Frere. December 8,1899
GENERAL BULLER has arrived at Frere, and the matter of the relief of Ladysmith is now well in hand. All that, and much more, I, and no doubt others, longed to wire home. But the Press are once more in leading-strings. Our military masters are very careful of correspondents, as much so as any doting mothers can be of their tiniest darlings. There was a big cavalry reconnaissance, which the Commander-in-Chief himself conducted, but we pressmen, even in response to formal applications, were refused permission to accompany them—probably lest we might get hurt We did the next best thing: went to the picquet-lines, and saw nearly everything that was done from that point of vantage. For over a week past it has been common gossip that General Buller was coming here to take command, but not a line about the subject were we allowed to send. Nay, even since his arrival the same restriction exists. And why? Possibly lest the news should reach the Boers. As if they did not have a spy in nearly every Dutch farmer, and as if there were not daily railway communication with Durban, and wires round to Pretoria, via Lourengo Marques. But, in addition thereto, I fear —nay, have strong reason to suspect—that there are persons who, under the guise of innocent private wires, and notwithstanding their pledges of honour, are communicating information which pressmen are not permitted to send to the outer world. Besides all this there are the corps of foreign Consular Agents, who cannot be choked off from sending despatches. It is not the first time I have arraigned the whole British Army system of Press censorship, which is largely a sham and a delusion. But the first and last voice in the matter lies with the public, and if they are content, enough said. Still, should a day ever come when things go wrong and official reports are mistrusted, how is the nation to be saved from panic and folly? And in this connection I will add there should be no halting in the work of overthrowing the twin-conspiring Republics, the Transvaal and Orange Free State, while the whole of our loyal Colonists in Natal and at the Cape should have a voice—and a potent one—in whatever settlement is effected.
General Buller, who was looking remarkably well, accompanied by his Staff, arrived at Frere about 4 a.m., Wednesday, from Maritzburg. Early as the hour was the " Tommies " were on the alert, and cheered the General's special. He was received at the station by Major-General Clery and others, and the Devons provided the guard of honour. Whilst the morning was yet young he received reports, made the round of the camps, and arranged to proceed at 1.30 p.m. with the cavalry and two batteries to reconnoitre the Boer position north of Colenso. He went down to the new trestle-work railway bridge, walked across upon the sleepers, and expressed to Mr. Shaws his satisfaction at the way the job had been accomplished. What, however, also appeared to interest him greatly was to know how long it would take the railway engineers to erect a temporary bridge over the Tugela at Colenso. That, he was told, depended on the amount of damage the Boers had wrought in blowing down that structure. It might possibly be so restored as to enable trains to be run across within eight or ten days. Frere Bridge is just over 200 feet long, the height of the central trestles 20 feet from the bed of the spruit. It carries a single line of rails. At either end a good deal of earthwork has been constructed for the diversion from and to the permanent-way. The work of cutting up and removing the wrecked iron bridge is rapidly progressing. From native and other reports it seems that, with dynamite or roburite, the Boers have blown over the piers nearest the banks on either side of the Colenso railway bridge. Besides that wreckage, they have cracked and bent downwards the girders of the three central spans. If possible, the bent girders will be "jacked" up and repaired, and temporary spans placed over the end portions.
That same Wednesday morning funeral services were held over the graves of the victims of the armoured train disaster. Native accounts have it that seven or eight of our men, including the slaughtered railway employes, were buried in one common grave alongside the line and the scene of the fight. The Boers held a very strong position upon a rough, stony hill, within, by actual measurement, a few hundred yards of the wreckage. Their big gun was emplaced within 800 yards range. When the train passed on to Chieveley a party of the enemy stuffed the space between the guard-rails on the curve with stones and pieces of iron. It was that which threw the trucks off the rails, ending in the capsizing of two of them. The funeral services were conducted by the Anglican clergymen and the Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Matthews, of the Dublin Fusiliers, several of whom lie buried there. Our troops had but arrived at Frere when a number of the men of their own volition set about decorating and hedging-in the previously unmarked graves. Bit by bit it has grown into something like a work of art, with headstone and enclosing barbed-wire railing. Curb-stones have been placed round the tomb, and the cartridges fired in the action, which were stuck upon the grave to spell the record of their glorious story, are now all buried close to the butts in cement. How any one managed to escape alive from the wrecked, shell-pierced carriages is little short of a miracle. To carry on a fight after such a catastrophe, for about an hour, against incredible odds, bespeaks much for the heroic valour of the soldiers. In the middle of the grave there lies a stone cross, on which is cut "R.I.P., Dublin Fusiliers and Durban Light Infantry. True till death." The tale told by the cartridge-case reads : " Erected by the 34th Regiment in memory of our comrades, who fell November 15, 1899." Upon the original headstone were the words: " Gone, but not forgotten." That was a day or two ago replaced by a more elaborate and carefully-carved memorial stone, cut by the hands of two soldiers.
