January 22, 1900.
Twelve weeks to-day since Black Monday, when our isolation really began! A heliogram came from Buller to say all was going well, and in this evening's Orders we were officially informed that relief is "within measurable distance." I don't know about time, but in space that measurable distance is hardly more than fifteen miles. From Observation Hill I again watched the British shells breaking over the ridge above the ford. The Boers had moved one of their waggon laagers a little further back, but the main camps were unchanged. With a telescope I could make out where their hospital was—in a cottage by a wood—and I followed an ambulance waggon driving at a trot to three or four points on ridge and plain, gathering up the sick or wounded, and returning to hospital.
The mass of Boers appeared to be lying under the shelter of Taba Nyama (or Intaba Mnyama—Black Mountain). It is a nine-mile range of hills running east and west, nearly parallel to the Tugela, and having Potgieter's Drift on its left. The left extremity, looking over the Drift, rises into double peaks, and is called Mabedhlane, or the Paps, by Zulus. The main Boer position appears to be halfway up these peaks and along the range to their right. To-day it is said that the relieving force intends to approach the mountain by parallels, sapping and mining as it goes, and treating the positions like a mediæval fortress, or one of those ramparted and turreted cities which "Uncle Toby" used to besiege on the bowling green.
One's only fear is about the delay. The population at Intombi is now approaching 4,000, nearly 3,000 being sick. I doubt if we could put 4,000 men in the field to-day. Men and horses crawl feebly about, shaken with every form of internal pain and weakness. Women suffer even more. The terror of the shells has caused thirty-two premature births since the siege began. It is true a heliogram to-day tells us there are seventy-four big waggons waiting at Frere for our relief—milk, vegetables, forage, eleven waggons of rum, fifty cases of whisky, 5,000 cigarettes, and so on. But all depends upon those parallels, so slowly advancing against Taba Nyama, and our insides are being sapped and mined far more quickly.
Towards noon a disaster occurred, which has depressed the whole town. Two of the Powerful's bluejackets have lately been making what they called a good thing by emptying unexploded Boer shells of their charges, so that the owners might display them with safety and pride when the siege is over. For this service they generally received 10s. each. It is only two days since they were in my cottage—chiselling out the melinite from a complete "Long Tom" shell which alighted in my old Scot's garden. I watched them accomplish that task safely, and this morning they set to work upon a similar shell by order of the Wesleyan minister, who wished to keep it in his window as a symbol of Christianity. One of the men was holding it between his knees, while the other was quietly chipping away, when suddenly it exploded. Fragments of one of the men strewed the minister's house—the other lay wondering upon the ground, but without his legs. Whilst I write he is still nominally alive, and keeps asking for his mate. One of his legs has been picked up near the Town Hall—about 150 yards away.
A lesser disaster this morning befel Captain Jennings Bramley, of the 19th Hussars. Whilst on picket he felt something slide over his legs, and looking up he saw it was a snake over 5ft. long. The creature at once raised its head also, and deliberately spat in his face, filling both eyes with poison. That is the invariable defence of the "Spitting Snake" (Rinkholz in Dutch, and Mbamba Twan or child catcher in Zulu). The pain is agonising. The eye turns red and appears to run with blood, but after a day or two the poison passes off and sight returns. The snake is not otherwise poisonous, but apparently can count on success in its shots at men, leopards, or dogs.
January 23, 1900.
Soon after dawn our own guns along the northern defences from Tunnel Hill to King's Post woke me with an extraordinary din. They could not have made more noise about another general attack, but there was no rifle fire. Getting up very unwillingly at 4.30 a.m., I climbed up Junction Hill and looked up the Broad valley, but not a single Boer was in sight. The firing went on till about six, and then abruptly ceased. I heard afterwards that Buller had asked us to keep as many Boers here as possible. I suppose we expended about 200 rounds of our precious ammunition. A cool and cloudy sky made the heliograph useless, but in the night the clouds had served to reflect the brilliance of Buller's searchlight.
So far the Boers have passed us all round in strategy, but in searchlights they are nowhere, though Bulwan makes a grand attempt. All day from King's Post or Waggon Hill I watched the Great Plain of Taba Nyama as usual. Now and then we could see the shells bursting, but the Boer camps have not moved.
The ration coffee has come to an end, except a reserve of 3 cwt, which would hardly last a day. The tea ration is again reduced. The flour mixed with mealy meal makes a very sour bread. The big 5th Lancers horses are so hungry that at night they eat not only their picket ropes but each other's manes and tails. They are so weak that they fall three or four times in an hour if the men ride them. Enteric is not quite so bad as it was, but dysentery increases. The numbers of military sick alone at Intombi, not counting all the sick in the camps and hospitals here, are 2,040 to-day.
