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LAING'S NEK


Since we have been tracing the causes of the Boer rebellion, it may be advisable to refer to a letter written on the 28th of December 1880 by Sir  Bartle Frere to Mr. F. Greenwood, editor of the StJames's Gazette. He therein throws a most important light on the political position. He wrote: "In 1879, when I was among the Boers in the Transvaal,  I found that the real wire-pullers of their Committee were foreigners of various nationalities, notably some Hollanders (not Africanders), imbued with German Socialist Republicanism, and an Irishman of the name of Aylward. I  was told he was a man of great natural ability, educated as a solicitor an ex-fenian pardoned under another name (Murphy, I think), for turning Queen's evidence against others who had murdered the policeman at Manchester  Emigrating to the Diamond Fields, he was tried, convicted, and suffered imprisonment there for homicide. When he came out of prison he betook himself to tile Transvaal and had a command of foreign free lances under Mr. Burgers,  then President of the Transvaal Republic, in his unsuccessful attempt to take Secocoeni's stronghold. After the annexation of the Transvaal he came to England and published one of the few readable books on the Transvaal, and  went out to Natal during the darkest hours of our Zulu troubles, seeking employment; but he was an impossible man, and was urging the Boers to rise at the same time that he was offering his services to me and Lord Chelmsford.  Finally he settled at Pietermaritzburg, where he was, when I last heard of him, as editor of the Witness, writing anti-English republicanism and sedition with much ability, especially when opposing the Cape Government  and its governor, whom he never forgave for warning the Boers against following Fenian advice. When I was in the Transvaal and afterwards I found him always connected with any opposition to the English Government. He knew all  the leaders of the simple-minded but very suspicious Boers, and had gained their ear, so that he had no difficulty in persuading them to reject any good advice I offered them-' Wait-a-bit' being always the most acceptable  suggestion you can offer to a Boer. Directly I heard of the attack on our troops in the Transvaal, I felt assured that my old acquaintance was pulling the wires with a view to create a diversion in favour of his  old colleagues in Ireland. "The attack took place apparently near the farm of Solomon Prinsloo, one of the most bitter malcontent Boers, who was always a firebrand, and who, when I visited the Boer camp in  1879, was with difficulty held back by Pretorius and Kruger from directing an attack upon us in Pretoria. I very much doubt whether, without some such external instigation, the Boers would have broken out.  "The facts I have mentioned and many more about Aylward are on record in Scotland Yard, and in the Colonial Office, and I am anxious you should know the truth and not attribute too much of the blame in this sad business to  the unfortunate, misguided Boers, the victims of his bad advice, still less to any fault of Colonel Lanyon's administration." Sir Bartle was right in his conjecture, for Aylward had joined the insurgents and  was one of the acknowledged leaders of Joubert's staff Nlajor-General Hope Crealock, in a letter to Sir Bartle, wrote (January 7, 1881): "A young Irishman named S--, who knew Aylward in Natal, and who was  under my command in the Natal Pioneers, called on me to-night and told me Aylward formerly used to boast of being a Fenian, and vowed he would pay the English Government off for what he had got, by raising the Boers whenever  Ireland was rising; and within the last few days has written to him saying he gloried in being one of the instigators of the present Boer revolt, &c., &c. He wrote from Utrecht. It will be seen from these  quotations that our relations with the Transvaal, hostile as they may have been, were scarcely true relations-that the real enmity and rancour, the bloodspilling and wretchedness that commenced at this period, and are at the  moment of writing still continuing, were due, firstly, to party spirit in Great Britain, and secondly, to the machinations of adventurers, who, having no status elsewhere, put the ignorance of a race of farmers to their own  vile uses. To return to the events of the last chapter. When Sir Owen Lanyon heard of the misfortune that had befallen Colonel Anstruther's troops, he issued a proclamation placing the country under martial law,  and Sir George Colley, dreading the results of bad blood raised between Boers and British soldiers by the affair at Bronker's Spruit, caused the following general order to be published :-

"HEADQUARTERS, PIETERMARJTZBURG, "December 28th, 1880.

