History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 20

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On the very day of Yule's junction with c.o.xhead[124], Erasmus was in touch with A. P. Cronje, next day with Lukas Meyer, who, still feeling the blow of Talana, had moved timidly, wide on the left. At 4 a.m. on the morning of the 27th a brigade of cavalry left Ladysmith under Major-General French, and, proceeding to scout along the Newcastle and Helpmakaar roads, was sighted at dawn by Meyer, who was then in laager about seven miles south of Elandslaagte. The Boer leader, antic.i.p.ating a general attack, at once signalled to Erasmus, upon which a strong contingent of the Ermelo burghers, accompanied by guns, made their way across to him from their camp. French reconnoitred boldly, and at 10.35 a.m. he was able to send in to Sir George White his estimate of the numbers confronting him. On Intintanyoni were 4,000-5,000 men.

Other strong bodies hovered between Rietfontein and Pepworth Hill, whilst the enemy to his immediate front appeared to separate themselves into two laagers, whose sites could be clearly distinguished. One, sheltering about 2,000 men, lay at the junction of the Beith and Glencoe roads, some five miles south-east of Modder Spruit station, whilst the other, a much larger encampment, was situated four miles nearer to the railway, that is to say, one mile south-east of it.

[Footnote 124: See page 150.]

[Sidenote: Hamilton with Infantry and Artillery supports him.]

[Sidenote: Troops return to camp.]

Meanwhile Colonel Ian Hamilton had at 10 a.m. marched out of Ladysmith to the Neks between Gun Hill, Lombards Kop and Umbulwana, with a brigade consisting of the 1st Devons.h.i.+re and 1st Manchester regiments, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, with a brigade division of the 21st, 42nd and 53rd batteries R.F.A., joined later by the 1st Liverpool regiment and the 13th battery R.F.A. This brigade, lying out all day in support of the cavalry reconnaissance, caused continual apprehension to the enemy, who covered all his positions with men and cannon in momentary expectation of an attack. Altogether some 10,000 men with fifteen guns were observed, and for the purpose intended by Sir George White, who was only anxious to gain information, the object of the reconnaissance was accomplished. The attack of the laagers was considered by Sir George White, who rode out beyond Lombards Nek in the afternoon to confer with General French and Colonel Hamilton; but after careful examination it was ultimately decided to await a more suitable opportunity, and the troops were withdrawn.

[Sidenote: Both Transvaalers and Free Staters approach Ladysmith, Oct.

28th.]

On October 28th Lukas Meyer with 2,000 men and three guns pushed forward to Modder Spruit, where he went into laager behind a long flat kopje, now called Long Hill, situated some four thousand yards south-east of Pepworth Hill, the summit of which the Ermelo commando had already piqueted. The Free Staters, coming down from Intintanyoni, rode westward and lay in the evening upon the farm Kleinfontein, joining hands with their allies of the Transvaal across Surprise Hill and the heights above the Bell Spruit. Through their main laager on Kleinfontein ran the railway line to Van Reenen's Pa.s.s.

[Sidenote: Cavalry reports Boer dispositions. Oct. 29th.]

On the 29th the cavalry made a reconnaissance eastwards, and reported as follows. The laager which had been close to the Modder Spruit station on the 27th had disappeared, but there were now two encampments to the east and south-east of Lombards Kop, of which the lower appeared to command the road to Pieters, thus threatening the line of communication. Pepworth Hill was strongly occupied, and artillery were now upon it; a large camp lay close to the north-west of the height. The enemy was numerous upon Long Hill. Upon its flat top two or three guns were already emplaced, and an epaulment for another was in course of construction. Behind the hill was a laager.

[Sidenote: White decides on attack.]

This reconnaissance seemed to Sir G. White to furnish the reasons he desired for a.s.suming the offensive. The capture of Long Hill would at least throw back the investing line of Transvaalers. It might do more--break through it altogether, when a sweep north against Pepworth would bid fair to drive together the Transvaal commandos in upon their centre, and roll up the whole. The Free Staters, strung out as they now are, thinly north-west and west, would then be cut off from the rest.

[Sidenote: Plan arranged, Oct. 29th.]

[Sidenote: Carleton to approach Nicholson's Nek that night.]

[Sidenote: Cavalry by dawn of 30th to be on ridges n.e. of Gun Hill.]

