Situated between Spion Kop and Doom Kloof stand the Vaal Krantz ridges, within effective and dominating gun range from both those high eminences, as well as from Brakfontein. The objective of this next attempt was to capture Vaal Krantz, and then follow with an outflanking attack upon Brakfontein from its eastern end ; a movement which must, if successful, cause the enemy to vacate the whole of his western positions, including Spion Kop. Such, then, was the plan, very simple in conception, and yet destined to fail.
The arrival of some 2400 reinforcements, which included half a regiment of cavalry, a battery of Royal Horse Artillery, and two army 5-inch guns, had more than counterbalanced the heavy losses sustained at the Spion Kop operations. The week's rest, coupled with General Buller's assurance to his troops that he had at last discovered the key of the Boer position, had produced a great recuperative effect upon the force, both physically and morally. Naturally the reverses had somewhat affected the martial spirit of the troops, but they had also made them fully realize the magnitude of the task before them—a task which the Empire was anxiously awaiting to see accomplished.
On Sunday night, February 4th, final orders were issued, troops and guns having been moving nearly all day, taking up their respective positions in readiness for the early morrow. The naval guns were now disposed as follows: the 4'7 were separated ; No. 1 gun, Lieutenant England, was placed on Signal Hill ; No. 2 gun, Lieutenant Hunt, remaining on Mount Alice, covering the whole left flank. Burn's two 12-pounders, with the two 5-inch guns, occupied a position immediately beneath Zwaart Kop. Ogilvy's six 12-pounders were placed on top of Zwaart Kop, also two R.F.A. guns, and the Mountain Battery.
The evolution of getting the guns up this rugged precipitous mountain, previously reported upon as being an insuperable position for guns to ascend, is worth a brief description. There was no roadway up, but the R.E.'s had blasted away the worst rocky obstructions, and had otherwise prepared a sort of track, the general being anxious to place long-range guns on its commanding summit, if possible. The order was received at dusk on the previous Friday evening, the movement, which had to be secretly performed during the darkness, commencing that same night. While the battery was preparing to trek, Lieutenant Ogilvy reconnoitred the ground to be traversed, and a start was made at 9 p.m. Leaving the plateau beneath Mount Alice, whither the naval 12-pounders had been withdrawn, the battery, during a violent thunderstorm, descended the steep slippery track leading towards Potgieters, and then struck eastwards. By midnight the neck connecting Signal Hill with Zwaart Kop was reached, over which it was imperative the battery should cross before dawn. With treble teams of oxen (48 animals), and every available man hauling with drag-ropes, each gun and waggon was separately transported over the rugged neck. Twice within 50 yards No. 4 gun toppled over the hillside during its transit, yet in spite of mishaps the six guns and ten heavy waggons were all transferred to the southern side and hidden from the Boer gaze in accordance with orders.
