"My son, if besieged, with an enemy shelling, Take the line of a foe in the choice of a dwelling." THE " LADYSMITH LYRE."
We must now take our readers back to the early days of November. It will be remembered that communication with Ladysmith was cut off on November 2nd. At that time no one in the town imagined for a moment that it would be severed from the outside world for more than a fortnight at the most, and the chief anxiety of the inhabitants was not for themselves but for the comparatively unprotected southern and eastern portions of Natal.
The day after the siege commenced, on Friday, November 3rd, it was reported that a large commando was m6ving off towards Pietermaritzburg. Sir George White therefore sent out a flying column of cavalry with one battery of artillery towards the south-west, in the direction of Dewdrop, to intercept them if possible. Colonel Brocklehurst was in charge of the column, which, after proceeding about three miles, came in touch with the enemy. A sharp engagement ensued, in which the Boers appeared to suffer severely, the British losing 6 killed and 10 wounded. No decisive result, however, was obtained, and the cavalry gradually withdrew under cover of the artillery. Among the killed was Major Taunton, of the Natal Carbineers, who, while leading his men to take better cover, was shot through the heart.
During this Dewdrop engagement fighting was also taking place on Hyde's farm to the north, and towards Umbulwana Hill to the south-east, the object of the British being to prevent the Boers from approaching too close to the town.
The Boers had now successfully encircled Ladysmith, having mounted about thirty guns of various calibre on the surrounding hills. The principal hills occupied by them were Pepworth's Hill to the north-east ; Lombaard's Kop to the east; and Umbulwana to the southeast. On each of these three hills was mounted a long-range siege-gun, throwing a 96-pound shell.
The British force occupied the hills directly surrounding the town, having a line of defence fifteen miles in length. Immediately on the commencement of the siege, Sir George White set to work to render the town as secure as possible against attack, the military engineers superintending the construction of earthworks, schanzes, sangars, and bomb-proof chambers. The infantry regiments had to occupy these fortifications, bivouacking out on the hills night and day throughout the entire siege.
Although the general opinion was that the siege would be of short duration, Sir George White wisely made every provision to resist a prolonged attack. On Saturday, November 4th, he sent out a despatch to General Joubert, asking him to allow the non-combatants .in the town to leave and proceed to the south. General Joubert replied that he would on no account allow this, but that a neutral camp might be formed outside the town, in which the women, children, sick, and non-combatants might live. The benefit of this concession seemed very questionable, and many of the civilians would not avail themselves of the offer, preferring to face the Boer shells rather than dwell under the white flag. Others were very willing to leave, and on Sunday, November 5th, they moved out of town with the sick and proceeded to the appointed ground, which was four miles to the south, near the railway line. It was called the 'Ndomba Spruit Camp; and every morning a train left Ladysmith carrying provisions and water for its inhabitants. Those who remained in the town jocularly called it " Funkemsdorp."
On the Monday following, the military authorities took over the stocks of provisions in most of the stores. Numbers of horses belonging to civilians were also bought up for the mounted volunteers. On Wednesday the military commenced to serve out rations daily to the civilians, as they could not now obtain many necessaries from the storekeepers. On this day also nearly 200 English prisoners were sent into the town by General Joubert. They were the inhabitants of Dundee who had remained behind after the evacuation by General Yule's column. On the entry of the Boers into Dundee they had been despatched as prisoners of war to Pretoria ; but now that Ladysmith was besieged they were sent into the town to help Sir George White to get through his stock of provisions as soon as possible. Truly, Joubert was " slim " ! Five hundred Indians were also sent into Ladysmith by General Joubert, who stated that they were British subjects; but these Sir George White returned " with thanks," and General Joubert had consequently to send them south.
