Winston S. Churchill.

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I will not try to foreshadow the line of attack, though certain
movements appear to indicate where it will be directed. But it is
generally believed that we fight to-morrow at dawn, and as I write this
letter seventy guns are drawing up in line on the hills to open the
preparatory bombardment.

It is a solemn Sunday, and the camp, with its white tents looking snug
and peaceful in the sunlight, holds its breath that the beating of its
heart may not be heard. On such a day as this the services of religion
would appeal with passionate force to thousands. I attended a church
parade this morning. What a chance this was for a man of great soul who
feared God! On every side were drawn up deep masses of soldiery, rank
behind rank - perhaps, in all, five thousand. In the hollow square stood
the General, the man on whom everything depended. All around were men
who within the week had been face to face with Death, and were going to
face him again in a few hours. Life seemed very precarious, in spite of
the sunlit landscape. What was it all for? What was the good of human
effort? How should it befall a man who died in a quarrel he did not
understand? All the anxious questionings of weak spirits. It was one of
those occasions when a fine preacher might have given comfort and
strength where both were sorely needed, and have printed on many minds a
permanent impression. The bridegroom Opportunity had come. But the
Church had her lamp untrimmed. A chaplain with a raucous voice
discoursed on the details of 'The siege and surrender of Jericho.' The
soldiers froze into apathy, and after a while the formal perfunctory
service reached its welcome conclusion.

As I marched home an officer said to me: 'Why is it, when the Church
spends so much on missionary work among heathens, she does not take the
trouble to send good men to preach in time of war? The medical
profession is represented by some of its greatest exponents. Why are
men's wounded souls left to the care of a village practitioner?' Nor
could I answer; but I remembered the venerable figure and noble
character of Father Brindle in the River War, and wondered whether Rome
was again seizing the opportunity which Canterbury disdained - the
opportunity of telling the glad tidings to soldiers about to die.




CHAPTER XX

THE COMBAT OF VAAL KRANTZ


General Buller's Headquarters: February 9, 1900.

During the ten days that passed peacefully after the British retreat
from the positions beyond Trichardt's Drift, Sir Redvers Buller's force
was strengthened by the arrival of a battery of Horse Artillery, two
powerful siege guns, two squadrons of the 14th Hussars, and drafts for
the Infantry battalions, amounting to 2,400 men. Thus not only was the
loss of 1,600 men in the five days' fighting round Spion Kop made good,
but the army was actually a thousand stronger than before its repulse.
Good and plentiful rations of meat and vegetables were given to the
troops, and their spirits were restored by the General's public
declaration that he had discovered the key to the enemy's position, and
the promise that within a week from the beginning of the impending
operation Ladysmith should be relieved. The account of the straits to
which the gallant garrison was now reduced by famine, disease, and war
increased the earnest desire of officers and men to engage the enemy
and, even at the greatest price, to break his lines. In spite of the
various inexplicable features which the actions of Colenso and Spion Kop
presented, the confidence of the army in Sir Redvers Buller was still
firm, and the knowledge that he himself would personally direct the
operations, instead of leaving their conduct to a divisional commander,
gave general satisfaction and relief.

On the afternoon of February 4 the superior officers were made
acquainted with the outlines of the plan of action to be followed. The
reader will, perhaps, remember the description in a former letter of the
Boer position before Potgieter's and Trichardt's Drift as a horizontal
note of interrogation, of which Spion Kop formed the centre angle - /\.
The fighting of the previous week had been directed towards the
straight line, and on the angle. The new operation was aimed at the
curve. The general scheme was to seize the hills which formed the left
of the enemy's position and roll him up from left to right. It was known
that the Boers were massed mainly in their central camp behind Spion
Kop, and that, as no demonstration was intended against the position in
front of Trichardt's Drift, their whole force would be occupying the
curve and guarding its right flank. The details of the plan were well
conceived.

The battle would begin by a demonstration against the Brakfontein
position, which the Boers had fortified by four tiers of trenches, with
bombproof casemates, barbed wire entanglements, and a line of redoubts,
so that it was obviously too strong to be carried frontally. This
demonstration would be made by Wynne's Brigade (formerly Woodgate's),
supported by six batteries of Artillery, the Howitzer Battery, and the
two 4.7-inch naval guns. These troops crossed the river by the pontoon
bridge at Potgieter's on the 3rd and 4th, relieving Lyttelton's Brigade
which had been in occupation of the advanced position on the low kopjes.

