[Footnote 95: See maps Nos. 3, 5 and 7.]
[Sidenote: Yule decides not to retreat, but shifts his ground.]
At 5, on the morning of October 21st, the troops again stood to arms. There was no sign of life upon Talana; the cavalry scouted out unmolested on that side. The mounted patrols, however, supported by "F." company of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, reconnoitring northward, discovered the enemy on the Dannhauser road, and the foremost scouts were driven in. At the same time information came of a hostile movement to the westward. Whatever illusions may have existed previously about the strategical situation, none now remained. General Yule himself had at no time shared them; yet he was disinclined to retreat. He re-created a staff, examined a fresh defensive position, and determined to stand his ground. Sending for his commanding officers shortly after midday, he pointed out the new site he had selected below the sloping shoulder of one of the foremost spurs of Indumeni, about a mile south of their present camp, and desired them to rendezvous upon it with their commands at 2.30 p.m., less, however, with any intention of occupying it definitely than of seeing how the troops "fitted into the ground." In view of the expected bombardment from Impati, the whole of the tents except those of the hospital had previously been lowered, and in them the men's kits had been left ready packed for a move. The cavalry and artillery started at once. Before the hour appointed for the march of the rest of the troops the enemy made his presence on Impati felt. At 1.35 p.m. a squadron of the 18th Hussars, reconnoitring near the Dannhauser road, came suddenly under the fire of four guns and many rifles from the north-western slopes of the mountain.
[Footnote 96: Appointing Major A. J. Murray, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, (late D.A.A.G.I.) as A.A.G., Lieut. G. E. R. Kenrick, the Queen's Regiment, as acting D.A.A.G., Captain C. K. Burnett, 18th Hussars, as Brigade Major to the 8th infantry brigade, and Lieut. F. D. Murray, the Black Watch, as A.D.C.]
[Sidenote: Yule asks for reinforcements.]
The Royal Irish Fusiliers led off towards the rendezvous at 2 p.m. By 3 p.m. all were in their places, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Leicestershire regiment and King's Royal Rifles, in the order named from right to left. It was cold and dull, and the slight rain turned to a heavy downpour, which filled the shallow trenches as soon as they were made. At 3.30 p.m. Yule, receiving reports from his patrols that the enemy was mounting guns upon Impati, and realising more fully his peril, despatched a telegram to Ladysmith reporting his arrangements, declaring his expectation of being attacked from both sides, and asking for reinforcements. Before the message had reached its destination, a shell from a heavy piece upon the western shoulder of Impati burst in front of the new line. Others followed quickly, some into the deserted camp where the hospital tents stood up as a target, some into the entrenchments, others into the cavalry, who had taken ground in the rear of the line of defence, and further up the slopes of Indumeni. One falling into a tin house, which lay behind the left, killed Lieut. W. M. J. Hannah, of the Leicestershire M.I., who was sheltering from the storm, and wounded two of his men; elsewhere a gunner was killed and another wounded. Another and a smaller gun then opened from a point below the western crest of Impati. The accuracy of the piece and the smallness of its calibre challenged the British batteries to reply. But the first shrapnel burst at the foot of the mountain, far below the Boer artillery, and when sinking the trails failed to give the necessary elevation by some two thousand yards, the gunners desisted.
[Sidenote: Reinforcements cannot be sent.]
Shortly before 4 p.m. Brigadier-General Yule received the compliments of Sir George White upon his appointment to the rank of Major-General. An hour later, a second telegram from Ladysmith informed him that the reinforcements, which at this juncture he desired more than promotion, could not be sent. The troops at Ladysmith,--telegraphed the Chief Staff Officer,--were engaged at Elandslaagte and the Commander-in-Chief was in the field with them. General Yule's request would be submitted to him on his return, but little hopes could be held out of its being complied with.
[Sidenote: Yule will wait.]
Still the General was unwilling to retreat. Accompanied by his staff officer, he was on his way to find new ground, out of range of Impati, before that mountain had become indistinct in the twilight. He was long in the saddle, examining the northern slopes of Indumeni for a suitable spot. Night drew on, the rain increasing with the dying light; the regular fire of the enemy's guns became intermittent, then ceased, and darkness closed round the British force on the spur.
