LADYSMITH, November 2, 1899.
"Long Tom" opened fire at a quarter-past six from Pepworth Hill, and was replied to by the Naval Brigade. Just as I walked up to their big 4.7 in. gun on the kopje close to the Newcastle road, a shell came right through our battery's earthwork, without bursting. Lieutenant Egerton, R.N., was lying close under the barrel of our gun, and both his legs were shattered. The doctors amputated one at the thigh, the other at the shin. In the afternoon he was sitting up, drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes as cheery as possible, but he died in the night. "Tom" went on more or less all day. In the afternoon Natal correspondents dashed down to the Censor with telegrams that he had been put out of action. They had seen him lying on his side. I started to look for myself, and at the first 100 yards he threw a shell right into the off-side of the street, as though to save me the trouble of going further. Another rumour, quite as confidently believed by the soldiers, was that the Devons had captured him with the bayonet and rolled him down the hill. I heard one of them "chipping" a Gordon for not being present at the exploit. Now "Tom" is a 15-centimetre Creusot gun of superior quality.
All morning I spent in the Manchesters' camp on the top of the long hill to the south-west, called Cæsar's Camp. There had been firing from a higher flat-topped mountain—Middle Hill—about 3,000 yards beyond, where the Boers have taken up one of their usual fine positions, overlooking Ladysmith on one side and Colenso on the other. At early morning a small column under General Hunter had attacked a Boer commando on the Colenso road unawares and gave them a bad time, till an order suddenly came to withdraw. Sir George White had heard Boer guns to the west of their right rear, and was afraid of another disaster such as befell the Gloucesters and Royal Irish Fusiliers. The men came back sick with disappointment, and more shaken than by defeat.
I found the Manchesters building small and almost circular sangars of stones and sandbags at intervals all along the ridge. The work was going listlessly, the men carrying up the smallest and easiest stones they could find, and spending most of the time in contemplating the scenery or discussing the situation, which they did not think hopeful. "We're surrounded—that's what we are," they kept saying. "Thought we was goin' to have Christmas puddin' in Pretoria. Not much Christmas puddin' we'll ever smell again!" A small mounted party rode past them, and the enemy instantly threw a shell over our heads from the front. Then the guns just set up on the long mountain of Bulwan, threw another plump into the rocks by the largest picket. "It's like that Bally Klarver," sighed a private, getting up and looking round with apprehension. "Cannon to right of 'em, cannon to left of 'em!" Then we went on building at the sangar, but without much spirit. They laughed when I told them how a shell from "Long Tom" fell into the Crown Hotel garden this morning, and all the black servants rushed out to pocket the fragments. But the only thing which really cheered them was the thought that they had only to "stick it out" till Buller's force went up to the Free State and drew the enemy off—that and a supply of cigarettes.
Early in the afternoon I took my telegram to the Censor as usual, and after the customary wanderings and waste of time I found him—only to hear that the wires were bunched and the line destroyed. So telegrams are ended; mails neither come nor go. The guns fired lazily till evening, doing little harm on either side. A queer Boer ambulance, with little glass windows—something between a gipsy van and a penny peep-show—came in under a huge white flag, bringing some of our wounded to exchange for wounded Boers. The amenities of civilised slaughter are carefully observed. But one of the ambulance drivers was Mattey, "Long Tom's" skilled gunner, in disguise.
November 3, 1900.
The bombardment continued, guns on Bulwan throwing shells into various camps, especially the Natal Volunteers. Many people chose the river bed as the most comfortable place to spend a happy day. They hoped the high banks or perhaps the water would protect them. So there they sat on the stones and waited for night. I don't know how many shells pitched into the town to-day—say 150, not more. Little harm was done, but people of importance had one grand shock. Just as lunch was in full swing at the Royal, where officers, correspondents, and a nurse or two congregate for meals in hope of staying their intolerable thirst—bang came a shell from "Long Tom" straight for the dining-room window. Happily a little house which served as bedroom to Mr. Pearse, of the Daily News, just caught it on its way. Crash it came through the iron roof, the wooden ceiling, into the brick wall. There it burst, and the house was in the past. Happily Mr. Pearse was only on his way to his room, and had not reached it. Some of the lunchers got bricks in their backs, and one man took to his bed of a shocked stomach.
At the time I was away on the Maritzburg road, which starts west from the town and gradually curves southward. The picket on the ridge called Range Post is a relic of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, now in the show-ground at Pretoria. Major Kincaid was there, only returned the night before from the Boer camp behind "Long Tom." He had been ill with fever and was exchanged. He spoke with praise of the Boer treatment of our wounded and prisoners. When our fellows were worn out, the Boers dismounted and let them ride. They brought them water and any food they had. Joubert came round the ambulance, commanding there should be no distinction between the wounded of either race. Major Kincaid had seen a good deal of the so-called Colonel Blake and his so-called Irish Brigade. He found that the very few who were not Americans were English. He had not a single real Irishman among them. Blake, an American, had come out for the adventure, just as he went to the Chili War.
