THE BIG FIGHT OF THE SIEGE—A DESPERATE ASSAULT—THE MOVING OF ‘ LADY ANNE '—A SURPRISE ON WAGON HILL— THE NAVAL BRIGADE'S SHARE IN THE FIGHT OF JANUARY 6.
As during more than two months' bombardment the enemy had made only one half-hearted attack in force, the general opinion was that they had abandoned the idea of taking Ladysmith by storm, and would endeavour to starve out the garrison. Everybody was therefore greatly surprised when, on the morning of January 6, it was realised that the enemy had really 'come on' at last, and that they were bent on ‘ coming in' if possible. All day raged a desperate fight for the possession of Wagon Hill and Caesar's Camp, points in our lines absolutely vital to the safety of the town.
The part played by the Naval Brigade in repelling this fierce attack consisted principally in keeping down the fire of the opposing siege-guns, but a small party of bluejackets happened to be in the brunt of the fighting and took a not inglorious part in the successful defence.
The presence of this small party was due to the fact that, on the night of January 4, an attempt had been made to shift a 4.7 gun from Junction Hill to Wagon Hill, for the same purpose as it had been previously mounted there, viz. to cover the advance of a column intended to effect a junction with Buller's forces in his second attempt to relieve the town. A heavy thunderstorm, however, had made the ground so soft that the transport of the heavy gun had to be deferred till next night, when it was successfully accomplished under the occasional glare of a searchlight from Bulwana Hill. The working party consisted, as usual, of a detachment of infantry, larger this time than before, for short rations were beginning to tell on the men's strength, and their lifting power was considerably diminished. As a result it needed all the Gunner's ‘ endearing epithets' to get the necessary work out of the men. ' Now then. men. it's got to be done, you know’ said he, as he harangued them from the top of the parapet. ‘ Spit on yer hands, grind yer teeth, now! all together! lift her! &c, &c.' And weren't they all glad when the final’ 'Vast 'eavin', lads!' was shouted, and the gun and all its gear was safely stowed in the wagons and set off on its jolt across to Wagon Hill. The string of wagons, with an escort of Gordon Highlanders, arrived at the foot of this hill about 1 A.M.
Two wagons, one with the great platform beams, the other with tools, &c., were hauled up the steep slippery sides to the rear of the old gun emplacement, and the bluejackets and Highlanders started work with a will, under the persuasive and by this time well-known eloquence of the Gunner, and in a few minutes had got the platform half-way off the wagon, when the harmony of the proceedings was rudely disturbed by a sudden and unexpected splashing and pinging of ballets on the rocks and boulders forming the crest of the hill. For a few moments it was thought that the clatter of the wagons, the light from the swinging lanterns, and the yelling of the Kaffir drivers had drawn the fire of a few Boer snipers, more courageous than usual; but it was quickly realised that this was something far more serious, and the garrison of the hill, now augmented by the seventy Gordons, thirteen bluejackets and thirty Royal Engineers, at once seized their arms, and, extending along the crest of the hill, fired down through the darkness in the direction of the attack.
The Kaffirs had bolted at the first shot, and it was with great difficulty that the oxen were cut adrift from the two wagons by the bluejackets and driven down the hill, though it was impossible to get the last few of the tired animals away, and they remained browsing on the scanty tufts of grass during the whole of the terrible struggle, and were nearly all wounded and had to be killed at the end of the day.
The Imperial Light Horse pickets were driven in, and twenty or thirty plucky Boers—picked marksmen all—gained a position on the crest itself and remained there, till the Devons cleared them out in the evening.
The bluejackets and a few Gordons and sappers manned the empty gun-emplacement, the Gunner of the Naval Brigade taking command of them and directing their firing with such an easy flow of drill-book ' lingo' that one might almost have imagined he had that precious manual in his hand. 'Number,' he shouted in his best fo'c'stle voice as he appeared through the darkness in the midst of an erratically firing mob with their rifles poked over the top of the earthwork round the empty 12-pounder emplacement on the extreme end of Wagon Hill. ' One. twa, three, vower, voive,' up to fifteen, came a curious mixture of west-country and Gaelic pronounciations. 'Nos. 1 to 8 will be the right half-section; Nos. 9 till 15 will be the left half-section; the right half-section will fire a volley while the left half-section loads, and vice versa. Now then, men, are you ready ? Eight half-section, ready, present, fire!!!' and so on till in the growing dawn smiles could be seen on all those sunburned, weather-beaten faces, whose owners seemed to be vaguely wondering whether they were on the drill-ground fighting an imaginary foe, or really taking part in what turned out to be one of the most important fights of the present campaign.
Meanwhile the attack thus commenced on Wagon Hill was extending along Caesar's Camp, and heavy fighting was taking place at the eastern end of the ridge, where the enemy had come along as quietly and as determinedly as at the western end, and had rushed the pickets of the Manchester Regiment, most of the men being shot down almost point blank, those who survived the first onslaught retiring on their main position.
