The second period of the Ladysmith siege opened cheerily enough. A large British force was now gathering in Southern Natal, and it seemed probable that by co-operation between this force and the garrison the Boer investing line would soon be broken. Gun ammunition was not too plentiful, but, thanks to White's forethought and the exertions of Colonel Ward, there was as yet no scarcity of food supplies, and the invested troops were in good spirits. Before the end of November, too, they learned that the Boer raiders who had crossed the Tugela had been attacked, and so roughly handled that they had recrossed the river. All seemed to promise well for the success of Buller's advance when it should take place.
The garrison had even established a newspaper, ' The Ladysmith Lyre,' the opening numbers of which contained some interesting matter. As an example I may perhaps give an extract from a poem illustrating the life of the civilian population in its bomb-proof shelters. This is headed "The Poet under the River Bank," and begins with the following Rubaiyat:—
Wake, for above Bulwan the coming day
Lights up the signal for the guns to play;
How sweet to know 'tis but a living tomb
Awaits you, and there's time to creep away.
E'er the last shadow of the darkness died,
He thought a voice within the cavern cried:
" Look here, there ain't no room for more than ten,
And if you're late, you'll have to stop outside."
Oh, dreams of pluck and fears of cowardice!
One thing at least is certain, cordite flies;
One thing is certain in this town of lies,
If Long Tom gets you on the head, you dies.
Some of escapes and some of ventures tell,
To some life's dull without bombardment—well,
The far-off shrapnel makes a pretty cloud,
And sweet's the whisper of a distant shell.
I do not know who was responsible for this paper, nor how long it lasted; but evidently it had on its staff some artists and writers of merit, and a little fooling under such conditions was an excellent thing.
But for the heavily burdened General in Command, though he seems to have duly appreciated the fooling, there was much in the position to give cause for anxiety. One special trouble was the number and efficiency of the enemy's spies. For example, his despatch of the 23rd March, already quoted, has the following passage on the subject:—
I arranged an attack on Rifleman's Ridge for the 29 th November, but was compelled to abandon it, as just at sunset the enemy very strongly reinforced that portion of their line.
There can, I think, be no doubt that my plan had been disclosed to them, and indeed throughout the siege I have been much handicapped by the fact that every movement, or preparation for movement, which has taken place in Ladysmith, has been at once communicated to the Boers. The agents through whom news reached them, I have unfortunately failed to discover. I have sent away or locked up every person against whom reasonable grounds of suspicion could be alleged, but without the slightest effect."
White's Chief of the Staff, General Hunter, explained in his evidence before the Royal Commission that " every farmer in the neighbourhood was a Boer, or a Dutchman with Boer sympathies," and, though this was evidently an over-statement of the case, it is clear that the attitude of a large number was thoroughly hostile. Under such conditions, as many of the Colonial Dutch knew English well, it was practically impossible to prevent spying, and this added greatly to the difficulties of the defence. Plausible English-speaking men and women could get into and out of the British lines at any moment; for the circumference of the defences was great, and any one who knew the ground ran little risk of being stopped, while even if stopped he could probably give some excellent explanation of his movements.
To a certain extent the position favoured secret coming and going on the part of the British also. It was possible for a man who knew the ground well to creep away through the Boer lines in the dark, and this was at times done. For example, White records that two civilians who volunteered to blow up a railway bridge outside the enemy's lines duly reached their destination and got back undetected. But the British officers in general, not knowing the country and its ways, were helpless in such matters, and of the civil population it was not easy for them to know whom they could trust.
On the 29th of November the Ladysmith garrison observed flashing signals on the clouds at night from Estcourt, where the relieving troops were gathering, and were able to read a portion of a message.
At a later period of the siege [White writes] no difficulty-was experienced in reading such messages, but we were without the means of replying in similar fashion.
However, a few days later, heliographic communication was restored by Weenen, to the southeast, and for the future, so long as there was daylight and sun, the garrison and the relieving force were no longer out of touch.
