The exodus of the townsfolk—Communications threatened—Slim Piet Joubert—Espionage in the town—Neglected precautions—A truce that paid—British positions described—Big guns face to face—Boers hold the railways—French's reconnaissance—The General's flitting—A gauntlet of fire—An interrupted telegram—Death of Lieutenant Egerton—"My cricketing days are over"—Under the enemy's guns—"A shell in my room"—Colonials in action—The sacrifice of valuable lives
October closed without further hostilities, and its last day was uneventful in a military sense, though full of forebodings in the town, because all knew that the Boers were taking advantage of a brief armistice to bring up reinforcements. On this last day of the month civilians eager to get away from Ladysmith crowded every train. Writing on November 1st, Mr. Pearse said:—
All Saints' Day is observed with some strictness by Boers who do not show similar veneration for other festivals in the Church Calendar. There have at any rate been no hostilities to-day, but from Captain Lambton's Battery on Junction Hill, where the naval 4.7-inch quick-firing gun is being mounted, we have by the aid of the signalman's powerful telescope watched a significant Boer movement going on for hours. We can see them among the scrubby trees between Lombard's Kop and Umbulwaana (or Bulwaan as it is more generally called), and hurrying off behind that hill along the road that leads southwards. That road cuts the railway not more than six or seven miles out, and their movement threatens our line of communications that way, unless we can manage to check it by judicious use of cavalry and mounted troops. The flight of townsfolk southward continues. They do not even trouble about luggage now, but lock their doors and clear off. Half the houses are empty, and many shops closed.
It was early shown that the enemy had not undertaken the war in a half-hearted manner. He let no possible opportunity escape to better his position; and in the choice of means he was not inclined to risk his reputation for "slimness." On this point Mr. Pearse has a good deal to say in his next letter:—
November 2.—For two whole days after the battle of Lombard's Kop there was absolute cessation of hostilities, and this lull the Boers turned to account in a manner very characteristic. There can be hardly any doubt that we might have taken advantage of it also to safeguard our line of communications by posting a force where it might have checkmated one of the enemy's obvious moves. Anything would have been better than the inaction, which simply allowed the Boers to mature their own plans and put them into execution without risk of interference from us. That might almost have been foreseen when General Joubert on 31st October hit upon a characteristic plan for finding out what was the exact state of affairs in Ladysmith, and we, with a delightful naïveté, suspecting no guile, seem to have played into his hands. It will be remembered that the most painful incident of "Black" or "Mournful Monday" was the surrender of all but a company or two of the Gloucesters and Royal Irish Fusiliers, which with a mountain battery had been detached to turn the enemy's flanks, with consequences so humiliating and disastrous to us. Under pretence of treating the wounded from this column with great consideration, Joubert sent them into camp here, taking their parole as a guarantee that they would not carry arms again during this campaign. With the ambulance waggon was an escort of twenty Boers, all wearing the Red Cross badge of neutrality. Their instructions were to demand an exchange of wounded, and on the plea of being responsible for the proper care of their own men, they claimed to be admitted within our lines. Such a preposterous request would not have been listened to for a moment by some generals, but Sir George White, being anxious apparently to propitiate an enemy whose guns commanded the town, full as it was of helpless women and children, yielded that point, and so the ambulance with its swaggering Boer escort came into town neither blindfolded nor under any military restrictions whatever. Among this mounted escort Ladysmith people recognised several well-known burghers, who were certainly not doctors or otherwise specially qualified for attendance on wounded men. They were free to move about the town, to talk with Boer prisoners, and to drink at public bars with suspected Boer sympathisers—all this while they probably picked up many interesting items as to the number of troops in Ladysmith, the position of ordnance stores and magazines, and the general state of our defences, which were chaotic at that moment. One among the visitors was particularly curious about the names of officers who dined habitually at the Royal Hotel mess, and very anxious to have such celebrities as Colonel Frank Rhodes, Dr. Jameson, and Sir John Willoughby pointed out to him. Does anybody in his senses believe that such careful inquiries were made without an object, or that the Red Cross badge was regarded as a sacred symbol sealing the lips of a Boer as to all he had seen and heard in Ladysmith?
