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The Refights
The Natal Entanglement


·       
Investment of Ladysmith completed. Nov.14.
1
·        British at Colenso fall back on Estcourt. Nov. 2-3. 2
·        Umvoti Rifles at Tugela Ferry, Oct. 28-Nov. 18. 2
·        Defenceless state of Natal. 2
·        Boers occupied north of Tugela. Estcourt equally inactive. Nov. 3~14. 3
·        Boers decide on expedition south of Tugela. 3
·        Nov.14. Boer patrols near Estcourt. Alarm at Estcourt and Maritzburg. 4
·        Nov.15. Armoured train sent out. 4
·        Boers lay ambush for train near Frere. 5
·        Capture of the armoured train. 5
·        Nov. 15-20. Boers move round Estcourt in two bodies. 5
·        Hildyard misses opportunity of preventing Boer junction. Nov.  21. 6
·        Barton's nervousness at Mooi River. 6
·        Nov.22 and 23. Boers shell Mool River. 7
·        Nov.22. Hildyard decides to attack Boers on Brvnbella. 7
·        Nov.23, 3.30 A.M. Col. Kitchener takes end of Brynbella, but being unsupported eventually retires. 8
·        Retirement gallantly covered by Light Horse. 8
·        11 A.M. British withdraw to Estcourt shelled by Boers. 9
·        Willow Grange unsatisfactory engagement. 9
·        Boers, for various reasons, decide to return to Colenso and do so unmolested. Nov. 24-27. 9
·        British move up to Frere without attempting to pursue Boers. 10
·        Concentration at Frere. Nov. 26 - Dec.15. 10
·        Action at Tugela Ferry, Nov.23. End of first period of war. 10 

Investment of Ladysmith completed. Nov.14.

WE must now return to those events in Natal which played so important a part in disarranging the original plan of campaign. During the two days immediately following the battle of Ladysmith, active hostilities were confined to long-range artillery duels between the big gun on Pepworth and the naval guns in Ladysmith. Both sides were busy with their preparations, the Boers dragging their artillery up on to the heights commanding the town from north and east, and the British taking up defensive positions.  The investment was by no means complete yet.  On November 2 General Brocklehurst, with a small force, made a reconnaissance for some little distance across the plain immediately to the west of Ladysmith and shelled a Free State laager. That same afternoon General French and his staff, in pursuance of Sir R. Buller's orders, left by train for the south.  The train was fired on near Pieter's Station, but succeeded in running the gauntlet-the last to do so, for a few minutes later the Boers came down to the line and tore up the rails.  Before nightfall they were already shelling the town with field artillery from the slopes of Lombard's Nek.  On the 3rd General Brocklehurst took out a strong cavalry force, eventually comprising almost the whole of the mounted troops in Ladysmith, with a brigade division of artillery, on a reconnaissance against the Free Staters to the west of the town.  An inconsequent, hap-hazard action followed, in which some of the Imperial Light Horse were nearly cut off in a regular blind alley among the hills, and only rescued with difficulty by the 5th Dragoon Guards and the artillery. After some five hours' fighting the British withdrew with a loss of six killed and 28 wounded. The chief conclusion to be drawn from the reconnaissance was that the rare qualities essential to a cavalry leader were lacking in the officer to whom General French's departure had left the command of the mounted troops in Ladysmith. On the 4th Sir G. White asked Joubert to allow hospital trains with wounded and non-combatants to proceed to the south unmolested. This request Joubert naturally refused, but he courteously consented to the formation of a neutral camp for the reception of sick, wounded and non-combatants on the plain in front of Bulwana, and an armistice till the evening of the 5th was agreed upon for their removal.

British at Colenso fall back on Estcourt. Nov. 2-3.

Meanwhile, on November 1, a detachment of the Free Staters demonstrated against Colenso. From the Grobler's Kloof heights they shelled the garrison which had constructed intrenchments on a small hill, since known as Fort Wylie, on the north bank of the river. The guns of the Natal Field Artillery were, as on the morning of Elandslaagte, quite incapable of replying to the more modern weapons of the Boers. An advanced company of the Durban Light Infantry, guarding the bridge over the Langverwacht Spruit some three or four miles nearer Ladysmith, was with difficulty with-drawn. The shelling was repeated the next day, and in the evening Colonel Cooper, of the Dublin Fusiliers, prudently decided to fall back on Estcourt, some twenty-five miles back, as the position at the foot of the Colenso heights was untenable by so small a force. The retirement was carried out during the night and in the early hours of November 3. The total force now assembled at Estcourt, under Brigadier-General Wolfe-Murray, in command of the lines of communication in Natal, amounted to about 2300 men, of whom less than 300 were mounted.[1] These Wolfe-Murray, during the next few days, tried to equip and organise as a field force, no easy task with the limited resources at his disposal.

Umvoti Rifles at Tugela Ferry, Oct. 28-Nov. 18.         

In north-eastern Natal, the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, under Major Leuchars, about ninety strong, had retired from Helpmakaar to Pomeroy on October 23.  On the 26th they fell back on the Tugela ferry, where they remained for the next three weeks, though still patrolling north of the Tugela as far as Pomeroy, and skirmishing with parties of the Pietretief and Bethel commandos who had entered the village on the 28th, sacking it and destroying most of the houses.

