Dusty little Ladysmith was now the centre of all that the British Empire could do for the immediate defence of Natal. So far this all had not protected Northern Natal from being over-run. But few in England or among British South Africans doubted but that the tide of invasion had already flowed its fullest, and that it was destined before many days were out to be swept back by the force now united in Sir George wilite's hand. None shared that confidence more completely than the loyal colonists of Natal. If it had not been for the military occupation of Ladysmith camp, and the constant turmoil of arriving "supply," the casual visitor would never have realised that the enemy was actually at the gates. Business proceeded as usual. Ladies gave and attended garden parties. Martial law indeed was in force, and a guard of loyal townsfolk mounted every night, while war rumours formed the chief topic of conversation, but otherwise the ordinary life of the town went on undisturbed. It is a quaint little place, Ladysmith, just a little tin-roofed township nestling in one of the dips of the vast rolling hills; hugging a kopje and a deep-delved stream, and shaded by a few green trees standing out pleasantly amid the bare veld-a town of two parallel streets and a few detached villas, that is all. Yet it was destined to become a township with a history. Three months before the declaration of war it was but a sleepy garrison town, recalling by its name the memory of the fair Spaniard whom gallant young Harry Smith rescued from the sack of Badajoz, and owing whatever local prominence it possessed to the fact that it was the junction of the Transvaal and Orange Free State railway systems. But now it was the living centre of the British armed strength in Natal. Every hour trains rolled in from the south laden with every conceivable assortment of war store. Dutch wagons with spans of sixteen oxen, mule trollies, water-carts and pack trains, thronged the two-mile thoroughfare to the military camp. Every public building had been requisitioned as a store or hospital. From the compounds of churches and schools rose pyramids of beef boxes and flour sacks. The corrugated walls of hired houses were bulging with blanket bales and ordnance stores. Field ambulances and commissariat parks were billeted on every square yard of shaded ground that could be spared. Already three months' stores had arrived. Colonel Ward was straining every nerve to bring yet more food-stuffs into the town to make good the heavy loss due to the abandonment of General Yule's stores at Dundee.
From the very first Sir George White had foreseen that the isolation, possibly even the close investment, of Ladysmith was inevitable, unless he should succeed in checking the Boer advance by a crushing defeat in the field. The hills round Ladysmith were examined, and as early as October 24 the outlines of a scheme of defence were drawn up. At the same time Sir G. White, in view of the fact that the Boers were bringing powerful position guns into the field, telegraphed to Sir R. Harris, the admiral in command at Simon's Town, for some long-range naval guns. But though contemplating the possibility of investment, Sir G. White determined not to submit to it before attempting some bold stroke to break the circle which was steadily being drawn n)und Ladysmith. He was now rid of the Dundee entanglement, and, though the Boers were concentrating round Ladysmith in superior numbers, he trusted to their dispersion over more than twenty miles of front to give him an opportunity for delivering a decisive blow on one or more of their main positions. An opportunity for such a stroke was not long in presenting itself.
A reconnaissance conducted by General French on October 27 showed that a large commando with artillery was installed two miles east of Farquhar's Farm, while another was some miles further out near Modder Spruit siding. This was the vanguard of the main Boer army. Desultory skirmishing with the cavalry took place east of Lombard's Kop (about four miles due east of Ladysmith). Just before dark the laager east of Farquhar's Farm was reinforced by another large commando with guns and wagons coming across from the Newcastle Road, bringing up the total strength to between 4000 and 5000 men, with perhaps ten or eleven guns. Meanwhile Colonel Ian Hamilton, who had come out through Lombard's Nek and bivouacked near De Waal's Farm with an infantry brigade, had asked and received permission to make a night attack upon this laagen A more favourable opportunity for such an attack probably never recurred during the wan The Boers were camped in a straggling laager on both sides of the road on the open plain, unintrenched and quite linconscious of the close proximity of a large British force. There was no long night march to precede the attack, for the Boers were only two miles away. A clearly marked road led from near be Waal's Farm right through their laager, whose position had been accurately sketched and reconnoitred by an adventurous cavalry officen A small moon would give just enough light for movement but not for firing. The attack was fixed for I A.M. A well-defined udge 800 yards from the laager was to be the starting-point. Here the Royal Irish Fusiliers and Gordon High-landers, to whom the post of honour had been assigned, were to deploy, and with fixed bayonets and empty magazines to march directly upon the laage; the other two battalions supporting close behind, while the cavalry and artillery under General French were to stand fast at the bivouac till daylight, in readiness either to complete the enemy's rout or to extricate the infantry if the surprise failed. All ranks lay down excited but confident. At 11 P.M. a despatch rider came from headquarters ordering the force to return to Lady-smith. Apparently Sir G. White, who had been out to Lombard's Nek in the afternoon, at the last moment thought the operation too risky. It was an unfortunate decision. The circumstances were all exceptionally favourable to success, and success would have meant the capture of a good part of the Transvaal artillery and might perhaps have been followed by the panic-stricken flight of the whole Transvaal army. Moreover the Boer camp presented an admirable objectiv~a thing by no means easy to get with so mobile an enemy, as Sir G. White was soon to find out. The opportunity was not to occur again.
On Saturday and Sunday the bulk of the troops remained in Ladysmith, only the cavalry being out reconnoitring and skirmishing with small parties of Boers eastwards of Lombard's Nek. The bulk of the Transvaal forces had meanwhile come up and appaared to be threatening a complete envelopment of the town. On Sunday they cut the Ladysmith water supply, and were engaged in building, in full view of the garrison, a gun platform for "Long Tom" on the summit of the flat-topp&i ridge in front of Rietfontein known as Pep-worth Hill. Pepworth stands some 300-400 feet above the railway, which passes close under its south-eastern face, and is barely 7500 yards from the centre of Ladysmith. A large laager of the enemy lay in the valley between Pepworth and Tiutwa Inyoni. On the same day, as the result of another cavalry reconnaissance, General French reported the Boers to be in force with artillery on Long Hill, a long low ridge north of Farquhar's Farm and south-east of Pepworth, and his report was confirmed by the balloon which was sent up for the first time on that day. The Free Staters were meanwhile reported to have crossed the Ladysmith-Van Reenen Road to the south with their main force, leaving only a small body to the north and north-west of Ladysmith. Upon this information Sir G. White based his plans for a general action for the morning of October 30. An attack upon the Boers on Pep-worth for the 29th had been discussed on Saturday but put off, partly from an unwillingness to attack the Boers on a Sunday, a day on which their fanaticism and the memory of Majuba might inspire them with more than usual determination.
The general idea was to take advantage of the pre-occupation of the Free Staters with their advance southwards towards Colenso in order to roll up the whole Transvaal force from its left flank and destroy it by a vigorous pursuit well pressed home. The first objective of the attack was to be Long Hill. After being well "battered" by shrapnel, Long Hill was to be taken in flank and carried-and Talana and Elandslaagte had shown that British infantry were equal to such a task - by an infantry brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Battalions King's Royal Rifles, the Liverpools, and the Leicesters, strengthened by an extra battalion, the Dublin Fusiliers, and supported by Colonel Coxhead's Brigade Division of Field Artillery (21st, 42nd, 53rd Batteries) and the Natal Field Battery. The direction of this important operation was assigned to Colonel Grimwood of the 2nd 60th, the senior regimental officer in the brigade. Grimwood's right flank was to be covered by General French with the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, and the whole of the Natal Mounted Volunteers, who were to cross Lombard's Nek (which was to be secured by detachments of Natal Volunteers sent out beforehand) and the Modder Spruit and then wheel northwards on the flank of the attack. Colonel Ian Hamilton meanwhile was to take up a position under cover of Limit Hill, abontehalf-way between Ladysmith and Pepworth, with his brigade, consisting of the Devons, Manchesters, and Gordons, together with the divisional troops, viz., Colonel Pickwoad's Brigade Division of Artillery (13th, 67th, and 69th Batteries), the Imperial Light Horse, the 5th Dragoon Guards, and 18th Hussars. From there Pickwoad's artillery was first of all to co-operate in shelling tong Hill. When Long Hill was carried, Hamilton's and Grimwood's infantry together were to storm the Boer main position on Pepworth and capture the guns. As soon as the Boers were in full flight along the road leading across the hills to the north of Pepworth, the cavalry were to gallop round by the road that goes up the valley of the Bell Spruit and catch them on the open ground north of Tintwa-Inyoni. Seven miles out of IMysniith this latter road passes through a defile known as Nicholson's Nek. Here the pursuit might easily be checked by the small body of the Free Staters known to be still in this direction. To prevent this and keep the pass open, and, at the same time, in order to occupy as many of the enemy as possible and so cover Hamilton's left flank, Sir U. White decided to send a small column right through the Boer lines to occupy the Nek or some point conveniently near it. This column was to consist of the Gloucestershire Regiment' the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and No. 10 Mountain Battery, the whole under the command of Colonel Carleton of the Irish Fusiliers, with Major W. Adye, D.A.A.G. for Intelligence, attached as staff officer and guide. Major Adye, who had been some months at Ladysmith and had, during the last few days, made several bold reconnaissances of the Boer positions, is generally credited with having first suggested to Sir U. White this adventurous scheme, which was by no means to the liking of other members of the General's staff.
The whole scheme for the day's operations was extraordinarily bold and comprehensive, and to attempt to carry it out against an enemy at least equal in numbers and vastly superior in mobility, and over so wide a front argues a self-confident optimism in Sir G. White that contrasts curiously with the hesitations of the preceding fortnight and the caution of the months to follow. It was a difficult scheme, too; the extreme distances to be covered by the infantry under the burning Natal sun, the double attack, the intricate device for the cavalry pursuit, would all tax the endurance of the troops and the skill of the staff to the utmost. There was no provision in it for failure or miscalculation. Everything hung on the assumption that Long Hill was, by night and day, the actual left flank of the Boer position. If the Boers happened not to be on tong Hill or refused to defend it, and drew off eastwards, or if they attacked Grimwood on the undulating ground to the south of it, a further advance on Pepworth became almost impossible on that side; while unless the Pepworth position was taken the column at Nicholson's Nek ran the most serious risk of capture. The detachment to Nicholson's Nek was, in fact, a most remarkable conception, alike for its curious ingenuity and for its rashness. Only the utmost care to neglect no precaution that could insure victory in the main action and the most desperate efforts to secure that victory at any cost of life could have justified it. But the secret orders issued on Sunday night were vague and sketchy to a degree that was responsible for much of the subsequent confusion, and the spirit of desperate resolution in which the enterprise was conceived seems to have passed away amid the cares and responsibilities of the morning's battle. It cannot be said that there was any urgent necessity for so hazardous an enterprise. There were good reasons for deferring it till Sir R. Buller, who was expected almost hourly, could be consulted. And, in any case, a policy of actively worrying the Boers day by day, threatening their laagers and communications, striking hard wherever possible, and generally keeping them at arm's length, offered a safer prospect of success. But till French round Colesberg and Lord Roberts in his great marches gave a truer example of strategy, the idea of the one day's battle deciding everything seems to have dominated the minds of British generals.
