Estcourt. November 13, 1899
FULLY thirty miles, as the crow flies, almost due north from Estcourt, lies beleaguered Ladysmith. Standing upon the hilltops near here, we can hear the daily booming of besieged and besiegers' cannon, and when the air is still, or the breeze is favourable, the threshing sound of musketry. Ladysmith has been invested by the enemy since the beginning of November, and Sir George White and his troops are encompassed in almost basin lands, for it is the characteristic or necessity of South African towns that they must be built in low ground to secure access to water. He and his men found themselves in a defenceless place, and one difficult to make strongly defensible because of its surroundings. Many causes led to the General and Staff deciding to make a stand there against the invading, overrunning Boers.
That the hardship of such a position for defence is great, I know, What with men, cavalry, and cattle, all cribbed in a limited area, with no real cover to screen them from the enemy's observation and fire, the task Sir George White has undertaken is no easy one. It is not so much any actual risk of their being unable to repel direct attacks of the Boers; but the conditions under which the garrison must continue to fight and live on, until a relief column arrives, are vexatious in the extreme. And, so far as I can at present see, it will be near the end of November before the pressure will be lifted from Ladysmith. From here, rather than from the Cape side, Joubert will have to be made relax his grip upon Ladysmith, vacating Lombards and Bulwana Mountains, and falling back towards the fastnesses of the Drakensberg Mountains.
I promised a few extracts from Kock's diary— not the Generals, but a relative. It fell into my hands, and I have had part translated. The writer of it was on the staff of the late Boer leader. After describing two days spent commandeering men and supplies, he writes :—
" Left with General Kock and Judge Kock for Standerton. Learned that two women refugees died en route.
" October 5, Sandsspruit.—Food is very scarce, water bad, nearly undrinkable, with the result that several men are suffering from diarrhoea. At Bodas Drift he (General Kock) received a communication from the Free State Commandants Prinslow and De Villers, to place himself in communication with them to act in view of coming events. Commandant Viljoen took our reply ('AH right1) to them at Tanges Hill.
" October 7.—Communications were established on a permanent basis between the armies—Free State and Transvaal.
" October 8 (Sunday).—Passed calmly. Went to church. Martin preached Luke xv. 24, and Deut xxxiii. 27. Told the burghers they were going to ensure the independence of their country. Rumoured that the English Ministers have resigned owing to the cabal. Reported that the Queen refused to sign the declaration of war. This is dissatisfying to the burghers, because most of them had pictured to themselves that the English Tommy Atkins would be beaten on his back (flogged). For which he had longed, as well as to be greeted, by the ladies in Durban.
" October 10.—Took Bothas Pass into our hands.
" October 12.—Sent 600 men into Natal; also occupied Quagga's Nek."
These are but a few extracts. The diary was not written in on October 21, the day of Eland's Laagte [Ed - Elandslaagte].
I append an extract of another kind, taken from a letter sent out of Ladysmith by a Volunteer to his wife a few days ago:—
" Just a few lines. We have not been able to get any news from the outer world. We have been battered with cannon the whole time, with the result that they have done us absolutely no damage beyond killing a few, mostly natives, some horses, cattle, and a dog. Even as I write shells are bursting all round us, and don't seem to do any harm. We have over six months' provisions, so can sit tight and say nothing. Many days we don't even take the trouble to return their shots. We let them blaze away. It amuses them, and does us no hurt at all. In fact, we should miss it if they were to stop. Our two last runners were caught by the Boers. The Boers say that they have only lost three men since the beginning of the war. As a matter of fact, the number we have buried of their dead runs into hundreds."
At Estcourt I employed native runners, Kaffirs, and even fire-balloons to try and get into communication with Ladysmith. Day by day the difficulties of penetrating the Boer lines increased, the enemy, learning of "the English post," placing a cordon of mounted men, extending from Lombard's Kop, round the south of the town, to near Walker's Hook. One or two "boys" have succeeded in getting out by watching the position of the Boer picquets before breaking through at night. Owing to the weather, and Ladysmith lying so low, helio-graphic signalling has so far proved a total failure. The messages exchanged have been with Boer heliographers, and only to-day, after interchanging camp compliments, our fellows bade the enemy " go hang!" I made several trips to Colenso in what we all call "that death-trap/' the armoured train, in order to facilitate the despatch and receipt of a Ladysmith post. Natal, hilly and mountainous, is the least suitable of countries for armoured trains.
