Chieveley Camp, Boxing Day
I AM between two opinions as to whether the echoes from the late battlefield at Colenso are not heard above the roll of drums and fifing of fifes that proclaim Christmastide and merry-making in our camp. Betwixt Briton and Boer along the Colenso lines was a religiously-kept, unauthorized truce. Our batteries were silent, and the enemy made no hostile movement beyond diligently labouring to increase the number of their trenches and the security of their forts and bombproofs; but they showed no such forbearance nor respect for the day towards Ladysmith. From Mount Bulwan and Bester's Farm they pitched murderous missiles into the town and camps. Their execution luckily falls far behind their fell intent.
From lofty Umkolandi to the east we are in daily and frequent helio correspondence. Private as well as military messages are transmitted by Captain Cayzer over the route, and flashed from there direct to our camps. One of the helios yesterday was to the effect that, as dodging Boer shells did not afford sufficient exercise, officers and men were engaged in polo and other athletic games. All through, the death-rate from Boer shell-fire in Ladysmith has been relatively small—insignificant, compared with the inroads arising from sickness.
Another of the messages from Ladysmith yesterday came from Sir George White himself. It was in response to a greeting from Colonel Thorold, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who expressed the hope of seeing him speedily, as the relief column was on the way. General White's reply was, "Same to you and your gallant battalion. Reciprocate very sincerely for an early meeting." I learn that although turkeys and plum puddings were more conspicuous by their absence, and toasts were drunk from casks which flowed with liquor that did not inebriate, yet the garrison loyally kept the day. Bully beef and baked biscuit puddings figured chiefly in the bills of fare, but good humour seasoned and made their Christmas meal enjoyable and memorable.
At Frere and Chieveley camps the soldiers had each a quart of wholesome beer. A few there were who managed to toast the Queen and success in champagne or spirits. The men had the campaign extras served out to them—bacon, farm milk, and, thanks to the Army Service Corps, fresh bread and fine cuts of good Natal oxen, which enabled them to have excellent Christmas cheer. At some tables there were turkeys and plum puddings; the cavalry, as usual, proving their capacity to take care of No. i. This is the menu of the Irish Fusiliers' officers' mess, at which the officers of the Naval Brigade were guests :—
Poulets de Ladysmith.
Jambon a la Grobler's Kloof.
Asperges Glaces Buller.
Pommes de terre Hlangwane.
Choux a la Chieveley.
Pudding.—Plum de John Bull.
Mince Pies Lyddite.
Pineapple a la Kruger.
Grenadielles a la Barton.
Gatacre a la Clery,
Champagne H.M.S. Forte.
Maritz Beer De Plucky Natal.
Chieveley Camp, Christmas, 1899.
There were sports both yesterday and to-day in all the camps: first the trials in the morning, and in the afternoon the finals. The programme was as varied and interesting as that of the Royal Military Tournament, Islington. It included—beside the military events—cutting the lemon, tent-pegging, etc., tugs of war, athletic sports, horse, mule, and donkey races. The Devons won the tug of war, and the Army Service Corps the wresding on horseback and the tug of war.
Christmas and Boxing Days, as I have indicated, were ushered in by the drums and fifes merrily making the rounds. There are those who prefer the gentler home waits; but there is that peculiarity about fife and drum, those irritant early awakers from sleep, that their martial pulsations catch the heart and set the blood aglow thumping through the veins to their rhythmic beating. "Jack's the lad for work, and Jack's the lad for play;" and our bluejackets were the boys who provided the lighter vein of amusement. Christmastide in South Africa, and Natal in particular, has been frizzling hot. Here the sun was over the yardarm. A band of jolly Jack Tars made the round of the camp, capering and singing, preceded by a sailor on horseback bearing a Union Jack and followed by nearly half a score of messmates making ridiculously rough weather on muleback. The sailors seated on a gun-carriage were two. Of their number, one represented John Bull, the other, a marine, personated Oom Paul—whom the tars and the soldiers generally prefer to call " Ole Kroojer." Kruger had his hat, pipe, and umbrella, and real good fun the sailors made of the business, John Bull giving " Kroojer" no end of nasty knocks, and occasionally sitting upon his chest, whilst Pat and Sandy further fairly bedevilled the wretched one. The tars and soldiers sang bravely during the marchings, and at the sports " Rule Britannia," set to new words, and all the popular catchy airs of the day, were laid under tribute to enable the men to describe with gusto what they had in store for Kruger. As the Queen's presents and plum-puddings from home had not arrived—it is difficult to get letters, let alone parcels —I submitted a proposition on the Daily Telegraphs behalf to provide sports and some Christmas cheer for the troops of Hildyard's and Barton's brigades now at Chieveley. Some difficulties presented themselves, but these were overcome, and not only had the troops a good time, but I was able to add a little to their enjoyment. A friend was sent down to Pietermaritzburg to purchase various articles, and Mr. Sydney Goldmann, learning what I was about, kindly volunteered to help.
