'If thou hope to please all, thy hopes are vaine;
If thou feare to displease some, thy feares are idle.'
On October 28th Colonel Cooper arrived at Ladysmith from England and took over the command from Major Bird. The battalion was able to rest from the 27th to the 29th, and recover from the fatigue of the retreat to Ladysmith.
The Headquarter Staff issued orders on the 29th for a general movement, to take place the next day, against the enemy, who were closing in on the town. The Dublin Fusiliers formed part of Colonel Grimwood's brigade, which also included the 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the Leicesters, and the Liverpools. The task assigned to Colonel Grimwood was the capture of Long Hill.
In order to be in position for the assault by dawn, it was necessary for the brigade to make a night march, and the battalion paraded about 9.30 p.m. on Sunday evening, the 29th October. It formed the rear of the brigade, to which was attached a brigade of artillery. 'F' and 'B' companies were left behind on piquet duty.
Owing to the difficulties inherent in a night march, and, perhaps, also to faulty staff management, the artillery, the Dublin Fusiliers, and Liverpool Regiment diverged from the route followed by the rest of the brigade. As a result of this mistake the battalion took practically no part in the battle of the 30th, but, after a vain endeavour to find Colonel Grim wood's force, spent the morning lying on the crest of a small ridge near Lombard's Kop. It came under shell and (p. 023) long-range rifle fire, but lost no men. The attempt to drive back the Boers was a failure, and the army fell back on Ladysmith about mid-day. The battalion reached camp at 2 p.m. and was dismissed. All ranks were somewhat tired, for the sun had been hot, and after dinner sleep reigned supreme.
But about 4 p.m. Colonel Cooper received from Headquarters an order to proceed by train to Colenso, with the object of protecting the important railway bridge which crosses the Tugela at that place. The Natal Field Artillery, in addition to his own unit, was placed under his command. On the receipt of this order, camp was struck, and the tents and baggage sent down to the station. The piquets found by the Dublin Fusiliers were ordered to be relieved by other corps, but although 'F' company, under Captain Hensley, came in, Lieutenant H. W. Higginson's piquet, on the ridge to the east of the cemetery, could not rejoin in time, principally owing to the fact that the greater part of the Gloucestershire Regiment, which had been detailed to find the relief, had been captured at Nicholson's Nek. Lieutenant Higginson (p. 024) and his men were thus left to share in the siege of Ladysmith. The battalion transport, under Lieutenant Renny, also had to remain behind. An account of their experiences during the siege is given by Lieutenant Renny in Chapter IX.
With these exceptions the whole battalion marched down to the station soon after 11 p.m., and was dispatched in two trains. As Boers had been reported on Bulwana Hill during the afternoon, a certain amount of risk seemed to attend the journey. There was nothing to prevent the enemy from cutting the line at any point in the hilly country between Ladysmith and Pieter's Station, while even a small hostile force could have played havoc with the crowded trucks.
However, the enemy had luckily not penetrated to the railway line, and after an uneventful, though unpleasant, journey, Colenso was reached at 4.30 a.m. on the 31st.
The two railway bridges over the Tugela and Onderbrook Spruit were already protected by a small force, consisting of the Durban Light Infantry, a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, and a detachment of the Natal Naval Volunteers, with a gun. These units had made good defensive works, notably Forts Wylie and Molyneux, guarding the railway bridges over the Tugela and Onderbrook Spruit respectively.
We encamped some 300 yards south-west of Colenso, and the day (October 31st) was spent in making further defences, and dividing the garrison into sections. Colenso was not, however, an easy place to defend. It was commanded by the lofty hills on the left bank of the Tugela, and by Hlangwane Hill on the right bank to the east of the village. The garrison, moreover, was lacking in artillery, having only some muzzle-loading guns with a very limited range. Colonel Cooper telegraphed to Maritzburg asking for a naval twelve-pounder, which, however, could not be obtained.
The necessity for such an addition soon arose. At 8.15 a.m. on November 1st, the staff at Ladysmith sent a wire to (p. 025) say that a Boer force had moved at daybreak towards Colenso. On receipt of this news the garrison was warned to be ready, and patrols of the Imperial Light Horse and the Mounted Infantry section of the battalion were dispatched towards Ladysmith, Springfield, and the country beyond Hlangwane. These patrols returned soon after 1 p.m., and the party which had reconnoitred towards Ladysmith reported that it had come into touch and exchanged shots with the enemy. Later on in the afternoon, Lieutenant Cory, commanding the Mounted Infantry section, went out again and reported that he had seen a hostile force, estimated at 2000 men, which was off-saddled near the main Ladysmith road, some six miles out. He had skirmished with the scouts of this commando and had lost one man. Another wire came from Ladysmith at the same time announcing that the enemy had guns. Our piquets were, in consequence of these events, pushed forward to the horseshoe ridge on the left bank of the Tugela, while the parties guarding the two bridges (road and railway) over this river were reinforced. The night, however, passed quietly.
