A few days after our fight at Surprise Hill we woke one morning to the rumble of distant gun-fire from the direction of the Tugela River and there was a buzz of excitement in the camps around Ladysmith when it became known that General Buller was launching his long-expected attempt to break through to the relief of the town. For a while there was no definite news, and we waited until sunset when word came that the British had been repulsed with heavy losses and that a number of guns had been taken.
Hard on the success at Colenso arrived the news of victories on the other fronts. Piet Cronje had defeated and killed General Wauchope at Magersfontein, and General Gatacre was beaten at Colesberg. These tidings caused universal rejoicing, and there were few of us who did not believe that peace would soon follow, as it had after the Battle of Amajuba Hill 1881.
This time, however, their reverses seemed only to render the British more determined, but, the future being mercifully hidden from us, we confidently awaited the opening of peace negotiations and the surrender of Ladysmith, both of which events were expected to take place at any moment, and meanwhile camp life once more fell into the usual rut.
On Christmas Day another uncle of ours, Jan Mulder, paid us a visit. He was a Hollander by birth and a rolling stone by nature After filling varied posts, and taking part in many native campaigns, he was Registrar of the Supreme Court in Swaziland when the war broke out and he enlisted as a private in the Swaziland Police, with which force he was now serving on the Tugela.
As I was anxious to see the entrenchments there of which we had heard so much, I accompanied him on his return two days later.
We left the Pretoria camp at daybreak and rode round the east side of Ladysmith, touching at the laagers en route for a talk or a meal, and reaching the Tugela opposite Colenso by four in the afternoon. The Boer line roughly followed the ragged hills that fringe the north bank of the river, though here and there they were dug-in forward of the hills on the edge of the stream itself, and it was in one of these trench-lengths that we found the Swaziland Police, a small body of about one hundred strong.
The British Army lay across the river where their great tented camps were spread out on the plain. Judging by these and by the large numbers of troops being exercised every day, it was reckoned that there were forty thousand men facing us. I spent an interesting time riding up and down the line, and as things were quiet a party of us even rode through the river one morning to inspect the spot where the British guns had been captured and Lord Roberts's son killed in the recent battle. There were only decomposing horses and broken rifles lying about, and as the English gunners presently sent a brace of shrapnel over us we made haste to regain our own side.
Our trench was shelled at intervals by a sixty-pound naval gun standing at Chievely, seven miles away, but although some of the huge projectiles fell within a few feet of us, we suffered no damage. This was my first experience of lyddite, a newly invented explosive which went off with an appalling bang, emitting acrid green and yellow fumes that gave one a burning sensation in throat, and chest. I had read of its effect on the dervishes at Omdurman, and the English newspapers had predicted equally terrible results for us; but the men made light of it and dubbed the shells 'little niggers' (klien kafferkies). Whenever one of them came through the air there was a warning cry: 'Look out — a little nigger', and everyone dived for cover behind the sandbags.
I saw the New Year (1900) in with the Swazilanders, who held a sing-song in celebration, and three days later I said good-bye to my uncle, and started d home.
This time I rode round the western circle of Ladysmith in order to visit the Free State commandos guarding that side of the cordon, as I had many friends and acquaintances there, and, after spending a Pleasant day among them, I timed my journey to reach the Kroonstad camp by sunset, as I wished to put in a night with my Norwegian uncle. I found him making ready to accompany a picket to the plain towards the English lines. His preparations for going on duty were unusual, for he inspanned an American buck-board on which he piled a feather bed, blankets and pillows, and as soon as the rest of the Picket moved out after dark he told me to leave my roan horse in camp, and he and I drove in state to the Place where we had to do guard for the night. The spot was not more than four hundred yards from the nearest English sentries, but this in no way disturbed my uncle's serenity. He unharnessed his two animals, hitched them to the wheels of the buggy, and giving one of the younger fry half a crown to do his sentry-go, he spread his bedding and was soon comfortably snoring within earshot of the British. I shared his couch, and we both slept soundly until awakened shortly before daybreak in time to harness the horses and get back to camp before it grow light. I spent the day with the Kroonstad people and listened to a council-of-war.
