RECONNAISSANCE OF VAN WYK—TAKING UP GUN POSITIONS WITH DIFFICULTY—CAPTURE OF BOTHA'S PASS —A VERY HARD NIGHT'S WORK GETTING THE GUNS DOWN—CROSS THE PASS AND BIVOUAC IN THE ORANGE RIVER COLONY—ALLMAN'S NEK— EVACUATION OF LAING'S NEK—MAJUBA, ETC.—ARRIVE AT VOLKSRUST AND SANDSPRUIT.
ON June 6, being in bivouac at De Wet's Farm in Natal, I received orders to ride with Major-General Coke to make a reconnaissance of a hill called Van Wyk, some six or seven miles away, immediately opposite Botha's Pass and about seven thousand yards distant from it, with a view to finding a position for the naval guns. This was the first hint I had had that the real attack to force the passage of the Drakensberg would be made in this direction. We had been ' backing and filling' for so long in the region of Laing's Nek that I couldn't guess where the ultimate attack would be made.
Well! General Coke took with him half his brigade, the S.A.L.H., and a battery of R.A., which latter was halted about three miles from Van Wyk, and also the infantry. General Hildyard and some of his staff rode up here and the two Generals and myself, with Col. Byng and some of his S.A.L.H. in advance, rode on, and very soon the Light Horse were engaged, small parties of Boers keeping up a desultory fire at long range from the adjoining hills, till we arrived at a nek close to Van Wyk, when, after a lively interchange of rifle fire, they cleared off and we went on.
Having selected positions for my guns I was ordered to go back to camp, picking out on the way a route by which they could be brought up after dark.
The Boers had discovered our game and it was quite apparent that the hill must be held there and then. This the S.A.L.H. (dismounted) had to do until the rest of the Brigade could be brought up, and a pretty stiff time they had of it. Before I left the enemy had opened fire with three or four guns across the valley, and during the afternoon collected all their available men and attacked in force, but the foremost regiment arrived on the scene in time to repulse them. I have not seen much credit given to the S.A.L.H. for their performance on this occasion, which was most creditable and important, and not the least of their brilliant achievements.
I got back with my A.D.G. and found Halsey with his two 12-pounders going to a point near Yellowboom Farm, also facing the Drakensberg, and at 7.30 started with the two 4.7's and Burne's two 12-pounders.
The route was exposed to the enemy's guns for two-thirds of the way—that was why we had to wait till after dark. Now it is one thing to ride in daylight to a distant hill clearly in sight, even though across a strange and difficult country, but quite another to drag 4.7 guns, drawn by bullocks, in the dark to the same place. Especially, as in this case, when the enemy has set the grass on fire in the interval and obliterated all one's most cherished landmarks. What was not a blackened waste was a roaring sea of flame. However, we did not go so much out of our way, but what with some very bad drifts to cross, and the oxen, maddened by the flames, breaking away from their ‘ rheimes,' progress was very slow, so about midnight I pushed on the 12-pounders, guided by Ledyard, my A.D.C., to try and get them up by daylight. The 4.7s were not intended to go beyond the drift at the foot of Van Wyk in the dark.
However, one of the 12-pounders capsized in a drift and we caught them up, got it to ' rights ' and pushed on to the foot of the hill.
The blazing country made it as light as day and helped us a good deal; indeed, I think on the whole we scored by the fire.
Another 12-pounder capsized in the drift at the foot of Van Wyk, but was righted and the two crossed and pushed up the steep slopes of the hill. One of them broke an axle and was left half-way up, but a shot from the summit, just after daylight, announced that the other had arrived all right.
The 4.7s halted near the drift at the bottom of the hill till daylight. There was very great difficulty in getting them through this drift. The guns were dismounted and carried across on wagons, and during the morning we commenced the ascent. It is a very steep and long pull up over rotten ground, and sixty oxen were used for each gun and wagon of ammunition, pulling them up bit by bit. We had them in position by 2 P.M. I really think the Boers never dreamt that we should get heavy guns up there, or they never would have let us get possession of the hill. This was the hardest job we had through the whole campaign.
Despite the opinions at home about the wonders the Boers achieved in getting their guns into inaccessible positions. I venture to say that they never got guns, large or small, into such difficult places as we did, during the whole of the Natal operations. I visited nearly all their gun positions after we had driven them out, and with very few exceptions there was an easy ascent on the reverse side. In many places, looking up at them from our point of view, perched on top of a frowning precipitous hill, it looked impossible for guns; but then the Boers didn't get them up that way.
During the afternoon the trail of the 12-pounder was broken whilst firing at some wandering Boers, but by dint of working all night with our armourers, carpenters, and two wheelwrights lent by the R.A., both that gun and the one with the broken axle were repaired and in position ready for action on the day of the fight (9th). The wheels and axle of a limber were fitted to one 12-pounder, and the trail of the other was cut and scarfed.
The infantry advanced to the attack at 11 A.M. and, an hour or so before, our four guns on Van Wyk, the military 4.7's, and Halsey's two 12-pounders, away to the right, searched every donga and the approaches to the line of works, to the left and right of Botha's Pass.