Meanwhile the garrison steadily continued its efforts to harass the enemy, and to facilitate the advance of the relieving force. Some of these efforts were unsuccessful, doubtless on account of the excellent information which the Boers managed .to procure. Thus White records that on the 5th December, and again on the 7th December, detachments of infantry moved out to surprise outlying farms usually occupied by the enemy as night outposts. The farms were in each case found empty. But some of the night enterprises were more fortunate in their results. For example, on the night of the 7th December White's Chief of the Staff, Major-General Hunter, made a sortie for the purpose of destroying some Boer guns on Gun Hill, four miles or so . from Ladysmith, which had been causing much annoyance. Hunter's force consisted of 500 men of the Natal Volunteers, under Colonel Royston, and 100 of the Imperial Light Horse, under Lieut. -Colonel Edwards, with 18 men of the Corps of Guides under Major Henderson of the Intelligence Branch to direct the column, and a few men of the Engineers and Artillery, with explosives and sledge-hammers to destroy the guns when captured. The perilous expedition was carried out with entire success. Making their way across the rough plain in the darkness, and then clambering up the steep boulder-strewn hill, often on their hands and knees, the gallant little force surprised and captured the Boer guns. A 6-inch Creusot and a 4-7-inch howitzer were destroyed, and a Maxim captured and brought into camp, which was safely reached about sunrise. It was a fine feat of arms, and brought much credit to the Imperial Light Horse and the Natal men.
The Imperial Light Horse, it may be explained, was a corps d'elite, 1200 strong, formed from among the British refugees who had left Johannesburg. They were well-educated, prosperous men, the pick of the men Great Britain had sent out to the mining country. General Hunter said of them before the Royal Commission : " They were the finest corps I have ever seen anywhere in my life," and George White once described them in a public speech as the bravest men he had ever had under his orders. They greatly distinguished themselves time after time all through the war, and were a magnificent example of what a volunteer force can become under the training of competent officers like Chisholme and Edwards.
The Natal Volunteers, too, of various corps, did fine service throughout. They were, according to General Hunter, largely Scotch, or of Scotch extraction, and almost all young farmers or farmers' sons, accustomed to a hard outdoor life, and to riding and shooting. Such men are the finest material in the world for soldiers, and they are to be found in scores of thousands all over the Empire.
But the feats performed by the garrison of Ladysmith in these sorties were by no means entirely or even mainly the work of the "auxiliary" troops. On the night of Hunter's expedition, three companies of the 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment, under Lieut.-Colonel L. S. Mellor, seized Limit Hill, and through the gap in the enemy's outpost line thus created, a squadron 19th Hussars penetrated some 4 miles towards the north, destroying the enemy's telegraph line, and burning various kraals and shelters ordinarily occupied by them. No loss was incurred in this enterprise.
Again on the morning of the 9th December a cavalry force under Brigadier-General Brocklehurst, with a battery of artillery, moved out along the Newcastle Road for a reconnaissance, which was carried out in a very bold and dashing manner by the 5th Lancers and 18th Hussars.
The effect of these various enterprises was shortly evident in the return from the line of the Tugela next day of some 2000 Boers, and the consequent weakening of the Boer force opposing Sir Redvers Buller. Then, on the 10th December, Lieut-Colonel C. T. E. Metcalfe, commanding the 2nd Battalion Bifle Brigade, volunteered to carry out a night enterprise against a 4-7" howitzer on Surprise Hill. The undertaking was one of very considerable risk, as to reach that hill it was necessary to pass between Thornhill's and Bell's Kopjes, both of which were held by the enemy. Lieut.-Colonel Metcalfe moved off at 10 p.m. with 12 officers and 488 men of his battalion, together with a destruction party under Lieutenant Digby Jones, R.E., and succeeded in effecting a complete surprise, his advance not being discovered until he was within 4 or 5 yards of the crest line, which was at once carried, and the howitzer destroyed. The retirement, however, proved more difficult, since the enemy from Bell's and Thornhill's Kopjes, consisting apparently of men of various nationalities, closed in from both sides to bar the retreat. Lieut.-Colonel Metcalfe, however, fixed bayonets, and the companies, admirably handled by their captains, fought their way back to the railway line, where a portion of the force had been left in support, and from which point the retirement became easy.
