January 25th, 1900
The decisive operation is proceeding slowly but surely. On Wednesday, the 10th, Lord Dundonald reached the south bank of the Tugela at Potgieter's Drift, and on Thursday a brigade of infantry was up with him. A week later, on Wednesday, the 17th, Lyttelton's brigade crossed by the drift, and Warren's wing of the Army began the passage by a pontoon bridge at Trichardt's or Wagon Drift. On Thursday, the 18th, Dundonald was on the high road west of Acton Homes, and drove away a party of Boers.
North of the Tugela there is a great crescent-shaped plateau three or four miles across at the widest part. The crescent has its convex side to the south-west. One of its horns touches the Acton Homes--Ladysmith road; its broadest part bulges south towards the river bank between Wagon Drift and the loop near Potgieter's Drift; its other limb is broken into irregular heights, Brakfontein kopje apparently marking its south-eastern apex. On the concave north-eastern side Spion Kop is about at the centre, and is four miles north of Wagon Drift. The plateau is three or four hundred feet above the river and Spion Kop about the same height above the plateau. Near the northern apex rises the Blaauwbank River, which flows eastward towards Ladysmith along the foot of an east and west range, a spur from the Drakensberg mountains jutting out so as to separate the Van Reenen's road and valley from the valley followed by the Acton Homes--Ladysmith road.
When Warren crossed the river he found the western half of the crescent held by the enemy.
Whatever his original design, which may have been to take his whole force to Acton Homes, and then march eastward along the road, he had to drive the Boers from the plateau. His action was deliberate, without hurry, but without waste of time. The troops had been prepared for tactics better suited to their weapons, the bullet and the shell, to the enemy's weapons, and to the ground, than the rapid advance and charge, which was the plan of earlier actions in this war. The view that the bullet should do its work before the appeal to the bayonet is made had at length asserted itself. Moreover, the need for method in attack had been recognised; first reconnaissance, then shelling; during the shelling the deployment of the infantry in extended and flexible order, then the musketry duel supported by the artillery; and then, as the infantry fire proves stronger than the enemy's, an advance from point to point in order to bring it to closer and more deadly range; last of all, if and where it may be needed, the charge. These sound tactics--the only tactics appropriate to modern firearms--cannot be hurried, for to charge men armed with the magazine rifle and not yet shaken is to sacrifice your troops to their own bravery.
Warren's attack then was rightly deliberate. On Friday, the 19th, he was reconnoitring and feeling for the enemy. On Saturday the shooting match began. It was continued throughout Sunday, and was not over on Tuesday. During these days the British were making way, gradually and not without loss, but steadily. There were, no doubt, pauses for renewing order, for reinforcing, and for securing the ground won. On Tuesday evening Spion Kop was still held by the Boers, who seem even then not to have been driven off the plateau, but to have been clinging to its eastern edge. On Tuesday night Spion Kop was taken. It was assaulted, probably in the dark, by surprise, and the Boers driven off. Even on Wednesday the Boers were tenaciously resisting the advance, making heavy attacks on Spion Kop and using their artillery with effect. At midnight between Wednesday and Thursday Sir Redvers Duller telegraphed home Sir Charles Warren's opinion that the enemy's position had been rendered untenable, and added his own judgment of the behaviour of the British troops in the words, "the men are splendid."
All through the week Lyttelton's brigade has been facing a force of the enemy on the eastern limb of the plateau in front of Potgieter's Drift. He has not pressed an attack but has kept his infantry back, not pushing them forward to close range, but contenting himself with shelling the Boer positions.
Sir Redvers Buller before the troops left the camps beside the railway had six infantry brigades. There are indications in the telegrams of a reorganisation and redistribution of battalions among the brigades, so that it is hardly safe to speak with certainty as to the present composition and distribution of the commands. Apparently the left wing under Warren consists of three or four infantry brigades, the cavalry brigade, and most of the mounted infantry, and five or six batteries. Sir Charles Warren himself appears to keep the general direction of this wing in his own hands. Sir F. Clery either commands a division (two brigades), the third brigade being led by its brigadier, under Sir Charles Warren's direction, or Sir F. Clery is supervising the whole of the infantry advance. Lyttelton has his own brigade, and Barton's brigade covers the railhead at Chieveley. That accounts for five of the six brigades. The sixth is Coke's, of Warren's division. We do not at present know whether this is with Warren on the left wing or with Duller as a general reserve to be put in to the fight at the decisive moment.
The great difficulties of day-after-day fighting, which has been regarded for some years as the normal character of future battles, is to secure for the men the food and rest without which they must soon collapse, and to ensure the continuous supply of ammunition. If these difficulties can be overcome Sir Redvers Bullers has a good chance of success in his endeavour to relieve Ladysmith. Once driven from the plateau by Warren, the Boers must retire several miles before they can reach a second defensive position, and their retirement may be hastened by pressure on their flanks, which is to be expected from Dundonald's mounted infantry and cavalry, probably now on the right or northern flank of the Boer line, as well as from Lyttelton on their left. A small reinforcement would give a fresh impetus to the British advance. If Coke's brigade has not yet been engaged Sir Redvers Buller will know when and where to use it--either to reinforce Lyttelton for a blow against the Boer line of retreat or to reinforce Warren's left. The arrival of the Kildonan Castle at Durban this morning, as far as we know, with drafts for some of the battalions, is better than nothing, for the drafts will give fresh vigour to the bodies that receive them. They cannot reach the fighting line before Saturday, but their arrival then may be most opportune. Still better would it be if a fresh brigade should arrive while the struggle continues. There was at least a brigade available at Cape Town a few days ago, and it could not have been better employed than in strengthening Buller at any point where he can feed it, at Chieveley if not as a reinforcement to Warren or Lyttelton, for a fresh brigade at Chieveley would enable Barton to put pressure on the Boers in his front.
Supposing that Warren has by this time compelled the retreat of the Boers from the plateau for which he has been fighting, what can the Boers do to resist Buller's further advance? They must try to hold a second position. Two such positions appear to be open to them, if we may judge by the not very full maps available. The line of hills from Bulbarrow Hill on the north to the hill near Arnot Hill Farm on the south might give good opportunities for defence; it blocks the road to Ladysmith, for the Boers occupying the line would be right across these roads. Another plan would be for the Boers to retreat to the north-east on to the east and west ridge, which commands from the north the Acton Homes--Dewdrop road. If the Boers took this position the roads to Ladysmith, or to the rear of the investing lines, would be open. But Sir Redvers Buller could not advance along them with the Boer forces menacing his flank, and he would be obliged either to attack them or to contain them by extending a force along their front to hold its ground against them while he pushed the rest of his force towards Ladysmith. Whether this would be a prudent plan for the Boers depends upon their numbers, and if they are strong enough they might combine both plans.
It is, however, by no means certain that Lord Dundonald is unable to prevent the Boers from crossing the Blaauwbank Spruit. He has not been heard of for a week, and has had plenty of time to have his force in position to the north of Clydesdale Farm, unless, indeed, he has been kept in hand behind Warren's left flank ready for pursuit after the capture of the great plateau.
The situation continues to be critical, and must be so until the fate of Ladysmith is decided. Our own men are justifying to the full the confidence reposed in them; what men can do they will accomplish. But the Boers are fighting stubbornly, and may be able to wear out Sir Redvers Buller's force before their own resistance collapses. We at home must wait patiently, hoping for the best but prepared for fresh efforts. At least we ought all now to realise that the splendid behaviour of our soldiers in the field lays upon us as citizens the duty of securing for the future the best possible treatment of those who are so generous of their lives.