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THE ATTACK ON WAGON HILL


Our midnight ,surprises had not been without their lesson, and now the Boers conceived the brilliant, the desperate idea of emulating British example, and  bringing Ladysmith to her knees by assault in the small hours. Some three days before the event, a Kaffir deserter had warned the besieged that an attack was contemplated; that it had been decided among the Boers that a large  force must be nioved up from the neighbourhood of Colenso, and that a final assault at arms must be attempted. The warning was pooh-pcohed. Kaflir tales were almost as prevalent as flies! It was proverbial that night attacks to  the Dutchman were taboo - - they were dangerous, they tried the nerves, and cold steel glittered horribly in the moonlight. So Ladysmith slept. But as a matter of fact the Kaffir was right. These arrangements had taken place,  and two storming parties from the Heidelberg and Harrismith commandoes were promised immediate return to their homes if they should succeed in the hazardous enterprise. Accordingly, on the evening of the 5th of January they  arranged a plan which on Saturday the 6th they almost carried out. The main object of their attack, they decided, should be on the western side df the perimeter, where a crescent-shaped, flat-topped eminence divided them from  the town. At the south point of this crescent was placed Cesar's Camp, bounded on the east by the Klip River, and at the west point, a distance of some four miles, was a post known as Wagon Hill. Close to this was a twin  plateau called Wagon Hill West. Cesar's Camp was guarded by the Manchester Regiment, the 42nd Field Battery, and a Naval [2~pounder gun. Only half a battalion of 60th Rifles were on Wagon Hill, while two squadrons of Imperial  Light Horse were on Wagon Hill West. Against these positions the enemy decided to make their concentrated attack. The dark-some steeps were almost perpendicular, and afforded excellent cover for approach. In some respects they  resembled Majuba, where a man climbing up was almost invisible till he came face to face with his quarry. Some three hundred warrior-farmers of the Harrismith commando arranged secretly to gather in Fournier's Spruit, a dry  nullah which intersected the base of the position, and there wait till the gloom of the small hours should give them the chance they were expecting. Their plan was to divide in two columns. The one, under the Harrismith  Commandant, De Villiers, was to attack the steeps of Wagon Hill West, while the other, in concert, was to crawl to the nek or slope which united that hill with Wagon Hill proper, and thus cut off the former hill from the rest  of the camps. In this way, should the plan succeed, they hoped to make the southern peak of the hill, C~sar's Camp, untenable. Accordingly, divesting themselves of shoes, they started off; and under cover of darkness, like  stealthily slinking panthers, approached, from different points, the British lines. It so happened that a Hotchkiss gun and some Naval guns were being placed in position on the top of Wagon Hill West. Possibly these guns may  have tempted the enemy. They would be useful, they thought, to capture and turn on camp or town. All day and all~night the Royal Engineers and Bluejackets had been labouring to get the weapons into position, and at this hour  the party were taking a "breather" after their long and arduous efforts. With them, to cover their operations, were the King's Royal Rifles and the Gordon Highlanders, who occupied a post on the front and flank. The  fatigue party were resting, as before stated. Suddenly, in the stillness of the night, a curious and unusual sound was heard. The velvety sound of a muffled footfall. A crumbling as of broken earth. Ears pricked up. The sentry  at once cried out, "Who goes there?" "Friend," was answered, and the next moment the sentry dropped dead!

Curiously enough, while the beforesaid plan of attack was in course of being enacted, Lieutenant  Mathias was visiting his posts. In the obscurity he all at once found himself confronted by Boers on every side. With amazing presence of mind he faced about, and seeing that the Dutchmen mistook him for one of themselves,  acted as if he also were assaulting the hill. When near enough, however, he made a rush-a desperate rush--to warn the pickets of their danger. But he was too late. Two men were shot dead, whilst Lieutenant Mathias and a third  trooper were wounded. There was no help at hand, and before assistance could be summoned, the enemy were already sweeping the hill. But the sound df the first shots had given the alarm.