[Sidenote: Grimwood to seize Long Hill.]

[Sidenote: Hamilton then to capture Pepworth.]

At 4 p.m. on the afternoon of the 29th his plans were formulated. Long Hill was to be the primary, Pepworth Hill the secondary object, and to secure them the whole of the troops were to be employed. His main army he divided into two bodies, with separate missions. One, consisting of No. 10 Mountain battery, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 1st Gloucester regiment, all commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel F. R. C.

Carleton, of the first-named battalion, was to move at 10 p.m. that night northward along the Bell Spruit. The duties of this force were twofold: first, to cover the left flank of the main operation; secondly, to gain and hold such a position towards Nicholson's Nek (if possible, the Nek itself) as would enable the cavalry to debouch safely upon the open ground beyond, should opportunity arise for a pursuit, or, better still, an interception of the Transvaalers as they fell back on the Drakensberg pa.s.ses. The left flank thus provided for, a cavalry brigade, consisting of the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, and Colonel Royston's regiment of Colonials, under Major-General French, were to reach the ridges north-east of Gun Hill before dawn, from which, by demonstrating against the enemy's left, they would cover the British right. Between these wings, the main infantry attack was to be carried out by the 8th brigade, which, in the absence of its proper commander, Colonel F. Howard, was under Colonel G. G. Grimwood, 2nd King's Royal Rifles, whose five battalions would include the 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the 1st Leicesters.h.i.+re, and 1st King's (Liverpool) regiments and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The 1st brigade division Royal Field artillery and the Natal Field battery were to be attached to Grimwood's command. A general reserve of the 7th brigade, consisting of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, 1st Manchester and 1st Devons.h.i.+re regiments, and, should it arrive from Maritzburg in time, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, were to be under the command of Colonel Ian Hamilton, who, besides his infantry, would have with him the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 18th Hussars, the Imperial Light Horse, two companies mounted infantry, and the 2nd brigade division of artillery.

Grimwood was to take Long Hill, and his path thereto was to be cleared by the shrapnel of both brigade divisions. That position carried, he was to hold it, whilst Colonel Hamilton, supported in turn by the fire of the united artillery, was to throw his fresh infantry against Pepworth Hill, and complete the victory.

[Sidenote: Carleton's column parades 11 p.m. Oct. 29th.]

At 10 p.m. Carleton left his parade ground with six companies (16 officers, 518 other ranks) and 46 mules, and at 11 p.m. arrived at the rendezvous, the level crossing of the Newcastle road close to the Orange Free State railway junction, where the rest of his command had been awaiting him for an hour. It consisted of five and a half companies (some 450 men) of the Gloucester regiment, with 57 mules and a Maxim gun; the 10th Mountain battery, comprising 137 N.C.O.s and men, 6 guns, with 100 rounds for each, 133 mules, with 52 Cape Boys as muleteers, and 10 horses. The total strength of the column was thus about 1,140 men and 250 animals.

[Sidenote: Grimwood starts same night at 12.30.]

[Sidenote: Grimwood's column broken by error.]

Half an hour after midnight Grimwood's brigade (8th) set out eastward in the following order: 1st and 2nd battalions King's Royal Rifles, 1st Leicesters.h.i.+re regiment, 1st brigade division R.F.A., 1st King's (Liverpool) regiment, and the Natal Field battery, with a rearguard of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers.[125] Another brigade division, the 2nd, joining the line of march soon after it was put in motion, marched in front of the 1st Liverpool regiment. The whole pressed on for a time quietly and in order. Soon, however, the last arrival, the 2nd brigade division of artillery, in pursuance of orders, when between Flag and Limit hills, drew away from out of the column to the left and pa.s.sed under the shelter of Flag Hill. The two battalions behind, not being aware of any special instructions given to the artillery, followed it, whilst those in front still pursued their proper route, so that Grimwood's force was cut in two and separated whilst yet but half his march was over. An hour before dawn, Grimwood, unconscious of the mishap to his rear, gained some low kopjes 1,800 yards from the south-eastern flank of Long Hill, and extended his troops across them, the two battalions King's Royal Rifles in firing line, Leicester in support, facing north-west. Here he waited for light. One company, "F." of the 1st King's Royal Rifles, moved cautiously forward to a small kopje, slightly in advance, to cover the front.

