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Chapter 7


Sir George White had now reunited his force, and found himself in
command of a formidable little army some twelve thousand in number.
His cavalry included the 5th Lancers, the 5th Dragoons, part of the
18th and the whole of the 19th Hussars, the Natal Carabineers, the
Border Rifles, some mounted infantry, and the Imperial Light Horse.
Among his infantry were the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Dublin
Fusiliers, and the King's Royal Rifles, fresh from the ascent of
Talana Hill, the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the Devons who had been
blooded at Elandslaagte, the Leicesters, the Liverpools, the 2nd
battalion of the King's Royal Rifles, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, and the
Gloucesters, who had been so roughly treated at Rietfontein. He bad
six batteries of excellent field artillery -- the 13th, 21st, 42nd, 53rd,
67th, 69th, and No.10 Mountain Battery of screw guns. No general could
have asked for a more compact and workmanlike little force.

It had been recognised by the British General from the beginning that
his tactics must be defensive, since he was largely outnumbered and
since also any considerable mishap to his force would expose the whole
colony of Natal to destruction. The actions of Elandslaagte and
Rietfontein were forced upon him in order to disengage his compromised
detachment, but now there was no longer any reason why he should
assume the offensive. He knew that away out on the Atlantic a trail of
transports which already extended from the Channel to Cape de Verde
were hourly drawing nearer to him with the army corps from England. In
a fortnight or less the first of them would be at Durban. It was his
game, therefore, to keep his army intact, and to let those throbbing
engines and whirling propellers do the work of the empire. Had he
entrenched himself up to his nose and waited, it would have paid him
best in the end.

But so tame and inglorious a policy is impossible to a fighting
soldier. He could not with his splendid force permit himself to be
shut in without an action. What policy demands honour may forbid. On
October 27th there were already Boers and rumours of Boers on every
side of him. Joubert with his main body was moving across from
Dundee. The Freestaters were to the north and west. Their combined
numbers were uncertain, but at least it was already proved that they
were far more numerous and also more formidable than had been
anticipated. We had had a taste of their artillery also, and the
pleasant delusion that it would be a mere useless encumbrance to a
Boer force had vanished for ever. It was a grave thing to leave the
town in order to give battle, for the mobile enemy might swing round
and seize it behind us. Nevertheless White determined to make the

On the 29th the enemy were visibly converging upon the town. From a
high hill within rifleshot of the houses a watcher could see no fewer
than six Boer camps to the east and north. French, with his cavalry,
pushed out feelers, and coasted along the edge of the advancing host.
His report warned White that if he would strike before all the
scattered bands were united he must do so at once. The wounded were
sent down to Pietermaritzburg, and it would bear explanation why the
non-combatants did not accompany them. On the evening of the same day
Joubert in person was said to be only six miles off, and a party of
his men cut the water supply of the town. The Klip, however, a
fair-sized river, runs through Ladysmith, so that there was no danger
of thirst. The British had inflated and sent up a balloon, to the
amazement of the back-veldt Boers; its report confirmed the fact that
the enemy was in force in front of and around them.

On the night of the 29th General White detached two of his best
regiments, the Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters, with No.10
Mountain Battery, to advance under cover of the darkness and to seize
and hold a long ridge called Nicholson's Nek, which lay about six
miles to the north of Ladysmith. Having determined to give battle on
the next day, his object was to protect his left wing against those
Freestaters who were still moving from the north and west, and also to
keep a pass open by which his cavalry might pursue the Boer fugitives
in case of a British victory. This small detached column numbered
about a thousand men -- whose fate will be afterwards narrated.

At five o'clock on the morning of the 30th the Boers, who had already
developed a perfect genius for hauling heavy cannon up the most
difficult heights, opened fire from one of the hills which lie to the
north of the town. Before the shot was fired, the forces of the
British had already streamed out of Ladysmith to test the strength of
the invaders.

