LADYSMITH, December 26, 1899.
Good news came through the heliograph about General Gatacre's force at Dordrecht. There were rumours about Lord Methuen, too, for which Dr. Jameson was quoted as authority. But the best evidence for hope was the unusual violence of the bombardment. It began early, and before the middle of the afternoon the Boers had thrown 178 shells at us. They were counted by a Gordon officer on Moriden's Castle, and the total must have reached nearly 200 before sunset. Such feverish activity is nearly always a sign of irritation on the part of the Dutch, and one can always hope the irritation is due to bad news for them.
I have not heard of any loss in town or camp. Our guns, with the exception of the howitzers and Major Wing's field guns, which can just reach the new howitzer on Surprise Hill, have hardly replied at all.
The milk question was the most serious of the day. I saw a herd of thirty-five cows which had only yielded sixteen pints at milking time. It is now debated whether we shall not have to feed the cows and starve the horses; or kill the thinnest horses and stew them down into broth for the others. The reports about the condition of Intombi Camp were particularly horrible to-day. But General Hunter will not allow any one to visit the camp, and it is no good repeating secondhand reports.
December 27, 1899.
The side of Tunnel Hill, at the angle of the Helpmakaar road, where Liverpools and Gloucesters have suffered in turn, was to-day the scene of an exactly similar disaster to the Devons.
The great Bulwan gun began shelling us later than usual. It must have been past eight. The Devon officers had long finished breakfast, and after inspecting the lines were gathered for orderly room in their mess. It is a fairly large shed on a platform of beaten earth, levelled in the side of the hill. The roof, of corrugated iron and earth, covered with tarpaulin, would hardly even keep out splinters, and is only supported on rough wooden beams. It is impossible to construct sufficient head shelter. The ground is so rocky that all you can do with it is to build walls and traverses. Along one side of the mess tent a great traverse runs, some eight or ten feet thick, and about as high. When the sentry blows the warning whistle at the flash of a big gun, officers are supposed to come under the shelter of this traverse, till the shell has passed or declared its direction. At the first shot this morning I heard no whistle blow, but it was sounded at the second and third. It was the third that did the damage. Striking the top of the traverse, it plunged forward in huge fragments into the messroom, tearing an enormous hole in the tarpaulin screen. Unhappily Mr. Dalzell, a first lieutenant with eight years' service, had refused to come under the wall, and was sitting at the table reading. The main part of the shell struck him full on the side of the face, and carried away nearly all his head. He passed painlessly from his reading into death. The state of the messroom when I saw it was too horrible to describe. The wounds of the other officers prove that the best traverse is insufficient unless accompanied by head shelter. Though their backs were against the wall, seven were wounded, and three others badly bruised. Two cases are serious: Lieutenant P. Dent had part of his skull taken off, and Lieutenant Caffin had a compound fracture of the shoulder-blade. Lieutenant Cane, an "orficer boy," who only joined on Black Monday, was also wounded in the back. The dhoolies quickly came and bore the wounded away to the Wesleyan Chapel. Mr. Dalzell was buried in the afternoon. "Well, well," sighed the old gravedigger, "I never thought I should live to bury a man without a head."
To-day, for the first time, we heard that Lord Roberts had lost his only son at Colenso. The whole camp was sad about it. The scandal over the robbery of the sick by the civilians at Intombi has grown so serious that at last General Hunter is sending out Colonel Stoneman to investigate. I have myself repeatedly endeavoured to telegraph home known facts about the corruption and mismanagement, but all I wrote has been scratched out by the Censorship. One such little fact I may mention now. The 18th Hussar officers at Christmas gave up a lot of little luxuries, such as cakes and things, which count high in a siege, and sent them down to their sick at Intombi. Not a crumb of it all did the sick ever receive. Everything disappeared en route—stolen by officials, or sold to greedy Colonials for whom the sick had fought. It is a small point, but characteristic of the whole affair.
December 28, 1899.
