THERE were 84 members of the Natal Police in Ladysmith when the siege began. Colonel Dartnell was attached to the Staff with General White ; Inspector Dorehill acted as District Officer, taking no part in the military operations ; and the two officers serving with the Natal Police field force were Inspector Little and Sub-Inspector W. J. Clarke. The force formed a unit in the Volunteer Brigade under Colonel Royston, Commandant of volunteers, but were under canvas in the centre of the town instead of joining the camp of the volunteers.
The Boer gun on Pepworth's Hill came into action on the 3oth October, and the military moved to a position as little exposed as possible. The shells from Pep worth's Hill came rather close to the police camp, and on the 3rd November one of their horses was wounded.
In the early days of the siege the police provided pickets on the banks of the river at night, returning to camp at 5 a.m. On the 4th November one of the wounded prisoners sent in by the Boers was Trooper Wright. He had been shot through the head when accompanying Colonel Dartnell, who brought General Penn-Symons out of the action at Talana.
Lieutenant Hooper, of the 5th Lancers, arrived in Ladysmith with dispatches for Sir George White from Pietermaritzburg on the 6th November, having succeeded in evading the Boer pickets. He was guided from Estcourt to Onderbrook Spruit by Trooper S. H. Martin, of the Natal Police.
Shortly after leaving Estcourt, they were caught in a very heavy storm, and in consequence thought it safe to ride along the main road as far as Colenso. Near the railway gates they came across one of the enemy lying in the road dead, and also two horses.
On entering the village, they observed a flashlight in one of the houses, and thought it was a signal to the bridge. They crossed safely, however, but shortly afterwards lost their way while ascending the hill on the opposite bank, the night being pitch dark. Eventually they found the right track, and travelled onwards for five or six miles, passing through the enemy's first camp of about eighty tents on the right-hand side of the track. They went unchallenged and continued the journey, inclining to the left to avoid another laager which was right across their path.
Coming to a kraal which they thought was inhabited by natives, on account of the barking of dogs, they were surprised to hear the Dutch language being spoken, so made off hurriedly in another direction.
At dawn, parties of the enemy could be seen all over the veldt, and just as they were going to cross a road, a native ran towards them, shouting that there was a very large Boer commando over the brow of a hill, about three hundred yards away. Trooper Martin got off his horse and crept to the top of the ridge, where he looked down on the enemy's camp, fires being scattered over a large area.
This obstacle necessitated their retracing their way for about eight miles. They rode along the side of a hill and descended into a valley, where the enemy's patrols could be seen moving about, and where many tents were pitched.
As they drew near the residence of Canon Troughton, a native approached them cautiously. They went towards him, and asked what chance he thought they had of getting into Ladysmith. He laughed, and replied that all the main roads and drifts were thoroughly guarded. This native had been sent by Mrs. Troughton to warn the dispatch riders. She afterwards told them she had seen in the distance that they were English.
They went up to the house, being met at the gate by Mrs. Troughton, and a few minutes afterwards one of the enemy's patrols arrived, and demanded information concerning the two white men whom they had sighted. They were answered by a white man who was working for the Troughtons, and being satisfied, did not search the house.
Seeing that they had got into a tight corner, and were in imminent risk of being captured, they read the dispatch, which had been written on cigarette papers, and then burnt it, in accordance with orders which they had received before leaving Estcourt.
The patrol remained near the house for some hours before departing, and even when it had gone the two men had to be exceedingly careful, as there were two camps just behind the hill at the back of the house.
Eventually a native guide was found who knew every nook and crevice of the veldt round there, having lived in the locality all his life. He would only guarantee to take one of them through, so they tossed for the honour, and the lieutenant won. He and the native left the homestead towards midnight for the shortest but most dangerous part of the journey, it being decided that if the native did not return within two days Trooper Martin was to undertake the trip. While waiting, Martin ascended some of the hills, and made rough plans of the camps, handing these to General Wolfe Murray on his return to Estcourt.
The native returned at about midnight on the 6th November, and gave the trooper a small note, which stated that Lieutenant Hooper had succeeded in getting into Ladysmith.
