History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 30

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[Sidenote: The relation of Ladysmith to the defence of Natal.]

Throughout the operations in Natal during the opening phase of the war, Sir G. White had held that a mobile force, concentrated north of the Tugela, afforded better protection to the central and southern portions of the colony than any number of detachments stationed on the lines of communication. Face to face as he was with an enemy in superior strength, the retention with his field force of every available unit was essential to the British commander's plan of striking at his opponents whenever an opportunity offered. Sir W.

Hely-Hutchinson, although anxious as to the security of Maritzburg and Natal from Boer raids, accepted Sir George's decision, telegraphing to the General on 26th October: "I shall do my best in consultation with General Wolfe Murray.... I think we shall be able to deal with any small raid, but a raid in force, especially if supported by guns, will be a serious matter. We must take the risk, and hope for the best." On October 30th, the date of the battle of Lombards Kop,[180] the only regular unit on the Natal line of communication was the 1st Border regiment, which had arrived at Maritzburg that morning from East London. Detachments of colonial troops held Colenso bridge and Estcourt. To the eastward the Umvoti Rifles, a mounted corps rather more than one hundred strong, had been ordered to fall back from Helpmakaar and watch the ferry, by which the Dundee-Greytown road crosses the Tugela. A battalion of mounted infantry was being raised at Maritzburg by Lieut.-Colonel Thorneycroft, Royal Scots Fusiliers, and another at Durban by Lieut.-Colonel Bethune, 16th Lancers.

[Footnote 180: See Chapter X.]

[Sidenote: Threatened siege changes situation.]

The result of the battle of 30th October made it probable that the field force at Ladysmith would be soon cut off from its communications. To keep the road open to the south, Sir George White that evening reinforced the garrison of Colenso by despatching thither by rail from Ladysmith the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, a company of mounted infantry, and the Natal Field battery, whose obsolete 7-pounder guns had been grievously outranged at Elandslaagte. On arrival at Colenso, the commanding officer of the Dublin, Colonel C.

D. Cooper, a.s.sumed command of that post, finding there one squadron of the Natal Carbineers, one squadron Imperial Light Horse, a party of mounted Police, and the Durban Light Infantry (about 380 strong), and a detachment (fifty strong) of the Natal Naval Volunteers, with two 9-pounder guns. The total strength of the command, including the reinforcements from Ladysmith, was approximately 1,200 men. The Natal Royal Rifles (150 strong) were encamped at Estcourt, twenty-five miles in rear.

[Sidenote: An anxious fortnight, Oct. 31st-Nov. 14th.]

On the following day General White telegraphed to the Governor of the colony: "My intention is to hold Ladysmith, make attacks on the enemy's position whenever possible, and retain the greatest number of the enemy here." Sir W. Hely-Hutchinson and the officer commanding the Natal line of communication, Brigadier-General J. S. Wolfe Murray, were thus confronted with a difficult and anxious situation. It was obvious that, having regard to the numerical superiority and greater mobility of the enemy, the British force at Ladysmith would, in all probability, be unable to retain the whole of the Boer army. A raid on southern Natal was therefore to be expected immediately, and the strength of that raid might well be such as to overwhelm, or, at any rate, to ignore, the weak garrisons which so imperfectly covered Maritzburg and Durban. Moreover, General Murray was aware that even if Sir R. Buller should think fit to divert from Cape Colony any portion of the expeditionary force now on the high seas, a fortnight must elapse before a single man could be landed at Durban.

[Sidenote: Provisional steps in case of Boer raid.]

Maritzburg, from its topographical environment, is even less adapted by nature for defence than Ladysmith. Lying in a deep depression surrounded by high hills, the positions covering the capital of the colony are so extensive that a very large force would be needed for their effective occupation. Nevertheless, after consultation on the afternoon of 31st October with the Governor and the Prime Minister of the colony (Colonel Hime), the Brigadier-General decided that, although it was impossible to protect the town itself, it was advisable to prepare the cantonments, so-called "Fort Napier," for defence, and for that purpose to borrow Naval guns from the s.h.i.+ps at Durban. As regards Durban, a telegram was received from Sir Alfred Milner stating that arrangements had been made by Sir Redvers Buller with the admiral for the immediate despatch to that port of H.M.S.

