General Buller reached Ladysmith on March 1st, and on Friday, March 2nd, I had the good fortune to enter the town. The journey was not accomplished without difficulty. It was necessary to follow the road the army had taken, as the main road was not known to be free from the enemy, and, moreover, the bridge leading to it had been blown up. The distance from Chieveley to Ladysmith by the route taken was between twenty-three and twenty-four miles. I took my covered cart (called in the camp the "’bus"), with ten mules and two Kaffir "boys." A man rode in front to pick out the road. With me came my remaining nurse, Miss McCaul, and Mr. Day, an army chaplain. We took provisions, water, and forage for two days.
We left Chieveley at 6.30 a.m., and the first part of the journey was across the battlefield of Colenso. The road then became very rough, ran over ridges and down into dongas, over boulders and deep into ruts, so that the mules would now be at a fair trot and now dragged to a standstill. At last we reached the hill commanding the pontoon bridge over the Tugela. At the top of this precipitous height was the mighty convoy of ox-wagons with food for Ladysmith. The wagons could be counted by hundreds and the cattle by thousands. The hubbub could not be surpassed. The lowing of the oxen, the shrieking of the Kaffir "boys," the bellowed orders of the convoy conductors, the groaning of colliding wagons, made a compound of sound worthy of the occasion. Among the rabble would be seen ambulance wagons, water carts, isolated gun carriages and ammunition wagons, bread carts, mounted officers hurrying through, weary pickets returning to camp, and a few "Tommies" tramping along with a cheery indifference to the restless, struggling crowd.
The actual road above the pontoon was the very steepest declivity I have ever seen negotiated by structures on wheels. The ’bus (empty of all occupants) slid unsteadily down the incline, rocking like a ship in a troubled sea, and the mules had to put on their best pace to keep clear of the onrushing wheels.
The river at the point of crossing is extremely picturesque. The steep rugged banks are rendered beautiful by mimosa and cactus, and below the pontoons the torrent breaks into foaming rapids, while up-stream is the celebrated waterfall of the Tugela. From the river the road wound on to the foot of Umbulwana. It ran across plains and down into valleys, and over spruits and across boulders, and through mimosa groves and over dusty wastes. A river at the foot of the great hill was forded, and as the mules were nearly carried off their feet, and the wagon was flooded with the stream, we were glad to land on the opposite bank.
The Boer camps through which the road led showed every evidence of a hurried departure. The cooking pots were still on the camp fires; the rude shelters under which our hardy enemy had lived were still intact. The ground was strewed with refuse, with the remains of the last meal, with discarded articles of clothing, with empty bottles and barrels, with fragments of chairs and tables, with empty flour sacks, and, above all, with the straw, which is a feature of a Boer settlement. There were no tents. The shelters were made of boughs, of beams of wood from adjacent farms, of iron railings, of barbed wire, of plates of corrugated iron, of casual patches of canvas, and of old sacks. In some of the trenches the shelters were more elaborate, and varied from an almost shot-proof retreat to a simple tent, made out of two raw cow skins stretched over bamboos.
These wild camps, amid a still wilder country, suggested the conventional "brigand’s retreat." The only evidences of a gentler mood were provided by a discarded concertina and by a letter I picked up on the roadside. The letter was from a Boer wife at the home farm to her husband in the trenches. As we passed along the road we met with many evidences of a hurried flight. The dead horses were very numerous; and left by the roadside, with traces cut, were carts, light spider-carts, water carts, wagons, and such cumbrous impedimenta as wheelbarrows and a smith’s forge. One wagon had fallen headlong into a donga in the dark, and was an utter wreck.
At last, on mounting the summit of a little ridge, we saw before us a wide green plain of waving grass, and beyond the plain and under the shelter of purple hills lay the unhappy town of Ladysmith. Ladysmith looks very pretty at the distance - a cluster of white and red roofs dotted about among trees, and surmounted by the white tower of the Town Hall.