Punctually at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, Lord Dundonald's Cavalry Brigade went forward to reconnoitre; General Buller, who was accompanied by General Clery and part of the respective Staffs, had for escort a half-troop of the Natal Mounted Police. The force moved in three bodies, the central being the largest. Halting behind the ridge beyond Chieveley, and overlooking Colenso, General Buller and other officers, with several guides, advanced to the crest to scan the enemy's position and the state of the crossing. Though well within gunshot ranges—nay, almost rifle-range—not a shot was fired that day by the Boers at the cavalry. It also so happened that they had no patrols, or, at any rate, none who cared to show themselves, hidden, as usual, in Colenso village. After studying the situation for over an hour, and learning all about the various drifts across the Tugela, General Buller rode back to his headquarters about 6 p.m., having completed the first and really brilliant reconnaissance of the Boer position. Strangely enough, also, that morning the Boers had shifted their main camp from the slopes of Grobler's Kloof—where it could be seen, towards the north-west—to Oonderbrook Spruit, near the junction of the two, big and little, Tugelas. From a strategical point of view their new position has for them advantages over their old one. It is out of the range of our guns, even of the naval 4.7-inch, and is so situated as to enable them to more rapidly head us off should the General decide to make a detour and ford the Tugela to the westward, so as to turn the Boer line of defences along the Colenso ridges. The consensus of military opinion seems to be that the ground being too rough and broken to the eastward, the chief column will try and effect a crossing far to the westward of Colenso. As for the cavalry, that will possibly be called upon to make a still wider detour in the same direction, passing through towards the grassy plains about Acton Homes, and turning into Ladysmith from the westward. There may be a frontal demonstration made at Colenso to occupy the enemy, but the crossing and preliminary fighting will, it may be safely assumed, take place to the westward. Whilst these events were happening near Frere, Major Chichester, Provost-Marshal (Royal Irish), set out towards Springfield to arrest certain disloyal farmers, who were known to be aiding and abetting the Boers in their raiding expeditions. He took with him a score of the Natal Carbineers and six or seven Natal Police under Major Mardall, with a Colonial named Frances, as guide. Riding thirty miles westward during the night, he arrived at the residences of two "mean whites"—Cape Colony Dutch—named Oosthuisen, and caught them red-handed with looted property, which was identified by the owners, in their possession. Two of their neighbours, equally guilty, were also caught, but one or two others got away with some of the loot in waggons. Over 150 cattle and a number of horses, besides other property, were secured and taken back. The Boers had sent runners to call up a commando encamped near, and on the way back a patrol of six of the enemy attempted to ambuscade Major Chichester's party. The enemy took refuge in a donga, where our men managed to shoot the Boer horses. As night was coming on the enemy were left, and the whole party got back to Frere, after being twenty-six hours in the saddle, at 5 a.m. Thursday, without having a man hurt.
Rather an unfortunate affair occurred the same morning. Three Colonial scouts, forming part of a corps of guides familiar with the topography of the district, rode forward towards Colenso, They had acted as escort to Major Elliott, R.E., who had gone out for several days to sketch the Boer positions from Stewart's Farm, north of Chieveley. As they went along just beyond Chieveley they saw a body of 200 horsemen riding towards them, most of whom were in their shirtsleeves, for the mists had gone, and the day was decidedly hot Nobody believed there was so big a body of Boers south of Colenso, and Nourse, one of the guides, declared that the men were Natal Volunteers, Bethune's Horse, or Border Mounted Infantry. But the other two, Smith and Glendenning, questioned that, and said they thought they were Boers. Nourse rode ahead to within 200 yards of the horsemen, and Glendenning and Smith were 100 yards behind him. Then they saw the men were Boers. Nourse had gone too far, and was captured, the others turned their horses about, and made a bolt for it. The Boers, for such they were, fired heavily at them, and Glendenning was hit in the leg, and, falling from his horse, is now a prisoner, with Nourse, in the enemy's hands. Smith, more fortunate, escaped.
