January 8, 1900.
All was ready to receive another attack, but the Boers made no sign beyond the usual bombardment. One of the wounded—a Harrismith man—says there is a strong party in favour of peace, men who want to get back to their farms and their families. We have heard that tale before, but still, here the Boers are fighting for freedom and existence if ever men did.
To-day's bombardment nearly destroyed the tents and dhoolies of our field hospital, but did little else save beheading and mangling some corpses. The troops were changed about a good deal, half the K.R.R. being sent to the old Devon post on Helpmakaar road; half the Liverpools to King's Post, and the Rifle Brigade to Waggon Hill.
At night there was a thanksgiving service in the Anglican Church. I ought to have mentioned earlier that on the night before the attack the Dutch held a solemn supplication, calling on God to bless their efforts.
January 9, 1900.
One long blank of drenching rain unrelieved by shells, till at sunset a stormy light broke in the west, and a few shots were fired.
January 10, 1900.
In the night the authorities expected an attack on Observation Hill. They hurried out two guns of the 69th Battery to a position outside King's Post. The guns were dragged through the heavy slush, but when they arrived it was found no guns could live in such a place, fully exposed to all fire, and unsupported by infantry. So back came the weary men and horses through the slush again, getting to their camp between 2 and 3 a.m.
At intervals in the night the two mountain guns on Observation Hill kept firing star-shell to reveal any possible attack. But none came, and the rest of the day was very quiet. My time was occupied in getting off a brief heliogram, and sending out another Kaffir with news of Saturday's defence. Two have been driven back. The Boers now stretch wires with bells across the paths, and it goes hard with any runner caught.
January 11, 1900.
The enemy was ominously quiet. Bulwan did not fire all day. From King's Post, whilst visiting the new fortifications and the guns in their new positions all about it, I watched the Boers dragging two field guns hastily southward along the western track, perhaps to Springfield Drift, over the Tugela. Then a large body—500 or 600—galloped hurriedly in the same direction.
A sadness was thrown over the day by Lord Ava's death early in the afternoon. If he could have recovered the doctors say he would have been paralysed or have lost his memory. He was the best type of Englishman—Irish-English, if you will—excellently made, delighting in his strength and all kinds of sport, his eye full of light, his voice singularly beautiful and attractive. His courage was extraordinary, and did not come of ignorance. At Elands Laagte I saw him with a rifle fighting side by side with the Gordons. He went through the battle in their firing line, but he told me afterwards that the horror of the field had sickened him of war. In manner he was peculiarly frank and courteous. I can imagine no one speaking ill of him. His best epitaph perhaps is the saying of the Irish sergeant's which I have already quoted.
The ration of sugar was increased by one ounce to-day, the mealies by two ounces, so as to give the men porridge in the morning. For a fortnight past all the milk has been under military control, and can only be obtained on a doctor's certificate. We began eating trek-oxen three days ago. Some battalions prefer horse-flesh, and get it. Dysentery and enteric are as bad as ever, but do not increase in proportion to the length of siege. There are 1,700 soldiers at Intombi sick camp now. A great many horses die every day, but not of the "horse-sickness." Their bodies are thrown on waste ground along the Helpmakaar road, and poison the air for the Liverpools and Rifles there. To-night the varied smell all over the town is hardly endurable.
January 12, 1900.
A quiet day again. Hardly a gun was fired. Wild rumours flew—the Boers were trekking north in crowds—they were moving the gun on Bulwan—all lies!
I spent the whole day trying to induce a Kaffir to risk his life for £15. A Kaffir lives on mealie-pap, varied by an occasional cow's head. He drinks nothing but slightly fermented barley-water. Yet he will not risk death for £15! After four false starts, my message remains where it was. The last Kaffir who tried to get through the Boers with it was shot in the thigh by our pickets as he was returning. That does not encourage the rest.
January 13, 1900.
Between seven and eight in the morning the Bulwan gun hurled three shells into our midst, and repeated the exploit in the afternoon. But somehow he seemed to have lost form. He was not the Puffing Billy whom we knew. We greeted him as one greets an enemy who has come down in the world—with considerate indulgence. The sailors think that his carriage is strained.
A British heliograph began flashing to us from Schwarz Kop, a hill only one and a half miles over Potgieter's or Springfield Drift on the Tugela. It is that way we have always expected Buller's main advance. Can this be the herald of it? Most of us have agreed never to mention the word "Buller," but it is hard to keep that pledge.
