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Chapter 12

THE DARK HOUR

The week which extended from December 10th to December 17th, 1899, was
the blackest one known during our generation, and the most disastrous
for British arms during the century. We had in the short space of
seven days lost, beyond all extenuation or excuse, three separate
actions. No single defeat was of vital importance in itself, but the
cumulative effect, occurring as they did to each of the main British
forces in South Africa, was very great. The total loss amounted to
about three thousand men and twelve guns, while the indirect effects
in the way of loss of prestige to ourselves and increased confidence
and more numerous recruits to our enemy were incalculable.

It is singular to glance at the extracts from the European press at
that time and to observe the delight and foolish exultation with which
our reverses were received. That this should occur in the French
journals is not unnatural, since our history has been largely a
contest with that Power, and we can regard with complacency an enmity
which is the tribute to our success. Russia, too, as the least
progressive of European States, has a natural antagonism of thought,
if not of interests, to the Power which stands most prominently for
individual freedom and liberal institutions. The same poor excuse may
be made for the organs of the Vatican. But what are we to say of the
insensate railing of Germany, a country whose ally we have been for
centuries? In the days of Marlborough, in the darkest hours of
Frederick the Great, in the great world struggle of Napoleon, we have
been the brothers-in-arms of these people. So with the Austrians
also. If both these countries were not finally swept from the map by
Napoleon, it is largely to British subsidies and British tenacity that
they owe it. And yet these are the folk who turned most bitterly
against us at the only time in modern history when we had a chance of
distinguishing our friends from our foes. Never again, I trust, on
any pretext will a British guinea be spent or a British soldier or
sailor shed his blood for such allies. The political lesson of this
writer has been that we should make ourselves strong within the empire,
and let all outside it, save only our kinsmen of America, go their own
way and meet their own fate without let or hindrance from us. It is
amazing to find that even the Americans could understand the stock
from which they are themselves sprung so little that such papers as
the 'New York Herald' should imagine that our defeat at Colenso was a
good opportunity for us to terminate the war. The other leading
American journals, however, took a more sane view of the situation,
and realised that ten years of such defeats would not find the end
either of our resolution or of our resources.

In the British Islands and in the empire at large our misfortunes were
met by a sombre but unalterable determination to carry the war to a
successful conclusion and to spare no sacrifices which could lead to
that end. Amid the humiliation of our reverses there was a certain
undercurrent of satisfaction that the deeds of our foemen should at
least have made the contention that the strong was wantonly attacking
the weak an absurd one. Under the stimulus of defeat the opposition to
the war sensibly decreased. It had become too absurd even for the
most unreasonable platform orator to contend that a struggle had been
forced upon the Boers when every fresh detail showed how thoroughly
they had prepared for such a contingency and how much we had to make
up. Many who had opposed the war simply on that sporting instinct
which backs the smaller against the larger began to realise that what
with the geographical position of these people, what with the nature
of their country, and what with the mobility, number, and hardihood of
their forces, we had undertaken a task which would necessitate such a
military effort as we had never before been called upon to make. when
Kipling at the dawn of the war had sung of 'fifty thousand horse and
foot going to Table Bay,' the statement had seemed extreme. Now it
was growing upon the public mind that four times this number would not
be an excessive estimate. But the nation rose grandly to the effort.
Their only fear, often and loudly expressed, was that Parliament would
deal too tamely with the situation and fail to demand sufficient
sacrifices. Such was the wave of feeling over the country that it was
impossible to hold a peace meeting anywhere without a certainty of
riot. The only London daily which had opposed the war, though very
ably edited, was overborne by the general sentiment and compelled to
change its line. In the provinces also opposition was almost silent,
and the great colonies were even more unanimous than the mother
country. Misfortune had solidified us where success might have caused
a sentimental opposition.

On the whole, the energetic mood of the nation was reflected by the
decided measures of the Government. Before the deep-sea cables had
told us the lists of our dead, steps had been taken to prove to the
world how great were our latent resources and how determined our
spirit. On December 18th, two days after Colenso, the following
provisions were made for carrying on the campaign.

1. That as General Buller's hands were full in Natal the supervision
and direction of the whole campaign should be placed in the hands of
Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener as his chief of staff. Thus the
famous old soldier and the famous young one were called together to
the assistance of the country.

2. That all the remaining army reserves should be called out.

3. That the 7th Division (10,000 men) should be despatched to Africa,
and that an 8th Division should be formed ready for service.

4. That considerable artillery reinforcements, including a howitzer
brigade, should go out.

5. That eleven Militia battalions be sent abroad.

6. That a strong contingent of Volunteers be sent out.

7. That a Yeomanry mounted force be despatched.

8. That mounted corps be raised at the discretion of the
Commander-in-Chief in South Africa.

9. That the patriotic offers of further contingents from the colonies
be gratefully accepted.

By these measures it was calculated that from seventy to a hundred thousand men would be added to our South African armies, the numbers of which were already not short of a hundred thousand.

