LADYSMITH, Thursday, October 19, 1899.
It is a week to-day since the Boers of the Transvaal and Free State began their combined invasion of Natal. So far all action has been on their side. They have crept down the passes with their waggons and half-organised bands of mounted infantry, and have now advanced within a short day's march of the two main British positions which protect the whole colony. It will be seen on a map that North Natal forms a fairly regular isoceles triangle, having Charlestown, Majuba, and Laing's Nek at the apex, the Drakensberg range separating it from the Free State on the one side, and the Buffalo River with its lower hills separating it from the Transvaal on the other. A base may be drawn a few miles below Ladysmith—say, from Oliver's Hoek Pass in the Drakensberg to the union of the Tugela River with the Buffalo. Newcastle will then lie about thirty miles from the apex of the triangle, nearly equi-distant from both sides. Dundee is about twelve miles from the middle point of the right side, and Ladysmith about the same distance from the middle point of the base. Evidently a "tight place" for a comparatively small force when the frontiers to right and left are openly hostile and can pour large bodies of men through all the passes in the sides and apex at will. That is exactly what the Boers have spent the week in doing, and they have shown considerable skill in the process. They have occupied Charlestown, Newcastle, and all the north of Natal almost to within reach of the guns at Dundee on the west and Ladysmith on the east and centre. Yet as far as I can judge they have hardly lost a man, whereas they have gained an immense amount of stores, food and forage, which were exactly the things they wanted. "Slim Piet" is the universal nickname for old Joubert among friends and enemies alike, and so far he has well deserved it. For the Dutch "slim" stands half way between the German "schlimm" and our description of young girls, and it means exactly what the Cockney means by "artful." Artful Piet has managed well. He has given the Boers an appearance of triumph. Their flag waves where the English flag waved before. The effect on the native mind, and on the spirits of his men is greater than people in England probably think. Before the war the young Boers said they would be in Durban in a month, and the Kaffirs half believed it. Well, they have got nearly a third of the way in a week.
But to-day they are brought within touch of British arms, and the question is whether they will get any further. So far they have been unopposed. Their triumphs have been the bloodless capture of a passenger train, the capture of a few police, and the driving in of patrols who had strict orders to retire. So far we have sought only to draw them on. But here and at Dundee we must make a stand, and all yesterday and this morning we have thought only of one question: Will they venture to come on? They have numbers on their side—an advantage certainly of three to one, possibly more. The rough country with its rocky flat-topped lines of hill is just suited for their method of warfare—to lie behind stones and take careful shots at any one in range. Besides, if they are to do anything, they know they must be quick. The Basutos are chanting their war-song on the Free State frontier. The British reinforcements are coming, and all irregulars have a tendency to melt away if you keep them waiting. But on the other hand it is against Boer tradition to attack, especially entrenched positions. Their artillery is probably far inferior to ours in training and skill, and they don't like artillery in any case. Nor do they like the thought of Lancers and Hussars sweeping down upon their flanks wherever a little bit of plain has to be crossed. So the chances of attack seem about equally balanced, and only the days can answer that one question of ours: Will they come on?
Yesterday it seemed as though they were coming. The advance of two main columns from the passes in the north-west had been fairly steady; and last night our outposts of the Natal Carbineers were engaged, as the 5th Lancers had been the night before. Heavy firing was reported at any distance short of fifteen miles. There was no panic. The few ladies who remain went riding or cycling along the dusty, blazing road which makes the town. The Zulu women in blankets and beads walked in single file with the little black heads of babies peering out between their shoulder-blades, and roasting in the sun. Huge waggon-loads of stores—compressed forage, compressed beef, jam, water-proof sheets, ammunition, oil, blankets, sardines, and all the other necessaries of a soldier's existence—came lumbering up from the station behind the long files of oxen urged slowly forward by savage outcries and lashes of hide. Orderlies were galloping in the joy of their hearts. The band of the Gloucesters were practising scales in unison to slow time. Suddenly a kind of feeling came into the air that something was happening. I noticed the waggon stopped; the oxen at once lay down in the dust; the music ceased and was packed away. I met the Gordons coming into town and asking for their ground. Riding up the mile or two to camp, I found the whole dusty plateau astir. Tents were melting away like snow. Kits lay all naked and revealed upon the earth. The men were falling in. The waggons were going the wrong way round. The very headquarters and staff were being cleared out. The whole camp was, in fact, in motion. It was coming down into the town. In a few hours the familiar place was bare and deserted. I went up this morning and stood on Signal Hill where the heliograph was working yesterday, just above the camp. The whole plain was a wilderness. Straw and paper possessed it merely, except that here and there a destitute Kaffir groped among the débris in hopes of finding a shiny tin pot for his furniture or some rag of old uniform to harmonise with his savage dress. In one corner of the empty iron huts a few of the cavalry were still trying to carry off some remnants of forage. It was a pitiful sight, and yet the rapidity of the change was impressive. If the Boers came in, they would find those tin huts very luxurious after their accustomed bivouacs. Is it possible that tin huts might be their Capua?
