Sunday, December 10, 1899.
Just as we were lazily washing our clothes and otherwise enjoying the Sabbath rest and security at about eight in the morning, "Puffing Billy," of Bulwan, began breaking the Fourth Commandment with extraordinary recklessness and rapidity. He sent nine of his shells into the town, as fast as he could fire them. "Bloody Mary" flung two over his head and one into his earthwork, but he paid no attention to her protests. The fact was, the 5th Dragoon Guards, trusting to Boer principles, had left their horses fully exposed to view instead of leading them away under cover as usual at sunrise. The gunners, probably Germans, thought this was presuming too much on their devotion to the Old Testament, and set their scruples aside for twenty minutes under the paramount duty of slaughtering men and horses. Happily no serious harm was done, and the rest of the day was as quiet as Sunday usually is.
On our side we were engaged all day in preparing a new home for "Lady Anne" on Waggon Hill, south-west of the town. The position, as I have often described, gives a splendid view of the country towards Basutoland and the Free State mountains. It also commands some four miles of the Maritzburg road towards Colenso and the guns which the Boers have set up there to check the approach of a relieving force. By late afternoon the enormous sangar was almost finished. The gun will be carried over on a waggon at night. I watched the work in progress from Rifleman's Post, an important outpost and fort, held by the 2nd K.R.R. (60th). It also commands the beginning of the Maritzburg road, where it passes across the "Long Valley," between Range Post and Bluebank.
The doctors and ambulance men who went out after the brief cavalry action on Friday morning report they were fired on while carrying the dead and wounded in the dhoolies. The Boers retaliate with a similar charge against us in Modder River. Unhappily, there can be no doubt that one of our doctors was heavily fired on whilst dressing a man's wounds on the field.
December 11, 1899.
Soon after two in the night I heard rifle-firing, then two explosions, and heavier rifle-firing again, apparently two or three miles away. It was too dark to see anything, even from the top of the hill, but in the morning I found we had destroyed another gun—the 4.7 in. howitzer on Surprise Hill. For weeks past it had been one of the most troublesome guns of the thirty-two that surround us. It had a long range and accurate aim. Its position commanded Observation Hill, part of the Newcastle road, Cove Hill, and Leicester Post, the whole of the old camp and all the line of country away to Range Post and beyond. It was this gun that shelled the 18th Hussars out of their camp and continually harassed the Irish Fusiliers. It was constantly dropping shells into the 69th Battery and on the K.R.R. at King's Post. Surprise Hill is a square-topped kopje, from 500 feet to 600 feet high, between Thornhill's Kopje and Nicholson's Nek. It overlooks Bell's Spruit and the scene of "Mournful Monday's" worst disaster. From Leicester Post, where two guns were always kept turned on it, the distance is 4,100 yards—just the full range of our field guns. From Observation Hill it is hardly 2,500 yards. The destruction of its gun was therefore of the highest importance.
At ten o'clock last night four companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade started from their camp on Leicester Post, with six sappers, under Mr. Digby Jones, and five gunners under Major Wing, of the 69th Battery. The whole was commanded by Colonel Metcalfe of the battalion. They marched across the fairly open grassland toward Observation Hill, and there halted because the half-moon was too bright. About midnight they again advanced, as the moon was far down in the west. They marched in fours towards the foot of the hill, but had to cross the Harrismith Railway two deep through a gap where the wire fences were cut with nippers. One deep donga and a shallower had to be crossed as well. At the foot of the hill two companies were left, extended in a wedge shape, the apex pointing up the hill. The remaining two companies began the ascent. The front of the hill is steep and covered with boulders, but is greener than most South African hills. About half-way up half a company was left in support. The small assaulting party then climbed up in extended line. Not a word was spoken, and the Boers gave no sign till our men were within twenty yards of the top. Then a sentry cried, "Who's there? Who's there?" in English, and fired. Our men fixed swords and charged to the top with a splendid cheer. They made straight for the sangar and formed in a circle round it, firing outwards without visible target. To their dismay they found the gun-pit empty. The gun had been removed perhaps for security, perhaps for the Sabbath rest. But it was soon discovered a few yards off, and the sappers set to work with their gun-cotton. Meantime a party was sent to the corner of the hill on the left to clear out a little camp, where the Boer gunners slept and had their meals under a few little trees. They fired into it, and then carried everything away, some of the men bringing off some fine blankets, which they are very proud of this morning. The great-coats were in such a disgusting condition that the soldiers had to leave them.