Mounted patrols were sent out at dawn of the 2nd, and Lieutenant Cory was able to report, at 6.45 a.m., that the Boers were still in the same position. But two hours later he forwarded another message to the effect that the enemy was advancing on Grobelaar's Kloof. Soon afterwards distant rifle-shots were heard, and the Mounted Infantry retired into camp. About 10 a.m. parties of the enemy appeared on the top of Grobelaar's Mountain, and by the aid of a good telescope it could be seen that they were busily engaged in digging. Their intention was not long in doubt, for a thin cloud became visible on the sky-line, and the next moment a shell buried itself in the river-bank.
Colonel Cooper at once ordered the tents to be lowered and the trenches to be manned. But the enemy made no signs of attacking Colenso, and contented themselves by (p. 026) occasionally firing shells which invariably fell short. The interruption of telegraphic communication with Ladysmith soon after 3 p.m. proved, however, that the enemy was not being idle. Groups of Boers could be seen on the hills overhanging the railway, and a train carrying General French was shelled after leaving Pieters. The activity of our foes assumed a more aggressive character when, about 5 p.m., they began to bombard Fort Molyneux. From Colenso the shrapnel could be plainly seen bursting over the work, and the piquets on the left bank of the Tugela reported that heavy rifle-fire was in progress. As the garrison of the fort consisted only of eighty men of the Durban Light Infantry, some anxiety was felt regarding their safety, and this uneasiness was intensified by the arrival of one of the defenders, who announced that the redoubt was hard pressed. Lieutenant Shewan, with one hundred men mostly from 'E' company, was promptly dispatched to reinforce them in the armoured train. He found that the fort had been evacuated, but managed to pick up several of the garrison in spite of the enemy's rifle and shrapnel fire. Captain Hensley, who was holding the horseshoe ridge, also advanced with 'F' company, and, by firing long-range volleys, helped to cover the retirement of the remainder of the garrison, the whole of which reached Colenso in the night. Colonel Cooper telegraphed an account of these events to Brigadier-General Wolfe-Murray at Maritzburg, who replied at nightfall that, since the safety of Colenso bridge was very important, he would send the Border Regiment next day to reinforce the garrison. But no mention was made of any artillery.
Colonel Cooper had now a difficult decision to arrive at. In front of him lay a superior force of the enemy with guns far outranging his own obsolete muzzle-loaders, and during the afternoon disquieting rumours, which might be true, of another commando at Springfield had reached him. Ladysmith was invested, and the small garrisons of Colenso and (p. 027) Estcourt alone stood between the Boers and Maritzburg. Having consulted the senior officers of the garrison, Colonel Cooper sent another wire to General Wolfe-Murray explaining the situation, and in reply was authorised to fall back to Estcourt if he could not hold Colenso. About 10 p.m. he reluctantly determined to retire.
The mounted troops and the Natal Field Artillery went by road, starting at midnight. It was decided to send the rest of the garrison by railway, and the stationmaster at Colenso, with great energy, succeeded in obtaining three trains which arrived in the early hours of November 3rd.
The operation of entraining was at once commenced. The night was dark, and the packing of all the tents, supplies, and equipment in the trucks proceeded but slowly. The Natal Naval Volunteers had to bring their nine-pounder gun down the steep slope of Fort Wylie, a task requiring great care and time; the piquets on the left bank of the river had to be withdrawn, and the two bridges guarded up to the very last moment. Although everything was done in the utmost possible silence, it yet seemed that the necessary shunting of the trains must warn the Boers of the evacuation, and bring on an attack. But there was no interruption, and the last train steamed out of Colenso station half an hour before dawn.
Estcourt was reached two hours later. The little town was already occupied by a detachment of the Imperial Light Horse and Natal Mounted Rifles. During the morning there also arrived from Maritzburg the 2nd Border Regiment, afterwards to be the comrades of the battalion in the 5th Brigade.
Colonel Cooper took over the command of the garrison and immediately set to work on the arrangement of the defences. The next day, however, General Wolfe-Murray and his staff appeared on the scene. Estcourt had thus the honour of having three different commandants in two days.