[Sidenote: He moves again.]
At midnight Yule gave instructions for a move at 3 a.m. to the spot he had selected, a flat-topped foothill of Indumeni, on its northern side, and some two miles south of the bivouac. Before that hour the transport, escorted by the cavalry and mounted infantry, was quietly withdrawn, and made its way safely to the place appointed, where it found cover behind the reverse slopes. The remainder, marching punctually, covered by a rearguard of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, reached the new position at 5 a.m., and took up an open line along the crest, facing generally north in the following order of units from left to right: Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Leicestershire regiment, Royal Irish Fusiliers and King's Royal Rifles.
[Sidenote: Receives news of Elandslaagte.]
At 8 a.m., October 22nd, two despatch riders arriving from Helpmakaar delivered a message from the Prime Minister of Natal, announcing a victory on the previous day at Elandslaagte. "The British force from Ladysmith,"--telegraphed Sir Albert Hime,--"completely defeated Boer force over a thousand strong at Elandslaagte, capturing guns, tents and equipment. Cavalry in full pursuit."
[Sidenote: Yule marches to intercept fugitives.]
It was at once apparent to General Yule that he was directly on the line of retreat of the Boers flying from Sir George White's cavalry, and he determined to attempt to intercept them. Glencoe Junction, at the mouth of the Biggarsberg, appeared to be the point most likely to promise success; he immediately issued orders for a general march in that direction.
[Sidenote: Catches a Tartar and returns.]
At 10 a.m. an advance guard of the 69th battery, the mounted infantry, and the 18th Hussars moved off at the trot for Glencoe. A wounded Boer, who had been pushed up along the railway from Elandslaagte on a trolly, was their only capture, and less than a dozen rounds of shrapnel at 3,800 yards dispersed the few scattered parties of the enemy visible along the kopjes. The remainder of the column wended their way across the lower spurs of Indumeni. Soon a portion of the baggage, seeking an easier road too near the camp, was descried from Impati by the Boer gunners, who turned their pieces on both camp and troops, and opened a rapid fire. The 67th battery, which had previously been directed upon the Glencoe kopjes, now endeavoured in vain to silence the Impati battery from near the left of the Dublin Fusiliers. The enemy's shooting was as accurate as it was impartial, though it was singularly ineffective. Shells of 96 lbs. weight burst between the guns of the 67th battery, amongst the troops and baggage, and all over the camp, doing no other damage than to add to the sufferings of the wounded lying, with the apprehension of helpless men, in the field hospital. The descent of mist, however, soon put an end to the bombardment, and the mounted arms, pushing forward towards Glencoe, endeavoured to carry out the original intention. But instead of fugitives, they found the Boers showing a firm front on the high land north and west of the station, and some slight interchange of shots took place, during which a troop of the 18th Hussars, reconnoitring too boldly, was cut off, and was seen no more that day. With the enemy in this attitude upon strong ground, General Yule saw the inutility of further efforts of this kind, and gave the order for retirement. At 1 p.m. the force was again below Indumeni, as it had been in the morning, having effected nothing. As the men climbed the last few yards of the precipitous ascent, the fog, rolling for a short time from the summit of Impati, once more gave the Boer artillerymen on their lofty platform a view of the plain below, and again the sufferers in the hospital endured the explosion of the heavy projectiles of the Creusot cannon close outside their shelter.
[Footnote 97: The Red Cross flag was so placed, and so small, as to be invisible to the Boers.]
[Footnote 98: This patrol, finding its retreat impossible, made straight for Ladysmith, where it arrived safely next day.]
[Sidenote: Yule ordered to attempt retreat, prepares for it.]
Yule, whose health, previously bad, had given way under the toil, anxiety and exposure, now unwillingly decided to retire on Ladysmith whilst the road still remained open, and at 5.45 p.m. he dictated a message acquainting Sir G. White with his determination. Before it could be despatched, at 6.30 p.m. a telegram from Ladysmith was placed in his hands. It was Sir G. White's reply to his request for reinforcements, and it banished the last cause for hesitation. "I cannot reinforce you without sacrificing Ladysmith and the Colony behind. You must try and fall back on Ladysmith. I will do what I may to help you when nearer." Acknowledging its contents, Yule prepared for retreat.
