With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV. Spion Kop
The country immediately round Springfield was level and well cultivated, with pretty farmhouses and orchards scattered about. Some little distance to the west rose two hills, Swartz Kop, which had been occupied by the mounted infantry, and Spearman's Hill, named from a farm near its base. Here General Buller had established his head-quarters. Spearman's Hill, which was generally called Mount Alice, was a very important position, and here the naval guns were placed, their fire commanding the greater portion of the hills on the other side of the Tugela, and also Potgieter's Drift, where it was intended the passage of the river should be made. Swartz Kop was a less important position, though it also dominated a wide extent of country; but as ridges on the other side covered some important points from its fire, Mount Alice was selected as the position for the naval battery, and also for the signallers, as from here a direct communication could be kept up by heliograph and flash- light with one of the hills held by the defenders of Ladysmith.
It was late on the 16th when the convoy which the Maritzburg Scouts were escorting arrived at Springfield. All day they had heard the boom of artillery and the rattle of machine-guns and musketry along the line of hills on the other side of the Tugela and from the heights of Mount Alice, and groaned in spirit as they laboured at their work of assisting the waggons, that they were thus employed when hard fighting was going on within eight miles of them.
At half-past two that day Lyttleton's brigade had moved forward along the foot of Mount Alice to force the passage of the river at Potgieter's drift. As soon as the Boers caught sight of them, they could be seen galloping forward to take their places in the trenches.
A thunder-storm that burst and a torrent of rain screened the movements of the advancing troops from view for some time, and enabled them to near the river without having to pass through any shell fire from the Boer batteries on the hilltops. Between Mount Alice and the river the brigade passed across meadows and ploughed fields. They reached the ferry, but the boat was stuck fast, and an hour was lost at this point before a party of sailors and colonial troops accustomed to such work came forward to the aid of the Engineers, and speedily got it into working order. But in the meantime the Scottish Rifles and the Rifle Brigade had moved along the banks to the drift. Although usually almost dry, the water was now coming down it breast-deep. Two gallant fellows went across, and when they found the line of shallow water they returned and guided their comrades over. The rush of the water was so great that many would have been swept away; but, joining hands, they crossed in a line, and although this was broken several times, it was always reformed, and not many lives were lost.
As soon as some of the troops had passed, they lined the bank until the two battalions were over, and then advanced over some low hills, clearing out a few Boers who occupied some advanced trenches. By six o'clock the ferry-boat began to carry the main body across, taking over half a company at a time; but it was not until half-past three in the morning that the horses, waggons, the guns of the brigade, and a howitzer battery were on the northern bank, and the whole brigade established on a ridge a mile beyond the river.
The Maritzburg Scouts were delighted at receiving orders on the morning after their arrival at Springfield that they were to move forward at once and encamp close to Spearman's Farm, and to furnish orderlies for carrying messages for the general. They started at once, and after an hour's fast riding arrived at the point assigned to them.
Twenty men and an officer were at once sent to the farmhouse. They took with them three tents which they had brought in the regimental waggon, and erected these some fifty yards from the house; the rest of the troop established their camp at a point indicated by a staff officer a quarter of a mile away. It had been two o'clock in the morning before the convoy had reached Springfield, and horses and men were alike tired out; and as soon as breakfast had been prepared and eaten most of the troopers turned in to sleep. Chris and half a dozen of his party, however, obtained leave from Captain Brookfield to ascend Mount Alice and see what was going on. From half-past five a tremendous fire had been kept up on the Boer positions. The naval guns were distributing their heavy lyddite shells among the entrenchments distant from three to six miles, and occasionally throwing up a missile on to the summit of the lofty hill known as Spion Kop away to the left front. Not less steadily or effectively the howitzer battery was pounding the Boer position.
At eight o'clock the lads reached the top of Mount Alice, and watched with intense interest the picturesque and exciting scene. Here they were far better able than they had been when at Chieveley to see the general aspect of the country. On the right from Grobler's Kloof hill after hill, separated apparently by shallow depressions, rose, and from the higher points occasional flashes of fire burst out as the guns tried their range against those on Mount Alice, whose heights, however, they failed to reach. Spion Kop stood out steep and threatening, its summit being some hundred feet higher than that of Mount Alice. They could now see that it was not, as it had appeared from the distance, an isolated and almost conical hill, but was, in fact, connected with hills farther to the left by a ridge of which it was the termination.