_Terrible_ and _Forte_ as a reinforcement to the _Tartar_ and _Philomel_, already in the harbour, and suggesting that in the case of a complete disaster to Sir G. White's force it would be wise to retire on the seaport and there make a stand.

[Sidenote: Changes of stations, Nov. 2nd and 3rd, in expectation of raid.]

But the responsible military authorities were by no means inclined to take a pessimistic view of the situation. The final instructions, dated 1st November, received from Sir G. White's Chief of the Staff, directed General Murray "to remain and defend Maritzburg to the last,"

and on the following day Sir R. Buller telegraphed from Capetown that a division would be despatched as soon as possible to Natal, adding: "Do all you can to hold on to Colenso till troops arrive." Meanwhile, a warning had been received from the Intelligence staff at Ladysmith, that a considerable body of Free Staters was moving on Colenso, and Brigadier-General Murray, realising that the situation of Colonel Cooper's force at the bridge, commanded by the heights on the northern bank of the Tugela, was becoming precarious, directed that officer to fall back on Estcourt, should he consider his position no longer tenable. On the afternoon of November 2nd, telegraphic communication between Colenso and Ladysmith was cut off by the enemy, and a large Boer commando, having occupied the high ground near Grobelaars Kloof (map No. 15), opened fire on the two little works, Forts Wylie and Molyneux, which had been constructed by the Natal Volunteers on the left bank of the Tugela to cover the crossings of that river, and the approaches to Langewacht Spruit. The Natal Field battery and Natal Naval Volunteers' guns were again seriously outranged by the Boer artillery, and Colonel Cooper decided that, having regard to his instructions, he must fall back on Estcourt. The withdrawal to that town was effected on the night of November 2nd-3rd without molestation from the enemy, the infantry being conveyed in special trains, the mounted troops and field artillery moving by road. The 1st battalion Border regiment was simultaneously pushed forward by rail from Maritzburg to Estcourt, and Brigadier-General Murray proceeded, on 3rd November, to the latter station to take personal command of the force there concentrated, which now amounted in all to about 2,300 men. With this force, weak though it was in guns and mounted troops, he intended to dispute the Boer advance from the north, falling back, if necessary, on the prepared position at Maritzburg. A telegram, dated 4th November, conveyed General Buller's approval of these dispositions, but added: "Do not risk losing Durban by over-prolonged defence of Maritzburg, but hold the latter so long as you safely can.

I fear it will be at least ten days before I can send you substantial a.s.sistance."

[Sidenote: After much delay, on Nov. 13th/99, 4,200 Boers under Joubert and Botha reach Colenso.]

Fortunately, until the last but one of these ten days, the enemy held back on the north bank of the Tugela. A Krijgsraad, at which all the Boer generals and commandants attended, had a.s.sembled in front of Ladysmith on 1st November to decide whether the main effort of the Boer army should be concentrated on the attack of that town, or whether, leaving a detachment to hold Sir G. White's troops, they should at once advance on Maritzburg and Durban. Some of the younger leaders, including Louis Botha, as yet only plain commandant, were in favour of the latter course. The majority of the council decided that, so long as 12,000 effective British troops remained at Ladysmith, the commandos were not numerous enough to allow them to win the much-coveted prizes of the capital and seaport of Natal. It was believed that General White's troops would be unable to withstand an a.s.sault. On the 9th November, therefore, an abortive and ill-arranged attack was made. It sufficed to show that the Ladysmith garrison was by no means disposed to yield, and that a formal and perhaps prolonged investment would be needed to weaken its powers of resistance. To this task, therefore, the main body of the Boer commandos was a.s.signed; but, as an erroneous report had come in that 5,000 English troops had concentrated at Frere, it was decided that a strong reconnaissance, under the personal command of General Joubert, should cross the Tugela to ascertain the disposition and strength of the British column. On the evening, therefore, of the 13th November, a force about 4,200 strong was a.s.sembled at Colenso with orders to push to the south. As agreed, Joubert, although Transvaal Commandant-General, went with it.

