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The Refights
The Battle of Rietfontein, 24 October 1899

General Sir G. S. White, V.C., G.C.B., G.C.S.I., G.C.M.G.

Oct.21. Yule decides to stay in Dundee, but moves camp.

We must now turn our attention once more to the fortunes of the Dundee column. The crest of Talana had no sooner been cleared than General Yule withdrew his infantry, leaving tile Dundee Town Guard in occupation of the heights. As the troops withdrew, the heavy rain, which had been threatening all day, came down in torrents, and night fell on a scene of dreary discomfort and uncertainty. Great difficulty was experienced in the housing of the wounded. The morning after the battle was as wet arid cheerless as the evening which had preceded it. In grappling with Lukas Meyer's commando tile Dundee column had well-nigh expended itself. As a fighting force it was severely crippled. The casualties of October 20 had left it practically without a directing staff, and the successful assault on Talana had only temporarily brushed aside a small portion of the invading army.  Prom the reports of their intelligence General Yule and his staff were not long in realising that they were still confronted with the main force of the in­vading army, and that, so far from being free to take the aggressive, they were themselves in a very precarious position. General Yule accordingly telegraphed to Ladysmith that he would require to be reinforced in order to make sure of holding Dundee. By 1.30 Sir G. White's reply came: no troops could be spared without sacrificing Ladysmith and the colony behind; Yule should try to fall back on Lady-smith, and Sir G. White would do what he could to help him when nearer. This was not a direct order to retire, and General Yule was reluctant to abandon his wounded and the large reserve of supplies accumulated at Dundee. But he rightly considered the camp chosen by General Symons within ordinary field artillery range both of Talana and Impati untenable, and proceeded at once to select a new site some distance farther south and on higher ground.

"Long Tom" opens fire from Impati. Camp moved again. Oct. 22. Reconnaissance to Glencoe.

The men had scarcely begun intrenching when the mist which had hung heavily on Impati all the morning cleared away. During the morning the Boers had dragged up on to the western shoulder of Impati a 6-inch Creusot or "Long Tom," ­which, thanks to British forethought in leaving tile bridges untouched, had come down from Laing's Nek by rail. When at 4 P.M. the divided mist declared the British in the plain, the Boer gunners commenced to lay alike upon the old encampment and upon the men engaged in making the new intrenchments, the latter at a range of 7000 yards. The surprise was hardly less complete than had been the surprise of the first shell from Talana on the morning before. Shell after shell fell amongst the tents and baggage lines. Con­sidering the number and weight of the projectiles the damage was slight but there were some casualties.  Lieutenant W. M. J. Hannah, Leicestershire Regiment, was killed. At the end of an hour the rain and mist stopped the bombardment. The force withdrew under cover and spent a comfort­less night in pouring rain. The town was at the same time evacuated by its inhabitants, most of whom took refuge in some farm-houses near the position occupied by the troops; others, less confident in the situation, left by road for the south. At 3 A.M. the troops moved to another site selected for a camp still farther to the south, on a foothill of Mount Indumeni.  All ranks anticipated a severe struggle, but hour after hour went by and no enemy appeared. During the morning news arrived of the success at Elandslaagte. Many conflicting reports were in circulation, chief of which was that the main column of the enemy, dispirited by two reverses, was in full retreat upon Newcastle. - Acting upon this information, and hoping to intercept some of the fugitives from Elandslaagte, General Yule, at about nine o'clock, marched out with all troops with the idea of occupying Glencoe junction.  The enemy were, however, found strongly posted along the ridge from Impati down to the junction.  The 69th and 67th batteries came into action against them, and the Hussars had an encounter with a small party, some of their men getting cut off from the rest and eventually making good their way to Lady-smith. Suddenly "Long Tom" opened again upon the force while halted near Glencoe. After a brief cannonade, rain again intervened, and the whole force trudged back through the mire to the position from which they had started in the mormng, accompanied by occasional shells.

Oct.22. Yule decides to evacuate Dundee.

