Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 17

BULLER'S FINAL ADVANCE


THE heroic moment of the siege of Ladysmith was that which witnessed
the repulse of the great attack. The epic should have ended at that
dramatic instant. But instead of doing so the story falls back to an
anticlimax of crowded hospitals, slaughtered horses, and sporadic
shell fire. For another six weeks of inactivity the brave garrison
endured all the sordid evils which had steadily grown from
inconvenience to misfortune and from misfortune to misery. Away in
the south they heard the thunder of Buller's guns, and from the hills
round the town they watched with pale faces and bated breath the
tragedy of Spion Kop, preserving a firm conviction that a very little
more would have transformed it into their salvation. Their hearts
sank with the sinking of the cannonade, and rose again with the roar
of Vaalkranz. But Vaalkranz also failed them, and they waited on in
the majesty of their hunger and their weakness for the help which was
to come.

It has been already narrated how General Buller had made his three
attempts for the relief of the city. The General who was inclined to
despair was now stimulated by despatches from Lord Roberts, while his
army, who were by no means inclined to despair, were immensely cheered
by the good news from the Kimberley side. Both General and army
prepared for a last supreme effort. This time, at least, the soldiers
hoped that they would be permitted to burst their way to the help of
their starving comrades or leave their bones among the hills which had
faced them so long. All they asked was a fight to a finish, and now
they were about to have one.

General Buller had tried the Boers' centre, he had tried their extreme
right, and now he was about to try their extreme left. There were
some obvious advantages on this side which make it surprising that it
was not the first to be attempted. In the first place, the enemy's
main position upon that flank was at Hlangwane mountain, which is to
the south of the Tugela, so that in case of defeat the river ran
behind them. In the second, Hlangwane mountain was the one point from
which the Boer position at Colenso could be certainly enfiladed, and
therefore the fruits of victory would be greater on that flank than on
the other. Finally, the operations could be conducted at no great
distance from the railhead, and the force would be exposed to little
danger of having its flank attacked or its communications cut, as was
the case in the Spion Kop advance. Against these potent considerations
there is only to be put the single fact that the turning of the Boer
right would threaten the Freestaters' line of retreat. On the whole,
the balance of advantage lay entirely with the new attempt, and the
whole army advanced to it with a premonition of success. Of all the
examples which the war has given of the enduring qualities of the
British troops there is none more striking than the absolute
confidence and whole hearted delight with which, after three bloody
repulses, they set forth upon another venture.

On February 9th the movements were started which transferred the
greater part of the force from the extreme left to the centre and
right. By the 11th Lyttelton's (formerly Clery's) second division and
Warren's fifth division had come eastward, leaving Burn Murdoch's
cavalry brigade to guard the Westem side. On the 12th Lord Dundonald,
with all the colonial cavalry, two battalions of infantry, and a
battery, made a strong reconnaissance towards Hussar Hill, which is
the nearest of the several hills which would have to be occupied in
order to turn the position. The hill was taken, but was abandoned
again by General Buller after he had used it for some hours as an
observatory. A long-range action between the retiring cavalry and the
Boers ended in a few losses upon each side.

What Buller had seen during the hour or two which he had spent with
his telescope upon Hussar Hill had evidently confirmed him in his
views, for two days later (February 14th) the whole army set forth for
this point. By the morning of the 15th twenty thousand men were
concentrated upon the sides and spurs of this eminence. On the 16th
the heavy guns were in position, and all was ready for the advance.

Facing them now were the formidable Boer lines of Hlangwane Hill and
Green Hill, which would certainly cost several thousands of men if
they were to take them by direct storm. Beyond them, upon the Boer
flank, were the hills of Monte Christo and Cingolo, which appeared to
be the extreme outside of the Boer position. The plan was to engage
the attention of the trenches in front by a terrific artillery fire
and the threat of an assault, while at the same time sending the true
flank attack far round to carry the Cingolo ridge, which must be taken
before any other hill could be approached.

