Joubert's boast—The preliminaries of attack—Shells in the town— A simultaneous advance—Observation Hill threatened—A wary enemy—A prompt repulse—Attack on Tunnel Hill—The colour-sergeant's last words—Manchesters under fire—Prone behind boulders—A Royal salute—The Prince of Wales's birthday—Stretching the Geneva Convention—The redoubtable Miss Maggie—The Boer Foreign Legion—Renegade Irishmen—A signal failure
From the first moment of complete investment here my belief (continues Mr. Pearse, writing on 9th November) has been that the Boers would never venture to push an infantry attack against this place to the point of a determined assault. This opinion is strengthened by to-day's events. Yet it is said that Joubert believes he could take Ladysmith by a coup de main at any time were it not for his fear of mines, which he believes have been secretly laid at many points round our positions. His riflemen certainly did not come close enough to test the truth of this belief to-day, but contented themselves with shooting from very safe cover at long ranges. If they could have shaken our troops at any point they would doubtless have taken advantage of it to push forward and take up other equally sheltered positions, whence they might have practised their peculiar tactics with possibly greater effect. These methods, however, lack the boldness necessary for an assault on positions held by disciplined troops, and having no single objective they are gradually frittered away in isolated and futile skirmishes, whereby the defenders are to some extent harassed, but the defences in no way imperilled.
Our enemies began at five o'clock this morning with artillery fire from Bulwaan and Rietfontein on Pepworth's Hill. This unusual activity so early warned us that some movement of more than ordinary importance might be expected. All preparations for the possibility of an attack more determined than the feeble feelers of yesterday had been made in good time, so that there was no hurrying of forces to take up or strengthen positions that might be threatened, and the Boers were evidently somewhat puzzled where to look for the masses of men who showed no sign of movement They thereupon took to shelling the town as if they thought our troops might be concentrating there, and under cover of this vigorous bombardment their riflemen advanced, so far as caution would permit them, against several points wide apart. It must have been with the idea of a feint that they made the first attack from westward against Observation Hill, which was held by outposts of the 5th Lancers, dismounted and trusting to their carbine fire, the ineffectiveness of which, when opposed to Mauser rifles of greater accuracy at long range, soon became evident.
Two companies of the Rifle Brigade had, however, been moved forward to support the cavalry, and their steady shooting checked the enemy's frontal attack. Several officers and other picked shots, lying prone behind boulders, took on the Boers at their own game with perceptible effect at 1200 yards or more, thereby keeping down a fire that might otherwise have harassed our men, who were necessarily exposed at times in taking up positions to meet some change of tactics on the other side. Boers never expose themselves when they find bullets falling dangerously close to them. They will be behind a rock all day if need be, waiting for the chance of a pot-shot, and stay there until darkness gives them an opportunity to get away unseen. They give no hostages to fortune by taking any risks that can be avoided. The game of long bowls and sniping suits them best. When one place gets too hot for them to pot quickly at our men without risk of being potted in turn, they will steal away one by one, wriggling their way between boulders, creeping under cover of bushes, doing anything rather than show themselves as targets for other men's rifles.
They have made the most of physical features, that in this country lend themselves to such tactics, by occupying hills with heavy artillery, in front of which are rough kopjes strewed with trap rock, and round these the Boer riflemen can always move for advance or retirement well screened from our fire. They have, however, to reckon sometimes with the far-reaching power of shrapnel shells. When they ignore that we may manage to catch them in a cluster.
