Sir Redvers Buller's second attempt—A message from the Queen—Last sad farewells—Burial of Steevens and Lord Ava—At dead of night—Relief army north of the Tugela—Water difficulties surmised—A look in at Bulwaan—Spion Kop from afar—What the watchers saw—The Boers trekking—Buller withdraws—The "key" thrown away—Good-bye to luxuries—Precautions against disease—"Chevril"—The damming of the Klip—Horseflesh unabashed—One touch of pathos—Vague memories of home—Sweet music from the south—Buller tries again—Disillusionment—The last pipe of tobacco
Whatever may have been the precise cost to the Boers of their bold attempt to rush the British defences on 6th January, it was certainly heavy enough to prevent its being renewed. From this time forward they settled themselves resignedly to wait until disease and starvation in the town should have done for them what their best and bravest had failed to do, man against man. And, indeed, disease following upon many long weeks of privation, of nights and days passed in the trenches under drenching rain, or the fierce rays of the African sun, began now to make havoc among the troops. Many a brave fellow, who had fought and won at Dundee or at Elandslaagte, who with fierce, courage had endured in the foremost line in the struggle at Bester's Ridge, now fell a victim to enteric fever or dysentery in the camp at Intombi. The lists of the sick and the mortality returns grew daily more formidable, rations soon had to be reduced, and all within the town, patient as had been their endurance, now began to look eagerly towards the relief that Sir Redvers Buller had promised in a month. As the time approached at which his second attempt to force the Tugela might be expected, hope revived. The relieving column, it was known, had been reinforced, and it seemed impossible that the enemy could once again bar its progress.
During the fierce fighting at Ladysmith there were times when Sir George White had grave fears that he would not be longer able to hold the defences against the enemy. The fortunes of the day, as the hours lengthened, were reflected in a series of telegrams which were flashed through by him to Sir Redvers Buller in his camp south of the Tugela. One of these brief heliograms reported that the defenders were "hard pressed," and in the afternoon, somewhat tardily as it seems, General Buller made a demonstration with all his available force towards the enemy's trenches. The object was to hold the Boers to their positions on the river, and to prevent the commandos attacking Ladysmith from being reinforced. As far as could be ascertained the enemy, however, were in full strength on the north side of the river, and after ineffectual efforts had been made to draw their fire the British force returned to camp. Within four days of this movement, Sir Redvers Buller advanced westward from Chieveley to make his second attempt to cross the Tugela and to relieve the town; and it is with the hopes inspired there by the news and with the tense anxiety with which every indication of advance or retreat on the distant hills was watched by the beleaguered garrison, that Mr. Pearse's notes at this time in great measure deal.
January 11.—The bombardment has gone on vigorously for several days, and the Boers are busy on new works, probably with the idea of "bluffing" us into the belief that they mean to mount new guns, while in reality they are sending reinforcements southward to intercept General Buller. The reception yesterday of a message from the Queen thanking the troops here for their gallant defence aroused much enthusiasm. Lord Ava's death to-day causes profound regret in every regiment of Hamilton's Brigade and other camps, where his soldierly qualities and manly bearing made him a favourite with men and officers alike. Conspicuous for pluck among the bravest, he met death—where he had faced it in nearly every action since joining this force—with the righting line. Of all who fell dead or mortally wounded in the heroic defence of Bester's Ridge, none will be more sincerely mourned than he. The civilians of Ladysmith join with the troops in expressions of respectful sympathy to Lord Dufferin and his family. To-night Lord Ava's body was buried in the little cemetery, a scene impressive in its simple solemnity. Brigadier-General Hamilton with his staff; Colonel Rhodes; Major King, A.D.C., representing the Headquarters Staff, with Sir George White's personal aide-de-camp; several officers of the Imperial Light Horse, among whom Lord Ava was wounded; Captain Tilney of Lord Ava's old regiment; officers of the 5th Lancers, Gordon Highlanders, and Royal Artillery; several prominent townsmen, and five war correspondents stood beside the grave.
