The Great Boer War
Артур Конан Дойл

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Lord Methuen, in congratulating the troops upon their achievement, spoke of 'the hardest-won victory in our annals of war,' and some such phrase was used in his official despatch. It is hypercritical, no doubt, to look too closely at a term used by a wounded man with the flush of battle still upon him, but still a student of military history must smile at such a comparison between this action and such others as Albuera or Inkerman, where the numbers of British engaged were not dissimilar. A fight in which five hundred men are killed and wounded cannot be classed in the same category as those stern and desperate encounters where more of the victors were carried than walked from the field of battle. And yet there were some special features which will differentiate the fight at Modder River from any of the hundred actions which adorn the standards of our regiments. It was the third battle which the troops had fought within the week, they were under fire for ten or twelve hours, were waterless under a tropical sun, and weak from want of food. For the first time they were called upon to face modern rifle fire and modern machine guns in the open. The result tends to prove that those who hold that it will from now onwards be impossible ever to make such frontal attacks as those which the English made at the Alma or the French at Waterloo, are justified in their belief. It is beyond human hardihood to face the pitiless beat of bullet and shell which comes from modern quick-firing weapons. Had our flank not made a lodgment across the river, it is impossible that we could have carried the position. Once more, too, it was demonstrated how powerless the best artillery is to disperse resolute and well-placed riflemen. Of the minor points of interest there will always remain the record of the forced march of the 62nd Battery, and artillerymen will note the use of gun-pits by the Boers, which ensured that the range of their positions should never be permanently obtained.

The honours of the day upon the side of the British rested with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 2nd Coldstreams, and the artillery. Out of a total casualty list of about 450, no fewer than 112 came from the gallant Argylls and 69 from the Coldstreams. The loss of the Boers is exceedingly difficult to gauge, as they throughout the war took the utmost pains to conceal it. The number of desperate and long-drawn actions which have ended, according to the official Pretorian account, in a loss of one wounded burgher may in some way be better policy, but does not imply a higher standard of public virtue, than those long lists which have saddened our hearts in the halls of the War Office. What is certain is that the loss at Modder River could not have been far inferior to our own, and that it arose almost entirely from artillery fire, since at no time of the action were any large number of their riflemen visible. So it ended, this long pelting match, Cronje sullenly withdrawing under the cover of darkness with his resolute heart filled with fierce determination for the future, while the British soldiers threw themselves down on the ground which they occupied and slept the sleep of exhaustion.

Chapter 9. Battle of Magersfontein

Lord Methuen's force had now fought three actions in the space of a single week, losing in killed and wounded about a thousand men, or rather more than one-tenth of its total numbers. Had there been evidence that the enemy were seriously demoralised, the General would no doubt have pushed on at once to Kimberley, which was some twenty miles distant. The information which reached him was, however, that the Boers had fallen back upon the very strong position of Spytfontein, that they were full of fight, and that they had been strongly reinforced by a commando from Mafeking. Under these circumstances Lord Methuen had no choice but to give his men a well-earned rest, and to await reinforcements. There was no use in reaching Kimberley unless he had completely defeated the investing force. With the history of the first relief of Lucknow in his memory he was on his guard against a repetition of such an experience.

It was the more necessary that Methuen should strengthen his position, since with every mile which he advanced the more exposed did his line of communications become to a raid from Fauresmith and the southern districts of the Orange Free State. Any serious danger to the railway behind them would leave the British Army in a very critical position, and precautions were taken for the protection of the more vulnerable portions of the line. It was well that this was so, for on the 8th of December Commandant Prinsloo, of the Orange Free State, with a thousand horsemen and two light seven-pounder guns, appeared suddenly at Enslin and vigorously attacked the two companies of the Northampton Regiment who held the station. At the same time they destroyed a couple of culverts and tore up three hundred yards of the permanent way. For some hours the Northamptons under Captain Godley were closely pressed, but a telegram had been despatched to Modder Camp, and the 12th Lancers with the ubiquitous 62nd Battery were sent to their assistance. The Boers retired with their usual mobility, and in ten hours the line was completely restored.

Reinforcements were now reaching the Modder River force, which made it more formidable than when it had started. A very essential addition was that of the 12th Lancers and of G battery of Horse Artillery, which would increase the mobility of the force and make it possible for the General to follow up a blow after he had struck it. The magnificent regiments which formed the Highland Brigade – the 2nd Black Watch, the 1st Gordons, the 2nd Seaforths, and the 1st Highland Light Infantry had arrived under the gallant and ill-fated Wauchope. Four five-inch howitzers had also come to strengthen the artillery. At the same time the Canadians, the Australians, and several line regiments were moved up on the line from De Aar to Belmont. It appeared to the public at home that there was the material for an overwhelming advance; but the ordinary observer, and even perhaps the military critic, had not yet appreciated how great is the advantage which is given by modern weapons to the force which acts upon the defensive. With enormous pains Cronje and De la Rey were entrenching a most formidable position in front of our advance, with a confidence, which proved to be justified that it would be on their own ground and under their own conditions that in this, as in the three preceding actions, we should engage them.

