LADYSMITH, November 9, 1899.
A day of furious and general attack. Just before five I was wakened by a shell blustering through the eucalyptus outside my window, and bursting in a gully beyond. "Lady Anne" answered at once, and soon all the Naval Brigade guns were in full cry. What should we have done without the Naval guns? We have nothing else but ordinary field artillery, quite unable to reply to the heavy guns which the Boers have now placed in position round the town. Yet they only came up at the last moment, and it was a mere piece of luck they got through at all. Standing behind them on the ridge above my tin house, I watched the firing till nine o'clock, dodging behind a loose wall to avoid the splinters which buzz through the air after each shot, and are sometimes strangely slow to fall. Once after "Long Tom" had fired I stood up, thinking all was over, when a big fragment hummed gently above my head, went through the roof and ceiling of a house a hundred yards behind, and settled on a shell-proof spring mattress in the best bedroom. One of the little boys running out from the family burrow in the rocks was delighted to find it there, and carried it off to add to his collection of moths and birds' eggs. The estimate of "Long Tom's" shell has risen from 40lbs. to 96lbs. and I believe that to be the true weight. One of them to-day dug a stupendous hole in the pavement just before one of the principal shops, and broke yards of shutter and plate glass to pieces. It was quite pleasant to see a shop open again.
So the bombardment went on with violence all the morning. The troglodytes in their burrows alone thought themselves safe, but, in fact, only five men were killed, and not all of those by shell. One was a fine sergeant of the Liverpools, who held the base of the Helpmakaar road where it leaves the town eastward. Sergeant Macdonald was his name, a man full of zeal, and always tempted into danger by curiosity, as most people are. Instead of keeping under shelter of the sangar when the guns on Bulwan were shelling the position, he must needs go outside "to have a look." The contents of a shell took him full in front. Any of his nine wounds would have been fatal. His head and face seemed shattered to bits; yet he did not lose consciousness, but said to his captain, "I'd better have stopped inside, sir." He died on the way to hospital.
A private of the Liverpools was killed too. About twenty-four in all were wounded, chiefly by rifle fire, Captain Lethbridge of the Rifle Brigade being severely injured in the spine. Lieutenant Fisher, of the Manchesters, had been shot through the shoulder earlier in the day, but did not even report himself as wounded until evening.
After all, the rifle, as Napoleon said, is the only thing that counts, and to-day we had a great deal of it at various points in our long line of defence. That line is like a horseshoe, ten to twelve miles round.
The chief attacks were directed against the Manchesters in Cæsar's Camp (we are very historic in South Africa) and against a mixed force on Observation Hill, two companies of the Rifle Brigade, two of the King's Royal Rifles, and the 5th Lancers dismounted. The Manchesters suffered most. Since the investment began the enemy has never left them in peace. They are exposed to shells from three positions, and to continual sniping from the opposite hill. It is more than a week since even the officers washed or took their clothes off, and now the men have been obliged to strike their tents because the shells and rifles were spoiling the stuff.
The various companies get into their sangars at 3 a.m., and stay there till it is dark again. Two companies were to-day thrown out along the further edge of their hill in extended order as firing line, and soon after dawn the Boers began to creep down the opposite steep by two or three at a time into one of the many farms owned by Bester, a notorious traitor, now kept safe in Ladysmith. All morning the firing was very heavy, many of the bullets coming right over the hill and dropping near the town. Our men kept very still, only firing when they saw their mark. Three of them were killed, thirteen wounded. Before noon a field battery came up to support the battalion, and against that terrifying shrapnel of ours the Boers attempted no further advance. In the same way they came creeping up against Observation Hill (a barren rocky ridge on the north-west of the town), hiding by any tree or stone, but were completely checked by four companies of Rifles, with two guns and the dismounted Lancers. They say the Boer loss was very heavy at both places. It is hard to know.
In the afternoon things were fairly quiet, but in walking along the low ridge held by the Liverpools and Devons, I was sniped at every time my head showed against the sky. At 4 p.m. there was a peculiar forward movement of our cavalry and guns along the Helpmakaar road, which came to nothing being founded on false information, such as comes in hourly.