The men and oxen were then rested, to await the advent of dusk again before proceeding, Lieutenants Ogilvy and James ascending Zwaart Kop in the mean time, to select gun positions and inspect the track. To carry out their scheme, the balloon wire cable was requisitioned and obtained, an apparatus being rigged up with it during daylight. The ascent may be divided into three sections of route, each requiring a different method of haulage, (i) A rough track, with about 20 degrees of irregular slope, was traversed by the agency of men and oxen as on the previous night. (2) A rugged and crooked shoulder several score yards long, having an inclination of about 25 degrees, was surmounted by placing the Scottish Fusilier escort of 100 men on the drag-ropes, while the guns' crews pushed and man-handled the wheel-spokes. (3) The final and worst portion, some 300 feet in length, was covered with huge boulders, and had an inclination of about 40 degrees. Some idea of the steepness just here can be imagined when it is considered that at an angle of 45 degrees it is difficult even to stand, let alone work. Here the wire hawser was used. It was first centred, the bight secured to the gun trail, and the ends led up through two leading blocks, one on each side of and at the top of the track ; the hemp drag-ropes were then bent on to the ends to afford a suitable grip, and led down towards the gun, each rope being manned by 50 of the escort. Though " preventer guys " were used, a few capsizings occurred. The Tartar s two guns were got up by midnight, by which hour both bluejackets and military escort were so exhausted, many of the latter having bleeding and blistered hands, that a temporary cessation of the movement became necessary. Favoured by a dense mist, another start was made at 4 a.m., when all the guns, including the two R.F.A. guns, were safely landed on the summit before the mist cleared away. Ammunition and supplies were carried up by the guns' escort as required. The northern fringe of the little plateau being thickly covered with trees, the guns were screened from hostile view among them. To obtain a clear range all obstructive trees were sawn nearly through, stayed with rope, then finally felled immediately before firing, thus preserving the ambushment until the action commenced. The evolution, performed in darkness, and in very unpropitious weather, was highly commended by the general in despatches, but its success was very largely due to the splendid co-operation of the Scottish Fusilier escort, who cheerfully responded to every order and worked like—what they were—real Britons. The Mountain Battery followed up later, the mules being carefully led to the summit at easy angles ; one animal, however, with its section of gun, slipped and rolled for a good distance down the hillside. The piece of gun was again sent up, but the mule was defunct.
General Warren, commanding the British left, commenced operations at 7 a.m., Monday (5th), with a demonstration against Brakfontein. The Lancashire Brigade (now under General Wynne, vice Woodgate), actively supported by six Field Batteries, the Howitzer Battery, and the naval 4'7's, were thus to mask the real attack that was to follow against Vaal Krantz. Talbot-Coke's Brigade was held in reserve near Potgieters, one battalion guarding the main camp behind Mount Alice, and a small mounted detachment watched Trichardts Drift, now the extreme left.
Constituting the right wing, and now concentrated near Zwaart Kop, was General Clery's Division (Hart's and Hild-yard's Brigades), and also Lyttleton's Brigade, which was to lead the attack. The 1st Cavalry Brigade (regulars) and a battery of R.H.A., under Colonel Burn-Murdock, were held in readiness to cross the pontoon and rush through the valley* at the proper moment, to secure the right flank when Vaal Krantz should be wholly in British possession. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade (colonials and irregulars), under Lord Dundonald, was detailed to guard the right wing from any hostile flanking movements. Skiet Drift was held as the extreme British right. Such were the dispositions of the force; the operations to be personally directed by General Buller.
The feigned attack on Brakfontein was well sustained to absorb the Boers' attention, while the real movement had time to develop on the right. Covered by a heavy bombardment, the infantry closed to within about 1600 yards of the enemy's works, then halted, the field batteries remaining some 1000 yards further to the rear. Hitherto silent, the enemy now opened a heavy rifle fire on the troops, while three guns, situated on the northern spurs of the Spion Kop range, concentrated a well-directed fire on the batteries, and several concealed pom-poms divided their murderous attention between the two arms. For upwards of two hours an exciting artillery duel was waged between the exposed batteries and concealed Boer guns, the shooting from the latter to-day, for accuracy and rapidity, leaving no loophole for adverse criticism. Neither could pen over-praise the courageous conduct of our artillerymen, who stood forth in the open ground bravely serving their guns amidst a heavy drenching of shrapnel fire, and yet marvellously escaping with less than a score casualties.
