Eighty-seven years before the outbreak of the South African War, the British Army was besieging the city of Badajoz, in Spain. When it was taken by assault, a Spanish matron and her sister were molested and came for protection to the British Camp, where they were received by Harry Smith, a young Captain in the 95th Regiment, who when the Peninsular War was over, married the girl fugitive, Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon.
After a distinguished military career in the East Indies and elsewhere, Sir Harry Smith went out to South Africa in 1848 as Governor of the Cape Colony, and its dependencies; and in that year he proclaimed the country between the Orange and the Vaal to be British Territory.
The Boers of the Great Trek resented the annexation, and one Pretorius took the field, but was beaten on August 29 at the battle of Boomplatz by Smith, who had under his command six companies of infantry and two squadrons of cavalry; a force which strangely contrasts with the masses of soldiery opposed to Pretorius' successors, Joubert, Botha, Cronje, De Wet, and Delarey.
Harrismith, in the Free State, was named after him; his services in the Sikh War were commemorated by an Aliwal on the Orange; while upon a new township in Natal, she who was once Donna Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon of Badajoz on the Guadiana, bestowed the commonplace designation for which she had exchanged her retinue of tuneful Spanish, and it was called Ladysmith.
After fifty years of obscurity, Ladysmith suddenly became the pivot upon which the fortunes of the British Empire were poised. Its loss, at least during the early weeks of the siege, would not only have thrown a British Army into captivity, but would have left an encouraged and very mobile enemy, replenished with the spoils of war, free to march irresistibly towards the sea.
In November, Buller was prepared, if Ladysmith should fall, to abandon the whole of Natal except Durban. He had private information that, if the Boers reached the coast, a certain European power would intervene. There was also the fear that another reverse would call out the disaffected Dutch in the Cape Colony, and the danger lest the British nation, treacherously harassed by the cries of the disaffected at home, who sympathize with the misfortunes of every nation but their own, would again write off South Africa as a bad debt, and offer peace on ignominious terms. In India the news of the capture of White, a former Commander in Chief, and of his removal as a prisoner of war, would have seriously, if not fatally, impaired the British raj.
At a later period, when the reinforcements had arrived and the plan of campaign had been altered to suit the situation in Natal, the loss of Ladysmith would not have so vitally affected the position in South Africa; and, in fact, Buller on December 16, authorized White to surrender.
On November 1, the commanders of the allied forces, Joubert and A.P. Cronje, decided to invest and bombard Ladysmith, confidently expecting that the only obstacle in the way of the procession to the sea would soon be removed by the fall of the intimidated town. They were even urged by some of the subordinate leaders, who, as a rule, were never so venturesome as when there was no immediate prospect of meeting the enemy, to mask White and march at once upon Durban, but Joubert would only sanction a minor effort in that direction which was postponed until it was too late to be effective.
The last man to leave Ladysmith was French. He was ordered to Capetown to meet Buller, who was persuaded by his report on the situation that White's force was insufficient to keep Natal from being overrun, and that the worst might be feared. The escape of French, by a margin of a few minutes only, made him available for employment in an arena more suited to his capacity than a besieged town; and his subsequent good work in the Cape Colony, south of the Orange River, and during the advance on Kimberley and Bloemfontein, showed how ill the fortune of war served the Boers, when they just failed to capture the train which was taking out of their clutches the soldier who was to relieve Kimberley and head off Cronje at Paardeberg before the relief of Ladysmith was effected.
White has been blamed for keeping the whole of his strong force of cavalry in Ladysmith. He had with him four regiments of regular cavalry besides five irregular colonial corps. For the space of three months the action of the British Army was hampered by the absence of the mounted troops interned in Ladysmith and engaged in garrison duties, until at last the horses were either killed for food, or, when forage was exhausted, turned out on the bare veld under the enemy's fire, to support themselves as they could. White justified, or it may be, excused, his retention of the cavalry, by its mobility, which virtually increased the effective strength of the garrison, and enabled him to reinforce rapidly any threatened section of the defence, as for example, during the attack on Caesar's Camp. It is no doubt arguable that cavalry was more useful within the lines of investment than it would have been, if squandered over the whole area of the concurrent operations elsewhere; and if so, the limits of its tactical employment have been considerably extended.31
White's force, which numbered about 13,000 men, occupied a perimeter of fourteen miles on the hills and kopjes nearest to the town, and was enveloped by an outer perimeter of thirty six miles held by 23,000 Boers. The positions N.E. of the Klip River were occupied by the Transvaalers, and the opposite semi-circle by the Free Staters.
