Sunday, December 17, 1899.
We are sick of the siege. Enteric and dysentery are steadily increasing. Food for men and horses is short and nasty. Ammunition must be used with care. The longing for the English mail has almost become a disease. Only two days more, we thought, or perhaps we could just stick it out for another week. Now we are thrown back into vague uncertainty, and seem no nearer to the end.
All the correspondents were summoned at noon to the Intelligence Office. That the Intelligence should tell us anything at all was so unprecedented that we felt the occasion was solemn. Major Altham then read out the General Order, briefly stating that General Buller had failed in "his first attack at Colenso," and we could not be relieved as soon as was expected. All details were refused. We naturally presume the situation is worse than represented. Each of us was allowed to send a brief heliogram, balloting for turn. Then we came away. We were told it was our duty to keep the town cheerful.
The suffering among the poor who had no stores of their own to fall back upon is getting serious. Bread and meat are supplied in rations at a fair and steady price. Colonel Ward and Colonel Stoneman have seen to that, and as far as possible they check the rapacity of the Colonial contractor. But hundreds have no money left at all. They receive Government rations on a mere promise to pay. Outside rations, prices are running up to absurdity. Chickens and most nice things are not to be obtained. But in the market last week eggs were half a guinea a dozen, potatoes 1s. 6d. a pound, carrots 5s., candles 1s. each, a tin of milk 6s., cigarettes 5s. a dozen. Nothing can be bought to drink, except lemonade and soda-water, made with enteric germs. The Irishman drinks the rinsings of his old whisky bottles. One man gave £5 yesterday for a bottle of whisky, but then he was a contractor, and our necessity is his opportunity. Of our necessity the Colonial storekeepers and dealers of all kinds are making their utmost. Having spent their lives hitherto in "besting" every one on a small scale, they are now besting the British nation on the large. Happily their profit is not so easily made now as in the old days of the Zulu war, when a waggon-load of food would be sold three times over on the way to the front and never reached the troops at all in the end. A few days ago one contractor thought the Army would have to raise its price for mealies (maize) to 30s. a sack. He at once bought up all the mealies in the town at 28s., only to discover that the army price was 25s. So, under the beneficent influence of martial law he was compelled to sell at that price, and made a fine loss. The troops received this morning's heavy news with cheerful stoicism; not a single complaint, only tender regrets about the whisky and Christmas pudding we shall have to do without.
December 18, 1899.
How is one to treat an indeterminate situation? The siege is already too long for modern literature. It was all very well when we thought it must end by Christmas at the furthest. But since last Sunday we are thrown back into the infinite, and can fix no limit on which hope can build even a rainbow. So now the only way to make this account of our queer position readable will be to dwell entirely in the glaring events of adventure or bloodshed, and let the flat days slide, though the sadness and absurdity of any one of them would fill a paper.
We have had such luck in escaping shells that we grow careless. The Bulwan gun began his random fire, as usual, before breakfast. He threw about fifteen shells, but most of us are quite indifferent to the 96lb. explosive thunder-bolts dropping around us. Indeed, fourteen of them did little harm. But just one happened to drop in the Natal Carbineer lines while the horses were being groomed. Two men were killed outright and three mortally wounded. A sapper was killed 200 yards away. Three others were wounded. Eleven horses were either killed or hopelessly disabled. All from one chance shell, while fourteen hit nobody! One man had both legs cut clean off, and for a time continued conscious and happy. Five separate human legs lay on the ground, not to speak of horses' legs. The shell burst on striking a horse, they say (it was shrapnel), and threw forwards. While the Carbineers were carrying away one of their dead another shell burst close by. They rightly dropped the body and lay flat. The only fragment which struck at all almost cut the dead man in half. Another shell later in the day killed a Kaffir woman and her husband in a back garden off the main street. Several women have died from premature childbirth owing to shock.
Most of my day was again spent in trying to get a Kaffir runner for a telegram, but none would go. My last two had failed. All are getting frightened. In the evening I rode out to Waggon Hill and found "Lady Anne" and the 12lb. naval gun had gone back to their old homes. They are not wanted to keep open the approach for Buller now, and perhaps Captain Lambton was afraid the position might be rushed.
