For days prior to Wednesday, January 10, it had been reported that Buller's next move would be towards the west and Springfield. Colenso was to be watched, not attacked, unless under special circumstances. To Major-General Barton's Fusilier Brigade was assigned the task of sitting still before Colenso. The two 4.7-inch naval guns, with a number of the naval 12-pounders, were ordered to be taken from Chieveley to assist in forcing the crossings of the Tugela. Sailor Jack, with customary wideawakeness, rigged up dummy, or Quaker cannon to prevent the Boers finding out too soon that the tormenting lyddite guns had been removed. No army can march without much preparation beforehand, and the initiated soon discovered that a big movement was afoot. The orders for concentration were issued, and the supply columns had their instructions when to start and whither to proceed. For several days before a start was effected the destination of the army was discussed in a general way. How it was expected, with the district swarming with natives, and not a few Dutch farmers around us, that the news would be absolutely withheld from the enemy I failed to see. Nevertheless, all pressmen were formally notified by Major Jones that no telegrams would be allowed to be sent by any one during the next two or three days. The troops were going towards Springfield, and the object was to keep that fact from the knowledge of the Boers. Private as well as press wires would be placed under the same ban, and even the authorities in England would have to remain without news of what the army was doing for several days to come. In fact, just when the situation was becoming absorbing, we were to be "bottled up"; but, as there was no alternative, we submitted, with as little unnecessary effervescence as possible. So do good journalists, in times of trial, willingly sacrifice the interests of their proprietors and newspapers to oblige General Buller and what they are told are the interests of the country.
Wednesday morning was dry and bright. Major-General Hart's brigade, which had been encamped two miles north of Frere, made an early start for Springfield. The Irishmen were in raptures at not being left behind to lose the chance of participating in the big scrimmage. Dublins, Inniskillings, and Connaught "boys" were gay and chirpy, going singing to war. They were veterans, and deserved their luck and opportunity to settle outstanding scores with the Boers. The unfortunate composite Rifle Battalion under Major Stuart Wortley might well enough, with others, stay behind to guard Frere Camp and the railway, but " Begorra! we die or mutiny rather than be left out of this next fight," was the concise sum of spoken Irish resolve. Imposingly, but impracticably, their General had his baggage-waggons move off ten abreast, but they tailed off into single line before anybody got far upon the road. Later in the day Major-General Hildyard's Brigade cut in from Chieveley, and joined the main column moving via the Frere-Springfield road. Sir Charles Warren's division had the worst shift to make of any, for they had at starting to cross the Blaauwkran's Drift, which was in muddy flood.
It was a prolonged and desperate scramble to get the men and about 400 waggons and nondescript vehicles down the steep, slippery bank, through the waist-deep stream, and up the sticky opposite slopes. Three ox-waggons were run down into the river and converted into bridge-piers, planks being laid whereon part of the infantry were able to pass over dryshod, but the planks and footing were insecure in places, and it came to be like walking the greasy pole at Ramsgate aquatic sports, for numbers of Tommies went hurriedly into the water in the most diverse and eccentric manner, to the surprise of lots of people. The much-laughed-at score of Aldershot traction-engines did not stick or flounder in the mud, but lumbered about doing duty with comparative ease and considerable regularity. Their flanged grips upon the wheels gave them a sure bite of the ground, which in one or two places they churned up rather deeply. A by-no-means overladen ox-waggon stuck in the middle of Blaauwkran's Drift, close to Frere Station. Eighty oxen were tried, and were unable to move the waggon an inch. It seemed as if the whole column must wait until the vehicle was carted off. A traction-engine was requisitioned to try its powers; the enormous span of cattle were taken away, and a steel hawser was passed from the engine and made fast to the disselboom. Then steam was turned on, and with snort and whirr the steamer walked away with the waggon, conveying it some distance to a high and dry part of the roadway.
Hours that day and the next passed by in weariness. The tracks, by profound flattery called roads, were utterly blocked. Hundreds upon hundreds of waggons were jammed together in mile-long lanes; the baggage-guards and other bodies of troops had to while away the time, and bivouac as best they could upon the open veldt The scene of congested transport-traffic transcended the worst and dreariest blocks ever seen in Fleet Street or the City. It was an exciting and bewildering muddle of human helplessness wrought by stress of place and weather. Onlookers were entertained by countless diverting incidents. The erratic manifestations of animal nature are wondrous. No two creatures met the mud and flood in the same spirit. It was fun to us and to the camp-idlers, but to all who were struggling to press forward it was furiously exacerbating.