In this affair the Rifle Brigade had some sixty casualties, but a number of the enemy were killed with the bayonet, and by the British fire, and the object of the expedition was attained.
It will be seen that the garrison had in the course of a few days destroyed three of the enemy's heavy guns, and kept him well employed, thus fulfilling the purpose of their retention in Ladysmith, and lightening the task of Buller's force. The firing of his guns from the direction of Colenso had now become audible, and White's attention was chiefly directed to preparations for moving out a flying column to co-operate with him. These preparations were completed by the 15th December. The flying column was to be a large force, consisting of a brigade of cavalry, two brigades of infantry, and several batteries of artillery, and was to be under White's personal command. It was to be ready to leave Ladysmith at short notice, and fight out towards Buller, the holding of the Ladysmith defences in the meantime being entrusted to Colonel W. G. Knox, C.B., with the remainder of the garrison—a small remainder.
The Boer force in Natal was now in a position which at first sight seems a precarious one. Its numbers have been variously stated, but at this time they can hardly have exceeded 25,000 men. Sir Frederick Maurice indeed gives reasons for thinking that they probably did not much exceed 20,000. Regarding Southern Natal as its front, this force had before it General Buller, with a force now amounting to nearly 20,000 men, close to the line of the Tugela river; while behind it lay the garrison of Ladysmith,
originally some 14,000 strong, and allowing for casualties and sickness, still numbering fully 12,000 effective men. As the two British forces were separated by a distance of little over twenty miles, and were in communication with each other by heliograph, they might be expected to act in concert. The Boers therefore had not only to maintain their grip upon, and keep within its defences, the strong garrison in their rear, but after detaching men enough for this purpose they had to beat off with the remainder any attack by the force in their front, which was nearly as large as their own. It seemed too late now to throw their weight upon the Ladysmith force and try to destroy it by assault, for they would certainly meet with a desperate resistance from troops full of fight and strongly entrenched, while they would offer 'a fine opening for attack to Buller's force. It seemed equally hopeless to throw their main weight on Buller; for, if they left behind them men enough to hold the Ladysmith garrison, they would have to attack Buller in the open with inferior numbers.
But in truth the position of the Boers was not as difficult as it seemed. They had in their favour two advantages of very great importance. In the first place they held, in the crescent of rugged hills which overhang the northern bank of the Tugela for a distance of sixty miles or more, a line of defence which was very hard to attack from the southward. " The approaches to the beleaguered town from the south," says Sir Frederick Maurice, " were thus covered by an immense natural redoubt." Opposite the very centre of the front face of this redoubt lay the village of Colenso ; just north of Colenso the railway crossed the Tugela, and then wound through a confused mass of hills to Ladysmith. Through this mass of hills ran also the only practicable roads between Colenso and Ladysmith, affording a series of very strong positions.
Along the face of this strategic fort ran the Tugela, an admirable moat, as completely commanded by the heights on its left bank as is the ditch of a permanent work by its parapet.
Both to east and west of Colenso the river could be crossed at some points by fords; but very few of these were practicable for guns and waggons, and they were mostly difficult to approach from the south. The curve of the river, moreover, is such that the commander of a Boer force placed about the centre of the line of defence, near Colenso, had a shorter distance to get over in order to reinforce either flank than a force from the south would have to get over in attacking.
Moreover, not only did the heights he held afford a perfect view for miles over the country to the south, but the Tugela hills are precipitous and rocky as to their southern faces, while the approaches to them from the north present, as a rule, easy slopes and gentle gradients.
Looking only to the lie of the ground, therefore, a force attacking the line of the Tugela from the south, and trying to force its way to Ladysmith, had a difficult task to face.
