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THE FIGHT ON BEACON HILL  - WILLOW GRANGE


Some definite action was now bound to be attempted, for after the evacuation of Willow Grange the investment of Estcourt was practically complete. The enemy,  some 7000, with eight big guns and led by the Commandant-General, had taken up a strong position about six miles south of Willow Grange. There was nothing now between him and Maritzburg but the force at Mooi River, and, in  fact, there was no knowing how soon he might overrun the whole colony of Natal.

The curious entanglement of military operations at this time formed a puzzle that, had the British not been too gravely interested, would have  afforded them entertainment. The rules of no known military war game could be applied to the situation, and its uniqueness was a matter as incomprehensible to the tactician as to the ignoramus. For instance, from Maritzburg to  Ladysmith one side alternated with the other at intervals along the line. There were British troops at Maritzburg, Boers at Balgowan; British at Mooi River, Boers at Willow Grange; British at Estcourt, Boers at Ennersdale;  British within Ladysmith, and Boers without. To the Commander this complicated sandwich of friend and foe must have been most confounding, and the upshot of the war, even by experts, could no longer be hopefully foretold.

Sir  George White was surrounded at Ladysmith, General Hildyard at Estcourt, and General Barton at Mooi River, and the Boers seemed able, after detaching troops sufficient to form three forces, consisting in all of about 17,000 men,  still to be going onward with 7000 odd towards the sea.

During the afternoon of the 22nd of November a column moved out of camp in the direction of Beacon Hill to check the Boer advance. No sooner had they started than a  tremendous down-pour of rain accompanied by heavy thunder began to transf6rm the whole earth into one huge morass. Naturally the already heavy task of marching was made doubly severe; but the splendid "Tommies"  nevertheless plodded steadily oyer five miles of undulating ground, always steep. in parts, and now terribly slippery from slush. Torrents continued to fall, accompanied by large hail stones, but still the troops moved on,  arriving eventually at the foot of Beacon Hill where the Boer camp was situated, and beginning with steady and dogged steps to climb. Rivulets swollen by rain were successfully crossed, swamps negotiated, and massive boulders  stumbled over. The force, which consisted of the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, half 2nd Battalion of Queen's, seven companies 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment, and the Durham Light Infantry, on reaching its  destination, bivouacked for the night. A Naval I 2-pounder gun was placed on the summit of the hill, and the 7th Battery Royal Field Artillery was also in position. These forces were under the command of Colonel Kitchener, who  was directed to make a midnight attack and seize the enemy's guns and laager. The Border Regiment from Estcourt was to arrive in the morning and assist in the operations.

Unfortunately the troops, while taking up their  position at the base of Beacon Hill, were discovered by the enemy, who at once blazed out with their artillery. Thereupon the Naval gun from its post on the hill snorted defiance, and from this time the Boers remained on the  alert. Nevertheless in the grey gloom of the early dawn the ascent was begun, the West Yorks, supported by the Queens and East Surreys, struggling to the summit over steep and rocky ground. From the base of the hill on the left  flank of the enemy's position a wall led straight to the crown, and this wall and the absence of beaten tracks helped to make the already hard task additionally arduous. However, by patience and perseverance the crest of the  hill was at last gained, and the troops, with a lusty cheer, cleared out some 150 Boers at the point of the bayonet. These with remarkable agility fled to a second position, on which the bulk of their force was situated. So  precipitate was the flight that thirty horses were left behind and captured, together with saddlery and camp equipment. The West Yorks then took up a position on the hill behind a barricade of stones.

Meanwhile hard work  during the afternoon and night of the 22nd and 23rd had been taking place in other directions. The Naval gun, supported by the Durham Light Infantry, with the greatest difficulty had been transported over the veldt, and lugged by  sheer force of muscle up the almost inaccessible mountain. The route of the strugglers lay either across sponge or rock, and the choice was not exhilarating. The 7th Battery of Field Artillery also toiled manfully in bringing  guns up the steep incline.

