Frere, November 29, 1899
YOUR militant South African Boer is a strange human mixture. He has the dual nature portrayed in " Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," strongly developed. In his inimitable, untutored, boorish way he can be courteous and kind, anon brutal, savagely cruel, and destructive. Whether there is method in his madness and transitions does not at the moment concern me. I am content to be a mere chronicler of facts. More than once Boer leaders and simple burghers have respected not only the property and persons, but the adverse opinions of those opposed to them. With real delicacy they have striven to lessen the hardships incidental to military occupation and the stern demands of war. Homesteads have frequently been held sacred, and not so much as a cup of coffee commandeered. Even the liberty of private persons, non-combatants, has at times been left considerately intact. Again and again they have treated our wounded in the most generous manner, treating wounds on the principle of first come first doctored, and furnishing those who fell into their hands with not only necessaries, but little luxuries, giving them both drink and tobacco. It is gratifying to think that even what has almost degenerated into a racial war has not quite dammed the flood-gates of human sympathy and charity for others. So may it continue to be with the strong sons, our soldiers, of our strong nation. General Joubert has done many kindly acts, and, whenever he or his doctors have been unable to treat our wounded, they have sent them in to us, as they did after the action fought the other day near Beacon Hill. His conduct may not have been actuated in these instances by the absolute guilelessness of the dove. Let us not be captious, for his act of courtesy afforded us the comforting duty of ministering to the wants of our own troops stricken in battle.
The frequent metempsychosis of the Boer burgher from good Dr. Jekyll into the demoniacal Mr. Hyde has been much in evidence of late. One can pass over his notorious and almost innate habit of terrorizing, beating, and even killing without mercy, any native who may have happened to have aroused his suspicions or incurred his ire. So great is the Kaffir dread of the Boer that no native but prefers to flee from him, rather than run counter to his plans or risk the rude strokes dealt by the irate burgher. Of late, within the past two days, I have seen with my own eyes that of which I should have hesitated to have believed your ordinary burgher capable, evidences of wild, criminal destruction of property. At Colenso and elsewhere I had noticed that not only was the Boer addicted to lifting cattle, confiscating forage, food, and other articles belonging to private persons, but that he often wasted what he could not carry away, or pressed natives to "help themselves." In this last raid of Joubert's commando, another stage has been reached. From Mooi River to Frere, not only has there been wholesale looting of cattle and all kinds of private property, but there have been repeated instances of wanton destructiveness. Judged by the canons of European or civilized warfare, the acts were those of brigandage, and the culprits, had they been caught red-handed, deserved trial by drumhead court-martial, and to be led out for execution. In Ennersdale and Frere, more particularly, I have been in private dwellings, once happy homes, stores, and public places, where the Boer sackers, not content with stripping the premises of every vestige of furniture, have vilely defaced the walls, and smashed the doors and windows of the empty abodes. Articles they had no use for or could not remove they broke up and strewed about, and used sheep-dips and other compounds wherewith to smear the room, walls, and floors of erstwhile snug Colonial homes. I will do many of the leaders and better burghers the justice to say that, even now, I believe these outrages must shock and vex them. They are, perhaps, the acts of ferocious, stupid fellows, maddened by the knowledge that the fortune of war has at last begun to run counter to their mad dreams.
Whilst Joubert's commando, variously estimated at from 4000 to 8000 men, with six guns, was menacing us at Estcourt, a Free State commando, with an equal number of cannon and but 3000 or 4000 burghers, was endeavouring to crush or drive off the British troops guarding Mooi River. At Estcourt Major-General Hildyard commanded, and his forces comprised two naval 12-pounders, one field battery Royal Artillery, battery of Natal 7-pounders, about 800 Mounted Natalian Volunteers, and a company of the King's Royal Rifles Mounted Infantry, with the Dublin Fusiliers, Devons, Border Regiment, Queen's West Surrey, East Surrey, and West Yorks. Major-General Barton held the Mooi River crossings and town of that name with two field batteries, 500 or more of Thorneycroft's Horse, a Natal corps, and the Union Brigade, viz. the Royal Fusiliers, Scottish Fusiliers, Irish Fusiliers, and Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The Free State commandoes took up a position on the high ground north of Mooi River, and vigorously shelled the camp, but did scarcely any damage, only one man being killed and one or two wounded. It is questionable whether the half-dozen casualties in Barton's Brigade were hot as much due to the firing of our own men on picquet as to the shells and bullets of the enemy. There was a slight skirmish between the Boers and our infantry, but they never got to close quarters.
