Frere: December 24, 1899.
The voyage of the "Induna" from Delagoa Bay to Durban was speedy and prosperous, and on the afternoon of the 23rd we approached our port, and saw the bold headland that shields it rising above the horizon to the southward. An hour's steaming brought us to the roads. More than twenty great transports and supply vessels lay at anchor, while three others, crowded from end to end with soldiery, circled impatiently as they waited for pilots to take them into the harbour. Our small vessel was not long in reaching the jetty, and I perceived that a very considerable crowd had gathered to receive us. But it was not until I stepped on shore that I realised that I was myself the object of this honourable welcome. I will not chronicle the details of what followed. It is sufficient to say that many hundreds of the people of Durban took occasion to express their joy at my tiny pinch of triumph over the Boers, and that their enthusiasm was another sincere demonstration of their devotion to the Imperial cause, and their resolve to carry the war to an indisputable conclusion. After an hour of turmoil, which I frankly admit I enjoyed extremely, I escaped to the train, and the journey to Pietermaritzburg passed very quickly in the absorbing occupation of devouring a month's newpapers and clearing my palate from the evil taste of the exaggerations of Pretoria by a liberal antidote of our own versions. I rested a day at Government House, and enjoyed long conversations with Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson—the Governor under whose wise administration Natal has become the most patriotic province of the Empire. Moreover, I was fortunate in meeting Colonel Hime, the Prime Minister of the Colony, a tall, grey, keen-eyed man, who talked only of the importance of fighting this quarrel out to the end, and of the obstinate determination of the people he represented to stand by the Queen's Government through all the changing moods of fortune. I received then and have since been receiving a great number of telegrams and messages from all kinds of people and from all countries of the earth. One gentleman invited me to shoot with him in Central Asia. Another favoured me with a poem which he had written in my honour, and desired me to have it set to music and published. A third—an American—wanted me to plan a raid into Transvaal territory along the Delagoa Bay line to arm the prisoners and seize the President. Five Liberal Electors of the borough of Oldham wrote to say that they would give me their votes on a future occasion 'irrespective of politics.' Young ladies sent me woollen comforters. Old ladies forwarded their photographs; and hundreds of people wrote kind letters, many of which in the stir of events I have not yet been able to answer.
The correspondence varied vastly in tone as well as in character, and I cannot help quoting a couple of telegrams as specimens. The first was from a worthy gentleman who, besides being a substantial farmer, is also a member of the Natal Parliament. He wrote: 'My heartiest congratulations on your wonderful and glorious deeds, which will send such a thrill of pride and enthusiasm through Great Britain and the United States of America, that the Anglo-Saxon race will be irresistible.'
The intention of the other, although his message was shorter, was equally plain.
'London, December 30th.—Best friends here hope you won't go making further ass of yourself.—M'NEILL.'
This shows, I think, how widely human judgment may differ even in regard to ascertained facts.
I found time to visit the hospitals—long barracks which before the war were full of healthy men, and are now crammed with sick and wounded. Everything seemed beautifully arranged, and what money could buy and care provide was at the service of those who had sustained hurt in the public contention. But for all that I left with a feeling of relief. Grim sights and grimmer suggestions were at every corner. Beneath a verandah a dozen wounded officers, profusely swathed in bandages, clustered in a silent brooding group. Nurses waited quietly by shut doors that none might disturb more serious cases. Doctors hurried with solemn faces from one building to another. Here and there men pushed stretchers on rubber-tyred wheels about the paths, stretchers on which motionless forms lay shrouded in blankets. One, concerning whom I asked, had just had part of his skull trepanned: another had suffered amputation. And all this pruning and patching up of broken men to win them a few more years of crippled life caught one's throat like the penetrating smell of the iodoform. Nor was I sorry to hasten away by the night mail northwards to the camps. It was still dark as we passed Estcourt, but morning had broken when the train reached Frere, and I got out and walked along the line inquiring for my tent, and found it pitched by the side of the very same cutting down which I had fled for my life from the Boer marksmen, and only fifty yards from the spot on which I had surrendered myself prisoner. So after much trouble and adventure I came safely home again to the wars. Six weeks had passed since the armoured train had been destroyed. Many changes had taken place. The hills which I had last seen black with the figures of the Boer riflemen were crowned with British pickets. The valley in which we had lain exposed to their artillery fire was crowded with the white tents of a numerous army. In the hollows and on the middle slopes canvas villages gleamed like patches of snowdrops. The iron bridge across the Blue Krantz River lay in a tangle of crimson-painted wreckage across the bottom of the ravine, and the railway ran over an unpretentious but substantial wooden structure. All along the line near the station fresh sidings had been built, and many trains concerned in the business of supply occupied them. When I had last looked on the landscape it meant fierce and overpowering danger, with the enemy on all sides. Now I was in the midst of a friendly host. But though much was altered some things remained the same. The Boers still held Colenso. Their forces still occupied the free soil of Natal. It was true that thousands of troops had arrived to make all efforts to change the situation. It was true that the British Army had even advanced ten miles. But Ladysmith was still locked in the strong grip of the invader, and as I listened I heard the distant booming of the same bombardment which I had heard two months before, and which all the time I was wandering had been remorselessly maintained and patiently borne.
