THE DIARY OF A SIEGE
AUTHOR OF "THE THIRTY DAYS' WAR"
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C. LONDON 1900
I. ON THE EDGE 1
II. AT THE BRITISH FRONT 9
III. THE FIRST WEEK'S WAR 20
IV. BATTLE OF ELANDS LAAGTE 30
V. BATTLE OF TINTA INYONI 41
VI. THE REVERSE AT NICHOLSON'S NEK 51
VII. HEMMED IN 61
VIII. TRAGEDY AND COMEDY 72
IX. INCIDENTS, ACCIDENTS, AND REALITIES 83
X. ENNUI ENLIVENED BY SUDDEN DEATH 100
XI. FLASHES FROM BULLER 129
XII. THE NIGHT SURPRISE ON GUN HILL 138
XIII. THE CAPTURE OF SURPRISE HILL 156
XIV. THE SEASON OF PEACE AND GOODWILL 176
XV. SICKNESS, DEATH, AND A NEW YEAR 194
XVI. THE GREAT ATTACK 211
XVII. A PAUSE AND A RENEWAL 231
XVIII. "WITHIN MEASURABLE DISTANCE" 250
XIX. HOPE DEFERRED 265
XX. SUN AND FEVER 279
XXI. RELIEVED AT LAST 291
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR Frontispiece
MAP OF LADYSMITH AND NEIGHBOURHOOD 12
GENERAL SIR GEORGE STEWART WHITE, V.C., G.C.I.E., G.C.B., G.C.S.I. 18
PLAN OF THE BATTLE OF ELANDS LAAGTE 32
LOMBARD'S KOP 56
IMPERIAL LIGHT HORSE SHELTERS 77
THE DRIFT AND WATERING-PLACE 80
HOSPITAL IN TOWN HALL AFTER A SHELL 127
BREECH BLOCK FROM GUN HILL 148
A PICTURESQUE RUIN 183
HEADQUARTERS AFTER A 96LB. SHELL 186
EFFECT OF 96LB. SHELL ON A PRIVATE HOUSE 201
SPECIMEN OF BOER SHELLS 252
INDIAN BAKERY 268
GENERAL RT. HON. SIR R.H. BULLER, V.C., G.C.B., K.C.M.G., K.C.B. (photograph by KNIGHT, Aldershot) 291
SKETCH PLAN OF COUNTRY SOUTH AND WEST OF LADYSMITH 306
This book has been reprinted, by kind permission of the Proprietors of the Daily Chronicle, from the full text of the Letters sent to the paper.
THE DIARY OF A SIEGE
ON THE EDGE
NEWCASTLE, NATAL, Thursday, October 5, 1899.
Late last Sunday night I found myself slowly crawling towards the front from Pretoria in a commandeered train crammed full of armed Boers and their horses. I had rushed from the Cape to quiet little Bloemfontein, the centre of one of the best administered States in the world, where the heads of the nation in the intervals of discussing war proudly showed me their pianos, their little gardens, little libraries of English books, little museums of African beasts and Greek coins, and all their other evidences of advancing culture. Then on to Pretoria, the same kind of a town on a larger and richer scale—trim bungalow houses, for the most part, spread out among gardens full of roses, honeysuckle, and syringa. But at the station all day and night the scene was not idyllic. Every hour train after train moved away—stores and firewood in front, horses next, and luggage vans for the men behind. The partings from lovers and wives and children must be imagined. They are bad enough to witness when our own soldiers go to the front. But these men are not soldiers at all. Each of them came direct from his home in the town or on some isolated farm. They rode up, dressed just in their ordinary clothes, but for the slung Mauser and the full cartridge belt over the shoulder or round the waist. Except for a few gunners, there is no uniform in the Boer Army. Even the officers can hardly be distinguished from ordinary farmers. The only thing that could be called uniform is the broad-brimmed soft hat of grey or brown. But all Boers wear it. It is generally very stained and dirty, and invariably a rusty crape band is wound about the crown. For the Boer, like the English poorer classes, has large quantities of relations, and one of them is always dying.
By the courtesy of the Pretorian Government I had secured room in the guard's van for myself and a companion, who was equally anxious to cross the Natal frontier before the firing began, and that was expected at any moment. In the van with us were a score of farmers from Middleburg way, their contingent occupying four trains with about 800 men and horses. For the most part they were fine tall men with shaggy light beards, reminding one of Yorkshire farmers, but rougher and not so well dressed. Most of them could speak some English, and many had Scotch or English relatives. They lay on the floor or sat on the edge of the van, talking quietly and smoking enormous pipes. All deeply regretted the war, regretted the farm left behind just when spring and rain are coming, and they were full of foreboding for the women and children left at the mercy of Kaffirs. There was no excitement or shouting or bravado of any kind. So we travelled into the night, the monotony only broken by one violent collision which shook us all flat on the floor, while arms and stores fell crashing upon us. In the silent pause which followed, whilst we wondered if we were dead, I could hear the Kaffirs chattering in their mud huts close by, and in the distance a cornet was playing "Home, Sweet Home," with variations.
It must have been the next evening, as we were waiting three or four hours, as usual, for the line to clear, that General Joubert came up in a special train. A few young men and boys in ordinary clothes formed his "staff." The General himself wore the usual brown slouch hat with crape band, and a blue frock coat, not luxuriously new. His beard was quite white, but his long straight hair was still more black than grey. The brown sallow face was deeply wrinkled and marked, but the dark brown eyes were still bright, and looked out upon the world with a kind of simplicity mingled with shrewdness, or perhaps some subtler quality. He spoke English with a piquant lack of grammar and misuse of words. When I travelled with him next day, almost the first thing he said to me was, "The heart of my soul is bloody with sorrow." His moderating influence on the Kruger Government is well known, and he described to me how he had done his utmost for peace. But he also described how bit by bit England had pushed the Boers out of their inheritance, and taken advantage of them in every conference and native war. He was particularly hurt that the Queen had taken no notice of the long letter or pamphlet he wrote to her on the situation. And, by the way, I often observed what regard most Boers appear to feel for the Queen personally. They constantly couple her name with Gladstone's when they wish to say anything nice about English politics. As to the General's views on the crisis, there would be little new to say. Till the present war his hope had been for a South African Confederacy under English protection—the Cape, Natal, Free State, and Transvaal all having equal rights and local self-government. He knows well enough the inner causes of the present evils. "But now," he said, "we can only leave it to God. If it is His will that the Transvaal perish, we can only do our best."
At Zandspruit, the scene of the old Sand River Convention, the whole Boer camp crowded to the station to greet the national hero, and he was at once surrounded by a herd of farmers, shaking his hands and patting him warmly on the back. It was a respectful but democratic greeting. The Boer Army—if for a moment we may give that name to an unorganised collection of volunteers—is entirely democratic. The men are nominally under field cornets, commanders, and the General. But they openly boast that on the field the authority and direction of officers do not count for much, and they go pretty much as they please. The camp, though not in the least disorderly, was confused and irregular—stores, firewood, horses, cattle, and tents strewn about the enormous veldt, almost haphazard, though the districts were kept fairly well separate. Provisions were plenty, but the cooking was bad. It took three days to get bread made, and some detachments had to eat their meat raw. I think there were not more than 10,000 or less than 7,000 men in the camp at that time, but the commandeered trains crawled up every two or three hours with their new loads.
By a piece of good fortune we succeeded in crossing the frontier in an open coal-truck. The border-line runs about six miles north of Majuba and Laing's Nek, the last Boer village being Volksrust, and Charlestown the first English. The scenery changes rapidly; the high, bare veldt of the Southern Transvaal is at once left behind, and we enter the broad valley of Natal, sloping steadily down to the sea and becoming richer and more tropical as it descends. All regular traffic had stopped three days before, but now and then a refugee train came up to the frontier and transhipped its miserable crowd. Fugitives of every nation have been hurrying to the railway in hopes of escape. The stations far down into Natal are constantly surrounded with patient groups, waiting, waiting for an empty truck. Hindoos from Bombay and Madras with their golden nose-rings and brilliant silks sit day and night waiting side by side with coal-black Kaffirs in their blankets, or "blue-blooded" Zulus who refuse to hide much of their deep chocolate skin, showing a kind of purple bloom like a plum. The patient indifference with which these savages will sit unmoved through any fortune and let time run over them, is almost like the solemn calm of nature's own laws. The whites are restless and probably suffer more. Many were in extreme misery. Three or four young children died on the journey. One poor woman became a mother in the train just after the frontier, and died, leaving the baby alive. At the border I found many English and Scotch families, who had driven across the veldt from Ermelo, surrendering all their possessions. All spoke of the good treatment the Boers had shown them on the journey, even when the waggon had outspanned for the night close to the Boer camp. I came down to Newcastle with a Caithness stonemason and his family. They had lost house, home, and livelihood. They had even abandoned their horses and waggon on the veldt. The woman regretted her piano, but what really touched her most was that she had to wash her baby in cold water at the lavatory basin, and he had always been accustomed to warm. So we stand on the perilous edge and suffer variously.
