THE GUNNERY LIEUTENANT'S FATAL WOUND—THE FIRST BOER ATTACK AND THE ROYAL SALUTE ON THE PRINCE OF WALES'S BIRTHDAY—A BOER TRIBUTE TO THE NAVAL GUNS—XMAS DAY—NEW YEAR'S DAY—THE RELIEF—THE ' POWERFUL,' AND HOME AGAIN.
THE siege had its bright times, days of success, of good news from the relieving column, or of sudden finds of some welcome addition to the commissariat; but on the other hand there were the dark days, days when the news was bad and everything seemed to be going wrong for our arms, or when some comrade or friend fell in the forefront of the fight or succumbed to the ravages of fever or dysentery. Darkest of many dark days to the Naval Brigade was Thursday, November 2, the first day of the real siege, when communication with the outer world was practically cut off by the enemy, and when Lieutenant Egerton lost his life.
The first 4.7, the one on Junction Hill, had just been mounted and early in the morning had fired her first shot at Long Tom of Pepworth Hill, 6,500 yards away, the preliminary to a fierce duel between the two guns which lasted some hours. Long Tom's fire was terribly accurate and our defences at that period of the siege not very strong, the parapet of the 4.7 having been purposely kept low to give the gun an ' all round ' fire.
About 9 A.M. the flash of the discharge, and the cloud of white smoke, were seen on Pepworth Hill, and there followed the twenty-five seconds of suspense as the 6-inch shell sped on its way to our position. Everybody who could be spared was ordered under cover, Egerton and two or three of the gun's crew being left alone inside the light sandbag parapet round the gun; he stood on the left of the gun looking down anxiously at the wooden platform, which seemed inclined to jump very slightly, when the shell came crashing into the embrasure, just touching the top row of sandbags, missing the gun itself by a few inches, and striking poor Egerton in the legs.
Surgeon Fowler was on the spot and did all that was possible—not much, for his wounds were terrible— and then the bluejackets tenderly picked him up and laid him in a ' dhoolie.' His only remark was,' This will put a stop to my cricket, I'm afraid,' while, on the way down to the hospital he stopped his bearers to get a light for his cigarette. He died that same evening, never having recovered from the shock and loss of blood. Conscious almost to the end, he fortunately suffered little pain.
His death, the first in the Brigade, had a very sobering effect on both officers and men, who were perhaps inclined to look upon the whole ' show' as a sort of land picnic.
November 9, the Prince of Wales's birthday, was ushered in by a very vigorous firing at dawn from the enemy's guns, which by that time had considerably increased in numbers. This was followed by an attack, on the part of their infantry, on Caesar's Camp to the south, and Observation and Devonshire Hills to the north, the fire of their big guns being kept down as much as possible by the two 4.7s. A hot action lasted till noon, though the enemy never came to very close quarters, their nearest approach being at Caesar's Camp, where they were held in check by the Manchester Regiment.
At noon the guns of the Naval Brigade thundered forth a royal salute of twenty-one shotted guns, the crash of the artillery being followed by three terrific cheers for His Royal Highness which were probably heard in the enemy's camp. The correct interval between the rounds was given by flag signal from the ' conning tower,' the two opening and the two closing shots being fired by the 4.7's, and the remainder by the 12-pounders. When the cheering was over the Prince's health was drunk in champagne in the Naval Brigade's mess tent, Sir George White and his staff being present, and a pigeon, which it is happy to relate, arrived safely at its destination, was despatched to Durban, offering the congratulations of the garrison, the message being cabled thence, and duly received and acknowledged by His Royal Highness.
The casualties in the Brigade, during this first organised attack on the part of the enemy, were ' one sucking pig,' the barrel in which it reposed being struck by a 12-pounder shell, and the pig so seriously wounded that it had to be put out of its misery!
During General Hunter's magnificent and successful sortie on December 7, which resulted in the destruction of the Boer 6-inch on Gun Hill, the lower part of Lombards' Kop, a letter from a Boer gunner to his sister was picked up and brought in; it was written in Dutch, and as it gives what one hoped was the general opinion of the enemy with regard to the naval guns, it is inserted here as a ' special event.' It ran as follows :
My dear Sister,— ... It is a month and seven days since we besieged Ladysmith, and don't know what will happen further.
The English we see every day walking about the town, and we are bombarding the town every day with our cannons. . . .
They have erected plenty of breastworks all round the town.
It is very dangerous to attack the town. Near the town are two naval guns from which we receive very heavy fire, which we cannot stand. I think there will be much blood spilt before they surrender, as Mr. Englishman fights hard and well and our burghers are a bit frightened.
I would like to write more but the sun is very hot, and still further the flies are so troublesome that I don't get a chance of sitting still. . . .
I remain, &c.