Immediately behind it was a deep valley, and the ascent from this side was to some extent commanded by the guns on Mount Alice and Swartz Kop. Between Spion Kop and the river there was a flat belt of country, and it was along this that Lord Dundonald had ridden with his brigade of cavalry to Acton Homes, where he was still stationed. The point of greatest interest, however, was at Trichardt's Drift, lying six miles west of Mount Alice. From their look-out they could make out the division under the command of Sir Charles Warren advancing to the ford. As far as they could see, no serious opposition was being offered; they could, however, in the intervals of silence of the guns, hear a dropping musketry fire in that direction, and a few rounds of shot from Warren's field-guns, but it was evident that only a small party of the enemy could be disputing the passage.
Peters, who was intently watching what was going on through his glasses, said: "They are at work at two points on the river. I think they are building bridges."
The naval guns dropped a few shells among the farm buildings and orchards facing the spot where the troops were gathered, as a hint to the Boers that it was well within their range, and that they had best abstain from interfering with what was going on. In an hour from the time the troops reached the bank two bridges had been thrown across the river, and the passage began. By ten o'clock the whole were across, the firing soon after ceased, and Warren's troops bivouacked quietly. It was all over for the day, and the lads returned to their camp. The next day passed quietly, except that in the afternoon the Boer entrenchments near Spion Kop and Brakfontein, a hill facing the position occupied by Lyttleton's brigade, were pounded by the naval guns and howitzers. A message was heliographed from Ladysmith that two thousand Boers were seen moving towards Acton Homes, and as the occupation of that village was of no value until the infantry arrived there, the cavalry were recalled to a position where they could protect Warren's left flank from attack.
On the 19th, Warren pushed forward a portion of his force with a view to driving back the Boers' right and gaining the main road leading through Dewdrop to Ladysmith, while Woodgate's brigade watched Spion Kop. Fighting went on all day, the British forcing the enemy back step by step. On the 20th it began early and continued the whole day. Every inch of the ground was contested stubbornly by the Boers, but the Irish Brigade, who were in the hottest position, pressed them back fiercely with sudden rushes, and, had the rest of the division kept up with their advance, might have cleared the way through the enemy's centre. But the cannonade to which the advancing troops were exposed was terrible. Maxims and Nordenfeldts, the heavy cannon, and the field-pieces captured from us a month before, hurled shot and shell incessantly among them, while the rattle of the Boer rifles was continuous. Still, fair progress was made, and with less loss than might have been expected in such strife. Two officers only were killed, Captain Hensley of the Dublin Fusiliers, and Major Childe, who was a most popular officer. He had a presentiment that he would fall, and actually asked a friend the evening before to have a tablet placed over his grave with the inscription, "Is it well with the child? It is well."
At three o'clock the fighting slackened, and a heavy thunderstorm seemed to be the signal for firing to cease. Later Sir Charles Warren summoned all the officers commanding corps, and pointed out that there was not sufficient food remaining to allow of the wide circuit by Acton Homes to be carried out, and gave his opinion that now they had won so much ground, it was better to continue to advance by the shorter line on which they were pushing, but that in order to do this it was necessary that Spion Kop, whose fire would take them in the rear, should be captured. This was unanimously agreed to, and General Warren then saw the commander-in-chief, and obtained his consent to the change of plans. It was not, however, considered necessary to take Spion Kop until the troops had farther advanced. All Sunday, fighting was continued as before, but the progress made was slower, as the Boers were largely reinforced and fresh guns brought up.
The 22nd was comparatively quiet. The situation was not improving. Five miles of rough ground had been won in as many days' fighting, but the force was becoming lengthened out and the line weaker. Lyttleton's force had to guard the line from Potgieter's Drift to Warren's right against any attempt of the Boers to cut the lines of communication. Woodgate was similarly employed in keeping the line from Trichardt's Drift to Warren's left, and it became increasingly evident that not much further progress could be made until the left of the advance was protected by the establishment of guns on the great hill. It was then, on the 23rd, decided that Woodgate's brigade should assault Spion Hop that night. It was known that it was not strongly held.
