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Frere, December 5,1899 "WHAT sort of camp is Frere?" "Oh, it's all right," answered one of the Dublins (Fusiliers) to a new arrival. " It's not as good as the Curragh, and the little stream—spruit, they call it—is a poor thing, where we draw khaki water for drinking and cooking." The description answers perfectly, for the spruit holds but a succession of muddy pools, and the water only flows when there are heavy rains. Natal is not a land of forests nowadays, whatever it may have been formerly. There are trees called the "thornbush," but these are but scrub mimosas or acacias. Frere is in the scrubless region. It is the name of a railway station, near which about five or six houses have been built, by no means contiguous to each other. Around is the veldt, undulating, and even in this ripe springtide none too thickly carpeted with grass. To the west, piercing the clouds, stands the lofty pinnacled Drakensberg chain, colloquially known as "The Berg." Cathkin Peak, Giant's Castle, and all the great kops or kopjes trending away to the north are clearly visible. From the top of the low ridges north of Frere, where Hildyard's Brigade, with the naval and other batteries, guard the front of our spacious camp, lying screened in the hollows, can be seen the hills around Dundee, and to the east Job's Kop and the mountains of Zulu land.

On the arrival of Lieut.-General Clery at Frere he established his headquarters at the windowless, doorless, looted house of the railway stationmaster. It is, despite the interior wreckage wrought by the Boers, a pretty pavilion-roofed East African homestead, begirt by verandahs and trellis-work, the whole set in a little orchard of peaches, hedged by stately eucalyptus. Major-General Hildyard removed his quarters to the next house, a roomy cottage half a mile up the line, where he and his Staff, including his Highness Major Prince Christian Victor, all dwell under the same roof. In the wild, stormy weather of Natal a roof-tree, though of galvanised iron, is preferable to the best of tents that have yet been made. Day by day the camp increases in size; the heavily-freighted frequent railway trains from Durban and Maritzburg bring soldiers, horses, mules, guns, and abundance of munitions of war. In the order named, from left to right, the Border Regiment, Queen's, and West Yorks hold the low ridges to the north of Frere, about one and three-quarters mile to the front. Their tents lie in the hollow behind the hill. The picquets' outposts have protected the position by digging shallow trenches and raising low stone walls impregnable to musketry fire. With more practical care than I have generally seen bestowed in our campaigns, the faces of the trenches and walls have been covered with earth and grass, so that it is difficult at but a little distance to tell whether they are works or but part of the hills' rough sides. Lieutenant James, R.N., with his bluejackets, has also got his two naval 12-pounders in excellent positions. We are, it appears, to have quite a big naval gunnery brigade with us at the relief of Ladysmith. Captain Jones, R.N., of her Majesty's ship Forte, has not only the 4.7-inch ship guns mounted upon a rough-and-ready land carriage designed by Captain Scott, R.N., but he will have in addition, all told, fourteen of the long-range naval 12-pounders. There will be a detachment of 340 sailors and marines, of whom 99 are from her Majesty's ships Forte, Philomel, and Tartar.

We are all khaki, now. It is the fashionable colour. Guns, scabbards, accoutrements, as well as clothes, are done up in that colour somehow. The mode runs to horseflesh, for with permanganate of potash and water we are transforming our white and grey war-steeds into that ghostly neutral tint. I have treated two of mine, and the white cover of my Cape-cart—which has drawn the enemy's shell-fire uncomfortably near more than once—to strong solutions of that excellent disinfectant. Preparations for the advance are proceeding rapidly. General Buller, who is at Maritzburg, and, as we hear, is coming through to take the command, will head a force of something like 20,000 men. By means of native runners, and our new corps of guides and scouts, drawn from Colonials, we are kept much better informed of what is going on in and around Ladysmith and Colenso. There is very little done in the Boer camps of which we do not get timely and complete details. Among the more recent indications of our advance are the detail of certain corps to hold the line of communication. The Durban Light Infantry, together with a battery of the Natal Field Artillery, have gone back to assist in holding Estcourt, Willow Grange, and Mooi River. By-and-by all these, and other points, such as Highlands and Nottingham Road, will be permanently and effectively safeguarded, so that no Boer raiders may cut in and destroy railway bridges, or tamper with the lines.