This was one of the two great advantages enjoyed by the Boers. The second was their superior mobility. Selecting for attack any point in the long line of the mountain redoubt, other than the centre, Buller, leaving his line of communications on the railway, would have to march to right or left over open ground south of the river, in full view of an enemy concealed from sight among the hills to the north, and at the rate that infantry and ox-waggons could move; while the Boers on their ponies could canter out at least three times as fast, and be ready to meet him, probably entrenched in some strong position covering the ford by which he intended to cross the river. And as occasion offered a portion of the Boers investing Ladysmith could be moved out rapidly to reinforce the advanced bodies holding the river line.
These two advantages went far to compensate the enemy for their numerical inferiority, and gave them hopes that they might be able to keep Buller off until the Ladysmith garrison fell into their hands. So highly did they estimate the strength of their defensive line that they kept the bulk of their force round the beleaguered town, and sent Louis Botha to hold the river with six or seven thousand men only.
Botha had on the hills above Colenso about this number, or according to the Boers even less, when Buller's first attack took place. This occurred on the 15th December.
Before that date Buller had carefully considered the various lines of advance open to him—the direct oute by way of Colenso, and the river crossings to east and west. The direct route he had at once rejected, as the strongest and most difficult of all. The eastern line of advance, though comparatively short and in some ways attractive, had also been rejected, because it passed through rough country, and would have involved much bush fighting, which is specially trying to troops untrained in it. Moreover, the Ladysmith garrison could not have helped much on that side. Finally, it had been settled that the attempt should be made by a drift or ford called Potgieter's, some fifteen miles to the west of Colenso. This was the state of affairs when, on the 12th December, Buller received news of a severe repulse suffered by Lord Methuen at Maagersfontein, following on a reverse inflicted upon General Gatacre at Stormberg, both in Cape Colony. This intelligence, in Buller's opinion, so entirely changed the situation, that he no longer thought it desirable to move on Potgieter's.
This operation [he told the War Office] involved the complete abandonment of my communications, and, in the event of want of success, the risk that I might share the fate of Sir George White, and be cut off from Natal. I had considered that with the enemy dispirited by the failure of their plans in the west, the risk was justifiable, but I cannot think that I ought now to take such a risk. From my point of view it will be better to lose Ladysmith altogether than to throw open Natal to the enemy.
On the 13th December, therefore, Buller sent the following message to White:—
Have been forced to change my plans; am coming through via Colenso and Onderbrook Spruit.
It will be seen that the abandonment of the march to Potgieter's did not necessarily, in Buller's opinion, mean the loss of Ladysmith. He was still going to get through if possible. What it did mean was that in order to get through he was going to attack the line of the Tugela at Colenso, and try to. force the direct route, which was believed to be strongly entrenched and held.
White answered :—
Your No. 78 of to-day received and understood. Shall he very glad if you will let me know your probable dates.
To which Buller's reply was :—
No. 80, 13th December.—Three brigades concentrate in Chieveley to-day. Fourth brigade go there to-morrow. Actual date of attack depends on difficulties met with; probably 17th Decr.
Upon receipt of this telegram the final arrangements were made for moving out the force to cooperate with Buller, and a special order on the subject was published on the 14th December. Then White awaited the signal for action. He did not know the reason for Buller's change of plans, and made no comment upon it; but he was ready to fight out with the bulk of his force whenever required.
The expected signal was never given, and in the absence of it White remained in Ladysmith. I cannot find from the telegrams which passed that Buller had definitely promised to give one ; but his evidence before the Royal Commission shows what his intention was, and why he did not call upon the Ladysmith garrison to move. After explaining his position and its difficulties, he says:—
I decided, therefore, to effect a lodgment, if possible, on the other side of. the Tugela, and, if I succeeded in doing this, to direct Hunter to take command of the Ladysmith garrison, and march along the watershed to Onderbrook, while I myself marched simultaneously upon the same point. From my knowledge of the Boers, I felt assured that, if attacked at one and the same time by Hunter from the north and by myself from the south, they would never maintain their position. But until I had secured my lodgment on the other side of the river, I did not feel justified in calling upon the Ladysmith garrison to move. The risk to them would, I felt, be too great.