On the morning of Saturday, December 9th, the British General made an attempt to find out what lay in front of him amid that semicircle of forbidding hills. To this end he sent out a reconnaissance in the early morning, which included G Battery Horse Artillery, the 9th Lancers, and the ponderous 4.7 naval gun, which, preceded by the majestic march of thirty-two bullocks and attended by eighty seamen gunners, creaked forwards over the plain. What was there to shoot at in those sunlit boulder-strewn hills in front? They lay silent and untenanted in the glare of the African day. In vain the great gun exploded its huge shell with its fifty pounds of lyddite over the ridges, in vain the smaller pieces searched every cleft and hollow with their shrapnel. No answer came from the far-stretching hills. Not a flash or twinkle betrayed the fierce bands who lurked among the boulders. The force returned to camp no wiser than when it left.

There was one sight visible every night to all men which might well nerve the rescuers in their enterprise. Over the northern horizon, behind those hills of danger, there quivered up in the darkness one long, flashing, quivering beam, which swung up and down, and up again like a seraphic sword-blade. It was Kimberley praying for help, Kimberley solicitous for news. Anxiously, distractedly, the great De Beers searchlight dipped and rose. And back across the twenty miles of darkness, over the hills where Cronje lurked, there came that other southern column of light which answered, and promised, and soothed. 'Be of good heart, Kimberley. We are here! The Empire is behind us. We have not forgotten you. It may be days, or it may be weeks, but rest assured that we are coming.'

About three in the afternoon of Sunday, December 10th, the force which was intended to clear a path for the army through the lines of Magersfontein moved out upon what proved to be its desperate enterprise. The 3rd or Highland Brigade included the Black Watch, the Seaforths, the Argyll and Sutherlands, and the Highland Light Infantry. The Gordons had only arrived in camp that day, and did not advance until next morning. Besides the infantry, the 9th Lancers, the mounted infantry, and all the artillery moved to the front. It was raining hard, and the men with one blanket between two soldiers bivouacked upon the cold damp ground, about three miles from the enemy's position. At one o'clock, without food, and drenched, they moved forwards through the drizzle and the darkness to attack those terrible lines. Major Benson, R.A., with two of Rimington's scouts, led them on their difficult way.

Clouds drifted low in the heavens, and the falling rain made the darkness more impenetrable. The Highland Brigade was formed into a column – the Black Watch in front, then the Seaforths, and the other two behind. To prevent the men from straggling in the night the four regiments were packed into a mass of quarter column as densely as was possible, and the left guides held a rope in order to preserve the formation. With many a trip and stumble the ill-fated detachment wandered on, uncertain where they were going and what it was that they were meant to do. Not only among the rank and file, but among the principal officers also, there was the same absolute ignorance. Brigadier Wauchope knew, no doubt, but his voice was soon to be stilled in death. The others were aware, of course, that they were advancing either to turn the enemy's trenches or to attack them, but they may well have argued from their own formation that they could not be near the riflemen yet. Why they should be still advancing in that dense clump we do not now know, nor can we surmise what thoughts were passing through the mind of the gallant and experienced chieftain who walked beside them. There are some who claim on the night before to have seen upon his strangely ascetic face that shadow of doom which is summed up in the one word 'fey.' The hand of coming death may already have lain cold upon his soul. Out there, close beside him, stretched the long trench, fringed with its line of fierce, staring, eager faces, and its bristle of gun-barrels. They knew he was coming. They were ready. They were waiting. But still, with the dull murmur of many feet, the dense column, nearly four thousand strong, wandered onwards through the rain and the darkness, death and mutilation crouching upon their path.

It matters not what gave the signal, whether it was the flashing of a lantern by a Boer scout, or the tripping of a soldier over wire, or the firing of a gun in the ranks. It may have been any, or it may have been none, of these things. As a matter of fact I have been assured by a Boer who was present that it was the sound of the tins attached to the alarm wires which disturbed them. However this may be, in an instant there crashed out of the darkness into their faces and ears a roar of point-blank fire, and the night was slashed across with the throbbing flame of the rifles. At the moment before this outflame some doubt as to their whereabouts seems to have flashed across the mind of their leaders. The order to extend had just been given, but the men had not had time to act upon it. The storm of lead burst upon the head and right flank of the column, which broke to pieces under the murderous volley. Wauchope was shot, struggled up, and fell once more for ever. Rumour has placed words of reproach upon his dying lips, but his nature, both gentle and soldierly, forbids the supposition. 'What a pity!' was the only utterance which a brother Highlander ascribes to him. Men went down in swathes, and a howl of rage and agony, heard afar over the veld, swelled up from the frantic and struggling crowd. By the hundred they dropped – some dead, some wounded, some knocked down by the rush and sway of the broken ranks. It was a horrible business. At such a range and in such a formation a single Mauser bullet may well pass through many men. A few dashed forwards, and were found dead at the very edges of the trench. The few survivors of companies A, B, and C of the Black Watch appear to have never actually retired, but to have clung on to the immediate front of the Boer trenches, while the remains of the other five companies tried to turn the Boer flank. Of the former body only six got away unhurt in the evening after lying all day within two hundred yards of the enemy. The rest of the brigade broke and, disentangling themselves with difficulty from the dead and the dying, fled back out of that accursed place. Some, the most unfortunate of all, became caught in the darkness in the wire defences, and were found in the morning hung up 'like crows,' as one spectator describes it, and riddled with bullets.

