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Chapter 15

SPION KOP


Whilst Methuen and Gatacre were content to hold their own at the
Modder and at Sterkstroom, and whilst the mobile and energetic French
was herding the Boers into Colesberg, Sir Redvers Buller, the heavy,
obdurate, inexplicable man, was gathering and organising his forces
for another advance upon Ladysmith. Nearly a month had elapsed since
the evil day when his infantry had retired, and his ten guns had not,
from the frontal attack upon Colenso. Since then Sir Charles Warren's
division of infantry and a considerable reinforcement of artillery had
come to him. And yet in view of the terrible nature of the ground in
front of him, of the fighting power of the Boers, and of the fact that
they were always acting upon internal lines, his force even now was,
in the opinion of competent judges, too weak for the matter in hand.

There remained, however, several points in his favour. His excellent
infantry were full of zeal and of confidence in their chief. It
cannot be denied, however much we may criticise some incidents in his
campaign, that he possessed the gift of impressing and encouraging his
followers, and, in spite of Colenso, the sight of his square figure
and heavy impassive face conveyed an assurance of ultimate victory to
those around him. In artillery he was very much stronger than before,
especially in weight of metal. His cavalry was still weak in
proportion to his other arms. When at last he moved out on January
10th to attempt to outflank the Boers, he took with him nineteen
thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry, and sixty guns, which
included six howitzers capable of throwing a 50-lb lyddite shell, and
ten long-range naval pieces. Barton's Brigade and other troops were
left behind to hold the base and line of communications.

An analysis of Buller's force shows that its details were as follows:

Clery's Division
Hildyard's Brigade
2nd West Surrey
2nd Devonshire
2nd West Yorkshire
2nd East Surrey
Hart's Brigade
1st Inniskilling Fusiliers
1st Border Regiment
1st Connaught Rangers
2nd Dublin Fusiliers
Field Artillery, three batteries, 19th, 28th, 63rd;
one squadron 13th Hussars;
Royal Engineers.

Warren's Division
Lyttelton's Brigade
2nd Cameronians
3rd King's Royal Rifles
1st Durham Light Infantry
1st Rifle Brigade
Woodgate's Brigade
2nd Royal Lancaster
2nd Lancashire Fusiliers
1st South Lancashire
York and Lancasters
Field Artillery, three batteries, 7th, 78th, 73rd ;
one squadron 13th Hussars.

Corps Troops
Coke's Brigade
Imperial Light Infantry
2nd Somersets
2nd Dorsets
2nd Middlesex
61st Howitzer Battery; two 4.7 naval guns; eight naval 12-pounder guns;
one squadron 13th Hussars;
Royal Engineers.

Cavalry
1st Royal Dragoons
14th Hussars
Four squadrons South African Horse
One squadron Imperial Light Horse
Bethune's Mounted Infantry
Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry
One squadron Natal Carabineers
One squadron Natal Police
One company King's Royal Rifles Mounted Infantry
Six machine guns

This is the force whose operations I shall attempt to describe.

About sixteen miles to the westward of Colenso there is a ford over
the Tugela River which is called Potgieter's Drift. General Buller's
apparent plan was to seize this, together with the ferry which runs at
this point, and so to throw himself upon the right flank of the
Colenso Boers. Once over the river there is one formidable line of
hills to cross, but if this were passed there would be comparatively
easy ground until the Ladysmith hills were reached. With high hopes
Buller and his men sallied out upon their adventure.

