The Great Boer War by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Great Boer War Preface To The Final Edition
The Great Boer War Chapter I. The Boer Nations
The Great Boer War Chapter II. The Cause Of Quarrel
The Great Boer War Chapter III. The Negotiations
The Great Boer War Chapter IV. The Eve Of War
The Great Boer War Chapter V. Talana Hill
The Great Boer War Chapter VI. Elandslaagte And Rietfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter VII. The Battle Of Ladysmith
The Great Boer War Chapter VIII. Lord Methuen’s Advance
The Great Boer War Chapter IX. Battle Of Magersfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter X. The Battle Of Stormberg
The Great Boer War Chapter XI. Battle Of Colenso
The Great Boer War Chapter XII. The Dark Hour
The Great Boer War Chapter XIII. The Siege Of Ladysmith
The Great Boer War Chapter XIV. The Colesberg Operations
The Great Boer War Chapter XV. Spion Kop
The Great Boer War Chapter XVI. Vaalkranz
The Great Boer War Chapter XVII. Buller’s Final Advance
The Great Boer War Chapter XVIII. The Siege And Relief Of Kimberley
The Great Boer War Chapter XIX. Paardeberg
The Great Boer War Chapter XX. Roberts’s Advance On Bloemfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter XXI. Strategic Effects Of Lord Roberts’s March
The Great Boer War Chapter XXII. The Halt At Bloemfontein
The Great Boer War Chapter XXIII. The Clearing Of The South-East
The Great Boer War Chapter XXIV. The Siege Of Mafeking
The Great Boer War Chapter XXV. The March On Pretoria
The Great Boer War Chapter XXVI. Diamond Hill—Rundle’s Operations
The Great Boer War Chapter XXVII. The Lines Of Communication
The Great Boer War Chapter XXVIII. The Halt At Pretoria
The Great Boer War Chapter XXIX. The Advance To Komatipoort
The Great Boer War Chapter XXX. The Campaign Of De Wet
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXI. The Guerilla Warfare In The Transvaal: Nooitgedacht
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXII. The Second Invasion Of Cape Colony
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXIII. The Northern Operations From January To April, 1901
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXIV. The Winter Campaign (April To September, 1901)
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXV. The Guerilla Operations In Cape Colony
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXVI. The Spring Campaign (September To December, 1901)
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXVII. The Campaign Of January To April, 1902
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXVIII. De La Rey’s Campaign Of 1902
The Great Boer War Chapter XXXIX. The End
The Great Boer War Chapter XV. Spion Kop
Whilst Methuen and Gatacre were content to hold their own at the Modder and at Sterkstroom, and whilst the mobile and energetic French was herding the Boers into Colesberg, Sir Redvers Buller, the heavy, obdurate, inexplicable man, was gathering and organising his forces for another advance upon Ladysmith. Nearly a month had elapsed since the evil day when his infantry had retired, and his ten guns had not, from the frontal attack upon Colenso. Since then Sir Charles Warren’s division of infantry and a considerable reinforcement of artillery had come to him. And yet in view of the terrible nature of the ground in front of him, of the fighting power of the Boers, and of the fact that they were always acting upon internal lines, his force even now was, in the opinion of competent judges, too weak for the matter in hand.
There remained, however, several points in his favour. His excellent infantry were full of zeal and of confidence in their chief. It cannot be denied, however much we may criticise some incidents in his campaign, that he possessed the gift of impressing and encouraging his followers, and, in spite of Colenso, the sight of his square figure and heavy impassive face conveyed an assurance of ultimate victory to those around him. In artillery he was very much stronger than before, especially in weight of metal. His cavalry was still weak in proportion to his other arms. When at last he moved out on January 10th to attempt to outflank the Boers, he took with him nineteen thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry, and sixty guns, which included six howitzers capable of throwing a 50-pound lyddite shell, and ten long-range naval pieces. Barton’s Brigade and other troops were left behind to hold the base and line of communications.