On November 2, began the bombardment, which the enemy fondly hoped would bring White on his knees within a week; the first death casualty during the siege being a naval officer who had reached Ladysmith only a few hours before the investment with a re-inforcement of long-range naval guns from the fleet; and during the next two days it was continued from Pepworth, Bulwana, and elsewhere, with such effect as to induce White to ask, at the instigation of the civilian authorities, permission to send away the women, children, and other non-combatants. This somewhat naive request was naturally disallowed by Joubert, who, however, consented to the formation of a neutral camp for them and the sick and wounded at Intombi, within the area of the siege, and dependent for its supplies and maintenance upon the resources of the garrison. Joubert put into Ladysmith 200 derelict Indian coolies from the Natal collieries, an act which was perhaps justified by the code of war, which sanctions the employment of any means by which the difficulties of a besieged town can be increased; but a subsequent attempt made by Schalk Burger during Joubert's advance on the raid towards the south, to saddle White with the Indian refugees from the Transvaal was successfully resisted.
On November 9, the enemy was foiled in an attack on Observation Hill and Wagon Hill which were not then held in force, and for eight weeks the siege was carried on with so little vigour, and confronted with so much skill, that the British casualties in killed and wounded during that period numbered less than 250. When the Boers found that the walls of Ladysmith did not at once fall to the sound of the artillery, they began with equal confidence to rely upon the indirect casualties caused by sickness and privation, and awaited the result without impatience in their laagers. During the last fortnight of November a strong column under Joubert was detached to raid into Southern Natal. It was prudently but not enterprisingly led, did little harm, and returned with slight loss.
Meanwhile the enemy's artillery had been considerably re-inforced, and the British gun ammunition was beginning to run short. The capture of a large herd of cattle by the Boers, who neatly drew the animals away from the town by exploding shells behind them, entailed a reduced meat ration. In order to co-operate with the relieving force under Clery, who at the end of November was within signalling distance, White exercised a part of the garrison as a striking column, which, when the time came, he proposed to take out under his own command, and to clear the line of approach from the South.
Three weeks after the abortive attack of November 9, Joubert returned from his expedition to Estcourt. A council of war was held, and an assault on the Platrand32 was determined on for the 30th. On the previous evening the commandos detailed as covering parties on the left flank went into position on Rifleman's Ridge, and awaited the main attack. Meanwhile much had happened in the laagers. The decisions of the Boer Krijgsraad seem to have been subject to confirmation by a minor convention composed of the subordinate officers. These took counsel during the night, and resolved that "the plan was too dangerous to attempt." When the covering parties opened fire at dawn there was no assaulting column to cover.
The activity during December was confined to the defence. On the night of the 7th a raid on Gun Hill, an underfeature of Lombard's Kop, silenced—at least in Natal—two heavy guns which were worrying the garrison. By the rules of the game the pieces were injured beyond repair by the gun-cotton charges which the sappers had fired in the breeches and muzzles; but the heavier gun was removed to Pretoria, where it was made serviceable. It was eventually sent to Kimberley, and its arrival greatly alarmed the timid and irresolute diamond men, whose life was easy and almost luxurious when compared with the privations which the steadfast garrison of Ladysmith endured for four months. On the same night Limit Hill, which the enemy seized a few days after the investment, was recovered.
A heavy gun was emplaced by the Boers to the front of the northward section of the defence, on a hill in the angle between the Bell Spruit and the railway to Harrismith. The approach to it was commanded by Bell's Kopje and Thornhill's Kopje, but a Battalion of Rifles under Metcalfe wriggled in between them at midnight on December 11, without alarming the enemy, and almost reached the crest of the eminence which was thereafter known as Surprise Hill, before the Boers opened fire. The assaulters encircled the emplacement, but could not find the gun. In a little time it was discovered outside the work, and disabled, but not permanently. The Boers on the flanking kopjes were now on the alert; and the battalion as it withdrew down the slope met in the darkness a small but determined detachment which had formed up athwart the line of retirement. The obstacle was rushed with the bayonet, and the expedition returned to Ladysmith with a loss exceeding 12 per cent of its strength.