In the afternoon I was able to accompany Colonel Stoneman (A.S.C.) over the scene of battle on Cæsar's Camp. His duties in organising the food supply keep him so tied to his office—one of the best shelled places in the town—that he has never been up there before. All was quiet—the mountains silent in the sunset. The Boers had been moving steadily westward and south. They had taken some of their guns on carts covered with brushwood. We had not more than half a dozen shots fired at us all round that ridge which had blazed with death a week ago. In his tent on the summit we found General Ian Hamilton. It was to his energy and personal knowledge of his men that last Saturday's success was ultimately due. Not a day passes but he visits every point in his brigade's defences.
All in camp were saddened by the condition of Mr. Steevens, of the Daily Mail. Yesterday he was convalescent. To-day his life hangs by a thread. That is the way of enteric.
Sunday, January 14, 1900.
Absolute silence still from the Tugela. On a low black hill beyond its banks I could see the British heliograph flashing. On a spur beside it I was told a British outpost was stationed. In the afternoon we thought we heard guns again, but it was only thunder. With a telescope on Observation Hill I saw the Boers riding about their camps. On the Great Plain they were digging long trenches and stretching barbed wire entanglements. To-day all was peaceful. The sun set amid crimson thunder-clouds behind the Drakensberg; there was no sign of war save the whistle of a persistent sniper's bullet over my head. Our weather-beaten soldiers were trying to make themselves comfortable for the night in their little heaps of stones.
January 15, 1900.
This is the day I had fixed upon long ago for our relief. There were rumours of fighting by the Tugela, and some said they had seen squadrons of our cavalry and even Staff officers galloping on the further limits of the Great Plain. But beyond the wish, there is no need to believe what they said.
In the morning Steevens, of the Daily Mail, was so much worse that we sent off a warning message to Mrs. Steevens by heliograph. At least I climbed to all the new signal stations in turn, trying to get it sent, but found the instruments full up with official despatches. Major Donegan (R.A.M.C.) was called in to consult with Major Davis, of the Imperial Light Horse, who has treated the case with the utmost patience and skill. Strychnine was injected, and about noon we recovered hope. A galloper was sent to stop the message, and succeeded. Steevens became conscious for a time, and Maud, of the Graphic, explained to him that now it was a fight for life. "All right," he answered, "let's have a drink, then." Some champagne was given him, and he seemed better. When warned against talking, he said, "Well, you are in command. I'll do what you like. We are going to pull through." Maud then went to sleep at last, and between four and five Steevens passed quietly from sleep into death.
Everything that could possibly be done for him had been done. For five weeks Maud had nursed him with a devotion that no woman could surpass. Two days ago we thought him almost well. He talked of what it would be best to do when the siege was raised, so as to complete his recovery. And now he is dead. He was only thirty. What is to most distinguished men the best part of life was still before him. In eight working years he had already made a name known to all the Army and to thousands beyond its limits. Beyond question he had the touch of genius. The individuality of his power perhaps lay in a clear perception transfused with an imaginative wit that never failed him. The promise of that genius was not fulfilled, but it was felt in all he said and wrote. And beyond this power of mind he possessed the attractiveness of courtesy and straightforward dealing. No one ever knew him descend to the tricks and dodges of the trade. There was not a touch of "smartness" in his disposition. On the field he was too reckless of his life. I saw him often during the fighting at Elands Laagte, Tinta Inyoni, and Lombard's Kop. He was usually walking about close to the firing line, leading his grey horse, a conspicuous mark for every bullet. Veteran officers used to marvel that he was not hit. In the midst of it all he would stand quite unconcerned, and speak in his usual voice—slow, trenchant, restrained by a cynicism that came partly from youth and an English horror of fuss. How different from the voice of unconsciousness which I heard raving in his room only this morning!
To-night we buried him. The coffin was not ready till half-past eleven. All the London correspondents came, and a few officers, Colonel Stoneman (A.S.C.) and Major Henderson, of the Intelligence Department, representing the Staff. Many more would have come, but nearly the whole garrison was warned for duty. About twenty-five of us, all mounted, followed the little glass hearse with its black and white embellishments. The few soldiers and sentries whom we passed halted and gave the last salute. There was a full moon, covered with clouds, that let the light through at their misty edges. A soft rain fell as we lowered the coffin by thin ropes into the grave. The Boer searchlight on Bulwan was sweeping the half circle of the English defences from end to end, and now and then it opened its full white eye upon us, as though the enemy wondered what we were doing there. We were laying to rest a man of assured, though unaccomplished genius, whose heart had still been full of hopes and generosity. One who had not lost the affections and charm of youth, nor been dulled either by success or disappointment.