The great triumph of the day was certainly the Royal salute at noon in honour of the Prince of Wales. Twenty-one guns with shotted charge, and all fired slap upon "Long Tom"! It was the happiest moment in the Navy's life for many a year. One after another the shot flew. "Long Tom" was so bewildered he has not spoken since. The cheering in the camps was heard for miles. People thought the relief division was in sight. But we were only signifying that the Prince was a year older.
November 10, 1899.
Another morning of unusual quiet. People sicken of the monotony when shells are not flying. We don't know any reason for the calm, except that the Dutch are burying their dead of yesterday. But the peace is welcome, and in riding round our positions I found nearly all the men lying asleep in the sun. The wildest stories flew: General French had been seen in the street; his brigade was almost in sight; Methuen was at Colenso with overwhelming force. The townspeople took heart. One man who had spent his days in a stinking culvert since the siege began now crept into the sun. "They are arrant cowards, these Boers," he cried, stamping the echoing ground; "why don't they come on and fight us like men?" So the day wears. At four o'clock comes an African thunderstorm with a deluge of rain, filling the water tanks and slaking the dust, grateful to all but the men of both armies uncovered on the rocks.
November 11, 1899.
A soaking early morning with minute rain, hiding all the circle of the hills, for which reason there is no bombardment yet, and I have spent a quiet hour with Colonel Stoneman, arranging rations for my men and beasts, and taking a lesson how to organise supplies and yet keep an unruffled mind. The rest of the morning I sat with a company of the 60th (K.R.R.) on the top of Cove Hill (another of the many Aldershot names). The men had been lining the exposed edge of Observation Hill all night, without any shelter, whilst the thick cold rain fell upon them. It was raining still, and they lay about among the rocks and thorny mimosa bushes in rather miserable condition.
It would be a good thing if the Army could be marched through Regent Street as the men look this morning. It would teach people more about war than a hundred pictures of plumed horsemen and the dashing charge. The smudgy khaki uniforms soaked through and through, stained black and green and dingy red with wet and earth and grass; the draggled great-coats, heavy with rain and thick with mud; the heavy sopping boots, the blackened, battered helmets; the blackened, battered faces below them, unwashed and unshaved since the siege began; the eyes heavy and bloodshot with sun and rain and want of sleep; the peculiar smell—there is not much brass band and glory about us now.
At noon the mist lifted, and just before one the Boer guns opened fire nearly all round the horseshoe, except that the Manchesters were left in peace. I think only one new gun had been placed in position, but another had been cleverly checked. As a rule, it has been our polite way to let the Boers settle their guns comfortably in their places, and then to try in vain to blow them out. Yesterday the enemy were fortifying a gun on Star Hill, when one of our artillery captains splashed a shell right into the new wall. We could see the Boer gunners running out on both sides, and the fort has not been continued.
To-day "Long Tom's" shells were thrown pretty much at random about the town. One blew a mule's head off close to the bank, and disembowelled a second. One went into the "Scotch House" and cleared the shop. A third pitched close to the Anglican Church, and brought the Archdeacon out of burrow. But there was no real loss, except that one of the Naval Brigade got a splinter in the forehead. My little house had another dose of shrapnel, and on coming in I found a soldier digging up the bits in the garden; but the Scotch owner drove him away for "interfering with the mineral rights." At 3.30 the mist fell again, and there was very little firing after 4. Out on the flat beyond the racecourse our men were engaged in blowing up and burning some little farms and kraals which sheltered the Boer scouts. As I look towards the Bulwan I see the yellow blaze of their fires.
Sunday, November 12, 1899.
Amid all the estimable qualities of the Boer race there is none more laudable than their respect for the Sabbath day. It has been a calm and sunny day. Not a shot was fired—no sniping even. We feel like grouse on a pious Highland moor when Sunday comes, and even the laird dares not shoot. The cave dwellers left their holes and flaunted in the light of day. In the main street I saw a perambulator, stuffed with human young. Pickets and outposts stretched their limbs in the sun. Soldiers off duty scraped the clods off their boots and polished up their bayonets. Officers shaved and gloried over a leisurely breakfast. For myself, I washed my shirt and hung it on the line of fire to dry.
