December 1, 1899.
A kaffir came in to-day, bringing the strange story that the old "Long Tom" of Pepworth Hill was hit full in the muzzle by "Lady Anne," that the charge inside him burst, the gun was shattered, and five gunners killed. The Kaffir swore he himself had been employed to bury them, and that the thing he said was true. If so, our "Lady Anne" has made the great shot of the war. The authorities are inclined to believe the story. The new gun on Gun Hill is perhaps too vigorous for our old friend, and the rifling on his shells is too clean. Whatever the truth may be, he gave us a lively time morning and afternoon. I think he was trying to destroy the Star bakery, about one hundred yards below my cottage. The shells pitched on every side of it in succession. They destroyed three houses. A Natal Mounted Rifle riding down the street was killed, and so was his horse. In the afternoon shrapnel came raining through our eucalyptus trees and rattling on the roof, so I accepted an invitation to tea in a beautiful hole in the ground, and learnt the joys spoken of by the poet of the new Ladysmith Lyre:—
"A pipe of Boer tobacco 'neath the blue,
A tin of meat, a bottle, and a few
Choice magazines like Harmsworth's or the Strand—
sometimes think war has its blessings too."
But one wearies of the safest rabbit-hole in an afternoon tea-time, and I rode to the other end of the town trying to induce my tenth or twelfth runner to start. So far, three have gone and not returned, one did not start, but lay drunk for ten days, the rest have been driven back by Boers or terror.
As I rode, the shells followed me, turning first upon Headquarters and then on the Gordons' camp by the Iron Bridge, where they killed two privates in their tents. I think nothing else of importance happened during the day, but I was so illusioned with fever that I cannot be sure. Except "Long Tom," the guns were not so active as yesterday, but some of them devoted much attention to the grazing cattle and the slaughter-houses. We are to be harried and starved out.
December 2, 1899.
To me the day has been a wild vision of prodigious guns spouting fire and smoke from uplifted muzzles on every hill, of mounted Boers, thick as ants, galloping round and round the town in opposite directions, of flashing stars upon a low horizon, and of troops massed at night, to no purpose, along an endless road. But I am inspired by fever just now, and in duller moments I am still conscious that we have really had a fairly quiet day, as these days go.
"Long Tom" occupied the morning in shelling the camp of the Imperial Light Horse. He threw twelve great shells in rapid succession into their midst, but as I watched not a single horse or man was even scratched. The narrowest escape was when a great fragment flew through an open door and cut the leg clean off a table where Mr. Maud, of the Graphic, sat at work. Two shells pitched in the river, which half encircles the camp, and for a moment a grand Trafalgar Square fountain of yellow water shot into the air. A house near the gaol was destroyed, but no damage to man or beast resulted.
Soon afterwards, from the highest point of the Convent Hill, looking south-west over the Maritzburg road by Bluebank, I saw several hundred Boers cantering in two streams that met and passed in opposite directions. They were apparently on the move between Colenso and Van Reenen's Pass; perhaps their movements implied visits to lovers, and a pleasant Sunday. They looked just like ants hurrying to and fro upon a garden track.
The reality of the day was a flash of brilliant light far away beyond the low gorge, where the river turns southward. My old Scot was the first to see it. It was about half-past three. The message came through fairly well, though I am told it is not very important. The important thing is that communication with the relieving force is at last established.
About 8.30 p.m. there was a great movement of troops, the artillery massing in the main street, the cavalry moving up in advance, the infantry forming up. Being ill, I fell asleep for a couple of hours, and when I turned out again all the troops had gone back to camp.
Sunday, December 3, 1899.
Long before sunrise I went up to the examining post on the Newcastle road, now held by the Gloucesters instead of the Liverpools. The positions of many regiments have been changed, certain battalions being now kept always ready as a flying column to co-operate with the relieving force. Last night's movement appears to have been a kind of rehearsal for that. It was also partly a feint to puzzle the Boers and confuse the spies in the town.