Several days ago Captain Cayser, R.E., with a small party of signallers and guides, returned to Umkolanda Mountain, a lofty peak thirty miles eastward, from which Ladysmith can be seen. From the ridges beyond Frere we can see the Bulwan and note the bombarding of Ladysmith from that height any day in the week. Since General Jouberts hurried return from his expedition to the south, the diurnal cannonading of Ladysmith has resumed something of its earlier briskness. Our electric searchlights, runners, and pigeons are but makeshifts; and so Captain Cayser*s mission, like his previous desperate venture, was to open up regular inter-communication with General White and the beleaguered town. The vile weather made helio and lamp signalling impossible until Wednesday. On that date Captain Cayser just succeeded in re-opening communications. Thursday was bright and to-day is fair, and so he has managed to send in and receive hundreds of messages, for, from lofty Umkolanda, away beyond Weenen, he could flash right down into Sir George White's own quarters. It is satisfactory to learn that all goes as well as could be expected in Ladysmith. The garrison is in fine spirits, and looking to a speedy release and a chance of a battle with the enemy. To-day (Friday) all four infantry brigades will be concentrated at Frere, including Major-Generals Hildyard's, Barton's, FitzRoy Hart's, and the Hon. N. G. Lyttelton's—giving the names in order of arrival in camp here. The cavalry and artillery have also increased within the last day or two. Besides over 1500 or 1700 Colonial troopers, for the most part all excellent material, there is a brigade of Regulars and six batteries of artillery. The transport service is quite complete, and the provisioning of the soldiers by the Army Service Corps has left nothing to be desired. "Tommy" has now a campaign ration, which includes such extras as bacon, jam, and milk— besides potatoes, tea, coffee, sugar, and daily issues of fresh bread and meat.
To-day a slight advance has been made of men and guns, for the camp is overflowing its boundaries. The Boers, alarmed from native and Dutch reports, are sending forward bodies of 100 to 200 horsemen to try and ascertain what General Buller is going to do. Parties of them have come down upon the east and west of us, penetrating down the Weenen road. Yesterday a small body, about 200, appeared near Mooi River, probably wishing to destroy the bridge ; but the appearance of troops frightened them away. It appears likely that they may attempt to tear up the railway in a few places. Their chief aim, no doubt, is plunder; and both yesterday and to-day they have been looting cattle and food at no great distances from the railroad. An attempt will have to be made to "bag" some of these raiding bands, whether Free Staters or Joubert's men. Now that we have a large force of cavalry, that should not be an impossible task. Unquestionably, the Boers are suffering for want of variety in food, and their horses look weak and half-starved. An Irishman, himself an ex-navvy, who saw the havoc wrought by the enemy at FrereBridge, asked a gangsman if it were true that the Boers were breaking up the line—the dirty blackguards. When he learned that they had tried to destroy the railway entirely his observation was: " Then, by the powers, that will cost them something ! Sure, after this war, a live Boer should be a curiosity." Camp chaff gives rise at times to odd remarks. A bluejacket, who was asked by a " Tommy " if he had heard Kruger was dead, not to be outclassed on a question of mere news, said, " Yaas." " Well, then, what did he die of ?" asked the jocular soldier. "Why, of dynamite, lad," promptly rejoined the tar.
