COMMENCE THE SECOND ATTEMPT TO RELIEVE LADYSMITH—MOVE TO SPEARMAN'S HILL—FIGHTING ROUND SPION KOP—THE THIRD ATTEMPT—VAAL KRANTZ—WITHDRAWAL TO CHIEVELEY.
BY January 9, Warren's reinforcements had commenced to arrive, and orders were received to march to Spearman's Hill, a great kopje overlooking Potgieter's Drift across the Tugela some miles to the west of Colenso.
We got the 4-7's to the foot of Gun Hill that night, all ready for the morrow, and the carpenter rigged up dummy guns in their place, but the Boers were not deceived for long by them, and heliographed next day: ‘ Do you take us to be such fools as not to know a dummy from a real gun ?'
At 8.30 next morning, the two 4-7's got under way and marched west'ard, leaving four 12-pounders, and a newly arrived 4.7 mounted on a railway truck, at Chieveley, and meeting the main army with Ogilvy's 12-pounders, they marched along with them. There must have been 20,000 men in the column and it stretched, with its guns, ammunition, and baggage columns, a matter of twenty miles. Several drifts delayed the march, and at 7 P.M. we halted at the worst drift in the Colony—Pretorius Drift—and bivouacked under the wagons out of the rain. We had marched fourteen miles and had had nothing to eat all day, so were rather fatigued. The Naval Brigade was lucky to have wagons to crawl under, out of the rain, much more lucky than most units.
All night long Warren's Division marched past us down to the drift and across the river, and so close was our bivouac to the road that the continuous tramping of feet, jingling of harness, and rattling of wheels prevented much sleep, and no one was sorry when day broke and our turn came to cross.
It was the worst drift we had had to tackle. The road down to it was all right, but that up the other side was only about twelve feet wide—a mere cutting in the river bank, with sides twelve feet or more high. It was very steep and sometimes as many as forty or fifty oxen were required, in addition to a couple of hundred soldiers hauling on ropes, to drag a wagon up this rise, and it took us two hours' hard work before the whole Naval Brigade was over, the wheels sinking to their axles and the oxen up to their houghs in the thick black mud.
We bivouacked on the other side, but received orders to march to Springfield, and arrived there at 9.30 P.M., crossing the little Tugela next morning by a substantial bridge—left intact by the Boers—and marching to Lindeque Spruit, which the previous day had been occupied by the enemy. Here we had a most refreshing bathe, and on the 11th marched to Spearman's Hill, the 4.7s being placed in position on Mount Alice, whilst the 12-pounders were placed across a loop of the very tortuous river.
The top of Mount Alice, from which direct communication was kept up with Ladysmith, was covered with long luxurious grass, and many cassia, mimosa, and cactus trees gave grateful shade and made the naval camp very pleasant. The air was bracing and the atmosphere was so exceedingly clear that we could see astonishing distances, and often fell into the error of underestimating ranges. At the foot of this hill was the drift, and being hauled slowly to and fro, across it, was the punt, so pluckily captured two days before by some South African Light Horse.
Through the drift ran the road to Ladysmith, winding its way upwards towards the centre of a great horse-shoe of high hills, Vaal Krantz and Brakfontein on the right, Mount Tambanyama, ending in the prominent peak of Spion Kop, on the left.
Through our telescopes we could plainly see the enemy digging for dear life on the sides of these hills, extending their trenches and building schanzes and gun emplacements. Between them and the river, and not more than half a mile from the drift, were a few small kopjes which Lyttelton's Brigade, a field battery and some 5-inch howitzers occupied on the 17th without much opposition, bluejackets being sent down to man the punt and doing good work. ‘Worth their weight in gold’ was the General's verdict.
This brigade, with its guns backed up by the naval guns, was to 'contain' the Boers in their circle of hills, whilst Warren's Division with Dundonald's mounted men still further to the left swept round the Boer left, got behind them and crumpled up their whole line of defence.
From the 17th to the 23rd we bombarded Spion Kop and Brakfontein —the centre of the great horseshoe—helped by the 5-inch howitzers, but never drawing the fire of big guns and only occasionally, when the infantry made demonstrations, exposing one or two pom-poms. The big guns were all opposing Warren, whose force we could plainly observe pushing its way forward on our left in a north-easterly direction. Some of Lyttelton's howitzers were sent round to help him, but by the 28rd it was obvious that, with Tambanyama untaken, no further progress could be made, and, as Spion Kop appeared to dominate the rest of that range, Spion Kop had to be taken.
The 12-pounders, previously on the south of the river, now crossed the drift and took up position in the kopjes above it; Lyttelton's men were to demonstrate again against Brakfontein, immediately opposite Spion Kop, and all the naval guns were to back them up, whilst Woodgate's Lancashire Brigade, Thorny-croft's Mounted Infantry, and the 17 Company B.E. climbed up the south-western slopes of Spion Kop under cover of darkness.