"The Major-General Commanding regrets to inform the troops of his command, that a detachment of 250 men of the 94th Regiment, on its march from Leydenburg  to Pretoria, was surprised and overwhelmed by the Boers-120 being killed and wounded, and the rest taken prisoners. The attack seems to have been made while the troops were crossing a spruit, and extended to guard a long  convoy. The Major-General trusts to the courage, spirit, and discipline of the troops of his command, to enable him promptly to retrieve this misfortune, and to vindicate the authority of her Majesty and the honour of the  British arms. It is scarcely to remind soldiers of the incalculable advantage which discipline, organisation, and trained skill give them over numerous but undisciplined forces. These advantages have been repeatedly proved, and  have never failed to command success in the end against greater odds, and greater difficulties, than we are now called on to contend with. To all true soldiers the loss we have suffered will serve as an incentive and stimulus  to greater exertions; and the Major-General knows well he can rely on the troops he has to command, to show that endurance and courage which are the proud inheritance of the British army. The stain cast on our arms must be  quickly effaced, and rebellion must be put down; but the Major-General trusts that officers and men will not allow the soldierly spirit which prompts to gallant action to degenerate into a feeling of revenge. The task now  forced on us by the unprovoked action of the Boers is a painful one under any circumstances, and the General calls on all ranks to assist him in his endeavours to mitigate the suffering it must entail. We must be careful to  avoid punishing the innocent for the guilty, and must remember, that though misled and deluded, the Boers are in the main a brave and high-spirited people, and actuated by feelings that are entitled to our respect. In the  operations now about to be undertaken, the General confidently trusts that the good behaviour of the men will give him as much cause for pride and satisfaction as their conduct and gallantry before the enemy, and that the  result of their efforts will be a speedy and successful termination to the war. The proclamation had a good effect, particularly among the Dutch, who, though loyal to the Crown, were much in sympathy with their  kinsmen in the Transvaal. On the 23rd of January 1881, General Colley sent an ultimatum ordering the insurgents to disperse. Of this no notice was taken until General Joubert, from Laing's Nek on January the 29th, sent the  following reply

"To SIR GEORGE P. COLLEY.