When the day broke, the enemy opened fire from the surrounding kopjes, and the Yorks finding the Boers had to an inch the range of their position, were then forced to retire. A heavy Boer gun had  bee~posted on a hill to west of Willow Grange Station, and this murderous weapon blazed away at the infantry with unabated zeal, though our guns warmly returned the fire. The Boer shells did practically no damage, while our  shots from the Naval gun failed to reach the hostile quarters, its range being shorter than that of the Boer weapons. However, the object of the reconnaissance was attained, namely, to prevent the enemy from taking up certain  positions overlooking Estcourt and from spreading farther to the south. The mounted troops, under Lieut.Colonel Martyr, were directed to co-operate at daylight by a movement towards Willow Grange Station, and subsequently to  patrol towards Highlands. Bethune's Mounted Infantry Regiment was directed to operate on Colonel Kitchener's right flank. The troops under Lieut.-Colonel Martyr, after holding a party of some 300 Boers south of Willow Grange, moved to the support of Colonel Kitchener's left flank, where  they did valuable service in helping him back and assisting to get the wounded of the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment down the hill. The troops, after being under arms from 2 P.M. on Wednesday 22nd to 5.30 P.M. on Thursday  23rd of November, gradually returned into camp. The 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was the last to retire. During the movement the Border Regiment, Durham Light Infantry, and Natal Royal Rifles held Beacon Hill,  supported by the 7th Battery of Artillery. The Imperial tight Horse, Carabineers, Natal Police, and King's Mounted Infantry took conspicuous parts in the engagement. The Volunteers, by their well-directed volleys, compelled the  enemy to remain at a respectful distance. General Hildyard commanded, and Colonel Kitchener, Lieut.-Colonel Martyr, and Major Mackenzie of the Carabineers did yeoman service. A curious feature of the fight was the fact that  Boer women must have been engaged on the hill, as some of their side-saddles were captured among the guns, ammunition, blankets, &c., seized by the West York, when the Boers were routed from the hill-top.

Many acts of  gallantry and devotion were performed, especially by Lieutenant Nicholson, Corporal Wylde, and Private Montgomery. Private Montgomery, though shot through the thigh, went on firing, and when shot through the other thigh,  refused to be taken to the rear for fear of exposing the stretcher-bearers. Major Hobbs was made prisoner while attending to a wounded man. General Hildyard especially commented on the valorous behaviour of Lieutenant Davies,  Mounted Infantry Company, King's Royal Rifles. This young officer, under a heavy fire, dismounted, disentangled the reins of a horse he was driving in front of him, and assisted one of his men, who had lost his horse, to mount  and escape. Lieutenant James, Royal Navy, who commanded the Naval gun, greatly distinguished himself in his efforts to reach the enemy's position, in spite of the persistent attentions of a Creusot gun which had the range of  him. Captain Bottomley, Impenal Light Horse, rescued several of the wounded under a heavy fire, and Lieutenant Palmer, R.A.M.C., while attending the sufferers, was taken prisoner. He was subsequently released. An amusing story  was told of a trooper who was found to have shot a very smart Boer, dressed in the regulation coat and polished leather boots. '' He was, explained Tommy, '' such a swell of a tofi; that one couldn't help potting him." One  of the West Yorks also viewed life with much pluck and some jocosity. Though hopelessly shot through the neck, with the bullet emerging in his left eye, he still demanded tobacco, saying, "Ah wor varry near killed befoor  wi' fallin' off a house, but ah'm noan dead yet, and ah'm noan bown to dee." Let us hope the plucky fellow lived to give his doctors the lie. The glorious behaviour of all men of the West Yorks was especially eulogised.  They conducted themselves heroically; and those of the 2nd Battalion East Surrey behaved with great gallantry under most trying circumstances.

During the fight tieutenant Bridge, R.A., attached to the Imperial Light Horse,  under a heavy fire of both shot and shell rushed to a wounded man of the West Yorks, picked him up, slung him over his shoulder, and brought him to a place of safety. Trooper Fitzpatrick, I.L.H., brother of the author of  "The Transvaal from Within," and a prominent member of the Reform movement-specially referred to in General Hildyard's despatch-was killed while gallantly helping to save a wounded man. The West Yorks' ambulance had  just been reached when the poor fellow was caught by a bullet in the back of the neck. He was buried in the afternoon with military honours, his body being carried to the grave by his comrades. Our loss was estimated at eleven  killed and sixty wounded.

This highly successful night attack was, strategically speaking, of prodigious value. The hostile hordes that were advancing to the south with the intention of overrunning the Colony of Natal were  summarily disposed of; their treatment at the hands of Colonel Kitchener and his small force being such that they preferred not to try conclusions with him again for some time to come. They at once took themselves off to  Colenso, and in a very short space of time the telegraph lines and rails between Weston, Estcourt, and Frere were restored. The arrival of the first trains in camp was greeted with uproarious cheers.