Starting at six o'clock, the column made its way slowly and with vast difficulty up the ascent. This was everywhere rugged and rocky, and in many places so precipitous that men had to be pushed or pulled up by their comrades.
Colonel Thorneycroft led the way with a few men, finding out the spots at which an ascent was practicable, and scouting on either side to discover if Boers were hidden; behind him followed Woodgate leading his men. He was in bad health and quite unfit for such a climb, but in spite of remonstrances he had insisted upon going, although he was obliged to be assisted at the more difficult places. The distance was not more than six miles, but it was not until nearly ten hours after starting that the summit was gained. The hilltop was enveloped in mist, and they were unseen until the Lancashire Fusiliers, who were leading, were within fifty yards of the top. Then a Boer challenged them, and directly fired his rifle. Almost instantly a dozen of his comrades joined him, and bringing their magazines into play opened a fierce fusillade. But the aim was hurried, they could scarce see their foes, and the Lancashire men, cheering loudly, rushed up to the crest without loss.
The Boers did not await their arrival; only one of them was bayoneted before he turned to fly, and but two or three were overtaken by the eager soldiers. As soon as the Boers had gone, the troops set to work to construct breastworks to hold the spot they had gained against any attempts of the Boers to recapture. The ground was too rocky for digging, and the stones that were scattered thickly about were used for the purpose; but long before the breastwork could be completed a dropping fire was opened by the enemy. The morning was gray and misty, and the clouds hung heavily on the hilltop. As these cleared off slowly, it could be seen that the position was less favourable than it had seemed, for the flat crest extended some distance beyond the point they had entrenched, and from the rocks and low ridges a hot fire broke out. Before the mist cleared off, the Boers had crept up in considerable force, and were, it was evident, preparing to retake the position that had been wrested from them.
By six o'clock the scattered fire had grown into a continuous roar, the Boers occupying not only the nek itself, but the flanks of the hill. Several times our men made rushes to endeavour to clear off the foe, but these proved too costly, and they were now lying or kneeling behind the unfinished barricade. In a very short time the clouds had lifted sufficiently for the Boer artillery to discover the exact position, and from the hills on three sides a terrible fire of shot and shell, from cannon great and small and machine-guns, rained upon them. Again and again parties of men started to their feet and dashed forward to drive the hidden Boers facing them from their hiding-places. Sometimes they succeeded for a time, but their numbers thinned so fast that the survivors were forced to fall back again. To add to the horror of the situation, the shot from our own guns also fell among the defenders, the officers commanding the batteries not having been informed of the intention to occupy the hill, and knowing nothing of the situation. Scores of men were killed or wounded, but the position was held unflinchingly.
At ten o'clock General Woodgate was mortally wounded by the fragment of a shell that struck him in the eye, and Colonel Crofton took the command. He at once flashed a message to General Warren, stating that Woodgate was killed, and that reinforcements must be sent at once; General Coke was therefore ordered to take the Middlesex and Dorset regiments, and assume the command. Immediately afterwards Warren received an order from General Buller to appoint Lieutenant-colonel Thorneycroft, who was colonel of a colonial force, to take the command. It was now hoped that all was well there. Unfortunately, neither Buller nor Warren was able to give his undivided attention to the struggle on the mountain, for Lyttleton's brigade had advanced before daybreak against the eastern slopes of the hills running north from Spion Kop. They advanced briskly, their Maxims clearing out the Boers, from whose fire they suffered but little; but they sustained some loss from the shell fire from Mount Alice, the sailors having been as uninformed of the advance the brigade were to make as they were of the capture of Spion Kop. The Scottish Rifles and the 3rd King's Royal Rifles pushed on rapidly and gained the spur farthest north. Had there been guns on Spion Kop the object of the movement would have been attained, and the advance by direct road on Ladysmith have become a possibility; but no guns had reached the summit, and the troops there were so far from being able to render assistance that they were with difficulty maintaining their desperate resistance. As the two rifle regiments were therefore exposed to a concentrated fire from the Boer batteries, and were without support, they were directed to withdraw, but the order had to be repeated three times before it was obeyed. The fire slackened at this point to some extent in the afternoon, no farther advance being attempted, but it raged as hotly as ever on the summit of Spion Kop.
