From January 10th to 15th, 1900
The arrival of the Fifth Division at Frere by route march from Escourt, had apparently completed the headquarter plans for a second advance to the relief of Ladysmith.
On January 9th the rumoured flanking movements had received welcome confirmation by the issue of general orders for a flank march westward to the upper Tugela. After dusk the naval guns were withdrawn from Gun Hill, the two 4'7 being dismounted and placed in waggons to facilitate the brigade's mobility, and arrangements made for the morrow's advance. Early next morning, 10th, the general movement commenced, the confluence of the Chieveley contingent with the Frere main body taking place about noon near Pretorius' farm on the Springfield road, where Hart's Brigade had encamped to cover the movement. Before vacating our position, dummy guns, prepared by our artisan staff, had been placed overnight on Gun Hill, but how far this artifice succeeded in deluding our wily enemy was very questionable.
Remaining entrenched at Chieveley to contain the Boers in Colenso, were Barton's Brigade, a small mounted force, and the 12-pounder units of Lieutenants Richards and Wilde. At Frere, the base of supplies, a small force, with Melville's 12-pounder unit, remained to guard the place and railway track.
The objective of this new movement was to proceed, via Springfield, to Spearmans Hills, which overlook the Upper Tugela, situated some 28 miles by route march (though only about 15 miles directly westward) from Colenso, and from thence attempt to outflank the enemy.
Preceding the main army, a flying mounted column about 1000 strong, accompanied by a battery of field artillery under Lord Dundonald, went on ahead and seized the all-important road bridge over the tributary Little Tugela at Springfield, now swollen to about the size of the Thames at London Bridge. This strategic point captured, one-third of their number and two guns were left to guard the bridge, while the remainder boldly pushed on, thirsting for further spoil. By nightfall this intrepid band of horsemen had secured the heights immediately overlooking Potgieters Drift, actually seizing the ferry pont the next morning under the very nose—and a smart rifle fire—of the enemy. Securing themselves on the heights so as to command the drift, this force remained unmolested in their jeopardous position for some 36 hours before being reinforced. This dashing exploit infinitely decreased the responsibilities and difficulties of the movement—especially the transport—that otherwise would have beset the force with the Springfield bridge defunct, and an active enemy in opposition. They had, however, over-reached their orders by many, many miles, but " nothing succeeds like success," especially in a naval or military enterprise, though failure seldom meets with condonation. The New Year had heralded a few minor successes on Cape Colony side, and with this exploit included, a reversal of the general ill-luck prevalent hitherto seemed in sight. The ubiquitous Mr. Winston Churchill had ridden in that gallant 28-mile ride ; a personage seemingly possessing talismanic influence. From Morning Post war correspondent and armoured train fighter to prisoner of war; then a dramatic escape from a Pretorian gaol, to a lieutenant's commission in the South African Light Horse, within two months—this was, in truth, the kind of romance in real life which appeals to all lovers of adventure.
Incomprehensible strategy, or else the swift action of the cavalry, had left the Springfield bridge intact, but the flooding of the Tugela was the obvious cause of the Boers retiring north of the river to await the arrival of Sir Redvers Buller's relief force.
To behold en route this huge column of some 30,000 soldiers, sailors, civilian ambulance corps, native " accessories," and some 10,000 animals drawing several hundred waggons, etc., was a scene to baffle description and defy imagination. At least ten miles of transport in " single column line ahead " was being steered towards one destination.
Here was evidence in galore of why it had taken nearly a month for a second attempt to develop. To plan such an organization on paper must require intimate knowledge of the subject—scarcely secondary to war itself. But to carry it into practical execution was the product of a fully trained master-mind. To move such a vast column through practically a hostile country, and keep up supplies of all descriptions, was a task so stupendous that Moses himself might have pardonably shrunk from the undertaking. Civilized armies require modern transport, equipment, and sustenance; a circumstance that has not lessened the burdens of generals. " 'Tis true, 'tis pity; and pity 'tis 'tis true," that so much transport, which renders mobility immobile, should be necessary ; or so at least the generals must have thought. Yet, nevertheless, as an organization, there was little to cavil about.
The flank march proceeded apace; a journey full of incident. The track, after a little traffic had passed over it, became a long road of quagmire resembling a canal of mud, rendering haulage of the transport very burdensome. Many times the oxen were compelled to give in dead-beaten, and not a few horses and mules died in their endeavour to struggle onward. To allow a waggon to leave the track, which was, at any rate, fairly solid under the thick stratum of mud, and attempt to travel on the alluring green veldt, was invariably fraught with disastrous consequences. One experience was sufficient to convince the most sceptic individual, after having both arms stretched for an hour or two on a drag-rope trying to extricate a waggon which had gone off its course on to the spongy veldt, that keeping to the track was the safest policy. Recent torrential rains had brought this condition into existence, for otherwise the route had been truly described as " road fairly good, but very little water anywhere." To reverse this account and say, road fearfully bad, but water everywhere, would now be the correct description. It is strange but true, that if the oxen cannot free their load by themselves, they, invariably, will stubbornly refuse to co-operate with a drag-rope party. An ordinary team of oxen consisted of sixteen animals, and sometimes two and even three such teams were necessary to remove a waggon from a stranded position. Spruits and drifts hitherto dry, or nearly so, were now found to be rushing torrents of yellow coloured water many feet deep, requiring careful pilotage to get the transport across them at the exact spot. The approaches and exits of these drifts have their counterpart in the mud flats of "Pompey Harbour." Here oxen and the heavy waggons would often sink so deep that the former had the appearance of legless beasts, and the latter of sleighs, necessitating both teams and waggons being forcibly hauled through to relieve the congestion of traffic that invariably accumulated at these places.