It was a matter of supreme satisfaction to the Brigade to know that the enemy objected to our gun fire, and there was almost equal rejoicing to know that flies were as annoying to them as to us.
On Christmas Day, contrary to most people's expectations, the usual daily bombardment had to be put up with, and athletic sports, projected for the afternoon, had in consequence to be abandoned. The commissariat officers did all in their very limited power to make the day seem as much like Christmas as possible, however, and extra rations of jam, and tobacco and materials for making plum-puddings were served out.
During the forenoon a message was received from Her Majesty the Queen, transmitted by heliograph from Weenen, 'wishing a happy Christmas to her brave sailors and soldiers'; this considerably cheered everybody and made all realise that they were not forgotten by the outside world.
All the tents were decorated for the festive occasion with what green stuff there was to be found, an extra coat of whitewash was put on the stones which marked the various pathways, and all hands did their best to realise that it was actually Christmas Day, and vaguely wondered what their friends and relations at home were thinking of them and envied them a little, perhaps, their comfortable dinners, though in that line, bluejackets would not have kept up their reputation, if they had not managed to provide some little luxury for such a day. The men had roast pork, some of it presented by the officer of the Remount Department, the remainder the product of a few midnight raids on the part of the guns' crews ; while the officers managed to' commandeer' a turkey in addition to a very tasty sucking pig. The enemy, too, sent in their contribution to the commissariat in the form of a 6-inch shell fired from Bulwana Mountain and filled with plum-pudding, with 'A merry Xmas ' painted in white letters on the outside of the shell.
More messages of good-will were received from the outside world on New Year's Day, and the enemy fired in a shell containing a piece of paper inside, on which they had written,' A happy New Year to you; come out of your holes, you heroes’ the last word being crossed out and ' cowards' substituted.
From this time till the end of the siege, with the exception of the big attack on January 6, nothing took place in the Brigade which might be described as a ' special event.' The daily desultory bombardment went on, and was responded to at longer and longer intervals from our gradually diminishing stock of ammunition; the daily lies were still just as freely circulated, till most of us were getting too weak to laugh at them. Rations went down or up according as bad or good news came from General Buller, till, at the lowest, they consisted of about one and a half ration biscuits and three-quarters of a pound of horse-flesh, per diem.
The failure of the operations round Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz caused hope of relief to be somewhat deferred and the heart to be a little sick in consequence, but all was forgotten on the glorious 28th of February, when at 1.30 P.M., as men off duty were lolling about the camp in various attitudes of repose, a single horseman was seen cantering down the road in the direction of the General's quarters. As he neared the naval camp he was recognised as General Hunter, and seeing some officers in camp, with his usual genial good nature he pulled up and the following conversation took place:
General Hunter: Heard the news ?
N.O.'s: No, sir; anything fresh ?
General Hunter: Helio just in from General Buller: ' Gave the Boers a thorough beating yesterday, and am sending my cavalry on to ascertain in which direction they are going, as I believe them to be in full retreat.'
N.O.'s : Thank you, sir ; that's good enough.
And off galloped the General to impart the joyful tidings to Sir George White.
This, then, was the meaning of the great Boer movement that had been anxiously watched through the long naval glass all day. Buller, with the tenacity of the British bulldog, had at last, after weeks of fighting over an almost impossible country, succeeded in forcing his way into the beleaguered town. At 6 P.M. an advance party of 180 of the Volunteer Cavalry under Lord Dundonald entered the town by way of Intombi camp, and the siege was at an end.
Bulwana Bill had fired his last shot during the forenoon, but it was not till about 3 P.M. that any signs of his removal became apparent. A little later a huge pair of ' shears' were seen to be erected over the gun, and then the naval guns ‘ weighed in,' 4.7s and 12-pounders vying with one another in their attempts to bring the shears down ; no necessity for saving ammunition then, and the Boers got some idea of what was meant by a quick-firing gun. Down came the shears, disappearing in the cloud of dust raised by a lucky shell; our guns ceased firing, and awaited instructions. For the remainder of the day, and all through the night, occasional shells were sent into this gun position, but, in spite of them, the enemy managed to get their gun away by the morning.A week later the Brigade, or rather what was left of it, after being escorted to the railway station by the pipers of the Gordon Highlanders, left Ladysmith for Durban and thence for the ' Powerful' at Simonstown. Here some of the officers and men, who had been landed with the Naval Brigade, which had fought under Lord Methuen and Lord Roberts, rejoined the ship from Bloemfontein, and, with her complement almost complete once more, H.M.S. ‘ Powerful' started home.[ The marines still remained at Bloemfontein.] Within six weeks of the relief, her crew was ashore in old England, was given a tremendous reception by the people of London, had the great distinction of being inspected by Her Majesty Queen Victoria at Windsor, and finally ' paid off' the ship which had been the home of officers and men for three years of so eventful a commission.