1899 - 1902

Anglo

War

Anglo Boer War
Home Reasons/Intro Build Up Battles / Sieges Deaths VC's Photographs

THE THIRD GREAT EFFORT-VAAL KRANTZ


At this time it  seemed as though the word "As you were" had been spoken by the military authorities. But it was, alas! no longer possible to believe that the position was as it had been; for it was now a case of melancholy experience  plus previous melancholy experience. Nearly six weeks before, the great frontal attack at Colenso had failed-failed partly by reason of the tremendous strategical position taken up by the Boers,' with the river Tugela as a natural  moat for its protection, and partly on account of the disaster to the guns, which completely upturned the plan of Sir Redvers Buller's calculations.

Now a great flank movement had been attempted, and had failed as signally as the  first frontal effort. It was really discovered that a flanking movement, truly interpreted, was impossible, for there is no flank to a circle, and the Boer lines were found to be equally strong around from Colenso to Ladysmith.

This horrible discovery naturally made the situation very grave indeed. The effect on the garrison of Ladysmith-the terrible rebound from delighted anticipation to amazed despair-may be partly imagined. None, indeed, save those who  had so valiantly endured the terrible changes in the barometer of expectation could entirely gauge the sensitivity of those ill-fed, debilitated thousands, ravaged by disease, privation, and warfare, who hung oscillating day after  day between salvation and destruction. They now knew that their saviours, Sir Charles Warren and his force, were withdrawn to the south of the Tugela. This was done because the river forms a species of natural rampart, beyond which  the country, a species of South African Switzerland, offered no facilities to an attacking force. It was found that the Boers had carefully fortified every position already well formed by nature for purposes of defence. It was the  same as Colenso. The theatre of war was margined by fortifications, regular galleries, rising tier upon tier on originally favourable positions. The opportunity to occupy these fivourable positions the Boers owed entirely to us-to  the procrastination and pacific tendencies of the British Government. It was now owned thit Sir Alfred Milner should have gone to the Conference with a forest of rifles at his back, an army of mounted Colonials at his elbows, and  some big guns "up his sleeve." As it was, while he talked and the Government spent its money on telegraphic palaver, the Boers, assisted by their German mercenaries, were marking out the choicest positions, not for their  own defence, but for the defence of Natal (which they were allowed time to seize) against the "magnanimous" Briton. Yes, the Boers from the beginning had decided to talk the Briti~h into delay, and had profited gloriously  by their strategy. In our first volume, a letter on "Boer ignorance" candidly showed the Dutchman's hand-too late, of course, for then the trick was bound to be taken. The Dutchmen conferred with Sir Alfred Milner to suit  their own ends and to further their main objects; firstly, to keep the war outside their own territories, and secondly, to confine it to soil that, geographically and by a species of hereditary instinct, they knew to perfection.  They, boy and man, loved those kopjes. In those semicircular windings, those almost inaccessible peaks and cones, those boulders which afforded eternal cover to the sniper, those vast arenas of open veldt where an approaching enemy  might be stormed upon by a deluge of leaden hail-they had mentally played hide-and-seek for eighteen years. Now the reality of the game was come From the early days when Sir Harry Smith found them prospectir}~ the fair land of  Natal, they had learnt its intimate geography. We, to whom the fair land belonge4, bad barely heard of the Tugela or the region around it. To u~. it was superficially known only at the cost of dire experience. The Boers had been  aware that the British advance northwards through the Free State would lie across flat fair country, and knowing this, had decided that during the month taken to land the British army they must take up their positions beyond and  around it; and so excellent was their cunning, so amicably pacific the temper of the British nation, that they were enabled to follow their strategic programme in-its entirety - and plant themselves in firmly rooted masses to await  our arrival!

The problem of how to dislodge them and how to relieve Ladysmith was once more staring Sir Redvers Buller in the face with hard and unbending austerity. According to military experts, who viewed the plan of campaign  with dispassionate eyes, the fate of Ladysmith should have been left out of the calculations. The troops should have been massed to a common centre and at the south, and from thence boldly advanced into the Free State. But against  that opinion was the picture of the noble ten thousand inside a beleaguered town, a grand British multitude, who had been kept for months hoping against hope, fighting bravely, and praying of the Almighty to hasten the hour of  their deliverance. They would not be left. While he had men and guns the General felt he must go on. But how? Certainly not by the newer route. The recapture of Spion Kop was decided to be impracticable, and the force remained  stationary south of the Tugela while the complicated situation was reviewed.