Instantly all was flurry and confusion.  Men that a moment before had been sleepily yawning after their heavy labours were racing hither and thither, groping in the darkness in search of arms. Others however, who were armed, forebore to fire, the felt hats of the foe  being mistaken for those of the Imperial Light Horsemen. With a desperate effort Lieutenant Digby Jones gathered together his sappers. Hurried shots were fired, hurried orders given, but nothing could efface the effects of the  sudden surprise. The Boers had gained the hill and driven the defenders over the crest! This all in a darkness that might have been felt. Such lanterns as there were had been overturned and extinguished in the hustle of the  stampeding Kaffirs, who had been assisting at the arrangement of the gun, and who, at the first approach of the enemy, had fled. Forks and flashes of flame shining from the nek between the twin hills showed that the second  column of the Dutch commando also was attaining its object. The gun, which fortunately had not yet been erected on the top of the hill, was instantly got to work under the direction of Lieutenant Parker; rifles were seized, and  an effort was made in the obscurity to sweep the hill in the direction where the enemy was supposed to be. But the Boers were completely enveloped in the darkness of the night, and it was impossible to locate them; and the  Hotchkiss gun was drawn back within the sandguard which had hurriedly been thrown up, only just in time. The Boers were now almost upon it. All the available men about Wagon Hill had instantly rushed to the rescue, and the  Imperial Light Horse, some King's Royal Rifles, and a few Gordon Highlanders were soon in the thick of the fray. The Highlanders, taking their place round the crest, fired, as hard as rifles would let them, down the slope. Some  fierce fighting followed. Before the Boers could get farther up, the Imperial Light Horse with their wonted gallantry engaged them, and sent the invaders helter-skelter down hill into the mysterious mists of the dawn. But this  was but for a moment-it was merely the commencement of affairs.

The whole garrison got under arms, not only the military, but every available man taking up some weapon to assist in withstanding the onslaught. It was felt to  be a desperate situation, desperate for both sides, for the enemy knew that something must be done, and that quickly, to prevent the pending arrival. of relief by Sir Redvers Buller, while the garrison, in face of reduced  rations, disease, dysentery, and decreasing amunition, was aware that it was a case of now or never. The alarm once given, Colonel Hamilton from the west had sent for reinforcements with amazing rapidity, and up came two and a  half companies of Gordon Highlanders from the base of Cesar's Camp, while one company under Captain the Hon. R.T. Carnegie started to support the Manchester pickets on Cesar's Camp, and a company and a half went to Wagon Hill.  It was while the Gordons were marching up and crossing the bridge of the Klip River that they met with their first mishap. Colonel Dick Cunyngham, only just recovered from his wound at Elandslaagte, was struck by a chance  bullet and fell mortally wounded. Major Scott then took the command. Presently came the Rifle Brigade and half a battalion of the first 6oth to the rescue, while the 21st Field Battery hurried to cover the western approaches to  Wagon Hill~ and the 53rd Battery took up a position to guard the most southern point of Cesar's Camp. But all this movement was not accomplished till much carnage had been wrought. As already mentioned, the Boers had nearly  achieved their object and cut off Wagon H ill West from Wagon Hill proper. By dawn they were straggling on the plateau connecting the two hills, merely checked in their further advance on Wagon Hill by the remnant of the Light  Horse. Firing at this time was so terrific and at such close range that it was impossible to move from cover and live. Bullets literally buzzed like bees in the serene morning air. On one side were the Boers making for the  second hill, on the other were the British struggling to ward them off. Meanwhile, trickling along through the Fournier's Spruit were arriving more desperate farmers, more picked men of skilled marksmanship and deadly purpose.  At this time reinforcements also arrived for the brave little ban& who were so gallantly resisting the Dutchmen. But even the additional numbers were insufficient, it was impossible to cope with the marvellous marksmanship  of the advancing horde,. They came ever nearer and nearer, firing thick and fast-and with explosive bullets. The Colonel, two Majors, 'and four other officers of the Light Horse dropped-the enemy seized the position-and from  thence it was impossible to dislodge them! To do this it would have been necessary to rush through some sixty yards of what seemed hell-fire-a perfect avalanche of death. Major Mackworth made the dashing effort, but in the very  act he was stricken down, and most of the gallant fellows of the 6oth Rifles who accompanied him. Another officer, Lieutenant Tod, pluckily attempted the same hazardous exploit. Twelve noble fellows followed him. Six were hit,  and the valiant young leader dropped dead before he had moved three yards from cover. Colonel Codrington (t ith Hussars), who was commanding a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, made a rush forward to as~ertain if it were  possible to get cover for his men, but before he had gone thirty yards, he too shared the fate of the other officers. These experiences were sufficient. It was decided that the best plan would be to wait under cover till dusk,  when the bayonet might be made to supersede the rifle.