Defenceless state of Natal.

The situation in Natal was one of the greatest anxiety. The Boers were within eighty miles of Maritzburg. Beyond the small and immobile force at Estcourt, there was practically nothing to stop their advancing directly on the capital of the colony, or even on Durban. The Imperial troops were still on the Atlantic; the bulk of the volunteer forces of the colony were shut up with Sir G. White. There were rifle associations in most of the country districts, and it might have been possible to call these out and send them up to Estcourt at once.[2] But the step was not taken. On the one hand, the fear of native risings, or doubts as to the value of these corps, may have deterred the military from availing themselves of their services.  On the other, splendidly patriotic as Natal showed itself through every stage of this long struggle, it still, in the main, looked to the Imperial forces for its defence. If Natal had possessed a commando organisation like the Transvaal, with an adequate supply of military stores, it could have found men enough to hold the line of the Tugela unaided against the overflow of the Boer forces from Ladysmith.  But Natal was, like the mother country, an unmilitary state, and patriotic improvisation-a poor substitute for that whole-hearted concentration of the national energy given by law-enforced universal service-was all it could rely on for its defence till the Imperial forces arrived. Immediately after the battle of Ladysmith, the Hon. T. K. (now Sir Thomas) Murray began getting together a force from the members of rifle associations. By November 2 about 80 men of Murray's Horse reached Mooi River and, subsequently increased to about 150 men, patrolled the country for a fortnight, when, on the arrival of reinforcements, they were disbanded.  The recruiting and training of Thorneycroft's and Bethune's mounted infantry corps, sanctioned by Sir G. White, was rapidly pushed forward at Maritzburg and Durban, and the formation of an Uitlander infantry battalion, the Imperial Light Infantry, was now authorised by Sir B. Buller.  Except miscellaneous details and convalescents belonging to Sir G. White's force, there were no troops in Maritzburg. It was impossible to man the long line of lofty heights almost encircling the town, and the fortification of the military camp at Fort Napier, just above the railway-station, with earthworks, bales of compressed forage and barbed wire entanglements, partook somewhat of the comic, though it served its purpose of reassuring the civilian population.  The arrival of two 12-pounders and a 7-pounder with 25 men from H.M.S. Tartar did still more in the same direction. Durban was the only place that was really adequately defended.  The Terrible had arrived there on the 6th, and its energetic and irrepressible commander, Captain Percy Scott, had taken over the post of commandant. By the 8th 28 guns,[3] drawn from the Terrible, Thetis, Tartar and Forte, were posted to command all the land approaches to the town.  Besides the contingents from the ships, a number of the townspeople were organised to assist in the defences and to patrol the country round.  The work was extremely well done, but as matters stood it would have been better if Captain Scott and his guns had been sent up to Mooi River or Estcourt, where they would have been of more immediate service. But the not unreasonable reluctance of the Admiralty to acquiesce in the locking-up of the armament of its ships in the interior of South Africa had yet to be overcome.

Boers occupied north of Tugela. Estcourt equally inactive. Nov. 3~14.

For the moment, however, there was no sign of active operations south of the Tugela.  The Boers were too absorbed in the task of investing Ladysmith, and spreading themselves over Northern Natal, to give any thought to the great opportunities open to them if they made a rapid push southwards. A constant stream of trains, bringing supplies and reinforcements of burghers and artillery, came down from Pretoria to the head laager at Modderspruit. Magistrates were appointed in all the villages. Patrols rode round enlisting recruits among the Dutch farmers or assuring themselves of their friendly neutrality.  The British at Estcourt were equally inactive, but with more reason. The fact is that a small force of infantry was quite unfitted for the task of keeping in touch with a mobile enemy, unless it was prepared to allow itself to be invested. If only Sir Cf. white had kept the Dublin Fusiliers in Ladysmith and sent out his cavalry! Under the circumstances Estcourt was as near the enemy as General Wolfe-Murray could trust himself. From there he might to some extent bluff the enemy, and endeavour to keep up communication with Ladysmith by native runners or by heliograph,[4] and yet succeed in falling back if in serious danger of being surrounded. Later on, as reinforcements arrived, Estcourt would form a convenient place of assembly for the troops that were to relieve Sir G. White, and would be near enough to enable a helping hand to be given him if he was forced to break his way out. Meanwhile, to keep up some demonstration of activity, an armoured train was daily sent up the line to Colenso, and slight skirmishes took place on the 5th and subsequent days. But as late as the 9th the village was not yet regularly occupied by the Boers.

Boers decide on expedition south of Tugela.

This inactivity was not to the taste of the younger and more enterprising leaders of the Boers.  Louis Botha,

who since Meyer's departure had been definitely nominated Assistant-General in command of Meyer's division, was their chief spokesman, and urged the necessity of taking the offensive, in order to check the advance of the reinforcements known to be coming from the Cape. Joubert yielded to the pressure put upon him, and consented to an advance south of the Tugela, but, to make sure that the enterprise should be conducted with due caution, decided to accompany the expedition himself. A picked and well-mounted force, from 3000 to 3500 strong, composed of detachments of the Krugersdorp, Boksburg, Heidelberg, Standerton, Ermelo Carolina, Middelburg, Vryheid, and Utrecht commandos, and the Johannesburg police, and the Senekal, Vrede, and Frankfort Free Staters, with four or five guns, was collected at Colenso on the 13th and 14th.  Smaller skirmishing and foraging parties had already been scouring the country for a dozen miles round Colenso during the last few days, and on the 14th strong patrols pushed on to Chieveley, and as far as the Estcourt-Weenen road, within four or five miles of Estcourt itself.