Drifts and delays — either word possessed the same meaning.
Long preventer drag-ropes proved invaluable and even indispensable at these stages of the journey. Why not traction engines ? No, certainly not!—at least, not in the montanic regions of Northern Natal, except to use them like armoured trains—occasionally. Valuable no doubt they might be on hard ground or on a bona fide road, but not in a kopje strewn country, on spongy veldt-tracks, or in morass-like drifts. The only engine (I believe) that attempted this cruise out west was passed reposing gracefully on its side, having floundered deep into a soft section of the track—helpless, awaiting excavation. One bluejacket facetiously inquired of the forlorn looking driver "if he wanted a sky-pilot to read the burial service over it." " There's plenty of life in the beggar yet," responded the driver ; which was quite true.
Plenty of life—or steam—but no more. One good old navy drag-rope and a hundred horny-handed sailors would—and often did—take a heavy ammunition waggon or a 4'7 gun where no traction engine under full steam with an open throttle-valve or a prize team of oxen could approach within a respectable distance. Besides, men can be easily controlled, but engines and oxen—both extremely useful in their proper spheres—either stop dead when they should be moving, or bolt away when they are required to stop, and both consume a quantity of water that would suffice for a hundred thirsty tars. Moral:—drag-ropes, and good long ones.
Still, in spite of all obstacles, natural and otherwise, the movement went on apace under the personal supervision of General Buller and his indefatigable staff, who were ever ready to circumvent every apparent difficulty.
With the Naval Brigade, a kind of tacit permission to let them cruise along, or "anchor as convenient," appeared to exist. Profited by former experiences, they had become practical trekkers on the war-path; thanks mainly to our colonial comrades in arms, many of whom were genuine South African travellers, who understood trekking in all its mysterious technicalities. Though often delayed ourselves, we never retarded the movements of any one else, but more frequently assisted to remove difficulties rather than made any.
The usual comprehensive nature of a naval brigade enables circumstances to be coped with which sometimes appear insuperable to others. Besides captains of guns and seaman gunners to fight the guns, and torpedo men to lay a mine or perform other electrical work, there was also a sprinkling of mechanical and • artisan ratings—armourers, blacksmiths, shipwrights — under an experienced naval engineer officer. Our Ambulance Staff, too, was composed of brawny " mechanical stokers," who became excellent pioneers whenever necessity for such duty arose. Moreover, almost every appliance for dealing with expectant contingencies formed part of our cargo: from sheer-legs to a shackle, from an anvil to an adze; thus enabling the brigade to be wholly self-supporting. With such a combination of practical and mechanical skill lumped together, and so many material resources available, no other result than proficiency was to be expected.
On the march, also, the brigade were not a whit in arrear of each day's programme. The longest march performed was eighteen miles in six hours, which time included stoppages to give the escort a spell; and this in a tropical heat, although the travel at this particular stretch of route was very good as roads go in Northern Natal. This march also evidenced the ordinary endurance of the oxen, whose motive power is quite equal to that of troops, with whom they can keep pace for many hours; on good roads, of course. In mystic language these patient animals (each owning a name) are encouraged onward by their Kafir drivers. The most experienced and trusty ones are those pairs on the dessel-boom, and the leaders of the team, who follow the black leader-boy with marked intelligence. Shirking, or lagging, will draw forth a swish from a skilfully handled twenty-feet-long whip-lash, but as often the offending beast will bestir himself when hearing his name yelled out, accompanied by a few admonishing words.
"No excuse was taken for not hearing the pipe," for punishment was certain to follow inattention to orders.
The 4'7 battery spent the first night at Pretorius Drift— about fifteen miles' march from Chieveley—where it had been waiting "on ranko" for hours to cross a swollen spruit. Ogilvy's battery, having left Frere in good time and being well ahead, had been more fortunate, and had encamped some distance beyond. Darkness, and an order to clear the route to allow Sir Charles Warren's Division to pass, prohibited further passage of transport for the night, so the 4'7 Battery bivouacked on the spot—or in the mud, either statement being true. Tramp—tramp—tramp, hour after hour, through a pitiless rain, went battalion after battalion, brigade after brigade ; the early dawn breaking before the division had crossed the spruit—many of whom were destined never to recross.
Similar experiences to those of the first day were met with on each of the two succeeding days that occupied the journey, the guns eventually arriving at Spearman's Camp about noon, January 13th. Before nightfall the 4'7 guns were in position on Mount Alice, and the camp pitched in an umbrageous spot on its reverse slope. Ogilvy's guns remained in the main camp awaiting orders. By the 15th the whole army and its transport had arrived. Burne's guns arrived with Hildyard's Brigade, which had been strategically operating on the right flank of the army during the movement.
