February 3, 1900.
The day was fairly quiet. Old "Bulwan Billy" did not fire at us at all, and there was no movement in the distant Boer camps, though the universal belief is that the enemy is concentrating round Ladysmith for a fresh attack.
In the evening the rations were issued to the civilians under Major Thompson's new regulations in the Market House. Each child, or whoever else is sent, now brings his ticket; it is verified at a table, the cost is added daily to each account, the child is sent on down the shed to draw his allowance of tea and sugar, his loaf, and bit of horse. The organisation is admirable, but one feels it comes a little late in the day. The same is true of the new biscuit tins which are to be put up as letter-boxes about the camp for a local post, and of the new plan of making sandals for the men out of flaps of saddles and the buckets for cavalry carbines. For a fortnight past, 120 of the Manchesters have gone barefoot among the rocks.
Sunday, February 4, 1900.
The sun shone. Women and children went up and down the street. I even saw two white-petticoated girls climbing the rocks of Cove Redoubt to get a peep at "Princess Victoria"—otherwise "Bloody Mary." It was a day of peace, but every one believes it to be the last. To-night an attack is confidently expected. The Boers are concentrating on the north-west. A new gun was seen yesterday moving towards Thornhill's Kopje, and sounds of building with stones were heard there last night. It is thought the attack will be upon the line from Observation Hill to Range Post. Every available man is warned. Even the military prisoners are released and sent on duty again. The pickets are doubled and pushed far out. A code of signals by rocket has been arranged to inform Buller of what is going on. It is felt that this is the enemy's last chance of doing so big a thing as capturing this garrison.
But all that is still uncertain, and in the quiet afternoon I harnessed up my cart for a gentle drive with Sergeant-Gunner Boseley, of the 53rd Battery. He is a red Irishman, born at Maidstone, and has done eleven years' service. During the attack on the 6th he was sitting beside his gun waiting for Major Abdy's word to fire in his turn, when a 96lb. shell from "Bulwan" struck him in its flight, and shattered his left arm and leg. He says he was knocked silly, and felt a bit fluttered, but had no pain till they lifted him into the dhoolie. He broke the record, I believe, by surviving a double amputation on the same side, which left him only about 6 in. of thigh and 4 in. of arm. For every movement he is helpless as a log. Four of us hoisted him into the cart, and then we drove round to see his old battery, where the greetings of his mates were brief, emphatic, and devoid of all romance. We then went up to the tin camp, and round the main positions, which he regarded with silent equanimity. I thought he was bored by the familiar scene, but at the end he told me he had enjoyed it immensely, never having seen Ladysmith by daylight before! The man is now in magnificent health, rosy as a rose, and no doubt has a great career before him as a wonder from the war.
February 5, 1900.
The noise of guns boomed all day from the Tugela. It sounded as though a battle was raging along miles of its banks, from Colenso right away west to Potgieter's Drift. I could see big shells bursting again on Taba Nyama and the low nek above the ford. Further to the left they were bursting around Monger's Hill, nearly half-way along the bank to Colenso. From early morning the fire increased in intensity, reaching its height between 3 and 4 p.m. At half-past four the firing suddenly slackened and stopped. That seems like victory, but we can only hope.
February 6, 1900.
Firing was again continuous nearly all day along the Tugela, except that there appeared to be a pause of some hours before and after midday. The distance was hazy, and light was bad. The heliograph below refused to take or send messages, and we had no definite news. But at night it was confidently believed that relief was some miles nearer than in the morning. For myself, the sun and fever had hold of me, and I could only stand on Observation Hill and watch the far-off bursting of shells and the flash of a great gun which the Boers have placed in a mountain niche upon the horizon to our left of Monger's Hill, overlooking the Tugela. Sickness brought despondency, and I seemed only to see our countrymen throwing away their lives in vain against the defences of a gallant people fighting for their liberty.
One cannot help noticing the notable change of feeling towards the enemy which the war has brought. The Boers, instead of being spoken of as "ignorant brutes" and "cowards" have become "splendid fellows," admirable alike for strategy and courage. The hangers-on of Johannesburg capitalism have to keep their abusive contempt to themselves now, but happily only one or two of them have cared to remain in the beleaguered town.
At a mess where I was to-night, all the officers but one agreed there was not much glory in this war for the British soldier. It would only be remembered as the fine struggle of an untrained people for their liberty against an overwhelming power. The defence of the Tyrol against Ney was quoted as a parallel. The Colonel, it is true, pathetically anxious to justify everything to his mind and conscience, and trying to hate the enemy he was fighting, stuck to his patriotic protests; but he was alone, and the conversation was significant of a very general change. Not that this prevents any one from longing for Buller's victory and our relief, though the field were covered with the dead defenders of their freedom.
February 7, 1900.
We have now but one thought—is it possible for Buller to force his way across that line of hills overlooking the Tugela? The nearest summits are not more than ten miles away. We could ride out there in little more than an hour and join hands with our countrymen and the big world outside. Yet the barrier remains unbroken. Firing continued nearly all day, except in the extreme heat of afternoon. We could watch the columns of smoke thrown up by the Boers' great gun, still fixed above that niche upon the horizon. The Dutch camps were unmoved, and at the extremity of the Long Valley a large new camp with tents and a few waggons appeared and increased during the day. Some thought it was a hospital camp, but it was more likely due to a general concentration in the centre. Here and there we could see great shells bursting, and even shrapnel. The sound of rifles and "pom-poms" was often reported. Yet I could not see any real proof of advance. Perhaps fever and sun blind me to hope, for the staff are very confident still. They even lay odds on a celebration of victory next Sunday by the united forces, and I hear that Sir George is practising the Hundredth Psalm.
