'Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous.'—Heb. xii. 11.
The greater part of December 16th was spent in burying the dead. At nightfall orders were received to strike camp, and the brigade marched back to Frere, which was reached in the early morning of the 17th, when we occupied our former camping-ground.
Another weary wait followed. Frere at the best of times is an uninteresting spot, but it became absolutely repulsive as the grass disappeared and mud and flies reigned supreme. Life in the camp was monotonous, only slightly preferable to the long tours of outpost duty, and a bathe in the river, varied by a walk round the lines, formed the only amusement.
General Hart did not relax any of his precautions, and his command still stood to arms every morning. The rest of the army assembled at Frere seemed, so far as could be seen, to rely on the 5th Brigade, for no other unit followed the latter's example.
Our listlessness was broken on January 6th, when the thunder of the guns around Ladysmith was so distinct that it seemed as if Chieveley must be attacked. Everybody soon learned that the Boers were making a desperate attempt to capture the town, and there was naturally some anxiety as to the result.
A few days afterwards, signs of another forward movement became apparent. One cheerful omen was the arrival of the doctors, whose duty it was to convey the wounded back to the base, and of a large body of civilian stretcher-bearers. (p. 043) General Warren's Division, fresh from England, marched in, and the second effort to relieve Ladysmith was begun.
The 5th Brigade left Frere at daybreak on January 11th, and, covered by the 'Royals,' took the Springfield road. It had been raining heavily, and the road, never good, soon became execrable. The column was followed by a long line of waggons carrying baggage, supplies, ammunition, pontoons, &c. On arriving at Pretorius' Farm, the brigade halted and pitched camp. The battalion found the outposts, which were especially ordered to protect themselves by building 'sangars' or digging trenches.
Meanwhile the apparently endless line of waggons had been blocked by a bad drift below the camp, and the brigade was called upon to help. The road was somewhat improved by throwing into the soft mud stones obtained from a wall, and many waggons had to be hauled by ropes through the spruit. For over forty-eight hours did that collection of vehicles continue to cross and require help.
On Thursday, January 12th, the 4th Brigade and General Warren's Division passed through the camp and went straight on to Springfield, since the cavalry had ascertained that there were no Boers south of the Tugela in that direction. The 5th Brigade followed on the afternoon of the 15th, crossing the Little Tugela by a foot trestle-bridge made of spars cut by the Engineers from trees on the bank. As the battalion approached Springfield, the sound of artillery-fire greeted it, and our shrapnel could be seen bursting against a hill which was evidently on the left bank of the Tugela. It was clear that the army was again in touch with the enemy, but nobody knew what Sir Redvers Buller had decided upon, although everybody, of course, dogmatised on what he ought to do.
On the afternoon of the 16th, orders were issued for the brigade to march that night, although nothing was stated regarding its destination. Vigorous operations were (p. 044) plainly intended, since the force was to move as lightly as possible. No tents or blankets were allowed, and the great-coats were carried by the regimental transport, in which officers were permitted to pack twenty pounds of baggage. Six days' rations were also taken.
The army moved from Springfield at dusk, leaving the camp standing in charge of a few details (cooks, &c.), who had strict orders to light fires and walk about, so that the vigilant burgher might not discover that the army had slipped away. The general direction of the march was north-west. It was a bright moonlight night, but the column moved slowly, for the numerous waggons took up the centre of the road, while the troops moved on the side. About midnight it began to rain, which made everybody cold and uncomfortable, especially as halts were long and frequent. It was not easy to see where the army was going, although the Tugela could not be far off. Nobody knew the plan of operations, which, however, evidently aimed at a surprise crossing of the river, and it seemed as if the enemy must hear the noise of the creaking transport and tramping men.
About 2 a.m. there came a halt on the top of a ridge, where General Hart formed up his brigade. Each regiment deployed into line, and then lay down one behind the other in the following order: Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Border Regiment. Fatigued by a long night-march, every one soon fell asleep. Unfortunately, however, the slumbers of the brigade were disturbed by an incident which shows how easily confusion can arise in night operations. A horse from somewhere in front broke loose and galloped over the veld, straight into the ranks of the sleeping regiments. For a moment everything was in confusion, and a general panic nearly took place. Luckily the first glimmer of dawn had come, and the company officers soon regained control of their men, (p. 045) but it might have been a different tale had darkness still prevailed.
When daylight came, it showed the army to be on the top of a hill overlooking Trichardt's Drift. On the other side of the river the ground rose to a long ridge flanked on the east by a steep mountain, and on the west by a bastion-like hill. Nobody then knew the country, but that mountain was Spion Kop, and the ridge lying so calmly in the morning light was to be the scene of six days' continuous fighting. At dawn of January 17th, however, the ridge, which the natives called Tabanyama, seemed deserted, and not a Boer was to be seen.