When Joubert's artillery began shelling the town their fire was directed on important stores, the locality of which could only have been indicated to them by secret agents, and on places where officers are known to assemble at certain hours. These may all have been merely strange coincidences, but, at any rate, they are noteworthy as showing that in some way, whether by accident or cunning design, General Joubert's gunners were able to profit by the truce that was agreed upon without any exact stipulation on either side as to its duration. The tacit understanding seems to have been that both forces should have time to collect their wounded and bury their dead.
It is certain that the Boers took a little more time than was necessary for this purpose, and turned it to good use for themselves by strengthening the earthworks behind which "Long Tom" is mounted, while we in turn were enabled to get a second naval gun of heavy calibre into position before the bombardment began again. The necessity for doing this was probably chief among reasons which kept our artillery silent during the last two days, though it seemed to mere spectators that a chance was thus being given for the enemy to mount batteries on heights that commanded nearly every part of our camp.
To make this perfectly clear without the aid of a map showing contours of all ridges and hollows is very difficult, and one can only attempt to give in words a rough idea of the general position. If the reader will bear in mind what a horse's hoof inverted looks like, he may get a mental picture of Ladysmith and its surroundings—the heels of the horse-shoe pointing eastward, where, five miles off, is the long, flat top of steep Bulwaan, like the huge bar of a gigantic horse-shoe magnet. The horse's frog approximately represents a ridge behind which, and facing Bulwaan, but separated from it by broad stretches of meadow, with the Klip River winding a serpentine course through them, between high banks, is Ladysmith town. Between the frog and the horse-shoe lie our various camps, mostly in radiating hollows, open either to the east or west, but sheltered from cross fires by rough kopjes of porphyritic boulders that have turned brown on the surface by exposure to sunshine. Bushy tangles of wild, white jasmine spring from among these boulders with denser growth of thriving shrubs bearing waxen flowers that blaze in brilliant scarlet and orange, and the coarse grass that begins to show on every patch of earth between the rocks is dotted with clusters like dwarf petunias, or purple bells of trailing convolvulus. A rich storehouse this for the botanist, whose contemplative studies, however, might be rudely disturbed by the shriek and boom of shells bursting about him, for, as I have said, the enemy's guns command most of these ridges, though they cannot always search the hollows in which our camps are as much as possible hidden.
The horse-shoe, in its irregular curve, is dotted here and there with outposts, whose duty it is to keep the enemy's sharpshooters from getting within rifle range of our artillery positions encrusting the ridges at several points like nails of the horse-shoe. Without locating them exactly, one may say that the Naval batteries are on rough eminences of the northern heel, facing Rietfontein Hill, where the Creusot gun, known as "Long Tom," is mounted behind earthworks at a range of 6800 yards, which is well within compass of the Powerful's 12-pounders and at least 3000 yards less than the extreme distance at which shells from her 4.7-inch quick-firing guns would be effective.
Positions for field batteries are prepared at other points round the wide sweep, but only to be occupied as occasion may arise, and therefore one does not care at present to locate them more precisely. The enemy, having heavy artillery of various calibre mounted on Bulwaan, is able to enfilade certain posts held by our infantry pickets on the heels of the horse-shoe, but there are folds among the rocky kopjes where men can lie comparatively screened from shells, which at that distance give timely notice of their coming, as sound travels rather faster than the projectiles do at the end of their flight.
We have outposts on Intombi or Maiden's Castle, which forms the horse-shoe's southern heel, others stretching westward thence to a gap in the toe of the shoe, through which a wood runs nearly due west until it branches off to the Drakensberg Passes in one direction and Maritzburg in the other, and pickets on the north-western and northern heights, with a detached post at Observation Hill, an elongated kopje outside the general defences, overlooking a wide valley of mimosa scrub towards Rietfontein, which is the enemy's main stronghold, commanding as it does the railways to Van Reenan's Pass in the west, and to Newcastle in the north. Except for a distance of two miles from Ladysmith, therefore, both these railways are in the hands of the Boers, who can use them as uninterrupted lines of communication with the Orange Free State and the Transvaal respectively. That they were being so used to some purpose we had reason for believing, during the two peaceful days following the one which from its associations has come to be known among soldiers as "Mournful Monday." Standing on the naval battery, one could watch Boers hard at work preparing positions near Lombard's Kop, and along the crest of Bulwaan, for artillery that was probably then being brought by railway from Laing's Nek, and at the same time columns of Boer horsemen were moving behind Bulwaan southwards, evidently intent upon cutting our own lines of communication. That they would be allowed to accomplish it without a timely effort on our part to prevent them seemed inconceivable.