The General, whatever his misfortunes, had lost none of the confidence of his troops. As he himself said of them, "The men were splendid."  They were disgusted at being a second time defeated without being beaten, and disappointed at again being forced back from the road to Ladysmith; but their steadfast faith in their chief was unalterable. Sir Redvers Buller again  addressed his warriors, promising them they should be in Ladysmith soon, and the men Britons to the core, again said in their hearts, "We shall."

To replace 16oo killed and wounded in the late actions, drafts of 2400  men had now arrived. A mountain battery, A Battery R. H. A., and two. fortress guns had strengthened the artillery, while two squadrons of the i4th Hussars had been added to the cavalry, thus bringing the strength of the force to  1000 more than the number which had started for Spion Kop. This was an imposing increase, but its value at the present time was much less than it would have been had Sir Redvers Duller originally taken the field with a proper  complement of men and guns. "To do the thing handsomely we want 150-000 men," a tactician declared at the onset; but nobody heeded him, and in consequence of this heedlessness the complications in Natal had arisen.

However," as a military officer expressed it, "there was not a sore head nor a timid heart in Duller's army. As we lie in our bivouacs at night, the Southern Cross and a thousand constellations watching over our slumbers,  we dream of the Angel of Victory, and in our dreams we hear the flapping of her wings."

The optimism of the army was undiminished. There was no doubt whatever that they would relieve Ladysmith, but the when and the how  remained as yet unsolved. The troops had not yet sustained actual defeat at the hands of the Boers, and, while our losses could be replaced, and were being replaced, the recuperative power of the Boers was nil. Indeed it was stated  that they had come to th& end of their resources, and that they were already forcing Ka&irs to fight for them in the trenches. Later on it was discovered that females even-true to the ancient sporting instinct of the Boer  woman-were lending a hand in the management of the rifle.

At last, after some days of deliberation, a third great attempt to reach the imprisoned multitude in Ladysmith was planned out. A week of waiting and then a new advance  was decided on. Seventy guns drew up in line on the hills to prepare the way for another gigantic move. This time Sir Redvers Buller's plan was to occupy a hill called Vaal Krantz and get forward between Spion Kop and the Doom  Kloof ranges. But after a very short yet valorous essay, it was discovered that there were veritably cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them. The Boers commanded the hills on either side the road through which the troops  must pass. Not only were there guns on both sides, but these Krupps and Creusot cannon far outranged anything that our artillery could bring to bear on them. The Naval guns alone were capable of not only barking but biting, and  these three were not enough to meet the formidable array of the Republicans.

On the 5th of February, however, the gallant attempt was made. The cavalry moved forward about 6 A. M.-one brigade under Colonel Burn-Murdoch advanced  to the right below Swartz Kop, themColonials under Lord Dundonald kept nearer to Potgieter's Drift, Sir Charles Warren with one brigade remained west of Mount Alice in a position conunanding the road leading to Potgieter's Drift.

The Naval guns meanwhile came into action, shelling the Boer positions, dongas, and trenches, and every imaginable hiding-place with immense energy, but with little resulL The Boers in their trenches were quiet, as usual reserving  tbemselyes for an effective outburst later on. Meanwhile the Lancashire Brigade (now under Colonel Wynne) were advancing in skirmishing order to. the tune of the mighty orchestra, while above an officer of sappers in the balloon  spied out the Boer haunts, and directed accordingly. By nine O' clock pandemonium was unloosed - lyddite bellowed, shrapnel clattered over the whole fortified face of Brakfontein, while the infantry steadily moved on. Fresently  from dongas and trenches, at ranges of 1000 yards and less, came the crackling of rifles, to which &ur troops responded by volleys now and again. Between these volleys they proceeded steadily, regardless of the uproar and the  fell work of the eternally active sniper.

While this feint attack was taking place on the left before the now flaming ridges of Brakfontein, a real and vigorous move was being made on the extreme right for the purpose of carrying  the crest of Vaal Krantz, which was then thought to be the key to the direct road to Ladysmith, and was not very strongly fortified by the Dutchmen. The Royal Engineers with immense energy set to work laying a pontoon bridge across  the treacherous depths in the direction of Skiet's Drift, an operation which had to be performed with infinite patience and pluck, as the Boers were no sooner aware of their activities than they plied their Mausers with a will.  This crossing-place, styled Munger's Ford, now attracted the attention of the whole Boer artillery, and the "pom-poms" and 4o-pounders of the enemy contrived to render the locality anything but an enviable place of  rendezvous. Our pieces, from their hiding-place among the trees in the neighbourhood of Swartz Kop, soon bombarded the Boer position with equal activity. By ten o'clock the bridge had been thrown across the river, and General  Lyttelton and his troops were preparing for the assault of Vaal Krantz. The artillery now made its finishing demonstration before Brakfontein, there being no necessity-now that the troops had come successfully across the pontoon  bridge-for a continuation of the feint attack. For this reason the Lancashire Brigade was now ordered to retire. The gallant fellows, having done what was required of them, marched back in excellent order to their original position.

