Ch 5: To Eastcourt with Winston Churchill

Cape Town was bursting at the seams and on November 5th I received information that General Hildyard is now diverted to land at Durban and General Gatacre to East London, which is where I must go to fulfil my assignment for Black and White. Hildyard’s was the first brigade to reach port on November 9th, with Gatacre’s arrival now scheduled for the 12th. With three days to fill, I joined the English correspondent Mr. Winston Churchill, who is, of course, American on his mother’s side, for what we intended to be a short reconnaissance trip by overnight train to Eastcourt.
   The enemy was then ravaging the country around Pietermaritzburg and menacing the capital. Having shut in White but failing to take Ladysmith by an attack in force on November 9th, Joubert threw a column boldly across the Tugela. By moving round the flanks of British posts along the railroad, the advance guard started with a clear march to the coast, threatening the line at all points. The fighting of the Ladysmith garrison had disillusioned the least sanguine burgher as to the bravery of the hitherto despised British soldier, and caused this raid to be carried out with caution; though the surprise was mutual, for Natal was dumbfounded at the steady march south. Many who knew the Boer well declared that one salutary lesson would send the burghers home; but Talana, Elandslaagte, and Rietfontein had but served as spurs to urge them to greater effort. They had not planned with passion; they executed without haste, but without hesitancy. Factional exigencies at first marred their unity of purpose, but the short campaign had evolved decisive resolution and consecutive execution. In place of a horde of herders, an effective, well-armed enemy, with the advantage of choice of position unusually fitted for defence, was to be faced. The rapid arrival of the first brigade of the relief column disconcerted the advanced commandoes, and they planned at once to cut the railroad line at various points and stay the advance, abandoning their raid to the coast, though already the very heart of the colony was at their mercy.
   But even at Durban there was some alarm until Hildyard arrived, though the presence of the fleet rendered such fears ridiculous. The "Jack Tars" were spoiling for a fight. The excitement of seizing prizes hardly sufficed, and there was little to be gained but hard work in overhauling neutral ships. British naval officers were amused at the howl of indignation raised at their "unprecedented" action in holding up ships going to a port directly connected with the enemy. For precedent they refer to the Civil War, when American warships held up vessels bound for neutral ports in the Bahamas and which contained only food and clothing, ultimately destined, but without proof, for blockade runners supplying the Confederates.
   Natal is the most progressive country in Africa, thanks to a large preponderance of loyalists over colonial Boers, and the influx of a considerable number of German farmers who have proved excellent colonists. Leaving party squabbles severely alone, the progressive Natalians have expended their energy in the improvement of the colony, and it stands a monument to the British colonial system.
   In the comfortable settlements in Natal the Boers found a land of promise, "flowing with milk and honey" and defenceless against their looting. Commandoes swept down from Helpmakaar through the Umvoti, annexing the districts. Through local traitors, the homes of the absent Umvoti Rifle Volunteers, several of German extraction, were "marked with B" and ruthlessly looted. Their hapless wives and children were turned out in the storm with permission to enter and help eat out Ladysmith, or make their way down country as they might. These human locusts then swept south through the Highlands, where the unfortunate farmers from North Natal had driven their flocks for safety. Every ranch was filled with the stock of refugees, and the Boers made rich hauls, ruthlessly destroying the homes of loyalists, smashing the furniture and fittings, and killing poultry and such animals as could not be removed. The Cooper’s sheep-dip stored at several of the farms was poured into the ponds and wells to poison horse and man drinking therefrom.
   The wholesale commandeering from the neutral populace, and the summary execution of the blacks who opposed it, only add to the injustice of the raid. The Catholic missions in northern Natal suffered severely. The peaceful nuns, many Irish Sisters of Charity, were forced to flee, and suffered great indignities. They gathered, however, to nurse sick and wounded soldiers at Eastcourt, Maritzburg, and Durban, and in common with the devoted nuns of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley, they have earned the everlasting gratitude of the British army.
