Two months on from “Black Week” and Buller, along with the rest of the forces under his command, were still on the wrong side of the Tugela River.
It had been a costly period. Twice more, after the repulse at Colenso, Buller had attempted to force a crossing so that he could relieve the beleaguered Ladysmith, and twice he had been repulsed again. On the 24th of January 1900, the British had been mauled badly at Spion Kop, west of Colenso, a battle marked by an excess of command blunders based around whether to abandon or reinforce a hill on the titular rise, that eventually resulted in the British retreating when there was no need to. Hart’s Irish Brigade played a supporting role in the lead up the battle, but luckily avoided any major involvement in the bloodbath that followed.
Nearly three weeks later, Buller tried again, this time at Vaal Krantz, east of Spion Kop, but three days of skirmishing against Boer positions entrenched on hills again resulted in the British withdrawing. By now, the British government had realized the immensity of the task before them. Previous administrations had balked at the idea of an escalating war in South Africa, but the Conservatives were more committed: more regular divisions, and thousands of colonial volunteers from different parts of the Empire, were soon being sent to South Africa. But, for the moment, Buller only had what was to hand, though this was hardly insignificant: he maintained a four to one advantage in men, and a ten to one advantage in artillery. He simply had to find a way to use these advantages properly.
Nine days after Vaal Krantz, Buller was ready to try again. He returned to the area around Colenso, focusing especially on Hlangwane, a position that had repulsed British attacks before but which, if captured, would allow British artillery to safeguard a crossing of the river at Colenso itself. Preliminary operations securing the south bank, with the Royal Irish Fusiliers of Geoffrey Barton’s 6th Brigade engaged, took place and soon Hlangwane had been secured, with the Boers quickly abandoning the south bank of the Tugela altogether.
There remained the hills behind Colenso itself, still in Boer possession. It was here that General Hart and his Irish Brigade came back into play. Hart had come in for much criticism in the aftermath of Colenso, due in no small part to the ignorant disregard he had for ensuring the safety of his men. One fellow general declared in a letter home that Hart was “a dangerous lunatic”. He was about to prove it all over again.
Hart’s objective was a rise dubbed, in a moment of sheer unimagination, “Hart’s Hill”. Buller knew that, having secured a crossing and the heights on the south bank, seizing just some of the heights on the north bank would be enough to send the outflanked Boers packing. In the plains between Colenso and Ladysmith, the Boers obviously would not fight – it simply wasn’t their style – so the seizure of these heights would mean the relief of Ladysmith.
As before the advance was supposed to be supported by an artillery barrage, from a position south of the river, but the guns were too far back to be as effective as they should have been. With the Boers dug in as they usually were, it didn’t really matter anyway. Hart’s Brigade attacked in the latter part of the 24th after a delay in getting the troops into position.
It was a torturous climb up a steep rocky hill face for the Irish troops. Behind every other rock lay enemy soldiers, able to pop up, rattle off a few shots with their accurate Mauser rifles, and then duck back behind cover before they could become targets themselves. All the Irish could do was advance up the hill as fast as they could, and occasionally pop off a few largely symbolic replies from their own guns.
Hart, in his wisdom, continued to insist that his men march forward in tightly packed columns, four abreast, which only limited their ability to manoeuvre and made then an even easier target. Boer artillery caused significant casualties in such circumstances, a grim prologue to the sort of carnage artillery would cause 14 years later. Hart, showing his usual bravery – or disregard – for his own safety, rode close to the front line to urge his troops on, but they may perhaps have preferred some better leadership.
Hart’s greatest folly was his sheer impatience. The march to Hart’s Hill, over a swollen stream and under fire, had been slow, and the six battalions that Buller had given Hart for the assault did not all arrive at the objective at the same time. Instead, they were coming up one at a time, with a unit of the Royal Inniskilling’s first. Hart should have waited until more, or all of his force was available before committing to the attack up the hill. Instead, for reasons best known to himself, he ordered the Inniskillings to attack on their own. When the Connaught Rangers arrived next, he sent them up on their own too, and then the Royal Dublins, and then the other battalions, one after the other.
The result was predictable. The range of the attack was narrow owing to the lack of men in each push, and the force was weak. With the light dying, the supporting artillery was no longer a factor either. The Boers, behind the rocks and dug-in on the top of the hill, only had to stand up and fire at an enemy they could hardly miss.
The Inniskillings, and then the Connaught Rangers and then the Dublins and the ones that came after all tried to take the hill, and all of them were thrown back. Hart aghast, ordered a combined charge of various companies after this catastrophe, that met with a similar result. That night, the wounded were left stranded on the hill, dealing with their injuries, their thirst and listening to the hymns of the Boer enemy. They would not be rescued that day. In the morning, what was left of Hart’s force retreated. 500 of them were casualties. For the Inniskillings in particular, the Battle of the Tugela Heights was a devastating one, with over a quarter of the battalion dead, injured or missing.
Buller was forced to revaluate, going on another flanking march and approaching the hills from a different direction. Another section of the Royal Dublins was involved in a failed attack at the nearby Pieters Kop, while at Hart’s Hill a brief armistice was agreed, a full day after the fighting, so that the dead and wounded could be removed. The new strategy did work eventually, thanks to combined attacks from different directions, the sheer volume of men attacking the heights enough that the Boers simply couldn’t stay where they were. When they retreated, the last block on the relief of Ladysmith vanished. 118 days after being trapped there in the first place, General White and his force, including many Irish soldiers and units, were saved. But the cost had been far, far heavier than anything the British military could have imagined. The Irish Brigade paid the price for the army leaderships ineptitude.
The relief of Ladysmith coincided with other British successes elsewhere, showing clearly that the tide was turning. Buller was formally replaced in command by Lord Roberts before the Tugela Heights, and in Natal Roberts had forced an opening to Kimberley thanks to a cavalry led assault. The Boers retreated back into the interiors of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. By all appearances, it seemed as if the expected course of the war was now being followed: soon Roberts would march on Pretoria and Bloemfontein, and the Boers would be obligated to surrender. But the Boers were not going to follow that script.
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