It is one thing, however, to draw up paper reinforcements, and it is
another, in a free country where no compulsion would be tolerated, to
turn these plans into actual regiments and squadrons. But if there
were any who doubted that this ancient nation still glowed with the
spirit of its youth his fears must soon have passed away. For this
far-distant war, a war of the unseen foe and of the murderous
ambuscade, there were so many volunteers that the authorities were
embarrassed by their numbers and their pertinacity. It was a
stimulating sight to see those long queues of top-hatted, frock-coated
young men who waited their turn for the orderly room with as much
desperate anxiety as if hard fare, a veldt bed, and Boer bullets were
all that life had that was worth the holding. Especially the Imperial
Yeomanry, a corps of riders and shots, appealed to the sporting
instincts of our race. Many could ride and not shoot, many could shoot
and not ride, more candidates were rejected than were accepted, and
yet in a very short time eight thousand men from every class were
wearing the grey coats and bandoliers. This singular and formidable
force was drawn from every part of England and Scotland, with a
contingent of hard-riding Irish fox-hunters. Noblemen and grooms rode
knee to knee in the ranks, and the officers included many well-known
country gentlemen and masters of hounds. Well horsed and well armed,
a better force for the work in hand could not be imagined. So high
did the patriotism run that corps were formed in which the men not
only found their own equipment but contributed their pay to the war
fund. Many young men about town justified their existence for the
first time. In a single club, which is peculiarly consecrated to the
JEUNESSE DOREE, three hundred members rode to the wars.

Without waiting for these distant but necessary reinforcements, the
Generals in Africa had two divisions to look to, one of which was
actually arriving while the other was on the sea. These formed the
5th Division under Sir Charles Warren, and the 6th Division under
General Kelly-Kenny. Until these forces should arrive it was obviously
best that the three armies should wait, for, unless there should be
pressing need of help on the part of the besieged garrisons or
imminent prospects of European complications, every week which passed
was in our favour. There was therefore a long lull in the war, during
which Methuen strengthened his position at Modder River, Gatacre held
his own at Sterkstroom, and Buller built up his strength for another
attempt at the relief of Ladysmith. The only connected series of
operations during that time were those of General French in the
neighbourhood of Colesberg, an account of which will be found in their
entirety elsewhere. A short narrative may be given here of the doings
of each of these forces until the period of inaction came to an end.

Methuen after the repulse at Magersfontein had fallen back upon the
lines of Modder River, and had fortified them in such a way that he
felt himself secure against assault. Cronje, on the other hand, had
extended his position both to the right and to the left, and had
strengthened the works which we had already found so formidable. In
this way a condition of inaction was established which was really very
much to our advantage, since Methuen retained his communications by
rail, while all supplies to Cronje had to come a hundred miles by
road. The British troops, and especially the Highland Brigade, were
badly in need of a rest after the very severe ordeal which they had
undergone. General Hector Macdonald, whose military record had earned
the soldierly name of 'Fighting Mac,' was sent for from India to take
the place of the ill-fated Wauchope. Pending his arrival and that of
reinforcements, Methuen remained quiet, and the Boers fortunately
followed his example. From over the northern horizon those silver
flashes of light told that Kimberley was dauntless in the present and
hopeful of the future. On January 1st the British post of Kuruman
fell, by which twelve officers and 120 police were captured. The town
was isolated, and its capture could have no effect upon the general
operations, but it is remarkable as the only capture of a fortified
post up to this point made by the Boers.

The monotony of the long wait was broken by one dashing raid carried
out by a detachment from Methuen's line of communications. This force
consisted of 200 Queenslanders, 100 Canadians (Toronto Company), 40
mounted Munster Fusiliers, a New South Wales Ambulance, and 200 of the
Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry with one horse battery. This
singular force, so small in numbers and yet raked from the ends of the
earth, was under the command of Colonel Pilcher. Moving out suddenly
and rapidly from Belmont, it struck at the extreme right of the Boer
line, which consisted of a laager occupied by the colonial rebels of
that part of the country. Nothing could exceed the enthusiasm of the
colonists at the prospect of action. 'At last!' was the cry which
went up from the Canadians when they were ordered to advance. The
result was an absolute success. The rebels broke and fled, their camp
was taken, and forty of them fell into our hands. Our own loss was
slight, three killed and a few wounded. The flying column occupied
the town of Douglas and hoisted the British flag there; but it was
decided that the time had not yet come when it could be held, and the
force fell back upon Belmont. The rebel prisoners were sent down to
Cape Town for trial. The movement was covered by the advance of a
force under Babington from Methuen's force. This detachment,
consisting of the 9th and 12th Lancers, with some mounted infantry and
G troop of Horse Artillery, prevented any interference with Pilcher's
force from the north. It is worthy of record that though the two
bodies of troops were operating at a distance of thirty miles, they
succeeded in preserving a telephonic connection, seventeen minutes
being the average time taken over question and reply.

