Ch 9: Lord Roberts - the New Commander

Lord Roberts, the conqueror of the Soudan, with his vast administrative ability, made an ideal chief of staff, and for rank and file no more popular man could have been selected to level "Old Krewjer" and his "Paulies," as our "Tommies" dubbed the Boers. Their confidence in Buller was unbounded, and Kipling has not exaggerated their love for "Bobs." He is their idol, and they rejoiced exceedingly when the general, who had first landed here in 1881 to uphold the British flag, only to find a mistaken magnanimity had forestalled him, was selected to undertake the task that he prophesied would be necessary when the halt was called nineteen years before.
   The failure to force the Tugela had but whetted the appetite of the army for fighting and stiffened a determination for victory. The combination of races in the regiments and the empire is a happy one. The fiery impetuosity of the Irish, fully restrained by discipline but always available when necessary, the dash of the Scots combined with their unusual staying powers, the cool patience of the plucky Welsh, and the stolid perseverance "never-be-beat" qualities of the English, make an effective combination.
   Many of the Boers expected that the British would desist after Colenso. "Chamberlain has had his Majuba, and will now cry for peace," said well informed leaders to their prisoners of war. General Joubert returned to the front on the 18th to find the fighting resolved to affairs of outposts, and the brigades withdrawn to Frere. On the 20th a Hussar patrol was ambushed as far south as Weenen, and surrounded, cutting its way out with loss. The Colonials were rapidly on the scene, the Boers retiring on their approach, just before dark. Instead of returning to camp, the Colonials bivouacked, hiding in the kopjes at sunrise. A force of Boers soon returned, making an eager race to secure the clothes and equipment of the dead Hussars. While the burghers were stripping the dead and quarrelling over the spoils, the Colonials swooped down on them, killing and capturing some and dispersing the rest.
   Christmas day was observed by an informal truce at Colenso, but the ringing of the church bells in Ladysmith, announcing the era of "peace on earth and good-will to man," was the signal for a terrific bombardment by the Boers, the Town Hall Hospital, as usual, being the target. The beleaguered garrison had little cheer for feasting, but the relieving column tried to forget recent losses, and made exceeding merry on camp fare.
   The naval detachment was first awake, and enlivened our camp with the Yuletide chorus, "God rest ye, merrie gentlemen," that made many a soldier pause ‘twixt sleeping and waking, to prolong the dream of past festivals at home with waits, carols, and the family reunion, ere they roused to face the realities of war and the thermometer. Many a home o’er the sea had a vacant chair. Some of the absent ones were sleeping beside the Tugela; the others thought sadly of the home circles many were destined never again to see. Ah, aching hearts of mothers, wives, and sisters! It is hard consolation that your dear ones gave their lives in sustaining reverse. Yet those brave young lives were not uselessly expended; and remember that they died bravely, fighting as they retired even as they had fought to advance. Their lives were not in vain, little as the battle gained.
   The gloom of homesickness, which so easily develops into a dangerous nostalgia, was soon dispelled in the camps on Christmas day. A military tournament for all arms was arranged by the officers, and of course "Jack Tar" had a mule race, though why the two enjoy such an incongruous affinity no one can tell. The sailors’ discipline was the more relaxed, and they rigged an international procession for the edification of "Tommy," in which Kruger, John Bull, and "Rule Britannia" were to the fore.
   Then came the Christmas dinner. The tons of supplies despatched by absent friends had not arrived, but the officers arranged for beer for their men, extras from the commissariat were lavishly issued, some fine fat oxen were captured from the Boers, and the veteran correspondent, my good friend Bennet Burleigh, carted up from Eastcourt with cake, tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes "ad lib" and arranged a camp fire for all hands, the day being closed with topical songs, chiefly referring to good things in store for Uncle Paul, "When next we travel to the Cape, by gum! we’ll go via Cairo" making a great hit.
   The most unexpected, yet most welcome Christmas present of that festive season was the return of Churchill. To a hushed and captive audience, he recounted the bold tale of his escape from the prison camp in Pretoria and how, with the assistance of Mr. John Howard, Manager of the Transvaal Collieries, he was burrowed into a wagon-load of wool bales and journeyed by train to Durban, where he found a state of high excitement about Lord Robert’s imminent arrival.