On the 17th, in the early morning, with the first tinge of violet in
the east, the irregular cavalry and the second division (Lyttelton's)
with Wynne's Brigade started upon their widely curving flanking march.
The country through which they passed was so broken that the troopers
led their horses in single file, and would have found themselves
helpless in face of any resistance. Fortunately, Cingolo Hill was very
weakly held, and by evening both our horsemen and our infantry had a
firm grip upon it, thus turning the extreme left flank of the Boer
position. For once their mountainous fortresses were against them,
for a mounted Boer force is so mobile that in an open position, such
as faced Methuen, it is very hard and requires great celerity of
movement ever to find a flank at all. On a succession of hills,
however, it was evident that some one hill must mark the extreme end
of their line, and Buller had found it at Cingolo. Their answer to
this movement was to throw their flank back so as to face the new
position.

Even now, however, the Boer leaders had apparently not realised that
this was the main attack, or it is possible that the intervention of
the river made it difficult for them to send reinforcements. However
that may be, it is certain that the task which the British found
awaiting them on the 18th proved to be far easier than they had dared
to hope. The honours of the day rested with Hildyard's English
Brigade (East Surrey, West Surrey, West Yorkshires, and 2nd
Devons). In open order and with a rapid advance, taking every
advantage of the cover -- which was better than is usual in South
African warfare -- they gained the edge of the Monte Christo ridge,
and then swiftly cleared the crest. One at least of the regiments
engaged, the Devons, was nerved by the thought that their own first
battalion was waiting for them at Ladysmith. The capture of the hill
made the line of trenches which faced Buller untenable, and he was at
once able to advance with Barton's Fusilier Brigade and to take
possession of the whole Boer position of Hlangwane and Green Hill. It
was not a great tactical victory, for they had no trophies to show
save the worthless DEBRIS of the Boer camps. But it was a very great
strategical victory, for it not only gave them the whole south side of
the Tugela, but also the means of commanding with their guns a great
deal of the north side, including those Colenso trenches which had
blocked the way so long. A hundred and seventy killed and wounded (of
whom only fourteen were killed) was a trivial price for such a
result. At last from the captured ridges the exultant troops could see
far away the haze which lay over the roofs of Ladysmith, and the
besieged, with hearts beating high with hope, turned their glasses
upon the distant mottled patches which told them that their comrades
were approaching.

By February 20th the British had firmly established themselves along
the whole south bank of the river, Hart's brigade bad occupied
Colenso, and the heavy guns had been pushed up to more advanced
positions. The crossing of the river was the next operation, and the
question arose where it should be crossed. The wisdom which comes with
experience shows us now that it would have been infinitely better to
have crossed on their extreme left flank, as by an advance upon this
line we should have turned their strong Pieters position just as we
had already turned their Colenso one. With an absolutely master card
in our hand we refused to play it, and won the game by a more tedious
and perilous process. The assumption seems to have been made (on no
other hypothesis can one understand the facts) that the enemy were
demoralised and that the positions would not be strongly held. Our
flanking advantage was abandoned and a direct advance was ordered from
colenso, involving a frontal attack upon the Pieters position.

On February 21st Buller threw his pontoon bridge over the river near
Colenso, and the same evening his army began to cross. It was at once
evident that the Boer resistance had by no means collapsed. Wynne's
Lancashire Brigade were the first across, and found themselves hotly
engaged before nightfall. The low kopjes in front of them were blazing
with musketry fire. The brigade held its own, but lost the Brigadier
(the second in a month) and 150 rank and file. Next morning the main
body of the infantry was passed across, and the army was absolutely
committed to the formidable and unnecessary enterprise of fighting its
way straight to Ladysmith.

The force in front had weakened, however, both in numbers and in
morale. Some thousands of the Freestaters had left in order to defend
their own country from the advance of Roberts, while the rest were
depressed by as much of the news as was allowed by their leaders to
reach them. But the Boer is a tenacious fighter, and many a brave man
was still to fall before Buller and White should shake hands in the
High Street of Ladysmith.

