The following letters were written by Captain C. A. Hensley to his father. Hensley was a Canadian from Halifax, Novia Scotia and died of wounds received in action at Venter’s Spruit on 20 January 1900. The regimental history (http://www.royaldublinfusiliers.com/regimental-history/dublin-fusiliers-in-south-africa/) noted that “Poor Hensley was not only one of the most popular officers in the regiment, but also one of the best and bravest. All his life he had been devoted to field sports, and his fame as a plucky big-game hunter and skilful shot was well known in many a Central Indian village and Cashmere valley. Educated at the Canadian Military College, he was a master of his profession, while the long months spent in Indian jungles had turned him into a handy man indeed. Wonderful and varied were the uses to which he could put an empty paraffin-tin or biscuit-box, and excellent were the stews he could produce out of a mess-tin. On one occasion in India a wounded panther was mauling one of his beaters. His rifle was empty, but without a moment’s hesitation he dashed in, and drove the animal away by beating it over the head. Alas! poor Hensley, we could spare him ill, but, after all, we know he died the death he would have chosen”
Estcourt, Natal 21st November 1899
My dear Dad:
Although I have not written since we have been out, A[gnes] has, nearly every mail day. The truth is that we have had a rather bad time, with little time for writing. What with picquets, etc., up all night for sometimes several nights at a time, one does not feel like writing. I have sent A. a note or wire nearly every day, except while we were cut off at Dundee. It does seem a ridiculous thing that a column of 3 500 strength, with transport, in all making a mass some 3.5 to 4 miles long, could have absolutely disappeared as we did for 3 whole days.
However, to begin at the time we left Maritzburg, on the 19th September. We arrived at Ladysmith early the next day and marched out 2.5 miles to camp. We [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] only stayed there 3 days and were ordered off to Dundee with the Leicesters [1st Leicestershire Regiment]. The order came at 6p.m. and we were in the train with everything packed at 1.00a.m. Got up to Dundee early in the morning and had too bivouac that night. Early the next morning – 3.00 a.m. – we were turned out but it proved a false alarm. The following day the 3 batteries arrived with the 10th [The Prince of Wales’s Own Royal] Hussars and, two days after, [the] 1st K.R.R. [King’s Royal Rifle Corps]. We had a nice camp and comfortable mess tent and, with the exception of a tremendous lot of picquets, an easy time of it. On 9th October we heard of the Z.A.R. ultimatum, and on the 11th war was declared, but for some days before that our patrols, near the Buffalo river (the border) which is 12 miles from Dundee, could see armed Boer patrols moving about and guns had been placed at Volksrust just over the border. The 87th [Princess Victoria’s, The Royal] Irish Fusiliers arrived at Dundee at about this time and General Symons cleared all the women and children out of the town. Dundee, of course, is the centre of the Natal coal flelds and we were sent there to protect them. It seemed a foolish move except that nobody seemed to realise that the Boers would invade Natal. No, I won’t say that, because many of the colonials said they would; but our intelligence reports – which by the way were absolutely rotten – said no. Well, at about 1.00 a.m. on the 14th or 15th, our C.O., Bird, was wakened in his tent by the General who said: ‘Bird, I have just received a wire from General White saying, send your best battalion at once to Ladysmith as the Free Staters are over the border.’ General Symoons added, ‘I have chosen you, trains will be ready at 3.30 a.m.’ We arrived at Ladysmith between 8 and 9 o’clock and the people at the station said, ‘hurry up the fight has begun, we have heard their big guns for sometime.’ (Such is imagination). We chucked off everything except equipment and legged it out at 4 miles per hour but the farther we got the more peaceful things looked and, when we were 6 miles out, at Dewisdorp Spruit [?], we got orders to remain where we were until the General arrived. It was then 2.00 p.m. and we had had nothing to eat; however, we saw a transport cart with bully beef and hard biscuits which we commandeered (a great word now) and served out, a ration per man. General White turned up at about 3.00 o’clock and said, ‘I have just had a wire from Gen Symons saying, send back my battalion at once as we expect attack.’
So off we went and arrived at Dundee at 1.30 a.m. Found our camp under water as it had been raining all day. Everybody was pretty well done up, having been two nights out of bed to say nothing of only a little bully beef to eat. In spite of no blankets we slept the sleep of the just.