December 19, 1899.
Another black day. Details of Buller's defeat at Colenso began to leak out and discouraged us all. It would be much better if the truth about any disaster, no matter how serious, were officially published. Now every one is uncertain and apprehensive. We waste hours in questions and speculations. To-day there was something like despair throughout the camp. The Boers are putting up new guns on Gun Hill in place of those we destroyed. Through a telescope at the Heliograph Station I watched the men working hard at the sangar. Two on the face of the hill were evidently making a wire entanglement. On Pepworth Hill the sappers think they are putting up one of the 8.7 in. guns, four of which the Boers are known to have ordered, though it is not certain whether they received them. They throw a 287lb. shell. We are all beginning to feel the pinch of hunger. Bit by bit every little luxury we had stored up has disappeared. Nothing to eat or drink is now left in any of the shops; only a little twist tobacco.
What is even worse, the naval guns have too little ammunition to answer the enemy's fire; so that the Boers can shell us at ease and draw in nearer when they like. The sickness increases terribly. Major Donegan sent out thirty-six cases of enteric to Intombi Camp from the divisional troops' hospital alone. Probably over fifty went in all. Everything now depends on Buller's winning a great victory. It seems incredible that two British armies should be within twenty miles of each other and powerless to move.
I cannot induce a Kaffir runner to start now. Even the Intelligence Officer cannot do it. The heliograph has failed me, too. Sunday's message has not gone, and this afternoon was clouded with storms and rain. The temperature fell 30°. Yesterday it was 102°; the day before 106° in the shade.
December 20, 1899.
From dawn till about seven the mutter of distant guns was heard near Colenso. But no news came through, for the sky was clouded nearly all day long. The new 4.7 in. howitzer which the Boers have put up on Surprise Hill opened fire in the morning, and will be as dangerous as its predecessor which we blew up. From every point of the compass it shelled hard nearly all day. I connect this feverish activity with the apparition of a chaise and four seen driving round the Boer outposts, and to-day quite visible on the Bulwan. Four outriders accompany it, and queer little flags are set up where it halts. Can the black-coated old gentleman inside be Oom Paul himself? It is significant that the big gun of Bulwan did some extraordinary shooting during the day. It threw one shell right into the old camp; another sheer over the Irish at Range Post; both were aimed at nothing but simply displayed the gun's full range; another pointed out the position of the Naval battery, and whilst I was at lunch in the town, another whizzed past and carried away one side of the Town Hall turret. I envy the gunner's feelings, though for the moment I thought he had killed my horse at the door. The Town Hall is now really picturesque, just the sort of ruin visitors will expect to see after a bombardment. With a little tittifying it will be worth thousands to the Colonials.
The day was cool and cloudy; fair shelling weather, but bad for heliographs. So my Christmas message is still delayed. A certain lieutenant (whom I know, but may not name) went out under flag of truce with a letter to the Boer General, and was admitted even into Schalk Burger's tent. The Boer gave him some details of Buller's disaster last Friday, and of the loss of the ten guns, which they said came up within heavy rifle fire and were disabled. They especially praised one officer who refused to surrender, fired all his revolver' cartridges, drew his sword, and would have fallen had not the Boers attacked him only with the butt, determined to spare the life of so brave a man. I give the story: its truth will be known by this time.
Sickness continues. There are 900 cases of enteric in Intombi. A sister from the camp came and besought Colonel Stoneman with tears to stop the shameful robbery of the sick which goes on in the camp. The blame, of course, does not lie with him or the authorities here. The supplies are sent out regularly day by day. It is in the careless or corrupt distribution that the sick are robbed and murdered by a mob of cowardly Colonials of the rougher class, who had not enough courage to stay in the town, and now turn their native talent for swindling to the plunder of brave men who are suffering on their behalf.
