No rock so hard but that a little wave
May beat admission in a thousand years,
Late on February 22nd, orders were issued for the brigade to be ready to move at an early hour next morning. Breakfasts were eaten before 4 a.m., and the battalion fell in at about 4.15 on February 23rd. The brigade was to move from the left to the right of the army, and it was probably the intention of the Headquarter Staff for the march to take place during darkness. But there was a hitch in the distribution of biscuits, and it was already broad daylight when we started.
General Hart moved his command in column of route, and the long line soon attracted the notice of the enemy's artillery. It was somewhat trying to the nerves to hear the whistle of a shell coming nearer and nearer, until finally it struck the ground within a few yards of the column. Luckily, the Boers were either using common shell or their shrapnel did not burst, and the battalion had no casualties. Finally the railway was reached, and the brigade turned to the left, each battalion forming column of companies in succession. A halt was made close to the railway line and a short distance to the south of the viaduct over the Onderbrook Spruit. But as a few shells fell dangerously near, and showed that the enemy could still see the brigade, it was moved to the left (p. 062) behind a rocky ridge. The battalion stayed here for the rest of the morning. The Boer gunners fired frequently at the ridge, but the slope of the ground saved us from any losses. Sir Redvers Buller and his staff rode up about mid-day in order to explain to General Hart what was required of him. This was the capture of the hill known as Inniskilling, or Hart's Hill. It could be plainly seen from the summit of the ridge behind which we lay, and all officers and section commanders were called up in order to have a look at it. They were told that it formed the extreme left of the Boer position, and that its capture meant the relief of Ladysmith. General Hart desired all officers to inform their men of the necessity for a resolute assault. Our heavy artillery on the right bank of the Tugela now began to shell the hill, which was quickly covered by the smoke and dust of the lyddite explosions.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Brigade was preparing the way by an assault on a ridge some 1000 yards to the front. They had a tough fight, and their wounded were soon being brought down the railway in trucks and stretchers.
The afternoon was well advanced when the 5th Brigade moved to the attack. The hill to be assaulted lay some 3000 yards to the north-east of the ridge which had been sheltering us, and the nature of the intervening ground forbade a direct advance, which would dangerously expose the left flank. It was necessary to hug the river-bank until a position from which a direct attack became possible was reached.
The brigade at first moved along the railway line in file in the following order: Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Imperial Light Infantry. The battalion moved with the left in front. A brigade in file takes up a considerable space, and by the time the regiment could start, a heavy outburst of firing showed that the Inniskilling Fusiliers were already engaged.
(p. 063) The advance along the railway line, through a cutting and over the Onderbrook Spruit, was very slow, since checks were frequent. The Boer artillery missed this favourable opportunity of shelling their foes, luckily for the latter. After crossing Onderbrook Spruit, the column turned to the right and crept along the river. The enemy were sweeping the bank with pompoms and a heavy rifle-fire, but by crouching under the bank the column obtained good cover for the greater part of the way. But every now and then there came an exposed bit of ground over which it was necessary to double, and so narrow was the track that men had often to jump over the wounded or killed.
The Langverwacht Spruit had to be crossed by the railway bridge. As the latter was in full view of the enemy and was being raked by pompom shells and bullets, it proved a great delay to the progress of the column. It was only possible to cross at more or less long intervals. Each man was forced to run the gauntlet by himself, and had to double over as hard as he could. Beyond the bridge complete cover was obtained except for a small stretch of ground by the Boer bridge. Below the latter, the river ran between high hills, and the column was therefore screened from view.
By the time that the leading company of the battalion had cleared 'Pompom' bridge, the Inniskilling Fusiliers were advancing against the Boer position on Hart's Hill. It was about 5 p.m., and the General could not wait until his brigade had concentrated, but sent his troops forward as they arrived. The left half-battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers formed up near a deserted Boer bivouac overlooking the river, and then, without stopping for the right half, advanced to where General Hart was standing.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sitwell was in command of the left half-battalion, and in a short time he was sent for by the General, who told him to advance and help the Inniskilling Fusiliers to capture the hill.