[Sidenote: Retreat begins.]
No sooner had darkness fallen than Major Wickham, of the Indian Commissariat, taking with him thirty-three wagons guarded by two companies of the Leicestershire regiment, left the hill and moved with great precaution into the deserted camp. The convoy performed its short but dangerous journey without attracting the attention of the enemy, and the wagons, after being quickly loaded with as many stores as the darkness, the confusion of the levelled tents, and limited time made possible, were drawn up on the outskirts to await the passing of the column. At 9 p.m. the whole force fell in. The night was fine but intensely dark, and the units had some difficulty in reaching their stations in the carefully arranged order of march. At 9.30 p.m. all being ready, the column, guided by Colonel Dartnell, went quietly down the mountain side towards Dundee, the southern boundary of which it was necessary to skirt to gain the Helpmakaar road. By 11.15 p.m. the last company was clear of the mountain, and, striking the track to Dundee at the foot of Indumeni, the troops passed close to the bivouac ground of the 21st October. Outside the town Major Wickham's convoy stood waiting, and when, at the right moment, the signal was given, the above-mentioned wagons fell into their place in the line of march. The pace was rapid, despite the impenetrable gloom. Skirting Dundee, the route turned sharply south-east around the corner of the Helpmakaar road. On the edge of the town the precaution was taken to cut the telegraph wire to Greytown. By 4.30 a.m. October 23rd, the leading files having traversed safely the defile of Blesboklaagte, had made good twelve miles of the road to Helpmakaar, fourteen miles from the starting-point. Near Dewaas, Yule, sending a message to Ladysmith to announce his progress, halted on open ground, over which piquets were at once thrown out on every side, and the batteries formed up for action. Ten a.m. was the hour of starting again, the Royal Irish Fusiliers relieving the King's Royal Rifles as advance guard. A blazing sun beating upon the treeless downs, and a rumour of the enemy having been seen ahead, now made marching toilsome and slow. By 12.30 p.m., less than five miles having been covered, Yule decided to halt again, until darkness should arrive to lessen both the fatigue and the risk of discovery by the enemy. His situation was hazardous in the extreme. Behind him the Boers would be soon on his heels, if they were not so already; before him lay a defile known as Van Tonders Pass, deep and difficult, some six miles in length. But at the slow rate of movement, necessitated by the nature of the route through it, the passage of this dangerous ground would take so much time and cause such disorder, that, balancing the evils, Yule, after reconnoitring the obstacle, bivouacked at 2 p.m. on a high and open spur of the Biggarsberg, overlooking the valley of the Waschbank river, two miles east-south-east of Beith, and one mile west of the junction of the Helpmakaar and Ladysmith roads. Here he waited anxiously for the night.
[Footnote 99: See map No. 4.]
[Footnote 100: See map No. 3.]
[Sidenote: The Boers occupy Dundee.]
Late on the morning of the 23rd the Boers, after reconnoitring the camp and its vicinity as closely as they dared, opened once more from Impati with their heavy gun. The first shell burst in the hospital lines, and Major J. F. Donegan, the chief medical officer, who, fearing to prejudice General Yule's operations, had done nothing to inform the enemy that his marquees were the only inhabited tents, now determined to spare the wounded the horrors of further bombardment. Captain A. E. Milner was therefore sent with a white flag to ask that the fire should be stopped. Thereupon Erasmus' men, to whom news of Yule's evacuation was a complete surprise, filed down the mountain, and approached, not without caution. There was soon no room for doubt; Dundee had fallen, and Erasmus' prize was large in inverse proportion to the share he had taken in capturing it. No sooner was the absence of the British soldiers established beyond a doubt, than the burghers made haste to sack the camp and town. In a short time every tent, except those of the hospitals, which were scrupulously respected, was ransacked, and every shop turned inside out. Commandant-General Joubert now sent orders to Lukas Meyer to pursue Yule with a thousand men. Meyer did so, but marching late and slowly, failed to come up with the British.
[Sidenote: Night march Oct. 23rd Oct. 24th.]