The first obstacle which faced the army, after crossing the river, was
a belt of low rolling ground, which was gradually cleared by the
advance of our infantry. As night closed in the advance lines of Boers
and British were so close to each other that incessant rifle fire was
maintamed until morning, and at more than one point small bodies of
desperate riflemen charged right up to the bayonets of our
infantry. The morning found us still holding our positions all along
the line, and as more and more of our infantry came up and gun after
gun roared into action we began to push our stubborn enemy northwards.
On the 21st the Dorsets, Middlesex, and Somersets had borne the heat
of the day. On the 22nd it was the Royal Lancasters, followed by the
South Lancashires, who took up the running. It would take the patience
and also the space of a Kinglake in this scrambling broken fight to
trace the doings of those groups of men who strove and struggled
through the rifle fire. All day a steady advance was maintained over
the low kopjes, until by evening we were faced by the more serious
line of the Pieter's Hills. The operations had been carried out with a
monotony of gallantry. Always the same extended advance, always the
same rattle of Mausers and clatter of pom-poms from a ridge, always
the same victorious soldiers on the barren crest, with a few crippled
Boers before them and many crippled comrades behind. They were
expensive triumphs, and yet every one brought them nearer to their
goal. And now, like an advancing tide, they lapped along the base of
Pieter's Hill. Could they gather volume enough to carry themselves
over? The issue of the long-drawn battle and the fate of Ladysmith
hung upon the question.

Brigadier Fitzroy Hart, to whom the assault was entrusted, is in some
ways as singular and picturesque a type as has been evolved in the
war. A dandy soldier, always the picture of neatness from the top of
his helmet to the heels of his well-polished brown boots, he brings to
military matters the same precision which he affects in
dress. Pedantic in his accuracy, he actually at the battle of Colenso
drilled the Irish Brigade for half an hour before leading them into
action, and threw out markers under a deadly fire in order that his
change from close to extended formation might be academically
correct. The heavy loss of the Brigade at this action was to some
extent ascribed to him and affected his popularity; but as his men
came to know him better, his romantic bravery, his whimsical soldierly
humour, their dislike changed into admiration. His personal disregard
for danger was notorious and reprehensible. 'Where is General Hart?'
asked some one in action. 'I have not seen him, but I know where you
will find him. Go ahead of the skirmish line and you will see him
standing on a rock,' was the answer. He bore a charmed life. It was a
danger to be near him. 'Whom are you going to?' 'General Hart,' said
the aide-de-camp. 'Then good-bye!' cried his fellows. A grim humour
ran through his nature. It is gravely recorded and widely believed
that he lined up a regiment on a hill-top in order to teach them not
to shrink from fire. Amid the laughter of his Irishmen, he walked
through the open files of his firing line holding a laggard by the
ear. This was the man who had put such a spirit into the Irish Brigade
that amid that army of valiant men there were none who held such a
record. 'Their rushes were the quickest, their rushes were the
longest, and they stayed the shortest time under cover,' said a shrewd
military observer. To Hart and his brigade was given the task of
clearing the way to Ladysmith.

The regiments which he took with him on his perilous enterprise were
the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, the 1st
Connaught Rangers, and the Imperial Light Infantry, the whole forming
the famous 5th Brigade. They were already in the extreme British
advance, and now, as they moved forwards, the Durham Light Infantry
and the 1st Rifle Brigade from Lyttelton's Brigade came up to take
their place. The hill to be taken lay on the right, and the soldiers
were compelled to pass in single file under a heavy fire for more than
a mile until they reached the spot which seemed best for their
enterprise. There, short already of sixty of their comrades, they
assembled and began a cautious advance upon the lines of trenches and
sangars which seamed the brown slope above them.