It was then realised by the senior officers that the reports of the demorilisation of the enemy and his retreat of to New- castle were fables. The force had not had time to recover from the severe shock of Talana; it was tired and dispirited by useless marching and counter-marching in mud and rain, and by continually shifting camp to avoid the varied inten­sity of the enemy's shell-fire. It was necessary to come to some decision. General Yule's position was not altogether unlike that in which Sir John Moore found himself at Lugo. He had several alternatives open to him. An attempt to drive Erasmus out of his position on Impati was practically out of the question. It might be possible to delay another day or two' expecting the Boers to give some opening for a successful attack.  Or, again, he might simply take up a defensive position and hold out till he could be relieved. The general seemed disposed to intrench on Talana, at any rate for the time being, and not retreat till forced to do so. Orders were actually issued for a march to Talana at 9 P.M. But his senior officers succeeded in persuading him to follow the example set by Sir John Moore when he retreated to Corunna. It was determined to leave all standing in the camp, and to slip away by forced marches down the Help­makaar road.[1] There can be little doubt that this decision saved the column from disaster and England from the deepest humiliation. It was necessary to abandon the camp, its three months' store of provisions, a considerable quantity of ammunition and the kits of both officers and men. What was felt much more keenly was that the extreme delicacy of the manoeuvre necessitated the desertion of the hospital, the dying general, and the wounded. It was impossible even to warn the people of Dundee of the intended evacuation. The smallest intimation in the town would have been conveyed to the enemy's lines in time to have impaired the success of the surprise. Dundee - and Ladysmith too - were teeming with Dutch agents. In fact one of the burghers who captured Colonel Möller's force informed a wounded officer that he had been drinking in the sergeants' mess of one of the British regiments the night before. The Natalians said hard things at the time against General Yule for leaving the Town Guard of Dundee to its fate; but under the circumstances it is difficult to see what other course was open to him.

Oct, 22. The night march out. Beith, Van Tonder's Nek, the Waschbank. Oct.24.

The retirement commenced at 9.30 P.M. on the night of Sunday, October 22. The orders for the march to Talana still held good and none but the senior officers and Colonel Dartnell, commanding the Natal Police, who was to lead the head of the column on to the Helpmakaar road, had any idea of the real nature of the enterprise.  It was very dark, and the stillness of the night was only broken by the rumble and creaking of the transport and artillery, and the murmur of the teams as they strained to pull their burdens through the slough.  So quietly was the manoeuvre carried out that the townspeople of Dundee slept through it all, and awoke in the morning in the belief, shared by the enemy, that the camp was still occupied.  Just outside Dundee a convoy of thirty-three wagons containing the supplies for the march, which Major Wickham had loaded up in the old camp after dark, were skillfully dovetailed into the column. Within two hours the whole column, four miles long, was clear of the town, a piece of admirable management on the part of a short-handed staff! The men were dog-tired when they started, and during the halts, which of necessity were frequent, they threw themselves in the slush and slept until the order to advance or close up was next passed down the line. When day dawned the advance guard had placed ten miles between them and the camp.  The force then halted for breakfast. But the danger of pursuit from the enemy in their rear, and the possibility that the passes in front of them might be held, made it necessary to delay as little as possible, and at 10 o'clock the sleeping men were shaken up, and the retreat continued. The column reached Beith, where the road branches to Waschbank, at 2.30 P.M., and bivouacked in the mud until nightfall. The most critical stage of the march was now before it. The next six or eight miles of road led through the steep and narrow defile known as Van Tonder's Nek. In that defile a handful of men could have held up a whole army, and the Boers, if they had become aware of General Yule's departure early in the morning, had had ample time to send enough men ahead to make a passage impossible. Fortunately the scouts who were sent forward to reconnoitre the pass reported that all was clean The heights were picketed, and at 11 P.M. the march was resumed. For four weary and anxious hours the tired men dragged themselves down the pass, until the plain at the foot of the Biggarsberg was reached. Once through, officers and men breathed more freely and stepped out, footsore but cheery, over the six miles of plain that separated them from the Waschbank River. The river was crossed in daylight, and the whole column, thoroughly exhausted, threw itself down on the far bank to sleep and get dry in the warm sunshine. It is a safe maxim of South African travel never to halt on the near side of a river, however insignificant. The maxim was once more vindicated, for in the afternoon the river came down in flood, and the outposts on the far side were detained for hours. But the column had now shaken itself clear of the perilous defiles of the Biggarsberg and could congratulate itself on the skill with which it had conducted its escape. The remaining thirty miles of com­paratively open country presented no special difficulties, and another day's march would bring it within touch of Lady-smith. Colonel Dartnell, whose local knowledge and cheery confidence had been simply invaluable to General Yule, now left the column and rode into Ladysmith to report its suc­cessful arrival at the Waschbank.

