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A Handbook of the Boer War

And Pepworth Hill were the chief physical features


On

the afternoon of October 25 Yule was within one day's march of Ladysmith. He proposed to halt for the night; but suddenly a patrol from a column sent out by White to help him in appeared, and he received orders to press forward to Ladysmith.

The exhausted men resumed their march, and the misery of that night's journey was probably never exceeded during any subsequent movement in the war. Sodden, hungry, weary, disheartened; men and transport animals inextricably intermingled; the column plodded onwards in the rain and the night. A halt at daylight next morning brought in some of the stragglers and gave a little rest to those who were still in the ranks; and by mid-day the men of Talana Hill had trudged into Ladysmith.

The urgency of the immediate resumption of the march had arisen from White's anxiety for the safety of Yule's force. Rietfontein had indeed, like Talana and Elandslaagte, been a tactically successful engagement and had similarly been followed by a retreat; but Yule was exposed to an attack by Erasmus, to whom he had given the slip at Dundee during the night of October 22 and who was known to be endeavouring to overtake him. Erasmus was believed to be acting from the direction of Elandslaagte; but fortunately for Yule his movements were not judiciously directed and his information was imperfect.

[Sidenote: Map, p. 139.]

All the

detached members of the Natal Wedge had now been driven in and the reconnaissances sent out by White on October 27 and the following days showed that the Boers had lost no time in pressing on to Ladysmith. The Transvaalers were apparently in force N.E. of the town on a section of the arc in which Lombard's Kop, Long Hill, and Pepworth Hill were the chief physical features; the Free Staters were approaching from the N.W. and a small force of them under A.P. Cronje was already in touch with the Transvaalers; their main body, however, seemed to be making for the Tugela in order to isolate Ladysmith from the south. On October 29 White assumed the offensive with the greater part of his command, and endeavoured to cut through the still unconsolidated investing line and to thwart the co-operation of the allies.

The general idea was that an infantry brigade, supported on its right flank by cavalry acting towards Lombard's Kop, should attack the enemy, who was presumed to be in force on Long Hill and Pepworth Hill. On the left flank of the attack a column would endeavour to pass through the Boer line, and having seized Nicholson's Nek due north of Ladysmith would either close it against the retreating enemy or hold it as a post through which a mounted force could debouch in pursuit on to the more practicable ground beyond.

Some difficulty in drawing and loading up ammunition delayed the start of the column, which under the command of Carleton was to secure the left flank of the operations; and fearing that daylight on October 30 would find his vulnerable force still on the march he determined soon after midnight to halt short of Nicholson's Nek, from which he was then two miles distant. He had succeeded in passing through the enemy's picket line, and was perhaps not justified in discontinuing his advance, although his instructions were to take Nicholson's Nek only "if possible." But an error of judgment made by a commanding officer on a dark night in a strange country acting under instructions which left him a free hand must not be judged severely, and had it not been for a disaster which could not be foreseen, he would probably have been commended for his prudence.

Kainguba Hill, which rises on the left of the road to Nicholson's Nek, seemed to offer a suitable stage on the journey and towards it the column was diverted. While the men were climbing the steep and stony hillside a panic suddenly seized the transport mules. It may have been a spontaneous emotion, or it may have originated in an alarm raised by the Boers who were holding the crest. The animals stampeded down the slope, and carrying with them not only the reserve ammunition but also the signalling equipment, the water carts, and the component parts of the mountain artillery, charged through the rear of the column. The timely exertions of the officers checked the general scare that was imminent; and with the exception of a few score of infantry men and gunners the column reached the summit before daybreak, having lost almost everything needed for a successful occupation of it.


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