The enemy's shells now began to fall into the town continually, causing, at first, no small commotion among the inhabitants. After a few days, however, the old proverb, " Familiarity breeds contempt," proved itself true, and children would be seen running after the fragments which had fallen from an exploded shell. Ladysmith, fortunately, covered a large area, and the houses were consequently not situated very close together, each having a large garden around. Most of the shells, therefore, fell into the soft ground, entering without exploding. It really seemed marvellous how few struck the houses or injured human beings. It was luducrous, however, to watch the instinctive cautionary actions of men walking down the streets, as they heard the screech of an approaching shell. They would place themselves flat against the nearest wall, or dodge down a lane or alley. Others would, apparently unconsciously, raise their arms to protect their faces, but as a rule the danger had passed simultaneously with the hearing of the sound. Though most of the shells were harmless, a few of them wrought a good deal of destruction to property, and in some cases were accountable for the loss of life. On the first day of the siege a Kafir was struck by a shell, and the ground for yards around was reddened with his blood, his body being horribly mutilated. Another shell from the Umbulwana passed through the roof of a building, and, bursting inside, completely wrecked the interior, smashing the furniture to atoms, and blowing out the end gable, as well as shattering windows and doors, and injuring the Royal Hotel adjoining. A segment of another shell passed through a patrol tent, in which Trooper Schram, of the Natal Mounted Rifles, was sleeping. It struck him on the neck and breast, causing instantaneous death. Another sad casualty occurred in the death of Dr. Stark, a distinguished entomologist, who was staying at the Royal Hotel. He was entering at the front door at seven o'clock in the evening, when a shell came in at the back of the building and, passing through a brick wall, alighted at his feet. His legs were terribly shattered as the result, and he died within an hour.
Other shells fell in the military camps, in some cases causing loss of life. One shell bursting among the Liverpools killed five and wounded four. In another regiment a shell fell into the officers' mess, killing and wounding seven of the senior officers. It is impossible, however, to enumerate all the sad deaths which occurred ; suffice it to say, that they were very few compared with the number of shells which were thrown into the town.
It may seem strange to the reader to state that, though the advent of these shells was often fraught with destruction, there was sometimes a certain amount of humour attending them ; but such was the case. A friend of the writer was lying in bed when a " Long Tom " shell burst through the wall, and after carrying away the head and foot of the bed vanished into the opposite wall without injuring him in the slightest degree. It is needless, however, to say that he does not see any humour in the incident. A Gordon Highlander was quietly musing, sitting on a box in his tent, when a shell passed between his legs, and, entering the ground, suddenly raised him with the box; but beyond unseating him rather roughly it did him no harm. A gentleman was riding gaily down the street, when a passing shell amputated one of his horse's legs, bringing the rider ungracefully to the ground. Imagine also the consternation of a Kafir woman who was intently . washing a pot in a back yard, when a shell struck the pot and burst. The Kafir woman alighted in the next yard unhurt, but the pot was never seen again.
It soon became the custom for the civilians to forsake the town during the day, while the shelling was on, and take shelter in the banks along the river to the west of the town. These banks rapidly assumed the appearance of a great rabbit warren, some of the holes, or caves, being large enough to contain a whole family. As darkness set in the people would leave these holes and repair to the town, where they would remain until daybreak the next day.
After the siege had continued a few days the Boer gunners began to turn their attention to those buildings which were flying the Red Cross flag, and which were used as hospitals for the wounded. The Town Hall and Sanatorium were both struck three or four times. One shell entered the Town Hall and killed a wounded man who was lying in bed, and wounded eight others. The churches also, which were used as hospitals, were struck, so that Sir George White ordered all the Red Cross flags to be taken down, as they were disregarded by the Boers and only tended to attract their shell fire. In reply to Sir George White's remonstrance, General Joubert stated that he would recognise no Red Cross flag in the town, as the 'Ndomba Spruit Camp had been set apart for hospital purposes.
Wherever three or four people were seen together by the enemy, they would at once receive the attention of the Boer artillery. Thus it came to pass that the burial parties were continually being fired upon, so that at last all funerals took place at night, the chaplains having to recite from memory the Burial Service.
The enemy were not long in making an attack upon the town after its investment. On Thursday, November gth, a determined attempt was made to enter. At four o'clock in the morning the Boer artillery began to vigorously shell the British camps. After awhile the Boers on the north of the town advanced towards the British lines, taking advantage of every possible bit of cover. Their object was to gain a trench which they had previously dug, and from which they would be able to fire. They were unaware, however, that, during the night, the Rifle Brigade had occupied the trench, and were now lying in wait for them. They were allowed to approach to within 350 yards, when a thousand rifles blazed forth, laying many of them low. The remainder turned and fled, and were followed by volley after volley from the British rifles. A mortar which the Boers were using for throwing heavy shells was also struck by the British artillery and rendered useless; and the remainder of their artillery appearing to run short of ammunition, they were unable to cover the disordered retreat of their assailing party.