For a time they were able to keep some cover, and the casualties were
comparatively few. But now at last, as the evening sun threw a long
shadow from the hills, the leading regiment, the Inniskillings, found
themselves at the utmost fringe of boulders with a clear slope between
them and the main trench of the enemy. Up there where the shrapnel was
spurting and the great lyddite shells crashing they could dimly see a
line of bearded faces and the black dots of the slouch hats. With a
yell the Inniskillings sprang out, carried with a rush the first
trench, and charged desperately onwards for the second one. It was a
supremely dashing attack against a supremely steady resistance, for
among all their gallant deeds the Boers have never fought better than
on that February evening. Amid such a smashing shell fire as living
mortals have never yet endured they stood doggedly, these hardy men of
the veldt, and fired fast and true into the fiery ranks of the
Irishmen. The yell of the stormers was answered by the remorseless
roar of the Mausers and the deep-chested shouts of the farmers. Up and
up surged the infantry, falling, rising, dashing bull-headed at the
crackling line of the trench. But still the bearded faces glared at
them over the edge, and still the sheet of lead pelted through their
ranks. The regiment staggered, came on, staggered again, was overtaken
by supporting companies of the Dublins and the Connaughts, came on,
staggered once more, and finally dissolved into shreds, who ran
swiftly back for cover, threading their way among their stricken
comrades. Never on this earth was there a retreat of which the
survivors had less reason to be ashamed. They had held on to the
utmost capacity of human endurance. Their Colonel, ten officers, and
more than half the regiment were lying on the fatal hill. Honour to
them, and honour also to the gallant Dutchmen who, rooted in the
trenches, had faced the rush and fury of such an onslaught! Today to
them, tomorrow to us -- but it is for a soldier to thank the God of
battles for worthy foes.

It is one thing, however, to repulse the British soldier and it is
another to rout him. Within a few hundred yards of their horrible
ordeal at Magersfontein the Highlanders reformed into a military body.
So now the Irishmen fell back no further than the nearest cover, and
there held grimly on to the ground which they had won. If you would
know the advantage which the defence has over the attack, then do you
come and assault this line of tenacious men, now in your hour of
victory and exultation, friend Boer! Friend Boer did attempt it, and
skilfully too, moving a flanking party to sweep the position with
their fire. But the brigade, though sorely hurt, held them off without
difficulty, and was found on the morning of the 24th to be still lying
upon the ground which they had won.

Our losses had been very heavy, Colonel Thackeray of the
Inniskillings, Colonel Sitwell of the Dublins, three majors, twenty
officers, and a total of about six hundred out of 1,200 actually
engaged. To take such punishment and to remain undemoralised is the
supreme test to which troops can be put. Could the loss have been
avoided? By following the original line of advance from Monte Christo,
perhaps, when we should have turned the enemy's left. But otherwise
no. The hill was in the way and had to be taken. In the war game you
cannot play without a stake. You lose and you pay forfeit, and where
the game is fair the best player is he who pays with the best grace.
The attack was well prepared, well delivered, and only miscarried on
account of the excellence of the defence. We proved once more what we
had proved so often before, that all valour and all discipline will
not avail in a frontal attack against brave coolheaded men armed with
quick-firing rifles.

While the Irish Brigade assaulted Railway Hill an attack had been made
upon the left, which was probably meant as a demonstration to keep the
Boers from reinforcing their comrades rather than as an actual attempt
upon their lines. Such as it was, however, it cost the life of at
least one brave soldier, for Colonel Thorold, of the Welsh Fusiliers,
was among the fallen. Thorold, Thackeray, and Sitwell in one
evening. Who can say that British colonels have not given their men a
lead?

The army was now at a deadlock. Railway Hill barred the way, and if
Hart's men could not carry it by assault it was hard to say who
could. The 24th found the two armies facing each other at this
critical point, the Irishmen still clinging to the slopes of the hill
and the Boers lining the top. Fierce rifle firing broke out between
them during the day, but each side was well covered and lay low. The
troops in support suffered somewhat, however, from a random shell
fire. Mr. Winston Churchill has left it upon record that within his
own observation three of their shrapnel shells fired at a venture on
to the reverse slope of a hill accounted for nineteen men and four
horses. The enemy can never have known how hard those three shells had
hit us, and so we may also believe that our artillery fire has often
been less futile than it appeared.

