defeats which forced General Buller’s hand.

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