A simultaneous attack was also made on the south of the town, where the Manchesters were stationed, and here also the enemy suffered severely at the hands of the British. The mounted Zarps rode up over a ridge facing a hill on which were the British artillery. The latter, as a feint, began to retreat, and the Zarps boldly rode out into the open to follow them, when the artillery suddenly turned and sent a withering shell fire into their midst causing them to retreat in confusion.
At eleven o'clock the firing ceased, as the Boers had retreated. Shortly afterwards, however, the naval guns began to boom forth, and each report was followed by ringing cheers from the troops all round the lines of defence. The civilians in the town were at a loss to account for this cheering, as no doubt were the Boers ; but it transpired that Sir George White was firing a Royal Salute in honour of the birthday of H.R.H., the Prince of Wales. It was a most unique salute, being fired with live shell, which could be seen bursting among the enemy's guns on the surrounding hills.
At two o'clock the Boers again approached to attack the town, coming from the direction of Lombaard's Kop and Umbulwana to the east. They were, however, subjected to such a hot shell fire that they beat a hasty retreat. The enemy had thus been repulsed at all points, with a loss of about 800 killed and wounded. The British loss was only 2 killed and 15 wounded. On the following day General Joubert sent into Ladysmith begging for medicines, which Sir George White humanely sent out to him with an English doctor. It was evident, therefore, that the Boers had not anticipated such a severe reverse and were quite unprepared to attend to such a number of wounded.
The usual daily shelling continued until the following Tuesday, November 14th, when a reconnaissance in force was made by the artillery and cavalry towards the west of the town. After a short but sharp skirmish, however, they returned, having inflicted rather heavy loss upon the enemy at the expense of only one man being wounded.
The town now settled down to a time of weary waiting—longing for news of the Relief Column. Kumours oi me most extravagant nature were flying around on all sides, many of which tended to depress the spirits of the civilians. Tommy Atkins, however, managed to preserve a placid and even temperament, and rather preferred to hear the shells hissing through the air than endure the dull monotony when the enemy desisted from their firing. He humorously nicknamed the Boer guns, some of the names being very appropriate and suggestive. " Long Tom " and " Slim Piet" were the two largest guns which did the most damage. Then there were " Silent Susan," "Puffing Billy" and "Coolie Mary." There were also the " Umbulwana Sneak," and " Piffling Jimmie," which could never hit the object aimed at; and last came " Weary Willie," which always dropped its shell a long way short of the mark.
Two or three newspapers were started by enterprising journalists for the amusement and edification of the besieged. The first issue of the Bombshell appeared on November 17th. It was " struck off" on the cyclo-style, and was a very creditable little paper. The Ladysmith Lyre of which the responsible editor was the late Mr. G. W. Steevens, was also a great credit to those who produced it, being most humorous, and containing excellent cartoons. The monotony was also relieved by the organisation of cricket and football matches as well as polo ; and it often looked absurdly ridiculous to see the indifference with which the players and spectators treated the passing shells, some of which would burst within the limits of the "field."
An incident, however, occurred on Thursday, December 7th, which tended to relieve the monotony of siege life, and even fill the whole of the inhabitants of Ladysmith with joyous excitement. On the evening of that day a picked force of 500 Natal Volunteers, and 100 Imperial Light Horse left Ladysmith, under the command of Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, to storm Gun Hill, which was a ridge running like a spur from Lombaard's Kop. The most strict silence was observed as the men ascended the hill. On reaching the enemy's pickets they were challenged, and, thus, seeing they were discovered, advanced at the double. ' A few shots were fired at them, but the command rang out, "Fix bayonets, and give them cold steel! " They were, unfortunately, not provided with bayonets, but the Boers, being ignorant of this, turned and fled, leaving everything behind them, including one 6-inch "Long Tom," a 4.7 howitzer and a Maxim gun. The two large guns were immediately blown up with guncotton, and the Maxim gun was taken back to the town. The force was back again in Ladysmith by half-past three on Friday morning, having been away only five hours. This glorious feat was performed with the loss of only i man killed and 7 wounded.