Dundonald's cavalry force pushed rapidly forwards, crossed the Little
Tugela, a tributary of the main river, at Springfield, and established
themselves upon the hills which command the drift. Dundonald largely
exceeded his instructions in going so far, and while we applaud his
courage and judgment in doing so, we must remember and be charitable
to those less fortunate officers whose private enterprise has ended in
disaster and reproof. There can be no doubt that the enemy intended
to hold all this tract, and that it was only the quickness of our
initial movements which forestalled them. Early in the morning a
small party of the South African Horse, under Lieutenant Carlisle,
swam the broad river under fire and brought back the ferry boat, an
enterprise which was fortunately bloodless, but which was most coolly
planned and gallantly carried out. The way was now open to our
advance, and could it have been carried out as rapidly as it had begun
the Boers might conceivably have been scattered before they could
concentrate. It was not the fault of the infantry that it was not so.
They were trudging, mud-spattered and jovial, at the very heels of the
horses, after a forced march which was one of the most trying of the
whole campaign. But an army of 20,000 men cannot be conveyed over a
river twenty miles from any base without elaborate preparations being
made to feed them. The roads were in such a state that the wagons
could hardly move, heavy rain had just fallen, and every stream was
swollen into a river; bullocks might strain, and traction engines
pant, and horses die, but by no human means could the stores be kept
up if the advance guard were allowed to go at their own pace. And so,
having ensured an ultimate crossing of the river by the seizure of
Mount Alice, the high hill which commands the drift, the forces waited
day after day, watching in the distance the swarms of strenuous dark
figures who dug and hauled and worked upon the hillsides opposite,
barring the road which they would have to take. Far away on the
horizon a little shining point twinkled amid the purple haze, coming
and going from morning to night. It was the heliograph of Ladysmith,
explaining her troubles and calling for help, and from the heights of
Mount Alice an answering star of hope glimmered and shone, soothing,
encouraging, explaining, while the stern men of the veldt dug
furiously at their trenches in between. 'We are coming! We are
coming!' cried Mount Alice. 'Over our bodies,' said the men with the
spades and mattocks.

On Thursday, January 12th, Dundonald seized the heights, on the 13th
the ferry was taken and Lyttelton's Brigade came up to secure that
which the cavalry had gained. On the 14th the heavy naval guns were
brought up to cover the crossing. On the 15th Coke's Brigade and
other infantry concentrated at the drift. On the 16th the four
regiments of Lyttelton's Brigade went across, and then, and only then,
it began to be apparent that Buller's plan was a more deeply laid one
than had been thought, and that all this business of Potgieter's Drift
was really a demonstration in order to cover the actual crossing which
was to be effected at a ford named Trichard's Drift, five miles to the
westward. Thus, while Lyttelton's and Coke's Brigades were
ostentatiously attacking Potgieter's from in front, three other
brigades (Hart's, Woodgate's, and Hildyard's) were marched rapidly on
the night of the 16th to the real place of crossing, to which
Dundonald's cavalry had already ridden. There, on the 17th, a pontoon
bridge had been erected, and a strong force was thrown over in such a
way as to turn the right of the trenches in front of Potgieter's. It
was admirably planned and excellently carried out, certainly the most
strategic movement, if there could he said to have been any strategic
movement upon the British side, in the campaign up to that date. On
the 18th the infantry, the cavalry, and most of the guns were safely
across without loss of life. The Boers, however, still retained their
formidable internal lines, and the only result of a change of position
seemed to be to put them to the trouble of building a new series of
those terrible entrenchments at which they had become such experts.
After all the combinations the British were, it is true, upon the
right side of the river, but they were considerably further from
Ladysmith than when they started. There are times, however, when
twenty miles are less than fourteen, and it was hoped that this might
prove to be among them. But the first step was the most serious one,
for right across their front lay the Boer position upon the edge of a
lofty plateau, with the high peak of Spion Kop forming the left corner
of it. If once that main ridge could be captured or commanded, it
would carry them halfway to the goal. It was for that essential line
of hills that two of the most dogged races upon earth were about to
contend. An immediate advance might have secured the position at once,
but, for some reason which is inexplicable, an aimless march to the
left was followed by a retirement to the original position of Warren's
division, and so two invaluable days were wasted. We have the positive
assurance of Commandant Edwards, who was Chief of Staff to General
Botha, that a vigorous turning movement upon the left would at this
time have completely outflanked the Boer position and opened a way to
Ladysmith.

A small success, the more welcome for its rarity, came to the British
arms on this first day. Dundonald's men had been thrown out to cover
the left of the infantry advance and to feel for the right of the Boer
position. A strong Boer patrol, caught napping for once, rode into an
ambuscade of the irregulars. some escaped, some held out most
gallantly in a kopje, but the final result was a surrender of
twenty-four unwounded prisoners, and the finding of thirteen killed
and wounded, including de Mentz, the field-cornet of Heilbron. Two
killed and two wounded were the British losses in this well-managed
affair. Dundonald's force then took its position upon the extreme left
of Warren's advance.