A new pontoon bridge was thrown at the angle of the river a mile below
Potgieter's, the purpose of which seemed to be to enable the frontal
attack to be fully supported. While the Artillery preparation of the
advance against Brakfontein and Wynne's advance were going on, Clery's
Division (consisting of Hart's Brigade and Hildyard's) and Lyttelton's
Brigade were to mass near the new pontoon bridge (No. 2), as if about to
support the frontal movement. When the bombardment had been in progress
for two hours these three brigades were to move, not towards the
Brakfontein position, but eastwards to Munger's Drift, throw a pontoon
bridge covered first by one battery of Field Artillery withdrawn from
the demonstration, secondly by the fire of guns which had been dragged
to the summit of Swartkop, and which formed a powerful battery of
fourteen pieces, viz., six 12-pounder long range naval guns, two
15-pounder guns of the 64th Field Battery, six 9-pounder mountain guns,
and lastly by the two 50-pounder siege guns. As soon as the bridge was
complete Lyttelton's Brigade would cross, and, ignoring the fire from
the Boer left, extended along the Doornkloof heights, attack the Vaal
Krantz ridge, which formed the left of the horseshoe curve around the
debouches of Potgieter's. This attack was to be covered on its right by
the guns already specified on Swartkop and the 64th Field Battery, and
prepared by the six artillery batteries employed in the demonstration,
which were to withdraw one by one at intervals of ten minutes, cross No.
2 pontoon bridge, and take up new positions opposite to the Vaal Krantz
ridge.

If and when Vaal Krantz was captured all six batteries were to move
across No. 3 bridge and take up positions on the hill, whence they could
prepare and support the further advance of Clery's Division, which,
having crossed, was to move past Vaal Krantz, pivot to the left on it,
and attack the Brakfontein position from its left flank. The 1st
Cavalry Brigade under Burn-Murdoch (Royals, 13th and 14th Hussars, and A
Battery R.H.A.) would also cross and run the gauntlet of Doornkloof and
break out on to the plateau beyond Clery's Division. The 2nd Cavalry
Brigade (South African Light Horse, Composite Regiment, Thorneycroft's,
and Bethune's Mounted Infantry, and the Colt Battery) were to guard the
right and rear of the attacking troops from any attack coming from
Doornkloof. Wynne was to co-operate as opportunity offered. Talbot Coke
was to remain in reserve. Such was the plan, and it seemed to all who
heard it good and clear. It gave scope to the whole force, and seemed to
offer all the conditions for a decisive trial of strength between the
two armies.

On Sunday afternoon the Infantry Brigades began to move to their
respective positions, and at daylight on the 5th the Cavalry Division
broke its camp behind spearman's. At nine minutes past seven he
bombardment of the Brakfontein position began, and by half-past seven
all the Artillery except the Swartkop guns were firing in a leisurely
fashion at the Boer redoubts and entrenchments. At the same time Wynne's
Brigade moved forward in dispersed formation towards the enemy, and the
Cavalry began to defile across the front and to mass near the three
Infantry Brigades collected near No. 2 pontoon bridge. For some time the
Boers made no reply, but at about ten o'clock their Vickers-Maxim opened
on the batteries firing from the Potgieter's plain, and the fire
gradually increased as other guns, some of great range, joined in, until
the Artillery was sharply engaged in an unsatisfactory duel - fifty guns
exposed in the open against six or seven guns concealed and impossible
to find. The Boer shells struck all along the advanced batteries,
bursting between the guns, throwing up huge fountains of dust and smoke,
and covering the gunners at times completely from view. Shrapnel shells
were also flung from both flanks and ripped the dusty plain with their
scattering bullets. But the Artillery stood to their work like men, and
though they apparently produced no impression on the Boer guns, did not
suffer as severely as might have been expected, losing no more than
fifteen officers and men altogether. At intervals of ten minutes the
batteries withdrew in beautiful order and ceremony and defiled across
the second pontoon bridge. Meanwhile Wynne's Brigade had advanced to
within twelve hundred yards of the Brakfontein position and retired,
drawing the enemy's heavy fire; the three brigades under Clery had moved
to the right near Munger's Drift; the Cavalry were massed in the hollows
at the foot of Swartkop; and the Engineers had constructed the third
pontoon bridge, performing their business with excellent method and
despatch under a sharp fire from Boer skirmishers and a Maxim.

