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Chapter 5

TALANA HILL

It was on the morning of October 12th, amid cold and mist, that the
Boer camps at Sandspruit and Volksrust broke up, and the burghers rode
to the war. Some twelve thousand of them, all mounted, with two
batteries of eight Krupp guns each, were the invading force from the
north, which hoped later to be joined by the Freestaters and by a
contingent of Germans and Transvaalers who were to cross the Free
State border. It was an hour before dawn that the guns started, and
the riflemen followed close behind the last limber, so that the first
light of day fell upon the black sinuous line winding down between the
hills. A spectator upon the occasion says of them : 'Their faces were
a study. For the most part the expression worn was one of
determination and bulldog pertinacity. No sign of fear there, nor of
wavering. Whatever else may be laid to the charge of the Boer, it may
never truthfully be said that he is a coward or a man unworthy of the
Briton's steel.' The words were written early in the campaign, and the
whole empire will endorse them to-day. Could we have such men as
willing fellow-citizens, they are worth more than all the gold mines
of their country.

This main Transvaal body consisted of the commando of Pretoria, which
comprised 1,800 men, and those of Heidelberg, Middelburg, Krugersdorp,
Standerton, Wakkerstroom, and Ermelo, with the State Artillery, an
excellent and highly organised body who were provided with the best
guns that have ever been brought on to a battlefield. Besides their
sixteen Krupps, they dragged with them two heavy six-inch Creusot
guns, which were destined to have a very important effect in the
earlier part of the campaign. In addition to these native forces there
were a certain number of European auxiliaries. The greater part of the
German corps were with the Free State forces, but a few hundred came
down from the north. There was a Hollander corps of about two hundred
and fifty and an Irish -- or perhaps more properly an
Irish-American-corps of the same number, who rode under the green flag
and the harp.

The men might, by all accounts, be divided into two very different
types. There were the town Boers, smartened and perhaps a little
enervated by prosperity and civilisation, men of business and
professional men, more alert and quicker than their rustic
comrades. These men spoke English rather than Dutch, and indeed there
were many men of English descent among them. But the others, the most
formidable both in their numbers and in their primitive qualities,
were the back-veldt Boers, the sunburned, tangle-haired, full-bearded
farmers, the men of the Bible and the rifle, imbued with the
traditions of their own guerrilla warfare. These were perhaps the
finest natural warriors upon earth, marksmen, hunters, accustomed to
hard fare and a harder couch. They were rough in their ways and
speech, but, in spite of many calumnies and some few unpleasant
truths, they might compare with most disciplined armies in their
humanity and their desire to observe the usages of war.

A few words here as to the man who led this singular host. Piet
Joubert was a Cape Colonist by birth -- a fellow countryman, like
Kruger himself, of those whom the narrow laws of his new country
persisted in regarding as outside the pale. He came from that French
Huguenot blood which has strengthened and refined every race which it
has touched, and from it he derived a chivalry and generosity which
made him respected and liked even by his opponents. In many native
broils and in the British campaign of 1881 he had shown himself a
capable leader. His record in standing out for the independence of
the Transvaal was a very consistent one, for he had not accepted
office under the British, as Kruger had done, but had remained always
an irreconcilable. Tall and burly, with hard grey eyes and a grim
mouth half hidden by his bushy beard, he was a fine type of the men
whom he led. He was now in his sixty-fifth year, and the fire of his
youth had, as some of the burghers urged, died down within him; but he
was experienced, crafty, and warwise, never dashing and never
brilliant, but slow, steady, solid, and inexorable.

Besides this northern army there were two other bodies of burghers
converging upon Natal. One, consisting of the commandoes from Utrecht
and the Swaziland districts, had gathered at Vryheid on the flank of
the British position at Dundee. The other, much larger, not less
probably than six or seven thousand men, were the contingent from the
Free State and a Transvaal corps, together with Schiel's Germans, who
were making their way through the various passes, the Tintwa Pass, and
Van Reenen's Pass, which lead through the grim range of the
Drakensberg and open out upon the more fertile plains of Western
Natal. The total force may have been something between twenty and
thirty thousand men. By all accounts they were of an astonishingly
high heart, convinced that a path of easy victory lay before them, and
that nothing could bar their way to the sea. If the British
commanders underrated their opponents, there is ample evidence that
the mistake was reciprocal.