A deputation of mayor and town councillors waited on Colonel Ward to-day. The petitioners humbly prayed that the bathing parties of soldiers below the town on Sundays might be stopped, because they shocked the feelings of the women. For a mixture of hypocrisy and heartlessness I take that deputation to be unequalled. The soldiers are exposed all the week long, day and night, to sun and cold and dirt, on rocks and hill-tops where it is impossible even to dip their hands in water. On Sunday the Boers seldom fire. The men are marched down in companies under the officers to bathe, and to any decent man or woman the sight of their pleasure is one of the few joys of the campaign. But those who think nothing of charging a soldier 6d. for a penny bottle of soda-water, or 2s. for twopenn'orth of cake, tremble for the feelings of their wives and daughters. Why do the women go to look? as Colonel Ward asked, in his indignant refusal even to listen to the petition. Sunday is the one day when they can stay at home with safety, and leave their husbands to skulk in the river holes if they please.
December 21, 1899.
"Puffing Billy," of Bulwan, distinguished himself this morning by sending one shot into Colonel Ward's house and the next into the general's just beyond. In Colonel Ward's was a live Christmas turkey, over which a sentry is posted day and night. At first the rumour spread that the bird was mortally wounded; its thigh fractured, its liver penetrated. But about midday public alarm was allayed by the news that the invaluable creature could be seen strutting about and stiffening its feathers as usual. It had not even suffered from shock. The second shot went through Sir Henry Rawlinson's office, which he had just left, and shattered the Headquarters' larder, depriving the Staff of butter for the rest of the siege. It has made a model ruin for future sightseers. Unhappily the general was ill in bed with slight fever, and had to be carried to another house up the hill in a dhoolie. This may have encouraged the Boers to think they had killed him.
It was again a bad day for the heliograph, and the Boers have purposely kindled a veldt fire across the line of light. But I think I got through my thirty words of Christmas greeting to the Chronicle. I tried in vain all day for a Kaffir runner, but in the late afternoon I rode away over the plain, past the racecourse, and through the thorns at the foot of Cæsar's Camp, till I almost came in touch with the enemy's piquets at Intombi. I saw a flock of long-billed waders, like small whimbrel, a great variety of beautiful little doves, and many of that queer bird the natives call Sakonboota, whose tail grows so long in the breeding season that his little wings can hardly lift it above the ground, and he flutters about in the breeze like a badly made kite. Riding back at sunset over the flat I felt like Montaigne when he desired to wear away his life in the saddle. The difference is that in the end I may have to eat my own horse. The shells from four guns kept singing their evening hymn above my head as I cantered along.
December 22, 1899.
The morning opened with one of those horrible disasters which more than balance our general good luck. The Bulwan gun began his morning shell rather later than usual. His almost invariable programme is to fire five or six shots at the bakery or soda-water shed beside my cottage; then to give a few to the centre of the town, and to finish off with half a dozen at the Light Horse and Gordons down by the Iron Bridge. Having earned his breakfast, he usually stops then, and cools down a bit. The performance is so regular that when he has finished with our end of the town the men cease to take precautions even at the sound of the whistle or bugle which gives notice of danger whenever the special sentry sees the gun flash.
But this morning the routine was changed. Having waked me up as usual with the crash of shells close by on my left, the gun was turned down town, smashed into a camp or two without damage, and then suddenly whipped round on his pivot and sent a shell straight into the Gloucester lines, about 300 yards away to my right. It pitched just on the top of a traverse at the foot of the low hill now held by the Devons. The men were quite off their guard, busy with breakfast and sharing out the kettles. In an instant five lay dead and twelve were wounded. The shell burst so close that three of the dead were horribly scorched. One got covered by a tarpaulin, and was not found at first. His body was split open, one leg was off, his head was burnt and smashed to pulp. The cries of the wounded told me at once what had happened. Summoned by telephone, the dhoolies came quickly up and bore them away, together with the remains of the dead. Three of the wounded died before the night. Eight dead and nine wounded—it is worse than the disaster to the King's (Liverpools) almost exactly on the same spot a few weeks ago. In the middle of the morning much the same thing nearly happened to the 5th Lancers. The 6 in. gun on Telegraph Hill, usually more noisy than harmful, was banging away at the Old Camp and the Naval battery on Cove Hill, when one of the shells ricocheted off the hill-top, and plunged into the Lancers' camp at the foot. Four officers were hit, including the colonel, who had a bit of finger blown off, and a segment through both legs. A sergeant lost an eye. One officer ducked his head and got a fragment straight through his helmet. The shell was a chance shot, but that made it no better. The men are sick of being shot at like rabbits, and sicker still of running into rabbit holes for shelter. The worst of all is that we can no longer reply for fear of wasting ammunition.
