LONG TOM—A FAMILY OF HARMLESS MONSTERS—OUR INFERIORITY IN GUNS—THE SENSATIONS OF A BOMBARDMENT—A LITTLE CUSTOM BLUNTS SENSIBILITY.
Ladysmith, Nov. 10.
"Good morning," banged four-point-seven; "have you used Long Tom?"
"Crack-k—whiz-z-z," came the riving answer, "we have."
"Whish-h—patter, patter," chimed in a cloud-high shrapnel from Bulwan. It was half-past seven in the morning of November 7; the real bombardment, the terrific symphony, had begun.
During the first movement the leading performer was Long Tom. He is a friendly old gun, and for my part I have none but the kindest feelings towards him. It was his duty to shell us, and he did; but he did it in an open, manly way.
Behind the half-country of light red soil they had piled up round him you could see his ugly phiz thrust up and look hungrily around. A jet of flame and a spreading toad-stool of thick white smoke told us he had fired. On the flash four-point-seven banged his punctilious reply. You waited until you saw the black smoke jump behind the red mound, and then Tom was due in a second or two. A red flash—a jump of red-brown dust and smoke—a rending-crash: he had arrived. Then sang slowly through the air his fragments, like wounded birds. You could hear them coming, and they came with dignified slowness: there was plenty of time to get out of the way.
Until we capture Long Tom—when he will be treated with the utmost consideration—I am not able to tell you exactly what brand of gun he may be. It is evident from his conservative use of black powder, and the old-gentlemanly staidness of his movements, that he is an elderly gun. His calibre appears to be six inches. From the plunging nature of his fire, some have conjectured him a sort of howitzer, but it is next to certain he is one of the sixteen 15-cm. Creusot guns bought for the forts of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Anyhow, he conducted his enforced task with all possible humanity.
On this same 7th a brother Long Tom, by the name of Fiddling Jimmy, opened on the Manchesters and Cæsar's Camp from a flat-topped kopje three or four miles south of them. This gun had been there certainly since the 3rd, when it shelled our returning reconnaissance; but he, too, was a gentle creature, and did little harm to anybody. Next day a third brother, Puffing Billy, made a somewhat bashful first appearance on Bulwan. Four rounds from the four-point-seven silenced him for the day. Later came other brothers, of whom you will hear in due course.
THE COUNTRY ROUND LADYSMITH.
In general you may say of the Long Tom family that their favourite habitat is among loose soil on the tops of open hills; they are slow and unwieldy, and very open in all their actions. They are good shooting guns; Tom on the 7th made a day's lovely practice all round our battery. They are impossible to disable behind their huge epaulements unless you actually hit the gun, and they are so harmless as hardly to be worth disabling.
The four 12-pounder field-guns on Bulwana—I say four, because one day there were four; but the Boers continually shifted their lighter guns from hill to hill—were very different. These creatures are stealthy in their habits, lurking among woods, firing smokeless powder with very little flash; consequently they are very difficult guns to locate. Their favourite diet appeared to be balloons; or, failing them, the Devons in the Helpmakaar Road or the Manchesters in Cæsar's Camp. Both of these they enfiladed; also they peppered the roads whenever troops were visible moving in or out.
Altogether they were very judiciously handled, though erring perhaps in not firing persistently enough at any one target. But, despite their great altitude, the range—at least 6000 yards—and the great height at which they burst their time shrapnel made them also comparatively harmless.
There were also one or two of their field-guns opposite the Manchesters on the flat-topped hill, one, I fancy, with Long Tom on Pepworth's Hill, and a few others on the northern part of Lombard's Kop and on Surprise Hill to the north-westward.
Westward, on Telegraph Hill, was a gun which appeared to prey exclusively on cattle. I am afraid it was one of our own mountain guns turned cannibal. The cattle, during the siege, had of course to pasture on any waste land inside the lines they could find, and gathered in dense, distractingly noisy herds; but though this gun was never tired of firing on the mobs, I do not think he ever got more than one calf.
There was a gun on Lombard's Kop called Silent Susan—so called because the shell arrived before the report—a disgusting habit in a gun. The menagerie was completed by the pompons, of which there were at least three. This noisome beast always lurks in thick bush, whence it barks chains of shell at the unsuspecting stranger. Fortunately its shell is small, and it is as timid as it is poisonous.
