Confidence of burghers on Natal frontier.
FOR more than a week the burghers assembled on the frontiers of the two Republics had been impatiently awaiting the signal to advance, and the news of the ultimatum addressed to the British Government on October 9 was received with a general hum of satisfaction in the Boer laagers. Few doubted what the issue of the war would be. Had they not beaten the English army before? And would forty thousand burghers armed with the best weapons money could buy fail where a mere handful, lacking ammunition and without artillery, had succeeded? The more ignorant back-veld Boer looked forward to a few weeks, possibly months, of shooting red-coats, at the end of which the English would sue for peace, and leave him to return to his farm-unless, indeed, the Government gave him a better farm in the conquered territory of Natal or Cape Colony. There were rumours, indeed, about the terrible powers of lyddite, about war balloons and armoured trains, that were a little disquieting; but then similar things had been foretold about British artillery in 1881, and little had happened. The more educated, the men of the "Young Afrikander" class, realised more clearly the seriousness of the struggle upon which the Republics were entering, but they were no less confident of the ultimate issue, and they cherished far higher hopes. South Aflica, independent once and for all from all British interference, or at the least, the abolition of the fetters imposed by the Conventions and the extension of the Transvaal to the sea, were the ends to which they looked. Typical of their aspirations is the telegram sent to President Kruger on October 10 by Mr Louis Botha, Member of the First Volksraad for Vryheid, and destined soon to make his name on a wider arena than the Pretoria Raadzaal: " May the Vierkleur soon wave over a free harbour." For a dozen years the old President had been scheming and planning to attain that end. By the arrogance and presumption of the British Government, attainment of it, and of much besides, was, perhaps, not far off.
At five o'clock on the afternoon of October 11 war began. But although a mail train to Natal was held back at Albertina by the Free Staters, no actual collision of armed forces took place till the next day, when the long chapter of Boer successes was opened by the capture of an armoured train at Kraaipan on the western border. Nowhere, from the Boer point of view, did the situation call more urgently for immediate action than on the Natal border, unless, indeed, the whole object of beginning the war was to be frustrated. Over a week had already been lost, during which the Indian contingent had landed. Only a month, every day of which was precious, remained before the troops would arrive from England. But with a commander-in-chief to whom the whole policy or aggression was distasteful, there was little likelihood of rapid and vigorous execution. The policy of the Pretoria Government demanded that the Boer forces should be actually on the border ready to cross the moment the forty-eight hours of the ultimatum expired. When the moment came, Joubert and his force were still at Sand Spruit. Nor was it till the early hours of the 12th that the Boer camp began to move, an endless procession of silent, misty figures, horsemen, artillery, and wagons, filing past in the dark, cold night along the winding road that led to where the black shoulder of Majuba stood up against the greyer sky - a weird opening scene to the great drama that was to follow.
The invasion of Natal, Oct. 12-19.
That same morning the force under Kock, Viljoen, and Schiel dropped down through Botha's Pass into Natal, and bivouacked on the Upper Ingogo River, some fifteen miles from Newcastle. But Joubert's muin army went no further than Volksrust Here another Krygsraad was called. Though there were no British troops within sixty miles, Joubert feared a trap. The whole of Laing's Nek might be mined; perhaps troops were hidden in ambush somewhere, or might be rushed up suddenly in armoured trains. To circumvent this danger the force was divided. The Pretoria, Heidelberg, and Boksburg commandos, some 4000 in all, under Commandant S. P. Erasmus, were to march round behind Mount Pogweni and cross the Buffalo near Newcastle. Marching over Wakkerstroom Nek and through the Drakensberg in pouring rain and over execrable roads, Erasmus entered Newcastle unopposed on the afternoon of October 15. He found the village nearly empty of its inhabitants but containing abundant supplies of mealies and other foodstuffs, which British negligence had failed to remove. The flag of the South African Republic was solemnly hoisted over the official buildings. The inhabitants were assured that receipts would be given for all supplies and foodstuffs taken, and as a matter of fact there was at first very little looting. Before crossing 'the border Joubert had issued a proclamation to the burghers to respect all private property and do no injury. to individuals, "lest it be thought or said that we are a band of robbers," and though it caunot be said that the burghers, and still less their wives, followed these injunctions very closely, it must be admitted that the leading men on the Boer side did everything to carry on the war in a humane and civilised fashion.
While Erasmus marched on Newcastle, the Middelburg and Wakkerstroom commandos, with part of the artillery, some 2000 strong, moved down the Utrecht road and then struck across to the Doornberg to reinforce Lukas Meyen Lukas Meyer's patrols had already crossed the Buffalo in various directions, scouting the country towards Dundee, the first reconnoitring party being led by enterprising Louis Botha. On the 13th an observation post of five men of the Natal Police stationed at De Jager's Drift, seventeen miles northeast of Dundee, who by some strange oversight had not been warned of the outbreak of hostilities, were surprised and made prisoners. The same day a few shots were exchanged between patrols on both sides. Meanwhile, Joubert, accompanied, as in 1881, by his faithful wife, occupied Laing's Nek on the 13th. So far from being mined the Nek was found absolutely intact. No attempt had been made to destroy the tunnel or damage the line. Dawdling along past the ill-fated Colley's camp at Mount Prospect, Joubert did not reach Newcastle till after sunset on the 16th, preceded earlier in the day by Kock, who had spent the 15th at Ingogo. The next two days were spent by Joubert at Newcastle. On the 19th he advanced beyond Dannhauser, but fell back again on that station in the evening. On the following day the commissariat trains of the Netherlands Railway were already running into Danuhauser station, the only damage done to the line-apart from the futile narrowing of the rails at a point south of Newcastle-having been done by some of the advanced parties of the Beers themselves. Commandant Erasmus, with the vanguard of the Beer force, had meanwhile pushed en, and had reached Hatting Spruit, seven miles from Dundee and separated from it only by the mass of Mount Impati, on the 18th, coming in contact with General Symons' patrols that same afternoon.
British neglect to destroy railways.
Altogether Joubert's force had covered some seventy miles from the frontier in a week. It was not a rapid advance, and it would have been even slower but for Sir G. White's extraordinary remissness in not destroying the tunnel at Laing's Nek and the railway bridges over the Ingego and Ingagane rivers, a remissness which no political reasons can be held to exouse. The least damaging explanation is that Sir G. White never realised fully that the Boers were civilised opponents who could make use of a railway for military purposes, but even that explanation fails when we find that after Talana no attempt was made to destroy the bridges over the Waschbank and Sunday's rivers. The one object of the Natal force was to gain time, and it began by neglecting the most Qbvious measure which might have secured that end, one which would have delayed the advance of the Boers upon Ladysmith by fully a fortnight, and for a month after that would have hampered their forces in the field. Nor does there seem any reason why, without prejudicing the general policy of concenti~tion, patrols of mounted troops, especially of the Natal Volunteer corps, might not by demonstrating in front of the advancing enemy have helped very materially in delaying his advance.
Movements of Free Staters.