Nothing of any importance happened until the 19th when the General sent over and said we were to supply 3 companies under a field officer to go by train to a coal field 10 miles away and bring in 1 000 bags of mealies which had been abandoned there when the mine shut down. The train had to pass through Hatting Spruit where a commando of 600 Boers had been seen the day before. It was a bit exciting. English went as the field officer, and my company with two others. On arriving at Glencoe, the main line junction from Dundee by branch line, we found the mail train in and all the passengers very much excited, saying the train had been fired on at Elandslaagte and that they had had to leave half the train on a steep grade just the other side of Wasbank, the station just outside Glencoe, as the Boers rode firing from their ponies at the engine driver. We saw where glass had been broken by their bullets. The place we had to get to was up the other way and the Staff Officer at Glencoe did not want us to go up, but English said to me, ‘I think we ought to go, don’t you.’ I, of course, agreed with him. We turned the engine round the wrong way so that the coal at the end would lead. (No tenders on these Natal engines.) Two Sergeants who are crack shots and I, all with rifles, got into the engine with English, who kept a lookout with glasses. We saw no one. Hatting Spruit had been looted and the store burnt. We got down to the coal field and I went out with a covering party on the hills whilst English supervised the loading of the mealies. The men worked like bucks and in 25 minutes we had loaded 1 100 bags and were off again to Dundee where we arrived all right and the General was very pleased.
The next morning, 20th October we paraded as usual at 4.30a.m. and, whilst on parade, heard musketry firing. A message had come in from the M.I. [Mounted Infantry] that a large party of Boers were coming up on Talana Hill overlooking the town and that 20 M.I. could not check them. So companies who were for picquet that day (B & E) were sent out to reinforce. At 5.00 o’clock we were dismissed but told to stand by and wait what might befall. Renny, one of our youngsters, who was looking through a glass, spotted a lot of men on top of Talana, 4 100 yards from our camps. We argued about their being Boers and I said to Bird, our C.O., the first thing we shall hear will be the sing of a shell into camp: I had hardly got the words out of my mouth when a puff of smoke came from the side of the hill and a shell hit the road about 1 000 yards short. Bang! came another, right into camp, but hurt no one. I think we all ducked to it and it must have been funny. I know I ducked because I rammed my head against the muzzle of the rifle of a man who was near, and nearly knocked my ear off. The men had fallen in by this time and I gave my company the order to double out and lie down on the ground away from the tents which served as targets for the enemy and drew the fire. The shells were coming in pretty thick then. No sooner had I done that than every company in the Batt’n followed me and formed quarter column, which of course was worse than being near the tents – so I moved again. I have come to the conclusion that men are just like sheep; where one goes – especially in time of fright – the rest will follow; However, the order came to double into a nullah some 300 yards to the front and under shelter, and there to await orders. Old Father Murray, R.C. came rushing out of his tent not knowing what was going on and the plucky old chap came along with us until a lot of wounded were brought back, when he helped to look after them.
Our guns answered back in 15 minutes whilst we the infantry, that is the 87th, 60th [King’s Royal Rifle Corps], and ourselves, and the Leicesters were kept back to protect the camp from flank attack with 1 Battery. We advanced through the town and got into a river bed parallel to the Boer position and about 1 200 yards from it. Our guns then moved up closer and engaged the enemy. The shooting was magnificent and at the end of half an hour a shell from one of our guns burst just under a cursed gun the Boers had, a Maxim-Nordenfelt (the men call it the barking gun as it sounds just like a dog). Our shell burst just under it and I happened to be looking through my glasses at the time. It seemed to rear up on its tail and turn over backwards. The Boers had 8 guns on the top! Talana is from 800 to 1 000 feet high with another hill about 1 000 yards off flanking the whole front of it, and the devils enfiladed us with a couple of Maxims from it.