Boer dispositions drawn up to invite attack. They upset White's plans by withdrawing from Long Hill.
The Boer forces north of Ladysmith, some 12,000 in all, were camped along an irregular crescent extending from the Harrismith railway on the north-west to the laager near Farquhar's Farm on the east. The central section from Bell Spruit eastwards, over Pepworth Hill and as far as the north end of Long Hill, was assigned to Erasmus's division, whose artillery (four Creusot field-guns, two "pom-poms" and "Long Tom," under Trichardt and Wolmarans) was now dragged up on to the summit of Pepworth. The left wing was held by Lukas Meyer's division, some 4000 strong, with its artillery (three or four guns and two "pom-poms" under Pretorius), and between him and Erasmus were posted the Heidelberg commando under Commandant Weilbach, and the newly arrived Lydenburg and Swaziland commandos, under General Schalk Burger, with two 1(rupp Howitzers and a "pom-pom" under Major Erasmus. The right wing was formed by the small Free State force under A. P. Cronje, and was camped among the hills round the upper Klip River. Between the right and the centre there was a broad gap formed by the valley of the Bell Spruit' and a hogsback ridge known as Tchrengula (Caimguba) to the west of it, only covered by a few patrols-the gap on which Sir G. White's plan for Nicholson's Nek depended. General Joubert's dispositions were drawn up with the deliberate intention of inviting a general attack. He had little doubt, from his experience of British methods, but that the attack would be delivered directly on Pepworth Hill, on which he was now so ostentatiously posting his position artillery. Pepworth accordingly was the one point he decided to hold, leaving the rest of his line completely mobile, ready either to play with the British, and prevent any attempt at outflanking, or to deliver a powerful flank attack. The former part would most probably fall to his weak right wing, conveniently posted on hilly ground, the latter he intended to carry out with his left, on which he massed all men and guns that could be spared from the defence of Pepworth. It was perhaps in pursuance of this general idea, rather than from any accurate insight into Sir G. White's intentions, that he withdrew his burghers on Sunday evening from Long Hill to behind the Modder Spruit. It is even more probable that the withdrawal was not due to any definite order at all, but simply to the fact that the Boers left the hill at night in order to sleep in their laager, a contingency which was apparently not foreseen by Sir G. White when he framed his plan, or discovered subsequently by sending men to crawl over the position after dark. whatever the reason, the most consummate strategy could not have achieved better results for the Boers. The occupation and subsequent evacuation of Long Hill had all the effect of a skillfully designed feint. It left Sir G. White's blow to spend itself on empty air, and made him execute an elaborate turning movement inside of, instead of round the flank of the Boer position. The only chance, such as it was, of still carrying out Sir G. White's plan of rolling up the Boer left now lay in a bold, sweeping movement by the cavalry on the right wing, which might frighten the Boers into falling back northwards, or might hold them in position for an energetic infantry attack. All depended on the promptitude with which the commanders on the spot discovered the changed situation and altered their dispositions to suit.
At 10.30 P.M., or soon after, the British infantry columns moved out. The unhappy fate of the Nicholson's Nek column forms a story of its own. For the present purpose it is sufficient to say that the column started late, and that about two miles before reaching Nicholson's Nek, Colonel Carleton thought it wiser not to proceed any further, but to take up a waiting position on Tchrengula. During the ascent of the hill the mules of the column stampeded, causing the loss of the mountain guns, and most of the spare ammunition. The noise of the stampede alarmed the Boers, who at first believed they were being attacked in force on that side, and heavily reinforced the edge of the plateau east of Bell Spruit. Even after the real direction of the British attack became apparent, a considerable portion of the Boer centre, and nearly all the Boer right, remained occupied with Carleton's column, and took no part in the main action. Sir G. White was informed before 3 A.M. that things had gone wrong by the arrival at headquarters of one of the bombardiers of the Mountain Battery, but it was not till six or seven that he learned the details as to the stampede and the loss of the battery. Grimwood's brigade marched out by the Helpmakaar Road, branching off to the left some two or three miles out, and striking across for the south end of Long Hill. Owing to the vagueness of the orders issued, or to some confusion in the staff instructions supplementing them, Colonel Coxhead's brigade division of artillery, which was in the middle of Grimwood's column, and which Grimwood understood was to accompany him to some position south of Long Hill, turned aside during the march in order to take up the position behind the kopje known afterwards as Flag Hill, east of Limit Hill, assigned to both brigade divisions by Colonel Downing, the officer commanding the whole artillery. Not only did the artillery leave the column in the darkness without Grimwood's knowledge, but it carried away with it the Liverpools, Dublin Fusiliers, and the mounted infantry companies of the 60th and Leicesters. The whole incident was a very bad piece of staff work on somebody's part, and gravely prejudiced the chances of the day. The three leading battalions marched on in blissful ignorance and, shortly before daybreak, formed up behind a couple of low lying rocky kopjes 1800 yards south of Long HilL Their officers extended them in preparatory formation for attack, and anxiously waited for the dawn to show them if they had correctly chosen their position. Hamilton's brigade had meanwhile marched forward shortly before daybreak to take up its position behind Limit Hill. Here it remained perfectly concealed, and though within easy gun-range of both Pepworth and Long Hill, was completely unmolested during the action.
Day broke crisp and clear, and the whole position lay baldly declared. Grimwood's brigade was drawn up exactly as had been intended. But where was the artillery? Where were its own rear battalions? Where, above all, were the promised cavalry? Without cavalry the right flank and rear of the infantry line was completely in the air. Anxiously Grimwood and his staff swept the southern and eastern skyline for signs of mounted men. They had not long to wait. Before many minutes had passed, single horsemen appeared and disappeared here and there. These were followed by scattered parties, seen for a moment, as they cantered from the shelter of one little kopje to another, mostly sidling along from east to south, and all the time edging up closer to Grimwood's flank. But there could be no mistaking these for British troops, even if the Mauser bullets beginning to sing overhead had not sufficiently proclaimed their intentions. Gradually the fire became hotter, and presently the Boers brought two field-guns into action against the kopjes where the Rifles were drawn up. Two companies of Leicesters with a Maxim were sent to occupy a ridge about 350 yards away, running down towards the Modder Spruit, in order to cover the fight roar of the brigade. A battery of artillery was sent for, and the 21st and 53rd coming up, temporarily silenced the Boer guns. Thin was about 7 A.M. From Grimwood's position it had been evident for some time that Long Hill was unoccupied. But with the right flank already heavily attacked, there was little to be gained by a move northwards, which would only have allowed the enemy to work still further round the rear of the brigade. Colonel Grimwood decided to remain where he was and sent back a staff officer to apprise Sir G. White of the situation. The brigade was gradually swung round, so as to face east instead of north, and was eventually extended in a long irregular line from within rifle range of Farquhar's Farm to some distance along the low ridges which stretch down northwards from Lombard's Kop.
Meanwhile the artillery on both sides had been actively engaged. Day had scarcely begun when a pillar of white smoke above Pepworth, followed by an explosion in Ladysmith, proclaimed to the startled citizens the presence of "Long Tom," the conqueror of Dundee. Colonel Downing at first attempted to concentrate his fire on Long Hill from under the cover of Flag Hill and the broken ground between it and Limit Hill, firing over the rise by the help of aiming posts. But the slope was too rocky to permit the accurate laying required for this work. It was also be-ginning to be realised that Pepworth and not Long Hill was the main position of the Boer artillery. So about six o'clock the whole of the batteries (excepting the 69th, subsequently sent round to Lombard's Nek) left their cover behind Flag Hill and extended in a fan-shaped line in front of the centre of the British position. The Boer gunners were not long in discovering them, and opened from Pepworth and from somewhere behind the north end of Long Hill. Their practice was excellent, but the fuzing of the shells indifferent, and most of the shrapnel burst in the ground. The British batteries unlimbered, the left hand batteries replying vigorously to the Boer guns, while those on the fight for some time continued to pour their shrapnel over the empty emplacements on Long Hill, the 21st and 53rd being soon after sent on to silence the Boer guns which were playing on Grimwood. It was difficult at first to locate the Boer guns with any precision. But invisible as was the actual discharge of the smokeless powder it was not long before the concussion and recoil of the guns on the hot, dry ground raised a dust which gave the British gunners the target they desired. The Boer guns on the right were for the time being quickly silenced. But the battery on Pepworth at 4500 yards range was too far off to get the full effect of the shrapnel fire. The 42nd and 67th batteries (Goulburn and Manifold) were pushed forward into the open 1500 yards nearer to the position. This movement at once attracted a concentrated and accurate shrapnel fire from the gunners on Pepworth, and men and horses began to fall. As the first shell fell among the guns the Boers on the hill, as at Talana, leapt up waving their hats and cheering loudly. But the British plied their guns with such good effect that, in spite of scathing shrapnel, in another twenty minutes they were only answered by desultory shots. Trichard's gunners stood up manfully to the superior weight of fire directed upon them, but it was too much for them, and they now took shelter behind the rocks waiting till the fire should slacken or the batteries turn their attention elsewhere. At the same time most of the Boer riflemen who had been cheering so enthusiastically made off down the reverse of the hill, while some of the bolder among them moved down the western slope and worked forward into the broken ground south-west of Pepworth, where they could hope to check an attack upon the hill without exposing themselves to concentrated artillery fire. But for the rest of the morning the actual summit of Pepworth was unoccupied save for the men of the "Staats Artillerie" and for a handful of burghers and of Blake's Irish Brigade, who remained and indefatigably helped in dragging up ammunition under the hail of British shrapnel.