From Mount Alice, an eminence about 1000 feet above the river, a magnificent panoramic view of the Tugela valley and an immense tract of country all around was to be obtained. The remarkably clear atmosphere enabled far-distant objects to be intelligibly delineated with the telescope, which ordinarily cannot be brought within focus. Far away on our left, to the westward, rose the stately Drakensberg Range, whose lofty peaks and pinnacles, rising to 11,200 feet, were grandly outlined against the sky. To the eastward (our right), some twenty miles or so away, stood Mount 'Bulwana, dominating beleaguered Ladysmith with a 6-inch " Long Tom," whose familiar puffs of smoke were grim reminders to the spectator of his duty. Intrenchments, presumably those on Waggon Hill and Caesar's Camp, could be easily discerned, from whence a blinking heliograph was busily flashing and acknowledging official cypher despatches, and private Morse messages. The view in our immediate front was a picturesque scene. There the historic Tugela was winding itself snake-like fashion through a rich valley, forming two distinctive loops, which were found to be serious natural obstacles in the respective operations that followed. The valley extended in a wide concave, whose furthest edge (Brakfontein Ridge) was between seven and eight thousand yards distant from the hills south of the river, the ground gradually rising from the river towards the surrounding hills, meeting the plain beyond where the roads which lead to Ladysmith converge. Directly beneath Mount Alice, on the north side, was a plateau extending almost to the river, and about 400 feet above its level. A main road from Spearman's Camping-ground wended round Mount Alice, across this plateau, then dipped sharply down to Potgieters Drift. Both rear wheels of ammunition waggons had to be secured and skidded behind the oxen, and the naval 12-pounder guns eased down with the drag-ropes, owing to the steep declivity of the track just here, when the guns afterwards took this route. On our left front the Spion Kop Range towered some 500 feet higher than Mount Alice, the nearest firing range being about 5000 yards, and the farthest nearly 10,000 yards distant. Far away in the dim distance, beyond Brakfontein, the outline of the Biggarsberg Range was perceptible, on the other side of which is Dundee, standing in the centre of the Natal coalfields. The tops of our hills were park-like in their wealth of rich grass and sprinkling of trees. The northern sides were exceedingly steep, and thickly covered with mimosa and cactus trees, while the southern sides were scantily clothed, and approached by a gentle slope, with the exception of Zwaatz Kop, which was fairly precipitous on all sides. A sharp dip connected the trio of hills—Mount Alice, Signal Hill, Zwaatz Kop—in our occupation.
The enemy had quite anticipated our movement. The telescope disclosed much defensive work completed, and much more in progress. Intrenchments, gun redoubts, and sangars were being established everywhere which would protect or command any weak point, or places offering easy access to infantry. Indeed, they had prepared an east-to-west chain of defences, which must be broken wherever the passage of the Tugela could be attempted.
It was with an indefinite feeling that one gazed on the formidable-looking natural fortresses that stood between the relief army and Ladysmith. The summit of Spion Kop served as a watch-tower to the vigilant enemy, who could from thence perceive much of our intended movements, and prepare accordingly to defend the threatened points. The whole of the enemy's defence was again protected by an exterior line of hills masking their interior defences, which afforded security from all but direct infantry assault. The river, also, in certain places was not altogether unfavourable to them.
So without fear, or favour, the Britisher was again ready to meet the Boer in the deadly contest for supremacy.
Crowe: Chapter X - Spion Kop operations
January 16th to 23rd, 1900
FIVE brigades of infantry, some 3000 mounted troops, eight batteries of artillery, and ten naval guns—about 24,000 fighting men and 60 guns—would give an imposing array if placed in review order. Such a large force, however, became surprisingly microscopic after they had been tactically divided up among the kopjes which intersected the respective routes of advance. But General Buller had appraised his force, and the force implicitly trusted their general—a reciprocal feeling which engendered a healthy vitality, imparted a unity of purpose, and added a tower of moral strength to the relief army, that mere numbers do not always produce. There is much that is true behind that popular phrase that " our little British Army goes a darned long way." Such generals of the past as Marlborough and Wellington, and in the present age, Wolseley, Roberts, and Buller, have, owing to their magnetic personalities, made it so, while such admirals as Drake and Nelson of glorious memory, and latterly Lyons of Black Sea fame, the Seymours of China and Egyptian history, and Beresford, have similarly sustained our best naval traditions.
The following instructional and inspiriting field order, which had been read out to the whole army, had given the force a fresh impulse to achieve their objective:—
"The field force is now advancing to the relief of Ladysmith, where, surrounded by superior forces, our comrades have gallantly defended themselves for the past ten weeks. The general commanding knows that every one in this force feels, as he does, we must be successful. We shall be stoutly opposed by a clever, unscrupulous enemy. Let no man allow himself to be deceived by them. If a white flag is displayed, it means nothing unless the force displaying it halt, throw down their arms, and throw up their hands at the same time. If they get a chance, the enemy will try and mislead us by false words of command and false bugle sounds. Every one must guard against being deceived by such conduct. Above all, if any are ever surprised by a sudden volley at close quarters, let there be no hesitation; do not turn from it, but rush at it—that is the road to victory and safety. A retreat is fatal. The one thing the enemy cannot stand is our being at close quarters with them. We are fighting for the health and safety of our comrades; we are fighting in defence of our flag against an enemy who has forced war upon us for the worst and lowest motives, by treachery, conspiracy, and deceit. Let us bear ourselves as our cause deserves."