Buller's intention, therefore, was to give the signal, but not until he was across the river; and then he apparently meant to supersede White, and entrust the conduct of the operation to Hunter, White's Chief of Staff, in whom he had greater confidence. In these circumstances it is not perhaps surprising that he did not state his intentions beforehand. His advance beyond the Tugela was, it seems, to be made with half his force, " at least 10,000 men" being kept to defend Southern Natal.
It is unnecessary to enter here upon a detailed account of Buller's attack—the "battle of Colenso." As every one knows, it failed. The Boers, entrenched and to a great extent concealed in a very strong position, had less than thirty casualties, while the' British advancing across open ground south of the river, in full view of the Boer trenches, lost in killed, wounded, and prisoners, over eleven hundred men, and ten guns were left in the hands of the enemy.
During this unfortunate day the Ladysmith garrison remained within their defences, knowing nothing of the fight, and therefore making no effort to cooperate.
The sound of very heavy artillery firing on the 15th [writes Sir Frederick Maurice] was, it is true, heard in Ladysmith, but the Colenso position had been shelled by the naval guns on the two previous days, and in face of Sir Redvers' message that the actual attack would probably be made on the 17th, there was doubt whether the firing heard on the 15th might not be merely a continuation of the preliminary bombardment. A premature sortie before the signal had been given might seriously hamper, or possibly entirely frustrate, concerted action between the two forces.
As I have shown above, a sortie was not expected or desired by Buller.
White and his troops up to this time were in fair health and good spirits. There was some sickness, it is true, but not enough to cause serious anxiety; and the food supply was sufficient. Of course even now anything beyond the daily ration was not easy to get. Lieut.-Colonel St John Gore writes under date the 15th December (The Green Horse in Ladysmith):—
Food is now getting decidedly scarce, and both officers and men are often on decidedly short commons.
It is difficult to buy anything, but when for sale, prices are very high. At a semi-official sale of market produce, &c, some of the prices realised at auction were as follows:—
1 bottle of whisky, £3, 3s.
1 dozen eggs, 9s. 2d.
1 pot jam, 3s. 6d.
Sack of potatoes (25 lbs.), 18s. 6d.
8 lbs. mutton, 10s. 6d. (The mutton was the bargain! Lieutenant Clay got it for " C" squadron mess. This is considered quite worthy of record here!)
Some of the cunning men of war among us still manage a precarious supply of milk for their squadron messes. The grazing area over which our cattle can roam is now so much restricted that the milk supply has almost ceased.
Sickness among the garrison has been sadly on the increase lately, and dysentery and enteric have made great inroads on its available fighting strength.
The 5th Dragoon Guards have been comparatively fortunate in this respect, and for many consecutive weeks the health of the regiment was returned as " good." At this time we had in hospital, from various causes, one officer and 42 N.C.O.'s and men.
White's letters at this time are few, but the following are extracts from a letter to his wife which, begun on the 9th December, was continued throughout the siege:—
I think I may commence a letter to you, as Sir Redvers Buller is approaching the Tugela, and we may reasonably expect some hard fighting within the next week, the result of which I hope will be the relief of Ladysmith and the opening of our communications with the outside world from which we have been so long cut off.
Ladysmith is full of newspaper correspondents who will give very full accounts of the incidents of the siege, so I will not attempt to give you a history of it. "When we meet I shall have many little incidents to tell you. I have been in good health all the time, but it has been weary work. However, I fought in the open as long as I could with a superior enemy on both sides of me. I was heartbroken over the loss of the Gloucester Regiment, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Mountain Battery. . . .
We occupy a very large position here: it is some 13 miles round it. This is rendered necessary by the immense range of the enemy's guns. One big 6-inch gun which annoyed us for a very long time threw a shell into our lines to a distance of over 10,000 yards from the gun. This is about six miles. . . . When this repeated N. S. E. & West of us it makes it hot for us, but it is very remarkable how few casualties there have been. The soldiers spend the days in shelters, which save them from the shells. Most of the officers & civil residents have also dug themselves shelters underground. . . .
