Four Months Besieged
THE STORY OF LADYSMITH
BEING UNPUBLISHED LETTERS
H.H.S. PEARSE THE 'DAILY NEWS' SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
WITH MAPS AND ILLUSTRATIONS FROM SKETCHES AND PHOTOGRAPHS MADE BY THE AUTHOR
London MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1900 All rights reserved
The siege of Ladysmith will long remain in the memories of the age. The annals of war furnish the record of many fierce struggles, in which men and women have undergone sufferings more terrible and possibly shown a devotion rising to sublimer heights. But the Boer War of 1899-1900 will mark an epoch, and throughout its opening stage of four months the minds of men, and the hopes and fears of the whole British race, centred upon the little town in mid-Natal where Sir George White with his army maintained a valiant resistance against a strenuous and determined foe without, and disease and hunger and death within, until, to use his own words, that slow-moving giant John Bull should pass from his slumber and bestir himself to take back his own. For that reason alone the story of Ladysmith will remain memorable. But it is a story which is brilliant in brave deeds, which tells of danger boldly faced, of noble self-sacrifice to duty, in calm endurance of many and growing evils—a story worth the telling. Yet so far it has been told only in the necessarily disjointed telegrams and letters of the press correspondents in the town. Native runners who were captured and otherwise went astray, and the ruthless pencil of the censor, were accountable for many gaps. Two or three of the letters contained in the following pages escaped these perils, and were published in the columns of the Daily News. The rest of the book now appears for the first time.
The volume consists of pages from the letters and diaries of Mr. Henry H.S. Pearse, the Special Correspondent of the Daily News. Mr. Pearse was in Natal when the war broke out, and he was in Ladysmith during the whole of the siege. He was fortunate enough to enjoy good health throughout, and though he had some narrow escapes he was never hit. His letters contain a complete story of the siege.
CHAPTER I PAGE
The declaration of war—Sir George White and the defence of Natal—The force at Glencoe—Battle of Talana Hill—General Yule's retirement—Battle of Elandslaagte—Useless victories— The enemy's continued advance 1
LOMBARD'S KOP AND NICHOLSON'S NEK
General White forced to fight—The order of battle—Leviathan— The Boers reinforced—A retrograde movement—How Marsden met his death—Naval guns in action—A night of disaster—Who showed the white flag?—A truce declared—A humiliating position 5
The exodus of the townsfolk—Communications threatened—Slim Piet Joubert—Espionage in the town—Neglected precautions—A truce that paid—British positions described—Big guns face to face—Boers hold the railways—French's reconnaissance—The General's flitting—A gauntlet of fire—An interrupted telegram— Death of Lieutenant Egerton—"My cricketing days are over"—Under the enemy's guns—"A shell in my room"—Colonials in action—The sacrifice of valuable lives 15
EARLY DAYS OF THE SIEGE
Moral effects of shell fire—General White appeals to Joubert— The neutral camp—Attitude of civilians—Meeting at the Town Hall—A veteran's protest—Faith in the Union Jack—An impressive scene—Removal of sick and wounded—Through the Boer lines—How the posts were manned—Enemy mounting big guns—More about the spies—Boer war ethics—In an English garden—Throwing up defences—A gentlemanly monster—The Troglodytes—Humorous and pathetic—"Long Tom" and "Lady Anne"—Links in the chain of fire— A round game of ordnance 30
THE FIRST BOER ASSAULT
Joubert's boast—The preliminaries of attack—Shells in the town— A simultaneous advance—Observation Hill threatened—A wary enemy—A prompt repulse—Attack on Tunnel Hill—The colour-sergeant's last words—Manchesters under fire—Prone behind boulders—A Royal salute—The Prince of Wales's birthday—Stretching the Geneva Convention—The redoubtable Miss Maggie—The Boer Foreign Legion— Renegade Irishmen—A signal failure 58
A MONTH UNDER SHELL FIRE
The first siege-baby—An Irish-American deserter—A soldierly grumble—Boer cunning and Staff-College strategy—An ammunition difficulty—The tireless cavalry—A white flag incident—What the Boer Commandant understood—The Natal summer—Mere sound and fury—Boer Sabbatarianism—Naval guns at work—"Puffing Billy" of Bulwaan—Intrepid Boer gunners—The barking of "Pom-Poms"—Another reconnaissance—"Like scattered bands of Red Indians"—A futile endeavour—A night alarm—Recommended for the V.C.—A man of straw in khaki—The Boer search-light—Shelling of the hospital—General White protests—The first woman hit— General Hunter's bravado—"Long Tom" knocked out—A gymkhana under fire—Faith, Hope, and Charity—Flash signals from the south—A new Creusot gun 69
THE SORTIES OF DECEMBER
Retribution—Sir Archibald Hunter's bold scheme—A night attack— Silently through the darkness—At the foot of Gun Hill—A broken ascent—"Wie kom dar?" "The English are on us!"—Major Henderson thrice wounded—Destroying "Leviathan"—Hussars suffer under fire—Rejoicings in town—Sir George White's address to the troops—Boer compliments—A raid for provender—A second sortie— The Rifles' bold enterprise—An unwelcome light—Cutting the wires—Surprise Hill reached—The sentry's challenge—Rifles' charge with the bayonet—Boer howitzer destroyed—The return to camp—Cutting the way home—Serious losses 103
The Town-Guard called out—Echoes of Colenso—Heliograms from Buller—The Boers and Dingaan's Day—Disappointing news—Special correspondents summoned—Victims of the bombardment—Shaving under shell fire—Tea with Lord Ava—Boer humour: "Where is Buller?"—Sir George White's narrow escape—A disastrous shot— Fiftieth day of the siege—Grave and gay—"What does England think of us?"—Stoical artillerymen—The moral courage of caution—How Doctor Stark was killed—Serious thoughts—Gordons at play—Boers watch the match—A story by the way—"My name is Viljoen"—How Major King won his liberty—A tribute to Boer hospitality—"We rely on your Generals"—General White and Schalk-Burger—A coward chastised—"Sticking it out" 128
A CHRISTMAS UNDER SIEGE
Husbanding supplies—Colonel Ward's fine work—Our Christmas market—A scanty show—Some startling prices—A word to cynics— The compounding of plum-puddings—The strict rules of temperance—Boer greetings "per shell"—A lady's narrow escape— Correspondents provide sport—"Ginger" and the mules—The sick and wounded—Some kindly gifts—Christmas tree for the children— Sir George White and the little ones—"When the war is over"—Some empty rumours—A fickle climate—Eight officers killed and wounded—More messages from Buller—Booming the old year out 155
THE GREAT ASSAULT
Why the Boers attacked—Interesting versions—A general surprise— Joubert's promise—Boer tactics reconsidered—Erroneous estimates— Under cover of night—A bare-footed advance—The Manchesters surprised—The fight on Waggon Hill—In praise of the Imperial Light Horse—A glorious band—The big guns speak—Lord Ava falls— Gordons and Rifles to the rescue—A perilous position—The death of a hero—A momentary panic—Man to man—A gallant enemy—Burghers who fell fighting—The storming of Caesar's Camp—Shadowy forms in the darkness—An officer captured—"Maak Vecht!"—Abdy's guns in play—"Well done, gunners!"—Taking water to the wounded— Dick-Cunyngham struck down—Some anxious moments—The Devons charge home—A day well won 180
WATCHING FOR BULLER
Sir Redvers Buller's second attempt—A message from the Queen—Last sad farewells—Burial of Steevens and Lord Ava—At dead of night— Relief army north of the Tugela—Water difficulties surmised—A look in at Bulwaan—Spion Kop from afar—What the watchers saw— The Boers trekking—Buller withdraws—The "key" thrown away— Good-bye to luxuries—Precautions against disease—"Chevril"—The damming of the Klip—Horseflesh unabashed—One touch of pathos— Vague memories of home—Sweet music from the south—Buller tries again—Disillusionment—The last pipe of tobacco 209
AFTER ONE HUNDRED DAYS
Boer paean of victory—Rations cut down—Sausage without mystery— The "helio" moves east—Sick and dying at Intombi—Famine prices at market—Laughter quits the camps—A kindly thing by the enemy— Good news at last—Heroes in tatters—The distant tide of battle— Pulse-like throb of rifles—Two sons for the Empire—British infantry on Monte Cristo—Boer ambulances moving north—"'Ave you 'eard the noos?"—Rations increased—Bulwaan strikes his tents— "With a rifle and a red cross"—Buller "going strong"—Cronje's surrender—A sorry celebration—"A beaten army in full retreat"— "Puffing Billy" dismantled—General Buller's message—belief at hand 224
RELIEF AT LAST
The beginning of the end—Buller's last advance—Heroic Inniskillings—The coming of Dundonald—A welcome at Klip River Drift—A weather-stained horseman—The Natal troopers—Cheers and tears—A grand old General—Sir George White's address— "Thank God, we have kept the flag flying!"—"God save the Queen"— Arrival of Buller—Looking backward—Within four days of starvation—Horseflesh a mere memory—Eight hundred sick and wounded—A word of tribute—Conclusion 237
Sir George Stewart White, V.C., G.C.S.I. (from a photograph by Window & Grove) Frontispiece
The Royal Hotel, Ladysmith (showing the ruins of Mr. Pearse's bedroom wrecked by a shell from "Long Tom," 3rd Nov. 1899) Face page 26
A shell-proof resort (a culvert under a road used as a living place by day for civilians, who returned to their houses when the shelling ceased after sunset) 50
The British position at Ladysmith (looking north towards Rietfontein and the Newcastle Road) 96
The British position at Ladysmith (looking nearly due south) 128
The British position at Ladysmith (looking south-east) 162
The British position at Ladysmith (looking eastward) 202
Sketch-map of positions round Ladysmith, Nov. 1899 Face page 60
Siege of Ladysmith, after two months of bombardment 175
The environs of Ladysmith 180
Military map of Ladysmith End of vol.
