'I am shut up.'—Ps. lxxxviii. 8 and Jer. xxxvi. 5.
Chronicle of the part taken by the detachment 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Siege of Ladysmith from November 1st, 1899, to February 28th, 1900. By Lieut. L. F. Renny, 2nd Batt. Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
The detachment which was left behind in Ladysmith when the battalion was ordered to Colenso consisted of two officers, three non-commissioned officers and fifty-one men. The latter were made up by a section of 'G' company which was left on piquet because they could not be relieved in time, and the men of the regimental transport, which had been left behind owing to there being no facility for sending the waggons and animals by train with the battalion.
The morning after the departure of the latter I was ordered by the D.A.A.G. of the divisional troops to proceed to the various camps in Section A, and find convenient space for the transport waggons. I found the necessary ground in rear of the camp of the 1st Battalion Gloucester Regiment, behind the railway cutting leading to the Orange Free State Junction. Here we were joined in the afternoon by Lieutenant H. W. Higginson, who took command, and the section of 'G' company, when the Gloucesters helped us in every way, and made us as comfortable as they possibly could. All that day we were left in comparative peace, there being no firing on either side; but the next morning about 5 a.m. the Boers opened with 'Long Tom' from Pepworth Hill, and commenced a duel of some hour's duration with our naval 4·7, which was placed on Junction Hill. They also kept up a continual cannonade (p. 077) with their long-range twelve-pounders, but did little or no damage, as they had not yet discovered the exact location of our camps.
For the next three or four days we remained in the Gloucester's camp and aided in starting the trenches which eventually formed the fort known as 'Tunnel Hill.' This was by no means pleasant work, as it was carried out under fire, the enemy being very quick at spotting our working parties and remarkably so at obtaining our range. We used to watch with great interest the duel every morning between the two big guns. Once the Boers hoisted a large white flag over their epaulement and proceeded to repair some small damage to their gun—they have very weird ideas about the white flag.
On November 7th our detachment was suddenly ordered to proceed to 'Bell's Spruit,' and form the guard there. I was ordered to hand over our transport to the Army Service Corps, so we took away the majority of the men and brought the strength of our piquet up to thirty-one men; the transport was sent to the railway station yard for the use of the Army Service Corps, where it remained throughout the siege. We were stationed at the mouth of the spruit just where it runs through the ridge opposite the cemetery. Our fortifications consisted of a thick wall with sandbag loopholes running right across the spruit; about fifty yards in front were strips of high and low wire entanglement, making it practically impossible for the enemy to rush the post at night. By night we had to man two sangars placed on the hills on each side of the spruit. I know nothing more productive of bad language than visiting the sentries on those hills in the dark, scrambling over the hugest boulders up a hill like the side of a house. We were not very comfortable at first, there being absolutely no shelter from sun or rain, but after about a week we managed to obtain a couple of railway tarpaulins, and rigged up shelters on the sides of the spruit. We were all very (p. 078) lucky in not getting hit, as the enemy had a nasty habit of bursting shrapnel over the place and sending common shell on to the crests, which produced a shower of rocks, splinters and stones; but although we were in the spruit for seven weeks with absolutely no cover, not a man in the detachment was hit. During our stay in the spruit our rations were exceptionally good, as we got extras in the way of bacon, jam, chocolate, &c.
The night-work at this time was very hard, as everybody not actually on outpost duty had to work at the trenches from 6.30 in the evening till 3 a.m. the next morning. Sleep being impossible in the day-time owing to the heat and a plague of flies, this continual night-work told on the men severely. On November 9th the enemy made a feeble attempt at capturing the place, and came on in considerable numbers against Observation Hill, but were easily repulsed. On the night of December 7th-8th an attack was made on Gun Hill, where the Boers had a 'Long Tom' and a five-inch howitzer, besides one or two small guns. These guns had been annoying us very greatly for the past three weeks, and we were all delighted in the early morning when we heard the attack had been successful, and the guns blown up. We none of us knew anything about this affair till it was over. I was visiting our posts about 2.30 a.m. when I saw two large flashes on Gun Hill; on listening I could not hear any shells travelling or bursting, so concluded the enemy were amusing themselves by firing blank charges. It was not till we saw our column returning at dawn that we solved the problem. We found the spruit very unpleasant in wet weather, as the water used to come down like a mountain torrent and wash away bits of our wall and shelters; after wet nights we used to spend our time in digging our belongings out of the sand, having spent the night sitting on the rocks.
About December 18th, after the failure of General Buller's first attempt to relieve us, there was a general interchange (p. 079) of posts amongst the troops of our section, and the detachment received orders to proceed to the Newcastle Road examining guard. We were all heartily sick of the spruit, and glad of the change. It was about this time that our rations began to be diminished, and we had completely run out of all extras. The post of the examining guard was on the road just inside the ridge which formed our general line of defence, but by night we moved out as a piquet about half a mile on to the veld into a spruit which ran under the Harrismith line, whence we patrolled out to Brooke's Farm, and the surrounding country. I think this was the worst post we had throughout the siege, as we came in for a long spell of wet weather, and night after night had to lie out on the open veld from 8 p.m. till 4 a.m., wet to the skin and miserably cold. The duties on this post came very hard on our men, as we had to find a double and single sentry by day, so that they never got a night in bed, and only about one day in three off duty.
