Frere, Tuesday, December 12th, 1899.

We shall leave behind us here a piece of country that will bear marks of our encampment for years. Here are brought together 20,000 men; here is one of the largest British camps ever formed abroad, and it is only a unit of the whole; it is larger by 6,000 men than the whole of the Natal Field Force as it was originally imagined by the War Office. This great increase is the decree of the enemy’s strategy, and by this camp we pay that strategy a concrete compliment. The column that will advance to the relief of Ladysmith is composed as follows :—

Infantry.—General Hart’s Brigade (the Irish Brigade) :   The Inniskilling Fusiliers, Dublin Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, the Border Regiment. General Hildyard’s Brigade (the English Brigade): The Devons, West Yorkshire, Queen’s, East Surrey. General Lyttelton’s Brigade (the Light Brigade) : 3rd Battalion 60th Rifles, 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, Durham Light Infantry, Scottish Rifles. General Barton’s Brigade (the Fusilier Brigade): The 7th Royal Fusiliers, Scots Fusiliers, Irish Fusiliers, Welsh Fusiliers.

Cavalry.—The 1st Royal Dragoons, the 13th Hussars.

Mounted Infantry. — One squadron Imperial Light Horse, Bethune’s M.I., Thorneycroft’s M.I., Natal Carbineers, Natal Police, Combined Mounted Company of 60th Rifles and Dublin Fusiliers, three squadrons South African Light Horse.

Artillery. — The 7th, 14th, and 66th R.A. Batteries (A brigade division) and the 64th and 73rd Batteries; the Naval Brigade of 250 men, including officers, with two 47 guns and fourteen twelve-pounders.

Corps troops.

While we stay here the routine of field service is fulfilled and little else. Every day the sharp little eyes of the heliograph wink into the sleepy camp from the surrounding hills. The signallers have a diverting time, as they are never quite sure whether they are going to embark upon a conversation with friends or with Boers. “T.A.F.,” begins the Boer when he has hooked one of our signallers with the invitations of his heliograph. No one appears quite to know what “T.A.F.” means, but it seems to be the Boers’ sign for the beginning of a message. It is the “Are you there?” of the telephone. In any case when a heliograph begins with “T.A.F.” it is certain that a Boer is at the other end of the flashes.

The Boer is not in the least embarrassed when he finds that he has not hooked a friend; his message often goes on in English, but without the stops which our signallers use, so that it is never as deceptive as it is meant to be.

“Who are you?” asked a British signaller the other day when he thought he had a Boer signalling to him.

“I belong to the Durham Light Infantry,” was the answer.

“What is the number of the regiment?” asked the suspicious signaller.

The Boer did not know that, but with engaging effrontery said instead that he was a corporal in the 9th Hussars. Then he was switched off, so to speak.

Another time when one of our signallers found himself speaking to a Boer, “How is Joubert?” he asked.

“Go to the devil!” was the answer; and the reply to that was, “All right, but you’ll be there first.”

Or, again, a Boer signalled to us, “Send assistance to General White at once”—advice which will not be neglected.

Captain Cayzer has done well twice to open communication with Ladysmith by means of an intermediate hill. The first time he was soon hunted home by the Boers, but the next he has stayed longer. In Frere, as in Estcourt, we are hidden from Ladysmith by a high ridge, but from his mountain east of Frere Cayzer can look down the valley in which Ladysmith lies. Our signallers watch the mountain earnestly, and occasionally are rewarded with news from Ladysmith—news that suddenly sparkles on the side of the dark mountain like a diamond on velvet.

By a tacit understanding Sunday is nearly always allowed to be a day of rest, free even from affairs of outposts. Then church parades are held through all the camp. Tommy sings heartily if he can get so much as the fifth share in the hymn-book, but it is rather to be feared that when he sings the militant hymns which are always held appropriate to these occasions, when he shouts “Onward, Christians, onward go,” and “Fight the fight, maintain the strife,” he is thinking less in figures of speech than of going onward to Ladysmith.

On Sunday, as well as on every other day in the week, every man who is a free agent and respects himself visits the popular conical hill from which the best view of the enemy’s position is to be had. The hill-top is always crowded; many of us have our favourite seats—front seats—among the boulders, from which we look over the country across which we must soon advance. Some one has suggested that we should attach our cards to our places and reserve them. It is a fascinating but not highly encouraging occupation to sit there and study the almost insuperably strong Boer position—ridge upon ridge behind the river Tugela, a position which bears on its face, as on a phylactery, the golden texts of Boer strategy.

There is not a kopje there but, if it be taken by an enemy, can be made immediately untenable from the kopje behind it.

The following conversation may be taken as occurring any day between sunrise and sunset on the conical hill :—

Scene. A picket, with officers scattered among the boulders; many officers not on duty; a few correspondents; a naval officer with a large telescope on a tripod; a staff of heliographists with a heliograph. All the officers are looking through glasses across the plain to the ridges behind Colenso. The men of the picket are looking in the same direction, and have looked for hours, without glasses, and can see nothing. Their conversation is proportionately vague. Enter newly arrived and distinguished staff officer, on hill for the first time.

Staff Officer. Now where are all these Boers?

Captain with Picket. I’ll show you, sir. (All present put up their glasses.) The biggest camp is under Grobler’s Kloof among those trees.

S.O.  (after looking laboriously). I don’t see it.

Captain. They’re pretty well hidden, sir; they’re devils for hiding themselves.

S.O.  What’s the good of my looking if they’re hidden?

Captain. Well, you can see some tents, of course, sir.