The declaration of war—Sir George White and the defence of Natal—The force at Glencoe—Battle of Talana Hill—General Yule's retirement—Battle of Elandslaagte—Useless victories—Enemy's continued advance.
Before taking up the history of the siege proper it will be well here to pass briefly in review the events which led up to the isolation and investment of Ladysmith. When war was declared by the Government of the Transvaal in its despatch of the 9th October 1899, it found Her Majesty's Government in very great measure unprepared. A month earlier, however, reinforcements of 10,000 troops had been ordered to Natal from India and elsewhere, and the major part of these were already in the Colony. General Sir George White, who had arrived at Durban on 7th October, had strongly advocated the abandonment of the northern district of Natal, but allowed himself to be overborne by the urgent representations of Sir W.F. Hely-Hutchinson, who believed the withdrawal would involve grave political results. Sir William Penn Symons believed that the districts in question could be defended by a comparatively small force, and he was allowed to make the experiment. At that time there were with him at Glencoe three battalions of infantry, a brigade division of the Royal Artillery, the 18th Hussars, and a small body of mounted infantry. The enemy crossed the borders immediately upon the expiry of the term stipulated in the ultimatum, and on the 20th October was fought the battle of Talana Hill.
This first battle of the campaign demonstrated at once the soundness of Sir George White's views. General Symons's little army worthily maintained the military traditions of their race, and in the face of a terrible fire from modern rifles, in the hands of the stubbornest of foes, rushed the enemy's position and swept him from the heights. But victory demanded heavy toll. The gallant commander nobly expiated the mistaken judgment which had led him so seriously to underrate the strength of the invaders, and nearly forty officers killed, wounded, and taken prisoners, figured on a list of about 430 casualties. So heavy a price was paid for a brief success and the knowledge that the enemy was too strong to make it safe to hold the Glencoe position longer.
General Yule, who now took command of the column, abandoned his camp on the 22nd October, and withdrew by a circuitous route to Ladysmith, which was reached on the 26th. In the meantime, however, on the 21st, the Boers marched from the north-west, having cut the railway and captured a train of supplies at Elandslaagte to the north of Ladysmith. Sir George White therefore ordered out a force, under General French, to clear them from the line and to restore communication. Here again the hostile positions were stormed with reckless gallantry, and the Boers were swept back in headlong flight, suffering heavy losses. But again our loss, especially in officers, was very serious, and again it soon became apparent that victory, quite apart from the price of it, had not improved our position. The Boers, thrust back for the moment at one point, steadily continued their advance. General White's force was again engaged on the 24th October, when, in order to prevent the enemy crossing the Newcastle road from west to east, and falling on the flank of General Yule's retiring column, an attack was made in force upon the enemy at Rietfontein, near Elandslaagte, and the Boers, after six hours' fighting, were driven from the hills.
The object aimed at was thus secured. Whether, had the effort been pushed home, a definite check might at this stage have been imposed upon the Boer advance, is doubtful. Stopping where it did, it did not prevent the steady and unceasing movements of the enemy to surround Ladysmith. One more fight and they were to circle the town in a ring of metal which was long to withstand all the blows that could be levelled against it. The battle of Lombard's Kop, or Farquhar's Farm, as it is officially styled, ended in disaster to the British arms, and drew tight the threads in the entanglement of Ladysmith. The evil fortunes of the day were described vividly by Mr. Pearse in a letter written on the following day.
LOMBARD'S KOP AND NICHOLSON'S NEK
General White forced to fight—The order of battle—Leviathan—The Boers reinforced—A retrograde movement—How Marsden met his death—Naval guns in action—A night of disaster—Who showed the white flag?—A truce declared—A humiliating position.
October 31.—If the action on Rietfontein, or Pepworth's Farm ridges, a week ago was the great score for us that official reports represent, in that it checkmated all possible efforts of the Boers to intercept Brigadier-General Yule's column on its march from Dundee, there can be no doubt that the tables were turned upon us effectually yesterday. Not only did our attempt to beat one of the enemy's columns in detail, and capture the heavy Creusot guns that had been harassing us, fail through misdirection, but when attacked in turn by Boer reinforcements, our troops were untimely ordered to abandon a position that they had held for four hours without serious loss, and this gave moral, if not material victory to the enemy. Successful in every fight up to that point, we are now in the humiliating position of finding ourselves practically invested by a Boer force that will not attack except by artillery fire at long range, and whose leader has the power temporarily, at any rate, to choose the fighting ground that suits Boer tactics best if we decide to take the offensive. Not only so, but our little army here has suffered a great disaster in the loss of two gallant regiments, one of which had only ten days earlier gained for itself proud distinction by being first to crown the heights of Talana, near Dundee, where British infantry proved worthy of its most glorious traditions. As a purely defensive measure, if nothing more, the fight of yesterday was forced upon us. Like some other operations in this brief but eventful campaign, it came too late, but, whether timely or not, a battle was inevitable unless we meant to sit down tamely and be battered at.
Yesterday morning, long before daybreak, our force was on the move, intent upon outflanking positions which the Boers held two days earlier. Colonel Grimwood, with one brigade consisting of the 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, the Leicestershire and the Liverpool battalions, took up a position on open ground near Lombard's Kop, supported by a regiment of cavalry, the Border Mounted Rifles, and the Natal Carbineers with three batteries. A fourth battery was posted on a green kopje almost directly in line between Lombard's Kop and Rietfontein Hill. Colonel Ian Hamilton, with the second infantry brigade, consisting of the Gordon Highlanders, Rifle Brigade, Manchesters, and 1st Devons, formed a strong reserve behind the long ridge connecting these points with their left on the Newcastle road, where the Imperial Light Horse were held ready for action when the proper time should come.
At four o'clock in the morning our infantry were all in position for the fight, as it had been originally planned. Half an hour later they exchanged shots with a few Boers scattered about kopjes in their front, and from that moment, until nearly noon, they remained practically under fire, never budging an inch, but remaining immovable, except when a change of front became necessary to meet the Boer reinforcements, and that was effected by an advance. Up to that point everything seemed to be going in our favour. When there was daylight enough for gunners to see clearly, the 42nd Battery, posted at the eastern end of a green kopje that forms an irregular spur of Rietfontein Hill, but at a much lower elevation, opened fire on that ridge where the Boers had planted Long Tom.
It was interesting to watch shot after shot fall nearer the mark around it as the gunners picked up the range, until one shell struck and burst close to "Long Tom's" embrasure. Then the battery took to firing shrapnel, which were so well timed that one could see projectiles from the six guns in succession bursting at intervals along Rietfontein's level crest, which must have been raked from end to end with a shower of shrapnel bullets. The enemy's leviathan sent two shots at this battery, without effect, and then turned its fire upon Ladysmith town again, not with malicious intent, perhaps, but aiming to hit either the balloon or the railway station, where, in addition to naval guns, there happened to be stores of forage and other things that might easily have been set aflame by shells.