The British were now moving upon the Boers in two separate bodies, the
one which included Lyttelton's and Coke's Brigades from Potgieter's
Drift, making what was really a frontal attack, while the main body
under Warren, who had crossed at Trichard's Drift, was swinging round
upon the Boer right. Midway between the two movements the formidable
bastion of Spion Kop stood clearly outlined against the blue Natal
sky. The heavy naval guns on Mount Alice (two 4.7's and eight
twelve-pounders) were so placed as to support either advance, and the
howitzer battery was given to Lyttelton to help the frontal
attack. For two days the British pressed slowly but steadily on to the
Boers under the cover of an incessant rain of shells. Dour and long-
suffering the Boers made no reply, save with sporadic rifle-fire, and
refused until the crisis should come to expose their great guns to the
chance of injury.

On January 19th Warren's turning movement began to bring him into
closer touch with the enemy, his thirty-six field guns and the six
howitzers which had returned to him crushing down the opposition which
faced him. The ground in front of him was pleated into long folds, and
his advance meant the carrying of ridge after ridge. In the earlier
stages of the war this would have entailed a murderous loss; but we
had learned our lesson, and the infantry now, with intervals of ten
paces, and every man choosing his own cover, went up in proper Boer
form, carrying position after position, the enemy always retiring with
dignity and decorum. There was no victory on one side or rout on the
other -- only a steady advance and an orderly retirement. That night
the infantry slept in their fighting line, going on again at three in
the morning, and light broke to find not only rifles, but the
long-silent Boer guns all blazing at the British advance. Again, as at
Colenso, the brunt of the fighting fell upon Hart's Irish Brigade, who
upheld that immemorial tradition of valour with which that name,
either in or out of the British service, has invariably been
associated. Upon the Lancashire Fusiliers and the York and Lancasters
came also a large share of the losses and the glory. Slowly but surely
the inexorable line of the British lapped over the ground which the
enemy had held. A gallant colonial, Tobin of the South African Horse,
rode up one hill and signaled with his hat that it was clear. His
comrades followed closely at his heels, and occupied the position with
the loss of Childe, their Major. During this action Lyttelton had
held the Boers in their trenches opposite to him by advancing to
within 1,500 yards of them, but the attack was not pushed further. On
the evening of this day, January 20th, the British had gained some
miles of ground, and the total losses had been about three hundred
killed and wounded. The troops were in good heart, and all promised
well for the future. Again the men lay where they had fought, and
again the dawn heard the crash of the great guns and the rattle of the
musketry.

The operations of this day began with a sustained cannonade from the
field batteries and 61st Howitzer Battery, which was as fiercely
answered by the enemy. About eleven the infantry began to go forward
with an advance which would have astonished the martinets of
Aldershot, an irregular fringe of crawlers, wrigglers, writhers,
cronchers, all cool and deliberate, giving away no points in this grim
game of death. Where now were the officers with their distinctive
dresses and flashing swords, where the valiant rushes over the open,
where the men who were too proud to lie down? -- the tactics of three
months ago seemed as obsolete as those of the Middle Ages. All day the
line undulated forward, and by evening yet another strip of
rock-strewn ground had been gained, and yet another train of
ambulances was bearing a hundred of our wounded back to the base
hospitals at Frere. It was on Hildyard's Brigade on the left that the
fighting and the losses of this day principally fell. By the morning
of January 22nd the regiments were clustering thickly all round the
edges of the Boer main position, and the day was spent in resting the
weary men, and in determining at what point the final assault should
be delivered. On the right front, commanding the Boer lines on either
side, towered the stark eminence of Spion Kop, so called because from
its summit the Boer voortrekkers had first in 1835 gazed down upon the
promised land of Natal. If that could only be seized and held! Buller
and Warren swept its bald summit with their field-glasses. It was a
venture. But all war is a venture; and the brave man is he who
ventures most. One fiery rush and the master-key of all these locked
doors might be in our keeping. That evening there came a telegram to
London which left the whole Empire in a hush of anticipation. Spion
Kop was to be attacked that night.