The gun raids were almost the only offensive action taken by the defence during the siege, and though successful as far as they went, they did not greatly reduce the strength of the enemy's artillery and were not continued. He had still more than a score of pieces with which he daily bombarded the town; but no attempt to assault it by a moving force was made for some weeks. His confidence in the final issue was unimpaired; he had but to squat in his trenches worrying the garrison with shell fire, and the inevitable surrender must come.
His complacent view of the situation was manifested by his use of the besieging force as a depot which was from time to time called upon to furnish drafts for service elsewhere. Joubert's absence on the raid towards the south did not sensibly diminish the retaining power of the attack, and although the loss of several thousand Free State burghers who were transferred to Cronje's command on the Modder or to Delarey's at Colesberg was in part made up by a reinforcement of Transvaalers, the force sitting round Ladysmith had to assist in the defence of the line of the Tugela against Duller; yet, albeit weakened by that necessity, it was still able without much effort to pin White down to the banks of the Klip River. The inactivity of the garrison, as well as the daily increasing hospital camp at Intombi under the shadow of Bulwana and the mournful processions to the cemetery hard by, showed that sickness, the waning physical and moral strength of those who were still on duty, and the expenditure of stores, supplies, and ammunition, were slowly impairing White's power of resistance; and that the numbers of the besieging force, which later on Buller believed did not exceed 2,000 men, could be safely reduced.
The Boers believed that "their strength was to sit still," and they were not far wrong.
Early in the New Year, however, external pressure emanating from Pretoria and Bloemfontein was brought to bear upon Joubert, and he sanctioned another assault on the Platrand, which was from the first considered to be the key to Ladysmith. It is a series of plateaux, about two miles long and varying in breadth from half a mile to a few hundred yards. Its chief features are Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill. A mile north of the centre of the position is Maiden's Castle. The contours on Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill are pinched in in three places and divide the Platrand into four positions of unequal area, the smallest being Wagon Point, an underfeature on the extreme right of Wagon Hill. The latter is joined by a nek to Caesar's Camp, the plan of which owing to the contraction of the contours somewhat resembles the outline of a dumb-bell. The highest point of the position is a knoll on Wagon Hill, and the front slopes southwards down to Bester's Valley and Fourie's Spruit. On each flank were hills occupied by the enemy's artillery.
The strength of the assaulting column as detailed was composed of approximately equal numbers of Free Staters and Transvaalers and amounted to upwards of 4,000 burghers. To the former Wagon Hill was assigned as their objective, to the latter Caesar's Camp, which was held in greater strength. Early on the morning of January 6, the sentry of the picket posted on the nek between Wagon Hill and Wagon Point, became aware of movement on the slope and gave the alarm. Soon after, a party of Engineers and Infantry preparing gun positions on Wagon Point in view of a contemplated operation in support of Buller's expected advance by way of Potgieter's Drift, were fired on at short range by a body of Free Staters, who had succeeded in climbing to the nek, and who then threatened a redoubt in the western shoulder of the knoll on Wagon Hill, which commanded Wagon Point. The first rush was checked by the Natal Volunteers, who opened with a Hotchkiss gun from the knoll at a range of less than 100 yards, and threw the leading ranks of the enemy into confusion. The working parties were thus given time to take up their rifles, and to organize themselves more effectively for defence.
A counter-attack was made from the adjacent post on the eastern shoulder, but it failed to dislodge the enemy, a small party of whom diverged towards their left, and circled round Wagon Point to the rear of the position between Wagon Hill and Maiden's Castle. Here they lighted upon the heavy gun at the foot of the northward slope for which an emplacement had just been made on Wagon Point, and although the gun was successfully defended by the escort, the insecurity of the Platrand position was shown by the attempt.
