NEARLY ALL THE NATAL GUNS ON HLANGWANI—A HEAVY DAY'S FIGHTING—CAPTURE OF THE BOER CENTRE—RETREAT OF THE ENEMY—RELIEF OF LADYSMITH—NAVAL GUNS CROSS TO THE NORTH OF RIVER AND EVENTUALLY PROCEED UNMOLESTED TO LADYSMITH—TELEGRAM FROM THE QUEEN—RETURN OF THE ‘ TERRIBLES.'
AFTER the 4.7s and 12-pounders had been placed in position on Hlangwani, two platform-mounted 4.7's were brought up from Gun Hill, and all Sunday night (February 25) the bluejackets were busy mounting one of these on a kopje a thousand yards in front and below the wheeled 4.7's, less than a thousand yards from the Boer snipers, and only 2,500 yards from the big trench on Terrace Hill. A regular fusillade of sniping broke out at 9 P.M., and all night long our working party was incessantly annoyed by snipers. It was very heavy and tiresome work in the dark, and the glimmer of a lantern always immediately drew fire.
Monday, February 26.—Desultory firing took place but no move of importance. The long-range naval telescopes were much used during the day by headquarters staff.
At night the second platform gun was successfully mounted, and, being in such an exposed position, the R.E. rigged a sandbag defence for both.
The schanzes on the little Colenso kopje we had evacuated on Saturday were literally blown away by the Boers to-day. They must have been under the impression that the naval guns were still there. Lucky for us that they were not.
At 7 A.M. the big guns opened fire, nor were the enemy slow to reply, and, as the field guns joined in, the noise of the great bombardment gradually swelled. Whilst the naval guns were busy engaging their opponents' guns, the howitzers and field guns threw lyddite or shrapnel into the endless tiers of trenches on Pieter's, Railway, and Terrace Hills.
All the forenoon the infantry were getting into position to assault these hills, and at noon Barton's men were launched at Pieter's and up they went, every gun that would bear clearing the ground in front of them. Pieter's was in our hands in a couple of hours, and just about this time came the news of Cronje's surrender, the cheering of our troops as the good news flew along probably disconcerting the enemy somewhat.
Then came Kitchener's turn to take Railway Hill, and presently we could see his men working up the eastern and western slopes; but those on the western slope were enfiladed from Terrace Hill, made but slow progress, and their advance was checked.
Captain Limpus, of H.M.S. 'Terrible,' in his diary thus describes the events immediately following:
.... for nearly half an hour they did not gain 100 yards. Then the guns redoubled their efforts. The shell bursts seemed almost continuous, lyddite and shrapnel throwing up earth and stones at each trench. One could now see the Boers as they rose up to fire, and the way in which they managed to keep their fire going won our admiration, but we felt that they must be crushed down by shell fire and that our men must be helped all we knew. The bombardment was now terrible, especially at a little mischievous entrenched kopje near the top of the nek; several times the Boers had to be brought back by a determined man who seemed to be in charge, until at last he himself disappeared in a great lyddite shell that burst— and that trench was silenced. We then moved our shell on to another.
A few of Kitchener's men then rose and charged forward splendidly. In a moment the whole lot rushed forward; the other guns ceased, but the two naval 4.7s and four 12-pounders went on as hard as they could. It was felt that there must be no mistake about it this time —those rifles must be cowed and unsteadied until our men were right up to them—so we went on in spite of rapid questions from watching staff officers. To them it looked dangerous: we, with our great telescopes, could be certain how long we might safely continue. At last our men were up, our shell fire swept round up to Terrace Hill, and on Railway Hill the bayonets got to work, and this hill and its adjoining nek were ours.
This was at about 5 P.M.
Norcott's men were now ascending Terrace Hill, and our guns were shelling the top where the Boers were splendidly standing their ground. The Lancashires, feeling the rifle fire from Terrace and having secured Railway, swung round and charged up Terrace Hill too. This was too much. The Boers wavered, looked behind them, and began making off, hunted by bursting shell, which stopped only to let the Lancashires in again with the bayonet Norcott's men came up and soon the whole hill was in our hands, and the men began making cover against the pom-poms and sniping which now assailed them. But the day was ours. We felt, we saw that the Boers were really beaten, thoroughly beaten and running away; and the relief was tremendous. . . .
Darkness fell amid preparations for going on, and we felt that the battle which decided Ladysmith's fate had now been fought—and won—and that too on Majuba Day.
