On the 2nd November General French, with a strong body of cavalry and a battery of guns, moved out to the southward, to reconnoitre the enemy, and if possible to surprise one of his southern camps. French succeeded in shelling a camp, and forcing the enemy to evacuate it, but could do no more, and returned to Ladysmith. As he arrived a telegram was received from Sir Redvers Buller desiring that he and his staff should be sent to the Cape, and French started accordingly about noon. His train reached Colenso in safety, but after running the gauntlet of a heavy fire, and immediately afterwards both railway and telegraphic communication were interrupted. At the same time the bombardment of Ladysmith became much more severe, the Boers having mounted several new guns. The siege had fairly begun.
Nevertheless, the troops were not as yet wholly confined to their defences, and on the 3rd November a considerable force of cavalry and artillery again pushed out to the southward, where they had a sharp brush with a body of the enemy, and suffered some thirty casualties. They eventually retired, and the enemy on this side closed in, but without seriously pressing an attack.
The bombardment this day had been heavy, many shells falling in the town, especially about the hospitals; and on the morning of the 4th November White sent out a flag of truce, asking, on the grounds of humanity to sick, wounded, and non-combatants, that the hospitals might be placed outside the town, and that the civil population might be allowed to leave for the south, passing through the enemy's lines. It is pleasant to record, as an instance of the chivalrous conditions under which, on the whole, this war was conducted, that the Boer Commander-in-Chief, General Joubert, at once agreed to let the hospitals be moved out to a point four miles down the railway ; and though he refused to let the civil population go away altogether, he permitted them to accompany the sick and wounded. Food and all other requisites for the new camp, known as the Intombi Camp, were to be supplied from Ladysmith, one train running each way daily under a flag of truce. The 5th November was a Sunday, and on this day the sick and wounded, with such civilians as chose to go, were sent out to Intombi. It may be added that during the ensuing siege Sunday was generally observed as a day of rest, and by tacit agreement there was no firing on either side, unless for exceptional reasons.
The conditions in Ladysmith were now those which, except for the increasing pressure on the defences and food supply, prevailed to the end of the investment; and it seems desirable to explain, with the help of the accompanying map, what the position was.
The town itself lay in a hollow, surrounded on all sides by stony barren hills; and the nearest line of these hills, which had the form of a horse-shoe, the open end or heel of the horse-shoe pointing eastward, was occupied by the defending force. The Klip river ran through the town, and afforded a plentiful if not very good water supply. The total perimeter of the horse-shoe line was about fourteen miles, and was held at the beginning by a force of nearly 14,000 men, the civilian inhabitants bringing up the total population to 21,000. White's headquarters were in the town itself, and near at hand, so disposed as to be more or less sheltered from bombardment, lay his reserve, largely consisting of mounted men, who could be used to reinforce as rapidly as possible any point of the defences which might be attacked.
The Boer position lay along a ring of hills encircling the British line. This ring was thirty miles or more in circumference. Opposite the open end of the British horse-shoe lay a long, fiat-topped hill called Bulwana, some 500 feet above the level of the town, and about 7500 yards distant. Any one climbing the rough, boulder-strewn sides of this hill, and standing by the emplacement of the Boer guns, can look down upon the streets and houses of the town, which in the clear dry air of South Africa seem almost within rifle range. Bulwana also commands most parts of the British line of defences. Another of the Boer positions, Pep-worth's Hill, to the north, was also within easy range of the town for the heavy guns, though without a clear view of it. To the south of Ladysmith, towards Colenso, a semicircle of peculiarly rough and difficult hills lay between the British position and the river.
The defences of Ladysmith were for purposes of command divided into four sections, A, B, C, and D. Colonel W. G. Knox, C.B., had charge of A section, which comprised the north-eastern heel-point of the horse-shoe, from Devonshire Post to Gordon Hill. B section, from Gordon Hill round by the north and west to Flagstone Spruit, was under Major-General F. Howard, C.B., C.M.G., A.D.C. Section C,. in charge of Colonel Ian Hamilton, C.B., D.S.O., stretched from Flagstone Spruit to the south-east heel-point of the horse-shoe at Ceesar's Camp. Colonel Royston, Commandant of the Natal Mounted Volunteers, held D section, which consisted of the comparatively flat, open country between the two heel-points of the horseshoe, facing Bulwana.
