DEPARTURE FROM FRERE—ARRIVAL AT CHIEVELEY—TWO DAYS' BOMBARDMENT OF COLENSO TRENCHES—EVE OF COLENSO.
OX-TEAMS for the guns, and ammunition and baggage ox-wagons were waiting for us, with their mob of native drivers, so the guns were taken off the trucks and the trains unloaded.
After much hard work we started our first trek— a short one of a mile—but it was over an awkward drift across the Blauwbank River, which gave us some idea of what we had -in store later on. Once safely across our tents were pitched on sloping ground on the north bank, and close to the railway bridge, now lying in the river-bed wrecked by Boer dynamite.
One or two houses close by, which we visited, showed the wanton destruction caused by the enemy; the furniture broken to fragments, glasses smashed, mattresses picked to bits, books and music torn into little pieces and scattered all over the rooms. One thing was most noticeable—no picture relating to any sacred subject was ever touched. About a mile and a half towards Colenso was the remains of the wreck of the armoured train. In this train there had been some men of the 'Tartar,' working a 7-pounder, and four of these had been captured and one killed.
The upturned trucks lying on the veldt were silent witnesses of a gallant little action.
Two days after our arrival the’ Terrible's' searchlight apparatus arrived, mounted on a railway truck and worked by its own engine and dynamo. It was invaluable, for though signals could be made fairly-easily by ' helio' from Ladysmith, to the top of a hill near Weenen, and thence to Frere, it was very difficult to get a similar signal into the town.
The Boers hovered within three miles of the pickets, and one day a 12-pounder managed to wound two or three.
On December 4 we started off at 1 A.M. with one 4.7 and an escort, with the idea of proceeding to Ghieveley, to shell Colenso. We travelled along, in pitchy darkness, over a country covered with huge boulders, and intersected with dongas and barbed wire fences.
There certainly was a guide, but, in the darkness, he was useless. Once or twice the gun nearly turned over into a donga or got embedded in mud. Just before sunrise we had gained a slight crest, from which the Boer position could be seen, but we were still four miles from Chieveley, it was raining hard, and it was impossible to reach the appointed position before daylight, so the expedition was abandoned, and camp formed two miles north of Frere, where we were presently joined by the second 4.7.
This trip reminded us somewhat of the ' brave old Duke of York,' and his time-honoured expedition.
December 6.—The four 12-pounders, left behind at Maritzburg, rejoined, and we were also reinforced by two officers and fifty men of the Natal Naval Volunteers, whose knowledge of the country, and of both native and Dutch languages, was very useful.
This same detachment was at Colenso when that place was hurriedly evacuated, after the investment of Ladysmith, and was told to leave its guns in Fort Wyllie, but the men would not hear of abandoning them, so rolled them down the kopje across the veldt to the train, and got them away safely. General Buller arrived at Frere on this date.
Two days later another detachment from the 'Terrible’ and 'Philomel' arrived, with eight 12-pounders, under Lieutenant Ogilvy. This was a large addition to our Brigade.
Next morning at sunrise the camp was struck, and the two 4.7s, all the 12-pounders, ammunition and baggage wagons, marched a couple of miles along the road to give the men practice and to test the transport arrangement. Everything being satisfactory, the Naval Brigade returned to camp.
With our fourteen guns and numerous wagons with their long ox-teams, the column made a brave show, stretching close upon a mile. The 4.7s were easily hauled along by sixteen oxen, though a spare team was always kept in readiness to assist up hills or through drifts.
The trails of the 12-pounders were at first made fast to the rear of wagons, but later on were supplied with their own oxen (twelve to fourteen).
December 12.—All were up at two o'clock, tents were struck, all gear stowed away in the wagons, and we left at 8.30 A.M., trekking some six miles to Chieveley with the 6th Brigade, and arriving at a kopje—Gun Hill—on which the guns were placed in position. This hill was about four hundred feet high, and from it the ground gradually sloped down to the Tugela at Colenso about four miles away. From the summit a good view of the Boer position was obtained, and behind it was pitched the naval camp.
It was a very stony spot, and it was with some difficulty one could pick out a place to sleep with any degree of comfort. Scorpions, snakes, and white ants were numerous; flies were unbearable, but mosquitoes were not very troublesome.
The heat in the morning had been terrific and in the afternoon there was a heavy thunderstorm, the difference in the morning and afternoon temperatures being very great.
December 18.—Orders were received to move forward another 2,000 yards, to a kopje nearer the Boer position, but a dense fog postponed this movement. Later on it cleared away, and at 7 A.M. the 4.7 guns opened fire, for the first time, on the Colenso trenches, and kept it going till 9.30, when the tremendous heat and mirage made satisfactory shooting at long ranges (7,000 to 11,000 yards) impossible. The guns and their mountings worked admirably and very good shooting was made, but there was no reply, and the Boers could be seen in the evening still busily digging.
General Buller came on from Frere with Ogilvy's six 12-pounders, so there were now two 4.7s and twelve 12-pounders with the Naval Brigade. Till the General's arrival most people were under the impression that only a feint was to be made at Colenso, and that there would be a big flanking movement in the direction of Potgieter's Drift.At 7.30 next morning camp was shifted to the previously mentioned kopje. 2,000 yards nearer the Boer trenches. It afterwards was known as Shooter's Hill. The 4.7's opened fire at 9 A.M. and carried on intermittently during the day. There was no reply and the enemy would not be tempted to unmask his guns, though we were well within range. Later on this day orders were received for the morrow. Two 12-pounders were to remain on Gun Hill, four to advance with the 4.7's to a more advantageous position, and six were to attach themselves to Colonel Long's batteries. (Two 12-pounders were still at Estcourt, two at Mooi River, and two at Frere.)