Frere Camp, January 5, 1900
WE are grievously perplexed. Three weeks have spun by since the Colenso affair of December 15, and neither Buller nor his staff has given any outward indication of the date for the next advance in force. Officers and men are wondering at our prolonged inaction, and they would not be free-born Britons were there not grumblings and rough-tongued remarks in the camps about the unwisdom of a do-nothing policy. War is a stern game, and does not admit of over-specialized routine, regular meal hours, and dolce far niente camp life. Not that we have had much of the latter, for the vile weather has spoiled spirits as well as sport Here's a sample: Last night it rained, thunderstormed, and the wind blew icily from the Great Berg. Today the sky and the heat are of the tropics, and we perspire in shirt-sleeves, whereas last night we shivered in greatcoats and blankets. But, after all, we are campaigning, and the rudeness of the Natal seasons makes some amends for the dull, weary sameness of military inaction.
That the irregulars want to be constantly at the enemy goes without express saying. There is no dilettantism about their methods of securing peace by making war. Action, action, action is their saving principle; and were they permitted, not an hour, day or night, would pass without plans for the worrying of the enemy and the lessening of the Boer muster in men and horses. So it is with our own cavalry and infantry. They are fidgeting to be at them, and perplexed to find out why they are so persistently held in leash. I suppose there is a drawback to everything, including drill and discipline. The Boer fights not by the book nor as Tybalt fenced. He is untrammelled by drill and discipline, and therefore uses his mother-wit, which often stands him in better stead than Passed Staff College credential. It is little good blinking the fact Collegians often run in the ruts, and wide-awake common sense trips around them. On the whole, the battalion officers who cannot write P.S.C. after their names have carried off the honours of the war so far; and Tommy, as I have said before, has been sound and incomparably good.
When and how do we move ? everybody is asking himself and his neighbour. The answers are uncertain and bewildering. But the simple-minded Kaffir judges with acuteness that there is something afoot, and, with the timidity of his race, when the whites are stirring, is trekking southward. Yesterday and to-day this instinctive movement of the natives has been started, apparently without ostensible reason. And yet not so. Their keen eyes and ingenious minds have noted the preparation of transport, the seeing to harness, the shoeing of horses, and the loading up of waggons with the reserve supplies. Decidedly, the impending advance is near. To-morrow or Sunday should see the whole army of General Buller—now rather over than under 30,000 men, with many batteries— moving to force a passage of the Tugela. Shall we deliver one strong flanking blow, or again attempt, against all rules, two weaker turning movements ? I know circumstances alter cases, and in human affairs there is no absolute guide. But though I feel sanguine that we shall drive the 12,000 or 14,000 Boers whom Joubert will manage to array against us from the path, yet, with a double turning operation, our arrival at Ladysmith may thereby be delayed for several days longer, perhaps, than is absolutely necessary.
Another hint that the Kaffirs may have acted upon is the increased activity shown within the week by our cavalry, regular and irregular. They have been going hither and thither, looking, so to speak, for a crossing and an opening, so that the infantry might be slipped at the Boers. As Sir Charles Warren has all his men here, as the guns are on hand, and the supply columns are in readiness, I believe the army of General Buller will move forward within the next three days, and that an initial battle will be fought to secure a passage over the Tugela. The camp talk is that whilst Major-General Barton's brigade, with Bethune's Horse, holds the Boers before Colenso, Sir Charles Warren will march out with his 14,000 men from Estcourt towards Helpmaakar, and Sir Redvers Buller himself, with Clery's division, several thousand cavalry, and seven or eight batteries, will attempt to cross the Tugela at Potgieter's Drift. His objective thereafter will be the high ground around Onderbrook Hotel. From there he can effect a junction with Sir George White's forces, and roll back the Free Staters and Transvaalers beyond Eland's Laagte [Ed - Elandslaagte]. I take it that Sir George White can still bring into the field eight to ten thousand fighting men of sorts. From the green rolling uplands of Estcourt and Frere there are no difficulties upon the march to Springfield. Two kopjes, which we can obtain in succession, should secure our lines of communication, and make the advance to Onderbrook Hotel fairly secure. These hills the gunners and troopers make no doubt of seizing. From Dornkop to Schwartz Kop they aver will be easy going, and the latter should give us the power to cross the Tugela at our leisure.