Nov.14. Boer patrols near Estcourt. Alarm at Estcourt and Maritzburg.

Estcourt had been reinforced on the 13th by the arrival of the West Yorkshires, and on the 14th, as the result of a short visit of inspection by General Hildyard on the 13th, by the two 12-pounders and 7-pounder of the Tartar from Maritzburg, and was now in a better condition to meet any attack. But it was still very far from being confident. The undue contempt in which the Boers had been held by most s4diers before the war had, after the battle of Lady-smith, given way to a greater respect for their prowess and to the most imaginative estimates of their numbers. The absence of an adequately organised field intelligence with the scratch force at Estcourt - part of the ridiculously inadequate provision in money and men made, at this stage of the war, for the most important branch of any fighting force-added greatly to the general nervousness. A dense, paralysing mist of uncertainty enveloped all things beyond a narrow radius from the village. The appearance of the Boer 'patrols on the 14th was the signal for a display of nervous irresolution, profoundly depressing to those who watched it, and full of portent for any one who reflected upon the future course of the campaign. At the first alarm the whole force almost was sent on to the hills east of the town, to stay the enemy's onset, while tents were struck and wagons packed for immediate retreat if the enemy proved too strong. Then a moment of confidence and the tents were pitched again on ground which the pouring rain had meanwhile converted into a swamp. A passing cloud of despondency, and down once more fluttered the white walls and packing-up was resumed. All day and late into the night, amid streaming rain, Estcourt hovered between scuttling and not scuttling, inclining ever more and more to the former, while anxious communications with Maritzburg - the true begetter of its irresolution - passed to and fro over the wires. The naval guns, which had been posted in the morning on a rise west of the line, were brought down to the station and put on the trucks.  But at the last moment Colonel Long, R.A., who was in temporary command, Wolfe-Murray having gone down to Maritzburg on the 10th to superintend the arrival of Hildyard's brigade, insisted on staying, and fighting if need be. After all the only enemy with whom his mounted men had come in contact during the day had been mere patrols who showed little inclination to fight.  In a minute the atmosphere of retreat was dispelled, and the whole force went contentedly to sleep.[5]

Nov.15. Armoured train sent out.

Early next morning the armoured train was sent up the line again, primarily to reconnoitre, but also to fight an action, if necessary. For this purpose it was manned by a company each of the Dublin Fusiliers and Durban Light Infantry, some 150 men in all; six men of the Tartar, with the naval 7-pounder on an open truck, and a handful of platelayers to repair the line if required. It is typical of British military methods that, though the train had been running up to Chieveley or Colenso almost daily, the officer selected to command, Captain A. Haldane, D.S.O., of the Gordons, had never been up the line before. That the train was certain to be caught in a trap, sooner or later, was the outspoken conviction of every officer in Estcourt, but no precautions were taken to accompany it by a few mounted men to scout on both sides of the railway. As a means of quickly moving infantry about, or of providing cover to them against an enemy unprovided with artillery, armoured trains may be most serviceable.  They had already been used with success in Bechuanaland, and were destined to play an important part in the later stages of the war.  But for reconnoitring purposes, except on perfectly flat country, little reliance can be put in them.  Between Estcourt and Colenso the line ran like a switchback, up and down a number of narrow valleys, with hardly a point from which an unbroken view of 800 yards on either side could be obtained.  On the other hand, even when it was hidden in cuttings the puffing of its approach could be heard for miles.  The particular train in question was of the most primitive character, consisting simply of open trucks boxed in with loopholed walls of thick boiler plate to a height of seven feet from the floor of the trucks.  It would be hard to devise a better target than a soldier laboriously climbing in or out of that death-trap.

Boers lay ambush for train near Frere.

General Joubert's expedition had started trekking from Colenso before dawn that same morning. An advanced party under Adjutant B. Van der Merwe had nearly reached Frere when the ill-fated train was heard puffing along in the distance. The Boers at once concealed themselves. After a halt at Frere to consult with a picket of Natal Police, Captain Haldane, finding all quiet, pushed on to Chieveley. No sooner had the train passed on than the Boers made their preparations. Large numbers of them had hurried up, and, knowing what was in the wind, had taken care to keep the kopjes near the line between themselves and the unsuspecting train. A long steep slope a mile and a half from Frere was chosen for the execution of their plans.  Towards the bottom of the slope the line curved sharply towards Frere, a guide rail along the curve being placed there to prevent trains running off the rails.  The Boers filled up the space between the guide rail and the rail next to it with stones to help the train to run off if it was at all hurried-and they meant to hurry it.  On both sides of the line a broad glacis-like slope extended 100 to 800 yards up to higher ground, and on the edges of this the Boers posted three guns and a "pom~pom," and spread themselves out. when all was ready they lay down in the pouring rain, philosophically smoked their pipes, and waited for the train to return.

