Ladysmith was now completely surrounded. It was besieged on the north and east by the Transvaal and on the west and south by the Free State commandos.
Early on the morning after we had marched to the south—on 2nd November—Field-Cornet Jan Lyon went with a body of men to Pieter's Station, broke up the rails there, and took the telegraph clerk prisoner. While he was doing this the two guns which we had brought with us were being dragged up the range of hills between Ladysmith and Colenso. One of them was put on the summit of a pointed hill a little south of Platrand (Cæsar's Hill),—the other on the heights north of Colenso. I was present when Commandant de Villiers drew the latter up the precipitous slopes. There were huge boulders, as high as the wheels of a waggon, thickly strewn on the hillside, and over them the Krupp had to go. A strong span of oxen was put before the gun, and one could hear the creaking of the yokes as the oxen strained to draw the gun up, but as it became steeper and steeper it soon appeared that even the South-African ox had a task which it could not do. The wheels of the gun-carriage got jammed between the boulders and remained immovable. Then the burghers took the work in hand, and what ox-power could not do, human muscles accomplished. Some of the men seized the yokes and the trektouw, and others put their shoulders to the wheel, and up flew the gun. It was not long before the Krupp made itself heard. To the English fort near Colenso it sent a few shells—but the garrison there had fled.
The Winburg Commando was encamped a little more to the north-east than we were, and had an early surprise. While they were engaged in broiling meat for breakfast there were heard in sharp succession the reports of guns, and immediately several shells fell right in their midst. It is needless to say that there was a confused scramble in search of cover; but fortunately nobody was hurt. The enemy, having given an exhibition of their gun practice, retired immediately to Ladysmith.
The next day General A. P. Cronje sent 900 men chosen from all the commandos to take a ridge south-west of Ladysmith, not far from the house of Mr. Willem Bester, in order to oppose the enemy, who had made a sortie from Ladysmith in considerable numbers, on the road leading to Colenso.
From this ridge the burghers opened a steady fire on the approaching English, who were also subjected to a heavy and continuous bombardment. This went on for a considerable time, and then a number of mounted troops charged the ridge, but were repulsed. After that others rode into a donga to the west of our positions, and leaving their horses in it, emerged with the object of taking possession of a low reef of rock between themselves and us. But here, too, they were unsuccessful. Our men opened such a withering fire on them that they were obliged to abandon their design.
At this moment about 150 of the enemy gained possession of a hill to the south with the object of surrounding us by the east. Sixty Winburg and Harrismith burghers seeing this, charged them; but the bullets of the English fell so thickly on them that forty of them turned back, so that only twenty reached the top. There, however, they found themselves in such a terrific fire that they could do nothing, and were obliged to seek cover behind large boulders. Such was the state of things when our Krupp on the pointed hill sent a well-aimed shell among the English, and at once changed matters. The shell was followed without delay by another, and when the fourth came the enemy was compelled to retire. Then it was our opportunity. The twenty burghers emerged from their hiding-places and fired upon the retiring English, and the hill was quickly cleared.
While this was going on I was with the Harrismith Commando, which was madly galloping as a reinforcement to the fight. We had to pass a spot where shots occasionally fell, and as we raced along there, I heard for the first time in my life the whiz of a passing bullet. We went on, and arrived on the hill. But all was just then over, and we could only see the English retreating to Ladysmith. Twice or thrice yet they fired shrapnels at us, and again I had a first experience. It was of the sound, sharp and shrill, of a shrapnel that went over our heads. I don't know in what other words it can be described.
What a tyranny fear is! At the foot of the hill I saw a young burgher, utterly overpowered by it, lying behind a large stone and not daring to raise his head.
"Are you wounded?" somebody asked him.
"No," answered the terror-stricken youth, and pressed still closer to the stone.
I met Mr. Roux here again, and assisted him to bandage the burgher Gibson, who had been badly wounded in the leg. Two others also were wounded.
Nothing further happened now, and in the evening we were in our little field tents again.