February 8 to February 24, 1900.
I had hoped to keep well all through the siege, so as to see it all from start to finish. But now over a fortnight has been lost while I have been lying in hospital, suffering all the tortures of Montjuich, "A touch of sun," people called it, combined with some impalpable kind of malaria. On the 8th I struggled up Cæsar's Camp again, and saw parties of Boers burning all the veldt beyond Limit Hill, apparently to prevent us watching the movements of the trains at their railhead. On the 9th I could not stand, and the bearers, with their peculiar little chant, to keep them out of step, brought me down to the Congregational Chapel in a dhoolie. There I still lie. The Hindoo sweepers creep about, raising a continual dust; they fan me sleepily for hours together with a look of impenetrable vacancy, and at night they curl themselves on the ground outside and cough their souls away. The English orderlies stamp and shout, displaying the greatest goodwill and a knowledge of the nervous system acquired in cavalry barracks. Far away we hear the sound of Buller's guns. I did not know it was possible to suffer such atrocious and continuous pain without losing consciousness.
Of course we have none of the proper remedies for sunstroke—no ice, no soda-water, and so little milk that it has to be rationed out almost by the teaspoonful. Now that the fever has begun to subside I can only hope for a tiny ration of tea, a brown compound called rice pudding, flavoured with the immemorial dust of Indian temples, and a beef-tea which neighs in the throat. That is the worst of the condition of the sick now; when they begin to mend it is almost impossible to get them well. There is nothing to give them. At Intombi, I believe it is even worse than here. The letters I have lately seen from officers recovering from wounds or dysentery or enteric are simply heart-rending in their appeals.
February 25, 1900.
Nearly all the patients who have passed through the field hospital during the fortnight have been poor fellows shot by snipers in arms or legs. Except when their wounds are being dressed, they lie absolutely quiet, sleeping, or staring into vacancy. They hardly ever speak a word, though the beds are only a foot apart. On my left is the fragment of the sergeant gunner whom I took for a drive. His misfortunes and his cheerful indifference to them make him a man of social importance. He shows with regret how the shell cut in half a marvellous little Burmese lady, whose robes once swept down his arm in glorious blues and reds, but are now lapped over the bone as "flaps."
Another patient was a shaggy, one-eyed old man, between whose feet a Bulwan shell exploded one afternoon as he was walking down the main street. Beyond the shock he was not very seriously hurt, but his calves were torn by iron and stones. He said he was the one survivor of the first English ship that sailed from the Cape with settlers for Natal. He was certainly very old.
On the night of the 22nd a man was brought into the hospital where I lay—also attacked by sunstroke—his temperature 107 degrees, and all consciousness happily gone. It was Captain Walker, the clever Irish surgeon, who has served the Gordons through the siege as no other regiment has been served, making their bill of health the best, and their lines a pleasure to visit. His skill, especially in dysentery, was looked to by many outside the Gordons themselves. Nothing could save him. He was packed in cold sheets, fanned, and watched day and night. For a few moments he knew me, and reminded me of a story we had laughed over. But yesterday evening, after struggling long for each breath, he died—one of the best and most useful men in camp.
If it was fated that I should be laid up for a fortnight or more of the siege it seems that this was about the best time fate could choose. From all the long string of officers, men, telegraph clerks, and civilians, who, with unceasing kindliness have passed beside my bed bringing news and cheering me up, I have heard but one impression, that this has been the dullest and deadliest fortnight of the siege. There has been no attack, no very serious expectation of Buller's arrival. The usual bombardment has gone wearily on. Sometimes six or seven big shells have thundered so close to this little chapel, that the special kind of torture to which I was being subjected had for a time to be interrupted. Really nothing worthy of note has happened, except the building by the Boers of an incomprehensible work beside the Klip at the foot of Bulwan. About 300 Kaffirs labour at it, with Boer superintendents. It is apparently a dam to stop the river and flood out the town. No doubt it is the result of that German specialist's arrival, of which we heard.
On coming to my first bit of bread to-day I found it uneatable. In the fortnight it has degenerated simply to ground mealies of maize—just the same mixture of grit and sticky dough as the peasants in Pindus starve upon. Even this—enough in itself to inflame any English stomach—is reduced to 1/2 lb. a day. As I stood at the gate this afternoon taking my first breath of air, I watched the weak-kneed, lantern-jawed soldiers going round from house to house begging in vain for anything to eat. Yet they say the health of the camp as a whole has improved. This they attribute to chevril.
During my illness, though I cannot fix the exact day, one of the saddest incidents of the siege has happened. My friend Major Doveton, of the Imperial Light Horse, a middle-aged professional man from Johannesburg, who had joined simply from patriotism, was badly wounded in the arm in the great attack of the 6th. Mrs. Doveton applied to Joubert for leave to cross the Boer lines to see her husband, and bring medical appliances and food. The leave was granted, and she came. But amputation was decided upon, and the poor fellow died from the shock. He was a fine soldier, as modest as brave. Often have I seen him out on the hillside with his men, quietly sharing in all their hardships and privations. I don't know why the incident of his wife's passage through the enemy's lines should make his death seem sadder. But it does. On Saturday night I drove away from the hospital in my cart, though still in great pain and hardly able to stand. I was unable to endure the depression of all the hospital sights and sounds and smells any longer. Perhaps the worst of all is the want of silence and darkness at night. The fever and pain both began to abate directly I got home to my old Scot.