January 29, 1900.
The only change to-day was the steady passage of Boers westward, to concentrate afresh round Taba Nyama. Their new laager up the Long Valley had disappeared. Large bodies of men had been seen coming up from Colenso. The crisis of the war in Natal is evidently near. Meantime Kaffir deserters brought in a lot of chatter about the recent fighting. On one point they generally agreed—that Kruger himself was with his men. It is very likely. The staunch old prophet and patriot would hardly stay away when the issue involves the existence of his people.
But when the Kaffirs go on to say that Kruger, Joubert, and Steyn stood together on Mount Moriah (Loskop) to witness the battle, the addition may be only picturesque. It would be well if that were the worst fiction credulity swallowed. One of the head nurses from Intombi told me to-day that the Boers had bribed an old herbalist—she thought at Dundee or somewhere—to reveal a terrible poison, into which they dipped their cartridges, and even the bullets inside their shrapnel! To this she attributed the suppuration of several recent wounds. Of the garrison's unhealthy condition she took no account whatever. No, it was poison. She had heard the tale somewhere—from a railway official, she thought—and believed it with the assurance of the Christian verity. Nearly every one is like that, and the wildest story finds disciples.
Rations are again reduced to-day to the following quantities: tinned meat 1/2 lb., or fresh meat 1 lb.; biscuit 1/2 lb., or bread 1 lb.; tea, 1/6 oz.; sugar, 1-1/2 ozs.; salt, 1/2 oz., and pepper 1/36 oz.
It has also been decided to turn all the horses out to grass, except the artillery, three hundred from the cavalry, seventy officers' chargers, and twenty engineers' draught. These few are to be kept fed with rations of 3 lbs. of mealies, 4 lbs. of chaff, 16 lbs. of grass, 1-1/2 ozs. of salt. The artillery horses will get 2 lbs. of oats or bran besides. In the Imperial Light Horse they are killing one of their horses every other day, and eating him.
January 30, 1900.
Mortals depend for their happiness not only on their circulation but on the weather. To-day ws certainly the gloomiest in all the siege. It rained steadily night and morning, the steaming heat was overpowering, and we sludged about, sweating like the victims of a foul Turkish bath. Towards evening it suddenly turned cold. Black and dismal clouds hung over all the hills. The distance was fringed with funereal indigo. The wearied garrison crept through their duties, hungry and gaunt as ghosts. There was no heliograph to cheer us up, and hardly a sound of distant guns. The rumour had got abroad that we were to be left to our fate, whilst Roberts, with the main column, diverted all England's thoughts to Bloemfontein. Like one man we lost our spirits, our hopes, and our tempers.
The depression probably arose from the reduction of rations which I mentioned yesterday. The remaining food has been organised to last another forty-two days, and it is, of course, assumed we shall have to use it all, whereas the new arrangement is only a precaution. Colonel Ward and Colonel Stoneman are not to be caught off their guard. One of their chief difficulties just now is the large body of Indians—bearers, sais, bakers, servants of all kinds—who came over with the troops, and will not eat the sacred cow. Out of about 2,000, only 487 will consent to do that. The remainder can only get very little rice and mealies. Their favourite ghi, or clarified butter, has entirely gone, and their hunger is pitiful. The question now is whether or not their religious scruples will allow them to eat horse.
Most of us have been eating horse to-day with excellent result. But one of the most pitiful things I have seen in all the war was the astonishment and terror of the cavalry horses at being turned loose on the hills and not allowed to come back to their accustomed lines at night. All afternoon one met parties of them strolling aimlessly about the roads or up the rocky footpaths—poor anatomies of death, with skeleton ribs and drooping eyes. At about seven o'clock two or three hundred of them gathered on the road through the hollow between Convent Hill and Cove Redoubt, and tried to rush past the Naval Brigade to the cavalry camp, where they supposed their food and grooming and cheerful society were waiting for them as usual. They had to be driven back by mounted Basutos with long whips, till at last they turned wearily away to spend the night upon the bare hillside.