With desperate hardihood the Tommies braved both mud and flood. Through and beyond they trod, heedless of boots or khaki uniforms. The smart soldiers' clothes have lost their shine and neatness, and are now so bedraggled that a ragpicker might hesitate about appropriating them. For once in a while the men's boots have stood the test admirably, and show few signs of the hard wear they have been subjected to. Tommy has marched well, and I have heard of very few cases of sore feet. But nowadays Mr. Atkins is careful in his personal habits. You can see him at Frere, Estcourt, or wherever a bath is procurable, going through his alfresco ablutions : washing his clothes first, from socks to jacket, laying them upon the rocks to dry whilst he bobs about bathing in the muddy Natal streams.
This was an eventful day. Whilst the divisions and brigades were moving westwards, Colonel Lord Dundonald set out, at 9 p.m., to seize the iron bridge spanning the Little Tugela, at Springfontein. It was not because of the importance of the district, or of the through-traffic ordinarily passing that way, that the Government built so complete a structure as an iron bridge over the boisterous Little Tugela. Their reason for going to this expense was good and simple. The drifts were few, and all bad when the river was up, and the bridge was a necessity for travellers and farmers. Before the column set out a body of Natal Mounted Scouts had made a wide circuit, and reported the neighbourhood clear of the enemy. The rivers being in flood, and rain coming on heavily again in the evening, the Boers had discreetly removed to the north bank of the Tugela. A party of scouts from Swartz Kop reported that the commanding rough hill was clear of the enemy. Swartz Kop stands to the east of Potgieter's Drift and Rope Ferry, rising to a height of 1000 feet, or thereabouts. Its rough, rocky sides, summit, and shoulders make it an easily defensible position. From Swartz Kop a grand panorama of the surrounding country is spread before one. Below winds the Big Tugela through sharply-cut banks in the low ground, and twisting in and around the hills on east and west, its course barely indicated by a fringe of trees on the rugged edge. In a sort of letter W convolutions it bends in front of Swartz Kop, forming, from the military point of view, a dangerous and formidable entrance. Worse still, before troops could emerge from the tongues of land about two miles from the Ferry they would be exposed to a scathing fire from the front, both flanks, and the left rear. Plainly, if a crossing is to be attempted there, any enemy occupying Spitz Kop, on the west course of the north bank, would have to be first disposed of. When the news was brought to Lord Dundonald, instead of waiting on at Springfield for the infantry, he said that the cavalry would show what they could do in the war, and, taking with him about 600 troopers of the South African Light Horse and Border Mounted Infantry, with the 78th Field Battery, he marched over-night straight to Swartz Kop.
Arriving there at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning (the nth), he seized the hill without opposition. On his calling for volunteers to swim the swollen river and bring over the ferry-boat to this bank, a party of G Squadron (Major Childes) South African Light Horse readily took upon themselves that task. Lieutenant Carlisle was in command, and down into the Tugela went with him Sergeant Turner, Corporals Cox and Barkley, and Troopers Howell, Godden, and Collingwood. The stream was over 100 yards wide and 20 feet deep, but they all got safely over and gathered in the cutting where the flat ferry draws up. Launching the boat they proceeded to work it across by the hauling-line and block. A covering-party of their comrades lined the southern bank. The Boers, as usual, were speedily on the alert, and about fifty of them came as near as they dared and began firing heavily at the men in the boat. Very promptly the horsemen jumped back into the water, and their adventure would have proved fruitless, but Corporal Cox got back upon the ferry-boat and cut the hawser on the north side. Then the firing-party told off some of their number to haul in the craft, a task which, with some difficulty, was accomplished. To escape the rain of Boer bullets the men swam back to the south bank. The corporal was attacked with cramp, but Howell and the others stood by him and brought him in safely. Cox stayed for nearly two hours in the water to assist in safely securing the boat Not a man of them was hit by the Boer fire.