Oct. 24. White moves out force to cover Yule's retreat. Shelled by Boers from Tintwa Inyonl.

The Dundee column was, however, not yet clear of all possible molestation. Its further advance westward would bring it into uncomfortable proximity to the Free State commando which had reoccupied Elandslaagte on the preceding day. This rendered it imperative that the troops in Ladysmith should be used to prevent the enemy from attacking the retreating column on its exposed flank. To effect this object Sir G. White moved out on the morning of October 24 with a force comprising an infantry brigade (Gloucesters, Devons, Liverpools, 2nd King's Royal Rifles [2]) under Colonel Ian Hamilton, the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Imperial Light Horse and a strong force of Natal Mounted Volunteers under General French, and the 42nd and 53rd Field and No.10 Mountain Battery, and three days' provisions.  His intention was to demonstrate in force against the Free Staters, who were known to be in possession of the Jonono range and of the heights above Rietfontein farm seven or eight miles out of Ladysmith, and thus prevent their coming east of the railway line. The cavalry pushed on ahead, followed at some interval by the main body moving along the Newcastle road in column of route. The cavalry rode nearly as far as Modder Spruit unmolested, but as the head of the main column came opposite the lofty saddle-backed ridge of Tintwa Inyoni (or Intintanyone, the pie­turesque Zulu name means "the birds fly high") on the left of the road, there was a sudden flash on the northern shoulder of the ridge and a shell pitched with marvellous accuracy into the leading battery (42nd), carrying off Captain Douglas's haversack and killing a horse. Practically at the same moment the flanking patrols of the 5th Lancers were in contact with the enemy's outposts on the low spurs near the road. These outposts the cavalry drove in, and, dismounting, occupied the spurs themselves. The enemy meanwhile made excellent practice with their gun at 4500 yards, but they used black powder and their position stood at once declared. The ridge of Tintwa Jnyoni ran roughly parallel to the railway for about a mile. At each end it rose into a hill, the southern peak standing out most prominently.  This peak and the northern shoulder of the ridge were perhaps 1000 feet high, but the saddle sank very considerably be­tween them. Behind the saddle was the Boer laager. The Boers occupied the ridge and the heights for several miles on either side of it. Between Tintwa Inyoni and the railway, and likewise parallel to it, was a similar but lower ridge. Between these two ridges lay a plain, perhaps 800 yards in width. The ascent from the railway to this lower ridge was gradual, ending at the summit in a stretch of almost level table-land before dropping rather abruptly to the inter­vening plain. On to this ridge Sir G. White determined, without more ado, to move forward his infantry and artillery in order to shell the enemy out of the commanding heights above him. The range from the northern shoulder of Tintwa Inyoni (where the enemy's guns were posted) to the ridge was 1200 to 1500 yards. To the left of the ridge the valley between it and Tintwa Inyoni runs up into a series of nullahs winding round the bases of two smaller kopjes which overshadow Rietfontein, the homestead from which the engagement takes its official name. Both of the British flanks were protected by mounted troops. The Imperial Light Horse, 5th Lancers and 19th Hussars were on the right, while the Natal Carbineers, Border Mounted Rifles, Natal Police and the Natal Mounted Rifles were called back to take up positions on the left.

Oct.24. Action of Rietfontein or Tintwa Inyoni.