It was now learnt that Sir Redvers Buller had divided his forces, sending two brigades, under General Lyttelton, to Potgieter's Drift, while the remainder of the army, under General Warren, was assembled ready to cross the river at Trichardt's Drift.
The battalion breakfasted quietly, and then 'H' company was sent down to the drift in order to help in the construction of a bridge. As the company descended the steep slope, the artillery from the heights began to shell a farm on the far side of the river, whence a Boer patrol had been sniping. The Engineers had massed the pontoon waggons round a farm by the drift, and were looking for a suitable point for the bridge. The pontoons were launched, and by 11.30 a.m. the first bridge was ready. The infantry immediately began to cross, but the artillery and transport had to wait for a second bridge, which was not completed until after dark.
The 5th Brigade marched down to the river at 2 p.m. and crossed. On reaching the left bank the battalion deployed into line, with four or five paces between the men, and slowly moved up the slope in support of the widely-extended lines of the Lancashire Brigade. Except for an occasional shot from the artillery at Potgieter's Drift, everything was still and peaceful; although, as the army moved away from the river, most of the officers expected to be greeted by the familiar 'pick-pock' of the enemy's mausers.
The brigade in front eventually halted on the top of a minor ridge, some three thousand yards or more from the crest-line of Tabanyama, and separated from it by open and gently-sloping ground. The Dublin Fusiliers formed quarter-column immediately behind the Lancashire Brigade, and prepared to bivouac. Many of the officers strolled higher up in order to look at the country through their glasses. The main crest-line was evidently occupied, for men could be seen busily digging. It was somewhat trying to think that precious time was being wasted, while the burghers were preparing a defensive position.
Our transport was still on the other side of the Tugela, and consequently we had to do without blankets, great-coats, and kettles. The officers' mess was saved by a subaltern, who succeeded in procuring a Kaffir cooking-pot and some very tough fowls, which Captain Hensley boiled with great skill. The night was unpleasant, for khaki drill is but an inefficient protection against the cold and heavy dew. The experience proved too much for Major Butterworth, R.A.M.C., who had to go on the sick list soon afterwards. He had been with the battalion since Ladysmith, and his coolness and devotion at the battle of Colenso had made him popular with all ranks.
The next day, January 18th, was spent in idleness, and the different corps remained in their bivouacs. There was nothing to do except watch the Boers still digging on the crest-line, and the shells fired by the guns of General Lyttelton, who was apparently making a reconnaissance. The greater part of General Warren's artillery crossed to the left bank and took up a position close to the battalion.
On the 19th the regiment took part in the movement (p. 047) which was initiated with the evident purpose of turning the Boer right by the Acton Holmes road. Leaving the artillery and the Lancashire Brigade on the ridge, the remainder of the army descended into the plain, and moved up the left bank of the Tugela. The column marched along the base of the main ridge, and was carefully watched by the Boer patrols from Bastion Hill.
After fording Venter's Spruit the battalion halted about 2 p.m. on some rising ground, whence a good view of the surrounding country was obtained. As there seemed every prospect of a long halt, the men began to take off their boots and putties, in order to dry them, but they had to put them on again hurriedly enough, since the guns suddenly opened fire. At first everybody imagined that the Boers were attacking the artillery and Lancashire Brigade. Soon, however, it was seen that the latter were making a reconnaissance. Not much opportunity for looking at the spectacle was afforded, since we received an order to recross Venter's Spruit and bivouac. The movement by Acton Holmes had been given up for some reason which was unknown, and it was not difficult to see that the alternative was a frontal attack on the position which everybody had watched being fortified.
The battalion halted close to Venter's Spruit, and had a piquet ('H' company) on the Trichardt's Drift road. The transport succeeded in reaching the brigade that night, and the men were thus able to have their great-coats. Not much sleep was, however, allowed. At a very early hour, long before daylight, on the 20th, the brigade was aroused. Great-coats were again packed on the waggons, and then, without breakfast or any opportunity of issuing rations, the battalion fell in and marched off. Owing to darkness and the rough track by which the column marched, progress was at first very slow. When the feeble light of early dawn enabled the country to be seen, the regiment was crossing (p. 048) a spruit near Fairview Farm, lying at the foot of the ridge. It then ascended a small valley leading to Three Tree Hill, where the Field Artillery had concentrated.
The latter soon afterwards opened the battle, and fired on the Boer trenches, which stood out more prominently than usual on the crest of the ridge. The enemy's artillery did not reply, although a vigorous rifle-fire was directed on the skirmishers of the Lancashire Brigade.
