February 12th to March 3rd, 1900
Field-Marshal Lord Roberts—the British Napoleon— in response to an interrogatory telegram from General Buller, inquiring whether his lordship thought that the chance of relieving Ladysmith at the cost of from two to three thousand men was worth such a risk, replied—
"Ladysmith must be relieved even at the loss you expect. I should certainly persevere, and my hope is that the enemy will be so severely punished as to enable you to withdraw White's garrison without great difficulty. Let troops know that in their hands is the honour of the Empire, and that of their success I have no possible doubt."
Accordingly, a fresh plan was rapidly prepared for a fourth and supreme effort to relieve Ladysmith. It was now well-known to what a dire condition the beleaguered garrison was reduced, and that famine and disease, besides the acts of war, were rapidly decimating their numbers in their heroic struggle to uphold the honour of the flag.
Before proceeding to chronicle these operations, a brief reference to other relevant matters of minor import will be made. The following extract is culled from a lecture given by Captain Scott at Hong Kong in June, 1900:—
" While the main army was operating in the Spion Kop direction, General Barton was active at Chieveley, and wanted a 4'7 on a railway truck to shell a new position occupied by the Boers.
" There was no time to make a new mounting, so we put one of the platform mountings, similar to those sent to Ladysmith on a low truck, secured it down with chains, and cut off the ends of the transverse baulks so as to allow it to pass through the tunnels.
" Owing to the amount of energy absorbed by the hydraulic cylinders and the general elasticity of the mounting, very little recoil was transmitted to the truck, and consequently the gun could be fired at right angles to the direction of the railway line.
" As General Barton wished to have the alternative of using this gun off the truck if required, a little extra stability had to be given to compensate for the amount we had cut off the cross beams.
" This was done by supplying a movable beam which could be bolted on when the mounting was in situ. This was found a great advantage, as the platforms could then be sent intact by train instead of in pieces, as was the case with those that went to Ladysmith.
"Three more guns on this description of mounting were made and operated against the Boers at the final attack on Pieters Hill.
" In this final attack, General Buller wanted still heavier ordnance, and wired to me, asking if I could possibly send him a 6-inch gun. The telegram arrived on a Wednesday, and the General expressed a wish to have it, if possible, by the following Monday, so there was not much time. A gun was taken out of the Terrible, and a design of a mounting prepared, the governing features of which were utility and a desire to comply with the General's wishes as regards time. It was finished on Sunday morning, and sent to the front. Some said that it was clumsy, others that it would fall to pieces the first round. It did not fall in pieces, but put upwards of 500 lyddite and common shell into the enemy's position, a fact which must have led them to regard it in more serious light than the view taken of it by a certain Member of Parliament, who referred to it as ' only picturesque.' A Boer prisoner, with whom I conversed, told me that they disliked this gun very much. The mounting was so very simple that I need not describe it.
" After the occupation of Ladysmith, General Buller, anticipating going north over the Biggarsberg, asked if I could, now that there was more time, supply a lighter and more mobile mounting for the 4'7-inch gun; there was of course no difficulty in doing this. The heavy ship carriage was removed, and steel used instead of wood; a single wheel was placed in the rear between the trails to facilitate transport. When the extreme elevation of 37 degrees was required, the rear wheel could be unshipped.
" When firing with the wheel shipped, a locking arrangement was provided for keeping it in a fore and aft line. It was very mobile and I believe answered well. Four of them were made and turned over to the Royal Artillery.
" No limbers were provided for any of these guns. The 6-inch and 4'7-inch were travelled by a team of oxen, their ammunition coming along behind in an ordinary Cape waggon. The 12-pounders for a short travel were secured to the tail of the waggon which carried their ammunition: for a long travel the gun was lifted out of its trunnions and put on to its waggon with the ammunition, the whole not being an excessive weight for a team of oxen."
Lieutenant Drummond, Midshipman Skinner, Petty Officers Connor, Carey, Allen (captain of gun), 50 seamen and stokers, arrived from the Terrible with the 6-inch gun, which was placed on Gun Hill.
On February 12th, Lieutenant Dooner, Midshipman Kirby, Petty Officers Neil, Sparks, Bicker, another 50 seamen and stokers, left the Terrible with two field guns, and proceeded to Zululand. They travelled by the coast railway to the terminus, then crossed the mouth of the Tugela near by, and marched to Eshowe, 28 miles distant, there joining the composite force protecting the province from Boer incursions.
" Although about one half of the complement of the Terrible was now at the front or landed in connection with the war, the ship was not by any means depleted of a sea-going crew. The supernumeraries brought out from England for ships in China, and 100 other men, who had formed part of a large draft sent out to reinforce the Cape Squadron, had together temporarily replaced those on active service. New guns from England had also been shipped, so that, except for a brief period, the ship still remained efficient as a first-class cruiser."