Meanwhile, on the right, the Royal Engineers had, under severe fire, thrown No. 3 pontoon bridge across the river, east of Zwaart Kop, and, covered by Ogilvy's guns, Lyttleton's Brigade had crossed over by noon. The six field batteries were now withdrawn by single batteries from the Brakfontein ruse, crossing by No. 1 pontoon, and taking up another position inside the eastern river loop, joined in the general bombardment of Vaal Krantz. The battle now commenced in real earnest. On reaching the intervening space between the river and Krantz Kop, the attacking brigade was compelled to advance across the open ground. No sooner had • they emerged from cover than three guns, posted on Doom Kloof, which for some time had been raking Ogilvy's guns on the summit of Zwaart Kop, gave the troops a brisk shelling, though doing them comparatively little damage. England's 4'7 on Signal Hill, and Ogilvy's 12-pounders, at 10,000 and 6000 yards ranges, respectively, attempted the silencing of these guns, while No. 2 4'7, and heavy army guns, divided their attention between the Spion Kop and Brakfontein positions, also frequently assisting to rake the Vaal Krantz ridges.
By 4 p.m. Lyttleton had captured the southern portion of the ridges (Krantz Kop) by a dashing bayonet charge. The Boers now endeavoured to render its occupation a nugatory success, for all their guns were at once concentrated upon the victorious brigade, who found but scanty cover upon the isolated position they had so gallantly won. Fortunately the oncoming darkness was soon to bring some respite, though not rest, for throughout the night the brigade were busily employed building protective works, and otherwise securing themselves against possible counter-attacks.
Towards close of day, when the atmosphere, as at early mornings, becomes remarkably clear from mirage, the two 4'7's, owing to their favourable elevated position, were directed to use every effort to destroy or silence the Spion Kop guns. Every available telescope was focused at the ridge, each glass taking a certain section, and, by this scrutinizing method, the gun positions were eventually located. The guns were only partially exposed when actually in the firing position, and recoiled back beyond the crest line on being fired. As the range was known, some tricky firing ensued. It was afterwards reported by a prisoner that two guns were seriously damaged by our fire ; at any rate, it was a fact that they ceased firing altogether from that position.
Next morning, the 6th, a 94-lb. shell from a six-inch " Long Tom," which had been mounted during the night on Doom Kloof's summit, was the surprising harbinger of dawn, and the precursor of a lively bombardment of the British position. Numerous invisible riflemen, with machine and field guns, had also been strongly posted among the hills, extending in an arc from north to south-east, from whence an incessant long-range fire was converging on Krantz Kop.
About 7 a.m., Lieutenant England's 4'7, while firing at " Long Tom," luckily exploded its magazine, a fact which was notified by a loud report and a huge column of smoke shooting skywards. This act suspended its freaky firing for a few hours, until its " interior" could be replenished with more ammunition. All day long did our artillery vainly strive to silence the baffling Boer guns, and unearth their hidden riflemen, whose fire sorely harassed Lyttleton's force, compelling them to keep close cover, especially from the scathing shrapnel.
Nearly the whole of our position was dominated, shells falling everywhere, and generally where least expected. At one time all would be vigorously bombarding the captured ridge, then suddenly an indiscriminate shelling of the field batteries, the troops, and a raking fire at the Zwaart Kop guns would take place; even the general staff were not exempt from a visitation of Boer shell. One 6-inch shell struck the ground twenty yards in front of Lieutenant Burne's right 12-pounder, then recocheted, unexploded, over their heads, covering the crew with dirt, and twice afterwards these two guns' crews had narrow escapes.
Luckily very few shells burst, other than shrapnel, while the practice of "Long Tom" was ludicrously erratic, as if he was hastily laid and fired. Every feasible device to silence him and the other guns utterly failed. It was only when a shell came whizzing along, or a puff of smoke was discerned, that their exposure could be determined—which also implied they had again vanished below the crest line beyond harm.
Late in the afternoon a determined attempt was made to recapture Krantz Kop, but the attack was easily repulsed with a bayonet charge, and the enemy cleared off the ridge. During the darkness, Hildyard's Brigade relieved Lyttleton's war-worn brigade, who recrossed at No. 2 pontoon for a well-earned rest from an almost untenable position which had cost them over 200 casualties to win and hold. About midnight the sudden crackling of musketry, and snappy barking of pom-poms, announced another counter-attack on the ridge, which, as before, was rendered futile with cold steel.