January 15.—Early this morning sixty shots from heavy guns were heard far off to the southward, giving us hope that General Buller had begun his promised advance for our relief. A few hours later I received a heliograph message from my eldest son, whom I supposed to be still in England, saying that he was with the South African Light Horse on probation for a lieutenancy. To-night there was another sorrowful gathering of correspondents in the cemetery, round the grave of our brilliant colleague, G.W. Steevens, who died this afternoon from a sudden relapse, when most of us hoped that he was on the way to recovery. Bulwaan searchlight, shining on us like a Cyclops' eye, followed the sad procession along miles of winding road to the cemetery, then left us in darkness beside the grave where our comrade was buried at midnight. He had been tenderly nursed throughout his long illness by Mr. Maud of the Graphic, who was chief mourner. He died in the house of Mr. Fortescue Carter, the historian of the previous Boer War.
January 18.—Kaffir runners report that General Lyttelton's division crossed the Tugela at Potgieter's Drift yesterday, and Sir Charles Warren's at Trichard's Drift to-day. We also hear of Lord Dundonald being near Acton Homes with a force of Irregular Horse, some of whom wear sakkabulu feathers in their hats and carry "assegais." Possibly these are Lancers, but we cannot identify them. These stories may be true, for we hear heavy firing in the south-west at frequent intervals. The Intelligence Department expects an attack on one of our outposts to-night. Therefore we may go to bed and sleep in peace.
January 22.—Since Friday Sir Redvers Buller's guns have been pounding away for several hours of every day, beginning sometimes at dawn or carrying on far into the night. The throbbing vibrations of heavy artillery afar off seemed to fill the air all through Sunday, and we have seen shells bursting along the heights of Intaba Mnyama or Black Mountain, not much more than twelve miles in a straight line from Ladysmith. If our troops are attacking positions successively where there is no more water than can be brought to them from the Tugela they must be having a hard time, for the shade temperature at midday rises to 104°, and we know by experience what that means in the full blaze of sunshine on bare kopjes where the smooth boulders feel scorchingly hot to the touch. I watch the distant cannonade with a keen personal interest, for when there is fighting along the Tugela the South African Light Horse are surely in it.
Before daybreak this morning Colonel Knox, in command of Mounted Infantry, Carabiniers, Border Mounted Rifles, and a detachment of Colonel Dartnell's Frontier Field Force went out to make a reconnaissance round one shoulder of Bulwaan. They got up through the wooded neck, had a look into the Boer position but saw not an enemy, and got back without having a shot fired at them until they showed in the plain again. Then ping! ping! came the Mauser bullets, and a "Pom-Pom" opened on them. Colonel Knox gave an order for his men to form loose order and gallop, and thus they got out of danger with not a man hit.
January 24.—All day long I have watched from Observation Buller's batteries shelling the whole range of Intaba Mnyama from the peaked "paps" or "sisters," past the Kloof north-west of them, and along the more commanding Hog's Back. The Boers call part of this range Spion Kop, and that name has been adopted by our Intelligence Staff as presenting less difficulties of orthography than the Zulu designation. So Spion Kop it must be henceforth. From a laager behind one peak I saw an ambulance cart with its Red Cross flag go up to the crest, which seemed a dangerous place for it, especially as a piece of light artillery opened beside the cart a moment later. I could see needles of light flashing out like electric sparks, only redder, but could hear no report. Nothing but a "Pom-Pom" could have made those quivering flashes, yet how it got there with an ambulance cart beside it I must leave the Boers to explain. The shelling of heights with Lyddite and shrapnel went on hour after hour, and towards evening some thought they heard a faint sound as of rifle volleys. The Boers came hurrying down in groups from Spion Kop's crest, their waggons were trekking from laagers across the plain towards Van Reenan's, and men could be seen rounding up cattle as if for a general rearward movement. To us watching it seemed as if the Boers were beaten and knew it.
January 25.—The Boer trek continued for several hours this morning and well on into the afternoon, when it slackened. Then we saw some horsemen turn back to make for the cleft ridge of Doorn Kloof, where one of the big Creusots had opened fire, Buller's naval guns or howitzers replying with Lyddite shells. The roar of our field-guns has died away instead of drawing nearer, and we look in vain for any sign of British cavalry on the broad plain, where they should be by now if Sir Redvers Buller's infantry attack had succeeded.
January 26.—The Boers are back in their former laagers. There is no sound of fighting this side of the Tugela, only a few shells falling on Spion Kop, where Boer tents can be seen once more whitening the steep. We need no heliograph signal to tell us the meaning of all this. For us there is to be another sickening period of hope deferred; but we try to hide our dejection, and persuade the anxious townsfolk that it is only a necessary pause while General Buller brings up his big guns and transport.