Looking backward over the events of the last two months, it is impossible not to admire the Boer strategy. From the beginning they have aimed at two main objects: to exclude the war from their own territories, and to confine it to rocky and broken regions suited to their tactics. Up to the present time they have been entirely successful. Though the line of advance northwards through the Free State lay through flat open country, and they could spare few men to guard it, no British force has assailed this weak point. The 'farmers' have selected their own ground and compelled the generals to fight them on it. No part of the earth's surface is better adapted to Boer tactics than Northern Natal, yet observe how we have been gradually but steadily drawn into it, until the mountains have swallowed up the greater part of the whole Army Corps. By degrees we have learned the power of our adversary. Before the war began men said: 'Let them come into Natal and attack us if they dare. They would go back quicker than they would come.' So the Boers came and fierce fighting took place, but it was the British who retired. Then it was said: 'Never mind. The forces were not concentrated. Now that all the Natal Field Force is massed at Ladysmith, there will be no mistake.' But still, in spite of Elandslaagte, concerning which the President remarked: 'The foolhardy shall be punished,' the Dutch advance continued. The concentrated Ladysmith force, twenty squadrons, six batteries, and eleven battalions, sallied out to meet them. The Staff said: 'By to-morrow night there will not be a Boer within twenty miles of Ladysmith.' But by the evening of October 30 the whole of Sir George White's command had been flung back into the town with three hundred men killed and wounded, and nearly a thousand prisoners. Then every one said: 'But now we have touched bottom. The Ladysmith position is the ne plus ultra. So far they have gone; but no further!' Then it appeared that the Boers were reaching out round the flanks. What was their design? To blockade Ladysmith? Ridiculous and impossible! However, send a battalion to Colenso to keep the communications open, and make assurance doubly sure. So the Dublin Fusiliers were railed southwards, and entrenched themselves at Colenso. Two days later the Boers cut the railway south of Ladysmith at Pieters, shelled the small garrison out of Colenso, shut and locked the gate on the Ladysmith force, and established themselves in the almost impregnable positions north of the Tugela. Still there was no realisation of the meaning of the investment. It would last a week, they said, and all the clever correspondents laughed at the veteran Bennet Burleigh for his hurry to get south before the door was shut. Only a week of isolation! Two months have passed. But all the time we have said: 'Never mind; wait till our army comes. We will soon put a stop to the siege—for it soon became more than a blockade—of Ladysmith.'
Then the army began to come. Its commander, knowing the disadvantageous nature of the country, would have preferred to strike northwards through the Free State and relieve Ladysmith at Bloemfontein. But the pressure from home was strong. First two brigades, then four, the artillery of two divisions, and a large mounted force were diverted from the Cape Colony and drawn into Natal. Finally, Sir Redvers Buller had to follow the bulk of his army. Then the action of Colenso was fought, and in that unsatisfactory engagement the British leaders learned that the blockade of Ladysmith was no unstable curtain that could be brushed aside, but a solid wall. Another division is hurried to the mountains, battery follows battery, until at the present moment the South Natal Field Force numbers two cavalry and six infantry brigades, and nearly sixty guns. It is with this force that we hope to break through the lines of Boers who surround Ladysmith. The army is numerous, powerful, and high-spirited. But the task before it is one which no man can regard without serious misgivings.
Whoever selected Ladysmith as a military centre must sleep uneasily at nights. I remember hearing the question of a possible war with the Boers discussed by several officers of high rank. The general impression was that Ladysmith was a tremendous strategic position, which dominated the lines of approach both into the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, whereas of course it does nothing of the sort. The fact that it stands at the junction of the railways may have encouraged the belief, but both lines of advance are barred by a broken and tangled country abounding in positions of extraordinary strength. Tactically Ladysmith may be strongly defensible, politically it has become invested with much importance, but for strategic purposes it is absolutely worthless. It is worse. It is a regular trap. The town and cantonment stand in a huge circle of hills which enclasp it on all sides like the arms of a giant, and though so great is the circle that only guns of the heavier class can reach the town from the heights, once an enemy has established himself on these heights it is beyond the power of the garrison to dislodge him, or perhaps even to break out. Not only do the surrounding hills keep the garrison in, but they also form a formidable barrier to the advance of a relieving force. Thus it is that the ten thousand troops in Ladysmith are at this moment actually an encumbrance. To extricate them—I write advisedly, to endeavour to extricate them—brigades and divisions must be diverted from all the other easy lines of advance, and Sir Redvers Buller, who had always deprecated any attempt to hold Natal north of the Tugela, is compelled to attack the enemy on their own terms and their own ground.
