With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVIII. Railway Hill
There was little talking that evening. As soon as the tents had been erected, a cup of cocoa and a biscuit taken, all turned in, and even the constant booming of the artillery and the occasional sharp crack of musketry had no effect whatever on their slumbers. Just before Chris lay down, however, an orderly told him that Captain Brookfield wished to see him.
"I have just received orders, Chris, that our brigade of cavalry is to turn out tomorrow morning to support the infantry. Hildyard, Lyttleton, and Barton are going. Their object is to carry Cingola, which is the small peak at the end of the nek extending from it to the high peak of Monte Cristo. The duty of the mounted infantry will be to clear the eastern side of the southern end of the range, and to hold the nek separating it from the highest peak, and so prevent the Boers from their main position reinforcing the defenders of the lower peak. I think that your party had better remain in camp, for after doing over seventy miles today they won't be fit for work tomorrow." "We should not like to be left behind here, sir, and the hill is not very far away, so that it would not be hard work for the horses. No doubt we should be dismounted a considerable part of the day."
"Then you would rather go, Chris?"
"Much rather, sir. We should all be terribly disappointed if we could not go out the first day that there has been a chance of our doing something."
"It is always as well to be on the right side, but I hardly think so many troops will really be required; and I think it is a symptom that a serious attack will be made in a day or two on Monte Cristo and Hlangwane. You see, the possession of Cingola and Monte Cristo will take us pretty well round its flank, and I do not expect the Boers will be so much prepared there as they are in front."
An hour before daylight all were out engaged in grooming their horses, which, having received a hot mash of mealie flour directly they came in on the previous evening, looked better than could have been expected after their hard work on two days out of three. By the time they had finished, the natives had breakfast ready, and they had scarcely eaten this when a trumpet sounded to horse. Five minutes later the mounted infantry belonging to the regular regiments and the Colonial Horse formed up, and, led by Lord Dundonald, marched north-east, followed by the three infantry brigades and some batteries of artillery. When within a couple of miles of the nek, the mounted infantry galloped forward, and selecting a spot where the ascent was gradual, pushed rapidly up the hill until they reached its brow. Here the horses were placed in a depression, and the men scattered themselves across the crest. They were but just in time, for a considerable force of Boers from Monte Cristo were hurrying along to assist the defenders of Cingola, it having now become evident to them that this was the point to which the infantry moving across the plain were making.
A brisk fire was opened as they approached, and the Boers at once stopped in surprise, for as they came along they had been unable to see that the cavalry had quitted the rest of the column, and had therefore no idea whatever that their way to Cingola was barred. As the rapid fire showed them that the nek was held in force, they did not think it prudent to advance farther, but after an exchange of fire fell back to Monte Cristo. The task of the infantry was now comparatively easy. Cingola was not held in any great force; and seeing that their retreat along the nek was cut off, and that they could not hope to resist the strong force that was approaching, the enemy contented themselves with keeping up a brisk fire for a time, and then retreated hastily down the northern face of the hill, and scattered among numerous kopjes between it and the river. Lyttleton and Hildyard's brigades occupied the peak, and Barton, with the Fusilier battalions, remained to the left of its base.
As the mounted infantry had, before opening fire, taken shelter behind bushes and rocks, there were only two or three casualties, and they were much disappointed that the affair had been so trifling. It was afternoon now, and for the rest of the day comparative quietude reigned, although Monte Cristo threw an occasional shell on to the crest of Cingola. The mounted infantry remained all night in their position, acting as an advanced guard to the infantry; but they had orders to descend the hill before daybreak and return to Chieveley, there being no water obtainable for their horses, and their services not being required for the succeeding operations. The next morning (Sunday) a battery of field- artillery, which had been taken half-way up Cingola, began to shell Monte Cristo, and as if this had been the signal, the whole of the artillery on the plain opened a terrific fire on the entrenchments of Monte Cristo, Hlangwane, and Green Hill, which was close to Monte Cristo.