As neither General Buller nor Warren had come up to see the state of things on the all-important position of Spion Kop, General Coke went down in the evening to explain the situation. He stated that unless the artillery could silence the enemy's guns the troops could not support another day's shelling. In the evening two naval twelve-pounders, the R. A. mountain battery, and one thousand two hundred men as reliefs, started to ascend the hill and to strengthen the entrenchments. On the way up they met Colonel Thorneycroft and the rest of the force coming down, that officer, who had displayed splendid gallantry throughout the day, having decided on his own responsibility that the position could not be longer held. Strangely enough, the news of the retirement was not communicated to General Buller, who, after reporting in his despatches written next morning that Spion Kop was firmly held, was riding to the front when he for the first time learned the news. Altogether it was a day of strange blunders, redeemed only by the splendid bravery of the troops engaged. The news came as a heavy blow to the army, but it was supposed that a fresh attempt would be made to capture the position by ascending the northern spurs that had been carried and held for a time by the two rifle battalions. But while soldiers think only of the chances of battle, and burn to engage the enemy, a feeling only accentuated by previous failures, generals in command have to take other matters into consideration. They may feel that they may conquer in the next fight, but what is to follow? In this case the chances of success would be smaller than before, the loss more serious, for the Boers from all parts had united to oppose us. Many of the cannon had been brought over from the positions from which Ladysmith was bombarded. The advantage of surprise gained by the long march from Chieveley had been lost; more serious still was it that a large proportion of the provisions, brought at the cost of so much labour and exhaustion of the transport animals, was consumed, and what remained would be insufficient had fresh battles to be fought to capture the positions, one behind another, held by the Boers.
General Buller was the last man to retire as long as there was a hope of success. He knew that not only at home, but all over the civilized world, men were anxiously awaiting the news of his second attempt to relieve Ladysmith, and it must have been hard indeed for him to have to acknowledge a second reverse; but in spite of this he sternly determined to fall back. The movement was admirably executed; every horse, waggon, gun, and soldier was taken safely across the Tugela without hindrance by the Boers, a fact that showed how deeply they had been impressed with the valour of our soldiers. Sullenly and angrily the troops marched away. Had they had their will they would have hurled themselves against the Boer entrenchments until the last man had fallen. To them the necessities of the situation were as nothing; to retreat seemed an acknowledgment that they had been beaten, a feeling that is seldom entertained by British soldiers. Their losses had been heavy, but there were still enough of them, they thought, for the work they had to do, and it was with a deep feeling of unmerited humiliation that they received the order to retire.
The feeling, however, was not of long endurance, for two days later, when they had settled down in camp near the Tugela and round Spearman's Farm, the general rode through the lines, congratulating the troops on the valour they had displayed, and promising them that ere long they would be in Ladysmith.
"I shall be heartily glad when we are there," Chris said when he heard what the general had promised, "not only for the sake of the town, but for our own. We are really doing no good here. It is hateful to look on when other fellows are fighting so desperately. If it were not that the orders were strict against the mounted Colonial corps going out over the country, to clear the scattered Boers out, we might be doing useful service; and as soon as Ladysmith is relieved--that is to say, if we can hold out till we get there--I should certainly vote that we come back here instead of staying with the army, and go on again on our own account."
"I quite agree with you," Carmichael said. "Still, it is something to have seen two big fights."
"Yes," Brown grumbled, "but if we tell anybody that we were there, naturally the first question will be, 'What part did you take in it', and we shall have to own that we took no part at all, and only looked on at a distance at the other fellows fighting. I call it sickening."
"Well, never mind, Brown," Chris said; "after all, during this business, we have killed twice our own number of Boers at the least, and if everyone had done as much the Boers would be pretty well extinct."
"Yes, there is certainly something in that," Brown admitted, "but if we had been allowed to scout on our own account it would be hard if we had not killed twice as many more by this time."
"We certainly might have done so, but you must remember, also, that a great many of us might have been killed too. One cannot always expect to have the luck we had in those two fights; and, I am sure, we should bitterly regret gaps being made in our number."
"That we should," Harris said warmly. "We were all good friends before, but nothing to what we are now after living so long together, roughing it and sharing each others' dangers. For my part I would rather go without any more fighting than that any of us should go down."