Capture of the armoured train.

Meanwhile the train puffed on to Chieveley. From the station parties of Boers - as a matter of fact the rearguard of the main body, which was already laagering near the scene of the intended surprise-were seen some little way off moving southwards. After reporting by telegraph to Colonel Long, Haldane steamed back.  As the train entered the mouth of the trap prepared for it the Boers opened fire with their guns and Mausers. As they had expected the engine-driver turned on full steam and dashed down the incline. At the corner the leading trucks jumped off the line, two of them capsizing completely, and the third remaining jammed across the track in front of the engine which was in the middle of the train.  The sailors at once replied to the enemy's fire with their 7-pounder from the rear truck, but before many seconds the little gun was knocked clean off its carriage. While the Dublin Fusiliers and Durban Light Infantry scrambled out and pluckily tried, under Haldane's direction, to keep down the enemy's fire, Mr. Winston Churchill, who was present as correspondent of the Morning Post, led a brave little party of volunteers in an effort to clear the line in front of the engine. For over an hour they toiled away, shells and bullets playing furiously upon them. At last things were so far clear that the engine could ram its way past the corner of the overturned truck.  The engine and tender got through, but the heavy trucks behind stuck at the impediment, and the couplings parted.  Further attempts to move the trucks were fruitless.  The engine had been struck several times, and the boiler might be burst by a shell any moment.  The only thing to be done was to get the engine away. The wounded were lifted on board, and the engine steamed slowly towards Frere.  Haldane made his men run alongside, hoping, if possible, to get back to Frere. But the fire was too hot.  To save itself the engine had to increase its pace, and the men fell behind, Haldane and Churchill staying to rally them. A few minutes more and all was over. The Boers galloped down and took some 70 prisoners, including Haldane, Churchill,[6] and Lieutenant Frankland of the Dublins.  There were in all five killed and 45 wounded.  Twenty wounded and 70 unwounded escaped with the engine, or struggled back during the day.  The Boers lost two killed and five wounded. A handful of mounted troops who had arrived post haste from Estcourt were too late to save the situation, but kept up a skirmishing fight for some time against superior numbers.

Nov. 15-20. Boers move round Estcourt in two bodies.

The Boers, elated by their success, now prepared to push on. A direct advance on Estcourt was not part of Joubert's plan. He preferred, by marching round and planting himself across the railway on the high ground between Estcourt and Mooi River, to have it in his power either to fall upon the isolated garrison of Estcourt or to threaten a sudden raid upon Maritzburg. With this purpose he divided his force in two, sending about 1000 men with two guns, under his nephew, Assistant-General David Joubert of the Carolina commando, round to the east of Estcourt, while he himself with Louis Botha and the rest of the force worked round to the west.  A small detachment was left behind to "feel" Estcourt from the north, and keep it occupied till the move was completed.  That so cautious a commander as Piet Joubert did not hesitate to divide his force in order to march round an enemy numerically of equal strength, expecting strong reinforcements, and in command of the railway, is typical of the justifiable contempt the Boers felt for British immobility.  The Boer advance itself was carried out in perfectly leisurely fashion, the commandos spreading freely over the rich grazing lands of Weenen county, right up to the Drakensberg, looting great herds of cattle, collecting abundant supplies, and making utter havoc of all unoccupied farmhouses. A German participator in the expedition happily described it as a "Lumpon-Kreuzzug," i.e. a "Tramps' Crusade."  On the 17th D. Joubert entered Weenen unopposed, the Boers, in spite of the efforts of their officers to prevent them, sacking the village inn and some of the stores. On the 19th, after a skirmish between some of his men and the British patrols from Mooi River; he took up a position on high ground some five miles east of Highlands, the next station north of Mooi River, and there waited, somewhat anxiously, for the arrival of the main body. The latter had meanwhile worked round through Ulundi, fifteen miles south-west of Estcourt, in which district they lifted many thousand cattle on the 18th and 19th, and were now pushing in a south-easterly direction towards the railway at Highlands.

Hildyard misses opportunity of preventing Boer junction. Nov.  21.