The night was wet and pitchy dark. Only by the help of the lightning I had stumbled and plunged home to bed, when at about eleven a perfect storm of rifle-fire suddenly swept along the ridges at our end of the town. Rushing out I saw the edges of the hills twinkle with lines of flashes right away to Gun Hill and Bulwan. Alarmed at the darkness, and hearing strange sounds in the rain the Boers had taken a scare and were blazing away at vacancy, in terror of another night attack. The uproar lasted about five minutes. Then all was quiet until, as dawn was breaking, "Lady Anne" and "Bloody Mary" shook me off my camp bed with the crash of seven reports in quick succession just over my roof. For some days it had been an idea of Captain Lambton's to catch the Boer gunners on Bulwan just as they were going up to their big gun, or were occupied with early breakfast. Five of our shells burst on the face of the hill where many Boers spend the night, probably to protect the gun. The two last fell on the top, close to the gun itself. The latter did not fire at all to-day, and I saw the Boers standing about it in groups evidently excited and disturbed.
The bombardment continued much as usual in other parts, and I spent the afternoon with the 69th Battery on Leicester Post, watching Major Wing reply to the new howitzer on Surprise Hill. Rain fell heavily at times, and the Boers never like firing in the wet.
The day was chiefly marked by Colonel Stoneman's visit to Intombi Camp to inquire into the reported scandals. He thinks that the worst of the corruption and swindling is already over, being killed by the very scandal. But he found a general want of organisation in the distribution of food and other stores. There are now 2,557 inhabitants of the camp, of whom 1,015 are sick and wounded soldiers. Of late the numbers have been increasing by forty or fifty a day, allowing for those who return or die. The graves to-day number eighty-three, and a gang of forty Kaffirs is always digging. Outside the military, the majority of the refugees are Kaffirs and coolies, the white civilians only numbering 600 or 700. Colonel Stoneman had all, except the sick, paraded in groups, and assigned separate tasks to each—nursing for the whites, digging and sanitation for the Kaffirs, cooking and skilled labour for the coolies. One important condition he made—every one required to work is also required to take his day's wage. The medical authority has objected to certain improvements on the ground of expense, but, as Colonel Stoneman says, what will England care about a few thousands at such a crisis in her history? Or what would she say if we allowed her sick and wounded to die in discomfort for the want of a little money? By to-morrow all the sick will have beds and even sheets, food will be distributed on a better organised plan, and civilians will be raised from a two-months' slough of feeding, sleeping, grumbling, and general swinishness unredeemed even by shells.
At night the British flashlight from Colenso was throwing signals upon the cloudy sky, and it was amusing to watch the Boers trying to confuse the signals by flashing their two searchlights upon the same cloud. They have one light west of us near Bester's Station, and to-night they showed a very brilliant electric light on the top of Bulwan. When our signalling stopped, they turned it on the town, and very courteously lighted me home. It was like the clearest moonlight, the shadows long and black, but all else distinct in colourless brilliance. The top of Bulwan is four miles from our main street. To make up for yesterday the shells were particularly lively to-day. Before breakfast one fell on the railway behind our house, one into the verandah next door, and two into our little garden. Unhappily, the last killed one of our few remaining fowls—shivered it into air so that nothing but a little cloud of feathers was seen again. In the middle of the afternoon old "Puffing Billy" again opened fire with energy. I was at the tailor's on the main street, and the shells were falling just round his shop. "Thirty-eight, thirty-four," said the little Scot measuring. "There's the Dutch church gone. Forty-two, sixteen. There's the bank. Just hold the tape, mon, while I go and look. Oh, it's only the Town Hall!" Among other shells one came in painted with the Free State colours, and engraved "With the compliments of the season." It is the second thus adorned, but whereas the first had been empty, this was charged with plum-pudding. Can it be a Dutchman who has such a pleasant wit? The condition of the horses becomes daily more pitiful. Some fall in the street and cannot get up again for weakness. Most have given up speed. The 5th Lancers have orders never to move quicker than a walk. The horses are just kept alive by grass which Hindoos grub up by the roots. A small ration of ground mealies and bran is also issued. Heavy rain came on and fell all night, during which we heard two far-off explosions.
December 30, 1899.