AT THE BRITISH FRONT
LADYSMITH, NATAL, Wednesday, October 11, 1899.
Ladysmith breathes freely to-day, but a week ago she seemed likely to become another Lucknow. Of line battalions only the Liverpools were here, besides two batteries of field artillery, some of the 18th Hussars, and the 5th Lancers. If Kruger or Joubert had then allowed the Boers encamped on the Free State border to have their own way, no one can say what might have happened. Our force would have been outnumbered at least four to one, and probably more. In event of disaster the Boers would have seized an immense quantity of military stores accumulated in the camp, and at the railway station. What is worse, they would have isolated the still smaller force lately thrown forward to Dundee, so as to break the strong defensive position of the Biggarsberg, which cuts off the north of Natal, and can only be traversed by three difficult passes. Dundee was just as much threatened from the east frontier beyond the Buffalo River, where the Transvaal Boers of the Utrecht and Vryheid district have been mustered in strong force for nearly a fortnight now. With our two advanced posts "lapped up" (the phrase is a little musty here), our stores lost, and our reputation among the Dutch and native populations entirely ruined, the campaign would have begun badly.
For the Boers it was a fine strategic opportunity, and they were perfectly aware of that. But "the Old Man," as they affectionately call the President, had his own prudent reasons for refusing it. "Let the enemy fire first," he says, like the famous Frenchman, and so far he has been able to hold the most ardent of the encamped burghers in check. "If he should not be able!" we kept saying. We still say it morning and evening, but the pinch of the danger is passed. Last Thursday night the 1st Devons and the 19th Hussars began to arrive and the crisis ended. Yesterday before daybreak half the Gordons came. We have now a mountain battery and three batteries of field artillery, the 19th Hussars (the 18th having gone forward to Dundee), besides the 5th Lancers (the "Irish Lancers"), who are in faultless condition, and a considerable mixed force of the Natal Volunteers. Of these last, the Carbineers are perhaps the best, and generally serve as scouts towards the Free State frontier. But all have good repute as horsemen, marksmen, and guides, and at present they are the force which the Boers fear most. They are split up into several detachments—the Border Mounted Rifles, the Natal Mounted Rifles (from Durban), the Imperial Light Horse, the Natal Police, and the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, who are chiefly Dutch. Then of infantry there are the Natal Royal Rifles (only about 150 strong), the Durban Light Infantry, and the Natal Field Artillery. As far as I can estimate, the total Natal Volunteer force will not exceed 2,000, but they are well armed, are accustomed to the Boer method of warfare, and will be watched with interest. Unhappily, many of them here are already suffering from the change of life and food in camp. That is inevitable when volunteers first take the field.
But Ladysmith has an evil reputation besides. Last year the troops here were prostrated with enteric. There is a little fever and a good deal of dysentery even now among the regulars. The stream by the camp is condemned, and all water is supplied in tiny rations from pumps. The main permanent camp is built of corrugated iron, practically the sole building material in South Africa, and quite universal for roofs, so that the country has few "architectural features" to boast of. The cavalry are quartered in the tin huts, but the Liverpools, Devons, Gordons, and Volunteers have pitched their own tents, and a terrible time they are having of it. Dust is the curse of the place. We remember the Long Valley as an Arcadian dell. Veterans of the Soudan recall the black sand-storms with regretful sighs. The thin, red dust comes everywhere, and never stops. It blinds your eyes, it stops your nose, it scorches your throat till the invariable shilling for a little glass of any liquid seems cheap as dirt. It turns the whitest shirt brown in half an hour, it creeps into the works of your watch and your bowels. It lies in a layer mixed with flies on the top of your rations. The white ants eat away the flaps of the tents, and the men wake up covered with dust, like children in a hayfield. Even mules die of it in convulsions. It was in this land that the ostrich developed its world-renowned digestive powers; and no wonder.
The camp stands on a barren plain, nearly two miles north-west of the town—if we may so call the one straight road of stores and tin-roofed bungalows. Low, flat-topped hills surround it, bare and rocky. But to understand the country it is best to climb into the mountains of the long Drakensberg, which forms the Free State frontier in a series of strangely jagged and precipitous peaks, and at one place, by the junction with Basutoland, runs up to 11,000 feet. Last Sunday I went into the Free State through Van Reenen's Pass, over which a little railway has been carried by zigzag "reverses." The summit is 5,500 feet above the sea, or nearly 2,000 feet above Ladysmith. From the steep slopes, in places almost as green as the Lowlands or Yorkshire fells, I looked south-east far over Natal—a parched, brown land like the desert beyond the Dead Sea, dusty bits of plain broken up by line upon line of bare red mountain. It seemed a poor country to make a fuss about, yet as South Africa goes, it is rich and even fertile in its way. Indeed, on the reddest granite mountain one never fails to find multitudes of flowering plants and pasturage for thinnish sheep. Across the main range, Van Reenen's is the largest and best known pass. The old farmer who gave it the name is living there still and bitterly laments the chance of war. But there are other passes too, any of which may suddenly become famous now—Olivier's Hoek, near the gigantic Mont aux Sources, Bezuidenhaut, Netherby, Tintwa, and (north of Van Reenen's) De Beer's Pass, Cundycleugh, Muller's, and Botha's, beyond which the range ends with the frontier at Majuba. Three or four of these passes are crossed by waggon roads, but Van Reenen's has the only railway. The frontier, marked by a barbed wire fence across the summit of the pass, must be nearly forty miles from Ladysmith, but from the cliffs above it, the little British camp can be seen like a toy through this clear African air, and Boer sentries watch it all day, ready to signal the least movement of its troops, betrayed by the dust. Their own main force is distributed in camps along the hills well beyond the nine-miles' limit ordained by the Convention. The largest camp is said to be further north at Nelson's Kop, but all the camps are very well hidden, though in one place I saw about 500 of the horses trying to graze. The rains are late, and the grass on the high plateau of the Free State is not so good as on the Natal slopes of the pass. The Boer commandoes suffer much from want of it. When all your army consists of mounted infantry, forage counts next to food.
At present the Van Reenen Railway ends at Harrismith, an arid but cheerful little town at the foot of the great cliffs of the Plaatburg. It boasts its racecourse, golf-links, musical society, and some acquaintance with the German poets. The Scotch made it their own, though a few Dutch, English, and other foreigners were allowed to remain on sufferance. Now unhappily the place is almost deserted, and Burns himself would hardly find a welcome there. In the Free State every resident may be commandeered, and I believe forty-eight hours counts as "residence." You see the advantage of an extended franchise. The penalty for escape is confiscation of property, and five years' imprisonment or L500 fine, if caught. The few British who remained have had all their horses, carts, and supplies taken. Some are set to serve the ambulance; a few will be sent to watch Basutoland; but most of them have abandoned their property and risked the escape to Natal, slipping down the railway under bales or built up in the luggage vans like nuns in a brick wall. In one case the Boers commandeered three wool trucks on the frontier. Those trucks were shunted on to a siding for the night, and in the morning the wool looked strangely shrunk somehow. Yet it was not wool that had been taken out and smuggled through by the next train. For Scot helps Scot, and it is Scots who work the railway. It pays to be a Scot out here. I have only met one Irishman, and he was unhappy.
But for the grotesque side of refugee unhappiness one should see the native train which comes down every night from Newcastle way, and disappears towards Maritzburg and safety. Native workers of every kind—servants, labourers, miners—are throwing up their places and rushing towards the sea. The few who can speak English say, "Too plenty bom-bom!" as sufficient explanation of their panic. The Government has now fitted the open trucks with cross-seats and side-bars for their convenience, and so, hardly visible in the darkness, the black crowd rolls up to the platform. Instantly black hands with pinkish palms are thrust through all the bars, as in a monkey-house. Black heads jabber and click with excitement. White teeth suddenly appear from nowhere. It is for bread and tin-meats they clamour, and they are willing to pay. But a loaf costs a shilling. Everything costs a shilling here, unless it costs half-a-crown; and Natal grows fat on war. A shilling for a bit of bread! What is the good of Christianity? So the dusky hands are withdrawn, and the poor Zulu with untutored maw goes starving on. But if any still doubt our primitive ancestry, let them hear that Zulu's outcries of pain, or watch the fortunate man who has really got a loaf, and gripping it with both hands, gnaws it in his corner, turning his suspicious eyes to right and left with fear.
