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Chapter 6

ELANDSLAAGTE AND RIETFONTEIN


While the Glencoe force had struck furiously at the army of Lucas
Meyer, and had afterwards by hard marching disengaged itself from the
numerous dangers which threatened it, its comrades at Ladysmith bad
loyally co-operated in drawing off the attention of the enemy and
keeping the line of retreat open.

On October 20th -- the same day as the Battle of Talana Hill -- the
line was cut by the Boers at a point nearly midway between Dundee and
Ladysmith. A small body of horsemen were the forerunners of a
considerable commando, composed of Freestaters, Transvaalers, and
Germans, who had advanced into Natal through Botha's Pass under the
command of General Koch. They had with them the two Maxim-Nordenfelds
which had been captured from the Jameson raiders, and were now
destined to return once more to British hands. Colonel Schiel, the
German artillerist, had charge of these guns.

On the evening of that day General French, with a strong reconnoitering
party, including the Natal Carabineers, the 5th Lancers, and the 21st
battery, had defined the enemy's position. Next morning (the 21st) he
returned, but either the enemy had been reinforced during the night or
he had underrated them the day before, for the force which he took
with him was too weak for any serious attack. He had one battery of
the Natal artillery, with their little seven-pounder popguns, five
squadrons of the Imperial Horse, and, in the train which slowly
accompanied his advance, half a battalion of the Manchester
Regiment. Elated by the news of Talana Hill, and anxious to emulate
their brothers of Dundee, the little force moved out of Ladysmith in
the early morning.

Some at least of the men were animated by feelings such as seldom find
a place in the breast of the British soldier as he marches into
battle. A sense of duty, a belief in the justice of his cause, a love
for his regiment and for his country, these are the common incentives
of every soldier. But to the men of the Imperial Light Horse,
recruited as they were from among the British refugees of the Rand,
there was added a burning sense of injustice, and in many cases a
bitter hatred against the men whose rule had weighed so heavily upon
them. In this singular corps the ranks were full of wealthy men and
men of education, who, driven from their peaceful vocations in
Johannesburg, were bent upon fighting their way back to them again. A
most unmerited slur had been cast upon their courage in connection
with the Jameson raid -- a slur which they and other similar corps
have washed out for ever in their own blood and that of their enemy.
Chisholm, a fiery little Lancer, was in command, with Karri Davis and
Wools-Sampson, the two stalwarts who had preferred Pretoria Gaol to
the favours of Kruger, as his majors. The troopers were on fire at the
news that a cartel had arrived in Ladysmith the night before,
purporting to come from the Johannesburg Boers and Hollanders, asking
what uniform the Light Horse wore, as they were anxious to meet them
in battle. These men were fellow townsmen and knew each other well.
They need not have troubled about the uniform, for before evening the
Light Horse were near enough for them to know their faces.

It was about eight o'clock on a bright summer morning that the small
force came in contact with a few scattered Boer outposts, who retired,
firing, before the advance of the Imperial Light Horse. As they fell
back the green and white tents of the invaders came into view upon the
russet-coloured hillside of Elandslaagte. Down at the red brick
railway station the Boers could be seen swarming out of the buildings
in which they had spent the night. The little Natal guns, firing with
obsolete black powder, threw a few shells into the station, one of
which, it is said, penetrated a Boer ambulance which could not be seen
by the gunners. The accident was to be regretted, but as no patients
could have been in the ambulance the mischance was not a serious one.

But the busy, smoky little seven-pounder guns were soon to meet their
master. Away up on the distant hillside, a long thousand yards beyond
their own furthest range, there was a sudden bright flash. No smoke,
only the throb of flame, and then the long sibilant scream of the
shell, and the thud as it buried itself in the ground under a limber.
Such judgment of range would have delighted the most martinet of
inspectors at Okehampton. Bang came another, and another, and
another, right into the heart of the battery. The six little guns lay
back at their extremest angle, and all barked together in impotent
fury. Another shell pitched over them, and the officer in command
lowered his field-glass in despair as he saw his own shells bursting
far short upon the hillside. Jameson's defeat does not seem to have
been due to any defect in his artillery. French, peering and
pondering, soon came to the conclusion that there were too many Boers
for him, and that if those fifteen-pounders desired target practice
they should find some other mark than the Natal Field Artillery. A few
curt orders, and his whole force was making its way to the rear.
There, out of range of those perilous guns, they halted, the telegraph
wire was cut, a telephone attachment was made, and French whispered
his troubles into the sympathetic ear of Ladysmith. He did not
whisper in vain. What he had to say was that where he had expected a
few hundred riflemen he found something like two thousand, and that
where he expected no guns he found two very excellent ones. The
reply was that by road and by rail as many men as could be spared were
on their way to join him.