(p. 064) The leading company ('H') was directed to extend to six paces and move forward, the remaining companies ('G,' 'F,' and 'E') following at a distance of 100 yards. No sooner had 'H' company cleared the crest of the hill on which General Hart was standing, than it came under a heavy rifle-fire, principally from the direction of Railway Hill. Lieutenant Lane fell badly wounded—shot clean through the head from one side to another, a wound from which he made a marvellous recovery—and three or four men were hit. The company received the order to double, no easy task down a steep slope strewn with rocks and boulders. The railway line at the bottom of the slope was crossed, and the opposite side of the valley, which was dotted with small trees, ascended. The company had now caught up the lines of the Connaught Rangers, and all climbed up the hill, the crest of which had been gained by the Inniskilling Fusiliers. Although the attacking infantry could not be seen from the Boers on Hart's or Railway Hill, they were still exposed to an enfilade fire from the left.
On arriving with 'H' company at the top of the hill, Lieutenant-Colonel Sitwell found the Inniskilling Fusiliers lying along the crest-line and facing the Boer trenches, which ran at about three hundred yards distance on the far side of the flat plateau. The Inniskillings had already suffered serious casualties, but, on Lieutenant-Colonel Sitwell stating that he had been ordered to charge, claimed the right of leading the assault. To this Colonel Sitwell agreed, but it was decided to wait until the remaining companies of the left half-battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were up. Meanwhile our guns and the cavalry maxims on the right bank of the Tugela were directing against the enemy's trenches a stream of bullets and shrapnel shells, the latter seeming to burst immediately over the infantry.
The sun had set, and the light was already failing by (p. 065) the time that the four companies of the left half-battalion had come up, principally on the left of the Inniskilling Fusiliers. Then the signal to charge was given, and the whole line rose up, and with a yell dashed forward. But it was met by a murderous fire. In the gathering darkness the Boer trenches quivered with the rifle-flashes, and the bullets struck out sparks as they hit the rocks. At such a short range the enemy's marksmen could hardly miss, and the line of charging infantry was almost mowed down. The assault was checked, and the attackers flung themselves on the ground and sought what little cover there was.
Luckily night intervened, and, although the Boers never for a moment ceased their fire, the survivors of that charge managed to creep back to the crest. Here Colonel Brooke, of the Connaught Rangers, and Lieutenant-Colonel Sitwell collected them, and took steps to guard against a counter-attack. A low stone wall was built below the crest, and behind this the night was spent.
It was very dark, and the ground, covered with boulders, (p. 066) most difficult to move over. Wounded men lay all over the hill, but there were no doctors, no stretcher-bearers, and no water. It was impossible to help or to move them. Their groans, combined with the intermittent rifle-fire, made sleep difficult.
We had three officers wounded (Lieutenants Lane, Hill, and Dennis), and some twenty casualties. Lieutenant Hill was again hit as he lay, and subsequently lost his foot in consequence.
The infantry crouching behind the stone wall were unable to communicate with the rest of the army. At dawn, however, Major McGrigor, the Brigade-Major, came up to the line and told Colonel Brooke that General Hart wished him to hold on to his position, to which reinforcements would be sent. Colonel Brooke explained that food and water would have to be sent also, and, above all, that his left must be protected. Having promised to do what he could, Major McGrigor returned to his General. With daylight the battle recommenced. The Boers, from their trenches on Hart's and Railway Hills, kept up a vigorous rifle-fire, and were answered as far as possible by the men of the 5th Brigade behind the wall. Our artillery shelled Hart's Hill, and many of their shrapnel which burst short hit the unlucky wounded who were still lying on the plateau.
But the Boers were not content to remain on the defensive. Gradually their skirmishers worked round the left of the hill, moving by the dongas which ran down to the railway line, and were able to fire up into the rear of the defenders of the wall. Part of the latter were extended at right angles to the wall, and endeavoured to drive off the enemy. But the Boers had excellent cover, whereas the infantry crowded together on the hill presented an easy target. Casualties became numerous. The morning wore on, and there were no signs of the promised reinforcements or of the much-needed water and food. It seemed useless to stay on the hill, and about 8 a.m. Colonel (p. 067) Brooke gave the order to retire. As the men rose to their feet and ran down the hill, the rattle of the Boer musketry increased in volume, and the bullets whistled among the retreating soldiers. Lieut.-Colonel Sitwell was killed as he descended the slope, and Captain Maitland, of the Gordon Highlanders, who had been in command of 'G' company since November, was mortally wounded almost at the same time. Luckily, the distance was not very great, and once over the railway line the stream of bullets ceased.