The troops which were selected for the task were eight companies of
the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, six of the 2nd Royal Lancasters, two of
the 1st South Lancashires, 180 of Thorneycroft's, and half a company
of Sappers. It was to be a North of England job.

Under the friendly cover of a starless night the men, in Indian file,
like a party of Iroquois braves upon the war trail, stole up the
winding and ill-defined path which led to the summit. Woodgate, the
Lancashire Brigadier, and Blomfield of the Fusiliers led the way. It
was a severe climb of 2,000 feet, coming after arduous work over
broken ground, but the affair was well-timed, and it was at that
blackest hour which precedes the dawn that the last steep ascent was
reached. The Fusiliers crouched down among the rocks to recover their
breath, and saw far down in the plain beneath them the placid lights
which showed where their comrades were resting. A fine rain was
falling, and rolling clouds hung low over their heads. The men with
unloaded rifles and fixed bayonets stole on once more, their bodies
bent, their eyes peering through the mirk for the first sign of the
enemy -- that enemy whose first sign has usually been a shattering
volley. Thorneycroft's men with their gallant leader had threaded
their way up into the advance. Then the leading files found that they
were walking on the level. The crest had been gained.

With slow steps and bated breath, the open line of skirmishers stole
across it. Was it possible that it had been entirely abandoned?
Suddenly a raucous shout of `Wie da?' came out of the darkness, then a
shot, then a splutter of musketry and a yell, as the Fusiliers sprang
onwards with their bayonets. The Boer post of Vryheid burghers
clattered and scrambled away into the darkness, and a cheer that
roused both the sleeping armies told that the surprise had been
complete and the position won.

In the grey light of the breaking day the men advanced along the
narrow undulating ridge, the prominent end of which they had
captured. Another trench faced them, but it was weakly held and
abandoned. Then the men, uncertain what remained beyond, halted and
waited for full light to see where they were, and what the work was
which lay before them -- a fatal halt, as the result proved, and yet
one so natural that it is hard to blame the officer who ordered
it. Indeed, he might have seemed more culpable had he pushed blindly
on, and so lost the advantage which had been already gained.

About eight o'clock, with the clearing of the mist, General Woodgate
saw how matters stood. The ridge, one end of which he held, extended
away, rising and falling for some miles. Had he the whole of the end
plateau, and had he guns, he might hope to command the rest of the
position. But he held only half the plateau, and at the further end
of it the Boers were strongly entrenched. The Spion Kop mountain was
really the salient or sharp angle of the Boer position, so that the
British were exposed to a cross fire both from the left and
right. Beyond were other eminences which sheltered strings of riflemen
and several guns. The plateau which the British held was very much
narrower than was usually represented in the press. In many places the
possible front was not much more than a hundred yards wide, and the
troops were compelled to bunch together, as there was not room for a
single company to take an extended formation. The cover upon this
plateau was scanty, far too scanty for the force upon it, and the
shell fire -- especially the fire of the pom-poms -- soon became very
murderous. To mass the troops under the cover of the edge of the
plateau might naturally suggest itself, but with great tactical skill
the Boer advanced line from Commandant Prinsloo's Heidelberg and
Carolina commandos kept so aggressive an attitude that the British
could not weaken the lines opposed to them. Their skirmishers were
creeping round too in such a way that the fire was really coming from
three separate points, left, centre, and. right, and every corner of
the position was searched by their bullets. Early in the action the
gallant Woodgate and many of his Lancashire men were shot down. The
others spread out and held on, firing occasionally at the whisk of a
rifle-barrel or the glimpse of a broad-brimmed hat.

>From morning to midday, the shell, Maxim, and rifle fire swept across
the kop in a continual driving shower. The British guns in the plain
below failed to localise the position of the enemy's, and they were
able to vent their concentrated spite upon the exposed infantry. No
blame attaches to the gunners for this, as a hill intervened to screen
the Boer artillery, which consisted of five big guns and two pom-poms.