At Estcourt we were let severely alone by the enemy on Friday and Saturday last. In fact, there were reports brought in by farmers on November 25 (Saturday), that the Boers were trekking back, taking their loot and stolen cattle with them. The news to some extent was confirmed by the capture of two of the enemy's despatch-riders near Enners-dale by a party of mounted Volunteers. Bethune's Horse had gone forward on patrol. They were halted under the brow of a hill, and a few men went on afoot to survey the ground. It happened that the Boer despatch-riders were then just ascending the reverse slope of the hill. Seeing the troopers, and mistaking them for some of their own burghers, the Boers waved their arms, to which Bethune's men responded. Then the two parties came together, the Boers discovered their mistake, but at once surrendered, making no effort to fight or escape. Amongst the despatches they carried were a number of copies of telegrams received from Kruger and Dr. Rietz in Pretoria, calling upon Joubert at once to return to Ladysmith and prepare for moving homeward. Mrs. Joubert had also forwarded wifely greeting to her spouse, asking whether she should come and join him, declaring her intention of doing so promptly unless he returned or sent for her. I go not into the methods of her reasoning, but the message, despite its complexity of meaning, was womanly and loving. The official pricis of the captured papers given to the Press and public by the military was as follows:—
" Despatches taken on Boer prisoners captured by patrol of Bethune's Horse, under Lieutenant Annesley, this day (November 25), point to successful advance of our forces in the Free State. A battle was fought at Belmont on the 24th, in which Boers state their losses were ten killed and forty wounded, and were forced to retire. English losses unknown. Fight lasted from daybreak until noon. In order to restore order among the burghers the General was forced to withdraw in direction of Wardan. Burghers not lost courage. Heavy fighting at Belmont on the 24th. Reinforcements of British still keep arriving at Stormberg and Nauuwpoort. Commandant Botha left Ladysmith to-day with one gun and Maxim and 200 men in direction of Weenen-Greytown. He must receive orders from you at Greytown if you approve his attacking the Carbineers, who have the forts on the southern side of the Tugela. Piet Reitfers attacked them yesterday from the north. Difficulty is river is full. Must drive away the Carbineers because they will always be a source of danger, and always render necessary a strong force being kept back. That, with the further knowledge that the Boers were destroying the railway as well as clearing off the colonists' herds in all directions, convinced me that they had begun a retrograde movement It seemed to be the proper moment for pushing a joint attack home upon their scattered commandoes, the Mooi River Brigade joining with Major-General Hildyard's in harassing the retreating enemy. We were never so completely invested at Estcourt that there was any serious doubt or delay in getting communications through Generals Clery or Barton.
On Friday, Saturday, and subsequently this week, there were military funerals, attended by Major-General Hildyard and the whole of the Brigade Staff, of those who fell at the Beacon Hill action. The local vicar, Mr. Prior, officiated for the Church of England, and Father Murphy for the Roman Catholic dead. One of the saddest cases was that of Interpreter Chapman, a smart young Natalian. He had survived the battle until the closing scenes. Lingering behind till the last moment, he was shot, and instantly killed—some say by our own men, as he was so far out that he was mistaken for a Boer. It is the case that a number of the wounded have been hit by Lee-Metfords, for the doctors have extracted the bullets. The belief is current that there has been a good deal of hasty firing, and that deplorable mistakes have been made. But it should not be overlooked that the Boers have secured many of our soldiers as prisoners, and are, perhaps, using their rifles and ammunition against us. There have been some marvellous escapes from fatal wounding. Although there is no Rontgen ray apparatus at Estcourt— are there not too few with the Army Medical Department ?—several splendid and successful operations have been performed in the sanatorium and convent, which has been converted into the chief hospital. One man shot through the abdomen, the intestines being perforated, has been so treated that he is now in a fair way to recovery. Had it not been for the enterprise of Surgeon-Major Bruce at Ladysmith, not even there would the RQntgen ray and the electric light have been introduced into the operating-room. Those who know anything of modern surgery are aware how useful the electric light can be made.