Next morning Martin left Canon Troughton's house, leading the lieutenant's horse, but as natives reported that the Boers had recaptured Colenso, he was unable to return by the same route. He pushed on throughout the day, and, making a wide detour along the Tugela River, found a drift and managed to reach some of the British outposts, who promptly arrested him and took him before their officer. The latter, on hearing Martin's story, sent him on to Estcourt with an escort of two privates, and he reached his destination the same evening.
General Wolfe Murray complimented the trooper on what he had done, and sent him to the Prime Minister with the following letter :
" I desire to bring to your notice the services of Trooper Martin, of the Natal Police. He guided Lieutenant Hooper, of the 5th Lancers, carrying dispatches to Sir George White from Estcourt to the vicinity of Ladysmith.
" Trooper Martin remained with the horses in hiding, within the enemy's lines, until he received word of the lieutenant's safe arrival in Ladysmith. I wish to record my satisfaction of the way he performed an arduous duty, and trust his name may be noted for advancement when the opportunity offers."
Trooper Martin was promoted to be a sergeant as a reward for his services.
Just as the police in Ladysmith reached camp from their night picket on the morning of the 7th November, a very heavy bombardment of the town began, and until nightfall the troopers remained in the bed of the river, keeping their horses well under cover,
When the firing was resumed two days later, the police were told off to watch the racecourse side of the town, and the horses were kept ready saddled under cover.
Just after that the pickets were changed, the police and volunteers guarding the line from the point of Caesar's Camp to Platelayer's Cottage, and this continued until the end of the siege, the two officers of the police going on duty on alternate nights. As a rule the pickets were formed by about equal numbers of police and volunteers, the sentries being pushed well forward at night, and withdrawn at daytime to the cover of the thorn trees.
The shell fire from the Boers' guns on the surrounding heights was kept up fairly regularly, and the losses from it were surprisingly few. Things became somewhat monotonous when the garrison had grown accustomed to being under fire. Towards the end of November rations were reduced, the stores being denuded of jam, milk, and butter. Trooper Duncanson, of the Natal Police, was killed by a shell fired from Gun Hill, next to Lombard's Kop. He was acting as cook, and while passing through the doorway was struck in the chest by a shell which came through the roof without bursting.
When mealies and hay began to get scarce, and the long-expected relief column did not appear, the rations for the horses had to be cut down. The corn was required for the imported cavalry horses, and the animals belonging to the police were allowed two pounds of hay each per day. Wherever the horses were grazed the troops near them complained that the animals drew shell fire, and asked that they should be removed. When the hay gave out altogether, the horses were turned loose on the racecourse, only being mustered occasionally, with the result that at the end of the siege they were in excellent condition, very few of them having died.
On the 2nd December communication was established by means of heliograph with the relief column near Weenen, where the heliograph party had an escort of police. It was estimated that the weapons on Gun Hill fired a ton and a quarter of shell into the town that day, without causing a single casualty. A strong force, consisting of the Imperial Light Horse, volunteers, and the police, moved out at 10 p.m. to destroy the enemy's guns there. It was very dark, and the force made slow progress. The order had been given that strict silence was to be preserved, but as there were over 600 men going over stony ground the noise they made must have been heard at a considerable distance. It was long after midnight when they reached the base of Gun Hill. The Imperial Light Horse and carbineers went off to make an attack on the right, the police being sent to the left to prevent the enemy's reinforcements joining their comrades on the top. The movement was entirely successful, but the police heard no orders to retire, and only began to move back when it was found that the rest of the troops were on their way to Ladysmith. It was afterwards discovered that a bugle had sounded the " retire," which had not been heard owing to a hill that intervened.
Towards the middle of December the police were attached to a mobile column, which was formed with a view to assisting the relief operations. Heavy firing could be heard on the 15th in the direction of Colenso, and on the following day the Boers resumed the bombardment of Ladysmith, one shell landing within a yard of the police officers' tents. Another shell pitched into the police camp a few days afterwards, all the windows of the police offices being broken by the concussion, and an hour or two afterwards a shell struck the foundation of the place where they had their mess. The police refused to adopt the shell-proof shelters, saying they preferred to take their chance in the open rather than be killed in a hole.