On the morning of the 18th, Lyttleton and Hildyard's brigades moved forward to storm the precipitous peak, and Barton's brigade marched against the tangled and difficult ground that surrounded Green Hill. The Queen's on the right and the Scotch Fusiliers on the left led the attack against the peak. The hillside was partly wooded, but although the smokeless powder gave little indication as to the progress the troops were making, occasional glimpses of the Boers flitting among the trees showed that these were falling back. The roar of musketry was continuous, as Hildyard's brigade and Lyttleton's were both engaged. For a short time there was a pause, and then Lyttleton's men, having gathered at the edge of a wood some couple of hundred yards from the summit, advanced with a rush up the terribly steep rocks. The Boers fired hurriedly, but the bullets flew for the most part far over the heads of the Queen's, and then, fearful of being caught by Hildyard's men, who were also rapidly coming up, they fled hastily.
The opposition had finally been trifling. The vast majority of the Boers had cleared off, and the rest, after emptying their magazines, had followed their example before the troops gained the summit, upon which a heavy cannonade was at once opened from Grobler's Hill, Fort Wylie, and other Boer positions. This, however, gradually slackened under the storm of lyddite shells with which they were pelted by the naval guns, and the important position of Hlangwane was at last secured, and no time was lost in getting up guns and preparing for a farther advance. Barton's brigade had been equally successful in their attack, and half an hour after the capture of Monte Cristo the Fusiliers crowned the summit of the wood-covered Green Hill.
The Boers' defences were now examined, and proved to be of a most formidable nature. On the south face of the hill the trenches were in tiers, line behind line. Most of them were fully six feet deep, and in many cases provided with shelter from the weather by sheets of corrugated iron, taken from the roofs of the houses in Colenso. In some cases these were supported by props, and covered with six feet of earth. These had evidently been used for sleeping and living places. The ground was strewn with straw, empty tins, fragments of food, bones, cartridge- cases, old bandoliers, and large quantities of unopened tinned food and sacks of mealie flour. Here and there were patches of dried blood, showing where the wounded by our shell had been brought in, and laid down until they could be removed to the hospital under cover of night. On the plateau the scene was similar. Here every irregularity of ground had been utilized, and long lines of trenches intersected it, showing that the Boers had intended to make a desperate resistance even after we had won our way up the hill. These were in a similar state of litter and disorder.
Although they had saved their guns, they had left behind them large quantities of ammunition and provisions in the hurried flight, necessitated by our attack being delivered in a direction from which no danger had been apprehended, Four waggons full of ammunition had been left by them in a kloof near the river. These had been observed by the Engineers in the balloon, and their position had been signalled to the naval brigade, who, turning their guns upon them, before long succeeded in blowing them up.
When the infantry prepared for their final rush the Boers appeared, indeed, to be entirely disconcerted at an attack from an altogether unexpected direction. While for weeks they had been working incessantly to render the hill impregnable, they had prepared it only on the face against which they made sure the British infantry would dash itself. Nevertheless, in this, as in every action, the Boers, as soon as they saw that there was a risk of the position being taken, began early to make preparations for retreat. While keeping up a very heavy musketry fire on the woods through which the British infantry were advancing, they began to withdraw their guns.
The speed and skill with which on every occasion throughout the war they shifted heavy pieces of artillery from one point to another, or withdrew them altogether, was a new feature in warfare. Except when the garrison of Ladysmith, on two occasions of night sorties, surprised and destroyed three of their guns, they scarcely lost a piece either in the numerous actions during our advance to Ladysmith, or in their final retreat from that town. And similarly on the other side, of the very large number of guns employed at the fight on the Modder, at Magersfontein, and in the siege of Kimberley the whole were, with the exception of a few pieces captured when Cronje was surrounded, withdrawn in spite of the hurried evacuation of their position, a feat almost unparalleled even in an army accompanied only by field-artillery, and extraordinary indeed in the case of works mounting heavy siege-guns.
No farther advance was made till the afternoon, when General Buller arrived on the summit of Green Hill, and seeing that Hlangwane was not entrenched on its northern side, which was completely turned by our advance, sent Barton's brigade against it. But the loss of Monte Cristo had for the time quite taken the fight out of the Boers, and after maintaining a brisk fire for a short period, they evacuated the position as soon as the infantry neared the summit, and, hurrying down the western slope, crossed the Tugela. Three camps full of provisions, blankets, and the necessaries of Boer life fell into the hands of the captors, together with a large amount of rifle and Maxim ammunition. The place had been turned into a fortress. Trenches and some breastworks covered all the approaches by which the Boers might look for an attack, and as the whole mountain was covered with huge boulders, they were able to withstand even the storm of lyddite shell that was poured upon them.