Soon they began to drop in, those useful reinforcements -- first the
Devons, quiet, business-like, reliable; then the Gordons, dashing,
fiery, brilliant. Two squadrons of the 5th Lancers, the 42nd R.F.A.,
the 21st R.F.A., another squadron of Lancers, a squadron of the 5th
Dragoon Guards -- French began to feel that he was strong enough for the
task in front of him. He had a decided superiority of numbers and of
guns. But the others were on their favourite defensive on a hill. It
would be a fair fight and a deadly one.

It was late after noon before the advance began. It was hard, among
those billowing hills, to make out the exact limits of the enemy's
position. All that was certain was that 'they were there, and that we
meant having them out if it were humanly possible. 'The enemy are
there,' said Ian Hamilton to his infantry; 'I hope you will shift them
out before sunset -- in fact I know you will.' The men cheered and
laughed. In long open lines they advanced across the veldt, while the
thunder of the two batteries behind them told the Boer gunners that it
was their turn now to know what it was to be outmatched.

The idea was to take the position by a front and a flank attack, but
there seems to have been some difficulty in determining which was the
front and which the flank. In fact, it was only by trying that one
could know. General White with his staff had arrived from Ladysmith,
but refused to take the command out of French's hands. It is typical
of White's chivalrous spirit that within ten days he refused to
identify himself with a victory when it was within his right to do so,
and took the whole responsibility for a disaster at which he was not
present. Now he rode amid the shells and watched the able dispositions
of his lieutenant.

About half-past three the action had fairly begun. In front of the
advancing British there lay a rolling hill, topped by a further
one. The lower hill was not defended, and the infantry, breaking from
column of companies into open order, advanced over it. Beyond was a
broad grassy valley which led up to the main position, a long kopje
flanked by a small sugar-loaf one Behind the green slope which led to
the ridge of death an ominous and terrible cloud was driving up,
casting its black shadow over the combatants. There was the stillness
which goes before some great convulsion of nature. The men pressed on
in silence, the soft thudding of their feet and the rattle of their
sidearms filling the air with a low and continuous murmur. An
additional solemnity was given to the attack by that huge black cloud
which hung before them.

The British guns had opened at a range of 4,400 yards, and now against
the swarthy background there came the quick smokeless twinkle of the
Boer reply. It was an unequal fight, but gallantly sustained. A shot
and another to find the range; then a wreath of smoke from a bursting
shell exactly where the guns had been, followed by another and
another. Overmatched, the two Boer pieces relapsed into a sulky
silence, broken now and again by short spurts of frenzied activity.
The British batteries turned their attention away from them, and began
to search the ridge with shrapnel and prepare the way for the
advancing infantry.

The scheme was that the Devonshires should hold the enemy in front
while the main attack from the left flank was carried out by the
Gordons, the Manchesters, and the Imperial Light Horse. The words
'front' and 'flank,' however, cease to have any meaning with so mobile
and elastic a force, and the attack which was intended to come from
the left became really a frontal one, while the Devons found
themselves upon the right flank of the Boers. At the moment of the
final advance the great black cloud had burst, and a torrent of rain
lashed into the faces of the men. Slipping and sliding upon the wet
grass, they advanced to the assault.

