History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 18

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[Footnote 106: Also called Tintwa Inyoni.]

[Footnote 107: A freehand sketch of the position from Nodashwana to Jonono's Kop will be found in the case of maps accompanying this volume. Jonono's Kop is not shown in the plan of Rietfontein, no part of the battle having been near it.]

[Sidenote: The Boer occupation of it.]

East of the twin peaks of Intintanyoni various lesser eminences and hollow Neks completed the tempestuous irregularity of this singular feature, along whose crest six Free State commandos lay waiting for their first battle on the morning of October 24th. To the east, with patrols upon Jonono's Kop, lay the men of Bethlehem, Vrede, and Heilbron; about the eastern peak of Intintanyoni the Winburg commando held the ground, in charge of two pieces of artillery; on their right, occupying the rest of the mountain, the burghers of Kroonstad made ready; whilst those of Harrismith disposed themselves partly upon a supporting position in rear, and partly as piquets and observation posts on outlying kopjes, amongst others the lofty Nodashwana. Some 6,000 riflemen in all filled the six-mile line of heights. They were commanded by General A. P. Cronje, who had arrived only on this morning, the 24th, to replace de Villiers, who had been in temporary charge.

[Sidenote: Sir George marches out, Oct. 24th.]

Sir G. White moved out from Ladysmith at 5 a.m. with the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Imperial Light Horse, Natal Mounted Rifles, 42nd and 53rd batteries R.F.A., No. 10 Mountain battery R.G.A., 1st Liverpool, 1st Devon, 1st Gloucesters.h.i.+re regiments, and 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps, in all, some 5,300 officers and men, a.s.suming himself the direction of an operation certain to be delicate, likely to be extremely dangerous. Moving up the Newcastle road from its rendezvous near the junction of the Free State railway, the force had proceeded six miles when the advanced screen of cavalry came under a dropping rifle fire at 7 a.m. from the heights on their left. Their action was prompt. Pus.h.i.+ng rapidly across the Modder Spruit, a squadron of 5th Lancers, supported by two others, drove back at the gallop the small parties of Boers hovering in that neighbourhood, and themselves seized and held this advanced position. The remainder of the cavalry, stringing out along high ground dominating the western bank of the spruit, and facing more to the eastward, formed a strong flank guard towards Jonono's Kop. At 8 a.m., whilst fitful discharges of musketry rose and fell along the widely-extended line of troopers, the infantry had come up to Rietfontein. No sooner had they arrived at a point on the road some five hundred yards east of the Modder Spruit, than a loud report broke from the eastern peak of Intintanyoni, and a sh.e.l.l, bursting on impact, fell into the head of the column. Thereupon the British artillery wheeled out from the route, and in line of batteries trotted towards a level crossing over the railway, some six hundred yards west of the road. Arrived at this defile, and forming column inwards to traverse it, the first gun had scarcely pa.s.sed the rails, when both the Boer guns on the high green rampart ahead opened upon the point, which had been taken as one of their range marks. Five hundred yards beyond it the artillery deployed behind a rise. The second round from the 53rd battery, fused at 3,600 yards, burst full upon one of the Boer pieces, and the gunners of both weapons fled.

After a few more rounds the 53rd limbered up and prepared to advance.

[Sidenote: The infantry seize ridge facing hill.]

The infantry were already over the railway, and moving forward--Gloucester regiment on the left, Liverpool regiment on the right--up the gentle but protected slope, swelling to the summit of the low ridge of Rietfontein. The 1st Devons.h.i.+re regiment, in support, lay at the base, whilst the 2nd King's Royal Rifles remained in rear in charge of the baggage. On the appearance of the leading companies upon the crest, firing broke out from the whole length of the crest of Intintanyoni, to which the British infantry, lying p.r.o.ne, soon replied as vigorously. Of the artillery, the 42nd battery was quickly in action near the centre of the front, whilst the 53rd unlimbered some six hundred yards to the left, and began sh.e.l.ling a rocky underfeature of Intintanyoni, at a range of 1,500 yards. Sharp musketry a.s.sailed them. Then the 42nd battery, being ordered further to the left, pa.s.sed behind the 53rd and the 10th Mountain battery, which had come into line on the left of the 53rd, and opened 1,900 yards from the summit of Intintanyoni. Thus began a severe fire fight at ranges varying from one to two thousand yards. Especially was it hotly contested where the Gloucester on the left of the British opposed the 1,400 Kroonstad men, who, under Nel, maintained the Boer right. Heavy exchanges of rifle fire swept across the valley in this part, and in spite of the steady practice of the artillery, it became necessary to reinforce the attackers. For this purpose the Devons.h.i.+re regiment was pushed up on the left of the Gloucester, half the King's Royal Rifles coming from the baggage train to fill its place in support.