On the following day Hart's brigade received orders to advance towards Colenso. This was still held in force by the Boers, but was now commanded by guns that had been got up the slopes of Hlangwane, and on Tuesday morning General Hart captured the position without serious loss, the Boers suffering severely from our shrapnel fire as they retreated, some by the iron bridge and others by a ford. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, which was called up in the evening, took advantage of the discovery that a drift existed there, and a squadron forded the river in spite of a scattered fire from the Boers on the opposite bank. Another portion of the colonial force occupied Fort Wylie, a redoubt that had been thrown up by our troops when they occupied Colenso, but had been abandoned when the advance of the Boers to cut the line between Colenso and Frere forced them to retire.
The next morning Thorneycroft's regiment crossed, and, moving to the left, seized the kopjes facing Grobler's Kloof; the Boers, still suffering from the effect of their unexpected reverses, offered no resistance, but, abandoning all their camps, trenches, and redoubts, retired at once to the hill. The Scouts had followed Thorneycroft's Horse in support, and now, placing their horses under shelter in the abandoned entrenchments, prepared to act as infantry should the Boers take the offensive. This, however, they showed no intention of doing, and in the afternoon the troops who had crossed were able to examine the deserted camps. They presented very much the same appearance as those on Monte Cristo and Hlangwane. Many of them appeared to have been occupied by men of a better position, as many articles of luxury, choicer food, wearing apparel, newspapers, Bibles, fruit, and other signs of comfort littered the places; but even here dirt had reigned supreme. Although they must have been inhabited for a long time, it could be seen that no attempts had been made to clear away the refuse, or to make them in any degree tidy. As was natural, the effect of the heat of the sun on scraps of food, vegetables, and refuse of all kinds caused a sickening stench, and the soldiers spent as short a time as possible over their investigations. One article which would have been found in a British camp was altogether absent from those of the enemy, and it was a joke among our troops that the only piece of soap ever captured was found in the pocket of a dead Boer, and that its wrapper was still unopened.
The strength of the position was, however, even more surprising than the state of filth; every trench was enfiladed by another, great boulders were connected by walls of massive construction, this being specially the case where guns had been placed in position. Colenso itself had been in a similar manner rendered almost impregnable to a frontal attack, and could hardly have been captured by an assaulting force until Hlangwane had been taken.
The hills beyond the railway still covered the road bridge by their fire, and had the troops marched across it they would have suffered severely. Accordingly a pontoon train was sent through an opening in the Hlangwane range, and a bridge thrown over the Tugela north of Fort Wylie. The Dorsets, Middlesex, and Somersets crossed at once, and, ascending the kopjes, extended their line south until they were in communication with Thorneycroft's men, holding therefore the railway line along the river bank nearly half the distance between Colenso and Pieters station. Other regiments and artillery followed.
It was now six days since the advance had commenced, and for the past four fighting had been almost continuous. On Wednesday the three regiments advanced towards Grobler's Hill in order to ascertain what force was occupying it. They met with no opposition until they reached the lower slopes, nor could any Boers be seen moving. Then suddenly a heavy fire broke out from the boulders which covered the whole face of the hill, and afforded such perfect shelter that it had not been considered necessary to form entrenchments. As only a reconnaissance, and not an attack, had been ordered, the force retired, the Somersets, who were the leading regiment, having nearly a hundred casualties. The other regiments had as many more between them. The next day a continuous fire from all the points held by the Boers showed that large reinforcements had reached them. The Lancashire Brigade, under Colonel Wynne, started at two o'clock that afternoon to carry the kopjes up the Brook Spruit, which ran in the rear of Grobler's Kloof. The Royal Lancasters led the way, but as soon as they left the shelter of the ridges by the side of the railway they were exposed to a terrible fire, both in front and from Grobler's Kloof. The artillery on Hlangwane, and those still on the plain, endeavoured to silence the enemy's guns, but though they poured numbers of lyddite and shrapnel shells among them they were unable to do so. The Lancasters advanced with the greatest coolness up the spruit, followed by the South Lancasters. As they pressed forward they were met by a heavy rifle fire both from the kopjes in front and on the left. The Boers stuck to the hill until the Lancasters were within a hundred yards, then most of them slunk off. Not knowing this, the Lancasters lay under shelter for a few minutes until their ammunition pouches had been replenished, then, being joined by the South Lancasters and King's Royal Rifles, they rushed to the crest.
