Boer pæan of victory—Rations cut down—Sausage without mystery—The "helio" moves east—Sick and dying at Intombi—Famine prices at market—Laughter quits the camps—A kindly thing by the enemy—Good news at last—Heroes in tatters—The distant tide of battle—Pulse-like throb of rifles—Two sons for the Empire—British infantry on Monte Cristo—Boer ambulances moving north—"'Ave you 'eard the noos?"—Rations increased—Bulwaan strikes his tents—"With a rifle and a red cross"—Buller "going strong"—Cronje's surrender—A sorry celebration—"A beaten army in full retreat"—"Puffing Billy" dismantled—General Buller's message—relief at hand
Sir Redvers Buller's third attempt to force his way through to Ladysmith failed on 8th February, when he withdrew his forces from Vaalkranz to the south side of the Tugela. Their success was announced by the Boers about Ladysmith in their own way. At half-past two on the morning of 9th February, night was rent by the sudden glare of a search-light from Bulwaan, and soon came the scream of shells hurtling over the town. It was the Boer pæan of victory, and it sent the people hurrying to their underground refuges, to which the unco' guid had given the name of "funk-holes," but did no damage. Its purport was half-divined by the defenders. The news was still said to be good, but there were head-shakings, and even the stoutest optimism found itself unequal to the strain when it was announced that rations were to be cut down. If things were going well, "Why, in the name of success," asks Mr. Pearse in his notes for 9th February, "should our universal provider, Colonel Ward, take this occasion to reduce rations? We are now down to 1 lb. of meat, including horse, four ounces of mealie meal, four ounces of bread, with a sausage ration daily 'as far as possible.' Sausages may be mysteries elsewhere, but we know them here to be horse-flesh, highly spiced, and nothing more. Bread is a brown, 'clitty' mixture of mealie meal, starch, and the unknown. Vegetables we have none, except a so-called wild spinach that overgrew every neglected garden, and could be had for the taking until people discovered how precious it was. Tea is doled out at the rate of one-sixth of an ounce to each adult daily, or in lieu thereof, coffee mixed with mealie meal."
February 10 was the day which had been looked forward to as the one on which relief would arrive. It did not come, and though the messages flashed over the hills from the beleaguered town at the time were full of an heroic cheerfulness, the disappointment was hard to bear. For with rations reduced, with disease harvesting for death where fire and steel had failed, the defenders were now face to face with the grimmer realities of war. Yet hope was never absent, and never at any time did the stern determination to bid the enemy defiance to the last flicker or grow fainter. Mr. Pearse's diary for this period gives many details of the highest interest of the position in the town, and suggests the sufferings, while it does justice to the splendid spirit of the garrison:—
February 10.—Heliograph signals have been twinkling spasmodically, but their language is written in a sealed book. We only know that these "helios" come not from kopjes this side of Tugela, nor from the former signal-station south of Potgieter's and Skiet's Drifts, as they did a few days ago, but from hills near Weenen, as in the months before Buller crossed the Tugela, thus indicating a retrograde movement. It may be a hopeful sign of communication with some flanking column away eastward, and therefore kept secret, but we have our doubts. Depression sets in again, and, as always happens when there is bad news or dread of it, the death-rate at Intombi Hospital camp has gone up to fifteen in a single day. Since the date of investment four hundred and eighty patients have died there from all causes. It does not seem a large proportion out of the eighteen thousand under treatment from time to time, but it is very high in view of the fact that we have only had thirty-six soldiers and civilians in all killed by the thousands of shells that have been hurled at us in fifteen weeks.
The market's sensitive pulse also shows that there is a suspicion of something wrong. Black tobacco in small quantities may still be had by those who care to pay forty-five shillings for a half-pound cake of it, as one Sybarite did to-day. A box of fifty inferior cigars sold for £6:10s., a packet of ten Virginia cigarettes for twenty-five shillings, and eggs at forty-eight shillings a dozen. Soldiers who cannot hope to supplement their meagre rations by private purchases at this rate stroll about the streets languid, hungry, silent. There is no laughter among them.
February 12.—The enemy have done a courteous, kindly thing in allowing Mrs. Doveton, whose husband lies wounded and dying at Intombi, to pass through their lines. Not only so, but the General placed an ambulance-cart at her disposal, with an escort, from whom she received every mark of respectful sympathy. Yet Major Doveton was well known as one of their most strenuous opponents, a prominent member of the Reform Committee, and a leader who has played his part manfully in every fight where the Imperial Light Horse has been engaged. He was badly wounded among the band of heroes who held Waggon Hill.
February 13.—Good news at last. It comes by heliograph, telling us that Lord Roberts has entered the Free State with a large force, mainly of mounted troops and artillery, wherewith he hoped to relieve the pressure round Ladysmith in a few days.