General Buller had now realised that it was no mere rearguard action
which the Boers were fighting, but that their army was standing
doggedly at bay; so he reverted to that flanking movement which, as
events showed, should never have been abandoned. Hart's Irish Brigade
was at present almost the right of the army. His new plan -- a
masterly one -- was to keep Hart pinning the Boers at that point, and
to move his centre and left across the river, and then back to
envelope the left wing of the enemy. By this manoeuvre Hart became the
extreme left instead of the extreme right, and the Irish Brigade would
be the hinge upon which the whole army should turn. It was a large
conception, finely carried out. The 24th was a day of futile shell
fire -- and of plans for the future. The heavy guns were got across once
more to the Monte Christo ridge and to Hlangwane, and preparations
made to throw the army from the west to the east. The enemy still
snarled and occasionally snapped in front of Hart's men, but with four
companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade to protect their flanks their
position remained secure.

In the meantime, through a CONTRETEMPS between our outposts and the
Boers, no leave had been given to us to withdraw our wounded, and the
unfortunate fellows, some hundreds of them, had lain between the lines
in agonies of thirst for thirty-six hours -- one of the most painful
incidents of the campaign. Now, upon the 25th, an armistice was
proclaimed, and the crying needs of the survivors were attended to. On
the same day the hearts of our soldiers sank within them as they saw
the stream of our wagons and guns crossing the river once more. What,
were they foiled again? Was the blood of these brave men to be shed in
vain? They ground their teeth at the thought. The higher strategy was
not for them, but back was back and forward was forward, and they knew
which way their proud hearts wished to go.

The 26th was occupied by the large movements of troops which so
complete a reversal of tactics necessitated. Under the screen of a
heavy artillery fire, the British right became the left and the left
the right. A second pontoon bridge was thrown across near the old Boer
bridge at Hlangwane, and over it was passed a large force of infantry,
Barton's Fusilier Brigade, Kitchener's (VICE Wynne's, VICE Woodgate's)
Lancashire Brigade, and two battalions of Norcott's (formerly
Lyttelton's) Brigade. Coke's Brigade was left at Colenso to prevent a
counter attack upon our left flank and communications. In this way,
while Hart with the Durhams and the 1st Rifle Brigade held the Boers
in front, the main body of the army was rapidly swung round on to
their left flank. By the morning of the 27th all were in place for the
new attack.

Opposite the point where the troops bad been massed were three Boer
hills; one, the nearest, may for convenience sake be called Barton's
Hill. As the army had formerly been situated the assault upon this
hill would have been a matter of extreme difficulty; but now, with the
heavy guns restored to their commanding position, from which they
could sweep its sides and summits, it had recovered its initial
advantage. In the morning sunlight Barton's Fusiliers crossed the
river, and advanced to the attack under a screaming canopy of
shells. Up they went and up, darting and crouching, until their
gleaming bayonets sparkled upon the summit. The masterful artillery
had done its work, and the first long step taken in this last stage of
the relief of Ladysmith. The loss had been slight and the advantage
enormous. After they had gained the summit the Fusillers were stung
and stung again by clouds of skirmishers who clung to the flanks of
the hill, but their grip was firm and grew firmer with every hour.

Of the three Boer hills which had to be taken the nearest (or eastern
one) was now in the hands of the British. The furthest (or western
one) was that on which the Irish Brigade was still crouching, ready at
any moment for a final spring which would take them over the few
hundred yards which separated them from the trenches. Between the two
intervened a central hill, as yet untouched. Could we carry this the
whole position would be ours. Now for the final effort! Turn every gun
upon it, the guns of Monte Christo, the guns of Hlangwane! Turn every
rifle upon it -- the rifles of Barton's men, the rifles of Hart's men,
the carbines of the distant cavalry! Scalp its crown with the
machine-gun fire! And now up with you, Lancashire men, Norcott's men!
The summit or a glorious death, for beyond that hill your suffering
comrades are awaiting you! Put every bullet and every man and all of
fire and spirit that you are worth into this last hour; for if you
fail now you have failed for ever, and if you win, then when your
hairs are white your blood will still run warm when you think of that
morning's work. The long drama had drawn to an end, and one short
day's work is to show what that end was to be.