The air is full of wild rumours. A boy riding over Laing's Nek saw 1,000 armed Boers feeding their horses on Manning's farm. The Boers have been seen at a Dutch settlement this side Van Reenen's. Yesterday a section of the Gordons on their arrival were sent up to look at them in an armoured train. It is thought that war will be proclaimed to-day. That has been thought every day for a fortnight past, and the land buzzes with lies which may at any moment be true.
Half the Manchesters have just marched in to trumpet and drum. When I think of those ragged camps of peasants just over the border the pomp and circumstance seem all on one side.
Friday, October 13, 1899.
So it has begun at last, for good or evil. Here we think it began yesterday, just at the very moment when Sir George White arrived. Late at night scouts brought news of masses of Boers crossing the Tintwa Pass, and going into laager with their waggons only fifteen miles away to the west. The men stood to their arms, and long before light we were marching steadily forward along the Van Reenen road. First came the Liverpools, then the three batteries of Field Artillery with a mountain battery, then the Devons and the Gordons. The Manchesters acted as rear-guard, and the Dublin Fusiliers, who were hurried down from Dundee by train, came late, and then were hurried back again. The column took all its stores and forage for five days in a train of waggons (horses, mules, and oxen) about two miles long. When day broke we saw the great mountains on the Basuto border, gleaming with snow like the Alps. Far in front the cavalry—the 5th Lancers and 19th Hussars with the Natal Volunteers—were sweeping over the patches of plain and struggling up the hills in search of that reported laager. But not a Boer of it was to be seen. At nine o'clock, having advanced eight or nine miles, the whole column took up a strong position, with all its baggage and train in faultless order, and went to sleep. About one we began to return, and now just as the mail goes, we are all back again in camp for tea. And so ends the first day of active hostilities.
THE FIRST WEEK'S WAR
LADYSMITH, Thursday, October 19, 1899.
It is a week to-day since the Boers of the Transvaal and Free State began their combined invasion of Natal. So far all action has been on their side. They have crept down the passes with their waggons and half-organised bands of mounted infantry, and have now advanced within a short day's march of the two main British positions which protect the whole colony. It will be seen on a map that North Natal forms a fairly regular isoceles triangle, having Charlestown, Majuba, and Laing's Nek at the apex, the Drakensberg range separating it from the Free State on the one side, and the Buffalo River with its lower hills separating it from the Transvaal on the other. A base may be drawn a few miles below Ladysmith—say, from Oliver's Hoek Pass in the Drakensberg to the union of the Tugela River with the Buffalo. Newcastle will then lie about thirty miles from the apex of the triangle, nearly equi-distant from both sides. Dundee is about twelve miles from the middle point of the right side, and Ladysmith about the same distance from the middle point of the base. Evidently a "tight place" for a comparatively small force when the frontiers to right and left are openly hostile and can pour large bodies of men through all the passes in the sides and apex at will. That is exactly what the Boers have spent the week in doing, and they have shown considerable skill in the process. They have occupied Charlestown, Newcastle, and all the north of Natal almost to within reach of the guns at Dundee on the west and Ladysmith on the east and centre. Yet as far as I can judge they have hardly lost a man, whereas they have gained an immense amount of stores, food and forage, which were exactly the things they wanted. "Slim Piet" is the universal nickname for old Joubert among friends and enemies alike, and so far he has well deserved it. For the Dutch "slim" stands half way between the German "schlimm" and our description of young girls, and it means exactly what the Cockney means by "artful." Artful Piet has managed well. He has given the Boers an appearance of triumph. Their flag waves where the English flag waved before. The effect on the native mind, and on the spirits of his men is greater than people in England probably think. Before the war the young Boers said they would be in Durban in a month, and the Kaffirs half believed it. Well, they have got nearly a third of the way in a week.
But to-day they are brought within touch of British arms, and the question is whether they will get any further. So far they have been unopposed. Their triumphs have been the bloodless capture of a passenger train, the capture of a few police, and the driving in of patrols who had strict orders to retire. So far we have sought only to draw them on. But here and at Dundee we must make a stand, and all yesterday and this morning we have thought only of one question: Will they venture to come on? They have numbers on their side—an advantage certainly of three to one, possibly more. The rough country with its rocky flat-topped lines of hill is just suited for their method of warfare—to lie behind stones and take careful shots at any one in range. Besides, if they are to do anything, they know they must be quick. The Basutos are chanting their war-song on the Free State frontier. The British reinforcements are coming, and all irregulars have a tendency to melt away if you keep them waiting. But on the other hand it is against Boer tradition to attack, especially entrenched positions. Their artillery is probably far inferior to ours in training and skill, and they don't like artillery in any case. Nor do they like the thought of Lancers and Hussars sweeping down upon their flanks wherever a little bit of plain has to be crossed. So the chances of attack seem about equally balanced, and only the days can answer that one question of ours: Will they come on?
Yesterday it seemed as though they were coming. The advance of two main columns from the passes in the north-west had been fairly steady; and last night our outposts of the Natal Carbineers were engaged, as the 5th Lancers had been the night before. Heavy firing was reported at any distance short of fifteen miles. There was no panic. The few ladies who remain went riding or cycling along the dusty, blazing road which makes the town. The Zulu women in blankets and beads walked in single file with the little black heads of babies peering out between their shoulder-blades, and roasting in the sun. Huge waggon-loads of stores—compressed forage, compressed beef, jam, water-proof sheets, ammunition, oil, blankets, sardines, and all the other necessaries of a soldier's existence—came lumbering up from the station behind the long files of oxen urged slowly forward by savage outcries and lashes of hide. Orderlies were galloping in the joy of their hearts. The band of the Gloucesters were practising scales in unison to slow time. Suddenly a kind of feeling came into the air that something was happening. I noticed the waggon stopped; the oxen at once lay down in the dust; the music ceased and was packed away. I met the Gordons coming into town and asking for their ground. Riding up the mile or two to camp, I found the whole dusty plateau astir. Tents were melting away like snow. Kits lay all naked and revealed upon the earth. The men were falling in. The waggons were going the wrong way round. The very headquarters and staff were being cleared out. The whole camp was, in fact, in motion. It was coming down into the town. In a few hours the familiar place was bare and deserted. I went up this morning and stood on Signal Hill where the heliograph was working yesterday, just above the camp. The whole plain was a wilderness. Straw and paper possessed it merely, except that here and there a destitute Kaffir groped among the debris in hopes of finding a shiny tin pot for his furniture or some rag of old uniform to harmonise with his savage dress. In one corner of the empty iron huts a few of the cavalry were still trying to carry off some remnants of forage. It was a pitiful sight, and yet the rapidity of the change was impressive. If the Boers came in, they would find those tin huts very luxurious after their accustomed bivouacs. Is it possible that tin huts might be their Capua?
The camp was thought incapable of defence. Artillery could command it from half a dozen hills. Whoever placed it there was neither strategist nor humanitarian. It is like the bottom of a frying-pan with a low rim. The fire is hot, and sand is frying. But, indeed, the whole of Ladysmith is like that. The flat-topped hills stand round it reflecting the heat, and in the middle we are now all frying together, with sand for seasoning. The main ambulance is on the cricket ground. The battalion tents are pitched among the rocks or by the river side, where Kaffirs bathe more often and completely than you would otherwise suppose. The river water, by the way, is a muddy yellow now and leaves a deep deposit of Afric's golden sand in your glass or basin. The headquarters staff has seized upon two empty houses, and can dine in peace. The street is one yelling chaos of oxen in waggons and oxen loose, galloping horses, sheep, ammunition mules, savages, cycles, and the British soldier. He, be sure, preserves his wonted calm, adapts himself to oxen as naturally as to camels, puts in a little football when he can, practises alliteration's artful aid upon the name of the Boers, and trusts to his orders to pull him through. His orders are likely to be all right now, for Colonel Ward has just been put in command of the whole town, and already I notice a method in the oxen, to say nothing of the mules. What is it all but a huge military tournament to be pulled together, and got up to time?