Late on the 16th, Lyttleton's Brigade commenced to cross the Tugela at Potgieters, which movement inaugurated the Spion Kop operations. A portion of the force forded the river—now rather high—using their rifles as a connecting link between each man, very slow progress being made. ^ The ferry-pont, by which it was intended to pass across the bulk of the brigade, for some cause became unworkable, a circumstance which was noticed from Mount Alice, whereupon Captain Jones despatched Lieutenant Chiazarri, N.N.V., Midshipman Sherrin, Chief Instructor Baldwin, and a party of bluejackets to render nautical assistance if wanted. Prompt charge of the ferry having been given to them, it was speedily set in motion, and troops rapidly transported across, half-companies at a time. By early morn the whole four battalions, one battery of artillery, and the 5-inch howitzer battery, together with their horses, had been passed over to the northern bank to occupy the low chain of kopjes a short distance therefrom. This fine evolution elicited the warm appreciation of General Lyttleton, who sent a message to Captain Jones "that the naval detachment working the ferry-pont were worth their weight in gold," and requested the retention of their services until the pressure at the drift relaxed—a request which was readily assented to.
Meanwhile, Sir Charles Warren marched from Springfield camp during the night with some 15,000 troops, cavalry, artillery, infantry, etc., to Trichardts Drift, whither Dundonald's mounted force had already proceeded to operate under Warren's orders. Talbot-Coke's Brigade, Bethune's Horse, and Ogilvy's Battery occupied the plateau beneath Mount Alice, effectively masking Potgieters. A small force watched Skiet Drift, which was also commanded by a battery of artillery on Signal Hill—so called because the central signal station was established on its summit. Thus were the troops disposed.
The original plan of operations requires but little explanation. General Warren, with the whole force and transport at his disposal, was to cross at Trichardts, refuse his right, detour round by Acton Homes, from thence gain the open plain north of Spion Kop, force the Boers back from west to east, and effect a junction with the Potgieters force at Brakfontein. General Buller had evidently decided that the position facing Potgieters was too formidable for a direct frontal attack; a wide flanking movement was therefore adopted instead.
Early on the 17th, the naval guns opened a heavy bombardment on the Spion Kop and Brakfontein positions, being joined later on by the howitzer battery. A scattering of hitherto concealed bodies of Boers proved that the shelling was causing them serious disquietude. The searching effect of the howitzer lyddite shells, dropped with wonderful accuracy into intrenchments, gun-pits and redoubts, and behind the ridges, was responsible for much moral and physical damage ; while the 4'7's, with common shell, contributed very largely to the material destruction. Far away defence works suffered considerable defacement, and were rendered untenable by their occupants, who appeared to find some difficulty in obtaining safe shelter.
Towards 9 a.m. Warren's force commenced crossing the pontoon bridge under cover of his batteries; the whole movement being well within view of Mount Alice, and about 8000 yards distant therefrom. A feeble resistance of long-range rifle fire was offered by the enemy; but whatever intention they might have had of opposing the crossing at that point, must have vanished when the naval heavy guns were found to command every vantage point they could select from which to oppose. Apparently the Boers would not venture too close with their guns, or, feeling secure in their stronghold, were indifferent, and consequently the bulk of the force and impedimenta crossed over by nightfall.
Next day, while completing the movement, Warren cautiously advanced his infantry, and sent Dundonald's mounted troops to find the finger-tips of the Boer right arm of defence. They found them, and moreover cut them off in a smart little action near Acton Homes, which cost the enemy a loss of 18 casualties and 24 prisoners before sundown ; our losses were comparatively few, being 2 killed, 2 wounded.
To divert the enemy's attention from Warren's flanking movement, Lyttleton's force made a threatening demonstration against Brakfontein, all guns maintaining a brisk bombardment to lend colour to the feint advance. The wily foe, however, appeared little disconcerted by this manoeuvre, which merely drew a little sportive rifle fire, the force carrying out the prearranged retirement back to the kopjes before dusk. A close repetition of this day's programme engrossed the attention of Lyttleton's command during these protracted operations, their share of the fighting culminating in a brilliant affair which is related in its order of sequence.
On the 19th, Warren had deemed it necessary to abandon the original plan of operations—that of detouring round the Boer flanks by the Acton Homes route, and had, instead, so diverted his force that his fighting line was now extended in a north-west and south-east direction, his right being contiguous to the south-west spurs of Spion Kop. Having reconnoitred the roads, Warren had concluded that the Acton Homes route must be rejected as being too long, and occupying more time than circumstances would warrant. He had therefore adopted the alternative north-eastern route (via Fair View and Rosalie), which passage, though considerably-shorter, was far more difficult to traverse, and also struck directly through the Boer right defences.
