GUNS AND GUN MOUNTING—THE PROTECTION OF GUNS AND THEIR CREWS—AMMUNITION PASSAGES AND MAGAZINES—FIRING THE 4.7 — TELEPHONES — WIRE ENTANGLEMENTS — CONDENSING APPARATUS.
OF the guns taken into Ladysmith by the Naval Brigade, four were able immediately to come into action, three being long 12-pounders, on Scott's improvised field mounting, and one a naval 8-cwt. field gun. Not so the two 4,7,s, however, which were supplied merely with platforms in an unfinished and unfitted state, each platform consisting of four heavy baulks of timber twelve inches wide and twelve inches deep and about fifteen feet in length. The guns themselves, the ‘ cradles' in which they recoil, the mounting to which the cradle is secured, the ' base plate' to which the mounting is fitted in such a way that the gun can train laterally, and finally the baulks of timber for the platform, were all entirely separate on arrival in the town, and before either gun could be used each part had to be fixed in its correct position.
In the case of the first gun, this was carried out on the night of Tuesday, October 31, the day after the arrival of the Brigade, when the platform was constructed and the gun mounted on the top of the gentle slopes of Junction Hill, a party of sappers digging out a pit in which to embed the platform, while the hills around echoed to the blows of the naval blacksmiths' hammers, as they drove in the long steel bolts, and the flames from the forge threw a red glare over the sky and lighted up the tired but eager faces of the men.
How it rained, and how cold it was! None of the officers or men had any warm overcoats and consequently worked all the harder to keep themselves warm. By seven o'clock next morning they had the satisfaction of seeing the platform and base plate in position and ready for the mounting and the gun. These were put into their places, after considerable labour, during the day, by the gun's crew, assisted by a party of fifty men from the Liverpool Regiment, all working under the direction of the Gunner of the Brigade. Then the sappers finished bedding down the platform, and, a light sandbag parapet being thrown up during the night, the first 4.7 was ready to fire, in any direction, by daylight on the morning of Thursday, November 2, three days after arrival. Though this gun was mounted in full view of the enemy from their positions on Pepworth and other hills to the north, it is curious to relate that not a single shot was fired at it or at the working party till the gun commenced to bombard their 6-inch gun position early on the Thursday morning, when the return fire mortally wounded Lieutenant Egerton, the Gunnery Lieutenant. Similar methods were followed out in the case of the second 4.7 gun, which was mounted in a commanding position on the crest of Cove Redoubt during the nights of November 1 and 2, and was protected by a formidable parapet and ready to take its part in the defence of the town by daylight on November 8, four days after arrival.
The efficient protection of these two guns and their crews, and of the 12-pounders and Maxims as well, occupied a considerable portion of the time and attention of all hands during the earlier days of the siege, and early every morning and late at night, when even the sharp-sighted enemy could not see them, bluejackets and stokers were busily employed in throwing up parapets and traverses, working away with pick and shovel at deep cuttings, or struggling with crowbars and ropes to remove some refractory rock which always seemed to crop up in the very place where it was not wanted. The parapets round each of the 4.7 guns gradually grew into huge structures, as will be seen by the photographs. Sandbags (?) filled with earth were used three or four rows thick in the inner part of the parapet and piled up to the height of a man's head. Outside these were several feet of loose earth, and all round the face of the structure were stacked heavy boulders and stones, the object of these being to burst any shell striking them before it actually entered the parapet.
Near each gun, twenty yards away, hollowed out in the side of a convenient hillock, was built a magazine for stowing the bulk of the ammunition, and this was connected to the rear of the gun emplacement by a narrow, deeply-cut trench in which men could run along with shells and cartridges, without their heads being visible above the ground, whilst in another secure position nearer the gun was cut out a ' ready' magazine containing a few shells of each kind for immediate use. The men took the greatest interest in the construction of these magazines and passages —possibly because the work was so novel to them— boarded them up internally with wood, and kept them always as spick and span as possible, with ammunition carefully separated and ready for use at a moment's notice.
In the early days of the siege, twenty or thirty rounds would be fired from the 4.7s every day, at the enemy's gun positions, but, the vital necessity for strict economy in ammunition soon becoming apparent as the days went by, very often these guns would not be fired for a week at a time—in fact, the ' Lady Anne' on Junction Hill was silent for six whole weeks during the latter part of the siege. When it is considered that 200 rounds of lyddite, 200 of shrapnel, and 200 of common shell, with 600 cartridges, constituted the total available supply of ammunition for. these guns on arrival in the town, it will be seen how necessary it was to fire only on the most favourable occasions.
