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THE DISASTER OF NICHOLSON'S NEK


The circumstances which attended the movements of Colonel Carleton's column are even now somewhat fraught with mystery. He carried Out the night march  unmolested until within two miles of Nicholson's Nek. Then some boulders, loosened evidently for the ptirpose, rolled down the hill, and a sudden crackling roll of musketry stampeded the infantry ammunition mules. The alarm  became infectious, with the result that the battery mules also broke loose from their leaders, practically carrying with them the whole of the gun equipment. The greater part of the regimental small-arm ammunition reserve was  similarily lost. In consequence of this misfortune, Colonel Carleton's small force, after a plucky fight and heavy loss, had to capitulate. The real truth about the affair may never be known, but for the lamentable result Sir  George White in an official dispatch, with heroic courage-greater perhaps than any required by warriors in the field-took upon himself the entire blame. The General knew well that the failure of his programme in the engagement  of Lombard's Kop had inevitably brought about the disaster to the isolated force.

The list of officers taken prisoners by Boers was as follows

Staff-Major W. Adye. 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fus~iers.-LieutenantColonel F. R.  C. Carleton; Majors F. H. Munn and C. S. Kincaid; Captains Burrows, Rice, wounded, and Silver, severely wounded; Lieutenants A. E. S. Heard, C. E. Southey, W. G. B. Phibbs, A. H. C. MacGregor, H. B. Holmes, A. L. J. M. Kelly,  W. D. Dooner, wounded; Second Lieutenants R.J. Ken tish, C. E. Kinab an, R. W. R. Jeudwine; Chaplain Father Matthews.

1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.-Majors S. Humphrey, H. Capcl Cure, and W. R. P. Wallace; Captains  S. Duncan and R. Conner, both slightly wounded ; Lieutenants A. Brvant, F. C. Nisbet, J. O'D. Ingram, R.M. M. Davy, C. S. Knox, W. A. M. Temple, A. H. Radice, F. A. Breul, W.L. B. Hill, P. H. Short; Second Lieutenants H. H.  Smith, W. S. Mackenzie, R. L. Beasley, Lieutenant and Quartermaster R. J. Gray. Royal Artillery Mountain Battery.-Major G. E. Bryant; Lieutenants Wheeler, G.R. H. Nugent, W. H. Moore, Webb (attached); Newspaper Correspondent,  J. Hyde.

Some details of their misfortune were given by the prisoners in Pretoria, and they serve to throw more light on the subject.

Colonel Carleton, as we know, was sent towards Nicholson's Nek to hold it and prevent the  Free Staters from coming to the assistance of the other Boers. Having lost his reserve ammunition and the water of all the battery through the stampede of the mules, he set to work to construct a defensive position. But stones  were scarce and the defences were slender, and by the light of dawn his position. was revealed. At this time a long-range fire was opened from three hills to south and west, dropping from 1500 yards into the position, and  taking it both in flank and in rear. From his observations Colonel Carleton discovered that General White's scheme had failed-that it was being abandoned. In consequence of this. failure the whole Boer force was enabled to  swarm from all directions towards the isolated column. Firing fierce and incessant, exhausted the already worn-out Irish Fusiliers, while the advanced companies cif the Gloucesters were severely mauled by the Martini bullets of  the enemy. The hill was now completely surroun~ed, the ammunition expended; still Colonel Carleton had no idea of giving in. The bayonet was left, and by the bayonet he meaint to stand or die. Suddenly a wounded officer ordered  the white flag to be raised. It was then hoisted, but uncertainty prevailed as to the authority for the exhibition of the flag, and some of our men still continued to fire. However, the mischief was done, and the surrender was  merely a matter of moments.

The most vivid account of the disaster, from an outsider's point of view, was given by the Times special correspondent at Ladysmith. He wrote:-"This column, consisting of six companies of the  Royal Irish Fusiliers, four and a half companies of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and No.10 Mountain Battery, left camp on Sunday night at 10.30, with the object of occupying a position from which it would be able to operate  upon the right of the Boer position on Pepworth Hill. The column was guided by Major Adye, of the Field Intelligence, and a staff of the headquarters guides. Their destination was Nicholson's Nek, a ppsition which, when  reconnoitred from this side, appeared to possess the necessary tactical advantages for a detached force. Nicholson's Nek lies about four miles up Bell's Spruit, a donga due north of Ladysmith. The men blundered along in the  darkness, the Irish Fusiliers leading, the battery in the centre, the rear being brought up by the Gloucester-shire Regiment. There seems no doubt upon one point, and that is, the enemy were aware of this part of the movement  from the beginning. Probably they were aware of the whole of the plans for Monday, for in Ladysmith it was impossible to say who was a Boer agent and who not. However that may be, it is certain that the enemy were on the flanks  of the column all night, one of the survivors positively stating that he constantly heard the snapping of breeches, and once the peculiar noise which a rifle makes at night when it is dropped.