Yesterday (Thursday) Mr. Sydney Thorrald, cattle dealer and butcher, whom I had met in Ladysmith, arrived at Frere from that place. In the course of a long interview with me, he told me that he had carried official messages out to the authorities, as well as private communications. He left Ladysmith late last Tuesday night, and passing towards Modderspruit, he rounded the north side of Lombard's Kop. As he knew the ground thoroughly, he managed to get out and through without meeting a Boer. Turning south from Lombard's, he passed into the thornbush country, and so on down to Weenen. Luckily for him, the Boers had taken away nearly all the commandoes formerly kept on the north side of Ladysmith to strengthen their forces on the south, east, and west sides of the town. Their view was that there would be no attempt made by the garrison to break out to the north, and so few men were required to keep guard there. Mr. Thorrald's story was that, with the exception of Major-General Hunter—who was slightly indisposed—nearly everybody was looking fairly well, considering the circumstances. The Earl of Ava, Colonel Frank Rhodes, and all the correspondents, seemed to be getting along firstrate. Many changes had been made in the disposition of the Army supplies and camps. Except those out on duty, everybody was screened in the town by the trees and houses. Besides the caves and abodes that had been constructed under the steep banks of the Klip River, where numbers lived, there were bomb-proof holes which had been dug by the people in their own gardens. General White had not shifted his headquarters, but continued to live near him in Mrs. W. Riley's house on the Poort Road. Until two weeks ago, notwithstanding the shelling, business went forward in most of the stores and shops as usual. He continued to supply meat to his customers, though the prices ran high—from tenpence to one shilling per pound for beef and mutton. Owing to the limited pasturage the cattle were becoming very thin. The military stock — horses and mules — fared rather better, for they received hay, oats, mealies, and bran. But that did not keep them quite fit, for the poor animals, to save them from shell-fire, were tethered all day long under the banks of the Klip, where the rock or earth-bluff afforded ample protection. When watering-time came along in the morning, noon, and evening, the Boers latterly made desperate attempts to shell and kill the horses and mules. They were also trying to slaughter the grazing cattle in the same way. Throughout the siege not more than twenty people had been killed by all the thousands of Boer shells thrown into the town. In truth, the enemy's fire had done marvellously little damage, and, so far as the Boers and the bombardment were concerned, the garrison could hold out easily for another year and suffer little loss.
Mr. Thorrald further added that the positions held by our men are outside of those occupied just before the siege began. They have outposts on the hills beyond the old camp, known as the u tin camp," from its corrugated-iron huts. To the west of Poort Road they occupy the higher ridges, and on the east side the rough hills overlooking the town rifle-ranges and confronting Lombard's Kop. His house had a number of holes knocked in the roof with shell splinters, but, so far, not a shell had penetrated. Mrs. Riley's house had escaped almost intact, but others of his neighbours had fared badly from shell-fire. The Town Hall, which until recently sheltered the wounded and flew the Red Cross flags, was made a target of, apparently, by the Boer gunners. Two big shells had passed through the building; one of the missiles killed a wounded soldier and injured six others lying in the cots. Our guns succeeded in putting one of the " Long Toms " upon Bulwan quite out of action, and another of the enemy's big guns was reported to have burst. There are, therefore, now fewer heavy ordnance vexing the town. All the flour and foodstuffs left in Ladysmith were some weeks ago commandeered by the military. Sir George White allows the bakers and butchers to trade, but on the condition that bread shall not exceed \d. a 2-lb. loaf, nor meat is. a pound. There is no whiskey, beer, sugar, tinned milk, or other grocery dainties on sale in Ladysmith. The last bottle of common whiskey sold over the counter went for 125. 6d. two weeks ago. At the same time a tin of condensed milk fetched 3$. Butter was unobtainable, and eggs—no questions asked as to date—6s. to 7$. a dozen. Cheese that required no string to lead it home, for it was strong enough to walk and follow, brought any price.