The enemy had several guns along the ridge, but immediately our guns were in position they took them back out of sight, thus leaving our troops unmolested by artillery fire whilst making the actual ascent, an enormous advantage, secured entirely by the presence of the guns.
The infantry swarmed up the hills and over the crest with little opposition, and then the real fight began. The enemy opened on them with guns, pom-poms, and rifles. They had got their guns away to the left of our advance, and enfiladed it from behind a dense cloud of smoke which prevented us seeing them. But the infantry went steadily on all day, driving the enemy from their works to lines further back, till the whole of the works were taken, and by sunset the Boers were in full flight and the place was in our possession. During all this time our guns were firing over the heads of the infantry, and helped materially to clear the ground in front of them, driving the enemy out of several of their trenches and schanzes before our men got up to them. We ceased fire at dusk, when the battle was practically over. It was bitterly cold and a heavy dense fog came on, and by 7.30 all our people had settled to sleep under their wagons with all the blankets they could muster over them. Half an hour later I was roused out and ordered to take my guns down the hill during the night, and a regiment was ordered to meet us at the top of the gully, by which we had to descend, to help get the guns down. Every one buckled to with a will, guns were got down from their positions, dismounted and put on the wagons, oxen inspanned, wagons packed, and we were at the nek, the appointed place, by ten, the appointed time, but no regiment turned up. The oxen had to be outspanned before making the descent, and we waited and sent in all directions to look for the troops, but the fog was so thick we could not see twenty yards. I went twice to the General to try to obtain troops, but he was powerless to get any, and we never saw them till next morning about 7, when they stumbled on us at the bottom through the fog, having been wandering about, lost, all night.
We waited for them till past 11 P.M., and then, being determined to get down if possible, we started easing the wagons and guns down the gully, one by one, with drag-ropes and trek-chains, putting every man of the force on to each. We had to get them down like this nearly three-quarters of a mile before the oxen could be inspanned; and after each 'package' was lowered the men had to climb the hill again with their ropes and repeat the operation—eleven times in all— most fatiguing work, and the men working splendidly, aided by two companies of infantry forming our escort. However, we got them all to the bottom by 4 A.M., when men, officers, and oxen dropped where they stood, and got what rest they could, in the long grass, till six o'clock, when the work of getting the guns across the ravine commenced.
The 12-pounders smashed one of the wagons during the descent and injured two oxen so severely that they had to be killed. It is an ill wind, &c, &c., and the 800 Tommies, hungry after their night's wandering, soon left nothing of them.
At 8 A.M. we were ordered to a position a little in advance of Yellowboom Farm, and had just out-spanned to graze and water the oxen, which were sorely in need thereof, when I received orders to proceed at noon with General Coke's brigade through Botha's Pass, a long tedious pull up, the road blocked by strings of store and provision wagons. We arrived at our bivouac, just over the pass and in the Orange River Colony, soon after dark. At last we were over the Drakensberg, and had outflanked the Boers at Laing's Nek; but there was much still to be done before they shifted from that historic ground.
Next morning we moved on with the Division in the direction of Grandsvlei—very good going, and the trekking quite a pleasure, after some of our former experiences. The field artillery and our 12-pounders were frequently brought into action on this march to clear the enemy from hills along the advance, and at a place called Piet Uys Farm we had quite a little brush ; but they continued to retire. Here we came up with the enemy's ambulances, which of course were unmolested, and the farm round which they were gathered, itself adorned with many white flags, was tenderly guarded by sentries to prevent any one entering.
This was somewhat exasperating, for the place was evidently a depot of the enemy, and there were enormous stacks of sweet-smelling hay garnered there, the scent of which caused many of our half-starved animals to break away. But we were not allowed to take any or to destroy it, though it was palpably stored for the enemy. There were also large stocks of poultry and sheep.
We halted here for an hoar or BO, and a few officers managed to buy some fowls at enormous prices. General Coke and I tried to buy a sheep, but they were not disposed to sell, and we had to go without, and passed on, leaving the place with all its stores to be used by the enemy, should they think fit.
I considered our position somewhat critical for the next few days, for we had only about three days’ provisions, and could get no more till we got it through Laing's Nek, out of which the Boers had first to be driven.
General Clery's Division was in front of Laing's Nek, and Lyttelton's further to the east, towards Utrecht, and our business was to work round in rear of them. We got up to Grandsvlei about 5 P.M. and found firing going on and the S.A.L.H. engaged storming a hill in advance. They lost somewhat heavily.
Next morning, June 12, before daybreak, all naval guns and the artillery advanced to positions about two miles ahead and proceeded to clear the ground for the infantry advance, and when they had gone on we followed (11 A.M.) a few miles further, and found them and a mountain battery hotly engaged, the enemy holding a strong position on both sides of Allman's Nek, through which our road lay. We took up a position, under fire, along a hill about five thousand yards from the nek, with some army 4.7s on our left, and the howitzer battery at the foot of the hill in our rear. There was a nasty cross-fire from guns and pom-poms for some little time, but as soon as we discovered them we quickly stopped their game, and about 1 P.M. the infantry advanced to the attack.
