" Fierce with grasped arms Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war, Hurling defiance toward the vault of heaven." MILTON.
The first distinct act of war was committed -L by the Boer forces at Harrismith. Here the train due to leave for Natal at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, October 11th, was seized by the Orange Free State authorities. This railway line, running from Van Reenen's Pass to Harrismith in the Orange Free State, belonged to the Natal Government and was worked by it. It thus happened that even before war was declared, before the time limit as laid down in the ultimatum had expired, this hostile act had been performed. The capture of this train was of immense importance to the Orange Free State commandoes, as by it both men, artillery, and provisions were conveyed from Harrismith to the burghers at the front around Ladysmith during the subsequent siege.
The Boers, prior to the delivery of the ultimatum, had taken possession of all the passes in the Drakensberg adjoining Natal, expecting that they would have to hold them against the advance of the British troops. Finding, however, that, after the ultimatum had been received, there was no forward movement among the British, the Boers began to move down from their strongholds into Natal, thus commencing the war by invading British territory. The Boers who first entered Natal were principally the Orange Free State commandoes, and they came through the Tintwa, Van Reenen's, and Bezuidenhout passes.
The action of the Orange Free State in thus identifying itself with the South African Republic in its quarrel with England directly aided the Imperial Government in the best possible way in the prosecution of hostilities, and also in regard to a final settlement after the war. If the Orange Free State had decided to hold aloof from the affairs of the South African Republic and England, the movements of the British troops would have been hampered, the territory of the Orange Free State would have had to be respected, and the easiest approach to Pretoria would have been closed. But President Steyn, imbued with a desire to see Dutch supremacy in South Africa, was only too ready to declare himself and his State on the side of the adjoining Republic, and to insult and defy the British Government. And thus "commenced this sanguinary conflict, the issue of which was to decide the fate of South Africa—whether the oppression, bribery, and corruption of the Government of the South African Republic were to continue and spread throughout the whole of South Africa, or whether Great Britain's well-known justice, equity, and righteous dealing between man and man were to prevail.
A strict watch was kept on the movements of the Boers after their entry into Natal. The Natal Volunteers were detailed off to this work of scouting, owing to their knowledge of the country, and of the Dutch and Kafir languages. Having lived among Boer farmers, and fought side by side with them in Kafir wars, they were acquainted with their methods of warfare.
On Monday, October 2nd, two squadrons of the Natal Carbineers, numbering about 250 men, under Major Taunton, left Ladysmith to patrol under the " Berg." Their instructions were to prevent looting and cattle-stealing by marauding Boers and natives, and to immediately warn the authorities at Ladysmith of any extensive movement of the Boers on Natal.
The work performed by them was of a most arduous nature, on account of the exceedingly hilly character of the country under the " Berg," and also because of the precautions which had to be taken to avoid a surprise attack by the Boers. Every night at sundown the camp was struck and removed from five to ten miles away from the previous camping ground, and at no time could more than four consecutive hours of sleep be obtained. On several occasions small parties of Boers were seen in the distance, but these immediately rode off as fast as their horses could carry them when they saw that they had been observed by the Carbineers.
On Monday afternoon, October 9th, a party of 20 armed Boers was descried within three or four miles of Besters railway station, and as it was suspected that there was a larger 'force in concealment information was sent into Ladysmith, and a request made for reinforcements. Immediately two squadrons of the 5th Lancers proceeded to Besters by road, marching through the night and arriving at six o'clock in the morning. An armoured train, manned by 60 men of the Liverpool Regiment, was also despatched to Besters to support the Carbineers. On the arrival, however, of the reinforcements it was found that there was no further cause for alarm, for, as previously, the Boers had disappeared, having been probably only a patrolling party. The expeditious manner, however, in which the Carbineers received support from their base in Ladysmith had a most cheering and encouraging effect upon them, showing them how closely they were in touch with their supports, and how quickly they could receive assistance when required.
One of the first hostile acts after war was declared was committed at De Jager's Drift, on the Buffalo River, near Dundee, where the Boers, through treachery, captured five men of the Natal Mounted Police, who were stationed at this drift. On Friday, October 13th, two Dutchmen crossed the river and asked for letters, at the same time engaging the Police in conversation. While they were thus engaged a party of 30 Boers rode up rapidly from behind and called upon them to surrender. Taken thus unawares, the Police were obliged to comply. The Boers took the five men prisoners and proceeded to loot their quarters—taking blankets, saddles, and eight horses. A sixth policeman managed to evade the Boers by hiding in the house for awhile and then * slipping away after their departure. This regrettable capture occurred through the Government authorities failing to acquaint the Police at this border outpost of the outbreak of war ; and thus five able men, invaluable as scouts, as the Police afterwards proved themselves to be, were lost without a shot being fired on either side.
The Orange Free State commandoes were now beginning to wend their way down the long passes from the Drakensberg into Natal, and the volunteer patrols, as previously stated, were keeping a strict watch on their movements. The first real encounter took place on Wednesday, October 18th, between the volunteers and the Boers, and is known as the "Carbineer Engagement." The volunteers who took part in this engagement were the Natal Carbineers, Natal Border Mounted Rifles, and the Natal Mounted Rifles, numbering in all nearly 600 men. They were scattered into patrolling parties from Acton Homes to near Besters railway station.