While the Transvaal forces were closing upon Dundee, the Free Staters played their part in keeping Ladysmith engaged. Crossing the border on the 12th they moved slowly in two columns, the main one along the railway through Van Reenen's Pass and the other further south through Tintwa Pass in the direction of Acton Homes and the Tugela. Two squadrons of the Natal Carbineers were stationed at Dewdrop, halfway between Ladysmith and Acton Homes. From the reports which their patrols furaished, it appeared that the enemy had descended into Natal in such numbers, and were advancing so steadily, that on October 13 Sir George White moved a column of all arms out nine miles west of Ladysmith The country to the west of the town is open rolling veld, as suitable ground for British tactics as any part of Natat and a decisive check inflicted upon the Free Staters at that moment might well have given pause to the advance of the Transvaalers on the north-east. But the Free Staters showed no signs of taking up this offer of battle, for the simple reason that they were still fully ten miles away. Sir G. white accordingly returned to Lady-smith with his force, and on the 17th, as the Free Stators now showed signs of pushing on beyond his left flank, so as to seriously threaten his line of communications, detached a flying column, consisting of the 19th Hussars, a battery of field artillery, and the Liverpool Regiment, to strengthen Colenso, then weakly held by the Durban Light Infantry.
White's anxieties about Dundee overridden by Symons.
It was becoming obvious that the Boers intended to effect the complete envelopment of the British forces north of the Tugela. Sir G. White, whose own position at Lady-smith was threatened by the Free Staters, could not but feel anxious for the force at Dundee, in the direct line of the Transvaal advance and entirely beyond the reach of support from Ladysmith. The Natal ministry were now beginning to be more concerned about the safety of Maritzburg itself than about the Dundee coal mines (which had shut down as soon as the war began), or about the political consequences of a further retreat, and the Governor replied to Sir G. White's intimation that he might after all be forced to evacuate Dundee that the political importance of retaining that position had already greatly decreased. Accordingly, on the 18th, Sir G. White telegraphed to General Symons that unless he was absolutely confident of being able to intrench himself with an assured water supply within his position he was to fall back on Ladysmith at once. In previous telegrams, General Symons had admitted that the water supply, which was on Mount Impati, might be a difficulty, but had urged that the Boors on their side could not well invest Dundee for any length of time because of the difficulty of finding water in the neighbourhood-a view of the situation which one cannot but feel was coloured by General Symons's eagerness to remain at Dundee and strike a blow at the advancing Boers. To the urgent message now received he reluctantly replied:
"I cannot fulfil the conditions you impose, namely, to strongly entrench myself here with an assured water supply within my position. I must, therefore, comply with your orders to retire. Please to send trains to remove civilians that will rointin in Dundee, our stores and sick. I must give out that I am moving stores and camp to Glencoe Junction in view of attacking Newcastle at once."
The removal of the civilian population and of six weeks' stores of the Dundee force over a railway that might be cut at any moment was a serious difficulty. The original faulty disposition was already bearing its fruit. Sir G. White hesitated so far as to ask his lieutenant's own opinion on the advisability of the withdrawal in view of these difficulties. Penn Symons at once took advantage of his chief's hesitation to cancel all his orders for the move, and replied in a telegram the gist of which was "We can and must stay here." And so once more Sir G. white's better judgment was overridden by the stronger w4l of his self-confident subordinate, and the little force remained at Dundee with the Boer commandos closing in upon it on every side.
General Kock occupies Elandslaagte.
Sir G. White's fears about the safety of the railway communication with Dundee were not long in being realised. One of the worst strategical faults of the division of the forces between Ladysmith and Dundee was that the line between them was particularly open to attack on every side. There was nothing to prevent a strong commando from the eastern border evading the small post of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles at Helpmakaar, sweeping along the southern fringe of the Biggarsberg and striking the railway at any point between Waschbank and Elandslaagte. Stilt easier was it for the northern body of the Free Staters, who had occupied Besters Station on the 18th, after an action with the Natal Carbineers, to ride across the sixteen miles that separated them from the railway at Modderspruit But the attempt was not made from either flank. On the 19th, an advance party of General Kock's commando, advancing rapidly through the Biggarsberg by the old road from Newcastle to Ladysmith, some fifteen miles west of Glencoe, dropped down upon the line at Elandslaagte, seized the coal-fields and railway station, and captured a supply train proceeding to Dundee.
Imperfect cooperation of Boers only partially excuses White's faulty strategy.
It is a maxim in war that you should always give your enemy the credit of intending to do the right thing. If the maxim were absolute it would be difficult to find any justification for Sir G. white in allowing General Symons to remain at Dundee with a mobile enemy more than three times his strength threatening to envelop him. But general maxims are modified by circumstances, and Sir G. White, though by no means easy in mind about the risks he was incurring, thought that he could reckon upon the lack of central organisation and cohesion in the Boer forces sufficiently to prevent perfect co-operation between the different columns, and to enable either Symons or himself to d~iver a successful stroke at each of them as it approached. The factors on which he reckoned undoubtedly played their part in the subsequent miscarriage of the Boer plans. There can be no doubt that if; as intended, Erasmus and Lukas Meyer had attacked or invested Dundee simultaneously, if Kock, instead of rashly planting himself within striking distance of Ladysmith, had confined himself to the task of breaking up the line of communications and waiting to intercept the retreat of the Dundee column, and if the Free Staters had demonstrated more actively against Lady-smith after October 18, nothing short of a miracle could have extricated General Symons's force from certain disasten As it was, the victories of Talana and Elandslaagte, the former snatched away before the very eyes of Joubert's army, and the safe retreat of the Dundee column, to some extent justify Sir G. White's action. To some extent only, for, on the one hand, the dense mist on Impati that gave an excuse to Erasmus for delaying his attack, and the exceptional lack of skill shown by Lukas Meyer's force, which alone made Talana possible, were circumstances on which no general could well rely in making his dispositions, and, on the other, the advantage which the British force was supposed to enjoy by virtue of its superior organisation was only diminished by splitting it up into two portions entirely unable to co-operate. Even granting the division of the forces between Ladysmith and Dundee, it seems strange that while over $000 men were kept at Ladysmith to hold in check some 6000 Free Staters, generally supposed at the time to be inferior in military capacity to the Transvaalers, and certainly less well provided with artillery, barely 4000 should be left in a tactically far less defensible position at Dundee to stem the advance of 14,000. If no more men could be safely spared from Ladysmith, as was no doubt the case, it becomes only the more difficult to understand how Sir G. white consented to leave at Dundee a force far too strong for a mere advance guard and far too weak to cope with the main army of the enemy. To have sent another 4000 men up to Dundee would have been a risky move, but it would at least have had some hope of achieving a decisive success. The fact remains that the dispositions of the force in Natal were not based on a single definite plan, but were a compromise between two different strategies, and as such had the defects of both and the advantages of neither.
Tactical disadvantages of Dundee Position.
Enough has been said of the strategical disadvantages of detaching an isolated brigade forty miles from Ladysmith. Hardly less striking were the tactical disadvantages of the particular position chosen. The town of Dundee lies in an almost circular valley, some five or six miles across, completely girt round by an amphitheatre of lofty hills. The camp chosen by General Symons lay some three-quarters of a mile west of the town on the road to Glencoe Junction, and was almost in the very centre of the saucer. Due north of the camp, at a distance of some 5000 yards, rose Mount Impati, a huge tableland looking down from a height of some 1300 feet on the valley below. Together with a long ridge stretching down in a south-westerly direction to Glencoc Junction, four miles west of the camp, and separating the Dundee branch from the main line, it commanded the whole northern half of the Dundee valley. The road to Hatting Spruit and Newcastle ran over the shoulder of the ridge.