Notwithstanding this demonstration, our force was making steady progress towards an envelopment of the main Boer position at half-past seven in the morning. Immediately after that, however, prospects changed with the appearance of formidable reinforcements for the Boers, marching apparently from the direction in which a large camp had been seen two days earlier. They came into action on our right flank with a brisk rifle fire, followed by the deep notes of artillery. In intervals between the regular roar of field guns came the sledgehammer "thud! thud! thud!" from an automatic gun, which Tommy Atkins, with his aptitude for expressive phrases, promptly christened "Pom! Pom!" and that name sticks to it with unpleasant associations, for the Boers had not only one but many automatons of the same pattern. Like the heavier field-piece, "Pom! Pom!" throws shells that burst badly, but throws them with great accuracy, so that scores of shots in rapid succession fell among our batteries whenever they advanced to a fresh position, or changed ground in hope of keeping down that harassing fire.
At this time the Border Mounted Infantry and Natal Carbineers made frequent dashes to secure advantageous points, and the Boers were at one time so hard pressed that they gave ground hurriedly before an attempt of the 60th Rifles to gain a rough crest which took the long hollow behind Lombard's Kop in reverse. Then the enemy's reinforcements falling back somewhat threatened our right flank, and Sir George White, reluctant to prolong his already attenuated line, met that movement only by sending the Carbineers round Lombard's Kop, and bringing up the Imperial Light Horse in support.
About this time the Gordon Highlanders and Manchester battalion were drawn forward from Hamilton's Brigade to the green tree-fringed kopje, on the ridge of which our 42nd Battery still maintained its position, playing effectively upon "Long Tom." It looked as if Sir George meant to reinforce his fighting line, and try a decisive counter-stroke, by throwing all the weight he could against the Boer left wing, which was either wavering or executing some wily movement that had the appearance of a retirement. But unluckily at this critical moment the 60th Rifles and Leicestershire men began to fall back from the position they had gained, which was immediately occupied by Boer riflemen, and the 60th, exposed to a storm of bullets from three sides, came across open ground in very loose formation. We presently learned that the order had been sent for them "to retire on the balloon," Sir George White having apparently resolved upon concentration by a retrograde movement.
Receiving a message in the words quoted, men naturally assumed that it meant a hasty retreat and not a retirement by successive lines of resistance. In some cases nerves overstrained by hours of inaction gave way, and a few men threw down arms or equipment in a momentary panic, abandoning even their Maxim gun for a time. This, however, was quickly checked by the example of cool comrades, who, spreading out in obedience to commands from their officers so that there might be wide intervals for the shots to pass through, walked slowly and steadily across the open veldt, where bullets were raining like hailstones. In that retirement Major Myres, of the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifles (60th), fell mortally wounded. Young Marsden, of the same battalion, going to the Major's assistance, knelt beside him, and bent over as if to bind up a wound. In that position he remained motionless so long that Lieutenant Johnson, who had been firing steadily with a wounded soldier's rifle until twice hit himself, went to see if he could give any help. He found his brother subaltern dead in the act of binding up a wound as he knelt over the dying field-officer's body. At that moment Lieutenant Johnson received his third wound, and had to be carried from the field by ambulance men.
Mounted infantry of the King's Royal Rifles and Leicestershire Regiment, with Natal and Border Mounted Rifles, covered this retirement until it passed beyond the new line formed by Gordons and Manchesters, so that Colonel Grimwood's Infantry Brigade, looking rather like broken troops in the loose irregularity of every company, was not called upon to rally or turn to face the enemy, but marched straight back towards the balloon, "Long Tom" opening fire upon them as they crossed a ridge, with marvellously exact knowledge of the range. Three shells burst close to groups of the 60th, many men being hit.
At that moment, however, the Boer gunners' attention was diverted to another point, where, from hills just in front of the town, and facing Rietfontein, Captain Lambton's 12-pounders opened. It was as great a surprise for us as for the Boers. We saw the shell explode just in front of "Long Tom's" epaulement, and heard a cheer from spectators, scores of the townspeople having gathered on a slope by Cove Hill to watch the scene, among them a crippled gentleman who has to be wheeled about in a Bath-chair. Nobody who does not know what sailors will accomplish in spite of difficulties could have believed that Captain Lambton would bring his guns into action so soon after reaching Ladysmith, and especially, as we heard afterwards, as one had been upset by a shell from "Long Tom" as it was being drawn across level ground slowly by a team of oxen. Evidently, however, the mishap had done no harm, for the bluejackets were manning two 12-pounders that showed no sign of damage, and both of them were making excellent practice. At the third round it planted a shell in the enemy's battery, and the fifth put "Long Tom" out of action for a time by disabling some of its gunners. Sir George White's gradual withdrawal of his forces to positions prepared for defence was therefore not harassed by shell fire from beyond the range of our own field batteries.
Quite apart from these operations, but intended to fit in with them, was the despatch of a flying column late on Sunday night to turn the enemy's right flank or cut off his line of retreat in the direction of Van Reenan's Pass. For either purpose, two battalions of infantry, though they might be the bravest and the best, with a mountain-battery of 7-pounders carried on mules, did not seem quite adequate, but Major Adye, of the Royal Irish Rifles, who acted as staff-officer guiding the column, was confident of success, and glad of the chance to be with two such battalions as the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters in such an enterprise.
Possibly all might have gone well with it but for a deplorable accident. In the dead of night some boulders rolling down from a hill startled the transport and mountain-battery mules, which stampeded, taking with them nearly all the reserve rifle ammunition. As to what happened after that, accounts vary greatly. Few of the Gloucester men or Royal Irish Fusiliers got back to tell the story, except as wounded men on parole, and they had not seen the whole thing through. It seems certain, however, from concordance of evidence, that the Gloucesters and Fusiliers, instead of outflanking the Boers, were actually between two strong bodies of Free State men, when they seized a strong position and established themselves there. At any rate, they were attacked in turn soon after daybreak by Boers who crept up the slopes in rear, firing on them from both flanks—some say all round. Notwithstanding this, the thousand men held their ground against odds until nearly every round of ammunition had been expended, and the casualties numbered nearly a hundred and fifty killed or wounded.
Both regiments begged that they might be allowed to charge the rough slopes from which the ceaseless stings of rifle-fire came, and the Fusiliers, whose colonel would have led them willingly enough, had their bayonets fixed, when some one hoisted the white flag, and by this act the remnants of two gallant regiments became prisoners of war. "Flags of truce!" said an "old brag" who recounted the story, with tears in his voice; "I wish they would leave the damned rags at home, or dye them all khaki colour, so that neither Dutchmen nor us could ever see them."
News of that disaster travelled fast. It was told on the battlefield in front of Ladysmith two hours later, and it probably had some effect on the fortunes of a fight that cannot be recalled by Englishmen with unmixed satisfaction. The result may be regarded as a drawn battle, in that each side remained at the finish in possession of its own position, but on us who watched every phase, first with confidence and then with increasing anxiety, the impression made was a very unpleasant one, closely akin to humiliation.
The Boers were left in command of heights on which, if given time, they may plant artillery to shell the town and camp with a fire to which we can make no effective reply until the quick-firing naval guns of heavy calibre and long range are mounted. Bluejackets have been working hard to that end all day, unmolested by the enemy, who have declared a truce for twenty-four hours in order that the wounded of both sides may be placed in comparative safety.
General Joubert has sent to us an ambulance with wounded under parole from the captured column, and in exchange his surgeons have taken a similar number of Boer wounded from our hospitals. All who have come in speak highly of the treatment they have received at the enemy's hands.
The exodus of the townsfolk—Communications threatened—Slim Piet Joubert—Espionage in the town—Neglected precautions—A truce that paid—British positions described—Big guns face to face—Boers hold the railways—French's reconnaissance—The General's flitting—A gauntlet of fire—An interrupted telegram—Death of Lieutenant Egerton—"My cricketing days are over"—Under the enemy's guns—"A shell in my room"—Colonials in action—The sacrifice of valuable lives.
October closed without further hostilities, and its last day was uneventful in a military sense, though full of forebodings in the town, because all knew that the Boers were taking advantage of a brief armistice to bring up reinforcements. On this last day of the month civilians eager to get away from Ladysmith crowded every train. Writing on November 1st, Mr. Pearse said:—
All Saints' Day is observed with some strictness by Boers who do not show similar veneration for other festivals in the Church Calendar. There have at any rate been no hostilities to-day, but from Captain Lambton's Battery on Junction Hill, where the naval 4.7-inch quick-firing gun is being mounted, we have by the aid of the signalman's powerful telescope watched a significant Boer movement going on for hours. We can see them among the scrubby trees between Lombard's Kop and Umbulwaana (or Bulwaan as it is more generally called), and hurrying off behind that hill along the road that leads southwards. That road cuts the railway not more than six or seven miles out, and their movement threatens our line of communications that way, unless we can manage to check it by judicious use of cavalry and mounted troops. The flight of townsfolk southward continues. They do not even trouble about luggage now, but lock their doors and clear off. Half the houses are empty, and many shops closed.
