It became apparent to all of us on the 2nd November, 1899, that the encirclement of Ladysmith by the Boers had been completed. On the previous day their big gun on Pepworth’s Hill had fired fourteen shells into the town which did little damage. It was soon silenced, permanently, by a well directed shell from the naval gun of H.M.S. Powerful, which had been installed on Convent Hill.
Our first real encounter with the enemy during the Siege took place on the 3rd November, 1899. In the afternoon of that day the Natal Carbineers and Border Mounted Rifles were hurriedly rushed to a small kopje known as “Bester’s Kop” also known as “End Hill”, which is situated about five miles from Ladysmith town, opposite our advanced defence position on Wagon Hill. The two Regiments climbed the kopje - the Carbineers being on our right flank. On reaching its flat topped summit we were subjected to very heavy rifle fire by the enemy, who had reached the top of the hill shortly before us and established themselves in an advantageous position higher than ours. As a method of self preservation I took cover behind a fairly big antheap which was soon hit by several well directed bullets while I was lying behind it. There was an old stone cattle kraal a few yards ahead of me which seemed to offer safer and better cover against rifle fire, so I made a dash for it and reached it safely. A trooper named Edmunds, a special service man who had joined us in Pietermaritzburg, was in the process of taking my place behind the antheap when he was shot through the body and fell as if he were dead. As we could not hold our position we were ordered to abandon it late in the afternoon, which we did, under the cover of artillery. Our casualities during this skirmish were Captain W. Arnott (shot through both legs) Sergeant Thomas, Troopers Goldstone and Edmunds. We learned later that Major Taunton and Sergeant Mapstone of the Natal Carbineers had been killed during the engagement.
Our wounded and dead were recovered later in the day by ambulance. To our surprise we learned that Trooper Edmunds was still alive, though grieviously wounded. He was evacuated from Ladysmith in the last train to leave the town for the south and did not rejoin the Regiment. I think it is appropriate to mention here what I consider to be a most remarkable coincidence in connection with Edmunds. During the First World War, in December, 1916, I crossed over from England to Boulogne to join my unit in France. On arrival I entered the Officer’s Mess tent at Boulogne base camp for breakfast. Seated at the trestle table immediately opposite me was an officer who, like myself, wore the Medal Ribbons of the Sout African (Boer) War. Incidentally I must explain that there were not many soldiers serving in the First World War who had participated in the South African campaign. I noticed that the officer (a Major in rank) was looking intently at me. He then asked me what crowd I had served with in South Africa? I told him that it was with the Border Mounted Rifles. He exclaimed, “F also served in that Regiment.” After another good look at me he asked, “Are you, by any chance, Ben Martin?” I answered “Yes”, and added, “And you are Edmunds, who was wounded when, you were about to take my place behind an ant hill on Bester’s Kop, Ladysmith.” We then parted and I have not seen him or heard of him since.
It was during the fight on End Hill that an incident, which illustrates the extraordinary vagaries of fate, occurred. It concerns a man named Cutcliffe, who being less agile than the rest of us, did not reach the battlefield until most of us had taken shelter behind such cover as was available. On reaching the summit of the Hill he remained erect and, in full view of the enemy, calmly surveyed the scene and then exclaimed scathingly, “England will win a hell of a lot of battles with B........... s, like you, to fight for her.” He maintained that attitude of fearlessness throughout the war and emerged unscathed. Fate overtook him, however, when a few days after demobilsation he was drowned when bathing at Durban beach!
I am not competent to describe in detail the measures that were taken by the High Command of the Garrison for the defence of Ladysmith. As is well known the town lies in a hollow and is almost completely encircled by a series of low- lying rocky ridges stretching from what is now known as “Devon Post” to the higher plateau of Ceasar’s Hill, of which Wagon Hill is a part. That portion of the defences was manned by troops of the Imperial army who “dug themselves in” and constructed shelters in the rocky hillsides. The defence of the exposed sector of Wagon Hill was entrusted to the Imperial Light Horse, while the Manchester Regiment garrisoned the flat topped Caesar’s Hill. The defence of the sector between the southern point of Caesar’s Hill and Devon Post, which is open and low lying country overlooked by Umbulwana Hill and Lombard’s Kop, was given to the Natal Mounted Volunteers, who shared duties by providing troops to patrol the area during the hours of daylight, and the establishment of strong pickets of five or six men at regular intervals along the line for duty at nights. The men were relieved each day.