South and south-east of the pass through which the railway leaves the valley to cross the Biggarsberg, the hills rise again till they culminate in Mount Indument whose lofty peak looks down upon the tabletop of Impati over against it. The eastern side of the valley is separated from the broad rolling reid that extends to the Buffalo river by three or four hills lying roughly north and south of each othen The northernmost of these, Talana, stands some 3500-4000 yards east of Dundee, rising about 600 feet above the plain, and is separated by a belt of level ground some 2000 yards wide from Impati. The main road to the Buffalo Drifts, however, does not lie through this gateway, but runs due east from Dundee over the cot known as Smith's Nek, between Talana and Lennox Hill to the south of it. South-east of Dundee are the collieries, and south of these another gateway lets out the road to Helpmakaar. There could be no question of a brigade attempting to hold the whole circle of the heights round Dundee. On the other hand, the event was soon to show that every part of the saucer was commanded by heavy guns from any point of the rim. By seizing the rim the enemy might make it extremely difficult and dangerous for General Symons to get out through the narrow passes between the hills, whether for attack or for escape, and might thus force him to make a direct frontal attack, with every advantage of position against him.
General Symons's over-confidence. Neglect of precautions.
These considerations do not seem to have weighed at all with the impetuous officer commanding at Dundee. His idea was to lie in wait in the valley till the Boers on one side or other came within striking distance and then to attack them whenever or wherever they appeared. If he formulated any more detailed plan to stem the flood of invasion, he was certainly careful to conceal it from his subordinates. His open assertion was that he had no plans and intended to be guided by circumstances, and he lost no opportunity of expressing his conviction that no number of Boers could venture deliberately to attack a whole brigade of British troops. The taking up of a defensive position, such as Sir G. white seems to have contemplated in his telegrams, and such as could have been found either on Impati and the ridge towards Glencoe, or on Talana and Lennox Hills, was, perhaps, hardly compatible with Sir W. P. Symons's general view of the situation. But apart from s~cli a step, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the ordinary tactical precautions for the safety of the force in the Dundee valley were carried out in a most haphazard and perfunctory mannen Impati and the ridge towards Glencoe were the key of the whole position. The sole water supply of Dundee and of the British camp was a reservoir high up the south-westerm side of Impati. Yet the only force stationed on the mountain consisted of a dozen mounted men who were sent up every morning, while the only outposts on this side were a small picket where the road to Hatting Spruit and Newcastle crossed the ridge, and another at the Dutch church nearly at the foot of Impati. On the representations of his intelligence officer, Major A. J. Murray, the general consented two days befdre the battle of Talana to have a dam constructed across the spruit which ran past the camp in case the supply from the reservoir was cut off, but no attempt was made to guard the reservoir itself. On the west the picket of one company which had been stationed at Glencoe was called in on the 19th, though half a company was still kept south-west of the camp near some disused collieries. East of the camp a mounted infantry picket was posted at the junction of the Landman's and Vant's Drift roads nearly two flilies east of Dundee. The suggestion that cavalry pickets should be placed further out on the roads leading to the Buffalo was rejected by the generat as he was eager to keep his cavalry fresh for action. The inadequacy of these precautions was not due to any failing of the intelligence department. Thanks to his cavalry patrols and to the excellent work of the Natal Guides, assisted by Basuto scouts, General Symons was k.pt fully informed of every movement of the Boer forces. It was not ignorance but unbounded self-confidence and contempt for his opponents that inspired his dispositions.
Syrnons scouts the notion of an attack.
On the 19th, the communication with Ladysmith was cut. The manager of the Navigation Colliery, which is on the north slope of Impati, rode in that morning to tell the general that the Boers were quite close and intended bringing up guns and shelling Dundee camp. This last notion the general scouted as ridiculous, but he took the precaution to send two companies of the Dublin Fusiliers round by train to remove 800 bags of mealies from the colliery. Another party had been sent down by train to Waschbank the evening before to fetch in a supply train which it was feared might fall into Boer hands. On the eastern side the scouts reported that the Boers were showing signs of activity near De Jager's Drift but had not yet crossed the river. To the north and to the east the enemy were now within striking distance of the British camp. The gravity of the situation was apparent to the few senior officers with whom the general discussed it. But his reckless confidence underwent no change. "I have informed Sir George white," he said, "that I feel perfectly safe, and I am dead against retreating. He has wired back wishing us 'good luck.'"
Boer dispositions for the attack.
The final dispositions for the Boer attack were now decided upon. On the morning of the 20th, Lukas Meyer was to seize the heights east of Dundee and shell the British camp, while Erasmus with the vanguard of Joubert's forces was to support the attack from the side of Impati. Between them the two forces would command the whole north and east of the valley, including the two exits towards Glenwe and Helpmakaar, completely investing Symons unless he decided promptly to abandon his transport and escape over the high ground to the south-west. when JouberUs main force completed the circle, the surrender of Dundee could only be a question of days. Both Meyer and Erasmus were to advance by night to prevent Symons being warned in time to occupy Talana Hill and thus force Meyer's commandos to attack from the open veld to the east. That no preparations were made to prevent such a night attack was well-known to the Boers through4heir spies, who, amid the general neglect of precautions, passed freely in and out of Dundee. The Boers had every reason to anticipate complete success.
The night march on Dundee. Symons warned but pays no special attention.
On the afternoon of the 19th, the commandos east of the Buffalo, in all nearly 4000 men with a battery of four field guns and two Vickers-Maxims, received the order to be in the saddle at 6 PM. for the night march on Dundee. Punctually at six the burghers assembled mounted and ready outside their laagers. Then before they rode off, the clergy- man attached to each commando addressed them in a few earnest words bidding them fight manfully on the morrow, trusting in the God who had so marvellously held his hand over his chosen people in all their past wanderings and warfare. A prayer followed in which all joined, reverently baring their heads in the streaming downpour of rain. At De Jager's Drift the commandos halted and were arranged in order of march, and it was nine o'clock before the long cavalcade splashed through the dark waters of the Buffalo. It was a black night with pelting rain, and the Dundee road was deep in slushy mire, through which the artillery made slow and toilsome progress. After leaving the foot of the hills which stretch north-west from Maybole Farm towards Mount Inyati and crossing the Sand Spruit, the force left the road a little to the left and struck straight across the veld for Talana, possibly with the intention of avoiding the British picket on the road east of Smith's Nek. On this particular night this picket was found by the mounted infantry of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. About 2.30 A.M. a party of the Boers stumbled upon this picket and there was an exchange of shots. The horses of the mounted infantry stampeded, and Lieutenant Grimshaw, who commanded the post, wisely fell back to Smith's Nek, where the loose horses were recovered. A sergeant had been sent back at the first alarm to apprise the general that the Boers were in force, This message was received by Major Hammersicy at 3.20. The next messenger who arrived about 4 A.M., stated &at the picket was in danger of being surrounded. On receipt of this, General Symons directed Major Bird, commanding the Dublin Fusiliers, to send out two infantry companies to reinforce the picket. While they were starting a further report came in to the effect that the enemy were on Talana but that the picket had ceased to retire and were in a position to oppose any further advance. Whether misled by this last message or not it is evident from his subsequent action that General Symons thought he had to deal with a raiding party, and was very far indeed from realising that he was being attacked by the main force of the Boers.