We must now turn to the British cavalry who were to have covered the right flank of the infantry attack. In accordance with Sir G. White's orders the cavalry moved out at about 3 A.M., part going off towards Limit Hill, while the main body under General French rode out by the Helpmakaar road. But instead of riding en through Lombard's Nek and getting well out to the right of Grimwood before daybreak, French only went as far as the western foothills of Lombard's Kop, some two miles to Grimwood's left rear, and there halted his men pending the development of the engagement. Apparently French, assuming that Long Hill marked the extreme left of the Boer position, thought that there was ample room north of Lombard's Kop ror his force to get out when required, and preferred to keep the main body of his cavalry together ready to take up the pursuit rather than to use them up as a widely thrown-out containing-line. Given the cavalry tactics of 1899 this decision was in itself not unnatural. But nothing can illustrate more clearly the lack of precision in the orders issued than the fact that it was possible for General French to take up this position when Colonel Grimwood was led to expect his presence at daybreak on his right flank. About 6.30 A.M., as soon as it seemed that the Boer artillery had been silenced, General French, apparently still unaware of the real disposition of the Boers, considered that the right moment for advance had come, and the 5th Lancers and 19th Hussars mounted and rode forward. Two squadrons of the Lancers rode up to a small kopje forming part of Grimwood's position,. the Hussars going further to the right to what was then Grimwood's right rear. The Lancers, who expected to be fired at, if at all, from their left, received a heavy fire in front and on their right flank as well. The 19th Hussars met with an even warmer welcome, coming under fire first from the Boer guns and then from the Boer riflemen, who lay low till the Hussars' ground scouts were almost among them and then poured a heavy short-ranged fire into the leading troop. The men were dismounted behind the nearest ridge by General French and proceeded to line the crest. But French soon saw that there was nothing to be done on this side which could not be done by Grimwood's infantry, and the cavalry mounted and rode back under a heavy "pom-pom" fire to the nek north of Lombard's Kop. By now the Boer skirmishers had extended their line as far south as the Helpmakaar road. Whether a bold advance with dismounted troopers might still have succeeded in pushing back the Boers sufficiently to enable the cavalry to get out on to their flank is doubtful. The ground east of the Modder Spruit, a mass of low kopjes running like waves into one another and strewn with rocks and bushes, was well suited to Boer tactics, and British cavalry had not yet learnt to adapt themselves successfully to the part of mounted riflemen. A possible alternative, though perhaps a risky one, might have been to send part of the cavalry right round to the south of Mount Bulwana, a detour of nine or ten miles. But the French of Mournful Monday was not yet the daring cavalry leader whose wide sweeping movements, a few months later, paralysed the Boer resistance. What he actually did was to take up a line in front of Lombard's Kop and on the subsidiary kopjes north-east of it, thus prolonging Grimwood's right. But so far from being able to advance, the dismounted cavalry found it as much as they could do to hold back the Boers, now increasing in numbers and pushing up closer, and towards 8 A.M. General French reported to Sir G. White that he could only hold on to his position with difficulty.
The situation that now plainly confronted Sir G. White was far from pleasant or easy to deal with. On the right the intended movement upon the Boor left flank had from a variety of causes completely failed. Instead of sweeping the Boers northwards Grimwood's and French's troops were drawn up facing eastwards on a front nearly four miles long. Along the whole of this front they were being hotly pressed by the Boors, who at the same time seemed to have enough men available to threaten an envelopment of both flanks of the British line, long though it was. On the left flank the Nicholson's Nek scheme had fallen through and Colonel Carleton's column, without its guns and presumably not unshaken by the stampeding of its mules, was defending itself on an isolated ridge in the middle of the Boer position, whence the faint sound of distant fusillades could occasionally be distinguished during the lulls in the main battle. It was necessary to come to some definite decision, to form some new plan to supersede the original one which had fallen through. There were several courses open to Sir G. White. One, the most obvious perhaps, was to abandon the projected attack on Pepworth, throw Hamilton's brigade into Grimwood's, send all the cavalry across to French, and try to break the Boer left by sheer weight. If the Boers were really broken and lost heavily in casualties, it was possible that they might disperse altogether on the east of Ladysmith. Their southern laager would then fall into Sir G. White's hands, and the Pepworth position, if not at once abandoned by the enemy, could be attacked that afternoon or the next day. But the prospect of such a definitive result was not very hopeful. The scattered skirmishing-line of the enemy offered no tangible objective, and it was doubtful if the whole British force could do more than just push the Boers back a mile or two among the rough kopjes east of Modder Spruit. Meanwhile Colonel Carleton would have to be left to take his chance. An alternative, though one that is never very easy for a general to take, was to give up the idea of a general engagement, treat the morning's operations as a reconnaissance in force, and fall back on Ladysmith, subsequently sending out a column to help in Colonel Carleton. A rhore enterprising but hazardous course would have been to have left Grimwood and French on the defensive and to have attempted to carry Pepworth with Hamilton's brigade. That the actual crest of Pepworth was almost unoccupied was probably not known to White, but it was evident that the main force of the Boers was engaged elsewhere, and the fact that Long Hill was empty and that the Boer right was engaged with Carleton, left free both flanks of the attack. The capture of Pepworth and its guns would have been a crushing blow to the Boers, and from there it would have been an easy matter to join hands with Carleton.
Sir G. White did not definitely decide on any of these courses. His eventual action was a compromise between the first two, but for the time being he temporised, perhaps in the hope that the check on the right was only momentary. General French seemed to be in the greatest difficulty, so Sir G. White detached, first the 5th Dragoon Guards, and, later, the 18th Hussars, under General Brocklehurst, and the 21st and 69th Batteries to his support, Blewitt pushing down the nek immediately north of Lombard's Kop, from where he checked the Boer attempts to outflank Grimwood and the left of the cavalry position, while Wing engaged a "pom-pom" which was harassing the Natal Volunteers at Lombard's Nek. With this reinforcement the cavalry "held their own" for the rest of the morning-an ineffective part for cavalry to play. Grimwood's brigade, supported by the 13th and 53rd Batteries, seemed to be holding its own already. Sir G. White was apparently satisfied with this state of affairs, and Hamilton's brigade remained in waiting, while the 42nd and 67th Batteries replied to the Boer guns on Pepworth and north of Long Hill, which had reopened fire with some vigour. But he could not be otherwise than anxious about the safety of the Nicholson's Nek force. It was impossible for mounted messengers to ride up the valley of the Bell Spruit, now completely commanded by the Boors. An officer's patrol of the 5th Dragoon Guards had made an attempt earlier in the morning to get through to Carleton, but in spite of the gallantry of Lieutenant Norwood and Private Sibthorpe (for which they received the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal respectively), had been compelled to return. An attempt to send through Kaffir runners proved equally unsuccessful. A heliographic message, ordering Carleton to "retire as opportunity offered," was not sent for some time, as the heliograph at Bell's Farm failed to elicit any answer to its call from the heliographs that Carleton was supposed to have with him.
The whole of the interest now centred on the British right. The Boers, whose numbers were steadily increasing by reinforcements streaming down from behind Pepworth and Long Hill, and by contingents still coming up from Dundee, were pushing their attack in earnest, and were making a bold bid to turn the left of Grimwood's position. About 8.30 their gunners, who kept moving their guns from place to place as the British gunners found them out, located the spot where the Rifles' ammunition mules were massed under cover, and pouring in a heavy shrapnel and "pom-pom" fire, successfully stampeded them. About 9 o'clock the reserves of the Leicesters and 2nd 60th were moved up to the assistance of the 1st 60th, who were being hard pressed at a range of about 800 yards, and before long the whole of Grimwood's brigade was in the firing-line-excepting, indeed, the two strayed battalions, whose existence seems to have been completely forgotten by everybody, as they lay lost in the middle of the battlefield, the Liverpools near the first position of the guns, and the Dublin Fusiliers by the Helpmakaar road. Under an intensely hot fire the brigade lay scattered along the ridges fronting the Modder Spruit. There the men lay for hours with the glowing sun beating down on them, and the quivering heat rising round them from the baking rocks. Sometimes they would gain a little ground by short rushes, sometimes fall back a little at some point where the Boers concentrated too heavy a fire. The men fought well, but their efforts were directed to no definite end. Colonel Grimwood, to whom the fetish of seniority had assigned so all-important a command, proved quite unfit to grapple with the extremely difficult situation in which, largely by the mistakes of others, he was placed; completely unnerved, incapable of issuing orders, too confused to remember the position of his men or to try and recover his missing battalions, he simply left his brigade to itself. With such a commander, what little chance remained of retrieving the situation on the right was thrown away.
The Boers on their side, too, had at first suffered from want of direction, though, in a force where every man was his of own general, that mattered less. Lukas Meyer, who had already shown incompetence and lack of nerve at Talana, and whose health had been indifferent ever since, collapsed entirely at an early stage of the fight. He had to be helped off his horse, and left the field, returning soon after to Pretoria, where he remained some months, suffering from his nerves and general weakness. His colleague for Vryheid in the First Volksraad, Louis Botha, informally took over the command of Meyer's division. A new spirit and purpose were at once infused into the Boers. It was on this morning that Louis Botha first won the admiration and confidence of his countrymen, and began that military career in which he was soon to gain such distinction. Of striking appearance, attractive, cultivated, a born leader of men, Louis Botha from this day forward became the idol of the younger burghers, though it was not before another series of coincidences enabled him at Colenso and Spion Kop to show his capacity for generalship on a large scale that the elder Boers, whose superstitious reverence for age almost equaled that of the British, forgave him the crime of being but thirty-five years old.
All six British batteries were now incessantly employed in endeavouring to keep the Boor rifle and gun-fire under. Their formation was peculiar, extending over a complete semi-circle-from the 42nd and 67th, firing north-west at Pepworth from the position they had occupied nearly all the morning, to the 21st and 69th facing south-east from in front of Lombard's Kop and Lombard's Nek. But against the scattered line of riflemen shrapnel could do but little, while the Boer guns on the east, several of which considerably outranged the British, were no sooner silenced than they reopened fire from some new quarter. Both on Pepworth and along the Modder Spruit, the Transvaal artillery fully justified the expectations the Boers had formed of it, and reversed the contemptuous estimate in which the British authorities had hitherto held it. The 37-mm. MaximVickers automatic guns or "pom-poms" proved especially disconcerting, and with the "Long Tom" on Pepworth and the intensity and omnipresence of the Boer rifle-fire combined to create the confused surprise with which the British began to realise that the Boors were a far more formidable adversary than they had expected.
While the engagement was taking place outside the town the situation in Ladysmith was not a happy one. Ever since daybreak "Long Tom" had been intermittently bombarding the northern end of the town. The terrifying explosion of its 94-pounder projectiles as they fell near the railway station thoroughly unnerved the inhabitants. At an early hour loose mules and draggled gunners had found their way into the town and reported that disaster had befallen Colonel Carleton's column during the night. As the day wore on stragglers from the battlefield, by the garbled accounts which they gave, added to the disquietude. By ten o'clock Lady-smith, so confident and careless a few hours before, was in a state little short of panic. Colonel W. U. Knox, R.H.A., who was in command of the few details which remained to garrison the town, anticipating an attack from the north, had armed every available man, and occupied King's Post, a hill outside the town where some rudimentary defences existed. So few men were available that it was necessary to impress the drivers of the engineer park and ammunition columns, as well as every detail in the camps. The two field-pieces captured from the Boers at Elandslaagte were dragged into position, and every effort made to place the northern perimeter in a state of defence. Boers in some strength were visible on Surprise Hill and up the valley of the Bell Spruit. Later on the Boers also showed themselves by the Harrismith railway, and Colonel Knox, towards 11 A.M., considered the situation sufficiently alarming to send a message to Sir G. White, expressing a fear that the town was about to be attacked.