The Boers were too late to prevent the reinforcement of Estcourt. On the 16th General Hildyard and his staff arrived with the 2nd Queen's and the 2nd East Surrey. More important still the next two days saw the arrival of the 7th Field Battery and of Bethune's Mounted Infantry.  The mounted forces at Estcourt now numbered nearly 800 men, and were put under Lieutenant-Colonel Martyr, D.S.O. In view of the evident likelihood of an attempt to cut the line south of Estcourt, and in order to keep touch with Barton at Mooi River, the West Yorks and some of the mounted troops were moved down to Willow Grange on the 17th, but recalled on the 19th to avoid dispersion of the force. On the 18th the Boer patrols on the north came within 8000 yards of Estcourt along the railway, but a shell from one of the naval guns bursting in their midst warned them to keep at a more respectful distance. They had succeeded, however, in maintaining the impression that the main Boer force would attack Estcourt directly from the north-west and west and so keeping the garrison on the defensive. On the 19th Martyr, who had located D. Joubert's laager, applied for permission to capture it by a night attack, an idea which met with General Hildyard's approval. Towards midnight of the 20th five companies of the Borders and three of the East Surreys, with two of the Natal guns and 450 of Martyr's men, the whole under Lieutenant-Colonel Hinde of the Borders, assembled at Willow Grange for the projected attack. But at the last moment the officer in command hesitated. Messages flashed to and fro between Estcourt and Willow Grange, while the men shivered and coughed on the damp grass and wondered when they were to start.  Before a decision had been come to, day broke. Later in the morning Hildyard came over to Willow Grange, and led the weary infantry for a five-mile promenade to look at the Boer position. At midday the infantry marched back, and the mounted force, whose horses had been standing with their saddles on most of the time since 3 A.M., rode out by the same dusty road to have their look at the position. While out there Martyr, hearing from Barton's patrol at Highlands that a large force of Boers was coming down to the line west of that station, detached some of his men to observe them.  Meanwhile, about 4 P.M., the infantry resting at Willow Grange suddenly became aware of a party of Boers on the crest of Brynbella Hill, a long and grassy ridge west of the station rising some 1000 feet above it and running due west for two or three miles.  The troops were hurriedly sent to hold some lower kopjes immediately above the station, but were soon called down again.  Colonel Hinde was not unnaturally afraid of getting caught between the Boer forces on both sides of him.  So a hasty retreat on Estcourt was effected, the returning mounted troops covering the movement. The Boer forces now effected an undisturbed junction, and, after breaking up the line at Highlands and Willow Grange, spread themselves over all the heights from Brynbella Hill south and south-east to D. Joubert's original position. Thus ended an extraordinarily futile operation.  The isolated position of D. Joubert's force offered a rare opportunity which was allowed to escape.  It is not easy to say why more troops and better guns could not have been sent down, if there was any doubt as to the Boer strength, or why nearly the whole force might not have abandoned Estcourt for twenty-four hours in order to strike a decisive blow.

Barton's nervousness at Mooi River.

Even more difficult is it to understand why no attempt at co-operation was made by General Barton from Mooi River, only twenty-two miles from Estcourt and barely ten from D. Joubeft's camp.  Barton had arrived on the 18th with the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, preceded on the 16th by the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, and followed on the 19th by the 14th Battery, R.F.A., and on the 20th by the 2nd Devonshires. On the 19th three companies of Thorneycroft's had been engaged with D. Joubert as already mentioned, and during the greater part of the 20th these companies with half a battalion of infantry and four guns were on the heights north-east of Mooi River, within easy striking distance of the enemy. But if Estcourt hesitated in the execution of its plans for attack, Mooi River was not for attacking at all. The fact is General Barton was decidedly nervous, and his chief concern seemed to be to defend the station and bridge at Mooi River at all hazards against the overwhelming forces it which he believed to be advancing upon him.

Nov.22 and 23. Boers shell Mool River.

The "overwhelming forces" in question, viz., D. Joubert's commando, had been dreading an attack hardly less anxiously, and with better reason. But after regaining touch with the main force under the Commandant-General on the 21st they recovered their confidence. While the greater part of the main force was engaged in watching Estcourt, and in sending foraging and cattle-raiding patrols down into the upper valley of the Mooi River and almost to Nottingham Road - where, however, their further advance was checked by the active scouting of the local farmers who had promptly mobilised in defence of their homes, and by the arrival of the first battalions of Lyttelton's brigade - D. Joubert's men advanced early on the 22nd on to the ridge which had been held by Thorneycroft's the day before, and playfully dropped shells from their two guns into the station yard at Mooi River. The British replied with their artillery, and the troops were sent out, but the heavy storm of rain which fell in the afternoon put an end to the engagement.  On this occasion D. Joubert was supported by Louis Botha and part of the main force.  But on the 23rd, D. Joubert on his ridge, and a few patrols reported some miles south of Mooi River, repeated the process of keeping Barton occupied with equal success while Botha was engaged with Hildyard at Willow Grange, and thus prevented any co-operation of the British forces.

Nov.22. Hildyard decides to attack Boers on Brvnbella.

Hildyard, however, had no intention of waiting patiently till he was shelled. Discovering on the 22nd that the Boers had planted one of their guns on the eastern end of Brynbella and were themselves camped there in some force, he decided, on the advice of Major D. McKenzie of the Natal Carbineers, to make that point his objective for a night attack. The execution of this operation was entrusted to Colonel F. W. Kitchener, commanding the West Yorks, who on the after-noon of the 22nd took with him, besides his own battalion, seven companies of East Surreys and four each of the Queen's and the Durban Light Infantry, the 7th Field Battery, and one naval 12-pounden Five companies of the Borders and the mounted troops were to move out in support before day-break on the 23rd. During a drenching storm the troops marched some five or six miles to the base of a steep conical hill, generally known as Beacon Hill, to the west of the Estcourt-Willow Grange Road and about 5000 yards north of the Boer position on Brynbella, from which Brynbella could be reached without descending right down into the Willow Grange valley. Here Hildyard joined Kitchener and took over the command, leaving to the latter only the two battalions, West Yorks and East Surreys, which were to carry out the actual night attack. The general idea for the 23rd seems to have been that Kitchener, once established on the end of Brynbella, should act as a pivot on the left round which Hildyard was to swing the rest of his force so as to drive the Boers off Brynbella down to Highlands and so into Barton's arms.  Some of the troops exposed themselves on the flanks of Beacon Hill just before sunset, drawing the fire of the Boer gun, to which the naval gun, which with great difficulty had been hauled up the steep reverse of the hill, unfortunately replied. This warned the Boers that some serious move was contemplated, and their gun, whose capture was to have been one of the chief results of the night attack, was withdrawn by the lieutenant in charge of it at 2 A.M. The storm which had been raging in the afternoon began with renewed vigour after nightfall. For hours the men lay in the open in their thin khaki drill, drenched through and through with the sluicing downpour, and bruised all over with the stinging hail. Among the Boers on Brynbella one burgher and several horses were killed by lightning.