[Footnote 125: These battalions were not complete. The King's Royal Rifles had left two companies in Ladysmith, the Dublin Fusiliers three, the Leicester regiment two, the King's (Liverpool) regiment two.]

[Sidenote: French starting 3 a.m. dismounts 4,000 yards in rear of Grimwood.]

[Sidenote: Hamilton at 4 a.m. moves on Limit Hill.]

[Sidenote: First news of disaster to Carleton.]

At 3 a.m. Major-General French rode out of Ladysmith with his two regiments and pushed for Lombards Kop, dismounting his command in a hollow basin between Gun Hill and Lombards Kop, some 4,000 yards in rear, and out of sight, of Grimwood's infantry. The Natal Volunteers, who had been on the ground since the previous night, went on, and, dividing right and left, secured the summits of Lombards Kop and Umbulwana Mountain. Colonel Hamilton, quitting his rendezvous between Tunnel and Junction Hills at 4 a.m., moved, as directed, on Limit Hill, which had been piqueted throughout the night by "G." and "H."

companies Gordon Highlanders. As Hamilton rode at the head of his brigade, a man was brought to him who proved to be a muleteer of the 10th Mountain battery. He reported that a sudden disturbance had occurred in the midst of Carleton's night march; all the mules of the battery had broken away, and, so far as he knew, had never been seen again. A little further on an officer of the Scottish Rifles, who had been attached to the Gloucester regiment a few hours previously, appeared amongst the Gordon Highlanders. He, too, told of a stampede amongst the battery mules, and, in addition, of resulting disturbance of some of the infantry companies, amongst others that which he accompanied. Yet a third warning of misadventure on the left was received before dawn. In the early morning the sentries of the piquet of the Leicester regiment at Cove Redoubt, one of the northerly outposts of Ladysmith, became aware of the sound of hoofs and the rattle of harness coming towards them from the north, and the soldiers, running down, captured several mules bearing the equipment of mountain guns. A patrol of the 5th Dragoon Guards,[126] which had been despatched by Sir G. White to try to get news of Carleton's column, was checked at the Bell Spruit, but met on the road a gunner of the 10th Mountain battery, who related the same tale as had already reached that General. This man said that the battery had been suddenly fired on at 2 a.m.; the mules had stampeded and disappeared. Both its ammunition and portions of most of its guns had been carried off.

Finally, a brief note from Carleton himself to the Commander-in-Chief announced what had then happened.

[Footnote 126: For gallantry on this occasion Second-Lieut.

J. Norwood, 5th Dragoon Guards, was awarded the Victoria Cross.]

[Sidenote: Pickwoad sh.e.l.ls Long Hill.]

[Sidenote: Pepworth replies.]

[Sidenote: Downing moves the two Brigade Divs. against Pepworth.]

[Sidenote: and silences the Boer guns.]

At dawn Pickwoad's brigade division, which was now deployed 1-1/2 miles south-eastward of Limit Hill, opened at Long Hill at 3,700 yards. But Long Hill was silent. The three gun emplacements visible upon the crest were empty. Instead, at 5.15 a.m., a heavy piece fired from Pepworth Hill, and a 96-pound sh.e.l.l fell near the town, its explosion greeting the 2nd Rifle Brigade, which, having detrained at 2.30 a.m., was marching out to join Hamilton's force at Limit Hill.

The next, following quickly, burst in Pickwoad's line of guns, and c.o.xhead's artillery, which attempted to reply, found itself far outranged, whilst Pickwoad's three batteries maintained for a time their bombardment of Long Hill. In a few moments four long-range Creusots of smaller calibre (75 m/m) joined in from either side of the 96-pounder, two others from lower ground about the railway below the height. Both c.o.xhead's and Pickwoad's batteries were covered with missiles. Colonel C. M. H. Downing, commanding all the artillery, quickly a.s.sumed the offensive. Dissatisfied with his position, the left of which, lying to the east of Limit Hill, was so enc.u.mbered with rocks that of the 53rd battery only two guns could fire at all, and those of the other batteries of the 2nd brigade division only by indirect laying, he drew that part of his line clear, and moved c.o.xhead's three batteries, the 21st, 42nd, and 53rd, out into the open, facing north-west, to within 4,000 yards of Pepworth.[127]