An analysis of Buller’s force shows that its details were as follows:—
Clery's Division. Hildyard's Brigade. 2nd West Surrey. 2nd Devonshire. 2nd West Yorkshire. 2nd East Surrey. Hart's Brigade. 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers. 1st Border Regiment. 1st Connaught Rangers. 2nd Dublin Fusiliers. Field Artillery, three batteries, 19th, 28th, 63rd; one squadron 13th Hussars; Royal Engineers. Warren's Division. Lyttelton's Brigade. 2nd Cameronians. 3rd King's Royal Rifles. 1st Durham Light Infantry. 1st Rifle Brigade. Woodgate's Brigade. 2nd Royal Lancaster. 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. 1st South Lancashire. York and Lancasters. Field Artillery, three batteries, 7th, 78th, 73rd; one squadron 13th Hussars. Corps Troops. Coke's Brigade. Imperial Light Infantry. 2nd Somersets. 2nd Dorsets. 2nd Middlesex. 61st Howitzer Battery; two 4.7 naval guns; eight naval 12-pounder guns; one squadron 13th Hussars; Royal Engineers. Cavalry. 1st Royal Dragoons. 14th Hussars. Four squadrons South African Horse. One squadron Imperial Light Horse. Bethune's Mounted Infantry. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry. One squadron Natal Carabineers. One squadron Natal Police. One company King's Royal Rifles Mounted Infantry. Six machine guns.
This is the force whose operations I shall attempt to describe.
About sixteen miles to the westward of Colenso there is a ford over the Tugela River which is called Potgieter’s Drift. General Buller’s apparent plan was to seize this, together with the ferry which runs at this point, and so to throw himself upon the right flank of the Colenso Boers. Once over the river there is one formidable line of hills to cross, but if this were passed there would be comparatively easy ground until the Ladysmith hills were reached. With high hopes Buller and his men sallied out upon their adventure.
Dundonald’s cavalry force pushed rapidly forwards, crossed the Little Tugela, a tributary of the main river, at Springfield, and established themselves upon the hills which command the drift. Dundonald largely exceeded his instructions in going so far, and while we applaud his courage and judgment in doing so, we must remember and be charitable to those less fortunate officers whose private enterprise has ended in disaster and reproof. There can be no doubt that the enemy intended to hold all this tract, and that it was only the quickness of our initial movements which forestalled them. Early in the morning a small party of the South African Horse, under Lieutenant Carlisle, swam the broad river under fire and brought back the ferry boat, an enterprise which was fortunately bloodless, but which was most coolly planned and gallantly carried out. The way was now open to our advance, and could it have been carried out as rapidly as it had begun the Boers might conceivably have been scattered before they could concentrate. It was not the fault of the infantry that it was not so. They were trudging, mud-spattered and jovial, at the very heels of the horses, after a forced march which was one of the most trying of the whole campaign. But an army of 20,000 men cannot be conveyed over a river twenty miles from any base without elaborate preparations being made to feed them. The roads were in such a state that the wagons could hardly move, heavy rain had just fallen, and every stream was swollen into a river; bullocks might strain, and traction engines pant, and horses die, but by no human means could the stores be kept up if the advance guard were allowed to go at their own pace. And so, having ensured an ultimate crossing of the river by the seizure of Mount Alice, the high hill which commands the drift, the forces waited day after day, watching in the distance the swarms of strenuous dark figures who dug and hauled and worked upon the hillsides opposite, barring the road which they would have to take. Far away on the horizon a little shining point twinkled amid the purple haze, coming and going from morning to night. It was the heliograph of Ladysmith, explaining her troubles and calling for help, and from the heights of Mount Alice an answering star of hope glimmered and shone, soothing, encouraging, explaining, while the stern men of the veld dug furiously at their trenches in between. ‘We are coming! We are coming!’ cried Mount Alice. ‘Over our bodies,’ said the men with the spades and mattocks.