"From the contagion of the world's slow stain
He is secure; and now can never mourn
A heart grown old, a head grown grey, in vain—
Nor when the spirit's self has ceased to burn
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn."
January 16, 1900.
A day of unfulfilled expectation, unrelieved even by lies and rumours. From the top of Observation Hill I again watched the Dutch in their clustered camps, fourteen miles away across the great plain, whilst our heliograph flashed to us from the dark hill beyond them. But there was no sound of the expected guns, and every one lost heart a little.
At the market, eggs were a guinea a dozen. Four pounds of oatmeal sold for 11s. 6d. A four-ounce tin of English tobacco fetched 30s. Out of our original numbers of about 12,000 nearly 3,000 are now sick or wounded at Intombi, and there are over 200 graves there. More helpers are wanted, and to-day Colonel Stoneman summoned 150 loafers from their holes in the river-bank, and called for twenty volunteers. No one came, so he has stopped their rations till they can agree among themselves to produce the twenty ready to start.
January 17, 1900.
The far-off mutter of Buller's guns began at half-past five a.m., and lasted nearly all day. From King's Post I watched the stretch of plain—Six Mile Flats, the official map calls it—leading away to Potgieter's Drift, where his troops are probably crossing. I could see three of the little Dutch camps, and here and there bodies of Boers moving over the country. Suddenly in the midst of the plain, just our side of the camp near "Wesse's Plantation," a great cloud of smoke and dust arose, and slowly drifted away. Beyond doubt, it was the bursting of a British shell. Aimed at the camp it overshot the mark, and landed on the empty plain. As a messenger of hope to us all it was not lost. The distance was only fourteen miles from where I stood—a morning's walk—less than an hour and a half's ride. Yet our relief may take many days yet, and it will cost hundreds of lives to cross that little space. The Boers have placed a new gun on the Bluebank ridge. It is disputed whether it faces us or Buller's line of approach over the Great Plain. The whole ridge is now covered from end to end with walls, traverses, and sangars.
January 18, 1900.
In the early morning the welcome sound of Buller's guns was not so frequent as yesterday. But it continued steadily, and between four and five increased to an almost unbroken thunder. From the extremity of Waggon Hill, I watched the great cloud of dust and smoke which rose from the distant plain as each shell burst. The Dutch camps were still in position, and we could only conjecture that the British were trying to clear the river-bank and the hills commanding it, so as to secure the passage of the ford.
While I was there the enemy threw several shrapnel over the Rifle Brigade outpost. Major Brodiewald, Brigade Major to the Natal Volunteers under Colonel Royston, was sitting on the rocks watching Buller's shells like myself. A shrapnel bullet struck him in the mouth and passed out at the back of his neck. He was carried down the hill, his blood dripping upon the stones along the track. In the afternoon one of the bluejackets was also seriously wounded by shrapnel. The bombardment was heavy all day, the Bulwan gun firing right over Convent Hill and plunging shells into the Naval Camp, the Leicesters, and the open ground near Headquarters. It looks as if a spy had told where the General and Staff are to be found.
The market quotations at this evening's auction were fluctuating. Eggs sprang up from a guinea to 30s. a dozen. Jam started at 30s. the 6lb. jar. Maizena was 5s. a pound. On the other hand, tobacco fell. Egyptian cigarettes were only 1s. each, and Navy Cut went for 4s. an ounce. During a siege one realises how much more than bread, meat, and water is required for health. Flour and trek-ox still hold out, and we receive the regulation short rations. Yet there is hardly one of us who is not tortured by some internal complaint, and many die simply for want of common little luxuries. In nearly all cases where I have been able to try the experiment I have cured a man with any little variety I had in store or could procure—rice, chocolate, cake, tinned fruit, or soups. I wonder how the enemy are getting on with the biltong and biscuit.
January 19, 1900.
