The Naval Brigade of the cruiser H. M. S Terrible in the Victorian age
The battles of the Nile and Trafalgar in the opening years of the 19th century demonstrated that the Royal Navy was an unbeatable international force. The lessons of that period were so well understood by the world that the British navy did not fight another major battle on the high seas until Jutland during the First World War. Britain ruled the waves for a century as the nation’s imperial and colonial aspirations were fulfilled and the Royal Navy became a de facto international police force. The larger wars of the century were fought on land and demanded little of British naval resources. Naval guns and their expert gunners, however, were a valuable asset that could be deployed to significant effect almost anywhere the British Army was engaged. Naval Brigades were created and went on to see action in the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War, the Boer War and towards the close of the 19th century as part of the force dispatched to China to suppress the Boxer uprising and relieve the beleaguered legations in Peking. This unique Leonaur two-in-one volume contains exciting narratives of the brigade of H. M. S. Terrible, a cruiser of the ‘Powerful’ class, during the Second Boer War, where it played a significant role in the relief of Ladysmith, and in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Also included is an interesting description of the initiatives which led to the building of the ‘Powerful’ class.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Early on the 17th, the naval guns opened a heavy bombardment on the Spion Kop and Brakfontein positions, being joined later on by the howitzer battery. A scattering of hitherto concealed bodies of Boers proved that the shelling was causing them serious disquietude. The searching effect of the howitzer lyddite shells, dropped with wonderful accuracy into entrenchments, gun-pits and redoubts, and behind the ridges, was responsible for much moral and physical damage; while the 4.7’s, with common shell, contributed very largely to the material destruction. Far away defence works suffered considerable defacement, and were rendered untenable by their occupants, who appeared to find some difficulty in obtaining safe shelter. Towards 9 a.m. Warren’s force commenced crossing the pontoon bridge under cover of his batteries; the whole movement being well within view of Mount Alice, and about 8000 yards distant therefrom. A feeble resistance of long-range rifle fire was offered by the enemy; but whatever intention they might have had of opposing the crossing at that pointy most have vanished when the naval heavy guns were found to command every vantage point they could select from which to oppose. Apparently the Boers would not venture too close with their guns, or, feeling secure in their stronghold, were indifferent, and consequently the bulk of the force and impedimenta crossed over by nightfall.
Next day, while completing the movement Warren cautiously advanced his infantry, and sent Dundonald’s mounted troops to find the finger-tips of the Boer right arm of defence. They found them, and moreover cut them off in a smart little action near Acton Homes, which cost the enemy a loss of 18 casualties and 24 prisoners before sundown; our losses were comparatively few, being 2 killed, 2 wounded.
To divert the enemy’s attention from Warren’s flanking movement, Lyttleton’s force made a threatening demonstration against Brakfontein, all guns maintaining a brisk bombardment to lend colour to the feint advance. The wily foe, however, appeared little disconcerted by this manoeuvre, which merely drew a little sportive rifle fire, the force carrying out the prearranged retirement back to the kopjes before dusk. A close repetition of this day’s programme engrossed the attention of Lyttleton’s command during these protracted operations, their share of the fighting culminating in a brilliant affair which is related in its order of sequence.
On the 19th, Warren had deemed it necessary to abandon the original plan of operations—that of detouring round the Boer flanks by the Acton Homes route, and had, instead, so diverted his force that his fighting line was now extended in a north-west and south-east direction, his right being contiguous to the south-west spurs of Spion Kop. Having reconnoitred the roads, Warren had concluded that the Acton Homes route must be rejected as being too long, and occupying more time than circumstances would warrant. He had therefore adopted the alternative north-eastern route (via Fair View and Rosalie), which passage, though considerably shorter, was far more difficult to traverse, and also struck directly through the Boer right defences.
Certain progress towards executing this new plan was made on the 20th, the enemy having been compelled to vacate most of their outlying hillock defences, which Hart’s Brigade, in face of stubborn opposition, had succeeded in capturing, assisted by the enterprising operation of Dundonald’s horsemen, who had successfully wrested a dominating hill on the extreme left. Retaining the ground won, the fighting recommenced at dawn next morning with a vigorous shelling of the Boer positions preparatory to another forward move. The task before Warren was extremely difficult and hazardous, having nearly resolved itself into a frontal advance, and in view of the fact four howitzer guns were despatched to assist him, Ogilvy’s battery crossing Potgieters to replace them. Slowly onward pressed Warren’s line, every yard of advance being hotly contested, but no obvious advantage was manifest.
During the 22nd a passive attitude prevailed, the troops tenaciously holding the captured ridges in face of a persistent bombarding from the Boer guns, which were situated on the exterior high ridges far beyond the effective range of Warren’s batteries. To ensure success, Spion Kop must change hands, further advance being next to impossible and quite impracticable while it remained in Boer tenancy. General Warren, with the reluctant acquiescence of Sir Redvers Buller, decided to settle the issue by a night attack on the fateful mountain. As, however, the ground to be traversed had not been reconnoitred, the venture was deferred until the following night.
Next day the troops endured another harassing shelling; but comparatively slight losses ensued, owing to the more intelligent disposal of the forces under cover. As Spion Kop stood in the direct line of fire of all guns on its eastern side, the 4.7’s were directed to be fired over its summit at the ridges where the Boer guns were situated—but not located. Shelling invisible targets at uncertain ranges means usually futile practice, and an inordinate waste of ammunition, for the odds are indeed great against a lucky shell getting “home.” Later in the day some changes in the dispositions of the troops took place. Lyttleton’s command received two battalions which had arrived from Chieveley, while Talbot-Coke’s Brigade, Bethune’s Horse, and the newly raised Imperial Light Infantry, fresh from Durban, reinforced Warren.
The Boers had also received large reinforcements, evidently believing that the last two days of British inactivity was a presage of some bold stroke nearing maturity.
Arrangements having been completed, the venturous task of assaulting Spion Kop was entrusted to General Woodgate, who, with about half of his Lancashire Brigade, 200 of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, and a half-company Royal Engineers (about 1600 troops), set out at dusk en route towards the south-western spurs of the mountain. The fate of the whole operations depended upon the success of this bold enterprise. By those who are conversant with the physical aspect of Gibraltar, looking at the Rock from the western side, some idea of this night attack may be formed.