Louis Botha, promoted to the rank of "Fighting General," was second in command. There is reason to believe that the presence of the senior General was due to a desire to restrain the impetuosity of his subordinate.

[Sidenote: Defensive measures taken during the time of grace given by Boer delay.]

The fifteen days' breathing s.p.a.ce which the authorities in southern Natal had thus been given, after receipt of the disquieting intelligence of the battle of Lombards Kop, had been of great value.

Captain Percy Scott, H.M.S. _Terrible_, had reached Durban on November 6th, and was appointed commandant of that town. A defence scheme was prepared and a battalion of "Imperial Light Infantry" was raised to a.s.sist the Naval contingent,[181] and guns (including two 4.7-in. guns and sixteen 12-pr. 12-cwt.) were landed for its protection. At Maritzburg a position in the vicinity of Fort Napier had, under the supervision of Col. C. C. Rawson, C.R.E., been prepared for defence, the work being executed by a hastily improvised Pioneer Corps of artisans, a.s.sisted by native labour. In selecting this position and planning its defence, it was a.s.sumed that if the force at Estcourt fell back on Maritzburg, 4,000 men in all would be available for its occupation. Meanwhile, in addition to Thorneycroft's corps, the recruiting and training of which were proceeding satisfactorily, a provisional garrison was arranged for Maritzburg by the despatch of two 12-pounders and a Naval detachment from the fleet at Durban, by the withdrawal of the detachment of the Naval Volunteers from Estcourt, and by the organisation into a Town Guard of all able-bodied citizens willing to carry a rifle. Moreover, some 150 loyal and zealous Natal colonists volunteered for scouting duties, and were formed into a corps under the command of the Hon. T. K. Murray, C.M.G., finding their own horses, saddlery, and rifles, and serving without pay. This body of patriotic men did useful work to the north of Maritzburg, in the neighbourhood of Mooi River, from the 4th to the 16th November, when on the arrival of reinforcements from the Cape they were released from further duty, and thanked in General Orders for their "excellent service."

[Footnote 181: This contingent consisted of parties from the _Terrible_, _Forte_, _Thetis_, _Philomel_ and _Tartar_, of a total strength of 35 officers and 423 men. Commander Limpus, R.N., was placed in command of the guns (see p. 120).]

[Sidenote: Nov. 11th/99. Reinforcements begin to disembark. Sir F.

Clery takes command, Nov. 15th.]

On 11th November General Murray, with the approval of Sir R. Buller, handed over the command of the Estcourt garrison to Colonel Charles Long, R.H.A., and returned to Maritzburg to direct personally the heavy work falling on the line of communication staff in arranging for the disembarkation and equipment of the reinforcements, whose arrival at Durban was now hourly expected. He had been warned by Headquarters, on the 7th, that these reinforcements would be made up to three brigades and divisional troops, and that Lieut.-General Sir C. F.

Clery would be sent in command. On the evening of the 11th the first battalion, the 2nd West Yorks.h.i.+re, arrived at Durban with the Brigadier of the 2nd brigade, Major-General Hildyard, and was sent on the following day to Estcourt, accompanied by two naval 12-prs. and a 7-pr. manned by a detachment of bluejackets under the command of Lt.

H. W. James, R.N.[182] These units reached Estcourt on the 13th.

Lt.-General Clery reached Durban on November 15th, and a.s.sumed command of the troops south of the Tugela. By the 17th five more battalions and a brigade division of field artillery had landed at that port. The British troops in southern Natal were thus in numerical superiority to the Boer column, moving south of the Tugela. The dates of the disembarkation of the remaining units of the corps for the relief of Ladysmith, to which a fourth brigade was ultimately a.s.signed by Sir R.