The fuse was long in going off. Some say the first fuse failed, some that it was very slow. Anyhow, the party was kept waiting on the hill-top almost half an hour, when the whole thing ought to have been done in a quarter. Those extra fifteen minutes cost many lives. At last the shock of the explosion came. Two great holes were made in the gun's rifling near the muzzle, and the breech was blown clean out, the screw being destroyed. Major Wing secured the sight, the sponge, and an old wideawake, which the gunner used always to wave to him very politely just before he fired. Some say there was a second explosion, and I heard it myself, but it may have been a Boer gun which threw one round of shrapnel high over the hill, the bullets pattering down harmlessly, and only making a blue bruise when they hit. As soon as the sappers and gunners had made sure the gun was destroyed, the order to retire was given, and the line began climbing down in the darkness. The half company in support was taken up, the two companies at the foot were reached by some, when a heavy fire flashed out of the darkness on both sides. The Boers, evidently by a preconcerted scheme, were crowding in from Thornhill's farm on our left—Mr. Thornhill, by the way, was acting as our guide—and from Bell's farm on our right. They came creeping along the dongas, right into the midst of our men, as well as cutting off retreat. Then it was that we wanted that quarter of an hour lost by the fuse. The men hastily formed up into their four companies and began the retirement in succession. Each company had simply to fight its way through with the sword-bayonet. They did not fire much, chiefly for fear of hitting each other, which unfortunately happened in some cases. The Boers took less precaution, and kept up a tremendous fire from both flanks, many of the bullets probably hitting their own men. Under shelter of the dongas some got right among our companies and fired from a few yards' distance.
Then came the horror of a war between two nations familiar with the same language. "Second R.B.! Second R.B.!" shouted our fellows as a watchword and rallying-cry. "Second R.B.!" shouted every Boer who was challenged or came into danger. "B Company here!" cried an officer. "B Company here!" came the echo from the Dutch. "Where's Captain Paley?" asked a private. "Where's Captain Paley?" the question passed from Boer to Boer. In the darkness it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. The only way was to stoop down till you saw the edge of a broad-brimmed hat. Then you drove your bayonet through the man, if he did not shoot you first. Many a poor fellow was shot down by some invisible figure who was talking to him in English and was taken for a friend. One Boer fired upon a private at two or three yards—and missed him! The private sprang upon him. "I surrender! I surrender!" cried the Boer, throwing down his rifle. "So do I," cried the private, and plunged his bayonet through the man's stomach and out at his back.
One by one the companies cut their way into the open ground by the railway, and to Observation Hill, where the enemy dare not pursue. By half-past three a.m. the greater part were back at Leicester Post again. It was a triumph, even for the Rifle Brigade: as fine and gallant an achievement as could be done. But the cost was heavy.
Eleven were dead, including one or perhaps two officers. Six are prisoners. Forty-three are wounded, some severely. The ambulance was out all the morning bringing them in. Again they complained that the Boers fired on them and wanted to keep them prisoners. Nothing has so embittered our troops against the enemy as this continual firing on the wounded and hospitals. It was sad in any case to see the stretchers coming home this morning. Meeting a covered dhoolie, I asked the bearers who was in it. "Captain Paley," they said, and put him down for water. He had been reported missing. In fact, he had stayed behind to look after some of his men who were down or lost. He is known for his excellent government of a district in Crete. I gave him the water. He recognised me at once and was conscious, but his singularly blue eyes looked out of a deadly yellow and bloodless face, and his hands seemed to have the touch of death on them. When I said I was sorry, he answered, "But we got the gun." He was shot through the chest, though, as he pointed out, he was not spitting blood. Another bullet had entered the left hip and passed out, breaking the right hip-bone. That is the dangerous wound. He said he did not feel much pain.
The wounded were taken down to the tents set up in the ravine of the Port Road between the Headquarters and the old camp. That is the main hospital (11th and 18th) since the wounded were shifted out of the Town Hall, because the Boers shelled it so persistently. Since the Geneva flag was removed from the hall's turret not a single shell has been fired near the building. The ravine—"kloof" is the word here, like "cleft"—is fairly safe from shells, though the Bulwan gun has done its best to get among the tents ever since spies reported the removal.
It is fully exposed to those terrible dust storms which I described in an earlier letter. In the afternoon we had one of the worst I have seen. The sand and dust and dry filth, gathered up by the hot west wind from the plain of the old camp, swept in a continuous yellow cloud along the road and down into the ravine. It blotted out the sun, it blinded horses and men, it covered the wounded with a thick layer. I have described its horrible effects before. Imagine what it is like to have a hospital under such conditions, practically unsheltered—to extract bullets, to staunch blood, to amputate. One admires the Boers as a race fighting for their freedom, soon to be overthrown on behalf of a mongrel pack of speculators and other scoundrels. But I did not like them any better when I saw our wounded in the dust-storm to-day, and remembered why they were there.
