December 5, 1899.
We have now been shut up nearly five weeks. Some 15,000 people or more have been living on a patch of ground roughly measuring three miles each way. On that patch of ground at the lowest estimate 3,500 cases of explosive iron have been hurled at high velocity, not counting an incalculable number of the best rifle bullets. One can conceive the effect on a Londoner's mind if a shell burst in the city. If another burst next day, the 'buses would begin to empty. If a hundred a day burst for five weeks, people would begin to talk of the paralysis of commerce. Yet who knows? The loss of life would probably be small. The citizen might grow as indifferent to shells as he is to shooting stars. Here, for instance, the killed do not yet amount to thirty, the wounded may roughly be put down at 170, of whom, perhaps, twenty have died, and all except the confirmed cave-dwellers are beginning to go about as usual, or run for cover only when it shells particularly hard.
To-day has not been hard in any sense. It opened with a heavy Scotch mist, which continued off and on, though for the most part the outlines of the mountains were visible. "Long Tom" of Gun Hill did not speak. The bombardment was almost entirely left to "Puffing Billy" and "Silent Susan." They worked away fairly steadily at intervals morning and afternoon, but did no harm to speak of.
Again large numbers of Boers were seen moving along the south-west borders, and a Kaffir brought in the story of a great conference at Bester's on the Harrismith line. Whether the conference is to decide on some future course of action, or to compare the difference between the allied states, we do not know. Probably the Dutch will not abandon the siege without a big fight.
On our side we contented ourselves with sending a shot or two from "Bloody Mary" to Bulwan, but the light was bad and the shells fell short. Sir George White now proposes to withdraw the curfew law, in hopes that any traitors may be caught red-handed. The Town Guard, consisting of young shop assistants with rifles and rosettes, are displaying an amiable activity. Returning from dinner last night, I was arrested four times in the half mile. I may mention that it is now impossible to procure anything stronger than lime-juice or lemonade.
December 6, 1899.
"Long Tom" of Gun Hill surprised us all by beginning a fairly rapid fire about 10 a.m. "Lady Anne" and "Bloody Mary" replied within a few moments of each other, and the second of the two shots exploded right on the top of "Tom's" earthworks, but he fired again within a few minutes, aiming at the new balloon, the old one having been torn to pieces in a whirlwind nearly a week ago. When the balloon soared out of reach, he turned a few shots upon the town and camps, and then was silent.
Since the siege began one farmer has steadily continued to plough his acres on the plain near the racecourse. He reminded one of the French peasant ploughing at Sedan. His three ploughs went backwards and forwards quite indifferent to unproductive war. But to-day the Boers deliberately shelled him at his work, the shells following him up and down the field, and ploughing up the earth all wrong. Neither the farmer nor his Kaffir labourers paid the least attention to them. The plough drove on, leaving the furrow behind, just as the world goes forward, no matter how much iron two admirable nations pitch at each other's heads.
Of course percussion-fused shells falling on ploughed land seldom burst, as a boy here found by experiment. Having found an eligible little shell in the furrows, he carried it home, and put it to soak in his washing basin. When it had soaked long enough, he extracted the fuse and proceeded to knock out the powder with a hammer. Then the nasty thing exploded in his face, and he lost one eye and is otherwise a good deal cut about.
In the afternoon I rode out again to the howitzers on Waggon Hill. The 6 in. gun which they command from their invisible station has not fired for six days. The Boer gunners dare not set it to work for fear of the 85lb. shells which are fired the moment Boers are seen in the sangar. Two were fired just as I left.
From the end of the hill there was a magnificent view of the great precipices in Basutoland, but hardly a Boer could be seen. Ninety-seven waggons had been counted the evening before, moving towards the Free State passes, but now I saw hardly a dozen Boers. Yet if their big gun had sent a shrapnel over us, what a bag they would have made! Colonel Rhodes and Dr. Jameson were at my side, General Ian Hamilton, with Lord Ava and Captain Valentine were within six yards, to say nothing of Captain Clement Webb, of Johannesburg fame, and other Imperial Light Horse officers.
