Project Canterbury

My Diocese during the War

Extracts from the Diary of
the Right Rev. Arthur Hamilton Baynes, D.D.
Bishop of Natal

London: George Bell, 1900.

Chapter XIV. Crossing the Tugela

Spearman's Hill, Saturday, Jan. 13.--After half an hour's preparation of sermon, with a pipe under the trees on the hill, I went up to the ridge and had a good long investigation of all the Boer positions through the signaller's telescope. It is such a unique and marvellously interesting place to be in on this high hill with its immense panorama, that one never tires of looking all round through the telescope. The troops are not allowed to show themselves on the skyline, except the pickets; but as nearly all go on picket in turn, I suppose they all get a look at the Boer lines. Our camp being in the hollow of the hill, away from the enemy, they can't see our little town here. I think I can make out Enhlonhlweni through the telescope, but I am not sure. The Boers are very busy at their trenches; one can see them working in parties of twenty or more, making lines and lines of rifle pits and gun embrasures. In the afternoon we had a choir practice under the trees, and then I went to tea with the 60th Rifles, with Hill.

Sunday, Jan. 14.--Holy Communion at 5.45, in our little mess-tent. Only a few officers. Then after a cup of tea, church parade at 7. As we are two chaplains, we agreed to take two battalions each, so that all could hear. I had the 60th Rifles and the Scottish Rifles, and the Navals, and a few odds and ends; and Hill had the Rifle Brigade and the Durham Light Infantry. General Bullerand some of his staff and General Lyttelton came to my service, and it was a charming spot with a little crescent of rocky hill, so that the men were in tiers above me, and during the sermon they could sit on the rocks. I preached from the second lesson, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead," and showed them that a chaplain was not simply to console the dying and to bury the dead. After service I took my books and went up the hill. The two big naval guns have been brought up here from Chieveley (the Boers don't know it yet, but they soon will). It is odd that the most useful guns were only improvised on the spur of the moment. Captain Scott, of the "Terrible," designed and made the huge carriages to move these ship-guns on, and now they can take them with spans of oxen quite long journeys and up steep hills. They are enormous things, with great long muzzles.

I asked the naval sentry to let me look through their big telescope. I could see the Boers at 8,000 yards, quite plainly--could see which had blue shirt sleeves and which had white--as they worked in the trenches. But only a few were working to-day; a fair number were sitting on the top of Spion Kop, looking at us. But the two guns are just enough below the ridge to be out of sight. Then I went over the ridge and down into the bush, on the other side, where there was more shade. I got a very comfortable seat under a tree. If the Boers had taken a shot at our naval guns I should have been too near to be pleasant; but this was not likely, especially on a Sunday. While I sat and read a partridge came out of the long grass to within three yards of my foot. Back to write and read, and then lunch and some English papers. But nothing for me. I have not had a letter or a paper since I left Maritzburg, last Friday week. It is awful to think what I may be neglecting. At 6 we had a voluntary service as last week. Hill read, and

I preached from the first lesson, "I dwell with him that is of a humble and contrite heart" ("Lest we forget").

Monday, Jan. 15.--English letters for next Saturday's mail had to be despatched this morning! You would think we were in the remote parts of the Transvaal, instead of being little more than twenty-five miles from the railway at Frere. But I suppose with the roads blocked by transport, and the stoppages at the different camps en route, they have to take time by the forelock.

Colonel Byng of the South African Light Infantry went out with two guns of the artillery, with a view to catching Boers on the road between Colenso and this; we heard later on that though he did not succeed in intercepting wagons, etc., he arrived in the nick of time to extricate a patrol of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry from a perilous position. . . .

Meanwhile General Lyttelton and his staff made an expedition to the two hills called Zwartzkop, and I went with them. We started about n, with two guides. We had to ride round the top of the ridge before descending into the intervening valley, then crossed the plain and began the ascent of the opposite hill. It is lovely country. The hills are covered
with thick brush, of semi-tropical character, to be found on our own river valleys as distinguished from the higher hillsides.

About halfway up we left our horses with the orderlies, and climbed the rest, which was steep, on foot. Then we took elaborate surveys of the position as it appeared from there. First to the east, towards the part of the river where Byng was on the look out for the Boers. Of course we could not see him, as he would keep under cover, and might be a good way off. At that part the hills come nearer to the river, and are steep, so that the road is forced nearer to the bank. There is a drift there, with a road leading to it; it is just possible that we might make an attempt there. Then we looked out to the north, and searched the hills for Boer intrenchments with glasses. There is less need of them there, however, for on the right the hills are steep and rocky. Then we looked towards the hills to the north-west, where the road from Potgieter's Drift crosses the hills, to see if the guns on the hills commanded the back of some small kopjes just across the river; seeing them in profile here, we could judge better than from our camp. A spice of excitement was added here, as we saw just below us, at the foot of the hill, on our side of the river, a lot of cattle herded together, with some ponies, and our guides said that these must be Boers; and if they were, they might have a try to cut off our return to camp. However, we saw nothing of them when we descended the hill. We called at the Kaffir kraal at the foot and bought some chickens, and then returned by another road. Colonel Byng was to have come to dinner, but had not returned from his expedition.

