Apart from the conflicts already described, the Natal Volunteers were not again involved, during the Siege, in any major incidents. There were many alarms, however, most of which proved to be false, when we were rushed to parts of our defence line that were threatened by the enemy. On several occasions we were assembled at full strength in the early hours of the morning and dashed to points outside our fortified positions. We thought and hoped that the intention was to attempt a break through the enemy lines. But we were always mistaken and disappointed when we marched back to camp.
One such excursion took place on the 2nd January, 1899, when we paraded at 2.15 a.m. and, together with a party of Lancers and a Battery of Artillery, rode out of town along the Ladysmith - Colenso Road. About 2 Miles out we sighted a party of the enemy on a low lying ridge on our right front. The ridge was bombared by the Artillery and there was a sharp encounter between Boer Riflemen and the Lancers. We were then ordered to retire to camp, which we did under fairly heavy fire from enemy field guns. The object of that sortie was obscure to us, and it became known as “Brocklehurst’s Folly”.
After the big guns on Pepworth’s Hill, Surprise Hill and Gun Hill had been put out of action, in the manner already indicated, only Long Tom on Umbulwana remained as a constant and major menace to Ladysmith town. Our outer defences were, of course, within effective range of other enemy guns of smaller calibre and they were bombarded daily, except on Sundays. The missile from one type of gun was christened “Whistling Willie” because it emitted a whistling sound during its passage through the air. Another shell was named “Silent Sue” because it was not heard until it reached its objective. Our gun on Naval Hill and Long Tom bombarded each other daily but no direct hit resulted. Other parts of the town received their daily quota from Long Tom, and on St. Andrew’s Day (3rd November, 1899) the bombing was intensified. On that day a shell struck and partially destroyed the tower of the Town Hall in which building a temporary Hospital had been established by the Red Cross. One patient was killed and 9 were wounded. Extra special bombardments took place on Dingaan’s Day (16th December, 1899) an other important anniversaries.
It is important to record here that seldom, if ever, did the Boers shell us on Sundays and other holidays, for which respite we were truly grateful. On those days we were able to organise and play cricket matches and indulge in other sports without fear of interference. It was indeed fortunate that Long Tom’s shells were not as effective as they should have been. Many of them were “Duds” and only caused damage when they made direct hits. There were exceptions, of course. One took place on 18th December, 1899, when, after striking the branch of a tree, a shell poured shrapnel into the horse lines of the Natal Carbineers during early morning stables parade. Four men and several horses were killed. The human casualties were Troopers Craig, Smith Buxton, Miller and young Elliot, a boy of 17 years of age. The men were interred with military honours in Ladysmith General Cemetery after dark on that day. It should be recorded here, that, for obvious reasons, all burials took place during the hours of darkness.
Long Tom was of retracting type. In other words it was established on rails which enabled it to appear above its protective earthen rampart when it was about to discharge its missile and to withdraw to safety thereafter. The gun’s emplacement was on the skyline of Umbulwana and, owing to its size, the gun’s huge barrel became visible even to the naked eye, when it came forward to fire its shell. Moreover, as the shells were detonated by black powder, a dense white cloud of smoke emitted from the barrel with each explosion. Warning of impending danger was given by the sounding of Regimental calls by Buglers detailed daily for that duty. Because considerable time elapsed between the gun’s appearance above its battlement and the arrival of its shell we had ample time to take refuge behind buildings or in the trenches that were dug in our camps after the disaster suffered by the Carbineers on the 18th December.
As the source of Ladysmith’s water supply was situated in territory occupied by the enemy it was not long before the absence of purified water created a serious health hazard. It meant that we had to depend almost entirely upon the unpurified waters of the Klip River which was in a state of semi-spate throughout the Siege. Its water was, in consequence, of the consistency of pea soup and could be used for cooking purposes only after it had been clarified by the addition of alum to settle its sediment. To add to its impurities, the river often brought down in its flow the carcases of humans and animals that were, presumably, the victims of drowning higher up.