On Christmas Eve the men came into possession of a fine pig, so that we all had pork for our Christmas dinner, a great change from eternal 'trek ox,' but unfortunately nothing stronger to drink than tea. I'm sure it was the first Christmas any of us had spent in such an uncongenial way.
On January 6th the enemy made their desperate attack on Waggon Hill and Caesar's Camp. They seem to have completely surprised our outposts, as they succeeded in crawling up the hill in the dark, and the fighting commenced at 3 a.m. The cannonade all day was something tremendous, 'Long Tom' firing 125 rounds. They kept us pretty busy on our side of the defences as well, but never developed any serious attack. Whilst on this post we were subjected to a continuous and daily course of sniping, the enemy getting on the kopjes behind Brooke's Farm, and firing all day at a range of 2800 yards. At this range the (p. 080) bullets used to whiz over the hill and drop amongst us, although we were only a few yards behind the crest. Higginson and I used to spend hours lying on the crest with rifles and glasses trying to spot them, but never succeeded in doing so, as they used to take up their position before dawn and never move all day.
It was about this time that our men began to show the effects of exposure and constant sentry-go, and several of them went down with fever and rheumatism; but we were extremely lucky throughout the siege, having only one casualty: Private Ward, 'G' company, a reservist, who died of enteric at Intombi Camp.
I forgot to mention that on January 6th our section had to be entirely denuded of supports and reserves in order that they might be sent to Waggon Hill, so that if the enemy had attacked us seriously we should have had a hard job to keep them back.
On January 25th the detachment was ordered to garrison Liverpool Castle, a fort overlooking the Newcastle Road, but we had not been there twelve hours before we were ordered to Tunnel Hill. This latter post consisted of a large main fort capable of holding two hundred men, and two small works about a quarter of a mile on each flank, in all of which we had to find a guard. Our fighting strength was at this time reduced to twenty-seven men, so that they did guard and patrol alternate nights. We had to send out five of the latter during the night about half a mile to the front and a mile laterally along the valley. The confinement in this fort was rather trying, and the eternal manning of the trenches at 4 a.m. very monotonous. After about three weeks on this post I was suddenly seized with a 'go' of fever, and was sent down to a room in one of the houses. When I rejoined the detachment, after a fortnight on the sick list, they had moved to the railway station as guard over the bridge across the Klip River. Here we had to endure rather a severe dose of (p. 081) 'Long Tom'—this gun never missed a day without dropping shells into and round the station, it was one of its favourite spots, and all the tin buildings about bore evidence of its attentions. One shell, pitching in the parcels office, blew the roof off and the floor in, having first penetrated half-a-dozen walls to get there. We had trenches on our side of the river, which we manned, as usual, at 4 a.m. We also had to man them in the afternoon about 5 o'clock, when the train from Intombi Camp was due. This used to be rather a comic proceeding: a 'key' was made in the line about half a mile outside the station, where the train was brought to a standstill, then either Higginson or myself had to walk out and inspect the train to see there were no Boers inside it. We often used to wonder what would have been our lot if the train had been full of them. On our reporting 'all correct' to the Railway Staff Officer (Captain Young, R.E.), the train was allowed to proceed into the station, and the little play was over till the next day. This was undoubtedly the most comfortable job we had, as the men lived in a shed, whilst Higginson and I had a railway carriage.
On the afternoon of February 28th we heard the joyful tidings of General Buller's victory at Pieter's Hill, and in the evening descried Lord Dundonald and his men crossing the plain; our wild excitement may be left to the imagination. I'm sure we all put on about seven pounds of our lost weight at the mere thought of our being at last relieved. Our troubles were not over yet, however, as the next morning we were ordered back to Tunnel Hill, a spot we had learned to loathe with a truly deep loathing. This move was due to our flying column going out to hurry the enemy's retreat, most of the troops in our section taking part in it. For some unknown reason we were kept four or five days in that smelly fort, and it was not till March 7th that we received orders to rejoin the battalion, which was encamped about two miles out of Ladysmith. We all felt as though we had begun a (p. 082) new life; but it was heartbreaking to see the havoc in our regiment; one had to look about to find faces that one recognised.
Our rations were pretty well reduced towards the end of the siege: one biscuit, one pound of horseflesh, two teaspoonfuls of sugar, and a pinch of tea is not much to keep body and soul together, and we were all pretty feeble and pulled down. I think we must have done the record piquet duty of any men in any service, as we were never relieved throughout the whole siege; I suppose this was on account of being left as a separate unit all through, but we certainly thought it rather hard work. It is a wonder that our little detachment stuck out four months' constant exposure with so little sickness, whilst our luck in sitting under that constant shelling without a man being hit was nothing short of providential.
I have merely chronicled the chief moves and duties of the detachment throughout the siege: it would take a small book to set down all our little experiences, details, and troubles.