THE FOURTH ATTEMPT—SEIZURE OF HUSSAR HILL—CAPTURE OF MONTE CRISTO—ADVANCE OF NAVAL BRIGADE FROM GUN HILL—IN ACTION NEAR COLENSO—CROSS TUGELA—TWO DAYS’ FIERCE ARTILLERY DUEL—A TEMPORARY CHECK—RE CROSS TUGELA.
IF Ladysmith was not to fall by starvation there was no time to waste, so on the 14th—the third day after our arrival—the fourth scheme for penetrating the Boer positions was commenced.
This time Hlangwani, the isolated kopje on the south side of the river, was to be captured; and once in our hands it would command the drift at Colenso and all the Boer positions there, in fact crush in their left and centre.
Early in the morning a small force, supported by Ogilvy's 12-pounders, seized Hussar Hill, a kopje to be used in developing the attack on Monte Cristo and Cingolo, two eminences which dominated Hlangwani and were not strongly held by the enemy.
Hussar Hill was only held by Boer pickets, the advance seemed to have taken them by surprise, and the reinforcements hurried out arrived too late. On this hill sandbag emplacements were hastily made for the naval guns, and these were next day reinforced by two 5-inch R.G,A. All day the naval guns on Gun Hill in the rear were occupied covering the advance of the troops.
During the next two days—excessively hot they were—an artillery duel took place, without much result, whilst reconnaissances were being made. On the evening of the 6th a 6-inch naval gun, mounted on a travelling carriage and just sent up from Durban, was put in position on Gun Hill, and early the following morning opened fire, quickly finding a worthy antagonist, for a Boer 6.2-inch opened on Hussar Hill from a kopje opposite Colenso.
In a few rounds the 6-inch silenced it, making splendid shooting at the great range of 16,000 yards.
By the evening the infantry had pushed up the slopes and occupied Cingolo, the Boers apparently not being in great force. But next morning they were hurrying reinforcements over to it in great numbers and had brought up more guns—wonderful was the way they shifted their heavy pieces—and began going for Cingolo for all they were worth, one gun at Bloy's farm, close in under Monte Cristo, especially giving much trouble. The 6-inch at Gun Hill, always on the look-out for such customers, went for him and drove him away with the third shot, a lucky shot, for the range was 18,500 yards (10.5 miles).
Gun Hill was very busy all that day, and at 1 P.M. a Boer 6.2 opening on Hussar Hill, the naval 6-inch and three 4.7's (one on a railway truck) concentrated their fire on him, and drove him out of it again at the sixth round. Later in the evening they also extinguished a Boer searchlight.
Our infantry now showed up along the sky-line of Monte Cristo and gradually swept the Boers off it. By the evening the enemy were falling back on their centre, were all across on the north of the river, and had left several laagers in our hands. Every one's spirits rose exceedingly.
Gun Hill was now too much in the rear, so at 5.30 A.M., February 19, we advanced with two 4,7,s, trekking past Hussar Hill, over awful roads—bridle paths really—the guns bumping and crashing over enormous boulders, fallen trees, through dongas, and eventually through an almost dry spruit, fetching up at last under Monte Cristo, for the oxen had had just about enough of it, and struck work. The great heat troubled them, poor brutes, even perhaps more than us.
The 5-inch were merrily in action ahead of us, so, after a rest, we borrowed a hundred men from a regiment and hauled the guns up alongside them by hand, and opened fire. Many shells dropped round them but without doing any damage.
We were close to a laager evacuated, the day previously, in a great hurry, horses, tents, flour and ammunition having been left behind.
The position was not commanding enough, however, so before daylight we shifted to a spur of Monte Cristo, and were there soon snugly ensconced behind schanzes, and, though hidden among trees, could get a grand view of the country north of the river. The R.E. helped us with our schanzes and gave us sandbags.
General Buller arrived at 9.30, and we came into action, continuing firing most of the day. Just before dusk we either destroyed or at any rate completely silenced a Boer gun. From the top of Monte Cristo we had our first view of Ladysmith, ten miles away as the crow flies, and with Boer laagers lying in between.
Ogilvy, meanwhile, had got two of his 12-pounders up to the top of Monte Cristo. Next day Hart's Brigade got into Colenso, and took the Colenso kopjes and Fort Wyllie, James's 12-pounders going with him and taking up a position a mile to the north of the river.
The Boer centre was falling back on Pieter's and Railway Hills, and our army, to get at them and drive them back still further, had to incline to the west to cross at Colenso.