So it happened to-day. After being beaten off from the direct attack on Observation Hill they began feeling round its left flank by way of kopjes, between which and our outposts there is a long bare nek, and in rear of that the railway line to Van Reenan's Pass runs through a deep cutting with open ground beyond. To effect a turning movement of any significance the Boers had choice of two things: either they must show themselves on spurs where there was scant cover, or take to the cutting; and we knew by experience which they would prefer. In anticipation of such a development one field-battery had been placed on the rough slope that juts northward from Range Post, through which runs the main road to Colenso in the south and to several of the Drakensberg passes in the west. Up through a gorge deeply fretted by Klip River this battery commanded the long bare nek. Two other guns, the Maxim-Nordenfelts of Elandslaagte, manned by a comparatively weak detachment, took up a position on their own account at the foot of King's Post near our old permanent, but now disused, camp, whence they could bring a fire to bear on the same point. All tried a few percussion shells by way of testing the range and then turned to the use of shrapnel, which, admirably timed, burst just beyond the nek, searching its reverse slopes and enfilading the railway ravine with a hail of bullets, where apparently the Boers must have been caught in some numbers. At any rate they are said to have lost heavily there, and from that time the attack or rather fusilade directed against Observation Hill began to slacken. We had not many men hit considering that the skirmish had begun soon after daybreak and continued with little cessation up to nine o'clock, when the Rifle Brigade reported three wounded, one being young Lieutenant Lethbridge, who is so badly injured that recovery in his case can hardly be hoped for.
We had not, however, done with the enemy by repulsing him at one point. His big guns opened again presently from Blaauwbank and Rietfontein to the west and north. A smaller battery on Long Hill echoed the deep boom from "Long Tom," who was carrying on a duel with our naval gun, and throwing shells over the town, to burst very near Sir George White's headquarters. Field-guns from the nek near Lombard's Kop joined in chorus, shooting with effect on Tunnel Hill, held by the Liverpools, several of whom were hit. Colour-Sergeant Macdonald went out of the bomb-proof to mark where one shell had struck, when another burst on the same spot, and he fell terribly mangled by jagged fragments of iron. His comrades rushed to aid him, but he died in their arms, saying simply, "What a pity it was I went out to see." In truth the shells did not want looking for to-day. They were falling in rapid succession from one end of Bulwaan on Helpmakaar Hill, where the Devons, thanks to having taken wise precautions in making bomb-proof shelters, suffered little, though "Puffing Billy" turned occasionally to hurl a 94-pounder in that direction when tired of raking Cæsar's Camp and Maiden's Castle, where the Manchesters had not only their flank exposed to this fire, but were smitten in front by a heavy gun the Boers had mounted on Flat-Top Mountain, some three miles off, and by smaller shells that came from automatic guns hidden among scrub on the nearer slopes across Bester's Farm. These did little harm, though the repeated thuds of their discharge, like the rapid strokes of a Nasmyth hammer on its anvil, might have shaken the resolution of any but the steadiest troops, seeing that our field-battery on Maiden's Castle could not for a long time locate the exact hiding-place of those vicious little weapons, and when they did get a chance, the enemy's heavy artillery replied to their fire with a more persistent cannonade than ever. The Manchesters stood manfully the test of long exposure to this galling storm of iron and lead, their fighting line continuing to hold the outer slopes, where from behind boulders they could overlook the hollow between them and their foes, and get occasionally shots at any Boer who happened to show himself incautiously. That did not happen often, and their chances of effective reply to the bullets or shells that lashed the ground about them were few at first.
When an attack of riflemen did begin to develop with some show of being pressed home, the Manchesters were still lying there ready to meet it with a fire steadier than that of the Boers and if anything more deadly. Being secure from flanking movements, since the Border Mounted Rifles were on their right sweeping round Waggon Hill and some companies of the 60th in support, the Manchesters could devote all their attention to that long front, and beat back every attempt of the Boers to cross the valley where a tributary of the Klip River winds past Bester's Farm down to the broad flats by Intombi Spruit. These hostile demonstrations were never very determined or long sustained, and they slackened down to nothing for a time just before noon.