As far as I know a waterborne system of sanitation did not exist in Ladysmith during the Siege. We soldiers had to use the always unsatisfactory and insanitary system of open trench latrines. The result was that we were soon plagued by swarms of flies and other nuisances which contributed sharply to our discomfort. The fly menace was so serious that it became almost impossible to eat food, particularly jam and other sweet stuffs, without sharing it with those pests. The situation was eased by laying out a mixture of Cooper’s Dip powder and water which destroyed millions of flies. My readers will, I think, find it difficult to believe that they died in such numbers that special fatigues were employed to sweep up the dead flies and carry them away in wheelbarrows!
It is little wonder that as a result of such insanitary conditions coupled with inadequate food, our troops soon became victims of typhoid fever and dysentery.
It was on the 7th November, 1899, that our rations were reduced by half. Up to that date we had been issued with adequate supplies of mealie meal, beef, etc. On the 7th November, we received an emergency ration - a tin canister containing pemmican (a concentrated meat) and cocoa sufficient to provide nourishment for thirty six hours. Our instructions were that the canister must not be opened without the authority of a Senior Officer. On the 1st January our bread ration was reduced to V2 lb. weight per man, per day, and shortly afterwards bread was replaced by IV2 army biscuits per day. By that date even stocks of mealie meal had become exhausted and we could no longer enjoy a meal of our staple diet, porridge. By the 10th February 1900, it had become necessary to augment the supply of food with horse flesh and on that date one hundred of our worst conditioned horses were selected for slaughter. It should be mentioned here that owing to the exhaustion of the supply of grain and fodder, the Hussars and Lancers of the British Army had been “dehorsed”, and their beautiful mounts turned adrift on 30th January, 1900. The animals stampeded and strayed out to enemy held country. It is difficult to understand why, in view of later developments, that valuable source of food was sacrificed.
From the 11th February, 1900, until the arrival of the Relief Column we were, by dire necessity, compelled to partake of horseflesh and its derivative “Chevril”. It was not a pleasant experience but “needs must when the devil drives.” I well remember the nausea that overcame me when I had my first taste of horseflesh! The mention of “horseflesh” and “Chevril” brings to my mind the words uttered at a latter date by Field Marshall Lord Chetwode, an officer of one of the Cavalry Regiments, who served in Ladysmith during the Siege, who often claimed that the Cavalry were responsible for the long stand of the besieged garrison, by reason of the fact that they provided the food that sustained the garrison.
I think it would not be out of place to repeat the story of how three civilians augmented their rations during their incarceration. It goes like this:- They owned two hens that produced two eggs each morning. That meant that one man had to be content with an egg on alternate days. To overcome the deficiency they built a light-proof compartment and after the hens had done their duty each morning they were confined in the darkened compartment until late in the afternoon. They were then released, and, thinking that it was tomorrow, they each laid another egg!!
I had been feeling unwell for several days and on the 15th February I was sent to Intombi (Ndomba) Military Hospital suffering from enteric (typhoid) fever. By that late date the Hospital was full and overflowing with patients. The only accommodation left for me was a bell tent in which four other patients were confined. There were no beds and we had to lie on waterproof sheets and a blanket on the hard ground. Our nurses were males drawn from Army sources. They were not very efficient but they gave of their best. At that period the supply of medicines, medical comforts and nutritious food was at its lowest. Men were dying in dozens almost daily. My tent was at the lower end of the line and one morning 1 counted twenty-four bodies on their way to the place of burial. In the early days of the Siege the dead were buried in single graves but that method became impracticable later and communal burials in long trenches were resorted to.
Fortunately my illness was of short duration and 1 rose from my sick bed on the 26th February, 1900.
On the 28th February, 1900, when taking exercise within the Hospital grounds, 1 saw mounted men riding through the adjacent thorn country towards our outposts below Caesar’s Hill. I thought they were our enemies and my first impulse was to hurry to our outposts and warn them of impending danger. But, when our picquets did not fire upon the advancing men, I realised that they were of our relieving forces. I did not see any Carbineers among the Relief Force. They did not pass through the Hospital grounds.
On the 1st March, 1900, small parties of mounted men, mostly of the South African Light Horse, passed through the Hospital grounds, en route for Ladysmith. They were followed at 11 a.m. by General Buller and his staff, and from then onwards there was a continual flow of men towards the town. There was, of course, much joyful fraternisation between the men of the Relief Column and the patients. We patients were mostly in a state of semistarvation, and had been warned by our doctors not to succumb to temptation by accepting gifts of food such as bread and other solid food offered to us by men of the Relief Forces. Many had not the strength of will to heed the advice of the doctors and numbers of convalescents suffered relapses, some with fatal results.