[Sidenote: An untoward incident.]

Sir G. White had all but accomplished his purpose, that of intervening between the Free State commandos and Yule's line of march, when one of those accidents of war, inexplicable because of the death of those who alone could explain them, largely increased his. .h.i.therto insignificant losses. Shortly before midday Colonel E. P. Wilford, commanding the 1st Gloucesters.h.i.+re, taking a company of his battalion and the regimental Maxim gun, dashed out of cover down the open slope as if to a.s.sault. Another half company of the battalion moved on ahead to cut a wire fence which obstructed the front. The Boers, who for a time had lain quiet under the shrapnel, which searched their position from end to end, at once opened a fierce fusilade. Colonel Wilford was shot dead, and his men fell rapidly, the detachment finally halting upon a low ridge beneath Intintanyoni. Further advance was impossible. Only with difficulty could both the Gloucesters.h.i.+re and "D." squadron I.L.H., which had joined in the attack, be withdrawn. Fortunately, as the attempt was promptly ordered to cease, though many had been wounded, only six were killed in the adventure. Meanwhile the shooting over their heads had been continuous. The enemy, encouraged by this event, and by the immobility of Sir G. White's line of battle, which they imagined to be awed from its purpose by their resistance, still clung to their fastness, and maintained a heavy though spasmodic fire.

More than once the gunners of the still uninjured piece beneath the eastern peak made efforts to drag it forward into action, but the British artillerymen watched the spot narrowly, and each attempt was blown back by shrapnel, under which Intintanyoni burst into flames.

Many of the Boer ponies herded in rear, terrified by the blaze, stampeded. Then, up on Nodashwana, amongst the Harrismith men, a stir was descried which seemed to threaten an outflanking manoeuvre against the British left. Sir G. White, anxious for his communications with Ladysmith, promptly countered the movement by calling the Natal Mounted Rifles across from his right, and sending them on in front of his left flank.[108] The Colonial riflemen went with such skill into the maze of broken ground below the mountain, that they not only succeeded in outflanking the outflankers, but actually drove by enfilade fire all of the Kroonstad commando, who were upon the right of Intintanyoni, far back across the hill to where the Winburgers lay at the eastern extremity. All danger ceased definitely on this side when two guns of the 42nd battery, turning towards the ridges of Nodashwana, in a few moments cleared it of the enemy, and converted it also into a huge bonfire of blazing gra.s.s. At 1.30 p.m. the Boer fire had dwindled all along the main ridge, and an hour later it ceased altogether. Only from the far right came the sound of musketry from the cavalry still fencing with scattered detachments of the Heilbron, Vrede and Bethlehem burghers, who clung to them pertinaciously.

[Footnote 108: The situation at this time is depicted on map No. 7.]

[Sidenote: Return to Ladysmith.]

At 3 p.m. Sir G. White gave the order for a general retirement. His object was accomplished, with the not undue loss of 114 casualties.

Yule was now safe for that day, and he believed the Free State army to have suffered severely enough to keep it inactive on the next, when he intended to a.s.sist the Dundee column by other means. But the Boers watched the withdrawal of the British troops with very little despondency. Unaware of the true situation of the Dundee column, they misunderstood operations designed to keep them from it. The demonstration against Intintanyoni seemed to them nothing less than a serious attempt to drive them from their hold, and the retreat of the British to be that of a baffled army. Thus, ignorant of their strategical defeat, they rejoiced at what seemed a tactical victory.

Moreover, their losses[109] had been small. The cavalry alone, now called upon to protect the rear--as all day they had covered the right--had difficulty in returning. For some distance they had to maintain a running fire fight, and it was nearly 7 p.m. before the rearmost troopers entered Ladysmith, which the head of the infantry column had reached two hours and a half earlier.[110]

[Footnote 109: 13 killed, 31 wounded.]

[Footnote 110: For detailed casualties, see Appendix 6.]

CHAPTER IX.

ELANDSLAAGTE.[111]

[Footnote 111: See maps Nos. 3 and 6.]

[Sidenote: Early days in Ladysmith, Oct. 11th to 19th.]

During the time (Oct. 12th-Oct. 26th, 1899) occupied by the episode of the Dundee detachment, including the action of Rietfontein fought to a.s.sist it in retreat, much had happened elsewhere.

[Sidenote: Oct. 16th.]

[Sidenote: Oct. 17th.]

[Sidenote: Oct. 18th.]

[Sidenote: Oct. 19th.]