In the morning one of the Irish Brigade rode in through the Liverpools' picket. He was "fed up" with the business, as the soldiers say. He reported that only about seventy of the Brigade were left. He also said the Boer commandants were holding a great meeting to-day—whether for psalms or strategy I don't know; probably both. We heard the usual rumours that the Boers were going or had gone. Climbing to the Manchesters' post for the view, I could see three Boer trains waiting at Modder's Spruit station, about six miles up the Newcastle line. Did they bring reinforcements, or were they waiting to take "Long Tom" home by return ticket? We shall know to-morrow. Over the valley where we repulsed Thursday's attack, the vultures flew as thick as swifts upon the Severn at twilight. Those were the only signs of war—those and the little forts which hid the guns. Otherwise the enormous landscape lay at peace. I have never seen it so clear—the precipitous barrier of the Basuto mountains, lined with cloud, and still touched with snow: the great sculptured mountains that mark the Free State border: and then the scenes which have become so familiar to us all—Elands Laagte, Tinta Inyoni, Pepworth Hill, Lombard's Kop, and the great Bulwan. Turning to the south we looked across to the nearer hills, beyond which lie Colenso, Estcourt, and the road to Maritzburg and the sea. It is from beyond those hills that our help is coming.
The Boers have many estimable qualities. They are one of the few admirable races still surviving, and they conduct this siege with real consideration and gentlemanly feeling. They observe the Sabbath. They give us quiet nights. After a violent bombardment they generally give us at least one day to calm down. Their hours for slaughter are six to six, and they seldom overstep them. They knock off for meals—unfashionably early, it is true, but it would be petty to complain. Like good employers, they seldom expose our lives to danger for more than eight hours a day. They are a little capricious, perhaps, in the use of the white flag. At the beginning of the siege our "Lady Anne" killed or wounded some of "Long Tom's" gunners and damaged the gun. Whereupon the Boers hoisted the white flag over him till the place was cleared and he was put to rights again. Then they drew it down and went on firing. It was the sort of thing schoolboys might do. Captain Lambton complained that by the laws of war the gun was permanently out of action. But "Long Tom" goes on as before.
I think the best story of the siege comes from a Kaffir who walked in a few days ago. In the Boer camp behind Pepworth Hill he had seen the men being taught bayonet exercise with our Lee-Metfords, captured at Dundee. The Boer has no bayonet or steel of his own, and for an assault on the town he will need it. Instruction was being given by a prisoner—a sergeant of the Royal Irish Fusiliers—with a rope round his neck!
November 13, 1899.
The Boer method of siege is quite inexplicable. Perhaps it comes of inexperience. Perhaps they have been studying the sieges of ancient history and think they are doing quite the proper thing in sitting down round a garrison, putting in a few shells and waiting. But they forget that, though the sieges of ancient history lasted ten years, nowadays we really can't afford the time. The Boers, we hope, have scarcely ten days, yet they loiter along as though eternity was theirs.
To-day they began soon after five with the usual cannonade from "Long Tom," "Puffing Billy," and three or four smaller guns, commanding the Naval batteries. The answers of our "Lady Anne" and "Bloody Mary" shook me awake, and, seated on the hill, I watched the big guns pounding at each other for about three hours, when there came an interval for breakfast. As far as I could make out, neither side did the other the least harm. It was simply an unlucrative exchange of so much broken iron between two sensible and prudent nations. The moment "Tom" or "Billy" flashed, "Anne" or "Mary" flashed too. Our shells do the distance about two and a-half seconds quicker than theirs, so that we can see the result of our shot just before one has to duck behind the stones for the crash and whiz of the enormous shells which started first. To-day most of "Tom's" shells passed over the batteries, and plunged down the hill into the town beyond. It is supposed that he must be wearing out. He has been firing here pretty steadily for over a fortnight, to say nothing of his work at Dundee. But I think his fire upon the town is quite deliberate. He might pound away at "Lady Anne" for ever, but there is always a chance that 96lbs. of iron exploding in a town may, at all events, kill a mule.