It was early shown that the enemy had not undertaken the war in a half-hearted manner. He let no possible opportunity escape to better his position; and in the choice of means he was not inclined to risk his reputation for "slimness." On this point Mr. Pearse has a good deal to say in his next letter:—
November 2.—For two whole days after the battle of Lombard's Kop there was absolute cessation of hostilities, and this lull the Boers turned to account in a manner very characteristic. There can be hardly any doubt that we might have taken advantage of it also to safeguard our line of communications by posting a force where it might have checkmated one of the enemy's obvious moves. Anything would have been better than the inaction, which simply allowed the Boers to mature their own plans and put them into execution without risk of interference from us. That might almost have been foreseen when General Joubert on 31st October hit upon a characteristic plan for finding out what was the exact state of affairs in Ladysmith, and we, with a delightful naivete, suspecting no guile, seem to have played into his hands. It will be remembered that the most painful incident of "Black" or "Mournful Monday" was the surrender of all but a company or two of the Gloucesters and Royal Irish Fusiliers, which with a mountain battery had been detached to turn the enemy's flanks, with consequences so humiliating and disastrous to us. Under pretence of treating the wounded from this column with great consideration, Joubert sent them into camp here, taking their parole as a guarantee that they would not carry arms again during this campaign. With the ambulance waggon was an escort of twenty Boers, all wearing the Red Cross badge of neutrality. Their instructions were to demand an exchange of wounded, and on the plea of being responsible for the proper care of their own men, they claimed to be admitted within our lines. Such a preposterous request would not have been listened to for a moment by some generals, but Sir George White, being anxious apparently to propitiate an enemy whose guns commanded the town, full as it was of helpless women and children, yielded that point, and so the ambulance with its swaggering Boer escort came into town neither blindfolded nor under any military restrictions whatever. Among this mounted escort Ladysmith people recognised several well-known burghers, who were certainly not doctors or otherwise specially qualified for attendance on wounded men. They were free to move about the town, to talk with Boer prisoners, and to drink at public bars with suspected Boer sympathisers—all this while they probably picked up many interesting items as to the number of troops in Ladysmith, the position of ordnance stores and magazines, and the general state of our defences, which were chaotic at that moment. One among the visitors was particularly curious about the names of officers who dined habitually at the Royal Hotel mess, and very anxious to have such celebrities as Colonel Frank Rhodes, Dr. Jameson, and Sir John Willoughby pointed out to him. Does anybody in his senses believe that such careful inquiries were made without an object, or that the Red Cross badge was regarded as a sacred symbol sealing the lips of a Boer as to all he had seen and heard in Ladysmith?
When Joubert's artillery began shelling the town their fire was directed on important stores, the locality of which could only have been indicated to them by secret agents, and on places where officers are known to assemble at certain hours. These may all have been merely strange coincidences, but, at any rate, they are noteworthy as showing that in some way, whether by accident or cunning design, General Joubert's gunners were able to profit by the truce that was agreed upon without any exact stipulation on either side as to its duration. The tacit understanding seems to have been that both forces should have time to collect their wounded and bury their dead.
It is certain that the Boers took a little more time than was necessary for this purpose, and turned it to good use for themselves by strengthening the earthworks behind which "Long Tom" is mounted, while we in turn were enabled to get a second naval gun of heavy calibre into position before the bombardment began again. The necessity for doing this was probably chief among reasons which kept our artillery silent during the last two days, though it seemed to mere spectators that a chance was thus being given for the enemy to mount batteries on heights that commanded nearly every part of our camp.
To make this perfectly clear without the aid of a map showing contours of all ridges and hollows is very difficult, and one can only attempt to give in words a rough idea of the general position. If the reader will bear in mind what a horse's hoof inverted looks like, he may get a mental picture of Ladysmith and its surroundings—the heels of the horse-shoe pointing eastward, where, five miles off, is the long, flat top of steep Bulwaan, like the huge bar of a gigantic horse-shoe magnet. The horse's frog approximately represents a ridge behind which, and facing Bulwaan, but separated from it by broad stretches of meadow, with the Klip River winding a serpentine course through them, between high banks, is Ladysmith town. Between the frog and the horse-shoe lie our various camps, mostly in radiating hollows, open either to the east or west, but sheltered from cross fires by rough kopjes of porphyritic boulders that have turned brown on the surface by exposure to sunshine. Bushy tangles of wild, white jasmine spring from among these boulders with denser growth of thriving shrubs bearing waxen flowers that blaze in brilliant scarlet and orange, and the coarse grass that begins to show on every patch of earth between the rocks is dotted with clusters like dwarf petunias, or purple bells of trailing convolvulus. A rich storehouse this for the botanist, whose contemplative studies, however, might be rudely disturbed by the shriek and boom of shells bursting about him, for, as I have said, the enemy's guns command most of these ridges, though they cannot always search the hollows in which our camps are as much as possible hidden.
The horse-shoe, in its irregular curve, is dotted here and there with outposts, whose duty it is to keep the enemy's sharpshooters from getting within rifle range of our artillery positions encrusting the ridges at several points like nails of the horse-shoe. Without locating them exactly, one may say that the Naval batteries are on rough eminences of the northern heel, facing Rietfontein Hill, where the Creusot gun, known as "Long Tom," is mounted behind earthworks at a range of 6800 yards, which is well within compass of the Powerful's 12-pounders and at least 3000 yards less than the extreme distance at which shells from her 4.7-inch quick-firing guns would be effective.
Positions for field batteries are prepared at other points round the wide sweep, but only to be occupied as occasion may arise, and therefore one does not care at present to locate them more precisely. The enemy, having heavy artillery of various calibre mounted on Bulwaan, is able to enfilade certain posts held by our infantry pickets on the heels of the horse-shoe, but there are folds among the rocky kopjes where men can lie comparatively screened from shells, which at that distance give timely notice of their coming, as sound travels rather faster than the projectiles do at the end of their flight.
We have outposts on Intombi or Maiden's Castle, which forms the horse-shoe's southern heel, others stretching westward thence to a gap in the toe of the shoe, through which a wood runs nearly due west until it branches off to the Drakensberg Passes in one direction and Maritzburg in the other, and pickets on the north-western and northern heights, with a detached post at Observation Hill, an elongated kopje outside the general defences, overlooking a wide valley of mimosa scrub towards Rietfontein, which is the enemy's main stronghold, commanding as it does the railways to Van Reenan's Pass in the west, and to Newcastle in the north. Except for a distance of two miles from Ladysmith, therefore, both these railways are in the hands of the Boers, who can use them as uninterrupted lines of communication with the Orange Free State and the Transvaal respectively. That they were being so used to some purpose we had reason for believing, during the two peaceful days following the one which from its associations has come to be known among soldiers as "Mournful Monday." Standing on the naval battery, one could watch Boers hard at work preparing positions near Lombard's Kop, and along the crest of Bulwaan, for artillery that was probably then being brought by railway from Laing's Nek, and at the same time columns of Boer horsemen were moving behind Bulwaan southwards, evidently intent upon cutting our own lines of communication. That they would be allowed to accomplish it without a timely effort on our part to prevent them seemed inconceivable.
For most of us it was a shock to realise that ten or twelve thousand British soldiers could be shut up by an army of Boer farmers before any attempt at a counter-stroke had been made. The mobility of our enemies, however, gives them a wonderful advantage in such movements over a force that consists mainly of slow-moving infantry, and unless opportunity is taken to attack them promptly, when they may be beaten in detail, their power for mischief is very far-reaching. Possibly Sir George White was quite right to put his trust in defensive tactics, knowing that he could hold Ladysmith against all attempts of the Boers to capture it notwithstanding their numerical superiority, but it is none the less vexatious and unpleasant to find ourselves beleaguered and bombarded.