There was no sound of Buller's guns all day. I induced another Kaffir to make the attempt of running the Boer lines. Mr. McCormick, a Colonial correspondent, also started. I should go myself, but have no wish to be shut up in Pretoria for the rest of the campaign, cut off from all letters, and more useless even than I am here. So I spent the afternoon with others, building a sand-bag fort round the tent where Mr. Steevens is to be nursed, beside the river bank. The five o'clock shells came pretty close, pitching into the Light Horse camp and the main watering ford. But the tent itself is fairly safe. The feeding of the horses is our greatest immediate difficulty. Every bit of edible green is being seized and turned to account. I find vine-leaves a fair substitute for grass, but my horses are terribly hungry all the same.
December 23, 1899.
The bombardment was violent at intervals, and some hundreds of shells must have been thrown at us. But there was no method or concentration in the business.
Buller's guns were heard for about two hours in the morning, and wild rumours filled the air. Roberts and Kitchener were coming out. Buller was across the Tugela. Within the week our relief was certain. At night the 18th Hussars gave another concert among the rocks by the riverside. In the midst of a comic song on the inner meaning of Love came a sound as of distant guns. The inner meaning of Love was instantly forgotten. All held their breaths to listen. But it was only some horses coming down to water, and we turned to Love again, while the waning moon rose late beside Lombard's Kop, red and shapeless as a potsherd.
December 24, 1899.
Nothing disturbed the peace of Christmas Eve except three small shells thrown into the town about five o'clock tea-time, for no apparent reason. The main subject of interest was the chance of getting any Christmas dinner. Yesterday twenty-eight potatoes were sold in the market for 30s. A goose fetched anything up to £3, a turkey anything up to £5. But the real problem is water. The river is now a thick stream of brown mud, so thick that it cannot be filtered unless the mud is first precipitated. We used to do it with alum, but no alum is left now. Even soda-water is almost solid.
December 25, 1899.
The Boer guns gave us an early Christmas carol, and at intervals all day they joined in the religious and social festivities. Our north end of the town suffered most, and we beguiled the peaceful hours in digging out the shells that had nearly killed us. They have a marketable value. One perfect specimen of a 96lb. shell from Bulwan fell into a soft flower bed and did not burst or receive a scratch. I suppose it cost the Boers about £35, and it would still fetch £10 as a secondhand article. A brother to it pitched into a boarding house close by us, and blew the whole gable end sky high. Unhappily two of the inmates were wounded, and a horse killed.
But such little contretemps as shells did not in the least interfere with the Christmas revels. About 250 children are still left in the town or river caves (where one or two have recently been born), and it was determined they should not be deprived of their Christmas tree. The scheme was started and organised by Colonel Rhodes and Major "Karri" Davis, of the Imperial Light Horse. Four enormous trees were erected in the auction rooms and decked with traditional magnificence and toys ransacked from every shop. At half-past eight p.m. fairyland opened. A gigantic Father Christmas stalked about with branches of pine and snowy cap (the temperature at noon was 103deg. in the shade). Each child had a ticket for its present, and joy was distributed with military precision. When the children had gone to their dreams the room was cleared for a dance, and round whirled the khaki youths with white-bloused maidens in their arms. It was not exactly the Waterloo Ball with sound of revelry by night, but I think it will have more effect on the future of the race.
Other festivities, remote from the unaccustomed feminine charm, were a series of mule races, near the old camp, for soldiers and laughing Kaffir boys. The men's dinner itself was enough to mark the day. It is true everything was rather skimped, but after the ordinary short rations it was a treat to get any kind of pudding, any pinch of tobacco, and sometimes just a drop of rum.
Almost the saddest part of the siege now is the condition of the animals. The oxen are skeletons of hunger, the few cows hardly give a pint of milk apiece, the horses are failing. Nothing is more pitiful than to feel a willing horse like mine try to gallop as he used, and have to give it up simply for want of food. During the siege I have taught him to talk better than most human beings, and his little apologies are really pathetic when he breaks into something like his old speed and stops with a sigh. It is the same with all.