Tuesday, January 2, 1900
BULLER'S men are waiting, but not idling, in their camps. The Ladysmith relief column is gathering strength whilst it stands guard over the safety of Natal and the complete deliverance of the land from the Boer invaders. There have been daily exercises for the troops, for the cavalry small reconnaissances and scouting, for the infantry and gunners drills and manoeuvres, and horsemen and sportsmen alike—so keen is their enthusiasm—would have preferred more work of the kind they have latterly had, knowing in that way lies victory. For the better maintenance of their health and the easier provisioning of the soldiers, the army has been distributed into several camps, all of which are close to the railway. Chieveley has been left with a sufficient garrison of all arms, including Major-Generals Hildyard s and Barton's brigades, with artillery, naval and field, Royal Engineers and Cavalry, Regulars and Volunteers. Sir Redvers has his headquarters at Frere, where there is also a similar considerable body of troops, besides the infantry of Major-Generals Lyttelton's and Hart's brigades. We correspondents all removed a few days ago back to this place, Frere, in order to be near the headquarters of General Buller and neighbourly with the new Press censor, Major Jones. Press censorship soldiers, as a rule, find it a thankless and uncongenial task; there have been six changes in the office within two months. It is no easy function for the sagest to discharge, and experience has taught me that the Press censor, like the poet, is born, not made. The hard official rules and the zeal to prevent even minor matters being made known through official channels—though the enemy and our public may be in possession of the information from other sources—are the stumbling-blocks to journalistic enterprise with our troops in the field. Nay; there is another deterrent repressive feature, of which you may or may not be aware, connected with war news. On great days—battle days—no message of any kind can be forwarded until the General's official despatch has been transmitted. You millions at home may be panting for the news which we, your representatives, are burning to send. But no; for hours you and we must wait, and therefore, the censor's 14 clear the line "—the imperative signals which precede the General's message— put aside all other telegrams, however glutted the cables are. This might be thought a good enough start over all ordinary mortals, but these are things perhaps best not discussed now, and which must wait for settlement and adjustment when the whole business of the public interest and of the Press comes to be more freely and officially determined. I hope the censorship is not to me as King Charles' head was to poor Mr. Dick.
Turning aside to spread myself upon that almost forbidden topic, I had omitted to refer to the new and big camp re-created at Estcourt. I am not alluding to troops required for guarding our line of communication—that is a very different affair— but to Sir Charles Warren's division, or to the major portion of it Some six battalions or more of that command have arrived at Estcourt to reinforce the relief column. There all are encamped waiting for the order to go forward to Ladysmith. The losses at Colenso on December 15 last have all been more than made good. Like to a change of votes from one side to the other is the loss of cannons to an army; ten taken by the Boers required that we should have twenty guns to restore our preponderance of artillery fire. Well, we have luckily secured that and more, for there are now five additional batteries available, or thirty guns. Three of these and the 50-pounder howitzer batteries were expected, but the fourth has come as an unexpected Christmas or New Year's gift, and is most welcome.
Two other important adjuncts to Buller's army's fighting power and mobility have also arrived in this holiday season. The first of the accessions alluded to is a war balloon, which is now with all its equipment here at Frere. Why an Aldershot balloon, or half a dozen of them, have not been sent here two months ago, or since Sir George White has been pent up in Ladysmith, is a problem for which I offer no solution. They are always in evidence at home manoeuvres and reviews, and lead to much craning of necks and infinite satisfaction as to their purpose, abilities, and usefulness in warfare. I have frequently heard it said by some high authorities among our countrymen, that we English are of so sporting and fair-minded a turn of mind that it requires one year of the actualities of campaigning and fighting before we wake up and begin to do our militant selves anything like justice in action. The delayed balloon, slow transports, insufficiency of guns and cavalry, reluctance to employ volunteers, Colonists or home-bred, go towards proving there is much verity in the assertion. Perhaps Natal is unique in the difficulties it offers to the prosecution of war on stereotyped modern methods. Its rocky bewildering chains of hills and mountains, its deep-dented interlacing of spruits are so many natural fortified positions waiting to be occupied and held by the first in the field against all comers. As the German military attache, Von Luturz, remarked when he first saw Colenso lines, " It is a natural fortress. I could not have believed it so perfectly defensible and almost impregnable unless I had seen it*
Weather permitting, the half-score or so of strong Aldershot traction-engines, which have at last been detrained here and at Chieveley, will do much to making General Buller's army compact and mobile. Without them the troops would require an astounding length of ox and mule-waggons. The despised ox-waggon is slow and sure. Its infallible drawbacks are that it occupies a considerable length of road, requires much guarding with many attendants, and can only be depended upon to haul not more than 600 lbs. Nay more, if the teams are to carry their own forage, the power of hauling is limited to something like fifty miles. Were the army entirely dependent upon trek ox-waggon, the 1660 of them, the inconsiderable number for conveying the munitions of this army would stretch along several miles of road. It will be another affair if the dry weather continues and any great use can be made of the traction-engines. They require few attendants, don't gibe, and each can easily haul twelve tons. Yesterday and to-day these wheeling puffing Billees have been running to-and-fro transporting stores from the railway siding to the respective brigade camps—one of which, Hart's, is two miles away. They leisurely descend into spruits, roll across, and wheel up stiff, long climbs, like flies walking up a wall. Tacked on to one of the big guns they should, weather permitting, shift them rapidly from place to place; nor are they quite helpless when the ground has been soaked with rain. Clip-irons are attached to the rims of the broad wheels, and these dig into the firmer soil, and the steamer rolls forward, leaving a wake like a ploughed field. On the flat, dry veldt the steamers strip along at a brisk eight miles an hour.
