LADYSMITH, NATAL, Wednesday, October 11, 1899.
Ladysmith breathes freely to-day, but a week ago she seemed likely to become another Lucknow. Of line battalions only the Liverpools were here, besides two batteries of field artillery, some of the 18th Hussars, and the 5th Lancers. If Kruger or Joubert had then allowed the Boers encamped on the Free State border to have their own way, no one can say what might have happened. Our force would have been outnumbered at least four to one, and probably more. In event of disaster the Boers would have seized an immense quantity of military stores accumulated in the camp, and at the railway station. What is worse, they would have isolated the still smaller force lately thrown forward to Dundee, so as to break the strong defensive position of the Biggarsberg, which cuts off the north of Natal, and can only be traversed by three difficult passes. Dundee was just as much threatened from the east frontier beyond the Buffalo River, where the Transvaal Boers of the Utrecht and Vryheid district have been mustered in strong force for nearly a fortnight now. With our two advanced posts "lapped up" (the phrase is a little musty here), our stores lost, and our reputation among the Dutch and native populations entirely ruined, the campaign would have begun badly.
For the Boers it was a fine strategic opportunity, and they were perfectly aware of that. But "the Old Man," as they affectionately call the President, had his own prudent reasons for refusing it. "Let the enemy fire first," he says, like the famous Frenchman, and so far he has been able to hold the most ardent of the encamped burghers in check. "If he should not be able!" we kept saying. We still say it morning and evening, but the pinch of the danger is passed. Last Thursday night the 1st Devons and the 19th Hussars began to arrive and the crisis ended. Yesterday before daybreak half the Gordons came. We have now a mountain battery and three batteries of field artillery, the 19th Hussars (the 18th having gone forward to Dundee), besides the 5th Lancers (the "Irish Lancers"), who are in faultless condition, and a considerable mixed force of the Natal Volunteers. Of these last, the Carbineers are perhaps the best, and generally serve as scouts towards the Free State frontier. But all have good repute as horsemen, marksmen, and guides, and at present they are the force which the Boers fear most. They are split up into several detachments—the Border Mounted Rifles, the Natal Mounted Rifles (from Durban), the Imperial Light Horse, the Natal Police, and the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, who are chiefly Dutch. Then of infantry there are the Natal Royal Rifles (only about 150 strong), the Durban Light Infantry, and the Natal Field Artillery. As far as I can estimate, the total Natal Volunteer force will not exceed 2,000, but they are well armed, are accustomed to the Boer method of warfare, and will be watched with interest. Unhappily, many of them here are already suffering from the change of life and food in camp. That is inevitable when volunteers first take the field.
But Ladysmith has an evil reputation besides. Last year the troops here were prostrated with enteric. There is a little fever and a good deal of dysentery even now among the regulars. The stream by the camp is condemned, and all water is supplied in tiny rations from pumps. The main permanent camp is built of corrugated iron, practically the sole building material in South Africa, and quite universal for roofs, so that the country has few "architectural features" to boast of. The cavalry are quartered in the tin huts, but the Liverpools, Devons, Gordons, and Volunteers have pitched their own tents, and a terrible time they are having of it. Dust is the curse of the place. We remember the Long Valley as an Arcadian dell. Veterans of the Soudan recall the black sand-storms with regretful sighs. The thin, red dust comes everywhere, and never stops. It blinds your eyes, it stops your nose, it scorches your throat till the invariable shilling for a little glass of any liquid seems cheap as dirt. It turns the whitest shirt brown in half an hour, it creeps into the works of your watch and your bowels. It lies in a layer mixed with flies on the top of your rations. The white ants eat away the flaps of the tents, and the men wake up covered with dust, like children in a hayfield. Even mules die of it in convulsions. It was in this land that the ostrich developed its world-renowned digestive powers; and no wonder.
The camp stands on a barren plain, nearly two miles north-west of the town—if we may so call the one straight road of stores and tin-roofed bungalows. Low, flat-topped hills surround it, bare and rocky. But to understand the country it is best to climb into the mountains of the long Drakensberg, which forms the Free State frontier in a series of strangely jagged and precipitous peaks, and at one place, by the junction with Basutoland, runs up to 11,000 feet. Last Sunday I went into the Free State through Van Reenen's Pass, over which a little railway has been carried by zigzag "reverses." The summit is 5,500 feet above the sea, or nearly 2,000 feet above Ladysmith. From the steep slopes, in places almost as green as the Lowlands or Yorkshire fells, I looked south-east far over Natal—a parched, brown land like the desert beyond the Dead Sea, dusty bits of plain broken up by line upon line of bare red mountain. It seemed a poor country to make a fuss about, yet as South Africa goes, it is rich and even fertile in its way. Indeed, on the reddest granite mountain one never fails to find multitudes of flowering plants and pasturage for thinnish sheep. Across the main range, Van Reenen's is the largest and best known pass. The old farmer who gave it the name is living there still and bitterly laments the chance of war. But there are other passes too, any of which may suddenly become famous now—Olivier's Hoek, near the gigantic Mont aux Sources, Bezuidenhaut, Netherby, Tintwa, and (north of Van Reenen's) De Beer's Pass, Cundycleugh, Muller's, and Botha's, beyond which the range ends with the frontier at Majuba. Three or four of these passes are crossed by waggon roads, but Van Reenen's has the only railway. The frontier, marked by a barbed wire fence across the summit of the pass, must be nearly forty miles from Ladysmith, but from the cliffs above it, the little British camp can be seen like a toy through this clear African air, and Boer sentries watch it all day, ready to signal the least movement of its troops, betrayed by the dust. Their own main force is distributed in camps along the hills well beyond the nine-miles' limit ordained by the Convention. The largest camp is said to be further north at Nelson's Kop, but all the camps are very well hidden, though in one place I saw about 500 of the horses trying to graze. The rains are late, and the grass on the high plateau of the Free State is not so good as on the Natal slopes of the pass. The Boer commandoes suffer much from want of it. When all your army consists of mounted infantry, forage counts next to food.