On Thursday, January 12th, Dundonald seized the heights, on the 13th the ferry was taken and Lyttelton’s Brigade came up to secure that which the cavalry had gained. On the 14th the heavy naval guns were brought up to cover the crossing. On the 15th Coke’s Brigade and other infantry concentrated at the drift. On the 16th the four regiments of Lyttelton’s Brigade went across, and then, and only then, it began to be apparent that Buller’s plan was a more deeply laid one than had been thought, and that all this business of Potgieter’s Drift was really a demonstration in order to cover the actual crossing which was to be effected at a ford named Trichard’s Drift, five miles to the westward. Thus, while Lyttelton’s and Coke’s Brigades were ostentatiously attacking Potgieter’s from in front, three other brigades (Hart’s, Woodgate’s, and Hildyard’s) were marched rapidly on the night of the 16th to the real place of crossing, to which Dundonald’s cavalry had already ridden. There, on the 17th, a pontoon bridge had been erected, and a strong force was thrown over in such a way as to turn the right of the trenches in front of Potgieter’s. It was admirably planned and excellently carried out, certainly the most strategic movement, if there could be said to have been any strategic movement upon the British side, in the campaign up to that date. On the 18th the infantry, the cavalry, and most of the guns were safely across without loss of life. The Boers, however, still retained their formidable internal lines, and the only result of a change of position seemed to be to put them to the trouble of building a new series of those terrible entrenchments at which they had become such experts. After all the combinations the British were, it is true, upon the right side of the river, but they were considerably further from Ladysmith than when they started. There are times, however, when twenty miles are less than fourteen, and it was hoped that this might prove to be among them. But the first step was the most serious one, for right across their front lay the Boer position upon the edge of a lofty plateau, with the high peak of Spion Kop forming the left corner of it. If once that main ridge could be captured or commanded, it would carry them halfway to the goal. It was for that essential line of hills that two of the most dogged races upon earth were about to contend. An immediate advance might have secured the position at once, but, for some reason which is inexplicable, an aimless march to the left was followed by a retirement to the original position of Warren’s division, and so two invaluable days were wasted. We have the positive assurance of Commandant Edwards, who was Chief of Staff to General Botha, that a vigorous turning movement upon the left would at this time have completely outflanked the Boer position and opened a way to Ladysmith.
A small success, the more welcome for its rarity, came to the British arms on this first day. Dundonald’s men had been thrown out to cover the left of the infantry advance and to feel for the right of the Boer position. A strong Boer patrol, caught napping for once, rode into an ambuscade of the irregulars. Some escaped, some held out most gallantly in a kopje, but the final result was a surrender of twenty-four unwounded prisoners, and the finding of thirteen killed and wounded, including de Mentz, the field-cornet of Heilbron. Two killed and two wounded were the British losses in this well-managed affair. Dundonald’s force then took its position upon the extreme left of Warren’s advance.
The British were now moving upon the Boers in two separate bodies, the one which included Lyttelton’s and Coke’s Brigades from Potgieter’s Drift, making what was really a frontal attack, while the main body under Warren, who had crossed at Trichard’s Drift, was swinging round upon the Boer right. Midway between the two movements the formidable bastion of Spion Kop stood clearly outlined against the blue Natal sky. The heavy naval guns on Mount Alice (two 4.7’s and eight twelve-pounders) were so placed as to support either advance, and the howitzer battery was given to Lyttelton to help the frontal attack. For two days the British pressed slowly but steadily on to the Boers under the cover of an incessant rain of shells. Dour and long-suffering the Boers made no reply, save with sporadic rifle-fire, and refused until the crisis should come to expose their great guns to the chance of injury.
On January 19th Warren’s turning movement began to bring him into closer touch with the enemy, his thirty-six field guns and the six howitzers which had returned to him crushing down the opposition which faced him. The ground in front of him was pleated into long folds, and his advance meant the carrying of ridge after ridge. In the earlier stages of the war this would have entailed a murderous loss; but we had learned our lesson, and the infantry now, with intervals of ten paces, and every man choosing his own cover, went up in proper Boer form, carrying position after position, the enemy always retiring with dignity and decorum. There was no victory on one side or rout on the other—only a steady advance and an orderly retirement. That night the infantry slept in their fighting line, going on again at three in the morning, and light broke to find not only rifles, but the long-silent Boer guns all blazing at the British advance. Again, as at Colenso, the brunt of the fighting fell upon Hart’s Irish Brigade, who upheld that immemorial tradition of valour with which that name, either in or out of the British service, has invariably been associated. Upon the Lancashire Fusiliers and the York and Lancasters came also a large share of the losses and the glory. Slowly but surely the inexorable line of the British lapped over the ground which the enemy had held. A gallant colonial, Tobin of the South African Horse, rode up one hill and signaled with his hat that it was clear. His comrades followed closely at his heels, and occupied the position with the loss of Childe, their Major. During this action Lyttelton had held the Boers in their trenches opposite to him by advancing to within 1500 yards of them, but the attack was not pushed further. On the evening of this day, January 20th, the British had gained some miles of ground, and the total losses had been about three hundred killed and wounded. The troops were in good heart, and all promised well for the future. Again the men lay where they had fought, and again the dawn heard the crash of the great guns and the rattle of the musketry.