For weeks there had been talk of an attack by the Free State forces against a loose-standing kop called Wagon Hill, considered to be the key of the Ladysmith defences. We had so often heard of the proposed attempt that by now we had ceased to believe in it, but this time it looked as if something was on foot at last, for Commandants and Field-Cornets came riding in from the neighbouring camps to attend the meeting. Here I learned that it had been decided to storm the hill within the next day or two. It was said that Piet Joubert was growing impatient at the delay of the Ladysmith garrison in surrendering, and hoped to help them to make up their minds by the capture of this commanding position. I had a good look at Wagon Hill, but I came away somewhat dubious of success, although the Freestaters were eager to have a shot at it.
Next morning I rode through the Klip River and past Nicholson's Nek back to the Pretoria camp, still wondering whether the attack would materialize. When I arrived at our tent I was told that it was in fact due for the very next morning, and that four hundred Pretoria men were to create a diversion by falling upon our old friend the Red Fort in order to draw off the enemy's attention from the main objective while the Freestaters attacked Wagon Hill.
Our corporalship was to take part, and Isaac Malherbe had already given the necessary orders.
At 3 a.m. on the morning of January 6th, the whistles blew for the attacking force to assemble, and soon we were marched off on foot, headed by Mr Zeederberg and Assistant Field-Cornet de Jager. We collected in the same dry spruit below Belles Kop from which we had started on our previous abortive expedition. Our experience on that occasion did not tend to reassure us, for once more there was a strong dilution of burgher-right 'erven' men in our ranks, and we shook our heads when we saw them dejectedly standing behind the bank of the spruit, showing little inclination for the work in hand.
However, nearly half our force were of better calibre, and when, shortly before sunrise, the two Field-Comets led the way, about two hundred men responded, the rest refusing to follow. There was no time to argue, so, leaving the shirkers behind, we made over the plain towards the enemy works. It was still dark and we went along un-observed until we reached the outcrop of rock halfway across, where some of us had spent such evil hours during the former demonstration six weeks ago. Here the English in the fort observed us, and although the dawn was just breaking, they opened a heavy fire in our direction. This brought us to a standstill, and for a few moments we were uncertain whether to go forward or to fall back. The Field-Cornets seemed equally undecided, but, while they were debating, a man named Willernse intervened. He was a member of President Kruger's bodyguard, a fine tall fellow in police uniform. He was a stranger to us, for he had been on a chance visit to a relative at our camp, and had volunteered when he heard of the attack. He made an eloquent appeal to them to proceed, his words creating such an impression that we started for the fort at a run. The place was built on the brow of a low stony kopje immediately beyond the Harrismith railway line and, except where its earthworks formed an embankment, there was no cover. We had about four hundred yards to go, but the light was still uncertain, so we gained the safety of the ramp with the loss of only one man. This railway causeway proved our undoing, for had it not been there the chances are we should have gone straight on into the fort, but the sheltering bank was too tempting, and with one accord the men halted behind it to recover their breath. In the circumstances the delay was fatal, for we lost the original impulse that had carried us thus far, and as the light was increasing and with it the fierce volleying, we became disinclined to leave cover, and, instead of resuming our advance, stayed where we were.
We were now close in under the walls of the fort and could plainly see the muzzles of the defenders' rifles as they stuck them through the loopholes to fire at us. Other soldiers were standing by to repel boarders, for above the breastworks their bayonets glinted in the rising sun and gave us still further food for thought.
After a while, Isaac Malherbe, my brother, and a few more of us crawled along the track and, jumping across the metals, ran up the slope to where fair-sized boulders gave good cover within twenty-five yards of the work. Our intention was to have a quick jumping-off point should the Field-Cornet give the order for a final rush, and from here we lay firing into the loopholes, waiting for the command to advance.
As we were now well ahead of where the rest of our force lay crouching behind the railway embankment, we were out of touch with them, although we kept looking back to see whether there was any sign of their coming on. Just as we were beginning to think that the attack had been called off we heard a shout, and saw Willemse leap out on to the track with about a dozen or fifteen men at his heels. At this we, too, sprang up to join in the charge, but almost as we rose, swift destruction overtook the storming party. A single volley flamed along the portholes, and before we had time to think the attack had withered away. We saw the men go down in a heap, leaving only one man erect. The rest were either dead or wounded or had flung themselves headlong for such cover as they could find.