Morning dawned, hazy with a thick mist. Presently this cleared away and Spion Kop stood out boldly, and we could see our men streaming up it, others hastily entrenching themselves on the southern summit. We could also see Boers, gathering in clouds, dodging about among the great boulders behind the great nek, and preparing to drive them back. Directly the mist drove away, with every rifle and every gun they could get to bear, they opened fire on the summit, now crowded with our troops—most of them unable to get the least cover. Some guns began firing from the northern peak of Spion Kop, from a ridge, even higher than that to which our men were desperately clinging, others from Tambanyama itself, still others from hills behind it—all impossible to be reached by the naval guns on Mount Alice. Guns must be sent up, so James's two 12-pounders were ordered there and marched off; one of the 4.7s, too, was ordered to the west to get at the Boer guns on the other side of the hills.
Meanwhile affairs were becoming desperate up on the top of the ridge, with its feeble breastwork of stones behind which men and corpses were crowded together; and, to keep down the terrible fire, two of Lyttelton's battalions, away to the right, swung round and went straight up the steep side of the highest part of Spion Kop.
We pounded the rocks ahead and above them as hard as our men could work, and they carried the summit in the most gallant manner. More men were sent up to reinforce Woodgate's men as night fell; the Boer fire had slackened considerably, and the possession of the hill seemed to be assured, and our infantry holding its own. James's 12-pounders and a mountain battery started to haul their guns up the narrow precipitous path, choked with bearers bringing down the wounded, and men carrying up water. Progress was terribly difficult in the darkness and terribly slow. Worse than all, when half-way up, they met the worn-out troops streaming down from the top, learnt that Spion Kop had been evacuated, and had to return, sore at heart.
It was not till next morning that we, on Mount Alice, heard the bad news, and our disappointment after witnessing the gallant fight of the previous evening, and now learning that a general retirement to the south of the river had been ordered, was very great.
The Boers were as surprised as we were, for, when morning broke, they began pounding the fatal ridge again, till they discovered that it was evacuated.
By the 29th practically all the troops had recrossed the river. The second attempt had failed, just as success had seemed within grasp, but there was no mistaking the men—they meant to get through somehow or somewhere.
From this date to February 4 not a shot was fired, and all wondered when the next move was going to take place.
Six of the 12-pounders were hauled to the top of Zwaart Kop, a steep kopje on the right of Mount Alice—a very tough job but much relished by the bluejackets—and one of the 4.7s was shifted to the eastern end of Mount Alice, supported by two old naval 5-inch guns manned by garrison artillery.
Pontoon bridges were thrown across the river, and on February 5 the army recrossed once more.
Spion Kop having been found too difficult a nut to crack, Vaal Krantz, the opposite side of the horseshoe, was now to be attacked. Six batteries of R.F.A. were to cover the advance, supported by every gun that would bear. Moving eastwards towards Vaal Krantz they came under a plunging fire from three guns on Spion Kop. These guns were very difficult to locate, but we turned our 4.7's on to them, and managed to smash up one, and chip the muzzle of a second, so that his shooting became erratic. The third we could not reach. It was a fine sight to see these six batteries in action and under a fire to which they could not possibly reply. Plump would fall a big shell right among them, a whole gun and its crew would disappear in the smoke and dust, yet frequently that gun would fire before the smoke cleared away. The only possible way to describe the attitude of the Royal Artillery under fire is this—they absolutely and literally disregard it. Next morning, more Boer guns had been brought up and commenced harassing our people from the eastward ; a 6-inch was especially annoying to the infantry on the lower slopes of Vaal Krantz.
One of our 4,7,s started to hunt him out of it, and with a lucky shot blew up his ammunition and kept him quiet for some time. We never managed to hit that gun, but whilst we were engaging him his shells only came at long intervals, showing that our own were falling uncomfortably close. The range was very great, 11,500 yards.
Some of these guns were mounted on rails and often retired from view after firing, and this fact alone made the difficulty of hitting them exceedingly great.
Nothing much happened next day—the balloon was busy, but very little fighting occurred, and the infantry did not advance.
Indeed, the reports from the balloon were so bad —the whole road to Ladysmith bristling with guns, covered with gun-emplacements and trenches, in fact every hill the whole way a fortress—that the attempt in this direction was given up, the infantry fell back across the river during the night, and by the 9th everybody was again on the south bank and marching back to Chieveley.
More than two thousand men had been lost in the fortnight's fighting.
The 4.7's came down from Mount Alice in the evening, and the whole Naval Brigade, with the exception of two 12-pounders left behind with the flanking guard, marched back to their old position at Gun Hill without incident, arriving there on the morning of the 11th, travelling along well, for most of the spruits and drifts had been filled in with earth and stones.