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Hart’s Hill. When they met, it was Murder…

With the failure of General Wynne’s attack on Hedge Hill to achieve a significant breakthrough the Boer positions along the Tugela appeared to be as impenetrable as they had been two month previous.  It is true that in the last week we had at last crossed that brown strip of water which for so long had seemed a riddle of unfathomable complexity, yet our initial hopes for a speedy victory over our foe seemed now to be receding once again.

For myself I had been kept busy with work in the field hospital during the days, yet with casualties mercifully light in recent days it had become my habit to mess with General Buller’s staff; an arrangement which allowed me the opportunity to see at first hand the machinations of this instrument and, in some small way, appreciate the difficulties faced by Sir Redvers.  Little had I anticipated that my dining arrangements would propel me into one of the sharpest fights of the war thus far, and allow me to observe the most unfortunate example of leadership I have ever had the misfortune to witness.

By nightfall of the 22nd of February Wynne’s 11th Brigade was still under the rifles of the Boers on Hedge Hill and Horseshoe Hill, unable to advance further and yet grimly determined to defend the gains in ground achieved, small as they were.  We had completed our main course of horse meat and had moved on to the cheese and ships biscuits when Captain Cholmondley, ADC to Buller, begged my company for a moment.  Leaving the mess tent we crossed the camp site and made our way to the General’s headquarters where I was ushered into the company of Sir Redvers himself.  The details of our conversation must for the most part, I fear, remain cloaked in secrecy.  However, it is possible for me to reveal that he was fully aware of my work with Holmes and in the current situation, one more desperate than he would care to reveal to any one of the accompanying newspaper men, he needed someone he could trust to act as his eyes and ears in the front line.  It was with some anticipation that I learnt that on the morrow I was to accompany Major General Fitzroy-Hart when his Irish Brigade launched a fresh attack on Terrace Hill in the hope of turning the Boer flank and allowing Wynne to continue his advance.

On the following morning I awoke early and prepared myself for what lay ahead.  Crossing the Tugela by way of Pontoon Bridge Number 1 I made my way to the banks of the Onderbrook stream where the 5th Brigade were encamped.  Hart had resolved to begin his attack soon after midday, taking the Ladysmith road to the rear of Wynne’s men and then utilising the high banks of the Tugela to advance his men under cover to a point from which they could launch their attack.  At first glance the plan had some merit, yet it seems not to have occurred to Hart that moving a Brigade of troops by way of a track wide enough only to accommodate a single man was not an ideal starting point for his attack.  Indeed by half past four in the afternoon, just two hours before sunset, only four of his battalions were assembled in “Hart’s Hollow”, with two more still  in transit, delayed by the necessity to cross Pom Pom bridge under fire.

Colenso Area Map

General Hart was now faced with a choice; attack now with but four of his six battalions, or wait for all to assemble and risk a night attack.  It was no secret that Hart was a man who liked to keep his troops well in hand, and it may be that this prompted his actions.  For some time now a party of Naval guns had been bombarding Terrace Hill whilst on Naval Hill three batteries of the Royal Field Artillery were standing idle in anticipation of orders.  I could see Hart from close quarters, his face like thunder and irritation writ large upon his visage.  Leaning down from his saddle he addressed his bugler, and a moment later the Regimental call for the Connaught Rangers rang out clear and loud; the battalion will advance came the next call.

Some fifty yards away I could see Colonel Brooke move forward, two companies scrambling up the steep bank and forming into extended order on the top of the bluff.  Two more companies began the climb and then the bugle call changed.  Now the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers heard the same order addressed to them, and I knew that Colonel Thackeray off on the extreme left would also be making the climb up before advancing into the teeth of the Boer guns.

Hart 1

The advance met with an immediate response, largely from the Boers on the rear slopes of Hedge Hill who recognised this fresh threat.  The bombardment on Terrace Hill was doing its job and no fire was received from there, however, a runner soon arrived from Colonel Sitwell of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  The Dublins were attempting to advance against Railway Hill to protect the right of the main attack, yet almost instantly they had come under fire from Boer forces there and also those on Pieter’s Hill.  According to Sitwell he had sent Major Hay’s companies of the Imperial Light Infantry to attempt the passage of a donga that ran up between those two hills, yet he fear that to maintain his advance in the face of what appeared to be significant numbers of Boers on Railway Hill would lead to terrible losses.  Hart was clearly not impressed.  Turning to his bugler he called upon him to rouse the Dublins forward with the signal to advance with all haste.