Going up to Leicester Post in the early morning, I found the K.R. Rifles drying themselves in the African sun, which blazed in gleams between the clouds. Without the sun we should fare badly. As it is, the rain, exposure, and bad food are reducing our numbers fast. Passing the 11th Field Hospital on my way up, I saw stretcher after stretcher moving slowly along with the sick in their blankets. "Dysentery, enteric; enteric, dysentery," were the invariable answers. All the thousands of shells thrown at us in the last two months count for nothing beside the sickness.
On the top of the hill I found the two guns of Major Wing's battery trained on Surprise Hill as usual. In accordance with my customary good fortune all the enemy's guns opened fire at once. But only the howitzer, the automatic, and the Bluebank were actually aimed our way. The Bluebank was most effective.
It was amusing to see the men of the 60th when a shell pitched among them to-day. How they regarded it as a busy man regards the intrusion of the housemaid—just a harmless necessary nuisance, and no more. The cattle took the little automatic shells in much the same spirit, but with an addition of wonder—staring at them and snuffing with bovine astonishment. The Kaffir herdsmen first ran yelling in every direction, and then rushed back to dig the shell up, amid inextinguishable laughter. The Hindoo grass-cutter neither ran nor laughed, but awaited destiny with resignation. By the way, there is a Hindoo servant in the 19th Hussar lines, who at the approach of a "Long Tom" shell always falls reverently on his face and prays to it.
At sundown, in hopes of adding to our starvation rations, I went out among the thorns at the foot of Cæsar's Camp to shoot birds and hares. But the thorns are fast disappearing as firewood, and the appalling rain almost drowned me in the rush of the spruits. So we dined as usual on lumps of trek-ox thinly disguised. Talking of rain, I forgot to mention that the deluge on Friday night drowned six horses of the Leicester Mounted Infantry, carried away twenty-seven of their saddles, broke down the grand shelter-caves of the Imperial Light Horse, carried their bridge away to the blue, and flooded out half the poor homes of natives and civilians dug in the sand of the river banks.
Sunday, December 31, 1899.
Most of my day was wasted in an attempt to get leave to visit Intombi. Colonel Exham (P.M.O.) and Major Bateson had asked me to go down and give a fair account of what I saw. General Hunter took my application to the Chief, but Sir George thought it contrary to his original agreement with Joubert, that none but medical and commissariat officers should enter the camp. So Intombi remains unvisited—a vision of my own. In high quarters I gather that, considering the great difficulties of the case, the camp is thought a successful piece of work, very creditable to the officers in charge. Otherwise the day was chiefly remarkable for the unusual amount of firing at the outposts, and the arrival by runner of a Natal newspaper with the news that Lord Roberts was coming out. As it was New Year's eve, we expected a midnight greeting from the Boer guns, and sure enough, between twelve and one, all the smaller guns in turn took one shot into vacancy and then were still.
January 1, 1900.
The Bulwan gun began the New Year with energy. He sent thirty of his enormous shells into the camps and town, eight or nine of which fell in quick succession among the Helpmakaar fortifications, now held by the Liverpools.
Three or four houses in the town were wrecked by shells, the most decisive ruin being at Captain Valentine's. The shell went through the iron verandah, pierced the stone wall above the front door without bursting, and exploded against the partition wall of the passage and drawing-room. Throwing forward, it cleared away the kitchen wall, and swept the kitchen clean. Down a passage to the right the expansion of the air blew off a heavy door, and threw it across the bed of a wounded Rifle Brigade officer. He escaped unhurt, but a valued servant from the Irish Rifles got a piece of shell through back and stomach as he was preparing breakfast in the kitchen. He died in a few hours. His last words were, "I hope you got your breakfast all right, sir."
The house had long been a death-trap. Perhaps the Boers aim at the telegraph-office across the road, or possibly spies have told them Colonel Rhodes goes there for meals. The General has now declared the place too dangerous for habitation.