There was a resolving of all doubts during Saturday afternoon about the intention of the Boers to retreat. Estcourt was no longer invested, although some preternaturally sharp-eyed citizens professed to discover that the enemy were still holding or loitering about the vicinity of Beacon Hill. They never seriously attempted to seize the latter commanding eminence, which quite overlooks the western side of Estcourt, thus affording another indication that they were in no great force. Our cavalry picquets and patrols wisely kept a sharp eye and strong hand upon Beacon Hill, and it was from there the signs first came that there was a movement going forward in the Boer camps. It leaked out, from reconnaissances made by Colonel Martyn, and the information brought in by farmers and natives, that Joubert and the Free Staters were leaving us. On Saturday, November 25, the Free State commandoes met General Joubert and his men near Highlands. The Free Staters had come up from Mooi River, and were going westward towards Ulundi, and thence by a detour to Colenso, getting rid on the way of their reived cattle by sending most of them up the passes over the Drakensberg. Joubert was going south, thence east, and back round outside of Weenen to the Tugela drifts and Ladysmith.
The manoeuvre they were executing was very like that disastrous naval operation called " the gridiron evolution." They met each other just after daybreak near Willow Grange. Those civilian prisoners who saw them, say there was much handshaking and congratulations as the commandoes passed loosely side by side. "How are you's, Free Staters?"—"How are you's, Transvaalers ?" No time was wasted for more formal interchange of greetings, and in Boer fashion either force rode smartly onward, going straight over country to the different points aligned for passing. No wire fencing, absence of roads, gulleys, or drifts stopped their progress. Carelessly and freely they rode forward. Very much in the same free-and-easy style do they unharness their yoke animals and off-saddle their steeds whenever they decide upon a halt or laager. They apparently have little apprehension of being caught napping by our troops. Whenever our Generals have a larger mounted force they should be cured of that restful indifferentism. So rapidly and safely did Joubert and the Free Staters slip out of our troops' fingers, that the main bodies were far beyond reach and over the Tugela before we began to move. Joubert, indeed, crossed by a drift on Sunday night, and by Monday was back at his lines around Ladysmith. They left fairly strong rear-guards, about 800 in each, loitering a day's march behind them. Apparently the Free State commandoes were more worn out than Joubert's men, who looked fit and were all fairly well mounted. The Free Staters had several hundred who had lost their horses and their rifles, and were marching on foot. Most of the waggons and ambulances were in the rear of the respective main columns. As it rained terribly throughout Friday night, the Mooi River, Little Bushman, and the Tugela—not to speak of the Blaaukrantz—were all swollen, and had we had a strong cavalry brigade, few if any of Joubert's so-called Maritzburg column or raiding party should have got back across the Tugela.