This morning most people expected the attack would begin. I rode five miles out before breakfast to see what might be seen, but there were only a few Lancers pricking about by threes, and never a Boer or any such thing. So we have waited all day, and nothing has happened till this afternoon the rumour comes with authority that a train has been captured at Elands Laagte, about sixteen miles on the way to Dundee. The railway stopped running trains beyond there yesterday, and had better have stopped altogether. Anyhow, the line of communication between us and the splendid little brigade at Dundee is broken now. Dundee is pretty nearly fifty miles N.N.E. of this. The camp is happily on a stronger position than ours, and not mixed up with the town. But at present it is practically besieged, and no one can say how long the siege of Ladysmith also will be delayed. For the moment, it seems just possible that the great force, which we vaguely hear is coming out from England (all English news is hopelessly vague), will have to send the bulk of its troops to fight up Natal for our relief. But the south of Natal having few rocks is not suited for Boer warfare. When the Boers boasted they were coming to Durban, a wit replied: "Then you will have to bring the stones with you." For a Boer much prefers to have a comforting stone in front of him in the day of battle. In these districts every hill is for him a natural fortress. His hope is that we shall venture into the mountains; ours that he will venture down to the plains. So far hope's flattery has kept us fairly well apart. The day after to-morrow is now fixed by popular judgment for battle and attack. But only one thing is certain: we can stand still if we choose, and the Boers cannot.
To be under martial law, as we now are, does not make much difference to the ordinary man, but to the ordinary criminal it appears slightly advantageous. For his case is very likely to be overlooked in the press of military offences, and it is doubtful if any civil suits can be brought. At all events, a legal quarrel I had with a farmer about some horses has vanished into thin air; and so, indeed, have the horses. The worst offenders now are possible spies. A few Dutch have been arrested, but the commonest cases are out-of-work Kaffirs, who are wandering in swarms over the country, coming down from Johannesburg and the collieries, and naturally finding it rather hard to give account of themselves. The peculiarity of the trials which I have attended has been that if a Kaffir could give the name of his father it was taken as a sufficient guarantee of respectability With one miserable Bushman, for instance—a child's caricature of man—it was really going hard till at last he managed to explain that his father's name was Nicodemus Africa, and then every one looked satisfied, and he left the court without a stain upon his character.
So we live from day to day. The air is full of rumours. One can see them grow along the street. One traces them down. Perhaps one finds an atom of truth somewhere at the root of them. One puts that atom into a telegram. The military censor cuts it out with unfailing politeness, and a good day's work is done. Heat, dust, and a weekly deluge with stupendous thunder complete the scene.
BATTLE OF ELANDS LAAGTE
LADYSMITH, October 22, 1899.
It was a fair morning yesterday, cool after rain, the thin clouds sometimes letting the sun look through. At half-past ten I was some six or seven miles out along the Newcastle road—a road in these parts being merely a worn track over the open veldt, distinguishable only by the ruts and mud. Close on the left were high and shapely hills, like Welsh mountains, but on the right the country was more open. A Mr. Malcolm's farm stood in the middle of a waving plain, with a few fields, aloe hedges, and poplars. The kraal of his Kaffir labourers was near it, and about a mile away the plain ended in a low ridge of rocky "kopjes," which ran to join the mountainous ground on the left at a kind of "nek" or low pass over which the railway runs. Beyond that low ridge lay Elands Laagte, an important railway station with a few collieries close by, a store, a hotel, and some houses.
The Boers had occupied it two days before, had captured a train there, and torn up the rail in two places, making a number of prisoners and seizing 100 head of cattle and quantities of other private stores and the luggage going to Dundee. Early in the morning we had gone out with four companies of the Manchesters in an armoured train with an ordinary train behind it, a battery of Natal Field Artillery, and the Imperial Light Horse under Colonel Scott Chisholme, to reconnoitre with a view to repairing the line. They seized the station and released a number of prisoners, but were compelled to withdraw by three heavy Nordenfeldt guns, which the Boers had posted on a hill about 2,500 yards beyond the station. At half-past ten they had reached the point I describe, and were very slowly coming back towards Ladysmith, the trains moving backwards, and the cavalry walking on each side the line. The point is called Modder's Spruit, from some early Dutchman, and there is a little station there, the first out from Ladysmith town. At that moment another train was seen coming up with the 1st Devons, and within an hour a fourth arrived with five companies of the Gordons. The 42nd Field Battery then came, and the 21st later; the 5th Lancers with a few 5th Dragoon Guards, and a large contingent of Natal mounted volunteers. That was our force. It took up a strong and fairly concealed position behind a rise in the road to the left of the railway and waited. Meantime the Boer scouts crept along that rocky ridge on our right front and down into the plain, firing into us at long range, quite without effect.
At half-past one General French, who had taken command, sent out a few Lancers to watch our left, and a large force of mixed cavalry to the right. By a long circuit these swept up the whole length of the ridge and cleared out the Boer sharpshooters, who could be seen galloping away over the top. The infantry then detrained and advanced across the plain and up the ridge in extended order, half a battery meantime driving out a small Boer party, which was firing upon our Lancers on our left.
When we reached the top of that long ridge, we found it broad as well as long, and we were moving rapidly across it when, with the usual whirr and crash and scream, one of the enemy's big shells fell in the midst of our right centre, killing two horses at a gun. It was at once followed by another, and a dozen or two more. They had our range exactly, and the art of knowing what was going on behind the hill, but though the shells burst all right and hot fragments or bullets went shrieking through the midst of us, I did not see anything but horses actually struck. I think six or seven horses were killed at that place, and later on I heard of a bugler having his head cut off, and two or three others killed by shell, but otherwise I believe the artillery did us no damage, though to most men it is more terrifying than rifle fire. When we reached the edge of the ridge we looked across a broad low valley, with one small wave in it, to the enemy's main position on some rocky hills nearly 4,000 yards away. The place was very strong and well chosen.
Opposite our right ran a long high ridge covered with rocks and leading up to a rocky plateau. In their centre was a pointed hill, at the foot of which stood their camp, with tents and waggons. Opposite our left was a small detached kopje, and beyond that a fairly flat plain, with a river running through it, and the railway beyond Elands Laagte Station. Their three guns stood on the rocky ridge to our right of their camp—two together half-way down, one a little higher up. Flash—flash—they went, and then came the whirr, the crash, and the screaming fragments.
Suddenly our guns opened in answer from our right centre, and we could watch the shrapnel bursting right over their gunners' heads. They say the gunners were German. At all events, they were brave fellows, and worked the guns with extraordinary skill and courage. The official account admits that they returned several times to their posts after being driven out by our shell. The afternoon was passing, and if we were to take the place before dark we could not spare time to shake it with our artillery much longer. At about half-past four the infantry were ordered to advance, the Gordons and Manchesters on the right, the Devons on the left. They went down the long slope and across the valley with perfect intervals and line, much better than they go in the hollows of the old Fox Hills.
In the advance the Gordons and Manchesters gradually changed direction half right and crept up towards that plateau on the right of the ridge, so as to take the enemy in flank. The Devons went straight forward, coming into infantry fire as they crossed that low wave of ground in the middle of the valley. On the further slope they were ordered to lie down and wait till the flanking movement was developed. Happily the slope, as is usual in South Africa, was thickly spotted over with great ant-hills, beneath which the ant-eater digs his den. Ant-heaps, hardened almost to brick, make excellent cover, and we lay down behind them on any bit of rock we could find, the fire being very hot, and the Mauser bullets making their unpleasant whiffle as they passed. I think the first man hit was a private, who got a ball through his head by the ear. He was carried away, but died before he got off the field. A young officer was struck soon afterwards, and then the bearers began to be busy. There were far too few of them, and no one could find the ambulance carts. As a matter of fact they had not left Ladysmith—twelve miles at least away. Most of the wounded tried to creep back out of fire. Some lay quite still. I heard only two or three call out for help. Meantime the rest were keeping up a steady fire, not by volleys, but as each could sight a Boer among the rocks, and my own belief is that very few Boers were hit that way.
Climbing up a heap of loose stones a little to the right of the Devons, I could now see the Boers at the top of their position in the centre, moving about rapidly, taking cover, resting their rifles on the stones, and firing both at us and at the men who were pushing up the slope threatening their flank. Meantime the artillery pumped iron and lead upon them without mercy. Their own guns were quite silenced about this time, being unable to stand the combined shell and rifle fire. But the ordinary Boers—the armed and mounted peasants—still clung to their rocks as though nothing could drive them out.