And now amid the hissing of the rain there came the fuller, more
menacing whine of the Mauser bullets, and the ridge rattled from end
to end with the rifle fire. Men fell fast, but their comrades pressed
hotly on. There was a long way to go, for the summit of the position
was nearly 800 feet above the level of the railway. The hillside,
which had appeared to be one slope, was really a succession of
undulations, so that the advancing infantry alternately dipped into
shelter and emerged into' a hail of bullets. The line of advance was
dotted with khaki-clad figures, some still in death, some writhing in
their agony. Amid the litter of bodies a major of the Gordons, shot
through the leg, sat philosophically smoking his pipe. Plucky little
Chisholm, Colonel of the Imperials, had fallen with two mortal wounds
as he dashed forward waving a coloured sash in the air. So long was
the advance and so trying the hill that the men sank panting upon the
ground, and took their breath before making another rush. As at Talana
Hill, regimental formation was largely gone, and men of the
Manchesters, Gordons, and Imperial Light Horse surged upwards in one
long ragged fringe, Scotchman, Englishman, and British Africander
keeping pace in that race of death. And now at last they began to see
their enemy. Here and there among the boulders in front of them there
was the glimpse of a slouched hat, or a peep at a flushed bearded face
which drooped over a rifle barrel. There was a pause, and then with a
fresh impulse the wave of men gathered themselves together and flung
themselves forward. Dark figures sprang up from the rocks in front.
Some held up their rifles in token of surrender. Some ran with heads
sunk between their shoulders, jumping and ducking among the rocks.
The panting breathless climbers were on the edge of the plateau.
There were the two guns which had flashed so brightly, silenced now,
with a litter of dead gunners around them and one wounded officer
standing by a trail. A small body of the Boers still resisted. Their
appearance horrified some of our men. 'They were dressed in black
frock coats and looked like a lot of rather seedy business men,' said
a spectator. 'It seemed like murder to kill them.' Some surrendered,
and some fought to the death where they stood. Their leader Koch, an
old gentleman with a white beard, lay amidst the rocks, wounded in
three places. lie was treated with all courtesy and attention, but
died in Ladysmith Hospital some days afterwards.

In the meanwhile the Devonshire Regiment had waited until the attack
had developed and had then charged the hill upon the flank, while the
artillery moved up until it was within 2,000 yards of the enemy's
position. The Devons met with a less fierce resistance than the
others, and swept up to the summit in time to head off some of the
fugitives. The whole of our infantry were now upon the ridge.

But even so these dour fighters were not beaten. They clung
desperately to the further edges of the plateau, firing from behind
the rocks. There had been a race for the nearest gun between an
officer of the Manchesters and a drummer sergeant of the Gordons. The
officer won, and sprang in triumph on to the piece. Men of all
regiments swarmed round yelling and cheering, when upon their
astonished ears there sounded the 'Cease fire ' and then the 'Retire.'
It was incredible, and yet it pealed out again, unmistakable in its
urgency. With the instinct of discipline the men were slowly falling
back. And then the truth of it came upon the minds of some of them.
The crafty enemy had learned our bugle calls. ' Retire be damned!
shrieked a little bugler, and blew the 'Advance ' with all the breath
that the hillside had left him. The men, who had retired a hundred
yards and uncovered the guns, flooded back over the plateau, and in
the Boer camp which lay beneath it a white flag showed that the game
was up. A squadron of the 5th Lancers and of the 5th Dragoon Guards,
under Colonel Gore of the latter regiment, had prowled round the base
of the hill, and in the fading light they charged through and through
the retreating Boers, killing several, and making from twenty to
thirty prisoners. It was one of the very few occasions in the war
where the mounted Briton overtook the mounted Boer.

'What price Majuba?' was the cry raised by some of the infantry as
they dashed up to the enemy's position, and the action may indeed be
said to have been in some respects the converse of that famous
fight. It is true that there were many more British at Elandslaagte
than Boers at Majuba, but then the defending force was much more
numerous also, and the British had no guns there. It is true, also,
that Majuba is very much more precipitous than Elandslaagte, but then
every practical soldier knows that it is easier to defend a moderate
glašis than an abrupt slope, which gives cover under its boulders to
the attacker while the defender has to crane his head over the edge to
look down. On the whole, this brilliant little action may be said to
have restored things to their true proportion, and to have shown that,
brave as the Boers undoubtedly are, there is no military feat within
their power which is not equally possible to the British
soldier. Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, fought on successive days, were
each of them as gallant an exploit as Majuba.

We had more to show for our victory than for the previous one at
Dundee. Two Maxim-Nordenfeld guns, whose efficiency had been
painfully evident during the action, were a welcome addition to our
artillery. Two hundred and fifty Boers were killed and wounded and
about two hundred taken prisoners, the loss falling most heavily upon
the Johannesburgers, the Germans, and the Hollanders. General Koch,
Dr. Coster, Colonel Schiel, Pretorius, and other well-known
Transvaalers fell into our hands. Our own casualty list consisted of
41 killed and 220 wounded, much the same number as at Talana Hill, the
heaviest losses falling upon the Gordon Highlanders and the Imperial
Light Horse.