We may and do play football and cricket, and have as many sing-songs as the Generals permit in camp, but we forget not home nor our commission to smash the Boers. Rather, these diversions help us in more ways than most wot of, mentally and physically. It does not do to be for ever at messes criticizing our leaders. Few people can come unscathed or untarnished out of the fire that flicks around a regimental meal-table, i.e. commissariat-box. There are four subordinate leaders whom the general consensus of opinion would have instantly recalled, and put almost anybody in their place. As for the poor correspondents, well-nigh like the lawyers, we thrive on grievances, and may have to adopt that for our motto. Some day our proper sphere—our just right to communicate with the public at home—will be accepted and recognized. Time and justice are with us. Meanwhile the military, with that disposition characteristic of our frail humanity, wish to be the authors and chroniclers of their own fame, and write their own despatches— whilst the public burns for the truth.
No matter, let that pass for the moment. Now we find that we are in the way of the Army Service Corps officials, who used to be the Commissariat and Transport Department. Had they not told us that we were entitled to draw rations and forage we should have had a transport department of our own, and impeded neither the fighting nor feeding departments. Now the fiat has gone forth that, presumably to make us draw little or nothing from them, we shall pay at the rate of 4s. per day per horse. For that one can feed, stable, and have a horse groomed in Estcourt or Frere. Queerly humorous are the staff departments, giving sparingly with one hand and withholding with both. We have been here for weeks, and whilst these pen and paper elaborations go forward the camps at Frere and Chieveley have been left without adequate postal arrangements. This is no fault of the civil authorities, who would run the business at any moment. To get letters or packages one has to go hunting the camp post-offices, which are miles apart, farther than from Bow to Hammersmith. But these are trivialities, it may be said. Not so, away from home and friends, do soldiers or civilians view the receipt of communications from over the far seas.
One of the things here difficult to understand is why, when the 6-inch and 4.7-inch naval guns are so invaluable, more of them have not been moved up to the Colenso lines. The veriest tyro in war can understand that if Buller had had six or ten 4.7-inch guns firing lyddite on December 15 we might have smashed the Boer batteries, driven their men from the trenches, and seized Grobler's Hill with relatively little loss. Salvo and salvo of lyddite from such cannon would have devastated Fort Wylie and all the adjacent foot hills crowned by Boer sharp-shooters. It is the old story—divided authority. Admiral Harris and the Admiralty do not like to let any more guns or men go from the fleet, and the military hesitate about asking, fearing refusal. Well do I remember that it was only as a fluke, a happy hazard, that on October 30 the two 4.7-inch and 12-pounder naval guns got through to Ladysmith in the nick of time. Had the Boers cut the communications with Colenso on October 29, as they might, Sir George White would have had to fight the enemy off with no longer range guns than the army 15-pounders.
At last our brigades at Chieveley have been actuated by the desire to pay back the enemy for several of his tricks. The irregular Colonial cavalry, in league with the Naval Brigade, have crept down towards Colenso and made as if to attack the enemy's lines in force. There has been an instant manning of the Boer works and trenches, a hot but harmless interchange of musketry, and then the enemy have been startled and driven back by a cannonade of 4.7-inch guns and the eruption of lyddite shells. These have by no means fallen harmless, and, tit for tat, the incidents of the Ladysmith siege have been visited upon them. Besides these incidents our scouts are waking up and avenging the trapping of the two troopers of the 13th Hussars. On more than one occasion Boers have been bush-whacked in turn east and west towards Hlangwane and Springfield. By the way, it is alleged the 13th Hussars' picquet, on the occasion referred to, was negligent A corporal has been tried in that connection, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. On Wednesday and Thursday squadrons of Colonial Volunteers brought in a number of waggon-loads of forage from Hatting's and Imbuschagne's farms, both of which are in the Tom Tiddler's ground near Springfield. In the little skirmishes consequent on these captures our men quite held their own. I am told that the Boers are very confident of keeping their lines against us. They still pursue their habit of signalling all sorts of questions. The other day it was flashed from Grobler's Kloof: "How's Mr. Buller? When is he coming for his next licking?" There is an interchange of martial chaff, and, I am constrained to add, strong language, in which even British Tommy is no match for the low, unfit-for-publication slang of the Transvaal Boer. To-day Colonel the Earl of Dundonald has gone with most of the cavalry and a battery towards Springfield. General Buller and his Staff accompany them. Fighting is almost certain, for it is part of the day's plan to seize and hold the hill which commands the crossing or drift at the junction of the little and larger Tugela.