A few words now as to the disposition of the British forces,
concerning which it must be borne in mind that Sir George White,
though in actual command, had only been a few days in the country
before war was declared, so that the arrangements fell to General Penn
Symons, aided or hampered by the advice of the local political
authorities. The main position was at Ladysmith, but an advance post
was strongly held at Glencoe, which is five miles from the station of
Dundee and forty from Ladysmith. The reason for this dangerous
division of force was to secure each end of the Biggarsberg section of
the railway, and also to cover the important collieries of that
district. The positions chosen seem in each case to show that the
British commander was not aware of the number and power of the Boer
guns, for each was equally defensible against rifle fire and
vulnerable to an artillery attack. In the case of Glencoe it was
particularly evident that guns upon the hills above would, as they
did, render the position untenable. This outlying post was held by
the 1st Leicester Regiment, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, and the first
battalion of Rifles, with the 18th Hussars, three companies of mounted
infantry, and three batteries of field artillery, the 13th, 67th, and
69th. The 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers were on their way to reinforce
it, and arrived before the first action. Altogether the Glencoe camp
contained some four thousand men.

The main body of the army remained at Ladysmith. These consisted of
the 1st Devons, the 1st Liverpools, and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders,
with the 1st Gloucesters, the 2nd King's Royal Rifles, and the 2nd
Rifle Brigade, reinforced later by the Manchesters. The cavalry
included the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 5th Lancers, a detachment of 19th
Hussars, the Natal Carabineers, the Natal Mounted Police, and the
Border Mounted Rifles, reinforced later by the Imperial Light Horse, a
fine body of men raised principally among the refugees from the Rand.
For artillery there were the 21st, 42nd, and 53rd batteries of field
artillery, and No.10 Mountain Battery, with the Natal Field Artillery,
the guns of which were too light to be of service, and the 23rd
Company of Royal Engineers. The whole force, some eight or nine
thousand strong, was under the immediate command of Sir George White,
with Sir Archibald Hunter, fresh from the Soudan, General French, and
General Ian Hamilton as his lieutenants.

The first shock of the Boers, then, must fall upon 4,000 men. If
these could be overwhelmed, there were 8,000 more to be defeated or
masked. Then what was there between them and the sea? Some
detachments of local volunteers, the Durban Light Infantry at Colenso,
and the Natal Royal Rifles, with some naval volunteers at Estcourt.
With the power of the Boers and their mobility it is inexplicable how
the colony was saved. We are of the same blood, the Boers and we, and
we show it in our failings. Over-confidence on our part gave them the
chance, and over-confidence on theirs prevented them from instantly
availing themselves of it. If passed, never to come again.

The outbreak of war was upon October 11th. On the 12th the Boer
forces crossed the frontier both on the north and on the west. On the
13th they occupied Charlestown at the top angle of Natal. On the 15th
they had reached Newcastle, a larger town some fifteen miles inside
the border. Watchers from the houses saw six miles of canvas-tilted
bullock wagons winding down the passes, and learned that this was not
a raid but an invasion. At the same date news reached the British
headquarters of an advance from the western passes, and of a movement
from the Buffalo River on the east. On the 13th Sir George White had
made a reconnaissance in force, but had not come in touch with the
enemy. On the 15th six of the Natal Police were surrounded and
captured at one of the drifts of the Buffalo River. On the 18th our
cavalry patrols came into touch with the Boer scouts at Acton Homes
and Besters Station, these being the voortrekkers of the Orange Free
State force. On the 18th also a detachment was reported from Hadders
Spruit, seven miles north of Glencoe Camp. The cloud was drifting up,
and it could not be long before it would burst.

Two days later, on the early morning of October 20th, the forces came
at last into collision. At half-past three in the morning, well before
daylight, the mounted infantry picket at the junction of the roads
from Landmans and Vants Drifts was fired into by the Doornberg
commando, and retired upon its supports. Two companies of the Dublin
Fusiliers were sent out, and at five o'clock on a fine but misty
morning the whole of Symons's force was under arms with the knowledge
that the Boers were pushing boldly towards them. The khaki-clad lines
of fighting men stood in their long thin ranks staring up at the
curves of the saddle-back hills to the north and east of them, and
straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the enemy. Why these same
saddle-back hills were not occupied by our own people is, it must be
confessed, an insoluble mystery. In a hollow on one flank were the
18th Hussars and the mounted infantry. On the other were the eighteen
motionless guns, limbered up and ready, the horses fidgeting and
stamping in the raw morning air.