At 11 p.m. Yule roused his men for a fresh effort. A hot day had given place to a bleak and bitter night. But though the road was steep and obstructed, and Van Tenders Pass plunged in profound gloom, the column, headed by the Dublin Fusiliers, marched punctually and well. By dawn the dangerous defile was safely threaded and the force debouched on to the broad veld which rolls about the southern buttresses of the Biggarsberg. At 6 a.m., October 24th, the vanguard was at the Waschbank river, some thirteen miles from Beith, and on its southern bank the troops were allowed to bivouac, the rearguard closing up at 10 a.m., after ten weary hours' marching.
[Sidenote: Yule, Oct. 24th, moves to sound of guns.]
As they halted, heavy and prolonged reports of artillery sounded from the westward. It was evident that Sir G. White was fighting an action upon the flank near Elandslaagte or Modder Spruit, and, in response to the urgent request of his senior officers, Yule determined to despatch at once a portion of his command to co-operate. Yule himself, though now almost prostrate with illness and fatigue, rode out westward at the head of the 67th and 69th field batteries, two squadrons 18th Hussars, and two companies M.I. The remainder of the troops were left by the Waschbank under command of Lieut.-Col. Carleton, Royal Irish Fusiliers, who took up a defensive position on the northern bank.
[Sidenote: Yule recrosses Waschbank Oct. 24th.]
Yule moved rapidly westwards over the shadeless tract lying between the Sunday's and Waschbank rivers. Nine miles his mounted men pressed towards the sound of the guns, but still the most advanced scouts saw nothing, and when, about 2 p.m., the noise of the firing, still far ahead, began to die away, he gave the order to retire to the Waschbank. His men were back in bivouac at 4 p.m. No sooner had the infantry from the height above filed over the muddy pools than a storm, which had been gathering all day in the terrible heat, burst, and cooled the sun-baked ground with a waterspout of rain. The Waschbank, which had all but perished in the drought, in less than an hour rose from three inches to a height of twelve feet of roaring water, thirty-five yards in breadth. The rearmost infantry plunged hurriedly across before it had attained its strength. A piquet of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and a patrol of the 18th Hussars, who had covered the passage, found themselves cut off, and remained long on the enemy's side of the river.
[Sidenote: Oct. 25 Yule gets touch with White.]
At 4 a.m. on the 25th the march was resumed along the southern and least direct of the two routes, which bifurcate at the Waschbank. At 8.30 a.m. the advance guard was at and over Sunday's river, seven miles further on, the rearguard crossing by the steep drift at noon, and here the column rested. At 1 p.m. it was on the move again, breasting the gentler ascent which swells upwards from the southern bank of the stream, and after covering some four and a half miles, was again halted at 3.45 p.m. upon the summit of a high ridge due north of Kankana Mountain. Here preparations were made to pass the night; the piquets went out, rations were distributed and cooked. At 5 p.m., however, a patrol of the 5th Lancers from Ladysmith rode up with orders from Sir G. White. Behind them a column under Lt.-Col. J. A. Coxhead, R.A., was on the way from Ladysmith to assist the Dundee detachment over the last stage. There were reports that the enemy was about to close in from every side. General Yule was to effect a junction with Coxhead at once, and to proceed without another check into Ladysmith.
[Footnote 101: The northern road had been reconnoitred and found to be without water.]
[Sidenote: Night march Oct. 25th-26th.]
At 6 p.m. began a night march of great distress and trouble. Soon after the advance guard moved off, a heavy downpour converted the road into a sea of semi-liquid mire, which the transport ploughed into waves and furrows. These, invisible in the black darkness, almost held down the soldiers plunging knee-deep into them. The teams of mules, exhausted by prolonged labour and insufficient food, impatient by nature of wet and darkness, strove with much suffering to drag the rocking wagons through the mud, and, as is their habit when overmastered by their load, threw themselves often in confusion athwart the track and enforced a halt. At 9 p.m. the whole of the transport stuck fast for more than two hours. The rearguard closed up, but the troops in front of the baggage, knowing nothing of its misfortunes, and travelling on a road not destroyed by its struggles, pushed on and left it. With great efforts it was set in motion again, but some half-dozen of the wagons, being imbedded hopelessly, had to be abandoned. Half a mile further the convoy was again in difficulties. From this point all cohesion was lost. Some of the wagons passed on, some remained; it was impossible for their escorts to tell which were derelict and which they must still consider as in their charge.