Lieut.-Colonel Sitwell's loss was severely felt. Though he had only recently joined us, he had given numerous proofs of his soldierly ability. He had the benefit of considerable previous war service, and had he lived would doubtless have risen to high rank. Captain Maitland, Gordon Highlanders, had been unable to join his regiment in Ladysmith, and had been attached to the battalion since Estcourt. Over and over again he had proved himself to be a most gallant soldier, and had endeared himself to all his temporary comrades (p. 068) (see Appendix). He commanded 'G' company, which was most unfortunate in respect of its commanders, having no less than six during the war. Colour-Sergeant Connell, however, than whom no braver man lives, was with it throughout.
As the retiring infantry climbed up the slope of Hart's Hollow they met the advancing lines of the 4th Brigade, who had been sent to reinforce the 5th. The latter quickly re-formed—there were not many of the Inniskilling Fusiliers left to re-form—and were able to obtain food after a fast of nearly twenty-four hours.
The casualties of the left half-battalion amounted to two officers killed and three wounded, and eleven killed and fifty-six wounded of the rank and file.
The right half-battalion, under Major English, had, during the assault of Hart's Hill, watched the right flank towards Pieter's Hill. General Hart proposed that they should attack the Boers in that quarter, but Colonel Cooper, who was with the right half-battalion, pointed out that the day was too far advanced. The right half-battalion spent the night of the 23rd-24th February among the rocks on the hill whence General Hart had directed the attack. About 8 a.m. on February 24th, 'B' company was sent to drive off small parties of the enemy who had crept down the dongas and reached the railway on the left. This company came under a severe fire, and Lieutenant Brodhurst Hill was wounded in the leg, but the Boers were driven back. The 24th was spent in a ceaseless rifle-duel with the enemy, who had brought a gun to bear on the hill. During the afternoon, preparations were made for a fresh attack on Hart's Hill, to be undertaken by Colonel Cooper with two battalions, while General Hart, (p. 069) with the remainder of the force at hand, assaulted Railway Hill. The attack was, however, postponed.
The enemy evidently feared another assault, for in the course of the night of February 24th-25th, they opened a vigorous fire, which disturbed the slumbers of General Hart's force, and created some excitement.
During all this time the unlucky wounded, who had been hit on the 23rd, had been left lying in front of the Boer trenches. It was impossible to help them, since all attempts in that direction had been frustrated by the enemy. But on the morning of Sunday, February 25th, a partial armistice was agreed upon in order to bring in the wounded and to bury the dead. The armistice ended at 6 p.m., and both sides commenced firing immediately afterwards.
Meanwhile, Sir Redvers Buller had evolved a new plan of operations, and decided to attack with his combined force the three hills—Pieter's, Railway, and Hart's. For this purpose the greater part of the artillery was brought from the left bank and concentrated on the right bank, opposite (p. 070) the points to be assaulted. It was in position by the 26th, and began a slow bombardment of the Boer trenches. During the night, the pontoon bridge under Hlangwane was dismantled, and carried down to a point below the Boer bridge, where it was relaid, an operation which was not concluded until 10 a.m. on the 27th.
On the day before, the Dublin Fusiliers had been ordered to join temporarily General Barton's Brigade. It left its position among the rocks of Hart's Hollow about 7 a.m. on February 27th, and, moving down the hill through the deserted Boer laager, halted by the pontoon bridge. Here it was joined soon after 9 a.m. by the Irish and Scots Fusiliers, and came under the command of General Barton.
The battalion followed the Scots Fusiliers, and moved along the left bank of the Tugela at the foot of a steep ridge, being covered by infantry and maxim fire from the right bank.
After a march of two miles, and at the point where the Klip River joins the Tugela, the 6th Brigade turned to its (p. 071) left and prepared to attack the Boer position, which, lying some two miles from the river, stretched from the ridges north of Eagle's Nest to the various kopjes constituting Pieter's Hill. General Barton directed the Royal Irish Fusiliers to assault the western end of Pieter's Hill and the Scots Fusiliers the eastern, while the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers formed the reserve.