11.30 A.M. White decides to withdraw into Ladysmith.
This message would seem to have confirmed a decision to which Sir G. White had for some time been reluctantly coming. About 10 A.M. he had brought the Manchesters across from Hamilton's brigade, sending half to support Grimwood and the other half to support French. The newly-arrived Rifle Brigade were also moved across for the same purpose. A little later he sent Sir A. Hunter across to Grimwood's brigade to see if anything could be done. When General Hunter arrived at the position he found that the intensity of the firing had slackened off somewhat, and that the men had mostly got good cover, and were holding their own without great difficulty. But the fight had become quite stationary, and there was plainly no prospect of a decided issue. On his return Sir G. White determined at about 11.30 to abandon the contest and withdraw his troops. The Gordon Highlanders were brought across from the left of Hamilton's brigade to Flag Hill, as a further support. General Hunter was sent back to Grimwood to convey the order for a general retirement in echelon from the left and to superintend and assist the operation. The wisdom of General White's decision may possibly be open to criticism. Three hours earlier, when the position first clearly declared itself, a withdrawal would have been a perfectly sound, if somewhat cautions, step to take. But after the hard fighting that had intervened, a retreat, however orderly, could only be interpreted by the enemy as an acknowledgment of defeat. Even if there was nothing to be gained it is conceivable that the mere holding of Grimwood's position till dusk, with the help of reinforcements, however exhausting to the men, might have had a considerable moral effect on the enemy.
The moment the men stood up to retreat it became evident that the lull which had taken place in the action was purely temporary. A perfect hail of bullets greeted the first signs of retirement, and a minute later the Beer field and automatic guns were playing fiercely upon the retreating companies. As long as Grimwood's battalions had remained under cover their losses had been trivial. But directly behind them an almost unbroken stretch of level plain extended to Ladysmith. Across the whole of this they were followed by a searching fire. The Maxim of the 1st King's Royal Rifles had to be abandoned, after being rendered useless by Lieutenant N.M. Ted, who had pluckily fought it to the last. In spite of the devoted efforts of Sir A. Hunter and some of the staff, the retirement soon lost all semblance of order. The two Rifle battalions were especially bad. It is possible that the retirement was begun too hastily, and that it would have been better to have waited a little in order to bring some of Hamilton's brigade closer up in support. As it was, the bulk of Grimwood's brigade just dribbled in a straggling crowd through the extended files of the Manchesters and Liverpools, who held their ground firmly. For a moment the situation looked serious.
But the field artillery proved equal to the occasion. On the right the 21st Battery, which had been pushed boldly forward into the dip between Lombards Kop and the ridge which had just been evacuated, kept up a hot fire on the advancing Boers. It was only after both infantry and cavalry had got clear away that Major Blewitt fell back, getting his guns away safely under shelter of the thick scrub that covered the valley. But the honours of the day belong to the 13th Battery (Major Dawkins). This battery had, just before the withdrawal, been ordered up to the left of Grimwood's position by Sir A. Hunter, with the idea of creating an opening for a possible advance on Farquhar's Farm. It now took up a covering position in the open about 1000 yards in rear of the infantry. The moment the battery unlimbered it became the target, not only of a heavy fire from the Boer riflemen, but of an enfilading cross-fire from the Boer field-pieces and automatic guns on both flanks. Absolutely exposed, the men stood pluckily to their guns. Two guns were swung round to meet the cross-fire from the Boer artillery, while the remaining four pieces continued to cover the retreat of the infantry by playing on the Boers, who were now advancing in a series of short, determined rushes. Most of the Boer fire was now diverted on to the battery, and the infantry retired past it comparatively unmolested. The 13th now stood absolutely unsupported in the plain, with the whole Boer force in front and its own infantry streaming away behind it. At one moment it seemed that the guns were to be sacrificed to save the infantry. Men and horses fell fast; shell after shell burst between the guns, and the little percussion missiles from the "pom-poms," as they exploded in and round the battery, raised a dust that well-nigh hid the guns from view. But their fire never slackened For a quarter of an hour the 13th sustained the whole Beer onset. Then the 53rd (Major Abdy's) galloped up through the fire and unlimbered on its right. Grimwood's brigade was now safe, and had passed through the supports. General Hunter, who was walking about unconcernedly among the guns of the 13th, ordered the artillery to retire. The 13th fell back first. Abdy's battery, whose timely arrival probably saved the 13th from destruction, now held back the enemy alone till the 13th had taken up position. As the 53rd started in its turn to limber up, the enemy's "pom-poms" plied it with renewed intensity. One gun was left behind, with its limber smashed and five out of six horses of its team shot. Seeing the smash, Captain Thwaites sent back to the wagons for a fresh team and wagon limber. As the battery fell back, another gun and limber overturned in a donga. The Boers were now swarming up close on every side, wherever the ground afforded a little coven But Lieutenant Higgins and the gunners coolly unhitched and disentangled the team, righted the gun and brought it out safely at a gallop. The battery had just come into action again in its second position when the wagon limber under Bombardier Saunders dashed through the infantry, passed the battery, and under the concentrated fire brought out the abandoned gun. The 42nd and 67th were hardly less severely engaged. while they were busy with the guns on Pepworth and to the north of Long Hill, which had reopened vigorously at the first signs of the retreat, one of the Beer guns, which had been opposing Grimwood, suddenly enfiladed them at 3000 yards range from Long Hill, and before the 67th could silence it the 42nd had lost an officer and several men killed and wounded. The covering of the retreat by the batteries was the one bright spot in one of the gloomiest days in the history of the British Army. Rarely have British batteries behaved better; they fell back generally at a walk, never more hastily than at a trot; yet the only support which they at first received was the little which they could afford each other while covering the withdrawal of the whole. A little later Colonel Mellor brought up the Liverpools on the right of the 13th and 53rd, and together with some of the Imperial Light Horse, under Major "Karri" Davies, did useful work in covering the general retreat.
When the infantry were clear the cavalry began their retirement. For reasons which it is difficult to understand, the cavalry were allowed to save themselves by their speed alone. No attempt was made at a judicious withdrawal by regiments. Troop officers were not even given the time to form their troops. A seething mass of clubbed and broken cavalry charged down the narrow nek on the west of Lombard's Kop and streamed southwards into the open plain, where, after a short interval, it collected and reformed itself.
Boers fail to follow up their advantage.
The Boers, who had already occupied Long Hill and the northern part of Grimwood's position, now swarmed over Bulwana, Lombard's Kop, and the ridges to the north of it.But here they stopped. For an enterprising enemy it was an opportunity for a vigorous counterstroke such as rarely occurs in war, and such as the Boers never had again. Hamilton's brigade, it was true, was untouched and unbroken, but the Boers could close on it in superior force from every side, from Bell Spruit on its left flank round to the Helpmakaar road on its right rear. It was the moment for a general to risk all to achieve a great end. But Joubert was not capable of such generalship, or else did not believe his men capable of executing it. He had already, fearing a feint on the part of the British, issued general orders against following up a British retreat. Whether he now added an express order checking his burghers is not clean Many of them were certainly eager to push on and were with difficulty restrained by their officers. But the majority were no doubt content to have a reasonable excuse for leaving well alone. If the Boers had been led by a general, or if they had been Afridis, the issue of that Monday's fighting might have been very different. As it was they contented themselves with pouring a disconcerting, but not very effective, artillery fire from all their guns and “pom-poms” on to the retreating troops.
At this moment an almost providential diversion occurred which did much to relieve the situation, and by its startling effect may have confirmed the Boers in their disinclination to push home their advantage. The naval brigade from the Powerful had reached Ladysmith about 9.30 to find the shells from “Long Tom" playing busily on the station buildings. With the admirable promptitude which marks every action of the British sailor, their 12-pdrs. were at once unloaded from their trucks, hitched up behind bullock teams and marched out to Limit Hill. They had barely got there when they received orders to retreat. As they did so "Long Tom" turned his attention to them. The second shot burst right under the wheels of the leading gun, overturning it and wounding all the crew. The gun was dismounted and left, and only brought in subsequently. The others took up a position on the open ground just north of Ladysmith, and at about 12.30 P.M. opened fire on Pepworth at a range of 6500 yards. In a very £ew rounds they effectively silenced "Long Tom”. and the rest of the battery, which made no subsequent attempt to renew the contest. The moral effect of the arrival of artillery with range equal to that of the enemy's guns of position was great. It went far to counteract the feeling of panic which had pervaded the town when the first news from the battlefield had arrived.
But the feeling of relief was but temporary. The civilian population realised that the gauntlet had been thrown down and accepted by the invader, and that the British troops had been worsted in the encounter. They foresaw that the isolation of the garrison would be but a matter of hours. The scenes in the streets were truly pathetic. Hundreds of loyal farmers had trekked with their wives and families into the town for security. These wretched people had piled into wagons all that they could save from their homesteads, and with women and children crowded into the few square feet beneath the tilts, stood outspanned in the slush and dirt of Ladysmith. Some of the women had sought shelter in the already packed railway buildings, doubtless trusting in the protection that flimsy tin could afford against a 6-inch shell. Here were gathered a motley crowd waiting until a train could be found to carry them somewhere, anywhere, for they had no destination. Their homes were in the hands of the enemy, their future resting-place would be where chance might take them. Here were many families destitute and almost starving, which, in the first instance, had been robbed and driven from the Transvaal. The temporary haven afforded by Dundee had been denied them. Now in Ladysmith the terror of sudden death was once again driving them onward. The condition of the women, wan and weary with waiting, was pitiful in the extreme. The barbarity of war was more marked in the horror written on those pale faces herding in the station yard than in the mangled frames borne from the battlefield to the hospitals.
The rest of the retirement was now carried out at leisure, only the Devons being provisionally left on Limit Hill as the advanced post of the British position. But there was still much confusion and uncertainty. The Rifles never properly reformed, but dribbled into Ladysmith during tile afternoon. No attempt was made to send any assistance to Carleton. Sir G. White and his staff would seem to have consoled themselves with the thought that the column could hold out till nightfall and then make its way back to Ladysmith. After the morning's experience of the Boer fighting power such optimism was unwarranted, and the neglect to take any measures can hardly be justified by the reflection that such measures would in any case have been too late. The news of Carleton's surrender was communicated to Sir G. White by General Joubert that same evening, with an intimation that the British might send out ambulances for the wounded.