At that hour a curiously impressive incident astonished many of us in camp not less than it did the Boers. Guns, big and small, of our Naval Battery having shotted charges were carefully laid with the enemy's artillery for their mark, and at a given signal they began to fire slowly, with regular intervals between. When twenty-one rounds had been counted everybody knew that it was a Royal salute, in celebration of the Prince of Wales's birthday. Then loud cheers, begun as of right by the bluejackets, representing the senior service, ran round our chains of outposts and fighting men, shaken into light echoes by the jagged rocks, to roll in mightier chorus through the camps, thence onward by river-banks, where groups emerged from their burrows, strengthening the shouts with even more fervour, and into the town, where loyalty to the Crown of England has a meaning at this moment deeper than any of us could ever have attached to it before. "What do you make of it all?" was the signal flashed from hill to hill along the Boer lines, and interpreted by our own experts who hold the key. And well they might wonder, for in all probability a Prince of Wales's birthday has never been celebrated before with a Royal salute of shotted guns against the batteries of a besieging force, and all who are here wish most heartily that the experience may remain unique.
Our enemy's astonishment, however, had the effect of producing a temporary cessation of hostilities. The bombardment was not carried on with its previous vigour, possibly because some detachments, taken unaware by the prolonged artillery fire from our side, had been partially disabled. But the rifle attack against Maiden's Castle and Cæsar's Camp was kept up until near sunset.
In the midst of this cross-fire a flag, with the Geneva emblem of mercy on it, was hoisted at the topmost twig of a low mimosa bush in front of Bester's Farm, which must not be confounded with the other Bester's away to westward, near the Harrismith Railway, and giving its name to a station on that line. There are many branches of the Bester family holding farms in Natal, and nearly all are under a cloud of suspicion at this moment because of their known sympathy with the Boers. That red-cross flag was taken as a sign that the farmstead had been occupied as a hospital, and we respected it accordingly, but, as on other occasions in this curiously conducted campaign, the Boers, who stretch the Geneva Convention for all it is worth in their own favour, made it cover something else. While our soldiers scrupulously avoided firing anywhere near the farmstead that bore that emblem of neutrality, they saw herds of cattle and horses being driven off, and these were followed presently by a trek waggon on which also the red-cross flag waved conspicuously.
In that waggon were several women carrying white sunshades, and among them, it is said, the redoubtable Miss Maggie who used to ride her bicycle through our lines to the enemy's, even after war had been declared and Free State burghers had crossed the border into Natal. If that is so, she and many of her relations have crossed our lines finally, to throw in their lot with the Boers, accompanied by very valuable herds of live-stock. The only Besters who remained in our hands as hostages have, I believe, been allowed to take refuge with sick and wounded at Intombi Spruit camp, where they at least are safe enough under the protection of their Boer friends. Other curious flags were seen about the same place to-day. Lieutenant Fisher of the Manchesters, who though wounded soon after sunrise refused to quit his post, and with half a company held one shoulder of Waggon Hill until the last attack had spluttered out, sent a careful report to his colonel before the ambulance men took him to their field hospital. In this report he gives details of some curious movements among the enemy. One contingent, apparently some foreign legion, showing traces of elementary discipline and evidently not numbering in its ranks many Boers of the old school, advanced boldly across ground that afforded them little cover, and there began to "front form" in fairly good order. They were well within range of Lee-Enfield rifles, and a few volleys well directed sent them to the right-about in anything but good order. Soon after, a second column advanced with even more bravado, headed by a standard-bearer, who carried a red flag. These were said to be Irishmen, who, having elected to serve a republic, and being debarred from fighting under the green banner of their own country, yet not quite ready to acknowledge the supremacy of another race, may have flaunted the emblem of liberty by way of compromise. More probably, however, they were a mixed lot owning no common country, but willing or unwilling to serve under any colours with equal impartiality. Two or three shrapnels bursting in front of them to a vibrato accompaniment of rifle fire many were seen to fall, but whether badly hit or not nobody on our side could say. At any rate, these adventurous auxiliaries are likely to learn discretion from the wily Boer after such an experience.
The attack, such as it was, had failed on both the positions threatened. It was never pressed home with energy at any point, and unless the Boers prove to be as good at concentration as they are in mobility, there is not the remotest chance for them to achieve even a temporary success by rifle attack against infantry whose discipline and steadiness have not been shaken in the slightest degree by shell fire yet. What losses our foes suffered we have no means of knowing, but they were probably much heavier than our own, which numbered five killed and twenty-four wounded, mostly by shells, in the twelve hours of intermittent fighting.