CHAPTER 13. THE SIEGE OF LADYSMITH.
The train contained ninety Dublin Fusiliers, eighty Durban Volunteers, and ten sailors, with a naval 7-pounder gun. Captain Haldane of the Gordons, Lieutenant Frankland (Dublin Fusiliers), and Winston Churchill, the well-known correspondent, accompanied the expedition. What might have been foreseen occurred. The train steamed into the advancing Boer army, was fired upon, tried to escape, found the rails blocked behind it, and upset. Dublins and Durbans were shot helplessly out of their trucks, under a heavy fire. A railway accident is a nervous thing, and so is an ambuscade, but the combination of the two must be appalling. Yet there were brave hearts which rose to the occasion. Haldane and Frankland rallied the troops, and Churchill the engine-driver. The engine was disentangled and sent on with its cab full of wounded. Churchill, who had escaped upon it, came gallantly back to share the fate of his comrades. The dazed shaken soldiers continued a futile resistance for some time, but there was neither help nor escape and nothing for them but surrender. The most Spartan military critic cannot blame them. A few slipped away besides those who escaped upon the engine. Our losses were two killed, twenty wounded, and about eighty taken. It is remarkable that of the three leaders both Haldane and Churchill succeeded in escaping from Pretoria.
A double tide of armed men was now pouring into Southern Natal. From below, trainload after trainload of British regulars were coming up to the danger point, feted and cheered at every station. Lonely farmhouses near the line hung out their Union Jacks, and the folk on the stoep heard the roar of the choruses as the great trains swung upon their way. From above the Boers were flooding down, as Churchill saw them, dour, resolute, riding silently through the rain, or chanting hymns round their camp fires - brave honest farmers, but standing unconsciously for mediaevalism and corruption, even as our rough-tongued Tommies stood for civilisation, progress, and equal rights for all men.
The invading force, the numbers of which could not have exceeded some few thousands, formidable only for their mobility, lapped round the more powerful but less active force at Estcourt, and struck behind it at its communications. There was for a day or two some discussion as to a further retreat, but Hildyard, strengthened by the advice and presence of Colonel Long, determined to hold his ground. On November 21st the raiding Boers were as far south as Nottingham Road, a point thirty miles south of Estcourt and only forty miles north of the considerable city of Pietermaritzburg. The situation was serious. Either the invaders must be stopped, or the second largest town in the colony would be in their hands. From all sides came tales of plundered farms and broken households. Some at least of the raiders behaved with wanton brutality. Smashed pianos, shattered pictures, slaughtered stock, and vile inscriptions, all exhibit a predatory and violent side to the paradoxical Boer character. [Footnote: More than once I have heard the farmers in the Free State acknowledge that the ruin which had come upon them was a just retribution for the excesses of Natal.]
The next British post behind Hildyard's at Estcourt was Barton's upon the Mooi River, thirty miles to the south. Upon this the Boers made a half-hearted attempt, but Joubert had begun to realise the strength of the British reinforcements and the impossibility with the numbers at his disposal of investing a succession of British posts. He ordered Botha to withdraw from Mooi River and begin his northerly trek.
The turning-point of the Boer invasion of Natal was marked, though we cannot claim that it was caused, by the action of Willow Grange. This was fought by Hildyard and Walter Kitchener in command of the Estcourt garrison, against about 2000 of the invaders under Louis Botha. The troops engaged were the East and West Surreys (four companies of the latter), the West Yorkshires, the Durban Light Infantry, No. 7 battery R.F.A., two naval guns, and some hundreds of Colonial Horse.
The enemy being observed to have a gun upon a hill within striking distance of Estcourt, this force set out on November 22nd to make a night attack and to endeavour to capture it. The hill was taken without difficulty, but it was found that the gun had been removed. A severe counter-attack was made at daylight by the Boers, and the troops were compelled with no great loss and less glory to return to the town. The Surreys and the Yorkshires behaved very well, but were placed in a difficult position and were badly supported by the artillery. Martyn's Mounted Infantry covered the retirement with great gallantry, but the skirmish ended in a British loss of fourteen killed and fifty wounded or missing, which was certainly more than that of the Boers. From this indecisive action of Willow Grange the Boer invasion receded until General Buller, coming to the front on November 27th, found that the enemy was once more occupying the line of the Tugela. He himself moved up to Frere, where he devoted his time and energies to the collection of that force with which he was destined, after three failures, to make his way into Ladysmith.
One unexpected and little known result of the Boer expedition into Southern Natal was that their leader, the chivalrous Joubert, injured himself through his horse stumbling, and was physically incapacitated for the remainder of the campaign. He returned almost immediately to Pretoria, leaving the command of the Tugela in the hands of Louis Botha.