Nov.23, 3.30 A.M. Col. Kitchener takes end of Brynbella, but being unsupported eventually retires.

Soon after 11 P.M. Colonel Kitchener took his two battalions across to the base of Brynhella.[7] During this march some of the East Surreys mistook some of the West Yorks for Boers and there was a moment of confusion, during which several men were wounded by rifle or bayonet.  It is doubtful whether the Boers heard this firing.  Anyhow, Colonel Kitchener pushed on, and, having assembled his men, sent them up along both sides of a stone wall which ran from in front of Beacon Hill up the north-eastern corner of Brynbella on to the crest.  Led with great coolness and judgment up the steep bill-side by Major Hobbs of the West Yorks the men scrambled up to the top unperceived. The Boers at this end of Brynbella were only a small party, some 150 Free Staters from Vrede and 50 Johannesburg police.  As the British topped the crest the startled Boer sentry challenged in a loud voice.  The reply was a volley - contrary to orders - and a ringing cheer from the West Yorks, who rushed over his body on the laager.  But the firing had given the Boers just enough time to escape along the ridge, and all the British had captured was a heap of blankets and saddlery and some thirty or forty ponies. It was now about 3.30.  As soon as it became a little lighter Colonel Kitchener placed a firing line of West Yorks among the boulders on the highest part of the crest, withdrawing the rest behind the wall.  The Boers, who had fallen back to an eminence on the ridge some 1500 yards further back, and were reinforced by the Krugersdorp commando led by Louis Botha and by Commandants Potgieter and Qosthuizen, now began to attack the British perched on the edge of the hill.  Their fire was quite harmless for the first two hours, but gradually they crept up closer on both sides of the hill, while their guns, two field-pieces and a "pom-pom," were moved so as to bring a converging fire to bear on the narrow position on which the British were perched.  Kitchener looked round anxiously for the artillery to support him, but beyond an occasional shell from the naval gun on Beacon Hill, which from its position could only search the northern slopes of Brynbella, no support was forthcoming. As a matter of fact the 7th Battery was lying idle at the foot of Beacon Hill; its commanding officer had been given no instructions on the preceding evening, not even the information that Brynbella was to be attacked, and had received no order that morning except to stay where he was. Not thinking it any use to try and hold on further, Kitchener decided towards 9 A.M. to abandon his hold on Brynbella and ordered his men to retire down the hill, partly towards Beacon Hill, where a small intervening kopje offered cover, and partly down to a small plantation in the Willow Grange Valley.

Retirement gallantly covered by Light Horse.

The rest of the infantry were meanwhile collected on the crest of Beacon Hill near the naval gun, where they were separated by 5000 yards of open valley from any point where they might have been of use in supporting Kitchener. Of the mounted troops, Bethune's Mounted Infantry moved out about 5 A.M. along a path Lading westwards among smaller kopjes to the north of Beacon Hill, thus forming the extreme right of the British line.  On the extreme left Martyr with the remaining squadrons had patrolled the valley below Willow Grange and kept in check parties of Boers moving up from Highlands.  Just about the time when Kitchener was meditating his retreat from Brynbella General Hildyard, who had arrived in the morning, independently came to the same decision.  He now ordered Colonel Hinde on Beacon Hill to send forward the Queen's and Borders till the left of their firing-line joined on to Kitchener's position.  They advanced about a mile, lining the wall which has already been referred to as running on to the end of Brynbella from in front of Beacon Hill, and were freely shelled by the Boer "pom-pom" and by a long-range gun some 7000 yards or more to the west of them on some heights where General Joubert and the main Boer force were posted. The naval gun on Beacon Hill tried to reply but fell short.  The Boor gun, however, diverted its attention from the infantry, and, to show its superiority of range, freely shelled the summit of Beacon Hill.  Martyr was at the same time ordered to help Kitchener's retirement on the left. He at once took his men up Brynbella from Willow Grange, the Imperial Light Horse, under Captain Bottomley, leading.  When the Light Horsemen got up they found only one company of West Yorks still left on the crest. Lining up at the wall they held back the Boers who were hotly pressing the retreat, and concentrating an intense shell, pom-pom, and rifle-fire on the position. When the infantry retirement was completed and most of the wounded bad been carried down to the foot of the hill, Martyr had to think of getting his own gallant little handful of men away. The artillery had now moved forward to a position in which it could cover the retreat and prevent the Boers rushing the crest the moment our men left it.  Suddenly it was seen to limber up and withdraw, leaving the men on Brynbella to take their chance.  This was due to an order from Hildyard, who seems not to have realised what was happening on Brynbella and wished to cover the withdrawal of the infantry further to the right.  There was nothing else to do, so Martyr told his men to run down to their horses.  Before they got there the Boers were over the edge of the hill and blazing down at them. Luckily their excitement or the plunging fire upset their aim, and the troopers got away with very few casualties.[8] A few minutes later the Boers had got their gun - the one for whose sake the night attack had been planned - back on the end of the hill and were shelling the retreating horsemen.