Certain progress towards executing this new plan was made on the 20th, the enemy having been compelled to vacate most of their outlying hillock defences, which Hart's Brigade, in face of stubborn opposition, had succeeded in capturing, assisted by the enterprising operation of Dundonald's horsemen, who had successfully wrested a dominating hill on the extreme left.
Retaining the ground won, the fighting recommenced at dawn next morning with a vigorous shelling of the Boer positions preparatory to another forward move. The task before Warren was extremely difficult and hazardous, having nearly resolved itself into a frontal advance, and in view of the fact four howitzer guns were despatched to assist him, Ogilvy's battery crossing Potgieters to replace them. Slowly onward pressed Warren's line, every yard of advance being hotly contested, but no obvious advantage was manifest.
During the 22nd a passive attitude prevailed, the troops tenaciously holding the captured ridges in face of a persistent bombarding from the Boer guns, which were situated on the exterior high ridges far beyond the effective range of Warren's batteries. To ensure success, Spion Kop must change hands,-further advance being next to impossible and quite impracticable while it remained in Boer tenancy. General Warren, with the reluctant acquiescence of Sir Redvers Buller, decided to settle the issue by a night attack on the 'fateful mountain. As, however, the ground to be traversed had not been reconnoitred, the venture was deferred until the following night.
Next day the troops endured another harassing shelling;, but comparatively slight losses ensued, owing to the more intelligent disposal of the forces under cover. As Spion Kop stood in the direct line of fire of all guns on its eastern side, the 4'7's were directed to be fired over its summit at the ridges where the Boer guns were situated—but not located.
Shelling invisible targets at uncertain ranges means usually futile practice, and an inordinate waste of ammunition, for the odds are indeed great against a lucky shell getting " home." Later in the day some changes in the dispositions of the troops took place. Lyttleton's command received two battalions which had arrived from Chieveley, while Talbot-Coke's Brigade, Bethune's Horse, and the newly raised Imperial Light Infantry, fresh from Durban, reinforced Warren.
The Boers had also received large reinforcements, evidently believing that the last two days of British inactivity was a presage of some bold stroke nearing maturity.
Arrangements having been completed, the venturous task of assaulting Spion Kop was entrusted to General Woodgate, who, with about half of his Lancashire Brigade, 200 of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, and a half-company Royal Engineers (about 1600 troops), set out at dusk en route towards the south-western spurs of the mountain. The fate of the whole operations depended upon the success of this bold enterprise. By those who are conversant with the physical aspect of Gibraltar, looking at the Rock from the western side, some idea of this night attack may be formed.
The resemblance affords a tolerably close comparison, insomuch as Spion Kop was viewed from Mount Alice. In height both eminences nearly agree, and differ but slightly in length and breadth. To complete this mental picture, imagine that the ascent was made from the neutral ground end of the Rock, that the plateau (written of hereafter) reached as far as the signal station, and then dipped sharply a few score feet, forming a neck that gradually rose again to a conical peak at the opposite end.
Led by the intrepid Thorneycroft, the actual ascent of that 1500 feet of steep, rugged climbing commenced about 10 p.m. Cautiously trending their way upwards, the column nearly reached the south-western crest by 4 a.m., unobserved, their formation then, owing to favourable ground, being in successive lines of attack as wide as the hill permitted. Presently, there came through the thick misty darkness the sentry's challenge of "Wie kom dar," ending further secrecy, followed by rapid firing from the surprised Boer picket, the assaulters sustaining only a trifling loss owing to their adopting " preparing to ram " tactics (lying flat down). The firing ceased directly their magazines were emptied, whereupon a bayonet charge, delivered with a loud British cheer, secured the south-west end of the plateau. But Fate—that arbiter of futurity—unkindly decreed that their success was to end with costly disaster, and the captured summit thereafter became a scene of the bloodiest encounter of the war. The dense mist that prevailed, which had so far greatly favoured the enterprise, rendered further advance, now that discovery had occurred, extremely hazardous until it lifted. But for the persistence of this impenetrable fog, which, obviously, now favoured the alarmed Boers by screening their defences, a different story than what follows might have been related —a story of victory such as crowned Wolfe's exploit, when the heights of Abraham were scaled and Quebec captured.
Towards 7 a.m. (24th) the fog lifted, when the troops and the general position of Spion Kop became visible from Mount Alice. General Buller arrived shortly afterwards, and through the naval telescope gave his deliberate attention to what was taking place there. Realizing the strategical success gained over them, and the vital necessity of recapturing the position, the Boers concentrated their utmost resources to undo the blunder of leaving the key of their whole position so utterly exposed to surprise. With shell, pom-pom, and rifle fire, the plateau was incessantly swept from now until dark, and successive attempts were made to envelop the British position. So scanty was the cover available, and so intense the raking fire, that a heavy casualty list was soon the resulting price gallant men were paying for the overnight success. General Woodgate, while inspecting the frail defences, fell mortally wounded alongside Colonel Blomfield; the command, together with its unique anxieties and responsibilities which stand almost unparalleled in military history, eventually devolving upon the gallant Thorneycroft. The plateau appeared somewhat convex in shape, the neck being about 350 yards distant from the nearest British trenches, and the conical peak perhaps another 500 yards still further beyond the neck. It was from the neck that the Boers sallied forth, and crept round the sides of the plateau to enfilade the advance in-trenchments, bayonet charges being necessary to drive them back. From the conical peak the enemy maintained a heavy fusilade, against which it was next to impossible to offer resistance where exposure was necessary, and from this point a machine-gun furrowed the plateau wherever a movement was attempted.