For most of us it was a shock to realise that ten or twelve thousand British soldiers could be shut up by an army of Boer farmers before any attempt at a counter-stroke had been made. The mobility of our enemies, however, gives them a wonderful advantage in such movements over a force that consists mainly of slow-moving infantry, and unless opportunity is taken to attack them promptly, when they may be beaten in detail, their power for mischief is very far-reaching. Possibly Sir George White was quite right to put his trust in defensive tactics, knowing that he could hold Ladysmith against all attempts of the Boers to capture it notwithstanding their numerical superiority, but it is none the less vexatious and unpleasant to find ourselves beleaguered and bombarded.
Whether the enemy had power to invest Ladysmith effectually, and keep a strong force across our lines of communication would only be ascertained by a reconnaissance. Directly and without any warning except to officers commanding detachments, a force assembled at the earliest hour this morning (Nov. 2). There was so little fuss that soldiers lying in tents on bivouac slept undisturbed by the clanking of bits as horses were saddled, or the rumble of wheels when a battery moved to their places in the column. Artillery, 5th Lancers, 18th Hussars, Natal Carbineers, Border Mounted and Natal Mounted Rifles get together silently, the volunteers vieing with regulars in this proof of discipline, which indeed comes natural to men many of whom know by sporting experience on the veldt that silence is a virtue. General French takes command of this mobile little force, and at two o'clock it moves out through the darkness for a reconnaissance along the Colenso Road, where it comes in touch with the enemy soon after daybreak. A brisk skirmish against Boer riflemen, who as usual have been quick to occupy commanding kopjes; showers of shrapnel hurled among them from our field battery; a few shells tearing up the dust in clouds in their distant camp; and two of our own Lancers hit, makes up the story of this affair, which serves to show conclusively that communication by road in that direction is barred, if not effectually cut. General French therefore brought his column back, reaching Ladysmith in time to take train for Durban, handing over the cavalry command before he left to General Brocklehurst.
That train was the last to get through, and even then had to run the gauntlet of rifle and artillery fire from Boers who were on both sides of the line. An hour later the railway was cut by the Boers, whose light guns completely commanded a defile through which the line passes; and at two o'clock telegraphic communication stopped short in the middle of an important despatch, while private and press messages innumerable await their turn. The thread of that interrupted telegram will probably not be taken up for many days, and we realise that our isolation is complete. Communications might have been kept open for days longer by an energetic use of artillery and mounted troops, but now it is too late to reopen them without incurring risk of serious losses. We must be content to wait the development of events in other quarters, for the Boers are all round us now, and, blink the fact as we may, it must be admitted that Ladysmith is under siege.
While General French was making his reconnaissance our naval 12-pounders opened fire on "Long Tom" a few minutes after six o'clock, as a flash and puff of white smoke from his muzzle told that the bombardment was about to begin. For an hour and a half the artillery duel went on briskly, Captain Lambton's naval battery answering shot for shot, or rather anticipating each, as the shells from our guns travel with greater velocity, and get home three seconds before "Long Tom's" can take effect.
Unfortunately one of the enemy's shells fell close to Lieutenant Egerton, instructor in gunnery of H.M.S. Powerful, who was mortally wounded. "My cricketing days are over now," he said, with a plucky attempt to make light of his agony as the bluejackets lifted him gently on to a stretcher. The Naval Brigade also had one bluejacket wounded, but not seriously. There was only one other casualty, though shells fell frequently into the camps of Gordon Highlanders and Imperial Light Horse in rear of our main battery, the former having one man hit by a splinter as he lay in his tent. The two regiments were thereupon ordered to shift their quarters, which they did with great promptitude, having no particular fancy to play the part of targets for ninety-four-pound shells.
November 3.—Misfortunes press upon each other quickly. This morning Lieut. Egerton, R.N., a young sailor, not less distinguished for skill in his profession than for personal gallantry, died. His requiem rang out from the naval battery in its duel with the enemy's heaviest artillery. Soon other Boer guns joined in from Lombard's Kop and the slopes of Bulwaan, throwing shells about the town as if resolved to compass its ruin.