All this while shells were shrieking, lyddite was bursting, and musketry crackling, till the whole earth seemed riven with an enormous convulsion. The gunners had some terrific experiences, and nobly, in a truly alarming  position, they comported themselves. They were on low ground, exposed without shelter to the Boer works, which dominated the plain; yet they pursued their labours with unerring care and intelligence that was truly remarkable. Shell  plumped in their midst, under the limbers, over the guns, above their heads, round their feet. They stuck to their duty. Horses dropped and shrieked in their agony, gunners fell shot through the heart and were carried away. Loudly  the vociferous chorus of death went on, steadily the gunners took their share of the fearful drama of destruction. To show the vast amount of "grit" that these gunners could boast, an incident of the day must be recorded.  About noon the batteries were ordered to approach nearer to Vaal Krantz and prepare the way for the infantry assault. The guns, ever under a scathing fire, moved off in due order to take up the fresh position on the right facing  Vaal Krantz. Finally they came to the last waggon, an ammunition waggon belonging to the 78th Battery R.A., which was horseless. The team had been wiped off by the enemy. Nevertheless the gunners put their shoulders to the wheel,  and, with a mighty effort, rofled the machine straight through the fiery hurricane to a place of safety! The conduct of the Jack Tars also stuck another feather in their already well-decorated caps. While the new balloon made its  descent it became an object of attention, and was saluted vigorously by the enemy. Nevertheless the sailors stuck to their work, held the basket, took possession of the truculent aerial vessel, and marched off with it under a  galling fire.

By-and-by, when Vaal Krantz had been thoroughly searched and swept by the British batteries, and the snipers from the base of Doom Kloof had been partially reduced to silence by the joint efforts of the artillery  and Hildyard's Brigade, Lyttelton's gallant band began to move off from the direction of Munger's Farm on the road to Vaal Krantz. It was now the early afternoon, but from all sides the deadly missiles of the enemy still bellowed  and hooted. Sti~ the Durham Light Infantry, with the 3rd King's Royal Rifles on their right, pushed steadily on-forward from the river and up the precipitous broken face of the hill. Cheering, they went, clambering and leaping, and  whether it was the menacing roar, or the suggestion it gave of coming steel that stirred them, certain it was that few of the foe remained to meet the charge.

The Boers saw them-heard them-gauged the meaning of the lusty British  cheer-and bolted. Scarcely any elected to fall victim to the bayonet Those who were there threw up their hands and appealed for mercy. These were promptly made prisoners, and the British, for the time being, reigned supreme on the  hill. But their reign had its discomfort.",. Dutchmen crowded the ground, west, east, and north of them, dosing them liberally with lead from their rifles, while their position was perpetually pounded by the big guns of the  enemy. These, vomiting on the eastern slopes of the hill, set fire to the grass and added to the discomforts of the position by surrounding it with appalling fumes, which choked and blinded, and destroyed the view of the Dutch  men's haunts. Nevertheless, the kopje once gained, the men rushed along the crest and entrenched themselves in a spot that looked as though it had been overtaken by a prairie fire. Our shells had effectually cleared the grass and  scrub. The gunners from the surrounding kopjes kept a sharp lookout, firing at the Boers as they brought up their guns from all directions, while General Lyttelto~ maintained his ground. Meanwhile efforts were made to get the  batteries forward to the hill, but the task was a difficult one, and the position was strengthened and enlarged in order to assist in the accomplishment of the desired object. Until guns could be mounted and made to defy the active  aggression of the "pom-poms," Creusots, and other deadly weapons of the enemy, there could be no hope of getting the troops and their baggage through to Ladysmith. At this tune an obstinate effort to gain lost ground was  made by the Republicans, but owing to the doughty resistance of the Scottish Rifles and the King's Royal Rifles, the attempt to dislodge them entirely failed. Towards seven o'clock a drizzling rain and darkness descended. The  troops which had gathered together between Swa~z Kop, Munger's Drift, and the newly acquired hill were forced to bivouac where they were for the night, Sir Redvers Buller and his staff remaining on the field with the men.

