The thrust to the coast, reinvigorated by the assistance of General Louis Botha, was greatly encouraged by the success at Chieveley on the 15th November. The Boer plan was to demonstrate against Estcourt whilst some 1 000 men under Assistant-General David Joubert passed it to the east through Weenen, and the main body under General Louis Botha passed it to the west through Ulundi farm. These forces were to converge at Highlands, north of Mooi River, and isolate Estcourt by cutting road and railway.
On the 17th November David Joubert occupied Weenen without opposition and after some of his men had looted the hotel and a store or two, proceeded as intended. On the 18th November Boer patrols approached Estcourt from the north along the railway line to within about 8 000 yards of the town. By this time the garrison had received substantial reinforcements. General Hildyard and staff, the 2nd Queen’s, the 2nd East Surreys, the West Yorks, some of Bathune’s Mounted Infantry, and the 7th Field Battery had all arrived on or before the 18th.
On the approach of the Boers, patrols of the Imperial Light Horse reported their presence. A navel gun at Fort Durnford to the south of the town landed a shell amongst them. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers, on the right the Durban Light Infantry, and situated below the crest of a hill about 12 miles north of the town, fired some shots, and the Boers withdrew. They had, no doubt, served their purpose of engaging the attention of the garrison whilst the invading army operated elsewhere. On the 19th, Thornycroft’s Horse had a skirmish with David Joubert’s commandos in the vicinity of Highlands. Hesitation and indecision at Staff level failed to prevent the junction between the two Boer forces and by the 21st they were occupying all the heights from Brynbella’s Ridge to Highlands and east. They had also succeeded in collecting a great amount of wagons and stock from the farms of the neighbourhood. Their situation was, however, not altogether a happy one. The garrison of Estcourt, though mainly consisting of infantry and thus greatly lacking in mobility compared with the mounted burghers were numerically superior.
At Mooi River a similar force was being rapidly built up under General Barton. The main advantage held by the Boers was that the moment matters went against them, they could withdraw rapidly. Such was the position when on the 21st November, David Joubert dropped shells into Mooi River. General Barton, grossly overestimating the strength of the enemy adopted an over cautious attitude. General Hildyard in Estcourt, however, decided to strike at the enemy. Advised by Major Duncan McKenzie of the Natal Carbineers that the enemy were on Brynbella in some force and that they had planted a gun therein, he decided to make a surprise night attack on the position.
Thus on the afternoon of the 22nd November, a column consisting of the West Yorks. The East Surreys, four companies of the Queen’s, the Durban Light Infantry, the 7th Field Battery and a Naval 12-pounder, marched out of Estcourt past Fort Durnford, past the Red Cutting at Cooper’s Kop, and on to the base of Beacon Hill, about five or six miles out. They were to be followed on the 23rd by the Border Regiment and the Mounted troops.
The day had been extremely hot and the late afternoon resulted in a violent thunderstorm accompanied by hailstones of unusual size, which caused damage to helmets and some injury to personnel. All troops were drenched to the skin and, when light came with at least another four storms, the ground was so drenched that rest was impossible. Furthermore, except for the lightning flashes it was so dark that visibility was nil. Old colonists and campaigners could hardly remember such a night. There were lightning fatalities on both sides.
As a result of some troops exposing themselves in the late afternoon on the side if Beacon hill which was about 5 000 yards north of Brynbella, the Boers opened up with their big gun. The naval gun, which had been hauled up with great difficulty onto Beacon Hill, unfortunately replied, thus giving the Boers an indication that something big was contemplated. Colonel FW Kitchener who was to carry out the night attack with the West Yorks and the East Surreys set out shortly before midnight. The West Yorks moved on the left side, the East Surreys on the right of a stone wall which led all the way from Beacon Hill to the north eastern edge of Brynbella. The conditions were difficult, the night pitch black, and this led to the West Yorks and East Surreys mistaking one another for the enemy. An unfortunate encounter ensued, several being wounded by rifle and bayonet.
Even as the West Yorks made their way unnoticed by the enemy right onto the crest of Brynbella by 3.30am. The startled challenge of a sentry was followed, contrary to the intention, by a volley and a cheer, which gave sufficient warning to the sleeping Boers to make their escape in the darkness. Their blankets, much of their paraphernalia and a number of horses, were all there was of booty. The gun had been removed during the night.
Morning found the West Yorks occupying the highest part of the ridge and the rest of the force behind the stone wall. The Boers, gently reinforced, were on a ridge about 1 500 yards back. From here, led by General Louis Botha in person, they gradually advanced against the West Yorks. They were supported by two field guns and a pom-pom. The West Yorks had no such support. The 7th Field Battery was without orders and was in no position to help. The naval gun on Beacon Hill was out of range.