Yesterday, therefore, taking my Cape cart, he and I called at the camps of each of the eight battalions of infantry and the Naval Brigade and made presents of cigars, cigarettes, and cake to the men. The officers, of course, were able to cater for themselves. Needless to say, the soldiers and sailors expressed their heartiest thanks for the gift I wish we could have done as much, or more, for comrades in Ladysmith.
Natal is the New Scotland of South Africa. Sandy is a power in the land. He runs the railways, and splendidly are they managed. The military have wisely left the working control of the lines entirely in the hands of the local officials. Yesterday, however, something occurred to show that Scotchmen don't object to keeping Christmas, if only you let them hold their New Year festivities. The military railway staff officer at Chieveley waited most of the afternoon for the arrival of an expected train, which was to convey fifty men down the line. Tired, and losing patience, he sought the telephone and rang up Estcourt. There was a strain of bagpipes blowing full blast all down the line, and a flavour of Sandy, or something stronger. "What ho! How about the train?" "What train?" "The one to come for the fifty men!" "Them's nae train going the night" "Oh! isn't there I suppose you don't care a damn ?" said the vexed captain. "Well," came the answer, with caution, " I would not go so far as just to say that"—but no train came, and the colloquy was closed.
I have wired you how the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas gift to the 7th, or Royal, Fusiliers, and how that London Regiment was not forgotten by its associated volunteer battalion—the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. There have been numerous instances of further courtesies and greetings from home and abroad to battalions and friends here. Well, Christmas, 1899, has gone, and its camp festivities have not been without blessing and boon to all in strengthening home associations and ties, in helping for a few hours to a partial effacement of the recent painful scenes, and in nerving the soldiers to fresh deeds of valour and further sacrifices for Queen and country.
Here is a matter only indirectly connected with the war, to which my attention has been called. It seems that about this season the mining companies of the Transvaal are accustomed to pay in several hundred thousands every year to the Boer Exchequer. The money is not actually due for three months, but the companies, profiting by sad experience, always prefer to be well forward of time in these payments, for oversight or delay would involve confiscation of their property. Sir Alfred Milner has been approached by these bodies, which include others besides British shareholders, and has made reply that he can offer no advice in the case. Now, if these hundreds of thousands are paid to the credit of Kruger and Co., that, surely, will be affording aid and comfort to the enemy—a thing no loyal subject can stoop to do. The Colonial Office and the Law Lords will have, willy-nilly, to deal with the matter.
The second advance for the relief of Ladysmith is slowly taking definite form. Our cavalry, at last, are doing something to justify their presence. It runs counter to all former experience of the British trooper to see him held so much in leading strings. Only now and again is he permitted to venture a few miles from camp. Even then he often betrays himself by falling into some not very cunning Boer trap. A few days ago Captain James Rutherford and Mr. Charles Grenfell, younger brother of Mr. Grenfell, of Taplow, who was attached on Thursday last to the South African Light Horse, were captured by the enemy. They were out visiting the picquets, and, passing one, rode on to a Boer farmhouse which, doubtless, the enemy had marked down as a bait. Both rode into the hands of the enemy's scouts, were forced to surrender, and they are now alive, but said to be going to Pretoria. So state native runners who saw them.
Colonel Byng's South African Light Horse, like Colonel Bethune's and Colonel Thorneycroft's mounted infantry, contain many well-known people. J. J. Ferris, the Australian left-hand bowler, is of them. There are, besides, fighting for the Union Jack a squadron of useful cowboys. All the Mounted Volunteers have proved themselves to be full of enterprise and go. Were it left to Major McKenzie and others like him, the Boers, who raided or scouted far afield from their main bodies, would have a pitiable time, and find hospitable gaols or graves more quickly in Natal. This week the Boer scout has been seen looking about our flanks as far south as Frere, yet the mounted volunteer or trooper is quite his match. A month or so ago Colonel Long, R.H.A., who is now out of danger from his wounds, recommended the raising of 500 scouts from the districts around Estcourt. Local farmers to that number were anxious to join, but the military authorities interposed their veto. That is now withdrawn, and the troop is to be raised. Had it been in existence about the time of the Willow Grange fight, not all of Joubert's and Burger's riders would have got so easily back from Mooi River.
I noticed yesterday that the graves at Frere are being added to, although the troops are in good health. Yet there is a trace of dysentery in some of the camps. Dr. Treves, I think, says that if the war goes on at this rate we shall lose more troops by disease than by cannon or rifle. Young Lieutenant Roberts' grave and the others have been fenced about and wooden crosses erected as temporary memorial tablets. The pall-bearers who carried the remains of Lord Roberts' son, were Major Prince Christian Victor, Colonels Buchanan, Riddell, Versicke, Copley, and Major Stuart-Wortley—all of them Riflemen. Still harping on the battle of Colenso, I have good reason to say that the next advance will bring better results, for we hear that the garrison hope to be relieved before the end of January, or they will sortie on their own account I wish I were able to carry in a few luxuries to them, and I hope to before the end of the first week of the next year. The last attack failed, as I have tried to show, by not pushing forward our right and seizing Hlangwane's rough hill. That position once in our hands, the whole of the Boer trenches and works before Colenso would have been turned. Six weeks ago I passed close to the ground, and spoke of its advantage to Governor Hely-Hutchinson, and more than one officer of distinction. The principal objection that the river could not be forded or crossed, in that vicinity, had been disproved by the Boers making a ford and bridge. In the action of the 16th inst, Colonel the Earl of Dundonald had about won the summit of the Hlangwane. It is a pity, as I have heard, that he did not send in more of his men ; and yet a greater reason for regret that Major-General Barton refused for some reason to assist them. Half a battalion would have assured the capture of the hill.