One big man in black I watched for what seemed a very long time. He was standing right against the sky line, sometimes waving his arm, apparently to give directions. Shells burst over his head, and bullets must have been thick round him. Once or twice he fell, as though slipping on the rocks, for the rain had begun again. But he always reappeared, till at last shrapnel exploded right in his face, and he sank together like a dropped rag. Just after that the Manchesters and Gordons began to force their way along the top of the ridge on the Boers' left. They had the dismounted Imperial Light Horse with them, and it was there that the loss was most terrible. Sometimes the advance hardly seemed to move, sometimes it rushed forward, and then appeared to swing back again. It was six o'clock, rain was falling in torrents, and it was getting dark. Perhaps the Gordons suffered most. Fourteen officers were killed and wounded there, and next day the killed men lay thick among the rocks. The Boer prisoners say the Gordon kilts made them easy marks. But the Light Horse lost, too—lost their Colonel, Scott Chisholme, who had been so eager for their success. Still the Boers kept up their terrible fire, and the attack crept forward, rock by rock. At the same time the Devons were called on to advance, and, getting up from the ant-hills without a moment's pause, they strode forward to the foot of the hill, keeping up an incessant fire as they went. Then we heard the bugler sounding the charge high up on our right, and we could just see the flank attack rushing forward and cheering. The Boers were galloping away or running from the top. The Devons also sounded the charge and rushed up the front of the position, but from that isolated hill on our left they met so obstinate a fire that the order for magazine firing was given, and for a few minutes the rifles rattled without a second's pause, in a long roar of fire. Then, with a wild cheer, the Devons cleared the position. It is due to them to say that they were first at the guns. Meantime, the "Cease Fire!" had sounded several times on the summit, but the firing did not cease. I don't know why it was. Perhaps the Boers were still resisting in parts. Certainly many of our men were drunk with excitement. "Wipe out Majuba!" was a constant cry. But the Boers had gone.
The remnants of them were struggling to get away in the twilight over a bit of rocky plain on our left. There the Dragoon Guards got them, and three times went through. A Dragoon Guards corporal who was there tells me the Boers fell off their horses and rolled among the rocks, hiding their heads in their arms and calling for mercy—calling to be shot, anything to escape the stab of those terrible lances. But not many escaped. "We just gave them a good dig as they lay," were the corporal's words. Next day most of the lances were bloody.
The victory was ours. We had gained a stony and muddy little hill strewn with the bodies of dead and wounded peasants, clerks, lawyers, and other kinds of men. Most were from Johannesburg. Nearly all spoke English like their native language. In one corner on the slope of the hill towards their little camp and waggons I counted fourteen dead together. In one of the tents were three dead men, all killed by the same shell, apparently whilst asleep. Yet I do not think there were more than thirty actually killed among the rocks in all. It is true that darkness fell rapidly, and the rain was blinding; but I was nearly two hours on the ground moving about. The wounded lay very thick, groaning and appealing for help. In coming down I nearly trod on the upturned white face of an old white-bearded man. He was lying quite silent, with a kind of dignity. We asked who he was. He said: "I am Kock, the father of Judge Kock. No, I am not the commandant. He is the commandant." But the old man was wrong. He himself had been in command, though instead of fighting he had read the Bible and prayed. One bullet had passed through his shoulder, another through his groin. So he lay still and read no more. Near him was a boy with a hand just a mixture of shreds and bones and blood. But he too was very quiet, and only asked for a handkerchief to bind it together. Others were gradually dying. Many were not found till daylight. The dead of both sides lay unburied till Monday.
In the mud and stones just above the captured guns, General French stood giving directions for the bivouac, and dictating a message to Sir George White praising the troops, especially the infantry who had been commanded by Colonel Ian Hamilton. The assemble kept sounding over the hill, and Gordons tried to sift themselves from Manchesters, and Light Horse from Devons. All were shouting and questioning and calling to each other in the dark. Soon they settled down; the Boers had left scores of saddles, coats, and Kaffir blankets, provisions, too, water-bottles, chickens, and in one case a flask of carbolic disinfectant, which a British soldier analysed as "furrin wine." So, on the whole, the fellows made themselves fairly comfortable in spite of the cold and wet. Then I felt my way down over the rocks, taking care, if possible, not to tread on anything human, and then sought out the difficult twelve-mile track to Ladysmith over the veldt and hills, lighted towards midnight by a waning and clouded moon.
BATTLE OF TINTA INYONI
LADYSMITH, October 27, 1899.
If you want to "experience a shock," as the doctors say, be with the head of a column advancing leisurely along a familiar road only six miles from camp, and have a shell flung almost at your feet from a neighbouring mountain top. That was my fortune about the breakfast time of peaceable citizens last Tuesday morning. A squadron of Lancers and some of the Natal Carbineers were in front. Just behind me a battery was rumbling along. A little knot of the staff was close by, and we were all just preparing to halt. We stood on the Newcastle road, north of the town, not far from our first position at the Elands Laagte battle of the Saturday before. The road is close to the railway there, and I was watching an engine and truck going down with a white-flag flying, bringing back poor Colonel Chisholme's body for burial. Suddenly on the left from the top of a mountain side beyond a long rocky ridge I saw the orange flash of a big gun. The next moment came the familiar buzz and scream of a great shell, the crash, the squealing fragments, the dust splashing up all round us as they fell. I have never seen men and horses gallop faster than in our rapid right-wheel over the open ground towards a Kaffir kraal. I think only one horse was badly hurt, but at no military tournament have I seen artillery move in such excellent style. It was all over in a minute. The Boers must have measured the range to a yard, and just have kept that gun loaded and waiting.
But in tactics jokes may be mistakes. That shot revealed the enemy's position. Within ten minutes our gunners had snipt the barbed wire fences along the railway, had dashed their guns across, and were dragging them up that low rocky ridge—say, 300ft. to 400ft. high—which had now so suddenly become our front and fighting position. Three field batteries went up, and close behind them came the Gloucesters on the right, a few companies of the second 60th (K.R.R.) the Liverpools and the Devons in order on the centre and left. On our right we had some of the 19th Hussars and 5th Lancers; on our left a large mixed force of the mounted Natal Volunteers, who were soon strongly engaged in a small valley at the end of the ridge, and suffered a good deal all day. But the chief work and credit lay with our guns. Till they got into position, found the range and began to fire, the enemy's shells kept dropping over the ridge and plumping into the ground. None were so successful as the first, and only few of them burst, but shells are very unpleasant, and it was a relief when at the second or third shot from our batteries we found the enemy's shells had ceased to arrive. We had destroyed the limber, if not the gun, and after that the shells were all on one side. Some say the Boers had two guns, but I only saw one myself, and I watched it as a mouse watches a cat. One does.
The Boers, however, had many cats to watch. Climbing up the ridge towards its left end, I sat among the rocks with the Liverpools and Devons beside one of the batteries, and got a good view of the Boer position. They were in irregular lines and patches among the rocks of some low hills across a little valley in our front, and were stationed in groups upon the two higher mountains (as one may call them) upon our right and left. Both of these points looked down upon our position, and it was only by keeping close among the stones under the edge of our ridge that we got any cover, and that indifferent. But, happily, the range was long, and for hour after hour those two hills were simply swept by our shrapnel. On our right the long mountain edge, where the enemy's gun had been, is called Mattowan's Hoek. The great dome-like hill (really the end of a flat-topped mountain in perspective), on our left, was Tinta Inyoni.
Our infantry lay along the ridge, keeping up a pretty constant fire, and sometimes volleying by sections, whenever they could get sight of their almost invisible enemy. Sometimes they advanced a little way down towards the valley. On the right the Gloucesters about eleven o'clock came over the ridge on to a flat little piece of grass land in front. I suppose they expected to get a better range or clearer view, but within a few minutes that patch of grass was spotted with lumps of khaki. Two officers—one their colonel—and six men were killed outright, and the official list of wounded runs to over fifty. When they had withdrawn again to the ridge the doctors and privates went out to bring the wounded back. Behind the cover of the rocks the dhoolies were waiting with their green-covered stretchers. In the sheltered corner on the flat ground below stood the ambulance waggons ready. All the ambulance service was admirably worked that day, but I think perhaps the highest credit remains with the mild Hindoos.
By twelve o'clock the low hills in our front were burning from our shells, and the smoke of the grass helped still more to conceal this baffling enemy of ours. It was all very well for the gunners, with their excellent glasses, but the ordinary private could hardly see anything to aim at, and yet he was more or less under fire all the time. As to smoke, of course the smokeless powder gives the Boers an immense advantage in their method of fighting. It is hardly ever possible to tell exactly where the shots come from. But I noticed one man near the top of Tinta, who evidently had an old Martini which he valued much more than new-fangled things. Whenever he fired a little puff of grey smoke followed, and I always thought I heard the growl of his bullet particularly close, as though he steadily aimed at some officer near by. He sat under a bush, and had built himself a little wall of rocks in front. Shell after shell was showered upon that rocky hillside, for it concealed many other sharpshooters besides. But at each flash he must have thrown himself behind the stones, and when the shower of lead was over up he got, and again I saw the little puff of grey smoke and heard the growl of a bullet close by.
