THE eyes of the world were soon to be turned on that camp in the pleasant neighbourhood of Ladysmith, on the borders of Natal, where Sir Geo. White had massed the chief army yet in the field to resist the invaders. He was well aware of the approach of General Joubert's miscellaneous cavalry, yet did not know their enormous strength, and to discover this he sent out a column of over a thousand men on Sunday, the 29th of October, to occupy hills to the left of the ground over which he intended his army to march on the morrow to engage the enemy.
His garrison consisted of ten battalions of infantry, four regiments of cavalry, a good force of mounted infantry, and the 23rd company of the Royal Engineers. With a force of infantry, were sent No. 10 Mountain Battery. In the course of the night the battery mules stampeded with some of the guns. General French went out with two brigade divisions to attack a position upon which the Boers had on Sunday mounted guns. The position was found to have been evacuated, but the General was attacked with considerable vigour by General Joubert's troops, who had many guns and appeared in great numbers on Lombard Kop and Culvara Mountain, east of Ladysmith. The Boers were pushed back for several miles. The British losses were between 80 and 100, and those of the Boers much greater. Sir George White reported that the enemy's guns had a longer range than the British, and they were able to bombard the town at a distance of 6000 yds. One of our Maxims was worked to the last possible moment under a hot shell fire, and, when disabled, was dragged out of range by the gunners, all the mules of the battery having been killed.
As to the reconnaissance next day a telegram reached London that caused much regret and criticism:
From General Officer Commanding Natal to Secretary of State for War.
Ladysmith, 30th October, 11.35 p.m.
I have to report a disaster to a column sent by me to take a position on hill to guard the left flank of the troops. In these operations to-day Royal Irish Fusiliers, No. 10 Mountain Battery, and the Gloucester Regiment were surrounded in the hills, and after losing heavily had to capitulate. Casualties not yet ascertained. A man of the Royal Irish Fusiliers employed as hospital orderly came in under flag of truce with a letter from the survivers of the column, and asked for assistance to bury the dead. I fear there is no doubt of the truth of the report. I formed the plan in carrying out of which the disaster occurred, and am alone responsible for that plan. _ No blame whatever attaches to the troops, as the position was untenable.
It was a capture by the enemy of ten and a half companies of infantry, (1050 men) and a mountain battery. The men had expended their 70 rounds and could do no more. The centre column moving northward, found that it had been led into a false position. Twenty dead men were picked off one plateau and 100 wounded.
Ladysmith now became invested. Big French guns on the adjacent heights fired thirteen- shells into the town, which did not do much harm, on the 30th of October. The timely arrival of the British Naval Brigade with their 4-7 in. guns, in three shots, put the enemy's guns for a time out of action. The bluejackets dropped shells right into the embrasure of the Boer batteries. Our guns now swept the hills, and we had 42 in action. Afterwards the 40-pounders on the Pepworth Kop and other hills re-opened fire. The Boers fired ten shells at a time from a Hotchkiss quick-firing gun, without generally doing any serious damage for lack of aim.
In consequence of these warm attentions, many civilians availed themselves of the government "passes," and left in the 24 hours' notice of a proclamation. They moved to a neutral zone four miles off. It was better to leave when they had the chance than to stand a siege of four months with many privations, if not starvation; and this mournful experience was shared by the denizens at Kimberley and Mafeking, on the western frontier, the daily monotony of the invested being enlivened by an occasional sortie, with various results, some very disastrous. These sieges were the consequence of our not having a sufficient force, both for the Transvaal and Natal, to cope with the enemy's legions under Joubert and Cronje. Intense anxiety was felt lest in any case these towns should fall into their hands, and the garrisons be imprisoned at head-quarters. Hence succour was dispatched from England with all possible expedition, and the battalions were transported without any particular casualty, but as usual, there were complaints of faulty supplies by contractors for fodder and other things.
Besters Hill Cleared.
On November 2nd, the Boers reached Colenso, establishing batteries on Grobler's Kloof, thence opening fire both on Ladysmith on the north and on this town on the south. Guns of heavy calibre attacked Fort Wylie, at Colenso, and trains between these towns ran great risks. Besides Nordenfelt quick-firing guns the Boers used plenty of Mauser rifles. The result was that Colenso was evacuated by our troops, who moved further south.
The same day (Nov. 2,) the garrison force moved out of Ladysmith and took Besters Hill from the bombarders.