But there was never a doubt of it. Hardly for one instant did the
advance waver at any point of its extended line. It was the supreme
instant of the Natal campaign, as, wave after wave, the long lines of
infantry went shimmering up the hill. On the left the Lancasters, the
Lancashire Fusiliers, the South Lancashires, the York and Lancasters,
with a burr of north country oaths, went racing for the summit. Spion
Kop and a thousand comrades were calling for vengeance. 'Remember,
men, the eyes of Lancashire are watching you,' cried the gallant
MacCarthy O'Leary. The old 40th swept on, but his dead body marked
the way which they had taken. On the right the East Surrey, the,
Cameronians, the 3rd Rifles, the 1st Rifle Brigade, the Durhams, and
the gallant Irishmen, so sorely stricken and yet so eager, were all
pressing upwards and onwards. The Boer fire lulls, it ceases -- they
are running! Wild hat-waving men upon the Hlangwane uplands see the
silhouette of the active figures of the stormers along the sky-line
and know that the position is theirs. Exultant soldiers dance and
cheer upon the ridge. The sun is setting in glory over the great
Drakensberg mountains, and so also that night set for ever the hopes
of the Boer invaders of Natal. Out of doubt and chaos, blood and
labour, had come at last the judgment that the lower should not
swallow the higher, that the world is for the man of the twentieth and
not of the seventeenth century. After a fortnight of fighting the
weary troops threw themselves down that night with the assurance that
at last the door was ajar and the light breaking through. One more
effort and it would be open before them.

Behind the line of hills which had been taken there extended a great
plain as far as Bulwana -- that evil neighbour who had wrought such harm
upon Ladysmith. More than half of the Pieters position had fallen into
Buller's hands on the 27th, and the remainder had become untenable. The
Boers had lost some five hundred in killed, wounded, and
prisoners.[Footnote: Accurate figures will probably never be obtained,
but a well-known Boer in Pretoria informed me that Pieters was the
most expensive fight to them of the whole war.] It seemed to the
British General and his men that one more action would bring them
safely into Ladysmith.

But here they miscalculated, and so often have we miscalculated on the
optimistic side in this campaign that it is pleasing to find for once
that our hopes were less than the reality. The Boers had been beaten
-- fairly beaten and disheartened. It will always be a subject for
conjecture whether they were so entirely on the strength of the Natal
campaign, or whether the news of the Cronje disaster from the western
side had warned them that they must draw in upon the east. For my own
part I believe that the honour lies with the gallant men of Natal, and
that, moving on these lines, they would, Cronje or no Cronje, have
forced their way in triumph to Ladysmith.

And now the long-drawn story draws to a swift close. Cautiously
feeling their way with a fringe of horse, the British pushed over the
great plain, delayed here and there by the crackle of musketry, but
finding always that the obstacle gave way and vanished as they
approached it. At last it seemed clear to Dundonald that there really
was no barrier between his horsemen and the beleaguered city. With a
squadron of Imperial Light Horse and a squadron of Natal Carabineers
he rode on until, in the gathering twilight, the Ladysmith picket
challenged the approaching cavalry, and the gallant town was saved.

It is hard to say which had shown the greater endurance, the rescued
or their rescuers. The town, indefensible, lurking in a hollow under
commanding hills, had held out for 118 days. They had endured two
assaults and an incessant bombardment, to which, towards the end,
owing to the failure of heavy ammunition, they were unable to make any
adequate reply. It was calculated that 16,000 shells had fallen within
the town. In two successful sorties they had destroyed three of the
enemy's heavy guns. They had been pressed by hunger, horseflesh was
already running short, and they had been decimated by disease. More
than 2,000 cases of enteric and dysentery had been in hospital at one
time, and the total number of admissions had been nearly as great as
the total number of the garrison. One-tenth of the men had actually
died of wounds or disease. Ragged, bootless, and emaciated, there
still lurked in the gaunt soldiers the martial spirit of warriors. On
the day after their relief 2,000 of them set forth to pursue the
Boers. One who helped to lead them has left it on record that the
most piteous sight that he has ever seen was these wasted men,
stooping under their rifles and gasping with the pressure of their
accoutrements, as they staggered after their retreating enemy. A
Verestschagen might find a subject these 2,000 indomitable men with
their emaciated horses pursuing a formidable foe. It is God's mercy
they failed to overtake them.