To-day, indeed, for the first time, we have had brought home to us the dangers and discomforts, if not the horrors, of what a bombardment may be in an unfortified town under the fire of modern artillery. We cannot accuse the Boers of having deliberately thrown shells into the houses of peaceful inhabitants, or over buildings on which the Geneva Cross was flying. These are, unfortunately, just in the line of "Long Tom's" fire from Rietfontein Hill, and the shells may have been aimed at our naval battery, but, if so, they went very high, or their trajectory at that range would not have carried them half a mile beyond the mark.
Several fell near the hospital, others went 500 yards farther in the direction of Sir George White's headquarters, and one came crashing into my bedroom at the Royal Hotel, not ten yards from where many officers were then lunching. The hotel is a prominent building, that can be seen from "Long Tom's" battery, and many people, giving Boer gunners credit for astonishing accuracy, suggested that the shot must have been aimed to strike where it did, in the hope of bagging Colonel Frank Rhodes and Doctor Jameson, whose ordinary hour for meals was known to every spy frequenting the place, and might easily have been communicated by them to the artillerist Mattey, who was recognised among a group drinking at the bar on Tuesday evening. Of slight materials do the Ladysmith townsmen weave romances, but one can hardly be surprised, seeing how long they have lived in strained relations with neighbours whose Boer sympathies were well known. But whether intended for the Royal Hotel or not, the shell came very near to causing several vacancies in the senior ranks of this force. Passing through the ceiling and partition wall of a colleague's bedroom, it burst in mine with such force that it blew out the whole end-wall, hurling bricks across a narrow court, all about the dining-room windows, which were smashed by the explosion; but of those sitting close inside only one was slightly scratched by broken glass. Clouds of dust, mingled with fumes of powder, poured in through the open casement, so that those in farther corners were for some moments in much anxiety as to the fate of their friends. When they found that no harm had been done there was an assumption of mirth all round, but nobody cared to stay much longer in that room. At the moment of explosion I had risen from the table to resume work in my chamber, which presented to my astonished eyes anything but the characteristics of a quiet study then. Papers scattered in every direction were buried with clothes and kit under a wreckage of building materials. One fragment of iron shell had gone clean through a bag and all its contents to bury itself beneath the floor in earth. Another had crushed my precious Kodak flat, and there was scarcely a thing exposed in the place that had not been torn by the blast of powder or cut by splinters. The diminished population of Ladysmith began to gather about that spot when they found that no other shells fell there. "What a lucky escape for you!" they all said, and I devoutly agreed with them.
That was "Long Tom's" last attempt at bombarding Ladysmith to-day. He had been frequently silenced, and once apparently disabled in his heavy duel with "Lady Anne," as Captain Lambton names the naval quick-firing gun, and a final lucky shot either put him out of action for the day or injured so many Boer gunners that their comrades did not care to "face the music" again. While all this bombardment was going on, the telegraph staff and post-office clerks, having no work to do, amused themselves by playing cricket on the raceground within sight of the Boers on Bulwaan, and well within range of guns mounted near the crest of that hill, whence a hot fire was for some time directed towards the town. And they played their match to a finish, though one shell burst very close to them.
Meanwhile General Brocklehurst having succeeded General French in the cavalry command, took out another flying column composed of 5th Dragoon Guards, Imperial Light Horse, Border Mounted Rifles, and one field battery, to keep the enemy in play and prevent them from mounting other guns. He attacked the ridges about Lancer's Nek and all his troops behaved brilliantly. The Border Mounted Rifles in squadrons, wave behind wave, charged a kopje as if they meant to ride full tilt to its crest, but halting at its base to dismount they scaled its rugged slopes and drove the Boers back to another ridge, exchanging shots at short range with effect on both sides. The Imperial Light Horse had meanwhile got into a tight place, and the 5th Dragoon Guards, dashing forward to their assistance were badly galled by fire from Boers concealed among rocks in front and flank. Out of this difficulty they had to run the gauntlet for their lives, but not so hurriedly that they could not stop to help comrades in distress, and many deeds of heroism under fire made the spectators of this episode forget that some one had blundered. The Boers got no more guns into position to-day, but we had only gained a brief respite, and at the sacrifice of some valuable lives. Major Taunton of the Border Mounted Rifles and Captain Knapp and Lieutenant Brabant of the Imperial Light Horse were killed, and many of lower rank wounded.