Whether the enemy had power to invest Ladysmith effectually, and keep a strong force across our lines of communication would only be ascertained by a reconnaissance. Directly and without any warning except to officers commanding detachments, a force assembled at the earliest hour this morning (Nov. 2). There was so little fuss that soldiers lying in tents on bivouac slept undisturbed by the clanking of bits as horses were saddled, or the rumble of wheels when a battery moved to their places in the column. Artillery, 5th Lancers, 18th Hussars, Natal Carbineers, Border Mounted and Natal Mounted Rifles get together silently, the volunteers vieing with regulars in this proof of discipline, which indeed comes natural to men many of whom know by sporting experience on the veldt that silence is a virtue. General French takes command of this mobile little force, and at two o'clock it moves out through the darkness for a reconnaissance along the Colenso Road, where it comes in touch with the enemy soon after daybreak. A brisk skirmish against Boer riflemen, who as usual have been quick to occupy commanding kopjes; showers of shrapnel hurled among them from our field battery; a few shells tearing up the dust in clouds in their distant camp; and two of our own Lancers hit, makes up the story of this affair, which serves to show conclusively that communication by road in that direction is barred, if not effectually cut. General French therefore brought his column back, reaching Ladysmith in time to take train for Durban, handing over the cavalry command before he left to General Brocklehurst.
That train was the last to get through, and even then had to run the gauntlet of rifle and artillery fire from Boers who were on both sides of the line. An hour later the railway was cut by the Boers, whose light guns completely commanded a defile through which the line passes; and at two o'clock telegraphic communication stopped short in the middle of an important despatch, while private and press messages innumerable await their turn. The thread of that interrupted telegram will probably not be taken up for many days, and we realise that our isolation is complete. Communications might have been kept open for days longer by an energetic use of artillery and mounted troops, but now it is too late to reopen them without incurring risk of serious losses. We must be content to wait the development of events in other quarters, for the Boers are all round us now, and, blink the fact as we may, it must be admitted that Ladysmith is under siege.
While General French was making his reconnaissance our naval 12-pounders opened fire on "Long Tom" a few minutes after six o'clock, as a flash and puff of white smoke from his muzzle told that the bombardment was about to begin. For an hour and a half the artillery duel went on briskly, Captain Lambton's naval battery answering shot for shot, or rather anticipating each, as the shells from our guns travel with greater velocity, and get home three seconds before "Long Tom's" can take effect.
Unfortunately one of the enemy's shells fell close to Lieutenant Egerton, instructor in gunnery of H.M.S. Powerful, who was mortally wounded. "My cricketing days are over now," he said, with a plucky attempt to make light of his agony as the bluejackets lifted him gently on to a stretcher. The Naval Brigade also had one bluejacket wounded, but not seriously. There was only one other casualty, though shells fell frequently into the camps of Gordon Highlanders and Imperial Light Horse in rear of our main battery, the former having one man hit by a splinter as he lay in his tent. The two regiments were thereupon ordered to shift their quarters, which they did with great promptitude, having no particular fancy to play the part of targets for ninety-four-pound shells.
November 3.—Misfortunes press upon each other quickly. This morning Lieut. Egerton, R.N., a young sailor, not less distinguished for skill in his profession than for personal gallantry, died. His requiem rang out from the naval battery in its duel with the enemy's heaviest artillery. Soon other Boer guns joined in from Lombard's Kop and the slopes of Bulwaan, throwing shells about the town as if resolved to compass its ruin.
To-day, indeed, for the first time, we have had brought home to us the dangers and discomforts, if not the horrors, of what a bombardment may be in an unfortified town under the fire of modern artillery. We cannot accuse the Boers of having deliberately thrown shells into the houses of peaceful inhabitants, or over buildings on which the Geneva Cross was flying. These are, unfortunately, just in the line of "Long Tom's" fire from Rietfontein Hill, and the shells may have been aimed at our naval battery, but, if so, they went very high, or their trajectory at that range would not have carried them half a mile beyond the mark.
Several fell near the hospital, others went 500 yards farther in the direction of Sir George White's headquarters, and one came crashing into my bedroom at the Royal Hotel, not ten yards from where many officers were then lunching. The hotel is a prominent building, that can be seen from "Long Tom's" battery, and many people, giving Boer gunners credit for astonishing accuracy, suggested that the shot must have been aimed to strike where it did, in the hope of bagging Colonel Frank Rhodes and Doctor Jameson, whose ordinary hour for meals was known to every spy frequenting the place, and might easily have been communicated by them to the artillerist Mattey, who was recognised among a group drinking at the bar on Tuesday evening. Of slight materials do the Ladysmith townsmen weave romances, but one can hardly be surprised, seeing how long they have lived in strained relations with neighbours whose Boer sympathies were well known. But whether intended for the Royal Hotel or not, the shell came very near to causing several vacancies in the senior ranks of this force. Passing through the ceiling and partition wall of a colleague's bedroom, it burst in mine with such force that it blew out the whole end-wall, hurling bricks across a narrow court, all about the dining-room windows, which were smashed by the explosion; but of those sitting close inside only one was slightly scratched by broken glass. Clouds of dust, mingled with fumes of powder, poured in through the open casement, so that those in farther corners were for some moments in much anxiety as to the fate of their friends. When they found that no harm had been done there was an assumption of mirth all round, but nobody cared to stay much longer in that room. At the moment of explosion I had risen from the table to resume work in my chamber, which presented to my astonished eyes anything but the characteristics of a quiet study then. Papers scattered in every direction were buried with clothes and kit under a wreckage of building materials. One fragment of iron shell had gone clean through a bag and all its contents to bury itself beneath the floor in earth. Another had crushed my precious Kodak flat, and there was scarcely a thing exposed in the place that had not been torn by the blast of powder or cut by splinters. The diminished population of Ladysmith began to gather about that spot when they found that no other shells fell there. "What a lucky escape for you!" they all said, and I devoutly agreed with them.
That was "Long Tom's" last attempt at bombarding Ladysmith to-day. He had been frequently silenced, and once apparently disabled in his heavy duel with "Lady Anne," as Captain Lambton names the naval quick-firing gun, and a final lucky shot either put him out of action for the day or injured so many Boer gunners that their comrades did not care to "face the music" again. While all this bombardment was going on, the telegraph staff and post-office clerks, having no work to do, amused themselves by playing cricket on the raceground within sight of the Boers on Bulwaan, and well within range of guns mounted near the crest of that hill, whence a hot fire was for some time directed towards the town. And they played their match to a finish, though one shell burst very close to them.
Meanwhile General Brocklehurst having succeeded General French in the cavalry command, took out another flying column composed of 5th Dragoon Guards, Imperial Light Horse, Border Mounted Rifles, and one field battery, to keep the enemy in play and prevent them from mounting other guns. He attacked the ridges about Lancer's Nek and all his troops behaved brilliantly. The Border Mounted Rifles in squadrons, wave behind wave, charged a kopje as if they meant to ride full tilt to its crest, but halting at its base to dismount they scaled its rugged slopes and drove the Boers back to another ridge, exchanging shots at short range with effect on both sides. The Imperial Light Horse had meanwhile got into a tight place, and the 5th Dragoon Guards, dashing forward to their assistance were badly galled by fire from Boers concealed among rocks in front and flank. Out of this difficulty they had to run the gauntlet for their lives, but not so hurriedly that they could not stop to help comrades in distress, and many deeds of heroism under fire made the spectators of this episode forget that some one had blundered. The Boers got no more guns into position to-day, but we had only gained a brief respite, and at the sacrifice of some valuable lives. Major Taunton of the Border Mounted Rifles and Captain Knapp and Lieutenant Brabant of the Imperial Light Horse were killed, and many of lower rank wounded.
EARLY DAYS OF THE SIEGE
Moral effects of shell-fire—General White appeals to Joubert—The neutral camp—Attitude of civilians—Meeting at the Town Hall—A veteran's protest—Faith in the Union Jack—An impressive scene—Removal of sick and wounded—Through the Boer lines—How the posts were manned—Enemy mounting big guns—More about the spies—Boer war ethics—In an English garden—Throwing up defences—A gentlemanly monster—The Troglodytes—Humorous and pathetic—"Long Tom" and "Lady Anne"—Links in the chain of fire—A round game of ordnance.
