THE MYTHOPŒIC FACULTY—A MISERABLE DAY—THE VOICE OF THE POMPOM—LEARNING THE BOER GAME—THE END OF FIDDLING JIMMY—MELINITE AT CLOSE QUARTERS—A LAKE OF MUD.
Nov. 11.—Ugh! What a day! Dull, cold, dank, and misty—the spit of an 11th of November at home. Not even a shell from Long Tom to liven it. The High Street looks doubly dead; only a sodden orderly plashes up its spreading emptiness on a sodden horse. The roads are like rice-pudding already, and the paths like treacle. Ugh! Outside the hotel drip the usual loafers with the usual fables. Yesterday, I hear, the Leicesters enticed the enemy to parade across their front at 410 yards; each man emptied his magazine, and the smarter got in a round or two of independent firing besides. Then they went out and counted the corpses—230. It is certainly true: the narrator had it from a man who was drinking a whisky, while a private of the regiment, who was not there himself, but had it from a friend, told the barman.
The Helpmakaar road is as safe as Regent Street to-day: a curtain of weeping cloud veils it from the haunting gunners on Bulwan. Up in the schanzes the men huddle under waterproof sheets to escape the pitiless drizzle. Only one sentry stands up in long black overcoat and grey woollen nightcap pulled down over his ears, and peers out towards Lombard's Kop. This position is safe enough with the bare green field of fire before it, and the sturdy, shell-hardened soldiers behind.
But Lord, O poor Tommy! His waterproof sheet is spread out, mud-slimed, over the top of the wall of stone and earth and sandbag, and pegged down inside the schanz. He crouches at the base of the wall, in a miry hole. Nothing can keep out this film of water. He sops and sneezes, runs at the eyes and nose, half manful, half miserable. He is earning the shilling a-day.
At lunch-time they began to shell us a bit, and it was almost a relief. At anyrate it was something to see and listen to. They were dead-off Mulberry Grove to-day, but they dotted a line of shells elegantly down the High Street. The bag was unusually good—a couple of mules and a cart, a tennis-lawn, and a water-tank. Towards evening the voice of the pompom was heard in the land; but he bagged nothing—never does.
Nov. 12.—Sunday, and the few rifle-shots, but in the main the usual calm. The sky is neither obscured by clouds nor streaked with shells. I note that the Sunday population of Ladysmith, unlike that of the City of London, is double and treble that of week-days.
Long Tom chipped a corner off the church yesterday; to-day the archdeacon preached a sermon pointing out that we are the heaven-appointed instrument to scourge the Boers. Very sound, but perhaps a thought premature.
Nov. 13.—Laid three sovs. to one with the 'Graphic' yesterday against to-day being the most eventful of the siege. He dragged me out of bed in aching cold at four, to see the events.
At daybreak Observation Hill and King's Post were being shelled and shelling back. Half battalions of the 1st, 60th, and Rifle Brigade take day and day about on Observation Hill and King's Post, which is the continuation of Cove Redoubts. To-day the 60th were on Leicester Post. When shells came over them they merely laughed. One ring shell burst, fizzing inside a schanz, with a steamy curly tail, and splinters that wailed a quarter of a mile on to the road below us; the men only raced to pick up the pieces.
When this siege is over this force ought to be the best fighting men in the world. We are learning lessons every day from the Boer. We are getting to know his game, and learning to play it ourselves.
Our infantry are already nearly as patient and cunning as he; nothing but being shot at will ever teach men the art of using cover, but they get plenty of that nowadays.
Another lesson is the use of very, very thin firing-lines of good shots, with the supports snugly concealed: the other day fourteen men of the Manchesters repulsed 200 Boers. The gunners have momentarily thrown over their first commandment and cheerfully split up batteries. They also lie beneath the schanzes and let the enemy bombard the dumb guns if he will—till the moment comes to fire; that moment you need never be afraid that the R.A. will be anywhere but with the guns.
The enemy's shell and long-range rifle-fire dropped at half-past six. The guns had breached a new epaulement on Thornhill's Kop—to the left of Surprise Hill and a few hundred yards nearer—and perhaps knocked over a Boer or two,—perhaps not. None of our people hurt, and a good appetite for breakfast.
In the afternoon one of our guns on Cæsar's Camp smashed a pompom. Fiddling Jimmy has been waved away, it seems. The Manchesters are cosy behind the best built schanzes in the environs of Ladysmith. Above the wall they have a double course of sandbags—the lower placed endwise across the stone, the upper lengthwise, which forms a series of loopholes at the height of a man's shoulder.
The subaltern in command sits on the highest rock inside; the men sit and lie about him, sleeping, smoking, reading, sewing, knitting. It might almost be a Dorcas meeting.
I won the bet.
Nov. 14.—The liveliest day's bombardment yet.
A party of officers who live in the main street were waiting for breakfast. The new president, in the next room, was just swearing at the servants for being late, when a shell came in at the foot of the outside wall and burst under the breakfast-room. The whole place was dust and thunder and the half-acrid, half-fat, all-sickly smell of melinite. Half the floor was chips; one plank was hurled up and stuck in the ceiling. All the crockery was smashed, and the clock thrown down; the pictures on the wall continued to survey the scene through unbroken glasses.
Much the same thing happened later in the day to the smoking-room of the Royal Hotel. It also was inhabited the minute before, would have been inhabited the minute after, but just then was quite empty. We had a cheerful lunch, as there were guns returning from a reconnaissance, and they have adopted a thoughtless habit of coming home past our house. Briefly, from six till two you would have said that the earth was being shivered to matchwood and fine powder. But, alas! man accustoms himself so quickly to all things, that a bombardment to us, unless stones actually tinkle on the roof, is now as an egg without salt.
The said reconnaissance I did not attend, knowing exactly what it would be. I mounted a hill, to get warm and to make sure, and it was exactly what I knew it would be. Our guns fired at the Boer guns till they were silent; and then the Boer dismounted men fired at our dismounted men; then we came home. We had one wounded, but they say they discovered the Boer strength on Bluebank, outside Range Post, to be 500 or 600. I doubt if it is as much; but, in any case, I think two men and a boy could have found out all that three batteries and three regiments did. With a little dash, they could have taken the Boer guns on Bluebank; but of dash there was not even a little.
Nov. 15.—I wake at 12.25 this morning, apparently dreaming of shell-fire.
"Fool," says I to myself, and turn over, when—swish-h! pop-p!—by the piper, it is shell-fire! Thud—thud—thud—ten or a dozen, I should say, counting the ones that woke me. What in the name of gunpowder is it all about? But there is no rifle-fire that I can hear, and there are no more shells now: I sleep again.
In the morning they asked the Director of Military Intelligence what the shelling was; he replied, "What shelling?" Nobody knew what it was, and nobody knows yet. They had a pretty fable that the Boers, in a false alarm, fired on each other: if they did, it was very lucky for them that the shells all hit Ladysmith. My own notion is that they only did it to annoy—in which they failed. They were reported in the morning, as usual, searching for bodies with white flags; but I think that is their way of reconnoitring. Exhausted with this effort, the Boers—heigho!—did nothing all day. Level downpour all the afternoon, and Ladysmith a lake of mud.
Nov. 16.—Five civilians and two natives hit by a shrapnel at the railway station; a railway guard and a native died. Languid shelling during morning.
Nov. 17.—During morning, languid shelling. Afternoon, raining—Ladysmith wallowing deeper than ever.
And that—heigh-h-ho!—makes a week of it. Relieve us, in Heaven's name, good countrymen, or we die of dulness!