While all this was taking place on Wagon Hill, a terrific drama was being enacted at Cesar's Camp; and exciting assaults, defeats, and re-assaults were following each  other on Wagon H ill West. Soon after dawn, the 52nd Field Battery, under Major Abdy, commenced to shell the slopes below Cesar's Camp, and keep the enemy from ascending in that direction. The operation was one fraught with  extreme difficulty, as the shells were forced to travel over the heads of our own men in order to effect a lodgment at the desired spot. But the work of the gunners was admirable, and the shells burst with a precision that  wrought awful destruction on the enemy. The whole of the eastern slopes of the hill were covered with dead Dutchmen lying amidst fragments of steel and iron in the blood-clotted grass. The scene around Ladysmith at this time  was appalling. Away in the direction of Wagon Hill, fiercely every inch of ground was being contested, and here the Naval guns and artillery were bellowing and roaring and sending their deadly messages all along the ridge of  Cesar's Camp, driving off the enemy, who came back again and again. There was a hard tussle, particularly for the Gordons and the Rifle Brigade. Their lives hung by a thread. The Boers were inflamed with either hope or  desperation, and, contrary to custom, advanced to death and destruction with dogged and, one may say, admirable pluck. Day broke and grew to its zenith, and still the fighting raged; still the (runs roared and snorted; still  the dust and dirt flew to the skies, coming down again to stop the mouths of gasping, dying men, and blind the eyes of those who, bloodstained and sweltering, were yet selling their lives at the dearest price that could be  asked.

Just as the fire was slackening, possibly from sheer fatigue on both sides, the heavily charged thunder-clouds burst over the position, and a terrific downpour of hail and rain scourged the contesting forces and  flooded the trenches. The Boers at this time had been driven to a corner like wolves at bay, and could not emerge without running the gantlet of a tremendous fire from the Ladysmith guns. Wet to the skin, the ground one vast  meadow of slush, the combatants still held on with grim tenacity, each side watching lynx-eyed, each being now almost mad with an insatiable and ferocious desire for victory.

The storm continued and grew. Instead, as  imagined, of relinquishing the fight, the Boers took courage from the tempest. The tornado from heaven only served to increase the tornado below! It seemed to suit the stormy state of human passions, to stimulate rather than  subdue. Under cover of the thunder and the swirl of the elements the Federals made one desperate onward rush, but the furious fire which met them from Volunteers and British Infantry hurled them back and sent them spinning in  heaps or rushing with howls down the hill. The 53rd Battery swept the bush country with a storm of shrapnel, and away to cover they went, and with them their reinforcements, who had been hiding in the neighbouring nullahs,  waiting for the great, the final hour of triumph.

So much for Cesar's Camp. On Wagon Hill before noon the Devons, with their gallant commander, had come to the forefront, Colonel Park again leading them to renewed success. As  we know, the Boers were already on the hill, and the Gordons, who had lost their officers, were falling back when Major Milner Wallnutt rallied them. The enemy were soon removed from the emplacement which they held; but they  rushed towards the west, and were there as dangerously fixed as ever. About two o'clock the most horrible moment of the fight arrived. The hill that had been the subject of such eager contest was again attacked, this time by a  small but desperate body of Dutchmen. De Villiers, their Commandant, made a wild forward rush to secure the position. In an instant Major Wall nutt and a sapper were shot dead, but the rest of the sappers magnificently fronted  the invaders with fixed bayonets. Presently the brilliant youth, the hero of the Surprise Hill affair, Lieutenant Digby Jones, R.E., led them forward, shot De Villiers, and dropped! A bullet had sent him home to his last  account. The hoary-headed Burghers were stayed in their onward march by the splendid action of the noble boy, who so many times had risked his young life in the service of his country. At this juncture up came a dismounted  squadron of the 18th Hussars, and the situation was saved. The plateau was reoccupied.

But even then all was not over. The great, the supreme effort to recapture Wagon Hill came at four o'clock in the afternoon. The lightning flashed, the thunder rolled, the hail clattered and splashed, the guns blazed, vomited,  and growled, and the silky whistle of bullets made a flute-like treble to the awful orchestra of sound. In the midst of the uproar the Boers again obstinately advanced up the heights, firing deliberately as they came. On their  heads poured the wrath of the British guns, and among their numbers rained the ceeseless bullets of the Infantry; but they steadily moved up, doggedly determined once more to reach the crest of the hill. They came nearer and ever  nearer till, on a sudden, they flung themselves upon the Devons, who, cheering wildly, rushed into their midst and dispersed them. One short moment-one wild, valiant rush, and then-then the trusty British bayonets dripped with  gore, and the Boers-all that were left of them, a racing, disorganised rabble-surged madly down the hill!

The worst was over; the British conquerors rushed after the retreating foe. The Devons, led by their intrepid commander, charged down the slope, and this time, with a wild exultant yell-which echoed like a tocsin among the  caves and the boulders and the honeycombed banks of the river-effectually drove the fleeing herd from the scene of carnage.