   Then ensued some days of quiet opportunity for re-organisation. After the devastating losses at Stormberg, Gatacre has withdrawn to Molteno. I can not reach him so I am assigned to General Hildyard. Burleigh is to join Lord Dundonald; and Churchill is given a First Lieutenant’s commission in Colonel Byng’s newly formed South African Light Horse.
   Occasional bouts of picket firing and skirmishes on the flanks closed out the final days of the old year, I am tempted to say the century, but ‘tis a disputed point. On December 27th General Buller orders reconnaissance sorties to assess the strength of the Boer at Colenso, Fort Wylie and along the Tugela and we hear today of a distasteful society event for the ladies of Cape Town; a day trip by train to see and touch the Long Toms at Ladysmith. Men die while our war becomes stranger by the day.
   The Boers announced 1900 to Ladysmith with a terrific bombardment, to celebrate Hogmanay and the anniversary of that hour, four years before, when Dr. Jameson marred the peace of South Africa with his disastrous raid. The incessant thunder of the shelling at Ladysmith increases by the hour and it is becoming more clear daily that we must move soon or a terrible slaughter will surely follow.
   Reinforcements were now coming to Buller. General Warren, the Free State’s friend, whom past experience in the country made a useful ally, brought a division. Howitzers made their tardy appearance, and field batteries replaced the lost guns and strengthened the arm. The Boers felt round the flanks at Frere and were thrice punished for their temerity. Then an unexpected flood of the Tugela isolated all on the south bank, and many were rounded up. Seeing this as a tactical advantage, General Hildyard requested an attack on the Boer stronghold at Hlangwane. General Buller accepted this request but ordered that the attack must be meticulously planned in order to ensure success. Others would have "clipped in" here, and perhaps succeeded in inflicting a salutary lesson. But elaborate operations with greater objectives were planned, and the river fell before Hildyard’s plan could be executed.
   Botha continued to strengthen his position, laying a light tramway, so that his guns could be rapidly concentrated at desired points, and constructing bombproof alleys leading from trenches, in which a horseman could ride in perfect safety. At Ladysmith the Boers were forming a colossal dam across the Klip, that it might overflow and flood Ladysmith. They perhaps overlooked the fact that such a flood would have swept away the sick and neutral camp at Intombi; and it is a pity that Joubert, who gained universal esteem of friend and foe, lent himself to this plan which he at first opposed. Fortunately the dam was built slowly; the impressed Kaffirs constantly deserting from Boer lashes to the English lines, where they had free rations and were unmolested, and Ladysmith was relieved just before its completion.
   Hundreds of blacks who escaped from the enemy arrived in camp with their backs wealed to the bone by sjamboks. The unfortunate Natal natives were forbidden by the government to take up arms in their own defence, and then found their mealies and cattle looted by the invaders, and themselves impressed to labour day and night while their unfortunate wives and children starved. There is a terrible story also of violation of their girls; but mercenaries and dissolute young burghers were to blame for this, and it should not be laid to the Boers, though their exegesis allowed such things. I have heard the charge of official cruelty by the British to the blacks. But I have seen much of British administration of black and brown men, from chicken-hearted rice-eaters to West African cannibals. The uncivilised black should not be treated like a pampered child, but I have always found that the British government errs in that direction; and white men who treat a native severely find to their cost that all are equal under the law, and an unlawful killing means a lawful hanging, eye for eye and tooth for tooth.
   The natural elation of the Boers over their recent stupendous victories led them to formulate plans for peace, which revealed their colossal ignorance of British spirit and resource. The cession of Natal and Kimberley and an indemnity of $100,000,000 did not seem preposterous terms after three reverses and the fall of Mafeking and Ladysmith, which now seemed assured. The peace conditions were prepared and only waited for the final acts in the British tragedy. To expedite these, the bulk of the forces were withdrawn from Colenso, where the flooded river held Buller, and concentrated to storm Ladysmith. Matt Steyn, the President’s brother, and several Free Staters, declared, however, that it needed a Colenso to rouse the British, and Ladysmith’s fall would only start the war. While the Transvaalers were predicting speedy triumph, he and a number of his compatriots demanded leave to tend their crops and thus prolong supplies. Thirty of them deserted to the British lines.