The night before last my Chief of the Staff, Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, led a party of 600 picked men & made a raid on Gun Hill, one of the enemy's positions round Ladysmith. He surprised the post & took 3 guns, including one of the enemy's largest (6-inch) guns. I am so pleased, not only because that gun was doing us so much harm, but also because Hunter is such a delightful fellow and has done so well through the siege & previous operations. You will like to hear of our mess & manner of life. All the Headquarters Staff live in the same house, which we have commandeered. This is the list.
Sir G. White.
Capt. F. Lyon.
Capt. Dixon, acting A.D.C. to me.
Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, Chief of the Staff.
Capt. King, A.D.C. to Genl. Hunter.
Brigr.-General Ian Hamilton.
Lt.-Colonel Sir Henry Rawlinson.
We have had plenty to eat & to drink, and we keep very early hours. I am up about 4 o'clock every morning, and we generally retire between 9 & 10 o'clock. At one time, before our defences were as strong as they are now, I used always to sleep in my clothes ready to turn out in a second; but now a large proportion of the Boer Army has gone South to face the relieving force on the Tugela, & I turn in regularly. Most of the Regimental Officers, however, have to sleep in the open with their men in strong forts built of stones heaped together. There is no dearth of this class of building material in Natal. The climate is very variable—some days are very hot, about as hot as Simla in mid-June, or perhaps a little hotter. We then have a severe thunderstorm with most vivid lightning, & this cools the weather down greatly.
Ladysmith is a nasty place, & I fear there will be a terrible plague of enteric if we are kept here much longer. Already there are 80 cases, & the numbers are increasing rapidly. We had more enteric fever here last year than in any other station of the British Army, & I dread the result of siege conditions this year far more than the shells & bullets of the enemy. . . . The flies are a terrible nuisance. The number of horses, mules, cattle, &c, bring them in myriads. In our dining-room, which is very small, we catch them on fly-papers & in wire domes in millions, but it does not seem to diminish their numbers. They get into everything left uncovered. . . .
Johnny Hamilton has done extremely well in this campaign, & is, I think, sure to get a K.C.B., & I hope a V.C., for which I have recommended him. He was very brave at Elands Laagte, & General French who commanded there—I was present but did not assume command—recommended him to me, a recommendation I was of course very glad to support. . . .
Captain Wyndham, 16 h Lancers, has my old friend " Premier " here, the horse that broke my leg. He bought it from General Symons when the latter left India. . . .
In one of the heliographic messages I have received since we got into communication with Sir Redvers Buller's force by signal, I was given an extract from Reuter that " Lady White at Windsor." If this means that the dear old Queen has asked you in acknowledgement of my services it was too good of her. It gave me the first sensation of pleasure I have had since the Bell's sprut disaster. . .
We got possession of a letter written by a Boer to his sister, which was interesting from its honesty. He said that " Mr Englishman fights Very hard indeed, & does not seem to mind the shells falling thick into Ladysmith. Our burghers do not like their shells, & cannot stand them. We have been before Ladysmith now for a month, & we don't seem much nearer taking it. I fear there will be great bloodshed before it falls," & more on the same lines. I have, however, plenty of provisions, greatly due to Colonel Ward's foresight & excellent organisation. He is an admirable officer, & deserves all that can be bestowed on him for his masterly arrangements. Whatever we want we go to Ward & he finds it for us. . . .
This is a great Boer fete day, Dingan's day, being the name of a Kafir chief they defeated heavily on the 16th December, but I don't know the year. . . .
I had hoped that Buller's force would have relieved us by now, but news has come in this morning through the signallers that there has been a fight (yesterday) south of the Tugela at Cheveley, result not yet known. This disappoints me much, as I thought Buller's force had forced all the enemy to this side of the Tugela, and that he would be here (Ladysmith) in a few days. . . .
Enteric fever is very bad here, and increasing at quite an alarming rate. Three weeks ago we had about 15 cases; today we have 180. . . .