Upon the fall of Woodgate, Thorneycroft, who bore the reputation of a
determined fighter, was placed at the suggestion of Buller in charge
of the defence of the hill, and he was reinforced after noon by Coke's
brigade, the Middlesex, the Dorsets, and the Somersets, together with
the Imperial Light Infantry. The addition of this force to the
defenders of the plateau tended to increase the casualty returns
rather than the strength of the defence. Three thousand more rifles
could do nothing to check the fire of the invisible cannon, and it was
this which was the main source of the losses, while on the other hand
the plateau had become so cumbered with troops that a shell could
hardly fail to do damage. There was no cover to shelter them and no
room for them to extend. The pressure was most severe upon the shal]ow
trenches in the front, which had been abandoned by the Boers and were
held by the Lancashire Fusiliers. They were enfiladed by rifle and
cannon, and the dead and wounded outnumbered the hale. So close were
the skirmishers that on at least one occasion Boer and Briton found
themselves on each side of the same rock. Once a handful of men,
tormented beyond endurance, sprang up as a sign that they had had
enough, but Thorneycroft, a man of huge physique, rushed forward to
the advancing Boers. 'You may go to hell!' he yelled. 'I command
here, and allow no surrender. Go on with your firing.' Nothing could
exceed the gallantry of Louis Botha's men in pushing the attack. Again
and again they made their way up to the British firing line, exposing
themselves with a recklessness which, with the exception of the grand
attack upon Ladysmith, was unique in our experience of them. About two
o'clock they rushed one trench occupied by the Fusiliers and secured
the survivors of two companies as prisoners, but were subsequently
driven out again. A detached group of the South Lancashires was
summoned to surrender. 'When I surrender,' cried Colour-Sergeant
Nolan, 'it will be my dead body!' Hour after hour of the
unintermitting crash of the shells among the rocks and of the groans
and screams of men torn and burst by the most horrible of all wounds
had shaken the troops badly. Spectators from below who saw the shells
pitching at the rate of seven a minute on to the crowded plateau
marvelled at the endurance which held the devoted men to their post.
Men were wounded and wounded and wounded yet again, and still went on
fighting. Never since Inkerman had we had so grim a soldier's battle.
The company officers were superb. Captain Muriel of the Middlesex was
shot through the check while giving a cigarette to a wounded man,
continued to lead his company, and was shot again through the
brain. Scott Moncrieff of the same regiment was only disabled by the
fourth bullet which hit him. Grenfell of Thorneycroft's was shot, and
exclaimed, 'That's all right. It's not much.' A second wound made
him remark, 'I can get on all right.' The third killed him. Ross of
the Lancasters, who had crawled from a sickbed, was found dead upon
the furthest crest. Young Murray of the Scottish Rifles, dripping from
five wounds, still staggered about among his men. And the men were
worthy of such officers. 'No retreat! No retreat!' they yelled when
some of the front line were driven in. In all regiments there are
weaklings and hang-backs, and many a man was wandering down the
reverse slopes when he should have been facing death upon the top, but
as a body British troops have never stood firm through a more fiery
ordeal than on that fatal hill..

The position was so bad that no efforts of officers or men could do
anything to mend it. They were in a murderous dilemma. If they fell
back for cover the Boer riflemen would rush the position. If they held
their ground this horrible shell fire must continue, which they had no
means of answering. Down at Gun Hill in front of the Boer position we
had no fewer than five batteries, the 78th, 7th, 73rd, 63rd, and 61st
howitzer, but a ridge intervened between them and the Boer guns which
were shelling Spion Kop, and this ridge was strongly entrenched. The
naval guns from distant Mount Alice did what they could, but the range
was very long, and the position of the Boer guns uncertain. The
artillery, situated as it was, could not save the infantry from the
horrible scourging which they were enduring.

There remains the debated question whether the British guns could have
been taken to the top. Mr. Winston Churchill, the soundness of whose
judgment has been frequently demonstrated during the war, asserts that
it might have been done. Without venturing to contradict one who was
personally present, I venture to tbink that there is strong evidence
to show that it could not have been done without blasting and other
measures, for which there was no possible time. Captain Hanwell of the
78th R.F.A., upon the day of the battle had the very utmost difficulty
with the help of four horses in getting a light Maxim on to the top,
and his opinion, with that of other artillery officers, is that the
feat was an impossible one until the path had been prepared. When
night fell Colonel Sim was despatched with a party of Sappers to clear
the track and to prepare two emplacements upon the top, but in his
advance he met the retiring infantry.