The detailed story of that hapless force must now be told. The column, consisting of six companies (about 520 men) of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Major Munn in command, five-and- a-half companies (about 450 men) of the Gloucestershire Regiment under Major Humphery, and No. 10 Mountain Battery (about 140 men), under Major Bryant, was ordered to rendezvous just beyond the outposts on the Newcastle road at 10 P.M. on Sunday night. Besides the mules which carried the guns and ammunition of the mountain battery, there were about a hundred pack mules carrying two hundred rounds of reserve ammunition per man, a Maxim gun, two heliographs, and a few kegs of water-necessary precautions in view of the fact that the column might possibly have to be out for forty-eight hours. The command of the column was assigned to Colonel Carleton, but the conduct of the enterprise was mainly in the hands of his staff officer, Major Adye, who had devised the scheme and discussed its details with Sir G. White. Major Adye was well acquainted with the ground and was further assisted by the brothers Allison of the Corps of Guides, and by Mr. Hyde, whose farm was close to the road some two miles south of Nicholson's Nek. Every precaution was taken to prevent the enemy from discovering that a movement was contemplated. The orders enjoined that the strictest silence was to be observed on the march, that no smoking should be allowed, and that the men were to march as lightly and quietly as possible. Magazines were not to be charged, and the column, if fired upon, was to march straight on in silence without returning the fire. No stretchers were to be taken, and if casualties occurred the men were to be left as they fell until daylight. Officers and men were impressed with the idea that the chief difficulty and danger of the enterprise lay in passing through the Boer lines and reaching Nicholson's Nek unperceived, and that once they were there the rest would be comparatively simple. The Glo'sters and the mountain battery arrived at the rendezvous a little before the appointed hour. Owing to delay in drawing ammunition from the ordnance store, and to considerable difficulty in loading up their ammunition mules, which were newly issued and restive, and which the untrained men did not know how to handle, the Fusiliers did not arrive for an hour after the rest of the column. This delay was destined to have serious consequences. When the Fusiliers reached the rendezvous the officers were called to the head of the column and given final instructions. The force was to march straight along a track leading nearly due north for about seven miles, at the end of which it passed through two white gates. Shortly after leaving the gates the column would arrive at its destination. The battery was then to take post on the far side of the Nek, while the Fusiliers occupied the hill on the right and the Glo'sters the hill on the left.
The advance took place about 11.15. The Irish Fusiliers led, followed by their ammunition mules. The battery was in the centre, followed by the mules of the Glo'sters. The last-named regiment brought up the rear. The night was dark and cloudy, but the men stepped out well, and in spite of occasional checks the pace kept up was good for night marching. After the third mile the most dangerous part of the march began, the road keeping close to the hillside which marked the edge of the Pepworth plateau and the right of the Boer centre. But the next mile and a half was traversed without mishap, and the column could congratulate itself on having passed, unperceived, through the Boer lines. About 2 A.M. Hyde’s Farm was reached. Nicholson's Nek was now barely two miles off. But the guides were apparently afraid that the column, owing to the delay in starting, would be unable to reach the Nek before daylight. Accordingly Colonel Carleton and Major Adye decided to make use of the latitude contained in their instructions, and, instead of going any further, to take up a waiting position on Tchrengula hill immediately above the farm, moving on to the Nek as opportunity offered. They hoped thus to make sure of being securely posted before daylight, instead of running the risk of being discovered still on the road, and if all had gone well, the column would perhaps have been safer there than at Nicholson's Nek, inasmuch as it was nearer home. But though strictly within their orders the step taken by Colonel Carleton and Major Adye was a very considerable modification of the original plan as it seems to have been understood by Sir G. White. There were fully two hours more before dawn, and the order to occupy the Nek itself "if possible," might perhaps have warranted running the risk of marching on, especially for a column whose whole object was to act the part of a forlorn hope.
The head of the column was now diverted sharply to the left and advanced up the gently sloping ground in single file, one of the guides being left to mark the turning-point. Three or four hundred yards from the road the men struck the steep hillside and began laboriously clambering up over loose boulders, tripping and stumbling over each other in the dark. By the time the head of the column had scrambled nearly up to the crest, the long train of mules had reached the foot of the ascent, while the bulk of the Glo'sters were still on the road. Then suddenly the great mishap occurred. Whether the mischief was first started by the Boer brandwacht or patrol on the hilltop, or by rocks dislodged and rolled through the line either by Boers or accidentally by our own men, or by the mere huddling and consequent backing of men at some steep point, is not clear. In any case some sort of disturbance seems to have taken place in the ranks of the Fusiliers. A number of them came running back down the hill crying out that "Boer cavalry" were on them. Immediately behind the Fusiliers were their restive ammunition mules. Scared by the tumult in front of them the mules were suddenly seized with uncontrollable terron Kicking and sqjiealing they broke loose from the inexperienced soldiers who led them, and stampeded right into the mules of the battery. In a moment all the mules of ihe column were stampeding madly to the rear. The Glo'sters heard the turmoil coming towards them and fixod bayonets, while some one in the rear of the column fired off a few wild shots. The next minute the crowd of frenzied animals charged through and through them. The men were knocked down senseless or hurled into a donga by the roadside. The mules, maddened by the shouting and the niele?, tore down the valley into the darkness, and the last that was heard of them was the sound of ammunition boxes and panniers as they were splintered against the boulders.
By a strenuous effort the officers succeeded in getting the men under control. A considerable number of the Fusiliers had been unaffected by the original scare and had gone on to the top of the hill. The rest now followed, and eventually what was left of the force was re-united on the summit about three o'clock. It was without guns, for though the battery recovered several of its mules, with parts of the Screw-guns the gunners were unable to complete a single gun. The Glos'ters, however, had managed to save their Maxim. Except seventeen boxes, barely twenty rounds per man, all reserve ammunition was lost. So were the water-kegs and the heliographs. Many men were missing, of whom some forty Glo'sters and seventy odd gunners found their way back to Ladysmith in the course of the morning.
The original scheme for the Nicholson's Nek operations had been hazardous enough. Its execution with the force now available, and after the Boors had been alarmed, was almost out of the question. The most prudent course would have been to have fallen back at once to the Ladysmith side of the Boer line, either by the road or, if it was too late for that, over Surprise Hill. From Bell's Farm or Surprise Hill the secondary object of the expedition, the covering of Sir G. White's left flank, could have been fulfilled equally well and without risk. But such a course was naturally distasteful to the two officers responsible for the expedition. The whole scheme was based on the assumption of the success of the main attack. It was not unreasonable to suppose that the force, which seemed to have pulled itself together fairly well, could hold out where it was till that success had been achieved; and even if it could not prevent the Boers checking the cavalry pursuit at Nicholson's Nek, it might do more to assist the pursuit from Tchrengula than if it were two or three miles further back. The southern end of Tchrengula was fixed upon as the point to hold and the force was marched across to it. A Kaffir was now sent back to Ladysmith with news of the mishap and of the position taken up by the column.
Soon after the troops had reached the southern end of the plateau, Major Adye, in his capacity as staff officer, called together such officers as could be found. Pointing out in the darkness the direction in which lay the Boer positions and Ladysmith, he gave it as his opinion that it was unlikely that an attack would be made from the north, but that if any attack was attempted it would come from the south and south-east i.e., from the direction of the Boer main position. Instructions were issued accordingly. The top of Tchrengula, as of most South African hills, formed an irregular plateau. Roughly speaking, this plateau was sloped like the sole of a boot with the toe pointing northwards. It was about a mile and a half long and varied in width. The southern end, or heel, was about five hundred yards across each way and rose in the centre to a knoll on which there were a few scattered trees and bushes. The middle, or instep, dipped down and was narrowed by a deep reëntrant on the eastern side and a shallower one on the western to less than three hundred yards. The northern half, or tread, widened gradually to about eight hundred yards, rising considerably in the middle, which thus formed a ridge on the skyline over which it was impossible to see from the south. This part of the hill was covered with high tufted grass, with occasional stumpy trees, and strewn with boulders. Dotted over the hilltop were several dilapidated sheep-kraals. The sides of the hill fell down almost precipitously round the "heel;" but at the reëntrant and northwards the slopes wore easier and broken up by dongas. On three sides the "heel" offered a good defensive position, at least against infantry attack. It was commanded by hills at a range of 1400 to 1800 yards, but the level ground between made any closer advance very difficult, except perhaps on the western side, which was freely dotted with bushes affording cover. The weak spot of the position was its northern side, which was commanded at about 1000 yards range by the crest of the rise on the northern half of the plateau. Hyde and the Allisons expressed the opinion that the attack would come from that side and urged that the crest should be held. There can be little doubt, speaking after the event and with the experience of the present war, that their advice was correct. From the northern end of the hill the enemy could have been kept at arm's length for a much longer time. As it was the Boers were able without effort and without exposure to a retarding fire to take possession of it at the very beginning of the fight, and from it, under cover of the grass and boulders on the tableland itself, and of the minor reëntrants and irregularities of the slopes, to gradually work their way close up to the defenders. But to have occupied the northern end of the hill would have meant extending the defensive perimeter to be held by a force hardly amounting to one complete battalion of infantry to fully three miles, a wide departure from the past teaching of the British army. So certain, in fact, were the officers directing the operation of the satisfactory nature of the position taken up, and of the adequacy of the field of fire to the north, that no attempt was made to reconnoitre the ground, it being apparently assumed that the knowledge of it already possessed by Major Adye and by Mr. Hyde, on whose property the hill was, was sufficient for the purpose.
The defence of the position was divided into two portions, he eastern side being assigned to the Irish Fusiliers and the western to the Glo'sters. Three companies (A, B and F) of the Fusiliers occupied the eastern crest of the hill facing towards the western foothills of Pepworth, from which the first attack was expected. Another company (F) held the adjoining half of the front edge of the "heel," while two companies (G and H), together with some of the residue of the men of the mountain battery, formed a reserve on the lightly higher ground in the centre of the position. Of the Glo'sters, A and B Companies held the western crest of the hill. To the right of them, facing northward, was C company, roughly parallel to, but rather further advanced than E company of the Fusiliers. In rear of both these companies, and covering the gap between them, lay P company of the Glo'sters with the regimental headquarters. F company (Captain Stayner), and subsequently H company (18 men under Captain Willcock), were sent forward after daybreak about 400 yards to a slight rise from which they could command the rëentrants on both sides. In the absence of intrenching tools, the men were at once set to work constructing sangars or breastworks of piled stones in front of their positions. In the construction of cover the British soldier had learnt little since Majuba. These sangars no doubt afforded secure protection for a time, but they provided an excellent target for the Boers, and as long as some of them, by firing heavily at the tops of the sangars, kept the British lying down, the rest could creep forward unobserved. After a short inspection of these dispositions, Colonel Carleton and Major Adye took up their position under a tree near the southern extremity of the hill, in rear of the reserve companies of the Fusiliers, from whence they could command a view of their field of operations, of the Boer camp below Pepworth Hill, and of Sir G. White's movements in the main battle. At 9.30 the heliograph on Limit Hill could be seen trying to call up the column, but, owing to the loss of the heliographs, it was impossible to answer, and an attempt to signal with a flag failed to attract the attention of Sir G. White's signallers. Two Kaffirs were sent out by Colonel Carleton after this, but it is doubtful if they got very far. The actual wording of Sir G. White's order to retire on Ladysmith does not seem to have been flashed to Colonel Carleton till nearly midday, when retreat had long been out of the question.