The six batteries and the howitzers now took up positions opposite Vaal
Krantz, and seventy guns began to shell this ridge in regular
preparation and to reply to three Boer guns which had now opened from
Doornkloof and our extreme right. A loud and crashing cannonade
developed. At midday the Durham Light Infantry of Lyttelton's Brigade
crossed the third pontoon bridge and advanced briskly along the opposite
bank on the Vaal Krantz ridge. They were supported by the 3rd King's
Royal Rifles, and behind these the other two battalions of the Brigade
strengthened the attack. The troops moved across the open in fine style,
paying no attention to the enemy's guns on Doornkloof, which burst their
shrapnel at seven thousand yards (shrapnel at seven thousand yards!)
with remarkable accuracy. In an hour the leading companies had reached
the foot of the ridge, and the active riflemen could be seen clambering
swiftly up. As the advance continued one of the Boer Vickers-Maxim guns
which was posted in rear of Vaal Krantz found it wise to retire and
galloped off unscathed through a tremendous fire from our artillery: a
most wonderful escape.

The Durham Light Infantry carried the hill at the point of the bayonet,
losing seven officers and sixty or seventy men, and capturing five Boer
prisoners, besides ten horses and some wounded, Most of the enemy,
however, had retired before the attack, unable to endure the appalling
concentration of artillery which had prepared it. Among those who
remained to fight to the last were five or six armed Kaffirs, one of
whom shot an officer of the Durhams. To these no quarter was given.
Their employment by the Dutch in this war shows that while they
furiously complain of Khama's defence of his territory against their
raiding parties on the ground that white men must be killed by white
men, they have themselves no such scruples. There is no possible doubt
about the facts set forth above, and the incident should be carefully
noted by the public.

By nightfall the whole of General Lyttelton's Brigade had occupied Vaal
Krantz, and were entrenching themselves. The losses in the day's
fighting were not severe, and though no detailed statement has yet been
compiled, I do not think they exceeded one hundred and fifty. Part of
Sir Redvers Buller's plan had been successfully executed. The fact that
the action had not been opened until 7 A.M. and had been conducted in a
most leisurely manner left the programme only half completed. It
remained to pass Clery's Division across the third bridge, to plant the
batteries in their new position on Vaal Krantz, to set free the 1st
Cavalry Brigade in the plain beyond, and to begin the main attack on
Brakfontein. It remained and it still remains.

During the night of the 5th Lyttelton's Brigade made shelters and
traverses of stones, and secured the possession of the hill; but it was
now reported that field guns could not occupy the ridge because, first,
it was too steep and rocky - though this condition does not apparently
prevent the Boers dragging their heaviest guns to the tops of the
highest hills - and, secondly, because the enemy's long-range rifle fire
was too heavy. The hill, therefore, which had been successfully
captured, proved of no value whatever. Beyond it was a second position
which was of great strength, and which if it was ever to be taken must
be taken by the Infantry without Artillery support. This was considered
impossible or at any rate too costly and too dangerous to attempt.

During the next day the Boers continued to bombard the captured ridge,
and also maintained a harassing long-range musketry fire. A great gun
firing a hundred-pound 6-in. shell came into action from the top of
Doornkloof, throwing its huge projectiles on Vaal Krantz and about the
bivouacs generally; one of them exploded within a few yards of Sir
Redvers Buller. Two Vickers-Maxims from either side of the Boer position
fired at brief intervals, and other guns burst shrapnel effectively from
very long range on the solitary brigade which held Vaal Krantz. To this
bombardment the Field Artillery and the naval guns - seventy-two pieces
in all, both big and little - made a noisy but futile response. The
infantry of Lyttelton's Brigade, however, endured patiently throughout
the day, in spite of the galling cross-fire and severe losses. At about
four in the afternoon the Boers made a sudden attack on the hill,
creeping to within short range, and then opened a quick fire. The
Vickers-Maxim guns supported this vigorously. The pickets at the western
end of the hill were driven back with loss, and for a few minutes it
appeared that the hill would be retaken. But General Lyttelton ordered
half a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, supported by the King's
Royal Rifles, to clear the hill, and these fine troops, led by Colonel
Fitzgerald, rose up from their shelters and, giving three rousing
cheers - the thin, distant sound of which came back to the anxious,
watching army - swept the Boers back at the point of the bayonet. Colonel
Fitzgerald was, however, severely wounded.