And then suddenly -- could that be they? An officer with a telescope
stared intently and pointed. Another and another turned a steady field
glass towards the same place. And then the men could see also, and a
little murmur of interest ran down the ranks.

A long sloping hill -- Talana Hill -- olive-green in hue, was
stretching away in front of them. At the summit it rose into a
rounded crest. The mist was clearing, and the curve was hard-outlined
against the limpid blue of the morning sky. On this, some two and a
half miles or three miles off, a little group of black dots had
appeared. The clear edge of the skyline had become serrated with
moving figures. They clustered into a knot, then opened again, and
then --

There had been no smoke, but there came a long crescendo hoot, rising
into a shrill wail. The shell hummed over the soldiers like a great
bee, and sloshed into soft earth behind them. Then another -- and yet
another -- and yet another. But there was no time to heed them, for
there was the hillside and there the enemy. So at it again with the
good old murderous obsolete heroic tactics of the British tradition!
There are times when, in spite of science and book-lore, the best plan
is the boldest plan, and it is well to fly straight at your enemy's
throat, facing the chance that your strength may fail before you can
grasp it. The cavalry moved off round the enemy's left flank. The
guns dashed to the front, unlimbered, and opened fire. The infantry
were moved round in the direction of Sandspruit, passing through the
little town of Dundee, where the women and children came to the doors
and windows to cheer them. It was thought that the hill was more
accessible from that side. The Leicesters and one field battery --
the 67th -- were left behind to protect the camp and to watch the
Newcastle Road upon the west. At seven in the morning all was ready
for the assault.

Two military facts of importance had already been disclosed. One was
that the Boer percussion-shells were useless in soft ground, as hardly
any of them exploded; the other that the Boer guns could outrange our
ordinary fifteen-pounder field gun, which had been the one thing
perhaps in the whole British equipment upon which we were prepared to
pin our faith. The two batteries, the 13th and the 69th, were moved
nearer, first to 3,000, and then at last to 2,300 yards, at which
range they quickly dominated the guns upon the hill. Other guns had
opened from another crest to the east of Talana, but these also were
mastered by the fire of the 13th Battery. At 7.30 the infantry were
ordered to advance, which they did in open order, extended to ten
paces. The Dublin Fusiliers formed the first line, the Rifles the
second, and the Irish Fusiliers the third.

The first thousand yards of the advance were over open grassland,
where the range was long, and the yellow brown of the khaki blended
with the withered veldt. There were few casualties until the wood was
reached, which lay halfway up the long slope of the hill. It was a
plantation of larches, some hundreds of yards across and nearly as
many deep. On the left side of this wood -- that is, the left side to
the advancing troops -- there stretched a long nullah or hollow, which
ran perpendicularly to the hill, and served rather as a conductor of
bullets than as a cover. So severe was the fire at this point that
both in the wood and in the nullah the troops lay down to avoid it. An
officer of Irish Fusiliers has narrated how in trying to cut the straps
from a fallen private a razor lent him for that purpose by a wounded
sergeant was instantly shot out of his hand. The gallant Symons, who
had refused to dismount, was shot through the stomach and fell from
his horse mortally wounded. With an excessive gallantry, he had not
only attracted the enemy's fire by retaining his horse, but he had
been accompanied throughout the action by an orderly bearing a red
pennon. 'Have they got the hill? Have they got the hill?' was his one
eternal question as they carried him dripping to the rear. It was at
the edge of the wood that Colonel Sherston met his end.

>From now onwards it was as much a soldiers' battle as Inkermann. In
the shelter of the wood the more eager of the three battalions had
pressed to the front until the fringe of the trees was lined by men
from all of them. The difficulty of distinguishing particular
regiments where all were clad alike made it impossible in the heat of
action to keep any sort of formation. So hot was the fire that for the
time the advance was brought to a standstill, but the 69th battery,
firing shrapnel at a range of 1,400 yards, subdued the rifle fire, and
about half-past eleven the infantry were able to push on once more.