The reconnaissance under General Brocklehurst, above described, brought home to the garrison of Ladysmith their utter helplessness to prevent the isolation and investment of the town. Any doubt that may have lingered among them or the civil inhabitants was dispelled by the action promptly taken by Sir George White to try and secure the safety of these latter and his sick and wounded. The circumstances are related by Mr. Pearse in a letter dated 5th November:—
Sunday, 5th November.—There can be no doubt about the first effects of shell-fire on a beleaguered town. Let men try to disguise the fact as they may, it gets on the nerves of the most courageous among us, producing a sense of helplessness in the presence of danger. Nobody likes sitting still to be battered at without power of effective reply. Still less would he be content to stand inactive by while the wounded and defenceless were being shelled. These considerations no doubt influenced Sir George White yesterday when he sent a message to General Joubert asking that non-combatants with sick and wounded might be allowed to leave Ladysmith without molestation. It must have been bitterly humiliating for a soldier in command of ten or twelve thousand British troops, who have been twice victorious in battle, to feel that one reverse had resulted in making him a suitor for so much favour at the hands of an adversary. Whether the request ought ever to have been made or not, to say nothing of whether we ought to have been in the abject position of having to make it, is a question about which most civilians are at variance with the military authorities, seeing that the answer was a foregone conclusion. Its exact purport we do not know yet, but it amounted to a flat refusal, as most of us had foreseen, and was accompanied by alternative proposals which placed Joubert in the position of a potential conqueror—dictating terms, and our acceptance of these cannot be read by the Boers in any other light than as an admission of weakness or pusillanimity. Of course we know that it means nothing of the kind, but simply that Sir George White would not expose sick and wounded, with helpless women, children, and non-combatants generally, to the possible horrors of a prolonged bombardment. So long as they remained in town he would be righting with one hand tied, because he could not in that case place batteries in certain advantageous positions without the risk of drawing fire from Boer guns on Ladysmith and its civilian inhabitants. Whether this state of things has been mended much by Sir George White's acceptance of Boer conditions and Ladysmith's practical repudiation of them may well be doubted. As the matter is generally understood, General Joubert, while declining to grant Sir George's request, consented that a neutral camp for sick, wounded, and non-combatants should be formed at Intombi Spruit, five miles out on the railway line to Colenso, and practically within the Boer lines. They were to be supplied with food, water, and all necessaries from Ladysmith by train daily, under the white flag, and to be on parole not to take any part thenceforth in this war.
As a set-off against these conditions, Joubert undertook that the camp should not be fired upon by any of his men, or its occupants molested, so long as they observed the regulations imposed upon them. And he promised further that they should all be released, but still on parole, whenever the siege of Ladysmith might be raised or the Boer forces withdrawn. He gave no pledge, however, that his batteries should not be placed in such a position that they would be screened by the hospital camp from the fire of our guns, or that when he might choose to attack, the Boer forces would not advance from a point where we could not shoot at them without danger of sending shells and bullets among our own comrades and fellow-subjects.
Ladysmith's most representative men were dead against the acceptance of conditions which seemed to them all in favour of one side. They expressed freely, and without reserve, doubts as to General Joubert's good faith, and saw in his proposals only fresh instances of Boer cunning. Their sturdy manhood rebelled against arbitrary terms dictated by an enemy whose superiority, except in mere numbers, they naturally enough declined to admit. The weaker spirits might yield, if they would, out of timid respect for "Long Tom" and other heavy artillery, the shells from which, though they have done little harm so far, have a distinctly demoralising effect when they come screeching through the air and crashing into houses day after day.
In earlier stages of the bombardment people showed little alarm after they had got over the first shock of hearing a shell burst. Children were allowed to play about the streets, and women went shopping, according to the custom of their sex all the world over. Kaffir girls stood in groups at street corners, swaying their bodies as they beat noiseless time with their bare feet to the monotonous drone of mouth-organs or Jews'-harps, which most of them carry strung about their necks, wherewith to banish dull care in the many moments of leisure snatched from toil, and beaming broad smiles on every dusky swain who passed. But the rumour got about that General Joubert had threatened to bombard the town indiscriminately if our guns fired lyddite at his batteries, and this threat had unknown terrors for the simple, who did not realise that, whether discriminately or indiscriminately, Boer shells would continue to fall in Ladysmith streets all the same.
So far as I can find out, General Joubert never sent such a foolish message, but the rumour—possibly put about by Boer agents—served its purpose by inducing a timorousness in some minds, and men who had no fear for themselves began to get very anxious about the safety of wives and children. That was the keynote of a speech made by Mr. Farquhar at the public meeting yesterday, when he, as Mayor of Ladysmith, made official announcement of General Joubert's proposals. Mr. Farquhar is a cautious Scotsman, whose sense of responsibility in such a crisis would compel him to put the gravest phase of the case first. The Boer conditions, however, met with nothing but indignant protests, nobody venturing to raise his voice in favour of them except by way of comment on the utterances of some fiery orator, who was for asking the General to send back threats of dire punishment on every Boer if a shot should be fired into the town. Mr. Charles Jones, who was a transport rider in the Boer war of 1881, and carried Sir Evelyn Wood's despatches through the enemy's lines to a beleaguered garrison, was first to express in calm, manly words what was afterwards found to be the general feeling of the townsmen present at that meeting. Mr. Jones has won the respect of every Englishman who knows him by the steadfastness with which he stuck to his post when others were seeking safety in migration to Maritzburg or Durban. With firm faith in the leader under whom, as a volunteer, he saw active service, Mr. Jones believes that we should see our difficulties through, without asking or accepting doubtful favours from a foe. Somebody in the crowd ventured to say, "But your wife and children are not here now." "No," was the answer; "and I have no wish nor right to speak for fathers and husbands, who are at liberty to do as they please. But I can still say that if my wife and children were here, I would rather they should trust to protection under the Union Jack with British soldiers than under the white flag at Joubert's mercy."
There were men in that crowd who had to speak for those near and dear to them. Anxious-eyed and pale, with muscles knit into hard lines on their faces, one after another declared in voices that may have faltered, but still rang true as steel, that they and theirs would face their fate under the Union Jack. Archdeacon Barker, who has been ceaseless in his ministrations among the afflicted since fighting began, gave eloquent expression to the prevalent sentiment, as one who had kith and kin about him, and finished by saying that he would neither go to the camp selected by General Joubert, nor allow his wife and family to go. To this conclusion the meeting also came by general agreement, the dissentient minority being still free to do as they wished, except that no man who had taken up arms in defence of Ladysmith could accept the terms offered by General Joubert. Then the people gave three lusty cheers, and ended by singing "God Save the Queen," with an effect, the impressiveness of which was deepened by the thought that within a few hours Ladysmith would be under bombardment from all the thundering artillery our enemy could muster. But the resolution of this public meeting made no difference to Sir George White's decision, which was a practical acceptance of the terms formulated.
To-day has passed in peace, but marked by a very natural depression as we have seen train after train laden with sick, wounded, and non-combatants, go out to the neutral camp at Intombi Spruit, where these people will have to remain under a white flag so long as this humiliating investment of Ladysmith may last. To make the matter worse they were sent out at first with insufficient supplies for urgent needs, and with so few attendants that tents for all could not be pitched the same night. Even now many non-combatants have to lie in small patrol tents of thin canvas with a double slope, under the ridge of which there is barely room for a child to stand upright, and the camp is placed on ground so flat, near the river bank, that heavy rains might convert it into a mere swamp. There, however, General Joubert decided that the neutral camp must be pitched, and those who were too weak or spiritless to help themselves, must needs be thankful for such gracious concessions. Some, not quite satisfied with the protection this affords, are digging burrows deep into clay banks by the river side, where they will be even more liable to be flooded out. In strict justice it must be said that many sick and wounded went out, not of their own free will, but because, being under medical care, they had no option. The result of this is that men suffering from slight ailments, or whose wounds would not incapacitate them from duty longer than a week or so, are virtually prisoners of war, only to be released at the pleasure of the Boers, or until we reclaim them by force of arms. These are unpleasant things to write, but they are true none the less.
The Boer guns have preserved all along an absolute silence, which was not broken on our side until ten at night, when a sentry set off his rifle. This roused the whole camp, and soldiers everywhere stood to their arms until the cause of this false alarm was discovered.
November 6.—At daybreak this morning, Second Lieutenant Hopper, 5th Lancers, came into camp, having got through the Boer lines by a ruse as clever as it was sportsmanlike. He brought despatches from the General commanding at Estcourt. His difficulties show that though a soldier may get through the Boer lines, they are now tightening round us, and unless a British force strong enough to break through can be assembled quickly, we are in for a long siege here. Nobody gave the Boers credit for so much enterprise, and if Sir George White made a mistake, as I think he did, in not sending all the women and children away from Ladysmith when Dundee was abandoned, this error probably arose from faulty information, for which those who thought they knew the Boers and their resources were in the first instance responsible.
