Chieveley Camp, December 29,1899
CHRISTMAS season has come and gone with its memories and activities, joyful and sorrowful. We have thought of the dear homeland whilst we frizzled under midsummers sun, or were pelted hours together by the fierce thunderstorms that swept across Natal from the lofty Drakensberg Range. Our Christmas dinners have been eaten, our festive toasts drunk, and we have had high junketings—athletic sports, sing-songs, race meetings, and what not—under the very noses and eyes of our enemy, the Boer. Boxing Day fairly wound up the round of our gaieties, and, if I mistake not, the Boers congregated upon the high ridges of Grobler's, and the adjacent hills walling the north bank of the Tugela, and looked down at our merrymaking. The officers' races in the gymkhana afforded capital sport There were point-to-point matches and many more besides, all hotly contested, over smooth or rocky slopes. The prizes included the Tugela Plate, value £$o—a piece of boiler-iron blown from Frere Bridge in its demolition by the Boers. Besides that, there was the Railway Plate, a similar souvenir from the wrecked armoured train; a grand piano, recovered loot, owners unknown, and sundry other curious prizes, including the chief of them all—whisky and soda ad lib.
Whilst we have had field-days, the battalions at Chieveley Camp going out alternately, plodding over the bare plain or hiding under cover among the small and dark dongas, the Boers have continued to busy themselves at digging trenches and building forts and bomb-proofs. Along the flat valley-land, and upon the majestic semi-circular sweep of the ranges over the Tugela, the enemy are never tired, toiling to add trench to trench and fort to fort, /wherein to cunningly hide their cannon. We bombard their lines almost every day, the two 4.7-inch naval guns sending lyddite shells into their works, but not a shot do the Boers vouchsafe us in return. Yet their 100-pounder Creusot guns, which we know they possess, and have mounted opposite Colenso, are able to find our range. Gun Hill, as we have come to call it, is on the east (right) of the railway, about two and a half miles north of Chieveley Station, and 8000 yards or thereby from Fort Wylie. Upon the ridge we have the big naval cannon and a battery of naval 12-pounders. It is from there that the bluejackets delight to tickle the Dutchmen. At the first sound of our guns they duck into their trenches and pits like rabbits, and thus much irregular ingenuity has to be exercised to catch them unawares. The trenches are not easy to hit, but the sailors, by careful manipulation, manage at times to put a shell or two into the holes where the enemy swarm. Scarcely a day passes now but the Boers pay toll in wounded and dead to the accuracy and fatal fire of the big cannon and lyddite. So much we learn from our runners, and can see in part for ourselves as the Boers carry away their comrades.
We now know that in order to escape the nightly rain-storms and drenching of the past few days, the enemy crowd into native kraals and creep into Colenso's deserted houses, to escape drenching and enjoy sleep. Yesterday afternoon the sailors threw a few shells into Colenso, and then marked down the direction and range for an after-dark bombarding. Pegs were driven into the ground to which, later on, candles were attached, whilst the degrees of elevation for distance were known. About 10 p.m., when presumably the Boers were sleeping in Colenso, two lyddite shells were sent screaming into the town. The flash of the 4.7-inch guns is like lightning in brightness and swiftness, and the roar of the explosion like ear-splitting thunder. Ere the Boers could have been awake, or could have heard the noise, the lyddite must have descended amongst them, rending walls and houses with its terrific detonation. Six shots only were administered to them—something of their own mode of treatment of Ladysmith, where day and night, Christmas included, they have given no rest to the British beleaguered in that town. Evidently from their heavy cannonading of Ladysmith during the last three days, the enemy are getting anxious to bring matters to a head.
General Buller has a choice of two routes to turn the Boer lines at Colenso. He may go eastward via Weenen, or westward by Potgieter's Drift or Springfield. At the moment the evidences point to his having selected the Springfield route. But General Buller has made it a custom rigidly to keep his own counsel in these matters. The double loops made by the Tugela at Potgieter's Drift are not inviting, nor is the gateway through which the troops must pass into the open, flat lands near Acton Homes. But it is said a succession of boldly-defined hills—Swartz Kop, Krantz Kloof, and others—command the fords and roads into the plains west of Ladysmith. Possibly so ; but maps and information supplied here have proved untrustworthy before today. The other road, by Weenen, is rougher going, and would bring us in on the east side of Bulwan, or Lombard's Kop. Springfield has advantages over that route. Both involve long detours, quitting the railway, and a big supply column, for we cannot start with less than six days' provisions. From Frere to Springfield is about twenty to twenty-five miles, and the distance to Weenen is little if any less. More and more's the pity that, during the attack upon Colenso, a determined effort was not made to carry Hlangwane, which completely turns the Boer works about Grobler's Hill and the Tugela Valley. It is rough country; but being upon this, the south side of the river, it would have served admirably for a safe and excellent artillery position, if not for launching our flanking assault along the shoulders of the ridges held by the Boers. Since then, they have done something to strengthen Hlangwane. But at best it is the weak spot in their lines, for with the Tugela in flood, as it is now after the rains, those left to defend Hlangwane would be completely cut off from rejoining their comrades over the river. There has also been found, within the last twenty-four hours, a low crest two miles west of this camp, whence many of the Boer trenches can be raked. The enemy have a great trench, over a mile in length, extending from west of a kraal upon the flat land towards the roadway winding round the foot-hills opposite Colenso. Upon that, and other works close by, they are to be seen at any hour of the day or evening; even during the night the lightning discloses them, hard at work in their shirt-sleeves, shovelling dirt and piling stones. They have Kaffirs, too, helping them, whom they force to toil for no pay and the coarsest of rations. When our naval guns start banging lyddite the Boers, it has been found, mostly quit the big trench and take shelter in a narrow and deep donga, where they have secretly ventured to spread a few patrol-tents. Now that their cunning hiding-place has been found out, they will have a visitation of lyddite within the next few hours.