During the following three days there was an armistice in order to enable the enemy to get their women, children, and non-combatants out of Ladysmith into the Intombi Camp, between the town and Bulwana.
On Sunday, the 5th of November, our commando went to Pieter's Station. I had preached early in the morning for the burghers of Vrede; and now, after we had inspected the station, we gathered under a great camel tree, and had a most pleasant service. Just before the service some burghers slipped away unobserved and sped to Colenso. Arrived there, they helped themselves to what they fancied they needed in the shops. While they were thus engaged, an armoured train came from Chieveley, and began to fire on them.
We were lying unconcerned in the shadow of the great camel tree, when Commandant de Villiers got the report that some burghers were hemmed in at Colenso. He immediately gave orders that the horses should be saddled and rode thither, but we heard on the way that the culprits had, by the skin of their teeth, made their escape under a shower of bullets.
When we were returning to our laager, we met Kaffirs who had fled from Ladysmith. They drew a terrible picture of the state of the town. They told us that there were still unburied soldiers there, and that a bad smell pervaded the town. Women and children too had to endure great suffering, and were obliged to hide in holes which had been scooped out in the river's bank.
We did not know then that we had to take Kaffir reports with a grain of salt.
Towards the 10th of November the Free State laagers lay around Ladysmith in this order: Near the railway line to the east of Smith's Crossing was the laager of the Kroonstad Commando. To the west of the line, General Prinsloo had fixed his headquarters; and thence round to the south stood in succession the laagers of the Bethlehem, Vrede, Heilbron, Harrismith, and Winburg Commandos. Each Commandant had one or two guns. Commandant de Villiers had charge of two. For these he built forts on the hill upon which the 150 English were shelled in the fight of the 3rd of November. This hill lay to the west of Mr. Bester's house.
We Harrismith burghers pitched our camp at several places, but at last we fixed it permanently at the south-west of this hill. From the forts on the top of the hill you can see close at hand in the direction of Ladysmith the Neutral Kopje. Right before you in the depth you see the house of Mr. Bester, and there on the other side of the kloof rises Platrand, or Cæsar's Hill, on which the English are making forts and sangars. Every now and then you see a cloud of smoke from our cannon-forts, and a Krupp sends a shell on Platrand, to which the English with splendid aim promptly reply. From every side and every schanz the forts of the English were bombarded. The big gun of the Transvaalers on Bulwana, to which the British gave the name of Long Tom, was especially active, and sent its great shells regularly every day into the town.
And now we were living in the constant expectation that Ladysmith would speedily fall into our hands. Our expectations were also constantly strengthened by Kaffir reports. There was, the Kaffirs told us, very little food in the town, and the distress was great. Week after week, therefore, we were expecting that Ladysmith would capitulate, but week after week Ladysmith held out.
On the 14th of November another fight took place. The English made a sortie to the south-west of the town, and attacked a position where there were eighty men of the Vrede Commando. They opened a heavy cannonade on the rand and made it almost untenable for the burghers there. Then our guns came to the rescue. The two Harrismith Krupps fired on the rear of the enemy. Others assisted, and everything was managed so effectively that the English had to retire precipitously. A man came to our laager in the evening and told us that he was in the Vrede position while it was being shelled. It had been terrible, he said. One poor fellow, a young burgher of the name of De Jager, had been hit in four places, while lying behind a boulder, by a shrapnel—three bullets had struck him in the shoulders and one in the head, and he had died immediately. Two others were slightly wounded.
Our laager had not been out of danger. A piece of a shell had fallen in it. Afterwards this happened frequently. Bits of missiles sent from Platrand to the cannon-forts above now and again came into our camp, to the great amusement of those who did not happen to be in danger at the moment. How funny it was to see the men near the spot scramble to cover when the danger was past.
About this time the Bethlehem Commando made a large capture of cattle. Some Coolies were taken prisoners on the occasion. Everybody naturally besieged the prisoners to hear something about Ladysmith. The wily Indians took in the situation at once, and told us what they knew would be agreeable to us. They "spoke comfortably to our hearts," and depicted the condition of the town in the most appalling colours.
