Leach of the T. M. I.—my servant disappears—I ride into Ladysmith—visit to Intombi neutral hospital—its terrible condition — a lunch off horse-flesh with Captain Lambton — General Buller's stores — the general pays no heed to Lord Roberts's request— old friends — the Klip river banks — the famous dam—Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry.
March 4.—I brought you in my last chapter to our night bivouac on the north side of the Tugela on Wednesday evening, February 28. I was unpleasantly reminded, in the chilly dark morning of March 1, that I was lying on the enemy's battlefield by the stench of a too proximate dead horse, and, after vainly endeavouring to read my watch, an increasing buzz of voices warned me that my servant was more dilatory than I, and that it was time I was astir. That blessed cook of the T. M. I.—Leach by name, who could fight as well as he could cook on nothing—had got a splendid breakfast ready; and if the tea resembled pea-soup, it was at least too dark to distinguish in drinking.
I had finished breakfast by 5 a.m. before my civilian servant Harvey, late of the 20th Hussars, and who had been my dresser at the Court Theatre, put in an appearance, and I was consequently late on parade; but I had a clinking horse, an iron grey nearly 16 hands high (too big really for the country), which was equal to the emergency, and I soon found myself with the regiment—struggling through team after team of transport and ammunition waggons, till daylight proclaimed us well on our way towards, but slightly to the left of, Pieters station. We knew Ladysmith with its roads and communications was open, and all we had to do was to patrol and carefully examine the country on our left flank; and by midday we were dismounted and waiting orders under the northern spur of Grobler's Kloof. The colonel decided to form camp there, and after sitting in a broiling sun, and discussing the possibilities of the future and reconnoitring neighbouring deserted Boer camps, we dined and "turned in," prepared for another wet night. This time I had my tent pitched, but not by my servant, who, for some unaccountable reason, had disappeared. He was last seen on a Government pony with my kodak in his hand, but, worst of all, he had all my money, and the original of Lord Roberts's letter to Sir Redvers Buller asking his courtesy to allow me to witness the operations and write my diary. The want of money, coupled with my having to leave Murray Gourlay behind when I joined Thorneycroft's, brings me to the third reason why I am at Maritzburg on two days' leave.
I rose on Friday, 2nd March, with a long beard—at least it felt like one, for I had had no bath, no shave, not even a clean shirt or socks, so busy had we been, fighting and shifting camp. Having obtained Colonel Thorneycroft's permission, I decided to let the sun dry my damp clothes, and look for General Buller. I made for his camp, which I learnt was at Nelthorpe, but found one of his staff officers, who told me the General had gone up Bulwana Mountain to see the country, and that Colonel Miles, his chief of staff, had ridden down the railway to Ladysmith. I was not long in making up my mind, and took a "bee-line" over the hills to where I thought Ladysmith was. I was not far wrong in my direction, and at the top of a nek I saw the now famous little town some five miles below me; and down at my feet, about two miles distant, were the white tents of the Intombi neutral hospital, where I knew most of our sick and wounded were lying. A precipitous ride brought me to the railway, and I was soon with the hospital P. M. O., of whom I inquired if the 'Daily Mail' fund could be of service for luxuries for the wounded. I promised nothing, except a telegram to London, which was gladly accepted, and then I rode on to see Sir George White, to get the message sent by Government heliograph. But before I left I saw poor young Bond (Mr W. H. Bond's son, who came out with me). His thigh was setting well, and he was very cheery. The signs of privation and yet manly endurance were terrible, not only among the enteric, dysentery, and scurvy patients, but also among the orderlies and officers of the Army Medical Corps. " We buried 500 men last month just there," said one of the doctors, pointing to a patch of ground covered with little heaps of earth and white crosses; "and we have 1600 more in hospital, and scarcely any luxury— in fact, I may say ordinary medicinary diet— to give them. We ourselves are on quarter rations, which means 1} biscuit a-day" ! It was heartrending. After I had looked through the hospitals, uncommonly clean and well kept, I galloped on on my errand of mercy, hopeful that the ' Daily Mail' this time would lend ear to my urgent appeal. I caught Winston Churchill up as we both rode to see Sir George White, but he took the front door carelessly, as one who knows his visit must be expected, while I, seeing saddled horses, galloped to the back. For once speed stood me in stead. The General saw me, and Winston did not see the General! " Certainly," said Sir George White ; " make out your telegram with the P. M. O. to the ' Daily Mail,' and I will send it by heliograph "; and then, gaunt but soldier-like, he hurried off to welcome General Buller, who had just been signalled approaching Ladysmith from Bulwana. I rode some of the way with him, and turned off to where Hedworth Lambton and the Naval Brigade were quartered, to give him a letter I had got from his brother at Groot Schuur. There they were, shaded by some trees, sitting in comfortable cane chairs, eagerly scanning each passer-by, and glad to meet any new-comer. The man who came in the nick of time with his guns from the Powerful was looking thin but fairly well, and insisted on my lunching with him. They had had no letters for four months, and nearly choked over the tiniest scraps of news I was able to give them. I ate an excellent lunch, and found when it was over that I had been treated to —horseflesh !