Little of moment has happened since last Friday beyond the dual diurnal pounding of Colenso lines by our guns, and Ladysmith by the Boer cannon. Occasionally the enemy do damage, as when the other day one of their shells burst in an officers' mess. Our naval gunners are, I think, without vaunting, though burning less powder, effecting heavier casualties. They have now got such an intimate knowledge of the Boer positions that they have but to put on the lyddite to make the Boers scuttle away to their holes or gallop off quickly far from the scene and the range of any existing gun. Lieut-General Sir Francis Clery still remains at Chieveley. Tommy has a sweet knack of description. " Who is this Clery ? " said a newcomer. "It's General Clery," said a comrade; "don't yer know him?" "No; whats he like?" "Oh, you can't mistake him at all. Thin, queer-looking bloke, with a puzzle beard and blue whiskers." I have known many more elaborate and less accurate " wanteds " published.
The week almost closed with dire wet weather.We had three days of storm—real rough campaigning weather. Bisley in flood, and the heath a puddle, was a pleasure place compared to most of the camps. At Chieveley and Frere the men got wet through and through, and those on picquet-duty soaked to the marrow. We dug our tent water-trenches deeper, and made the best of it without a murmur, and, if they had been brigades of Mark Tapleys, the men could not have accepted the situation more good-humouredly. When at last the sun ventured to shine in the afternoon, the camps became transformed into drying-fields, clothes and blankets being laid out Many a soldier also availed himself of the free supply of water to do the family wash, going savage and kilted whilst the garments were drying.
There have, as I indicated, been various small reconnaissances and exchanges of shots between outlying picquets or prying scouts and patrols. The events of the week have been the failure to smash the fifty Boer waggons between the Little and Big Tugelas, and the failure to attack the isolated body of the enemy at Hlangwane Hill. Colonel Parsons, R.A., rode out on Saturday and saw the waggons. He was vexed that he had not brought up two guns to pulverize them. Such chances do not occur often, and cavalry leaders and lesser commanders will have to take charge and go in if they mean to score off the enemy. As to Hlangwane—which is a rough scrub-hill on this sid$ of the Tugela, east of Colenso, the lines of which it commands—it was intended to send a strong force to storm that Boer stronghold the other day. The Tugela was up, and the 2000 Boers there were quite isolated, for the drift was impassable and their temporary bridge was swept away. Before the troops, however, were ready to move the Tugela fell, and the Boers there would have been reinforced by all Joubert's strength. It is assumed that he has 8000 to 12,000 men ready to bar our way. Within the course of this week the second, and, I am sanguine, successful effort to relieve Ladysmith will be made. Whatever flank attacks may be made, it is now tolerably certain that there will be another fight immediately opposite Colenso. Probably two 6-inch naval guns will assist the 4.7-inch cannons in shelling the Boer works. Still, with all we can do with shot and shell, we cannot escape the penalty of stormers, and the casualty-list may run into several thousands ; but with Grobler's Hill and the heights won, the Boers will, in turn, be made to pay the full penalty of their obstinacy and hardihood, and General Buller—or he and White between them—should account for at least 4000 of the enemy. In that case the issue should have a wholesome and startling effect on shortening the war.
Disintegration in a force persistently fighting in defensive positions always proceeds rapidly. There was a little plan laid for the Boers the other night to draw them into their trenches, and then shell them thoroughly. Thorneycroft's troopers went down with the mounted infantry towards the Tugela, but the naval gunners, failing to hear the musketry in the swish of the rain, did not keep their part of the bargain and bombard the trenches. The Boers were awakened by our men's fire, and blazed away for nearly an hour, doing, however, no damage. Yesterday they opened a very heavy Mauser and Maxim-fire upon some of the scouts who were sniping their horseflesh and guards. Again they hit nobody, and in return caught a warming from the naval guns. On New Year's Eve (Hogmanay) the first of the promised plum-puddings arrived in Chieveley. They were a consignment from Messrs. J. Lyons (Limited), London, and were served for our New Year's dinners. Being, happily, a recipient of one, I can speak of the excellence of their making and condition. The Tommys were delighted, and they will fight all the better for being so deservedly well remembered at home.