Who shall blame the Highlanders for retiring when they did? Viewed, not by desperate and surprised men, but in all calmness and sanity, it may well seem to have been the very best thing which they could do. Dashed into chaos, separated from their officers, with no one who knew what was to be done, the first necessity was to gain shelter from this deadly fire, which had already stretched six hundred of their number upon the ground. The danger was that men so shaken would be stricken with panic, scatter in the darkness over the face of the country, and cease to exist as a military unit. But the Highlanders were true to their character and their traditions. There was shouting in the darkness, hoarse voices calling for the Seaforths, for the Argylls, for Company C, for Company H, and everywhere in the gloom there came the answer of the clansmen. Within half an hour with the break of day the Highland regiments had re-formed, and, shattered and weakened, but undaunted, prepared to renew the contest. Some attempt at an advance was made upon the right, ebbing and flowing, one little band even reaching the trenches and coming back with prisoners and reddened bayonets. For the most part the men lay upon their faces, and fired when they could at the enemy; but the cover which the latter kept was so excellent that an officer who expended 120 rounds has left it upon record that he never once had seen anything positive at which to aim. Lieutenant Lindsay brought the Seaforths' Maxim into the firing-line, and, though all her crew except two were hit, it continued to do good service during the day. The Lancers' Maxim was equally staunch, though it also was left finally with only the lieutenant in charge and one trooper to work it.

Fortunately the guns were at hand, and, as usual, they were quick to come to the aid of the distressed. The sun was hardly up before the howitzers were throwing lyddite at 4000 yards, the three field batteries (18th, 62nd, 75th) were working with shrapnel at a mile, and the troop of Horse Artillery was up at the right front trying to enfilade the trenches. The guns kept down the rifle-fire, and gave the wearied Highlanders some respite from their troubles. The whole situation had resolved itself now into another Battle of Modder River. The infantry, under a fire at from six hundred to eight hundred paces, could not advance and would not retire. The artillery only kept the battle going, and the huge naval gun from behind was joining with its deep bark in the deafening uproar. But the Boers had already learned – and it is one of their most valuable military qualities that they assimilate their experience so quickly – that shell fire is less dangerous in a trench than among rocks. These trenches, very elaborate in character, had been dug some hundreds of yards from the foot of the hills, so that there was hardly any guide to our artillery fire. Yet it is to the artillery fire that all the losses of the Boers that day were due. The cleverness of Cronje's disposition of his trenches some hundred yards ahead of the kopjes is accentuated by the fascination which any rising object has for a gunner. Prince Kraft tells the story of how at Sadowa he unlimbered his guns two hundred yards in front of the church of Chlum, and how the Austrian reply fire almost invariably pitched upon the steeple. So our own gunners, even at a two thousand-yard mark, found it difficult to avoid overshooting the invisible line, and hitting the obvious mark behind.

As the day wore on reinforcements of infantry came up from the force which had been left to guard the camp. The Gordons arrived with the first and second battalions of the Coldstream Guards, and all the artillery was moved nearer to the enemy's position. At the same time, as there were some indications of an attack upon our right flank, the Grenadier Guards with five companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry were moved up in that direction, while the three remaining companies of Barter's Yorkshiremen secured a drift over which the enemy might cross the Modder. This threatening movement upon our right flank, which would have put the Highlanders into an impossible position had it succeeded, was most gallantly held back all morning, before the arrival of the Guards and the Yorkshires, by the mounted infantry and the 12th Lancers, skirmishing on foot. It was in this long and successful struggle to cover the flank of the 3rd Brigade that Major Milton, Major Ray, and many another brave man met his end. The Coldstreams and Grenadiers relieved the pressure upon this side, and the Lancers retired to their horses, having shown, not for the first time, that the cavalryman with a modern carbine can at a pinch very quickly turn himself into a useful infantry soldier. Lord Airlie deserves all praise for his unconventional use of his men, and for the gallantry with which he threw both himself and them into the most critical corner of the fight.

While the Coldstreams, the Grenadiers, and the Yorkshire Light Infantry were holding back the Boer attack upon our right flank the indomitable Gordons, the men of Dargai, furious with the desire to avenge their comrades of the Highland Brigade, had advanced straight against the trenches and succeeded without any very great loss in getting within four hundred yards of them. But a single regiment could not carry the position, and anything like a general advance upon it was out of the question in broad daylight after the punishment which we had received. Any plans of the sort which may have passed through Lord Methuen's mind were driven away for ever by the sudden unordered retreat of the stricken brigade. They had been very roughly handled in this, which was to most of them their baptism of fire, and they had been without food and water under a burning sun all day. They fell back rapidly for a mile, and the guns were for a time left partially exposed. Fortunately the lack of initiative on the part of the Boers which has stood our friend so often came in to save us from disaster and humiliation. It is due to the brave unshaken face which the Guards presented to the enemy that our repulse did not deepen into something still more serious.

The Gordons and the Scots Guards were still in attendance upon the guns, but they had been advanced very close to the enemy's trenches, and there were no other troops in support. Under these circumstances it was imperative that the Highlanders should rally, and Major Ewart with other surviving officers rushed among the scattered ranks and strove hard to gather and to stiffen them. The men were dazed by what they had undergone, and Nature shrank back from that deadly zone where the bullets fell so thickly. But the pipes blew, and the bugles sang, and the poor tired fellows, the backs of their legs so flayed and blistered by lying in the sun that they could hardly bend them, hobbled back to their duty. They worked up to the guns once more, and the moment of danger passed.