White's ignorance about the state of affairs was not to last many hours longer, for on this same day, the 16th December, he received a telegram from General Buller which informed him of the fight at Colenso and its issue. The telegram must have been a shock. It ran as follows :—
Clear line No. 88 of 16th December.—I tried Colenso yesterday but failed; the enemy is too strong for my force except with siege operations, & those will take one full month to prepare. Can you last so long ? If not, how many days can you give me in which to take up defensive position ? After which I suggest you firing away as much ammunition as you can and making best terms you can. I can remain here if you have alternative suggestion, but unaided I cannot break in. I find my infantry cannot fight more than ten miles from camp, and then only if water can be got, and it is scarce here.
White has recorded in his evidence before the Royal Commission that when he received this telegram his first thought was that the cipher had fallen into the hands of the Boers. He replied :—
No. 32 of 16th December.—Your No. 88 of to-day received and understood. My suggestion is that you take up strongest available position that will enable you to keep touch of the enemy, and harass him constantly with artillery fire and in other ways as much as possible. I can make food last for much longer than a month, and will not think of making terms till I am forced to. You may have hit the enemy harder than you think. All our native spies report that your artillery fire made considerable impression on enemy. Have your losses been very heavy ? If you lose touch of the enemy it will immensely increase his opportunities of crushing me, and may have worse effect elsewhere. While you are in touch with him, and in communication with me, he has both our forces to reckon with. Make every effort to get reinforcements as early as possible, including India, and enlist every man in both Colonies who will serve and can ride. Things may look brighter. The loss of 12,000 men here would be a heavy blow to England. We must not yet think of it. I fear I could not cut my way to you. Enteric fever is increasing alarmingly here. There are now 180 cases, all within the last month. Answer fully. I am keeping everything secret for the present till I know your plans.
In the meantime, or a little later, but on the 16th December, Buller amended his telegram, and the amendment made it run as follows :—
Clear line No. 88 of 16th December.—I tried Colenso yesterday but failed; the enemy is too strong for my force except with siege operations, and those will take one full month to prepare. Can you last so long ? How many days can you hold out ? I suggest your firing away as much ammunition as you can and making best terms you can. I can remain here if you have alternative suggestion, but unaided I cannot break in. I find my infantry cannot fight more than ten miles from camp, and then only if water can be got, and it is scarce here. Whatever happens recollect to burn your cipher, decipher, and code books, and all deciphered messages.
This amended message was sent off on the morning of the 17th December, and at the same time, or immediately afterwards, " the first thing in the morning," according to General Buller's evidence, was sent the following :—
Clear line No. 93, 17th December.—I find I cannot take Colenso, and I cannot stay in force near there, as there is no water; but I am leaving there as large a force as I can to help you; but recollect that in this weather my infantry cannot be depended on to march more than 10 miles a day. Can you suggest anything for me to do ? I think in about three weeks from now I could take Colenso, but I can never get to Onderbrook.
Clear line No. 33p, 18th December.—Your No. 93 17th December received and understood. It is difficult for me to make suggestions, as I do not know situation outside or whether you have made serious attempt to take Colenso, and with what loss. Your messages were previously confident, and I had made preparations to fight towards Onderbrook, and could still do so if you had Colenso. I cannot advise leaving small force in advance of main body. It would probably be invested, and be no real threat to enemy. Your front line should be held in full strength. Abandonment of this garrison seems to me most disastrous alternative on public grounds. Enemy will be doubly strong on Tugela if Ladysmith falls. I can only suggest getting every available reinforcement in men and guns, and' attacking again in full force as early as possible. Meantime I will do all I can to maintain an active defence, and will co-operate with you to the extent of my power if you advance again. How are you getting on in the Free State ? "We know nothing. Detailed news desirable, to contradict mischievous rumours here.
Such were the position and views of the two commanders as far as the heliographic messages enable one to understand. It is evident that each was inclined to doubt whether the other was doing all he could have done. Indeed Buller's evidence before the Royal Commission shows that this was his view about White. He says with reference to White's message of the 16th; December :—
To me its chief significance was that he could give no assistance towards his own relief, and that he relied upon me to keep the pressure of the enemy from him.