[Footnote 102: They were recovered next day.]
[Sidenote: Coxhead's relief column.]
Throughout the night Lieut.-Col. Coxhead, R.A., who had left Ladysmith at 9 a.m. on October 25th, lay waiting about a mile east of the Nek between Bulwana and Lombards Kop for the Dundee column to join hands with his own. With him were the 5th Lancers, half a battalion 2nd Gordon Highlanders, half a battalion 1st Manchester regiment, the 21st battery R.F.A., and a convoy containing two days' supplies, which General Yule had asked for, in a message despatched from the bivouac at the Waschbank river on the 24th. Coxhead immediately gained touch with Yule by means of his mounted troops, and learning that the food would not be required, sent the wagons back. All day the troops from Ladysmith remained on the Helpmakaar road. But night and torrents of rain fell together, and Coxhead's men bivouacked in discomfort only less than that of their comrades toiling towards them, still nine miles distant.
[Footnote 103: Or Umbulwana.]
[Sidenote: The retreat ends Oct 26th.]
At 3.30 a.m. on the 26th, just as the Ladysmith garrison was getting under arms, in case a sally to bring in Yule might after all be necessary, the foremost of the mounted men from Dundee rode up to Modder Spruit. An hour later the Leicestershire regiment and the King's Royal Rifles arrived, much exhausted, but in good order. After a brief halt they went on into the town, which they entered at 6 a.m. The other regiments, with the transport which had delayed them, coming up to Coxhead between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., halted for two hours, and had breakfast before pushing on.
[Sidenote: Cause of Rietfontein action, Oct. 24th.]
It is necessary now to revert to the action which had, on October 24th, been heard in the bivouac by the Waschbank, that action of which a ride of nine miles westward had failed to disclose either the purport or the scene. The arrival on the 23rd of Free State commandos upon the heights north and west of the railway had redoubled Sir G. White's already great anxiety for the safety of the retreat from Dundee. In reality, the presence of the Free State forces on the commanding ranges to the west of Elandslaagte was less dangerous than it appeared, for Yule was marching in greater obscurity than either he, or Sir G. White, imagined. When, indeed, on the morning of the 24th, the Free Staters saw troops issuing from Ladysmith, they believed them to be the combined forces of Generals White and Yule, though the latter was at the moment still actually upon the wrong side of the Waschbank. At still greater cross-purposes was Erasmus, who set off on the morning of the 24th, with so little hope of overtaking the retreat that he chose the only route by which it was impossible for him to do so, the main road west of the railway. Nevertheless, on the evening of the 25th, Erasmus' bivouac was near Elandslaagte, and the wisdom of Sir G. White's order for the instant continuance of the march of the column on that afternoon was manifested. Had that march not been executed, Yule, the action of Rietfontein notwithstanding, would have had the vanguard of Joubert's army upon his flank next day, when only operations from Ladysmith on the largest scale could have extricated him.
[Footnote 104: C. de Wet, "Three Years' War."]
[Sidenote: The Rietfontein position.]
Some seven miles north-east of Ladysmith, Rietfontein farmhouse lay by a branch of the Modder Spruit, south-west of a long, low ridge, which descended to the railway line in smooth and easy slopes dotted with ant-heaps, with on its forehead a sparse eyebrow of stones. Beyond the crest line, to the northward, the ground sank with a gentle sweep, broken only by two rough under-features jutting from the western extremity of the ridge, to rear itself again eight hundred yards beyond into a line of abrupt heights. The southernmost of these, called Intintanyoni, leaped up steeply from the hollow, and beyond and behind it stretched many leagues of rolling ground, with scarce a subsidence until they merged in the tumultuous billows of the Drakensberg. Two grassy pinnacles, nearly equal in height, flanked Intintanyoni. Of these the western looked across a deep and narrow gorge over to Nodashwana or Swaatbouys Kop, of a somewhat greater elevation, whilst below the eastern, deep re-entrants, both on the north and south, divided Intintanyoni from the magnificent curve of highlands, which terminated west of Elandslaagte in the wooded mass of Jonono's Kop.
[Footnote 105: See map No. 7.]