The Connaught Rangers had been temporarily detached on escort duty, and General Hart now moved his three remaining battalions to the left in line of quarter-columns. It was a hot day, and the men, who had eaten nothing that morning, suffered some discomfort from such a close formation. The ground, too, was broken and covered with long grass and scrub, so that it was no easy matter to satisfy the General's injunctions in the matter of 'dressing.' The brigade moved in full view of the enemy, and so compact a body of men must have been a great temptation to the Boer gunners, who, however, were either not ready or exercised much self-restraint. After scrambling through a remarkably steep valley, the brigade halted in a gentle depression, where it was safe from the random bullets that were falling near. A long pause ensued, and the men were able to obtain some much-needed water.
It was past noon before the infantry, in this part of the field, advanced in earnest. Then the York and Lancaster Regiment and Lancashire Fusiliers were sent forward as the firing-line against the centre of the Boer position, and were supported by the Borders and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The formation adopted by General Hart for the support was two lines. The first line, which was two deep, consisted of the right half-battalions of the two regiments, the Borders being on the right, and was followed at a distance of about two hundred yards by a similar line, composed of the left half-battalions.
(p. 049) On emerging from the depression where it had been resting, the support came under rifle-fire. The range must, however, have been a long one, and the casualties were few. The attack was moving astride of a spur which ran from the Boer position to the Tugela, a little distance to the west of Three Tree Hill. At first this spur was broad, forming almost a plateau, but further on it narrowed, and consequently the left of the two lines advanced up a narrow valley, which afforded excellent cover.
Led by General Hart, the brigade advanced at a steady pace and, after a time, closed up on the firing-line. It then halted, and from a slight elevation opened fire in order to support the Lancashire Regiments, who, having taken the enemy's advanced position, found that some thousand yards of very open and almost-level ground lay between them and the Boer trenches, which lined the northern edge of the summit of the ridge. The attack could now only advance slowly, since it was exposed to a cross-fire from both flanks. Hitherto it had only faced rifle-fire, but about 1.45 p.m. the Boer guns, posted somewhere near Spion Kop, came into action. They were able to rake the whole assaulting line, and, in fact, many officers thought at first that the shells were 'short' ones from our own artillery. The Boers on this occasion managed to burst their shrapnel with some accuracy, and it was fortunate that the attack could find good cover.
This artillery and the increased rifle-fire on the right flank caused the line to swing round in that direction, but any further advance was suspended by superior orders soon after 4.30 p.m. The Borders, who had pushed ahead, were ordered back, and the other regiments took cover among the rocks, and maintained a vigorous fire. The rattle of musketry gradually died away as the light failed, until after nightfall the battalion assembled behind a wall and bivouacked.
(p. 050) By great efforts the regimental transport had succeeded in getting touch with the battalion, which was thus able to obtain rations. But it was not until 8 p.m. that the men could get anything to eat.
Thus ended the fight of January 20th. It had cost the regiment one of its most efficient officers, Captain Hensley, who was mortally wounded. Major English had been hit in the leg—he was back within a fortnight—and of the rank and file four were killed and twenty wounded—among the former being Lance-Sergeant Taylor, a most excellent N.C.O. Although the opposing forces were so close, the night passed quietly. With daylight (January 21st), however, the rifle-fire at once broke out. The battalion had just managed to have a scratch meal when orders were received to move to the support of the 2nd Brigade, which was away to the left. General Hart ordered Colonel Cooper to move by the straightest line, first down a ravine across a spruit, and then over a hill. While climbing the latter, the battalion was in full view of the enemy, who at once opened fire with guns and rifles. Each company extended in succession, and doubled, so far as possible, over the exposed ground. Once over the hill a region of comparative safety was reached, and General Hart finally formed up his command behind a rocky ridge overlooking the position held by the 2nd Brigade. (p. 051) The latter were having a rifle duel with the Boer trenches but did not advance. The 5th Brigade played a very passive part, and spent the day behind the rocks. Bullets continually whistled overhead, and the hostile artillery near Spion Kop burst an occasional shrapnel along the position. Otherwise there was no excitement.
Towards evening, the regiment received orders to move some few hundred yards to the right, and bivouac. Colonel Cooper directed the companies to close in succession, and march from the rocks to the new position. This movement almost escaped the notice of the Boer artillery, and it was not until the last company ('H') moved that two shells were fired. They fell to the right and in front of the leading fours, and did no damage. The battalion assembled in a narrow amphitheatre just below the southern crest, and at the head of a valley leading to Fairview Farm. Although the bivouac could not be seen by the enemy, except from Spion Kop, it was not altogether sheltered from fire, for every now and then a bullet would clear the crest-line and strike the ground below.