The brief period of unusual drought has been succeeded this week by heavy storms and a great rainfall. Not as it rains at home does it come down in Natal, but in a deluge. Within an hour or two after one of the black thunderstorms which gather from all points of the compass, tearing and hustling, the earth runs with water like a sea, and the rivers roar, soupy and bank high. Just now the Tugela is boiling full, and the Boers holding Hlangwane must be completely isolated. Shall we go out and endeavour to bag them, two thousand or so ? It is more than doubtful. Small enterprises have, apparently, no place in the large Aldershot vocabulary. There are balloons in South Africa, and three I wot of in Ladysmith. But not one aerostat has been employed yet with this force ; presumably they are not to be had nearer than Cape Town or England. And yet one would have been of almost incalculable value to the General and the troops on the 15th inst. at the battle of Colenso. It would have disclosed not only the presence of the Boers in their trenches and lining the river banks, but where their guns were placed. Last night it was odd to see the farmer-Boers turn on their electric searchlight in order to prevent the signals from ours at Frere being read in Ladysmith. As there is now helio communication, the nightly flashing of electric-light signals has ceased to be so important. Besides, Ladysmith, being without such apparatus, cannot flash a response. Within five minutes after our powerful Frere machine turned on its luminous beams the Boers shot their lesser ray straight against it, flashing from somewhere below the Bulwan, upon the west side. As the strong light glanced to and fro, and made the dot and dash signals, the Boers kept wriggling their beam about and winking tremendously in order to spoil the blink, blinkity signs. But the electric light apparatus, which was another of the contributions of the Navy to the Army, manned by sailors, cast a beam of great strength and length, to which the Boer flash was as a tallow-dip to a brilliant gas-jet or incandescent lamp. I fancy, therefore, with all their wriggling strategy, that most, if not all, of the message from General Buller to Sir George White, was read and understood. And so we won the battle of the clouds and lights.
I have said we have, for the most part, sat idly, doing practically nothing at Chieveley Camp. The men have amused themselves, despite weather and Boers, with games—football and cricket. Only the British soldier discloses energy enough for such exercises. Our national fondness for field-sports is verily an unmixed blessing in war, as in peace, for it keeps the troops in healthy, cheerful bodily and mental vigour. Within the past day or two the Volunteer cavalry at Chieveley have taken turns in little scouting processions east and west. The South African Light Horse, under Colonel Byng, have ridden up the bank of the Tugela as far as the junction of the little with the big river of the same name. They saw no Boers on the south side, and had only seven shots fired at them from the opposite shore. All the Mauser bullets went wide of the mark. Colonel Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry rode off yesterday around the south slopes of Hlangwane and drew blank. The Boers did not show themselves, and Thorneycroft's orders were not to attack the rough Hlangwane Hill. Major-General Hildyard's brigade is still here, the marching orders being countermanded. It is not likely to move off for two days. The two big 6-inch guns, and other naval guns, have not been brought hither as yet. When they begin to bombard Colenso lines the enemy's mortality bill should increase by leaps and bounds. It is proposed to run these ioo-pounder cannon by rail within a few yards of the firing position at Chieveley Gun Hill. Probably, when the demonstration to renew the attack upon Colenso lines is made from Chieveley, some of the guns will be moved into better positions, and from the brave show to be made of tents, the Fusilier Brigade will march onward as if to renew the frontal assault.