The morning parade. The British caught napping, 5.30 A.M.
Day was now breaking, a day typical of the rainy season in Northern Natal. The morning was dull and cheerless. The bevelled crests of broad Impati and gaunt Indumeni were obscured in a grey curtain, and great billows of cloud, like the rollers on Table Mountain which warn mariners in the bay of approaching tempests, curled over their steep edges. On this day they were to be the forerunners of a very different tempest - a tempest which, in its ever-increasing din, was destined to drown the very echoes born on the rugged faces of the silent hills-destined to make the names of a peaceful English village and an unknown Kaffir mountain famous in history. But to the British in the little camp on the plain there was nothing sinister in the drifting clouds. To them it was no different to other mornings. The news of the attack on the picket had not had time to circulate the general had not thought it worth while to inform even his commanding officers-and the force paraded as usual at 5 A.M. The only orders issued from headquarters were that all was clear and that no immediate action was expected. The precaution of giving men and horses an earlier meal in case of a sudden attack was apparently not thought of, and the brigade parade was dismissed as usual. The artillery horses unhooked and went down to water nearly a mile away, some battalions returned to their camp, at least one moved into the plain to drill, men took off their accoutrements and began busying themselves with cooking and the ordinary routine of camp fatigues. Suddenly a buzz of excitement went through the camp, groups of men rapidly ran together staring at the skyline of Talana and Lennox Hills which stood out black and defined against the pale eastern sky. Both hills were crowded with men. For the moment it was uncertain whether these were the enemy or the two companies of Dublin Fusiliers which had gone out in the early morning. The camp was not long left in doubt. Spasmodic rifle-fire broke out as the Boers discovered Grimshaw's picket, which had retired down to Smith's Farm at the foot of the hill. A few minutes later the first shell which opened the war in Natal whizzed overhead and fell in the outskirts of Dundee town. The second was better aimed, and buried itself with a thud in the soft earth of the camp within a few paces of General Symons's tent. The British were caught napping, were as completely surprised as troops have ever been. Then followed a few minutes of confusion, during which the Boers busily plied the camp with shell-fire from three pieces. The confusion was increased by the whole of the transport and the artillery horses dashing back from their way to water through the infantry lines. But considering the completeness of the surprise, and the fact that there was probably not a single man in the force who had previously heard the tearing screech of a heavy projectile in flight towards him, the troops formed up with steadiness. Fortunately, too, the Boers were using common shell, or failing to make their shrapnel burst, and their fire was more disconoerting than dangerous. But the original confusion was responsible for some intermixing of units which impaired the cohesion of the subsequent attack.
The Boer morning greeting.
The Boers, after the first encounter with the picket, had pushed on rapidly. Leaving their ponies at the foot of Talana the Utrecht and Wakkerstroom burghers, some 1500 men under Commandants Hattingh and Joshua Joubert, climbed the hill, while the Middelburg, Vryheid, and Pietretief commandos (Commandants Trichardt, Ferreira, van Staaden), with whom went Lukas Meyer himself; rode south and occupied Lennox Hill and other heights to the south-east. Three guns of the artillery and a "pom-pom," under Major Wolmarans, were successfully dragged up Talana. The other guns apparently remained somewhere near the foot of Lennox Hill, and did not come into action. Major Wolmarans posted his guns on the very centre of Talana ridge, and was proceeding to make some sort of emplacement or shelter to protect his gunners from the return fire of the British, when he received word from Lukas Meyer not to waste time but to start firing at once. The burghers, too, on the crest were all crowding round and shouting, "Why don't you say good-morning to the British?" So the gunners fired off their "morning greeting" at a range of 5000 yards; the Boors cheered and clapped as they watched the bustle and confusion in the British camp. Loud was the merriment when a British battery opened fire and strewed the slopes of Talana Hill with its ineffective shrapnel. But other batteries were galloping forward and unlimbering. A minute later a shell burst in a white puff overhead, and sent its spreading shower of shrapnel rattling on the rocks. The transformation on the hill-top was instantaneous. Not a Boer remained visible. Fully half scuttled down the reverse of the hill, seeking refuge behind a long wall that ran parallel to the crest, or even in the homestead and kraal at the very foot of the hill. The braver ones disappeared under cover of the boulders with which the crest was strewn, and prepared for the battle which had now begun.
British guns in action, 5.45. Boer guns silenced.
The British artillery had come into action with splendid promptitude. The rearing and plunging horses were hooked in. while the 67th battery unlimbered in the gun park and fired the shells we have just described as falling short of the Boers on the hill, the 13th and 69th, Majors Dawkins and Wing, advanced to get within effective range. The guns with their straining teams came thundering through the outskirts of Dundee, and unlimbered on a knoll to the south of the town. A minute of rapid moveinent, a itill broken by the hoarse orders of the section commanders and the cracking of the drivers' whips, and then the astonished citizens were watching the bursts of shrapnel over the lip of Talana Hill. The 69th was the first to get into action at a range of 3650 yards, barely ten minutes having elapsed since the first Boer shell was fired. Within fifteen minutes the admirable fire of these two batteries had silenced the Boer guns, which offered a splendid target against tite skyline, and were very soon after withdrawn below the crest of the hill. Under cover of the artillery fire the general prepared the infantry attack.
Symons decides on an immediate frontal attack.
Sir W. P. Symons may have been surprised. But he was by no moans disconcerted. The opportunity he wished for had come, and he was determined to use it without delay. He had not the least doubt that his men could drive the Boers off the hill, and his orders were given for an immediate frontal attack on Talana. The hill, formidable though it looked, was not altogether unfavourable to such an attack. Three-quarters of a mile east of Dundee the deep cutting of the Sand Spruit offered convenient cover in which to form up the troops for the advance. Halfway between the spruit and the summit of Talana a small plantation of gum trees and the buildings round Smith's Farm gave further shelter. The hill itself rose in a series of terraces with dead ground between, while a low stone wall running along the front of the hill just before the topmost terrace would afford a breathing space before the final rush. But admitting these considerations it is still rather difficult to explain why no attempt was made to support the main advance by a flank attack up the northern shoulder of Talana. The suggestion was actually made a little later by General Yule, who wished to take round the Irish Fusiliors, then on the loft of the other battalions in the Sand Spruit, but was rejected by General Symons. An advance from the north would have taken the Boor position "end on," and would have been completely sheltered from the flanking fire from Lennox Hill and from the northern end of Talana, which proved so harassing to the main attack. Moreover the frontage of the plantation, scarcely 400 yards, was really insufficient to cover an attack by more than two battalions, and one battalion might well have been spared to co-operate with the mounted infantry on the flank. It must be admitted, too, that if the Boers had in this their first engagement displayed the same skill in the choice of their dispositions that marked almost all their subsequent actions the attack would not have succeeded. Apart from this criticism it is due to General Symons to give him credit f6r the rapid perception with which he decided to throw his whole force upon one of the two positions held by the Boers, and for the promptitude with which he began action at once without giving the Boers time to strengthen their position.
Dispositions for the attack. 6-7 A.M.