But as the evening wore on it became evident that no attack could succeed, and that therefore there was no use in holding the men in front of the enemy's position. The dark Cronje, lurking among his ditches and his barbed wire, was not to be approached, far less defeated. There are some who think that, had we held on there as we did at the Modder River, the enemy would again have been accommodating enough to make way for us during the night, and the morning would have found the road clear to Kimberley. I know no grounds for such an opinion – but several against it. At Modder Cronje abandoned his lines, knowing that he had other and stronger ones behind him. At Magersfontein a level plain lay behind the Boer position, and to abandon it was to give up the game altogether. Besides, why should he abandon it? He knew that he had hit us hard. We had made absolutely no impression upon his defences. Is it likely that he would have tamely given up all his advantages and surrendered the fruits of his victory without a struggle? It is enough to mourn a defeat without the additional agony of thinking that a little more perseverance might have turned it into a victory. The Boer position could only be taken by outflanking it, and we were not numerous enough nor mobile enough to outflank it. There lay the whole secret of our troubles, and no conjectures as to what might under other circumstances have happened can alter it.

About half-past five the Boer guns, which had for some unexplained reason been silent all day, opened upon the cavalry. Their appearance was a signal for the general falling back of the centre, and the last attempt to retrieve the day was abandoned. The Highlanders were dead-beat; the Coldstreams had had enough; the mounted infantry was badly mauled. There remained the Grenadiers, the Scots Guards, and two or three line regiments who were available for a new attack. There are occasions, such as Sadowa, where a General must play his last card. There are others where with reinforcements in his rear, he can do better by saving his force and trying once again. General Grant had an axiom that the best time for an advance was when you were utterly exhausted, for that was the moment when your enemy was probably utterly exhausted too, and of two such forces the attacker has the moral advantage. Lord Methuen determined – and no doubt wisely – that it was no occasion for counsels of desperation. His men were withdrawn – in some cases withdrew themselves – outside the range of the Boer guns, and next morning saw the whole force with bitter and humiliated hearts on their way back to their camp at Modder River.

The repulse of Magersfontein cost the British nearly a thousand men, killed, wounded, and missing, of which over seven hundred belonged to the Highlanders. Fifty-seven officers had fallen in that brigade alone, including their Brigadier and Colonel Downman of the Gordons. Colonel Codrington of the Coldstreams was wounded early, fought through the action, and came back in the evening on a Maxim gun. Lord Winchester of the same battalion was killed, after injudiciously but heroically exposing himself all day. The Black Watch alone had lost nineteen officers and over three hundred men killed and wounded, a catastrophe which can only be matched in all the bloody and glorious annals of that splendid regiment by their slaughter at Ticonderoga in 1757, when no fewer than five hundred fell before Montcalm's muskets. Never has Scotland had a more grievous day than this of Magersfontein. She has always given her best blood with lavish generosity for the Empire, but it may be doubted if any single battle has ever put so many families of high and low into mourning from the Tweed to the Caithness shore. There is a legend that when sorrow comes upon Scotland the old Edinburgh Castle is lit by ghostly lights and gleams white at every window in the mirk of midnight. If ever the watcher could have seen so sinister a sight, it should have been on this, the fatal night of December 11, 1899. As to the Boer loss it is impossible to determine it. Their official returns stated it to be seventy killed and two hundred and fifty wounded, but the reports of prisoners and deserters placed it at a very much higher figure. One unit, the Scandinavian corps, was placed in an advanced position at Spytfontein, and was overwhelmed by the Seaforths, who killed, wounded, or took the eighty men of whom it was composed. The stories of prisoners and of deserters all speak of losses very much higher than those which have been officially acknowledged.

In his comments upon the battle next day Lord Methuen was said to have given offence to the Highland Brigade, and the report was allowed to go uncontradicted until it became generally accepted. It arose, however, from a complete misunderstanding of the purport of Lord Methuen's remarks, in which he praised them, as he well might, for their bravery, and condoled with them over the wreck of their splendid regiments. The way in which officers and men hung on under conditions to which no troops have ever been exposed was worthy of the highest traditions of the British army. From the death of Wauchope in the early morning, until the assumption of the command of the brigade by Hughes-Hallett in the late afternoon, no one seems to have taken the direction. 'My lieutenant was wounded and my captain was killed,' says a private. 'The General was dead, but we stayed where we were, for there was no order to retire.' That was the story of the whole brigade, until the flanking movement of the Boers compelled them to fall back.

The most striking lesson of the engagement is the extreme bloodiness of modern warfare under some conditions, and its bloodlessness under others. Here, out of a total of something under a thousand casualties seven hundred were incurred in about five minutes, and the whole day of shell, machine-gun, and rifle fire only furnished the odd three hundred. So also at Ladysmith the British forces (White's column) were under heavy fire from 5.30 to 11.30, and the loss again was something under three hundred. With conservative generalship the losses of the battles of the future will be much less than those of the past, and as a consequence the battles themselves will last much longer, and it will be the most enduring rather than the most fiery which will win. The supply of food and water to the combatants will become of extreme importance to keep them up during the prolonged trials of endurance, which will last for weeks rather than days. On the other hand, when a General's force is badly compromised, it will be so punished that a quick surrender will be the only alternative to annihilation.