What are those terms? The northern side of the Tugela River at nearly every point commands the southern bank. Ranges of high hills strewn with boulders and dotted with trees rise abruptly from the water, forming a mighty rampart for the enemy. Before this the river, a broad torrent with few and narrow fords and often precipitous banks, flows rapidly—a great moat. And before the river again, on our side stretches a smooth, undulating, grassy country—a regular glacis. To defend the rampart and sweep the glacis are gathered, according to my information derived in Pretoria, twelve thousand, according to the Intelligence Branch fifteen thousand, of the best riflemen in the world armed with beautiful magazine rifles, supplied with an inexhaustible store of ammunition, and supported by fifteen or twenty excellent quick-firing guns, all artfully entrenched and concealed. The drifts of the river across which our columns must force their way are all surrounded with trenches and rifle pits, from which a converging fire may be directed, and the actual bottom of the river is doubtless obstructed by entanglements of barbed wire and other devices. But when all these difficulties have been overcome the task is by no means finished. Nearly twenty miles of broken country, ridge rising beyond ridge, kopje above kopje, all probably already prepared for defence, intervene between the relieving army and the besieged garrison.
Such is the situation, and so serious are the dangers and difficulties that I have heard it said in the camp that on strict military grounds Ladysmith should be left to its fate; that a division should remain to hold this fine open country south of the Tugela and protect Natal; and that the rest should be hurried off to the true line of advance into the Free State from the south. Though I recognise all this, and do not deny its force, I rejoice that what is perhaps a strategically unwise decision has been taken. It is not possible to abandon a brave garrison without striking a blow to rescue them. The attempt will cost several thousand lives; and may even fail; but it must be made on the grounds of honour, if not on those of policy.
We are going to try almost immediately, for there is no time to be lost. 'The sands,' to quote Mr. Chamberlain on another subject, 'are running down in the glass.' Ladysmith has stood two months' siege and bombardment. Food and ammunition stores are dwindling. Disease is daily increasing. The strain on the garrison has been, in spite of their pluck and stamina, a severe one. How long can they hold out? It is difficult to say precisely, because after the ordinary rations are exhausted determined men will eat horses and rats and beetles, and such like odds and ends, and so continue the defence. But another month must be the limit of their endurance, and then if no help comes Sir George White will have to fire off all his ammunition, blow up his heavy guns, burn waggons and equipment, and sally out with his whole force in a fierce endeavour to escape southwards. Perhaps half the garrison might succeed in reaching our lines, but the rest, less the killed and wounded, would be sent to occupy the new camp at Waterfall, which has been already laid out—such is the intelligent anticipation of the enemy—for their accommodation. So we are going to try to force the Tugela within the week, and I dare say my next letter will give you some account of our fortunes.
Meanwhile all is very quiet in the camps. From Chieveley, where there are two brigades of infantry, a thousand horse of sorts, including the 13th Hussars, and a dozen naval guns, it is quite possible to see the Boer positions, and the outposts live within range of each other's rifles. Yesterday I rode out to watch the evening bombardment which we make on their entrenchments with the naval 4.7-inch guns. From the low hill on which the battery is established the whole scene is laid bare. The Boer lines run in a great crescent along the hills. Tier above tier of trenches have been scored along their sides, and the brown streaks run across the grass of the open country south of the river. After tea in the captain's cabin—I should say tent—Commander Limpus of the 'Terrible' kindly invited me to look through the telescope and mark the fall of the shots.
The glass was one of great power, and I could plainly see the figures of the Boers walking about in twos and threes, sitting on the embankments, or shovelling away to heighten them. We selected one particular group near a kraal, the range of which had been carefully noted, and the great guns were slowly brought to bear on the unsuspecting target. I looked through the spy-hole at the tiny picture—three dirty beehives for the kraal, a long breastwork of newly thrown up earth, six or seven miniature men gathered into a little bunch, two others skylarking on the grass behind the trench, apparently engaged in a boxing match. Then I turned to the guns. A naval officer craned along the seventeen-feet barrel, peering through the telescopic sights. Another was pencilling some calculations as to wind and light and other intricate details. The crew, attentive, stood around. At last all was done. I looked back to the enemy. The group was still intact. The boxers were still playing—one had pushed the other down. A solitary horseman had also come into the picture and was riding slowly across. The desire of murder rose in my heart. Now for a bag! Bang! I jumped at least a foot, disarranging the telescope, but there was plenty of time to reset it while the shell was hissing and roaring its way through nearly five miles of air. I found the kraal again and the group still there, but all motionless and alert, like startled rabbits. Then they began to bob into the earth, one after the other. Suddenly, in the middle of the kraal, there appeared a huge flash, a billowy ball of smoke, and clouds of dust. Bang! I jumped again; the second gun had fired. But before this shell could reach the trenches a dozen little figures scampered away, scattering in all directions. Evidently the first had not been without effect. Yet when I turned the glass to another part of the defences the Boers were working away stolidly, and only those near the explosion showed any signs of disturbance.
The bombardment continued for half an hour, the shells being flung sometimes into the trenches, sometimes among the houses of Colenso, and always directed with marvellous accuracy. At last the guns were covered up again in their tarpaulins, the crowd of military spectators broke up and dispersed amid the tents, and soon it became night.