If the record of the besieged force was great, that of the relieving
army was no less so. Through the blackest depths of despondency and
failure they had struggled to absolute success. At Colenso they had
lost 1,200 men, at Spion Kop 1,700, at Vaalkranz 400, and now, in this
last long-drawn effort, 1,600 more. Their total losses were over 5,000
men, more than 20 per cent. of the whole army. Some particular
regiments had suffered horribly. The Dublin and Inniskilling Fusiliers
headed the roll of honour with only five officers and 40 per cent. of
the men left standing. Next to them the Lancashire Fusiliers and the
Royal Lancasters had been the hardest hit. It speaks well for Buller's
power of winning and holding the confidence of his men that in the
face of repulse after repulse the soldiers still went into battle as
steadily as ever under his command.

On March 3rd Buller's force entered Ladysmith in state between the
lines of the defenders. For their heroism the Dublin Fusiliers were
put in the van of the procession, and it is told how, as the soldiers
who lined the streets saw the five officers and small clump of men,
the remains of what had been a strong battalion, realising, for the
first time perhaps, what their relief had cost, many sobbed like
children. With cheer after cheer the stream of brave men flowed for
hours between banks formed by men as brave. But for the purposes of
war the garrison was useless. A month of rest and food would be
necessary before they could be ready to take the field once more.

So the riddle of the Tugela had at last been solved. Even now, with
all the light which has been shed upon the matter, it is hard to
apportion praise and blame. To the cheerful optimism of Symons must be
laid some of the blame of the original entanglement; but man is
mortal, and he laid down his life for his mistake. White, who had been
but a week in the country, could not, if he would, alter the main
facts of the military situation. He did his best, committed one or two
errors, did brilliantly on one or two points, and finally conducted
the defence with a tenacity and a gallantry which are above all
praise. It did not, fortunately, develop into an absolutely desperate
affair, like Masséna's defence of Genoa, but a few more weeks would
have made it a military tragedy. He was fortunate in the troops whom
he commanded -- half of them old soldiers from India -- [Footnote: An
officer in high command in Ladysmith has told me, as an illustration
of the nerve and discipline of the troops, that though false alarms in
the Boer trenches were matters of continual occurrence from the
beginning to the end of the siege, there was not one single occasion
when the British outposts made a mistake.] -- and exceedingly
fortunate in his officers, French (in the operations before the
siege), Archibald Hunter, Ian Hamilton, Hedworth Lambton,
Dick-Cunyngham, Knox, De Courcy Hamilton, and all the other good men
and true who stood (as long as they could stand) by his side. Above
all, he was fortunate in his commissariat officers, and it was in the
offices of Colonels Ward and Stoneman as much as in the trenches and
sangars of Cćsar's Camp that the siege was won.