To resume the fighting narrative, the plan ordained—a wide turning movement—may be briefly explained thus:— Seize Hussar Hill, from whence expand eastwards, and take possession of the Cingolo (the Boer extreme left) and Monte Christo Hills. Success here would then render Green Hill and Hlangwani Hill, each in turn, untenable, or of easy capture. Upon the last-named position being occupied with our guns, the Fort Wylie group of kopjes, which were found impervious to attack on December 15th, would have to be resigned. Thereupon the enemy must retire to the northern kopjes which culminate at Pieters Hill, where a successful coup de main would break the strong barrier that encompassed Ladysmith.
The approximate strength of the force employed was 27,000 men and 80 guns.
Coincidently with the commencement of these operations, Lord Roberts began his memorable sweep through the Republics. Up to this time no important military movement had transpired on the Cape Colony side. Lord Methuen still faced Cronje's army at Magersfontein. Gatacre was also confronting the Boers occupying the Stormberg district, and keeping factious colonials in subjection. General French was just starting on his historic cavalry dash to Kimberley, which town was relieved by him on February 15th.
On February 12th a successful reconnaissance to Hussar Hill took place, and the next day general orders for an advance were issued.
Early on the 14th Hussar Hill was seized by Dundonald ; Barton's Brigade, Ogilvy's Battery, and one field battery, quickly followed and secured the position. Later, General Warren, with the brigades of Wynne and Talbot-Coke, and divisional artillery, also occupied this slight eminence. General Lyttleton, with Hildyard's and Norcott's brigades, and artillery, occupied the thickly-wooded eastern slopes of Hussar Hill. The heavy guns on Gun Hill covered these movements, only a skirmishing resistance being offered to the respective operations. Hart's Irish Brigade remained at Gun Hill camp to guard the left flank. The Springfield observation force was there still.
The 15th and 16th were two excessively hot days, preventing any infantry operations being attempted. A series of artillery duels were waged ; Hussar Hill, devoid of natural cover, being subjected to a fairly accurate shell fire. Ogilvy's guns were protected with an earth-bag redoubt, that unquestionably saved them serious losses, for numerous shells burst within a few feet short of and over their position, some even lacerating the earth-bags.
Evidently divining General Buller's intentions, the Boers had greatly prolonged their eastern defences, having guns placed in difficult locations as far as Cingolo Neck. On the 17th, the whole artillery opened up a vigorous bombardment on the Boer positions to mask Lyttleton's flanking march towards Cingolo. The enemy briskly replied, Hussar Hill again becoming a target for their well-directed shell fire. One shrapnel shell alone caused the loss of an entire gun's crew at one of the unprotected 5-inch guns near by, grimly demonstrating that to take sensible cover from the dominating fire of invisible guns is not a derogatory method of saving men and matiriel from superfluous exposure to damage.
While Lyttleton's two brigades and Dundonald's mounted corps pushed through the difficult scrub-covered country eastward, another brigade and two field batteries advanced to threaten Green Hill. Before noon the flashing heliograph from the southern summit of Cingolo signified its successful occupation. The surprised enemy's brief resistance had been quickly overcome, and the enveloping movement thus auspiciously commenced. By nightfall the whole elongated hill was in British possession. The Boers, thrust off Cingolo, were seemingly dismayed at the changed tactics—from frontal to flanking attacks—and prepared a stubborn opposition for the morrow.
Artillery fire and dawn—synonymous indications that another day had commenced—brought both sides into activity. The enemy directed a heavy but ineffectual shelling at Hildyard's Brigade on Cingolo, which force was cautiously advancing towards the neck—a sharp, craggy dip connecting the hill with Monte Christo. Norcott's Brigade, and Dundonald's force, protected Hildyard's western and eastern flanks respectively, marching on either side of the hill correlatively with the brigade's movements on the top. Meanwhile, Barton's Brigade faced Green Hill to await the psychological moment at which to effect its capture.
One hostile gun, situated near Bloys' Farm, which was too accurately active, required silencing. The 6-inch on Gun Hill opened fire in that direction at 16,500 yards range. The proverbial three rounds silenced the gun, for it never fired from that locality again. Later, a few 100-pound lyddite shells, sent over Hlangwani in response to a signal, dispersed some bodies of active Boers. The general signalled an appreciative message, even though they were each lucky shots ; for in this instance, though the direction was accurately given, the objects were invisible, and the range guessed at.