Throughout the day reinforcements had pushed up the hill, until two
full brigades had been drawn into the fight. From the other side of
the ridge Lyttelton sent up the Scottish Rifles, who reached the
summit, and added their share to the shambles upon the top. As the
shades of night closed in, and the glare of the bursting shells became
more lurid, the men lay extended upon the rocky ground, parched and
exhausted. They were hopelessly jumbled together, with the exception
of the Dorsets, whose cohesion may have been due to superior
discipline, less exposure, or to the fact that their khaki differed
somewhat in colour from that of the others. Twelve hours of so
terrible an experience had had a strange effect upon many of the men.
Some were dazed and battle-struck, incapable of clear understanding.
Some were as incoherent as drunkards. Some lay in an overpowering
drowsiness. The most were doggedly patient and long-suffering, with a
mighty longing for water obliterating every other emotion.

Before evening fell a most gallant and successful attempt had been
made by the third battalion of the King's Royal Rifles from
Lyttelton's Brigade to relieve the pressure upon their comrades on
Spion Kop. In order to draw part of the Boer fire away they ascended
from the northern side and carried the hills which formed a
continuation of the same ridge. The movement was meant to be no more
than a strong demonstration, but the riflemen pushed it until,
breathless but victorious, they stood upon the very crest of the
position, leaving nearly a hundred dead or dying to show the path
which they had taken. Their advance being much further than was
desired, they were recalled, and it was at the moment that Buchanan
Riddell, their brave Colonel, stood up to read Lyttelton's note that
he fell with a Boer bullet through his brain, making one more of those
gallant leaders who died as they had lived, at the head of their
regiments. Chisholm, Dick-Cunyngham, Downman, Wilford, Gunning,
Sherston, Thackeray, Sitwell, MacCarthy O'Leary, Airlie -- they have
led their men up to and through the gates of death. It was a fine
exploit of the 3rd Rifles. 'A finer bit of skirmishing, a finer bit
of climbing, and a finer bit of fighting, I have never seen,' said
their Brigadier. It is certain that if Lyttelton had not thrown his
two regiments into the fight the pressure upon the hill-top might have
become unendurable; and it seems also certain that if he had only held
on to the position which the Rifles had gained, the Boers would never
have reoccupied Spion Kop.

And now, under the shadow of night, but with the shells bursting
thickly over the plateau, the much-tried Thorneycroft had to make up
his mind whether he should hold on for another such day as he had
endured, or whether now, in the friendly darkness, he should remove
his shattered force. Could he have seen the discouragement of the
Boers and the preparations which they had made for retirement, he
would have held his ground. But this was hidden from him, whille the
horror of his own losses was but too apparent. Forty per cent. of his
men were down. Thirteen hundred dead and dying are a grim sight upon a
wide-spread battle-field, but when this number is heaped upon a
confined space, where from a single high rock the whole litter of
broken and shattered bodies can be seen, and the groans of the
stricken rise in one long droning chorus to the ear, then it is an
iron mind indeed which can resist such evidence of disaster. In a
harder age Wellington was able to survey four thousand bodies piled in
the narrow compass of the breach of Badajos, but his resolution was
sustained by the knowledge that the military end for which they fell
had been accomplished. Had his task been unfinished it is doubtful
whether even his steadfast soul would not have flinched from its
completion. Thorneycroft saw the frightful havoc of one day, and he
shrank from the thought of such another. 'Better six battalions
safely down the hill than a mop up in the morning,' said he, and he
gave the word to retire. One who had met the troops as they staggered
down has told me how far they were from being routed. In mixed array,
but steadily and in order, the long thin line trudged through the
darkness. Their parched lips would not articulate, but they whispered
'Water! Where is water?' as they toiled upon their way. At the bottom
of the hill they formed into regiments once more, and marched back to
the camp. In the morning the blood-spattered hill-top, with its piles
of dead and of wounded, were in the hands of Botha and his men, whose
valour and perseverance deserved the victory which they had won. There
is no doubt now that at 3 A.M. of that morning Botha, knowing that the
Rifles had carried Burger's position, regarded the affair as hopeless,
and that no one was more astonished than he when he found, on the
report of two scouts, that it was a victory and not a defeat which had
come to him.