For the past two days the Dublin Fusiliers had been lying near Colenso. They had suffered very heavily in the first attack at Potgieter's Drift, but they now volunteered to take Grobler's Hill; and this, aided with the fire of the artillery and Colonel Wynne's brigade, they did in gallant style, the Boers being evidently nervous that they might find their retreat cut off should the Lancasters advance farther up the spruit.
On Friday afternoon the Irish Brigade advanced along the line, and then turned off towards Railway Hill, a steep jagged eminence almost triangular in shape, with one angle pointing towards the river. The sides were broken with sharp ledges covered with boulders. The railway passed through this, separating the last jagged ledge from the higher portion of the hill, which rises almost precipitously. Running back several hundred yards at the base of this line was a dip full of thorn trees. This deep winds round the rear of the hill, and here there was a large Boer Camp.
A little farther to the rear was another steep hill, on which the enemy's Creusot guns were now mounted. Several trenches were cut alongside the hillsides, and on the crest were some strong redoubts. It was a most formidable position, but as it seemed to bar all progress farther up the line, it was necessary to carry it at all costs. The mounted infantry had, after the skirmish towards Grobler's Kloof, returned to the camp, as the country was so terribly broken as to be altogether impracticable for mounted men.
On Thursday, Captain Brookfield had obtained a pass for himself and three other officers to go to Hlangwane to view the operations, but one of these being unwell, Captain Brook-field invited Chris to take his place. After inspecting the plateau, they made their way down to the left. Hearing that an attack was about to be made on Railway Hill, they clambered down until they reached a point where, seated in an open spot among the trees, they could command a view of what was passing.
"It is an awful place," Chris said, "and it seems to me almost impossible to be carried."
"It is an awful place," Captain Brookfield agreed. "This is one of the times, Chris, when one feels the advantage of belonging to a mounted corps, for without being less brave than other men, I should regard it as an order to meet certain death were I told to attack that rugged hill. Ah, there are the Irish Brigade!"
The storming party consisted of the Inniskillings, with companies of the Dublins, the Connaught Bangers, and the Imperial Light Infantry. From a building called Platelayer's House at the mouth of the spruit, to the foot of the hill, the ground was perfectly open to the point where the left face of Railway Hill rose steeply up, and across this open ground, a distance of half a mile, the assailants had to march.
"Here they come!"
As, in open order, with their rifles at the trail, the Inniskillings appeared in view, a terrible fire broke out from every ledge of Railway Hill, while the cannon joined in the roar. The guns on Hlangwane, and those on the slopes nearer the river, with Maxims and quick-firing guns, replied on our side.
"It is awful," Chris said, speaking to himself rather than to the captain who was standing beside him. "I don't think that even at Badajos, British soldiers were ever sent on a more desperate enterprise. It looks as if nothing could live under that fire even now; what will it be when they get closer?"
Not a shot was fired by the advancing infantry in reply to the storm of bullets from the Boer marksmen. Every round of ammunition might be wanted yet, and it would only be wasted on an invisible foe. They took advantage of what little shelter could be obtained, sometimes close to the river bank, sometimes following some slight depression which afforded at least a partial protection. At last they reached a deep donga running into the river; this was crossed by a small bridge, and in passing over it they had to run the gauntlet of the Boer fire. Many fell here, but the stream of men passed on, and then at a double rushed to a sheltered spot close to the foot of the ascent, where they had been ordered to gather. Here they had a breathing space. Their real work was yet to begin, but already their casualties had been numerous. The Inniskillings alone had lost thirty-eight killed and wounded. Not a word had been spoken among the little group on the hill, for the last ten minutes; they stood with tightly-pressed lips, breath coming hard, and pale faces looking at the scene. Occasionally a short gasp broke from one or other as a shell burst in the thick of the men crossing the little bridge, a cry as if they themselves had been struck. When the troops gained their shelter there was a sigh of relief.