Troubled, while the change was in course of taking place, by the accurate shooting from that hill, Downing then ordered Pickwoad to change front to the left and come into action against Pepworth on the right of, but some distance from, the 2nd brigade division. The guns on the low ground under the shadow of Pepworth were soon mastered. The battery upon its summit, at distant range for shrapnel, withstood yet awhile; but ere long the gunners there, too, temporarily abandoned their weapons, and only returned when a slackening of Pickwoad's fire gave opportunity for a hasty round. At 6.30 a.m., therefore, and for some half hour more, the trend of battle seemed to the artillery to be in favour of the British. After that, however, fresh hostile guns opened, and the rattle of rifles arose in ever-increasing volume, not only from the broken ground to the right, where Grimwood's infantry lay lost to view amongst the low, rolling kopjes by the Modder Spruit, but also far to the rear, towards Lombards Kop. Yet no British were seen advancing. It was evident that the infantry and cavalry were not delivering but withstanding an onslaught.

[Footnote 127: This is shown on map 8 as the first artillery position.]

[Sidenote: Grimwood expecting support from the right, suffers from that quarter.]

The attack which Grimwood found to be developing rapidly against him was less surprising from its suddenness than from the direction from which it a.s.sailed him. Those with him, as described above, lay in the precise position designed for them. He had taken the precaution of covering his right rear, until it should be protected by the cavalry, at first with a half company ("A.") of the Leicesters.h.i.+re regiment, then with two more ("F." and "H.") of the same battalion and the Maxim gun. Furthermore, a kopje to the right front, seen in the growing light to command from the eastward that already occupied by "F."

company 1st King's Royal Rifles, was now crowned by "H." company of the same battalion, and all had seemed safe on that side. But now a raking fire from the right a.s.sailed all his lines, and Grimwood, instead of outflanking, was outflanked.

Every moment this fire grew more severe; beyond the Modder, Boer reinforcements were streaming in full view up to the line of riflemen shooting along the Modder Spruit. Two guns, which began to shoot from a well-concealed spot near the Elandslaagte road, now took the British line in enfilade, and partially in reverse. The Boer gunners upon Pepworth and the low ground east of it again fired, the smaller pieces into the batteries and infantry, the great Creusot frequently into the town.

[Sidenote: Grimwood fronts the new danger.]

Instead of the antic.i.p.ated change of front to the left for the destruction of the enemy Grimwood had now, therefore, to prepare a new frontage most speedily, almost to his present rear, for the safety of his brigade. "H." company 1st King's Royal Rifles, on the advanced kopje, first turned towards the east, and coming under heavy fire from three directions, was later reinforced by "A." company of the same battalion. "B." company, which had lain in support of "F.," moved to the new right of "H." and "A.," and, with "E." company, lined up along the rocks facing the Modder Spruit. Meanwhile the officer commanding "F.," the other advanced company, who had turned east, now found his left a.s.sailed, and threw back half his command in that direction. The tripod Maxim gun of the 2nd King's Royal Rifles was placed in the centre of this company.[128]

[Footnote 128: It was found to be impossible to get the wheeled gun of the 1st King's Royal Rifles over the boulders of the kopje.]

[Sidenote: 2nd K.R.R. fills gap between 1st K.R.R. and Leicester detachment.]

The 2nd King's Royal Rifles, which had lain in support whilst the front circled round, were now sent to reinforce. Leaving two companies still in support, the battalion changed front to the right, and, extending from right to left, filled the gap between the right of the 1st King's Royal Rifles and the detached 2-1/2 companies of the Leicester regiment. These, with a Maxim, somewhat isolated on the kopje on what was now the right flank, were beginning to be hotly engaged.

[Sidenote: The arrival of two companies R.D.F. connects Grimwood with Cavalry.]

Thus under incessant and increasing fire the 8th brigade swung round, pivoting on the left company 1st King's Royal Rifles, with the detachment of the Leicester as "marker," so to speak, to its outer flank. Two companies of the missing Royal Dublin Fusiliers[129] now arrived to a.s.sist the Leicester, and were immediately a.s.sailed by some sharpshooters who had worked around the right flank. They therefore prolonged the line to the right, towards the northern spurs of Lombards Kop, and here about 7 a.m. they joined hands with the cavalry, whose movements must now be related.

[Footnote 129: See p. 176.]

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 20

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