A CORRESPONDENT writes:—I returned with the last train on Tuesday, the 21st, from Mooi River, intending to go back with the first train on Wednesday, but I found that the telegraphic and railway communication had been cut.
The night passed without anything noteworthy occurring, and the morning brought no improvement. At midday several battalions were on the move, and it became evident that something fresh was brewing. A column marched out in the direction of Willow Grange.
General Hildyard on Nov. 21st, planned to attack with the bayonet Beacon Hill and a hill beyond, both of which were occupied by the enemy in large force this evening, with entrenchments thrown up and four guns in position.
The composition of the British column was as follows: —The West Yorkshire Regiment were in the firing line, with the West Surrey on the left flank and the East Surrey on the right, the Border Regiment furnishing supports. The Volunteers were held in reserve. The 6th Battery of Field Artillery, with a naval detachment and the Carbineers, were on both flanks. On the completion of the infantry dispositions the whole column moved from the top of the town road.
The Intelligence Department had located the enemy on Beacon Hill, and beyond it, for a distance of seven miles from the town, the country was rough and stony and interspersed with hills. Beacon Hill rose from the valley 1500ft. high.
The Yorkshire Regiment marched steadily on over five miles of undulating ground, and then began its stern work of climbing the heights. The supporting battalion followed. In their khaki uniforms they got lost in the distance, and in order to note what they were doing it was necessary to ride forward and catch them up.
A naval gun was with the greatest difficulty transported over the veldt, and was pulled by sheer strength up the sides of an ail-but inaccessible mountain, while No. 7 Battery of Field Artillery also experienced most trying conditions in dragging their guns up the rock-bound hill, gun after gun. They, however, accomplished this severe task, which should serve as a moral lesson to the enemy, who arrogates to himself that he alone can climb hills with artillery.
At this point, when the Boers had retired down the off side of Beacon Hill, and when we were climbing up the near side, the storm which had been threatening all the afternoon broke in its pent-up fury with terrific violence. Torrential rains fell for hours, accompanied at periods by heavy hailstones.
About six o'clock in the evening the weather cleared up, and then the Boers took advantage to open the ball by sending three shots from a long range with their 12-pounder gun at our Naval Brigade. One shell landed only 20ft. from our naval gun, doing, however, no damage. Our gun replied with two shots.
The West Yorkshire Regiment had meanwhile come within range, and exchanged shots with the Boer firing line. This closed the day's operations, and when darkness fell the prospect was a dismal one. Rain continued to fall heavily. The volunteers marched up, under Col. McCubbin, and the General ordered them to take cover for the night.
When the storm had spent itself the Yorkshire Regiment were on the move. In the darkness they advanced in a snakelike formation towards the enemy's position. They maintained touch, and, dressing wonderfully well considering the nature of the country, the swollen rivulets, which were rendered dangerous by the heavy rainfall, were successfully crossed and the kopjes clambered or stumbled over.
The supporting battalion were equally dogged in their endeavours during the blackness of the night, until, after a tedious and never-to-be-forgotten march, occupying several hours, the advance pickets of the enemy were reached. Numbers, however, had fled on hearing our men advance, leaving everything behind them.
In the small hours of the morning the West Yorkshire Regiment were working stealthily on, and were within bayonet-striking distance, when one man, more nervously excited than his fellows, fired a rifle shot, which rang out and gave the Boers warning of our presence. The result was that they ran away before the West Yorkshire Regiment could get at them. They charged, however, as best they could, clearing the enemy from their final position, which was stormed just as day broke with three ringing cheers. The Boers rallied, and actually attempted to ride our men down, but when the bugle sounded the charge our men responded with enthusiastic cheers. The enemy fled, and the position was won.
The Boers, in their precipitate flight, left heaps of guns, ammunition, rifles, blankets, and about thirty horses. Several prisoners also fell into our hands.
The object of the reconnaissance—to prevent the enemy taking up certain positions overlooking Estcourt— was thus attained.
All branches of our force then gradually retired to camp. While this movement was being carried out, the Border Regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, and the Natal Royal Rifles held Beacon Hill, supported by the 7th Artillery. Our loss was eight killed and forty-two wounded.
General Hildyard made another sortie from Estcourt on Nov. 23rd. Altogether about 5000 men sallied out in the afternoon. They were composed of the East Surrey regiment, the West Surrey regiment, the West Yorkshire regiment, a naval contingent, the whole of Bethune's Horse, the Natal Mounted Police, the Natal Carbiniers, and a battery of Royal Field artillery.
Moving cautiously towards Willow Grange and keeping touch with the railway, the troops first took a position on the hills in the neighbourhood of Miller's Farm, not far from which it was known that there was a Boer commando of considerable strength. As dusk came on the bulk of the troops proceeded to Willow Grange for the night.
Just as the beautiful country was becoming visible in the opening dawn the battery and a couple of naval guns, brought up from Durban before the enemy closed in upon Estcourt, changed positions until they got into comfortable range of a Boer battery, snugly fixed upon an adjoining hill. Then we opened fire.
It was quite clear that we were entirely unexpected, and it was some time before the flurried Boer gunners recovered from their surprise and replied to the vigorous shelling with a few badly-aimed shots. While our guns kept steadily at work on the enemy's battery and riflemen, our infantry moved towards the Boer position, and the horsemen made a detour to get on their flanks.
At this moment a well-directed shot from a big naval gun smashed the carriage of a Boer gun and put the weapon out of action, and our troops, now half-way up the hill, made a dash for the summit. They could not be denied, and as they got home the Boers turned and fled.
There was some wild bayonet work before the enemy were finally beaten, and in the course of it eighty Boers were killed by the cold steel. We got a fair amount of loot, including twenty-five horses fully equipped.
The Boers retired upon a second position, where they joined a second commando, and thus encouraged, they quickly assumed the offensive, bringing into action quick-firing guns far superior to our field artillery. It was decided, therefore, that our troops should retire, the object of the sortie having been accomplished. The enemy did not follow closely, as had been expected, and another attack was ordered upon them, the enemy not being anxious to resume, and moving off, followed Bethune's Horse, the Carbineers, and the Mounted Police. , After a few days' quietness the besiegers on the 22nd of November began deliberately shelling Ladysmith and especially the hospital.
Schalk Burgher, commanding the Boers, impudently sent a message that all the wounded must go to Ikombi camp. General White peremptorily refused. The burghers thereupon continued to shell the hospital.
The Liverpools and the remnants of the Gloucesters lost eleven killed and wounded on the 24th. Several civilians and members of the Natal Police were killed or injured.
The Boers numbered about ten thousand.
It became known that the Transvaal Commander-in-Chief was ill, and though he directed the movements of the State army, it was difficult to locate his presence.
It was reported that he now became thoroughly alarmed, and strained every nerve to get all his troops north of the Tugela. The two strong commandoes which, under Joubert's direction, recently attacked our troops at M001 River camp and Willow Grange, had got well south of Estcourt when it was decided to retreat. They moved back by the eastern and western roads, and were now entrenched north of Colenso. They were pressed by our artillery and mounted infantry, and shots were exchanged. A couple of miles from Colenso there was a small engagement at long range.On November 28th the Boers brought into action some big guns posted on the hills, but their fire was ineffective. Our troops returned into camp at Frere without sustaining any loss, and the Royal Engineers set to repairing the damaged bridge near by.