In the evening the Natal Carbineers gave an open-air concert to a big audience. A good many women and girls came. As usual the sailors had the best of it in the comic songs, but the event of the evening was "The Queen." Though the Boers must have seen our lights, and perhaps heard the shout of "Send her victorious," they did not fire, not even when the balloon, fresh charged at the gas-works, stalked past us like a ghost.
December 7, 1899.
A glorious day for the heliograph, which flashed encouragement on us from that far-off mountain. But little else was done. The bombardment was only half-hearted. Some of the shells pitched about the town, smashing walls and windows, and two of the Irish Fusiliers were wounded by shrapnel. Towards evening a lot of children in white dresses were playing among the rocks opposite my window, when "Puffing Billy," of Bulwan, sent a huge shell over my roof right into the midst of them as it seemed. Fortunately it pitched a few yards too high. The poor little creatures scuttled away like rabbits. They are having a queer education—a kindergarten training in physical shocks.
During the day I rode nearly all over the camp and outposts, even getting to Waggon Hill again to see the enemy at their old trick of calling the cattle home with shells. There I heard that the 6 in. gun on Middle Hill was removed last evening, and that was the cause of the two shots I had heard as I left. Our gunners detected the movement too late to prevent it, and the destination of the gun is unknown.
December 8, 1899.
The brightest day of the siege so far. The secret was admirably kept. Outside three or four of the General Staff, not a soul knew what was to happen. At 10 p.m. on Thursday an officer left me for his bed; a quarter of an hour later he was marching with his squadron upon the unknown adventure. It was one of the finest and most successful things done in the war, but what I most admire about it is its secrecy. The honours go to the Volunteers. One regrets the exclusion of the Regulars after all their splendid service and cheery temper, but the Volunteers are more distinctly under Headquarter control, and it was thought best not to pass the orders through the brigades. Accordingly just after ten certain troops of the Imperial Light Horse, under Colonel Edwards, the Natal Carbineers, and Border Mounted Rifles, all under the command of Colonel Royston, suddenly received orders to march on foot along the Helpmakaar road. About 600 went, though only 200 of them actually took part in the final enterprise.
The moon was quarter full, but clouded, giving just enough light to see the road and no more. The small column advanced in perfect silence. Not a whisper was heard or a light seen. After long weeks of grumbling under the steady control of Regular officers, the Volunteers are learning what discipline means. The Cemetery was passed, the gorge of Bell's Spruit, the series of impregnable defences built by the Liverpools and Devons along the Helpmakaar road. At the end of those low hills the Devons were found drawn up in support, or to cover retreat. General Hunter then took command of the whole movement, and the march went on. Three-quarters of a mile further the road enters rough and bushy ground, thinly covered with stunted thorns and mimosa. It rises gradually to the foot of the two great hills, Lombard's Kop and Bulwan, the road crossing the low wooded nek between them. Lombard's Kop, which is the higher, lies in the left. The kop itself rises to about 1,200 or 1,300 feet, in a square-topped pyramid; but in front of it, forming part of the same hill, stands a broad and widely-expanded base, perhaps not higher than 600 or 700 feet. It is called Little Bulwan by the natives and Gun Hill by our troops. Near its centre on the sky-line the Boers placed the new "Long Tom" 6 in. Creusot gun, throwing a 96lb. shell, as I described before, and about 150 yards to the left was a howitzer generally identified with "Silent Susan." Those are the two guns which for the last fortnight have caused most damage to the troops and town. Their capture was the object of the night's adventure.
Leaving two-thirds of-his force in the bush nearly half-way up the slope, General Hunter took about 100 Light Horse, nearly 100 Carbineers and Mounted Rifles, with ten sappers under Captain Fowke, and began the main ascent. Major Henderson, of the Intelligence Department, acted as guide, keeping the extreme left of the extended line pretty nearly under the position of the big gun. So they advanced silently through the rocks and bushes under the uncertain light of the moon, which was just setting. It was two o'clock.