Thanks to the wonderful climate of South Africa, the lines of these defences are still clearly to be traced, or were so two years ago. Here and there some of the solid boulder-built shelters have fallen in, and their corrugated-iron roofs lie on the ground ; but many remain intact, and show exactly how our hard-pressed men spent their weary days and uneasy nights. The rough lines of "sangars" are almost as they were originally built up.(The Indian or Persian word "sangar" means a wall of piled stones, what would be called in Cornwall a hedge—from " sang," a stone) The gun platforms seem fit for use. Even the great shell-hole through the clock tower of the town hall, which has been left unrepaired, remains as a memento of the siege; and up on the summit of Bulwana, by the position of the great Boer gun, " Long Tom," the pits made by the shells of our naval guns seem as fresh as if the shells had been fired a week ago.
During this time, while the Ladysmith garrison was getting accustomed to siege conditions, the Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, Sir Redvers Buller, was studying the situation, and, though his Army Corps was still on the high seas, was evolving a plan of campaign. His position was a difficult one, for away to the north-west the open town of Kimberley, with its diamond mines, was already beleaguered by Boer forces, and the whole frontier of Cape Colony was threatened, while in Natal it was evident that the enemy had the upper hand. Buller's original intention had been to assemble his Army Corps at the Cape, and, keeping it together in a mass, to advance straight upon the capital of the Free State, Bloemfontein. That, he had hoped, would hold out the best chance of dealing the Bepublics a mortal blow, and would probably be of great assistance to Natal by bringing back the Free State forces for the defence of their own country. But the state of affairs which he found existing on his arrival led him to doubt whether the tempting scheme of a single advance in force was practicable. Owing to the slow formation of his Army Corps he could hardly hope to make a start before the 22nd of December—that is to say, for six or seven weeks—and in the meantime he feared that the worst might happen in Natal, where the Boers had swept the colony down to Ladysmith, and were already pushing small forces across the Tugela. The fact that the bulk of the Transvaal forces, and the best of the Free State forces, were in this quarter, convinced him that they were determined to conquer Natal, and, especially after personal conference with General French, he felt that White was not strong enough to protect the colony unaided. Indeed, White had pressed for reinforcements. With great reluctance, therefore, Buller decided that he must make Natal his main object, and, providing for Cape Colony by means different from those he had intended, go himself to Durban, in order to hold the south of Natal from the sea, and do what he could to relieve the force shut up in Ladysmith. All possible reinforcements were to be sent to Durban at once, and he would follow when a sufficient force had been collected. By the 10th of November Buller had come to this decision, and the officer in command in Southern Natal was so informed.
To make the situation quite clear, it will be as well to use Buller's own words. In giving his evidence before the Royal Commission he spoke as follows :—
The Government of Natal now of their own motion prepared to evacuate Maritzburg by removing the records, and so forth; and it seemed most probable that the enemy's advance would only be checked by the sea. My private information led me to believe that if they did reach the sea they would receive aid from some European Power, and that they counted upon such aid. In any case, unless they were met and repelled by our forces, they would enjoy undisputed possession of the Garden Colony, the most English province of South Africa, for at least two months; for even supposing that an advance upon Bloemfontein would cause them to withdraw, I could not hope to move in force before the 22nd December, and while I was certain of the gravest political disadvantage from allowing Natal to pass into the hands of the Boers, I was extremely sceptical as to any strategical profit that might be gained from it (i.e., an advance upon Bloemfontein). In fact, from the moment when I knew that the main army of the Transvaal had moved into Natal, I felt convinced that something more than an advance on Bloemfontein would be needed to compel it to retire. A new theatre of operations, 1000 miles distant from that contemplated by the authorities, had been opened by the Boer invasion of South Natal, and there was no escaping from the fact. I therefore decided upon every ground that the deliverance of South Natal must be my first object, combined if possible with the rescue of Sir George White's force for active operations. I should have preferred to have devoted every possible man of my forces to Natal, for in Natal lay my true objective—the principal force of the enemy. . . . But at the same time I felt it impossible to ignore Kimberley. That town represented to the native the symbol of British power and property in South Africa. . . . Very reluctantly therefore I decided to divide my forces. By the 10 th of November I had definitely determined upon my plans.