The two field batteries had already been replying to the Boer gun, and now, preceded by No. 10 Mountain Battery, they came into action on the summit of the table-land, and in a few minutes the Boer gun was silenced and removed. The infantry line then deployed along the table-land, the Gloucesters and Liverpools leading, supported by the Devons.[3] As the infantry slowly advanced, they were received with a long-ranged rifle-fire. They came into action about 8 A.M., and remained under long-ranged fire about four hours until the artillery had practically reduced all opposition from the hill tops. At about 10 A.M. it seemed as if parties of Boers were attempting to turn the British left flank from the lower slopes of Nodashwana, a hill south-west of Tintwa Inyoni.  The Natal Mounted Rifles and Border Rifles were protecting this portion of Sir George White's front, and they, directed by Sir A. Hunter, proved equal to the occasion, pushing up the valley from Rietfontein farm, and holding the enemy with dismounted fire from the summit of the two small kopjes which bridged the south end of the valley. An unfortunate incident occurred about 11 A.M. when, owing to some mistake or confusion of orders, the Gloucesters began to advance down the face of the ridge.  They at once became the target for a murderous fire and lost heavily. Colonel Wilford and six men were killed, and another forty wounded, the Maxim detachment which had followed the battalion into the firing-line being almost annihilated. The battalion was unfortunate, for a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse which lay on its right and advanced with it suffered no casualty, though equally exposed to the enemy's fire. At midday Sir George White, having secured helio­graphic communication with General Yule's column at the Waschbank, considered that he had attained his object, and under cover of the guns the infantry was withdrawn. The enemy in no way molested their retirement, but the cavalry on the right wing, some of whom had pushed on beyond Modder Spruit and carried on a desultory fight with the Boer skirmishing parties, experienced some difficulty in falling back. As long as they held the low kopjes with dismounted rifle-fire they were secure, but as each vantage ground was evacuated, the Boer skirmishers galloped up to it and poured a galling fire into the retiring horsemen.

Result of the Rietfontein action.

As a sensational action the engagement at Rietfontein presents little of interest, though the casualties in the Gloucester Regiment afforded a striking proof of the dead­liness of modern rifles at long ranges. The men were simply called upon to carry out the trying task of demonstrating against a position the defenders of which they could not see, and of suffering casualties without the gratifying knowledge that the enemy were losing as heavily as themselves. The total casualties at Rietfontein amounted to 1 officer and 11 men killed; 6 officers and 98 men wounded.[4]  The avowed object of the march was undoubtedly attained. Whether it might have been attained equally well by shelling the hills without bringing the infantry within rifle range, or even by the simple occupation of one or two of the several watching positions available along the Newcastle road, is an open question. Sir G. White certainly believed that he inflicted heavy losses on the Boors, and thus pro­duced a considerable moral effect. But it is doubtful if these losses much exceeded the Boer official return of 9 killed and 21 wounded. The Boers for their part imagined that they had successfully repelled a British attempt to take their position, and were correspondingly elated. Whether such an attack in force could have been carried out without heavy loss from the ridge below Tiutwa Inyoni is an open question. But the Boers had every reason to expect that Sir G. White was endeavouring to oust them from their position. Where they were they not only threatened General Yule's flank, but, what was more important, acted as a screen behind which Joubert's main army could effect its junction with the Free Staters round Ladysmith. The whole stra­tegical scheme on which the occupation of Ladysmith was based demanded that this small body of Free Staters should, even at the risk of heavy losses, be attacked and driven back to the west without delay, so as to allow of free action against Joubert's advancing columns. If Sir G. White con­sidered the force with him insufficient for the task, it might perhaps have been possible to have ordered General Yule to effect a junction with the Ladysmith force somewhere south of Elandslaagte the next day, preparatory to an action on the 26th. However, Sir G. White thought it safest to return to Ladysmith and await General Yule's arrival before taking any further action.

Oct. 24. Yule at Waschbank. Oct. 25. Retreat continued. Experiences of the night march. Oct. 26. Dundee column reaches Ladysmith.