Having been officially discharged from Hospital the previous day, I was returned to our camp in town on 2nd March, 1900, and found that my comrades were already feeding on the fat of the land, the result of fruitful raids on abandoned Boer camps and previous day. That same day ample supplies reached us in ox-drawn wagons and our period of semi-starvation ended. It was not long before we were able to augment our rations by the purchase, at “Dry Canteens” of such luxuries as jam, biscuits, quaker oats and other commodities. My first purchase was a tin of milk biscuits costing l/6d. which was consumed with great relish.
Having satisfied the demands of my “inner man” my thoughts turned to my Troop Horse. On reaching our horse lines I found that he had already been sent to the slaughter poles. As I did not like the idea of losing the nag I successfully appealed for his release and took him back to the lines. I often afterwards regretted having secured his reprieve. He was not a well behaved animal and, during the long marches we had to undertake later on in the campaign, he formed the habit of seeking out mud puddles and rolling in them, often while still saddled. Moreover, he was not easy to catch after having been turned loose to graze, as often happened. He had the habit of allowing me to approach almost near anough to get hold of his halter and then galloping out of reach! I could almost hear him saying, in horse language, “Diddled you this time,”. On such occasions I was almost overcome by the temptation to shoot the brute.
It was on the 3rd March, 1900, that the official entry of the Relief Column into Ladysmith took place. The Streets of the town had been lined by such members of the Garrison as were fit to do so. They were lamentably few in number - and I think it would not be an exaggeration of fact to say that almost three quarters of our strength were unfit to parade.
I, personally, was fortunate enough to secure standing room at the corner of Murchison Street, opposite the City Hall, in front of which General Sir George White (the Commander of the besieged garrison) and his staff were posted. I therefore enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the official meeting between General Sir Red vers Buller and General Sir George White. To me it was a thrilling sight and a fitting end to One Hundred and Fifty Two days of trial and anxiety. The men of the Relieving Column appeared to be very fit and robust, though their uniforms and equipment showed unmistakable signs of hard wear. Their condition was in marked contrast to that of the besieged. The Column, including Infantry, Artillery (both Field and Heavy guns) mounted troopers and ancilliary units, was a very long one and considerable period of time elapsed before the last unit passed the saluting base. Incidentally, the heavy guns of the Column were hitched to our ox-drawn wagons. The field guns were drawn by teams of six magnificent horses. Our Commander, Sir George White, was heartily cheered by the troops as they passed him, and it was a common sight to see men of the Relief Force hading tobacco and cigarettes to the men of the Garrison who lined the streets.
During most of the forenoon I stood alongside and conversed with a young man of somewhat untidy appearance, in so far as his uniform was concerned. He wore the slouch hat with “Sakabula” feathers, and badge of the South African Light Horse, to which Regiment he told me was was attached. He asked me my name and then told me he was Winston Churchill, and that he was a War Correspondent attached to the South African Light Horse. I asked him if he was a son of the then stormy petrel in Britain’s politics, Lord Randolph Churchill? He replied in the affirmative. How could I knwo then that I had met and conversed with a man destined to become Britain’s most famous and illustrious war time Prime Minister.
After their triumphant march through the streets of Ladysmith the troops settled into the old barracks at the town and camps in the neighbourhood.
Thus ended the One Hundred and Fifty-two days long Siege of Ladysmith. It is difficult for me, at this late date, to describe adequately the feelings of relief and gratitude which overcame me and others of the beleaguered garrison when the Siege was raised. I think it is safe to say that few, if any of us, expected at the outset, that the Siege would last as long as it did; we thought and hoped that it would be only a matter of a few weeks before the superior forces of Great Britain would come to our rescue. It soon became obvious to us, however, that we were doomed to disappointment - and that we must reconcile ourselves to a long period of restraint before liberation came our way. It was, indeed, fortunate for us that the shells of the enemy’s Long Toms proved to be ineffective and, with few exceptions, did little damage unless they made direct hits. As has been already recorded, three of those monsters were put out of action in the early days of the Siege and the activities of Long Tom of Umbulwana were greatly hampered by the attentions paid to it by our gun on Naval Hill.