Through the thoughtfulness of Colonel Dartnell, and Major Karri Davis, of the Imperial Light Horse, the children of the besieged town were not deprived of their usual Christmas festivities. All the little ones in the place were invited to a party on the 25th December, and toys from large Christmas trees were distributed, after which the adults held a dance.
Another shell came into the police camp on the 29th December, striking the ground between two bell tents, but fortunately caused no damage, and on the 4th January a shell wrecked Colonel Dartnell's tent, outside which Inspectors Dorehill and Lyttle and Sub-Inspector Clarke were standing. Everything in the tent was smashed, but nobody was hurt.
Sickness began to increase at an alarming rate, there being 1650 patients in the hospital at the beginning of the year. Out of a total strength of 850 men, the volunteers had 240 men down ; 30 per cent, of the Naval Brigade were on the sick list, as were also 25 per cent, of the Imperial Light Horse. The only man of the police in hospital at that time was Trooper Wright, and this was due to the fact that they had alternate days of duty out of the town. Their turn for sickness came later on.
On the night of the 5th January, 45 of the Natal Police, with 24 of the carbineers, went out on picket, the police being stationed up the line to the foot of Caesar's Camp, and bullets began to fall in the neighbourhood of their bivouac soon after midnight. These shots came from the direction of Wagon Hill. Thinking the Manchester Regiment were firing on them, some of the police went up the hill to remonstrate, but when they got near the summit they heard words of command in Dutch, and came down the slope at the double. As the day dawned the horses were seen by the enemy, and before they could be removed the Boers killed or wounded every one ; though not one man was touched.
The police advanced on foot through the bush under a heavy fire, Sergeant Woon, Trooper Pinto Leite, and Trooper Rivett being wounded before they reached the base of Caesar's Camp, within two hundred yards of the enemy. Here they were joined by the Natal Mounted Rifles, and the 53rd Battery, which came out from Ladysmith with their big guns, fired 1 38 shots over their heads, the rattle of musketry at the same time being deafening. The Boers directed a " Long Tom " towards the 53rd Battery, and the bombardment was kept up by both sides all day until 5 p.m., when a heavy thunderstorm came up. The ground on which the police were lying was flooded, and they were relieved by a picket of carbineers at 6.30, getting back to camp by a circuitous route, the river being flooded.
The total loss to the British that day was 424 killed and wounded.
Sickness still continued to increase at a terrible rate, there being 2400 patients in the hospital by the middle of January, including six members of the police force, four of whom had been wounded.
On the whole, January was a fairly quiet month, the only excitement being caused by the shells, four more of which pitched near the camp of the police without doing any damage. In the distance some Boer tents were seen to disappear, and it was thought that the relieving column had made some progress, but owing to cloudy weather nothing could be done with the heliograph.
The men were now beginning to suffer badly through lack of food ; rations were cut down to half a pound of horse flesh and two biscuits per day per man. All units except the police were supplied with canvas troughs and blankets for filtering boiled water, but as there were insufficient to go round, the increase in the number of sick men may be attributed to that. The volunteers, who were not accustomed to this hard life, were in a sorry plight, there being 650 men sick out of a total of 900. As the police comprised the smallest unit of the Volunteer Brigade they always came in last for the rations, and only too frequently their supply of biscuits consisted of broken fragments and crumbs .
As the days wore on painfully, and more of the police became ill, their whole available strength had to be sent out on picket every night, and they could only muster 2 officers, 6 non-commissioned officers, and 1 6 men. Almost the sole topic of conversation was the lack of food, and on the 27th February rations were reduced to a quarter of pound of biscuits and three ounces of bad mealie meal per man.
There was joy in Ladysmith on the last day of February, when Boers could be seen trekking to the north in small bodies, and in the evening cheering in the region of Caesar's Camp announced the arrival of the relief column's advance party, which included Sub-Inspector Abrahams and 15 of the Natal Police. There was great disappointment when it was found that they had not brought any food with them.