At 7.25a.m. the order came for the infantry to advance; the Dublins to form the firing line and to cover the front with a cloud of skirmishers. It was then, as afterwards, that the training of our men told and showed that we had not been dinning into the men’s ears for 2.5 years in vain that they must advance in open order formation, take advantage of all cover, and fire independently when they could see anything to fire at. You may have seen in some of the home papers very flattering accounts of the behaviour of the regiment and others that rather cry it down, saying, why, if we did it all, were our casualties so much less in both officers and men than the other regiments. I can only put it down to the different training, and several times during the day it was most noticeable. Our men would, one at a time, get up and rush across the open, never two together, get over behind a stone or in a nullah, the officer, of course, going first. It was different in the 87th and the 60th. I, several times, saw them advance a whole section at a time, a la drill book. It does not do against good shots like the Boers. It may answer in Egypt. I tell you this by way of making some of those Egyptian heroes sit up. Our officers, for instance, left swords in camp and carried rifles and fired with the men. I fired some 40 or 50 rounds during the day and plugged several I think – one I know of. He was right on the sky line and on my third shot he came down, 600 yards. I marked a stone near a bush and, after we had cleared them off the hill, I had a look for him and found him dead all right. I took a brand new Mauser and bandolier off him and it is now safe in Maritzburg with A. It is only one of 40 or 50 saved in the regiment but I had to carry it myself for three days, besides my own kit, in that awful retreat from Dundee. But, as the novel says, I have wandered from my subject.
We left the river bed at 7.25 a.m. as I said, 4 paces between files, in quick time. I was one of the 3 leading companies. As soon as we came out of the riverbed the bullets began to buzz. We had a green field 400 yards across, as open and flat as a cricket pitch, to march over before we could get any cover. Halfway across was a barbed wire fence and they had got the range of that and made things pretty hot. We had to cut the wire. I had a small pair of pliers and was stooping cutting, or trying to cut the wire, my Colour-Serg’t standing just behind me, holding the wire I think. A bullet went over my back and killed him, poor chap, and at the same time another bullet hit the toe of my boot. Another man dropped close by. So I made them all climb over the top and then we went at a steady double to the edge of the wood – 200 yards – where there was a second wire fence with a small stone wall on the far side. We lay under the wall for five minutes. The man on my right was shot in the neck and the bullets were whizzing all around us when we found it was the beastly hill on our right which was enfilading us. We made a rush through the wood and it was weird hearing bullets zipping through the leaves of the trees. On the far side of the wood was another low stone wall and we lined that and opened fire for the first time at 600 to 700 yards. We remained there for some time and then the word came to advance. I was the left company and the two lines of advance were on the left by a nullah, and on the right a stone wall which protected them from the Maxim on the right hill. Most of the ground was dead from the top of the hill. Those who went up along the wall formed up under cover of it. It was about three feet high, running parallel to the Boer position, about 100 yards from it. We who had the luck to get into that cursed nullah had a bad time of it as it proved a regular death trap. The Boers evidently suspected it would form one of the points of our attack and consequently told off their crack shots – the Middleburg Burghers – to watch it. If anyone showed himself for a minute the bullets sang about him. The cover was very bad and effective only when we lay flat on our stomachs. We made rushes, one at a time, from one little side nullah to another I had made a run forward and a minute after Perreau said, ‘we are giving them Majuba today.’ Our guns were giving them beans on the top. Then a bullet whizzed past my head over my right shoulder and I thought I was hit and put my hand up. I heard a thud and Perreau staggered back saying, ‘by God, they’ve got me.’ He had got it clean through the left shoulder but afterwads it proved to be a clean wound and not very serious. He was very plucky about it and said he wished they had left him alone until he had got to the top. I had to go on at once to make room for more men. However; in time [I] got to the end of the nullah and there was nothing for it but to wait until the guns hammered them a bit as it was suicide to attempt to cross the open in that hail of bullets. I got up once to see if there was another nullah in front so that we could rush for it and though I was up only 15 seconds bullets buzzed around like bees. One hit just in front and knocked mud into my face. Just to show what the fire was like I made a man put his helmet in the grass which was 2 or 3 inches high on the nullah edge and almost at once there was a hole in it. Toward noon it began to drizzle. We had nothing but our thin khaki on and soon were completely wet. We had had nothing to eat that day and there were a lot of wounded and a few dead lying about. We could neither advance nor move back and we could see the others behind getting ready for something. I can’t well imagine anything more miserable.
