The beginning of the end—Buller's last advance—Heroic Inniskillings—The coming of Dundonald—A welcome at Klip River Drift—A weather-stained horseman—The Natal troopers—Cheers and tears—A grand old General—Sir George White's address—"Thank God, we have kept the flag flying!"—"God save the Queen"—Arrival of Buller—Looking backward—Within four days of starvation—Horseflesh a mere memory—Eight hundred sick and wounded—A word of tribute—Conclusion
The beginning of the end had come on 13th February, when General Buller's army of relief had opened the attack on Hussar Hill. From that day fighting had been fierce and practically continuous, the enemy giving way only after the most stubborn resistance, and taking advantage of every opportunity to make a stand. During that fortnight over 2000 officers and men of General Buller's force paid the price of their dauntless courage; and in all the glorious story no page is brighter than that which puts on undying record the devoted gallantry of the Inniskillings, who were, to all practical intents, wiped out in attacking Pieter's Hill, the last bar across the road to Ladysmith, on the 23rd. Wounded and dying and dead lay out together uncomforted, uncared for throughout the long hours of Saturday until Sunday morning, when a truce was agreed to. Still the hill was not won, and was to be held by the enemy until the 27th, the nineteenth anniversary of Majuba, a day no longer to be held in shameful memory. On the following day the Boers were in full retreat; and Lord Dundonald, with a small body of mounted troops, made a dash across the hills to Ladysmith. Their coming was hailed by the long-isolated town with the wildest outbursts of delight. Its effect is graphically suggested by Mr. Pearse in a number of jottings in his diary on the same night:—
As night closes in there are cheers rolling towards us from the plain beyond Klip River, where our volunteers are on patrol. Ladysmith, so quiet and undemonstrative in its patient endurance of a long siege, goes wild at the sound. Everybody divines its meaning. Our friends from the victorious army of the south are coming! All the town rushes out to meet them, where they must cross a drift. The voices of strong men break into childish treble as they try to cheer, women laugh and cry by turns, and all crowd about the troopers of Lord Dundonald's escort, giving them such a welcome as few victors from the battlefield have ever known. The hour of our deliverance has come. After a hundred and twenty-two days of bombardment—a hundred and nineteen of close investment—the Siege of Ladysmith is at an end. What a hero our gallant old General is to all of us, when he rides forward to greet Lord Dundonald, and how voices tremble with deep thankfulness while we sing "God Save the Queen"!
In a letter written on the following day, Mr. Pearse describes in greater detail the arrival of relief, and summarises his impressions at the time:—
LADYSMITH, March 1.—The relieving force joined hands with us last night, and Ladysmith gave itself away to an outburst of wild enthusiasm at the sight of troops so long expected and so often heard fighting in the distance, that some despondent people had almost begun to think they would never come. After the roar of battle ceased on Tuesday, we knew by signs that could not be mistaken that Sir Redvers Buller had gained a great victory even before the heliograph flashed to us the glad tidings in his own words. I had come to the conclusion, watching from Observation Hill, soon after daybreak on Wednesday morning, and seeing the enemy's convoys in three columns, miles long, trekking northwards, that they were in full retreat. Their guns were hurrying to the rear also, and horsemen in scattered groups, to the number of thousands, were galloping past positions on which some stand might still have been made, a sure sign that they were beaten and did not mean to rally. But the best indication of all was the attempt to remove the big gun from Bulwaan that has shelled us persistently and destructively for a hundred and twelve days, causing us much anxiety but comparatively small loss of life. Our artillery of the Naval Brigade, to which Ladysmith owes a deep debt of gratitude, tried to prevent the guns from being carried off, but apparently their admirably aimed and accurate fire was too late to effect that object.
Just before nightfall Sir Redvers Buller's cavalry were reported in sight. The first token of their coming were loud cheers away on the plain towards Intombi neutral camp, where some of Colonel Dartnell's Frontier Police, with Border Mounted Rifles and Natal Carbineers, had been patrolling since early morning. With joy on their faces, and many with tears in their eyes, the people rushed towards a drift by which the Klip River must be crossed. There General Brocklehurst was waiting, and as a horseman, weather-stained and begrimed by days of bivouacking, floundered from deep water on to the slippery bank, he was received with a hearty hand-grip and welcomed to Ladysmith. Then loud cheers went up for Lord Dundonald, commander of the Second Cavalry Brigade, whose irregular horsemen have made for themselves a great name as scouts. We have often heard from Kaffirs about ubiquitous troopers who were described as wearing sakkabulu feathers in their hats and carrying assegais. We were all anxious to see these men, and I especially had often looked out for them, since some one had told me that they were the South African Light Horse, in which, as I think I have mentioned elsewhere, a son of mine commands a troop. We had heard of them and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry in the thick of the fight at Spion Kop, and in many other affairs, but only one came with Lord Dundonald and the advance guard, in which were Imperial Light Horse, Carbineers, Natal Police of the Frontier Field Force, and Border Mounted Rifles, numbering only one hundred and seventy, under Major Mackenzie. They had pushed forward after the last feeble resistance of the Boer rearguard was overcome, and Lord Dundonald brought to Sir George White the good news that Ladysmith's relief was accomplished.