General Buller came in while I was there, and his own transport showed that he had plenty of stores behind him, as the waggons were unloaded at his temporary headquarters—the Convent. I learnt that he was receiving an address from the Mayor and citizens of Ladysmith, and I then hurried off to catch him after lunch (a good hour, I was told), to unfold my tale of woe, and ask permission (per Lord Roberts's letter) to write my weekly diary while in his camp. He was out, but his military secretary, Colonel Stopford, promised to put the matter again before him, and get him to amend the order he had already given—namely, "that I might proceed to the front provided I did not contribute to any newspaper whatever."
As I came out I met the victorious general himself, with Billy Gerard, his aide-de-camp, in close attendance. In a word I told the latter of my mission. "Wait a minute," he said. I waited. The great man never turned his head. " I gave you permission on certain conditions," he began, and I allowed it. I only begged for those conditions to be revoked. In vain I pleaded with Lord Roberts's letter. " It was not from him personally," he said; " it was signed by his military secretary—there was nothing in it. If the War Office allow you, I have no objection. If I give you permission, I shall have to allow others." I dared not spoil the game for others, so I did not mention the three or four officers I knew who were writing diaries for the papers. I saluted, and with a word that I would wire to the War Office, I left him and rode through the town with Hedworth Lambton. We called on " Old Brock," as the ex-colonel of the Blues is so well named, and Johnny Willoughby; but only Crichton was at home, looking thin and pulled down after enteric fever, and passing by the cemetery I stopped for a moment at the grave of poor Steevens (of the ' Daily Mail') and that of Lord Ava, whose deaths have been so deeply deplored. A note I left with an officer of the Gordons, and then I had a look at the river's banks.
The Klip had actually been made into a living place, and like water-rats, during the siege, the inhabitants of Ladysmith, archdeacon and all, had built themselves little bomb-proof shelters on the banks, where from early dawn till night they lived, returning only to their beds when the daily bombardment had subsided. The town had been severely shelled, and in any ease does not lie very healthily; but I do not think it was as severely mauled as the village of Colenso. Johnny Willoughby seems to have been the sensible man. From the day the siege began he became a gardener, and as he couldn't grow tobacco, which he loves, he grew vegetables !
I had to gallop to the hospital again and get the telegram for the luxuries of the wounded sent off, in order that I might reach camp before dark, and then along the railway towards Nelthorpe I started after a thoroughly interesting day.
As I rode down the line I saw the first breakdown train entering Ladysmith — three engines and hundreds of coolies and some haulage and lifting plant; and a little farther on I came to the now famous " attempted dam." It was a miraculous attempt. Thousands of sandbags, at least forty feet above the water's edge, some sixty feet wide, and some seventy or eighty feet across the river, had been the means of constructing the greater part of a bridge over the Klip river. Whether the Boers would have succeeded in flooding Lady-smith is doubtful, but the unaccomplished attempt was worthy of a greater strategist. I am told some 500 men were daily employed in this work, and the Boers evidently did not care whether they shot or drowned us in their attempt to destroy the " verdomte Rooinek " !
I hit my old camping-ground off right enough, but the camp itself had been struck, and following some fresh waggon-tracks, I found myself four miles farther on at home again on a beautiful plain, where the turtle-dove cared nought for shrapnel and the partridge took the place of vulture. Away again was the order yesterday (March 3). We are to pitch our camp, for several days at least, some three miles north of Ladysmith ; but I am at Maritzburg, wiring to the War Office, trying to get some money, and arranging with Murray Gourlay as to our future campaign.
Only a brief summary. I am very happy with Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry. The officers, and the colonel in particular, are clinkers. We had a rough time, and the men — Uitlanders and non -Uitlanders — were game as pebbles, for ever marching, for ever working, for never sleeping, eating, or drinking. They were a handy lot indeed of irregulars, and rightly do they deserve their name. No humbug about drill or appearance. " You must shoot," says the colonel; " you must ride," he adds; and, " hang it, you must respect discipline." I don't want to serve under any other colonel, but on the War Office telegram depends my future. I don't like war, but it is good for any young man to rough it. I don't like smells, but you can't get rid of that one sense on a battlefield. I don't like the hard ground of South Africa, but air - cushions were only made for invalids and milksops. I like champagne and port—so do we all—but where are they to come from ? I want letters and papers, but the regimental post-corporal can't find any. Never mind ! It's all the same with Tommy Atkins and the officers. I only want to be in Thorneycroft's and see the fun. Yes, they're the best lot of fellows in the world. Only think of Spion Kop ! I wish I had been there.