While these things were passing a new pontoon bridge was being
constructed at a bend of the Tugela immediately under the Vaal Krantz
ridge, and by five o'clock this was finished. Nothing else was done
during the day, but at nightfall Lyttelton's Brigade was relieved by
Hildyard's, which marched across the new pontoon (No. 4) under a
desultory shell fire from an extreme range. Lyttelton's Brigade returned
under cover of darkness to a bivouac underneath the Zwartkop guns.
Their losses in the two days' operations had been 225 officers and men.

General Hildyard, with whom was Prince Christian Victor, spent the night
in improving the defences of the hill and in building new traverses and
head cover. At midnight the Boers made a fresh effort to regain the
position, and the sudden roar of musketry awakened the sleeping army.
The attack, however, was easily repulsed. At daybreak the shelling began
again, only now the Boers had brought up several new guns, and the
bombardment was much heavier. Owing, however, to the excellent cover
which had been arranged the casualties during the day did not exceed
forty. The Cavalry and Transport, who were sheltering in the hollows
underneath Zwartkop, were also shelled, and it was thought desirable to
move them back to a safer position.

In the evening Sir Redvers Buller, who throughout these two days had
been sitting under a tree in a somewhat exposed position, and who had
bivouacked with the troops, consulted with his generals. Many plans were
suggested, but there was a general consensus of opinion that it was
impossible to advance further along this line. At eleven at night
Hildyard's Brigade was withdrawn from Vaal Krantz, evacuating the
position in good order, and carrying with them their wounded, whom till
dark it had been impossible to collect. Orders were issued for the
general retirement of the army to Springfield and Spearman's, and by ten
o'clock on the 8th this operation was in full progress.

With feelings of bitter disappointment at not having been permitted to
fight the matter out, the Infantry, only two brigades of which had been
sharply engaged, marched by various routes to their former camping
grounds, and only their perfect discipline enabled them to control their
grief and anger. The Cavalry and Artillery followed in due course, and
thus the fourth attempt to relieve Ladysmith, which had been begun with
such hopes and enthusiasm, fizzled out into failure. It must not,
however, be imagined that the enemy conducted his defence without
proportionate loss.

What I have written is a plain record of facts, and I am so deeply
conscious of their significance that I shall attempt some explanation.

The Boer covering army numbers at least 12,000 men, with perhaps a dozen
excellent guns. They hold along the line of the Tugela what is
practically a continuous position of vast strength. Their superior
mobility, and the fact that they occupy the chord, while we must move
along the arc of the circle, enables them to forefront us with nearly
their whole force wherever an attack is aimed, however it may be
disguised. Therefore there is no way of avoiding a direct assault. Now,
according to Continental experience the attacking force should outnumber
the defence by three to one. Therefore Sir Redvers Buller should have
36,000 men. Instead of this he has only 22,000. Moreover, behind the
first row of positions, which practically runs along the edge of an
unbroken line of steep flat-topped hills, there is a second row standing
back from the edge at no great distance. Any attack on this second row
the Artillery cannot support, because from the plain below they are too
far off to find the Boer guns, and from the edge they are too close to
the enemy's riflemen. The ground is too broken, in the opinion of many
generals, for night operations. Therefore the attacking Infantry of
insufficient strength must face unaided the fire of cool, entrenched
riflemen, armed with magazine weapons and using smokeless powder.

Nevertheless, so excellent is the quality of the Infantry that if the
whole force were launched in attack it is not impossible that they would
carry everything before them. But after this first victory it will be
necessary to push on and attack the Boers investing Ladysmith. The line
of communications must be kept open behind the relieving army or it will
be itself in the most terrible danger. Already the Boers' position
beyond Potgieter's laps around us on three sides. What if we should
break through, only to have the door shut behind us? At least two
brigades would have to be left to hold the line of communications. The
rest, weakened by several fierce and bloody engagements, would not be
strong enough to effect the relief.