Throughout the day the heavy guns harassed the enemy, compelling them frequently to shift their gun positions, besides rendering the passage of reinforcements to their left defences a difficult matter. Together with the field batteries, Ogilvy's guns were busily covering the Monte Christo attack, which by noon had developed into a successful assault, the crest having been brilliantly captured from a determined enemy. Now seriously threatened by Dundonald on their eastern flank, persistently shelled from the western side, and faced by a victorious brigade, the Boers very sensibly evacuated the whole Monte Christo position. Norcott's Brigade now advanced along the western spurs of the ridge to outflank and enfilade the other left defences, while Barton led his brigade direct upon Green Hill, which strongly intrenched position was carried with little loss by 4 p.m., the enemy retreating incontinently towards Hlangwani and the river, leaving camps and considerable stores intact behind them. Our day's losses, nearly 180, were insignificant in comparison to the great strategical advantages won—Cingolo, Monte Christo, and Green Hill, each in turn, having fallen into the enveloping net. General Buller stated (Despatches, March 14th, 1900)—
" Through this attack, which was made in echelon from the right, the naval guns, under Captain Jones, R.N., and royal artillery, under Colonel Parsons, R.A., rendered the greatest possible service, shelling the successive positions till the infantry closed on them."
The naval guns here referred to were those of Ogilvy's Battery.
That night Lieutenant Ogilvy with two guns, accompanied by a strong military escort, marched to Monte Christo, arriving there next morning at five o'clock. Assisted by the Devons, the guns were hauled to the summit, from whence a panoramic view of Ladysmith and the environing Boer laagers was visible some ten or twelve miles away. From this lofty concealment, three Boer 45-pounders were discerned about 5000 yards distant across the river, then actively shelling the British positions. A few common shell found the exact range, whereupon a rapid shrapnel fire was poured into the disconcerted enemy, compelling them to abandon their guns and seek shelter. During a storm which then unfortunately broke over the district, obscuring the range, the Boer guns were withdrawn to safety.
Early on the 19th, the 4'7 guns also proceeded eastward ; some ten miles of the very worst country yet seen were traversed, and ten hours of broiling heat endured, before the guns reached their destination. Almost every form of natural obstacle was encountered nearly the whole journey beyond Hussar Hill. Enormous boulders were bounced over, trees were truncated by the sheer impetus of the guns, tough undergrowth was crushed through, and dongas were crossed with a " down and upward " rush. No recognized track existed, so a bee-line course was set for Cingolo Neck. When about two-thirds of the distance had been completed, the exhausted oxen teams refused to proceed further, and had to be out-spanned. They had struck for water and rest; the latter was given them, but drink was unobtainable. A serious dilemma was thus created, for without help of some sort, the guns could only be moved singly and slowly; the withdrawal of the naval volunteers at Gun Hill to man some platform-mounted 4'7's, had also reduced the guns' crews by 25 men each gun—exactly half of their former manual strength subtracted. Men and drag-ropes! Yes—that was the only solution. Accordingly, 100 men were courteously lent from the nearest battalion, and with their needful assistance the guns were hauled away and got into action beneath Ogilvy's gun position. The troops always cheerfully and readily responded to such requisitions for help, whenever manual haulage for the guns became necessary. This same journey, rough enough by daylight, was the route taken by Ogilvy's guns the previous night. The 4'7's being exposed to shell fire from unseen guns across the river, and observation much interfered with, they were again moved after dusk, and ensconced in a better position before dawn.
The key of the Colenso position, Hlangwani Hill, was occupied on the 20th by Barton's Brigade, with guns, the enemy having been compelled to abandon it the previous evening. Hart's Brigade marched into Colenso from Chieveley, and some of Thorneycroft's Colonials swam the river to reconnoitre the Fort Wylie kopjes beyond, which were found weakly held by riflemen. The whole southern side of the Tugela River was again British. The vital point now to be considered was where the army should cross over and deliver the coup de grace. Ladysmith's fate hung upon that momentous decision of strategy.
Skirmishing and desultory artillery contests is a fair summary of this day's fighting. One incident, however, is worth relating of how Petty Officer Ward, when firing at a located pom-pom, inadvertently aimed to the left of his object. His shot, instead of being wasted, luckily burst inside a donga in which a numerous body of the enemy was concealed, who, evidently thinking they were discovered, suddenly emerged therefrom and galloped wildly away. Both 12-pounders (Monte Christo guns) then went for this fresh target with shrapnel, and possibly made several hits.