On the subject of the quarter-column formation which proved so fatal to us, it must be remembered that any other form of advance is hardly possible during a night attack, though at Tel-el-Kebir the exceptional circumstance of the march being over an open desert allowed the troops to move for the last mile or two in a more extended formation. A line of battalion double-company columns is most difficult to preserve in the darkness, and any confusion may lead to disaster. The whole mistake lay in a miscalculation of a few hundred yards in the position of the trenches. Had the regiments deployed five minutes earlier it is probable (though by no means certain) that the position would have been carried.

The action was not without those examples of military virtue which soften a disaster, and hold out a brighter promise for the future. The Guards withdrew from the field as if on parade, with the Boer shells bursting over their ranks. Fine, too, was the restraint of G Battery of Horse Artillery on the morning after the battle. An armistice was understood to exist, but the naval gun, in ignorance of it, opened on our extreme left. The Boers at once opened fire upon the Horse Artillery, who, recognising the mistake, remained motionless and unlimbered in a line, with every horse, and gunner and driver in his place, without taking any notice of the fire, which presently slackened and stopped as the enemy came to understand the situation. It is worthy of remark that in this battle the three field batteries engaged, as well as G Battery, R.H.A., each fired over 1000 rounds and remained for 30 consecutive hours within 1500 yards of the Boer position.

But of all the corps who deserve praise, there was none more gallant than the brave surgeons and ambulance bearers, who encounter all the dangers and enjoy none of the thrills of warfare. All day under fire these men worked and toiled among the wounded. Beevor, Ensor, Douglas, Probyn – all were equally devoted. It is almost incredible, and yet it is true, that by ten o'clock on the morning after the battle, before the troops had returned to camp, no fewer than five hundred wounded were in the train and on their way to Cape Town.

Chapter 10. The battle of Stormberg

Some attempt has now been made to sketch the succession of events which had ended in the investment of Ladysmith in northern Natal, and also to show the fortunes of the force which on the western side of the seat of war attempted to advance to the relief of Kimberley. The distance between these forces may be expressed in terms familiar to the European reader by saying that it was that which separates Paris from Frankfort, or to the American by suggesting that Ladysmith was at Boston and that Methuen was trying to relieve Philadelphia. Waterless deserts and rugged mountain ranges divided the two scenes of action. In the case of the British there could be no connection between the two movements, but the Boers by a land journey of something over a hundred miles had a double choice of a route by which Cronje and Joubert might join hands, either by the Bloemfontein-Johannesburg-Laing's Nek Railway, or by the direct line from Harrismith to Ladysmith. The possession of these internal lines should have been of enormous benefit to the Boers, enabling them to throw the weight of their forces unexpectedly from the one flank to the other.

In a future chapter it will be recorded how the Army Corps arriving from England was largely diverted into Natal in order in the first instance to prevent the colony from being overrun, and in the second to rescue the beleaguered garrison. In the meantime it is necessary to deal with the military operations in the broad space between the eastern and western armies.

After the declaration of war there was a period of some weeks during which the position of the British over the whole of the northern part of Cape Colony was full of danger. Immense supplies had been gathered at De Aar which were at the mercy of a Free State raid, and the burghers, had they possessed a cavalry leader with the dash of a Stuart or a Sheridan, might have dealt a blow which would have cost us a million pounds' worth of stores and dislocated the whole plan of campaign. However, the chance was allowed to pass, and when, on November 1st, the burghers at last in a leisurely fashion sauntered over the frontier, arrangements had been made by reinforcement and by concentration to guard the vital points. The objects of the British leaders, until the time for a general advance should come, were to hold the Orange River Bridge (which opened the way to Kimberley), to cover De Aar Junction, where the stores were, to protect at all costs the line of railway which led from Cape Town to Kimberley, and to hold on to as much as possible of those other two lines of railway which led, the one through Colesberg and the other through Stormberg, into the Free State. The two bodies of invaders who entered the colony moved along the line of these two railways, the one crossing the Orange River at Norval's Pont and the other at Bethulie. They enlisted many recruits among the Cape Colony Dutch as they advanced, and the scanty British forces fell back in front of them, abandoning Colesberg on the one line and Stormberg on the other. We have, then, to deal with the movements of two British detachments. The one which operated on the Colesberg line – which was the more vital of the two, as a rapid advance of the Boers upon that line would have threatened the precious Cape Town to Kimberley connection – consisted almost entirely of mounted troops, and was under the command of the same General French who had won the battle of Elandslaagte. By an act of foresight which was only too rare upon the British side in the earlier stages of this war, French, who had in the recent large manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain shown great ability as a cavalry leader, was sent out of Ladysmith in the very last train which made its way through. His operations, with his instructive use of cavalry and horse artillery, may be treated separately.

The other British force which faced the Boers who were advancing through Stormberg was commanded by General Gatacre, a man who bore a high reputation for fearlessness and tireless energy, though he had been criticised, notably during the Soudan campaign, for having called upon his men for undue and unnecessary exertion. 'General Back-acher' they called him, with rough soldierly chaff. A glance at his long thin figure, his gaunt Don Quixote face, and his aggressive jaw would show his personal energy, but might not satisfy the observer that he possessed those intellectual gifts which qualify for high command. At the action of the Atbara he, the brigadier in command, was the first to reach and to tear down with his own hands the zareeba of the enemy – a gallant exploit of the soldier, but a questionable position for the General. The man's strength and his weakness lay in the incident.