   In a driving rain at two o’clock in the morning of January 6th, four columns of Boers crept up against the Ladysmith defences. White’s garrison was decimated with fever, and since they had to hold a perimeter of over thirteen miles, outposts could not be strongly sustained at any one point. The enemy had quickly detected the weak spot in the encircling defences. Caesar’s camp, a broad plateau 800 feet above Ladysmith, guarded the south side of the town. This eminence had proved easy to defend, but on its western end it merged after a depression into a lower position, Wagon Hill, the connecting nek and dry water-courses making possible breaches in the British line.
   The Boers first waded up Fourier’s Spruit, and dividing in two parties started to crawl up each side of Wagon Hill. The outlying pickets, composed of Colonials, challenged the Boers, but receiving the reply "Town Guard" in perfect English, they allowed them to advance close, and were knocked down with clubbed rifles and killed ere they could give the alarm. Lieutenant Mathias of the Light Horse, walking down to visit his guards, suddenly found himself among the enemy, but he coolly turned and crept upward with them, unnoticed, springing in the lead on the summit and giving the alarm. Shouting to the guards to turn out, he sprang to the head of his detachment. He was joined by a working party of sappers that were fortunately constructing a gun pit in the darkness, to strengthen the very point of assault. But this little party was assailed on both flanks and swept back over the ridge.
   The Heidelberg commando under Van Wyk and the Harrismith Free Staters under De Villiers formed this forlorn hope which had penetrated the British lines. The main force was to hurl itself into the breach at dawn. But the pickets resisted the Free Staters’ assault stoutly; the expelled outposts rallied, and the enemy found their advance along the nek to take Caesar’s camp in flank was stoutly opposed by less than thirty men. Young MacNaghten of the Scots led this sorry handful to the crest, where a squadron of Light Horse was surrounded in a small defence tower, and only shared in their annihilation, the Boers temporarily obtaining Wagon Hill. It was soon evident that the assault was more than an affair of outposts, and reinforcements were hurried out ere the sun rose.

More than an Affair of Outposts

   The Boers then retired to the cover of the outer crest, and reversed the use of the empty towers. The British clung to the inner crest, sheltered by boulders and depressions. A space of twenty-five yards divided the two forces. The Light Horse clung to a rocky position rising on the nek, and poured in a cross fire; but they suffered very severely and changed commanding officers seven times during the day. Their officers were practically wiped out. Lord Ava galloped along the line to find a point from which the spruit could be covered, along which Boer reinforcements were pouring. He was instantly killed. The burghers then attempted to rush round the flank, but they were met by seven troopers, who were shot to pieces but held on long enough for reinforcements to arrive, and did not vainly sacrifice themselves.
   Three times detachments tried to sweep across the open to sustain the hardly-pressed Light Horse; for with Boers in their position the entire hill would be enfiladed and untenable. Major Mackworth, then Captain Codrington, and finally Lieutenant Todd, led these rushes, and in each case these officers were killed with most of their men.
   A mile away on the other flank the Heidelberg commando had surprised Hunt-Grubbe and the outlying pickets, wiping out the outposts resting in the first line of defences. But on a narrow portion of the ridge sixteen of the Manchester regiment, without an officer, clung to a narrow trench and fought to the end. Boers crawled up on either side of this isolated force and poured in volleys the entire day, shouting at intervals to the survivors to surrender. A continual but diminishing fire was their answer, and after fifteen long hours of continuous resistance relief came and the Boers were driven back. As the Devons with fixed bayonets cleared the enemy from the hill at sunset, they heard the regular cracking of two Lee Metfords easily discernible from the Mausers. In the trench where the picket had been surrounded fourteen lay dead, some killed after many wounds. And of the two survivors, one sorely wounded loaded the rifles as he lay on the ground, handing them to the other as he fired in quick succession. The latter powder-grimed hero coolly saluted, reported his picket to the relieving officer, and fell senseless from exhaustion.
   Reinforcements were urgently needed at both places early in the day, but at 9 am. commandoes were seen hovering on the Helpmaaker road and before Observation Hill, and their diversion prevented concentration at the assailed points. By 10, however, the Boer fire had dwindled, and the burghers fell back to cover in the bush and behind rocks. Every inch of the assailed positions was then searched by a terrific shell fire, against which the British field batteries could not reply until they were advanced into the open, where they put in splendid practice.