Intelligence was received next morning, the 21st, that the Boers were retreating north ; which news to some extent was true. It afterwards transpired that a few Free States Commandoes were leaving to protect their country against Lord Roberts's invasion, also that the Boers were wisely removing their heaviest guns and superfluous baggage to a region of safety. That further fighting—if any—would partake of a rearguard action was the logical inference deduced from the report. Consequently the flanking movement was arrested, and a pontoon, nearly 100 yards long, was thrown across the river at Colenso, at a point a mile north of Fort Wylie, which offered many conveniences for crossing. Although this altered strategy eventually proved a fatal decision, yet, with such tangible evidence that the enemy were already retiring, the plan appeared to offer the easiest and swiftest method of success.
The bulk of the army was now moved westward towards the river. Ogilvy's battery was reunited, and with the 5-inch guns and Mountain battery, was posted on Hlangwani to cover the crossing. After shelling the retiring Commandoes, the 4-7's vacated Monte Christo in the afternoon, and crossed over Hlangwani during the darkness, down to "A" pontoon, whither they had been preceded by the Tartar s guns.
By nightfall, the main Colenso positions had been wrested and secured by Talbot-Coke's and Wynne's Brigades. For the third time the Tugela had been crossed in force. But the occupation had been severely opposed, some 150 casualties having occurred, including General Wynne, the Lancashire's brigadier, who was wounded.
From early dawn next day, troops and guns continuously crossed the river, the enemy vigorously shelling the pontoon, its exposed approaches and exits, during their transit across, but doing comparatively little damage. The two 4'7's took up protected positions in close proximity to the pontoon, and with the Hlangwani guns, shelled Terrace Hill, principally, besides engaging any guns which could be located. The Tartar's guns crossed early, and were soon hotly engaged, Lieutenant James having his horse killed. The Boer generals had apparently grasped the new situation created by the reversal of our tactics, and probably realizing the enormous advantages their singular defence had given them over previous frontal attacks, were venturing upon a final effort to bar the British advance. They still had with them much artillery—at least three 40-pounders, a dozen 12- and 15-pounders, several guns of smaller calibre, besides many pom-poms and other automatic guns—which together commanded the whole arena into which the British had now descended.
By noon, the 22nd, five infantry brigades and several field batteries had crossed ; the general advance commencing soon afterwards. The Lancashire Brigade, now under their third brigadier, General Kitchener (a brother of Lord Kitchener), supported by Lyttleton's Division, advanced northwards, primarily to capture a prominent hill that commanded the whole valley between Onderbrook Spruit and the southern spurs of Terrace Hill. Progress was slow, the fighting for the interposed kopjes being severe, as they offered ample cover from which our field batteries could neither oust the enemy, nor suppress their fire. Occasionally artillery fire has been a peculiarly indeterminate factor; this was an instance of a searching shelling at a definite object proving quite innocuous when good results were confidently expected. However, the gallant Lancashire lads pressed onwards, alternating between successes and reverses, until finally, at dusk, they secured a strong footing on the coveted position, though they found its retention very difficult to sustain.
t When darkness enveloped the scene, the Boers made a vigorous counter attack. So close did they press the position, that bayonet charges were resorted to to relieve the pressure. Our casualties amounted to over 300, while the enemy also lost heavily. That night the Lancashires were relieved by Hildyard's Brigade, augmented by half of Barton's, who strengthened the improvised breastworks, to prepare for whatever danger might threaten with dawn's appearance.
" But, even then, the men had to lie crouched on the hillsides, sheltered by hastily piled stones, with an active keen-sighted enemy within 150 yards of one flank and 500 yards of the other. During the day the front line could scarcely move, for any one who exposed himself was shot. They were under constant fire, both rifle and artillery, both night and day, and they were three times heavily attacked; but for five days and nights they unflinchingly maintained this position. It was wonderful."
Thus General Buller describes their unenviable situation.
Early on the 23rd, the 4'7 guns, Melville's 12-pounder unit, and the 5-inch guns, crossed the pontoon, to occupy positions among the kopjes closely in rear of the field and howitzer batteries—then heavily engaged. Melville's guns were placed ,on a high kopje on the left of the 4'7's, the Tartar's guns being in action near by on the right. No sooner were the guns unavoidably disclosed to the enemy than they attracted a heavy shelling.
" During the whole day the enemy shelled very vigorously, and it is beyond my comprehension how so small an amount of damage was done, as they were shooting with great accuracy. A dozen shells, mostly 40-pounders, fell within a radius of 20 yards round the 4'7-inch guns, and a great many passed over, while others fell a very little short.