January 28.—It is now no longer possible to conceal the fact that the fight on Spion Kop ended in another reverse for General Buller, though from our side it seemed as if he had the enemy beaten and demoralised. It is now published in orders that he captured the heights with part of one brigade which, however, retired after General Woodgate was wounded, when the Boers retook it. From Kaffir runners we hear another version which makes out that our troops were complete masters of the situation if there had been any one in command at that moment, with a soldier's genius, prompt to take advantage of the enemy's discomfiture. Had reinforcements been sent up in time Spion Kop need never have been abandoned, and Buller might have kept the key to Ladysmith which was then in his hands. Not another position between him and us remained for the Boers to make a stand on. He would then have outflanked and made untenable the entrenched heights facing Colenso. But perhaps he was anxious about his own line of communications. We only know that he has gone back, and the work accomplished at much sacrifice of life must be done over again from some other point.
January 30.—In spite of all we know, there are still persistent rumours rosy-hued but all equally improbable. According to these Kimberley has been relieved, and Lord Roberts is marching on Bloemfontein. Sir Redvers Buller has retaken Spion Kop. He has gained a victory at some other point, but where or when nobody knows. Four hundred Boers are surrounded south of the Tugela with no chance of escape. A similar rumour reached us weeks ago. Those four hundred Boers must be getting short of food by this time. And yet another story makes out that numbers of the enemy attempting to fall upon Buller's supply column at Skiet's Drift were completely annihilated. The Standard and Diggers' News could hardly beat this for imaginative ingenuity. It does not reassure us. On the contrary a general feeling of depression seems to have set in, caused perhaps by the ennervating weather. A deluge of rain has drenched the land, from which mephitic vapours rise to clog our spirits. The knowledge that rations are running short may also have some effect. We have not felt the strain severely yet. There is no reduction in the issue of meat or bread, but luxuries drop out of the list one by one, and the quantities of tea, sugar, coffee, and similar things diminish ominously. Vegetables were exhausted long ago, and a daily ration of vinegar has been ordered for every man, whose officer must see that he gets it, as a precaution against scurvy.
February 1.—It has come at last. Horseflesh is to be served out for food, instead of being buried or cremated. We do not take it in the solid form yet, or at least not consciously, but Colonel Ward has set up a factory, with Lieutenant McNalty as managing director, for the conversion of horseflesh into extract of meat under the inviting name of Chevril. This is intended for use in hospitals, where nourishment in that form is sorely needed, since Bovril and Liebig are not to be had. It is also ordered that a pint of soup made from this Chevril shall be issued daily to each man. I have tasted the soup and found it excellent, prejudice notwithstanding. We have no news from General Buller beyond a heliogram, warning us that a German engineer is coming with a plan in his pocket for the construction of some wonderful dam which is to hold back the waters of the Klip River and flood us out of Ladysmith.
February 3.—Horseflesh was placed frankly on the bill of fare to-day as a ration for troops and civilians alike, but many of the latter refused to take it. Hunger will probably make them less squeamish, but one cannot help sympathising with the weakly, who are already suffering from want of proper nourishment, and for whom there is no alternative. Market prices have long since gone beyond the reach of ordinary purses.
February 4.—One pathetic incident touched me nearly this morning, as a forerunner of many that may come soon. I found sitting on a doorstep, apparently too weak to move, a young fellow of the Imperial Light Horse—scarcely more than a boy—his stalwart form shrunken by illness. He was toying with a spray of wild jasmine, as if its perfume brought back vague memories of home. I learned that he had been wounded at Elandslaagte and again on Waggon Hill. Then came Intombi and malaria. He had only been discharged from hospital that morning. His appetite was not quite equal to the horseflesh test, so he had gone without food. I took him to my room and gave him such things as a scanty store could furnish, with the last dram of whisky for a stimulant, and I never felt more thankful than at that moment for the health and strength that give an appetite robust enough for any fare.
February 5.—Just now one could not be wakened by a more welcome sound than the boom of Buller's guns. It stirred the hazy stillness at dawn this morning like sweet music. It grew louder and apparently nearer as the morning advanced, until in imagination one could mark the positions of individual batteries pounding away opposite Colenso and Skiet's drift. At last the roar died away in sullen growls, giving us the hope that a position had been gained.