Just at this time too—on the 15th of November—Commandant-General Joubert sent, under the command of General L. Botha, 1600 Transvaalers and 500 Free Staters to Estcourt. Some of them came into action with an armoured train near Chieveley. From the train a vigorous fire was opened on the Transvaalers, who replied with cannon and rifle. Some Free State burghers were in advance and attempted to break up the railway. But as they had no tools to do this with, they could not, and instead raised the rails on one side and placed big stones underneath. The train then steamed back and two trucks were derailed. Immediately, under a heavy fire from us, the English set to work to remove the stones, and then the engine went backwards and forwards and came with every forward motion into collision with the trucks. It succeeded soon in removing the impediment, and sped away with the trucks which had not been derailed. Fifty-six troops and three civilians were taken prisoners. Among these was Mr. Winston Churchill, who escaped later in a very clever manner from the Model School at Pretoria, in which he was being kept confined as a prisoner of war.
We heard of this affair with the armoured train while we were chatting in very rainy weather in the tent of Commandant de Villiers. It was dripping wet outside and the laager had been converted into a perfect puddle of mud by hundreds of feet. General J. B. Wessels and Commandant Theunissen of the Winburg Commando were there on a visit. We were talking about the armoured train, and presently General Wessels related that a man had been taken prisoner the day before by the Winburg burghers. This man had been found in a Kaffir hut, and had with him a basket of pigeons, which he had brought from Maritzburg to smuggle into Ladysmith. But as Dapperman said, "He was too late."
It did rain that day! and in the evening a steady downpour set in. I sympathised with the sentries and outposts, who had to take duty on the top and the slopes of the hill. What a cheerless thing it was, I thought, to sit through the livelong dripping night with no shelter, and to gaze into the darkness.
I can give no account of the adventures of the expedition which General Joubert sent to Estcourt, as I did not accompany it. I can only say that the burghers composing it did not remain long south of the Tugela, and were obliged by great numbers of troops to return to Ladysmith. General Joubert, however, said that he had succeeded in his object of preventing all the English troops from massing on the western borders of the Free State.
Shortly before the expedition was sent to Estcourt, the portions of the several commandos which had been left on the Drakensberg were ordered to descend into Natal and join the besiegers of Ladysmith. They arrived in due time, and brought all the waggons with them. We had after that the convenience of a laager. Tents of every shape and size soon sprang up everywhere between the great waggons, and nobody who was not actually on duty needed to have any apprehension with regard to heat, or cold, or wet. There were indeed several who had raised their voices against the bringing down of the waggons, and had said that they would prove to be an encumbrance, in case a hasty retreat became necessary, but the majority of the burghers were bent upon taking it easy—even in the war—and demanded that the waggons should be brought down.
As far as I was concerned, though I did not approve of the presence of the waggons, it was a personal pleasure to have a large square tent with a table in it. Writing on a table was a decided improvement to writing on a book, or a pad, on one's knees, or on the ground.
That tent in which I wrote!—how I remember it, while I am in Cape Town writing my book over again.
The time passed swiftly, though it dragged from moment to moment. This was one of the first things that struck me in the war. I would wake in the morning and feel the duty of the day lying on me, as a burden which could not be lifted. But when the shadows of night had fallen I found that the burden had been borne. It often seemed as if the future lay far beyond my reach, but after an hour, a day, a month was past, the hours seemed to be seconds, the days hours, and the months weeks.
The burghers were terribly bored in the laager? Why? They wanted nothing. The Government provided meat, bread (in the shape of meal), coffee, sugar, potatoes,—sometimes tobacco;—we even lived in luxury, for our wives sent us fruit and vegetables, cake and sweets. Why, then, did the burghers feel bored in the laager?
The reason is that the Africander is not a soldier, who can take kindly to camp or barrack life. The Boer detests a confined life, and whenever he is away from the open plain, and the free breezes of heaven, he is miserable. Thus it was that every burgher now longed to be back on his farm.