In the hollow where the Boer tents had stood, amid the laagered wagons
of the vanquished, under a murky sky and a constant drizzle of rain,
the victors spent the night. Sleep was out of the question, for all
night the fatigue parties were searching the hillside and the wounded
were being carried in. Camp-fires were lit and soldiers and prisoners
crowded round them, and it is pleasant to recall that the warmest
corner and the best of their rude fare were always reserved for the
downcast Dutchmen, while words of rude praise and sympathy softened
the pain of defeat. It is the memory of such things which may in
happier days be more potent than all the wisdom of statesmen in
welding our two races into one.

Having cleared the Boer force from the line of the railway, it is
evident that General White could not continue to garrison the point,
as he was aware that considerable forces were moving from the north,
and his first duty was the security of Ladysmith. Early next morning
(October 22nd), therefore, his weary but victorious troops returned to
the town. Once there he learned, no doubt, that General Yule had no
intention of using the broken railway for his retreat, but that he
intended to come in a circuitous fashion by road. White's problem was
to hold tight to the town and at the same time to strike hard at any
northern force so as to prevent them from interfering with Yule's
retreat. It was in the furtherance of this scheme that he fought upon
October 24th the action of Rietfontein, an engagement slight in
itself, but important on account of the clear road which was secured
for the weary forces retiring from Dundee.

The army from the Free State, of which the commando vanquished at
Elandslaagte was the vanguard, had been slowly and steadily debouching
from the passes, and working south and eastwards to cut the line
between Dundee and Ladysmith. It was White's intention to prevent them
from crossing the Newcastle Road, and for this purpose he sallied out
of Ladysmith on Tuesday the 24th, having with him two regiments of
cavalry, the 5th Lancers and the 19th Hussars, the 42nd and 53rd field
batteries with the 10th mountain battery, four infantry regiments, the
Devons, Liverpools, Gloucesters, and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the
Imperial Light Horse, and the Natal Volunteers -- some four thousand
men in all.

The enemy were found to be in possession of a line of hills within
seven miles of Ladysmith, the most conspicuous of which is called
Tinta Inyoni. It was no part of General White's plan to attempt to
drive him from this position -- it is not wise generalship to fight
always upon ground of the enemy's choosing -- but it was important to
hold him where he was, and to engage his attention during this last
day of the march of the retreating column. For this purpose, since no
direct attack was intended, the guns were of more importance than the
infantry -- and indeed the infantry should, one might imagine, have
been used solely as an escort for the artillery. A desultory and
inconclusive action ensued which continued from nine in the morning
until half-past one in the afternoon. A well-directed fire of the
Boer guns from the hills was dominated and controlled by our field
artillery, while the advance of their riflemen was restrained by
shrapnel. The enemy's guns were more easily marked down than at
Elandslaagte, as they used black powder. The ranges varied from three
to four thousand yards. Our losses in the whole action would have
been insignificant had it not happened that the Gloucester Regiment
advanced somewhat incautiously into the open and was caught in a cross
fire of musketry which struck down Colonel Wilford and fifty of his
officers and men. Within four days Colonel Dick-Cunyngham, of the
Gordons, Colonel Chisholm, of the Light Horse, Colonel Gunning, of the
Rifles, and now Colonel Wilford, of the Gloucesters, had all fallen at
the head of their regiments. In the afternoon General White, having
accomplished his purpose and secured the safety of the Dundee column
while traversing the dangerous Biggarsberg passes, withdrew his force
to Ladysmith. We have no means of ascertaining the losses of the
Boers, but they were probably slight. On our side we lost 109 killed
and wounded, of which only 13 cases were fatal. Of this total 64
belonged to the Gloucesters and 25 to the troops raised in Natal.
Next day, as already narrated, the whole British army was re-assembled
once more at Ladysmith, and the campaign was to enter upon a new
phase.

At the end of this first vigorous week of hostilities it is
interesting to sum up the net result. The strategical advantage had
lain with the Boers. They had made our position at Dundee untenable
and had driven us back to Ladysmith. They had the country and the
railway for tile northern quarter of the colony in their possession.
They had killed and wounded between six and seven hundred of our men,
and they had captured some two hundred of our cavalry, while we had
been compelled at Dundee to leave considerable stores and our wounded,
including General Penn Symons, who actually died while a prisoner in
their hands. On the other hand, the tactical advantages lay with
us. We had twice driven them from their positions, and captured two of
their guns. We had taken two hundred prisoners. and had probably
killed and wounded as many as we had lost. On the whole, the honours
of that week's fighting in Natal may be said to have been fairly equal
-- which is more than we could claim for many a weary week to come.

Arthur Conan Doyle