The conditions in Ladysmith at meal hours are very different from the comforting breakfasts, luncheons, and snacks one may have at any of the refreshment-rooms along the railway—say, for instance, that run at Estcourt, by Mr. Green, once footman to her Majesty the Queen. Two weeks ago also, the Boers planted a new " Long Tom" upon Mr. Bester's farm, west of Ladysmith, and from there began to pay attention to the troops on the west side of the town. Nearly all of the troops have made for themselves rough shelters and "lean-tos," under which they lie safe from shell splinters, bullets, sun, and rain. The Gay Gordons, however, still cling to their tented camp, which is beneath the trees near the old fair-grounds. Shells drop amongst them, rip the canvas tents, and drop in unexpectedly between friends having a " crack," but, wondrous and true, they have hurt no one. On Joubert's return from his unsuccessful attempt to capture Estcourt, Mooi River, and besiege Maritzburg, dissensions broke out openly in the Boer camp. The Free Staters flatly declared that the siege of Ladysmith was a farce and a failure, and voted for returning home at once to defend their country from the British advance along the western border of Cape Colony. Things arrived at such a mutinous pass that it was determined by the Boer leaders to hold a council of war last Tuesday. The meeting took place upon Potgeiter's Farm, west of Ladysmith, and thither Joubert betook himself to persuade his confederates not to abandon Ladysmith and Natal. In passing through the Boer lines, Mr. Thorrald learned from Kaffirs that Joubert had only partially succeeded. The siege was to be maintained, but with less vigour, in hope to starve the garrison out by sickness and death. Meanwhile the majority of the force would go forward towards the Tugela to hold and destroy the relieving column. That the pinched Boers and their starveling horses might obtain better supplies, a number of small raiding bands were to be sent south to loot cattle and provisions.
The fact of that course having been adopted was foreshadowed on Wednesday by the changes made in the enemy's dispositions around Colenso. and, further, by their advance across the Tugela. It is said that the commando east of Colenso is nearly iooo strong, and is accompanied by from two to six guns. To return to Mr. Thorrald's narrative, the worst shells are fired from Lombard's Kop and the Bui wan—at least, their guns upon that side do most damage. In the big fight of November 9 we certainly put 600 of the enemy out of action. Our men deliberately held their fire and waited for the Boers to come closer. They came along early in the morning, thinking they had Ladysmith at their mercy. Never more will they attempt to carry the town by assault; they have had their lesson. To the Kaffirs they, of course, boast that they have killed all the best of our fighting men, and that those left have taken to holes, into which they cannot follow to turn them out. What is left, therefore, to be done, is to kill all the English horses and cattle, and raise such a stench in the place that the men will die or be forced to come out and surrender. They declare they have beaten England, and that she has no more soldiers to send on worth considering. Nay, it is hinted that her ships and country will soon be partitioned up among the nations friendly to the Boers, and there will be no more England. To the neutral camp four miles south, and under the Bulwan, most of the non-combatants have gone, and the worst cases of sickness are sent for safety and rest to the same place. Over ten days ago we were all rejoiced to see the flashing of the electric light. The signals were easily read, until the Boers, who have electric searchlights in their camps, one at Besters and the other near the Bulwan, turned them on the beams from Estcourt or Frere. Our men, though, like the horses, a bit thin and jaded with constant watching, are very fit. Through being cooped up so closely—that is, men and animals—the town is in a very insanitary condition. The worst evil, however, is the impure water, which is beginning to cause sickness; but, so far, it is not of a severe type—mostly diarrhoea, mild cases of dysentery, and a little enteric fever. January is our worst month in Natal, and it will be well if the garrison is relieved before then. Efforts are being made to keep up the spirits of the men, of which there is little need, for they are all a lively lot Every day when opportunity offers there is cricket and football, and the officers play polo quite regularly, joking if the Boer shell-fire interferes with the games. On Tuesday there was an athletic meeting of the soldiers. There were numerous prizes. The sports included foot-racing, as well as the usual contests, jumping, tug-of-war, etc. There was quite a large attendance of spectators.
General White has become much more popular since the siege. It is believed that he was formerly held fast by orders from higher quarters to do nothing. But, even now, there are many who chafe at the prolonged sitting still, and are anxious to make a night assault, spike, or capture the enemy's guns, or go out by day and assail them with all arms. I feel certain that there are fully 20,000 Boers still round Ladysmith—nay, possibly 30,000 of them. We have plenty of ammunition and an abundance of supplies, of a kind, enough to last for months carefully used, so there is no fear of the result The two weekly newspapers, made by pen and stylographic process, are still issued; both command a ready sale. Their names are the Bombshell and Liar. Each contains a frontpage cartoon, one of the latest being that of Kruger and Steyn en route as prisoners to St. Helena.