S.O. Near that black patch beyond the sunlight, eh?

Captain (politely, having realised that S.O. is looking in an entirely wrong direction). You see this kraal?

S.O. The far one?

Captain. No; just below this hill?

S.O.  Yes.

Captain. Very well. Look right over that, and you see a white road winding up to the left. Got that, sir?

S.O.  Yes.

Captain. Well, look a little beyond that, rather to the left, and you see two trees.

S.O.  Yes.

Captain. Look over the left tree, and you’ll see a reddish low hill.

S.O. Yes.

Captain (triumphantly). Well, there’s the camp to the left of it. Quite plain. I can see with my naked eye now. (S.O. is silent. Both realise that, after all, they are looking at quite different objects)

S.O. I believe they’ve bolted.

Naval Officer. There are certainly fewer camps than there were.

Voice of Private (overheard in undertone). Well, I ain’t seen nothing. ’Ope they ’aven’t gone. We’ll ’ammer you, Kroojer, my son.

Subaltern of Picket (suddenly). By gad! Who are these coming across the plain? Boers?

Bystanders. Oh, the Boers wouldn’t come across here.

Subaltern. They were in that kraal over there yesterday, anyhow. (All watch the advancing horsemen inteyitly. Some with inferior field-glasses say, “They’re only cattle.”)

Naval Officer (decisively). It’s some of our scouts coming in. {Attention gradually relaxes.)

S.O. (who does not yet understand South African atmosphere). I see some tents now. Anybody seen those yet? On that flat-topped hill, ahout eight miles away, just behind Colenso.

A Bystander. Oh, that’s Umbulwana, just above Ladysmith—twenty miles away.

S.O. Oh, no. Really! {A low rumble is heard.)

All. That’s a gun. Ladysmith is getting it hot this morning.

A Correspondent. By Jove! Look at the smoke!

Another Correspondait. My dear chap, that’s a grass fire.

Officer with Heliograph {suddenly). There they are! Now, then! (One of the heliograph staff snatches out note-book. A brilliant winking light is seen on hill many miles east.) Good old Cayzer! Tell me when he drops.

Man with Book. Yes, sir. (A pause.) Dropped!

Officer. Well; what’s he doing now?

Man with Book. Calling for light, sir.

Officer. Bad luck! He’s lost it. (Signalling soon continues. Heliograph with flashing glasses clicks like a telegraphing instrument.)

A Subaltern (to another subaltern). Can you read it?

The Other Subaltern. No. It’s all in code, anyhow.

First Subaltern. Yes, I suppose so.

Second Subaltern. Got any water?

F.S. (handing a bottle). It’s hot.

S.S.. Righto! Doesn’t matter.

F.S. Just feel that stone.

S.S. {putting his hand on brown boulder and instantly drawing it away.) By Jove!

(All left looking across the plain, which shivers in the heat. Picket, heliographists, visitors, all are gradually replaced by others; but conversation on hill-top still continues in similar strain.)

Frere Camp is ready to move. The men are more than ready; only the horses which have arrived lately need further to relax their stiff joints. After the journey from Durban most of them want at least two days to recover from that nightmare of terror. Think of a horse carefully packed into a box in an English railway train, and then think of these horses put shoulder to shoulder into open trucks, looking over the sides as though they were in an open boat, terrified by the noise and the visible motion. An officer told me of the night he spent in a horse truck. He told me how it took five hours to travel four miles; how the horses leaped with fear till some of them had their forelegs over the sides of the trucks; how he had to get them back by levering them up with poles; how when the train slowed or stopped the whole weight of the jammed horses, which was checked by no cross-pieces, was thrown against the end of the truck so that he thought it must inevitably give way; and how, for himself, he expected that he might be at any moment down among a violent sea of hoofs and legs and rolling bodies.

Unfortunately the downs about Frere, which lies in a belt of country too little watered even in the rainy season, holds little nourishment for horses. Mules do far better; oxen eat anything with contentment; but the more fastidious horses often turn aside with disgust even from the imported American hay, which is not exactly suited to their palate. To the correspondent the need to choose animals for transport is a serious burden. The horse that strays a little way from the tent is the easy prey of the camp looter. Mules have this advantage, that they cannot stray far when they are tied together; tie four mules together, and when they gallop they stand still, for no committee of four mules ever agreed upon a direction. They travel quickest when they sink their differences in hunger and simply eat their way forward in a steady row; thus they will travel perhaps half a mile in five hours. All this is in favour of the mule; but then he who undertook to drive a team of mules in harness would be something more than a correspondent. For myself, I have decided that my baggage shall go in a Scotch cart drawn by two oxen. I have lost my oxen only twice; once when I turned them loose to feed too near their old home, whither they returned precipitately like the leal true cat, and once in a thunderstorm at night.

It is gratifying to find that among horses the best looking are the ’bus horses of London which were chosen to join the artillery teams. Can you help looking with grateful and affectionate eyes on the animal which once drew you in the tardy ’bus from Liverpool Street to the Bank? Those times, industrious ’bus horse, were the hardship which was needed to make you endure better than others the cramping sea journey, and now the heat, the dust, and the arduous hauling! Some of the ’bus horses took the sea journey as though it were a rest ordered by the veterinary surgeon for their health, and now in resplendent strength they jib and caper. “Stamp the board, George!” said an artilleryman to his fellow-driver the other day when a ’bus horse was upsetting the whole team; and the report upon which I rely says that after the driver had ejaculated “Right be’ind!” the horse helped to draw the gun for nothing all the way.