Orders were issued, and while the 1st Leicestershire Regiment and the 67th Field Battery were left behind to protect the camp and to face any possible demonstration from the north, the rest of the force marched out to the attack. The mounted troops, consisting of the 18th Hussars and Mounted Infantry under Colonel Mdller, were ordered to keep under cover and watch their opportunity to cut off the retreat of the Boers. They moved off towards the opening between Impati and Talana, and their subsequent action forms a little history apart from the main issue of the day. The Dublin Fusiliers and the Irish Fusiliers were ordered to advance into the bed of the Sand Spruit the King's Royal Rifles remaining in support. The regiments, extended, advanced steadily down the slight incline, the fringe of the battalions passing through the town sometime before 6.30. As the troops moved by the inhabitants of Dundee presented a strange contrast of enthusiasm and terron Men, women, and children turned out to cheer the passing companies. Civilians of the Town Guard, moved by the impulse of the moment, seized their bandoliers and rifles and joined the ranks of the infantry as the stream of extended men surged deliberately forward. The Dublin Fusiliers were the first to roach the dry bed of the water-course, where their two companies, which had gone out in the early morning, had preceded them. A few minutes later the Rifles rose from a slight ridge where they had been taking cover and, catching up with the Irish Fusiliers, made their way down to the river The enemy greeted this movement with fire from their "porn-porn," which they had just brotight some little way down the face of the mountain under the cover of a gully.
The advance into the wood. 7.30.
In the bed of the stream the battalions attempted to form up and sort themselves. But the confusion caused by the surprise and by the racing to be first at the spruit had been so great that but little success attended the attempt. General Symons and his staff then came down into the nullah and issued final orders to the senior officers. He had made a slight change in his plans and now decided to press forward his frontal attack with two battalions, keeping the Dublin Fusiliers on the left, the Rifles on the right, and holding the Irish Fusiliers in reserve. Smith's Farm and its plantation lay 800 to 1000 yards in front of the spruit. Between was level grass divided half-way by a barbed wire fence. The Boer guns were now silent, but the Boer riflemen had had time to spread out, so as to take full value of the advantage which the rugged crest line of the position gave them. At 7.30 the infantry advanced again by half companies in extended order, the Dublin Fusiliers leading, followed by the Rifles and the Irish Fusiliers. As soon as they debouched from the cover of the nver-bed, the full blast of the rifle-fire swept down upon them. The effect of this sudden burst-the first experience of the massed fire of modern rifles in the war-did not stay the advance. The men saw the cover in front of them and they mended their pace to gain it. The fire was intense, but at so long a range (2000-1200 yards) the open formation adopted proved sufficient protection, and the indifferent cover of the wood was reached with remarkably few casualties. In the wood, which was some 350 yards deep, the green leaves of the eucalyptus, cut by the bullets, were falling like autumn leaves in England. But the fire was mostly high, and by lying in the ditches which ran through the plantation in every direction the men managed to find coven Here there was a considerable halt, and the troops became hopelessly mixed. Hitherto there had only existed a confusion of regimental units; now the battalions were jumbled together and bunched in groups wherever cover from the now shortranged and plunging fire could be found. Some of the companies of the Rifles and Irish Fusiliers (Majors W. P. Campbell and Munn) moved to the right through Smith's Farm in order to reply to the heavy flanking fire from Lennox Hill. Most of the Dublin Fusiliers moved to the left into a deep winding donga, which ran up the face of the mountain past the edge of the wood, and promised to afford good cover from the Boers on the northern part of Talana. Some of these had now come down to the upper wall and were pouring in a very unpleasant fire, to meet which Colonel Carleton sent two companies of Irish Fusiliers to line the left of the wood. The rest of the men lined up along the front of the plantation, the left half of which was bounded bv a low stone wall, while the right half had only a quickset hedge on a low bank which gave visual cover but little real protection. About 8 o'clock the guns had galloped back through Dundee and taken up another position on a knoll to the east of the town. The 69th came into action at 2375 yards from the crest of Talana and swept the hill, while the 13th devoted itself to keeping down the flanking fire of the Boers on Lennox Hill, who had been growing steadily more aggressive and had begun to come down to some kraals and small plantations at the foot of the hill, whence they poured a hot fire into the wood and on the guns. These were easily scattered, but other flanking parties both on the north end of Talana and on Lennox Hill, where projecting ridges enabled them to sweep the front of Talana as from flanking towers, were never properly silenced in spite of the skill with which the gunners directed their fire according to the messages sent down from the infantry in front.
Symons mortally wounded, 9.15.
The artillery preparation was still very far from having brought the Boer fire under, but the impetuous general, standing near the guns, was beginning to get impatient at what he considered the slowness of the advance. Soon after 8 o'clock he sent two of his staff to General Yule, who was in the wood, to order the "assault." The reply, that lie would do so as soon as possible, failed to satisfy him, arid disregarding the warnings of his staff, he insisted on going to the wood himself to hurry matters forward. Accompanied by Colonel Dartuell and Majors Hammersley and Murray, he galloped forward under a heavy fire, jumping his horse over the fence into the wood. Here he dismounted and went through the wood, ordering all the companies that were in reserve or facing to the flanks to go forward in readiness for the assault. As the small party of staff officers approached the further edge of the wood at about 9.15 Major Hammersley was wounded, but regardless of all danger the general stepped over a gap in the low wall to look at the position. A moment later he turned round to Murray and said: "I am severely, mortally, wounded in the stomach." Murray helped him back over the wall, and hastened off to tell General Yule that he was in command. The dying general was helped on to his horse and supported as far as the guns, where he dismounted and was carried back into camp.
Yule takes command. Dublins checked on left.
General Yule now went forward and ordered the Dublin Fusiliers to make their way up to the upper wall on the left, while the Rifles, supported by two companies of the Irish Fusiliers, were to advance on the right. On the left it was impossible to do much. The donga into which the Dublin Fusiliers had moved rapidly ran away to nothing as it ascended the steep side of the hill. It was raked perpendicularly from the crest, while its shallow reëntrants were alternately enfiladed from either flank. It was in this veritable trap that Captain Weldon was killed while gallantly trying to pull his wounded servant under cover. Smaller dongas parallel to the main one, by which some of the men attempted to advance, proved equally useless. The advance on the left was thus checked, and the Dublin Fusiliers could do little to help the attack till they made their way back in small parties through the wood to reinforce the Rifles and companies of the Irish Fusiliers, on whom the main brunt of the assault was thus thrown.
Rifles and Irish Fusiliers reach the wall.
Directly in front of the plantation the ground was some- what more favourable. For 100 yards or so there was a terrace of almost level grass completely swept by fire from above at a range of about 600 yards. But beyond that the ground rose steep and broken up to the wall, affording complete shelter from above and in places cover from the flanking fire. Even better flanking cover was offered by a low wall which ran down perpendicularly from the upper wall to the edge of the plantation. when the order to advance was given the companies of Rifles and Irish Fusiliers ran forward through the gaps in the thick-set hedge or put their shoulders against it and forced themselves over by sheer weight of numbers. Gallantly led by their officers, they dashed across the open and headed for the 4ead ground below the terrace. But the enemy had been waiting for this. As soon as the head of the rush appeared the din of musketry quadrupled, and the dust of the open was beaten up by striking bullets, just as if a summer whirlwind had swept between the plantation and the wall. Many of the men, as is almost inevitable in an assault, especially if no officer is expressly detailed for the task of "whippingAn," hung back in the wood. Others essayed the rush-lost heart midway, checked, and doubled back to coven A few fell and lay dotted across the open, blots of yellow khaki on the green grass. But those who had gained the terrace were secure from direct fire, though enfiladed at long range by the riflemen on both flanks. The officers of the Rifles and Irish Fusiliers, who behaved with intrepid gallantry throughout, at once led their men up the steep slope and began to extend them behind the wall. As they did so the men left behind in the plantation braced themselves to the effort, and in driblets commenced to reinforce their comrades, largely making their way up by the cross wall. As each group or single man doubled into the open, the burst of firing from the hill top recommenced, but the casualties during these rushes were few. At the wall officers and men were falling fast. The Rifles attempted to return the fire; but to show above the cover was to brave the storm of a dozen rifles. It was here that Captain Pechell and Lieutenant Taylor were killed and Major Boultbee wounded. To show how concentrated or accurate was the fire of the Boer sharpshooters, no less than five out of six men of the Rifles were hit on passing a gap in the wall as the companies were being extended under its cover.