Our defences begin to take shape, so that their strong and weak points can be estimated. Southward is a long brown hog-backed hill, which the local people call Bester's Ridge, though military authorities divide it into Caesar's Camp, with Maiden's Castle forming a spur in the inner curve towards Ladysmith, and Waggon Hill. Altogether it is three miles in length, and being the key of the position will want holding. For that purpose the trusty Manchester battalion is placed there, having roughly constructed sangars for rallying points. This ridge forms one horn of the roughly-shaped horse-shoe which I have already spoken of, the toe of which sweeps round from Maiden's Castle in low but rugged kopjes overlooking slopes of open veldt to where Klip River loops the old camp which, being constructed of corrugated iron, is called "Tin Town." That would be a weak point, but that it is protected by an outlying kopje known as Rifleman's Post on the far side of the river. This is occupied by a small body of the King's Royal Rifles, the other companies of which hold King's Post, an eminence from which the northern horn of the horse-shoe bends along by Cove Ridge, Junction Hill, Tunnel Hill, and Cemetery Hill, to Helpmakaar Hill. Here the Devons are posted at the heel of the shoe, which juts into a scrubby flat pointing towards the neck between Lombard's Kop and Bulwaan. These hills are respectively four and five miles distant from our outworks. Bulwaan stands across the opening afar off like a huge, bevelled, flat-topped bar placed, as it might be, for a horse-shoe magnet to attract it. The whole curve of our defensive works must stretch nearly nine miles. In addition, there is an undefended opening nearly two miles long, where the straggling town lies naked to its enemies, or rather screened by nothing more formidable than belts of mimosa, Australian willow, and eucalyptus trees. Between the town and Bulwaan, however, flows Klip River, with many windings through a broad plain, mostly pasturage, but with mimosa scrub closing it in towards the gorge where river and railway converge at Intombi Spruit.
Long as our defensive line is for 10 or 12,000 men to occupy effectively, it must be held at all costs, and a post must be kept on Observation Hill north-west of the Cove Ridge, for if once the Boers got possession of that kopje they might make other positions untenable. As matters stand, they have planted guns on an outer ring of hills, whence they can throw shells into the town. Sir George White was blamed for giving up Lombard's Kop and Bulwaan, but these could not have been held without weakening more important points. They seemed, moreover, too far off to serve as artillery positions for the enemy's smaller guns, and almost inaccessible for big Creusot 94-pounders. Against attacks by riflemen from that direction the hard plain is a sufficient obstacle. Any body of Boers attempting to cross that open could be met by overwhelming infantry fire and the shrapnel of field-batteries. The idea that Bulwaan is beyond effective range of anything but the heaviest artillery has, however, been dispelled to-day. The enemy got a high velocity 40-pounder into position there, and its shell, travelling faster than sound, whistles over the town, to burst near the balloon detachment which is moving with the guy ropes up a valley towards the outer defences. This gun must have a range of nearly six miles, and we have nothing that can reach it but our naval 4.7-inch and 12-pounders mounted on Junction Hill, both of which have enough to do in keeping down the fire of "Long Tom" of Pepworth's Hill.
November 8.—In previous letters and telegrams I have referred frequently to the presence of known Boer sympathisers who were suspected of being in constant communication with our enemies. No steps were taken to test the truth of these suspicions until numberless facts, which the most sceptical could not ignore, proved that every movement made by our troops within or near the camp was known very soon afterwards to Boers outside, who could not have discovered these things by mere observation without the aid of secret agents. Several people were understood to be shadowed, but nothing came of this except an order that no person should be allowed to remain in Ladysmith without an official permit. This was practically set at naught by farmers, who considered themselves free to enter and leave the town without let or hindrance, until it was practically surrounded by Boers, and they often gathered about the hotel doors listening furtively to every scrap of gossip or news that fell from officers.
At length the course was taken that might have saved much trouble if put into practice days earlier, by making peremptory the order that all non-residents who could not show the necessary permit to remain should clear out within twenty-four hours, or be subject to arrest and imprisonment. At the same time a warning went round that none would, after the allotted time, be allowed to pass our outposts coming or going, and so perforce many who would have been glad to get away remained, having missed their last chance of going southwards by train. What has become of them since then I do not know, unless they have taken refuge with non-combatants, and sick and wounded, in the neutral camp. At any rate, they are not here now, and that is something to be thankful for, though they could give little information to the enemy, except that shelling has done surprisingly little harm, and killed or wounded very few in proportion to the enormous number of projectiles thrown. This in spite of good guns, aimed with most accurate skill, is attributable solely to the fact that the shells were too weakly charged to burst with much destructive effect.
But the spies—for they were certainly nothing less—had done their work in locating every point of military importance or personal interest in Ladysmith, and it is hardly possible to doubt that this knowledge was imparted to Boer gunners, who promptly began training their heaviest artillery in the direction of supply depots, ordnance stores, headquarters, intelligence offices, and other places not visible from the enemy's positions, though within easy range of, and therefore commanded by them, if the gunners knew exactly where to aim so that projectiles might drop over intervening houses and trees. When the most destructive shell burst in my bedroom most people regarded it as an accidentally erratic shot, intended for some other mark. Those who suggested that time and place had been deliberately chosen because Colonel Frank Rhodes, Doctor Jameson, Sir John Willoughby, General French with his staff, and other officers, were known to have lunched in the Royal Hotel on several previous days, met with nothing but ridicule. Colonel Rhodes especially made light of the idea that any gun could shoot so accurately as to get within a few feet of hitting the exact mark aimed at from a range of nearly five miles. Since then, however, the hotel has been nearly struck several times, and on each occasion about the same hour, so that the most sceptical are now changing their opinions in favour of a belief that the Royal Hotel has been marked for destruction. Out of consideration for other guests, therefore, Colonel Rhodes, "the Doctor," Sir John Willoughby, and Lord Ava have taken up their quarters elsewhere.
It may be a mere coincidence, but since their departure shells have fallen less frequently in this part of the town, though a great many have passed close over the Town Hall, on which a Red Cross flag floats, denoting its use as a refuge for sick and wounded, and the Convent Hospital, conspicuously placed on a ridge behind, has been completely wrecked inside. Fortunately, however, the convalescent patients and nurses were got away before that happened. It will probably be pleaded in justification of the Boers that these buildings, being directly in the line of fire behind our naval batteries, were liable to be hit by high shots from "Long Tom." The same excuse, however, cannot be made in other cases when shells fell among houses that are not in line with any defensive work, camp, or arsenal. One cannot suppose that a mere desire for wanton destruction of life and property directed the shots, which were probably aimed on the off-chance of hitting officers known or believed to be living in those houses. That would be sufficient justification according to all the accepted ethics of war, and some military men contend even that the Boers would be quite right to shell Ladysmith until it was reduced to ruins if they hoped to accelerate thereby the work they have taken in hand. It must be remembered that Joubert's main object just now is to gain possession of the town, which it is said he has sworn to capture, and if he thought that end could be hastened by ceaseless bombardment of the place, involving possible slaughter of many unarmed people, there is nothing in the law of nations to prevent him, so long as a military force remains here ostensibly for the defence of Ladysmith.
So runs the argument, but it would be preposterous to assume that General Joubert thinks he can reduce British troops to submission or bring about an evacuation by such feeble means. Sir George White has, from humane motives, yielded points to his adversary which most of us would have thought worth fighting for, but he is every inch a gallant soldier, as we who have watched him under heavy fire all know full well, and nobody here needs to be assured that he will never surrender Ladysmith or abandon its stubborn defence as long as there is any reason for holding it.
Ample provision is made for the safety of all non-combatants, where they will not be exposed to shell fire from any quarter, or other dangers except unlikely accidents, and against these no foresight can guard entirely. There are some people who continue to take all risks rather than forsake their property by day or night. These, however, are comparatively few. The great majority got away while there was yet time, leaving their houses, full of furniture, locked up or in charge of Kaffir servants. Curiously enough, they were in many cases the first to suffer loss by shell fire, and are probably now congratulating themselves on the timely desertion that enabled them to escape worse evils.
Mr. Fortescue Carter, the most famous of Ladysmith's townsmen, whose History of the Boer War in 1881 is well known, had scarcely left his home, next door to the Intelligence Department's headquarters, when shells began to fall in his beautiful garden among rose trees, hollyhocks, dahlias, verbenas, and other familiar English flowers, which he cultivated with much care. Neighbours might be content to surround their houses with fences of almond-scented oleander, and let the hundred varieties of South African shrubs bloom in wild profusion under the shadowing eucalyptus tree, but his gardens were laid out with well-ordered primness, and in them he delighted to see growing the fragrant flowers that reminded him and his visitors of home life in England. All this is in danger of becoming a shell-fretted wilderness now. "Long Tom" once having turned his attention in this direction continued to pound away until two shots struck the house itself, and, bursting inside, shattered the dainty contents of several rooms to atoms.