Late on Saturday night orders were issued to re-open communications by rail and telegraph with Mooi River and the south. Engines and gangsmen were told to hold themselves in readiness to start out at daybreak, and a cavalry force was ordered forward towards Frere and Colenso. By means of runners and despatch riders Major-General Barton was made aware of General Hildyard's situation and plans. By breakfast-time on Sunday the few breaks made in the railway by the Boers had been repaired and the wires joined up. At Willow Grange and Highlands the enemy had wrecked the interior station buildings and several private houses. They had their field hospital in a homestead but a short distance off, but that had been evacuated. Only a few of their scouts could be seen about the hills watching the operations of restoring the line, which was done under the escort of a small body of troops. By noon the railway and telegraph had been restored, and part of Major-General Barton's brigade, which left Mooi River at 2.30 a.m., had arrived at Estcourt. The first of the command to put in an appearance was Thorneycroft's cavalry, under the Earl of Dundonald, and a field battery. About 1.30 p.m. the infantry marched in without having had a handful of men fall out by the way on the twenty-two miles of hard going. It was a fine feat, and, in the colloquialism of the day, the Fusilier Brigade did not seem to have turned a hair, nor the 2nd Devons, who footed the distance with them. They had only just managed to get a peep at the Boer scouts as the latter hurried off Colenso-ward. Although it had been kept a profound secret, it leaked out amongst us that Sir Redvers Buller had unexpectedly arrived at Maritzburg, and to that inspiriting General we attributed the burst of new life and energy which had permeated all quarters.
Major-General Hildyard scarcely waited for the advent of even the head of Major-General Barton's brigade at Estcourt, setting out with his whole force in the morning for Frere. His troops were all on the move forward before midday, the Dublin Fusiliers, whose presence and mess were always as enjoyable as a breath of fresh air, following later on. Of course, General Buller wanted to speak over the telephone to Major-General Hildyard, to learn from that officer's lips what the situation actually was. As Major-General Hildyard had gone to Frere, he could not at the moment be got at, but Colonel Long, R.A., was, and did some listening and a little talking through to his Commander-in-Chief at Maritzburg. But the Natal Railway authorities, who have all along rendered cordial and splendid help to the military, were already busily getting the railway line and telegraph restored through to Frere. Both railroad and wires had been broken and torn up in several places by the Boers upon the north as well as the south of Estcourt. Ere midnight the lines had both been repaired sufficiently to permit of their being again used for military purposes.
I ran up to Frere on Monday, 27th. A sprawling camp of tents had arisen around the railway station. But on the ridge, a mile and half nearer Colenso, were the true lines. There a battery had been placed and trenches dug for the infantry commanding the slopes to the south away down in the direction of Chieveley. All around were evidences of the Boers' worst propensities— looting and house and home-wrecking. Thirty or forty Boers, before the advent of the troops, had placed four boxes of explosives upon the iron girder bridge which, in two spans each of 100 feet, carried the railroad over the Blaaukrantz. It is not an ordinarily deep or unfordable stream, for there are numerous drifts, but the banks and slopes are steep. Placing a box of dynamite and three boxes of roburite, as we learned from natives and the marks upon the empty packing-cases, upon each of the girders about ten or twenty feet from the central stone pier, the charges were detonated and the stout ironwork was cut and blown into separate sections. These fell in a wreckage of girders, plates, and scrap-iron forty feet downward upon the rocky bed of the Blaaukrantz. A huge plate was blown a quarter of a mile away from the bridge. Chief Engineer Shaws and the other railway officials decided that the quickest way to get the line running beyond Frere, was to construct a wooden girder bridge on the west side of the wreckage. That has already been begun, the timbers being framed at Durban; and it is hoped to have the work completed by next Monday. Many of the local Dutchmen known to be in sympathy with the Boers had left the locality. It is said that the enemy have been guided about from place to place in Natal by these traitorous citizens. In the house of one of them living near Frere. a Natal Colonist called Zeitsman, were to-day found a large number of photo negatives of various railway bridges between Estcourt and Colenso. Mr. Zeitsman has decamped or disappeared, and so has a neighbour of his called Henrik Hatting. Of these an accounting hereafter.