The sound of Sir G. White's guns in action at Rietfontein was clearly heard by the column resting by the Waschbank. General Yule sent out two batteries and most of his mounted troops towards Elandslaagte to see if it were possible to give any assistance.  But the detachment returned at 4 P.M. without finding any signs of the enemy, though they were able to heliograph to the Ladysmith column. The danger from pursuit was not now so great, as, indeed, is shown by General Yule's action in detaching so important a part of his force, and the troops rested all that afternoon and evening by the river. But the discomforts of the retreat had in no wise diminished. Pain came down in torrents, making the low­land tracks almost impassable for wheeled traffic. On October 25 the march was resumed at 3 A.M., rearguards being strengthened, as the Basuto scouts reported that Boers were hovering about.  The swollen Sunday's River was successfully crossed by 10 A.M.  Shortly after midday the march was resumed and another six miles covered before the column outspanned. Jt was now within easy reach of Lady-smith, and could hope to march in comfortably the following afternoon. But scarcely had the men thrown themselves down to rest than two squadrons of the 5th Lancers, who formed the advance guard of a supporting column sent out from Ladysmith, rode up. The Lancers were received with loud cheers. But the enthusiasm was damped when it was discovered that they brought the news that Ladysmith con­sidered the situation of the Dundee column very serious, and that it was to continue its march at once. This entailed another effort on the part of the weary troops, and at 6 P.M. they fell in for another night march. The experiences in this, the last of the flight marches, were frightful. The column moved at a snail's pace, each man holding on to the file in front of him lest touch should be lost in the inky darkness The men were sodden to the skin by the streaming torrents of rain, and the track was knee-deep in sticky mud. Wearied, hungry, and miserable beyond endurance, the men fell down asleep in the ranks as they floundered through the mire or stood halted waiting for the baggage to move forward. Oxen and horses fell prostrate in the traces, and, refusing to stand again, were left to die in the track, and completed the disorder of the infantry stumbling over them in the darkness. It sometimes took hours to cover a hundred yards, and the wagon road became an impassable morass. All night through men and animals crawled stolidly and stubbornly through mud and rain. At daybreak the head of the column met the supporting force bivouacked by the Modder Spruit, some seven miles east of Ladysmith. Here a halt was made, while for the next few hours the men staggered in in driblets. Towards midday the force was sufficiently recovered to be able to march into Ladysmith.  The men were utterly exhausted by the strain of battle and retreat, caked in mud from head to foot, and dull from the want of sleep. But the battalions shaped as their feet felt the firmer bottom of the Ladysmith roads, and even attempted to sing as they were met with the acclamations of the garrison. Such was the return of the victors of Dundee. It had been a fine march, a necessary retreat skilfully carried out.  General Yule was in such poor health that the conduct of the retreat devolved mainly on Colonel Dartnell, Major Murray, and the other officers of his staff, and on the regimental com­manders,[5] to whom every credit is due for the successful issue of a difficult and dangerous operation. The men bore the hardships of the long marches by day and night, through rain and mud, following upon an exhausting battle and two weary days of moving about in the Dundee valley, with all the imperturbable cheeriness characteristic of the British soldier. But for the last night the column would have arrived a few hours later in as good condition as could be expected of troops who had to cover the not excessive distance of sixty-four miles of muddy roads in four days. Bat the last thirty-two miles of marching, almost without a rest, culmi­nating in that long night of floundering misery, was a strain which no troops could stand unshaken. The battalions had not time to recover from its ill-effects before their endurance was again put to the test.

[1] Apparently, after coming to this decision, General Yule at first telegraphed to Sir G. White that he intended to fall back on Helpmakaar, but Sir G. White answered ordering him to rejoin the Ladysmith force without delay.

[2] Just arrived from Maritzburg.

[3] The Rifles were first kept in reserve with the baggage, but four companies were subsequently brought up into the left of the firing line.

[4] Killed: 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, Colonel E. P. Wilford; wounded: Lieutenant C. J. Hickie.  42nd Battery R.F.A., wounded: Major A. J. Abdy, Lieutenants A. M. Perreau and G. H. Stobart. 19th Hussars, Lieutenant A. Holford.

[5] Colonel F. R. C. Carleton of the Irish Fusiliers, Colonel G. D. Carleton of the Leicesters, Major Bird of the Dublin Fusiliers, Major Campbell of the King's Royal Rifles, Major Knox, 18th Hussars, and Colonel Pickwoad, R.A. 

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