Besides, those we have are poorly-extemporised affairs, though the best, perhaps, that could be done in a hurry. Imagine a few f-inch boiler-plates placed round the engine, and flat bogie-trucks boxed round seven feet high with similar sheets of iron or steel and roughly loopholed—the whole painted khaki— and you have the armoured train. There being no doorways, to get inside one of those oblong iron boxes, which are quite uncovered at the top, you have to clamber up as best you can, gripping the loopholes and exterior fastenings. Egress has to be made in the same manner. They were all right against rifle-fire, except when in a cutting or passing under a hill, when an enemy might have you at his mercy by firing down into the open-topped trucks. It is a well-known lesson, also, that an armoured train, except in an absolutely flat country, is un-suited for scouting or attack, unless backed and flanked by a friendly force of cavalry and guns. Our armoured trains here are unprovided with Maxims or cannon.
Probably deeming that the substantial railway and road bridges over the Tugela at Colenso would be of use to them by-and-by, the Boer force which caused our people to retire from that point, made no attempt to destroy either. Towards the end of the week, white and native reports made it plain that the enemy were crossing to the south of the Tugela at Colenso in considerable numbers. From their disposition and movements it was variously surmised that they were bent on a raiding expedition, intercepting our railway communications, or an attack upon our small Estcourt garrison, then comprising three infantry battalions (one being of Volunteers) and two Natal batteries of the indifferent, almost obsolete, 7 and 9-pounder muzzle-loaders. What a deplorable pity it is that these guns were not long ago consigned to the melting-pot or some ignoble use, such as kerb-post guards! Opposed to Boer machine cannon and Krupps, they have neither range nor fire - efficiency to enable the gunners to make a stand. And it has been plain for years, almost to " the man in the street," that the Boers had acquired many of the newest and best types of guns. Happily, our soldiers are keen, capable, and anxious to deal with the enemy. In the beginning it is the old, old story. Unaccustomed to the training of stern European schools, in many set over the men there is a lack of hard, practical knowledge and temperament for dealing with a cunning, mobile foe. No matter, it will be said, we live and learn, though at some cost to the nation in widows and orphans, not to speak of other losses. Believe me, there is widespread rejoicing that General Buller and other strong fighting Generals have arrived, and that war's grim realities are to be enacted in deadly earnest.
However people may feel and behave in Durban or Maritzburg, amid the troops there is no feeling of apprehension about the enemy. The men have encountered the Boers on more than one occasion, and have their measure. With cavalry and guns sufficient to round the enemy up, so that the infantry can get at them, the result is certain victory if the numbers are at all equal. For the moment we are short of both these arms, but that defect is even now being made good. Yet there was a measure which could, and maybe should, have been adopted, that would have given us an excellent force of mounted men. In the neighbourhood 500, or even 1000 farmers and others, belonging to rifle-clubs, could have been called to arms. Each man of them knows the country, and as marksmen and sharp fellows they are more than a match for the Boers.
Within the last few days welcome reinforcements have landed in Natal, and Major-General Hildyard has, early this morning, arrived in Estcourt. Unfortunately, there was at first a disposition to keep the men down country until the whole division could be mobilized there. Pressing telegrams, however, sent by Colonel Long, R.A., at last led to the despatch of the first of several battalions, the West Yorks, to this place. The Boers were reported to be slowly advancing, and there were indications that a body of them were passing from west to east, to go towards Weenen, and from there menace the Moot River bridges and our communications. I felt sorry for the West Yorks, who were detrained at Maritzburg on Sunday afternoon. They remained in the station for five hours, resting, and were to come on here by the evening train. Orders, however, reached them to go into camp at Fort Napier at 10 p.m. There they remained until 2.30 a.m., when they were roused up, marched back about a mile to the railway, and entrained at 3.30 a.m. for Estcourt. A fine, sturdy lot of fellows Colonel Kitchener has brought with him. No fewer than 350 are Reservists, and therefore, seasoned soldiers. Comrades here were glad to see them, although the tension was not and could not be relieved, the whole force —officers and men—continuing to have to sleep in their boots.
Native scouts—Basutos and Swazis—brought in word that the enemy were some distance south of Colenso, and small bodies had advanced down the railway close to Frere, hence the precaution of standing ready. Had there been a cavalry force to have kept touch with the Boers, matters had been different As it was, Colonel Martyn, who was in command of the mounted troops, had only about 130, all told, consisting of a few Mounted Infantry, Carbineers, Imperial Light Horse, and Police. Forts were constructed, trenches dug, and the welcome acquisition of two long-range naval 12-pounders made it certain that a stand could be made against any ordinary small body of Boers. The armoured train went out as far as Frere, which is the summit station between here and Colenso, and returned reporting having seen the enemy. Reports were also brought in that bodies of the enemy were moving down the Weenen road, and, riding out, I saw parties of them within six miles of Estcourt. It was intimated that they had guns and were composed of two commandoes, one from Ermelo (Transvaalers), and the other a new body of Free Staters. That evening there was a small exodus of civilians from Estcourt, and night-dresses were not worn when retiring to rest