Buller, are shown in Appendix 7.

[Footnote 182: The 12-prs. were replaced at Maritzburg by two others sent up from Durban under command of Lieut. A. Halsey, R.N.]

[Sidenote: Nov. 14th. The raid begins.]

On the morning of the 14th November, Joubert's men crossed the Tugela and off-saddled on the Colenso plain, pus.h.i.+ng patrols forward to Frere and finding there only an observation post of eight of the Natal Mounted Police. These patrols, as well as the large number of horses grazing near Colenso, were observed and reported by the armoured train, which, according to the daily practice of the Estcourt garrison, was sent up the line to reconnoitre in the direction of the Tugela. No mounted troops accompanied these train reconnaissances, but doubtful ground was, as a rule, made good by flankers on foot, detailed when required from the infantry in the train.

[Sidenote: Nov. 15th. Disaster to the armoured train.]

Early on the following morning, 15th November, the armoured train, carrying a 7-pounder M.L. gun, manned by five bluejackets, one company Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and one company Durban Light Infantry, was again despatched to reconnoitre northward from Estcourt. Captain J. A.

L. Haldane, Gordon Highlanders, was placed in command. The train, after a brief halt at Frere to communicate with the police post, pushed on to Chieveley station. No flanking patrols appear to have been sent out; but as Chieveley station was reached a party of 50 Boers was seen cantering southward about a mile to the west of the railway. An order was now received by telephone from Estcourt: "Remain at Frere, watching your safe retreat." The train accordingly commenced to move back on Frere, but on rounding a spur of a hill which commands the line, was suddenly fired at by two field guns and a pom-pom. The driver put on full steam, and the train, running at high speed down a steep gradient, dashed into an obstruction which had been placed on a sharp curve of the rails. A detachment of about 300 men of the Krugersdorp commando had concealed themselves and their guns behind the hill during the train's outward journey, and blocked the line in its rear by filling the s.p.a.ce between the doubled rails at the curve with earth and small stones, thus forcing the wheels off the metals.

[Sidenote: The reconnoitring party with train suffers severely.]

An open truck and two armoured trucks were derailed, one of the trucks being left standing partly over the track. An engagement ensued, in which the British troops fought under great disadvantages. Mr. Winston Churchill, a retired cavalry officer, who had been allowed to accompany the train as a war correspondent, having offered his services, Captain Haldane requested him to endeavour, with the a.s.sistance of the Durban Light Infantry company, to clear the line.

Haldane meanwhile with the naval gun and the Dublin kept back the enemy. The naval gun was almost at once put out of action. After an hour's work under a heavy sh.e.l.l and rifle fire, Mr. Churchill succeeded in his task, but the coupling between the engine and the rear trucks had been broken by a sh.e.l.l, the engine itself injured, and its cab was now filled with wounded. Captain Haldane accordingly ordered the engine to move back out of fire towards Frere, and, withdrawing his men from the trucks, directed them to make a dash for some houses 800 yards distant, where he hoped to effect a further stand. During this movement across the open veld two privates, without orders, held up white handkerchiefs; the Boers ceased fire, galloped in on the retreating soldiers, and called upon them to surrender. Thus Captain Haldane, a subaltern of the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, Mr. Winston Churchill, and 53 men were captured. One officer and 69 men succeeded in making their way back to Estcourt, their retirement being covered by a detachment of mounted troops sent out to their a.s.sistance. The remainder of the 4 officers and 160 men, of whom the original party consisted, were killed or wounded. General Buller, in commenting subsequently on this unlucky affair, recorded his opinion that the officer in command "acted in trying circ.u.mstances with great judgment and coolness." A Boer account mentions that the British troops fought "with exceptional gallantry."

[Sidenote: Joubert divides his column and pushes south.]