To the Boers the night march of Carleton's column had come as a complete surprise. There was a small brandwacht of the Pretoria town commando to the east of Bell Spruit, almost opposite the point where the column turned off the road, but it seems to have noticed nothing till the stampede actually occurred. It then fired a few shots in the direction of the noise, and hurried back to give the alarm to the commando, which was camped north of Pepworth, near the foot of the hill known as Nodashwana. Field-Cornet Zeederberg and a strong detachment (subsequently considerably reinforced) at once rode across and took up a position on rising ground about 1800 yards south-east of the end of Tchrengula. The noise of the stampede (or the report of the brandwacht on Tchrengula) simultaneously alarmed A. P. Cronje's Free State force camped near the Klip river west of Tchrengula. A number of the Free Staters, under Commandants Cronje and Nel, at once rode round and occupied Mount Pandi and Surprise Hill, to the west and south-west of the British, from which some of the bolder ones made their way into the donga and bushy ground immediately west of Tchrengula. All these were merely to act as a containing force. Meanwhile Christian de Wet, who, though only a simple burgher, seems to have taken the lead at once, and whose unerring instinct told him the right point to aim for, took 250-300 Heilbron burghers to the nek between the northern half of Tchrengula and the hill immediately south of Nicholson's Nek, and from there went up the reverse of the northern rise which the British had neglected to occupy. The key of the position was thus in Boer hands as soon as the fight opened.
The first shots were fired about 4.45 A.M., as soon as it began to be light, and a desultory fire, chiefly from the south-west, was kept up for the next few hours. Meanwhile, de Wet's men were gradually wriggling forward among the rocks and grasses on the brow of the rise. About eight o'clock they were strongly reinforced. The
Johannesburg police, about 400 strong, under Commandant Van Dam, had only arrived the preceding evening, and had been ordered by Joubert to take up a position on Tintwa Inyoni for the 30th. Van Dam soon saw he was no use where he was, and with the freedom that characterised the decisions of a Boer officer, ordered his men to saddle up and ride across to help be Wet. Galloping in small parties across the open valley of the Bell Spruit, the "Zarps" offered a fair target to the British, and Lieutenant Temple, in command of the Glo'ster Maxim, opened on them at about 1500 yards range, accompanied by a few volleys from the infantry. But in view of the need for husbanding ammunition orders were at once sent to stop firing at such long ranges. Disappearing round the shoulder of the hill the "Zarps" dismounted, and clambering up the reverse of the hill joined on to de Wet's left. The fire from the north was steadily increasing in intensity, creeping closer all the while to the advanced party of the Glo'sters. Crawling on their bellies through the deep grass, making short rushes from enclosure to enclosure and from stone to stone, the Boers steadily drew up closer. Under cover of their fire others meanwhile advanced unperceived round the edges of the hill into the rëentrants on both sides, waiting for their opportunity to open a murderous cross-fire. Van Dam and Christian de Wet, who led their men with great gallantry, were both wounded during this advance, but otherwise the Boers suffered very few casualties.
One of the theories which dominated British musketry training before the war was that the soldier could not be trusted to fire independently without wasting his ammunition, and that the only fire that was of any value was volley firing by word of command. That it is impossible to shoot straight by word of command, or to take advantage of the momentary appearance of an enemy, or to shoot without being seen, are facts which the theory found convenient to neglect. The theory was now to be put to the test of experience. At first the soldiers fired whenever they saw a Boer expose himself on the slope. But Major Adye, anxious to save ammunition, repeatedly sent orders to stop the independent firing. Only volleys were to be fired, and then only if the Boers showed themselves in masses. As the Boers never showed themselves more than one or two at a time, and never for a period long enough to give the necessary words of command and direct the soldiers' attention where to shoot, these orders, though not strictly carried out, only resulted in wasting ammunition and hampering the defence.
Ever since about 8.30 it had become plain that the whole force of the Boer attack was coming from the north. But little attempt was made to alter the dispositions taken up at daybreak. while the front was being close pressed more than half the force lined the almost unassailable rear of the position, exchanging a long-range fire with Boers on the neighbouring hills. By eleven the advanced party of the Glo'aters, which, up to now, had borne the brunt of the attack, was beginning to be enveloped by the Boers, who were concentrating a very hot fire on it. Captain Willcock, who was wounded, sent back a sergeant to inform Major Humphery. The messenger returned at 11.30 with an order from Major Humphery, to whom Colonel Carleton had given fairly free hand with regard to his dispositions, for F ad H companies to retire on the long sangar occupied by company immediately behind them. The moment the men rose from cover, a perfect tornado of rifle-fire broke out from among the stones in front and from the crest line a either flank, terribly mauling them as they crossed the pen. The casualties in B company alone were nine killed ad twenty wounded (including Captain Stayner) out of a strength of about sixty. Lieutenant McKenzie and a handful of E company, which had been detached to the left, failed to get the order to retire, and were cut off and made prisoners by some Boers who crept along the side of the hill and up the slope of the rëentrant to their rear, and shot into them as they lay on the ground, firing their rifles from their hips from a few yards' distance. Colonel Carleton, on being informed of this retirement, sent a written message to Major Humphery to order E and H companies, reinforced by another half company, to reoccupy their advanced position. As the two companies were now reduced to a mere handful of men, the idea of sending them out again would indicate that the true state of affairs in front was very far from being realised at headquarters. Major Humphery replied that it was impossible to send the men out again.
By midday the defence had been driven back within the limits of the "heel" end of the plateau. Making use of the retreat of the advanced companies of the Glos'ters, the Boers had stalked close up to the position, lying hidden in places within two hundred yards and less of the sangars, pushing up especially boldly at the sides of the hill from where they could pour a flanking fire into the breastworks. The fire became hotter every minute, playing on the tops of the sangars "like a garden hose on to a flower-bed," to quote the description of one of the officers present. Before long it drove most of B company of the Fusiliers out of their sangar, which had been badly constructed. They moved off to the right, thus leaving open the right front of the position. The Glos'ters in the long sangar on the left front were better covered and for some time held their own, suffering comparatively slight loss. But B company in their left rear overlooking the steep western face of the hill was now being heavily attacked. About 12.30 the Boers crept up under the crest within fifty yards of the right of B company, and Lieutenant Knox, seeing the men round him all hit, ran back to try and get some more men. As he did so he waved his arms and shouted to Captain Willcock in the sangar to look to his flank, as the Boers were coming up from behind. By one of those unfortunate and irrevocable errors which so frequently occur in war the waving of the arm (a recognised signal for retirement), and the disjointed words that reached Captain Willcock in the din of the battle, were understood to convey an order to retire which had been passed up from behind. The order was passed on to the officers of C company, who, reluctantly abandoning the cover of the sangar, sent their men back singly and in pairs across the open grass sloping upwards behind them. The Boers were close up on every side and opened a merciless fire, killing or wounding more than a third of the men. Captain Fyffe and Captain Willcock were wounded, the latter in several places. The rest dropped into such cover as they could find, a few stopping at a little kraal or rather heap of stones to the left front of D company's sangar, which Captain Fyffe had selected as a rallying point, the rest going on to the western and south-western edge of the hill.
This was the beginning of the end. The defence was now driven right back to the central knoll, at the foot of which D company of the Glo'sters was still secure behind its sangar, which had not yet been taken in flank. The fire on the top of the knoll was intense, concentrating largely on the ill-constructed sangars occupied by the reserve companies of the Fusiliers and by some of the unarmed gunners with their mules to their left. The mules and gunners now rushed back behind the crest of the hill. The Fusiliers had hardly had time to recover from the fatigues of the last march from Dundee. Rendered drowsy by the blazing South African sun after their sleepless night a great many had dropped asleep behind their sangars, and Colonel Carleton and Major Adye, who were only forty yards behind, had some difficulty in getting them to reply to the enemy's fire. About one o'clock Colonel Carleton, seeing men of the retiring companies of the Glo'sters dribbling past his left, and under the impression that A company of the Glo'sters were abandoning the brow of the hill immediately to his left, ordered Captain Silver to move half A company of the Fusiliers across, from the right of the reserve sangars. The men crossed the open steadily under a terrible fire. Unfortunately this movement, which looked like a falling back, combined with the sight of stragglers coming back on their left, started a panic among the Fusilier reserves. A number of them suddenly rose to their feet and came back in great disorder in front of Colonel Carleton. Nothing could stop them and they went right over the crest down the south reverse of the hill. Some of them threw away their rifles as they rushed right down to the foot of the hill. Here they offered a good target to the Boers on the hills beyond, whose fire drove them up to the crest again, where the rest had meanwhile been rallied by their officers and were lining the rear edge of the hill facing inwards.
The end came a few minutes later. The retirement of C company of the Glo'sters had been well covered by its
officers. The last to retire of these, Captains Duncan and Fyffe, and Lieutenant Beasley, were now collected with eight or ten men in the small broken-down enclosure already mentioned. Here they attempted to cover the retreat of the force, which they imagined, honestly enough - though perhaps they had no business to imagine - had altogether left the hill and was attempting to make its escape across the plain to the south. From where they were not a single man nor the flash of a single rifle was visible, and though not seventy yards from D company's sangar, they could not see it, owing to a slight rise in the ground, and were absolutely unaware that it was still occupied. That such a mistake should be possible was one of those new features of lying down warfare which had not yet been realised. For some time they kept on firing, but the broken-down breastwork offered little protection. At last only Lieutenant Beasley and one or two of the men were firing, the rest were all killed or wounded. After a short consultation, Captains Duncan and Fyffe decided that they had done all in their power, and could honourably abandon the contest. A handkerchief, and then, as that seemed to have no effect, a towel was held up on a sword in token of surrender.
From D company's sangar the top of the white flag was just visible, and Major Humphery, who was a few yards
behind the company, was almost immediately informed of it. He could also see Boers in front of the white flag, exposing themselves and waving their hats as a signal that they accepted the surrender. There can be little doubt that the right course for him was to see that the flag was immediately lowered at all costs. But readiness to assume responsibility is a quality that the training of the British Army has hitherto steadily striven to stamp out. Instead of acting himself, Major Humphery sent back Captain Conner, who had already run forward and seen what had happened, to inform Colonel Carleton, meanwhile telling the men immediately round him to hold their fire. Captain Conner rushed breathlessly back to the little sangar behind which Colonel Carleton and Major Adye were lying. After a moment's discussion Colonel Carleton called for a bugler and ordered him to sound the "cease fire." The terrified bugler seemed unable to sound the evil signal. Three or four times he tried before he produced a call, and then out rang a note so quavering and strange as to give rise later to a rumour that the signal was first sounded by a Boer. A white rag was then held up on a rifle.