So the bombardment went on cheerily through the early morning, till about 10.30 it slackened down in the inexplicable Boer fashion, and hardly one shot an hour was fired afterwards. The surmise goes that Joubert cannot get his men up to the attacking point. Their loss last Saturday was certainly heavy.
Yesterday the Boers, with fine simplicity, sent to our ambulance camp for some chlorodyne because they had run short of it, and were troubled with dysentery like ourselves. Being at heart a kindly people, we gave them what they wanted and a little brandy besides. The British soldier thereupon invents the satire that Joubert asked for some forage because his horses were hungry, and Sir George White replied: "I would very gladly accede to your request, but have only enough forage myself to last three years."
The day passed, and we did not lose a single man. Yet the enemy must have enjoyed one incident. I was riding up to spend an hour in the afternoon with Major Churcher and the 200 Royal Irish Fusiliers left at Range Post, when on an open space between me and their little camp I saw a squadron of the 18th Hussars circling and doubling about as though they were practising for the military tournament. Almost before I had time to think, bang came a huge shell from "Puffing Billy" just over my head, and pitched between me and them. Happily, it fell short, but it gave the Dutch gunners a wonderful display of our cavalry's excellence. Even before I could come up men and horses had vanished into air.
All day strange rumours have been afloat about the Division supposed to be coming to our relief. It was expected to-morrow. Now it is put off till Thursday. It is even whispered it will sit quiet at Estcourt, and not come to our relief at all. To-night is bitterly cold, and the men are chilled to the stomach on the bare hillsides.
November 14, 1899.
The siege is becoming very tedious, and we are losing heart. Depression was to-day increased by one of those futile sorties which only end in retirement. In the early morning a large Boer convoy of waggons was seen moving along the road beyond Bluebank towards the north, about eight miles away. Ninety waggons were reported. One man counted twenty-five, another thirteen. I myself saw two. At all events, waggons were there, and we thought of capturing them. But it was past ten before even the nucleus of a force reached Range Post, and the waggons were already far away. Out trotted the 18th and 19th Hussars, three batteries, and the Imperial Light Horse on to the undulating plain leading up to the ridge of Bluebank, where the Boers have one gun and plenty of rocks to hide behind. That gun opened fire at once, and was supported by "Faith," "Hope," and "Charity," three black-powder guns along Telegraph Hill, besides the two guns on Surprise Hill. In fact, all the Boer guns chimed in round the circle, and for two hours it was difficult to trace where each whizzing shell came from, familiar though we are with their peculiar notes.
Meantime our batteries kept sprinkling shrapnel over Bluebank with their usual steadiness and perfection of aim. The enemy's gun was soon either silenced or withdrawn. The rifle fire died down. Not a Boer was to be seen upon the ridge, but three galloped away over the plains behind as though they had enough of it. The Light Horse dismounted and advanced to Star Point. All looked well. We expected to see infantry called up to advance upon the ridge, while our cavalry swept round upon the fugitives in the rear. But nothing of the kind happened.
Suddenly the Light Horse walked back to their horses and retired. One by one the batteries retired at a walk. The cavalry followed. Before two o'clock the whole force was back again over Range Post. The enemy poured in all the shells and bullets they could, but our men just came back at a walk, and only four were wounded. I am told General Brocklehurst was under strict orders not to lose men.
The shells did more damage than usual in the town. Three houses were wrecked, one "Long Tom" shell falling into Captain Valentine's dining-room, and disturbing the breakfast things. Another came through two bedrooms in the hotel, and spoilt the look of the smoking-room. But I think the only man killed was a Carbineer, who had his throat cut by a splinter as he lay asleep in his tent.
Just after midnight a very unusual thing happened. Each of the Boer guns fired one shot. Apparently they were trained before sunset and fired at a given signal. The shells woke me up, whistling over the roof. Most of the townspeople rushed, lightly clad, to their holes and coverts. The troops stood to arms. But the rest of the night was quiet.' Apparently the Boers, contrary to their character, had only done it to annoy, because they knew it teased us.