Signalling from lighted windows has become so common among the traitors that to-day a curfew was proclaimed—all lights out at half-past eight. Rumours about the hanging and shooting of spies still go the round, but my own belief is the authorities would not hurt a fly, much less a spy, if they could possibly help it.
Nearly all day the heliograph was flashing to us from that far-off hill. There is some suspicion that the Boers are working it as a decoy. We lost three copies of our code at Dundee, and it is significant that it was a runner brought the good news of Methuen's successes on Modder River to-night. But at Headquarters the flash signals are now taken as genuine, and the sight of that star from the outer world cheers us up.
At noon I rode out to see the new home of the 24th Field Ambulance from India. It is down by the river, near Range Post, and the silent Hindoos have constructed for it a marvel of shelter and defence. A great rampart conceals the tents, and through a winding passage fenced with massive walls of turf you enter a chamber large enough for twenty patients, and protected by an impenetrable roof of iron pipes, rocks, and mounds of earth. As I admired, the Major came out from a tent, wiping his hands. He had just cut off the leg of an 18th Hussar, whose unconscious head, still on the operating table, projected from the flaps of the tent door. The man had been sitting on a rock by the river, washing his feet, while "Long Tom" was shelling the Imperial Light Horse, as I described yesterday. Suddenly a splinter ricocheted far up the valley, and now, even if he recovers, he will have only one foot to wash.
A civilian was killed yesterday, working in the old camp. The men on each side of him were unhurt. So yesterday's shelling was not so harmless as I supposed.
Early in the afternoon I met Mr. Lynch, known as one of the Daily Chronicle correspondents in Cuba last year. He was riding his famous white horse, "Kruger," which we captured after the fight at Elands Laagte. One side of this bony animal is dyed khaki colour with Condy's fluid, as is the fashion with white horses. But the other side is left white for want of material. Mr. Lynch showed me with pride a great white umbrella he had secured. Round it he had written, "Advt. Dept. Ladysmith Lyre" In his pocket was a bottle of whisky—a present for Joubert. And so he rode away, proposing to exchange our paper for any news the Boers might have. Eluding the examining posts, he vanished into the Boer lines under Bulwan, and has not re-appeared. Perhaps the Boers have not the humour to appreciate the finely Irish performance. They have probably kept him prisoner or sent him to Pretoria. On hearing of his disappearance, Mr. Hutton, of Reuter's, and I asked leave to go out to the Boer camp to inquire after him. But the General was wroth, and would not listen to the proposal.
December 4, 1899.
This morning the General offered the use of the heliograph to all correspondents in rotation by ballot. Messages were to be limited to thirty words. One could say little more than that we are doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. But the sun did not come out all day, and not a single word got through.
In the afternoon I rode out to Waggon Hill, south-west of our position, to call upon the two howitzers. They are heavy squat guns about twenty years old, their shells being marked 1880, though they are said in reality to date from 1869. They were brought up from Port Elizabeth where the Volunteers used them, and certainly they have done fine service here. Concealed in the hollow of a hill, they are invisible to the enemy, and after many trials have now exactly got the range of the great 6 in. gun on Middle Hill. At any moment they can plump their shells right into his sangar, and the Boer gunners are frightened to work there. In fact, they have as effectually silenced that gun as if they had smashed it to pieces. They are worked by the Royal Artillery, two dismounted squadrons of the I.L.H. acting as escort or support. Them I found on picket at the extreme end of the hill. They told me they had seen large numbers of Boers moving slowly with cattle and waggons towards the Free State passes. The Boers whom I saw were going in just the opposite direction, towards Colenso. I counted twenty-seven waggons with a large escort creeping steadily to the south along some invisible road. They were carrying provisions or the ammunition to fight our relieving column.
We hear to-day there will be no attempt to relieve us till the 15th, if then. A Natal newspaper, with extracts from the Transvaal Standard and Diggers' News, brought in yesterday, exaggerates our situation almost as much as the Boers themselves. If all Englishmen now besieged were asked why most they desired relief, there is hardly one would not reply, "For the English mail!"