White's army was divided into three columns. On the extreme left,
quite isolated from the others, was the small Nicholson's Nek
detachment under the command of Colonel Carleton of the Fusiliers (one
of three gallant brothers each of whom commands a British
regiment). With him was Major Adye of the staff. On the right British
flank Colonel Grimwood commanded a brigade composed of the 1st and 2nd
battalions of the King's Royal Rifles, the Leicesters, the Liverpools,
and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In the centre Colonel Ian Hamilton
commanded the Devons, the Gordons, the Manchesters, and the 2nd
battalion of the Rifle Brigade, which marched direct into the battle
from the train which had brought them from Durban. Six batteries of
artillery were massed in the centre under Colonel Downing. French with
the cavalry and mounted infantry was on the extreme right, but found
little opportunity for the use of the mounted arm that day.

The Boer position, so far as it could be seen, was a formidable one.
Their centre lay upon one of the spurs of Signal Hill, about three
miles from the town. Here they had two forty-pounders and three other
lighter guns, but their artillery strength developed both in numbers
and in weight of metal as the day wore on. Of their dispositions
little could be seen. An observer looking westward might discern with
his glass sprays of mounted riflemen galloping here and there over the
downs, and possibly small groups where the gunners stood by their
guns, or the leaders gazed down at that town which they were destined
to have in view for such a weary while. On the dun-coloured plains
before the town, the long thin lines, with an occasional shifting
sparkle of steel, showed where Hamilton's and Grimwood's infantry were
advancing. In the clear cold air of an African morning every detail
could be seen, down to the distant smoke of a train toiling up the
heavy grades which lead from Frere over the Colenso Bridge to

The scrambling, inconsequential, unsatisfactory action which ensued is
as difficult to describe as it must have been to direct. The Boer
front covered some seven or eight miles, with kopjes, like chains of
fortresses, between. They formed a huge semicircle of which our
advance was the chord, and they were able from this position to pour
in a converging artillery fire which grew steadily hotter as the day
advanced. In the early part of the day our forty-two guns, working
furiously, though with a want of accuracy which may be due to those
errors of refraction which are said to be common in the limpid air of
the veldt, preserved their superiority. There appears to have been a
want of concentration about our fire, and at some periods of the
action each particular battery was firing at some different point of
the Boer half-circle. Sometimes for an hour on end the Boer reply
would die away altogether, only to break out with augmented violence,
and with an accuracy which increased our respect for their
training. Huge shells -- the largest that ever burst upon a
battlefield -- hurled from distances which were unattainable by our
fifteen-pounders, enveloped our batteries in smoke and flame. One
enormous Creusot gun on Pepworth Hill threw a 96-pound shell a
distance of four miles, and several 40-pound howitzers outweighted our
field guns. And on the same day on which we were so roughly taught
how large the guns were which labour and good will could haul on to
the field of battle, we learned also that our enemy -- to the disgrace
of our Board of Ordnance be it recorded -- was more in touch with modern
invention than we were, and could show us not only the largest, but
also the smallest, shell which had yet been used. Would that it had
been our officials instead of our gunners who heard the devilish
little one-pound shells of the Vickers-Maxim automatic gun, exploding
with a continuous string of crackings and bangings, like a huge
cracker, in their faces and about their ears!

Up to seven o'clock our infantry had shown no disposition to press the
attack, for with so huge a position in front of them, and so many
hills which were held by the enemy, it was difficult to know what line
of advance should be taken, or whether the attack should not be
converted into a mere reconnaissance. Shortly after that hour,
however, the Boers decided the question by themselves developing a
vigorous movement upon Grimwood and the right flank. With field guns,
Maxims, and rifle fire, they closed rapidly in upon him. The centre
column was drafted off, regiment by regiment, to reinforce the
right. The Gordons, Devons, Manchesters, and three batteries were sent
over to Grimwood's relief, and the 5th Lancers, acting as infantry,
assisted him to hold on.