11 A.M. British withdraw to Estcourt shelled by Boers.

The whole force was now falling back on tbe Beacon Hill position and about eleven o'clock General Hildyard decided to withdraw to Estcourt.  He originally intended to retain his hold on Beacon Hill, which was within 7000 yards of Estcourt, but owing to some misapprehension the naval gun was removed and it was not thought worth while to replace it. As the troops fell back the Boer long-range gun freely dropped shells among them at ranges from 10,000 to 12,000 yards. The total casualties for the day had been sixteen killed and over sixty wounded, chiefly in the West Yorks. Major Hobbs and seven men of the West Yorks, who stayed too long on Brynbella looking after the wounded, were made prisoners. The Boer casualties were perhaps a quarter of the British. Botha had his horse shot under him while leading his men to the counter-attack. The Boers had some 2000, the British 5000 in the field, but on neither side was more than a small portion of these forces actively engaged; as far as the British were concerned, the centre, the mounted troops on the fight, and the artillery might almost equally well have been away.

Willow Grange unsatisfactory engagement.

Willow Grange was an unsatisfactory engagement. The night attack was skilfully carried out, but its objective had unfortunately been removed. The rest of the action was purposeless, confused and without direction, though the troops actually engaged on Brynbella behaved extraordinarily well in a trying position. Sir R. Buller, however, was so impressed by the complete transformation in the Natal situation between the 22nd, the day he left Cape Town, and the date of his arrival at Maritzburg, which he attributed entirely to this action, that he treated the Willow Grange affair in his despatches as a brilliant victory won over 7000 Boers. The Boers, with better reason, claimed that they had without difficulty repelled an attack in force by the Estcourt garrison. Estcourt was depressed, and on the evening of the battle was already counting up its stores in view of the possibility of a prolonged investment, and expecting momentarily to see the muzzle of the Boer long-range gun showing itself on Beacon Hill and dropping its shells into the village.

Boers, for various reasons, decide to return to Colenso and do so unmolested. Nov. 24-27.

However, the Boers themselves were getting anxious. They could hardly hope to continue indefinitely between two British forces each much larger than their own. Sooner or later their weakness would be found out. The 24th saw fresh troop trains and naval guns arriving at Mooi River, as their scouts duly reported. Messengers from Colenso brought the news of Methuen's march and of his first success at Belmont - news which made advisable the transfer of some of the Free State commandos to that front - apparently also of Buller's coming round to Natal. After three or four days of incessant rain the Tugela would be in full flood, and, if the British were to cut off their retreat to Colenso, they would be caught in a trap. Louis Botha, indeed, at the Krygsraad held that afternoon, was for leaving I~stcourt and Mooi River alone and marching straight on Maritzburg, but Joubert and the other commandants could not rise to such audacious strategy, and decided to retreat to Colenso.  The Commandant-General's usual caution may have been accen-tuated by physical suffering.  He had just sustained a serious internal injury, due to his horse stumbling, and had to be conveyed on the retreat in a closed carriage.  On the 24th the Boer foraging parties were still out over all the countryside.  On the 25th a patrol of Thorneycroft's, which moved out from Mooi River, was met by a vigorous artillery and rifle-fire. But the retreat had already begun. Joubert, on this occasion, was disinclined to split up his force, and with the exception of the small Free State contingent under Commandant Schutte, which returned by Ulundi, the whole body returned by Weenen. It was a dangerous and difficult march. The expedition had come out lightly equipped. It returned heavy with hundreds of wagons of looted goods and droves upon droves of raided cattle, a great straggling procession, whose head had almost reached Weenen before its tail lost touch with Mooi River. The roads were sodden with the heavy rains, and on one occasion their big gun was stuck for ten hours in a drift. For some miles the track to Weenen led through a defile where a handful of men could have checked the whole force.  But nothing happened.  On the 26th the main body passed through Weenen, and by the evening of the 27th the whole expedition, with all its plunder, had made its way back safe and unmolested to Colenso.

British move up to Frere without attempting to pursue Boers.

The Boer retreat was discovered by the British almost once. On the 25th little was done, though some of the mounted troops from Estcourt, patrolling out towards Ulundi came in touch with the retiring Free Staters. About midnight, Barton, who had been keeping his men standing to arms night and day since the 22nd, in momentary anticipation of being rushed, realised that the danger was past, and ordered Lord Dundonald to march up to Estcourt with two battalions, a battery, and some of Thorneycroft's. Later on, during the course of the morning of the 26th, the railway and telegraph between Mooi River and Estcourt was repaired, the bulk of the Mooi River troops marched up to Fstcourt,while the Estcourt garrison, joined by Dundonald, advanced and occupied Frere.  Why no attempt was made to molest the Boer retreat is almost incomprehensible.  It is true that the mounted forces, both at Estcourt and Mooi River, were small, and had been very hard worked, but even fifty troopers can very effectively harass a retreat and, considering the much greater distance the Boers had to go, the infantry ought to have found little difficulty in getting to Colenso first, and at the least forcing the Beers to disgorge their spoils. Apart from an attempt to cut off the Boer retreat, the mere advance on Frere had little to recommend it as a strategical move. It only served to "show the hand" of the force that was to relieve Ladysmith.