   The Natalians had gathered at the stations on the railroad, where they joined the volunteers mobilised to defend the colony. The Rifle Associations were also enrolled for defence under Symons and Ross; but these local forces and the small garrison at Eastcourt were only able to guard the towns and railroads, and could do little to check the raiders who dodged around them on the flanks, or Joubert and the centre commandoes advancing direct, through Colenso, from Ladysmith.
   Colonel Long, commandant at Eastcourt, prepared to defend the township, though he must eventually have retired but for the tardy advent of two naval quick-firers from Durban. The navy had seemed not too ready to detach men and guns for land service, though, when the grave aspect in Natal was appreciated on the flagship, guns and sailors were landed, narrowly averting more serious disaster in Ladysmith, where the field guns were outranged and ineffective against the improved guns of the Boers. Incidentally, criticism of Admiral Harris for his delay in aiding the military led to the ducking of a certain well known Cape editor by a party of naval officers; who overlooked British fairness, and have been pulled up sharply for their folly.
   The mountings of the naval guns for field service deserve special notice. Captain Scott, RN., secured ordinary broad-tired wagon-wheels, bolted a stout pile to the deck gun mounting for a trail, and thus rigged field carriages for the heavy 12-pounders. Carriages for the 4.7 Lyddite were also constructed from piles. Though experts prophesied that the baulks would be splintered by the recoil, and the fastenings torn out, the guns, ranged for high-angle fire, threw shells 9,000 yards and 12,000 yards respectively, and equalled the Creusots of the enemy. Jack is a born wag, and ere the guns were despatched up country, inscriptions were placed on each. "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful" and "Those who sup with me will require a devil of a long spoon," ranked with others more original if less pertinent.
   The armoured train, first used, perhaps, in war by the French in their successful sortie on the Saarbruck road, has played an important part in South African warfare without enhancing its value. It was used daily for reconnaissance beyond Eastcourt with slight success, and well earned its name "the death trap." On November 15th we joined the train with one company each, the Dublin Fusiliers under Captain Haldane, and the Durban volunteers under Captain Wylie, and went up the line to reconnoitre beyond Frere. Boer pickets were observed on the hills, but the train went recklessly forward to Chieveley, where it became engaged with the enemy and started to retire. It was wrecked on the steep gradient toward Frere, and the concealed enemy, bursting from the kopjes, opened on the overturned cars with guns and rifles. Under a terrific fire several men were shot before they could extricate themselves from the wreck. The uninjured cars, cased in sheet iron and without entrance, were not shell proof, and the troops were forced to clamber out of the open tops to seek cover beyond the permanent way. Numbers were thus shot down.

The Armoured Train Wrecked

   Lieutenant Frankland was the only officer unhurt and with Churchill and I, and a few volunteers, he started to organise the clearing of the wreck. The terrible Vickers Maxim poured in a continual stream of shells, its incessant phut-phut sounding like a freight-yard shunter, as it was directed first on the engine, then on the damaged trucks. Covered by the ineffectual firing of their comrades, our party worked with a will, however, and the line was finally levered clear under a hail of projectiles. The uninjured trucks were then pushed up; but a shell had destroyed the engine coupling, steam was escaping from the boiler in a dozen places, and delay in coupling the cars with rope would have sealed its fate. The dead and wounded, therefore, were loaded on the tender, and while the survivors held the Boers in check, Wegner turned on steam. Two parting shells burst among his freight of wounded, mangling them terribly, but the leaking locomotive finally ran clear, and dashed off to Eastcourt for help.