Warren's batteries vigorously shelled the western side of the mountain, while the naval guns endeavoured to subdue the fire on the eastern side—a storm of destruction which seemed to increase in severity as the day wore on. Shell after shell was rapidly hurled at the boulder-strewn neck, and also at the peak, nearly every round splintering huge rocks, which went hurtling down the sides at a terrific pace. As the enemy were in cover among them, distinctly visible from the naval guns, it must be presumed that they also were receiving severe punishment.
The following two messages, received on Mount Alice by Signalman Large of the Terrible, who, for the nonce, was attached to the army signallers staff, aptly describe the early forenoon position :—
"Am exposed to terrible cross fire, especially near first field dressing-station; can barely hold my own; water badly needed. Help us. Woodgate."
This message was from the wounded general; the heliograph being smashed by a shell during its transmission, which mishap necessitated the completion of it by flags, a method afterwards continued. The second message received was painfully brief.
" Reinforce at once or all is lost. General dead,"
was the wording of the signal received, though it was afterwards asserted that the exact message should have read—
" General Woodgate killed. Reinforcements urgently required,"
a message which more correctly expressed the situation than the one received. The signal, verbally stated to the signalman, had presumably been altered through pardonable inadvertency in the midst of such a scene of carnage. A reply message from General Warren, to whom the messages from Spion Kop had been retransmitted, was heliographed back to the summit as follows :—
" I am sending two battalions, and the Imperial Light Infantry are on their way up. You must hold on to the last. No surrender."
The enemy also strongly reinforced their summit defences, and continually pressed forward with great gallantry under cover of their well-handled guns, only to be driven back by heroically led charges, each involving much sacrifice.
At noon the situation had indeed become very critical, as the enemy had at last established themselves on the plateau itself. One of Thorneycroft's officers, who was present, has vividly described the position at this period of the day.
" Only a stretch of some 150 yards now separated the men in the intrenchment from the Boers on the crest line. The raking fire from the guns on Green Hill and the belts of shells from the pom-poms, the rifle fire from the knoll, from Green Hill, from Brakfontein, and from the crest line itself, made it impossible for any man to live except under cover, and turned the little plateau into a terrific fire-zone of such density as has never been surpassed in the history of war. Only those who were on Spion Kop know how ferocious can be the fire of a numerous enemy intrenched in commanding and enveloping positions, equipped with an untouched artillery admirably served, on to an open space crowded with defenders who are within the most effective range—only those men know how nerve-shattering are the influences of such a fire when protracted hour after hour. . . . Moreover, to move forward and attack is less trying to a man than to lie still and try to stop wondering, not whether he can escape death, but for how many more seconds he can possibly live." 1
The most crucial moment seems to have actually occurred about i p.m., when an isolated body of some two or three score of our troops, who were holding the eastern end of the British position, were observed in the act of surrendering themselves, as well as their section of defence. All their officers had succumbed, and apparently, after enduring the several hours of hellish fire which was rapidly decimating the defenders, their morale had finally deserted their exhausted bodies. But as such a proceeding, if permitted, might easily have imperilled the whole British position, the brave Thorneycroft rushed forward, prevented the surrender, and saved the situation by his plucky action and conspicuous courage. Not only did he extricate these men from a forlorn predicament, but led them, together with some timely reinforcements, back to the position temporarily vacated, which was afterwards securely held with exemplary tenacity.
Meanwhile, to mitigate if possible the desperate position on the summit, the 4'7 guns again sent numerous rounds of shell over the top in accordance with signalled directions from Warren's camp. Lyttleton's force went forward early to threaten Brakfontein, but retired again by noon in consequence of the unfavourable turn events were taking on the fateful mountain-top. During middle forenoon the Boers contrived to place guns behind Brakfontein, and from thence began raking the plateau on its eastern side. Their reign of destructiveness, however, was short-lived, for the naval guns gave them such assiduous attention that, with the exception of a secreted pom-pom, their fire was reduced to nullity.
Shortly after noon several hundred Boer horsemen were observed approaching from the Ladysmith direction, escorting what appeared to be either covered-up guns or ambulances. Lieutenant England was ordered to try what effect a shell at an indeterminate range might have among them. The gun was given extreme elevation and directed from the foot of one of the Roodepoort kopjes they must presently pass. A lyddite shell was fired ; a few riderless horses and a rapid dispersion of the unsuspecting enemy testified that a lucky result had been achieved—or, rather, an unlucky one for them. The distance was estimated at some 18,000 yards. Science meting out death at ten miles' range!