The firing ceased about three. There was no apparent reason why it should. The Boers had killed a few of us. Probably we had killed more of them. But mere loss of life does not make victory or defeat, and to all appearance we were both on much the same ground as at first, except that the Boers had lost a gun, and were not at all comfortable on the positions they had held. Our withdrawal, however, was due to deeper reasons. A messenger had brought news of the column which had unhappily been driven from Dundee—whether by the Boers' 40-pounder, "Long Tom," or by failing ammunition I will not try to decide. Anyhow, the messenger brought the news that the column was safe and returning unmolested on Ladysmith by the roundabout road eastward, near Helpmakaar. We had held back the enemy from intercepting them on their march. Our long and harassing fight, then, had been worth the sacrifice. It was a victory in strategy. Sir George White gave the order for the infantry to withdraw from the ridge by battalions and return to Ladysmith. By evening we were all in the town again.
Next day I determined to meet the Dundee force on its way. They were reported to have halted about twenty-five miles off the night before, near Sunday's river, which, like all the rivers and spruits just here, runs southward through mountains into the Tugela and Buffalo. About six miles out we had a small force ready to give them assistance if they were pursued. Passing through that column halted by a stream, I went on into more open country, where there was an occasional farm with the invariable tin roof and weeping willows of South Africa. For many miles I saw small parties of our Lancers and Carbineers scouring the country on both sides of the track.
Then soon after I had crossed a wide watershed I came down into broken and rocky country again, well suited for Boers, and there the outposts ended. I had a wide view of distant mountains, far away to the Zulu border on the east, and northwards to the Biggarsberg and Dundee, a terrible country to cross with a retiring column, harassed by three days' fighting. The few white farmers had gone, of course, but, happily, I came upon a Kaffir kraal, and a Kaffir chief himself came out to look at me. The Cape boy who was with me asked if he had seen any English troops that way. "Yes, there were many, many, many, hardly an hour's ride further on. But he was hungry, hungry—he, the chief—and so were his wives—four of them—all of them." He spoke the pretty Zulu language—it is something like Italian.
We went on. The track went steep down hill to a spruit where the water lay in pools. And there on the opposite hill was that gallant little British Army, halted in a position of extreme danger, absolutely commanded on all sides but one, and preparing for tea as unconcernedly as if they were in a Lockhart's shop in Goswell Road. Almost as unconcernedly—for, indeed, some of the officers showed signs of their long anxiety and sleeplessness. When I came among them, some mounted men suddenly showed themselves in the distance. They took them for Boers. I could hardly persuade them they were only our own Carbineers—the outposts through whom I had just ridden. Three of our own scouts appeared across a valley, and never were Boers in greater peril of being shot. I think I may put their lives down to my credit.
The British private was even here imperturbable as usual. He sat on the rocks singing the latest he knew from the music-halls. He lighted his fires and made his tea, and took an intelligent interest in the slaughter of the oxen, for all the world as if he were at manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain. He is really a wonderful person. Filthy from head to foot, drenched with rain, baked with sun, unshorn and unwashed for five days, his eyes bloodshot for want of sleep, hungry and footsore, fresh from terrible fighting, and the loss of many friends, he was still the same unmistakable British soldier, that queer mixture of humour and blasphemy, cheerfulness and grumbling, never losing that imperturbability which has no mixture of any other quality at all. The camping ground was arranged almost as though they were going to stay there for ever. Here were the guns in order, there the relics of the 18th Hussars; there the Leicesters, the 60th, the Dublins, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the rest. The guards were set and sentries posted. But only two hours later the whole moved off again for three miles' further advance to get them well out of the mountains. Why, on that perilous march through unknown and difficult country, the Dutch did not spring upon them in some pass and blot them out is one of the many mysteries of this strange campaign.
Among them I greeted many friends whom I had come to know at Dundee ten days before. But General Symons and Colonel Gunning, whom I had chosen out as the models of what officers should be, were not there. Nor was the young officer who had been my host—young Hannah of the Leicesters—who at his own cost came out in the ship with us rather than "miss the fun." A shell struck his head. I think he was the first killed in Friday's battle.
I got back to Ladysmith late that night. Early next morning the column began to dribble in. They were received with relief. I cannot say there was much enthusiasm. The road by which I went to meet them is now swarming with Boers.
THE REVERSE AT NICHOLSON'S NEK
LADYSMITH, October 31, 1899.
On Sunday we were all astir for a big battle. But no village Sabbath in the Highlands could have been quieter, though it might have been more devotional. We rode about as usual, though our rides are very limited now, and the horse that took me forty miles last Wednesday is pining because the Boers have cut off his exercise. We sweated and swore, and suffered unfathomable thirst, but still there was no more battle than the evening hymn. Next day we knew it would be different. At night I heard the guns go out eastward along the Helpmakaar road to take up a position on our right. At three I was up in the morning darkness, and riding slowly northward with the brigade that was to form our centre, up the familiar Newcastle road. We had not far to go. The Boers save us a lot of exertion. A mile and a half—certainly less than two miles—from the outside of the town was our limit. But as we went the line of yellow behind our two nearest mountains, Lombard's Kop and Bulwan (Mbulwani, Isamabulwan—you may spell it almost as you like), was suddenly shot with red, and the grey night clouds showed crimson on all their hanging edges. The crimson caught the vultures soaring wide through the air, and then the sun himself came up with that blaze of heat which was to torture us all day long.
The central rendezvous beside the Newcastle road was well protected by a high rocky hill, which one can only call a kopje now. There were the 5th Dragoon Guards, the Manchesters, the Devons, the Gordons, with their ambulance and baggage, some of the Natal Volunteers, and when the train from Maritzburg arrived about six the Rifle Brigade marched straight out of it to join us. I climbed the kopje in front of them, and from there could get a fine view of the whole position except the extreme flanks.
At 5.10 the first gun sounded from a battery on the right of our centre—a battery that was to do magnificent work through the day. The enemy's reply was an enormous puff of smoke from a flat-topped hill straight in front of me. A huge shell shrieked through the air, and, passing high above my head, burst slap in the middle of the town behind me. Again and again it came. The second shot fell close to the central hospital; the third in a private garden, where the native servants have been busy digging for fragments ever since, as in a gold mine, not considering how cheap such treasure is now likely to become. The range was something over four miles. One of the shells passed so near the balloon that the officer in the car felt it like a gust of wind. (I ought to have told you about that balloon, by the way. We sent it up first on Sunday morning, our Zulu savages opening their mouths at it, beating their lips, and patting their stomachs with peculiar cries.)
"Long Tom" had come. "Long Tom," the hero of Dundee, able to hurl his vast iron cylinder a clean six miles as often as you will. I saw him and his brother gun on trucks at Sand River Camp on the Transvaal border just before the war began. They say he is French—a Creusot gun—throwing, some say 40lbs., some 95lbs., each shot. Anyhow, the shell is quite big enough, whatever its weight, and it bangs into shops, chapels, ladies' bedrooms without any nice distinctions. I could see "Tom's" ugly muzzle tilted up above a great earthwork which the Boers had heaped near a tree on the edge of that flat-topped hill, which we may call Pepworth, from a little farm hard by.
Our battery was at once turned on to him, and though short at first, it got the range, and poured the deadly shrapnel over that hill for hour after hour. But other guns were there—perhaps as many as six—and they replied to our battery, whilst "Tom" reserved his attention for the town. Often we thought him silenced, but always he began again, just when we were forgetting him, sometimes after over an hour's pause. The Boer gunners, whoever they may be, are not wanting in courage. So the artillery battle went on, hour after hour. I sat on the rocks and watched. At my side the Gordons on picket duty were playing with two little white kids. On the plain in front no one was to be seen but one lone and dirty soldier, who was steadily marching in across it, no one knew from where. He must have lost his way in the night, and now was making for the nearest British lines, hanging his rifle unconcernedly over his shoulder, butt behind.
So we watched and waited. At one moment Dr. Jameson came up to get a look at his old enemy. Then we heard heavy rifle fire far away on our left, where the Gloucesters and Royal Irish Fusiliers had been sent out the night before, and were now on the verge of that terrible disaster which has kept us all anxious and uncertain to-day. The rumour goes that both battalions have disappeared, and what survives of them will next be found in Pretoria. At eight o'clock I saw a new force of Boers coming down a gully in a great mountain behind Pepworth Hill. But for my glass, I should have taken them for a black stream marked with white rocks. But they were horses and men, and the white rocks were horses too. Heavy firing began far away on our right. At nine the Manchesters were called off to reinforce. At half-past nine the Gordons followed, and I went with them. About a mile and a half from the centre we were halted again on the top of another rocky kopje covered with low bush and trees, out of which we frightened several little brown deer and some strange birds.