The Boer sentries must have been fast asleep. There was only one challenge. An old man's voice from behind suddenly cried in Dutch: "Halt! who goes there?" One of the Volunteers—a Carbineer—answered, "Friend." "Hermann," cried the sentry. "Who's that? Wake up. It's the Red-necks" (the Boer name for English). "Hold your row!" cried the Carbineer, still in Dutch. "Don't you know your own friends?" The sentry either ran away, or was satisfied, and the line crept on. The first part of the slope is gentle, but the face of the hill rises steep with rocks, and must be climbed on hands and knees, especially in the dark. Up went the 200, keeping the best line they could, and spreading out well to the right so as to outflank the enemy when the top was reached. Within about 100 yards of the summit they came under rifle fire, the Boer guard having taken alarm. A picket in rear also began firing up at random. It was impossible to judge the number of the enemy. Anything between twenty and fifty was a guide's estimate at the time. The slope was so steep that the Boers were obliged to lean over the edge and show themselves against the sky as they fired. Some of our men returned their fire with revolvers. At sixty yards from the top they were halted for the final assault. The Volunteers, like the Boers, carry no bayonets. Their orders were not to fire, but to club the enemy with the butt if they stood. The orders were now repeated. Then some inspired genius (Major Carey-Davis [? Karri Davis], of the I.L.H., it is said) raised the cry: "Fix bayonets. Give 'em cold steel, my lads." All appreciated the joke, and the shout rang down the line, as the men rose up and rushed to the summit. Four bayonets were actually present, but I am not sure whether they were fixed or not.
That shout was too much for the Boer gunners. They scattered and fled, heading across the broad top of the hill, even before our men had reached the edge. Swinging round from the right, our line rushed for the big gun. The Light Horse and the Sappers were first to reach it, Colonel Edwards himself winning the race. They found the splendid gun deserted in his enormous earthwork, the walls of which are 30 ft. to 35 ft. thick. One Boer was found dead outside it, shot in the assault.
Captain Fowke and his sappers at once got to work. The breech-block was unscrewed and taken out, falling a prize to the Light Horse, who vied with each other in carrying it home (it weighs 137lbs.) Then gun-cotton was thrust up the breech into the body of the gun. A vast explosion told the Boers that "Tom" had gone aloft, and his hulk lay in the pit, rent with two great wounds, and shortened by a head. The sappers say it seemed a crying shame to wreck a thing so beautiful. The howitzer met the same fate. A Maxim was discovered and dragged away, and then the return began. It was now three o'clock, and by four daylight comes. The difficulty was to get the men to move. The Carbineers especially kept crowding round the old gun like children in their excitement. At last the party came scrambling down the hill, joined the supports, and all straggled back into camp together, with exultation and joy. They just, and only just, got in before the morning gave the enemy light enough to fire on their line of march.
The whole movement was planned and executed to perfection. One man was killed, three or four were slightly wounded. Our worse loss was Major Henderson, wounded in the shoulder and leg during the final advance. He went through the rest of the action, and returned with the party, but must now retire for a week or so to Intombi Camp, for the Röntgen rays to discover the ball in his leg. It is thought to be a buckshot, or, rather, the steel ball of a bicycle bearing, fired from a sporting gun.
General Hunter found a letter in the gun-pit. It is in Dutch, and half-finished, scribbled by a Boer gunner to his sister in Pretoria. I give a literal translation:—
"MY DEAR SISTER,—It is a month and seven days since we besieged Ladysmith, and I don't know what will happen further. We see the English every day walking about the town, and we are bombarding the place with our cannon. They have built breastworks outside the town. To attack would be very dangerous. Near the town they have set up two naval guns, from which we receive a very heavy fire we cannot stand. I think there will be much blood spilt before they surrender, as Mr. Englishman fights hard, and our burghers are a bit frightened. I should like to write more, but the sun is very hot, and, what's more, the flies are so troublesome that I don't get a chance of sitting still.—Your affectionate Brother."
In the afternoon the General publicly congratulated the Volunteers on their achievement. The Boers added their generous praise—communicated to some doctors left behind to look after our wounded, who returned to us in the course of the day, after being given a good breakfast. Unhappily the above account is necessarily second-hand. No correspondent had a chance of going with the party. The only one who even started was sent back by General Hunter to await the column's return in a guard-room. I have been obliged to build up the story from my knowledge of the ground and from what has been told me by Major Henderson and other officers or privates who were present.