General Gatacre was nominally in command of a division, but so cruelly had his men been diverted from him, some to Buller in Natal and some to Methuen, that he could not assemble more than a brigade. Falling back before the Boer advance, he found himself early in December at Sterkstroom, while the Boers occupied the very strong position of Stormberg, some thirty miles to the north of him. With the enemy so near him it was Gatacre's nature to attack, and the moment that he thought himself strong enough he did so. No doubt he had private information as to the dangerous hold which the Boers were getting upon the colonial Dutch, and it is possible that while Buller and Methuen were attacking east and west they urged Gatacre to do something to hold the enemy in the centre. On the night of December 9th he advanced.

The fact that he was about to do so, and even the hour of the start, appear to have been the common property of the camp some days before the actual move. The 'Times' correspondent under the date December 7th details all that it is intended to do. It is to the credit of our Generals as men, but to their detriment as soldiers, that they seem throughout the campaign to have shown extraordinarily little power of dissimulation. They did the obvious, and usually allowed it to be obvious what they were about to do. One thinks of Napoleon striking at Egypt; how he gave it abroad that the real object of the expedition was Ireland, but breathed into the ears of one or two intimates that in very truth it was bound for Genoa. The leading official at Toulon had no more idea where the fleet and army of France had gone than the humblest caulker in the yard. However, it is not fair to expect the subtlety of the Corsican from the downright Saxon, but it remains strange and deplorable that in a country filled with spies any one should have known in advance that a so-called 'surprise' was about to be attempted.

The force with which General Gatacre advanced consisted of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, 960 strong, with one Maxim; the 2nd Irish Rifles, 840 strong, with one Maxim, and 250 Mounted Infantry. There were two batteries of Field Artillery, the 74th and 77th. The total force was well under 3000 men. About three in the afternoon the men were entrained in open trucks under a burning sun, and for some reason, at which the impetuous spirit of the General must have chafed, were kept waiting for three hours. At eight o'clock they detrained at Molteno, and thence after a short rest and a meal they started upon the night march which was intended to end at the break of day at the Boer trenches. One feels as if one were describing the operations of Magersfontein once again and the parallel continues to be painfully exact.

It was nine o'clock and pitch dark when the column moved out of Molteno and struck across the black gloom of the veld, the wheels of the guns being wrapped in hide to deaden the rattle. It was known that the distance was not more than ten miles, and so when hour followed hour and the guides were still unable to say that they had reached their point it must have become perfectly evident that they had missed their way. The men were dog-tired, a long day's work had been followed by a long night's march, and they plodded along drowsily through the darkness. The ground was broken and irregular. The weary soldiers stumbled as they marched. Daylight came and revealed the column still looking for its objective, the fiery General walking in front and leading his horse behind him. It was evident that his plans had miscarried, but his energetic and hardy temperament would not permit him to turn back without a blow being struck. However one may commend his energy, one cannot but stand aghast at his dispositions. The country was wild and rocky, the very places for those tactics of the surprise and the ambuscade in which the Boers excelled. And yet the column still plodded aimlessly on in its dense formation, and if there were any attempt at scouting ahead and on the flanks the result showed how ineffectively it was carried out. It was at a quarter past four in the clear light of a South African morning that a shot, and then another, and then a rolling crash of musketry, told that we were to have one more rough lesson of the result of neglecting the usual precautions of warfare. High up on the face of a steep line of hill the Boer riflemen lay hid, and from a short range their fire scourged our exposed flank. The men appear to have been chiefly colonial rebels, and not Boers of the backveld, and to that happy chance it may be that the comparative harmlessness of their fire was due. Even now, in spite of the surprise, the situation might have been saved had the bewildered troops and their harried officers known exactly what to do. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it appears now that the only course that could commend itself would be to extricate the troops from their position, and then, if thought feasible, to plan an attack. Instead of this a rush was made at the hillside, and the infantry made their way some distance up it only to find that there were positive ledges in front of them which could not be climbed. The advance was at a dead stop, and the men lay down under the boulders for cover from the hot fire which came from inaccessible marksmen above them. Meanwhile the artillery had opened behind them, and their fire (not for the first time in this campaign) was more deadly to their friends than to their foes. At least one prominent officer fell among his men, torn by British shrapnel bullets. Talana Hill and Modder River have shown also, though perhaps in a less tragic degree, that what with the long range of modern artillery fire, and what with the difficulty of locating infantry who are using smokeless powder, it is necessary that officers commanding batteries should be provided with the coolest heads and the most powerful glasses of any men in the service, for a responsibility which will become more and more terrific rests upon their judgment.

The question now, since the assault had failed, was how to extricate the men from their position. Many withdrew down the hill, running the gauntlet of the enemy's fire as they emerged from the boulders on to the open ground, while others clung to their positions, some from a soldierly hope that victory might finally incline to them, others because it was clearly safer to lie among the rocks than to cross the bullet-swept spaces beyond. Those portions of the force who extricated themselves do not appear to have realised how many of their comrades had remained behind, and so as the gap gradually increased between the men who were stationary and the men who fell back all hope of the two bodies reuniting became impossible. All the infantry who remained upon the hillside were captured. The rest rallied at a point fifteen hundred yards from the scene of the surprise, and began an orderly retreat to Molteno.