The assault was successful, and the greater part of Pieter's Hill fell into our hands, but the Boers still held a kopje to the north of the hill, and maintained a heavy fire. General Barton, anxious to complete his victory, directed three companies of the battalion and one company of the Scots Fusiliers to advance against the kopje. 'B,' 'C,' and 'H' were the three companies selected, the first named being on the right and the latter on the left, connecting with the Scots Fusiliers. Guided by Captain MacBean, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Brigade-Major 6th Brigade, the detachment advanced about 2.30 p.m., and came at once under a heavy rifle and pompom fire. The companies pushed forward, however, by successive rushes until they reached a donga some three hundred yards from the kopje. Here further progress was checked for a time, and General Barton ordered forward three companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The latter came up about 5.30 p.m., and, supported by the covering fire of 'B,' 'C,' and 'H' companies, rushed the left of the hill, when the above-mentioned companies of the battalion, led by Captain Venour, assaulted the right. The attack was successful, and the kopje was captured.
During the advance Lieutenants Haskard and Bradford, in command of 'C' and 'H' companies, were wounded, and the engagement cost the regiment nine killed and forty-three wounded. 'D' company, under Lieutenant Ely, towards the close of the afternoon came up on the left of 'H' company, in order to fill the gap between the latter and the Scots Fusiliers.
The three companies which had made their attack on the kopje spent the night on the captured position. Captain Venour, who was the senior officer present, re-formed the men of the Irish and Dublin Fusiliers, and constructed sangars, with a view of warding off a Boer counter-attack. In the meantime 'A,' 'E,' 'F,' and 'G' companies—with whom was Colonel Cooper—were directed to the right, in order to guard the flank of the brigade against the Eagle's Nest position. These companies gained about 2 p.m. a ridge opposite the Eagle's Nest, and overlooking the extensive plain which stretches up to Bulwana Mountain. The enemy opened a well-aimed fire on this ridge, and also brought into action a gun which was placed on the shoulder to the north of the Nest. As the right of the four companies was thrown back towards the Tugela, this Boer gun could nearly enfilade part of the line. Sangars were built, however, and there were not more than three or four casualties in this part of the field. The firing ceased at dusk, but otherwise the night was (p. 073) unpleasant, for it rained, and the waggons could not get near the fighting line, so that the men had to do without their great-coats.
Before daybreak on February 28th the battalion collected its scattered companies and was ready for action. There was no reliable news of what had happened on other parts of the field during the 27th, and the full extent of the victory was still unknown. When daylight came it was evident that the Boers had evacuated the Eagle's Nest, and small parties of them could be seen retiring, while the tents of their laager under Bulwana were gradually diminishing. But even then few could believe that the relief of Ladysmith was practically accomplished.
Before mid-day an order came, directing the Dublin Fusiliers to move after dinner and join the 11th Brigade, the position of which was not indicated. Major English rode on ahead in order to discover its whereabouts, but by the time he found it, the battalion had gone two miles out of its way. The 11th Brigade was joined about 4 p.m., and the regiment bivouacked between Hart's and Railway Hills. A heavy (p. 074) thunderstorm burst over the country soon after 8 p.m., and made everybody somewhat miserable, although the officers had been cheered by the arrival of the invaluable Corporal Tierney, who, as usual, succeeded in giving them food.
The services of this N.C.O. (now Mess-Sergeant) will never be forgotten by the regiment, as long as an officer who was present with it in South Africa remains in it. Over and over again he brought up food to the officers under heavy fire, and through those desperate thunderstorms. Always cheery, ever ready, there he was in his shirt-sleeves, with a drink and a snack, just as one had resigned oneself to going without anything. A word must also be said in praise of our French chef, M. Burst, who cooked for the officer's mess throughout, and proved himself on all occasions a brave man.
After breakfast on March 1st, the 11th Brigade advanced along the railway towards Ladysmith. It was thought that the Boers would be holding Bulwana, and the brigade had orders to attack the hill. But it was soon learnt that the enemy had retired, and we eventually reached Nelthorpe (p. 075) Station about mid-day and bivouacked. Major English and Captain Venour took the opportunity of riding into Ladysmith.
March 2nd was spent at Nelthorpe. On the 3rd, Sir Redvers Buller's army entered Ladysmith, and the honour of leading the army fell to the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers—an honour which nobody grudged them, on account of the constant fighting they had taken part in since the beginning of the war, and the heavy casualties they had suffered. The route was by the railway bridge, and the streets of the little town were lined by the garrison, who, emaciated but clean, presented a startling contrast to their war-stained relievers.
The entry into Ladysmith, with its enthusiasm and meeting of old friends, formed a fitting ending to the battalion's Natal campaign. Hardly any other unit in the army had suffered such casualties. Only five company officers marched through Ladysmith with it. The others had been killed, wounded, or disabled.