"Two hours before daybreak,  while the column was in enclosed country, either a shot was fired or a boulder rolled into the battery in column of route. The mules stampeded, and easily broke away from their half-asleep drivers. They came back upon the  Gloucestershire Regiment, the advance party of whom fired into the mass, believing in the darkness that it was an attack. This added to the chaos; the ranks were broken by the frenzied animals, and they dashed through the ranks  of the rearguard, carrying the first and second reserve ammunition animals with them. It became a hopeless panic; the animals, wild with the shouting and the turmoil, tore down the nullah into the darkness, and the last that  was heard of them was the sound of ammunition-boxes and panniers as they were splintered against the boulders. The hubbub of those few minutes was sufficient to have alarmed the enemy. By a strenuous effort the officers  succeeded in getting the men again under control, and when daylight came they seized the first position which presented itself, and which was about two miles short of the original goal. They were forced to take advantage of the  first kopje, as Boer scouts were all round them, and the day was ushered in with desultory firing. It was a sorry position which they had chosen, and the men were in a sorrier plight. All their reserve ammunition was gone, and  though they had saved pieces of the screw-guns, they were not able with these pieces to patch up a single mounting.

"The position itself was a flat kopje commanded on the south by a selfcontained ridge. To the east was  another kopje, which commanded the top of the position at about 500 yards. On the west were two similar spurs, also commanding the position at short ranges. The summit of the kopje was a plateau, all the sides being gradual  slopes except the eastern, which was almost sheer, this latter being the side from which access had been gained. From below it appeared a defensible position, but when once the top was reached it was evident that it was  commanded from all sides. The men busied themselves attempting to build breastworks. The Gloucestershire companies, with their Maxim gun, were given the northern face to hold, two companies being detached on to a self-contained  ridge of the position which lay on the south side. The irish Fusiliers had the precipitous flank to defend.

"From earliest daybreak Boer scouts were reconnoitring, and about eight o'clock mounted Boers could be seen  galloping in small groups to the cover at the reverse of the hill on the west. Later two strong parties of mounted men took position on the far side of the two hills commanding the kopje from the west. About nine o'clock these  two parties had crowned the hills and opened a heavy fire at short ranges right down upon the plateau. Our men made a plucky attempt to return this fire, but it was impossible; they were tinder a cross-fire from two directions,  flank and rear. The two companies of Gloucesters holding the self-contained ridge were driven from their shelter, and as they crossed the open on the lower plateau were terribly mauled, the men falling in groups. The Boers on  the west had not yet de~ared themselves, but about 200 marksmen climbed to the position which the two companies of the Gloucesters had just vacated. These men absolutely raked the plateau, and it was then that the men were  ordered to take cover on the steep reverse of the kopje. As soon as the enemy realised this move. the men on the western hill teemed on to the summit and opened upon our men as they lay on the slope. They were absolutely hemmed  in, and what had commenced as a skirmish seemed about to become a butchery. The grim order was passed round-'Faugh-a-Ballaghs, fix your bayonets and die like men!' There was the clatter of steel, the moment of suspense, and  then the 'Cease fire' sounded. Again and again it sounded, but the Irish Fusiliers were loth to accept the call, and continued firing for many minutes. Then it was unconditional surrender and the men laid down their arms."

An officer of the Gloucestershire Regiment described the affair

"HOSPITAL, WYNBURG, 91' 111899.

"We were ordered out with six companies of Royal Irish Fusiliers and No.10 Mountain Battery, Royal Artillery, to  make a night march through the Boer lines and hold a hill behind their right flank till the rest of the troops took us off, which they expected to do about I I AM. As it turned out, they were not able to do this, but they did  keep the Boer guns employed, luckily for us. We started off at 8.30 P.M., and got to the foot of our hill about 2 A.M. The Royal Irish Fusiliers were in front, then the battery and S.A.A. mules, and last ourselves. The Royal  Irish Fusiliers had got part way up the hill-a very steep one-when three mounted Boers galloped down amid clouds of dust, rolling stones, &C They started off the battery and S.A.A. mules, the Boers firing as they passed.  The mules cut right through the regiment, and was chaos for a time.

"It was pitch dark, and the noise of the mules and the loads and the stores falling about was enough to put any one off: Several men were hurt, some got  in next day, some are missing.-Part of Stayner's, Fyffe's, and my company were cut off from the rest altogether, and when we got them in some sort of order, we had quite lost the rest of the column. The orders were to push on,  no matter what happened, and every one left to look out for himself. After some time trying to find the path, we came across a straggler, who told us which way the regiment had gone, and eventually we found them on tl;e top of  a hill. We were ordered, as soon as we got on the hill, to put up sangars, which we worked at by the light of a very small moon till daylight. Then the Boers began on us all round, not very many, till about half-past eighL From  then till 2.30 the fire was hot, and hottest at 2.30, when our ammunition being almost down and the fire devilish from all sides, we had to give in.