January 24, 1900.
The entire interest of the day was centred on Taba Nyama—that black mountain, commanding the famous drift in its front and the stretch of plain behind. It is fifteen miles away. From Observation Hill one could see the British shells bursting along this ridge all morning, as well as in the midst of the Boer tents half-way down the double peaks, and at the foot of the hill. The firing began at 3 a.m., and lasted with extreme severity till noon, the average of audible shells being at least five a minute. We could also see the white bursts of shrapnel from our field artillery. In the afternoon I went to Waggon Hill, and with the help of a telescope made out a large body of men—about 1,000 I suppose—creeping up the distant crest and spreading along the summit. I could only conjecture them to be English from their presence on the exposed ridge, and from their regular though widely extended formation. They were hardly visible except as a series of black points. Thunderclouds hung over the Drakensberg behind, and the sun was obscured. Yet I had no doubt in my own mind that the position was won. It was five o'clock, or a little later.
Others saw large parties of Boers fleeing for life up dongas and over plains, the phantom carriage-and-four driving hastily north-westward after an urgent warning, and other such melodramatic incidents, which escaped my notice. The position of the falling shells, and the movement of those minute black specks were to me enough of drama for one day's life.
In the evening, I am told, the General received a signal from Buller: "Have taken hill. Fight went well." No one thought or talked of anything but the prospect of near relief. Yet (besides old Bulwan's violent bombardment of the station) there was one other event in the day deserving record. Hearing an unhappy case of an officer's widow left destitute, Colonel Knox, commanding the Divisional Troops, has offered twelve bottles of whisky for auction to-morrow, and hopes to make £100 by the sale. I think he will succeed, unless Buller shakes the market.
January 25, 1900.
Before 6 a.m. I was on Observation Hill again, watching. One hopeful sign was at once obvious. The Boer waggon-laagers were breaking up. The two great lines of waggons between the plantations near Pinkney's farm were gone. By 6.30 they were all creeping away with their oxen up a road that runs north-west among the hills in the direction of Tintwa Pass. It was the most hopeful movement we had yet seen, but one large laager was still left at the foot of Fos Kop, or Mount Moriah.
The early morning was bright, but a mist soon covered the sun. Rain fell, and though the air afterwards was strangely clear, the heliograph could not be used till the afternoon. We were left in uncertainty. Shells were bursting along the ridge of Taba Nyama, on the double peaks and the Boer tents below. Only on the highest point in the centre we could see no firing, and that in itself was hopeful. About 8 a.m. the fire slackened and ceased. We conjectured an armistice. Through a telescope we could see little black specks on the centre of the hill; they appeared to be building sangars. The Naval Cone Redoubt, having the best telescope, report that the walls are facing this way. In that case the black specks were probably British, and yet not even in the morning sun did we get a word of certainty. We hardly know what to think.
In the afternoon the situation was rather worse. We saw the shelling begin again, but no progress seemed to be made. About 4 p.m. we witnessed a miserable sight. Along the main track which crosses the Great Plain and passes round the end of Telegraph Hill, almost within range of our guns, came a large party of men tramping through the dust. They were in khaki uniforms, marched in fours, and kept step. Undoubtedly they were British prisoners on their way to Pretoria. Their numbers were estimated at fifty, ninety, and 150 by different look-out stations. In front and rear trudged an unorganised gang of Boers, evidently acting as escort. It was a miserable and depressing thing to see.
At last a cipher message began to come through on the heliograph. There was immense excitement at the Signal Station. The figures were taken down. Colonel Duff buttoned the precious paper in his pocket. Off he galloped to Headquarters. Major De Courcy Hamilton was called to decipher the news. It ran as follows: "Kaffir deserter from Boer lines reports guns on Bulwan and Telegraph Hills removed!"
It was dated a day or two back. To-day both guns mentioned have been unusually active. Their shells have been bursting thick among us, and the sound of their firing must have been quite audible below. Yet this was the message.
Eggs to-night fetched 30s. 6d. per dozen; a sucking pig 35s.; a chicken 20s. In little over a week we shall have to begin killing our horses because they will have nothing to eat.
January 26, 1900.
Full of hopes and fears, I rode early up to Observation Hill as usual, and saw at once that the Boer waggon-laagers, which I watched departing yesterday, had returned in the night. Perhaps there were not quite so many waggons, and the site had been shifted a few hundred yards. But still there they stood again. Their presence is not hopeful, but it does not imply disaster. They may have gone in haste, and been recalled at leisure. Buller may have demanded their return under the conditions of a possible armistice. They may even have found the passes blocked by our men. Anyhow, there they are, and their return is the only important news of the day.