At nine o'clock there was a lull, but it was evident that fresh
commandoes and fresh guns were continually streaming into the firing
line. The engagement opened again with redoubled violence, and
Grimwood's three advanced battalions fell back, abandoning the ridge
which they had held for five hours. The reason for this withdrawal
was not that they could not continue to hold their position, but it
was that a message had just reached Sir George White from Colonel
Knox, commanding in Ladysmith, to the effect that it looked as if the
enemy was about to rush the town from the other side. Crossing the
open in some disorder, they lost heavily, and would have done so more
had not the 13th Field Battery, followed after an interval by the
53rd, dashed forward, firing shrapnel at short ranges, in order to
cover the retreat of the infantry. Amid the bursting of the huge
96-pound shells, and the snapping of the vicious little automatic
one-pounders, with a cross-fire of rifles as well, Abdy's and Dawkins'
gallant batteries swung round their muzzles, and hit back right and
left, flashing and blazing, amid their litter of dead horses and
men. So severe was the fire that the guns were obscured by the dust
knocked up by the little shells of the automatic gun. Then, when their
work was done and the retiring infantry had straggled over the ridge,
the covering guns whirled and bounded after them. So many horses had
fallen that two pieces were left until the teams could be brought back
for them, which was successfully done through the gallantry of Captain
Thwaites. The action of these batteries was one of the few gleams of
light in a not too brilliant day's work. With splendid coolness and
courage they helped each other by alternate retirements after the
retreating infantry had passed them. The 21st Battery (Blewitt's) also
distinguished itself by its staunchness in covering the retirement of
the cavalry, while the 42nd (Goulburn's) suffered the heaviest losses
of any. On the whole, such honours as fell to our lot were mainly
with the gunners.

White must have been now uneasy for his position, and it had become
apparent that his only course was to fall back and concentrate upon
the town. His left flank was up in the air, and the sound of distant
firing, wafted over five miles of broken country, was the only message
which arrived from them. His right had been pushed back, and, most
dangerous of all, his centre had ceased to exist, for only the 2nd
Rifle Brigade remained there. What would happen if the enemy burst
rudely through and pushed straight for the town? It was the more
possible, as the Boer artillery had now proved itself to be far
heavier than ours. That terrible 96-pounder, serenely safe and out of
range, was plumping its great projectiles into the masses of retiring
troops. The men had had little sleep and little food, and this
unanswerable fire was an ordeal for a force which is retreating. A
retirement may very rapidly become a rout under such circumstances.
It was with some misgivings that the officers saw their men quicken
their pace and glance back over their shoulders at the whine and
screech of the shell. They were still some miles from home, and the
plain was open. What could be done to give them some relief?

And at that very moment there came the opportune and unexpected
answer. That plume of engine smoke which the watcher had observed in
the morning had drawn nearer and nearer, as the heavy train came
puffing and creaking up the steep inclines. Then, almost before it had
drawn up at the Ladysmith siding, there had sprung from it a crowd of
merry bearded fellows, with ready hands and strange sea cries, pulling
and hauling, with rope and purchase to get out the long slim guns
which they had lashed on the trucks. Singular carriages were there,
specially invented by Captain Percy Scott, and labouring and
straining, they worked furiously to get the 12-pounder quick-firers
into action. Then at last it was done, and the long tubes swept
upwards to the angle at which they might hope to reach that monster on
the hill at the horizon. Two of them craned their long inquisitive
necks up and exchanged repartees with the big Creusot. And so it was
that the weary and dispirited British troops heard a crash which was
louder and sharper than that of their field guns, and saw far away
upon the distant hill a great spurt of smoke and flame to show where
the shell had struck. Another and another and another-and then they
were troubled no more. Captain Hedworth Lambton and his men had
saved the situation. The masterful gun had met its own master and sank
into silence, while the somewhat bedraggled field force came trailing
back into Ladysmith, leaving three hundred of their number behind
them. It was a high price to pay, but other misfortunes were in store
for us which made the retirement of the morning seem insignificant.