" I took the big glass up to the 12-pounders which were engaging on Grobler's side, to try to discover guns, and there I think it was even warmer, for we had a ' pom-pom' on us as well as two or three big guns. It was here that my coxswain, Thomas Tunbridge, who was sitting down on a stone, was struck by a shell, which tore away half his thigh. Fortunately the shell did not burst, as there was a little knot round the glass where an officer was pointing out the position of a gun to me. Only four men were wounded all day by shell, and one shot by a rifle bullet in the evening.
" So soon as it was dark the enemy began to snipe our hills pretty freely; in fact, about nine o'clock it amounted to a considerable fire. We got the men under cover, and no damage was done. The firing continued till daylight."
These few lines, culled from Captain Jones's despatch, most aptly describe the situation at the naval guns. Seamen Weippart and Helman, and two naval volunteers, were the other wounded referred to, but Tunbridge and Helman only were taken to the field hospital as serious cases; the other three continuing to perform their duty after being dressed. Besides our own men, one of the gun escort was killed and nine wounded during the time the guns were at this position.
Miraculous and hairbreadth escapes were of frequent occurrence, Midshipman Hutchinson, especially, receiving close attention from shells, for no less than three pitched and burst quite close to him, leaving him unscathed each time. Many times, too, the guns' crews were enveloped in debris when shells exploded on the ground in their front, but they were saved from severer losses by the earth-bag redoubts erected in front of the guns. Fire and dip, dip and fire, was often the method by which the guns were kept in action, directed by Commander Limpus, who sedulously searched for hostile guns, which, when found, were either driven away or silenced.
Shortly before noon, the Tartar's and Melville's guns were withdrawn, and sent forward to assist the attack planned against Terrace Hill, where the defence proper was first to be bored into. This desperately perilous attack was entrusted to the gallant Irish Brigade, which moved off soon after noon. During their extremely difficult advance, the field batteries searched the broken ground ahead, while all the heavy and naval guns bombarded the main objective—Terrace Hill. Concerning this sanguinary assault, General Buller's own version (Desp., March 14th, 1900) seems the most consistent narrative to offer the reader. He states—
" It had been my intention that this attack should be made by five battalions, but the advance up the railway was necessarily slow, and, in some places, the enemy brought a heavy fire upon it, both rifle and Maxim-Nordenfelt, causing many casualties and checking the advance considerably. It was getting late, and General Hart attacked the hill when two battalions only were up, thinking his supports would follow. For the reason I have mentioned, the supports arrived but slowly, and the attack was made by two battalions, supported by a half battalion only—the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, and half the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
" The attack was delivered with the utmost gallantry, but the men failed to reach the top of the hill. The regiments suffered severely, but their loss was not unproductive; their gallantry secured for us the lower sangars and a position at the foot of the hill, which ensured our ultimate success."
Two colonels, three majors, 28 other officers, and about 550 rank and file were Ireland's tribute this day to the flag— a tribute of blood which should ever haunt the consciences of those so-called representatives of the ancient Irish nation, who insensately cheered British reverses from their seats at Westminster. The ambulance corps collected as many wounded as the darkness permitted, but this humane work was abruptly stopped at daylight, as the Boers then renewed the battle, actually firing among the stretcher-bearers, which act, it is but fair to add, was the result of a misunderstanding. A large number were therefore reluctantly left on the hillside —indefinitely. During the night two fierce counter attacks were repulsed, the bayonet again proving its value at close quarters.
Yesterday's bloody encounter incontrovertibly indicated that no spirited rearguard action was being fought, but that the enemy were present in strong force, both in men and guns. Reinforcements from the Ladysmith investing force had undoubtedly replaced those Commandoes which had been observed trekking north. Thus, to pursue further with frontal tactics would obviously be to purchase success at a needlessly extravagant cost. The general, therefore, reverted to the original outflanking policy, and preparations for crossing the Tugela, further down stream, opposite the Boer left, were immediately commenced. Throughout the 24th a fierce artillery contest was waged, but no infantry movement took place for the reasons specified. The 4'7's received less attention than yesterday; but the howitzer battery in their front lost one killed, six wounded, and three horses incapacitated from one shell alone. Occasional attempts to dislodge Hart's troops were made, but the front was preserved intact. That evening certain troops and artillery commenced recross-ing the pontoon. The 4'7's were moved down to the river after dark, ready for crossing next morning, after which they were placed on Hlangwani Hill alongside Ogilvy's battery. The 12-pounder units of James and Melville had already proceeded to Monte Christo to strengthen the right flank. Wilde's unit was withdrawn from Frere to Gun Hill, relieving Burne, whose guns were now in Colenso attached to Talbot-Coke's Brigade. Every available man and gun was being requisitioned for the supreme effort now in preparation.