   After aiding the engineer to run out of range, Churchill dropped off the cab and returned to assist the troops, who were now losing heavily. When their last cartridge had been expended some stood by their wounded and were forced to surrender; others, who attempted to escape, were followed and shot down by Boer horsemen. The survivors were sent to Pretoria, only fifty of the entire party escaping unscathed.    General Hildyard arrived at Eastcourt on the day of the disaster to prepare camp for his brigade. Native scouts, Basutos employed for this service, reported the Boers closing rapidly on the township. There were but 150 mounted troops in the command, a mixed force of volunteers and police under Colonel Martyn. They were soon in touch with Joubert’s advance, but could do little to check the enemy, several patrols having narrow escapes. The Boers, however, fearing a rear attack from Weenen, which was unoccupied, detoured half their command from the railroad in that direction, and it was three days before they appeared in force before Eastcourt.
   The West Yorkshire regiment and Naval artillery detachment had arrived in the interval, and as a commando moved from Gourton road and halted beside the railroad bridge beyond the town, which it expected to capture with ease, the naval gunners dropped shell into it, and caused a speedy retirement. The remainder of Hildyard’s brigade was then hurried up from Durban, and Joubert decided against attacking. He moved his forces round the flanks, reinforcing the looting column that had moved South through Umvoti to break communications with Maritzburg. Handicapped by lack of cavalry, field artillery, and transport, the British commander was perhaps justified in delaying aggressive operations until he had prepared for the defence of Eastcourt. Yet, as the Boers marched in comparatively broken commands, looting an extensive district, it is open to debate whether some hard blows might not have been struck to check the unopposed march southward.
   Barton’s brigade, which had followed Hildyard’s closely, was hurrying to the front, when the Boers who had moved round Hildyard’s flank seized the railroad behind him at Highlands and Willow Grange, forcing the two companies of the Queen’s holding the stations to retire. Thus, by what Mr. Young would call chessboard strategy, they checked Barton’s advance at Mooi River and isolated Eastcourt. A strong force with artillery occupied Mitcheson’s Cutting, tearing up the line. The Ermelo commando simultaneously destroyed the railroad from Eastcourt to Colenso through Chieveley and Ennersdale. Making bonfires with the tarred sleepers, the burghers brought the rails to a red heat and twisted them round adjoining telegraph posts, thus rendering the relaying difficult.
   The Boers acted on the assumption, partly justified by subsequent fact, that the British would not or could not leave the railroad. With astounding boldness parties of the mobile enemy shelled the camp at Mooi River, then passed rapidly on round Barton’s flank, looting farms close to Weston and seizing much stock destined for the Mooi River abattoirs. The railroad at Nottingham road was then occupied, and Barton’s communications with Maritzburg obstructed. Thus two important British commands, impotent through lack of transport and cavalry, were rendered temporarily ineffective by a body of raiders. The stock of the Natal Stud company proved a valuable remount depot for the Boers, who cleared every animal from the compound, including numerous chargers that would soon have fetched fancy prices from British officers.
   The loyal farmers paid dearly for their brave allegiance. While they guarded the towns the Boers raided their defenceless homesteads as far south and west as Impendhla, shooting such as dared resist them. Mr. Rawlinson, a prominent colonial, was killed by Boshof; but most of the males were absent, and the defenceless women and children fled in abject terror before the invaders. Many plucky women, however, defied the enemy and remained alone to guard their homes. One brave Scotchwoman, nailing a flag over the lintel, confronted a looting party with a stout cudgel and sharp tongue. A lusty Boer, attempting to force an entrance to the house, was repulsed with a cracked pate, which raised a laugh against him.
   Hildyard did not long remain idle at Eastcourt. Severely hampered by the lack of cavalry, he decided to make a night attack on the main Boer position to clear the line south to Mooi River. On the afternoon of November 22nd the general felt his way forward toward Willow Grange. The West Yorks were on the left, the East Surrey in the centre, and the Queen’s on the right, the Border Regiment supporting, with the 7th Field Battery and a heavy naval quick-firer hauled by thirty oxen. The force reached M’Konghlwani, or Beacon Hill, without opposition and by stupendous effort the naval gun was hauled up the precipitous sides of the "Hill of Mists," and placed in position commanding the enemy’s main battery on Brynbella Hill. The Boer gunners under Krantz speedily found the British gun and opened very accurately with a heavy Creusot. This fire was silenced, however, before sunset.