This when White had almost his whole force ready to fight out on receipt of the signal for a concerted movement. As to White's view about Buller, White's message of the 18th December seems to show that he thought Buller was contemplating the abandonment of the Ladysmith garrison, and this, perhaps, without having made any " serious attempt to take Colenso." Afterwards there was much controversy about these matters. No good purpose would, I think, be served by reviving that controversy now. Neither commander seems to have obtained, at first, by means of the rather precarious heliograph, full information as to the difficulties and intentions of the other, and there was therefore room for some misapprehension on both sides.
In the meantime the situation had been cleared by correspondence between General Buller and Her Majesty's Government. On the evening of the 15th December, after the painful repulse at Colenso, Buller had telegraphed to the Secretary of State for War:—
My failure to-day raises a serious question. I do not think 'I am now strong enough to relieve White. Colenso is a fortress which, I think, if not taken on a rush, could only be taken by a siege. There is no water within eight miles of the point of attack, and in this weather that exhausts infantry. The place is fully entrenched. I do not think either a Boer or a gun was seen by us all day, yet the fire brought to bear was very heavy. Our infantry were quite willing to fight, but were absolutely exhausted by the intense heat. My view is that I ought to let Ladysmith go and occupy good positions for the defence of South Natal, and let time help us. But that is a step on which I ought to consult you. I consider we were in face of 20,000 men to-day. They had the advantage both in arms and in position. They admit they suffered severely; but my men have not seen a dead Boer, and that dispirits them. My losses have> not been very heavy. I could have made them much heavier, but the result would have been the same. The moment £ failed to get in with a rush, I was beat. I now feel that f cannot say that I can relieve Ladysmith with my available force, and the best thing I can suggest is that I should occupy defensive positions, and fight it out in a country better suited to our tactics.
This telegram was considered by the British Cabinet on the 16th December, and the proposal to "let Ladysmith go" was instantly rejected. On the same day a reply was sent in the following words :—
Her Majesty's Government regard the abandonment of White's force and its consequent surrender as a national disaster of the greatest magnitude. We would urge you to devise another attempt to carry out its relief, not necessarily via Colenso, making use of the additional men now arriving if you think fit.
These additional men consisted of a fresh Division, the 5th, which was about to arrive in Capetown. Buller was further informed that a 6th Division was beginning to embark, that a 7th would begin to embark early in January, that another cavalry brigade would also be sent, and that the guns lost at Colenso would be replaced.
The " Black Week " of Stormberg, Maagersfontein, and Colenso had stirred the spirit of the nation and the empire. Militia, yeomanry, and volunteers in Great Britain came forward eagerly for service, and the oversea dominions, which had already offered troops, proposed to send further contingents. From one end of the Empire to the other, the resolve to carry through the war at all costs was enthusiastically shown. For the future there was to be no doubt as to the provision of ample forces. And in order that these forces should be able to act with the fullest effect, it was decided by Her Majesty's Government, on the proposal of Lord Lansdowne, that Lord Roberts should be asked to undertake the duties of Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, with Lord Kitchener as his Chief of the Staff, Sir Redvers Buller being entrusted with the prosecution of the campaign in Natal, which, it was felt, would 'require his presence and whole attention.
With this decision opened an entirely fresh phase of the war, and at the same time the second period of the siege of Ladysmith came to an end. Henceforth there was to be no question as to the relief being carried out if relief were possible. The Boer war scheme had already been defeated by the failure to carry Natal in the first rush, owing to the resistance of White's force. The cause of the Republics had now become desperate, for troops were pouring out from England to South Africa at the rate of a thousand men a day, and this was to continue for months. Ladysmith might still fall, either by an overwhelming assault or by starvation, before a relieving force could fight its way through the mountain barrier held by the enemy; but in the first two months of the war the Ladysmith troops
had saved Natal from conquest, and, whether they now continued to hold the place or not, their main work had been done. Thanks to her Navy, England, given time, could be very strong six thousand miles from home. The one hope of eventual victory for the Boers had lain in a swift overwhelming offensive before she could bring her strength to bear. Though perhaps they did not know it, that hope was now gone. They might still make a gallant resistance and inflict painful defeats on their great enemy; but against the resources of the British Empire their resistance, however gallant, must in the end prove unavailing. Their chance had been lost.