Sunday, November 5, 1899.
The armistice lasted all day, except that the enemy threw two shells at a waggon going up the Helpmakaar road and knocked it to pieces, and, I hear, killed a man or two—I don't know why. The townspeople were very busy building shelters for the bombardment. The ends of bridges and culverts were closed up with sandbags and stones. Circular forts were piled in the safest places among the rocks. The Army Service Corps constructed a magnificent work with mealy-bags and corn-beef cases—a perfect palace of security. But, as usual, the Kaffirs were wisest. They have crept up the river banks to a place where it flows between two steep hills of rock, and there is no access but by a narrow footpath. There they lie with their blankets and bits of things, indifferent to time and space. Some sort of Zulu missionary is up there, too, and I saw him nobly washing a cooking-pot for his family, dressed in little but his white clerical choker and a sort of undivided skirt. A few white families have gone to the same place, and I helped some of them to construct their new homes in the rocks amidst great merriment. The boys were as delighted as children with a spade and bucket by the sea, and many an impregnable redoubt was thrown up with a dozen stones. What those homes will be like at the end of a week I don't know. A picnic where love is may be endurable for one afternoon, when there are plenty of other people to cook and wash up. But a hungry and unclean picnic by day and night, beside a muddy river, with little to eat and no one to cook, nowhere to sleep but the rock, and nothing to do but dodge the shells, is another story. "I tell you what," said a serious Tory soldier to me, "if English people saw this sort of thing, they'd hang that Chamberlain." "They won't hang him, but perhaps they'll make him a Lord," I answered, and watched the women trying to keep the children decent while their husbands worked the pick.
In the afternoon the trains went out, bearing the wounded to their new camp across the plain at Intombi's Spruit. The move was not well organised. From dawn the ambulance people had been at work shifting the hospital tents and all the surgical necessities, but at five in the afternoon a note came back from the officer in camp urging us not to send any more patients. "There is no water, no rations," it said; "not nearly enough tents are pitched. If more wounded come, they will have to spend the night on the open veldt." But the long train was already made up. The wounded were packed in it. It was equally impossible to leave them there or to take them back. So on they went. In all that crowd of suffering men I did not hear a single complaint. Administration is not the strong point of the British officer. "We are only sportsmen," said one of them with a sigh, as he crawled up the platform, torn with dysentery and fever.
In front of the wounded were a lot of open trucks for such townspeople as chose to go. They had hustled a few rugs and lumps of bedding together, and, sitting on these, they made the best of war. But not many went, and most of those had relations among the Boers or were Boers themselves.
When the trains had gone, Captain Lambton, of the Powerful, showed me the new protection which his men and the sappers had built round the great 4.7 in. gun, which is always kept trained on "Long Tom." The sailors call the gun "Lady Anne," in compliment to Captain Lambton's sister, but the soldiers have named it "Weary Willie"—I don't know why. The fellow gun on Cove Hill is called "Bloody Mary"—which is no compliment to anybody. The earthwork running round the "Lady Anne" is eighteen feet deep at the base. Had it been as deep the first day she came, Lieutenant Egerton would still be at her side.
November 6, 1899.
When the melodrama doesn't come off, an indignant Briton demands his money back. Our melodrama has not come off. We were quite ready to give it a favourable reception. The shops were shut, business abandoned. Many had taken secure places the night before, so as to be in plenty of time. Nearly all were seated expectant long before dawn. The rising sun was to ring the curtain up. It rose. The curtain never stirred. From whom shall we indignant Britons demand our money back?
With the first glimmer of light between the stars over Bulwan, those few who had stayed the night under roofs began creeping away to the holes in the river bank or the rough, scrubby ground at the foot of the hills south-west of the town, where the Manchesters guard the ridge. Then we all waited, silent with expectation. The clouds turned crimson. At five the sun marched up in silence. Not a gun was heard. "They will begin at six," we said. Not a sound. "They are having a good breakfast," we thought. Eight came, and we began to move about uneasily. Two miserable shells whizzed over my head, obviously aimed only at the balloon which was just coming down. "Call that a performance?" we grumbled. We left our seats. We went on to the stage of the town. What was the matter? Was "Long Tom" ill? Had the Basutos overrun the Free State? Had Buller really advanced? Lieutenant Hooper, of the 5th Lancers, had walked through from Maritzburg, passing the Royal Irish sentries at 2 a.m. He brought news of a division coming to our rescue. Was that the reason of the day's failure? So speculation chattered. The one thing certain was that the performance did not come off, and there was no one to give us our money back.