The operations of this day began with a sustained cannonade from the field batteries and 61st Howitzer Battery, which was as fiercely answered by the enemy. About eleven the infantry began to go forward with an advance which would have astonished the martinets of Aldershot, an irregular fringe of crawlers, wrigglers, writhers, crouchers, all cool and deliberate, giving away no points in this grim game of death. Where now were the officers with their distinctive dresses and flashing swords, where the valiant rushes over the open, where the men who were too proud to lie down?—the tactics of three months ago seemed as obsolete as those of the Middle Ages. All day the line undulated forward, and by evening yet another strip of rock-strewn ground had been gained, and yet another train of ambulances was bearing a hundred of our wounded back to the base hospitals at Frere. It was on Hildyard’s Brigade on the left that the fighting and the losses of this day principally fell. By the morning of January 22nd the regiments were clustering thickly all round the edges of the Boer main position, and the day was spent in resting the weary men, and in determining at what point the final assault should be delivered. On the right front, commanding the Boer lines on either side, towered the stark eminence of Spion Kop, so called because from its summit the Boer voortrekkers had first in 1835 gazed down upon the promised land of Natal. If that could only be seized and held! Buller and Warren swept its bald summit with their field-glasses. It was a venture. But all war is a venture; and the brave man is he who ventures most. One fiery rush and the master-key of all these locked doors might be in our keeping. That evening there came a telegram to London which left the whole Empire in a hush of anticipation. Spion Kop was to be attacked that night.
The troops which were selected for the task were eight companies of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, six of the 2nd Royal Lancasters, two of the 1st South Lancashires, 180 of Thorneycroft’s, and half a company of Sappers. It was to be a North of England job.
Under the friendly cover of a starless night the men, in Indian file, like a party of Iroquois braves upon the war trail, stole up the winding and ill-defined path which led to the summit. Woodgate, the Lancashire Brigadier, and Blomfield of the Fusiliers led the way. It was a severe climb of 2000 feet, coming after arduous work over broken ground, but the affair was well-timed, and it was at that blackest hour which precedes the dawn that the last steep ascent was reached. The Fusiliers crouched down among the rocks to recover their breath, and saw far down in the plain beneath them the placid lights which showed where their comrades were resting. A fine rain was falling, and rolling clouds hung low over their heads. The men with unloaded rifles and fixed bayonets stole on once more, their bodies bent, their eyes peering through the mirk for the first sign of the enemy—that enemy whose first sign has usually been a shattering volley. Thorneycroft’s men with their gallant leader had threaded their way up into the advance. Then the leading files found that they were walking on the level. The crest had been gained.
With slow steps and bated breath, the open line of skirmishers stole across it. Was it possible that it had been entirely abandoned? Suddenly a raucous shout of ‘Wie da?’ came out of the darkness, then a shot, then a splutter of musketry and a yell, as the Fusiliers sprang onwards with their bayonets. The Boer post of Vryheid burghers clattered and scrambled away into the darkness, and a cheer that roused both the sleeping armies told that the surprise had been complete and the position won.
In the grey light of the breaking day the men advanced along the narrow undulating ridge, the prominent end of which they had captured. Another trench faced them, but it was weakly held and abandoned. Then the men, uncertain what remained beyond, halted and waited for full light to see where they were, and what the work was which lay before them—a fatal halt, as the result proved, and yet one so natural that it is hard to blame the officer who ordered it. Indeed, he might have seemed more culpable had he pushed blindly on, and so lost the advantage which had been already gained.
About eight o’clock, with the clearing of the mist, General Woodgate saw how matters stood. The ridge, one end of which he held, extended away, rising and falling for some miles. Had he the whole of the end plateau, and had he guns, he might hope to command the rest of the position. But he held only half the plateau, and at the further end of it the Boers were strongly entrenched. The Spion Kop mountain was really the salient or sharp angle of the Boer position, so that the British were exposed to a cross fire both from the left and right. Beyond were other eminences which sheltered strings of riflemen and several guns. The plateau which the British held was very much narrower than was usually represented in the press. In many places the possible front was not much more than a hundred yards wide, and the troops were compelled to bunch together, as there was not room for a single company to take an extended formation. The cover upon this plateau was scanty, far too scanty for the force upon it, and the shell fire—especially the fire of the pom-poms—soon became very murderous. To mass the troops under the cover of the edge of the plateau might naturally suggest itself, but with great tactical skill the Boer advanced line from Commandant Prinsloo’s Heidelberg and Carolina commandos kept so aggressive an attitude that the British could not weaken the lines opposed to them. Their skirmishers were creeping round too in such a way that the fire was really coming from three separate points, left, centre, and right, and every corner of the position was searched by their bullets. Early in the action the gallant Woodgate and many of his Lancashire men were shot down. The others spread out and held on, firing occasionally at the whisk of a rifle-barrel or the glimpse of a broad-brimmed hat.