   The infantry halted on the hill in the most frightful hailstorm within Natal’s memory, passing many miserable hours of that bitterly cold night until the order was given to advance, to surprise the sleeping laagers. The West Yorks and the Surreys under Colonel Kitchener, guided by a local farmer named Chapman, advanced silently against the position, and commenced to climb Brynbella. The Yorks, who were assailing the western slope, losing direction in the darkness, crossed over a lower portion of the ridge, and were fired into by the Surrey men climbing up on that side; and the lines clashed with fixed bayonets, several being killed and wounded ere the mistake was discovered.
   The Boers were thoroughly alarmed, however, and as the British turned and scrambled up to the higher portion of the crest they were met with a withering fire. Guided by the rifle flashes, and not waiting to reply, they closed in with the bayonet, the burghers flying en masse down the hillside, leaving all their camp effects and their horses, hobbled in their brutal three-legged fashion, on the summit,. The hill was captured just before daybreak.
   Commandant Joubert, nephew to the general, was in command at Willow Grange, though the similarity of names led the British generals to report the commandant general as commanding in person, and General Buller’s official despatch showed the same error. Realising the danger of placing himself between two forces, the younger Joubert had secured a line of retreat through roads running to Greytown, from which he could circle round to Ladysmith again. He had been apprised of a movement on the south of Mooi River, the commando at Nottingham road had been forced to evacuate before they had effectively destroyed the line, and the appearance of the naval gun before him led him to fear a concerted attack on both sides. The sailors’ shells of the afternoon also had been ranged to a nicety, and the gunners desired no resumption at daybreak.
   Under cover of the darkness they had made preparations to hastily change their position; the heavy gun had been taken to a place of safety and the five field guns were removed to a succeeding crest. The commandoes had just bivouacked on the two ridges, when the British attacked and drove them from Brynbella. The mounting of the naval gun in broad daylight had thus marred the surprise which otherwise would have led to the capture of the Boer artillery and to a decisive rout. For a night surprise this gun should never have been mounted. Its appearance naturally interpreted an intended move to the watchful enemy, and its shells had hastened the change of position.
   As the sun rose and the British prepared to follow up the retreating Boers, they were greeted by a terrific artillery and rifle fire from the succeeding ridge, and were gradually forced back over the crest. Other commandoes closed in. The luckless naval gun dare not shell with the British within range, the field battery was likewise masked, and without artillery support the slender forces were obliged to retire. The hill that had been captured with a loss of four was evacuated with a casualty list of over a hundred. The regiments were steadily withdrawn under a dropping fire, the companies consecutively retiring and covering retirement. The Natal volunteers pluckily supported this movement, and carried down the wounded through a hail, of bullets. While thus engaged, Chapman the guide, Fitzpatrick, brother of the reform leader, and other prominent colonials were killed. Some British wounded were overlooked, however, during the retirement, every step of which was covered by the Boers. They received excellent treatment from the Free State ambulance before they were exchanged. Many of the burghers admitted their surprise that they had not been able to swoop down and seize Durban.
   News now came that a force of Boers was menacing Eastcourt on the northwest, and Hildyard withdrew his troops to hold the town. The enemy soon retired, and plans for a second attack on Willow Grange were formulated; but Joubert, finding that a small column under the Earl of Dundonald was feeling its way from Mooi River, and another sortie from Eastcourt was imminent, withdrew his guns and wagons on the 25th. Circling round Hildyard within tempting striking distance, the entire Boer force fell back through Weenen to the Tugela, where they took up a strong position at Colenso. During the retirement the heavy Creusot became stuck in a donga, and within five miles of the British a small force of Boers worked a day and night extricating the piece, which would have proved a valuable prize had the proper cavalry complement been at hand to follow up the retreat.