"I agree with you thoroughly, Harris," Chris said. "As most of us are likely to remain out here for life, we shall often meet, and I do hope that when we talk of these times we shan't have our pleasure marred by having to say how we miss so and so, and so and so. I should be sorry even to lose one of our blacks. They have stuck to their work well, and are always cheerful and willing in the worst of weather and under the most miserable conditions. I should really be very sorry if any of them were killed."
It needed but a day or two for the troops to recover their cheerfulness. It was certain that they would soon be launched against the enemy again, and it was known that General Buller would himself command. The ground was now more known than it was before, the plans could he better laid, and all looked forward confidently to the next engagement.
No thanks were due to the weather for the renewed spirits of the men. It rained almost unceasingly. The flat ground on which the troops were encamped was a sea of mud. There was one good effect in this: there was water in all the spruits, and the men were able to indulge in a wash-up of their clothes and an occasional bath; and although they had to put their clothes on wet, they were scarcely more damp than when they took them off. There was other work to be done. Two naval guns, a mountain battery, and some large cannon were with great labour got up on the top of Swartz Kop.
The lads had given up the two tents allotted to them to let the rest of the men have more room, and they now felt the full benefit of their little shelter tents. The allowance throughout the rest of the camp was sixteen men to a tent. On coming in and out, as the men were muddy up to the knees, it was impossible to keep these even tolerably clean, and the discomfort of so many men crowded together and obliged to live, eat, and sleep in such confined quarters was very great indeed.
The lads on the other hand, suffered from none of these inconveniences, and except that they could not stand up, and could only sit upright in the middle of the tent, they were perfectly comfortable. The tents were about seven feet wide on the ground, and as much long. Their natives had cut and brought in bundles of grass, which made them soft beds, one on each side of the tent. A blanket was stretched on each bed, another doubled lay over it. It was a strict rule that everyone should take off his boots on entering his tent, and leave them just inside the entrance. They had purchased at the sale of the effects of some of the officers killed in action some more blankets and rugs, and these were thrown over the entrance to the front of the tents at night, and made them perfectly warm and comfortable. A trench some eighteen inches deep was dug round each tent, and this kept the floor fairly dry.
Some blankets had been given to the Kaffirs, who constructed a little shelter, in which they squatted by day and slept at night, and in which cooking operations were carried on. The lads had no occasion to feel dull, for they now knew many officers in the line regiments, and among the Colonial troops, as well as the naval brigade; and "Brookfield's boys", as they were generally called, were always welcome, and it was seldom that more than half of them dined in their own camp. Chris could always have been an absentee, for the sailors had told to each other the story of his attempt to blow up the bridge at Komati-poort, and he received any number of invitations. But he by no means liked to have to retell the story, and generally made some excuse or other for remaining in camp.
Another battery of artillery arrived on the 31st of January, and on the 3rd of February there were sports in the camp of the South African Light Horse, and a camp-fire sing-song afterwards. The men were all now in high spirits, for it was certain that in a day or two another attack would be made. On Sunday, February 4th, it was known that the move would commence the next day.
General Buller's plan was to make a strong feint against Brakfontein, the highest hill of the ridge connected with the Spion Kop range, while the real attack was to be delivered against an isolated hill named Vaal Krantz, which, as viewed from Swartz Kop and Mount Alice, seemed to be the key to the whole position, and it was thought that its possession would open the way for a direct advance to Ladysmith. All was now in readiness for the attack, and the sailors had with steel hawsers, and the aid of the troops, got four more naval guns on to Swartz Kop.
Before daybreak the troops were ready to advance. The regular cavalry were near the base of Swartz Kop, while all the Colonial Horse, under Lord Dundonald, were near Potgieter's Drift. At six o'clock the cavalry went forward, but not far, for the morning was so misty that the artillery could not make out the Boer positions until an hour later, when a tremendous fire was opened from Mount Alice, Swartz Kop, and guns placed on a lower spur of Spion Kop. While this was going on, a bridge was thrown by the Engineers across another drift. Major-general Wynne led the Lancashire brigade in the direction of Brakfontein. They went forward in skirmishing order, supported by five field batteries and the howitzer battery, all of which kept up an incessant fire of lyddite, shell, and shot against the Boer position, their fire being guided by an engineer officer in a balloon, who was able from a lofty altitude to signal where the Boers were clustering most thickly.