From morning to midday, the shell, Maxim, and rifle fire swept across the kop in a continual driving shower. The British guns in the plain below failed to localise the position of the enemy’s, and they were able to vent their concentrated spite upon the exposed infantry. No blame attaches to the gunners for this, as a hill intervened to screen the Boer artillery, which consisted of five big guns and two pom-poms.
Upon the fall of Woodgate, Thorneycroft, who bore the reputation of a determined fighter, was placed at the suggestion of Buller in charge of the defence of the hill, and he was reinforced after noon by Coke’s brigade, the Middlesex, the Dorsets, and the Somersets, together with the Imperial Light Infantry. The addition of this force to the defenders of the plateau tended to increase the casualty returns rather than the strength of the defence. Three thousand more rifles could do nothing to check the fire of the invisible cannon, and it was this which was the main source of the losses, while on the other hand the plateau had become so cumbered with troops that a shell could hardly fail to do damage. There was no cover to shelter them and no room for them to extend. The pressure was most severe upon the shallow trenches in the front, which had been abandoned by the Boers and were held by the Lancashire Fusiliers. They were enfiladed by rifle and cannon, and the dead and wounded outnumbered the hale. So close were the skirmishers that on at least one occasion Boer and Briton found themselves on each side of the same rock. Once a handful of men, tormented beyond endurance, sprang up as a sign that they had had enough, but Thorneycroft, a man of huge physique, rushed forward to the advancing Boers. ‘You may go to hell!’ he yelled. ‘I command here, and allow no surrender. Go on with your firing.’ Nothing could exceed the gallantry of Louis Botha’s men in pushing the attack. Again and again they made their way up to the British firing line, exposing themselves with a recklessness which, with the exception of the grand attack upon Ladysmith, was unique in our experience of them. About two o’clock they rushed one trench occupied by the Fusiliers and secured the survivors of two companies as prisoners, but were subsequently driven out again. A detached group of the South Lancashires was summoned to surrender. ‘When I surrender,’ cried Colour-Sergeant Nolan, ‘it will be my dead body!’ Hour after hour of the unintermitting crash of the shells among the rocks and of the groans and screams of men torn and burst by the most horrible of all wounds had shaken the troops badly. Spectators from below who saw the shells pitching at the rate of seven a minute on to the crowded plateau marvelled at the endurance which held the devoted men to their post. Men were wounded and wounded and wounded yet again, and still went on fighting. Never since Inkerman had we had so grim a soldier’s battle. The company officers were superb. Captain Muriel of the Middlesex was shot through the check while giving a cigarette to a wounded man, continued to lead his company, and was shot again through the brain. Scott Moncrieff of the same regiment was only disabled by the fourth bullet which hit him. Grenfell of Thorneycroft’s was shot, and exclaimed, ‘That’s all right. It’s not much.’ A second wound made him remark, ‘I can get on all right.’ The third killed him. Ross of the Lancasters, who had crawled from a sickbed, was found dead upon the furthest crest. Young Murray of the Scottish Rifles, dripping from five wounds, still staggered about among his men. And the men were worthy of such officers. ‘No retreat! No retreat!’ they yelled when some of the front line were driven in. In all regiments there are weaklings and hang-backs, and many a man was wandering down the reverse slopes when he should have been facing death upon the top, but as a body British troops have never stood firm through a more fiery ordeal than on that fatal hill…
The position was so bad that no efforts of officers or men could do anything to mend it. They were in a murderous dilemma. If they fell back for cover the Boer riflemen would rush the position. If they held their ground this horrible shell fire must continue, which they had no means of answering. Down at Gun Hill in front of the Boer position we had no fewer than five batteries, the 78th, 7th, 73rd, 63rd, and 61st howitzer, but a ridge intervened between them and the Boer guns which were shelling Spion Kop, and this ridge was strongly entrenched. The naval guns from distant Mount Alice did what they could, but the range was very long, and the position of the Boer guns uncertain. The artillery, situated as it was, could not save the infantry from the horrible scourging which they were enduring.