A sadly uncoordinated action followed. Left very much to himself, Colonel Kitchener ordered a withdrawal about 9.00am. At about the same time orders were given for the Queen’s and the Border Regiment to support Kitchener’s left flank by advancing from Beacon Hill along the stone wall. Hildyard, who had now come on the scene, realized withdrawal was advisable and the mounted men, Imperial Light Horse leading, moved up the Willow Grange valley to assist the West Yorks. They reached the crest to find only one company of West Yorks still in position. In assisting their withdrawal Trooper G Fritzpatrick of Imperial Light Horse, brother of Sir Percy, was killed whilst helping a wounded Yorkshireman.
The withdrawal from Brynbella, first to Beacon Hill and then Estcourt was carried out with few casualties. It had been the intention of General Hildyard to hold Beacon Hill permanently and Lieutenant Colonel McCubbin, commencing the Durban Light Infantry had written orders to do so. The naval gun, which had been dragged with great difficulty onto the hill, had attracted a good deal of attention from the enemy guns and it was hopelessly outranged. It was said that its range was seriously affected by lack of a proper mounting. Under the circumstances the naval officer in charge decided to take it out of action. He called on the Durban Light Infantry to assist. It had to be manhandled over boulders and down steep slopes with a shoe-brake on each wheel. O’Connell records that there was a shortage of ropes and the men had to form chains by holding hands. He especially mentions the cool courage of Cpl. W Coles who stuck to his difficult task despite the grave danger that the gun was threatening to fall on top of him. Throughout the removal of the gun the party was under shellfire.
When General Hildyard learned that the gun had been removed he decided to evacuate the hill. Colonel McCubbin refrained from doing so until there was no doubt about the authenticity of the order. Thus the Durban Light Infantry were the last to leave the field. This was done by companies in single file at several paces distance and finally in extended order. Starting at 4.00pm on the 23rd the battalion arrived back in Estcourt at 6.00pm after duties which had extended from 3.00am on the 22nd B a period of 33 hours without rest.
“The Times History” gives the casualties of the action as 16 killed, and about 60 wounded B mostly West York’s. Boer casualties were probably much less. The gallant Louis Botha had his horse shot under him whilst conducting the counter-attack. Mr Chapman, a local farmer, who had guided the night attack bravely and skillfully, was amongst those killed.
The operation seems to have been remarkable for lack of co-ordination of effort. General Barton with considerable forces at Mooi River allowed himself to be preoccupied with the small force at Highlands under David Joubert. Of the force from Estcourt “The Times History” (Vol.11.p.316) observe: “as far as the British were concerned, the centre, the mounted troops on the right, and the artillery might almost equally well have been away”.
Despite all this, the action was not without, its effect. Taken with other events, Commandant-General Joubert decided not to venture any further. Indeed, he decided, to pull back to Colenso where he would be secure behind the Tugela. It was no doubt the right decision, for the British forces were mounting up against him and if he were caught on the wrong side of a Tugela in flood, and with bridges down, he would indeed be in a parlous position.
The fact was that by holding his main forces round the beleaguered Ladysmith at a time when there was little between him and the coast, General Joubert had lost the initiative.
By the 25th November the Boer retreat had begun. Except for a small force, which went via Ulundi the main body moved via Weenen. “The Times History” regards the failure of the British Army seriously to interfere with this withdrawal as “almost incomprehensible”. Referring to the withdrawal it states (Vol.11. p317): “It was a dangerous and difficult march. The expedition had come out lightly equipped. It returned heavy with hundreds of wagons of lost goods and droves upon droves of raided cattle, a great straggling procession whose head had almost reached Weenen before its tail lost touch with Mooi River. The roads were sodden with the heavy rains, and on one occasion their big gun stuck for ten hours in the drift. For some miles, the track to Weenen led through a defile where a handful of men could have checked the whole force. But nothing happened.”
A curious side light on this matter is reflected in “The Story of the Imperial Light Horse” by GF Gibson (p.144), which reads:
“Here was opportunity for a swift stroke B the Composite Regiment took up a position on the heights. commanding a narrow defile about 10 miles to the west of Estcourt through which the only available road passed. And as they were on the point of surprising the enemy and probably engaging them successfully, just such an opportunity as soldiers dream of, the OC Mounted Troops arrived on the scene and refused to allow them to fire. The OC explained to the dismayed McKenzie, in hearing of some of the equally astonished troopers, that his instructions were not to engage the enemy, but merely to shepherd them back to Colenso.”
A footnote makes it clear that neither Lord Dundonald nor Major Gough was present. The Composite Regiment referred to included “A” Squadron of the Imperial Light Horse and a squadron of The Natal Carbineers. The McKenzie referred to was Major Duncan McKenzie later Brigadier General McKenzie K.C.MG, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., Legion of Honour. The changed outlook on the Boer side was now manifest. Up to this time all culverts and bridges had been carefully preserved, as they would be required for the advance to the coast. Now as they withdrew they destroyed the two span bridge, over the Blaaukrantz River at Frere, and the all important railway bridge over the Tugela at Colenso.
The period of advancing and annexing country was over.
By Godfrey Symons and Col. Martin from “Tide of Invasion Turned”