At midday the Carbineers who were near Besters station were off-saddled and preparing to eat their dinner when the Boers opened fire on them. Immediately they saddled up and prepared for action. Unfortunately, however, their position was not strong; so they had to retire to a stronger, firing on the enemy as they went. Here they " buckled to" in deadly earnest, and a hot fire became general. The other volunteer patrols were also now actively engaged in checking the advance of this Boer army, which numbered about 12,000. Their instructions, however, having been to retire before a large force, they gradually did so, holding the enemy in check by a continuous rifle fire, and also with a Maxim gun, which was splendidly handled.
One noticeable feature of this action was the remarkably poor shooting of the Boers. During the whole action, which lasted four hours, the volunteers only had two men wounded ; these were Lieutenant W. J. Gallwey, who was taken prisoner by the Boers, and Trooper Spencer, who was wounded in the left arm by a spent Mauser bullet. Lieutenant Gallwey, in charge of a portion of the Carbineers, was retiring from one kopje to another, and while crossing a donga was wounded. Shortly afterwards he was missed, and a party of six bravely volunteered to go to his assistance, but as the Boers had now advanced it was deemed inadvisable to let them go. Surgeon-Major Buntine, however, with two volunteers, gallantly went back under a flag of truce to attend to him, but as the Boers, disregarding the flag, opened fire on them they had to retreat. The Boer losses were 8 killed and 15 wounded. Great credit was thus due to the gallant volunteers who fought so bravely against the thousands of Boers.
The camp of the Carbineers, which was near the scene of the engagement, had, unfortunately, to be left in the hands of the Boers, together with a considerable quantity of their kit and other property. The volunteers now retired to their base at Ladysmith, which they reached in safety.
The Boer armies were thus gradually driving the British outposts and patrolling parties in on their base, their object evidently being to surround the British forces and besiege them. They were now within ten miles of Ladysmith on the western side, driving all before them and looting every farmstead.
Another important movement of the Boers at this time was the severing of communication between the British forces at Glencoe Camp and Ladysmith. This was effected at a colliery station, named Eland's Laagte, sixteen miles from Ladysmith on the main railway line to Dundee. A large commando had been detached from the Boer forces north of Dundee, and sent southward, passing to the west of the Glencoe Camp to take possession of the railway at Eland's Laagte. They arrived there on Thursday, October 18th, under the command of General Kock, a member ot me executive Council of the South African Republic, who had Colonel Schiel as his second in command. At midday the commando rode in and took possession of the colliery and adjacent stores, commandeering everything that was of any use to either men or horses. Shortly afterwards the Boers saw a passenger train enter the station, half a mile away, which was on its way from Ladysmith to Dundee. Immediately a rush was made for the station to try and capture the train. One of the passengers who was standing on the platform, noticing the advancing horsemen, cried, "The Boers are on us ! " A wild rush was made by the passengers for their seats. The driver jumped on to his engine, and putting on full steam left the station for Dundee. Shots from the Boers now came whistling round the train, aimed principally at the engine, the object being evidently to either kill the driver or penetrate some vital part of the locomotive. Fortunately none of the passengers was hit, and the train managed to pass safely out of the range of the Boer rifles. The Boers now took possession of the station, and hardly had they done so before another train came into sight, also from Lady-smith. The station-master pluckily rushed out and tried to warn the engine-driver of the train's impending fate, but being on a steep decline the train was unable to stop before entering the station. The Boers at once took possession of the train and made prisoners of the four passengers, guard, driver, stoker, and also of the station-master. The driver was then compelled to run the train up the siding leading to the mine. The Boers had thus by this clever movement cut off railway communication between the Glencoe Camp and the base at Ladysmith.
The Boer commandoes in the northern districts had also been gradually closing in on Dundee. After the evacuation of Charles-town and Newcastle they entered and took possession, and then, leaving officials in charge, marched on to attack Dundee. Strong patrols were kept out in all directions to avoid the possibility of a surprise attack. But these had gradually to fall back on their main body at Dundee as the Boer commandoes closed in. A great disadvantage to the British military authorities was the presence of many Dutch farmers in and around Dundee. These self - appointed spies were giving the enemy all information possible, and actively, though silently, assisting them in many ways. They became so conspicuous, finally, in Dundee, riding in daily with absolutely no apparent business to perform, except to gossip about the streets, that a gentle hint was given them that their absence ' was preferable to their presence, and they quickly acted on the hint.
The Boers were now as they thought on their triumphal march to Durban, the seaport of Natal. Elated by their successful invasion of the undefended Natal territory, they presumed that they would march on practically unhindered to the coast, and many were the vaunted tales which they told of predicted victories. They were all the more confident by being buoyed up with a religious enthusiasm. The following conversation of two schoolboys was overheard at this time. One—a Dutch boy—said, "We are sure to win." The other —an English boy—replied, " Why are you so sure ? " " Oh ! because God is fighting on our side," replied the Dutch boy. " What! have you commandeered Him too?" was the prompt rejoinder, and in which lay much significance! General Sir William Penn-Symons, who was in charge of the force at Dundee, recognised at this juncture the desirability of the departure from Dundee of all women and children in case of possible emergency—a step which afterwards proved the wisdom and far-sightedness of this noble General. Consequently, on October 16th, all those in Dundee unable to take up arms left in specially provided trains for Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
The coal-mines in this district, of which Dundee was the centre, had by this time closed down, the native miners having bolted in their fear of the approaching Boers. The coal supply of the Colony was thus stopped at the commencement of the war.
Dundee, being now freed from the responsibility of protecting women and children, was prepared for any emergency. Every able-bodied man took up arms, ready to stand by the side of the Imperial troops in protecting their town and resisting the onward march of the Boer commandoes.