SIR GEORGE WHITE had tidings that 9,000 Boers, from near Acton Homes, were moving towards his camp at Ladysmith, which threatened his communication with Dundee. On Saturday, Oct. 21st, that famous old Boer, General Joubert showed in force to the north with two 40-pounders and began bombarding White's camp, where there was no gun of equal calibre to respond; so that a new position was taken up by our men, south of Dundee, outside the range of the " Long Toms." Gen. Yule (Symons' successor) was in charge of the advanced posts.
A reconnoitring party sighted a mass of Free State Boers entrenched in a strong position at Elandslaagte, and to General French (the prince of dashing cavalry officers) was entrusted the order to move them on. He had made a sortie the day before, when he had a small force of cavalry and infantry, supported by two battalions of other regulars, and as they marched they heard from the north east the heavy booming of cannon, which revealed the engagement at Dundee.
With the break of day he dropped a shell into a railway station shed, and the Devons, Gordon Highlanders, and the Imperial Light Horse came hand-to-hand with the enemy. As they dashed onwards our gunners many a time drove their opponents from their machines, and at last, after not a few officers and men had been sacrificed, the position was taken at the point of the bayonet. The well-known General Kock fell into our hands as a prisoner, and his comrade, General Viljoen was killed. It was our first victory of the sort. Three hundred Boers were made prisoners, to be maintained during the war in a safe retreat, (unless exchanged.) The Boers lost heavily in killed and wounded, and parted with much stores of food and ammunition.
Among the deeds of daring in the encounter at this place was that of the engine driver at the station, who seeing the Boers arriving, put on full steam, and dashed through them, for Dundee, before they could plant their guns.
French had with him on this occasion, the Imperial Light Horse' (composed of British Outlander Volunteers,) six guns of Natal Artillery, and 400 of the Manchester Regiment, conveyed by train, an armoured train accompanying the cavalry. The enemy was sighted at 8-30 a.m., riding the plain, but their stronghold was the rocky ridge, dropping at the northern end to a nek or pass, where their camp was pitched, with a conical mountain for the background, and with breastworks of stone. Along the skyline stood out in relief the black figures of the foemen.
In artillery, we were checkmated — our 7-pounders being old and decrepit, and the Boers' long range, quick-firing 14-pounders (taken from the Jameson raiders.) Hence, safety was only in retreat, till reinforcements came up. First arrived the 5th Lancers, and two batteries of field artillery, tearing along with double teams at full gallop; then Colonel Ian Hamilton brought the rest of the Manchesters and 1200 Devonshires and Gordon Highlanders; making the total strength 1,600 infantry, 480 artillery, and some 800 cavalry. The new batteries belched furiously at the guns on the long ridge, and our cavalry pushed round to the right and left of the enemy's position, while the Gordons and Manchester, in open formation, on the right, with dismounted Imperial horsemen in the centre, and Devon lads on the left, were ready to advance when the Boer guns had been silenced.
All through the campaign the artillery of the Dutch was worked by clever gunners, and the only "fault" that could be found with their labours was that many of their shells were non-explosive, and if they didn't hit were often innocuous. On this occasion their men, driven from their guns several times by our shrapnel— bursting with a death-dealing shower—kept up the thundering duel with deafening roar and plucky stubbornness, till French thought, if the stronghold was to be stormed before nightfall, the infantry must advance. To add to the dramatic effect a thunderstorm passed over the scene. To advance across the plain under the deadly fire from the hills, was like courting death, but the men marched solid and without wincing. The Devons, as steady as on parade at home, went forward firing volleys occasionally until they reached the foot of the hill. All the while the Mauser bullets whistled through the air like a rain of lead, and our men were dropping every moment. In front could be seen the intermittent flashes of the rifles on the frowning peak, hardly distinguishable at times from the murky storm-clouds rolling over them. As " into the gates of hell," marched the invincible Britishers, ready " to do or die," at the call of duty. And then was repeated a climb like unto that at Talana, with, however, a better result for the empire, as we have intimated.
General Yule the next day marched to intercept the flying farmers, but his force was too feeble and he had to return. At 9 p.m., in a misty night, he had to steal away, leaving the dying Symons to be buried by the Dutchmen. Joubert sent a letter of condolence to Lady Symons;—it seems a grim sympathy; yet it might have been something more than politeness.
Yule made for Beith, and was not followed. On the 23rd his regiment (4,000 strong) crossed the Biggersberg pass, where a handful of riflemen could have barred the passage, and on the 25th Sir George White's position was gained.
Ladysmith was now being continually threatened. The battle of Rietfontein on the 23rd was caused by an effort of the Free Staters to intercept our communication with Elandslaagte, when we lost one officer and 12 men, with 95 wounded. The Boers, as usual, had the advantage of a commanding height, now on Matanawa's Kop, which held entrenched a horde of patriots.
Our artillery was fixed on a small rise in the plain, (through which runs the railway), and the enemy commenced hostilities at daybreak by shelling this position. Our General replied, and the British force advanced, with the Lancers on the flank, while cavalry went eastward to gain the' Boer rear. The enemy's fire, however necessitated a halt in the advance. The Gloucesters and Devons had suffered much, yet to the west the Naval Carabineers, with the Liverpools and King's Royals, were sniping away with effect. At length by one o'clock, the enemy's guns gave in beaten and the Boers made a hasty retreat—(a movement in which they excel)—pursued by the Colonials. The Lancers intercepted the retreat, and the rout was complete, the Boer squadrons flying to all parts of the compass almost, to save their skins—" for he who fights and runs away may live to fight another day."
By this triumph General White kept in touch with General Yule, who now made ready to give a warm welcome to the generalissimo of the Dutch settlers.