   Hildyard’s tiny mounted column could do nothing until Lord Dundonald’s flying column pressed forward from Mooi River. The combined forces then started in hot pursuit, sighting the Boers beyond Frere. They failed to outmarch them, however, but "bit their heels" with artillery and rifles to within two miles of Colenso, where heavy Boer guns were in position, and the British advance was checked. Hildyard drew back and set up his camp at Frere. General Buller, leaving the direction of the western and central divisions of his army to their respective generals, had arrived in Natal to personally supervise the more important operations there. He established his headquarters at Pietermaritzburg.
   The railroad bridge across the Blaauwkrans River at Frere had been carefully destroyed by the enemy, checking Clery’s advance up country. The railroad company had expected the military, and hurried their staff forward to repair the line. In an incredibly short period, under the direction of Mr. Shores, chief engineer, and Mr. Hunter, the general manager, a trestle bridge 200 feet long, in seventeen spans, was constructed beside the ruined structure, the rails were carried over the river and reverted to the original track. Guarded by an armoured train, repair-trucks were pushed forward and rapidly relaid the line which the Boers had taken so much pains to destroy.
   Trains now rapidly arrived at the front with troops and stores. Hildyard’s brigade held the advance on some ridges beyond the river. They cleverly entrenched their position, masking their defences so that adventurous Boer scouts blundered into the trap and were her Majesty’s guests forthwith. The permanent camp soon spread, the General Staff occupying the ransacked house of the station master, the troops pitching their tents on the surrounding veldt. The regulars, awaiting complete mobilisation, were employed in extensive garrison, fatigue and outpost duty. The Natal forces, augmented by Uitlander volunteers, and the colonial scouts recruited from local farmers who knew every inch of the country rapidly checked the raiding parties, and by surprise visits to the outlying farms of suspected traitors, much looted stock and furniture that had been stored by the enemy was recovered.
   The days in Frere camp passed quickly enough, although with picket, outpost, and railroad guard at night, and fatigue duty by day, it was not a picnic. Much of the rough work was too arduous for white men to perform with safety under South Africa’s sun. But a native contingent, enrolled by Mr. Barnes, colonial engineer, afterwards saved the troops much toil, and the native compounds gave "Tommy" endless recreation when the tireless Kaffirs and Zulus squirmed and screamed through the intricacies of their war-dances or engaged in faction fights, when skulls were struck with the vehemence of Donnybrook, though hard is the blow that can harm the cast-iron native pate. Hunts for the abundant puff-adder, tournaments between scorpions, cricket and football, with the temperature above 100, and dips in the sorry Blaauwkrans River redubbed as Frere’s "Margate Sands" served to pass the waiting hours.
   Reinforcements were rapidly landed to augment Clery’s force. The early and sometimes fatal disposition to mass troops at the base until the brigades were completed was superseded, and single battalions were sent forward as soon as landed. During the mobilisation the departmental corps were making preparations for an advance in force, and the infantry worked continually, unloading stores, while the staff completed the details of the component parts of the complex military machine that must work smoothly and in order, for effect in war and peace.
   Major Elliott, RE., taking his life in his hand, rode out daily to sketch the Boer positions beyond the Tugela. The colonial scouts scoured the country, and patrolled along the front, while Major Chichester, the provost marshal, rounded up a few disloyal farmers in the district and sent them to Maritzburg for safe keeping. These rebels had spied and looted, and sniped at the scouts. Perhaps any country but the United States and England would have shot them. The Germans summarily executed French civilians who operated in any way against them; but these Natal traitors were British subjects, and deserved no mercy under the rules of war. I by no means advocate extreme measures, but I have seen so much inexcusable treachery among the Cape Dutch that, while I admire British magnanimity as politic and humane, I wonder that some general has not hung a few as a salutary warning to flagrant disloyalty.

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