Concentration at Frere. Nov. 26 - Dec.15.

The advance to Frere met with practically no opposition; but the small Boer force which had kept in touch with Estcourt on the north took the precaution of blowing up the railway bridge over the Blaauwkrantz at Frere, a piece of work very artistically carried out by the employees of the Netherlands Railway.  On the 27th small parties of Boers demonstrated against the British outposts towards Chieveley in order to cover the undisturbed retreat of Joubert's force across the Colenso bridge.  On the 28th General Clery came up to inspect the camp, but did not actually take over the command from Hildyard till December 5. At daybreak that same morning (28th), Lord Dundonald, now in command of all the mounted troops, advanced along the railway with some 900 men and a field battery. After driving away the Boer outposts north of Chieveley, the force deployed across the plain in front of Colenso, and advanced to within 1500 yards of the village, the artillery meanwhile freely shelling the kopjes across the Tugela.  This demonstration drew a fairly heavy but harmless fire from several Boer guns posted on the Colenso heights.  Having thus established the fact that the Boers were taking up a strong defensive position behind the Tugela, Dundenald returned to camp. The Boers now blew up the railway bridge over the Tugela and prepared for the British attack.  But for the next fortnight nothing was to happen in the camp at Frere beyond the constant arrival of troops and guns and train-loads of supplies till all was ready for the march on Ladysmith.

Action at Tugela Ferry, Nov.23. End of first period of war.

While the main Boer invasion south of the Tugela was going on, an attempt was made by a smaller force of 300 - 400 men, advancing from Helpmakaar and Pomeroy, to cross the river lower down at the Tugela Ferry.  The Umvoti Mounted Rifles had fallen back almost to Greytown after the Boer occupation of Weenen, but keeping their outposts out at the ferry, and, in conjunction with the Natal Police, on Mount Umkolumba east of Weenen.  On the 23rd the Boers attempted to force the ferry.  But, aided by the swollen river, the outposts managed to hold their own till Major Leuchars arrived with the rest of his little force, and after some hours' fighting the Boers withdrew.  Still further east the Boers, early in November, had occupied several border magistracies of Zululand, and a small commando, moving through Swaziland, had actually entered Zambaansland. But these were petty raids of no military importance. The military situation at the end of November may be summed up by saying that Natal, south of the Tugela, was cleared of the Boers.  The first stage of the war, marked by the advance of the Boers into British territory, was now oven In Natal as on the western theatre of war, the Republican forces were on the defensive, determined to retain their hold on the territories they had invaded and annexed, and to starve out the British garrisons they had invested.  The next stage, marked by the first unsuccessful attempt of the British to oust them from their positions, was now to begin. The tide had turned, but much was yet to happen before it could start flowing towards Pretoria.



[1] The force consisted of the Border Regiment, just arrived from Cape Colony, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, the Durban Light Infantry, a squadron each of the Imperial Light Horse and the Natal Carbineers, a mounted infantry company of the 2nd 60th, a mounted section of Dublin Fusiliers who had escaped sharing Möller's fate at Talana, a useful detachment of Natal Police, and the Natal Field Artillery.

 

[2] Martial Law had already been proclaimed all over the colony on October 23, the Natal Ministry showing itself in this respect much readier to meet the views of the military authorities than the Cape Ministry.

[3] Two 4.7 inch, sixteen 12 cwt. 1~pounders, two 8 cwt. 1~pounders, one 9-pounder, one 7-pounder, two Nordenfeldts and four Maxims.

[4] Heliographic communication was secured, though not till the first days of December, by the enterprise of Captain J. S. Cayzer, who established a station on Mount Umkolumba, a lofty hill near Weenen. Before that, on November 25, direct communication from Estcourt and Frere was established by a searchlight with flashing apparatus provided by Captain Percy Scott.

[5] In drawing this picture of the helplessness and vacillation of Maritzburg and Estcourt on November 14, or indeed of the whole of the Natal forces during the Boer raid south of the Tugela, there is no intention to throw special blame on the British officers concerned, many of whom were able on later occasions to give proof of their capacity. The fault lay with the lack of information and mobility, and for that the blame must fall mainly on a system which had long neglected the things most essential in warfare, and on a nation indifferent to military efficiency.

[6] Both Haldane and Churchill made good their escape from prison at different times, but in equally adventurous fashions, and found their way to the front again.

[7] They were admirably guided by Mr. Chapman, a local farmer, who unfortunately lost his life in the engagement.

[8] It was at this moment that Trooper G. FitzPatrick, brother of the well-known author of 'The Transvaal from Within,' was killed while helping down a wounded Yorkshireman.







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