How I pitied the Commandant! He was continually besieged by burghers asking leave to go home. They asked for leave on the slightest pretexts, or with no pretext whatever; for they would give as a reason for leave of absence the work which had to be done on the farms. The women looked after that as well as, and in many cases better than, the men themselves had done. No, in the majority of cases there was no sound excuse to justify a request for leave. It was simply because they could not stand the confinement of the life in a laager.
Towards the end of the third week in November, one of the heavy guns of the Transvaal—another Long Tom—was brought into the Harrismith laager in order to be placed on the hill where our two guns stood. What a monster it was!
A wooden platform of thick deal beams was constructed in the fort, and Long Tom was drawn into position during the night. On the following morning it fired on the forts at Platrand (Cæsar's Hill), and the terrific recoil splintered the stout beams of the platform as if they had been thin lathes. The platform had to be rebuilt and rendered stronger.
While we were doing this, the English were not idle. They were busy putting a heavy gun on Platrand into position; and on the following day they sent shell after shell, which pulverised the rocks and ploughed the ground, but which happily did no injury to Long Tom.
On Sunday, 26th November, I visited the Bethlehem laager with the intention of holding divine service there. On arriving, I found everything in a state of hurry and bustle. Here someone was roasting coffee, there another was shoeing his horse, yonder a third was greasing the axles of his waggon. The cause of all this activity was that the commando had been ordered to the western border by the War Commission, and that they were preparing to start.
I succeeded in my intention of addressing the burghers, and took as my text the comforting words of St. Paul: "Be of good cheer: for I trust in God, that it shall be even as it was told me."
A fortnight afterwards, Acting-Commandant Christian de Wet was appointed General, and likewise ordered to the western border. His achievement at Nicholson's Nek had fixed the attention of the War Commission on him, and he was now called to take upon himself the rank and important duties of a General. I had no suspicion then that Christian de Wet had begun the career which would make him famous throughout South Africa; nay, throughout the world!
Thus far we had busied ourselves exclusively with the enemy hemmed in at Ladysmith; but on the 28th of November the Boers were also threatened from the south of the Tugela. On that day a considerable number of troops advanced from the direction of Chieveley, and opened a heavy fire on the Boer positions north of the river, with about twelve guns. The Boers replied, and our shells fell upon the British until they were forced to retire.
Platrand! What enchantment hung over that hill! From the first moment that we had come south of Ladysmith, it had been the talk of everyone that the hill should be taken; and about a week after the investment of the town, Commandant de Villiers had actually made a night march with the object of making an assault on it; but General Joubert had recalled him before he could begin the attack. Since then the cry had ever been: "The hill must be taken!" At last, wearied of the continual nagging, the combined War Council of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State decided that 900 men should storm the hill during the night of the 29th-30th of November.
Many considered the decision unwise. They were of opinion that the hill could not be taken without great loss of life, and that it was doubtful, after it was taken, whether it could be held. Nobody, however, opposed, and preparations were made to set out at two o'clock on the 30th of November.
Something, however, intervened.
At ten o'clock in the evening some Transvaal officers entered the tent of Commandant de Villiers, and pointed out that there was no shelter for the storming party, and that the dongas at the foot of the hill, instead of affording shelter, would prove disadvantageous to us in case we were forced to retire. One officer after another entered the tent until there were fifteen together, and all were opposed to the project of storming the place. At one o'clock they had convinced one another that Platrand could not be taken, and took it upon themselves to disobey the orders of the Council of War, and so far from storming Platrand at two o'clock, everyone was sound asleep in his bed at that hour. The evil day was postponed.
On 7th December my son Charlie, aged 15, arrived in the laager. I had left him behind at Harrismith to go to school, but it was impossible to keep him there, and he had come to the laager at the first opportunity, after receiving my consent. When he had been with me but a short while he got a Lee-Metford from his friend Jan Cilliers, which had been taken at Dundee.
At this time it became clearer and clearer that some event or other might with certainty be expected from the south. The British Commander-in-Chief in Natal, General Buller, had been there for some weeks, and had had plenty of time to prepare himself. There was no doubt that he had been busy, for more and more troops had come from Durban, until the camps at Chieveley had grown to amazingly large proportions. Everyone then was expecting that something was going to happen soon.
