Meet us on:
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "The world tolerates conceit from those who are successful, but not from anybody else."

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    Chapter 17

    • Rate it:
    • 2 Favorites on Read Print
    Launch Reading Mode Next Chapter
    Chapter 18
    Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The relief of Ladysmith stirred the people of the Empire as nothing,
    save perhaps the subsequent relief of Mafeking, has done during our
    generation. Even sober unemotional London found its soul for once and
    fluttered with joy. Men, women, and children, rich and poor, clubman
    and cabman, joined in the universal delight. The thought of our
    garrison, of their privations, of our impotence to relieve them, of
    the impending humiliation to them and to us, had lain dark for many
    months across our spirits. It had weighed upon us, until the subject,
    though ever present in our thoughts, was too painful for general
    talk. And now, in an instant, the shadow was lifted. The outburst of
    rejoicing was.not a triumph over the gallant Boers. But it was our own
    escape from humiliation, the knowledge that the blood of our sons had
    not been shed in vain, above all the conviction that the darkest hour
    had now passed and that the light of peace was dimly breaking far away
    -- that was why London rang with joy bells that March morning, and why
    those bells echoed back from every town and hamlet, in tropical sun
    and in Arctic snow, over which the flag of Britain waved.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 18
    Previous Chapter
    If you're writing a Arthur Conan Doyle essay and need some advice, post your Arthur Conan Doyle essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Want to read

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?