On Sunday I drove out several miles beyond the outposts towards Colenso. I was able to get a fairly close peep at the Boer patrols, and to see the extent of their camps and defensive works along the northern bank of the Tugela. From Grobler's Kloof—a rough, table-topped hill about a thousand feet high, which rises a mile or so westward of Colenso Bridge—all along similar ridges running westward for seven or eight miles, they have their cannon and earthworks. The number of their guns is variously estimated at from eight to twenty. It is probably nearer the former. Probably two of their ordnance are Long Toms, or guns of position. When fired at our cavalry the other day, a shell from one of them dropped within a short distance of Chieveley, a flight of fully six miles as the crow flies. One of their missiles, which failed to explode, shows the gun is apparently a 45-pounder. All the farm buildings I noticed were quite deserted, and the live-stock, down to the meanest chicken, had disappeared. Mayhap many of the lesser farmyard brood : pigs, geese, turkeys, etc., found their way into our camp ovens. In the houses of several notorious Boer sympathisers, the owners of which had gone over to the enemy, I saw a good deal of property that had been looted from loyal English farmers. One of the runaways had managed to secure no fewer than four of his more aesthetic neighbours' pianos. The instruments were really excellent, for all came from the factories of distinguished makers. It was a case of " the engineer hoist with his own petard," so far as the fugitive-looting Boer farmers were concerned. The local Kaffirs from their beehive,—clustering kraals had invaded the homesteads of the thieves, and, in their search for money and valuables, had broken furniture, ripped up all the bedding, and strewn the contents about the floors. Besides working that mischief, they had carried off clothing and all the smaller articles, except a few cracked plates and dishes.

On Monday there was a Natal change in the weather, which passed from bright English midsummer sun and warmth to thunderstorms, accompanied by heavy rain and hail, tapering off to a miserable chill Scottish mist and drizzle. Through the mist and rain the outposts and patrols went and came, the latter occasionally interchanging a few shots with the Boer scouts loitering around Colenso. Troops, too, marched over from Estcourt, where, to lessen the congestion of traffic at the then railhead—Frere—they had detrained. Astonishing progress had been made by the railway people, under their engineers, Messrs. Shaws and Cox, in the construction of the temporary trestle bridge. On Sunday no fewer than eight trusses were completed, and the more difficult part of the job was therefore finished. Had it been necessary, by working double shifts, night and day, the bridge could have been opened on Saturday. But the military were not ready, and there was no special reason for haste in getting traffic to Colenso resumed. Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the General Manager of the Natal Government Railways, Mr. Hunter, and the whole of his staff, for the able and untiring manner in which they have from first to last assisted the military operations. Their department could not have been in better hands, and the authorities have acted very wisely in leaving them to work and run the traffic during the war. Colonel Girouard, R.E., came through from Cape Town. When he saw how well things were being managed, and the smart manner in which the new bridge at Frere was being constructed, he said there was nothing to suggest. It was a surprise to him to find the Natalians so up-to-date in rapid " railroadizing."

Tuesday brought us its little affair of patrols. But the event of the week was the cavalry reconnaissance towards Colenso, made by the cavalry brigade and two batteries, under the Earl of Dun-donald. The Boers were fairly drawn, for they fired their cannon from Grobler's Kloof, hundreds of the enemy standing up to watch the effect of their guns. Shell after shell was sent hurtling at our squadron and batteries. The aim was all right; but out of two-score of shots very few burst. Indeed, neither man nor horse received so much as a scratch on our side. Yet the shells fell, not only near, but occasionally between the lines of horses and guns. Their weapons had the range of ours, but that was partly due to their firing from such high ground. The wet, cloudy weather has had its advantages, for it has enabled runners to get in and out of Ladysmith and Colenso very easily, and also enabled General White to read the nightly electric searchlight messages flashed to him. Another effort is being made to open up helio and lamp signalling into Ladysmith from Mount Umkolanda, beyond Weenen. That mountain can be seen from the low ground occupied by White's forces.

 

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Category: Burleigh: The Natal campaign
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