It begins to leak out that in more than one instance General Buller's orders were not only blunderingly executed, but were actually disregarded. Major-General Hart's error had, as all now know, terrible results. He marched his brigade in quarter-column far within the cannon and rifle-fire zone of the Boers. The Dublin Fusiliers, numbering ten corps, with the added three from their first battalion, were marching in line of companies, fours in front; that is, the companies were ranged side by side, as if each were in column of route. Behind them in quarter-column marched the Connaught Rangers, the Inniskilling Fusiliers, and Border Regiment, in order named. Their instruction was to go to Bridle Drift. Whilst the Dublins held that ford the others were to force a passage. One of the Boer shells placed eleven of the Connaught Rangers hors de combat, and the hailstorm of bombs was accompanied by a worse and more deadly hurricane of Mauser bullets. The men doubled to get into open order, Major-General Hart angrily reproved them. The evolution, he loudly commanded, must be done in quick, not double, time. Here there was a wide ditch which had to be crossed; but within ten minutes the Dublin Fusiliers were there, and upon the top of them, crowding, came the remaining battalions. They tried to ascend 600 yards to the left, but the fire was too awful to enable them or their comrades to force the passage. Moreover, as I have said, the water was too deep, and Bridle Drift has not yet been found.
Though unable to ford or to advance, and although they received no assistance from their field artillery, the soldiers joked and chatted. Colonel Brook, of the Connaught Rangers, was shot. Some of his men bore him from the field. On the way that slushy thud, which is the noise made by a bullet, told some one had been hit. " Who ? " asked the wounded Colonel. " Begorra, sir, it's me," said one of his stretcher-bearers. " It's in the neck."" Put me down," said Colonel Brook. " No, sir; I am well able to carry you to a place of safety," replied Pat. He did; and when he laid the stretcher down, the bullet, which had passed clean through his neck, had caused such a loss of blood that he fell in a dead faint.
Colonel Thackeray, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, saved himself by his wit and fortitude from capture. He was left behind in an impossible corner, to which he had advanced with a mixed lot of the adventurous from the other battalions — the Dublins, the Connaughts, and the Borderers. About i p.m. they saw the ambulance approach, at the sight of which the Red Cross was raised, and later on the Boers ceased fire, and an informal truce was inaugurated.
It should be explained that, owing to the winding of the supposed drift, the troops were a little way from the Tugela. Some of the Boers pushed south, whilst Colonel Thackeray and his men were moving towards the rear. Having learned that a general retirement had been ordered, the Boer leader called to Colonel Thackeray that he was a prisoner, with the rest of the soldiers. " Oh no," said Colonel Thackeray; " we were firing all the time. You advanced under the Red Cross, as if it were a flag of truce, and we let you." " Well, now, you must lay down your arms," said the Boer Commandant. " No; why should we ? " asked Colonel Thackeray. " Let us go back and begin again." Then the gallant Inniskilling started to argue the point. Strange to say, he almost convinced, and, at any rate, gained the respect of the Boer, who said at last, bluntly, "Well, I have no orders. Perhaps you are right. I'll turn my back and won't see you. So you can clear off with all your men." Colonel Thackeray did so with promptitude.
Well, after all, the Boer is an adversary worth dealing with, and adding to the roll of the sons of the Empire—as we shall include him beyond a doubt—and, with the burst of the Afrikander bubble, as I have said ere now, a loyal subject he will become. Major Barton, of the Connaught Rangers, found himself left almost alone in another part of the field. About 2 p.m. he looked around, saw no one moving about, and thought he would fill the landscape. Going a little way he saw several dead and wounded men, and in answer to their pleading, descended to the river, filling their water-bottles, and giving them a good drink. Then he suddenly found himself face to face with a party of Boers, who presented their rifles. He told them not to play the fool by shooting. " Are you a medical or fighting officer?" they asked. He said he was a fighting one. As there was firing going on in that part of the field they arranged between them to stop it. A pair of white flags were displayed. Major Barton proceeded to order the men to cease firing. On the way he met another, who at first declined to believe his story, and then did but put him on parole as a prisoner not to fight. Major Barton got into camp, but a court has decided he must respect his parole, and he has been sent down the country.
We had the first visit of the foreign military attaches a day or two ago. They were escorted over the lines, and shown the Boer position. The only remark the American representative made when he saw the hills and trenches approaching the kloof was: " Well, now, was there no way round ?"