The lost ground was recovered, but the lost lives. . . . Yes; they, too, live in the glorious annals  of British history.

Captain Lafone, Lieutenants Field and Walker were among the slain; and Lieutenant Masterton was wounded. The splendid charge cost the Devons all the company officers - fifteen killed and forty wounded!.

It was a dreadful seventeen hours' work. Not a soul but had his duty, and more than his duty, cut Out for him. The jolly Jack Tars stood to their guns from morn till night, blazing away with marvellous accuracy and precision,  while the gallant Natal Police, Natal Carabineers, and Mounted Rifles were wedged between the Boers from Mount Bulwana and the rest of their attacking party, and signally defeated all their efforts to effect a junction. The  Manchester Regiment, the Border Regiment, a detachment of Mounted Rifles, the Gordon Highlanders, and the Rifle Brigade defended the east of Cesar's Camp like heroes, while on the west, as we know, the Imperial Light Horse,  more Gordon Highianders, the Devon Regiment, the King's Royal Rifles, and a Naval detachment did glorious deeds. The Naval Brigade and the Natal Naval Volunteers occupied a central position, while three batteries of- the Field  Artillery were perched on a hill, and one remained on the ground below. All these were called upon to act with might and main to avert the pending calamity, to meet the stubborn, mulish persistency of the Boers with its match  in British bulldog obstinacy, and show the enemy that with all the odds against them the besieged would never surrender. Valiantly-almost miraculously-they held their own. They who for months had been exposed to privation of  all kinds, who had fought engagement after engagement, who had eaten, drunk, and slept with the shadow of death hanging over them, knowing that at any moment the caprice of fate might make them victims to the incoming shells or  threatened disease, came out with enfeebled frames, but wills of iron, determined to conquer or to die.

Elsewhere there had also been bloody doings. The enemy had even tried to force their way into the town, and from here  they were chased by the gallantry and daring of the Gloucester, Leicester, and Liverpool Regiments. The Boers were forced to retire, but even in their retirement they showed characteristic "slimness," as they made  their way in line with the neutral camp at Intombi Spruit, and thus defied the British to fire upon them. Nor was this the only example of their ingenious mode of self-defence on that day. Their "slimness" was carried  on on every available opportunity. For instance, a party of the enemy, under cover of darkness of the early morning, had got almost within touch of Lieutenant Royston, who at once called on the Border Mounted Rifles to fire.  They were in the act of doing so when a voice rang out, "Don't shoot. We are the Town Guard." No sooner, however, had the order to "Cease fire" been heard than crack, crack, ping, ping, a volley was at once  poured on the Colonials. Several of their number dropped, but the rest, exasperated beyond endurance at the hateful duplicity, charged into the midst of the enemy, leaving scarce one of them to tell the tale.

These tricks and  dodges set aside, the Boers fought more pluckily than was their wont, and they, cheered on by their dauntless Commandant, De Villiers, came to such close quarters that Colonel Hamilton had recourse to his revolver. Among the  first of the gallant defenders to drop was the glorious, heroic figure of Colonel Dick-Cunyngham. He was seen standing on the road-bridge in the act of leading his men, and was struck by some sharp-shooting Boer. By seven  o'clock in the morning numbers of other splendid fellows had fallen, and the air of Ladysmith was rent with the cries and groans of the dying, who thickly strewed the ground.

Lord Ava, orderly officer to Colonel Hamilton,  fell mortally injured,' and Colonel Edwards's wound was also severe.

With his own hands he shot three of the enemy, and clubbed a fourth, but for his gallant conduct, which doubtless would have been rewarded with a V. C., he  paid later on in the day with his life. One gallant young trooper of the Imperial Light Horse had strange experiences. He, with only a sergeant, was among the first to meet the Boers. In the dusk of dawn the sergeant fell, and  the trooper was wounded. He recovered his senses sufficiently to try and creep to cover. A shower of rain drenched him, then the sun blazed out mercilessly and scorched him. Worn out, he decided he would stagger to the Devons  and get support, but, battered as he was, they failed to recognise him, and arrested him as a spy!

Numerous deeds of amazing valour were performed, so many indeed that they deserve a separate record without the limits of the  narrative. But the story of the' heroic Bozeley cannot be omitted. During the action there was ~ sergeant in command of one of the guns sitting rather doubled up on the trail of his gun. A 4.7 shell took off his leg high up on  one side, and took the arm out of the socket, and he fell across the trail of the gun, as they thought, an inanimate, speechless mass. But to the astonishment of every man amongst'them, a voice came from the mass inciting them  on to their duty, and saying: "Here, you men, roll me out of the way, and go on working the gun."