The idea of setting all on the turn of the battle is very grateful and
pleasant to the mind of the army, which only asks for a decisive trial
of strength, but Sir Redvers Buller has to remember that his army,
besides being the Ladysmith Relief Column, is also the only force which
can be spared to protect South Natal. Is he, therefore, justified in
running the greatest risks? On the other hand, how can we let Ladysmith
and all its gallant defenders fall into the hands of the enemy? It is
agonising to contemplate such a conclusion to all the efforts and
sacrifices that have been made. I believe and trust we shall try again.
As long as there is fighting one does not reflect on this horrible
situation. I have tried to explain some of the difficulties which
confront the General. I am not now concerned with the attempts that
have been made to overcome them. A great deal is incomprehensible, but
it may be safely said that if Sir Redvers Buller cannot relieve
Ladysmith with his present force we do not know of any other officer in
the British Service who would be likely to succeed.




CHAPTER XXI

HUSSAR HILL


[Illustration: Map of the Operations of the Natal Field Army
from January 11 to February 9.]

General Buller's Headquarters: February 15, 1900.

When Sir Redvers Buller broke off the combat of Vaal Krantz, and for the
third time ordered his unbeaten troops to retreat, it was clearly
understood that another attempt to penetrate the Boer lines was to be
made without delay.

The army has moved from Spearman's and Springfield to Chieveley, General
Lyttelton, who had succeeded Sir Francis Clery, in command of the 2nd
Division and 4th Brigade, marching via Pretorius's Farm on the 9th and
10th, Sir Charles Warren covering the withdrawal of the supplies and
transport and following on the 10th and 11th. The regular Cavalry
Brigade, under Burn-Murdoch, was left with two battalions to hold the
bridge at Springfield, beyond which place the Boers, who had crossed the
Tugela in some strength at Potgieter's, were reported to be showing
considerable activity. The left flank of the marching Infantry columns
was covered by Dundonald's Brigade of Light Horse, and the operations
were performed without interruption from the enemy. On the 12th orders
were issued to reconnoitre Hussar Hill, a grassy and wooded eminence
four miles to the east of Chieveley, and the direction of the next
attack was revealed. The reader of the accounts of this war is probably
familiar with the Colenso position and understands its great strength.
The proper left of this position rests on the rocky, scrub-covered hill
of Hlangwani, which rises on the British side of the Tugela. If this
hill can be captured and artillery placed on it, and if it can be
secured from cross fire, then all the trenches of Fort Wylie and along
the river bank will be completely enfiladed, and the Colenso position
will become untenable, so that Hlangwani is the key of the Colenso
position. In order, however, to guard this key carefully the Boers have
extended their left - as at Trichardt's Drift they extended their
right - until it occupies a very lofty range of mountains four or five
miles to the east of Hlangwani, and along all this front works have been
constructed on a judicious system of defence. The long delays have given
ample time to the enemy to complete his fortifications, and the trenches
here are more like forts than field works, being provided with overhead
cover against shells and carefully made loopholes. In front of them
stretches a bare slope, on either side rise formidable hills from which
long-range guns can make a continual cross-fire. Behind this position,
again, are others of great strength.

But there are also encouraging considerations. We are to make - at least
in spite of disappointments we hope and believe we are to make - a
supreme effort to relieve Ladysmith. At the same time we are the army
for the defence of South Natal. If we had put the matter to the test at
Potgieter's and failed, our line of communications might have been cut
behind us, and the whole army, weakened by the inevitable heavy losses
of attacking these great positions, might have been captured or
dispersed. Here we have the railway behind us. We are not as we were at
Potgieter's 'formed to a flank.' We derive an accession of strength from
the fact that the troops holding Railhead are now available for the
general action.

Besides these inducements this road is the shortest way. Buller,
therefore, has elected to lose his men and risk defeat - without which
risk no victory can be won - -on this line. Whether he will succeed or
not were foolish to prophesy, but it is the common belief that this line


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