Sir G. White arrived in Ladysmith on the 11th October. On the 12th telegraphic communication by Harrismith entirely ceased, and the mail train from that town failed to arrive. Early on the 12th a telegram from a post of observation of Natal Carbineers at Acton Homes gave information that a strong column of Boers, with four miles of train, was on the march through Tintwa Pa.s.s, the head of it being already across the border; furthermore, that there seemed to be an advance guard concealed in Van Reenen's Pa.s.s. Sir G. White prepared to strike instantly; but a British detachment which reached Dewdrop next day saw the Boer vanguard, halted in the mouth of Tintwa Pa.s.s, and as previously described (p. 123) returned to Ladysmith. A cavalry reconnaissance[112] in the same direction on the 16th found that the commandos had not stirred and, though Olivier's Hoek, Bezuidenhout's, Tintwa and Van Reenen's Pa.s.ses were all occupied,[113] the country east of them was as clear of the enemy as heretofore. There appeared an unaccountable hesitation amongst the Free Staters. Rumours of disagreement, and even of actual hostilities between the commandos, reached the British camp. They were not altogether groundless, and Sir G. White, utilising the respite, set himself to consider how his field force might be turned into a garrison, and his place of rest into a fortress, should it be necessary, as now seemed likely, to stand a siege in Ladysmith. A complete scheme of defence was drawn up on the 16th, and a mobile column organised for instant service in any quarter. But, whilst the real enemy lay idle on the west, rumour, working in his favour far to the southward, troubled the British general and robbed him of troops he could ill spare. On the 17th a telegram from the Governor of Natal announced that there was evidence of a contemplated Boer raid via Zululand upon Pietermaritzburg and Durban,[114] and asked for reinforcements for the defenceless capital.

They were promptly sent,[115] and quitted Ladysmith just as the Free Staters in the mountains received with much discussion the order to cross the frontier. Before dawn of the 18th all the commandos were on the move down the defiles, the men of Bethlehem in Olivier's Hoek Pa.s.s, of Heilbron in Bezuidenhout's, of Kroonstad in Tintwa, of Winburg in Van Reenen's, of Harrismith in De Beer's, of Vrede in Muller's. By 8 a.m. Acton Homes was in the hands of 3,000 Boers, and shortly after, west of Bester's station, a piquet of the Natal Carbineers was sharply attacked by the Harrismith commando, and forced to retire with loss. The Boers then occupied Bester's station, where they halted for the night. The news of this rapid development caused a great stir in Ladysmith. As early as the 15th Sir George White had decided upon the evacuation of the camp, which lay outside the town, but hitherto no orders had been issued to this effect. All the 18th the work of removing the troops and stores from the camp to the town defences previously selected was pushed on with such despatch, that by 10 p.m. these were well manned. The Pietermaritzburg column, which had reached Colenso, was ordered back to Onderbrook. Next day the General rode around Ladysmith, re-adjusting with great care the line of defence selected on the 16th. Instructions were then sent to Wolseley-Jenkins to resume his march to Pietermaritzburg, the Imperial Light Horse alone being taken from the column and brought back into Ladysmith.[116]

[Footnote 112: 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, M.I., 1st King's (Liverpool) regiment.]

[Footnote 113: On the 15th the Intelligence estimate of the Free State forces in the Drakensberg was as follows:--Olivier's Hoek, 3,000; Tintwa, 1,000; Van Reenen's, 1,200, with 15 guns; Nelson's Kop, 3,500, with detachments in the pa.s.ses to the north. Total, 11,000 men.]

[Footnote 114: Telegram No. 30 of 18th October, 1899, Ladysmith. Sir G. White to Secretary of State.]

[Footnote 115: Strength: 19th Hussars, one field battery, five squadrons Imperial Light Horse (raised at Maritzburg in Sept. 1899), seven companies Liverpool regiment, half-battalion 2nd King's Royal Rifles, under Brigadier-General C. B. H. Wolseley-Jenkins. The other half of the latter battalion was already in Maritzburg.]

[Footnote 116: The whole of Wolseley-Jenkins' column eventually returned to Ladysmith during the night of 22nd-23rd October.]

[Sidenote: k.o.c.k Oct. 19th and night of Oct. 19th-20th seizes Elandslaagte station.]

Meanwhile, the Boer General, k.o.c.k, having arrived on the summit of the Biggarsberg on the 19th, promptly pushed patrols down the southern slopes. Field Cornet Potgieter, the leader of one of these, pressing on in company with a party of Viljoen's men, under Field Cornet Pienaar, dashed into Elandslaagte station, some twenty miles southward, and attacked and captured a supply train which was steaming through the station on its way to Glencoe. Potgieter at once sent back word to k.o.c.k, who, replying with the order: "Hold on to the trains at any cost, I am following with the whole detachment," marched all night, and joined his lieutenant near the looted train at break of day on the 20th.

[Sidenote: French moves out Oct. 20th, but is recalled.]