Then, at the wall, we saw a lot of men led by Dibley, one of our captains, make a mad rush over the wall for the hill. This was the so-called bayonet charge. It was a very plucky thing to do but mad and absolutely useless as it was impossible to charge up a perpendicular hill, as we found it afterwards. They had to come back. Some of the 60th and 87th joined in the charge. Lowndes, our Adjutant, who followed Dibley, was shot in the leg and had it broken. He has had to have it off, I’m afraid. Dibley was shot under the eye and the bullet came out behind his ear It looked a ghastly wound but he was doing well when we left Dundee. Just as our fellows came back our guns began salvos on the top. I ought to tell you of one magnificent bit of pluck on the part of the Boers – the only time I have seen them show any. As I told you, our men were under cover behind the wall but when they climbed over they had to cross a space of about 15 yards before they got under cover of the cliff. As they came over the wall, 8 Boers in their waterproofs which blew about like flags stood up on the skyline regardless, or perhaps, in contempt, of our rifle fire, remembering 1881, and fired down at our chaps like one would at a rabbit bolting down hill. Five of them went down almost at once; of course we had to be careful for fear of hitting our own men, but three seemed to bear a charmed life until they too went down in time.
As I said, the guns began salvos and all I can say is that I hope to heaven I shall never be under fire such as they poured into the top of the hill. The fire was incessant for 5 or 10 minutes and the top must have been a perfect hell. I seized the opportunity to get up and run across to the next nullah, 50 yards on, followed by 40 or 50 men. There were no shots fired from the top but they had a good old plug at us from the right hill. As far as I know this did no damage. It was while this awful fire was going on that, either by some mistake or accident, a lot of the 60th and 87th either had got over the wall to try Dibley’s charge again or were those who followed him and had had no time to get back. Anyway, one of our shells burst amongst them and killed the lot. This partly accounts for their casualty list being so much bigger than ours. While the salvos were still on I made another rush and worked up along the wall and joined the rest. The guns stopped and Col Carleton of the 87th called out: ‘Who’s for the top?’ Murray, the General’s A.D.C. came along and said to me ‘I am the only one left of the four who dined together last night.’ Then he told me that the General had been hit in the stomach, Sheraton (Brigade Major) shot dead, and Col Beckett, Chief of Staff, lying wounded over the wall. He also said, ‘let’s see if we can get to the top’. We scrambled over; followed by 60 or 70 men, and then they began blazing at us from the right hill but could not see us from the top. Thank the Lord the Maxim was out of action. Just as we got under the cliff there was a cry: ‘Come back! The guns are going to shell the position again.’ You bet we ran for the wall as we had already seen the result of the first shell amongst our own men. In one place I saw 8 men and one officer of the 87th all of whom looked as if they had taken a dive into the earth, all, of course, dead. Two officers of the 60th Rifles were blown to bits – one, poor young Hambro, I knew rather well. Of course there were a lot of wounded lying outside the wall. We tried to get them under cover. I found Connor, Adjt of the 87th, hit in three places. It took four of us to carry him down to a place of safety as he weighed 14 stone. Poor chap, he died the next day. It proved to be a false alarm as the guns opened on the left and right of us, so away we went, all mixed up; Dublins, 60th and 87th, and arrived at the top which proved to be absolutely forsaken, except by dead and wounded Boers.
They were still firing from the right hill, however, but a few volleys soon stopped that. There were not many dead left on the top but the ground was strewn with kit, rifles and ammunition and the rocks were splashed with blood, showing that their loss must have been very heavy. We advanced to the edge of the hill at the back, and there below us, on the run, was one solid block of men and horses 1 500 yards away. There were at least 5 000 of them I think, though people who saw them at the back, and could judge, said that there were 7 000, but I doubt it. We all expected the guns, which had galloped up to the nek between the hills to open fire. If they had, they must have killed 1 000 to 1 500 Boers, put that commando out of existence, prevented that retreat from Dundee and most likely stopped all raiding into Natal. But no, the old fool commanding officer; Col. Pickwood, would not let them fire as he said the Boers had hoisted a white flag. When, O when, will we learn about the Boer tricks? When a white flag goes up, troops halt and lay down their arms. It was too much for me though the cease fire had gone. I got 15 to 20 men together for long range volleys at 1 600 yards and got in two before the Staff Officer could get up on his flat feet and wanted to know what I meant by firing after the cease fire had sounded. I said I thought it was a mistake and he grinned but said it was the General’s (Yule’s) orders. He is an old woman too. I wish he could have heard the men’s remarks.