In the meanwhile three powerful Boer guns upon the ridge had opened fire with great accuracy, but fortunately with defective shells. Had the enemy's contractors been as trustworthy as their gunners in this campaign, our losses would have been very much heavier, and it is possible that here we catch a glimpse of some consequences of that corruption which was one of the curses of the country. The guns were moved with great smartness along the ridge, and opened fire again and again, but never with great result. Our own batteries, the 74th and 77th, with our handful of mounted men, worked hard in covering the retreat and holding back the enemy's pursuit.

It is a sad subject to discuss, but it is the one instance in a campaign containing many reverses which amounts to demoralisation among the troops engaged. The Guards marching with the steadiness of Hyde Park off the field of Magersfontein, or the men of Nicholson's Nek chafing because they were not led in a last hopeless charge, are, even in defeat, object lessons of military virtue. But here fatigue and sleeplessness had taken all fire and spirit out of the men. They dropped asleep by the roadside and had to be prodded up by their exhausted officers. Many were taken prisoners in their slumber by the enemy who gleaned behind them. Units broke into small straggling bodies, and it was a sorry and bedraggled force which about ten o'clock came wandering into Molteno. The place of honour in the rear was kept throughout by the Irish Rifles, who preserved some military formation to the end. Our losses in killed and wounded were not severe – military honour would have been less sore had they been more so. Twenty-six killed, sixty-eight wounded – that is all. But between the men on the hillside and the somnambulists of the column, six hundred, about equally divided between the Irish Rifles and the Northumberland Fusiliers, had been left as prisoners. Two guns, too, had been lost in the hurried retreat.

It is not for the historian – especially for a civilian historian – to say a word unnecessarily to aggravate the pain of that brave man who, having done all that personal courage could do, was seen afterwards sobbing on the table of the waiting-room at Molteno, and bewailing his 'poor men.' He had a disaster, but Nelson had one at Teneriffe and Napoleon at Acre, and built their great reputations in spite of it. But the one good thing of a disaster is that by examining it we may learn to do better in the future, and so it would indeed be a perilous thing if we agreed that our reverses were not a fit subject for open and frank discussion.

It is not to the detriment of an enterprise that it should be daring and call for considerable physical effort on the part of those who are engaged in it. On the contrary, the conception of such plans is one of the signs of a great military mind. But in the arranging of the details the same military mind should assiduously occupy itself in foreseeing and preventing every unnecessary thing which may make the execution of such a plan more difficult. The idea of a swift sudden attack upon Stormberg was excellent – the details of the operation are continually open to criticism.

How far the Boers suffered at Stormberg is unknown to us, but there seems in this instance no reason to doubt their own statement that their losses were very slight. At no time was any body of them exposed to our fire, while we, as usual, fought in the open. Their numbers were probably less than ours, and the quality of their shooting and want of energy in pursuit make the defeat the more galling. On the other hand, their guns were served with skill and audacity. They consisted of commandos from Bethulie, Rouxville, and Smithfield, under the orders of Olivier, with those colonials whom they had seduced from their allegiance.

This defeat of General Gatacre's, occurring, as it did, in a disaffected district and one of great strategic importance, might have produced the worst consequences.

Fortunately no very evil result followed. No doubt the recruiting of rebels was helped, but there was no forward movement and Molteno remained in our hands. In the meanwhile Gatacre's force was reinforced by a fresh battery, the 79th, and by a strong regiment, the Derbyshires, so that with the 1st Royal Scots and the wing of the Berkshires he was strong enough to hold his own until the time for a general advance should come. So in the Stormberg district, as at the Modder River, the same humiliating and absurd position of stalemate was established.

Chapter 11. Battle of Colenso

Two serious defeats had within the week been inflicted upon the British forces in South Africa. Cronje, lurking behind his trenches and his barbed wire entanglements barred Methuen's road to Kimberley, while in the northern part of Cape Colony Gatacre's wearied troops had been defeated and driven by a force which consisted largely of British subjects. But the public at home steeled their hearts and fixed their eyes steadily upon Natal. There was their senior General and there the main body of their troops. As brigade after brigade and battery after battery touched at Cape Town, and were sent on instantly to Durban, it was evident that it was in this quarter that the supreme effort was to be made, and that there the light might at last break. In club, and dining room, and railway car – wherever men met and talked – the same words might be heard: 'Wait until Buller moves.' The hopes of a great empire lay in the phrase.

It was upon October 30th that Sir George White had been thrust back into Ladysmith. On November 2nd telegraphic communication with the town was interrupted. On November 3rd the railway line was cut. On November 10th the Boers held Colenso and the line of the Tugela. On the 14th was the affair of the armoured train. On the 18th the enemy were near Estcourt. On the 21st they had reached the Mooi River. On the 23rd Hildyard attacked them at Willow Grange. All these actions will be treated elsewhere. This last one marks the turn of the tide. From then onwards Sir Redvers Buller was massing his troops at Chieveley in preparation for a great effort to cross the river and to relieve Ladysmith, the guns of which, calling from behind the line of northern hills, told their constant tale of restless attack and stubborn defence.