Those of us with Isaac escaped annihilation because we were out of the direct line of fire and were able to regain protection before the soldiers had time to turn their attention to us, but we did not go quite unharmed, for Frank Roos, my tent-mate, fell dead among us with a bullet through his heart. The man who still faced the enemy was Willemse, and he, undeterred, ran up to the fort and tried to scale the wall. Bayonets were thrust at him which he parried with his rifle until a revolver was fired point-blank into him. He sank below the wall where he sat rocking to and fro, his head resting on his knees as if in great pain, and then another bullet found him, for he suddenly pitched forward on his face. We were so bewildered by the suddenness of everything that before we could collect our thoughts it was all over.
Willemse and six of his band lay dead, the survivors crouched behind cover against the driving bullets. Several of them were wounded, for they lay trying to bandage their injuries without exposing themselves from behind their scant shelter, and it was painful to see their efforts without being able to assist; but it was suicide to venture out under the wall in the teeth of such heavy fire.
We did not know why this piecemeal sally had been made, but after waiting for some time we were satisfied that there was to be no further attempt on the fort, so we recrossed the railway line, one at a time, crawling over until we were all back behind the bank where the rest of the men were gathered. Mr Zeederberg told me that the sortie had been made without his orders. Before he could stop them Willemse and the men were climbing up the slope to the disastrous end which we had witnessed.
There was now nothing else for us to do but to repeat our previous experience by staying where we were until the coming of night would enable us to retire. To renew the attack after what had happened was out of the question, nor was it feasible to withdraw in broad daylight from under the walls of the fort across a thousand yards of open veld.
It was as yet before eight in the morning, but we heard the sound of violent gun- and rifle-fire from Wagon Hill, three or four miles away, where the main battle was being joined. How the Freestaters were prospering we had no means of knowing, but we guessed that heavy fighting was in progress, for the throbbing of the guns increased, and the rattle of thousands of rifles. Our share in the proceedings, however, was over: caught like rats in a trap we had to confine ourselves to loosing an occasional-shot and gazing longingly at the hill far to rearward where the balance of the Pretoria commando looked on comfortably at our plight.
As the hours dragged by, the sun blazed down unbearably, and the wounded moaned and cried for water; of which we had none. By scrambling across the track and crawling from rock to rock we managed to pull most of them into the shelter of the embankment until we had brought in all except a few who were lying too far up. While busy at this I took a hurried glance at the dead. One of them was Assistant Field-Cornet de Jager, the others-were men I had seen about camp, but did not know personally. Then I lay reading an old newspaper I had in my pocket, and slept at intervals to pass the time. This brought me subsequent notoriety, for when I unfolded the paper those watching us from the rear thought that it was a white flag, and some busybody rushed down into the laager to spread the news that we were surrendering to the enemy. Before field-glasses could be procured to verify the report it was too late to overtake the rumour, and by nightfall every commando around Ladysmith had heard that we had been marched into the town.
In this manner the day wore through. Occasionally we put a shot into the loopholes above us, but otherwise we lay inactive behind the railway earthwork counting the hours still to elapse before darkness. Through it all we heard the battle on Wagon Hill ebb and flow. At times it flared up and then died away, until some new turn caused a further eruption. The condition of our wounded grew worse and worse as the heat increased, and there was nothing we could do for them. It was bad enough to be thirsty ourselves, but to hear them beg for water and to sit helpless by was terrible, so we averted our eyes and pretended not to hear them.
At length, towards five in the afternoon, when things were getting unbearable, relief came from an unexpected quarter. Almost without warning, black clouds raced across the sky and there broke upon us the most violent storm that I have over experienced. It leapt at us with a roar, and there fell a deluge which in an instant blotted all from view. The rolling thunder and the drumming of the waters were deafening. For perhaps a minute we waited and then we abandoned our dead and wounded and fled blindly through the hurricane in the direction of our camp, a mile away.
We found the whole place thrown into confusion by the storm. Our tents were down and our belongings were littered a mile and more along the valley, washed away by the flood. As we could neither light a fire nor dry our clothing, we spent a miserable night, made the more unhappy by the knowledge that we had selfishly left our wounded in the dark and rain and, to add to our discomfiture, came the tidings next morning that the Freestaters, despite magnificent courage, had failed to take Wagon Hill, and had lost three hundred men in the attempt.
Later in the day our dead were fetched in by wagon under flag of truce.
We carried poor Frank Roos to our tent, and for the second time in three weeks my companions and I sat by the body of a messmate, wondering whose turn was next.