In the meantime we may follow the unhappy fortunes of the small column
which had, as already described, been sent out by Sir George White in
order, if possible, to prevent the junction of the two Boer armies,
and at the same time to threaten the right wing of the main force,
which was advancing from the direction of Dundee, Sir George White
throughout the campaign consistently displayed one quality which is a
charming one in an individual, but may be dangerous in a commander. He
was a confirmed optimist. Perhaps his heart might have failed him in
the dark days to come had he not been so. But whether one considers
the non-destruction of the Newcastle Railway, the acquiescence in the
occupation of Dundee, the retention of the non combatants in Ladysmith
until it was too late to get rid of their useless mouths, or the
failure to make any serious preparations for the defence of the town
until his troops were beaten back into it, we see always the same
evidence of a man who habitually hopes that all will go well, and is
in consequence remiss in making preparations for their going ill. But
unhappily in every one of these instances they did go ill, though the
slowness of the Boers enabled us, both at Dundee and at Ladysmith, to
escape what might have been disaster.

Sir George White has so nobly and frankly taken upon himself the blame
of Nicholson's Nek that an impartial historian must rather regard his
self-condemnation as having been excessive. The immediate causes of
the failure were undoubtedly the results of pure ill-fortune, and
depended on things outside his control. But it is evident that the
strategic plan which would justify the presence of this column at
Nicholson's Nek was based upon the supposition that the main army won
their action at Lombard's Kop. In that case White might swing round
his right and pin the Boers between himself and Nicholson's Nek. In
any case he could then re-unite with his isolated wing. But if he
should lose his battle-what then? What was to become of this
detachment five miles up in the air? How was it to be extricated? The
gallant Irishman seems to have waved aside the very idea of defeat. An
assurance was, it is reported, given to the leaders of the column that
by eleven o'clock next morning they would be relieved. So they would
if White had won his action. But --

The force chosen to operate independently consisted of four and a half
companies of the Gloucester regiment, six companies of the Royal Irish
Fusiliers, and No. 10 Mountain Battery of six seven-pounder
screw-guns. They were both old soldier regiments from India, and the
Fusiliers had shown only ten days before at Talana Hill the stuff of
which they were made. Colonel Carleton, of the Fusiliers, to whose
exertions much of the success of the retreat from Dundee was due,
commanded the column, with Major Adye as staff officer. On the night
of Sunday, October 29th, they tramped out of Ladysmith, a thousand
men, none better in the army. Little they thought, as they exchanged a
jest or two with the outlying pickets, that they were seeing the last
of their own armed countrymen for many a weary month .

The road was irregular and the night was moonless. On either side the
black loom of the hills bulked vaguely through the darkness. The
column tramped stolidly along, the Fusiliers in front, the guns and
Gloucesters behind. Several times a short halt was called to make
sure of the bearings. At last, in the black cold hours which come
between midnight and morning, the column swung to the left out of the
road. In front of them, hardly visible, stretched a long black kopje.
It was the very Nicholson's Nek which they had come to
occupy. Carleton and Adye must have heaved a sigh of relief as they
realised that they had actually struck it. The force was but two
hundred yards from the position, and all had gone without a hitch. And
yet in those two hundred yards there came an incident which decided
the fate both of their enterprise and of themselves.

Out of the darkness there blundered and rattled five horsemen, their
horses galloping, the loose stones flying around them. In the dim
light they were gone as soon as seen. Whence coming, whither going,
no one knows, nor is it certain whether it was design or ignorance or
panic which sent them riding so wildly through the darkness. Somebody
fired. A sergeant of the Fusiliers took the bullet through his hand.
Some one else shouted to fix bayonets. The mules which carried the
spare ammunition kicked and reared. There was no question of
treachery, for they were led by our own men, but to hold two
frightened mules, one with either hand, is a feat for a Hercules.
They lashed and tossed and bucked themselves loose, and an instant
afterwards were flying helter skelter through the column. Nearly all
the mules caught the panic. In vain the men held on to their heads.
In the mad rush they were galloped over and knocked down by the
torrent of frightened creatures. In the gloom of that early hour the
men must have thought that they were charged by cavalry. The column
was dashed out of all military order as effectively as if a regiment
of dragoons had ridden over them. When the cyclone had passed, and
the men had with many a muttered curse gathered themselves into their
ranks once more, they realised how grave was the misfortune which had
befallen them. There, where those mad hoofs still rattled in the
distance, were their spare cartridges, their shells, and their
cannon. A mountain gun is not drawn upon wheels, but is carried in
adjustable parts upon mule-back. A wheel bad gone south, a trail east,
a chase west. Some of the cartridges were strewn upon the road. Most
were on their way back to Ladysmith. There was nothing for it but to
face this new situation and to determine what should be done.