   Taking what cover they could, the soldiers fired when they saw a head, and were shot at when they exposed themselves above the ridge. Then suddenly from a tiny watercourse hidden by rocks, someone descried a force of the enemy creeping close to the summit. As the alarm was given, De Villiers and a picked force of desperate burghers leaped into a gun pit and swarmed over the ridge, firing as they advanced, the tired troops falling back rapidly. Many were trying to lunch under fire when surprised, and the confusion amounted to panic. But as the troops broke and retired, Major Wallnutt rallied a few men and held to the crest. De Villiers blew the Major’s brains out with his own hand, his men were swept away, and the victorious Boers were rushing forward, when Lieutenant Digby Jones and six sappers sprang from the gun pit and resumed the fight. De Villiers killed Jones and fell mortally wounded himself; the sappers clung to the rocks and kept the Boers at bay until reinforcements came, and the ridge was saved, Lieutenant Dennis, Jones’ mess chum, being killed as he bent over the body of his friend.
   A burgher now appeared walking slowly to the ridge with a white flag. The firing ceased, the men keeping well to cover to avoid treachery. But the Light Horse on their eminence could see the trick, for as he advanced a line of burghers squirmed like snakes through the brush on the hillside and would have swept over the crest but for this timely discovery. The "truce bearer," shouting, "Run, brothers!" dropped his flag and fled, and heavy volleys drove the treacherous foe to their lines. Later two wounded prisoners of war were brought forward and deliberately placed as a screen by three Boers, who stood up and shot at leisure. A Light Horse sharpshooter crawled forward and disposed of two of them; but the third was more difficult, and shots from other quarters, ere they brought down their man, riddled the wounded, killing one, though the other was rescued alive with six bullets, British and Boer, in him.
   The Devons now arrived on the scene, after a long march from a distant outpost. Fixing bayonets, they swept through the battered lines of defenders and cleared the Boers from the side of Caesar’s camp, losing very heavily, however. The Gordons also advanced on the eastern slope, having lost their leader, Colonel Dick-Cunningham, early in the day and being eager for revenge. Thus again the defences were cleared.
   But the enemy swarmed among the rocks and woods at the foot of the position, and shot off those who showed themselves on the crest. A frightful thunderstorm burst in the late afternoon, and the lashing rain proved the cover for the last Boer advance. Watercourses and rocks were not needed now. It was nearly dark, the rain masked their advance to close quarters, when they swarmed in hundreds over the hill, yelling "Majuba!" Never made they greater mistake than to thus attack in the open. Troops who are wary to charge in the face of a lurking foe are brave as lions when facing a disclosed enemy. With a hoarse cry and fixed bayonets the British dashed forward. In distinct crashes were the magazines emptied, then they plunged in with cold steel. The burghers, crying for mercy, retreated like a stampeded herd. The spruits lay before them, but the storm had swelled streamlets into turbid floods. Before the rushing line of steel they were forced into the seething waters, many being swept away. Those who gained a crossing were pursued with rifle fire back to their hills, the field batteries harrying them when infantry were outranged. The diversions against the northern positions and Helpmaaker road tried to press in but were rapidly repulsed.
   Seldom has modern history recorded a more prolonged or desperate duel between two bodies of resolute men. Boer gallantry was never more evinced than on this day, though they outnumbered the British; and one can only regret the universal treachery they exhibited and which is beneath such brave men. The British loss was 43 officers and 320 men; the Boer loss, for once in the war, was the heavier, and 432 bodies were collected on the hills alone. Of the engaged regiments the casualties of the Imperial Light Horse were four-fifths of their entire strength, just 98 men answering roll-call that night. It has been stated that the Uitlanders were scheming cowards, unwilling to strike a blow for their own redemption. The incessant gallantry of this Uitlander corps throughout the war, however, belies the calumny; they were fighting for their liberty, homes, and property in the country of their adoption.
   Thoroughly disheartened, the Boers returned to their positions along the Tugela and resumed the investment of Ladysmith. General White, during a brief spell of sunshine, had managed to heliograph Buller that he was hard pressed. The mounted troops and advanced infantry brigades at once made a demonstration at Colenso to relieve the pressure. But for the Tugela flood a successful assault might then have been delivered, as many guns and the bulk of the forces had been taken to Ladysmith. The guards left in the positions were lounging in clear view, and were severely mauled by the field batteries ere they could get to cover. Gallopers were then despatched to recall the absent forces, but they were too engrossed in assaulting the city, and it was an unfortunate combination of circumstances that Buller was again ill prepared to force a passage.

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