In this amphitheatre we perforce remained for three days, having a far from pleasant time. From sunrise to sunset the rattle of musketry practically never ceased, only at intervals the hum of the passing bullets was drowned by the clang of bursting shrapnel. The Boer guns, posted both directly in front and on the right flank, burst their shells just over the crest, and fired intermittently all day. There were four battalions crowded in the amphitheatre, and each one occupied in turn the crest, whence an uninterrupted fire was directed on the Boer trenches opposite. The enemy's marksmen had the range of this crest-line, and it was a dangerous matter to stand up even for a minute. Stone sangars were built and the companies relieved each other by the men crawling up the slope. The enemy's artillery near Spion Kop could rake the line of sangars, thus necessitating numerous (p. 052) traverses. When not in the firing line, we lay behind the slope in column, each company being protected by a parapet of earth or stone. Immediately below the amphitheatre the ground fell steeply, forming a ravine in which the cooks set up their field kitchens in comparative security. It was characteristic of the British soldier that whereas during the greater part of the day he crouched behind his cover, the sight of a fatigue party with the kettles made him forget the shells and bullets, and he dashed off for his food regardless of danger.
On Tuesday night (January 22nd) the proposed assault on Spion Kop was announced, and every one hoped that a general advance would be the result.
The morning of January 23rd dawned with a thick white mist, which hid everything from view. It was our turn to occupy the ridge, and the companies lay there for nearly an hour before the usual exchange of rifle-fire began. No news of the capture of Spion Kop had reached the amphitheatre, but the fact could be guessed from the absence of the Boer guns in that direction. Only the artillery in front of the battalion's position fired in the morning, and even that ceased during the afternoon. The enemy was evidently concentrating the greater part of his forces against Spion Kop, and parties of mounted burghers could be seen moving from their extreme right. On Spion Kop hung the white clouds of bursting shrapnel, and the stuttering sound of the pompom scarcely ceased for a moment, but the 5th Brigade made no advance. The companies behind the sangars fired hundreds of rounds at the Boer trenches, while their comrades below ate and slept.
At dawn of the 25th, glasses and telescopes were turned on to the summit of the mountain, and it was a bitter blow when the moving figures there were seen to be Boers. It was not until late in the forenoon, however, that the evacuation of Spion Kop was officially communicated. But the renewal (p. 053) of the Boer artillery fire against the crest-line had been a sufficiently eloquent announcement of the fact.
As there seemed no reason why the regiment should remain in the amphitheatre when it was not required to man the sangars, Colonel Cooper obtained permission that afternoon to move down the valley below Bastion Hill. The new bivouac was more sheltered, although an occasional Boer shell still fell near.
It was now evident that the second attempt to relieve Ladysmith had failed, and that the army would have to recross the Tugela. On the afternoon of the 25th, fatigue parties were sent by the battalion to improve the track leading to Fairview Farm, and it was rumoured that the retreat would take place that night. At 10.30 p.m. 'H' company was sent to the farm, with orders to hold it during the retirement. But the army did not move until Friday night, January 26th. At 10 p.m. on that date, General Hart's command began to descend the valley in heavy rain, which rendered the track extremely greasy.
Only a short distance had been covered when there was an outburst of rifle-fire from the rearguard, which was still holding the sangars. For a moment it seemed as if the Boers had anticipated the retreat and were attacking. The battalion halted, but the firing soon ceased, and the march was continued, the men stumbling down the track as quickly as the many boulders would permit. At Fairview Farm the column halted for a considerable period, in order to let the rearguard close up. By this time every one was wet to the skin, and the enforced rest was somewhat trying, owing to the cold.
However, after a wait of about an hour, the retirement was resumed. The track was marked by orderlies and tins, but even with this help it was difficult to find the way in the utter darkness. The surface of the road, too, had become so slippery that falls were frequent. Altogether, (p. 054) progress was painfully slow and the march a very fatiguing one. It was past 4 a.m., January 27th, before the pontoon bridge at Trichardt's Drift was reached. The column had another prolonged wait here, and so tired were the men that many of them dropped to the ground and slept in the mud. Early dawn had come when the brigade recrossed the Tugela and toiled up the steep slope on the other side. A Boer gun sent a parting shell just as the column reached the summit.
It was a great relief to look back towards Tabanyama, where the discarded biscuit tins were gleaming in the morning light, and say good-bye to that long line of sangars and trenches. The men's spirits were, moreover, cheered up by the sight of the 'Scotch' cart with the kettles and rations. Breakfasts were cooked, and after a short rest the brigade moved to the camping-ground selected for it. But it arrived only to find that the position was within view and artillery range of Spion Kop. So once more it had to trudge over the veld, General Hart moving it in line of quarter-columns, and being as particular about the 'dressing' as if he were on Laffan's Plain. His command hardly appreciated this smartness at the time. But all were finally rewarded by the arrival of the transport with tents and baggage, and every one spent the night in comparative luxury.