There was a rearrangement of commands before Sir Redvers Buller set forward upon his present errand. Sir Charles Warren's division was made to include the Rifle Brigade under Major-General Lyttelton, and the Lancashire Brigade under Major-General Woodgate. To Sir Francis Clery was allotted the brigades of Major-Generals Hildyard and Hart, whilst Colonel Talbot Coke took charge of his brigade and a number of the Corps troops. Coke's and Barton's brigades were therefore relatively separate units. The big 4.7-inch naval guns were unshipped and packed in waggons and sent with the column.Early in the day (Thursday) we saw and learned that Lord Dundonald had possession of Swartz Kop, for that officer speedily had the heliograph at work. General Buller rode out from Frere at 3 ann. to superintend the whole of the movements. Hild-yard's Brigade, to the headquarters of which Major Prince Christian Victor is attached, were the first to arrive at their assigned quarters. Pretorius Farm, a few miles south of Deel Drift, was the spot at which they were directed to pitch their tents. Whilst that was being done the battalions were led forward to the junction of the two Tugelas, which was found to be clear of any enemy. Vantage points were occupied, and in the afternoon the remainder of Hildyard's men settled down comfortably under canvas on the road towards Springfield. There were many mishaps and painful experiences with the transport column. Everybody wrought hard enough and long enough, but the condition of the roads and marshy drifts was much against them. A big engine sank down upon one side beyond an angle of 45 degrees, and had to be partly dug out. Oxen gave up trying, in places, and several horses lay down and died by the roadside. Whilst the mules, the egregious mules, revelled in the mud and water, yet I saw a dozen of them all but lost They wandered into a quagmire, into which they sank halfway up to their stomachs, and only by desperate and exhausting struggles did they lift themselves through to terra firma. Clery's Division halted upon the Springfield road two miles west of Pretorius Farm, whilst Warren's force pushed on to Springfield, near which they spent the night. The bridge was found intact, and was carefully guarded. There were the ultra-wise who feared in that incident of the unbroken bridge another trap laid by the Boers; but such timid views are, thank goodness, not shared by our leaders or men. Part of General Lyttelton's Brigade crossed to the high ground beside the farm buildings and Post Office. There was a difficult spruit midway which had to be negotiated afoot, though the water was over two feet deep. Once more the waggons were in trouble, but somehow, in the dark as well as in the light, one by one the transport was steered and hauled through from Frere to the Big Tugela. Westward the whole district is remarkably picturesque. The countryside is dotted in every nook and pleasant slope with charming and comfortable homesteads, but most of their owners have fled, and many of the buildings were sacked. Some of the farmers were with the Boers, but most were in safety at Durban or Pietermaritzburg, their household belongings a wreck and their farm and poultry-yards stripped. The Boers, however, had not taken away all the forage, although they had smashed the furniture and strewed the contents of the beds and sofas broadcast
Pretorius Farm is an almost ideal Natalian residence, and will serve as a pattern for a description of others. Snug stone buildings of one storey in height, roofed with corrugated iron sheeting, the whole begirt with verandahs, was what close inspection disclosed. Flowers and ferns blossomed in pots under the grateful shade of the overhanging trelliswork. Creepers and tendrils of passion-flowers and vines had woven themselves into parts of the buildings, and all is not told, for the homestead was embosomed in luxuriant tropical foliage, amidst which the tall, dark, odorous eucalyptus reared their tops. In a spacious, tangled garden and orchard grew grapes, peaches, and figs. Near the house was a small artificial pond, in size almost a lake, where scores of geese and wild fowls plumed themselves for several hours after we arrived; but, sad to relate, their numbers rapidly dwindled till all had disappeared, and we tried to fathom the mystery of clouds of down and feathers driving about the camp.
All continued to go smoothly, the Boers remaining quiet They have been evidently taken more or less by surprise at Buller's having left the front and appeared over a score of miles from Frere upon their flank. It is no light undertaking to remove 30,000 men with cavalry, guns, and waggons so far from their true base, the railway. There were plenty of cattle and sheep in the country through which we passed, and it fails me to explain why the generals have been so slow to turn that raw material into fresh beef and mutton for the troops. In the Soudan the Sirdar was more up-to-date, even though he had to transport and drive the herds for his men over 1000 miles. Thursday was a night of rain, but Friday turned out hot and muggy. Meanwhile the stream of troops and waggons followed steadily onward to Springfield, save Hildyard's Brigade, which held on at Pretorius Farm, ready possibly to bridge the Little Tugela and attempt a crossing of the main river near Deel Drift, but that is more or less contingent upon the Tugela flood lessening.