From the top I could see the whole position of the right flank fairly well, but it puzzled me at first. The guns shelling Pepworth Hill—there were two batteries of them now—were still at their work, just in front of our left now and about half a mile away. Away to our right and further advanced, but quite exposed in the open, were two other batteries, shelling some distant kopjes on our right at the foot of the great mountain lump of Lombard's Kop. I heard afterwards they were shelling an empty and deserted kopje for hours, but I know that only from hearsay. Between the batteries and far away to the right the infantry was lying down or advancing in line, chiefly across the open, against the enemy's position. But what was that position? Take Ladysmith as centre and a radius of five miles, the Boers' position extended round a semicircle or more, from Lombard's Kop on the east to Walker's Hoek on the west, with Pepworth Hill as the centre of the arc on the north. I believe myself that the position was not a mile less than fifteen miles long, and for the most part it was just what Boers like—rocky kopjes and ridges, high and low, always giving cover and opportunity for surprise and ambuscade.
It was against the left flank of that position that our right was now hurling itself. The idea, I suppose, was to roll their left back upon their centre and take Pepworth Hill and "Long Tom" in the confusion of retreat. That may or may not have been the General's plan, but from my post with the Gordons I soon saw something was happening to prevent it. On a flat piece of green in front of the rocky kopjes, where the enemy evidently was, I could see men, not running, but walking about in different directions. They were not crowded, but they seemed to be moving about like black ants, only in a purposeless kind of way. "They are Boers, and we've got them between our men and our battery," said a Gordon officer. But I knew his hope was a vain one. Very slowly they were coming towards us—turning and firing and advancing a little, one by one—but still coming towards us, till at last they began to dribble through the intervals in our batteries. Then we knew it was British infantry retiring—a terrible sight, no matter how small the loss or how wise the order given. Chiefly they were the 60th (K.R.R.) and the Leicesters. I believe the Dublins were there too. Behind them the enemy kept up the incessant crackle of their rifles.
They came back slowly, tired and disheartened and sick with useless losses, but entirely refusing to hurry or crowd. With bullet and shell the enemy followed them hard. Our batteries did what they could to protect them, and Colonel Coxhead, in command of the guns, received the General's praise afterwards. The Natal Volunteers and Gordons, and at least part of the Manchesters were there to cover the retreat, but nothing could restore the position again. Battalions and ranks had got hopelessly mingled, and as soon as they were out of range the men wandered away in groups to the town, sick and angry, but longing above all things for water and sleep. The enemy's shells followed hard on their trail nearly into the town, plumping down in the midst whenever any body of men or horses showed themselves among the ridges of the kopjes. Seeing what was happening on the right the centre began to withdraw as well, and as their baggage train climbed back into the town up the Newcastle road a shell from "Long Tom" fell among them at a corner of the hill, blowing a poor ambulance and stretcher to pieces, and killing one of the Naval Brigade just arrived from the Powerful.
It was the Naval Brigade that saved the day, though, to be sure, a retirement like that is in itself a check, though no disaster. Captain Lambton had placed two of his Elswick wire guns on the road to the town, and sent shot after shot straight upon "Long Tom's" position four miles away. Only twelve-pounders, I believe, they were, but of fine range and precision, and at each successful shot the populace and Zulus standing on the rocks clapped their hands and laughed as at a music-hall. For a time, but only for a time, "Long Tom" held his tongue, and gradually the noise of battle ceased—the bang and squeal of the shells, the crackle of the rifle, the terrifying hammer-hammer of the enemy's two Krupp automatic guns. It was about half-past two and blazing hot. The rest of the day was quiet, but for rumours of the lamentable disaster of which one can hardly speak at present. The Gloucesters and Royal Irish prisoners—1,100 at least after all losses! They say two Boers were brought in blindfold last night to tell the General. This morning an ambulance party has gone out to bring in the wounded, and whilst they are gone with their flag of truce we have peace.
I take the opportunity to write, hurriedly and without correction, for the opportunity is short. "Long Tom" sent two shells into us this morning as we were dressing (I should have said washing, only the water supply is cut), and at any moment he may begin again.
November 1, 1899.
I may add that the retirement of the battalions of the 60th, with the Leicesters, is the theme of every one's praise to-day. Its success was chiefly due to General Hunter, and the dogged courage of the men themselves.
But the second part of the despatch is after all the main point of interest. Such a disaster has, I suppose, seldom befallen two famous and distinguished battalions. After heavy loss they are prisoners. They are wiped out from the war. The Gloucesters and the Royal Irish Fusiliers—they join the squadron of the 18th Hussars in Pretoria gaols. Two Boers came in blindfolded to tell the news last night. All day long we have been fetching in the wounded. Their wounds are chiefly from Martini rifles, and very serious. I know the place of the disaster well, having often ridden there when the Boers were at a more respectful distance. It is an entangled and puzzling country, full of rocks and hills and hidden valleys. It was only some falling boulders that caused the ruin—a few casual shots—and the stampeding mules. That ammunition mule has always a good deal to bear, but now the burden put on him officially is almost too heavy for any four-legged thing.
LADYSMITH, November 2, 1899.
"Long Tom" opened fire at a quarter-past six from Pepworth Hill, and was replied to by the Naval Brigade. Just as I walked up to their big 4.7 in. gun on the kopje close to the Newcastle road, a shell came right through our battery's earthwork, without bursting. Lieutenant Egerton, R.N., was lying close under the barrel of our gun, and both his legs were shattered. The doctors amputated one at the thigh, the other at the shin. In the afternoon he was sitting up, drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes as cheery as possible, but he died in the night. "Tom" went on more or less all day. In the afternoon Natal correspondents dashed down to the Censor with telegrams that he had been put out of action. They had seen him lying on his side. I started to look for myself, and at the first 100 yards he threw a shell right into the off-side of the street, as though to save me the trouble of going further. Another rumour, quite as confidently believed by the soldiers, was that the Devons had captured him with the bayonet and rolled him down the hill. I heard one of them "chipping" a Gordon for not being present at the exploit. Now "Tom" is a 15-centimetre Creusot gun of superior quality.
All morning I spent in the Manchesters' camp on the top of the long hill to the south-west, called Caesar's Camp. There had been firing from a higher flat-topped mountain—Middle Hill—about 3,000 yards beyond, where the Boers have taken up one of their usual fine positions, overlooking Ladysmith on one side and Colenso on the other. At early morning a small column under General Hunter had attacked a Boer commando on the Colenso road unawares and gave them a bad time, till an order suddenly came to withdraw. Sir George White had heard Boer guns to the west of their right rear, and was afraid of another disaster such as befell the Gloucesters and Royal Irish Fusiliers. The men came back sick with disappointment, and more shaken than by defeat.
I found the Manchesters building small and almost circular sangars of stones and sandbags at intervals all along the ridge. The work was going listlessly, the men carrying up the smallest and easiest stones they could find, and spending most of the time in contemplating the scenery or discussing the situation, which they did not think hopeful. "We're surrounded—that's what we are," they kept saying. "Thought we was goin' to have Christmas puddin' in Pretoria. Not much Christmas puddin' we'll ever smell again!" A small mounted party rode past them, and the enemy instantly threw a shell over our heads from the front. Then the guns just set up on the long mountain of Bulwan, threw another plump into the rocks by the largest picket. "It's like that Bally Klarver," sighed a private, getting up and looking round with apprehension. "Cannon to right of 'em, cannon to left of 'em!" Then we went on building at the sangar, but without much spirit. They laughed when I told them how a shell from "Long Tom" fell into the Crown Hotel garden this morning, and all the black servants rushed out to pocket the fragments. But the only thing which really cheered them was the thought that they had only to "stick it out" till Buller's force went up to the Free State and drew the enemy off—that and a supply of cigarettes.
Early in the afternoon I took my telegram to the Censor as usual, and after the customary wanderings and waste of time I found him—only to hear that the wires were bunched and the line destroyed. So telegrams are ended; mails neither come nor go. The guns fired lazily till evening, doing little harm on either side. A queer Boer ambulance, with little glass windows—something between a gipsy van and a penny peep-show—came in under a huge white flag, bringing some of our wounded to exchange for wounded Boers. The amenities of civilised slaughter are carefully observed. But one of the ambulance drivers was Mattey, "Long Tom's" skilled gunner, in disguise.
November 3, 1900.