Hamilton's Brigade assaulted the hills to our left of the nek, Coke's men those to the right—very precipitous and rocky hills they were. The army 4.7s covered the left attack, our naval ones the right, aided by the howitzers, which did excellent work. On this side there was a tremendous fight, one of the best in the campaign. The troops plodded on in the face of a tremendous fire and heavy loss, till at last they gained a sugar-loaf hill overlooking the pass, and were on the enemy's flank. Thence they worked along the ridges to the right. The Boers on the other side did not wait long for Hamilton and were soon on the move, but the others resisted stubbornly, though just as the sun went down, a gorgeous splendour behind the hills, the whole range was in our possession and the Boers in full flight, leaving the country in a blaze behind them, as usual.
We continued to throw shell over the hills in the direction of their retreat, and although we could no longer see them, some at least took effect, as we discovered next morning. We also discovered some ghastly sights of Boers ' hoist with their own petard,' fire, in the form of several corpses burnt to cinders. They were probably wounded men unable to keep ahead of the flames.
The water cart was our only casualty in this fight.
It was a very thorough beating and a very important one, the last of any consequence before we got to Volksrust, and was the signal for the Boers to abandon Laing's Nek, Majuba, &c.
Next morning we moved on, and about noon the 4.7s came into action and shelled Sandspruit Station, and parties of Boers as they disappeared over the hills in fall retreat.
That night we bivouacked five miles outside Volksrust. and heard of the evacuation of Laing's Nek. Next day we marched into the town, Charles-town being occupied at the same time.
On the following day (15th) I rode over to Laing's Nek and Majuba Hill. The position was quite impregnable, I should say, and nothing but a very wide flanking movement could have turned them out. For miles each side of the nek the place was entrenched and fortified—deep narrow trenches that nothing could touch from below. Majuba also, which flanks the nek, was thoroughly entrenched, as were the hills to the westward of it, which in turn flanked Majuba.
It was a stiff climb to the top of Majuba, and it seemed to me almost incomprehensible how such a disaster as we met with there could have occurred. The graves are not in a very good state. A wooden cross records the fact that Braizier (no rank) and twenty men of the Naval Brigade lie buried there. There is a similar one to the soldiers who fell, and a stone cross to an army officer.
Poor Romilly, General Colley, and other officers are buried at Mount Prospect, a small hill four miles away.
On my return to Volksrust, after examining these trenches and gun positions, I found orders waiting to march at daybreak next morning with the 11th Brigade on Wakkerstroom. Lyttelton had met with opposition to the eastward and we were despatched to see it through.
We arrived on the morning of the 17th without opposition and bivouacked near the town. We stayed there over the next day, and then, ‘ as per routine’ cleared out and left it to its own devices, much to the disgust of the inhabitants, who had given up their arms, taken the oath of allegiance, and were now left to the tender mercy of their brethren in arms. As a matter of fact the landdrost's son was shot within twenty-four hours afterwards by the Boers.
After a weary trek we reached Sandspruit on the 20th, and here I received orders to return to my ship with all the men of the ‘Forte’ leaving behind only the men of the 'Tartar' and the 'Philomel’ under Lieutenants Halsey and Burne.
PROCEEDINGS SUBSEQUENT TO JUNE 24
[After the departure of Captain Jones and the ' Fortes’ Lieut. Halsey remained at Volksrust until June 28, with two 12-pounders, manned by men of the ' Philomel.' This detachment accompanied a flying column from Sandspruit, which advanced towards Amerspoort, found the enemy in considerable force, and fell back according to orders. The long-range fire of these naval guns was instrumental in forcing the enemy to disclose their strength and guns, and afterwards covered the retirement on Sandspruit. Here the 'Philomels' remained till July 10, when they proceeded by train to Standerton. At this place the two guns were horsed from a field battery—a very successful experiment which considerably increased their mobility. Although on one or two occasions during slight skirmishes they went into action ' at the trot,' the carriages were not injured by this extra strain. On July 24 they marched to Greylingstad, having been employed during this time covering the repair of the railway towards Heidelberg, remained there a month, and then returned to Standerton, one 12-pounder taking up a position near this town and the second being eventually sent to garrison Heidelberg.
Lieut. Burne's detachment of ' Tartars' with the remaining two 12-pounders took part in the series of operations to the east of the railway resulting in the capture of Wakkerstroom and the position of Gras Kop, a lofty hill which dominates the whole surrounding country. On this hill one gun was placed permanently in position, the second being shifted first to Opperman's Kraal and latterly to Paarde Kop.
Of Gras Kop, Lieut. Burne says in his report of proceedings, dated October 17: 'The whole of the intelligence from Gras Kop as to the movements of the enemy since July 24 up to this date has been furnished by my look-outs with their long telescope, and this, I need scarcely say, has been a considerable and arduous duty for the men, under the conditions of violent winds, rains, mists, and storms which prevailed up here (a height of 6,500 feet) since we occupied the hill. These wind-storms have destroyed our tents once, sometimes continuing for days, and have caused much discomfort to ourselves and the troops, and I have lost a good many oxen by exposure and lung sickness.'Both detachments were withdrawn to their ships in the latter part of October 1900.—EDITOR.]