While the Free Staters were assaulting Wagon Hill and Wagon Point, the Transvaalers obtained a footing on the edge of the Caesar's Camp position; but their supports failed them. A considerable proportion of the burghers detailed for the attack on Caesar's Camp, most of them Transvaalers, again either refused, as on November 9, to take part in it, or shirked during the advance. But at dawn, after a struggle in the dark at such close quarters that the face of each combatant was often for the first time revealed by the flash of his adversary's rifle, the enemy had his finger on the key to Ladysmith; and was clinging, like swallows on the eaves, to the whole length of the Platrand from Wagon Point along a sinuous contour line which curved round the eastern shoulder of Caesar's Camp, and awaiting the supporting bombardment which, as soon as there was light enough for the alignment of the sights, would be opened upon the position from the flanking guns on Bulwana and Rifleman's Ridge, and from Middle Hill on the front.
The normal garrison of the Platrand, which, since the attack on November 9 had been entirely included in the perimeter of the defence, numbered not more than about 1,000 men, but it was under the command of Ian Hamilton.
When the firing began he was in his bivouac near Caesar's Camp. He quickly collected what troops he could lay his hands on, and went to Wagon Hill, where he found the situation so serious that he asked White to re-inforce him. At daybreak the Boer artillery opened upon the position, and it is probable that it would have been lost, but for the action of two field batteries which, at a critical moment, came out of Ladysmith and diverged so as to protect each flank.
Already on the Wagon Point flank, the enemy had worked round and had threatened the heavy gun, and on the other flank he was holding the eastern shoulder of Caesar's Camp. Wagon Point was saved from a turning movement by one battery, while the other, though itself under artillery fire from Bulwana, opened on the Boers clinging on to the eastern shoulder, and by checking the advance of their supports, caused them to withdraw the hook with which they were grappling that flank. But more than this the British guns could not do, and the Boers holding on to the front crest could not be touched by shrapnel, and were maintaining themselves against the defenders of Caesar's Camp; while a combat of even greater intensity was being waged on Wagon Hill.
Here an attempt made by a few companies of Highlanders to outflank the Boer line on the crest by working round the shoulder of Wagon Point, had failed, as the men were exposed to an irresistible fire as they turned the corner. On Wagon Hill the enemy was holding on to the front of the redoubt on the knoll and each attempt to dislodge him was unsuccessful.
Towards noon there was a lull in the storm. After nine hours' fighting, the combatants were face to face on the plateau and the advantage lay apparently with the attacking Boers, who, in spite of the strong re-inforcements which had been sent up by White, were still clinging to the southern crest of Caesar's Camp, and who on their left had won a footing close to the knoll on Wagon Hill, and were effectively checking the details on Wagon Point. White having used up all the infantry which he could safely spare from the other positions on the perimeter, now sent the cavalry to the rescue.
The pause in the fight, which seems to have been occasioned by the exhaustion and discouragement of the enemy, and which, perforce, had to be acquiesced in by the defence, led White to report to Buller soon after noon, that the Boers had been beaten off for the time being, but that a renewal of the attack was probable. It came at the moment when he was sending the despatch from his Head Quarters on Convent Hill, and when Ian Hamilton was preparing a counter-attack round the shoulder of Wagon Point. A small body of Free Staters rushed the summit of Wagon Point, and by their impact drove many of the defenders down the reverse slope. But those who remained were resolute. After a hand to hand fight between Boer commandants and British officers around the emplacement which had been prepared for the heavy gun, the position was recovered and a reinforcement of dismounted Hussars came up in time to secure it.
On Wagon Hill also the struggle was renewed, and here also the defence was strengthened by some dismounted cavalry which had been waiting in support in rear of Caesar's Camp. It was evident that if the enemy were not dislodged from Wagon Hill during daylight, he would be able to establish himself irremovably after dark, when all the waverers would come up under the protection of the night. At 3 in the afternoon White reported to Buller that the attack had been renewed and that he was "very hard pressed." He called the Devons to his aid from their post on the northern section of the perimeter, and in a storm of rain and thunder, themselves a resistless tempest, they cleared Wagon Hill with magazine and bayonet.
On Caesar's Camp the enemy had already wavered, and the crest was in possession of the defence; and now all along the line from Wagon Point to the eastern shoulder the Boers were scuttling down the slopes toward the flooded dongas below under a hail of rifle fire. The battle, which had begun soon after midnight, was continued until near sunset and resulted in the discomfiture of the only serious attempt made by the Boers to capture Ladysmith by offensive action. The success was due primarily to the determination of an enfeebled garrison, which had already undergone a siege of nine weeks; and secondarily to the tactical mistakes of the enemy, who had allowed troops to concentrate upon the Platrand which should have been contained and pinned to their posts at other sections of the perimeter of defence. Not a few of the commandos detailed for the assault on the Platrand flinched, yet it almost succeeded; and if these had been distributed to positions elsewhere, they would not have incurred great danger, and their presence would probably have prevented the transfer of the Devons and of the mounted troops to Wagon Hill at the critical moment.