The crest carried by assault, 11.30-12.
The occupation of the wall was followed by a halt ofsome two hours, mainly due to the difficulty or getting sufficient men into the firing line to give weight to the final assault, and to allow the guns to finish their preparation at short range. At 11.30 the artillery, who had been keeping up a beautifully accurate fire just over the heads of the men on the wall, were ordered to cease fire to allow the infantry to rush the crest of the hill. The fire from the Boers on the crest immediately above had now died down very low, and Colonel Gunning, thinking that the right moment had at last come, passed the word down the infantry line to prepare for the final charge. In front of the wall was a terrace sloping upwards for about fifty yards. Beyond this the rise of the bluff was almost precipitous; the face was composed of boulders embedded amongst long grass and thick bushes. The infantry braced themselves for the final effort. Then that horrible pause-that moment of mental tension, when every throb of the heart seems to batter against the frame. Then came the shout from Colonel Gunning, clear and piercing above the din of battle-" Advance!" The wall glistened for a second with bayonets. Then the khaki-clad line threw itself against it-fell in a heap on the far side-gathered convulsively, and staggered on against the avalanche of lead that was loosed against it. "Forrard away-forrard away!" shouted the officers. The response was magnificent - the loss in keeping with the desperate nature of the rush. General Yule's brigade-major, Colonel Sherston, a nephew of Lord Roberts, was among the first to fall. The fifty yards were gained, men and officers began to haul themselves up the face of the sheer incline. Rifles, Irish Fusiliers, Dublins were all represented in the charge, but the greatest share of the credit belongs to the Rifles, who supplied most of the men and lost most heavily. Colonel Gunning, who had so gallantly led the attack, was killed as he reached the crest. Among the other officers it is hard to single out names where all distinguished themselves, but Captain Nugent and Lieutenant Stirling of the Rifles, Captain Connor (mortally wounded) and Captain Pike of the Irish Fusiliers, and Captain Dibley of the Dublins may be mentioned as among the first to reach the crest of the hill.
Position all but won. Officer's narrative.
Most of the Boers only waited to see that the dead ground beneath them was reached and then streamed away over the reverse of the position. But a gallant handful fought against the momentum which carried the defenders from the position. Failing to rally their flying comrades, they boldly faced the assault and, standing on the crest4ine, snapped their rifles in the very faces of the British officers who led the final rush. But their bravery seemed unavailing. Talana Hill was won-or all but won.
The following extract from an officer's diary gives a graphic picture of the final rush and of the unfortunate accident that marred the moment of victory:
"I don't suppose I am ever likely to go through a more awful fire than broke out from the Boer line as we dashed forward. The ground in front of me was literally rising in dust from the bullets, and the din echoing between the hill and the wood below and among the rocks from the incessant fire of the Mausers seemed, to blend with every other sound into a long drawn-out hideous roar. Half way over the terrace I looked round over my shoulder, and I confess I was rather horrified at what I saw. 5- was close beside me and a few men here and there, but the whole ground we had already covered was strewn with bodies, and no more men were coming from over the wall. At that moment I was hit for the first time, just as I reached the foot of the hill beyond the terrace. I was hit through the knee. The actual shock was as if someone had hit me with their whole strength with a club. I spun round and fell, my pistol flying one way and helmet another. At first I hardly realised what had happened, and jumped up again, only to come flat on my face again on putting my right leg to the ground. I felt numbed at first but no actual pain. I gathered up my property and hopped to the foot of the rise from the terrace to the top. There I began to pull myself up by holding on to the rocks and bushes and long grass with which the hillside was covered. Though we were covered here from direct aimed fire, except from the crest above us, bullets from both flanks were flying thick. About 15 to 20 yards up the hill I was hit a second time by a shot from above; the bullet hit me in the back above my right hip and came out in front of my thigh. After a short rest I got up and began to crawl to the top. I had reached the crest line and was leaning against a rock when a Boer stood up twenty yards in front of me and faced me. We both looked at one another for a moment and then almost simultaneously he threw up his rifle and covered me and I took a step forward and covered him with my Mauser pistol. My first wound saved me, for in stepping forward I forgot 'fly wounded leg, and as I pulled the trigger the leg gave way and I fell flat on my face. Whether the Boer fired or not I cannot say, there Was too much din to distinguish one rifle from another even at that short range. After falling, I drew back under cover of the rock and raised myself carefully, ready to shoot if I spotted my man again. He was gone, however, and, as I was looking, I was hit a third time, this time along the back, the bullet coming out just by my spine.
…After a while hearing W-'s voice I called him, and asked if he had any dressings. He brought me one. He was wounded over the eye. The firing was gradually dying down, only to bring to our ears what was infinitely more painful to hear, the moaning of wounded men from the terrace below and the hillside round us. . . . I had just taken off my accoutrements and was beginning to bandage my leg when a shrapnel shell burst overhead. We both, W- and I, stared in astonishment. We could see our artillery on the plain below us, 1500 yards off, facing the hill, but for the moment I could not realise that they were about to open on us. It seemed impossible that they should not have seen our advance from the wall, especially as they had ceased firing for over half an hour previously. I sat anxiously watching, and presently I saw another flash from a gun, and then, with a scream and a crash, a shrapnel shell burst just behind us. There was no room for error this time; the artillery were shelling us, and presently shrapnel began to burst all along the hillside. I felt rather beat then. I didn't feel as if I could do anything to help myself, and a feeling of despair came over me for a while. It seemed so hard, after escaping the Boers so far, to be killed by our own people. W- and I lay as close as we could under the rock, and below me on the terrace I watched the wretched fellows who were wounded trying to drag themselves to the wall for shelter. Presently a shrapnel burst right over our heads, and the bullets struck the ground all round us. Our men were now flying off the top of the hill for shelter below, and the Boers from both flanks, seeing their chance, began firing again as hard as they could load. . . . Our artillery had most effectually cleared us off the hill, and if the Boers had been any good at all we might have had to retake the hill a second time."
British driven off crest by their own artillery. Crest finally occupied 1.30.