It was 2.45 when firing stopped and we reached the top of the hill, so that we had been 9.5 hours under fire, and as I heard one Tommy say, ‘we have been 9 ______ hours getting to the top of the _____ hill and when we can get a good shot at the _____ we won’t be let fire. What fools work it is, at all, at all.’
I had a plug at a Boer going off on a white pony with the Mauser I had captured and made him skip. We watched them for a long while and I have never been so sick at anything in my life. To think that what our real general had worked for; i.e. to drive them off the hill in a mass on to our guns and cavalry, and then after we had done it to have an old woman, or rather; two old women, spoil everything. Our cavalry and M.I. were taken prisoner as they were hanging on the flank waiting for the guns to throw them [the Boers] into disorder and so let them in.
It began to pour with rain about 4.00 o’clock and at 5.00 o’clock, at the edge of the town, we found a cart with bully beef and biscuits waiting for us. What people were left in the place came out with brandy and whisky etc. We marched into camp in the rain, wet to the skin, tired, hungry, and I personally, as were most of us, sadder than I have ever been in my life before. All those good chaps gone with whom we had been chaffing and laughing only that morning. Poor Weldon, with whom I shared a tent, was killed. Ginger Long of ’21 died that evening. Three others were hit. Sheraton, my old Garrison instructor, was shot dead. Fifteen Rifles dead. Two Irish Fusiliers, to say nothing of all the men killed or wounded. And the General dying. I tell you, the romance of a big battle against modern arms is very small and one can only wonder how anyone escapes the terrific fire. But with it all, one cannot help feeling a bit proud of the fact that 2 500 of ours drove 7 000, or call it 5 000 if you like, out of an almost impregnable position and showed the Boer that we are better than he is any day, and can shoot as well.
As for the rot that the honour belongs to us – the Dublins; in my opinion all were alike and everybody did his best, as they must have done, or we could never have succeeded as we did.
As I have said, it is a wonder that anyone escaped. Our losses for the day, in the Regiment alone, were; killed, wounded and missing, 9 officers and 105 N.C.O.s and men. As far as we could make out we killed over 200 Boers and wounded another 300, but, as they take away their dead, it is very hard to say. The 60th lost; killed, wounded and missing, 12 officers and 111 men; the 87th, 5 officers and 41 men.
I must honestly say I don’t like big battles and everybody’s nerves after 9.5 hours constant fighting were all in pieces. If a knife dropped in mess it was a volley and a plate was a salvo. But that night in spite of wet blankets, nerves and all, I slept – O, how I did sleep.
I hope you got my cable from Ladysmith. Cory and I shared as his father has a cable address. He was out on the flank with the M.I. and was not actually in the fight. I will write soon again and tell of our doings after leaving Dundee.
Extracts from subsequent letters
Camp Chieveley 18 December 1899
(The action referred to is Buller’s attack at Colenso on 15 December in the attempt to get to Ladysmith).
Just come off picquet and find that the mail is going out in about 10 minutes, so will just scribble a line to say that I got out of that awful day on Friday with only a whack on the leg from a bit of shell – nothing at all but a bruise. We, as usual, were right in the thick of it and my company was in the firing line. I had 2 Sgts shot just alongside on my left and the man next to me on my right killed. All in 3 minutes. I don’t know how it will all end. They gave us an awful hiding. We lost 1 140 in 4 brigades – of which our brigade (Irish) lost 520, and our regiment 219 men and 5 officers, 4 regiments in the brigade. Cory is all right. No time for more. Love to all.
Frere Camp 29 December 1899
Had another big fight as you will have seen. Got off again with only a bash on the leg from a bit of shell. Nothing. We were leading battalion and got into a very hot corner. Fired every round I had in my company – 150 per man. Very busy organizing an M.I. company for some other fellow. I have refused [command of] it as I want to stick with the Regiment. Cory and Todd all right. Send love. Expect to be out in another six months at this rate. Wish it was all over. Love to all and tell Geo not to volunteer.
Source: The South African Military History Society Journal. Vol 6 No 6 – December 1985