This book is a memoir of Sir George White, not a history of the South African war, and I do not propose therefore to describe in detail what Buller's plans were. Briefly, he was to send Lord Methuen to relieve Kimberley, after which relief Methuen was to clear the northern districts of Cape Colony from enemies and rebels, and prepare for an advance into the Free State. For the work in Natal, General Clery was appointed, with three brigades drawn from troops now beginning to arrive from England by sea, the first units of the Army Corps. The point of interest for present purposes is that Natal had now become the central point of the war, as many had throughout foreseen that it would do, and that for some months to come the attention of the world was focussed upon the little colony.
It was perhaps, indeed almost certainly, fortunate for England that the original plan of campaign was thus radically changed. The Boer Bepublics afterwards developed such fighting strength that before they were overcome there were 250,000 British troops in South Africa. If in December 1899 Buller had advanced with a single army corps into the Free State, there is little room to doubt that he would very soon have found himself in desperate difficulties. The advance proved no easy task even for Lord Roberts, with his greatly increased forces, three or four months later.
Meanwhile, during the early part of November, the investment of Ladysmith became closer, and the bombardment more severe. The garrison was now dependent for any communication with the outer world upon a pigeon post to Durban, and the occasional passage through the enemy's lines of native messengers. The provisions in the shops and stores had been taken over, and the civil residents were on rations like the troops. Many of them had begun to dig out bomb - proof shelters in the banks of the river or other places, where they remained during the day, returning to their homes at night, when the bombardment ceased. On the 8th November a 6-inch Creusot gun opened, fire from the top of Bulwana, and began at once to give serious trouble. And on the 9th November the Boers made a general attack upon the line of defences with artillery and rifle fire. Except at one point, Caesar's Camp, the infantry attack was never dangerous, and on most parts of the line the action was over by noon. The fact was that the Boer riflemen did not care to close, partly perhaps because they had no bayonets, but partly for the reason given by Mahan when speaking of the actions fought by the British at the beginning—
And there can be also little question that the wholesome respect for their fighting qualities, thus established at the beginning of hostilities, had a most beneficial effect for them, in discouraging attack by an enemy who, though brave and active, constitutionally prefers a waiting game to an assault.
The British casualties in this affair were very small— four killed and twenty-seven wounded. Those of the Boers cannot be stated; but the result certainly was to increase the confidence of the garrison, and to discourage the enemy, who never attacked again until two months later.
At noon a salute of twenty-one shotted guns was fired at the enemy by Lambton's naval guns, in honour of the birthday of the Prince of Wales, and three cheers were given by the troops in camp and on the defences ; after which a message to be telegraphed to the Prince was despatched by pigeon post to Durban. It was duly received and acknowledged.
The incidents of the next few days are not easy to follow in detail; but about the middle of November White learnt that troops were being sent to Natal from the Cape, and that there was a prospect of an advance in strength against the Boer forces encircling him. Soon afterwards he was told that an attempt was being made to communicate with him by some means more certain and rapid than the pigeon post. The General Officer commanding the line of communications telegraphed to him :—
I am getting search-light fixed on truck, and will flash signals with it from Estcourt by night. Watch sky for flashing signals. Try to effect means of reply.
At first this arrangement proved difficult to work, but after a time some messages were caught by reflection from the clouds, and White felt less cut off from the outer world. He was, to use his old Indian expression, " Kilaband"; but it was something to receive a message, or a portion of one, now and then ; and he had hopes of being able before long to establish direct communication by heliograph, when the southern troops should reach a point within sight of some part of his defences. For this the garrison was constantly on the watch.
On the 22nd November Buller himself started for Natal, arriving on the 25th. A considerable force had already assembled, and though small bodies of Boers had crossed the Tugela, the Boer Commander-in-Chief had practically given up the hope of any serious invasion of Southern Natal. So ended, after less than a month, the first period of the siege of Ladysmith. Many anxious days still lay before the garrison and the relieving force, but even as soon as this the Boer plan of campaign had almost broken down. Durban and Southern Natal were now safe from immediate conquest, and the British had gained what they most wanted—time.