At present the Van Reenen Railway ends at Harrismith, an arid but cheerful little town at the foot of the great cliffs of the Plaatburg. It boasts its racecourse, golf-links, musical society, and some acquaintance with the German poets. The Scotch made it their own, though a few Dutch, English, and other foreigners were allowed to remain on sufferance. Now unhappily the place is almost deserted, and Burns himself would hardly find a welcome there. In the Free State every resident may be commandeered, and I believe forty-eight hours counts as "residence." You see the advantage of an extended franchise. The penalty for escape is confiscation of property, and five years' imprisonment or £500 fine, if caught. The few British who remained have had all their horses, carts, and supplies taken. Some are set to serve the ambulance; a few will be sent to watch Basutoland; but most of them have abandoned their property and risked the escape to Natal, slipping down the railway under bales or built up in the luggage vans like nuns in a brick wall. In one case the Boers commandeered three wool trucks on the frontier. Those trucks were shunted on to a siding for the night, and in the morning the wool looked strangely shrunk somehow. Yet it was not wool that had been taken out and smuggled through by the next train. For Scot helps Scot, and it is Scots who work the railway. It pays to be a Scot out here. I have only met one Irishman, and he was unhappy.
But for the grotesque side of refugee unhappiness one should see the native train which comes down every night from Newcastle way, and disappears towards Maritzburg and safety. Native workers of every kind—servants, labourers, miners—are throwing up their places and rushing towards the sea. The few who can speak English say, "Too plenty bom-bom!" as sufficient explanation of their panic. The Government has now fitted the open trucks with cross-seats and side-bars for their convenience, and so, hardly visible in the darkness, the black crowd rolls up to the platform. Instantly black hands with pinkish palms are thrust through all the bars, as in a monkey-house. Black heads jabber and click with excitement. White teeth suddenly appear from nowhere. It is for bread and tin-meats they clamour, and they are willing to pay. But a loaf costs a shilling. Everything costs a shilling here, unless it costs half-a-crown; and Natal grows fat on war. A shilling for a bit of bread! What is the good of Christianity? So the dusky hands are withdrawn, and the poor Zulu with untutored maw goes starving on. But if any still doubt our primitive ancestry, let them hear that Zulu's outcries of pain, or watch the fortunate man who has really got a loaf, and gripping it with both hands, gnaws it in his corner, turning his suspicious eyes to right and left with fear.
The air is full of wild rumours. A boy riding over Laing's Nek saw 1,000 armed Boers feeding their horses on Manning's farm. The Boers have been seen at a Dutch settlement this side Van Reenen's. Yesterday a section of the Gordons on their arrival were sent up to look at them in an armoured train. It is thought that war will be proclaimed to-day. That has been thought every day for a fortnight past, and the land buzzes with lies which may at any moment be true.
Half the Manchesters have just marched in to trumpet and drum. When I think of those ragged camps of peasants just over the border the pomp and circumstance seem all on one side.
Friday, October 13, 1899.
So it has begun at last, for good or evil. Here we think it began yesterday, just at the very moment when Sir George White arrived. Late at night scouts brought news of masses of Boers crossing the Tintwa Pass, and going into laager with their waggons only fifteen miles away to the west. The men stood to their arms, and long before light we were marching steadily forward along the Van Reenen road. First came the Liverpools, then the three batteries of Field Artillery with a mountain battery, then the Devons and the Gordons. The Manchesters acted as rear-guard, and the Dublin Fusiliers, who were hurried down from Dundee by train, came late, and then were hurried back again. The column took all its stores and forage for five days in a train of waggons (horses, mules, and oxen) about two miles long. When day broke we saw the great mountains on the Basuto border, gleaming with snow like the Alps. Far in front the cavalry—the 5th Lancers and 19th Hussars with the Natal Volunteers—were sweeping over the patches of plain and struggling up the hills in search of that reported laager. But not a Boer of it was to be seen. At nine o'clock, having advanced eight or nine miles, the whole column took up a strong position, with all its baggage and train in faultless order, and went to sleep. About one we began to return, and now just as the mail goes, we are all back again in camp for tea. And so ends the first day of active hostilities.