Tuesday, Jan. 16.--I went up the hill after breakfast; when I came back to lunch I found the camp in a stir. At last the orders had come to move, and the plan of campaign was declared, and General Lyttelton explained it to me. Our brigade is to move off about 2.30 to the river, and two battalions are to cross Potgieter's Drift to-night, and the rest to-morrow. To-morrow our big guns will open on the Boers, and we shall make a big demonstration. Meanwhile Sir Charles Warren, with his other brigade (General Woodgate's), and with General Clery's Division (consisting of General Hildyard's and General Hart's Brigades), is to move away to a point five or six miles higher up the river, cross there, and approach the flank of the Boer-position up the slopes of Spion Kop. The hope is that the Boers will not be able to spare men enough from here (beside Colenso and Ladysmith) to offer effective opposition to Sir Charles Warren, or if they do, then we may get through their defences here. General Lyttelton called the colonels of his battalions together and explained the plan to them.

I ventured to suggest to the General that it would be very nice if each battalion before going into action could have a short prayer, and he quite approved. So I arranged that Hill should undertake this office for the 60th Rifles, and the Scotch Scripture reader for the Scottish Rifles, and that I should do it for the Rifle Brigade and the Durham Light Infantry. So when the camps were all struck, and the tents and baggage packed on wagons, and the men had fallen in, I explained to them that some of the men had remarked that the Boers asked God's blessing before going into action, and we did not; so I had asked the General's permission to say a prayer. I said a collect, an extempore prayer for all the special needs, the Lord's Prayer, and the Blessing. Then the word of command was given, and they marched off. It was arranged that our little camps should be left standing to-night, and that I should dine at the hospital with the doctors, and then it would depend on the army's progress where we should be to-morrow.

As soon as the regiments had marched off for the drift (which they had to do by making a wide circuit of the hill), I went up the hill to watch the movement of the troops and to see if I could notice any stir among the Boers as they noted our march. A big storm came over, and I got wet; but I did not care, as I was moving about. Just in the middle of this I noticed a long line of dust down the road from the Boer position to the smaller kopjes which we are about to occupy. I ran up to the signalling station to make sure by other eyes whether it were so, intending if it were to send a message to General Lyttelton, as he had just told the colonels that he felt morally sure these small kopjes were not occupied by the enemy, and it might save life if he knew they were. However, on further investigation (though it was hard to see through the rain), we felt sure that the dust was merely the result of the strong storm-wind. Then we watched the advance of the troops down the winding hill through the beautiful bush-covered hills; then out into the open grass-land at the base in extended line, cautiously to the river, not knowing whether the enemy were lying hidden in the river bed.

None appeared, and a little later on I watched the first man--a young officer called Talbot--cross the drift. The water was up to his chest, but he waded successfully, and I shouted to Major Chichester, who was near, that the passage of the obstructive Tugela was begun. Then whole lines of men plunged in, holding each other's hands and making a snake-like line. The river is nearly 100 yards wide. They found later that a few yards lower the drift was shallower. Then the punt came into action too; it is a big barge, made to carry a wagon and oxen, and it took fifty or sixty men across at a time. Mentioning Talbot, I forgot to say that, just before I said the parting prayer with the Rifle Brigade, another young Talbot introduced himself to me. He is the son of the Bishop of Rochester, and nephew of General Lyttelton. I remember him in 1891 carrying the Archbishop's train at Leeds, and now he is 6 feet 5-3- inches. I hope he won't get shot, but he makes a good target. Two battalions were to cross to-night, the Rifle Brigade and the Scottish Rifles, and intrench themselves on the small kopjes about a mile from the ford. As soon as it was dark, 7.30, the Howitzer Battery was to cross. I watched them as long as I could, and then went down to dine with the doctors. Having put on dry clothes, I walked across to the hospital tents.

But I found that Major Goggin had followed the force, and left only a young subaltern. However, he kindly gave me some food with two other forlorn people, Lord Robert Manners, in charge of the stretcher-bearers till he can get to his regiment the (1st) 60th Rifles, in Ladysmith, and another young officer at the same job, waiting to join the 5th Lancers. Then I went back to my solitary camp, though most of the servants and grooms are still there--the cook, Sergeant Cox, alone having accompanied the General.