In the afternoon we were to have had a military tournament on the Islington model, but the General stopped it, because the enemy would certainly have thrown shells into our midst, and women and children would have been there. At night, however, the Natal Volunteers gave another open-air concert. In the midst we heard guns—real guns—from Colenso way. Between the reflected flash on the sky and the sound of the report one could count seventy-eight seconds, which Captain Lambton tells me gives a distance of about fifteen and a half miles. All day distant guns were heard from time to time. Some said the direction was changed, but I could hear no difference.
The mayor and councillors relieve the monotony of the siege with domestic solicitude. To-day they are said to be preparing a deputation to the General imploring that the first train which comes up after the relief shall be exclusively devoted—not to medical stuff for the wounded, not to food for the hungry troops and fodder for the starving horses, not to the much-needed ammunition for the guns—but to their own women.
January 2, 1900.
Soon after daylight dropping bullets began to whiz past my window and crack upon the tin roof in quite a shower. The Boer snipers had crept up into Brooks's Farm, beyond the Harrismith railway, and were firing at the heads of our men on Junction Hill. Whenever they missed the edge of the hill the bullets fell on my cottage. At last some guns opened fire from our Naval battery on Cove Redoubt. Captain Lambton had permitted the Natal Naval Volunteers to blaze away some of their surplus ammunition at the snipers. And blaze they did! Their 3-pounders kept up an almost continuous fire all the morning, and hardly a sniper has been heard since. There was nothing remarkable about the bombardment.
"Puffing Billy" gave us his four doses of big shell as usual. Whilst I was at the Intelligence Office a shell lit among some houses under the trees in front, killed two and wounded others. The action of another shell would seem incredible if I had not seen it. The thing burst among the 13th Battery, which stands under shelter of Tunnel Hill, in a straight line with my road, less than 300 yards away. I was just mounting my horse and stopped to see the burst, when a fragment came sauntering high through the air and fell with a thud in the garden just behind me. It was a jagged bit of outer casing about three inches thick, and weighing over 6 lbs. The extraordinary thing about it was that it had flung off exactly at right angles from the line of fire. Gunners say that melinite sometimes does these things.
I rode south-west, over Range Post and a bit of the Long Valley to Waggon Hill, our nearest point to the relief column and the English mail. At no great distance—ten miles or so—I could see the hills overlooking the Tugela, where the English are. Far beyond rose the crags and precipices of the Drakensberg, illuminated by unearthly gleams of the setting sun, which found their way beneath the fringes of a purple thunder-shower and turned to amber-brown a cloud of smoke rising from the burning veldt.
January 3, 1900.
The quiet hour before sunrise was again broken by the crash of our Naval guns. "Bloody Mary" (now politely called the "Princess Victoria") threw five shells along the top of Bulwan. A Naval 12-pounder sent three against the face of the hill. Again it was intended to catch the Boer gunners and guard as they were getting up and preparing breakfast.
January 4, 1900.
No news came in, and it was a day as dull as peace, but for some amenities of bombardment.
The Surprise Hill howitzer tried a longer range. At lunch "Bulwan Billy" made some splendid shots close to our little mess and burst the tanks at Taylor's mineral water works. In the wet afternoon the big gun's work was less dignified. He threw five shrapnel over the cattle licking up what little grass was left on the flat, and did not kill a single cow.
The guides boast that to-day they killed one Boer by strategy used for tigers in India. Two or three of them went out to Star Kopje and loosed two miserable old ponies, driving them towards the Boer lines to graze. A Boer or two came for the prize and one was shot dead.
At night the flash signals from Colenso were very brilliant on a black and cloudy sky. They only said, "Dearest love from your own Nance," or "Baby sends kisses," but the Bulwan searchlight tried hard to thwart their affectionate purpose by waving his ray quickly up and down across the flashing beam.
January 5, 1900.
There was little to mark the day beyond the steady shelling of snipers by the Natal Navals, and a great 96lb. shell from Bulwan which plunged through a Kaffir house, where black labourers live stuffed together, took off a Kaffir's foot, ricocheted over our little mess-room, just glancing off the roof, and fell gasping, but still entire, beside our verandah. I rode up to Cæsar's Camp in the morning sun. It was a scene of sleepy peace, only broken by the faint interest of watching where the shells burst in the town far below.