Meanwhile, in a picturesque, vine-trellised cottage, not fifty yards off, ladies went about their domestic duties as usual, apparently oblivious of all danger. One I saw quietly knitting in the cool, shaded stoep, and her busy needles only stopped for one moment, when a shell burst in the roadway beyond, then went on again as nimbly as ever. After the first shock, some people, who seem least fitted to bear a continuous strain on their nerves, become so accustomed to the hurtling of huge projectiles through the air that they show no sign of fear when danger is close to them. Women are often braver than men in these circumstances. There is one whose courageous example alone keeps native servants and coolie waiters at their posts, but she, when little more than a child, saw some of the horrors of the Zulu War, and she speaks with pride of her father as one of the few farmers who, refusing to quit their homes, kept wives and families about them, and fought like heroes in defence of all they held dear.
Not all in Ladysmith are of this heroic temper, but very few make open parade of fear if they have any, and though precautions are taken against exposure to unnecessary risks, there is no sign of panic yet. Soldiers, every one of whom may be very valuable as a fighting unit before this siege closes, are ordered to protect themselves by such shelter trenches or bomb-proofs as can be constructed out of loose stones, sandbags, forage bales, or other material that lies ready at hand. The works have to be built under shell-fire, but when finished they will be an inestimable advantage to regiments that occupy day and night hill-crests where they might be enfiladed by long-range artillery fire. That risk must, of course, be taken if the enemy's riflemen should harden their hearts for a determined frontal attack upon any position supported by flank fire from guns, but until such a critical moment arrives the men not actually on duty as sentries or outlying pickets will be little harassed by bursting shells or flying splinters or showers of shrapnel bullets, if they dig themselves good pits to lie in, with sufficiently thick coverings overhead.
The 1st Devon battalion, which, as one of the best here, and trusted for its steadiness in all circumstances, was given the most vulnerable point to hold, has busied itself in the formation of works that promise to make Helpmakaar Hill impregnable, though its long, low spur is exposed to artillery fire from Bulwaan and Lombard's Kop and the scrub-screened nek between them. The works there show what can be done under difficulties by a good regiment toiling cheerfully to carry out the orders of good officers. The original breastworks were traced by engineers who had in view rather the necessity of throwing up light defences against rifle fire than the probability that these works would be battered at by heavy artillery from one side and taken in reverse from another. It soon became evident that the entrenchments if left in that state would be untenable, and yet they could not be abandoned without serious risk that Boers might then be able to advance under cover near enough to threaten other posts, if not to command by rifle fire, within twelve hundred yards or so, the heights on which naval guns are mounted. Only by holding the contours of extreme spurs on Helpmakaar Hill could the Devons hope to sweep by rifle fire a wide zone of slightly undulating veldt, and thus command all possible approaches from Lombard's Kop or Bulwaan in that direction. So they stuck generally to the lines traced by engineers for their outer defences, but deepened the trenches, widened the banks in front of them, built bomb-proof traversers overlaid with balks and earth to neutralise the effects of enfilading fire, and then began to form for themselves dug-out huts in which to sleep, with solid earth roofs supported on railway sleepers.
All this means enormous labour, carried on frequently under a galling cannonade from the enemy's smaller guns, and interrupted occasionally by the necessity of having to keep down the rifle-fire that comes from a distant kopje, while standing on the front of these works.
Yesterday, watching a cavalry patrol that tried in vain to feel for a way through the scrubby nek into more open ground beyond, General Brocklehurst and his staff were nearly hit by a shell from some newly-mounted battery the exact position of which could not be located, for its smokeless powder made no flash that anybody could see in broad daylight, nor generated even the faintest wreath of vapour. Its projectile travelled faster than sound, so that the range could not have been great, but there was nothing by which our own batteries might have been directed to effective reply. We all abused "Long Tom" at first because of his unprovoked attack on a defenceless town, but by contrast with what is known among Devon men as the "Bulwaan Sneak," and among bluejackets as "Silent Susan," the big Creusot gun with its loud report, the low velocity of its projectiles, and the puff of white smoke giving timely warning when a shot is on its way, is regarded as quite a gentlemanly monster.
Following the example thus set by regiments on the main defensive positions, others temporarily in reserve have begun to build or dig for themselves splinter-or bomb-proof retreats, in which they may take shelter when the shelling becomes too hot. The Imperial Light Horse were first to hit upon the idea of burrowing into the river-banks. They began by forming mere niches, in which there was only just room enough for three or four men to stand huddled together when they heard a shell coming. Finding, however, that the soil could be easily dug out, they set gangs of natives to work lengthening the tunnels and connecting them by "cross drives," in the planning of which several Johannesburg mine managers found congenial occupation. This went on until the river-bank for a hundred yards in length was honeycombed by dark caves, in which a whole regiment might have been hidden with all its ammunition, secure from shell fire, the walls and roofs being so formed that they needed no additional support. There was no danger of the stiff alluvial soil falling in even if a shell had buried itself and burst above the entrance to any of these cool grottoes.
I spent half an hour in one of them, and found the air there delightful by contrast with scorching sunshine outside. What it will be, however, after many people have been crowded together for some time is less pleasant to contemplate, but even for that the resourceful Imperial Light Horse are prepared, and they already begin to talk of air-shafts so cunningly contrived that light and air may enter, but shells be rigidly excluded. Civilians in their turn emulate the Light Horse, but with unequal success, and their excavations assume such primitive forms that future archaeologists may be puzzled to invent satisfactory explanations of curious differences in the habits of the cave-dwellers of Ladysmith, as exemplified by the divergent types of their underground abodes.
And, indeed, these habits are strangely various even as presented to the eyes of a contemporary student. Some people, having spent much time and patient labour in making burrows for themselves, find life there so intolerably monotonous that they prefer to take the chances above ground. Others pass whole days with wives and families or in solitary misery where there is not light enough to read or work, scarcely showing a head outside from sunrise to sunset. They may be seen trooping away from fragile tin-roofed houses half an hour before daybreak carrying children in their arms, or a cat, or monkey, or a mongoose, or a cage of pet birds, and they come back similarly laden when the night gets too dim for gunners to go on shooting. There would be a touch of humour in all this if it were not so deeply pathetic in its close association with possible tragedies. One never knows where or at what hour a stray shot or splinter will fall, and it is pitiful sometimes to hear cries for dolly from a prattling mite who may herself be fatherless or motherless to-morrow. We think as little as possible of such things, putting them from us with the light comment that they happen daily elsewhere than in besieged towns, and making the best we can of a melancholy situation.
There are, I believe, many good reasons why Sir George White should allow his army to be hemmed in here defending a practically deserted town, apart from the ignominy that abandonment would entail, and it is probably sound strategy to keep Boer forces here as long as possible while preparations are being matured for attacking them from other directions. On the latter point one cannot express an opinion without full knowledge of the circumstances such as we cannot hope to get while communications are cut off. But nobody can pretend to regard our present inaction following investment as anything but a disagreeable necessity, or affect a cheerful endurance of conditions that become more intolerable day after day. Now and then we have hopes that the Boers may risk everything in a general attack with the object of carrying this place by storm, when they would most certainly be beaten off and lose heavily.
They did something to encourage this hope yesterday. It began with a heavy artillery duel between "Long Tom" and the naval gun that is known as "Lady Anne." After vain attempts to silence our battery, the enemy's fire, generally so accurate, became wild, several shells going so high that they struck the convent hospital hundreds of yards in rear. This, at any rate, is the most charitable explanation of acts that would otherwise be inexcusable. The Red Cross was at that time, and for days before, flying above the convent, in which Colonel Dick-Cunyngham and Major Riddell were patients, under the care of nursing sisters. Fortunately, good shelter was found for them in the convent cellars until they could be removed to safer quarters, but before this much of the upper rooms had been reduced to ruins by persistent shelling. When the Boers thought they had sufficiently demoralised our defensive forces by artillery "preparation," a brisk attack by riflemen began to develop against Maiden's Castle, Caesar's Camp, and Waggon Hill, a continuous range forming the southern key to our position, and held by the Manchester Regiment. Brigadier-General Hamilton and his staff were there from the outset, ready, if need be, to call up the Gordons in support. This necessity, however, never arose, though the attack, as I can testify from personal observation on the spot, was pushed for some time with great persistence, the Boers trying again and again to creep up by the western slopes of Waggon Hill, while shells raked the whole face of Caesar's Camp to Maiden's Castle, and burst repeatedly among the tents of the Manchester battalion, without doing serious harm.