Dawn next morning, the 7th, revealed the fact that the Boers had reduced the radius of their defence, having, under cover of darkness, built sangars and dug fresh trenches nearer Vaal Krantz, besides increasing their artillery strength. The bombardment of the ridge recommenced, and though the severity of the fire was greater than yesterday's, its effect was much less felt, owing to the excellent shelters now constructed. Again the enemy frequently diverted their shelling in order to harass the reserve troops and guns, often compelling the guns' crews to seek shelter when the firing became too accurate. Lieutenant Ogilvy received a slight graze on the chest from a shell-splinter on one of these occasions. In the afternoon a balloon reconnaissance near the Vaal Krantz position disclosed the true nature of the Boer defence, and the impracticability of continuing the operations. General Buller's telegram to Lord Roberts fully explains the situation—
" Having occupied Vaal Krantz, it was necessary to fortify the position, so as to make it a pivot for further operations. After two days' work, I found the nature of the ground would not allow of this; besides which, we were exposed to the fire of heavy guns posted on heights dominating our artillery."
Once again the nature of the ground, more so than the enemy's power of defence, had impeded the advance.
Accordingly, after a conference of the generals, Hildyard's Brigade was withdrawn from Krantz Kop after dusk, and orders were issued for a general retirement back to Chieveley.
Beyond a desultory shelling, no attempt to interrupt the retirement was made, General Warren's Division covering the movement. The heavy guns on Mount Alice and Signal Hill also remained in position, replying to the enemy's fire till the front was entirely cleared of troops and transport. By dusk on the 9th, the naval guns were enabled to withdraw, having orders to follow the main column to Springfield, where they arrived at midnight; joining Ogilvy's battery, which had, on evacuating Zwaart Kop, proceeded there earlier in the day. During this journey a thunderstorm of unusual violence, accompanied by a torrential downpour of rain, was experienced, making the passage through the drifts a difficult matter. In such a mountainous region one hour's duration of heavy rain will often convert a dry drift into a roaring torrent, and prevent transit of waggons across for half a day.
The march was resumed at daylight, Pretorius' Farm being reached at 3 p.m., where the force encamped for the night. At 4 a.m. next morning (Sunday, nth), in company with those Natal veterans, the indomitable Irish Brigade, the journey was continued; Chieveley camp, eighteen miles distant, being reached at noon, when the guns were at once placed in their former positions on Gun Hill. By nightfall the whole force had arrived in camp, except an intrenched force of infantry, Burn-Murdoch's cavalry, a battery of R.H.A., and Lieutenant Burne's 12-pounder unit, which remained at Springfield Bridge to contain the enemy about that district.
Owing to the handiwork of the Royal Engineers and communication troops, the return march had been performed with far less difficulty than was experienced during the outward journey. All along the route was evidence of their labour. Slushy drifts had been bridged over, dangerous gaps rendered safe, and huge boulders, which had almost capsized guns and transport, were now whitewashed landmarks on the track side. Indeed, a track that had demanded skilful pilotage to traverse even in daylight was now a respectable "king's highway," which could be safely trekked by night.
Commenting upon the Vaal Krantz operations in his despatches of February 22nd, 1900, General Buller stated:—
"... The Naval Brigade and the Royal Artillery, under Captain Jones and Lieutenant Ogilvy, R.N., and Colonel Parsons, R.A., did excellent work throughout the three days. ... I much regret my failure to pierce the enemy's line of defence, and the more so as I think we all of us thought at first the movement was going to be successful. I thought that it was no use pushing an attack which did not, if successful, promise a secure base for the next advance on Ladysmith, now still ten miles off, with Roodeport, a very strong, carefully prepared position, between us and it. I have every reason to believe, from what we saw, and from the report of deserters since, that the enemy's loss was much heavier than ours."
The total casualties during these operations amounted to 374, but seven per cent, being killed. The third attempt to relieve Ladysmith had failed.