At dusk the 4.7's were brought down to the river and bivouacked near the pontoon. On the way we had to pass Bloy's Farm, and there saw very marked evidences of the 6-inch lyddite shells which had silenced a gun there three days before. We travelled over one of the worst pieces of ground it is possible to imagine, bad enough in the daytime, but a thousand times worse at night. This was a good test of the strength of the gun carriages, and they stood it right well.
We expected to cross at once, but were ordered to remain on the south bank till morning. Morning broke, and, as we were preparing to cross, orders were received to come into action at once, which we did, only a hundred yards from the bridge, and soon were engaged with a number of Boer guns over a wide front. Shells dropped round us all day, but were apparently chiefly intended for the pontoons, which, luckily, they failed to hit. Two more 12-pounders went across and were soon briskly engaged beyond Colenso.
The Boers, seeing our army inclining towards their centre, had evidently taken heart and were coming back. They showed plenty of fight during the next two days.
In the evening, firing having slackened, we moved down to the bridge, and directly the first gun and its carriage (five tons and three-quarters) got on the pontoon this began to crack, so it was drawn back as quickly as possible.
One of the oxen dropped overboard and had to be cut away, being washed over the falls a little way lower down, and though dropping thirty feet was rescued undamaged.
The break-down of the bridge was a great nuisance, and so unexpected was it that the steep donga leading to it was choked with wagons waiting to cross. The oxen and mules had first to be removed and the wagons dragged out backwards—a very slow process.
It seemed fated that the 4.7's should never cross.
It was too late to begin again, so the guns were taken off their carriages and placed on wagons all ready for the morning.
At 5.30, February 23, they crossed in this manner without a hitch and, safely landed on the north bank, were quickly remounted.
Four 5-inch R.G.A. guns came across as well, and all were posted close to the 12-pounders among the Colenso kopjes.
Meanwhile Ogilvy had got six 12-pounders to the top of Hlangwani, and a 4.7 on a platform mounting had come to the assistance of the big 6-inch on Gun Hill.
Bight ahead was Terrace Hill, supported a little to the right and rear by Pieter's and Railway Hills, all strongly held by the enemy, who could be seen hurrying up reinforcements of men and guns. They had at least three 45-pounders, a dozen 12-15-pounders and several smaller long-range guns, besides pompoms and some of our own artillery lost at Colenso.
We were soon very hotly engaged.
Captain Jones's despatch well describes this day's fighting:
At 9 A.M. all the guns opened fire, which was replied to by a brisk fire from the enemy. During the day our infantry advanced and took the southern slopes of a commanding, strongly-fortified, and entrenched position at the summit of a range of hills close to the route to Ladysmith [Terrace Hill].
Towards evening General Hart, with the Irish Brigade, assaulted the summit, but did not succeed in taking it, and at dusk entrenched himself just below the last ridge leading up to it. He left, however, many killed and wounded on the glacis.
During the whole day the enemy shelled very vigorously, and it is beyond my comprehension how so small an amount of damage was done, as they were shooting with great accuracy. A dozen shells, mostly 40-pounders, fell within a radius of twenty yards round the 4.7 guns, and a great many passed over, while others fell a very little short.
I took the big glass up to the 12-pounders which were engaging on Grobler's side (the left) to try to discover guns, and there, I think, it was even warmer, for we had a pom-pom on us as well as two or three big guns. It was here that my coxswain. Thomas Tunbridge, who was sitting down on a stone, was struck by a shell which tore away half his thigh. Fortunately the shell did not burst, as there was a little knot round the glass where an officer was pointing out the position of a gun to me. Only four men were wounded all day by shell, and one shot by a rifle bullet in the evening. Bo soon as it was dark the enemy began to snipe our hills pretty freely; in fact, about 9 o'clock it amounted to a considerable fire. We got the men under cover, and no damage was done. The firing continued till daylight.
By next morning we were secure against sniping, having, during the night, built sandbag emplacements round the guns.
All day Saturday the duel continued in a drizzling rain, but the enemy paid more attention to the 5-inch than to us. Hart's infantry could do nothing against Terrace Hill—in fact, were only holding their own, their left even being menaced—so it was decided, without giving up the ground we had gained, to extend to the right, cross the river, and swing round from right to left, taking Pieter's and Railway Hills, which supported Terrace Hill, in detail; so at dusk the 4.7's were taken down to the pontoon, making heavy weather through the muddy roads, bivouacked there, crossed early Sunday morning to the south bank and took up a position on a spur of Hlangwani—close to the four 12-pounders sent across previously—and all in a position to enfilade Terrace Hill.