This afternoon I paid a visit to Brigadier-General Hamilton in his tent beside the Manchesters on Cæsar's Camp. Through all the glorious history of their services in Flanders, the Peninsula, the Crimea, or Afghanistan, men of the gallant 63rd have never done harder work than on breezy Bester's Ridge, where they have furnished outposts and fatigue parties every day for four weary months. Is it any wonder that they are the raggedest, most weather-stained, and most unkempt crowd who ever played the part of soldiers? There is not a whole shoe or a sound garment among them. They are ill-fed and overworked, yet they go to an extra duty cheerfully, knowing that their General has faith in their watchfulness and grit. All honour to them! Like "the dirty half-hundred" of Peninsular fame, they have been too busy to have time for washing and mending.
Kaffirs report that the Free State Boers are all trekking towards Van Reenan's.
This native report, true or false, marked the beginnings of a renewed hope that was not again to suffer defeat, but was now quickly to grow into the substantial expectation and the certainty of relief. Lord Roberts was already across the borders of the Free State, and simultaneously Sir Redvers Buller was preparing for his last attempt to roll back the burghers from the Tugela, and to break down the barrier so long maintained between his army and Ladysmith. His operations during the week following were watched with intense anxiety, but with growing confidence. On 20th February Mr. Pearse wrote the following:—
For a whole week daily we have heard the roar of artillery southward and westward along the Tugela, seen Lyddite shells bursting on Boer positions, and watched the signs of battle, from which we gather hope that slowly but surely Buller's army is drawing nearer to us, though by a different and harder road from the one it tried last. We know that for a whole week on end those troops have been fighting their way against entrenched positions that might baulk the bravest soldiers, and still the roar of battle rolls our way, until between the muffled boom of heavy guns we can hear faintly the pulse-like throb of rifle volleys.
Amid all this strain, intent upon vital issues, one hardly takes note of trivialities. Even the daily bombardment seems of little importance, and nobody cares how many shots "Puffing Billy" fired yesterday. For me the strain is tightened by news heliographed this morning that another son has come round from Bulawayo and joined the relieving force as a lieutenant of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry. I don't know whether pride or anxiety is paramount when I think of these two boys fighting their way towards me. Both are with Lord Dundonald's Irregular Horse, of which we have heard much from Kaffirs, who tell us that Thorneycroft's Rifles and the "Sakkabulu boys," who are now identified as the South African Light Horse, have been in the front of every fight. It may seem egotistical to let this personal note stand, but I take the incident to be an illustration of the spirit that animates English youth at this moment.
On Saturday (February 17) the artillery fire sounded far off on the other side of the Tugela. Next morning we could see shells bursting along the nearer crest of Monte Cristo, and up to eleven o'clock the fierce cannonade was ceaseless. How the action had ended we could only judge by Boer movements. From Observation Hill I saw their ambulance waggons trekking heavy across the plain behind Rifleman's Ridge, then a bigger waggon, uncovered, drawn by a large span of oxen. There may have been a long gun in that waggon, its movements were so slow and cumbersome. Two ambulance waggons passed in the opposite direction, light and moving at a gallop.
Yesterday came news of General Buller's success in the capture of Cingolo Hill, but before it was signalled we had seen from Cæsar's Camp British infantry crowning the nearer ridge of Monte Cristo. They came up in column, and deployed with a steadiness that showed them to be masters of the position. In the evening I met Sir George White, who told me that he believed Sir Redvers had gained another success. To-day, again, shells from the southern guns have been bursting about ridges south of Cæsar's Camp, where the Boers are still in force. This afternoon, and well on to evening, we could hear the busy hum of field guns in action firing very rapidly, as if a fresh attack were about to develop. Sir Redvers is evidently resolved not to give the enemy any rest or time for fortifying other positions.
The above was written on 20th February. General Buller had captured Hlangwane Hill, the real key of the enemy's position, and on the following day the whole of Warren's Division crossed the Tugela by a pontoon bridge thrown across by the Royal Engineers. The significance of the fact was at once recognised at Ladysmith, and that day saw the last of the hated horse-flesh ration. Events were now moving fast. The Boers were preparing for flight, hope began to beat high in the town, and already the memory of past sufferings and the irk of those still being borne seemed little in the light of oncoming deliverance. Mr. Pearse's notes at this last stage in the long stand for the Empire are interesting reading:—
February 22.—Trivialities are supreme after all. Yesterday we were all more jubilant at the announcement that horse-flesh would not be issued as rations again than on the score of General Buller's signal telling us he had driven the Boers from all their positions across the Tugela. To-day soldiers greeted each other with a cheery "'Ave you 'eard the noos? They say there'll be full rations to-day." An extra half-pound of meat, five biscuits instead of one and a quarter, and a few additional ounces of mealie meal, were more to them at that moment than a British victory.
February 23.—For several days past the naval 12-pounder on Cæsar's Camp has shelled Boers at work on the dam below Intombi Camp, causing much consternation. One result of this is that Bulwaan tries to keep down the 12-pounder's fire and leaves the town in comparative quiet. This afternoon there was another surprise for the Boers. "Lady Anne," one of the big twin sisters of the naval armament to which we owe so much, had not fired for just a month until she astonished the gunners on Bulwaan by planting a shell in their works to-day. They ran in all directions, not knowing where to hide, and at the second shot bolted back across the hill. Their tents have disappeared from Bulwaan now. To-day a Boer, or rather a German fighting for the Boers, was caught by our patrols. He had a rifle, a bandolier, pockets full of cartridges, and a red-cross badge, concealed, but ready for use when fighting might be inconvenient.