Emboldened by this success, General Joubert determined to carry onwards his raid to the south. For this purpose he divided his force into two columns, 3,000 men being retained under his personal orders to operate on the west side of the railway, and 1,200 detached to the eastward under the command of his son, David Joubert. The western column reached Tabanhlope, a hill thirteen miles west of Estcourt, on the 16th, and there remained for two days, reconnoitring Estcourt with patrols. The eastern column occupied Weenen on the 18th, and on the following day both columns continued their movement southward, inclining somewhat towards each other. On the 20th Piet Joubert arrived at Hlatikulu, and, having halted there a night, he further divided his command, sending forward a detachment with a field gun towards Mooi River, where they skirmished at long range on the 22nd and 23rd with the force which, under Major-General Barton, had recently been concentrated at that station. Some scouts of this detachment even pushed on as far as Nottingham Road. The remainder of the Commandant-General's column moved eastward, seized the railway between the Highlands and Willow Grange, and joined hands with David Joubert's commando, which since the 19th had remained halted at Warley Common, a farm three or four miles to the east of Highlands station.

[Sidenote: Situation. Night of Nov. 22nd.]

The situation, therefore, on the night of the 22nd was remarkable. The British collected at Estcourt, whither General Hildyard had been sent on the 15th to take command, now amounted to 800 mounted troops (including Bethune's newly-raised battalion), one battery of R.F.A., the Natal Field battery, two naval 12-prs., and 4,400 infantry.

Major-General Barton, who had reached Mooi River on the 18th, had, by the night of the 22nd, under his orders Thorneycroft's mounted infantry (490 strong), a battery and two sections of R.F.A., and about 4,000 infantry. Estcourt and Mooi River stations are 23 miles apart.

Although, therefore, the Boers had cut the railway and telegraphic communication between the two stations, yet the situation of Gen.

Joubert (halted between two British forces, each equal in strength to the two Boer commandos), was audacious, if not dangerous. Moreover, in rear of Mooi River, further British reinforcements were disembarking at Durban, and being pushed up to the front in a continuous stream.

The composition and exact distribution of the troops actually in southern Natal on the 23rd November is given in Appendix 8. The pendulum had thus swung completely over. The armoured train incident was of no importance either tactically or strategically, and that momentary success was the only one achieved by Joubert. The slow and hesitating movements of the Boer columns had but hastened the disembarkation and concentration of the troops destined for the relief of Ladysmith. Finally, a tardy fit of rashness had induced the old Commandant-General to place his burghers in peril.

[Sidenote: Exaggerated estimate of Boer strength causes hesitating British action.]

The danger of Joubert's situation was not fully realised by the British staff. The strength of the enemy's invading columns had been magnified by rumour to 7,000, and the number of their guns doubled.

Moreover, the units at Mooi River, and in a lesser degree those at Estcourt, had for the most part only just arrived from a long sea voyage, and as yet lacked the organisation, transport, and physical fitness necessary for rapid movements in the field. At Mooi River, General Barton was without Intelligence staff, guides, or even a map.

Under these circ.u.mstances, the instructions issued by General Clery from Maritzburg to his subordinate commanders were based on a policy of cautious defensive, although he hoped that in a few days an opportunity for striking at the enemy might arise. Thus, the six days, from the 17th to the 22nd, were marked on the British side by advances to, and withdrawals from, posts between Estcourt and Mooi River, which showed a strong desire to avoid all risks. A detachment of the West Yorks.h.i.+re, with some mounted men, was despatched from Estcourt on the 17th to occupy Willow Grange, and on the following day a similar mixed garrison was sent up to the Highlands from Mooi River; but on the 20th, under instructions from Maritzburg, both these garrisons were withdrawn. The position of David Joubert's laager to the east of Willow Grange was ascertained by the mounted troops of both Barton's and Hildyard's forces, and on the night of the 20th the latter despatched to Willow Grange eight companies of infantry and 430 mounted men under the command of Colonel Hinde, 1st battalion Border regiment, intending an attack. But the enemy was judged by General Hildyard to be too strongly posted, and the party was withdrawn to Estcourt on the following day.