Wednesday, Jan. 17.--I was up by 5, and before I was dressed the solemn boom of the first big naval gun on the hill announced that operations had begun. I went straight up the hill with a telescope I had borrowed from the signallers. It is a stupendous sight. Here we are on a high mountain with the country stretching boundlessly at our feet, and the Boer position 10,000 yards away (nearly six miles): and yet these huge naval guns plunge a shell with a thundering roar and a whirling rush across the chasm, and after seconds of waiting one sees the column of smoke of the bursting shell often right on the very point (intrenchment or gun emplacement) which had been aimed at. Thunder hardly describes the roar, and the furious rush of the invisible shell has its own special horror. It would be monotonous to describe all the points into which these shells were dropped. We watched each with the telescope, and so far (Friday, 19th) the Boers have not replied at all. I found some of the newspaper correspondents on the hill, and among them Mr. Goldman; he kindly offered me breakfast on the hill, so I picnicked with them. I stayed up all the morning. There was quite a crowd on the brow of the hill, which was a little risky if the Boers did turn out to have one of their big guns mounted. It is rarely we see more than two or three Boers, and then only for a minute, as they pop out of their intrenchments and in again, whereas I suppose we had a target of 100 men for them to aim at. I came down to look for some luncheon about i. There is nothing to be got in our own camp, but there is a canteen tent in camp.

When I came down I found to my dismay that the whole of our brigade staff camp was clean gone. I had left all my things loose in my tent, not having the least idea that the camp was to go till some advance was made. I was hungry and hot, and it was not a pleasant discovery; but there was nothing for it but to follow on foot. So I started to tramp, and I remembered that my friends of the Somerset Light Infantry were camped on the road, so I hoped I might get' a lunch out of them. After walking about a mile and a half I came to them; they had just finished luncheon, but they were good enough to produce a tin of army rations (stew and vegetable), which they warmed up in about fifteen minutes. With this and a pipe I was a new man. Then I started again, and in about a mile I came on our wagon outspanned; I recognized it by the things on it. From the men I found that the General and staff were close by on a little plateau halfway up between the high hill and the river bed. On this plateau are eight long-range naval 12-pounder guns. The two large ones on the hill are 47 inch, with immense long barrels. Our party had pitched two tents, one for the General and one for a mess-tent, though last night they all slept in the open. Captain Yarde-Buller kindly gave orders for another tent to be fetched from the wagon and pitched for me. Captain Wilson and I share it.

Sir Charles Warren can only move slowly, and will perhaps have to work very gradually round the west of the Boers, so that our actions here are not hurried. The guns continued to thunder, and the Boers continued to lie low. In addition to the two 4'7 inch guns and the eight 12-pounders there is a battery of howitzers, which has already crossed the river and got its guns into position behind the small kopjes. These are specially diabolic, as they can take up a position behind a hill and throw their shells at a high trajectory, where they like, without being seen; and then they fire lyddite, which makes a terrific explosion, and is said to kill everything within a radius of thirty yards. I believe one of these threw a man bodily into the air. I was watching with a telescope, and I think I saw it; still, one cannot be sure that in this wide area we often come within thirty yards of anyone. Tea and dinner were quiet and comfortable, in spite of the neighbourhood of guns and enemy.

Thursday, Jan. 18.--The banging and the blazing continue. A plan of action for to-day has been concerted. It is this afternoon to make a big demonstration here just before dusk, to make the Boers think we are going to attack in the night, and so prevent them from going off to oppose Sir Charles Warren. After luncheon, I climbed the big gun hill through all the beautiful aloes and mimosa with its yellow balls of flower and fragrant smell. I put up three hares at different times--I have not seen so many in Natal before. At 4 o'clock a terrific cannonade began from all the guns and howitzers, and the Boer hillside, with its trenches and rifle-pits and gun emplacements, was spotted all over with the white puffs and columns of smoke from the bursting shells. At the same time the infantry began to advance in extended order--about five yards between each man--all across the plain from the little kopjes. They advanced and lay down, and the shells screamed over their heads. But the hill opposite might have been in the primeval desert; there was hardly a sign of life and not a single shot fired. But for the experience of Colenso one could well imagine a General thinking that there were no Boers there, and that he was quite safe to attack. But we know too well that those trenches are full, and that if we got to 300 yards or so, a volley would be poured in which would ' kill hundreds. The reconnaissance had little effect as far as drawing fire or revealing the enemy's position, but we hope it brought in some who might otherwise have been opposing Sir Charles Warren. I came down again before dark. The balloon made two ascents yesterday and was floating about i, 200 feet above the plain all through the sham fight. . . .

Project Canterbury