The appearance of these gun positions is well shown in the photograph facing page 206, representing ' Lady Anne' on Junction Hill, with the cross-beams forming the platform for her mounting, imbedded in the earth, behind the sandbag emplacement. This was the gun which afterwards' knocked out' Long Tom of Pepworth and sent him back to Pretoria for repairs.
In the photograph her sights are laid on this gun, and the captain of the gun, a great bearded petty-officer, stands by with the firing lanyard in his hand.
The lieutenant in command, with glass glued to eye, is watching Long Tom and waiting till he elevates his muzzle and long chase and presents a more favourable target. The moment comes; Long Tom is getting his sights on something, a convoy of wagons or a line of cavalry tents, maybe; sharp comes the order.' Fire'; down comes the horny hand on the lanyard; click goes the 'striker'; the gun flies back and forwards again with a deafening crack, a little acrid yellow haze comes floating in through the embrasure, and one of those 200 precious khaki-coloured lyddite shells is speeding its way to the Boer gun, nearly four miles away.
The breech is swung open, the empty cordite cylinder pulled out, the man crouching with the shell in his arms jumps to the gun and shoves it well home through the smoking breech, another jambs in a fresh charge; with a bang the breech is closed, the gun is ready again, and there is still plenty of time to see what the first shell is going to do.
Every one cranes eagerly forward; over on the Boer ridge, close to Long Tom, comes a splash on the brown slopes, a great yellow-grey cloud shoots up, and the shell has done its work.
' Good shot—by Jove! right on top of him;' ‘ A bit short, give her a little more elevation;' ‘ Over, I'm afraid—hope we hit some of the ammunition people coming up the hill'—such were the various remarks to be heard at either of the 4.7 gun emplacements, as one watched the crew of six bluejackets loading, laying and firing, and the ammunition party of four stokers hurrying silently to and from the magazine along the deep connecting trench.
The lines of defence encircling Ladysmith were so extensive that connecting telephones were absolutely essential. These were rigged up by the Royal Engineers, and as the siege advanced became very elaborate. From the ' conning-tower,' the central position of the Naval Brigade on Gordon Hill, one could talk to headquarters, to the naval camp, and to the 4.7 gun on Cove Redoubt. Later on, as the value of Cove Redoubt as a post of observation became greater, direct connection was made from this position to headquarters, and proved of great value.
The Naval signalmen kept up communication, between Junction Hill and Cove Redoubt, with their signal flags or flashing lamps.
Besides the numerous earthworks, parapets, &c., thrown up by the Naval Brigade during the first few weeks of the siege, a most elaborate and complicated system of wire entanglements was rigged in front of each gun and well round the main position on Gordon Hill. These wire mazes were, like all other means for defence, gradually improved as the time wore on, till they were almost unnegotiable by the bluejackets even in broad daylight, and would have rendered it impossible for an attacking party to approach without being heard. Luckily for them they never attempted an attack on the guns, though it was rumoured at one time that General Schalk Burger had called for volunteers to attack the naval guns, and, out of a surrounding force of about twenty thousand men, managed to secure two, so gave up the project!
Picket duty at night was another form of campaigning work in which the Naval Brigade took part, till its numbers were so reduced by fever and dysentery, that all hands left were required for manning the guns and entrenchments. Midshipmen were in command of these pickets, and considerable amusement, not to mention admiration, was caused by the easy and self-confident manner in which these boys, some of them fresh from the ‘ Britannia’ took charge of their men.
[On the investment of Ladysmith, the water mains were destroyed by the enemy, and the Klip River, that very muddy tributary of the Tugela, became the sole source of the water supply.
The alum in store was soon exhausted, and the few Berkefeld filters were inadequate, so, as enteric fever was increasing at an alarming rate, the construction of extemporised distillers was decided on, and the design of these was worked out by Mr. Sheen, one of the engineers of the Naval Brigade.
A large corrugated iron tank used for storing mealies was obtained, and inside it were fitted three spiral coils of ordinary water-piping, bent into shape and the sections screwed together. The three coils were nearly five hundred feet long.
Steam was forced into these from the boiler at the repairing shop down by the railway station, and condensed by pumping river water through hoses leading into a large drain-pipe, which opened near the bottom of the tank, the water overflowing at the top.
The whole condenser was constructed in the repairing shop in three days by the railway fitters and by the naval engine-room artificers and stokers, and was so efficient that it was capable of producing fifteen hundred gallons of condensed water daily.
So successful was it that two more were made and supplied with steam from two locomotives.
These three supplied the whole garrison with condensed water from December 11 to January 25, on which date no more coal could be spared to work them.
This work, in the design and superintendence of which Mr. Sheen took a leading part, was not the least important contribution by the Navy to the defence of the town.—ED.]