[Sidenote: Hildyard sends force against Brynbella, Nov. 22nd, under Col. W. Kitchener. Action of Willow Grange.]

[Sidenote: Kitchener seizes Brynbella.]

On the morning of the 22nd, it was reported that the Boers had occupied Brynbella, a commanding hill to the south of Estcourt about 700 feet above the level of the surrounding plateau, as an advanced post. General Hildyard considered that this development offered a good opportunity for striking a blow at the enemy, and he determined to attempt the capture of the post, and of some guns it was reported to contain. That afternoon, therefore, he moved a Naval 12-pr., the 7th Field battery, a half-battalion 2nd West Surrey, 2nd battalion West Yorks.h.i.+re, Durban Light Infantry, and seven companies of the 2nd battalion East Surrey regiment, to a height called Beacon Hill, which lay between Estcourt and the enemy's position, about 3,000 yards distant from the latter. Colonel W. Kitchener was entrusted with the command of this force and directed to seize Brynbella by a night attack. Beacon Hill was occupied without opposition, and the Naval gun, Field battery, and 2nd Queen's were detailed to hold it as a support to the attack; to these was subsequently added the 1st Border.

A thunderstorm of great severity now delayed the advance upon Brynbella; the night was intensely dark; the rocky nature of the ground and the absence of beaten tracks made the task of a.s.sembling the troops and directing their movements extremely difficult. It was not, therefore, until after midnight that the column, led by Colonel Kitchener, moved forward under the guidance of a Natal colonist, Mr.

Chapman, who was unfortunately killed in action after he had successfully accomplished his task. The march was made in column of double companies. Owing to the darkness of the night and the broken ground, the difficulty of keeping touch between the companies was great; firing had been forbidden, but when half the distance had been covered, a company reached a wall and rushed it, thinking that it was the enemy's position; the next company was thrown into confusion, and a third in rear and on higher ground opened fire and began cheering.

Colonel Kitchener with great coolness succeeded in restoring order, but not before eight soldiers had been hit by bullets from their comrades' rifles. The advance was then continued and Brynbella Hill was occupied at 3.30 a.m. without further casualties. The Boer party, which consisted of eighty Johannesburg policemen, under Lieut. van Zyl, retired to a ridge about 1,500 yards further to the south. A Creusot field gun had been withdrawn the previous evening after a brief exchange of shots with the Naval gun on Beacon Hill.

[Sidenote: He falls back to Estcourt, Nov. 23rd.]

At daybreak next morning Kitchener's men came under the fire of the Boer commando holding the southern ridge, and after some two hours'

skirmis.h.i.+ng at long range the enemy began to creep forward, and the rifle and gun fire gradually became very effective. Kitchener, perceiving that no supports were being sent forward to him, decided to retire, and in this carried out the Major-General's intentions. A gradual withdrawal from the hill in groups of two or three was therefore commenced. Mounted troops, which had left Estcourt at daybreak under command of Lt.-Colonel C. G. Martyr, were now protecting Kitchener's right flank; the squadron of Imperial Light Horse, under Capt. H. Bottomley, dismounted and ascended Brynbella Hill, where with much coolness and gallantry they covered the retirement of the infantry. The Border was also moved forward from Beacon Hill to support the retreating troops. In this manner the whole was withdrawn and subsequently fell back on Estcourt, General Hildyard having decided that it was better to keep his brigade concentrated, ready to move in any direction that might be necessary. The total British loss in this action was eleven men killed, one officer and sixty-six men wounded, and one officer and seven men taken prisoners.

A considerable portion of these losses was due to the attempts of combatants to a.s.sist the wounded to the rear during the retirement.[183]

[Footnote 183: This practice had grown up in the British service through the large number of wars with savages, who killed the wounded and mutilated the dead.]

[Sidenote: Joubert, Nov. 25th, retreats.]

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 30

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