[Footnote 106: Also called Tintwa Inyoni.]
[Footnote 107: A freehand sketch of the position from Nodashwana to Jonono's Kop will be found in the case of maps accompanying this volume. Jonono's Kop is not shown in the plan of Rietfontein, no part of the battle having been near it.]
[Sidenote: The Boer occupation of it.]
East of the twin peaks of Intintanyoni various lesser eminences and hollow Neks completed the tempestuous irregularity of this singular feature, along whose crest six Free State commandos lay waiting for their first battle on the morning of October 24th. To the east, with patrols upon Jonono's Kop, lay the men of Bethlehem, Vrede, and Heilbron; about the eastern peak of Intintanyoni the Winburg commando held the ground, in charge of two pieces of artillery; on their right, occupying the rest of the mountain, the burghers of Kroonstad made ready; whilst those of Harrismith disposed themselves partly upon a supporting position in rear, and partly as piquets and observation posts on outlying kopjes, amongst others the lofty Nodashwana. Some 6,000 riflemen in all filled the six-mile line of heights. They were commanded by General A. P. Cronje, who had arrived only on this morning, the 24th, to replace de Villiers, who had been in temporary charge.
[Sidenote: Sir George marches out, Oct. 24th.]
Sir G. White moved out from Ladysmith at 5 a.m. with the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Imperial Light Horse, Natal Mounted Rifles, 42nd and 53rd batteries R.F.A., No. 10 Mountain battery R.G.A., 1st Liverpool, 1st Devon, 1st Gloucestershire regiments, and 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps, in all, some 5,300 officers and men, assuming himself the direction of an operation certain to be delicate, likely to be extremely dangerous. Moving up the Newcastle road from its rendezvous near the junction of the Free State railway, the force had proceeded six miles when the advanced screen of cavalry came under a dropping rifle fire at 7 a.m. from the heights on their left. Their action was prompt. Pushing rapidly across the Modder Spruit, a squadron of 5th Lancers, supported by two others, drove back at the gallop the small parties of Boers hovering in that neighbourhood, and themselves seized and held this advanced position. The remainder of the cavalry, stringing out along high ground dominating the western bank of the spruit, and facing more to the eastward, formed a strong flank guard towards Jonono's Kop. At 8 a.m., whilst fitful discharges of musketry rose and fell along the widely-extended line of troopers, the infantry had come up to Rietfontein. No sooner had they arrived at a point on the road some five hundred yards east of the Modder Spruit, than a loud report broke from the eastern peak of Intintanyoni, and a shell, bursting on impact, fell into the head of the column. Thereupon the British artillery wheeled out from the route, and in line of batteries trotted towards a level crossing over the railway, some six hundred yards west of the road. Arrived at this defile, and forming column inwards to traverse it, the first gun had scarcely passed the rails, when both the Boer guns on the high green rampart ahead opened upon the point, which had been taken as one of their range marks. Five hundred yards beyond it the artillery deployed behind a rise. The second round from the 53rd battery, fused at 3,600 yards, burst full upon one of the Boer pieces, and the gunners of both weapons fled. After a few more rounds the 53rd limbered up and prepared to advance.
[Sidenote: The infantry seize ridge facing hill.]
The infantry were already over the railway, and moving forward--Gloucester regiment on the left, Liverpool regiment on the right--up the gentle but protected slope, swelling to the summit of the low ridge of Rietfontein. The 1st Devonshire regiment, in support, lay at the base, whilst the 2nd King's Royal Rifles remained in rear in charge of the baggage. On the appearance of the leading companies upon the crest, firing broke out from the whole length of the crest of Intintanyoni, to which the British infantry, lying prone, soon replied as vigorously. Of the artillery, the 42nd battery was quickly in action near the centre of the front, whilst the 53rd unlimbered some six hundred yards to the left, and began shelling a rocky underfeature of Intintanyoni, at a range of 1,500 yards. Sharp musketry assailed them. Then the 42nd battery, being ordered further to the left, passed behind the 53rd and the 10th Mountain battery, which had come into line on the left of the 53rd, and opened 1,900 yards from the summit of Intintanyoni. Thus began a severe fire fight at ranges varying from one to two thousand yards. Especially was it hotly contested where the Gloucester on the left of the British opposed the 1,400 Kroonstad men, who, under Nel, maintained the Boer right. Heavy exchanges of rifle fire swept across the valley in this part, and in spite of the steady practice of the artillery, it became necessary to reinforce the attackers. For this purpose the Devonshire regiment was pushed up on the left of the Gloucester, half the King's Royal Rifles coming from the baggage train to fill its place in support.