The military camps were placed at various points about the town. The first of these camps was that of the gallant King’s Royal Rifles. They had made some sort of home for themselves on the side of a barren and stony hill. They had, of course, no tents, but had fashioned fantastic shelters out of stone and wood and wire. They had even burrowed into the ground, and had returned to the type of habitation common to primeval man. Among the huts and burrows were many paths worn smooth by the restless tread of weary feet. The path the most worn of all was that which led to the water tanks.
The men themselves were piteous to see. They were thin and hollow-eyed, and had about them an air of utter lassitude and weariness. Some were greatly emaciated, nearly all were pale, nearly all were silent. They had exhausted every topic of conversation, it would seem, and were too feeble to discuss even their relief.
Ladysmith was reached at 2.30 P.M., and the food convoy did not arrive until late the same evening, so we had the sad opportunity of seeing Ladysmith still unrelieved - unrelieved so far as the misery of hunger was concerned. I had no food at my disposal, but I had, fortunately, a good quantity of tobacco, which was doled out in pipefuls so long as the supply lasted. It would have taken many pounds, however, to satisfy the eager, wasted, trembling hands which were thrust forward on the chance of getting a fragment of the weed.
The town is composed almost entirely of single-storey houses built of corrugated iron, with occasional walls of brick or cement. In the suburbs of the town these houses are made as villa-like as possible by means of verandahs and flower gardens and creepers. The main street of the town, however, has no pretensions to beauty, and is merely a broad road with corrugated iron shops on either side.
On walking into "Starvation City," one’s first impression was that of the utter emptiness of the place. Most of the villas were unoccupied, were closed up, and, indeed, barricaded. The gardens were neglected, and everything had run wild. The impression of desolation was accentuated by an occasional house with a hole in its roof or its wall due to a Boer shell. All the people we met were pallid and hollow-eyed, and many were wasted. All were silent, listless, and depressed. There were no evidences of rejoicing, no signs of interest or animation, and, indeed, as I have just said, Ladysmith was still unrelieved. Nearly every shop was closed or even barricaded. Sign-boards showed that here was a coach builder, and there a grocer. The chemist’s shop appeared to be empty of everything except the coloured water in the large bottles in the window. Such shops as were open were dark and desolate.
There were many grim evidences of better days. Thus one restaurant presented, among other cheery signs, the announcement of "Meals at all hours." Another establishment was gay with placards of "Ice creams." Notices of groceries of all kinds for sale made radiant a shop which was empty of everything but a table and some rough chairs.
Such was the aspect of the weary town. Streets empty of all but a few tired and listless men, stores without goods, shops without customers, a railway station without passengers, a post office without letters, stamps, or post cards. No words, indeed, can fully describe this city of desolation, this little colony of the almost hopeless, this poor, battered, worn-out, hungry town of Ladysmith, with a bright summer sun making mockery of its dismal streets.
The wretchedness of the place was not mitigated by the horrible smells which greeted one at every corner, nor by the miserable, dirty river which crawled slimily through the place.
We left the town about 5 P.M., and met on our way back the long convoy of wagons with food. It was dark when we reached the river by Umbulwana; and as it was dangerous, and, indeed, impossible to cross the drift except in daylight, we outspanned by the river bank and made a pretence of sleeping.
When yet it was dark on the following morning the mules were put in, and with the earliest streak of dawn we crossed the river and made for Colenso. The wagons were still toiling onwards towards Ladysmith.
The road, as I have said, was very rough, and the poor cart, which had served me well for three months, began to show signs of giving out. It broke down at last, one of the wheels coming to pieces. We were then some seven miles from Colenso, and the vehicle was beyond all repair. So it was left by the roadside among other wreckage, a forlorn relic of what was once a smart "’bus." Our very scanty luggage was packed upon the mules’ backs, our remaining food was distributed among the passers-by, and we proceeded to walk to Colenso. From Colenso we travelled to Chieveley by a casual goods train, sitting on the floor of an open truck, as there was no guard’s van. We reached Chieveley on Saturday at 1 P.M., tired and dirty.