Above the wood there was an open space some hundreds of yards across,
bounded by a rough stone wall built for herding cattle. A second wall
ran at right angles to this down towards the wood. An enfilading
rifle fire had been sweeping across this open space, but the wall in
front does not appear to have been occupied by the enemy, who held the
kopje above it. To avoid the cross fire the soldiers ran in single
file under the shelter of the wall, which covered them to the right,
and so reached the other wall across their front. Here there was a
second long delay, the men dribbling up from below, and firing over
the top of the wall and between the chinks of the stones. The Dublin
Fusiliers, through being in a more difficult position, had been unable
to get up as quickly as the others, and most of the hard-breathing
excited men who crowded under the wall were of the Rifles and of the
Irish Fusiliers. The air was so full of bullets that it seemed
impossible to live upon the other side of this shelter. Two hundred
yards intervened between the wall and the crest of the kopje. And yet
the kopje had to be cleared if the battle were to be won.

Out of the huddled line of crouching men an officer sprang shouting,
and a score of soldiers vaulted over the wall and followed at his
heels. It was Captain Connor, of the Irish Fusiliers, but his personal
magnetism carried up with him some of the Rifles as well as men of his
own command. He and half his little forlorn hope were struck down --
he, alas! to die the same night -- but there were other leaders as
brave to take his place. 'Forrard away, men, forrard away!' cried
Nugent, of the Rifles. Three bullets struck him, but he continued to
drag himself up the boulder-studded hill. Others followed, and
others, from all sides they came running, the crouching, yelling,
khaki-clad figures, and the supports rushed up from the rear. For a
time they were beaten down by their own shrapnel striking into them
from behind, which is an amazing thing when one considers that the
range was under 2,000 yards. It was here, between the wall and the
summit, that Colonel Gunning, of the Rifles, and many other brave men
met their end, some by our own bullets and some by those of the enemy;
but the Boers thinned away in front of them, and the anxious onlookers
from the plain below saw the waving helmets on the crest, and learned
at last that all was well.

But it was, it must be confessed, a Pyrrhic victory. We had our hill,
but what else had we? The guns which had been silenced by our fire had
been removed from the kopje. The commando which seized the hill was
that of Lucas Meyer, and it is computed that he had with him about
4,000 men. This figure includes those under the command of Erasmus,
who made halfhearted demonstrations against the British flank. If the
shirkers be eliminated, it is probable that there were not more than a
thousand actual combatants upon the hill. Of this number about fifty
were killed and a hundred wounded. The British loss at Talana Hill
itself was 41 killed and 180 wounded, but among the killed were many
whom the army could ill spare. The gallant but optimistic Symons,
Gunning of the Rifles, Sherston, Connor, Hambro, and many other brave
men died that day. The loss of officers was out of all proportion to
that of the men.

An incident which occurred immediately after the action did much to
rob the British of the fruits of the victory. Artillery had pushed up
the moment that the hill was carried, and had unlimbered on Smith's
Nek between the two hills, from which the enemy, in broken groups of
50 and 100, could be seen streaming away. A fairer chance for the use
of shrapnel has never been. But at this instant there ran from an old
iron church on the reverse side of the hill, which had been used all
day as a Boer hospital, a man with a white flag. It is probable that
the action was in good faith, and that it was simply intended to claim
a protection for the ambulance party which followed him. But the too
confiding gunner in command appears to have thought that an armistice
had been declared, and held his hand during those precious minutes
which might have turned a defeat into a rout. The chance passed,
never to return. The double error of firing into our own advance and
of failing to fire into the enemy's retreat makes the battle one which
cannot be looked back to with satisfaction by our gunners.

In the meantime some miles away another train of events had led to a
complete disaster to our small cavalry force -- a disaster which
robbed our dearly bought infantry victory of much of its
importance. That action alone was undoubtedly a victorious one, but
the net result of the day's fighting cannot be said to have been
certainly in our favour. It was Wellington who asserted that his
cavalry always got him into scrapes, and the whole of British military
history might furnish examples of what he meant. Here again our
cavalry got into trouble. Suffice it for the civilian to chronicle
the fact, and leave it to the military critic to portion out the
blame.

One company of mounted infantry (that of the Rifles) had been told off
to form an escort for the guns. The rest of the mounted infantry with
part of the 18th Hussars (Colonel Moller) had moved round the right
flank until they reached the right rear of the enemy. Such a movement,
had Lucas Meyer been the only opponent, would have been above
criticism; but knowing, as we did, that there were several commandoes
converging upon Glencoe it was obviously taking a very grave and
certain risk to allow the cavalry to wander too far from support.
They were soon entangled in broken country and attacked by superior
numbers of the Boers. There was a time when they might have exerted
an important influence upon the action by attacking the Boer ponies
behind the hills, but the opportunity was allowed to pass. An attempt
was made to get back to the army, and a series of defensive positions
were held to cover the retreat, but the enemy's fire became too hot to
allow them to be retained. Every route save one appeared to be
blocked, so the horsemen took this, which led them into the heart of a
second commando of the enemy. Finding no way through, the force took
up a defensive position, part of them in a farm and part on a kopje
which overlooked it.