When another bridge had been completed General Lyttleton advanced with his brigade across it, and as the feint against Brakfontein had succeeded in gathering the greater portion of the Boers at the spot they supposed to be most in danger, the Lancashire brigade was withdrawn, retiring in excellent order, the movement being covered by an incessant firing of the guns with them, which completely dominated those of the Boers. Lyttleton's brigade now pressed forward under a storm of musketry and shell from machine and other guns, which were answered even more thunderously by the British artillery. The din was tremendous--greater even than any that had been previously heard. It seemed impossible that men could live for a moment in such a storm of missiles. But they pressed on unfalteringly, and the batteries with them as steadily maintained their fire, though shells fell continually round and among them. The batteries that had gone out with the Lancashire Brigade now directed their fire against Vaal Krantz, having moved across from Brakfontein under a tremendous fire. One of the waggons lost all its horses; but the five artillerymen with it manned the wheels and brought it safely out of fire.
At three o'clock Lyttleton's brigade advanced in earnest, and dashed forward at the double against Vaal Krantz, heedless of the rifle fire from the hills on both flanks and from the front. The defenders soon lost courage, as they saw the Durhams and 3rd King's Royal Rifles dashing up the hill with bayonets fixed, and scarce two hundred of them remained till the British gained the crest. These were speedily scattered or bayoneted.
The position when won was found to be unsatisfactory, for it was dominated by a hill beyond, which could not be seen from the British look-out stations, and the cannon of Spion Kop were able to sweep the plateau. At one time the Boers gathered and made an effort to retake the hill, but two more battalions were sent up to reinforce the defenders, and the enemy were driven back and the fire gradually languished. The troops remained on the ground they had won during the night. From prisoners they learned that four thousand Boers occupied Doornkloof, the hill on their flank, and that the whole of the Transvaalers under Joubert were gathering in their front.
The baggage waggons were all collected by the river in readiness to advance; but the way was not yet sufficiently cleared for them, and the Boer guns on Brakfontein and Spion Kop commanded the road which they would have to traverse. It was evident to all that no advance was possible until the guns on these heights had been silenced or captured. For the same reason the two brigades of cavalry had remained inactive. During the night the Boers set fire to the grass on Vaal Krantz, and by the assistance of the light kept up a shell and Maxim fire upon the troops holding it. By morning they had brought up one of their big hundred-pound Creusot guns on to Doornkloof, and it added its roar to the chaos of other sounds. Under the shelter of its fire and that of the other guns the Boers made several attempts to recapture the hill, but were smartly repulsed each time they advanced.
All day Tuesday and Wednesday the uproar of battle never ceased. We could advance no farther. The Boers could not drive us back, although they made a very determined night attack on Hildyard's brigade. That afternoon General Buller held a council of war, at which all the generals were present. Their opinions were unanimous that the Boer position could not be forced without terrible loss, and that when they arrived at Ladysmith they would but add to the number shut up in that town, as it might be found as difficult to force their way out as to arrive there. General Hart pleaded to be allowed to make an attempt on Doornkloof with his brigade; but, strongly held as that position was, it was deemed impossible that it could be captured by a single brigade. The original intention was that guns should be taken up on to Vaal Krantz, and that with their assistance a strong force would wheel round and take Doornkloof in the rear; but owing to the discovery that the former hill was dominated from several points, it was found impracticable to carry the plan into execution. Orders were therefore given for the supply column, which had advanced some distance, to retire.
As the movement was being carried out, the Boers kept up a heavy fire upon the waggons and on the hospital, which, relying upon the protection of the Red Cross flag, had advanced within range, but here, as upon almost every occasion, the enemy paid no respect whatever to the Geneva emblem, although when, as once or twice happened, one of our shells fell near an ambulance of theirs, they had sent in indignant protests against our conduct. All that night and the next day the movement to the rear continued, and not only were the infantry moved across the Tugela, but the guns on Swartz Kop and Mount Alice were removed, and orders were given for a general retirement to Springfield, a proof that the next attack would be made in an entirely different direction.