In the afternoon a white woman was killed by a shell as she was washing clothes in the river. She is the first woman actually killed, though others have died from premature child birth. I don't know which gun killed her, but parts of the town and river hitherto safe were to-day exposed to fire from the 6 in. gun which was removed from Middle Hill a few days ago, and is now set up on Thornhill's farm, due west of the town. It commands a very wide district—the old camp, the Long Valley which the Maritzburg road crosses, the Great Plain behind Bluebank, and most of our western positions. It began firing early in the morning and continued at intervals all day. For an hour or two people were surprised at seeing a free balloon sailing away towards Bulwan. It turned out to be one of Captain Heath's dummies, which had got away. He tells me it will be entirely useless to the enemy in any case.
December 12, 1899.
I was so overcome with fever that again my aspect of things was not quite straight. After dawn the Bulwan gun shelled the Star bakery, close to my cottage, and the stones and earth splashing on my roof woke me up too early. Another cottage was wrecked. The heat was intense, but the sun so splendid that I have hopes my heliograph message got through at last. None have gone yet, but I took up my sixth version in faith to the signal station near the Convent. On inquiry about Captain Paley I found he had been sent down to Intombi Camp with other serious cases, but the doctors think he has a chance. Lieut. Bond, who has a similar wound, went with him. Lieut. Fergusson, who died, had four bad wounds, three from bullets and one from a small shell of the automatic "pom-pom," which shattered his thigh. The rest of the day was a delirium of fever till the evening, when the wind suddenly changed to east, and it became cool and then bitterly cold. At half-past eight the proposed Flying Column, which is to co-operate with the relieving force, had a kind of dress rehearsal, all turning out with field equipment and transport for three days' rations. The Irish Fusiliers under Major Churcher formed the head of the column at Range Post, a body of Natal Volunteers coming next, followed by the Gordons. I waited at Range Post in the eager and refreshing wind till the column gradually dissolved into its camps, and all was still. By eleven the rehearsal was over and I rode back to my end of the town. To-night the civilians of the Town Guard went on picket by the river, and bore their trials boldly, though one of them got a crick in the neck.
December 13, 1899.
The early part of the day was distinguished by a violent fire from the big gun of Bulwan upon the centre of the town and the riverside camps. "Lady Anne" answered, for she has not yet been removed to her destined station on Waggon Hill. In the intervals of their fire we could distinctly hear big guns far away near Colenso and the Tugela River. They were chiefly English guns, for the explosion followed directly on the report, proving they were fired towards us. The firing stopped about 10 a.m.
All morning our two howitzers, which have been brought down from Waggon Hill, pounded away at their old enemy, the 6 in. gun now placed on Telegraph Hill as I described. They are close down by the Klip River, west of the old camp. Their object is to drive the gun away as they drove him before, and certainly they gave him little rest. He had hardly a chance of returning the fire; but when he had his shot was terribly effective, coming right into the top of our earthworks. Equally interesting was the behaviour of two Boers who crept down from Thornhill's farm among the rocks and began firing into our right rear. I detected them by the little puffs of white smoke, for both had Martini's. But no one took the trouble to shoot them, though they harassed our gunners. If there had been 50 instead of two they might have driven out our handful of men and tumbled the guns into the river. For we had no support nearer than the steep top of King's Post. Happily Boers do not do such things.
A Kaffir brought in a newspaper only two days old. It said Gatacre had suffered a reverse on the Free State frontier. There was nothing about the German Emperor, and no football news.
In the late afternoon I rode up to the Manchesters' lines on Cæsar's Camp, our nearest point to Colenso. But they knew no more than the rest of us, except that an officer had counted the full tale of guns fired in the morning—137. The view on all sides was as varied and full of growing association as usual, but had no special interest to-day, and I hurried back to inquire again after Mr. George Steevens, who is down with fever, to every one's regret.
December 14, 1899.
After the high hopes of the last few days we seem to be falling back, and to get no nearer to the end. Very little firing was heard from Colenso. The Bulwan gun gave us his morning salute of ten big shells in various parts of the town. They made some troublesome pits in the roads, and one destroyed a house, but nobody was killed.
The howitzers and the Telegraph Hill Gun pounded away at each other without much effect. Sickness is now our worst enemy. Next to sickness comes want of forage for the horses. The sick still average thirty a day, and there were 320 cases of enteric at Intombi Camp last night. Mr. Steevens has it, and his friends were busy all morning, moving him to better quarters. Major Henderson is about again. The Röntgen Rays did not discover the bicycle shot in his leg, and the doctors have decided to leave it there.