February 26.—Yesterday numbers of Boers were seen retiring from Pieter's Station across the ridges towards Bester's Valley, but no sign of a general retreat yet beyond the report of scouts, who say that several guns have been seen going back at a gallop behind Bulwaan, followed by nearly two hundred waggons. Last night we heard rifle-firing on the ridges south of Cæsar's Camp and Waggon Hill. It sounded so near that for a time we thought our own outposts were engaged with the enemy. Kaffirs say this was a Boer attack on Pieter's Station, but their story is not confirmed. General Buller heliographs that he is still going strong, but the country is difficult and progress slow. Lord Roberts, according to another helio-signal, has Cronje surrounded. Two attempts to relieve him have been frustrated. All this puts new life into the garrison here. A newspaper telegram was also heliographed announcing that Cronje had surrendered with 6000 men, after losing 1700 killed and wounded. This is probably a bit of journalistic enterprise in anticipation of events.
February 27.—Majuba Day. We expected the Boers to celebrate it at daybreak or before by a salute of shotted guns, but they are silent, apparently watching as we watch, and awaiting the issue of events elsewhere. We know that a fierce fight is raging not twelve miles distant. The thuds of big guns are frequent, we hear the booming of field artillery in salvos, and the shrill ripple of rifles is almost incessant. But our view is narrowed by hills, and we can only see shells bursting on the crests of Grobelaar's Kloof and about flat-topped Table Hill. From their commanding position on Bulwaan the Boers can overlook Pieter's Station to the earthworks that girdle Grobelaar's Kloof, and part of the road by which our troops must advance from Colenso if they advance at all. Noon passed without any Majuba Day salute, but an hour later Bulwaan battery fired twelve shots up Bester's Valley at cattle and men cutting grass, then turned to shell Cove Ridge and Observation Hill, on which one of Captain Christie's howitzers had been mounted during the night. Thus they made up a salute of twenty-one guns. "Puffing Billy" seemed bent on showing what he could do. Three shells burst near where I stood, on the extreme western shoulder of Observation Hill, just missing the howitzer, and one went far beyond the longest range yet reached by any of the enemy's Creusots. For a long time I watched Boer movements, and saw their waggons hurrying back in some confusion from the Helpmakaar road across Conrad Pieter's farm towards Elandslaagte.
At night came a signal from General Buller, "Doing well," followed by a longer message announcing that Cronje was a prisoner in Lord Roberts's camp, having surrendered with all his army unconditionally this morning. Hurrahs are ringing through every camp at this news. Majuba Day has brought glad tidings to us after all!
February 28.—The fortune of war is on our side now. Every sign points to that conclusion. Ladysmith was alarmed soon after midnight by what seemed to civilians the beginning of another attack. Rifles rang out sharply round the whole of our positions. The furious outburst began on Gun Hill. Surprise Hill took it up. It ran along the dongas in which Boer pickets lie hidden, and was carried on to the south beyond Bester's Valley. Our troops did not fire a shot, but still the fusillade continued for half an hour. The Boers were evidently in a state of nervous excitement, brought on by nothing more formidable than twelve men of the Gloucesters who, under Lieutenant Thesbit, had gone out to destroy a laager at the foot of Limit Hill. This incident showed clearly enough that no news had come from Colenso to give our enemies confidence. Few of us, however, were prepared for the sight that met our eyes as we looked from Observation Hill across the broad plain towards Blaauwbank when the mists of morning cleared. There we saw Boer convoys trekking northward from the Tugela past Spion Kop in columns miles long. Others emerged from the defile by Underbrook like huge serpents twining about the hillsides. Waggons were crowded together by hundreds. If one could not go fast enough it had to fall out of the road, making way for others. Above them hung dense dust clouds. Elsewhere in the open, dust whirled in thinner, higher wreaths above groups of horsemen hurrying off in confusion, and paying no heed to the straits of their transport. A beaten army in full retreat if I have ever seen one! Still people doubted and grew uneasy, because of General Buller's silence. Bulwaan fired a single shot by way of parting salute, and then a tripod was rigged up for lifting "Puffing Billy" from his carriage. It was a bold thing to do in broad daylight, and our naval 12-pounders made short work of it by battering the tripod over. After that a steady fire was kept up on the battery to prevent, if possible, the Boers from moving their guns.
Afternoon sunshine enabled General Buller to heliograph the reassuring message for which Ladysmith had been waiting so anxiously. He said: "I beat the enemy thoroughly yesterday, and am sending my cavalry on as fast as very bad roads will admit to ascertain where they are going. I believe the enemy to be in full retreat."It was even so. General Buller and his gallant army, by dint of heroic qualities, with an unshakable determination which faltered before nothing; with a patient endurance which bore all things unmurmuringly; with a sublime courage face to face with the enemy which has earned them the often unwilling praise of the world, had overcome at last. On the night of 28th February, when the above note was written, the head of the relief column, under Lord Dundonald, arrived in the town.