[Sidenote: An untoward incident.]
Sir G. White had all but accomplished his purpose, that of intervening between the Free State commandos and Yule's line of march, when one of those accidents of war, inexplicable because of the death of those who alone could explain them, largely increased his hitherto insignificant losses. Shortly before midday Colonel E. P. Wilford, commanding the 1st Gloucestershire, taking a company of his battalion and the regimental Maxim gun, dashed out of cover down the open slope as if to assault. Another half company of the battalion moved on ahead to cut a wire fence which obstructed the front. The Boers, who for a time had lain quiet under the shrapnel, which searched their position from end to end, at once opened a fierce fusilade. Colonel Wilford was shot dead, and his men fell rapidly, the detachment finally halting upon a low ridge beneath Intintanyoni. Further advance was impossible. Only with difficulty could both the Gloucestershire and "D." squadron I.L.H., which had joined in the attack, be withdrawn. Fortunately, as the attempt was promptly ordered to cease, though many had been wounded, only six were killed in the adventure. Meanwhile the shooting over their heads had been continuous. The enemy, encouraged by this event, and by the immobility of Sir G. White's line of battle, which they imagined to be awed from its purpose by their resistance, still clung to their fastness, and maintained a heavy though spasmodic fire. More than once the gunners of the still uninjured piece beneath the eastern peak made efforts to drag it forward into action, but the British artillerymen watched the spot narrowly, and each attempt was blown back by shrapnel, under which Intintanyoni burst into flames. Many of the Boer ponies herded in rear, terrified by the blaze, stampeded. Then, up on Nodashwana, amongst the Harrismith men, a stir was descried which seemed to threaten an outflanking manoeuvre against the British left. Sir G. White, anxious for his communications with Ladysmith, promptly countered the movement by calling the Natal Mounted Rifles across from his right, and sending them on in front of his left flank. The Colonial riflemen went with such skill into the maze of broken ground below the mountain, that they not only succeeded in outflanking the outflankers, but actually drove by enfilade fire all of the Kroonstad commando, who were upon the right of Intintanyoni, far back across the hill to where the Winburgers lay at the eastern extremity. All danger ceased definitely on this side when two guns of the 42nd battery, turning towards the ridges of Nodashwana, in a few moments cleared it of the enemy, and converted it also into a huge bonfire of blazing grass. At 1.30 p.m. the Boer fire had dwindled all along the main ridge, and an hour later it ceased altogether. Only from the far right came the sound of musketry from the cavalry still fencing with scattered detachments of the Heilbron, Vrede and Bethlehem burghers, who clung to them pertinaciously.
[Footnote 108: The situation at this time is depicted on map No. 7.]
[Sidenote: Return to Ladysmith.]
At 3 p.m. Sir G. White gave the order for a general retirement. His object was accomplished, with the not undue loss of 114 casualties. Yule was now safe for that day, and he believed the Free State army to have suffered severely enough to keep it inactive on the next, when he intended to assist the Dundee column by other means. But the Boers watched the withdrawal of the British troops with very little despondency. Unaware of the true situation of the Dundee column, they misunderstood operations designed to keep them from it. The demonstration against Intintanyoni seemed to them nothing less than a serious attempt to drive them from their hold, and the retreat of the British to be that of a baffled army. Thus, ignorant of their strategical defeat, they rejoiced at what seemed a tactical victory. Moreover, their losses had been small. The cavalry alone, now called upon to protect the rear--as all day they had covered the right--had difficulty in returning. For some distance they had to maintain a running fire fight, and it was nearly 7 p.m. before the rearmost troopers entered Ladysmith, which the head of the infantry column had reached two hours and a half earlier.
[Footnote 109: 13 killed, 31 wounded.]
[Footnote 110: For detailed casualties, see Appendix 6.]