How shall we sum up such an action save that it was a gallant attempt,
gallantly carried out, and as gallantly met? On both sides the results
of artillery fire during the war have been disappointing, but at Spion
Kop beyond all question it was the Boer guns which won the action for
them. So keen was the disappointment at home that there was a
tendency to criticise the battle with some harshness, but it is
difficult now, with the evidence at our command, to say what was left
undone which could have altered the result. Had Thorneycroft known all
that we know, he would have kept his grip upon the hill. On the face
of it one finds it difficult to understand why so momentous a
decision, upon which the whole operations depended, should have been
left entirely to the judgment of one who in the morning had been a
simple Lieutenant-Colonel. 'Where are the bosses? ' cried a Fusilier,
and the historian can only repeat the question. General Warren was at
the bottom of the hill. Had he ascended and determined that the place
should still be held, he might have sent down the wearied troops,
brought up smaller numbers of fresh ones, ordered the Sappers to
deepen the trenches, and tried to bring up water and guns. It was for
the divisional commander to lay his hand upon the reins at so critical
an instant, to relieve the weary man who had struggled so hard all
day.

The subsequent publication of the official despatches has served
little purpose, save to show that there was a want of harmony between
Buller and Warren, and that the former lost all confidence in his
subordinate during the course of the operations. In these papers
General Buller expresses the opinion that had Warren's operations been
more dashing, he would have found his turning movement upon the left a
comparatively easy matter. In this judgment he would probably have
the concurrence of most military critics. He adds, however, 'On the
19th, I ought to have assumed command myself. I saw that things were
not going well -- indeed, everyone saw that. I blame myself now for
not having done so. I did not, because, if I did, I should discredit
General Warren in the estimation of the troops, and, if I were shot,
and he had to withdraw across the Tugela, and they had lost confidence
in him, the consequences might be very serious. I must leave it to
higher authority whether this argument was a sound one.' It needs no
higher authority than common-sense to say that the argument is an
absolutely unsound one. No consequences could be more serious than
that the operations should miscarry and Ladysmith remain unrelieved,
and such want of success must in any case discredit Warren in the eyes
of his troops. Besides, a subordinate is not discredited because his
chief steps in to conduct a critical operation. However, these
personal controversies may be suffered to remain in that pigeon-hole
from which they should never have been drawn.

On account of the crowding of four thousand troops into a space which
might have afforded tolerable cover for five hundred the losses in the
action were very heavy, not fewer than fifteen hundred being killed,
wounded, or missing, the proportion of killed being, on account of the
shell fire, abnormally high. The Lancashire Fusiliers were the
heaviest sufferers, and their Colonel Blomfield was wounded and fell
into the hands of the enemy. The Royal Lancasters also lost heavily.
Thorneycroft's had 80 men hit out of 180 engaged. The Imperial Light
Infantry, a raw corps of Rand refugees who were enduring their baptism
of fire, lost 130 men. In officers the losses were particularly heavy,
60 being killed or wounded. The Boer returns show some 50 killed and
150 wounded, which may not be far from the truth. Without the shell
fire the British losses might not have been much more.

General Buller had lost nearly two thousand men since he had crossed
the Tugela, and his purpose was still unfulfilled. Should he risk the
loss of a large part of his force in storming the ridges in front of
him, or should he recross the river and try for an easier route
elsewhere? To the surprise and disappointment both of the public and
of the army, he chose the latter course, and by January 27th he had
fallen back, unmolested by the Boers, to the other side of the
Tugela. It must be confessed that his retreat was admirably conducted,
and that it was a military feat to bring his men, his guns, and his
stores in safety over a broad river in the face of a victorious enemy.
Stolid and unmoved, his impenetrable demeanour restored serenity and
confidence to the angry and disappointed troops. There might well be
heavy hearts among both them and the public. After a fortnight's
campaign, and the endurance of great losses and hardships, both
Ladysmith and her relievers found themselves no better off than when
they started. Buller still held the commanding position of Mount
Alice, and this was all that he had to show for such sacrifices and
such exertions. Once more there came a weary pause while Ladysmith,
sick with hope deferred, waited gloomily upon half-rations of
horse-flesh for the next movement from the South.

Arthur Conan Doyle