January 31, 1900.
Again the sky was clouded, and except during an hour's sunshine in the afternoon no heliograph could work. But below the clouds the distance was singularly clear, and one could see all the Dutch camps, and the Boers moving over the plain. The camps are a little reduced. Only four tents are left in the white string that hung down the side of Taba Nyama.
Two parties, of forty Boers apiece, passed north along the road behind Telegraph Ridge whilst I was on Observation Hill in the morning. But there was no special meaning in their movements, and absolutely no news came in. Only rumours, the rumours of despair—Warren surrounded, Buller's ammunition train attacked and cut to pieces, the whole relieving force in hopeless straits.
In the town and camps things went on as usual, under a continued weight of depression. The cold and wet of the night brought on a terrible increase of dysentery, and I never saw the men look so wretched and pinched. When officers in high quarters talk magnificently about the excellent spirits of the troops, I think they do not always realise what those excellent spirits imply. I wish they had more time to visit the remnants of battalions defending the hills—out in cold and rain all night, out in the blazing sun all day, with nothing to look forward to but a trek-ox or a horse stewed in unseasoned water, two biscuits or some sour bread, and a tasteless tea, generally half cold. No beer, no tobacco, no variety at all. To me, one of the highest triumphs of the siege is the achievement of MacNalty, a young lieutenant of the Army Service Corps. For nights past he has been working in the station engine shed at an apparatus of his own invention for boiling down horses into soup. After many experiments in process and flavouring, and many disappointments, he has secured an admirable essence of horse. This will sound familiar and commonplace to people who can get a bottle of such things at grocer's, but it may save many a good soldier's life none the less. I hope to see the process at work, and describe it later on.
Mr. Lines, the town clerk, who has quietly stuck to his duties in spite of confusion and shells, gave me details to-day of the rations allowed to civilians. During the siege there has been a fairly steady white population of 560 residents and 540 refugees, or 1,100 in all. This does not include the civilians at Intombi, whose numbers are still unpublished. Practically all the civilians are drawing rations, for which they apply at the market between 5 and 7 p.m. They get groceries, bread or biscuit, and meat in the same quantities as the soldiers. Children under ten receive half rations. Each applicant has to be recommended by the mayor or magistrate, and brings a check with him. I suppose the promise to pay at the end of the siege is only a nominal formula.
The civilian Indians and Kaffirs number 150 and 300 respectively, and draw their rations at the station, the organisation being under Major Thompson, A.C.G., as is the whole of the milk supply, now set aside for the sick. The Indian ration is atta, 4 oz.; rice, 3 oz.; mealie meal, 9 oz.; salt, 1/2 oz.; goor, 1-1/4 oz.; amchur, 1/4 oz. And those who will eat meat get 8 oz. twice a week instead of mealies. The Kaffir ration is simpler: fresh meat, 1 lb.; mealie meal, 3/4 lb.; salt, 1/2 oz.
February 1, 1900.
How we should have laughed in November at the thought of being shut up here till February? But here we are, and the outlook grows more hopeless. People are miserably depressed. It would be impossible to get up sports or concerts now. Too many are sick, too many dead. The laughter has gone out of the siege, or remains only as bitter laughter when the word relief is spoken. We are allowed to know nothing for certain, but the conviction grows that we are to be left to our fate for another three weeks at least, while the men slowly rot. A Natal paper has come in with an account of Buller's defeat at Taba Nyama on the 25th. We read with astonishment the loud praises of a masterly retreat over the Tugela without the loss of a single man. When shall we hear of a masterly advance to our aid? Do we lose no men?
To-day the morning was cold and cloudy, as it has been since Monday, but the sun broke out for an hour or two, in the afternoon, and official messages could be sent through by heliograph. For information and relief we received the following words, and those only:—
"German specialist landed Delagoa Bay pledges himself to dam up Klip River and flood Ladysmith out."
That was all they deigned to tell us.
February 2, 1900.