From dawn on the 25th until 8 p.m. a mutual cessation of hostilities was agreed upon to bury the dead and remove the wounded ; for since Hart's abortive assault against Terrace Hill—some 40 hours past—our wounded had lain out on its glacis between the contending forces. It had been impossible to succour them previously, for the enemy instantly fired at any one incautiously exposing himself to do so. Surgeon Macmillan proceeded there to assist the army staff. He afterwards related that within a certain area the ground was literally covered with dead, dying, and wounded intermingled together, their sufferings greatly intensified through the enforced neglect and the exposure to a torrid sun. A Boer commandant was present, who courteously afforded the ambulance staff every assistance by directing them to spots where wounded men had crawled to cover. Indicating Colonel Thackery of the Inniskillings, who, with his drawn sword firmly grasped in death, lay nearest the Boer trenches, he asked what his rank was, and to what regiment he belonged. On being informed, he uttered a sigh of compassionate admiration for the brave dead colonel. On the completion of the ambulance work, Surgeon Macmillan casually strolled towards the base of the hill, but was sharply recalled by the ommandant, who said, " Some of those slouch-hatted men sitting up there would have put a bullet through you if you had gone much further." Though extremely courteous himself, he evidently mistrusted his undisciplined subordinates. During this time the Boers were observed disposing of their own dead near their trenches, having also lost heavily from shell fire. The day itself was one to be remembered in connection with the relief operations.
As no proper armistice existed, but only a mutual truce respected on both sides while the victims of war were receiving a soldier's last honours, the Boers were busily engaged strengthening their defences, and the British likewise completing their dispositions of troops and guns, soon to furnish more work for the doctors and duty for the chaplains.
Telescopic observations testified that the retro-movements across the pontoon were causing much speculation among the enemy, who were intently viewing the proceedings, and indeed were also producing no little chagrin among our own forces, who understood not the why or wherefore, but regarded the proceedings as another portentous event. Where the positions were in sufficiently close proximity to admit of it, soldiers and burghers spent much of the day judiciously fraternizing. Truly such an episode provides a luminous illustration of how civilized troops can banish all animus when the din of battle is hushed—even temporarily. Pax in bello is indeed a truism.
The termination of the truce was abruptly signalized at 8 p.m. by a terrible fusillade of rifle and machine gun fire along the whole Boer front, which was promptly returned by our troops. For about fifteen minutes the valley presented a scene in striking contrast with the peaceful quietude of this Sunday. The enemy were apparently ascertaining by this stratagem in what manner the movements of the day had affected our dispositions. Evidently satisfying themselves our front lines were still strongly held, the firing as suddenly ceased and a tranquil night was enjoyed. Coincidently with this fitful resumption of hostilities, the bluejacket section of the balloonists, under a Royal Engineer officer, pillaged the Boer searchlight while the firing was at its highest. The " Aeronautical " party had rushed the apparatus and secured the principal fittings before the enemy discovered them. The nine men who performed this service belonged to the Forte.
On the 26th, spasmodic shelling and a venomous sniping rifle fire were indulged in by the enemy; Petty Officer Symons and a white driver of Ogilvy's battery receiving slight bullet wounds. The naval guns combined the double duty of replying to the Boer fire and that of range finding. Every hill, valley, located trench, and sangar, was named, and the range recorded in view of to-morrow's task. The Hlangwani position was an admirable observation station, and here General Buller established his headquarters for controlling the operations; the powerful naval glasses proving invaluable for observing both British and Boer movements. By nightfall all dispositions of troops and guns had been nearly completed.
" Two 4'7-inch guns with platform mountings came across from Chieveley. We mounted one on a hill to the right of Hlangwani, just finishing by 5 a.m. I left the other till night, not wishing to do it in daylight, as we were only 2300 yards from the enemy's highest position on the range. It was very heavy and tiresome work in the dark, and the glimmer of a lantern to the front always produced some sniping.
" On this, as on every other occasion, Baldwin, the senior Gunnery Instructor of H.M.S. Terrible, showed himself to be an invaluable man......
" During the night we mounted the other platform gun, finishing by 3 a.m.
" Sniping was worse than ever all night, when the Engineers rigged a sand bag defence for them. I remained with these two guns during the fighting on that great day, 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 were 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."
Thus Captain Jones refers to the two 4'7's manned by the Natal Naval Volunteers under Lieutenant Anderton, N.N.V., whose second officer, Lieutenant Chiazzari, was now commanding a party of bluejackets who were transporting troops and stores across the river near the destroyed railway bridges. Colenso was now the rail-head.
Tuesday, February 27th, 1900.—A decisive battle, which decided Ladysmith's fate, was fought and won to-day— MAJUBA DAY!