Buller, like White, had to take the situation as he found it. It is
well known that his own belief was that the line of the Tugela was the
true defence of Natal. When he reached Africa, Ladysmith was already
beleaguered, and he, with his troops, had to abandon the scheme of
direct invasion and to hurry to extricate White's division. Whether
they might not have been more rapidly extricated by keeping to the
original plan is a question which will long furnish an excellent
subject for military debate. Had Buller in November known that
Ladysmith was capable of holding out until March, is it conceivable
that he, with his whole army corps and as many more troops as he cared
to summon from England, would not have made such an advance in four
months through the Free State as would necessitate the abandonment of
the sieges both of Kimberley and of Ladysmith? If the Boers persisted
in these sieges they could not possibly place more than 20,000 men on
the Orange River to face 60,000 whom Buller could have had there by
the first week in December. Methuen's force, French's force, Gatacre's
force, and the Natal force, with the exception of garrisons for
Pietermaritzburg and Durban, would have assembled, with a reserve of
another sixty thousand men in the colony or on the sea ready to fill
the gaps in his advance. Moving over a flat country with plenty of
flanking room, it is probable that he would have been in Bloemfontein
by Christmas and at the Vaal River late in January. What could the
Boers do then? They might remain before Ladysmith, and learn that
their capital and their gold mines had been taken in their absence. Or
they might abandon the siege and trek back to defend their own
homes. This, as it appears to a civilian critic, would have been the
least expensive means of fighting them; but after all the strain had
to come somewhere, and the long struggle of Ladysmith may have meant a
more certain and complete collapse in the future. At least, by the
plan actually adopted we saved Natal from total devastation, and that
must count against a great deal.

Having taken his line, Buller set about his task in a slow,
deliberate, but pertinacious fashion. It cannot be denied, however,
that the pertinacity was largely due to the stiffening counsel of
Roberts and the soldierly firmness of White who refused to acquiesce
in the suggestion of surrender. Let it be acknowledged that Buller's
was the hardest problem of the war, and that he solved it. The mere
acknowledgment goes far to soften criticism. But the singular thing is
that in his proceedings he showed qualities which had not been
generally attributed to him, and was wanting in those very points
which the public had imagined to be charactenstic of him. He had gone
out with the reputation of a downright John Bull fighter, who would
take punishment or give it, but slog his way through without
wincing. There was no reason for attributing any particular
strategical ability to him. But as a matter of fact, setting the
Colenso attempt aside, the crossing for the Spion Kop enterprise, the
withdrawal of the compromised army, the Vaalkranz crossing with the
clever feint upon Brakfontein, the final operations, and especially
the complete change of front after the third day of Pieters, were
strategical movements largely conceived and admirably carried out. On
the other hand, a hesitation in pushing onwards, and a disinclination
to take a risk or to endure heavy punishment, even in the case of
temporary failure, were consistent characteristics of his generalship.
The Vaalkranz operations are particularly difficult to defend from the
charge of having been needlessly slow and half-hearted. This
'saturnine fighter,' as he had been called, proved to be exceedingly
sensitive about the lives of his men -- an admirable quality in
itself, but there are occasions when to spare them to-day is to
needlessly imperil them tomorrow. The victory was his, and yet in the
very moment of it he displayed the qualities which marred him. With
two cavalry brigades in band he did not push the pursuit of the routed
Boers with their guns and endless streams of wagons. It is true that
he might have lost heavily, but it is true also that a success might
have ended the Boer invasion of Natal, and the lives of our troopers
would be well spent in such a venture. If cavalry is not to be used in
pursuing a retiring enemy encumbered with much baggage, then its day
is indeed past.

The relief of Ladysmith stirred the people of the Empire as nothing,
save perhaps the subsequent relief of Mafeking, has done during our
generation. Even sober unemotional London found its soul for once and
fluttered with joy. Men, women, and children, rich and poor, clubman
and cabman, joined in the universal delight. The thought of our
garrison, of their privations, of our impotence to relieve them, of
the impending humiliation to them and to us, had lain dark for many
months across our spirits. It had weighed upon us, until the subject,
though ever present in our thoughts, was too painful for general
talk. And now, in an instant, the shadow was lifted. The outburst of
rejoicing was.not a triumph over the gallant Boers. But it was our own
escape from humiliation, the knowledge that the blood of our sons had
not been shed in vain, above all the conviction that the darkest hour
had now passed and that the light of peace was dimly breaking far away
-- that was why London rang with joy bells that March morning, and why
those bells echoed back from every town and hamlet, in tropical sun
and in Arctic snow, over which the flag of Britain waved.

Arthur Conan Doyle