It was now that we shifted to a vantage point from where the action could be viewed more clearly, and immediately it became obvious that the Inniskilling were suffering under terrible cross-fire.  The Boers on Hedge Hill and a party on the western slopes of Terrace Hill were now bringing their fire to bear, assisted by some enemy artillery and a Pom Pom on the hills to the north.  Valiantly Colonel Thackeray could be seen leading his men on the second line sweeping through the remnants of the first picking up men as it went, whilst subordinate officers manoeuvred the supports to face of the fire from Hedge Hill.  A battery, the 7th I believe, was now adding it fire against this position and the 19th was firing against Pieter’s Hill, attempting to suppress the Boers there.

Hart 2

On the right it was now clear that the Dublins were in terrible trouble.  As they approached the railway line they had discovered that on both sides barbed wire fences blocked their path and even while they attempted to clear these Boer rifle fire drove them back in some disorder.  It was only in the centre that true progress was made, as Colonel Brook of the Connaught Rangers was handling his battalion with some style.  The first two lines had now merged into four companies which had achieved the road running across the front of the Hill.  Here they were sheltered from the Boer artillery deployed further back and they now attempted to signal back for the Naval guns to cease their bombardment.  Meanwhile two more companies were brought forward maintaining their spacing at around 300 yards from the lead line, whilst the reserve of two companies was around 300 yards further back near the river.

Hart 3

The silence was notable when the Naval guns ceased their fire, and the Connaghts could be seen forming up for their attack.  Some time was lost negotiating the slope of Terrace Hill, leading to a supporting attack by forward elements of the Inniskillings being beaten back with heavy losses, but then, with a cheer that range across the valley, the Rangers surged forward, bayonets glinting in the late evening sun.

Hart 4

The ferocity of the attack was without equal, as these sons of Erin dealt with the enemies of their Queen with a ferocity that saw the Boers flee in a state of complete disorder after a brief fight.  Now Brooke could be seen calling for his supports, for whilst he had won his initial objective he now found that the Boers had a second line of trenches to their rear and his victorious troops now came under fire so intense that they could not stand its ferocity.  After less than ten minutes on the flat top of the hill they were obliged to retired back down onto its southern slopes to avoid the fire.

Hart 5

On our right it seemed that our artillery had been effective in largely silencing the fire from Pieter’s Hill and apparently the number of Boers on Railway Hill was now much reduced, a large party having been seen leaving to ride across to man the trenches to the rear of Terrace Hill form where they now denied the Connaughts their rightful prize.

Hart was beside himself with fury.  Throughout the day he had done little but prompt his bugler to make increasingly pointless calls, demanding of his men that which no man could give in the face of obstinate opposition.  He now issued an order for the Naval guns to open fire on the fresh Boer positions, yet the message was returned almost instantly by the battery commander.  Light was fading fast and it was no longer safe to fire without the ability to see whether our shells hit friends or foe.  It seemed that despite all the valiant efforts of our brave soldiers that Hart’s impetuous and ill-conceived attack could not be rescued.

No gentleman takes pleasure in criticising another, and yet such was my unpleasant duty that very evening.  I fear that whilst Hart may be loved by his men, such affection is misplaced for he appears to entirely misunderstand the nature of this most modern warfare, and as a terrible consequence he spends their lives with the casuality of a gambler spending unearned wealth.

John H.Watson, MD.
Assistant Surgeon
Army Medicial Department
Natal

Postscript
An excellent and very interesting game last evening; by Gad, I think they are learning!  This was again an historical refight of a battle that came to be known as Hart’s Hill, a lasting memorial to a truly crazy attack that nearly worked due to the qualities of the Irish soldier.  It is an action that has always fired my imagination as historically the bravery of the troops and the subordinate commanders nearly allowed the British to pull it off, but in a very similar result to the one we achieved they too took and were then obliged to withdraw from Terrace Hill.  In the German Official History of the war one German officer present was quoted saying “one can really only admire these troops who hope in such a way as this to remedy the tactical errors of their leaders”.  And so it was here.

In our refight the British took some dangerous risks with the Inniskillings, advancing much too close to Hedge Hill where the Boers were firing from off-table and where the Boer artillery deployed further back could fire without worrying about the British artillery silencing them.  In the end they did deploy sufficient artillery and a masking force of infantry to counter this, but by then the bulk of the battalion was so shaken that they were unable to press on.