The list of casualties was a grievously long one :-

Killed -5th Lancers-Second Lieutenant W. H. T. Hill. 23rd Corps

Royal Engineers~Lieutenant R. J. T. Digby Jones, Second Lieutenant

G.B. B. Dennis. 1st Devonshire Regiment-Captain W. B. Lafone, Lieu-tenant H. N. Field, Lieutenant C. E. M. Walker, 1st Somerset Light Infantry (attached).  Imperial Light Horse-Lieutenant William F. Adams, Lieutenant John Edward Pakeman. 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps~Brevet~Major F. Mackworth, 2nd Royal West Surrey Regiment (attached). 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps~Major R. S.  Dowen, Lieutenant M. M. Tod, 1st Cameronians

(attached), Second Lieutenant F. H. Raikes. 2nd Gordon Highlanders-Major C. C. Miller Wallnutt. 2nd Rifle Brigade-Second Lieutenant L. D. Hall.

Wounded:~Staff-Captain Earl of Ava dangerously (died January 11). Intelligence Department~Local Captain H. Lees-Smith, slightly. 5th Lancers -Captain E. 0. Wathen, slightly. Imperial Light Horse~Lieutenant-Colonel A.H.  M. Edwards, 5th Dragoon Guards (attached), s]ightly, Major W. Karri Davis, slightly, Major D. E. Doveton, dangerously (died February 14), Lieutenant W. R. Codrington, 11th Hussars (attached), dangerously, Lieutenant J,.  Richardson, 11th Hussars (attached), severely, Lieutenant Douglas Campbell, dangerously, Lieutenant P. H. Normand, slightly. 1st Devonshire Regiment~Lieutenant J. Masterson, severely. 1st Manchester Regiment-Major A. E.  Simpson, slightly, Captain A. W. Marden, slightly, Captain T. Menzies, slightly, Second Lieutenant E. N. Fisher, severely. 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps-Lieutenant R. McLachlan, severely. 2nd Gordon  Highlanders~Lieutenant~Colonel W. Dick-Cunyngham, severely (died January 7), Captain Hon. R. Carnegie, severely, Lieutenant W. Macgregor, severely. 2nd Rifle Brigade-Brevet Major G. Thesiger, severely, Captain S. Mills,  dangerously (died February 2), Captain R. Stephens, severely, Captain H. Biddulph, slightly, Second Lieutenant C. E. Harrison, slightly. 5th Lancashire Fusiliers-Lientenant F. Barker, attached Army Service Corps. Natal  Mounted Rifles---Captain A. Wales, slightly, Lieutenant H. W. Richardson, slightly. Volunteer Medical Staff~ Lieutenant R. W. Hornebrook, slightly. Royal Army Medical Corps-Major C. G. Woods, slightly.

On the following day-Sunday-in the Anglican Church, a thanksgiving service for victory was held, and all who were able attended the solemn function. At the close of the simple yet impressive service General White and his  staff stood at the altar rails while the Te Deum was performed, and this was afterwards followed by the singing in thrilling unison of the National Anthem. Round the Chief were the men who have fought by his side through many  days of sore trouble-each hour an eternity in its experiences. The well-known forms of General Sir Archibald Hunter and General Ian Hamilton were in evidence, but some, alas! of that goodly company would never be seen again. In  the Town Hall close by, and in the adjacent hotels and dwellings, honest manly souls were breathing their last, and others had already taken their flight to where the great thanksgiving service of creation goes on for ever and  ever.

Among these last was a man who was the pride of his sex and an ornament to his profession, Colonel Dick-Cunyngham V.C. Wounded previously from his second blow he never rallied, and on this sad Sunday passed away.

In a  few words the Daily Telegraph summed up the surprising qualities of the heroic figure that had so lamentably passed from society as from the scene of war: Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Cunyngham was the beau-ideal of a Highland  officer, and there was not a man or woman in the world who had a bad word to say about him. His heart was as true as steel, and his manner was courtesy itself. In his kilt and bonnet, a moustache that was so light that it was  nearly white telling against the bronze of his face, and with a mountaineer's figure, he was a man who caught every artist's eye at once, and he has figured without his knowledge, again and again in pictures and illustrations.  At Shirpur he first gave proof of his great gallantry by rallying the men when for a moment they wavered; at Majuba he was the officer who asked permission to charge. Elandslaagte and Ladysmith are the last two names in his  long record of heroism."