THE SELF-RESPECTING BLUEJACKET—A GERMAN ATHEIST—THE SAILORS' TELEPHONE—WHAT THE NAVAL GUNS MEANT TO LADYSMITH—THE SALT OF THE EARTH.
Ladysmith, Dec. 6.
"There goes that stinker on Gun Hill," said the captain. "No, don't get up; have some draught beer."
I did have some draught beer.
"Wait and see if he fires again. If he does we'll go up into the conning-tower, and have both guns in action toge—"
Boom! The captain picked up his stick.
"Come on," he said.
We got up out of the rocking-chairs, and went out past the swinging meat-safe, under the big canvas of the ward-room, with its table piled with stuff to read. Trust the sailor to make himself at home. As we passed through the camp the bluejackets rose to a man and lined up trimly on either side. Trust the sailor to keep his self-respect, even in five weeks' beleaguered Ladysmith.
Up a knee-loosening ladder of rock, and we came out on to the green hill-top, where they first had their camp. Among the orderly trenches, the sites of the deported tents, were rougher irregular blotches of hole—footprints of shell.
"That gunner," said the captain, waving his stick at Surprise Hill, "is a German. Nobody but a German atheist would have fired on us at breakfast, lunch, and dinner the same Sunday. It got too hot when he put one ten yards from the cook. Anybody else we could have spared; then we had to go."
We come to what looks like a sandbag redoubt, but in the eyes of heaven is a conning-tower. On either side, from behind a sandbag epaulement, a 12-pounder and a Maxim thrust forth vigilant eyes. The sandbag plating of the conning-tower was six feet thick and shoulder-high; the rivets were red earth, loose but binding; on the parapets sprouted tufts of grass, unabashed and rejoicing in the summer weather. Against the parapet leaned a couple of men with the clean-cut, clean-shaven jaw and chin of the naval officer, and half-a-dozen bearded bluejackets. They stared hard out of sun-puckered eyes over the billows of kopje and veldt.
Forward we looked down on the one 4·7; aft we looked up to the other. On bow and beam and quarter we looked out to the enemy's fleet. Deserted Pepworth's was on the port-bow, Gun Hill, under Lombard's Kop, on the starboard, Bulwan abeam, Middle Hill astern, Surprise Hill on the port-quarter.
Every outline was cut in adamant.
The Helpmakaar Ridge, with its little black ants a-crawl on their hill, was crushed flat beneath us.
A couple of vedettes racing over the pale green plain northward looked as if we could jump on to their heads. We could have tossed a biscuit over to Lombard's Kop. The great yellow emplacement of their fourth big piece on Gun Hill stood up like a Spit-head Fort. Through the big telescope that swings on its pivot in the centre of the tower you could see that the Boers were loafing round it dressed in dirty mustard-colour.
"Left-hand Gun Hill fired, sir," said a bluejacket, with his eyes glued to binoculars. "At the balloon"—and presently we heard the weary pinions of the shell, and saw the little puff of white below.
"Ring up Mr Halsey," said the captain.
Then I was aware of a sort of tarpaulin cupboard under the breastwork, of creeping trails of wire on the ground, and of a couple of sappers.
The corporal turned down his page of 'Harmsworth's Magazine,' laid it on the parapet, and dived under the tarpaulin.
Ting-a-ling-a-ling! buzzed the telephone bell.
The gaunt up-towering mountains, the long, smooth, deadly guns—and the telephone bell!
The mountains and the guns went out, and there floated in that roaring office of the 'Daily Mail' instead, and the warm, rustling vestibule of the playhouse on a December night. This is the way we make war now; only for the instant it was half joke and half home-sickness. Where were we? What were we doing?
"Right-hand Gun Hill fired, sir," came the even voice of the bluejacket. "At the balloon."
"Captain wants to speak to you, sir," came the voice of the sapper from under the tarpaulin.
Whistle and rattle and pop went the shell in the valley below.
"Give him a round both guns together," said the captain to the telephone.
"Left-hand Gun Hill fired, sir," said the bluejacket to the captain.
Nobody cared about left-hand Gun Hill; he was only a 47 howitzer; every glass was clamped on the big yellow emplacement.
"Right-hand Gun Hill is up, sir."
Bang coughs the forward gun below us; bang-g-g coughs the after-gun overhead. Every glass clamped on the emplacement.
"What a time they take!" sighs a lieutenant—then a leaping cloud a little in front and to the right.
"Damn!" sighs a peach-cheeked midshipman, who—
"Oh, good shot!" For the second has landed just over and behind the epaulement. "Has it hit the gun?"
"No such luck," says the captain: he was down again five seconds after we fired.
And the men had all gone to earth, of course.
Down dives the sapper, and presently his face reappears, with "Headquarters to speak to you, sir." What the captain said to Headquarters is not to be repeated by the profane: the captain knows his mind, and speaks it. As soon as that was over, ting-a-ling again.
"Mr Halsey wants to know if he may fire again, sir."
"He may have one more"—for shell is still being saved for Christmas.
It was all quite unimportant and probably quite ineffective. At first it staggers you to think that mountain-shaking bang can have no result; but after a little experience and thought you see it would be a miracle if it had. The emplacement is a small mountain in itself; the men have run out into holes. Once in a thousand shots you might hit the actual gun and destroy it—but shell is being saved for Christmas.
If the natives and deserters are not lying, and the sailors really hit Pepworth's Long Tom, then that gunner may live on his exploit for the rest of his life.
"We trust we've killed a few men," says the captain cheerily; "but we can't hope for much more."
And yet, if they never hit a man, this handful of sailors have been the saving of Ladysmith. You don't know, till you have tried it, what a worm you feel when the enemy is plugging shell into you and you can't possibly plug back. Even though they spared their shell, it made all the world of difference to know that the sailors could reach the big guns if they ever became unbearable. It makes all the difference to the Boers, too, I suspect; for as sure as Lady Anne or Bloody Mary gets on to them they shut up in a round or two. To have the very men among you makes the difference between rain-water and brine.
The other day they sent a 12-pounder up to Cæsar's Camp under a boy who, if he were not commanding big men round a big gun in a big war, might with luck be in the fifth form.
"There's a 94-pounder up there," said a high officer, who might just have been his grandfather.
"All right, sir," said the child serenely; "we'll knock him out."
He hasn't knocked him out yet, but he is going to next shot, which in a siege is the next best thing.
In the meantime he has had his gun's name, "Lady Ellen," neatly carved on a stone and put up on his emplacement. Another gun-pit bears the golden legend "Princess Victoria Battery," on a board elegant beyond the dreams of suburban preparatory schools. A regiment would have had no paint or gold-leaf; the sailors always have everything. They carry their home with them, self-subsisting, self-relying. Even as the constant bluejacket says, "Right Gun Hill up, sir," there floats from below ting-ting, ting-ting, ting.
The rock-rending double bang floats over you unheard; the hot iron hills swim away.
Five bells—and you are on deck, swishing through cool blue water among white-clad ladies in long chairs, going home.
O Lord, how long?
But the sailors have not seen home for two years, which is two less than their usual spell. This is their holiday.
"Of course, we enjoy it," they say, almost apologising for saving us; "we so seldom get a chance."
The Royal Navy is the salt of the sea and the salt of the earth also.