Before that party returned in triumph another important movement was already in progress, of which, I believe, I was the only outside spectator. Just before four I was awakened by the trampling of cavalry going up the Newcastle road. They were the 5th Lancers, the 5th Dragoon Guards, and the 18th Hussars. The 19th Hussars had been out all night burning a kraal and distracting attention from Gun Hill. Just as the stars vanished, the 18th, followed by the others, galloped forward towards the Boer lines in the general direction of Pepworth Hill, though our main force was on the left of the direct line. General Brocklehurst was in command. It is described at Headquarters as a reconnaissance or demonstration. But there are rumours that more was originally intended—perhaps an attack on the Boer rail head, with its three heavy trains this side of Modder Spruit; perhaps the destruction of the Modder Spruit Bridge. If the object was only to discover whether the Boers are still in force, and to demonstrate the coolness of the British cavalry, the movement was entirely successful.
Directly the cavalry advanced across the fairly open valley of Bell's Spruit, passing Brook's Farm and making for the left of Limit Hill on the main road, they were met by a tremendous rifle fire from every ridge and hillock and rock commanding the scene. At the same time, guns opened upon them from Surprise Hill on our left rear, and from some spot which I could not locate on our left front. Still they advanced, squadron after squadron sweeping across Bell's Spruit, and up into the tortuous little valleys and ravines beyond, towards Macpherson's Farm. That was the limit. It is about two and three-quarter miles (not more) from our picket on the Newcastle road, and lies not far from the left foot of Pepworth Hill. The 18th Hussars, through some mistake in orders, attempted to push still further forward towards the hill, but just before five a general retirement began.
Except perhaps at the close of Elands Laagte fight, or in one brief assault of Turks upon a Greek position in Epirus, I have never heard anything to compare to the rifle fire under which the withdrawal was conducted. The range was long, but the roll of the rifle was incessant. The whole air screamed with bullets, and the dust rose in clouds over the grass as they fell. Then the 6 in. gun on Bulwan ("Puffing Billy") and an invisible gun on our right opened fire, throwing shells into the thick of our men wherever the ravines or rocks compelled them to crowd together. They came back fast, but well in hand, wheeling to right or left at word of command, as on parade. The B Squadron of the 18th had a terrible gallop for it, right across the front of fire along a ridge such as Boers rejoice in. Their loss was two killed and seventeen wounded. The others only lost three or four slightly wounded. It proves how lightly a highly-disciplined cavalry can come off where one would have said hardly any could survive.
As we retired the Boers kept following us up, though with great caution. Riding along the valleys, dismounting, and creeping from kopje to kopje among the stones, a large body of them came up to Brooks Farm, and began firing at our sangars and outposts at ranges of 800 to 1,000 yards, the bullets coming very thick over our heads, even after we had reached the protection of the Gloucesters' walls and earthworks. There our infantry opened fire, while two guns of the 13th Battery near the railway cutting, and two of the 69th on Observation Hill, threw shrapnel over the kopjes, and checked any further advance.
But the Boers still held their positions, pouring a tremendous fire into any of the cavalry who had still to pass within their range. As to their number, their magazine rifles, firing five shots in rapid succession, makes any estimate difficult. I have heard it put as low as 600. Perhaps 1,000 is about right. I myself saw some 300 from first to last. By seven the whole of our force was again within the lines. Splendid as the behaviour of all the cavalry was, one man seemed to me conspicuous. Towards the end of the retirement he quietly cantered out across the most exposed bit of open ground, and went round among the kopjes as though looking for something. For a time he disappeared down a gully. Then he came cantering back again, and reached the high road along a watercourse, which gave a little cover. At least 300 bullets must have been fired at him, but he changed neither his pace nor direction. Whether he was looking for wounded or only went out for diversion I have not heard, but one could not imagine more complete disregard of death.
The rest of the day passed quietly. The Boers gathered in crowds on Gun Hill and stood around the carcass of "Long Tom" as though in lamentation. His absence gave us an unfamiliar sense of security. Some called it dull. "Lay it on where you like, there's no pleasing you," said the gaoler.
December 9, 1899.
The Dutch left us pretty much alone. Sickness is becoming serious. The cases average thirty a day, chiefly enteric. A Natal newspaper only a week old was brought in by a runner. It contained a few details of Methuen's fight on Modder River, but hardly any English news. Captain Heath, of the balloon, told me he could see the Boers concentrating in much larger camps than before, especially about Colenso and at Springfield further up the Tugela.