After a misty dawn, soaked with minute rain, the sky slowly cleared at last, letting the merry sunshine through. At once the heliograph began to flash. I sent off a brief message, and soon afterwards the signal "Line clear" was sent from Zwartz Kop over the Tugela. The "officials" began to arrive, and we hoped for news at last. Three or four messages came through, but who could have guessed the thrilling importance of the first? It ran:—
"Sir Stafford Northcote, Governor of Bombay, has been made a peer."
The other messages were vague and dull enough—something about the Prince of Wales reviewing Yeomanry, and the race for some hunt cup in India. But that peerage! To a sick and hungry garrison!
We were shot at rather briskly all day by the enemy's guns. The groups of wandering horses were a tempting aim. The poor creatures still try to get back to their lines, and some of them stand there motionless all day, rather than seek grass upon the hills. The cavalry have made barbed-wire pens, and collect most of them at night. But many are lost, some stolen, and more die of starvation and neglect. An increasing number are killed for rations, and to-day twenty-eight were specially shot for the chevril factory. I visited the place this afternoon. The long engine-shed at the station has been turned to use. Only one engine remains inside, and that is used as a "bomb-proof," under which all hands run when the shelling is heavy. Into other engine-pits cauldrons have been sunk, constructed of iron trolleys without their wheels, and plastered round with clay. A wood fire is laid along under the cauldrons, on the same principle as in a camp kitchen. The horseflesh is brought up to the station in huge red halves of beast, run into the shed on trucks, cut up by the Kaffirs, who also pound the bones, thrown into the boiling cauldron, and so—"Farewell, my Arab steed!"
There is not enough hydrochloric or pepsine left in the town to make a true extract of horse, but by boiling and evaporation the strength is raised till every pint issued will make three pints of soup. A punkah is to be fitted to make the evaporation more rapid, and perhaps my horse will ultimately appear as a jelly or a lozenge. But at present the stuff is nothing but a strong kind of soup, and at the first issue to-day the men had to carry it in the ordinary camp-kettles.
Every man in the garrison to-night receives a pint of horse essence hot. I tasted it in the cauldron, straight from the horse, and found it so sustaining that I haven't eaten anything since. The dainty Kaffirs and Colonial Volunteers refuse to eat horse in any form. But the sensible British soldier takes to it like a vulture, and begs for the lumps of stewed flesh from which the soup has been made. With the joke, "Mind that stuff; it kicks!" he carries it away, and gets a chance, as he says, of filling—well, we know what he says. The extract has a registered label:—
Under the signature of Aduncus Bea and Co. acute signallers will recognise the official title of Colonel Ward.
Since the beginning of the siege one of the saddest sights has been the Boer prisoners lounging away their days on the upper gallery of the gaol. They have been there since Elands Laagte, nearly four months now, with no news, nothing to do, and nothing to see except one little bit of road visible over the wall.
The solitude has so unnerved them that when the shells fall near the gaol or whiz over the roof the prisoners are said to howl and scream. On visiting them to-day I found that only seven real prisoners of war are left here, the others being suspects or possible traitors, arrested on suspicion of signalling or sending messages to the enemy. Among them is the French deserter I mentioned weeks ago. The little man is much reduced in girth, and terribly lonely among the Dutch, but he appears to grow no wiser for solitude and low living.
Among the twenty-three suspects it was pleasant to see one new arrival who has been the curse of the town since the beginning of the siege, when he went about telling the terrified women and children that if they were not blown to bits by the shells the Boers would soon get them. So he has gone on ever since, till to-day Colonel Park, of the Devons, had him arrested for the military offence of "causing despondency." He had kept asking the Devons when they were going to run away, and how they would like the walk to Pretoria when Ladysmith surrendered. There are about thirty Kaffirs also in the prison, chiefly thieves, but some suspects. They are kept in the women's quarters, for the kind of woman who fills Kaffir gaols has lifted up her blankets and gone to Maritzburg or Intombi Camp.