About 7 a.m., Barton's Brigade began crossing the new pontoon "B" bridge, and the artillery had commenced a searching cannonade, nearly 80 guns being employed, whose combined roar would have drowned a violent thunderstorm.
Kitchener's and Norcott's Brigades followed Barton's across, together comprising the attacking force, which, under General Warren, was detailed to assault those three formidable hills constituting the enemy's main defence. Pieters Hill (the Boer left) was Barton's objective. Next came the middle position, termed Railway Hill, which was assigned to Kitchener. Lastly, Terrace Hill, the strongest position, was the point where Norcott's Brigade, supported by Hart's valorous Irish, would eventually decide the momentous issue depending upon these respective assaults. These triple hills were partially connected with each other by intrenchments and stone sangers.
The British front was about five miles long. Talbot-Coke's Brigade, with artillery, secured the left flank near Fort Wylie. Hildyard's Brigade held the central low kopjes facing Grobelar, and Hart's Brigade still clung to the southern spurs of Terrace Hill. These three brigades were virtually commanded by General Lyttleton. The extreme right rested on Monte Christo, now held by the 12-pounder units of Melville and James and two mountain guns, while between them and Hlangwani crest were distributed Dundunnald's mounted force, and several field batteries.
Barton's Brigade, supported by the enfilading fire of the guns on Monte Christo, and the Hlangwani batteries which shelled in advance of them, successfully ascended the steep wooded slopes of Pieters Hill, though on gaining the crest they met with a severe rifle fire from both their flanks. But Pieters Hill—the key of the Boer positions—was won, and gallantly held throughout. By this time, about 2 p.m., Kitchener's Brigade deployed to the right along the railway, to assault Railway Hill, while Norcott also prolonged his force on Kitchener's left, preparatory to moving against Terrace Hill directly the Lancashires' success was assured. At this juncture, the whole artillery, being cognizant of all ranges, were vigorously bombarding the two hills, the trenches, and the sangars connecting them. From the Grobelar Range several Boer guns were retaliating, plying their shell dangerously among the brigades holding the central kopjes.
The 6-inch on Gun Hill did much to subdue their fire and clear the wooded slopes from snipers, but the 4'7's were responsible for their ultimate silencing. One of these guns, at a range of 9000 yards, placed three shells in rapid succession into the embrasure of a Boer gun-redoubt, absolutely silencing the gun, a feat distinctly affirmed through the telescope.
Resonant British cheers were just now reaching Hlangwani, and the general, who well understood their significant import, could not suppress his pleasure at the welcome sounds —sounds which seemed to augur approaching victory. Cronje's surrender to Lord Roberts at Paardeberg had been opportunely imparted to the attacking brigades, and this vociferous cheering had greeted the welcome tidings, which certainly imparted fresh inspiring force to their already insatiable desire to attack.
But desperate fighting was still ahead. Presently staff officers, mounted orderlies, and signallers were to be seen urgently executing rapidly given instructions. It had been noticed that Kitchener's advance had received a check. It appears that, in their eagerness to render the half-won battle a complete victory, the Lancashires had mistaken their objective—Railway Hill—and had moved across the open glacis towards Terrace Hill instead. A heavy fire from both hills and the numerous trenches had—perhaps luckily—stopped their advance. This contretemps produced some anxiety, for Barton was still in isolation on Pieters, his position there being somewhat insecure until each of the triple hills was won. Kitchener quickly corrected the tactical, but pardonable, error of his subordinate leaders. Meanwhile every gun that could bear was thundering away to its utmost capacity ; a deadly storm of shrapnel, common, and lyddite shells was causing a volcanic commotion in and about the Boer trenches, and crashing along the crest-lines of the hills. Even then, not a few of those brave, tenacious, high-spirited Boers kept up an intermittent fire, their figures plainly visible dodging the shells.
About 5 p.m. Kitchener's skilful generalship had secured Railway Hill at the bayonet point. Flushed with success, the Lancashires, without hesitation, pressed onwards towards Terrace Hill, clearing the interposed trenches on their way, and finding time amidst the tumult of battle to cheer Norcott's men, who had timely arrived on their left. Complying with instructions, all artillery now ceased firing at Terrace Hill, except the naval guns on Hlangwani crest—the two mobile 4'7's and Ogilvy's four 12-pounders. These guns continued to sweep the hillside and crest-line with common shell until the assaulting troops had climbed close to the breastworks, then fired over their heads, beyond the hill, to harass the Boer retreat which followed. There was no perceptible pause in the firing, hence no opportunity given the defenders to repel the assault. Loud and prolonged cheering, and helmets hoisted high on bayonets, announced the finale— victory at last! Ladysmith relieved !!