Altogether, with three Long Toms, a 5-inch howitzer, Silent Susan, about a dozen 12-pounders, four of our screw guns, and three Maxim automatics, they had about two dozen guns on us. Against that we had two 47-inch—named respectively Lady Ann and Bloody Mary—four naval 12-pounders, thirty-six field-guns, the two remaining mountain guns, an old 64-pounder, and a 3-inch quickfirer—these two on Cæsar's Camp in charge of the Durban Naval Volunteers—two old howitzers, and two Maxim-Nordenfeldts taken at Krugersdorp in the Jameson raid, and retaken at Elandslaagte,—fifty pieces in all.
On paper, therefore, we had a great advantage. But we had to economise ammunition, not knowing when we should get more, and also to keep a reserve of field-guns to assist any threatened point. Also their guns, being newer, better pieces, mounted on higher ground, outranged ours. We had more guns, but they were as useless as catapults: only the six naval guns could touch Pepworth's Hill or Bulwan.
For these reasons we only fired, I suppose, one shell to their twenty, or thereabouts; so that though we actually had far more guns, we yet enjoyed all the sensations of a true bombardment.
What were they? That bombardments were a hollow terror I had always understood; but how hollow, not till I experienced the bombardment of Ladysmith. Hollow things make the most noise, to be sure, and this bombardment could at times be a monstrous symphony indeed.
The first heavy day was November 3: while the troops were moving in and out on the Van Keenen's road the shells traced an aerial cobweb all over us. After that was a lull till the 7th, which was another clattering day. November 8 brought a tumultuous morning and a still afternoon. The 9th brought a very tumultuous morning indeed; the 10th was calm; the 11th patchy; the 12th, Sunday.
It must be said that the Boers made war like gentlemen of leisure; they restricted their hours of work with trade-unionist punctuality. Sunday was always a holiday; so was the day after any particularly busy shooting. They seldom began before breakfast; knocked off regularly for meals—the luncheon interval was 11.30 to 12 for riflemen, and 12 to 12.30 for gunners—hardly ever fired after tea-time, and never when it rained. I believe that an enterprising enemy of the Boer strength—it may have been anything from 10,000 to 20,000; and remember that their mobility made one man of them equal to at least two of our reduced 11,000—could, if not have taken Ladysmith, at least have put us to great loss and discomfort. But the Boers have the great defect of all amateur soldiers: they love their ease, and do not mean to be killed. Now, without toil and hazard they could not take Ladysmith.
To do them justice, they did not at first try to do wanton damage in town. They fired almost exclusively on the batteries, the camps, the balloon, and moving bodies of troops. In a day or two the troops were far too snugly protected behind schanzes and reverse slopes, and grown far too cunning to expose themselves to much loss.
The inhabitants were mostly underground, so that there was nothing really to suffer except casual passengers, beasts, and empty buildings. Few shells fell in town, and of the few many were half-charged with coal-dust, and many never burst at all. The casualties in Ladysmith during a fortnight were one white civilian, two natives, a horse, two mules, a waggon, and about half-a-dozen houses. And of the last only one was actually wrecked; one—of course the most desirable habitation in Ladysmith—received no less than three shells, and remained habitable and inhabited to the end.
And now what does it feel like to be bombarded?
At first, and especially as early as can be in the morning, it is quite an uncomfortable sensation.
You know that gunners are looking for you through telescopes; that every spot is commanded by one big gun and most by a dozen. You hear the squeal of the things all above, the crash and pop all about, and wonder when your turn will come. Perhaps one falls quite near you, swooping irresistibly, as if the devil had kicked it. You come to watch for shells—to listen to the deafening rattle of the big guns, the shrilling whistle of the small, to guess at their pace and their direction. You see now a house smashed in, a heap of chips and rubble; now you see a splinter kicking up a fountain of clinking stone-shivers; presently you meet a wounded man on a stretcher. This is your dangerous time. If you have nothing else to do, and especially if you listen and calculate, you are done: you get shells on the brain, think and talk of nothing else, and finish by going into a hole in the ground before daylight, and hiring better men than yourself to bring you down your meals. Whenever you put your head out of the hole you have a nose-breadth escape. If a hundredth part of the providential deliverances told in Ladysmith were true, it was a miracle that anybody in the place was alive after the first quarter of an hour. A day of this and you are a nerveless semi-corpse, twitching at a fly-buzz, a misery to yourself and a scorn to your neighbours.
If, on the other hand, you go about your ordinary business, confidence revives immediately. You see what a prodigious weight of metal can be thrown into a small place and yet leave plenty of room for everybody else. You realise that a shell which makes a great noise may yet be hundreds of yards away. You learn to distinguish between a gun's report and an overturned water-tank's. You perceive that the most awful noise of all is the throat-ripping cough of your own guns firing over your head at an enemy four miles away. So you leave the matter to Allah, and by the middle of the morning do not even turn your head to see where the bang came from.