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The Naval Brigade in Natal

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The Naval Brigade in Natal
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Author(s): C. R. N. Burne
Date Published: 2008/08
Page Count: 184
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-501-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-502-4

With the big guns of the Royal Navy in South Africa

During the history of warfare—particularly during the nineteenth century—there has been the need to employ naval brigades for duty on land fighting alongside the army. Both the Indian Mutiny and the Zulu War saw sailors in action far from their ships. The Boer War was no exception. Although essentially a citizen army the Boer forces often had superiority of firepower as a result of the adoption of up to date weaponry. All Armies, the British included, lagged behind—trusting to the tried rather than the innovative. Artillery was ever the master of the battlefield however and there is an overwhelming power to naval guns served by naval gunners which is almost impossible to counter by forces lacking the same facility. The author of this book, C. R. N. Burne was a serving naval officer and one of those detached for such duty during the conflict in South Africa. His story is full of interesting detail of life on campaign and the of the guns themselves in action.

Monday, 22nd January—We placed the battery of six guns at daybreak in a kloof between two kopjes, in a half-moon formation, commanding the old position near Spion Kop, at about 4,500 yards, mine being in the centre. I was in charge all day and fired shots at intervals. The wind was too high for balloon reconnoitring. My first shot, a shrapnel, at the left part of Spion Kop, disabled twenty of the enemy digging in the trenches, so we were afterwards told by native scouts; and we were praised by those looking on for our accurate firing. We had now our telescopic sights on the guns, and very good ones on the whole they were, although we found the cross wires too thick and therefore hid an object such as a trench which at long range looks no more than a line. I found my deflection by a spirit-level on the trail, to test the inclination of the wheels one way or the other. There was very heavy fighting to-day on our left. Sir Charles Warren is in fact forcing his way on, and we hear reports of 400 of our fellows being killed and wounded, and the Boer trenches being taken by bayonet charges. So far as we know, General Buller’s object is to outflank the Boers on the left, and then when Sir Charles Warren has done this, to attack in front and cut them off.<br><br>

Tuesday, 23rd January—Another day, alas, red with the blood of our poor fellows. Sir Charles Warren continued his operations at 1 p.m., and from then till midnight the fight raged. Musketry and guns booming all round, the Maxims and Vickers 1-pounder guns, being specially noticeable. At daylight we ourselves stood to guns and concentrated our fire on the Boer trenches and positions to the front and right, in order to draw the enemy away from Warren’s force; while the Infantry with us (Rifle Brigade, King’s Royal Rifles, Durhams and Scottish Rifles) made a demonstration in force to within 2,000 yards of the main trenches under cover of our fire. The attack under Warren got closer and closer each hour, and we could watch our fellows, apparently the Lancashire Brigade, storming the top of Spion Kop, in which, I afterwards heard, my father’s old regiment (the Lancashire Fusiliers) bore a splendid part. Meanwhile our own attack on the Brakfontein trenches was withdrawn, and we brought our guns into action on the left to assist the operations on Spion Kop but soon had to desist for fear of hitting our own men. The fight raged all day and was apparently going well for us. At 4 p.m. came a message from General Buller ordering the King’s Royal Rifles and Scottish Rifles to storm Spion Kop from our side, which they did, starting from our guns and making a prodigious climb right gallantly in a blazing heat and suffering a considerable loss. Poor Major Strong, with whom I had just breakfasted, was one of the wounded and, to my great sorrow, died of his wound. Our guns meanwhile were searching all the valleys and positions along the eastern slopes of Spion Kop; but it was all unavailing, as we were apparently forced to retire after heavy losses during the night. We ourselves were all dead beat, but had to be up all night with search-lights working on the Boer main position; but what of poor Warren’s force after five days’ constant marching and fighting!<br><br>

Wednesday, 24th January—No more firing and many rumours; but at last it was a great surprise and blow to us to hear a confirmation of the report that Warren’s right had been forced to abandon Spion Kop during the night, and to be also told that we ourselves were to go back to our old plateau in the rear. I had my guns dragged up to Criticism Kop with great labour by eighty of the Durhams, who are now our escort; and with the Rifle Brigade we hold the three advanced hills here, while Ogilvy has been moved back across the river. We hear of a loss of some 1,600 men, the poor 2nd Bn. of the Lancashire Fusiliers specially suffering heavily;2 there is therefore great depression among all here, a cessation of fire being ordered, and nothing in front of us except ambulances. Our mail came in during the evening and I was very pleased to get letters from Admiral and Mrs. Douglas. We feared a night attack, so had everything ready for the fray. I was on the watch all night with Whyte, but our search-light kept off the danger and all remained quiet.
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