Captain Jones's despatch also graphically describes the peculiar work of the naval guns:
I remained with these two guns [platform 4.7's] during the fighting on that great day, the 27th, and not only saw every detail of the fight from relatively quite close to, but also the finest shooting from one of them that I have ever seen in my life.
Once mounted, and at the ranges at which they are required to fire, the platform has a great advantage over the wheeled mounting. Having once got the range, of course you can put as many shots in as you like and as quick as you like. A man from the ‘ Philomel,' Patrick Casham, was the captain of the gun, and a born shot. . . . At least ten different guns always claim to have put some particular gun out of action, so I will only observe that through the big glass I saw this gun put three lyddite shells in one minute into the embrasure of a gun on Grobler; the gun never fired again, nor were the wheels visible afterwards, though I had previously seen them distinctly [range=9,000 yards]. At about 7 or 7.30 A.M. the Fusilier Brigade advanced to cross the pontoon, and Col Reeves, of the Irish Fusiliers, pointed out to me as he passed the positions up the hill to which they and the Scotch were to go.
This enabled me, I think, to help the Irish considerably. The Scotch, however, went further to the right than I was aware of, and did not get much assistance, as when they swung round to the left, after surmounting Pieter's Ridge, about 1 o'clock to take the other hills in flank, I could not see how far they had got and would not fire in front of them.
I believe, however, this was admirably done by the 12-pounders and the other two 4.7 inch guns on Hlangwani.
The Scotch started with their bagpipes, and the Irish whistling and joking, and the battle was half won before they started.
. . . Just about this time the news came of Gronje's surrender, and the cheering of the various units as the news reached them did them no harm either.
Wednesday, 28th.—At daybreak the Boer positions were found evacuated and by the evening oar mounted troops had entered Ladysmith, thus ending the siege of 112 days.
About noon we crossed the river to the north bank for the second time, and bivouacked in the dip between Terrace and Railway Hills, close to an enormous trench, into which a large number of Boers had bolted the previous evening, and in which a great number had been buried. Many women and children were found in the trenches; probably they had come out to see the English badly' slated' again. Some of the prisoners stated that they had not been out of their trenches for weeks, some in fact, had been there on the day of Colenso and had, naturally, taken no part in that fight.
At 8 A.M. on March 1 we marched towards Ladysmith, crossing the railway at Pieter's Station, and on to Nelthorpe, along the Colenso-Ladysmith road, bivouacking close to the station.
We had expected the Boer guns round Ladysmith—especially those on Bulwana—to oppose our advance, but the Boers had no more fight left in them and were dragging them away north to the Biggarsberg.
During the afternoon a few of us rode into Ladysmith—about ten miles—and before leaving crammed our holsters with whisky, tobacco, and cigarettes for the ' Powerfuls,' but our route lying through the neutral camp and hospital of Itombi, we were pretty well plundered before we ever saw them.
We all thought the garrison looked more robust than we had expected. On returning to Nelthorpe after a very cordial meeting with the ' Powerfuls,' we examined the dam in the Klip River which the Boers fondly imagined would flood Ladysmith. Not less than half a million sandbags had been already used in its construction, and all round were traces of the hurried flight of the enemy—hundreds of spades, pick-axes, and bales of new bags scattered over the ground.
On March 8 the 4.7's were taken to Ladysmith by train, and the Naval Brigade with its 12-pounders and wagons trekked there, marching through the town and pitching tents two miles to the north-east.
On the 7th the ' Powerfuls' returned to their ship homeward bound, and four days later the 'Terribles' were detached from the Naval Brigade and were sent down to rejoin their ship at Durban, en route for China, where they eventually arrived just in time to form part of the Pekin Relief Force. Before they left a telegram was received from Her Majesty, the Queen, thanking the officers and men of the Naval Brigade for their services, and congratulating them on their success.
During the relief operations the 4-7's had fired 4,000 rounds, the 12-pounders 12,000, so small wonder that some of the guns were showing signs of wear.
The strength of the Brigade was as follows : 89 officers and 408 men of the Royal Navy. 2 officers and 50 men of the Natal Naval Volunteers.
The guns were:1 x 6-inch.
2 x 4.7's on travelling carriages.
2 x 4.7s on platform mountings.
1 x 4.7 on a railway truck.
18 x 12-pounders, 12 cwt., on travelling carriages.
1 x 7-pounder, 'Tartar's' armoured train [captured].