One of the earliest measures taken by the Military Authorities, after our encirclement was complete, was the establishment of a neutral camp some five or six miles out of town, near the foot of Umbulwana Mountain, for the accommodation of members of the civilian population of Ladysmith who desired to take shelter there. Many took advantage of the opportunity but other preferred to remain in the danger zone and dug caves in the steep banks of the Klip river in which they lived during the hours of daylight. It was in the neutral area that a large tented military hospital was established, which was wrongly called the “Intombi” Hospital. Its proper appelation would have been “Ndomba” that being the Zulu name of the small stream on the banks of which the hospital was built. The evacuation of civilians from town was completed by the 5th November, 1899, but our sick and wounded were conveyed to the Hospital by train daily until the Siege was raised.
I find it difficult to set down in condensed form my experiences during the Siege. The diary which I kept includes a record of happenings which can be of no interest to anyone but myself. I shall, therefore, confine myself to matters of general interest.
Being mounted troops, our first care was, of course, the welfare of our horses. That meant “Stables” morning and evening. Our animals lived in the open air and were tethered to lines fixed to the ground. For obvious reasons they could not, in the early days of the Siege, be exercised during daylight hours. Except when, as often was the case, we were suddenly ordered to make a foray to some part of our defences where the danger of attack threatened, the only opportunity of exercising the animals was when we, as a matter of routine, “stood to arms” daily from 3 o’clock in the morning until daylight. That gave us the opportunity to give the animals walking exercise. Later during the Siege, when our supplies of fodder were exhausted, we were permitted to take the animals to graze in the area below Wagon Hill which is now the Ladysmith aerodrome. It was an area within the range of Boer guns and we often had to leave it in a hurry.
In the early days of the Siege Ladysmith was heavily bombarded by guns of heavy calibre which had been installed, north, south, and east of the town. The gun on Pepworth’s Hill was the most destructive but it was soon silenced, permanently, by a direct hit from our naval gun on Naval Hill. Another big cannon was sited on Gun Hill, which lies to the North East of the town. It also was more than a nuisance. It was destroyed, however, by the Natal Volunteers during the night of the 8th December, 1899. The story of that exploit is recorded in my Diary and reads as follows
“We, the Border Mounted Rifles, were on picquet duty last night but at about 9 p.m. we were relieved by the Natal Mounted Rifles and ordered back to camp. We found a party of the Natal Carbineers already on parade. We were ordered to change out of our riding apparel and don lighter clothing, ankle boots or shoes, in preparation for an attack on the Boer position on Gun Hill, on which a Long Tom gun had been installed. The attacking party was 564 men strong made up of 200 Natal Carbineers, 30 Natal Mounted Riflemen, 180 of the Border Mounted Rifles, 50 Natal Policemen, 100 men of the Imperial Light Horse and 4 Sappers of the Royal Engineers.
We left camp at about 10 p.m. and reached the base of Gun Hill about 2 a.m. Here we split into three parties - the Natal Carbineers being on the right flank, the Border Mounted Rifles on the left flank and the Imperial Light Horse and others in the centre. We crept stealthily up the steep slopes of the Hill and reached the summit without being challenged. When the central column reached the summit a few yards from the gun emplacement, a Boer sentry shouted out the challenge “Staan stil - wie kom daar?”. Someone fired a rifle shot whereupon the sentry yelled, “Daar kom die verdomde Rooineke”, and he and his comrades fled, leaving his gun unprotected. The Sappers quickly got to work and soon the big gun was destroyed. At about 3 a.m. the attacking party retired, taking with them an undamaged Hotchkiss gun and a Maxim gun. We retired under the cover of darkness without having sustained any casualties, and by 5 o’clock in the morning we were safely back in camp.”
That was the end of the big gun on Gun Hill and it was not replaced. The following day we were paraded before the Commander of the Garrison, General Sir George White, who thanked us for our services and congratulated us on the manner in which the attack had been carried out.
A few days later, on the 11th December, 1899, inspired, no doubt, by our success on Gun Hill, men of the Rifle Brigade, the Leicesters and Royal Engineers attacked and destroyed another big gun on a Hill facing their position in the Surprise Hill sector of the defences. They, however, suffered heavy casualties in the process.
The Long Tom on Umbulwana remained intact throughout the Siege and was removed by the enemy from its position on the eve of the relief of the town.