The last few minutes preceding this grand result were minutes of extreme importance. Successful strategy and adroit tactics had paved the way for the delivery of the coup de grace—that supreme effort which was to produce either a decisive victory or another disastrous repulse, and a few minutes would decide the issue—and Ladysmith's fate. No imagination could picture the scene just at this juncture of the battle—the most crucial and critical period of the whole fourteen days of continuous fighting. Near the six naval guns, which were firing with the utmost rapidity, stood General Buller and his staff, intently noting the effect of the shell fire, and anxiously watching the progress of the troops as they bravely ascended that formidably intrenched hill. As an example of the rapidity of fire attained on the extemporized mountings, one of Ogilvy's guns fired 190 rounds during the last fifty minutes of the fight, and the other guns also fired at a rate which would favourably compare with the results obtained on the most modern mountings. The general was specially desirous of seeing the breastworks impierced before the infantry reached the summit. Commander Limpus, from within his "conning tower,'*was directing the 4'7 gun fire, which guns brought about the desired result, the breastworks in places being nearly levelled. Besides rapidity of fire, accuracy was absolutely essential, as a few yards low would have certainly produced fatal results, and loss of confidence, among our own troops. Through the din of the firing could be heard the orders which ensured the precision of fire. "England—up ten yards—left three," or, "Hunt— down five yards—right two," were samples of the orders addressed to the lieutenants of the 4'7's, and repeated by them to signify each order had been correctly understood. In a similar manner Lieutenant Ogilvy controlled the 12-pounder fire, receiving valuable assistance from Lieutenant Lees, the naval A.D.C., who "spotted " for these guns. Often did the firing appear so extremely hazardous to our own troops as to evoke monitory expressions from the staff, who, however, were positively assured by Lees that the fire control was safely invested in such experienced hands. It is doubtful if any such combination of artillery and infantry attack was ever before witnessed anywhere—certainly not during the relief operations — but such action undoubtedly assured success. Of the services rendered this day by the naval guns, General Buller wrote (Desp., March 14th, 1900)—
" The fire of the naval guns here was particularly valuable, their shooting was admirable, and they were able to keep up fire with common shell long after the Royal Field Artillery were obliged to cease their shrapnel. Indeed, Lieutenant Ogilvy, H.M. Ship Terrible, kept up fire on the largest sangars till the infantry were within fifteen yards of them. His guns must have saved us many casualties. No one who watched the operations can have the slightest doubt that artillery, co-operating with infantry in an attack on a prepared position, ought to have a considerable proportion of common shell."
Daylight, the 28th, disclosed the fact that the enemy had evacuated the whole position during the night. Cavalry and artillery were pushed on towards Ladysmith, and that evening Lord Dundonald entered the town with the mounted colonials of his brigade. The loss of the Colenso positions had caused the Boer commandant-general to raise the siege, the invading army having hurriedly retreated north to the Biggarsberg Range. In such a state of inanition was Sir George White's force that only a feeble attempt could be offered by the Ladysmith garrison to harass the enemy's retreat. They could only be pursued by good mounted troops and light artillery ; but even their powers of damaging such a mobile foe in so difficult a country would have been extremely limited. The total losses, from all causes, sustained during this fourteen days' continuous fighting amounted to 2098 officers and men. The grand total of casualties, etc., according to official figures, during the relief operations, from the action at Willow Grange to the battle of Pieters Hill, was 5405 of all ranks. The casualties among the Ladysmith garrison during the 112 days of investment amounted to 894 of all ranks, exclusive of the heavy mortality from disease, which was responsible for the deaths of 541 officers and men.
At noon, the 28th, the 4'7's crossed B pontoon and bivouacked between Railway and Terrace Hills for the night. These positions naturally received considerable attention, and indeed offered most palpable evidence of the brilliant contest which had produced such far-reaching results. Next day the relief army moved in to bivouack at Nelthorpe, where, a short distance away, the Klip River provided the means of performing much-needed ablutions. Ogilvy's battery and most of the other 12-pounder units effected a junction with the naval headquarters at this encampment.
On March 3rd, Sir Redvers Buller rode at the head of his victorious army into Ladysmith. The lately besieged troops lined the streets, and the civilian inhabitants thronged around the Town Hall, where Sir George White, his staff, and civic authorities had assembled officially to welcome the relief force. The cadaverous appearance of the garrison fully testified to the hardships they had borne with an exemplary fortitude and courage which elicited the sympathetic admiration of the whole Empire. Their physical endurance and fighting qualities, together with the persistent and brilliant efforts of the relieving army, had saved Ladysmith from falling into alien hands, and kept unsullied the Union Jack.