It was disappointing to hear that the Kaffir runner I sent with an account of the night attack on Surprise Hill had been captured by the Boers and robbed of his papers. I had hopes of that boy; he wore no trousers. But it is perhaps unsafe to judge character from dress alone. This runner business is heart-breaking. I tried to make up by getting another short heliogram through, but the sun was uncertain, and the receivers on the distant mountain sulky and wayward. They showed one faint glimmer of intelligence, and then all was dark again.
In the heat of the day a four-wheeled hooded cart drove from the Boer lines under a white flag bringing a letter for the General. The envoy was a Dutchman from Holland. He was met outside our lines by Lieutenant Fanshawe, of the 19th Hussars, who conversed with him for about two hours, till the answer returned. Seated under the shade of the cart, he enjoyed the enemy's hospitality in brandy and soda, biltong, and Boer biscuit. "But for that white rag," said the Dutchman, "we two would be trying to kill each other. Very absurd!" He went on to repeat how much the Boers admired the exploits of the night attacks. "If you had gone for the other guns that first night, you would have got them all." He said the gunners on Gun Hill were all condemned to death. He examined the horse and its accoutrements, thinking them all very pretty, but maintaining the day for cavalry was gone. He was perfectly intimate with the names and character of all the battalions here. Of the Boer army he said it contained all nationalities down to Turks and Jews. He had no doubt of their ultimate success, and looked forward to Christmas dinner in Ladysmith. What we regard as our victories, he spoke of as our defeats. Even Elands Laagte he thought unsuccessful. Finally, after all compliments, he drove away, bearing a private letter from Mr. Fanshawe to be posted through Delagoa Bay and Amsterdam.
December 15, 1899.
In my own mind I had always fixed to-day as the beginning of our deliverance from this grotesque situation. It may be so still. Very heavy firing was heard down Colenso way from dawn till noon. Colonel Downing, commanding the artillery, said some of it was our field-guns, and it seemed nearer than two days ago.
The Bulwan gun gave us his customary serenade from heaven's gate. He did rather more damage than usual, wrecking two nice houses just below my cottage. One was a boarding house full of young railway assistants, who had narrow escapes. The brother gun on Telegraph Hill was also very active, not being so well suppressed by our howitzers as before. When I was waiting at Colonel Rhodes' cottage by the river, it dropped a shell clear over Pavilion Hill close beside it. Otherwise the Boer guns behaved with some modesty and discretion.
In the morning I rode up to Waggon Hill, and found that "Lady Anne" had at last arrived there, and was already in position. She was hauled up in the night in three pieces, each drawn by two span of oxen. Some thirty yards in front of her, in an emplacement of its own, stands the 12lb. naval gun which has been in that neighbourhood for some days. Both are carefully concealed, even the muzzles being covered up with earth and stones. They both command the approach to the town across the Long Valley by the Maritzburg road, as well as Bluebank or Rifleman's Ridge beyond, and Telegraph Hill beyond that.
While I was on the hill I saw one mounted and four dismounted Boers capture five of our horses which had been allowed to stray in grazing.
In the afternoon a South African thunderstorm swept over us. In a few minutes the dry gully where the main hospital tents are placed, as I described, became a deep torrent of filth. The tents were three feet deep in water, washing over the sick. "Sure it's hopeless, hopeless!" cried unwearying Major Donegan, the medical officer in charge. "I've just seen me two orderlies swimmin' away down-stream." The sick, wet and filthy as they were, had to be hurried away in dhoolies to the chapels and churches again. They will probably be safe there as long as the Geneva flag is not hoisted.
December 16, 1899.
This is Dingaan's Day, the great national festival of the Boers. It celebrates the terrible battle on the Blood River, sixty-one years ago, when Andreas Pretorius slaughtered the Zulus in revenge for their massacre of the Dutch at Weenen, or Lamentation. In honour of the occasion, the Boers began their battle earlier than usual. Before sunrise "Puffing Billy" of Bulwan exploded five 96lb. shells within fifty yards of my humble cottage, disturbing my morning sleep after a night of fever. I suppose he was aiming at the bakery again, but he killed nobody and only destroyed an outbuilding. Farther down the town unhappily he killed three privates. He also sent another shell into the Town Hall, and blew Captain Valentine's horse's head away, as the poor creature was enjoying his breakfast. After seven o'clock hardly a gun was fired all day. Opinion was divided whether the Boers were keeping holiday for that battle long ago, or were burying their dead after Buller's cannonade of yesterday. But raging fever made me quite indifferent to this and all other interests.