It has been often and naturally asked, why did not Colonel Carleton
make his way back at once upon the loss of his guns and ammunition,
while it was still dark? One or two considerations are evident. In
the first place, it is natural to a good soldier to endeavour to
retrieve a situation rather than to abandon his enterprise. His
prudence, did he not do so, might become the subject of public
commendation, but might also provoke some private comment. A
soldier's training is to take chances, and to do the best he can with
the material at his disposal. Again, Colonel Carleton and Major Adye
knew the general plan of the battle which would be raging within a
very few hours, and they quite understood that by withdrawing they
would expose General White's left flank to attack from the forces
(consisting, as we know now, of the Orange Freestaters and of the
Johannesburg Police) who were coming from the north and west. He
hoped to be relieved by eleven, and he believed that, come what might,
he could hold out until then. These are the most obvious of the
considerations which induced Colonel Carleton to determine to carry
out so far as he could the programme which had been laid down for him
and his command. He marched up the hill and occupied the position.

His heart, however, must have sunk when he examined it. It was very
large -- too large to be effectively occupied by the force which he
commanded. The length was about a mile and the breadth four hundred
yards. Shaped roughly like the sole of a boot, it was only the heel
end which he could hope to hold. Other hills all round offered cover
for Boer riflemen. Nothing daunted, however, he set his men to work at
once building sangars with the loose stones. With the full dawn and
the first snapping of Boer Mausers from the hills around they had
thrown up some sort of rude defences which they might hope to hold
until help should come.

But how could help come when there was no means by which they could
let White know the plight in which they found themselves? They had
brought a heliograph with them, but it was on the back of one of those
accursed mules. The Boers were thick around them, and they could not
send a messenger. An attempt was made to convert a polished biscuit
tin into a heliograph, but with poor success. A Kaffir was dispatched
with promises of a heavy bribe, but he passed out of history. And
there in the clear cold morning air the balloon hung to the south of
them where the first distant thunder of White's guns was beginning to
sound. If only they could attract the attention of that balloon!
Vainly they wagged flags at it. Serene and unresponsive it brooded
over the distant battle.

And now the Boers were thickening round them on every side. Christian
do Wet, a name soon to be a household word, marshaled the Boer
attack, which was soon strengthened by the arrival of Van Dam and his
Police. At five o'clock the fire began, at six it was warm, at seven
warmer still. Two companies of the Gloucesters lined a sangar on the
tread of the sole, to prevent any one getting too near to the heel. A
fresh detachment of Boers, firing from a range of nearly one thousand
yards, took this defence in the rear. Bullets fell among the men, and
smacked up against the stone breastwork. The two companies were
withdrawn, and lost heavily in the open as they crossed it. An
incessant rattle and crackle of rifle fire came from all round,
drawing very slowly but steadily nearer. Now and then the whisk of a
dark figure from one boulder to another was all that ever was seen of
the attackers. The British fired slowly and steadily, for every
cartridge counted, but the cover of the Boers was so cleverly taken
that it was seldom that there was much to aim at. 'All you could ever
see,' says one who was present, 'were the barrels of the rifles.'
There was time for thought in that long morning, and to some of the
men it may have occurred what preparation for such fighting had they
ever had in the mechanical exercises of the parade ground, or the
shooting of an annual bagful of cartridges at exposed targets at a
measured range. It is the warfare of Nicholson's Nek, not that of
Laffan's Plain, which has to be learned in the future.

During those weary hours lying on the bullet-swept hill and listening
to the eternal hissing in the air and clicking on the rocks, the
British soldiers could see the fight which raged to the south of them.
It was not a cheering sight, and Carleton and Adye with their gallant
comrades must have felt their hearts grow heavier as they watched.
The Boers' shells bursting among the British batteries, the British
shells bursting short of their opponents. The Long Toms laid at an
angle of forty-five plumped their huge shells into the British guns at
a range where the latter would not dream of unlimbering. And then
gradually the rifle fire died away also, crackling more faintly as
White withdrew to Ladysmith. At eleven o'clock Carleton's column
recognised that it had been left to its fate. As early as nine a
heliogram had been sent to them to retire as the opportunity served,
but to leave the hill was certainly to court annihilation.