At dawn  on the 6th of February the Boers resumed their activity. Long Tom-the first to awake-with his big black snout snorted sonorously. Bang went a hundred-pound shell across the plain-helter-skelter flew the British Tommies, who were  enjoying their morning tea, and crash and splash went their delicious brew. Fortunately no serious harm was done. A few horses were killed. But after this began an artillery duel of vigorous nature. This was chiefly directed  against General Lyttelton's troops on Vaal Krantz. The Boers seemed everywhere, more ubiquitous than usual. From the lower crests of Spion Kop, from the peak of Doom Kloof, from the mountains commanding the road to Ladysmith, flame  vomited, and lead and steel and powder spouted and spluttered.

The fact was that during the night the Boers, in order to proceed with the work of defence, had set fire to more grass in the neighbourhood of the British position,  and utilised the illumination for the transfer of their guns from one place to another. Early, therefore, they were enabled to greet the camp with the roar of a Creusot gun and other weapons from all quarters playing upon the  position. Shells burst everywhere, some even reaching head-quarters. It was said that Buller, the imperturbable, welcomed them. Certainly his Spartan-like disregard of danger was rernarkable, and was responsible for the superb  nonchalance of those who served under him. Still, with his courage he displayed caution, the caution that only a courageous man would dare to display. He decided later on that his move was impracticable, thdt more lives should not  be spent in futile effort. Of this anon. While the Creusots and Krupps pounded the hill, the Boers strove their uttermost to regain their hold on the lost position. Meanwhile the Naval guns rumbled and rampaged, ammunition waggons  blew up, earthquakes filled the clear blue atmosphere with avalanches of dust, and one of the enemy cherished weapons on Spion Kop was knocked clean out of action.

Late in the afternoon, the worn-out troops of Lyttelton's Brigade  were relieved by Hildyard's men, who came in from a violent night-attack by the enemy. This in their usual gallant style was repelled by the East Surrey and the West Yorks-the veteran West Yorks, who had learned not a little from  Beacon Hill onwards.

On Wednesday the firing grew terrific. More guns were brought up, seemingly from the bowels of the earth; they were posted everywhere-another 6-inch Creusot gun, Maxim cannons, two 30-pounders, three  "pom-poms," in addition to the death-dealing weapons of the previous day. Shells hurtled and burst on hill and dale, mountain and valley, smoke, flame, and dust spouted forth, making the atmosphere dense, torrid, and  fearsome. Still Hildyard's dauntless brigade held their ground unflinchingly, while the Naval guns strove bravely, but strove in vain, to tackle the great snortin~¼crew of the opposition. It seemed as though the advance must be  accomplished not merely through a zone, but a sheath of fire, for the road to Ladysmith was barred from end to end, a sheer cul-de-sac, with flame and death for its lining.

Our troops during the whole day hung tenaciously to Vaal  Krantz, while the Dutchmen obstinately challenged their right to be there. But nothing appreciable was achieved, and evacuation seemed the wiser and more profitable course to pursue. By this time it began to be recognised that the  strategic value of Vaal Krantz for turning the Brakfontein position had been over-estimated, and that an advance would necessitate the routing of the Boers from Brakfontein and the taking and holding 0bf Doom Kloof, if our  communications through the valley were to be maintained.

There was no glory in trying to proceed in the teeth-nay, into the jaws-of so overpowering a foe, a foe who was on the eve of outflanking us. It would have been walking  into a fiery furnace-into the pocket of hell. Another council of. war took place. Retirement was suggested. General Hart, as distinguished for valour as General Lyttelton for brave discretion, proposed the storming of Doom Kop. He  and his were ready for everything: he had Ireland at his back. But Pat was not to be thrown away on an impossible undertaking, and consequently the majority had their way, and the retirement was effected. On Friday the whole  glorious persevering band were again across the Tugela, preparing to strike out in a fresh direction.

The following is the list of casualties between the 5th and 7th of February :-

Killed :-

1st Durham Light Infantry-Major Johnson Smith; Second Lieutenant Shafto.

Wounded -1st Durham Light Infantry-Lieut.~Colonel Fitzgerald; Captain Lascelles; Second Lieutenant Lambton; Second Lieutenant Appleby. 1st Rifle  Brigade~Captain TI;iorp; Captain Talbot; Lieutenant Blewitt; Lieutenant Ellis; Lieutenant Sir T. Cunninghame, Bart. 3rd King's Royal Rifles-Lieutenant Sims~: Royal Artillery-Lieut.-Colonel Montgomery, Captain Dawson, 78th  Battery R.F.A. 2nd Scottish Rifles-Second Lieutenant Ferrars. 2nd West Yorkshire-Second Lieutenant Bicknell 2nd East Surrey-Captain White R.A.M.C., Major Rose.