The bombardment continued, guns on Bulwan throwing shells into various camps, especially the Natal Volunteers. Many people chose the river bed as the most comfortable place to spend a happy day. They hoped the high banks or perhaps the water would protect them. So there they sat on the stones and waited for night. I don't know how many shells pitched into the town to-day—say 150, not more. Little harm was done, but people of importance had one grand shock. Just as lunch was in full swing at the Royal, where officers, correspondents, and a nurse or two congregate for meals in hope of staying their intolerable thirst—bang came a shell from "Long Tom" straight for the dining-room window. Happily a little house which served as bedroom to Mr. Pearse, of the Daily News, just caught it on its way. Crash it came through the iron roof, the wooden ceiling, into the brick wall. There it burst, and the house was in the past. Happily Mr. Pearse was only on his way to his room, and had not reached it. Some of the lunchers got bricks in their backs, and one man took to his bed of a shocked stomach.
At the time I was away on the Maritzburg road, which starts west from the town and gradually curves southward. The picket on the ridge called Range Post is a relic of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, now in the show-ground at Pretoria. Major Kincaid was there, only returned the night before from the Boer camp behind "Long Tom." He had been ill with fever and was exchanged. He spoke with praise of the Boer treatment of our wounded and prisoners. When our fellows were worn out, the Boers dismounted and let them ride. They brought them water and any food they had. Joubert came round the ambulance, commanding there should be no distinction between the wounded of either race. Major Kincaid had seen a good deal of the so-called Colonel Blake and his so-called Irish Brigade. He found that the very few who were not Americans were English. He had not a single real Irishman among them. Blake, an American, had come out for the adventure, just as he went to the Chili War.
As we were talking, up galloped General Brocklehurst, Ian Hamilton, and the Staff, and I was called upon to give information about certain points in the country to our front—names and directions, the bits of plain where cavalry could act, and so on. The Intelligence Department had heard a large body of Free State Boers was moving westward from the south, as though retiring towards the passes. The information was false. The only true point about it was the presence of a large Boer force along a characteristic Boer position of low rocky hills about three miles to our front. There the General thought he would shell them out with a battery, and catch them as they retired by swinging cavalry round into the open length of plain behind the hills. So at 11 a.m. out trotted the 19th Hussars with the remains of the 18th. Then came a battery, with the 5th Dragoon Guards as escort In half an hour the guns were in full action against those low hills. The enemy's one gun there was silenced, but not before it had blown away half the head of a poor fellow among the Dragoon Guards. For an hour and a half we poured shrapnel over the rocks, till, except for casual rifle fire, there was no reply. Then another battery came up to protect the line to our rear, across which the Boers were throwing shells from positions on both sides, though without much effect. Soon after one, up cantered the Volunteers—Imperial Light Horse and Border Mounted Infantry—and they were sent forward, dismounted, to take the main position in front and occupy a steep hill on our left. To front and left they went gaily on, but they failed.
At their approach the rocks we had so persistently shelled, crackled and hammered from end to end with rifle fire. The Boers had hidden behind the ridge, and now crept back again. Perhaps no infantry could have taken that position only from the front. I watched the Volunteers advance upon it in extended lines across a long green slope studded with ant-hills. I could see the puffs of dust where bullets fell thick round their feet. It was an impossible task. Some got behind a cactus hedge, some lay down and fired, some hid behind ant-hills or little banks. Suddenly that moment came when all is over but the running. The men began shifting uneasily about. A few turned round, then more. At first they walked and kept some sort of line. Then some began to run. Soon they were all running, isolated or in groups of two or three. And all the time those puffs of dust pursued their feet. Sometimes there was no puff of dust, and then a man would spring in the air, or spin round, or just lurch forward with arms outspread, a mere yellowish heap, hardly to be distinguished from an ant-hill. I could see many a poor fellow wandering hither and thither as though lost, as is common in all retreats. A man would walk sideways, then run back a little, look round, fall. Another came by. The first evidently called out and the other gave him a hand. Both stumbled on together, the puffs of dust splashing round them. Then down they fell and were quiet. A complacent correspondent told me afterwards, with the condescending smile of higher light, that only seven men were hit. I only know that before evening twenty-five of the Light Horse alone were brought in wounded, not counting the dead, and not counting the other mounted troops, all of whom suffered.
It was all over by a quarter-past three. The Dragoon Guards, who had been trying to cover the retreat, galloped back, one or two horses galloping riderless. Under the Red Cross flag the dhoolies then began to go out to pick up the results of the battle. For an hour or so that work lasted, the dead and dying being found among the ant-hills where they fell. Then we all trailed back, the enemy shelling our line of retreat from three sides, and we in such a mood that we cared very little for shells or anything else.
November 4, 1899.
This morning Sir George White sent Joubert a letter by Major Bateson, asking leave for the non-combatants, women and children to go down to Maritzburg. The morning was quiet, most people packing up in hopes of going. But Joubert's answer put an end to that. The wounded, women, children, and other non-combatants might be collected in some place about four miles from the town, but could go no further. All who remained would be treated as combatants. I don't know what other answer Joubert could have given. It was a mistake to ask the favour at all. But the General advised the town to accept the proposal. At a strange and unorganised public meeting on the steps of the Ionic Public Hall, now a hospital, the people indignantly rejected the terms. Leave our women and children at Intombi's Spruit—the bushy spot fixed upon, five miles away—with Boers creeping round them, perhaps using them as a screen for attack! Britons never, never will! The Mayor hesitated, the Archdeacon was eloquent, the Scotch proved the metaphysical impossibility of the scheme. Amid shouts and cheers and waving parasols the people raised the National Anthem, and for once there was some dignity in that inferior tune. Everybody's life was in danger for "The Queen." The proposal to leave the town was flung back with defiance. Rather let our homes be flattened out!
To-night my grey-haired Cape-boy and my Zulu came to me in silence and tears. They had hoped for escape. They longed for the peace of Maritzburg, and now, like myself, they were bottled up amid "pom-poms." Had I not promised never to bring them into danger—always to leave them snug in the rear? They were devoted to my service. Others ran. Them no thought of safety could induce to leave me. But one had a wife and descendants, the other had ancestors. It was pitiful. Better savages never loomed out of blackness. In sorrow I promised a pension for the widow if the old man was killed. "But how if you get pom-pom too, boss?" he plaintively asked. I pledged the Chronicle to take over the obligation. The word "obligation" consoled him. The lady's name is Mrs. Louis Nicodemus, now of Maritzburg. For the Zulu's ancestry I promised no provision.
TRAGEDY AND COMEDY
Sunday, November 5, 1899.
The armistice lasted all day, except that the enemy threw two shells at a waggon going up the Helpmakaar road and knocked it to pieces, and, I hear, killed a man or two—I don't know why. The townspeople were very busy building shelters for the bombardment. The ends of bridges and culverts were closed up with sandbags and stones. Circular forts were piled in the safest places among the rocks. The Army Service Corps constructed a magnificent work with mealy-bags and corn-beef cases—a perfect palace of security. But, as usual, the Kaffirs were wisest. They have crept up the river banks to a place where it flows between two steep hills of rock, and there is no access but by a narrow footpath. There they lie with their blankets and bits of things, indifferent to time and space. Some sort of Zulu missionary is up there, too, and I saw him nobly washing a cooking-pot for his family, dressed in little but his white clerical choker and a sort of undivided skirt. A few white families have gone to the same place, and I helped some of them to construct their new homes in the rocks amidst great merriment. The boys were as delighted as children with a spade and bucket by the sea, and many an impregnable redoubt was thrown up with a dozen stones. What those homes will be like at the end of a week I don't know. A picnic where love is may be endurable for one afternoon, when there are plenty of other people to cook and wash up. But a hungry and unclean picnic by day and night, beside a muddy river, with little to eat and no one to cook, nowhere to sleep but the rock, and nothing to do but dodge the shells, is another story. "I tell you what," said a serious Tory soldier to me, "if English people saw this sort of thing, they'd hang that Chamberlain." "They won't hang him, but perhaps they'll make him a Lord," I answered, and watched the women trying to keep the children decent while their husbands worked the pick.
In the afternoon the trains went out, bearing the wounded to their new camp across the plain at Intombi's Spruit. The move was not well organised. From dawn the ambulance people had been at work shifting the hospital tents and all the surgical necessities, but at five in the afternoon a note came back from the officer in camp urging us not to send any more patients. "There is no water, no rations," it said; "not nearly enough tents are pitched. If more wounded come, they will have to spend the night on the open veldt." But the long train was already made up. The wounded were packed in it. It was equally impossible to leave them there or to take them back. So on they went. In all that crowd of suffering men I did not hear a single complaint. Administration is not the strong point of the British officer. "We are only sportsmen," said one of them with a sigh, as he crawled up the platform, torn with dysentery and fever.
In front of the wounded were a lot of open trucks for such townspeople as chose to go. They had hustled a few rugs and lumps of bedding together, and, sitting on these, they made the best of war. But not many went, and most of those had relations among the Boers or were Boers themselves.