Before noon, as I rode round the outposts, I found the good news flying that good news had come. It was thought best not to tell us what, lest, like children, we should cry if disappointed. But it is confidently said that Buller's force has crossed the Tugela in three places—Wright's Drift eastward, Potgieter's Drift in the centre, and at a point further west, perhaps Klein waterfall, where there is a nine-mile plain leading to Acton Homes. The names of the brigades are even stated, and the number of losses. It is said the Boers have been driven from two positions. But there may not be one word of truth in the whole story.
I was early on Observation Hill, watching that strip of plain to the south-west. No shells were bursting on it to-day, and the sound of guns was not so frequent. Our heliograph flashed from the far-off Zwartz Kop, and high above it, looking hardly bigger than a vulture against the pale blue of the Drakensberg precipices, rose Buller's balloon, showing just a point of lustre on its skin.
The view from Observation Hill is far the finest, but the whiz of bullets over the rocks scarcely ever stops, and now and again a shell comes screaming into the rank grass at one's feet.
To-day we enjoyed a further variety, well worth the risk. At the foot of Surprise Hill, hardly 1,500 yards from our position, the Boers have placed a mortar. Now and then it throws a huge column of smoke straight up into the air. The first I thought was a dynamite explosion, but after a few seconds I heard a growing whisper high above my head, as though a falling star had lost its way, and plump came a great shell into the grass, making a 3ft. hole in the reddish earth, and bursting with no end of a bang. We collected nearly all the bits and fitted them together. It was an eight or nine-inch globe, reminding one of those "bomb-shells" which heroes of old used to catch up in their hands and plunge into water-buckets. The most amusing part of it was the fuse—a thick plug of wood running through the shell and pierced with the flash-channel down its centre. It was burnt to charcoal, but we could still make out the holes bored in its side at intervals to convert it into a time-fuse. This is the "one mortar" catalogued in our Intelligence book. It was satisfactory to have located it. Two guns of the 69th Battery threw shrapnel over its head all morning; then the Naval guns had a turn and seem to have reduced it to silence.
In the afternoon there was an auction of Steevens's horses and camp equipment. Many officers came, and the usual knot of greedy civilians on the look-out for a bargain. As auctioneer I had great satisfaction in running the prices up beyond their calculation. But in another way they got the best of the old country to-day. Colonel Stoneman, having discovered a hidden store of sugar, was selling it at the fair price of 4d. a pound to any one who pledged his word he was sick and in need of it. Round clustered the innocent local dealers with sick and sorry looks, swearing by any god they could remember that sugar alone would save their lives, paid their fourpences, and then sold the stuff for 2s. outside the door.
January 20, 1900.
Again I was on Observation Hill two or three times in the day. It is impossible to keep away from it long. The rumble of the British guns was loud but intermittent, but the Boer camps remain where they were. With us the bombardment continued pretty steadily. After a silence of two days "Puffing Billy," of Bulwan, threw one shell into the town and six among the Devons. His usual answer to the report that he has worn himself out or been carried away. Whilst he was firing I tried to get sight of a small mocking bird, which has learnt to imitate the warning whistle of the sentries. In the Gordons the Hindoo, Purriboo Singh, from Benares, stands on a huge heap of sacks under an umbrella all day and screams when he sees the big gun flash. But in the other camps, as I have mentioned, a sentry gives warning by blowing a whistle. The mocking bird now sounds that whistle at all times of the day, and what is even more perplexing, he is learning to imitate the scream and buzzle of the shell through the air. He may learn the explosion next. I mention this peculiar fact for the benefit of future ornithologists, who might otherwise be puzzled at his form of song.
Another interesting event in natural history occurred a short time ago up the Port road. A Bulwan shell, missing the top of Convent Hill, lobbed over and burst at random with its usual din and circumstance. People rushed up to see what damage it had done, but they only found two little dead birds—one with a tiny hole in her breast, the other with an eye knocked out. Ninety-six pounds of iron, brass, and melinite, hurled four miles through the air, at unknown cost, just to deal a true-lovers' death to two sparrows, five of which are sold for one farthing!
Sunday, January 21, 1900.
After varying my trek-ox rations by catching a kind of barbel with a worm in the yellow Klip, I went again to Observation Hill, and with the greater interest because every one was saying two of the Boer camps were in flames. Of course it was a lie. The camps stood in their usual places quite undisturbed. But I saw one of our great shells burst high up the mountain side of Taba Nyama (Black Mountain) instead of on the plain at its foot, and with that sign of forward movement I was obliged to be content.