I rode to the top of Swartz Kop, and from there saw Mount Bulwana and part of the position held by our troops around Ladysmith. To the left rose the grand outline of the Drakensberg from Mont aux Sources to far north of Van Reenen's Pass. The peaks were silhouetted against the sky; waterfalls poured from their lofty, precipitous sides, and green foothills led in a series of Titanic stepping-stones to their base. Away beyond were the dim crests of the Biggarsberg and the Impati Mountain, near which Dundee nestles. Boer tents, waggons, and camps were ringed about Ladysmith from near Colenso and Onderbrook, where their main camp lies, and from Bester's Farm bands of the enemy's troops, mounted and afoot, hurried towards the hills upon their side overlooking Potgieter's Drift. Already there were Boers to be seen at work in their shirt-sleeves, digging trenches, piling up stone walls, and constructing small semicircular forts.Every favourable bit of ground they could be seen inspecting, whilst hundreds toiled in every direction. Their object was unmistakable—to draw line after line of trenches, and to erect forts which would command every inch of ground from the river-front up to and beyond the crested ridges four miles north. Besides that, to the west they were crowning lofty Spion Kop, which rises abrupdy iooo feet from the Tugela, with defences and gun-positions upon its table-topped summits. Upon the east the ranges running west from Grobler's Kloof and Colenso, Doom Kloof and Mount Borwick, were being prepared for defence.
It was deeply interesting to watch the streams of Boers moving and working like ants upon the opposite ridges. Surely 10,000 of them were gathered to dispute our right of way. I saw at least nearly that number; but much more satisfactory it was to note the attempt made by the winking heliograph from near Ladysmith to attract attention upon Swartz Kop. The day was clear in the afternoon, and the position of the big heliograph could be readily located. There was a division of opinion amongst the guides and scouts whether, from the position of the heliograph, it was our own people or the Boers trying to call us. The signaller asked who we were—British or Boers. When told, he desired to have the names of Buller's staff or key-words. That looked like entrusting too much without first learning who the questioner was. The reply was, " Captain Walker, Chief Signaller." As I knew that gentleman intimately, it was arranged that I should draft a test message. I therefore prepared the following questions : " Who is Burleigh ? Where did you see him last ? Who represents the Daily Telegraph in Ladysmith ? " The answers were flashed back instanter: " Yes; I know him. Is he there ? I met him on the Grantully Castle when he was going to Madagascar several years ago. I don't know who represents him here, but I received a message from Burleigh for him through Weenen from Cayzer, and I have sent it round. If he has not replied I will send and get the answer and send it through you to Burleigh." That settled the matter to everybody's satisfaction, for probably no one in South Africa but Captain Walker, of the Black Watch, knew of my voyage upon the Grantully Castle, nor that I had sent a message via Weenen, and heliograph from Umbulange, to the Daily Telegraph's representative in Ladysmith but two days previously.
General Buller visited Swartz Kop with his personal staff on Friday (the 12th). As usual, an early riser, the General went off on Saturday to take up his head-quarters close to Swartz Kop, his camp being hard by the Spearman Farm, under Mount Alice. General Lyttelton's Light Brigade had been moved up the previous day (Friday) to reinforce the position at Swartz Kop. On Saturday afternoon the two big naval guns, with the Naval Brigade under Captain Jones, of her Majesty's ship Forte, arrived. The cannon were unostentatiously placed in a handy hollow on the west shoulder of Swartz Kop, ready for turning on the lyddite when the hour for storming the Boer positions came round. The same day two squadrons of South African Light Horse, colloquially known as the " Cockimolly Birds," from the plume of chanticleer feathers they wear in their hats, set out towards Hildyard's camp upon a reconnaissance. They rode along by the bank of the Tugela. A party of Boers were seen trekking with waggons upon the opposite side. Shots were speedily interchanged, under cover of which the waggons withdrew, no casualties being sustained on our side. Captain Stewart, who was out with G Squadron, lost his way for a time amid the hills, and only got back to camp at midnight. Saturday was another quiet day. So was Sunday; but on both the Boers never slackened at their toil of trench- and fort-making for their guns, two of which are probably of large calibre. There is a suspicion that they have carried over their "Long Tom" from Mount Bulwana and another from Colenso.
To hark back somewhat, I saw on Friday and Saturday signs of Boer activity on our left. Away towards Springfield eight waggons, escorted by horsemen, moved rapidly across the low hills, disappearing behind a ridge. Since then there have been signal-rockets and fires seen in the same direction. To-day (Monday) we have again heard and witnessed the recommencing of the bombardment of Ladysmith. The Boer fire, though it began early this morning and continued at intervals until the afternoon, has been desultory rather than heavy, and could be doing little or no damage. A party of our cavalry, with two guns, proceeded a few miles east along the river, where they caught and shelled a Boer convoy, bringing about something like a stampede. To-day one of the mounted patrols, venturing too close to the Tugela, was bushwhacked and killed by sharpshooters. The story is current in camp that by to-morrow's sun our batteries will be unmasked and the crossing of the Tugela at several points west and east of here begun. To-night the weather appears to have again broken up, and rain is falling.