Chieveley Camp, December 13,1899
CAMPS are not exempt from life's little ironies. We have had our full share at Estcourt and Frere. Although General Buller has been in Natal so long, and the fact is more than common property, extending to Boer knowledge, not a word have we correspondents been permitted to say in our wires about that distinguished officer. To some extent, I fancy, General Buller is himself responsible, for he dislikes notoriety, Press or otherwise; and possibly would prefer, like others one wots of, to confine the chronicle of the campaign to official bulletins. But even a distinguished General, like other people of eminence, owes something in the way of sacrifice to himself and the public, whom we all serve. On two occasions within the last few days we correspondents have been prevented from going forward with the cavalry. The first was when a reconnaissance was made towards Colenso, General Buller himself moving out with the force. Instance number two was yesterday, when Major-General Barton's column advanced and occupied Chieveley. In each case Press correspondents were, "by order," stopped at the Frere Camp picquet lines. It happened, as it nearly always does on these occasions, that, as if to mark the extreme ridiculousness of the whole proceeding, unauthorized Pressmen and civilian onlookers were present with the troops. That may or may not be the fault of the picquets in allowing strangers and others to pass without challenge, whilst rigidly stopping all the better-known correspondents. It is like the reputation, almost a matter of habit, which the cable companies are acquiring of invariably breaking down on the eve of important events. Anybody can recall several instances within the last three months.
Most of the correspondents felt so sore over yesterday's embargo, although on neither that nor the prior occasion did the enemy fire a shot, that they decided on meeting to raise a formal protest. Here is the colour and form their action took :—
To LIEUT.-GENERAL SIR C. F. CLERY, etc.
" Military Camp, Frere, Natal,
"Tuesday, December 12,1899.
" SIR,—The licensed correspondents with this force respectfully desire to draw your attention to what they consider to be a great hardship to them, and to the interests they serve.
" On two occasions—one recently, and the other to-day—we have been debarred from accompanying the troops, although in both instances there was a great likelihood that an action would ensue. The hardship is the greater in that while we were stopped at the picquet, civilian visitors in camp, correspondents' cyclist servants, and others, have been permitted to accompany the troops afield.
" We ask that, as licensed correspondents, who are subject to an active censorship, and as gentlemen honestly seeking to do our duty, we be permitted to discharge those functions for which we have been commissioned.
" Very respectfully,
" Your obedient servants."
(Signed by nearly all of the correspondents.)
We were given to understand that to-day that restriction would be withdrawn. It was pointed out by myself and another—an American journalist —deputed to lay the matter before General Clery, that the invidious distinction made was as if we were suspected of being likely to play the part of spies upon the army. Our contention was that we should be trusted at least as much as outsiders, or sent away from camp. I am bound to confess that the Generals have a real grievance—or, rather, had —in the matter of the publication of news, for certain of the Colonial journals were wont to give in print matters of as much interest, or more, to the enemy than to friends at home.
With customary cuteness, for "all is fair (supposed to be) in love and war," there have been attempts made to humbug the Boers. Simple as they are, they have not always had the worst of that game. Witness their answer to our messages, and tricks to make it impossible for the Ladysmith people to read the signals flashed to them. For example, at Mooi River, a week or so ago, one of our heliographers asked the enemy, "Are you Boers ? " " Yes," was the reply. " Where are you going ? " was our next question. " To Maritzburg," was the answer flashed back. "Then God help you!" was the response. " We hope and think He will," came the answer, for your Boer is a fervent hypocrite. Yesterday, from Chieveley, they kept flashing our troops, without provocation, to "Go to H—1!" When, at last, notice was taken of them, and they were asked, "In what strength are you ? " their response was appropriate, " Come and see.
Here are three, not code but open messages flashed to Ladysmith within the past week by the electric searchlight apparatus, for which we have solely to thank our naval officers. In the matter of long-range guns, as well as searchlights, the initiative has come from Captain Scott and other officers of that ancient branch. Just now they are further adding to the debt due to them by the Army, by the construction of a railroad waggon for transporting and firing a 6-inch gun. No doubt, had the Army officers known earlier that the Navy could and would gladly rig up such useful contrivances for land service as searchlights and long-range field cannon, they would have early in the day made requisition for these valuable adjuncts of modern warfare. It is suggestive of our too conservative tendencies in certain matters that the enemy should have at first been ahead of us in long-range cannon and electric search-lighting. An openly flashed signal which the Boers must have been able to read last night was :—
" BULLER to WHITE.—I shall start the attack by a bombardment"
Other communications designed to fall under their observation were :—
" To SIR GEORGE WHITE, Ladysmith.—We hear from Methuen that his advance to Kimberley is a great success. Boers telling awful lies about their losses, which have been heavy. We buried about eighty-one at Belmont, where they say that they lost twelve.—BULLER."
" To HON. CHARLES FORTESCUE, Ladysmith.— Bungo is bringing a Beecham, as a relief. Lyttelton and staff send best wishes to Fortescue and Staff."