"They will never do it," Captain Brookfield said decidedly. "It would need ten times as many men to give them a chance."
This was the opinion of them all, and they hoped even now that this was but the advance party, and that ere long they would see a far larger body of men coming up. But there were no signs of reinforcements, and at five o'clock the troops were re-formed and the advance began. They dashed forward up the hill under a heavy fire, to which the supporting line replied. The boulders afforded a certain amount of shelter, and of this the Inniskillings took every advantage, until they reached the last ledge with comparatively little loss. But the work was still before them. Leaping over, they rushed down on to the railway line. Here a wire-fence arrested their course for a moment, and many fell while getting through or over it. Then they ran across the line, passed through a fence on the other side, and dashed up the steep angle of the hill to the first trench. Hitherto the fire of the Boers had been far less destructive than might have been expected, their attention being confused and their aim flurried by the constant explosion of lyddite shell from the British batteries. They had but one eye for their assailants, the other for the guns, and as each of the heavy pieces was fired, they ducked down for shelter, only to get up again to take a hasty shot before having to hide again.
Thus, then, they were in no condition to reckon the comparatively small numbers of their assailants, and as they saw the Irishmen dashing forward, cheering loudly, with pointed bayonets, they hesitated, and then bolted up the hill to the next trench. Instead of waiting until the supports had come up for another rush, the Irishmen with a cheer dashed across the trench in hot pursuit. But the next line was far more strongly manned, and a storm of bullets swept among them. Still, for a time they kept on, but wasting so rapidly that even the most desperate saw that it could not be done; and, turning, the survivors retreated to the trench that they had already won, while the supports fell back to the railway, both suffering heavily in the retreat. No fewer than two hundred of the Inniskillings had fallen in that desperate charge, their colonel and ten officers being either killed or wounded, while the Dublins also lost their colonel.
All through the night the trench was held sternly, in spite of repeated and desperate efforts of the Boers to dislodge its defenders. Nothing could be done for those who lay wounded on the hill above. Morning broke, and the fight still continued. At nine o'clock another desperate charge was made; but the Boers were unable to face the steady fire that was maintained by the defenders of the trench, and they again turned and ran for their shelters. Just as this attack was repulsed, Lyttleton's brigade arrived on the scene, exchanging a hearty cheer with the men who had so long borne the brunt of this terrible conflict. The Durham Light Infantry at once relieved those in the trenches, and these descended the hill for the rest that was so much needed. All that day the fighting continued, and while Lyttleton's men held to the position on Railway Hill, there was fierce fighting away to the left, where the Welsh Fusiliers and other regiments were hotly engaged. The roar of artillery and musketry never ceased all day, but towards evening white flags were hoisted on both sides, and a truce was agreed upon for twelve hours to bury the dead.
The scene of the conflict presented a terrible sight. The hillside between the two trenches was strewn with dead and wounded. The sufferings of the latter had been terrible. For six-and-thirty hours they had lain where they fell, their only relief being a little water, that in the short intervals during the fighting some kindly Boers had crept down to give them. The truce began at four o'clock in the morning of Sunday the 25th, and the foes of the previous day mingled with each other in the sad work, conversing freely with each other. The Boers expressed their astonishment that such an attempt should ever have been made, and their stupefaction at the manner in which the Irish had pressed on through a fire in which it had seemed that no human being could have existed for a minute. When informed of the relief of Kimberley, and the fact that Cronje was hopelessly surrounded, they scoffed at the news as a fable, and were so honestly amused that it was evident they had been kept absolutely in the dark by their leaders. Captain Brookfield and his party had remained at the lookout until darkness set in. After the first exclamation of pain and grief as they saw the attack fail, and the fearfully thinned ranks run back to shelter, there had been little said. "It was impossible from the first," Captain Brookfield sighed as they turned. "If the relief of Ladysmith depends on our carrying that hill, Ladysmith is doomed to fall."