News of the event was quickly received at Headquarters. At 11 a.m. on the 20th Major-General J. D. P. French, who had only arrived at 5 a.m.

that morning, left Ladysmith with the 5th Lancers, the Natal Mounted Rifles and Natal Carbineers, and a battery Royal Field artillery, to ascertain the situation at Elandslaagte. An infantry brigade, under Colonel Ian Hamilton, moved out in support. But whilst they were on the march, the Free Staters at Bester's became so active that Sir George White, fearing an attack whilst part of his force was absent, sent orders to check the reconnaissance before it was half completed, and by sunset French was back in Ladysmith, having seen nothing but the German commando, k.o.c.k's screen.

[Sidenote: Encouraged by news of Talana.]

[Sidenote: White, Oct. 21st, sends French out again to Elandslaagte.]

[Sidenote: French retakes station.]

[Sidenote: but falls back.]

By this time news of the victory at Talana[117] had come in. Its partial extent not fully understood at first, it not only lifted a load from the General's mind, but showed him where he too could strike a blow. The commandos at Elandslaagte, yesterday dangerous from their position on Symons' line of retreat, were to-day in peril themselves, and he determined to give them no time to remove into safety. At 4 a.m.

on the 21st French was again on the move towards Elandslaagte[118] with five squadrons (338 men) Imperial Light Horse and the Natal Field artillery. At 6 a.m. a half battalion (330 men) of the 1st Manchester regiment, with Railway and Royal engineer detachments, followed by rail, preceded by the armoured train manned by one company of the same battalion. Moving along the Newcastle road, French made straight for the high ground south-west of Elandslaagte station, and at 7 a.m. his advance and right flank guards (Imperial Light Horse) came in touch with the enemy, the former south of the collieries, the latter on the open veld some four miles south of the railway. As the mist lifted, parties of Boers were seen all about the station and colliery buildings, and over the undulating veld, and it was observed that most of these, on sighting the British scouts, drew back upon a group of kopjes situated about a mile south-east of the station. French immediately ordered up the Natal battery on to a flat hillock which rose between the railway and the Newcastle road, south-east of Woodcote farm, and at 8 a.m. a shot from the 7-pounders, sighted at 1,900 yards, crashed into the tin out-buildings of the station. A crowd of Boers swarmed out at the explosion and with them some of the British captured in the train the day before, the former galloping for the kopjes, the latter making for the protection of their countrymen at the battery. At the same time a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse galloped for the station in extended files, captured the Boer guard, and released the station and colliery officials who were there in durance. But in a few moments sh.e.l.ls from the group of kopjes beyond the station began to fall into the battery, one smas.h.i.+ng an ammunition wagon. The gunners attempted in vain to reply; their pieces were outranged by over 500 yards, and at 8.15, on the arrival of the infantry near at hand, they fell back leaving the wagon derelict. At 8.30 a.m. French withdrew to a point four miles south of Woodcote farm, and from here sent a report to Sir George White, informing him that about 400 Boers with three guns were before him on a prepared position, and asking for support. The enemy's artillery continued to sh.e.l.l the troops, and French, after questioning the prisoners and the released Britons, and examining more closely, came to the conclusion that there were from 800 to 1,000 Boers in front of him. When parties of the enemy began to appear also upon Jonono's Kop to the north-west he judged it prudent to withdraw his weak detachment still further, and by 11.30 a.m. was back nearly at the Modder Spruit.

On the way he fell in with a reinforcement from Ladysmith consisting of one squadron 5th Lancers,[119] one squadron 5th Dragoon Guards, and the 42nd battery Field artillery, all under Colonel c.o.xhead, R.A., and with these he retraced his steps to the Modder Spruit siding, where a halt was called.

[Footnote 117: Telegraphic communication by Greytown was still intact.]

[Footnote 118: See map No. 3. Orders were to "clear the neighbourhood of Elandslaagte of the enemy and cover the reconstruction of the railway and telegraphic lines."]

[Footnote 119: Another squadron, 5th Lancers, supported from Pepworth Hill by a company of the 1st Devons.h.i.+re regiment, turned aside when four miles out to watch the Free Staters towards Bester's.]

[Sidenote: He asks for reinforcements and orders.]

It was now evident to General French that an action of great importance could be fought or avoided before nightfall. At noon, therefore, he communicated with Sir George White, and, after informing him of his own and the enemy's situations, and the best line of attack, stated that in his opinion the numbers required would be three battalions of infantry, two batteries, and more cavalry than he had at the moment. He would await instructions. They came with prompt.i.tude; for Sir G. White had determined to ruin this commando, and sweep it from Yule's communications, before it could separate. "The enemy must be beaten, and driven off," he wrote to French. "Time of great importance." Within a quarter of an hour of the receipt of the above message, French had promulgated his orders; within half an hour, at 1.30 p.m., before the arrival of the reinforcements, the advance upon the kopjes had begun.

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 18

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