But the task was as severe a one as the most fighting General could ask for. On the southern side the banks formed a long slope which could be shaved as with a razor by the rifle fire of the enemy. How to advance across that broad open zone was indeed a problem. It was one of many occasions in this war in which one wondered why, if a bullet-proof shield capable of sheltering a lying man could be constructed, a trial should not be given to it. Alternate rushes of companies with a safe rest after each rush would save the troops from the continued tension of that deadly never ending fire. However, it is idle to discuss what might have been done to mitigate their trials. The open ground had to be passed, and then they came to – not the enemy, but a broad and deep river, with a single bridge, probably undermined, and a single ford, which was found not to exist in practice. Beyond the river was tier after tier of hills, crowned with stone walls and seamed with trenches, defended by thousands of the best marksmen in the world, supported by an admirable artillery. If, in spite of the advance over the open and in spite of the passage of the river, a ridge could still be carried, it was only to be commanded by the next; and so, one behind the other, like the billows of the ocean, a series of hills and hollows rolled northwards to Ladysmith. All attacks must be in the open. All defence was from under cover. Add to this, that the young and energetic Louis Botha was in command of the Boers. It was a desperate task, and yet honour forbade that the garrison should be left to its fate. The venture must be made.

The most obvious criticism upon the operation is that if the attack must be made it should not be made under the enemy's conditions. We seem almost to have gone out of our way to make every obstacle – the glacislike approach, the river, the trenches – as difficult as possible. Future operations were to prove that it was not so difficult to deceive Boer vigilance and by rapid movements to cross the Tugela. A military authority has stated, I know not with what truth, that there is no instance in history of a determined army being stopped by the line of a river, and from Wellington at the Douro to the Russians on the Danube many examples of the ease with which they may be passed will occur to the reader. But Buller had some exceptional difficulties with which to contend. He was weak in mounted troops, and was opposed to an enemy of exceptional mobility who might attack his flank and rear if he exposed them. He had not that great preponderance of numbers which came to him later, and which enabled him to attempt a wide turning movement. One advantage he had, the possession of a more powerful artillery, but his heaviest guns were naturally his least mobile, and the more direct his advance the more effective would his guns be. For these or other reasons he determined upon a frontal attack on the formidable Boer position, and he moved out of Chieveley Camp for that purpose at daybreak on Friday, December 15th.

The force which General Buller led into action was the finest which any British general had handled since the battle of the Alma. Of infantry he had four strong brigades: the 2nd (Hildyard's) consisting of the 2nd Devons, the 2nd Queen's or West Surrey, the 2nd West Yorkshire, and the 2nd East Surrey; the 4th Brigade (Lyttelton's) comprising the 2nd Cameronians, the 3rd Rifles, the 1st Durhams, and the 1st Rifle Brigade; the 5th Brigade (Hart's) with the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Connaught Rangers, 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, and the Border Regiment, this last taking the place of the 2nd Irish Rifles, who were with Gatacre. There remained the 6th Brigade (Barton's), which included the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, the 2nd Scots Fusiliers, the 1st Welsh Fusiliers, and the 2nd Irish Fusiliers – in all about 16,000 infantry. The mounted men, who were commanded by Lord Dundonald, included the 13th Hussars, the 1st Royals, Bethune's Mounted Infantry, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, three squadrons of South African Horse, with a composite regiment formed from the mounted infantry of the Rifles and of the Dublin Fusiliers with squadrons of the Natal Carabineers and the Imperial Light Horse. These irregular troops of horse might be criticised by martinets and pedants, but they contained some of the finest fighting material in the army, some urged on by personal hatred of the Boers and some by mere lust of adventure. As an example of the latter one squadron of the South African Horse was composed almost entirely of Texan muleteers, who, having come over with their animals, had been drawn by their own gallant spirit into the fighting line of their kinsmen.

Cavalry was General Buller's weakest arm, but his artillery was strong both in its quality and its number of guns. There were five batteries (30 guns) of the Field Artillery, the 7th, 14th, 63rd, 64th, and 66th. Besides these there were no fewer than sixteen naval guns from H.M.S. 'Terrible' – fourteen of which were 12-pounders, and the other two of the 4.7 type which had done such good service both at Ladysmith and with Methuen. The whole force which moved out from Chieveley Camp numbered about 21,000 men.

The work which was allotted to the army was simple in conception, however terrible it might prove in execution. There were two points at which the river might be crossed, one three miles off on the left, named Bridle Drift, the other straight ahead at the Bridge of Colenso. The 5th or Irish Brigade was to endeavour to cross at Bridle Drift, and then to work down the river bank on the far side so as to support the 2nd or English Brigade, – which was to cross at Colenso. The 4th Brigade was to advance between these, so as to help either which should be in difficulties. Meanwhile on the extreme right the mounted troops under Dundonald were to cover the flank and to attack Hlangwane Hill, a formidable position held strongly by the enemy upon the south bank of the Tugela. The remaining Fusilier brigade of infantry was to support this movement on the right. The guns were to cover the various attacks, and if possible gain a position from which the trenches might be enfiladed. This, simply stated, was the work which lay before the British army. In the bright clear morning sunshine, under a cloudless blue sky, they advanced with high hopes to the assault. Before them lay the long level plain, then the curve of the river, and beyond, silent and serene, like some peaceful dream landscape, stretched the lines and lines of gently curving hills. It was just five o'clock in the morning when the naval guns began to bay, and huge red dustclouds from the distant foothills showed where the lyddite was bursting. No answer came back, nor was there any movement upon the sunlit hills. It was almost brutal, this furious violence to so gentle and unresponsive a countryside. In no place could the keenest eye detect a sign of guns or men, and yet death lurked in every hollow and crouched by every rock.

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