The shelling of troops by their own artillery is an incident almost inevitable in modern warfare. In this particular instance it is not difficult to understand how it occurred. Just as the assault was beginning the batteries had limbered up, crossed the spruit, and taken up a new position further north and within 1400 yards of the crest. Here the guns immediately came under a heavy fire from the Boers on the northern part of the crest of Talana. Misled by this the gunners assumed that the Boers were still in possession of the whole ridge, and somehow failed to notice even at that short range the little spots of dull yellowy-brown dotted among the rocks of the crest4ine on the centre and right of the hill which had crept up there while the guns were changing their position. Colonel Pickwoad gave the order for a very rapid fire on the ridge. The fire lasted for ten minutes and effectually cleared the summit of Talana of friend and foe alike. The extreme right of the infantry attack, indeed, escaped this fire and remained on the crest, but the centre and left came within its sweep. Among those who lost their lives through this unfortunate accident was Lieutenant Norman Hambro, of the 60th Rifles, who, though wounded twice in the advance, had dragged himself to the summit as an encouragement to his men, only to be mutilated out of all recognition by British shrapnel. One act of conspicuous bravery deserves special mention. when the shrapnel of the British gunners was making the summit of Talana untenable for the whole and a shambles for the wounded, a signaller of the Royal Irish Fusiliers leaped upon a prominent boulder and, standing in the spread of the pitiless bullets, endeavoured to call up the offending battery. It was an act as deserving of Her Majesty's most coveted order as any which have earned it in the face of the enemy. The shelling was now stopped, but after a short interval to allow the infantry to get down under cover it was renewed and continued till every part of the Crest had been thoroughly searched. It was nearly 1.30 before the crest was finally re-occupied after a very slight resistance.
Boer mistakes. Incompetence of Meyer. Failure of Erasmus to co-operate.
The Boers now retired from the whole of Talana, beginning to evacuate Lennox Hill about the same time. The four or five hundred men who remained on the crest once the fighting became serious had held their own with splendid stubbornness, unsupported by artillery, without any reinforcements, and without any directions from Lukas Meyer, who seems to have completely lost his nerve and to have been a mere helpless spectator of the fight from a safe position on Lennox Hill. Of their commandants, the only one who displayed any marked courage or attempted to rally the burghers was Hattingh, of the Utrecht commando. Their ranks had been slowly thinning for the last few hours as men were killed and wounded or dribbled away to the rear-many finding an excuse in the rumour that their retreat was being cut off by the British cavalry. Their casualties, between 40 and 50 killed (including Field-Cornet Sassenberg of Wakkerstroom) and 90 or 100 wounded, sufficiently attest both the bravery of their defence and the inadequacy of their preparation. In many a subsequent engagement the Boers in their trenches were to face a much hotter fire than that poured in by two batteries on Talana with far less loss. Even on this occasion, if, instead of keeping on the exposed ridge of the mountain, the Boers had come down to the upper wall, the British might never have succeeded in getting beyond the wood. This suggestion was made to Meyer before the battle but rejected by him on the ground that the wall was too low to offer shelter from shrapnel fire. The commandos on Lennox Hill allowed the whole of the British attack to be concentrated on Talana, and contented themselves with directing a long range flanking fire on the British advance instead of attempting some more vigorous counterstroke upon the right rear of the British position. Large parties moved about the hills to the southeast professing to be circumventing the cavalry or otherwise taking part in the operations, but chiefly anxious to be well outside the range of the British guns. But if a great part of Lukas Meyer's force took only a very half-hearted part in the battle, the force that was to co-operate from the north took no part at all. Erasmus, with some 2,000 men, mainly of the Pretoria commando had reached the Navigation Colliery by 5 A.M. and made his way on to Impati. The mountain was shrouded in mist, but the sound of the battle could be heard quite close, while every now and again the curtain of mist lifted sufficiently to let the main outline of the action become visible. An attack or even a fairly strong demonstration against the Dundee camp from this side would have forced General Yule to abandon the attempt to carry Talana. But Erasmus was incompetent and timid, and found the mist a sufficient excuse for complete inaction both on that day and a great part of the next.
Artillery fail to punish retreating Boers. The flag of truce.
As soon as it was realised that the infantry were in possession of the hill, the two batteries under Colonel Pickwoad were ordered up to Smith's Nek. The batteries unlimbered on Smith's Nek at 2 P.M. in drizzling rain. The sight which met the gunners eyes was a wonderful one. The whole of the Boer force almost, including their artillery, was, in a leisurely fashion, streaming away across the plain in dense masses barely 1,000 yards from the very muzzles of their pieces. Rarely has such a mark fallen to the portion of artillery in wan At this critical moment Colonel Pickwoad, upset, perhaps, by the unfortunate mishap described above, seems to have lost his nerve. whether he thought that our mounted troops were mixed up with the Boers, or was afraid of hitting the Boer ambulances, or saw a white ~ag raised by some of the retreating Boers, is not quite clear either from his own report or from the accounts of other officers who were with him. Whichever it was, it was no reason for even a moment's hesitation. But Colonel Pickwoad refused to fire in spite of the entreaties of his subordinates. Instead he sent messengers galloping off to find General Yule and ask him what to do. In this connexion Colonel Pickwoad may have been influenced by a rather curious incident. About 12.30, or even earlier, at any rate while the Boers were still in possession of Talana, Lukas Meyer was suddenly seized with the strange inspiration to ask for a temporary suspension of hostilities to enable the wounded to be safely removed to the field hospitals. The message was intrusted to a despatch rider called Taljaard, who rode round the north of Talana. Here he met an officer who took his message and rode to find General Yule. On his way the officer met Colonel rickwoad, who urged him to advise the general not to grant the enemy a truce to cover their retirement. General Yule, however, apparently told the officer in question that he would grant it. Whether it was ever actually granted is uncertain, for the officer never found Taljuard again. On the other hand, according to Lukas Meyer's own statement in a subsequent interview, General Symons (presumably an error for General Yule) granted the request on condition that the Boers retreated behind the Buffalo. But at the time that the batteries first got up to Smith's Nek it is doubtful if the message had yet reached General Yule, who was at the extreme north end of Talana, and, in any case, Colonel Pickwoad received no definite order that a truce had been granted. Whatever the cause, the Boers were allowed to withdraw from the field unmolested, and a great opportunity, which by its moral effect might have had an incalculable influence upon the whole subsequent course of the war, was thrown away.
Troops return to camp.
Some of the infantry now went down to the Boer hospital at the foot of Talana, where they found large quantities of ponies, rifles, and ammunition belonging to Boers who had been killed or wounded or who had turned themselves into impromptu Red Cross men to avoid further danger. But no attempt was made to push on after the Boers in order to co-operate with the cavalry, who were believed to be cutting off their retreat. General Yule had for some time been anxious about the Boers on Impati. He had already, after the first 'nishap with the artillery, hesitated before deciding to give the final order for the troops to occupy the crest of Talana. He was still less inclined now to impose any further strain on his weary infantry. The men had been out for ten hours on an empty stomach-for General Symons, in his eagerness for the attack, had allowed no time for breakfas~for most of the time under heavy fire. It was now rahdflg heavily; and more could hardly be asked of them. The order was given to return to camp, which most of the units teached by 5.30.
Movements of cavalry. Möller abandons good position for one directly in rear of Boers. Captures some prisoners.