The reasons that led Colonel Carleton to accept the white flag raised by a handful of men in an isolated outpost as determining the surrender of the whole force are sufficiently intelligible. The front of the position had already been abandoned by everybody except D company of the Glo'sters. A few minutes more would see their ammunition run out and their sangar taken in flank. Once the last sangar was gone, the Boers would swarm over the knoll and shoot down like rabbits the men who were lining the crest. More than an hour before, Carleton had seen Sir G. white's beaten troops making their way back into Ladysmith. But for that he might perhaps have ordered down the white flag and held on to the last, or even attempted to rally the men on the crest, many of whom had not yet been seriously engaged, to make a bayonet charge and sweep the Boers off the hill-top. But even that would not avert the inevitable end. Nor could he wish to complicate that end by a "white flag incident." Several Boers were already standing up opposite the white flag, while he and Major Adye were still discussing, and were advancing towards it with their rifles at the trail. But apart from the reasons given, there is no ground for asserting that Colonel Carleton was forced into abandoning a defence which might otherwise have been prolonged for some hours, by the unauthorized act of a subordinate. If there had been any hope, there was ample time to have sent someone across to order the flag down and reverse the surrender, as on a later occasion at Spion Kop ColonelThorneycroft by rushing to the front stopped the unauthorized surrender of some of his men. Or the white flag could been simply neglected and the rest of the defence continued. The Boers had no reason to suppose that a towel held over small stone heap not large enough to cover twenty men separated from the nearest point of the British line by 70 yards of bullet-swept open, could have any connection the rest of the force. The most they could reasonably expect was not to be fired at again from that same sangar.
The whole question of the ethics of surrender under the conditions of modern warfare is one of great difficulty.
Napoleon in his Maxims will allow of no surrender except that of the individual who has been cut off and is unable to use his weapons. "All generals, officers and soldiers who capitulate in battle should be decimated," is his stern verdict and he gives a true reason for it when he remarks: "How many seeming impossibilities have been accomplished by whose only resource was death!" Such a rule can, perhaps, never be absolutely enforced, but it should be an army's pride to endeavour to keep it. In former times, before the rifle had been perfected, a force that was outnumbered could always by a last desperate bayonet charge save its honour and hope to inflict some loss on its enemy. In modern war there are situations where men without ammunition armed only with bayonets, are no better than men unarmed, or even where a force whose ammunition is unspent is absolutely helpless in face of overwhelming rifle and artillery fire. But as long as there is any possibility, by continuing the fight at whatever cost of life, of inflicting injury on the enemy or even of only delaying his movements, there can be little doubt that the struggle should be continued. And however slight the purpose resistance may seem to serve at the time it has still its moral value as an example. No matter how justifiable surrender may be, its example may have an influence in other cases where the justification does not exist. To this ideal standard neither the junior officers who raised the first signal of surrender, when they might possibly for a few minutes longer have kept back the Boers from pursuing (as they imagined) the retreating force, nor the commanding officer, who might at the cost of perhaps 200 more casualties have held out another half hour, and thus given an example which might have averted many surrenders yet to come, can be held to have attained. But there is nothing in the circumstances attending the surrender at Nicholson's Nek which make it more humiliating than many other surrenders that occurred after it, while there have been many instances where the struggle has been abandoned when there was much better hope of escape or relief.
To return to the actual surrender. For some minutes the bugles sounded the "cease fire" before the firing could be stopped on the right. The companies of Fusiliers on the southeastern crest of the hill had suffered little and still had plenty of ammunition. The slight rise in the middle of the position sheltered them from the main Boer attack, of whose proximity and deadliness they had no notion. To them the surrender came as a complete surprise. For a while they refused to believe their own ears and fired away fiercely. The word was passed down their line to "fix bayonets and die like men." But it was too late. Officers broke their swords in bitter indignation as the Boers now walked confidently into their lines and began disarming their men. Colonel Carleton handed over his sword to Commandant Steenkamp, in command of the Heilbron burghers. In the moment of their triumph the Boers behaved with the same courtesy and unaffected kindheartedness which they had shown at Majuba, and which they displayed after most of their victories. Though exultant they were not insulting. They fetched water and blankets for the wounded, and treated the prisoners with every consideration. The latter, about 850 altogether, including many of the lightly wounded, after being disarmed, were marched down to Joubert's laager. That same evening they were driven in wagons to Waschbank Station, where they entrained for Pretoria. The total casualties at Nicholson's Nek were about 46 men killed and 130 men and 8 officers wounded. The Glo'sters suffered most heavily, losing 33 men killed, and 5 officers and about 75 men wounded, or about 27 per cent of their strength on the hill.
Many causes contributed to the disaster at Nicholson's Nek. Colonel Carleton was sent on an almost hopeless errand, and his steps were dogged by misfortune. Once he took up a position on Tchrengula he could hope to do nothing more than hold out till relieved or till nightfall gave him a chance of breaking his way back into Ladysmith. That hope failed. The history of that failure has been set forth in detail almost disproportionate to the general scope of the present work. But the detail may have helped to bring out the real cause of this failure - as of so many another - the tactical inferiority, in 1899, of the British soldier to the Boer. Nicholson's Nek showed that that inferiority had diminished but little since Majuba. No one can read Mr. Carter's vivid narrative of the fight on Majuba and then read the account of Nicholson's Nek without feeling that the two are but slightly different variants of the same story. On the British side there is the same failure to occupy advanced positions from which the enemy could have been kept at arm's length, the same crowding of men at points that were never assailed, the same inability to modify the dispositions to meet the actual attack. The sangars which directed the Boers where to concentrate their fire and sheltered them from observation, the harmless volleys which told them when it was safe to advance, the driving in of the advanced party, the crumbling away of the resistance during the last half hour under a fire growing ever hotter and hotter - the outlines of the the stories correspond. So, too, on the Boer side. Like Smit, whom he had followed up the slopes of Majuba, de Wet at once saw where the weak spot lay and rode his men round to it; what follows - the long hours of intermittent firing, during which the Boers picked off those who showed themselves incautiously, while they themselves invisibly crawled forward till they had enough men up to establish an overwhelming fire superiority at close range, the sudden development of intense continuous fire, all but the last shameful shooting down of hunted men - are the same. That last scene was averted by surrender. It was a contest of riflemen against riflemen, and the better men won. It is true that the Boers were more numerous, but of the 3000 or more that in some sort took part in the engagement, 1000 men at the most actually attacked the hill. How many battalions of British infantry, unaided by artillery, would it have required to capture 1000 Boers surrounded in a similar position?
What is true of Nicholson's Nek is true in no small degree of the whole of tile operations of that "Mournful Monday." The Boers won on their fighting merits. Their mobility completely paralysed the cumbrous tactics of their opponents. Their extended order and skill in the use of cover frustrated the immense superiority of the British in artillery. The volume and intensity of their fire checked all attempts to force a way through the invisible containing net of riflemen. The fact that fully a third of the forces on either side were never engaged, and that the British casualties, apart from Nicholson's Nek, were insignificant, did not diminish the moral effect of the engagement. The battle of Ladysmith was the first engagement on a large scale between British troops and Dutch burghers, and the first in which the two military systems were fairly matched against each other. And it showed conclusively that, in the open field, 12,000 British troops were not a match for an equal number of Boers.
It is not difficult to point out specific reasons for the failure of "Mournful Monday." They have been brought out sufficiently in the course of the narrative. But it would be a grave injustice to Sir G. White and the officers under his command to dwell only on their mistakes, without setting forth the underlying causes of their failure-causes inherent in the constitution and character of the force at their disposal, and in the peculiar conditions which they were the first to encounter. It must be remembered that, before the war, military opinion was unanimous in the belief that, though the Boers might gain successes in smaller operations, their want of discipline and staff organization, and the absence of trained leaders, would prevent their making full use of their numbers. In other words, that, though a thousand Boers might defeat a thousand British, ten thousand British, duly equipped in all "the three arms," were a practically invincible force. After Talana and Elandslaagte had shown that British troops could win in the smaller actions, Sir G. White not unnaturally hoped for success in the larger. It is from this point of view that his failure has an interest and importance in the history of the war which the battle of Ladysmith hardly merits as an engagement in itself.
As a matter of fact the magnitude of the forces on both sides, so far from being a disadvantage to the Boers, was, in some respects, all in their favour The extended formations made possible by the power of the modern rifle have given an enormous advantage to mobility and individual initiative, and the larger the force, and consequently the larger the front occupied, the greater that advantage is bound to be. Instead of attempting to dash directly in front against some portion of the Boer line - a policy by which his force could have been kept together, but which, as many subsequent engagements showed, was not unlikely to end either in failure or in the costly capture of a useless position - Sir G. White, on this occasion, decided to meet the wide extension of the Boers by a wider extension of his own force, in the hope that he might roll up the whole Boer position from its flank. But for this task the instrument with which he had to work was but ill-adapted. A slight change in the Boer dispositions caused the blow on their left flank to be struck at empty air, and before the clumsy British force had begun to rearrange itself, the Boers had completely enveloped it and forced it back on the defensive. For the Boers it was but the matter of a few minutes to meet the situation by prolonging their line for three or four miles. But for Sir G. White to bring his slow-moving infantry from one flank to another was a very different business, and though it is fair to criticise him for not doing something more definite once the situation plainly declared itself, it is also fair to remember how slow and how obvious to the enemy any change of dispositions would have been. Nor was it mobility alone which enabled the Boers to adjust their dispositions with so little delay. If the British commanders on the right had possessed the same immediate grasp of the situation that characterised the Boers, and the same readiness to modify orders which no longer had a direct application, the battle might perhaps have resulted very differently. But such initiative was not part of the British system. Again, quite apart from the question of the advantages of greater elasticity and initiative, "Mournful Monday" failed to show that superiority of British staff organization over the haphazard Boer methods that was so confidently expected. It is true that, owing to want of central direction, a good many Boers remained inactive behind Long Hill and round the slopes of Pepworth, while no attempt was made to push home the success gained. But when one considers the series of misunderstandings and blunders that made up what Dr. Conan Doyle has well described as a "scrambling, inconsequential, unsatisfactory action," the want of decision with which after the changed situation became clear the battle was allowed to proceed aimlessly for several hours till it ended in a withdrawal that on friend and enemy alike left the impression of a rout, the general paralysis following the retirement amid which the column isolated on Tchrengula was abandoned to its fate, it is not so easy to make out on which side lay the advantage of superior organization. The fact is, that the mere existence of an elaborate framework for the devolution of authority may be a hindrance rather than a help if that framework has not by previous experience and practice been converted into a perfect instrument. It was only one of those characteristic self-delusions, which ran through the whole British Army system, to suppose that a force whose component parts were hastily brought together, whose general and staff were new to each other, to the regimental officers, and not least to the task of handling so large a body of men even in manoeuvres, was an efficient fighting unit simply because the different duties had been duly distributed on paper.