During Friday morning Sir George White had the force paraded before him, and, in addressing them, thanked them for the splendid service they had performed, and praised them for their great gallantry. The whole garrison also poured unstinted praise upon the brave volunteers for their successful attack.
This night attack on Gun Hill had proved so successful that Sir George White determined to try another. On the following Sunday evening, December 10th, a force of 500 men of the Rifle Brigade, under Colonel Metcalfe, left the British lines to attempt the destruction of a 4.7 howitzer on Surprise Hill, which was two miles due north of Ladysmith. Leaving Observation Hill they made a detour to the left, to avoid a Boer position, and reached the foot of Surprise Hill, whose steep and rugged sides they immediately began to ascend. The summit was soon reached and carried at the point of the bayonet with a ringing cheer, the enemy flying in all directions. The howitzer was found in its fortalice, and the Engineers immediately prepared to destroy it. The fuse, however, was found to be defective, thus causing a delay of twenty minutes, and the Boers were, during this period, beginning to mass a short distance off and to fire volleys into the party. The gun having been destroyed, a bayonet charge was made into the enemy to scatter them and prevent them from firing into the Rifle Brigade during its retreat. They were completely routed, many being killed; and then the Rifle Brigade turned to retreat. A strong force of the enemy, however, had collected near the foot of the hill to cut off their retreat, and it was found that they had to pass through a lane formed by the enemy, who poured in a deadly cross-fire at close quarters.
Nothing daunted, however, they charged down the hill with bayonets fixed, working terrible execution among the enemy. A great state of confusion existed during this charge, for in the darkness the opposing forces became mixed, and the Boers shouted out orders in English, thus deceiving the British and leading them astray. The bottom, of the hill was, however, reached at last, and the plucky Rifle Brigade asked that it might be allowed to charge back again into the enemy, but this Colonel Metcalfe would not allow, he having attained his object —the howitzer having been destroyed.
The British loss was 12 killed and 50 wounded ; but the enemy must have lost much more heavily, for among the Rifle Brigade there were found, next morning, 96 blood-stained bayonets.
When the ambulance corps went out they found the Boers terribly enraged at the loss of another gun and so many men, for they placed them all under arrest, and it was not until Sir George White had sent out and remonstrated with General Schalk Burger, who was in command, that they were liberated and allowed to attend to the wounded and bury the dead.
The news of this victory sent a thrill of pride and satisfaction through the inhabitants of the town, causing them to forget for awhile their own terrible plight. But time soon began to again hang heavily, there being nothing of any public interest to arouse the inhabitants from their morbid forebodings. Occasionally native runners would manage to pass through the Boer lines with despatches to the outside world, and sometimes they would safely return, bringing with them two or three newspapers as well as letters for some of the beleaguered, but they were generally caught by the Boer sentries. Heliographic communication existed, however, from the beginning of December to the close of the siege, so that they were acquainted with the movements of the Relief Column ; and bitter was the disappointment when they heard of General Buller's reverse at Colenso on December 15th. Many became despondent, but the majority were still hopeful, having perfect faith in the abilities of the relieving force. They were again subjected to two or three weeks of monotonous siege life, with nothing to relieve the strain. Sickness was now beginning to find its way among the ranks, and, to a lesser extent, among the inhabitants. Being the middle of summer, the heat was intense, and many were struck down with enteric fever. Dysentery also played havoc ; and it was found that many more deaths were caused by disease than by the enemy's shells which fell daily into the town.
As Christmas Day approached the signs of relief seemed as far off as ever ; but, notwithstanding this, all possible preparations were made for spending as happy a Christmas as circumstances would allow. Delicacies of all sorts were now becoming scarce, but what remained were gathered together to cheer the " festive board" ; and a really jolly Christmas was spent, which tended to put fresh spirit into many languishing hearts.
Christmas went by and New Year came, and still no relief! Life became more monotonous than ever. But soon an event happened which filled the whole garrison and town with excitement.