The camp was thought incapable of defence. Artillery could command it from half a dozen hills. Whoever placed it there was neither strategist nor humanitarian. It is like the bottom of a frying-pan with a low rim. The fire is hot, and sand is frying. But, indeed, the whole of Ladysmith is like that. The flat-topped hills stand round it reflecting the heat, and in the middle we are now all frying together, with sand for seasoning. The main ambulance is on the cricket ground. The battalion tents are pitched among the rocks or by the river side, where Kaffirs bathe more often and completely than you would otherwise suppose. The river water, by the way, is a muddy yellow now and leaves a deep deposit of Afric's golden sand in your glass or basin. The headquarters staff has seized upon two empty houses, and can dine in peace. The street is one yelling chaos of oxen in waggons and oxen loose, galloping horses, sheep, ammunition mules, savages, cycles, and the British soldier. He, be sure, preserves his wonted calm, adapts himself to oxen as naturally as to camels, puts in a little football when he can, practises alliteration's artful aid upon the name of the Boers, and trusts to his orders to pull him through. His orders are likely to be all right now, for Colonel Ward has just been put in command of the whole town, and already I notice a method in the oxen, to say nothing of the mules. What is it all but a huge military tournament to be pulled together, and got up to time?
This morning most people expected the attack would begin. I rode five miles out before breakfast to see what might be seen, but there were only a few Lancers pricking about by threes, and never a Boer or any such thing. So we have waited all day, and nothing has happened till this afternoon the rumour comes with authority that a train has been captured at Elands Laagte, about sixteen miles on the way to Dundee. The railway stopped running trains beyond there yesterday, and had better have stopped altogether. Anyhow, the line of communication between us and the splendid little brigade at Dundee is broken now. Dundee is pretty nearly fifty miles N.N.E. of this. The camp is happily on a stronger position than ours, and not mixed up with the town. But at present it is practically besieged, and no one can say how long the siege of Ladysmith also will be delayed. For the moment, it seems just possible that the great force, which we vaguely hear is coming out from England (all English news is hopelessly vague), will have to send the bulk of its troops to fight up Natal for our relief. But the south of Natal having few rocks is not suited for Boer warfare. When the Boers boasted they were coming to Durban, a wit replied: "Then you will have to bring the stones with you." For a Boer much prefers to have a comforting stone in front of him in the day of battle. In these districts every hill is for him a natural fortress. His hope is that we shall venture into the mountains; ours that he will venture down to the plains. So far hope's flattery has kept us fairly well apart. The day after to-morrow is now fixed by popular judgment for battle and attack. But only one thing is certain: we can stand still if we choose, and the Boers cannot.
To be under martial law, as we now are, does not make much difference to the ordinary man, but to the ordinary criminal it appears slightly advantageous. For his case is very likely to be overlooked in the press of military offences, and it is doubtful if any civil suits can be brought. At all events, a legal quarrel I had with a farmer about some horses has vanished into thin air; and so, indeed, have the horses. The worst offenders now are possible spies. A few Dutch have been arrested, but the commonest cases are out-of-work Kaffirs, who are wandering in swarms over the country, coming down from Johannesburg and the collieries, and naturally finding it rather hard to give account of themselves. The peculiarity of the trials which I have attended has been that if a Kaffir could give the name of his father it was taken as a sufficient guarantee of respectability With one miserable Bushman, for instance—a child's caricature of man—it was really going hard till at last he managed to explain that his father's name was Nicodemus Africa, and then every one looked satisfied, and he left the court without a stain upon his character.
So we live from day to day. The air is full of rumours. One can see them grow along the street. One traces them down. Perhaps one finds an atom of truth somewhere at the root of them. One puts that atom into a telegram. The military censor cuts it out with unfailing politeness, and a good day's work is done. Heat, dust, and a weekly deluge with stupendous thunder complete the scene.