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(MAY AND JUNE, 1900: A DIARY OF AN IRREGULAR CORPS)
'But Agricola was so unassuming that the Man in the Street (who is, to a certain extent, inclined to judge public men according to their own powers of selfadvertisement) soon began to wonder why he had any reputation at all.'-Tacitus, Agricola, 40.
FROM Ladysmith to Dundee there is but one great strategic position. The Biggargsberg range of mountains, running at right angles to the frontiers of Natal, was a huge natural barrier to the advance of the Natal Army. In formation it is like the South Downs, although of vastly greater altitude, and, stretching from the Drakensberg to the Buffalo River, it cuts Northern Natal from east to west, unbroken at any point except by the gorge of Glencoe.
It is a smooth, sloping steppe, along the summit of which General Buller's enemy, 1,500 feet above him, lay entrenched.
On the 7th of May the long-anticipated advance of the Natal Army from around Ladysmith and Elandslaagte took place. It was in co-ordination with Lord Roberts's movement in the Free State, and Lord Dundonald's brigade of mounted men covered the entire march of the main column, which seized the Biggarsberg and Drakensberg positions and finally cleared Natal of invaders.
Moving on the 7th of May from around Elandslaagte, on the 9th the head of the Army arrived at the drift of the Sundays' River, and on the 10th Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry reconnoitred eight miles in a northerly direction and occupied the high hill of Indoda, which had been the outpost position of the Boers for the previous two months, and which overlooks a great area of surrounding country.
On this day General Buller himself joined the column, and in the morning of the 11th the advance was resumed, the mounted men covering the front, guarding the flanks, and holding Indoda-the pivot of the day's march.
On the 12th of May the force arrived at Vermaak's Farm, which, facing the eastern end of the Biggarsberg Range, lies just below, and to the south of the village of Helpmakaar on the summit of the range, and some eight miles south-west of a pass or 'col' where cross-roads leading eastwards to Pomeroy, westwards by Helpmakaar
to Dundee, northwards to Rorke's Drift, and south-westwards to Ladysmith, top the range of the Biggarsberg.
It was this crossing of the roads which was destined by the general to be the hinge of his turning movement of the formidable Boer position. It was his intention that Colonel Bethune's mounted column, which had been operating near Zululand, should attack from the east-from Pomeroy-and that the main force should simultaneously attack from the south and south-east, a concerted movement the success of which depended on the combination and the leading of the mounted men; for, should Colonel Bethune move too soon, he might expose himself to a reverse easily dealt him, and, on the other hand, the main column would attack under unfavourable conditions if Colonel Bethune did not punctually co-operate and swing round the Boer left. Moreover, the fact that the force appeared on the 12th of May around Vermaak's Farm seemed to the Boers on the Biggarsberg to be a threat to assault their position at that same point at which General Yule had descended from Dundee in October. It did not seem to imply any intention on the part of the General to try and force his way up beyond Helpmakaar, a circuitous route. Consequently, no attack from that direction was anticipated by the Boers who awaited it around Beith, through which the Dundee column had retreated, and thus General Buller's enemy was deceived.
It was midday on the 12th of May when the main force went into bivouac at Vermaak's Farm, but the Mounted Infantry 'stood to their horses' throughout that day ready to reinforce the threatened outposts of the Natal Volunteers, and at dusk they took up their positions around the camp as night picquets.
Throughout that dark night the Boers set alight the grass covering the smooth slopes of the steep Biggarsberg Range, which blazed in a wall of flames all along their front from Beith to Helpmakaar, a striking sight, the beauty of which the night picquets had little inclination to appreciate.
With the daylight of the 13th of May, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry marched out of camp, covering the column, and occupied the edge of the high ground above Vermaak's Farm overlooking the deep valley which lies at the very foot of the Biggarsberg. Then they scouted slowly down into the low ground, and the Boers opened fire with heavy artillery from above near Beith on the British transport which was descending the rise behind. The naval guns answered, eventually silencing' the Boer artillery, while the screen of mounted men covered themselves in a deep gorge near the bottom of the valley. To the right of the point now reached by the mounted men, and eastwards of Helpmakaar, the Biggarsberg Range bends in an amphitheatre of steep grassy hills of similar formation. This amphitheatre is shaped like a gigantic horseshoe, near the ends of which
lie Helpmakaar on the west and Pomeroy on the east, while in the centre is the pass where the high roads cross. Jutting out southwards from the range near Helpmakaar (and at right angles to the range) is a short ridge of equal eminence which culminates in the high hill of Uithoek. It was seen that this hill of Uithoek dominates alike the valley behind it and the range near Helpmakaar in front, and that to seize and to hold it would be to push the thin end of a wedge into the Boer position.
Captain Farquhar's company galloped along the valley and climbed the arduous slopes of Uithoek, hastily occupying the top at about eleven o'clock without opposition, and as soon as their comrades were seen to be safely established on the summit the rest of the regiment galloped eastwards through the valley in the direction of Pomeroy, swinging round the slopes of Uithoek. As they moved forward, the main force of Boers which had been awaiting attack around Beith appeared along the sky-line of the range, also galloping eastwards in the direction of Pomeroy. They had now realised their mistake, and were hoping to be in time to guard their left flank. For some minutes it was a race. The Dutchmen hastening along the range 2,000 feet above, the British galloping over the broken ground in the valley below-neither pausing to fire, although within artillery range were both struggling to gain possession of the ground above the cross-roads, for both now realised the fact that whoever held the high ground between Helpmakaar and Pomeroy held the key of the Biggarsberg-held the whole of Upper Natal. It was now that the excellent leading of the mounted men caused the utmost advantage to be taken of this error on the part of the enemy. The Boers and the Mounted Infantry raced each other—the former on the sky-line above, the latter in the valley below. As they neared the base of the range where the steep main road climbs towards the cross-roads on the pass, the Mounted Infantry halted, and here they saw the scouts of Colonel Bethune's column, who, punctual to the moment, appeared above the eastern end of the amphitheatre of hills, swinging round in perfect line with Thorneycroft's men. Seeing that conjunction of the united force had been executed so happily, both leaders took up the race again, and galloped their men as hard as horseflesh could move direct for the sky-line of the range. The main body of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry dashed straight up the steep road which leads to the pass from the south-east; Bethune's men galloped along the ridge line from the east; while Captain Farquhar's company, handing over the hill of Uithoek to the Infantry behind them, pushed along from the south on to the main range itself.