The same confusion in the arrangement of details and weakness of purpose that prevailed on " Mournful Monday" had, to no small extent, marked the whole of the British operations in Natal since the outbreak of war. The conduct of the campaign during these nineteen days fluctuated between confidence, at times appalling in its rashness, and almost inexplicable hesitation and alarm. It is difficult to realise that the hurried retirement after Elandslaagte, and the abandonment of the intended night attack of October 27, could be part of the same military policy which allowed General Symons to stay at Dundee, which neglected to destroy the railway in front of the Boer advance, which sent two weak battalions of infantry to the rear of the whole Boer army. In comparison with the British operations the Boer advance, with its calm disregard of the partial checks inflicted at Talana and Elandslaagte, its successful concentration in front of Ladysmith, and its confident offensive-defensive tactics, cannot be said to demonstrate any striking strategic inferiority. Here again the conclusion to be drawn is not that an unorganized army can be as well manoeuvred as an organized one, but that battalions hastily collected in one spot are not an organized army, that red gorgets and staff caps do not make a staff, or long and honourable service in the army a great general. But it is not on Sir G. White, or on the officers of his staff, or the force under their command, that criticism should be directed, so much as on the whole system under which they were hurriedly thrown together. Nor should it be forgotten that the situation which Sir G. White was called upon to face in Natal during those few weeks was one of greater difficulty and responsibility than that which confronted any other general in the course of the war, that his force was relatively smaller, and that he had no time for preparation. If he erred, his mistakes were less grievous than those of others who had the opportunity of learning from his experience; if he hesitated, he, at any rate, never lost heart.
The moral effect of the battle of Ladysmith, at this period of the war, was almost incalculable. However great the confidence of the Boers in their military prowess, Talana and Elandslaagte had excited misgivings which a crushing defeat in front of Ladysmith might have converted into a general panic. Now, with one clear sweep, the horizon of doubt was cleared. It was a profound satisfaction, a relief from disquieting anxiety, rather than the exultation of unexpected success' that reigned in the Boer laagers after the battle, and that breathed through the Biblical eloquence of General Joubert's despatch to Pretoria. But not even the reports from the battlefield could compare in their effect with the indisputable evidence of nearly a thousand British prisoners as they passed the stream of reinforcements and of laggards coming down to join the army of invasion, and marched to their prison through the streets of Pretoria. From the day that the British prisoners marched into Pretoria, a new and far-reaching impetus was given to the war. The news, travelling with instantaneous rapidity through the length and breadth of South Africa by those underground channels whose rapidity and accuracy so often baffled the comprehension of loyalists and soldiers, thrilled the whole structure of Afrikanderdom to its foundations. In the Republics, cautious burghers who, doubting the issue, had malingered in their homes, took down their rifles from the wall and hastened to join their commandos. Colonial Boers who had shut their ears to the pleading of republican emissaries, and had just begun to congratulate themselves on their prudence, now turned rebel and rode across the border, or formed themselves into committees for the invitation and reception of the hesitating Free State forces, and for the organising of local commandos. In Europe the Transvaal Agency was flooded with the applications of adventurers eager to take a share in the overthrow of the British power.
In England, largely owing to the misguided zeal with which the military press censorship bowdlerised Sir G.
White's defeat into a "reconnaissance in force," the full significance of the battle of Ladysmith was not understood then, or for many weeks afterwards. The disaster of Nicholson's Nek, indeed, could not be concealed. But the brave message in which Sir G. White announced the mishap and claimed the whole responsibility for himself disarmed all criticism, and the greatest reverse that had befallen the British arms since Majuba was borne with a fortitude and self-restraint that did credit to the sober judgment of the British public. Whether it might not have been better in the end if the Government and the nation had been more seriously alarmed is another question. It is evident from the announcement, published immediately after the receipt of the news, that three additional battalions and a mountain battery would be despatched to make up for the losses incurred, that Nicholson's Nek was treated as a mere accident, and that no doubt had yet arisen as to the sufficiency of Sir Redvers Buller's main army to fulfil its task.
The actual situation in Natal was far more serious than was realised anywhere outside of Ladysmith. Whatever consoling descriptions the press correspondents may have been allowed to apply to the main battle along the Modder Spruit, Sir G. White seems to have accepted it as conclusive proof of the superiority of the Boers in the field. No attempt to upset the verdict of "Mournful Monday" by another general engagement was contemplated, and the Boers were left in undisputed possession of the heights which dominated Ladysmith from north and east. It could only be a matter of a few days before the Boers cut Sir G. White's communications with the south. It was therefore necessary to decide at once whether he should remain in Ladysmith and allow himself to be invested, or abandon the town and fall back behind the Tugela. Sir G. White unhesitatingly chose the former alternative. Sir Redvers Buller, who had reached Cape Town on October 31, telegraphed his acquiescence in this decision, though he hinted somewhat indefinitely that the line of the Tugela offered a tempting prospect.
Sir G. White has been severely criticised for sitting still and permitting the "entanglement of Ladysmith" to come to pass. But a consideration of the difficult problem which he had to face tends to show that it would have required a very great soldier to have risen superior to the reasons that determined Sir G. White's action. The strategic advantages of the Ladysmith base, the relative weakness of the line of the Tugela, the enormous moral and military gain that the Boers would derive from the possession of the largest town in Northern Natal and the key of their disconnected railway systems, have been dwelt on in a previous chapter. The first of these considerations no longer applied, since the British force was proved incapable of holding its own in the field, but the others still remained in force. Moreover, after October 30 it was impossible to abandon Ladysmith without sacrificing the greater part of the immense mass of stores and ammunition accumulated there. The retirement to the Tugela would in itself be a difficult and dangerous task, and if the Boers pressed the retreat close, the small and wearied British force would have but little time in which to take up a defensible position on the south bank, and even if it escaped a disaster might be pressed to abandon the Tugela as hastily as it had abandoned Ladysmith. These considerations and the expectation that the main strength of the Boer invasion would spend itself on an ineffectual attempt to take Ladysmith, thus leaving the rest of Natal in peace, no doubt confirmed Sir G. White in his resolve to remain where he was.
At the same time Sir G. White's action made complete shipwreck of the prearranged plan of campaign. By suffering himself to be invested he reduced what had been the Field Army of Natal to the level of a mere garrison - "an ensign on a hill " - capable only of holding its own till relieved from outside. To prevent the spread of the Boer invasion and to rescue the Ladysmith garrison from capture or starvation the Army Corps was broken up, and another field army, eventually three times as large as Sir G. White's own force, had to be collected in Natal, and hurled again and again, with heavy loss, against the iron ring of hills that lay between Sir G. White and the outer world. Sir G. White could not have foreseen Colenso or Spion Kop, yet he must have known, after his own experience of the Boers on" Mournful Monday," that the relief of Ladysmith would be no easy task. To add this task to Sir Redvers Buller's other burdens was, even after all allowances are made, an act of weakness whose truest explanation lies in a system of military training which strictly discouraged initiative and self-reliance. When one remembers how Napoleon deliberately sacrificed the whole of his siege-train at Mantua in 1796 in order to retain the mobility of his force in the field, it is difficult to believe that a general of his insight and self-confidence would not have preferred to incur any sacrifices sooner than allow himself to be immured. If Sir G. White had fallen back, first on Colenso, and then, step by step, if necessary, even as far as Maritzburg, destroying the railway and clearing the country of stock and produce in front of him, he might well have kept the superior Boer forces engaged till General Buller's main army had entered Bloemfontein. It must be remembered that the strategical mobility of the Boers, especially at this stage of the war, was far less than their tactical mobility, so that there was little fear of Sir G.White being rushed by their pursuit, and that they would be advancing into a hostile country in which they would have had to detach men to guard their communications, while Sir G. White's force would, as it slowly fell back, be strengthened by Natal volunteers anxious to protect their homes, and by as many men as General Buller could spare from the main advance, till it was strong enough to take up a permanent defensive position at some suitable point, e.g., along the hills north of Mooi River. Eventually, when the advance to Bloemfontein relieved the pressure in Natal, and additional reinforcements had come out from England, Sir G. White might have felt strong enough to turn the tables on the Boers and begin his advance.
However, Lord Roberts has expressed his approval of the course taken by Sir G.White, and one may well doubt if any other British general placed in the same position would have acted otherwise. It is at least arguable that the strategically less sound policy avoided the possibly serious effect upon Cape Colony of a hasty evacuation of Ladysmith before the arrival of the Army Corps, and that the very breaking up of the Army Corps, and the series of checks that followed, proved a blessing in disguise by averting the disaster that might have followed upon a march to Bloemfontein with an inadequate force.
But admitting the strength of the reasons which may be urged in justification of Sir U. White's general policy of retaining Ladysmith, one may fairly find ground for adverse criticism in the details of the steps taken by him. His refusal to send his splendid cavalry force south of the Tugela was a grave error. This step was strongly urged by General French and Sir A. Hunter, but Sir G. White, apparently not realising that there was no longer any object in retaining any part of the Natal Field Force that was not essential for garrison purposes, insisted on their remaining in Ladysmith. Based on Colenso and Chieveley the cavalry could have done invaluable work in preventing Boer raids across the river and have greatly facilitated the task of the relieving force. In Ladysmith they were far less use than outside. They added to the number of mouths to be fed, and the presence of so many horses in a confined space was largely responsible for the insanitary condition of the town and the consequent sickness which so greatly reduced the garrison. The only step Sir G. White took in order to cover Natal and keep in British hands the important passage of the Tugela, the key to the relief of Ladysmith, viz., the sending down to Colenso on October 31 of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Natal Field Battery, was entirely inadequate. A discussion of the actual defensive positions taken up round Ladysmith belongs more properly to the chapters in which the historic siege of that town is dealt with, but it is difficult not to feel that a certain timidity was shown in the uncontested abandonment of outlying positions which might have been held, at any rate for a time, and whose retention would have afforded a larger grazing ground, and made it more difficult for the enemy to complete the investment. This was especially the case with regard to Bulwana, the great flat-topped mountain about 7000 yards south-east of Ladysmith. The retention of Bulwana would have forced the Boers to extend enormously their investing line, and have protected Ladysmith from all artillery fire from east and south-east. As it was, the Boers took possession of it, and to the surprise of Sir G. White's staff, who seem to have learnt nothing from the lessons of Pogweni, Impati and Pepworth, dragged up one of their great cannon, with which they effectively shelled the town for many weary months.