"We beg to acknowledge receipt of yours of the 23rd. In reply, we beg to state that, in terms of the letter, we are unable to comply with your  request, as long as your Excellency addresses us as insurgents, and insinuates that we, the leaders, are wickedly misleading a lot of ignorant men. It is nearly hopeless for us to attempt to find the proper words for reply; but  before the Lord we would not be justified if we did not avail ourselves of this, perhaps the last, opportunity of speaking to you as the representative of her Majesty the Queen and people of England, for whom we feel deep  respect. We must emphatically repeat, we are willing to comply with any wishes of the Imperial Government tending to the consolidation and confederation of South Africa; and, in order to make this offer from our side as clear  and unequivocal as possible,-although we have explained this point fully in all our documents, and especially in paragraphs 36 to 38 of our first proclamation,-we declare that we would be satisfied with a rescinding of the  annexation and restoration of the South African Republic under a protectorate of her Majesty the Queen, so that once a year the British Flag shall be hoisted, all in strict accordance with the above-mentioned clauses of our  first proclamation. If your Excellency resolves to reject this, we have only to submit to our fate; but the Lord will provide." Sir George Colley started on the 24th of January from Newcastle for the border. The road from Newcastle to Laing's Nek runs up a precipitous hill for three miles, and thence leads down the steep mountain of Skheyns  Hoogte. The movement of the column was slow and laborious, the roads, if roads they could be called, were almost impassable owing to great ruts, mud-holes deep enough to bury a wagon up to the bed-planks, with boulders and other  impediments thrown in. Here, as Laing's Nek is so prominent a feature in our history, it may be well to give Mr. Carter's concise description of the geographical nature of the position :- " Laing's  Nek is the lowest point in an unbroken ridge which connects the Majuba Mountain with hills running right up to the banks of the Buffalo River. A slight cutting ,not more than four or five feet deep, forms the wagon road over this  ridge; from the wagon road on either side the ground runs up somewhat abruptly, and is stony and irregular. How gentle the rise is to the Nek from the level ground in front of it towards Newcastle (and along which the approach is  the main road), may be judged from the fact that a horse can canter easily up the slope, or the matter of that, over the two miles of ground which lead to the foot of the slope. From the top of the ridge to the level ground at the  base is not more than five hundred yards. The chain of hills, in the centre of which is the Nek, is semicircular, the horns of the crescent pointing towards Newcastle, and offering strong positions for any force intent on defending  the only practicable approach to the Nek; but to occupy these flank positions a large body of men would be necessary, as the area from Point to point is great. On the reverse, or Coldstream side of the Nek, the ground at the foot  of the incline is broken and marshy, a regular drain for all the water running from the surrounding hills". To return to the troops. While this column was advancing the Boers were advancing in a parallel line to  the Nek. The following day the British column reached the high ground overlooking Ingogo River, where they encamped (here the engagement of the 8th of February took place). At dawn on the 26th the column again laboriously mounted  the terrible steeps leading to Mount Prospect, and fixed their camp about four miles from the Nek. Owing to the abominable state of the weather the nearing of the Nek was not attempted, and attack was postponed till the following  day. The night was passed at Mount Prospect, and a lager made. At six o'clock on the morning of the 28th the advance was sounded, and at 09.55 A.M. the guns began shelling the Nek. The Boers were not yet ready. Some  took shelter behind the walls of Laing's Farmhouse, while others kept on the heights above, covered by the ridge from shells. Those in Laing's kraals had a warm time when the Naval Brigade began to play on them with their guns,  they soon evacuated the place. Those on the Nek, after being for twenty minutes under a hot fire were beginning to think they had had enough of it, when our lines ceased firing, and the mounted squadron advanced to take a hillock-  the most advanced spur of the Boer left flank position. The 58th also prepared to charge. The officers commanding the mounted squadron were Major Brownlow and Captain Hornby, while Colonel Deane, Major Essex (an  officer with a charmed life who survived Isandlwana and the engagement at the Ingogo heights). Major Poole, Lieutenant Elwes, and Lieutenant Inman were in front of the 58th. The leading companies of the 58th having got half-way up  the rise, a heavy business considering the slipperyness of the slopes- the first troop of the mounted squadron charged the kopje going to right and left of the lines taken by the 58th. No sooner were they in sight of the Boers than  they were greeted by a heavy fire that emptied half their saddles. Still, those who were left mounted, reformed in a pouring shower of bullets, and again charged. But gallantry was of no avail, for there was no reserve  to back up a charge of mounted troops. Seventeen men were killed and wounded, and thirty- two horses killed. The repulse of this charge took place just as the 58th gained sight of the foe, who, flushed with triumph,  could now turn their attention from the mounted troops to the right flank of the 58th. The men, worn out with their sufficiently arduous task of climbing, crushed together, in consequence of their not having been ordered to deploy  before making the ascent, dropped like nine-pins under the heavy fire of the Boers. Before the order to deploy could be carried out, volley after volley was delivered into their ranks, and an enfilading fire was opened by the Boers  on their right flank with disastrous results. Meanwhile the Boers were well under cover behind their sheltered trenches, and it was impossible, while the 58th were coming to closer quarters with them, to fire from the plains below  without risk to the assailants. As a natural consequence, therefore, the goers, skilled as they are in marksmanship, were able at their leisure to pick off each man as he approached. Seeing that the Boers were more  than a match for him, Colonel Deane resorted to the bayonet. But, just as the order was being obeyed his horse was shot under him. Rising again on the instant and crying "I am all right," to encourage his men, he rushed  on, heading on his regiment, and again fell, this time mortally wounded. Major Hingeston, who then took command, fell also, and his brother officers, Major Poole and Lieutenant Dolphin, shared the same fate. They were at that time  within some thirty yards of the enemy. So great was our loss that the charge could not be sustained, and many officers, who still persisted in emptying their revolvers on the enemy were severely wounded. At last there was nothing  for it but to fall back. The Boers, intoxicated with victory, now boldly came out from cover, and poured volley after volley on the retiring men. But for the guns at the base of the hill, which were now able to play on the enemy,  these must have been entirely swept away . So small was the margin between our men and the victors, that but for the nicety of this artillery practice many of the men of the 58th must have been accidentally killed. During the  retreat Lieutenant Baillie, carrying the regimental colours, was mortally wounded. Such magnificent deeds of heroism took place on this occasion that of themselves they would form an inspiriting volume. Lieutenant Hill  of the 58th earned the Victoria Cross by his repeated deeds of valour in saving soldiers under heavy fire. The whole force fell back towards the camp, the casualties amongst the 58th being seventy three killed and one  hundred wounded. A flag of truce was sent forward to the enemy, and both parties engaged in the sad work of burying their dead and removing the wounded. Very pathetic and very manly was the speech addressed by Sir  George Colley to the camp on the evening after the fight : "Officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, I have called together this evening, being desirous of saying a few words to you. I wish every one present  to understand that the entire blame of to-day's repulse rests entirely upon me, and not on any of you. I congratulate the 58th Regiment for the brave and noble manner in which they fought to-day. We have lost many gallant men, and  amongst them my intimate friend, Colonel Deane. (Emotion) I might say, however, that notwithstanding the loss of many troops to-day, we have not lost one atom of the prestige of England. It is my duty to congratulate Major Brownlow  on the gallant charge he made this day. Owing to the loss we have suffered, I am compelled to await the arrival of reinforcements, but certainly we shall take possession of that hill eventually, and I sincerely hope that all those  men who have so nobly done their duty to-day will be with me then.

Good night."