"I got a grazing shot on my left hand and a bullet in my right forearm  early (about 8.30 A.M., and two more grazers-right thigh and left elbow) later, finally, a bullet from behind through the right shoulder about a quarter of an hour before the end. I don't know who gave the order to 'Cease  fire,' The firing could not have gone on five minutes more on our side for want of ammunition, and the Boer fire was tremendous from all round. It was like 'magazine independent' at the end of field-firing. The astonishing  thing is so few were hit. If we had had our guns and ammunition, I think we could have held on until night and then got off; but there were 1200 of them, they said, to our 800, not counting gunners, and you could not till the  very end see a dozen of them. The way they take cover is simply wonderful. All the prisoners were marched off at once and sent by rail to Pretoria. It was a terribly hot day, and no shade or water except what the Boers gave us.  They were very good about water, giving us all they had, and fetching more from the bottom of the hill, one and a half mile away."

An officer of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, writing from Staatsmodel Schule, Pretoria, said  :-"We were all taken prisoners, together with the Gloucester Regiment and a Battery of Mounted Artillery, which accounts for us being in Pretoria so soon. As we were going up the hill in the dark, a small party of Boers  dashed through our ammunition mules, causing them to stampede. By this move we lost all our mules, 200 in all, and with them all our ammunition and artillery.

You don't know what it means shooting a Boer; he is behind a rock,  and all you can ever see is his rifle sticking out. For the last hour of the fight I had a rifle and ammunition which I took from a dead man, and blazed away for all I was worth. Then we fixed bayonets and prepared for a rush,  when the 'Cease fire' sounded. Our senior Captain has told me that my name has been mentioned to our Colonel, who was commanding the force, as having caused a lot of men to rally. We were all then taken prisoners, except two  officers killed and eight wounded, and marched to the Boer laager, and sent off that night to a station twenty miles distant in waggons. While we were in their laager they treated us extremely well, and gave us food and  tobacco. All you read about the Boers in England is absolutely untrue. They are most kind to the wounded and prisoners, looking after them as well as their own wounded, and anything they've got they will give you if you ask  them, even if they deprive themselves. We came up to Pretoria in first-class sleepingcarriages, and the way they treated us was most considerate, feeding us and giving us coffee every time we stopped. The day we arrived we took  up quarters on the racecourse, but we have been moved into a fine brick building with baths, electric light, &c. They provide us with everything, from clothes down to tooth-brushes. They also feed us, and we are constantly  getting presents of vegetables and cigars from private people. In fact, we can have everything we like except our liberty; for some reason or other they won't at present give us parole, and we are surrounded by sentries. There  are close upon fifty officers in this building, and they have got any amount of wounded ones in different places. They say they won't exchange the officers at any price.

As this letter had evidently to pass through the hands  of the prison censor, we may take the eulogies of the Boers for what they were wdrth! However, it is but just to own that there are Boers and Boers. For instance, it is a fact that Captain Gerard Rice, who was wounded in the  ankle and unable to move, offered a Boer half-a9overeign to carry him off the field. The man refused the money, but performed the action with great kindness.

Father L. Matthews, chaplain of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who was  captured at Nicholson's Nek on October 31 and subsequently released, gave the following version of the disaster

"We were sent out to occupy the position with the object of preventing the two Boer forces from joining. We  started at 8.30 on Sunday night, marched ten miles, and got to the hill at I A.M. The first mishap was that the mountain battery stampeded and scattered the whole lot of mules. We formed up again and gained the top of the hilL  The guns were gone, but not all the ammunition. I do not know what stampeded the mules. They knocked me down. It was pitch dark.

"We had one hour's sleep. Firing began just after daylight. It was slack for some time, but  the Boers crept round. Then the firing became furious. Our men made a breastwork of stones.

"After 12 o'clock there was a general cry of 'Cease fire' in that direction. Our fellows would not stop firing. Major Adye came  up and confirmed the order to cease fire. Then the bugle sounded 'Cease fire.' In our sangar there was a rumour that the white flag was raised by a young officer who thought his batch of ten men were the sole survivors.

"We were 900 alive, having started perhaps 1000. .I think that many of the battery men escaped. Our men and officers were furious at surrendenng. The Boers did not seem to be in great numbers on the spot, but I heard that  the main body had galloped off.

"The men had to give up their arms. The officers were sent to Commandant Steenekamp. The officers then ordered the men to fall in. The officers were taken away from the men and sent to  General Joubert. On the same day the officers went in mule-waggons and slept at some store en route, and next day took the train at Waschbank for Pretoria. The officers are very well treated, and so, I have heard, are the men.  There has been no unpleasantness in Pretoria. The officers are in the Model School, and are allowed to walk they please in the grounds.

"I think that the surrender was a great blunder; and was caused by a  mis-understanding. Major Adye was much put out. The white flag was not hoisted by the Irish Fusiliers."

Father Matthews puts the case mildly. Some of the officers of the Irish Fusiliers were so exasperated at the  exhibition of the white flag, that they set to work and smashed their swords rather than give them up.

The final figures of the losses sustained at Nicholson's Nek were as follows: The total of missing of the Gloucesters and  Royal Irish Fusiliers was 843. Thirty-two of the Gloucesters, 10 of the Fusiliers, and 10 of the Mountain Battery were found dead on the field, while 150 wounded were brought into camp at Ladysmith. Between 70 and 100 of the  men escaped and got back to camp.