In the centre the attack of the Connaught Rangers was absolutely text book.  Full marks to Sidney who commanded them, it was a joy to watch it being done properly.    The main attack was undertaken with sufficient strength to sweep the Boers out of their trenches and the supports were correctly deployed to support the attack whilst not suffering casualties from fire due to bunching up too close.  In essence this is what the game is about for the British player.  One needs to construct the attack as the historical commander would have done.  Knowing when to use close, open or extended formation to minimise casualties on the way in but maximise the punch to make it a knockout blow needs to be balanced against command and control issues.  The more dispersed your troops, the harder they are to get moving in the face of fire, and consequently the harder it is to retain the shape of your force.

The key to the Connaughts’ attack was co-operation with the artillery bombardment.  This was done with some style in the face of real command and control problems.  In the end the Boers did have time to rally themselves in anticipation of the charge, however not quickly enough to bring sufficient fire to bear to break up the British cohesion, and the result was predictable.  Indeed this gives a clue as to the key to Boer success.  The Shock system in the rules is their main ally.  They need to use their firepower to break up British attacks.  As we saw with the Inniskillings’ uncoordinated attack against the flank of Terrace Hill, this lacked the numbers to overwhelm and had suffered too much shock in their approach.  Under the effective fire of Boer artillery, and in particular one very nasty Pom Pom that really rattled the British, their Colonel decided that a quick volley and a charge had a chance of success.  Indeed any British charge CAN succeed, when we get into close combat one enters a world of where any result is possible, but in this instance the Boers has already stacked the scales so heavily in their favour that the charge actually failed to get up the slope.

Command and Control, as mentioned, was a real pain for the British.  This harks back to some of the ideas I discussed regarding commanders in the piece on Monte Christo.  Whilst Buller was the General commanding  on the Tugela he was inclined to order a subordinate to achieve a mission and then to sit back and watch in the role of a spectator (a somewhat listless version of Auftragstaktik one could argue, alternatively an utter abrogation of responsibility, and I am with the latter).  Any interference from him was limited to ordering the cessation of an attack when he felt that enough had been achieved, rather than actually attempting to get involved with shaping the battle.  As such Buller left the fight for Terrace Hill entirely in Hart’s hands.  For his part Hart made the decision to attack soon after 16.30, but after that time his involvement in the action seems to have been limited to issuing bugle calls which had little effect other than to fragment his forces.  The British official history states:

“General Hart caused the regimental cal of the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Connaught Rangers to be frequently sounded, followed by the “Advance,” the “Double,” and the “Charge”.  The men needed no encouragement , and the bugle sounds induced such haste as to imperil, if not destroy cohesion among the units”.    

This from a work that seeks to shine a positive light on feats of British arms is a damning statement indeed.  The German history is less kind, accusing Hart of going missing from the battlefield altogether.

Naturally at a distance of 111 years the truth is a matter of conjecture, but my opinion was that to allow the British player to benefit from having this man in charge would be to change the context of the battle utterly.  As a result I limited Hart to a single command initiative when his card was draw and hobbled him further by adding what was essentially a “Friction” card which could paralyse him further.  Added to that I placed him on the south bank of the Tugela with no capability to cross the river and get involved in the action.  Is it fair to thus limit the gamer playing the British in such a way?  Actually I feel it was.  What happened was that the British players recognised immediately that they could not rely on their overall commander, and this then elevated the Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels to the positions of the match winners.  Now these chaps had to make up for the deficiency in the senior command and pull the irons out of the fire.  As such this did not “spoil” the game for the British, but changed the dimensions.

In the end it was time that scuppered Hart’s plans in our game as in reality.  We ran the game advancing the clock each time the Outspan (End of Turn) card was drawn and as Hart issued fresh orders for his Naval guns to shell the Boer second line trenches the arrival of dusk meant the end of long range artillery fire.  Once again as at Wynne’s Hill the British had got in among the Boers and pushed them out of their advanced positions, but ultimately they lacked the punch to drive through the second line of defence.  To a degree this was due to our players attacking on too broad a frontage and therefore lacking a fresh battalion in reserve with which to push through, but in this particular game the simple fact was that Hart attacked too late in the day.

We put lots of effort into the artillery rules in this playtest and have, I feel, made real progress towards nailing that particular issue, my thanks to Karim van Overmeire in Belgium for his input there.  Playtesting continues apace.

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1 Response

  1. colin says:

    very interesting. terrain also brilliant am looking forward to a new set of bn or bde boer war rules good luck colin

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