The crowd of soldiers and civilians shouted itself hoarse in cheering Sir George White when he came with the object of meeting Lord Dundonald. He could not get through this crowd outside the gaol, where Boer prisoners were standing on the balcony curious to know what all this commotion might mean. When a lull gave him an opportunity of speaking, he said in a voice trembling with emotion, but clear and soldierly for all that:—
"I thank you men, one and all, from the bottom of my heart, for the help and support you have given to me, and I shall always acknowledge it to the end of my life. It grieved me to have to cut your rations, but I promise you that I will not do it again. I thank God we have kept the flag flying."
Three cheers were given for Sir Redvers Buller and General Sir Archibald Hunter, and then the whole crowd joined in singing "God Save the Queen," with an effect that was strangely impressive in the circumstances. This morning, after a reconnaissance had been sent out to watch the enemy's retirement, and if possible intercept convoys, Sir Redvers Buller with his staff rode into town and met Sir George White before any demonstration could be made in his honour, and after remaining at headquarters a short time only, he rode back to camp, or rather bivouac, with the troops who had fought so heroically under him for the honour of England.
Only those who have been under siege and so closely invested that all communications with the outer world, except through Kaffir runners, were cut off for 119 days, can imagine what the first sight of a relieving column means to the beleaguered garrison. Happily such experiences have been rare in the history of British campaigns, and nobody here would care to repeat them, though all are proud enough now of having seen it through. Those who went away while they had a chance in the first rush for safety, when shells began to burst in the town, may claim credit for foresight, but we do not envy them. All hardships, dangers, and privations seem light now that they are things of the past. Our enthusiasm in welcoming the first detachment of the relieving force has swept away the impression of discomforts, and, for a time at least, induced us to forget everything except the reflected honour that is ours in having suffered with British troops.
Relief had come none too soon. Mr. Pearse, who had weathered the storm unscathed and in good health, on 1st March stated in a telegram that when Lord Dundonald's troops arrived in the town only four days' full rations were available, and there were 800 sick and wounded in hospital, by far the larger proportion being down with dysentery and enteric fever. Truly it seemed that deliverance had come in the nick of time. "Thank God," Sir George White had said, "we have kept the flag flying." Thank God also that the brave defenders had been spared the worst horrors of a siege, and that help had not longer been withheld in their extremity. Only a concluding word remains to be said. On 6th February, when relief seemed imminent, Mr. Pearse wrote the following in his diary:—
In this moment I want to place it on record how cordially we all recognise the fact that Sir George White has done everything that an able commander could do, not only for the defence of a town whose inhabitants are entrusted to his charge, but also for the larger issues of a campaign that might have been seriously jeopardised by any false move on his part. In many respects, when his critics, including myself, thought he lacked the enterprise of a great leader, events have proved that his more cautious course was right. If mistakes were made at the outset they have been nobly atoned for.All who have so far followed Mr. Pearse through his brilliant pages will acclaim his words. Such a commander was worthy of such troops, and they no less worthy. During the whole dreary four months of the siege they had proved themselves men in whom any General in the world and any people might feel an exultant pride. In long days of wearisome monotony, broken only by the scream and thud and burst of shells, at noon beneath the fierce glow of the African sun, at night in the sodden trenches, in season and out, they had been patient, vigilant, ready, bearing all things, braving all things, hoping all things and always. In the midnight attack through dark defiles and over rugged heights, where the broken boulders made every step a toil and a danger, they trod with a grim tenacity of purpose, and struck with a daring that wrested a tribute from the unaccustomed lips of their enemy. On the rocky ridges of Waggon Hill and Cæsar's Camp, when the burghers in one supreme effort dashed against them the pick and pride of the commandos, they fought through the hours of night till dawn gave place to day, and the daylight waxed and waned, with a dogged, half-despairing courage that laughed to scorn even the regardless valour of a worthy foeman. Who shall do justice to soldiers like these? Wherever, and as long as, the fame of the British arms is cherished, so long, and as widely, will the story of the defence of Ladysmith be held in glorious memory.