About 5 p.m. was witnessed a brilliant episode, which might justly be described as the silver lining of the cloud of calamity enshrouding our troops on Spion Kop. Two battalions from Lyttleton's command had been previously diverted to alleviate the pressure on the summit. The Scottish Rifles had already ascended the southern spurs, gained the plateau, and had behaved with great courage and energy in the firing line. The 3rd King's Royal Rifles had advanced to the north-eastern base in order to assault the peak directly above them, and were now making the ascent covered by the naval guns. In many places the slopes were exceedingly steep, almost perpendicular at some spots, making the climb a slow process. Yet, in spite of obstacles and the severe rifle fire they were receiving from the crest line, the neck, from hidden snaky snipers, and from the Brakfontein trenches — a semicircle of fire — the upward advance went steadily on. To clear out the nests of snipers, the supports fired over the heads of the leading line up among the overhead trees and rocks, and when the supports could no longer fire, the reserve line continued the covering, while the naval guns searched the crest lines, the neck, and trenches. As the assaulters approached the crest, the shell fire was directed solely at the peak and neck, the troops halting directly beneath their objective to enable them to freshen up for the coup de main.
The telescope for once saved a critical situation. By its powerful aid the Boers, who had taken advantage of the temporary inaction and diverted shell fire, were discovered lying in wait just over the crest line, ready to deliver the contents of their mausers into the troops as they clambered over the edge. It now seemed as if disastrous failure was again to be the reward of dauntless gallantry. To heliograph the danger lurking above them would occupy valuable time, besides informing the Boers (who understood Morse) that they were spotted, and possibly cause a premature collision and produce dire consequences that only a miracle appeared able to avert.
While onlookers were watching and expressing propitious hopes, Lieutenant Hunt was deliberately laying his 4'7 at the covert enemy. Bang! A few seconds' suspense—a lyddite shell burst, not on the conical peak where the attacking party expected to see it, but on the crest line below among those stalking Boers, who cleared instanter. Seeming to interpret the cause of a friendly shell exploding where it did, Colonel Buchanan-Riddell at once gave such orders as took his men over the crest without further delay. The guns now ceased to fire, except at the neck. Forming up, the final charge up the peak took place, the enemy only retiring the other side of it just before the bayonets reached them. This brilliant achievement cost the battalion its gallant colonel, who was killed, and 70 other casualties. Only a temporary occupation of that end of the hill, which had fulfilled its purpose, being contemplated, the battalion was brought down after dusk, returning to the Potgieters kopjes about midnight.
Meanwhile the heavy shelling of the plateau continued; the insuppressible Boer guns on the north-west ridges firing away at the British defenders, the British guns at the Boer attackers. The strong infantry reinforcements—four battalions—which had proceeded to the summit, though behaving with the utmost gallantry, had merely increased the density of the force—and the casualty list—on the limited confines of the plateau, their exertions being rendered utterly futile against the dominating shell-fire. As an instance of the intensity of the fire, Colonel Blomfield, of the Lancashire Fusiliers (whose son afterwards joined the Terrible as a midshipman), has related in the regimental Annual that—
" Nearly every shot they (the enemy) fired took its toll in killed or wounded. . . . Two shells passed through the thighs of one man, and on through the legs of the man next to him, leaving only the trunk of the first and carrying away one leg of the second man. A sergeant of the R.E. was lying on the near side of the two men killed, had also been hit by this shell, which had touched his spine and completely paralyzed him."
The colonel himself was severely wounded in the forenoon, and was afterwards made prisoner when the position was vacated. During the time he was lying in the trench, trying to offer as little exposure of himself as was possible, his water-bottle was shot off his chest.
" So heavy was the firing all clay," he states, " that carrying away of the wounded from the more forward and exposed trenches was impossible. Not till the welcome shades of night could their sufferings be alleviated, and in the darkness and confusion many were not found till morning. Many were killed as they left the trenches, Sergeant Lightfoot, who had so pluckily helped to bring me in, among them. . . . The Boer treatment of the wounded was kind and considerate. . . . The ordinary Boer seems to feel a good deal of sympathy for a wounded man, but not much for a sick man."
The injudicious dispositions of the British artillery were probably responsible for much of this devastating result. All the ten long-range naval guns were posted on Potgieter's side, unable to render real co-operative support or assistance either to Warren's force or the Spion Kop attack. Except for the incidents related, these powerful guns had done nothing beyond expending ammunition over noisy and futile bombardments, and trying to perform the impossible. One 4'7 and half the 12-pounders, at least, might easily have been spared and profitably employed out westward, where Warren's outranged batteries, all parked together on one hill within long-range rifle fire, were ineffectually but gallantly striving to be effective against the Boer guns.
As guns must invariably fight guns, it now became abundantly evident that if Spion Kop was ever to be wholly British, artillery must be more consistently employed, and that quickly. Hence it was that the Tartar s guns and the mountain battery were ordered to ascend the mountain.