As we were talking, up galloped General Brocklehurst, Ian Hamilton, and the Staff, and I was called upon to give information about certain points in the country to our front—names and directions, the bits of plain where cavalry could act, and so on. The Intelligence Department had heard a large body of Free State Boers was moving westward from the south, as though retiring towards the passes. The information was false. The only true point about it was the presence of a large Boer force along a characteristic Boer position of low rocky hills about three miles to our front. There the General thought he would shell them out with a battery, and catch them as they retired by swinging cavalry round into the open length of plain behind the hills. So at 11 a.m. out trotted the 19th Hussars with the remains of the 18th. Then came a battery, with the 5th Dragoon Guards as escort In half an hour the guns were in full action against those low hills. The enemy's one gun there was silenced, but not before it had blown away half the head of a poor fellow among the Dragoon Guards. For an hour and a half we poured shrapnel over the rocks, till, except for casual rifle fire, there was no reply. Then another battery came up to protect the line to our rear, across which the Boers were throwing shells from positions on both sides, though without much effect. Soon after one, up cantered the Volunteers—Imperial Light Horse and Border Mounted Infantry—and they were sent forward, dismounted, to take the main position in front and occupy a steep hill on our left. To front and left they went gaily on, but they failed.
At their approach the rocks we had so persistently shelled, crackled and hammered from end to end with rifle fire. The Boers had hidden behind the ridge, and now crept back again. Perhaps no infantry could have taken that position only from the front. I watched the Volunteers advance upon it in extended lines across a long green slope studded with ant-hills. I could see the puffs of dust where bullets fell thick round their feet. It was an impossible task. Some got behind a cactus hedge, some lay down and fired, some hid behind ant-hills or little banks. Suddenly that moment came when all is over but the running. The men began shifting uneasily about. A few turned round, then more. At first they walked and kept some sort of line. Then some began to run. Soon they were all running, isolated or in groups of two or three. And all the time those puffs of dust pursued their feet. Sometimes there was no puff of dust, and then a man would spring in the air, or spin round, or just lurch forward with arms outspread, a mere yellowish heap, hardly to be distinguished from an ant-hill. I could see many a poor fellow wandering hither and thither as though lost, as is common in all retreats. A man would walk sideways, then run back a little, look round, fall. Another came by. The first evidently called out and the other gave him a hand. Both stumbled on together, the puffs of dust splashing round them. Then down they fell and were quiet. A complacent correspondent told me afterwards, with the condescending smile of higher light, that only seven men were hit. I only know that before evening twenty-five of the Light Horse alone were brought in wounded, not counting the dead, and not counting the other mounted troops, all of whom suffered.
It was all over by a quarter-past three. The Dragoon Guards, who had been trying to cover the retreat, galloped back, one or two horses galloping riderless. Under the Red Cross flag the dhoolies then began to go out to pick up the results of the battle. For an hour or so that work lasted, the dead and dying being found among the ant-hills where they fell. Then we all trailed back, the enemy shelling our line of retreat from three sides, and we in such a mood that we cared very little for shells or anything else.
November 4, 1899.
This morning Sir George White sent Joubert a letter by Major Bateson, asking leave for the non-combatants, women and children to go down to Maritzburg. The morning was quiet, most people packing up in hopes of going. But Joubert's answer put an end to that. The wounded, women, children, and other non-combatants might be collected in some place about four miles from the town, but could go no further. All who remained would be treated as combatants. I don't know what other answer Joubert could have given. It was a mistake to ask the favour at all. But the General advised the town to accept the proposal. At a strange and unorganised public meeting on the steps of the Ionic Public Hall, now a hospital, the people indignantly rejected the terms. Leave our women and children at Intombi's Spruit—the bushy spot fixed upon, five miles away—with Boers creeping round them, perhaps using them as a screen for attack! Britons never, never will! The Mayor hesitated, the Archdeacon was eloquent, the Scotch proved the metaphysical impossibility of the scheme. Amid shouts and cheers and waving parasols the people raised the National Anthem, and for once there was some dignity in that inferior tune. Everybody's life was in danger for "The Queen." The proposal to leave the town was flung back with defiance. Rather let our homes be flattened out!
To-night my grey-haired Cape-boy and my Zulu came to me in silence and tears. They had hoped for escape. They longed for the peace of Maritzburg, and now, like myself, they were bottled up amid "pom-poms." Had I not promised never to bring them into danger—always to leave them snug in the rear? They were devoted to my service. Others ran. Them no thought of safety could induce to leave me. But one had a wife and descendants, the other had ancestors. It was pitiful. Better savages never loomed out of blackness. In sorrow I promised a pension for the widow if the old man was killed. "But how if you get pom-pom too, boss?" he plaintively asked. I pledged the Chronicle to take over the obligation. The word "obligation" consoled him. The lady's name is Mrs. Louis Nicodemus, now of Maritzburg. For the Zulu's ancestry I promised no provision.