There remains the debated question whether the British guns could have been taken to the top. Mr. Winston Churchill, the soundness of whose judgment has been frequently demonstrated during the war, asserts that it might have been done. Without venturing to contradict one who was personally present, I venture to think that there is strong evidence to show that it could not have been done without blasting and other measures, for which there was no possible time. Captain Hanwell of the 78th R.F.A., upon the day of the battle had the very utmost difficulty with the help of four horses in getting a light Maxim on to the top, and his opinion, with that of other artillery officers, is that the feat was an impossible one until the path had been prepared. When night fell Colonel Sim was despatched with a party of Sappers to clear the track and to prepare two emplacements upon the top, but in his advance he met the retiring infantry.
Throughout the day reinforcements had pushed up the hill, until two full brigades had been drawn into the fight. From the other side of the ridge Lyttelton sent up the Scottish Rifles, who reached the summit, and added their share to the shambles upon the top. As the shades of night closed in, and the glare of the bursting shells became more lurid, the men lay extended upon the rocky ground, parched and exhausted. They were hopelessly jumbled together, with the exception of the Dorsets, whose cohesion may have been due to superior discipline, less exposure, or to the fact that their khaki differed somewhat in colour from that of the others. Twelve hours of so terrible an experience had had a strange effect upon many of the men. Some were dazed and battle-struck, incapable of clear understanding. Some were as incoherent as drunkards. Some lay in an overpowering drowsiness. The most were doggedly patient and long-suffering, with a mighty longing for water obliterating every other emotion.
Before evening fell a most gallant and successful attempt had been made by the third battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles from Lyttelton’s Brigade to relieve the pressure upon their comrades on Spion Kop. In order to draw part of the Boer fire away they ascended from the northern side and carried the hills which formed a continuation of the same ridge. The movement was meant to be no more than a strong demonstration, but the riflemen pushed it until, breathless but victorious, they stood upon the very crest of the position, leaving nearly a hundred dead or dying to show the path which they had taken. Their advance being much further than was desired, they were recalled, and it was at the moment that Buchanan Riddell, their brave Colonel, stood up to read Lyttelton’s note that he fell with a Boer bullet through his brain, making one more of those gallant leaders who died as they had lived, at the head of their regiments. Chisholm, Dick-Cunyngham, Downman, Wilford, Gunning, Sherston, Thackeray, Sitwell, MacCarthy O’Leary, Airlie—they have led their men up to and through the gates of death. It was a fine exploit of the 3rd Rifles. ‘A finer bit of skirmishing, a finer bit of climbing, and a finer bit of fighting, I have never seen,’ said their Brigadier. It is certain that if Lyttelton had not thrown his two regiments into the fight the pressure upon the hill-top might have become unendurable; and it seems also certain that if he had only held on to the position which the Rifles had gained, the Boers would never have reoccupied Spion Kop.
And now, under the shadow of night, but with the shells bursting thickly over the plateau, the much-tried Thorneycroft had to make up his mind whether he should hold on for another such day as he had endured, or whether now, in the friendly darkness, he should remove his shattered force. Could he have seen the discouragement of the Boers and the preparations which they had made for retirement, he would have held his ground. But this was hidden from him, while the horror of his own losses was but too apparent. Forty per cent of his men were down. Thirteen hundred dead and dying are a grim sight upon a wide-spread battle-field, but when this number is heaped upon a confined space, where from a single high rock the whole litter of broken and shattered bodies can be seen, and the groans of the stricken rise in one long droning chorus to the ear, then it is an iron mind indeed which can resist such evidence of disaster. In a harder age Wellington was able to survey four thousand bodies piled in the narrow compass of the breach of Badajos, but his resolution was sustained by the knowledge that the military end for which they fell had been accomplished. Had his task been unfinished it is doubtful whether even his steadfast soul would not have flinched from its completion. Thorneycroft saw the frightful havoc of one day, and he shrank from the thought of such another. ‘Better six battalions safely down the hill than a mop up in the morning,’ said he, and he gave the word to retire. One who had met the troops as they staggered down has told me how far they were from being routed. In mixed array, but steadily and in order, the long thin line trudged through the darkness. Their parched lips would not articulate, but they whispered ‘Water! Where is water?’ as they toiled upon their way. At the bottom of the hill they formed into regiments once more, and marched back to the camp. In the morning the blood-spattered hill-top, with its piles of dead and of wounded, were in the hands of Botha and his men, whose valour and perseverance deserved the victory which they had won. There is no doubt now that at 3 A.M. of that morning Botha, knowing that the Rifles had carried Burger’s position, regarded the affair as hopeless, and that no one was more astonished than he when he found, on the report of two scouts, that it was a victory and not a defeat which had come to him.
