SITE OF THE CAMP—MOVING CAMP—THE OFFICERS' MESS—THE FLEET-PAYMASTER—FORETHOUGHT OF AN OLD CAMPAIGNER— AMUSEMENTS IN CAMP—PETS IN CAMP—DINNER PARTIES— APPETISING DODGES.
THE first position chosen for the naval camp was on the summit of Gordon Hill, in the northern line of defences, and this ground was occupied till an objectionable 4.5 howitzer, mounted on Surprise Hill, four thousand yards away, forced us to seek a more favourable spot. This gun, which fired a slow-moving shell of about forty pounds in weight, after trying for some time without much success to get the range of the small group of white tents, finally found it, and, putting two or three of its 'lolloping' projectiles right into the open space in front of the cook's galley, so interfered with the prospects of lunch that on November 19 at dusk the tents were struck and all the paraphernalia of the camp moved to a safer position behind the hill and at the foot of it, where meals could be taken with less fear of interruption.
The bombardment of the camp by this howitzer brought out one of those amusing incidents which tend so much to enliven a campaign. It was a few minutes before noon, and the officers' cook was preparing lunch, standing with a frying-pan held over the fire, in one hand, and a large spoon in the other, frying an appetising-looking dish of onions, when one of the shells was heard coming in our direction. Nearer and nearer it came, and officers and men rushed and scrambled for the nearest cover, or laid flat on the ground wondering where they were going to be hit. Only the cook remained, and he, with an interested expression on his face and a curious look in his eye (he squinted), calmly went on frying his onions, till the shell dropped into the soft ground a few feet in front of him, and, after a fizzle, finally burst, scattering shrapnel bullets and mud in all directions. Then he emerged from the dibris with a look of grave concern on his mud-bespattered face, and remarked in serious tones, 'I do believe they're trying to hit me, sir, and spoil your dinners.' He felt highly pleased that the enemy had picked him out as a target, but rather annoyed about the onions.
The new position chosen for the camp was partly in the garden of a tiny cottage, occupied by a Johannesburg refugee, with his wife and family, who had stayed in Ladysmith too late to catch the last train to Durban. Fruit trees, gums, and cactus bushes abounded in the garden; and though no fruit ever appeared, it was pleasant to imagine what a charming spot it would have been in times of peace. The gum trees were full of the hanging nests of the weaver-birds, or South African canary, as the inhabitants called them; and the presence of these pretty little birds in the camp seemed to lend an air of security and peace to the surroundings, in spite of the incessant scream and splash of the shells, as they passed, sometimes close over the camp, sometimes a few yards away on the road in front of it, according as they were directed either at the 4.7 gun on Cove Redoubt behind us or at the convent on the hill in front.
In the midst of this pretty garden the officers' tents were pitched. Spars lashed together and wagon-covers spread over them, made an excellent ward-room, whilst chairs (taken from a chapel) and tables (from the local school) made the place quite comfortable. The midshipmen had a gun-room of their own, constructed and supplied with furniture in a similar manner; and the usual Service hours with regard to meals were observed in both messes, even 'seven-bell' tea being gone through in the customary way, though in later days there was more imagination than reality about it.
The Naval Brigade was exceptionally fortunate in having Fleet-Paymaster Kay—an old campaigner who had seen fighting in Abyssinia, up the Nile, and in Burmah—as its commissariat officer. To his powers of organisation and to his forethought the absence of much unnecessary discomfort was due, and he played the part of father to all. In the last few weeks of the siege he performed the duties of Field-Paymaster to the army, and unfortunately contracted enteric fever, dying on the voyage home, most sincerely regretted by his messmates, and was buried in the quiet little cemetery at Ascension.
Foreseeing the prospect of a prolonged siege, even on the day of arrival in town, he bought up as many of the necessities of life as were obtainable, one little ' item ' being thirty pounds' worth of draught beer, nearly the last in the town, the possession of which helped to make the naval camp quite a popular resort.
There were few amusements to wile away the monotony of camp life, a dozen books or so, including a well-worn copy of Shakespeare, being the sum total of the literature available; whilst ' Patience,' played in its many forms with old packs of cards—their faces so covered with mud and rain as to be hardly recognisable by the end of the siege—occupied many a weary hour.
Football, too, was indulged in till the ball gave out from sheer overwork; and an occasional Sunday game of cricket or evening concert helped to pass the time away. 'The Ladysmith Lyre,' a local sheet which was produced five times under the editorship of G. W. Steevens, also helped to raise a laugh and stimulate conversation for days.
The principal form of amusement, however, was ' lie swopping,' as it finally came to be known. One only had to start a vaguely possible story, and in sundry and various forms it was all round the garrison by the end of the day; so that it was a very difficult matter to know how much to believe of anything one might hear. Old South Africans say that everybody in South Africa becomes an expert at truth perversion if he stays out there long enough; and the want of news, combined with the anxiety for it, daring a siege are particular incentives to the working of a fertile imagination.
The sailor's well-known liking for dumb animals caused the Naval Brigade camp and gun positions to be quite a fashionable resort or residence for many of the dogs in the place. Quite early in the siege a stray fox-terrier bitch, of apparently rather mixed ancestry, excited the compassion of some of the officers, who rigged her up a comfortable resting-place, and were rewarded in a few days by being presented with a litter of seven pups, five of which survived, and grew and flourished on siege rations, rejoicing in their mere existence and in such appropriate names as ‘ Cordite,'' Lyddite,' ‘ Shrapnel,' &c. They finally came to be quite well known, and were at once the pride of their owners and the envy of other camps. In addition to these, the ' pack' consisted of an underbred mastiff, with a horror of shell fire, a black spaniel, a black-and-tan terrier, a wheezy-looking mongrel, which wisely attached itself to our commissariat officer, and occasionally a pointer or two, and a three-legged animal wounded in action thrown in. It was quite unusual to see a naval officer or bluejacket without a dog of some sort following in his wake.
Dinner parties, events as occasional as they were important, were great features of the siege, and all the resources of the commissariat and all the somewhat forgotten skill of the cook were called into play. How does this menu sound for the seventy-fifth day of the siege, when the officer commanding the Royal Artillery, his staff, and others dined with the Brigade ?
Soup. Stock pot.
Fish. Tinned salmon fish-cakes.
Joints. Boast lamb (mutton ?) and mint sauce. Vegetable marrow.
Sweets. Tapioca and tinned apricots. Rice and peaches.
Savoury. Pate de foie gras sandwiches.
Whisky and soda. Brandy and soda. Rum. No smokes.
The sheep was obtained through the prayers of the Fleet Paymaster, and the mint sauce made from some herb picked up by one of our Kaffirs on the wayside. This glorious feed, however, represented days of saving of stores, and was the last ‘ flash in the pan,' the remainder of the whisky and brandy being kept for medicinal purposes, and the food from that time forward consisting mostly of horse in one form or another and ration biscuit in very small quantities.Many were the appetising dodges resorted to to make the food palatable. A mincing machine was of the greatest use, as it rendered eatable meat which otherwise it would have been a physical impossibility to get one's teeth through. The genius of Lieutenant MacNulty of the Army Service Corps gave us the poor starving troop and artillery horses in a variety of forms, and horse soup (chevril), horse sausage, potted horse-tongue, and cow-heel jelly were amongst the numerous productions of his factory in the railway-station yard; whilst occasionally some herbs gathered by the Kaffirs would be made into a semblance of spinach and supply the want of fresh green food—a want very keenly felt.