No message or tidings came through. The day was cloudy, and ended in quiet rain. We saw a few shells fall on the plain at the foot of Taba Nyama, and what looked like a few on the summit. But nothing else could be made out, except that the Boer ambulances were very busy driving round.
Among ourselves the chief event was the feverish activity of the Telegraph Hill big gun. Undeterred by our howitzers, he continued nearly all morning throwing shells at every point within sight. By one supreme effort, tilting his nose high up into the air, he threw one sheer up to the Manchesters on Cæsar's Camp—a range of some 12,000 yards, the gunners say. Perhaps he was trying to make up for the silence of his Bulwan brother. It is rumoured that Pepworth Hill is to have a successor to the "Long Tom" of earlier and happier days. Six empty waggons with double spans of oxen were seen yesterday wending towards Bulwan.
Our hunger is increasing. Men and horses suffer horribly from weakness and disease. About fifteen horses die a day, and the survivors gasp and cough at every step, or fall helpless.
Biscuits are to be issued to-night instead of bread, because flour is running short. It is believed that not 500 men could be got together capable of marching five miles under arms, so prevalent are all diseases of the bowels. As to luxuries, even the cavalry are smoking the used tea-leaves out of the breakfast kettles. "They give you a kind of hot taste," they say.
January 27, 1900.
I was again on Observation Hill, watching. Nothing had changed, and there was no sign of movement. The Boers rode to and fro as usual, and their cattle grazed in scattered herds. Now and then a big gun fired, but I could see no bursting shells, and the sound seemed further away. I crossed the broad valley to Leicester Post. Our cattle and horses were trying to pick up a little grass there, while the howitzer and automatic "pom-pom" shelled them from Surprise Hill. "Pom-poms" are elegant little shells, about five inches long, and some with pointed heads were designed for the British Navy, but rejected. The cattle sniff at them inquisitively, and Kaffirs rush for a perfect specimen, which fetches from 10s. to 30s. For they are suitable presents for ladies, but unhappily all that fell near me to-day exploded into fragments.
The telescope on Leicester Post showed me nothing new. Not a single man was now to be seen on Spion Kop or the rest of Taba Nyama. At two o'clock the evil news reached us. The heliograph briefly told the story; the central hill captured by the British on Wednesday afternoon, recaptured at night by the Boers, and held by them ever since. Our loss about five hundred and some prisoners.
It was the worst news we have yet received, all the harder to bear because our hopes had been raised to confidence. It is harder to face disappointment now than six weeks ago. Even on biscuit and trek-oxen we can only live for thirty-two days longer, and nearly all the horses must die. The worst is that in their sickness and pain the men could hardly resist another assault. The sickness of the garrison is not to be measured by hospital returns, for nearly every one on duty is ill, though he may refuse to "go sick." The record of Intombi Camp is not cheering. The total of military sick to-day is 1,861, including 828 cases of enteric, 259 cases of dysentery, and 312 wounded. The numbers have slightly diminished lately because an average of fourteen a day have been dying, and all convalescents are hurried back to Ladysmith. The number of graves down there now is 282 for men and five for officers, but deaths increase so fast that long trenches are dug, and the bodies laid in two rows, one above the other. "You see," said the gravedigger, "I'm goin' to put Patrick O'Connor here with Daniel Murphy."
Sunday, January 28, 1900.
From my station on Observation Hill I could see a new Boer laager drawn up, about six miles away, at the far end of the Long Valley. Otherwise all remains quiet and unmoved. Three or four distant guns were heard in the afternoon, but that was all.
On the whole the spirit of the garrison was much more cheerful. We began to talk again of possible relief within a week. The heliograph brought a message of thanks from Lord Roberts for our "heroic, splendid defence." Every one felt proud and happy. The words were worth a fresh brigade.
In the morning a consultation was held on the condition of the cavalry horses. At first it was determined to kill three hundred, so as to save food for the rest, but afterwards the orders were to turn them out on the flat beyond the racecourse, and let them survive if they could. The artillery horses must be fed as long as possible. The unfortunate walers of the 19th Hussars will probably be among the first to go. Coming straight from India, they were put to terribly hard work on landing, and have never recovered. Walers cannot do on grass which keeps local horses and even Arabs fat enough. What the average horse is chiefly suffering from now is a kind of influenza, accompanied by a frightful cough. My own talking horse kept trying to lie down to-day, and said he felt languid and queer. When he endeavoured to trot or canter a cough took him fit to break his mother's heart.