Just below the cross-roads, the main body of the Mounted Infantry jumped off their panting ponies, and in extended order ran behind their giant Colonel up the last slope.
Bethune's men, now dismounted, continued the line on their right, and thus the whole hilltop was swept, and the Boer trenches on the summit facing east, which had been rendered untenable by the possession of the hill of Uithoek (whence an enfilade fire could be brought upon them), were occupied by the Mounted Infantry under sniping fire from parties of the enemy who were just too late on the hilltop, and who fell back to ground behind Helpmakaar Village.
And so the formidable Biggarsberg, the last Boer position in Natal, had been adroitly turned. History must record that the generalship which had devised so excellent a combination of movements, so admirable a use of 'ground,' had been as conspicuous as the leading of the Mounted Infantry, which executed the General's plan without a hitch; and justice compels the comment that this operation never received that measure of public approbation which its conception, its execution and its results alike merit.
What the Boers called the 'Gibraltar of Natal,' a position entrenched at every point, and of a natural impregnability almost as great as the Tugela position, greater than the positions of Gravelotte or Wörth, had been seized at the cost of some ten casualties. This was the price of clearing Upper Natal of invaders from the Sundays' River up to Dundee. The public at home, fascinated by the more dramatic spectacle of the march of the main Army in the Free State, could afford but scanty notice of these dispositions of the General, of this adroit seizing of a position formidable by nature and by art. To those who knew the Biggarsberg Mountains, the cheapness of the victory was in itself a guarantee of the excellence of the tactics; but the public at home demands that blood be the price of glory.
As soon as the Mounted Infantry had established themselves upon the summit, a heavy rifle fire was brought to bear on them from the rocky ground behind Helpmakaar; and a 'pom-pom' opened from a knoll above the village. The Colt guns of the South African Light Horse which now came up struggled with the 'pom-pom,' and the splendid Chestnut Battery, which arrived a little later, came under a heavy and accurate fire. Shortly afterwards, the Infantry arrived and relieved the mounted men, who fell back from the Boer trenches to the eastern edge of the hilltop under fire from two Dutch field guns posted on the rocky ground west of Helpmakaar. Night fell while the Infantry and big guns were establishing themselves on the range. Lord Dundonald's men went back down the hill, bivouacked at the base, and, moving up again early on the 14th, resumed their advance. They joined the main body on the hilltop, and pushed on ahead of them into Helpmakaar Village, finding no enemy. The Boer guns had been withdrawn in the night, and grass fires had been lit to cover their retirement for a distance of two or
three miles on each side of the road to Dundee, which runs along the edge of the Biggarsberg.
The mounted men galloped on through banks of thick smoke and over the blazing grass. Now a gust of wind would part the smoke and show them some four or five miles to the west the dustclouds raised by their fleeing enemy.
On their left was Lower Natal falling away sharply almost at their feet; far on their right the hills which wall the apex of Upper Natal; in their rear were the mountains of Zululand rising behind Pomeroy and the Buffalo River.
Then the smoke closed down again, and all that the hurrying mounted men could see would be the road which parted the flames and the blinding smoke.
A few miles beyond Helpmakaar the Boer rearguard took ground behind a rib of rock and in a 'mealy' field to cover the retirement of their convoy. Here a part of the mounted brigade, emerging suddenly from the smoke, came under a rifle fire which for a time was heavy. The Chestnut Battery, coming into action, cleared the ground, some prisoners being taken and some six casualties suffered, and the brigade pushed on again after a check of nearly an hour. Now the grass fires were less blinding, and numbers of the flying enemy could be seen riding away westwards and northwards, as well as the dense dust of his waggons nearing the railway line.
At about 3 P.M. the pursuing mounted brigade had reached a point some thirty miles from their bivouac, and here, near Meyer's Farm, they were checked a second time, the Boer rearguard bringing some big guns into action. Without causing more than two or three casualties, the enemy, posted on a strong position, and fighting a clever rearguard action, succeeded in checking the pursuit for the day, and enabled his convoy and guns to be entrained undisturbed at Hatting Spruit Station.
Late in the evening of the 14th of May the brigade bivouacked on Meyer's Farm. The Infantry were far behind, and did not overtake the mounted troops till two days later.
On the 15th of May Lord Dundonald's brigade moved on, entering Dundee without opposition at about two o'clock. Camp was pitched beyond the town, below Impati Mountain. The Boers had passed through Dundee but a few hours before the mounted men entered. They were in full flight, and in a state of panic, each man turning his head over his shoulder and declaring that the English were only half an hour behind.
On the 17th of May the advance was resumed, the mounted brigade entering Dannhauser about midday, and in the evening seventy men of Thorneycroft's, under Captain Molyneux, rode ahead into Newcastle alone, occupying the high ground north of the