It was a gladsome sight to many at Estcourt to see on Monday the arrival of a strong naval detachment under Captain Jones, of her Majesty's ship Forte. The bluejackets brought with them four 12-pounders and two large guns, 4.7-inch, firing lyddite shells. A further contingent is expected from her Majesty's ship Powerful and other ships, with two more 4.7-inch guns and naval 12-pounders. Lieutenant James, R.N., of the Tartar, and his men got their two 12-pounders into position in front of Frere on Sunday. As for the railroad trucks of the smashed armour-clad train, they are a little over a mile north of Frere. The cannonading of the Boers, and the smashing of the engine, has crumpled them up like newspapers cast aside under the seat in a railway train. Mauser bullets have also passed through the armour-plating in many places, showing that the Boers were latterly firing at very short ranges. On Tuesday and to-day further reinforcements went forward to Frere, and supplies of all kinds are being hurried up and accumulated for the now early advance to the relief of Ladysmith. Yesterday Earl Dundonald, who has taken over the cavalry command from Colonel Martyn, who leads the Mounted Infantry, proceeded on a reconnaissance to Colenso. Major Mardall, of the Natal Police, proceeded with a few men towards the village. As he drew within 800 yards of the house he was sharply fired upon by Boer scouts occupying Colenso; and in a few minutes the Boer cannon, posted across the river upon Grobelers Kloof, opened upon him and Dundonald's troopers and two batteries. Our gunners came into action, and a hot though brief artillery duel ensued. Their guns far outranged ours, part of their advantage arising from firing from high ground. The enemy's shells dropped in every direction, falling near the gunners, and again and again amongst the squadrons. Strange to say, not a man of ours received so much as a scratch, and the force was trotted back out of range.
Estcourt, December 1, 1899.
Little has occurred within the past few days beyond the further despatch of troops of all arms and munitions to Frere. Within three days all will be in readiness for the forward movement Whether Joubert will risk fighting the big battle of the war at or near Colenso remains to be seen. I doubt it, because his interest would lie in fighting with his back nearer the Drakensberg, and without being sandwiched—as he soon will be—between two English armies: White's and Clery's. I take it at the moment that General Buller will lead the relief column in person. He ran up secretly to Frere last night Two more 4.7-inch naval guns, as well as pontoons and electric searchlights, have gone to the front. Major-Generals Lyttelton and FitzRoy Hart are expected here with a portion of their respective brigades, the Rifles and the Irish Brigade. General Joubert's adjutant is a renegade named Hawkins. That gentleman evidently likes to hunt with the hounds as well as run with the hares, for he has been parting with information to local civilians temporarily detained as prisoners by the Boers. He has now come to the conclusion that though the Boers fight well enough, they have little or no chance of escaping a drubbing at a very early day. Many of them are tired of the war, and he does not believe that it will last much longer, probably not more than a month.
Day by day we hear the guns at Frere pounding Ladysmith. The enemy have taken again to bombarding by night as well as by day. Joubert has declared that he will take the place before the relief column can arrive; but that is quite improbable, for their ammunition is still reported abundant. That is, for rifles and the ordnance under the 4.7-inch guns. Two civilians arrived here on Wednesday, and a native late last night from Ladysmith. Messrs. Young and Mitchell, the former, left Ladysmith on November 25, all well. By rare good luck the Kaffir Government runner left only on November 29. Having slipped through the enemy's picquets, he was fortunate to find that there was an alarm amongst the blacks that the English Army was coming on to shell the Dutch on the west of Ladysmith, so they were fleeing south in a body. He joined these bands of fugitives, and so arrived at Frere unchallenged. To-day the cannonading still goes on against Ladysmith, for we can hear it plainly from the ridges around Frere, which is twelve miles, as the crow flies, north of Estcourt. There is a small Boer patrol still in Colenso village, and I learn a commando or patrol of 100 burghers watching us on the east side, who retire before our cavalry towards the Tugela, far below Colenso. At last Estcourt has been cleared of its glut of supplies and trains. It is now litde more than an hospital-station, for which its excellent healthy situation and abundant water-supply render it remarkably suitable. The weather has once more shown signs of becoming settled, warm, and dry. May it so continue, for the sake of the troops and the work before them for just one week.
Farmers state that Major Hobbs, of the West Yorks, taken prisoner by the Boers when looking after the wounded at Beacon Hill Battle, is looking well. He has not been wounded. They have sent him on to Pretoria with five or six soldiers also captured at that time. All our dead left out upon that field have been recovered and buried within the last day or two. The Boers secured all the Lee-Metfords of our dead and wounded.