As soon as it began to grow light, the Boer 15-pounders on Middle Hill and along the ridges to the eastward of it started a heavy bombardment of the crest of Caesar's Camp, and the naval 12-pounder there was busily engaged in returning the fire, first of one, then of another, with common and shrapnel shell, at a range of about four thousand yards. Discarding their khaki tunics, and working away with their short-sleeved Service ' flannels' flapping in the wind, and showing the various devices tattooed on their sunburnt arms by Japanese artists in more peaceful times, the three bluejackets and three stokers who comprised this gun's crew, cheered on by their young midshipman, got their gun, the ' Lady Ellen,' loaded and fired so rapidly that the Boer gunners had some excellent practice at ' shell-dodging,' and often one or other of their guns on those southern ridges with muzzle raised ready for another shot was quickly lowered, and the gunners rushed for cover as they realised that a shell from one of the ' long' 12-pounders was coming in their direction. With daylight, it could be seen that the enemy was being rapidly reinforced by mounted men riding across the plain, out of range of rifle fire, from the direction of the Colenso Road, and from behind Rifleman's Ridge ; these men went round the back of Mounted Infantry Hill, and while some took up positions on the crest of this hill, the others rode across through the thorn bushes in the direction of Caesar's Camp, posting themselves in the dongas and behind the low rocky ridges on the level ground to the southward of our positions. The sappers and bluejackets on Wagon Hill West kept up a heavy magazine-rifle fire on these men as they advanced at a range of about a thousand yards, and emptied a few saddles.
A battery of artillery now came out, and burst shrapnel over Mounted Infantry Hill from the plain near Range Post, being in turn subjected to a heavy fire from the Boer 15-pounder on Rifleman's Ridge; the naval 12-pounder on Cove Hill did its best to keep down this fire, but was not particularly successful.
Meanwhile Major Abdy's battery of artillery shelled the Boers who were attempting to take the eastern end of Caesar's Camp, and did terrible execution amongst them, though under a terrific fire the whole time from the 6-inch and other guns on Bulwana Mountain. The big gun alone fired 108 shells, and, marvellous to relate, never killed or wounded a single man ; this was, without doubt, principally due to the very rapid, accurate and disconcerting fire kept up on this gun by Lieutenant Halsey from the 'Princess Victoria' on Cove Hill.
The Boers who had gained a footing on the eastern crest of Wagon Hill had found splendid cover and were causing much loss among the Imperial Light Horse. An attempt to turn them out failed, but in other parts of the hills the enemy were gradually forced back below the crest line and the fire slackened considerably later in the forenoon, and, though it never ceased entirely, there were hopes that the attack was being abandoned.
This was very far from being the case, however, for shortly after 1 P.M., a fresh assault was made, with great suddenness, on the extreme south-west point of Wagon Hill.
The 4.7 gun crew, with Gunner Sims and Mr. Sheen, Engineer, were at this time somewhat in rear of the crest of the hill, having been relieved at noon from their positions on the gun emplacement by a fresh detachment of Gordons, and had at great risk managed to secure some food and water from one of the naval wagons. The ' inner man' being more or less satisfied, this little party were vaguely wondering what was going to happen next, when suddenly there was a great increase in the firing and a loud yelling and shouting on the top of the hill, and, turning to look up, they saw a confused mass of men rushing helter-skelter down towards them, shouting that the Boers were on top of the hill and up to the gun emplacements.
The Gunner at once grasped the fact that it was only a momentary panic, and, shouting in a loud voice, ‘ Naval Brigade!' (there were only thirteen of them) ‘ extend in skirmishing order to the right and left— forward-d-d! ! !'—led them up the few yards which separated them from the crest of the hill, the men fixing their bayonets as they advanced and expecting every moment to see a row of hairy faces appearing over the crest. As the top was reached, General Ian Hamilton was to be seen pointing his revolver at a grey-bearded Boer only a few yards distant and shouting at the same time: ' Come back, men, for God's sake—it's all right. Send up the reserves as quickly as possible.'
As a matter of fact, the men who had started to run away had turned round after going a few yards in their first alarm, which was almost excusable, for the small attacking party of the enemy had got right up to the gun parapets and shot down some of the men inside, point blank, yelling out ’Retire!' at the same time, another little ruse which came near to being successful.
By this time our men were on top of the hill again with fixed bayonets, a huge Gordon Highlander, as he jambed his bayonet home in its socket, shouting out in broad Scotch : ' Come on, boys, let's have another Elandslaagte!' But there was no necessity to use cold steel, every Boer who had gained the crest line having been shot dead.
One of the 4.7 ammunition carriers, a stoker, was shot dead and an A.B. was badly wounded, and shortly after this attack the 'high velocity' gun on Rifleman's Ridge enfiladed the hill, and Mr. Sheen was slightly wounded by a shrapnel shell in the face, the Gunner's rifle being blown out of his hands at the same time.
An hour or so afterwards it came on to rain, and under cover of this the enemy made another attack on the south-west corner of the hill, but were again repulsed, and at 5 P.M. three companies of the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment under Colonel Park, with a magnificent charge, cleared the hill of the enemy under a terrific fire and brought the fierce day's fighting to an end.The losses for the day were very heavy, fourteen officers and 185 N.C.O.'s and men being killed and thirty-one officers and 244 men wounded ; while the Boer loss was probably even heavier, seventy-nine dead bodies being actually found within our lines, and natives reported that their casualties were at least 700.