February 6.—Again at daybreak we hear the guns of our relieving force at work in a vigorous cannonade away to the south-west, where Skiet's Drift lies. They quicken at times to twenty shots a minute, the field batteries chiming in faintly between the rounds of heavier artillery. From Observation Hill we can see the enemy's Creusot on a notched ridge by Doom Kloof replying. Soon after seven o'clock a lyddite shell bursts there. Its red glare is followed by flame that does not come from lyddite. Above this darts a black dense cloud speckled with solid fragments that shoot into the air like bombs. Before we have time to think that a magazine has been blown up a double report, merging into a low rumble, reaches our ears. Something has happened to the Boer battery, and the big gun there remains silent. Buller's artillery continues firing, more slowly but steadily, at the rate of eight shots a minute, and rifle fire can be heard rolling nearer all the afternoon. Boers are reported to be inspanning their teams and collecting cattle on the plains. The distance is dulled by mists, and the Drakensberg peaks are only dimly visible, but there are clouds of dust winding that way, and we know that the Boer waggons are trekking on the off-chance that a general retirement may be forced upon them. Is this hundredth day of siege to be the last, or shall we wake to-morrow to hear that the Boer laagers are back again, and the relieving force once more south of the Tugela?
February 7.—Sir Redvers Buller evidently finds that the new key of the road to Ladysmith fits no better than the old, and we begin to doubt whether he will be able to force the lock yet. Skiet's Drift is a difficult way, leading through a bushy country scarred with dongas and commanded by successive ridges, of which the Boers, with their great mobility and rapidity of concentration, know how to make the most. They still hold Monger's Hill, and their big gun has opened again from the notched ridge by Doom Kloof. Buller's guns are hammering at these positions, but apparently with little effect, for to every salvo from them the big Creusot makes reply. Nor is there any sign now of a Boer movement towards the rear. On the contrary, they have a new camp, possibly of hospital tents, where Long Valley merges into Doom Kloof, and almost within range of our naval guns if we had them mounted on Waggon Hill.
While the fight rages near Tugela heights we are left in comparative peace here. "Puffing Billy" has not opened to-day, and his twin brother of Telegraph Hill has been silent many days. Probably he was taken away to reinforce the artillery now opposing General Buller's advance. If relief does not come soon we shall have something worse than privation to dread, for scurvy has broken out at Intombi camp, where medical comforts are scarce, having been frittered away by the negligence or dishonesty of hospital attendants, over whom nobody seems to exercise proper control. The mismanagement of affairs there and the whole system of hospital administration at Ladysmith will have to be investigated after the siege. At noon to-day we had hopes that the Boer right flank was being hard pressed. That is the only practicable way in, but the effort has apparently not been pushed far. The heliograph has begun to blink out a long message, and that is always a bad sign.
February 8.—Small things assume an importance altogether out of proportion just now, and one worries about a last pipe of tobacco when issues of vital moment to us are being fought out ten miles off. I have come to the end of mine, and there is no more to be got for love or money. A ton of Kaffir leaf has just been requisitioned from coolies, who were selling it at twelve shillings the pound to soldiers, and who have now to accept a twelfth of that price. There are thus thirty-six thousand ounces for distribution, but even that quantity will not last long. Nobody would have the heart to take any of it from soldiers who have been reduced for weeks past to smoking dried sun-flower leaves and even tea-leaves. Six shots were fired from Bulwaan battery this afternoon after a silence of nearly two days. We generally accept such sudden outbursts as indicating that something has gone wrong with our enemies elsewhere, but we can see no signs of hurried movement among them, and though General Buller's guns have been active half the day they sound no nearer. A long message was heliographed through just before sunset, and rumours of ill news are whispered about with bated breath by people who wish to establish a reputation for early knowledge, but at the risk of being charged before a court-martial with the dissemination of news calculated to cause despondency. We had a case of that kind the other day when Foss, the champion swimmer of South Africa, was rightly convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for deprecating the skill of our generals in conversation with soldiers. Tommy may hold his own opinions on that point, but he resents hearing them expressed for him through a pro-Boer mouthpiece, and this man may consider himself lucky to escape summary chastisement as a preliminary to the durance vile which is intended to be a wholesome warning for others of like tendency.
And indeed the garrison and civilians of Ladysmith, who now began to feel the sharp pinch of hunger, had need to silence any whose voices might be raised to rob them of their attenuated hopes. No official statement had yet been made on the subject, but it was already becoming evident that they had yet a time of painful waiting before relief could come. To the hundred days which they had trusted might complete the period of their trial a score were to be added before their sufferings could be forgotten in the joy of deliverance.