The party consisted of two troops of Hussars, one company of mounted
infantry of the Dublin Fusiliers, and one section of the mounted
infantry of the Rifles -- about two hundred men in all. They were
subjected to a hot fire for some hours, many being killed and
wounded. Guns were brought up, and fired shell into the farmhouse. At
4.30 the force, being in a perfectly hopeless position, laid down
their arms. Their ammunition was gone, many of their horses had
stampeded, and they were hemmed in by very superior numbers, so that
no slightest slur can rest upon the survivors for their decision to
surrender, though the movements which brought them to such a pass are
more open to criticism. They were the vanguard of that considerable
body of humiliated and bitter-hearted men who were to assemble at the
capital of our brave and crafty enemy. The remainder of the 18th
Hussars, who under Major Knox had been detached from the main force
and sent across the Boer rear, underwent a somewhat similar
experience, but succeeded in extricating themselves with a loss of Six
killed and ten wounded. Their efforts were by no means lost, as they
engaged the attention of a considerable body of Boers during the day
and were able to bring some prisoners back with them.

The battle of Talana Hill was a tactical victory but a strategic
defeat. It was a crude frontal attack without any attempt at even a
feint of flanking, but the valour of the troops, from general to
private, carried it through. The force was in a position so radically
false that the only use which they could make of a victory was to
cover their own retreat. From all points Boer commandoes were
converging upon it, and already it was understood that the guns at
their command were heavier than any which could be placed against
them. This was made more clear on October 21st, the day after the
battle, when the force, having withdrawn overnight from the useless
hill which they had captured, moved across to a fresh position on the
far side of the railway. At four in the afternoon a very heavy gun
opened from a distant hill, altogether beyond the extreme range of our
artillery, and plumped shell after shell into our camp. It was the
first appearance of the great Creusot. An officer with several men of
the Leicesters, and some of our few remaining cavalry, were bit. The
position was clearly impossible, so at two in the morning of the 22nd
the whole force was moved to a point to the south of the town of
Dundee. On the same day a reconnaissance was made in the direction of
Glencoe Station, but the passes were found to be strongly occupied,
and the little army marched back again to its original position. The
command had fallen to Colonel Yule, who justly considered that his men
were dangerously and uselessly exposed, and that his correct strategy
was to fall back, if it were still possible, and join the main body at
Ladysmith, even at the cost of abandoning the two hundred sick and
wounded who lay with General Symons in the hospital at Dundee. It was
a painful necessity, but no one who studies the situation can have any
doubt of its wisdom. The retreat was no easy task, a march by road of
some sixty or seventy miles through a very rough country with an enemy
pressing on every side. Its successful completion without any loss or
any demoralisation of the troops is perhaps as fine a military exploit
as any of our early victories. Through the energetic and loyal
co-operation of Sir George White, who fought the actions of
Elandslaagte and of Rietfontein in order to keep the way open for
them, and owing mainly to the skillful guidance of Colonel Dartnell, of
the Natal Police, they succeeded in their critical manoeuvre. On
October 23rd they were at Beith, on the 24th at Waselibank Spruit, on
the 25th at Sunday River, and next morning they marched, sodden with
rain, plastered with mud, dog-tired, but in the best of spirits, into
Ladysmith amid the cheers of their comrades. A battle, six days
without settled sleep, four days without a proper meal, winding up
with a single march of thirty-two miles over heavy ground and through
a pelting rain storm -- that was the record of the Dundee column. They
had fought and won, they had striven and toiled to the utmost capacity
of manhood, and the end of it all was that they had reached the spot
which they should never have left. But their endurance could not be
lost -- no worthy deed is ever lost. Like the light division, when
they marched their fifty odd unbroken miles to be present at Talavera,
they leave a memory and a standard behind them which is more important
than success. It is by the tradition of such sufferings and such
endurance that others in other days are nerved to do the like.

Arthur Conan Doyle