It will now be necessary to follow the unlucky career of the mounted troops under Colonel Möller. Soon after the Boers first opened fire on the British camp, General Symons sent Colonel Möller the following verbal order: "To wait under cover, it may be for one or two hours, and I will send him word when to advance; but he may advance if he sees a good opportunity:' A few minutes later the general sent Colonel Beckett galloping across to Colonel Möller to tell him that he should be further up, that the enemy's guns were being withdrawn, and that he had missed his opportunity of capturing them, following this impatient missive by another to tell Möller to intercept the Boer retreat. Leaving behind a section of the mounted infantry of the Rifles as escort to the gnus, the rest of Colonel Möller's force, the 18th Hussars, and the mounted infantry of the Dublins and a section of the Rifles, went forward to work round the north of Talana. The mounted troops found no difficulty in turning the Boer right. The automatic gun which had been used against the infantry advance was now turned upon them harmlessly from Talana; but as soon as they passed out of sight of the gunners no further notice seems to have been taken of them. Moving along the far bank of the Saud River for a couple of miles they then turned sharply to the right, crossed the De Jager's Drift Road in rear of Talana, and took up a position with excellent cover on a ridge about 1500 yards to the right rear of the Boer position on Talana. They were so close that the bulk of the Boer ponies, massed in rear of the hill, were in full view before them. Here the little force was admirably placed. Several courses presented themselves: unobserved as they were they could wait ensconced until the enemy were driven to their horses and then charge down upon them, or they could at once open fire and stampede the Boer ponies, or they might even, under cover of the Maxim, deliver a dismounted attack on the enemy's right rear simultaneously with the infantry assault. At the same time they were in a position to repel any Boer attempt at outfianking the British attack, and if outnumbered had a clear line of retreat. Unfortunately Colonel Möller, possibly influenced by General Symons's peremptory messages, and somehow under the impression that the presence of Boers in some numbers on the hills south-east of Lennox Hill meant that they were retreating along the hill tops, decided to abandon his post of vantage and push on into the open ground immediately behind the Boer position. Major Knox, his second in command, vainly asked for permission to open fire on the Boer ponies. He was ordered to advance with two squadrons to the rear of Talana and Lennox and see what the Boers were doing. The two squadrons galloped about in the mist and drizzle and hit upon several small parties of Boers, whom they charged. The sabres of the troopers, blunted by the steel scabbards which one of the many foolish fashions of the British Army ordained as necessary for British though not for Indian cavalry, failed to cut througli the stout home-spun of the Boer coats, but some thirty or forty more or less bruised and shaken prisoners were taken. Most of these were tied together in a long file behind a Scotch cart and entrusted to the mounted infantry who, with Colonel Möller and the remaining squadron of the Hussars, had now come up. The position of the little force at this time, about 11.30 or 12, directly behind the main force of the Boers, who were already beginning to swarm down the hills like angry bees from a hive, was most dangerous. But instead of retiring Colonel Möller ordered Knox with two squadrons and one troop to go still further south to the hills which stretch east of the coalfields, while he ordered the Maxim detachment of the Hussars and the mounted infantry to take up a position directly across the Boer line of retreat, first on the Landman's and then on the Vant's Drift Road, he himself keeping his remaining two troops of Hussars somewhat in their rear
Möller gallops right round Impati and is there captured by Erasmus's force.
The rest of Colonel Möller's proceedings have been well described by one of the officers who took part in it as a nightmare. To attempt to stop a charging bull with an umbrella would be hardly less foolish than this attempt to bar the retreat of the whole Boer force with 120 rifles lined out on an open plain. Very soon Colonel Möller became alarmed at his own temerity. He attempted to recall Knox, but considerable numbers of the enemy had meanwhile come in between the two parties, and the messenger failed to get through. A body of some 200 Boers had now collected and made a determined attack on the mounted infantry. The latter, though skilfully disposed by Captain Lonsdale of the Dublin Fusiliers, were forced to fall back to avoid being surrounded. From this time on it was a continuous succession of retirements, largely at the gallop, the mounted infantry covering the retreat as best they could. The direction was first towards a ridge near Dn Schultz's Farm. Here the Maxim stuck in a spruit, and in spite of the gallantry of Lieutenant Cape and the detachment, all of whom were killed or wounded, fell into the enemy's hands, but not before a corporal had rendered it useless by destroying the water-jacket. The captors were a little party of seven led by P. L. Uys, grandson of the Piet Uys who fell fighting for the British at Hlobane in 1879. The Boers had already recovered their prisoners, some of whom they wounded by mistake. The force was now well away from the Boer line of retreat and almost unmolested. But instead of trying to make his way back towards Dundee Colonel Möller went blundering on at a gallop across the Sand River towards the northern extremity of Impati. It would seem that he first took this direction by mistake, being misled by the mist into imagining that he was going back the way he had come. When the mistake was discovered he was unwilling to retrace his steps for fear of being cut off by the Boers, and hurried on in the hope of getting round Impati and back by the Newcastle road. The force had already begun to round the northern spur of Impati when it was discovered by a party of 200 or 300 Boers of Erasmus's force under Commandant Trichardt at the Navigation Collieries. The buildings of Maritz's Farm two or three miles to the north seemed to offer the best chance for defence till nightfall, when it might be possible to slip back to camp. Here the Hussars were placed in the farm buildings while the mounted infantry were disposed on slight knolls about 200 yards off. This was about 1.15. For some time the men managed to hold their own. But soon after 3 P.M. a gun was brought to bear from the coalfields, followed by another brought within 1400 yards range. The fifth or sixth shell from this stampeded the horses. Ammunition was beginning to be short. Colonel Möller decided to surrender, and about 4.30 the white flag was hoisted. The casualties had not been heavy, only 8 men having been killed and 18 wounded since leaving the position in rear of Talana. It is difficult to find good grounds for this surrender or for the extraordinary manoeuvres which preceded it. The position of the little force at Maritz's Farm was no doubt hopeless. But it is impossible to overlook the moral effect of the example of such a surrender upon the whole subsequent course of the war.
Major Knox's detachment returns safely.
The squadrons under Major Knox were more skilfully handled. After skirmishing with the Boers on the hills to the south of the open ground, they struck across to the north again (by this time Colonel Möller had left) and drove back several small bodies of Boers coming from De Jager's Drift. But the main body of the Boers were now in full retreat, and, to avoid being cut off, Major Knox struck off south-east towards Malungeni, under an accurate shell-fire from the retreating Boer artillery. Here, with the help of the mist, he managed to conceal his men under cover, breaking back as soon as a favourable opportunity occurred and returning to camp about 7 P.M.
Leisurely retreat of Boers. General effect of the battle.
The main body of Lukas Meyer's force continued its leisurely retreat. A small force was left on the heights above Maybole Farm while the rest of the burghers recrossed the Buffalo and went back to their laagers. It cannot be said that the mass of the Boers were permanently demoralised by their repulse. But they undoubtedly returned with a very different impression of the quality of the British soldier from that with which they had started out the night before. Talana created a respect for British valour and a disinclination to come to too close quarters with British troops which had no small effect upon the subsequent tactics of the Boers. From the British point of view, Talana was a splendid example of the bravery of the British soldier and still more of the British regimental officer. The high proportion - ten to thirty-one - of officers to men killed is sufficient evidence of the gallantry and devotion with which officers exposed themselves. But the success of the day was marred by the two unfortunate incidents of the failure of the artillery to shell the retreating Boers, and of the inglorious episode of Colonel M6llefs surrender. Nor in any case could a single victory change the falseness of the strategical situation in Natal.