The men had then been under fire for six hours, and with their losses
mounting and their cartridges dwindling, all hope had faded from their
minds. But still for another hour, and yet another, and yet another,
they held doggedly on. Nine and a half hours they clung to that pile
of stones. The Fusiliers were still exhausted from the effect of
their march from Glencoe and their incessant work since. Many fell
asleep behind the boulders. Some sat doggedly with their useless
rifles and empty pouches beside them. Some picked cartridges off
their dead comrades. What were they fighting for? It was hopeless,
and they knew it. But always there was the honour of the flag, the
glory of the regiment, the hatred of a proud and brave man to
acknowledge defeat. And yet it had to come. There wore some in that
force who were ready for the reputation of the British army, and for
the sake of an example of military virtue, to die stolidly where they
stood, or to lead the 'Faugh-a-ballagh' boys, or the gallant 28th, in
one last death-charge with empty rifles against the unseen enemy. They
may' have been right, these stalwarts. Leonidas and his three hundred
did more for the Spartan cause by their memory than by their living
valour. Man passes like the brown leaves, but the tradition of a
nation lives on like the oak that sheds them -- and the passing of the
leaves is nothing if the bole be the sounder for it. But a counsel of
perfection is easy at a study table. There are other things to he said
-- the responsibility of officers for the lives of their men, the hope
that they may yet be of service to their country. All was weighed,
all was thought of, and so at last the white flag went up. The officer
who hoisted it could see no one unhurt save himself, for all in his
sangar were hit, and the others were so placed that he was under the
impression that they had withdrawn altogether. Whether this hoisting
of the flag necessarily compromised the whole force is a difficult
question, but the Boers instantly left their cover, and the men in the
sangars behind, some of whom had not been so seriously engaged, were
ordered by their officers to desist from firing. In an instant the
victorious Boers were among them.

It was not, as I have been told by those who were there, a sight which
one would wish to have seen or care now to dwell upon. Haggard
officers cracked their sword-blades and cursed the day that they had
been born. Privates sobbed with their stained faces buried in their
hands. Of all tests of discipline that ever they had stood, the
hardest to many was to conform to all that the cursed flapping
handkerchief meant to them. 'Father, father, we had rather have
died,' cried the Fusiliers to their priest. Gallant hearts, ill paid,
ill thanked, how poorly do the successful of the world compare with
their unselfish loyalty and devotion!

But the sting of contumely or insult was not added to their
misfortunes. There is a fellowship of brave men which rises above the
feuds of nations, and may at last go far, we hope, to heal them. From
every rock there rose a Boer -- strange, grotesque figures many of
them -- walnut-brown and shaggy-bearded, and swarmed on to the hill.
No term of triumph or reproach came from their lips. 'You will not
say now that the young Boer cannot shoot,' was the harshest word which
the least restrained of them made use of. Between one and two hundred
dead and wounded were scattered over the hill. Those who were within
reach of human help received all that could be given. Captain Rice,
of the Fusiliers, was carried wounded down the hill on the back of one
giant, and he has narrated how the man refused the gold piece which
was offered him. Some asked the soldiers for their embroidered
waist-belts as souvenirs of the day. They will for generations remain
as the most precious ornaments of some colonial farmhouse. Then the
victors gathered together and sang psalms, not jubilant but sad and
quavering. The prisoners, in a downcast column, weary, spent, and
unkempt, filed off to the Boer laager at Waschbank, there to take
train for Pretoria. And at Ladysmith a bugler of Fusiliers, his arm
bound, the marks of battle on his dress and person, burst in upon the
camp with the news that two veteran regiments had covered the flank of
White's retreating army, but at the cost of their own annihilation.

Arthur Conan Doyle