So we spent the day wandering round the outposts, washing ourselves and our rags in the yellow river, trying to get the horses to drink the water afterwards, contemplating the picturesque, and pretending to cook. Perhaps the greatest interest was the work upon a series of caves in the river-bank, behind the Intelligence Office. They are square-topped, with straight sides, cut clean into the hard, sandy cliff. The Light Horse have made them for themselves and their ammunition. On the opposite side the Archdeacon has hollowed out a noble, ecclesiastical burrow. On the hills the soldiers are still at work completing their shelter-trenches and walls. I think the Rifle Brigade on King's Post (the signal hill of a month ago) have built the finest series of defences, for they have made covered pits against shrapnel. But perhaps they are more exposed than all the others except the Devons, who lie along a low ridge beside the Helpmakaar road, open to shell from two points, and perhaps to rifle-fire also. The Irish Fusiliers, under Major Churchill, have a very ingenious series of walls and covers. The main Manchesters' defences are circular like forts; so are the Gordons' and the K.R.R.'s. All are provisioned for fourteen days.
I spent the afternoon searching for a runner, a Kaffir the colour of night, who would steal through the Boer lines in the dark with a telegram. In my search I lost two hours through the conscientiousness of the 5th Lancers, who arrested me and sent me from pillar to post, just as if I was seeking information at the War Office. At last they took me—the Colonel himself, three privates with rifles and a mounted orderly with a lance—took me to the General Staff, and there the absurdity ended. But seriously, what is the good of having the very highest and most authoritative passes possible—one from the War Office and one from the head of the Intelligence Department here—if any conscientious colonel can refuse to acknowledge them, and drag a correspondent about amid the derision of Kaffirs and coolies, and of Dutchmen who are known perfectly well to send every scrap of intelligence to their friends outside? I lost two hours; probably I lost my chance of getting a runner through. I had complied with the regulations in every possible respect. My pass was in my hand; and what was the good of it?
But after all we are in the midst of a tragedy. Let us not be too serious. Dishevelled women are peering out of their dens in the rocks and holes in the sand. They crawl into the evening light, shaking the dirt from their petticoats and the sand from their back hair. They rub the children's faces round with the tails of their gowns. They tempt scraps of flame to take the chill off the yellow water for the children's tea. After sundown a steady Scotch drizzle settles down upon us.
November 7, 1899.
To-day the melodrama has begun in earnest. "Long Tom" and four or five smaller guns from Bulwan, and a nearer battery to the north-west, began hurling percussion shell and shrapnel upon the Naval batteries at half-past seven. Our "Lady Anne" answered, but after flinging shells into the immense earthworks for an hour or two without much effect, both sides got tired of that game. But the Boer fire was not quite without effect, for one of the smaller shells burst right inside the "Lady Anne's" private chamber and carried away part of the protecting gear, not killing any men. Then "Long Tom" was deliberately turned upon the town, especially upon the Convent, which stands high on the ridge, and is used as a hospital. His shells went crashing among the houses, but happily land is cheap in South Africa still, and the houses, as a rule, are built on separate plots, so that as often as not the shells fall in a garden bush or among the clothes-lines. Only two Indian bearers were wounded and a few horses and cattle killed. Things went pretty quietly through the morning, except that there was a good deal of firing—shell and rifle—on the high ridge south-west, where the Manchesters are. About two o'clock I started for that position, and being fond of short cuts, thought I would ford the river at a break in its steep banks instead of going round by the iron bridge. Mr. Melton Prior was with me, for I had promised to show him a quiet place for sketching the whole view of the town in peace. As we came to the river a shell pitched near us, but we did not take much notice of it. In the middle of the ford we took the opportunity of letting the horses drink, and they stood drinking like the orphan lamb. Suddenly there was something more than the usual bang, crash, scream of a big shell, and the water was splashed with lumps and shreds of iron, my hat was knocked off and lay wrecked in the stream, and the horses were dashing this way and that with terror. "Are you killed?" shouted Mr. Prior. "I don't think so," I said. "Are you?" And then I had to lash my horse back to the place lest my hat should sail down-stream and adorn a Queen's enemy. There is nothing like shell-fire for giving lessons in horsemanship.
The Manchesters had been having an uncomfortable time of it, and I found Sir George White and his staff up on their hill. As we walked about, the little puffs of dust kept rising at our feet. We were within rifle-fire, though at long range. Now and then a very peculiar little shell was thrown at us. One went straight through a tent, but we could not find it afterwards. It was a shell like a viper. I left the Manchesters putting up barbed-wire entanglements to increase their defence, and came back to try to find another runner. The shells were falling very thick in the town, and for the first time people were rather scared. As I write one bursts just over this little tin house. It is shrapnel, and the iron rain falls hammering on the roof, but it does not come through. Two windows only are broken. Probably it burst too high.
November 8, 1899.
Fairly quiet day. The great event was the appearance of a new "Long Tom" on the Bulwan. He is to be called "Puffing Billy," from the vast quantity of smoke he pours out. Nothing else of great importance happened. Major Grant, of the Intelligence, was slightly wounded while sketching on the Manchesters' ridge. Coolies wandered about the streets all day with tin boxes or Asiatic bundles on their heads. Joubert had sent them in as a present from Dundee. They were refugees from that unhappy town, and after a visit to Pretoria, they are now dumped down here to help devour our rations. Some Europeans have come, too—guards, signalmen and shopkeepers—who report immense reinforcements coming up for the Boers. Is there not something a little mediæval in sending a crowd of hungry non-combatants into an invested town?