How shall we sum up such an action save that it was a gallant attempt, gallantly carried out, and as gallantly met? On both sides the results of artillery fire during the war have been disappointing, but at Spion Kop beyond all question it was the Boer guns which won the action for them. So keen was the disappointment at home that there was a tendency to criticise the battle with some harshness, but it is difficult now, with the evidence at our command, to say what was left undone which could have altered the result. Had Thorneycroft known all that we know, he would have kept his grip upon the hill. On the face of it one finds it difficult to understand why so momentous a decision, upon which the whole operations depended, should have been left entirely to the judgment of one who in the morning had been a simple Lieutenant-Colonel. ‘Where are the bosses?’ cried a Fusilier, and the historian can only repeat the question. General Warren was at the bottom of the hill. Had he ascended and determined that the place should still be held, he might have sent down the wearied troops, brought up smaller numbers of fresh ones, ordered the Sappers to deepen the trenches, and tried to bring up water and guns. It was for the divisional commander to lay his hand upon the reins at so critical an instant, to relieve the weary man who had struggled so hard all day.
The subsequent publication of the official despatches has served little purpose, save to show that there was a want of harmony between Buller and Warren, and that the former lost all confidence in his subordinate during the course of the operations. In these papers General Buller expresses the opinion that had Warren’s operations been more dashing, he would have found his turning movement upon the left a comparatively easy matter. In this judgment he would probably have the concurrence of most military critics. He adds, however, ‘On the 19th, I ought to have assumed command myself. I saw that things were not going well—indeed, everyone saw that. I blame myself now for not having done so. I did not, because, if I did, I should discredit General Warren in the estimation of the troops, and, if I were shot, and he had to withdraw across the Tugela, and they had lost confidence in him, the consequences might be very serious. I must leave it to higher authority whether this argument was a sound one.’ It needs no higher authority than common-sense to say that the argument is an absolutely unsound one. No consequences could be more serious than that the operations should miscarry and Ladysmith remain unrelieved, and such want of success must in any case discredit Warren in the eyes of his troops. Besides, a subordinate is not discredited because his chief steps in to conduct a critical operation. However, these personal controversies may be suffered to remain in that pigeon-hole from which they should never have been drawn.
On account of the crowding of four thousand troops into a space which might have afforded tolerable cover for five hundred the losses in the action were very heavy, not fewer than fifteen hundred being killed, wounded, or missing, the proportion of killed being, on account of the shell fire, abnormally high. The Lancashire Fusiliers were the heaviest sufferers, and their Colonel Blomfield was wounded and fell into the hands of the enemy. The Royal Lancasters also lost heavily. Thorneycroft’s had 80 men hit out of 180 engaged. The Imperial Light Infantry, a raw corps of Rand refugees who were enduring their baptism of fire, lost 130 men. In officers the losses were particularly heavy, 60 being killed or wounded. The Boer returns show some 50 killed and 150 wounded, which may not be far from the truth. Without the shell fire the British losses might not have been much more.
General Buller had lost nearly two thousand men since he had crossed the Tugela, and his purpose was still unfulfilled. Should he risk the loss of a large part of his force in storming the ridges in front of him, or should he recross the river and try for an easier route elsewhere? To the surprise and disappointment both of the public and of the army, he chose the latter course, and by January 27th he had fallen back, unmolested by the Boers, to the other side of the Tugela. It must be confessed that his retreat was admirably conducted, and that it was a military feat to bring his men, his guns, and his stores in safety over a broad river in the face of a victorious enemy. Stolid and unmoved, his impenetrable demeanour restored serenity and confidence to the angry and disappointed troops. There might well be heavy hearts among both them and the public. After a fortnight’s campaign, and the endurance of great losses and hardships, both Ladysmith and her relievers found themselves no better off than when they started. Buller still held the commanding position of Mount Alice, and this was all that he had to show for such sacrifices and such exertions. Once more there came a weary pause while Ladysmith, sick with hope deferred, waited gloomily upon half-rations of horse-flesh for the next movement from the South.