They returned to the spot where they had left their horses in charge of two of the blacks, and rode back to Chieveley. It was a sorrowful evening. The men's hopes had risen daily as position after position had been carried, and now it seemed that once again the enterprise had hopelessly failed. On Monday there was a continuation of the lull of firing. Many of the officers in camp who were off duty rode up to examine the scene of the fight, and they were not surprised when they saw the infantry recrossing the pontoon bridge. All wore a dejected aspect, but especially the men who had fought so heroically and, as it now seemed, in vain. They sat watching until the last soldier had crossed, and then rode to the top of Hlangwane. All Chris's party had come out, and those who had not before seen the view waited there for a couple of hours, ate some refreshment they had brought with them, discussed the difficulties that lay in the way of farther advance, and the probable point against which General Buller would next direct his attack.
"Hullo!" Chris exclaimed suddenly, "that pontoon train is not coming back to camp. Do you see, after moving to the point where it passed through this range, it has turned to the north again and not to the south. Hurrah! Buller is not going to throw up the sponge this time. The Boers have not done with us yet." This indeed was the case. The general, seeing that Railway Hill was too strong to be carried by assault, unless with an enormous loss of life, had caused the river to be reconnoitred some distance farther up, and this had resulted in the discovery of a spot where, with some little labour, the troops could get down to the river and a pontoon bridge be again thrown. Such a spot was found by Colonel Sandbach of the Royal Engineers, and a strong working party was at once set to work to make a practicable approach. The point lay some three or four miles below Railway Hill, and the most formidable of the obstacles would therefore be turned. That night the troops crossed, and the Boers--who were in ignorance of what had been going on, the point chosen for the passage being at the bend of the river and hidden by an intervening eminence from their positions--were astonished at finding a strong force again across the river.
As soon as the news reached the camp that the army was again crossing, satisfaction took the place of the deep depression that had reigned during the past two days, and the situation was eagerly discussed. Those who at all knew the country were eagerly questioned as to the ground farther on near the line of railway. All these agreed that the hill called Pieter's was a formidable position, almost, though not perhaps quite, as strong as Railway Hill, but that beyond it the line ran through a comparatively open country, and that if this hill could be captured the relief of Ladysmith would be ensured. The Scouts had not escaped altogether scatheless. At the reconnaissance towards Grobler's Hill, Brown, Harris, and Willesden had all been wounded, but none very seriously, although at first it was thought that Willesden's was a mortal injury, for he had been hit in the stomach. The doctors, however, assured his anxious comrades that there was every ground for hope, for very many of those who had been so injured had made a speedy recovery.
"Poor old Willesden!" Field had said as they talked it over; "it is hard that he should have been hit in the stomach, for he was a capital hand at taking care of it."
"And of ours too, Field. He has been a first-rate caterer. I do hope he will pull through it." The lad himself had not seemed to suffer much pain, and three days later the surgeon had been able to assure his friends that as no fever had set in they had little fear of serious consequences ensuing. The boys had not been allowed to see him. Captain Brookfield, however, reported that he was going on capitally, but was in a very bad temper because he was allowed to eat nothing but a piece of bread and a sip of milk, while he declared himself desperately hungry, and capable of devouring a good-sized leg of mutton.
"I don't think you need worry about him," he said to Chris; "the doctor told me that in a fortnight he would be very likely to be about again, and none the worse for the wound, the bullet having evidently missed any vital point, in which case its passage would heal as quickly as the little wounds where the bullet enters and passes out usually do."
Harris had his arm broken just above the elbow, and Brown a flesh wound below the hip. He was the stoutest of the party, and jokingly said, as he was carried back, that the bullet had passed through the largest amount of flesh in the company. Chris once or twice went into the hospitals with a doctor whose acquaintance he had made. They offered a strong contrast to the scene that had taken place after the battle of Elandslaagte, as in the hospitals at Chieveley and Frere everything was as admirably arranged as they would have been in one of a large town. In the daytime the sides of the marquees were lifted to allow of a free passage of air. The nurses in their neat dresses moved quietly among the patients with medicines, soups, jellies, and other refreshments ordered for them. There were books for those sufficiently convalescent to be able to read them, and those who wished to send a letter home always found one of the nurses ready to write at their dictation. By some of the bedsides stood bouquets of flowers sent by the ladies of Maritzburg, and all had an abundance of delicious fruit from the same source.