On the following day 43 of the police formed the advance-guard, when a reconnaissance was made towards Modder Spruit, where a few Boers opened fire. The police worked round the flank, extending in skirmishing order on foot and leading their horses. As they cleared a ridge they came into the line of their own shrapnel fire, which cost them two horses. From the top of a hill they could see the Boers loading guns on to some trains, and a message was sent back to Colonel Knox for a fifteen-pounder to shell the first engine, which would have resulted in the line being blocked. The message came back that the Gordon Highlanders were too exhausted to act as escort for the gun. The mounted men moved on in the direction of the trains, and were met by a few shots, three of the Natal Police Inspector Lyttle, Sub-Inspector Clarke, and Trooper Smith being wounded. Orders came to retire, as the infantry of the Ladysmith garrison were too exhausted to overtake them.
The siege had lasted one hundred and twenty days, and during that time 10,688 people were admitted to the hospital. Of that number 600 died. None of the Natal Police died of sickness until after the relief column appeared, though there were then 21 of the troopers on the sick list. Of these 7 subsequently died equal to 8 per cent, of their strength.
When the welcome orders to march to Pietermaritzburg were given, the police were addressed by Colonel Royston, who thanked them for their services. He said they had always done their work cheerfully, and without criticism ; his only regret was that he had not had a thousand of the police under his command, because in that case he would have been able to make a name for them and for himself.
When they arrived at Colenso they expected to find railway trucks awaiting them, but were disappointed, and completed the journey to Pietermaritzburg by road.
It was a curious fact that the police formed the only unit not mentioned in dispatches, by the General Officer Commanding, in connection with the siege of Ladysmith. It was afterwards explained by General White that though he knew of the valuable services that had been rendered by the police, the Brigade Commander, Colonel Royston, did not speak of the force in his returns, and Colonel Royston died soon after the siege.
Some excerpts from a diary kept by Sergeant Seed, of the Natal Police, during the Ladysmith siege throw an interesting sidelight on the experiences of the corps during that trying period. Nearly every day he began with the word " Shelled." On the 12th November his record states laconically :
" No shelling to-day quite a day of rest."
Other entries were :
" October 30. We started out at about 1 a.m., and by a roundabout way got into position under Lombard's Kop, where the fighting started at once. It was a grand sight to see the way the artillery worked, and we had a splendid view of the whole field. The Boers had had a warm time when we were ordered to retire. It was a fearful task to get back, for we had to thread our way through thick bush at a walk while they shelled us with heavy guns, but they did little damage. I do not want this experience again.
" December 7. Shelled. We received an order at 10 p.m. to turn out dismounted, and paraded with the volunteers and Imperial Light Horse. Nobody knew where we were going, or why, but when we were well on the way it was whispered along the line (everybody had been told to be as quiet as possible) that we were to try to capture a ' Long Tom.' We crept along silently, halting now and again to listen whether we had been discovered. At last we were halted. The Light Horse were told to assault the centre of the hill, the police had to guard the left flank, the rest were on the right. We all moved quietly into our positions and waited. The Light Horse went slowly and silently up the hill in the darkness, which you could almost have cut with a knife. A Boer sentry uttered a hasty challenge, but was promptly ' outed,' and a rush was made for the gun. The guard was so taken by surprise that very little fight was shown, and most of the enemy got away in the darkness . In about twenty-five minutes, though it seemed more like a couple of hours, the order was given to retire. As soon as all the troops were clear of the top of the line, ' Long Tom,' with two of his smaller friends, went up in the air. We all gave three cheers and cleared off and it was quite time, for beacon fires sprang up all round, for miles, calling reinforcements.
" December 8. General White held a parade to congratulate us on last night's work.
" December 17. Very glad that the river picket has been given to some one else. I have only had my clothes off six times since the siege started. We are all getting very sick of it. No news arrives. There was an auction sale last night of all sorts of goods, put up by anybody. The troops have next to nothing to wear, and all the stores and the shops have been taken over long ago by the authorities. These were some of the prices realised at the auction
Bottle of whisky £3 15 0
Tin of Swiss milk £0 5 6
Eggs, per dozen £1 1 0
One pumpkin £0 5 0
Tobacco (common stick) per pound £1 0 0
Twenty potatoes £0 12 6
Cigarettes, per packet of ten £0 4 6
"December 21. A shell fell into the tent of Trooper Barnes of the Natal Police, but hurt nobody, although we were all standing near, and there were some wonderful escapes.