The recent rains are turning the baked-brown earth and stubble into a dainty green, and there will soon be good forage for the half-starved Boer horses. We are not so dependent upon the caprices of seasons, for our Army Service Corps have done so well that there has never been lack of excellent provender for man or beast. Plenty of good oats, bran, and hay that have come thousands of miles over the seas, and all that the largest provider can supply of really needful creature comforts, down to fresh bread and meat daily, are to be had in abundance. Never was army better cared for, nor has any soldier deserved more than Tommy fighting your battles in South Africa. His faults are, perhaps, occasionally too obtrusive, but his virtues as a downright, honest fighting-man are beyond blazon-men t. In the heat or the thunderstorm he does his duty. He may be left out upon a hill by some colonel or brigadier for three days and nights, upon detached picquet-duty, as at Mooi River, but he takes the rough and the smooth, and with about equal grumbling at either too much or too little work. Defeat does not daunt him, and success does not spoil him. Britain has reason to be proud of her common soldiers, and even the Boers are opening their eyes to the surprising quality of the whilom red-necks or red-jackets.
I have just learned that the Boer official account of their losses at Colenso on the 15th inst placed them at 115 killed, mostly by shell-fire. One of the medical officers of the 2nd Brigade—Major-General Hildyard's—has supplied me, though rather late, with the following notes of the battle of December 15 last: " During the earlier part of the engagement the casualties nearly all occurred in the two batteries of artillery which were eventually captured (ten guns only). The wounded were carried into a sharp-dipping donga and there attended to. As the enemy's firing was so well directed, it was impossible for those who had taken refuge there to move out. The infantry of the 2nd Brigade were ranged along the front About 300 yards behind, on the side of the railway, was a house which we employed as a dressing-station. Two red-cross flags were put upon the roof. That did not prevent shells flying about it, and the corrugated iron roof often rattled with broken pieces of the Boer bombs. The slightly wounded were placed in the verandah, and one of these was killed where he lay.
" Soon the wounded of the 2nd Brigade began pouring in. The stretcher-bearers were coming and going all the while. A tool-house was used as a mortuary for the time. The body of Captain Hughes, R.A.M.C., was brought in by a medical officer, undisturbed. Later on, it will be seen that the Boers stripped the dead and wounded of their accoutrements, and occasionally of clothes, for which, perhaps, some excuse may be made. About 150 wounded were dressed at the railway house. The medical officers attached to regiments carry no stimulants; there are none issued to them.They have to depend upon the bearer companies, who may be a mile away. However, the civilian telegraph operators (Natal Government) kindly gave three bottles of whisky, which were most useful. All the wounded were carefully dressed, able to be sent direct to the field hospital. As the firing continued the confusion soon became terrible, press of numbers in a confined space, with groans and cries, made up an indescribably painful scene. A water-tank standing in the yard was besieged by men returning from the battle. The tap was locked, but the iron was broached, and the tank was speedily exhausted.
" On the order to retire, a number of our bearers, with stretchers, started off towards the Boer lines to bring in the wounded. A red-cross flag was frantically waved by them, but the Boers were, apparently, not ready to receive the men, and so fired at them, wounding two bearers. They and a stretcher-bearer, who was smashed by a shell, were our sole casualties. Later on we tried again to advance, waving the flag. A Boer thereafter rode forward carrying a small white flag. He handed me a piece of paper, on which was written in Dutch that General Botha's consent would have to be obtained before a man was removed from the field. Two or three hundred Boers then rode up, some of them old rfien, others lads little over fifteen years. An elderly Boer, with a red beard, seemed greatly excited. He said that Chamberlain had brought on the war for gold ; but the Boers had no enmity against the soldiers, who simply did their duty. We English, he declared, treated the Boer prisoners disgracefully. In the middle of his harangue he saw one of the ambulance-men, loaded with field-glasses and revolvers taken from wounded officers. He thought that spoil too good to be missed, and rode up to the man, and, after an altercation, seized the lot We were allowed to carry off Colonel Long, R.H.A., as he was seriously wounded, but Colonel Hunt, R.A., who was wounded in both legs, they retained. I dressed Hunt's legs. He refused to go, but was told he must, and that he would get the best of care and treatment. Lieutenant Bonham, who was taken prisoner, was standing without a helmet, and Major Waller, Colonel Bullock, and others were there. A number of dead mules lay about, but there were few dead horses. The captured guns were carefully examined by many of the Boers.
"When our ambulance arrived the field was searched for the rest of the wounded, many of the Boers helping us. Except for the red-haired man the Boers were agreeable enough. One of them was dressed in the uniform of the ' Staats Artillerie ' He did all he could to aid us, and a Boer parson who came up lent us some assistance. Nearly all of the enemy spoke English, though evidently they were Boers to a man. One of our medical officers became very indignant when Colonel Hunt was kept back, and the Boers made him a prisoner. On intercession being made, the medico was, though with difficulty, allowed to go. We were told that we might be allowed to return next day to renew the search and bury the dead. The Boers declared that they had only had one man wounded the whole day, for whilst we were throwing lyddite into the trenches they were lying under the river bank. (The Boers, as I know, were lying then in a double sense.) It was quite dark when we left the neighbourhood of Colenso to return to camp. There were other wounded and prisoners in Colenso Railway-station buildings whom we were not permitted to treat or speak to.