The battle casualties of January 6 outnumbered in the proportion of 6 to 4 the entire losses due to the acts of the enemy during the whole four months' investment before and after that date. Twice Wagon Point was occupied only by the wounded and the dead. Much of the fighting was either hand to hand or at such short range that the effect of the bullet could be almost read in the expression on the face of the stricken opponent; now of anguish, despair, or hatred, now of a gentle sinking to sleep after toil. The homely name of Wagon Hill, far away from the fatherland under the southern sun, will abide for all time in the chronicles of the deeds of the British private soldier. It was his own battle, by which he saved Ladysmith. Next day a message from home reached White.
"Heartily congratulate you and all under your command for your brilliant success. Greatly admire conduct of Devonshire Regiment." The Sender was Queen Victoria.
The failure of the attack on the Platrand deterred the Boers from further attempts to break into Ladysmith, which was left like Paris thirty years before to "stew in its own juice." An ingenious but impracticable method of bringing the place to its senses by damming the Klip River below the town in the hope of isolating it by flood was put in hand, and some alarm was created, but the loyal stream refused to rise. The garrison was too much weakened by disease and famine to be able to assist effectively Buller's promised advance by way of Potgieter's Drift, and in fact he never came near enough to Ladysmith to make co-operation possible. A mobile column was for the second time organized by White, but it is doubtful whether it could have taken the field.
Perhaps some poet of a future generation may follow the example of the Homeric syndicate and select the Siege of Ladysmith as the theme of a great Epic, romantically but unhistorically interwoven with the legend of Juana Maria of Badajoz. On the Boer side the struggle was carried on with much of the simplicity of Homeric times and the Siege of Troy. The debates in the war councils; the doubts of the subordinate commanders; the devices and stratagems, such as the attempt to dam the Klip River, and the proposal to disguise an assaulting commando in the helmets and accoutrements of the slain opponents; the abstinence of some of the leaders from the fray; the single combats on Wagon Point; the democratic organization of the Boer forces; the difficulty of keeping the burghers to their duty when the attraction of a domestic and pastoral life presented themselves in an alluring form; were not of these days nor even of the Puritan period, but belonged to a remoter age when every man was a soldier or a shepherd according to the exigences of the moment. Many a Boer leader, like Ajax, defied the lightning—when it was not playing directly upon him. Not one of them comes prominently into the foreground in the great South African siege.
De Wet's brief service in Natal came to an end before the investment, and in the light of his exploits elsewhere, it is interesting to speculate upon what might have happened if he had been in command of the attack on January 6. In all probability it would have succeeded. The Boers rarely failed when commanded by a resolute leader who knew his own mind and was able to impose his own will upon them. In isolated enterprises daringly conducted, they were usually efficient, and sometimes irresistible, but like most primitive communities in which the military instinct is individual rather than collective, they were incapable of forming themselves into a coherent and unified Army for action in mass. De Wet, in his Three Years' War, protests against the British theory that the burghers were only fit to engage in guerilla, which, possibly from ignorance of the meaning of the word, he seems to regard as an unworthy term of reproach; but the theory was in reality a grudging recognition of a suppressed factor in the problem of the war which the professors had overlooked. His own exploits go far to prove its soundness.
Like mariners adrift upon the ocean in an open boat, their food and their water dwindling hour by hour, who eagerly watch a white topsail or a faint wreath of smoke which seems for a time to be approaching, yet soon sinks beneath the horizon and leaves them alone upon the waste; the garrison of Ladysmith was cruelly tantalized by Buller's fitful appearances on the Tugela. Again and again the boom of his guns growing clearer and clearer and his heliographs sparkling more distinctly deluded the defenders with the hope that the day of their deliverance was at hand. During the Spion Kop affair, the confidence was so great that for a day or two full rations were issued. The summit could be seen crowded with people on January 25 who surely must be Buller's men. Not so; they were the Boers who, to their astonishment, had found the summit unoccupied, and were burying the dead and collecting the wounded. The roar of war died away; was heard again from Vaalkrantz, soon to sink into silence on February 7, when Buller announced that the enemy was too strong for him. It was renewed at Hlangwhane, Monte Cristo, and Pieter's Hill, but former disappointments had made the garrison insensible to hope and it fell upon apathetic ears. When at last Dundonald's little band was seen approaching, the chilled and dazed soldiers of the garrison could scarcely realize that they were saved.