Encouraged by this small success, Methuen's cavalry on January 9th
made another raid over the Free State border, which is remarkable for
the fact that, save in the case of Colonel Plumer's Rhodesian Force,
it was the first time that the enemy's frontier had been violated. The
expedition under Babington consisted of the same regiments and the
same battery which had covered Pilcher's advance. The line taken was a
south-easterly one, so as to get far round the left flank of the Boer
position. With the aid of a party of the Victorian Mounted Rifles a
considerable tract of country was overrun, and some farmhouses
destroyed. The latter extreme measure may have been taken as a
warning to the Boers that such depredations as they had carried out in
parts of Natal could not pass with impunity, but both the policy and
the humanity of such a course appear to be open to question, and there
was some cause for the remonstrance which President Kruger shortly
after addressed to us upon the subject. The expedition returned to
Modder Camp at the end of two days without having seen the enemy. Save
for one or two similar cavalry reconnaissances, an occasional
interchange of long-range shells, a little sniping, and one or two
false alarms at night, which broke the whole front of Magersfontein
into yellow lines of angry light, nothing happened to Methuen's force
which is worthy of record up to the time of that movement of General
Hector Macdonald to Koodoosberg which may be considered in connection
with Lord Roberts's decisive operations, of which it was really a
part.

The doings of General Gatacre's force during the long interval which
passed between his disaster at Stormberg and the final general advance
may be rapidly chronicled. Although nominally in command of a
division, Gatacre's troops were continually drafted off to east and to
west, so that it was seldom that he had more than a brigade under his
orders. During the weeks of waiting, his force consisted of three
field batteries, the 74th, 77th, and 79th, some mounted police and
irregular horse, the remains of the Royal Irish Rifles and the 2nd
Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Scots, the Derbyshire
regiment, and the Berkshires, the whole amounting to about 5,500 men,
who had to hold the whole district from Sterkstroom to East London on
the coast, with a victorious enemy in front and a disaffected
population around. Under these circumstances he could not attempt to
do more than to hold his ground at Sterkstroom, and this he did
unflinchingly until the line of the Boer defence broke down. Scouting
and raiding expeditions, chiefly organised by Captain De Montmorency
-- whose early death cut short the career of one who possessed every
quality of a partisan leader -- broke the monotony of inaction.
During the week which ended the year a succession of small skirmishes,
of which the town of Dordrecht was the centre, exercised the troops in
irregular warfare.

On January 3rd the Boer forces advanced and attacked the camp of the
Cape Mounted Police, which was some eight miles in advance of
Gatacre's main position. The movement, however, was a half-hearted
one, and was beaten off with small loss upon their part and less upon
ours. From then onwards no movement of importance took place in
Gatacre's column until the general advance along the whole line had
cleared his difficulties from in front of him.

In the meantime General Buller had also been playing a waiting game,
and, secure in the knowledge that Ladysmith could still hold out, he
had been building up his strength for a second attempt to relieve the
hard-pressed and much-enduring garrison. After the repulse at
Colenso, Hildyard's and Barton's brigades had remained at Chieveley
with the mounted infantry, the naval guns, and two field batteries.
The rest of the force retired to Frere, some miles in the
rear. Emboldened by their success, the Boers sent raiding parties over
the Tugela on either flank, which were only checked by our patrols
being extended from Springfield on the west to Weenen on the east. A
few plundered farmhouses and a small list of killed and wounded
horsemen on either side were the sole result of these spasmodic and
half-hearted operations.

Time here as elsewhere was working for the British, for reinforcements
were steadily coming to Buller's army. By the new year Sir Charles
Warren's division (the 5th) was nearly complete at Estcourt, whence it
could reach the front at any moment. This division included the 10th
brigade, consisting of the Imperial Light Infantry, 2nd Somersets, the
2nd Dorsets, and the 2nd Middlesex; also the 11th, called the
Lancashire Brigade, formed by the 2nd Royal Lancaster, the 2nd
Lancashire Fusiliers, the 1st South Lancashire, and the York and
Lancaster. The division also included the 14th Hussars and the 19th,
20th, and 28th batteries of Field Artillery. Other batteries of
artillery, including one howitzer battery, came to strengthen Buller's
force, which amounted now to more than 30,000 men. Immense transport
preparations had to be made, however, before the force could have the
mobility necessary for a flank march, and it was not until January
11th that General Buller's new plans for advance could be set into
action. Before describing what these plans were and the disappointing
fate which awaited them, we will return to the story of the siege of
Ladysmith, and show how narrowly the relieving force escaped the
humiliation -- some would say the disgrace -- of seeing the town which
looked to them for help fall beneath their very eyes. That this did
not occur is entirely due to the fierce tenacity and savage endurance
of the disease-ridden and half-starved men who held on to the frail
lines which covered it.

Arthur Conan Doyle