But in the meanwhile something took place closer to us, which filled us with shame and indignation. In the night of the 7th-8th of December a number of English climbed Lombard's Kop, where the heavy gun of the Transvaalers was. They approached the fort in the greatest silence, but the picquet became aware of their approach and cried, "Werda?"
Someone answered in good Dutch, "Don't shoot. We are the Modderspruit burghers."
This satisfied the picquet, and the next moment the enemy was in the fort.
Our men were taken by surprise, but they fired notwithstanding, and a few English were wounded.
The few men in the fort were now forced to yield, and retreated before overwhelming odds. Then the British damaged Long Tom so seriously that it could not be used again for fifteen days. They also partially destroyed a French quick-firing gun and captured a Maxim.
That same night another party of English damaged the railway bridge at Waschbank (near Dundee) in such a manner as to stop the running of trains for some days.
These two exploits of the English roused a feeling of dissatisfaction in the minds of the burghers. They considered it a dishonour to us, and although there were rumours of treachery, the general opinion was that it was rather the carelessness and want of vigilance on our side that was to blame. Everyone, on the contrary, meted out unlimited praise to the English, and said that they had done a gallant thing.
Two days after it was Sunday, and I held divine services in different places, according to my custom. On the same day, the Free Staters captured a Kaffir, who had brought letters, sewn under the lining of his sleeve, out of Ladysmith.
Those letters! How thoughtlessly they were read. Who cared that they were the utterances of the heart, even though the heart of an enemy? Who, whilst reading them, asked of himself: "What would I desire the enemy to do, if a letter of mine should fall into their hands?" These letters were from soldiers and civilians, mostly from husband to wife, or from wife to husband. They bore witness to a very miserable state of things in Ladysmith. One woman wrote that she lacked the common necessaries of life; another that she went barefoot. Besides private letters there was a report announcing that the troops were reduced to half rations, and that many of them were sick; and also that an unknown disease had broken out amongst the cattle.
Every day something happened, and the time passed rapidly. Was it not because there was always something to keep us busy? Yes, a thousand acts were crowded into each day.
The heart was filled with ever-changing emotions by the various occurrences of each day. And one's mind was not occupied by the war only. No! One's thoughts were drawn away irresistibly by the blue expanse overhead, and by the wondrous landscape around, stretching away to the finest horizons on earth. We lived in God's free nature, and as we came nearer to her great heart throbbing in the grey veld and the blue mountain, those of us who could felt ourselves borne away by a delicious but withal terrible Power. How glorious, too, were the evenings! How soothing was their deep silence after the exhausting, bustling summer's day! And then there was the breath of air from the east, which softly fanned the cheek, and calmed and laid to rest the turbulent passions that rent the breast.
I used to sit of an evening beneath the camel thorn-tree, under which Commandant de Villiers had pitched his tent, and gaze into the far west. There lay Spion Kop, tinted pink by the last rays of the setting sun. Far beyond rose the Drakensberg mountains with their rugged, dizzy crags, scored and scarred, already veiled in the shadows of night. What a thrill quivered through me when I presently looked up from that dark mass and saw the glittering gold, which had been laid for a moment on the clouds; or when, after the sun had set, turning, I beheld in the east the wonderful maze of colour in the sky. The soft pink merged into almost black purple, and this again, as if in need of support, rested on the blue black rock foundation of the earth.
I forgot in such moments that we were at war. I was deaf to the discordant sounds of the strife—the bursting of shells, and the whiz of bullets. It was as if I heard God speaking in the still small voice.
Can I ever forget those evenings? I am living them over again. I still gaze into that distant west, and seem to see the Unseen in that wonderful vision: God, the Incomprehensible, the Unsearchable. I see how He paints every evening a new picture on the mountains and on the clouds. But He hides Himself in His picture. It is the robe, indeed, in which He reveals Himself, but it is only the border, as Isaiah says, the border of His robe: only the hem of His garment, and it—fills the Temple!