"December 31. Shelled. No news of Buller. Things are getting fairly serious.
" January 1. Heavily shelled. Colonel Dartnell's tent was blown to ribbons.
" January 6. While we were on out-post duty at the foot of Caesar's Camp, some time after midnight shots came whistling into us like hail. For a few moments we thought our fellows on the hill must have made a mistake, and taken us in the uncertain light for Boers, but our minds were soon at rest on that point. The front portion of the hill was in the possession of the enemy. They were immediately above us, and it was wonderful that we ever escaped, as we had to thread our way over rough ground and thick bushes right under their noses for about a mile, and we could rarely let our horses do anything but walk. As it was, five of our animals w r ere killed, and about the same number were wounded. Every yard I went I kept wondering how it was that I was not hit. When the horses were under cover we formed and advanced, trying to get back to the positions which we had been forced to desert. We got there, but not before three of the police were shot within a yard or two of me. When the artillery got into action, the tide began to turn. The enemy were driven back bit by bit, but they fought like very devils, their numbers and the rumour that we were half-starved, making them feel certain of success. The fighting went on for thirteen hours, and at nightfall rain began to come down in torrents, streams of water running over our backs as we lay. Everybody was exhausted when we got back to camp but Ladysmith was still ours.
" January 14. Dined with an old comrade named Buddie, who gave me the first decent meal I have had for a very long time.
" January 26. Sickness is very bad everywhere, and we have next to nothing to give the patients. One hates to ask about one's friends now, because the answer is almost certain to be f He's in hospital,' or ' He's dead.'
" January 31. Things are just about as bad as they can be ; the sick are dying at the rate of fourteen or fifteen a day, partly because we have so little food. We feel first-rate in health, but are terribly weak for want of food.
" February 9. At the auction I saw a three-penny packet of cigarettes sold for twenty-five shillings, and fifty cigars fetched 10. Twenty pounds was offered for a sack of flour, but the flour was not there to be bought. Eight of the police horses have been slaughtered for the invalids' food.
" February 12. We were heavily shelled, and the police had some very narrow escapes. We were out for five hours cutting down thorn and brushwood between our lines and those of the Boers. It was hard work on our present rations. I do not believe that there is a regiment here that could walk ten miles.
" February 28. We have been relieved at last, but I can hardly believe the good news. Rations had been cut down again to a quarter of a pound of biscuits and a quarter of a pound of grain. Late last night the Boers were seen on a small kopje, and we were all turned out expecting a general attack. As soon as our gunners found the range, the enemy dispersed, and we got back to bed just before dawn.
" March 1. We had a short, sharp fight about a dozen miles away with a large retreating mob. We were in a very tight corner once. The advance party, which consisted of about twenty of us, were in a small drain that did not really give us cover, and we were lying down holding our horses by the reins for over an hour. Nobody came to our assistance, so in the end we had to make a rush for it. When we got under cover, we found that the whole British force was retreating, the men being knocked up ; and some idiot had reported that we had already returned, so they left us to ourselves. During the day a shell from our own guns struck the ground about fifteen yards behind me. It drove a piece of stone into my back, knocking me out of my saddle. I was pretty badly shaken up, but no bones were broken.
" March 5. We have started for Maritzburg. Both men and horses are extremely weak, and only covered about three miles before out-spanning for the night.
" March 7. We reached Estcourt to-day, and as soon as the tents had been pitched, a terrible thunderstorm came on, water rushing through the tents several inches deep.
" March 8. We are still at Estcourt, and 22 men were added to the sick list, some of them having tried to tackle solid food too early. The rest of us will have to drag our weary bones and starved horses on by road to-morrow.
" March 12. We are at Maritzburg. I was fairly done up when we got in, and the poor old nag could scarcely drag one foot after the other. If I had dismounted to ease him I could never have got into the saddle again. Thank God the whole thing is over, although I would not have missed it for worlds. "