The Boers are very fond of flashing rude signals by helio whenever they can catch sight of our signallers. There are now said to be 15,000 Boers, under Commandant Botha, in position along their Colenso lines, and fully as many more around Ladysmith. Where have all their numbers come from, it may be asked ? At first I estimated that both Republics could put between 35,000 and 40,000 men in the field. That calculation did not take into full consideration impressed foreigners resident in either of the States, Colonial renegades from the Cape and Natal, nor foreign mercenaries. Still, allowing for all these added numbers, I gravely question if the Boers have, or can have had, more than 55,000 men in the field. The fact that they are as yet, by means of their railroads, able to move upon interior lines, as well as their own inherent mobility, enables them to make one man count for two against any force of infantry. To-morrow all four infantry brigades—Major-Generals Hildyard's, Lyttelton's, FitzRoy Hart's, and Barton's—will be ready for the attack upon Botha's Boers. The enemy have turned a naturally strongly defensible position into a line of fortresses. If the cavalry —who march out to-night, and strike direct towards Springfield—manage to seize and hold Zwart's Kop, the Boer lines will be turned and their retreat homeward menaced. Botha's main laager is reported to be near Onderbrook Spruit, whence they hope to rush to repel any attack upon their works, be it at Colenso or westward of that place. In the course of to-morrow afternoon or Friday the engagement that should free Ladysmith and drive the Boers in a rout to the north will be fought, and, all going well, fairly won. But speculation is idle. We may and probably shall lose many men if the enemy really give us a stand-up fight. Yet the result must be the re-opening of communication with Sir George White. Thereafter, I take it, General Buller will hasten back to Cape Colony, and, possibly, a number of the troops here may be re-transported there also, for the final march upon Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Whilst General Buller moves to relieve Ladysmith the line of communications will be held by various detached bodies of troops. The medical arrangements are such that, in addition to field hospitals, two ambulance trains are provided to carry down the sick and wounded from the field to Frere, Estcourt, and Maritzburg, and also to the hospital ships in Durban.
One man, a Boer deserter, who gives the name of Carlisle, came in from Colenso. He, with one or two others, had been sent to lay the dynamite cases for further wrecking Colenso railway bridge. The enemy having seen what, as they thought, was the rapid way Frere bridge was repaired, determined to blow away all the piers and abutments of the Colenso structure. Carlisle sent one of his mates to buy some things from a coolie — or, at least, take a sack of potatoes. When the men were gone he jumped upon a horse and rode in to here. Carlisle's story is that the Boers acknowledge they are unable to take Ladysmith by assault, but, at the same time, they express themselves as confident of preventing Buller's relieving the garrison. Carlisle's mother was Dutch, and his father English. So much were he and other British burghers suspected, that the commandants insisted on keeping them near their quarters, and placing at times a guard over them, with orders to shoot any attempting to desert. He further declares that numbers of the Boers have no horses, the animals having died from hard usage. Forage among them was scarce, but provisions for the men were plentiful, though lacking in variety. Many of the Free State Boers, he added, were anxious to return home, but the majority were for fighting. That same Saturday afternoon the Boers destroyed a few more of the piers of Colenso railway bridge.
Sunday, December 10, was, as usual, quiet. We had the usual church parades for Divine service, and no doubt the Boers held their psalm-chanting conventicles, where there is more measure than melody. On Monday, December n, Frere Camp was further augmented by the arrival of fresh troops from Estcourt. Major-General Lyttelton's and Barton's were among the last of the infantry to arrive. The last of the cavalry, the 13th Hussars, came in yesterday afternoon.
We heard, as usual, the matutinal roar of the Ladysmith bombardment, and from the ridges beyond Frere saw the occasional flash and columns of smoke from the Boer guns upon the Bulwan Mountain. In the afternoon a long dark line of natives, numbering several hundreds, came at a swinging gait down the slopes from Estcourt way. They were Zulu "boys," mostly ex-labourers from the Rand. As they came along singing in loud, stirring chorus their war-songs, they brandished their knobkerries in cadence with the rhythm. They have been engaged with many more to lighten the soldiers' labours of unloading and loading railway trucks, road waggons, and clearing up camp rubbish. A sensible and timely act has been their employment by General Buller, for in South Africa the soldier has plenty of other hard tasks apart from the ordinary fatigue duties. In this land of abundant black, unskilled, menial labour, it was one of the things I thought terribly out of place in Ladysmith, to see honest " Tommies " set to washing and scrubbing floors with carbolic soap, and doing rough camp chores, whilst crowds of idle and public-paid coolies and negroes wandered about the streets. Yesterday (Tuesday, December 12) Major Stuart Wortley came up from Durban and Maritzburg with 1200 Uitlanders, who have been enrolled to serve as stretcher-bearers. The men are a likely set of fellows. They wear their own clothes, their distinguishing badge being a red cross on a white band worn round the arm. To each of the four infantry brigades 300 of them have been assigned to follow the troops afield. Latest (Wednesday).—Are the Boers trekking, or do they mean to stay and give us battle ? The idea now seems to be that we may, after all, give them an infantry battle at or near Colenso, and clear the ridges there of the enemy, whilst the cavalry—our own and White's—looks after cutting into the routed, flying Boers. All the preparations have been made for a stirring battle. General Buller visited the correspondents' camp this afternoon, and, unreservedly, as his wont, put the case re the correspondents to me. He reminded me that we have undertaken not to proceed beyond the outposts without express permission. Personally, he wished us to see everything, and he would not have been averse to our accompanying the reconnaissance the other day or the column which left for Chieveley yesterday; but he did object to correspondents moving about at any time by themselves, or wandering out and in from camp to camp. There was and could be no objection to correspondents who obtained the permission of the leaders of any column or force accompanying that body. The unwarranted passage given to servants and non-combatants came under the category of the "two blacks which don't make a white." A correspondent had already gone outside the picquets, been captured, and, as the enemy refused to regard him as non-belligerent, had asked to be exchanged as an officer. That sort of thing was what he wished to avert, or a repetition of such an occurrence. The correspondents who have had the matter placed before them have cordially accepted the explanation, and empowered me to thank Sir Redvers Buller for his courtesy; and that I have done by letter.