Several assertions have been made that guns could not possibly have reached the summit unless a track was previously prepared for them. But to those who still adhere to that opinion, the writer respectfully points out that when naval field guns cannot be wheeled to where they may be required, they are either parbuckled, dragged, hoisted, or even carried there. Where men can walk, a field gun can be made to follow by one or other of the common methods just mentioned. As to whether the position on the summit was tenable for guns or not is, of course, a different and debatable question. It was also proposed to place one 4'7 to the westward, so that it might have a direct line of fire at the Boers' dominating guns; General Buller and Commander Limpus proceeded towards Trichardts to select the position. Moreover, preparations were made to send fresh troops to the summit to relieve those who had dauntlessly withstood an intolerable strain of battle, such as few troops have ever faced for so long an unbroken period. The subsequent events which occurred on Spion Kop, however, negatived each of these inceptive movements. The " remedials " were too late.
Colonel Thorneycroft, in a despatch to General Warren, extracts of which are here given, tersely sums up the situation about nightfall. He stated—
" The troops which marched up here last night are quite done up (the Lancashire Fusiliers, Royal Lancashire Regiment, and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry). They have had no water, and ammunition is running short. I consider that even with the reinforcements which have arrived it is impossible to permanently hold this place so long as the enemy's guns can play on the hill. They have three long-range guns, three of shorter range, and several Maxim-Nordenfelts, which have swept the whole of the plateau since 8 a.m. I have not been able to ascertain the casualties, but they have been very heavy, especially in the regiments which came up last night. I request instructions as to what course I am to adopt. The enemy are now (6.30) firing heavily from both flanks (rifle, shell, and Nordenfelt), while a heavy rifle fire is being kept up on the front. It is all I can do to hold my own. If my casualties go on at the present rate, I shall barely hold out the night.
" A large number of stretcher-bearers should be sent up, and also all the water possible.
" The situation is critical." 2
Owing to the signal apparatus being unworkable, night signals could not be transmitted, and written despatches naturally took considerable time to go to and fro. Therefore, in ignorance of what preparations were being made for holding the position, Thorneycroft gave the order, after a reasonable period of waiting for instructions had elapsed, for the total evacuation of Spion Kop. Towards midnight, Lieutenant Winston Churchill arrived on the summit on a mission from General Warren ; but he was too late—the retrograde movement was then irrevocably decided upon.
It was early dawn when Lieutenant Lees (Naval A.-D.-C. to General Bullcr) arrived on Mount Alice and countermanded all movements of naval guns, the unexpected news of the evacuation having just been received at headquarters. With the sun's appearance the telescope confirmed the dire intelligence. The Boers were observed in full occupation of the summit, busily stripping the dead, dying, and wounded of their arms and accoutrements. Such was the disastrous ending of an enterprise which began with such brilliant anticipation of success. Nevertheless, the decision to retire, which produced the collapse of the whole plan of operations—if there was a plan !—and which act has since become the subject of a fierce controversy, received the unqualified approvement of General Buller in the following manner :— General Buller's telegram, January 31st—
" It is due to Colonel Thorneycroft to say that I believe his personal gallantry saved a difficult situation early on the 24th, and that under a loss of at least 40 per cent, he directed the defence with conspicuous courage and ability throughout the day.
" No blame whatever for the withdrawal is, in my opinion, attributable to him, and I think his conduct throughout was admirable."
Though Lord Roberts could not concur with General Buller that the evacuation was a politic course to have adopted, yet he fully endorsed the expressed encomium concerning Thorneycroft's gallant leadership. The following extracts from General Buller's despatches (January 30th, 1900) furnish the sequel of a battle, which caused the nation a thrill both of sorrow and of triumph by the magnitude of misfortune and the valour of the troops it had revealed :—
"On the morning of the 25th, finding that Spion Kop had been abandoned in the night, I decided to withdraw General Warren's force; the troops had been continuously engaged for a week, in circumstances entailing considerable hardships ; there had been very heavy losses on Spion Kop. I consequently assumed the command, commenced the withdrawal of the ox and heavy mule transports on the 25th; this was completed by midday the 26th; by double spanning, the loaded ox waggons got over the drift at the rate of about eight per hour. The mule waggons went over the pontoon bridge, but all the mules had to be taken out and the vehicles passed over by hand. For about seven hours of the night the drift could not be used, as it was dangerous in the dark, but the use of the pontoon went on day and night. In addition to machine guns, six batteries of Royal Field Artillery, and four howitzers, the following vehicles were passed :—ox waggons, 232 ; 10-span mule waggons, 98 ; 6-span, 107; 4-span, 52;—total, 489 vehicles. In addition to these, the ambulances were working backwards and forwards, evacuating the sick and wounded.
"By 2 p.m. the 26th, all the ox waggons were over, and by 11.30 p.m. all the mule transports were across and the bridge clear for the troops. By 4 a.m. the 27th, all the troops were over, and by 8 a.m. the pontoons were gone and all was clear. . . . Thus ended an expedition which I think ought to have succeeded. We have suffered very heavy losses, and lost many whom we can ill spare ; but, on the other hand, we have inflicted as great or greater losses upon the enemy than they have upon us, and they are, by all accounts, thoroughly disheartened; while our troops are, I am glad and proud to say, in excellent fettle."
This second failure cost the relief army 324 killed, 1113 wounded, and 303 missing and prisoners—a total of 1740 officers and men.
1 The Nineteenth Century, No. 287, January, 1901.
2 The Nineteenth Century, No. 287, January, 1901.