After January 6 the increasing sickness and the deficiency of food became the chief facts of the Siege. More than three-score horses were sacrificed daily to provide a meat ration for the garrison. The men slaked their thirst with the turbid water of the Klip River, and munched a makeshift biscuit made of Indian corn and starch. "Chevril" soup and potted horse were luxuries. At Intombi nearly 2,000 sick and wounded were lying without hospital diet or comforts.
On January 27 the situation was so grave that White, when he heard from Buller that the attempt on Spion Kop had failed, proposed as a last and desperate resource, but one which, at least, would not involve the moral effect of a surrender, to abandon Ladysmith, his sick and wounded, and his heavy guns, and with about 7,000 men and 36 field guns to endeavour to join Buller. Even if another Buller failure did not sooner doom the garrison he could only hold out until the end of February.
With this proposal Buller temporized and communicated it to Lord Roberts, who sent an encouraging message to White, in which he asked the garrison to accept his congratulations for its heroic defence and expressed his regret at the delay of the relief and his hope that the term would not be the limit of possible endurance; though he fully expected that his own operations in the Free State would before its expiration relieve the pressure on Ladysmith. Buller doubted Lord Roberts' forecast and preferred to "play his hand alone," and nothing came of the proposed break out of Ladysmith. White in his acknowledgment of Lord Roberts' message said that by sacrificing most of his horses, he could hold out for six weeks.
There was good reason to believe that by this time the besieging force numbered not more than 4,000 men, who, however, could be reinforced in a few hours from the 16,000 burghers standing up to Buller on the Tugela. The enfeebled garrison was, however, not in a condition to act against the attenuated cordon from which a constant bombardment was maintained. As the month of February wore on, the news of Lord Roberts' entry into the Orange Free State infused more hope into the garrison than the too familiar sound of Buller once more in action on the Tugela, and so little was expected of Buller that the lull in the fire during the Sunday armistice on February 25 was interpreted as another repulse; and the rations which had been increased, when a message came that he would be in Ladysmith on February 22—which he soon found was a too confident expectation—were again reduced. The darkness before the dawn was very black. The news of Paardeberg reached Ladysmith on the afternoon of the 27th; towards sunset next day Dundonald marched in. White endeavoured to organize a column to pursue the commandos retreating before Buller, but found that the toll of war had been paid so heavily by the Natal Field Force that little more than the strength of one company in each battalion was fit for service.
Not the least of the trials undergone by the Ladysmith staff were the heliograms from the Tugela and the constant surprises of the déchiffrage. Sometimes pessimistic, sometimes the reverse and frequently trivial, there was scarcely an occasion on which they were helpful. The troubles of the relieving force figured largely in them.
The sequel to the Colenso disaster was a suggestion that White after burning his ciphers33—a precaution which he naturally would take—and firing away his ammunition, should negotiate with the enemy for the surrender of the town. To this White made the manly and dignified reply that there was no thought of surrender; and to his own men he issued a soldier-like order of the day, in which he told them that they must not expect relief as early as had been anticipated, and expressed his confidence that the defence would be continued in the same spirited manner in which it had hitherto been conducted; and dutifully he applied himself to his task.
A few days later he was bidden by Buller to "boil all his water." From Potgieter's Drift, Buller heliographed that "somehow he thought he was going to be successful this time"; that it was "quite pleasant to see how keen the men were"; that he hoped to be "knocking at Lancer's Hill" in six days' time; but after Spion Kop it was, "we had awful luck on the 25th."
As the officer in command of the Naval Brigade neatly put it: "the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The cavalry soldiers did excellent service in the lines—and we ate their horses."
The Boer name for Caesar's Camp—Wagon Hill Position.
This instruction was not included in the original heliogram, but was annexed to it as an afterthought in a supplementary message.