Sir George White and his staff were astir before daybreak, and important movements of troops were carried out without attracting the attention of the enemy. The morning opened bright and clear, and everyone was in high spirits. At ten minutes past six the Bluejackets sent a shell from their new battery on the west. The shell got home on the ridge whereon the Boers had placed their 40-pounder, and it was quickly followed by others equally well placed. The Boers were not long in responding, and the cannonade soon became terrific. The Bluejackets worked their three guns in splendid style, evidently to the bewilderment of the Boer gunners, who were utterly outmatched.
It was not long before our men got the range to a nicety, and then they hit their mark with successive shells, firing all the time with thrice the rapidity of the enemy. The accuracy and rapidity of our fire soon began to tell. The enemy's replies came less frequently, and after four hours' bombardment the 40-pounder was silenced entirely.
All this time other batteries had been at work, and we uniformly had the better of the fight. This artillery work occupied the attention of the enemy, and enabled Sir George White to achieve his main purpose which was the capture of the Boer camp behind Besters Hill. The first inkling of what was taking place was conveyed to the town by the sound of artillery fire in the direction of the new hill position of the Boers, four miles to the west, about ten o'clock.
The troops selected for the work were the Lancers, the Hussars, the Natal Carbineers, and the Natal Border Rifles, and they left at dawn. A field battery also took up a good position commanding the enemy's camp. General French, who was in command, got his force within striking distance of the enemy long before they could have had any idea of what was in store for them.
By half-past ten o'clock the military strategy had clearly developed. Joubert's main force was occupying two positions to the east of the town—one on the old site on the ridge above Pepworth's Farm, where the 40-pounder was still sullenly replying to our fire, and the other on Isimbulwana Hill. "Our field artillery was supporting the cavalry and infantry—the latter not yet in action—the Naval Brigade guns were engaged with the big Boer gun at Pepworth's Farm and our heaviest field guns were replying to the enemy's battery on Isimbulwana Hill.
For a time there was a temporary cessation of the artillery fire all round here, but the artillery of the Free State Boers could still be heard in the direction of Besters. The boom of guns could also be heard almost due south, and it was assumed that an engagement of some sort was proceeding in the vicinity of Colenso, as the enemy did not attack us from that side.
The Boers were in a well-chosen position, and the camp, a large one, was surrounded by the usual laager of waggons and other obstructions to a direct attack. Besters Hill itself was well fortified, and some good guns were in position there. The first intimation which the Boers received of our intentions was about nine o'clock, when our guns fired upon their camp. Their guns replied to ours with some spirit, but they were badly served, and they did us no damage. Our gunners, on the other hand, rained shell thick and fast upon the enemy's camp. Within a comparatively short time forty-two shells burst right in the midst of the camp, inflicting such terrible loss that the enemy were thrown into a state of panic. At that moment our cavalry, who had been steadily working their way up to the Boer camp, suddenly burst upon it, stormed over the laager, and drove every one irresistibly before them.
The enemy fled precipitately, leaving many of their number dead and wounded on the ground.
The entire camp and its equipment fell into our hands. Complete victory rewarded good generalship supported bravely by the rank and file.
A Ladysmith Diary for November.
A diary kept at Ladysmith is interesting as showing in what a sorry plight the inhabitants were kept, and in what constant fear. Take this for November as a sample.
On Nov. 7th the Boers shelled the town from dawn to sunset. Some of the shells burst in the camp of the Leicester Regiment, and wounded three of the men.
Nov. 8th.—The enemy attempted, but unsuccessfully, to silence our naval guns, which are a continual annoyance to the Boers. Our Bluejackets gave the enemy more than they bargained for, and "Long Tom" was temporarily disabled by their accurate fire. Ten prisoners arrived to-day from Pretoria.
Nov. 9th.—The enemy made a determined attack on the town from all sides, and our entire forces became engaged. For a time it looked as though the Boers really meant to storm the place; but their courage did not last long, and they were ultimately driven back with heavy losses. Conspicuous among the enemy was a body of men said to be Johannesburg policemen. They showed considerable grit, and after the first repulse made a second attempt to rush part of our outlying works. The fire of our Hotchkiss guns was concentrated upon them, and they fell back in disorder.
Nov. 12th.—A man was killed by a Boer shell.
Nov. 13.—There was again general shelling from the enemy's batteries all round, but no casualties.
Nov. 14.—The Boers made another concerted attack, and were again driven back with loss.
Nov. 16th.—A big shell plumped right on the railway station. It exploded, doing considerable damage; killed two men and wounded three others. This was the best shot fired by the Boers for a long time.
Nov. 17.—General shelling of town and camp: three wounded.
Nov. 18.—A shell fell and exploded in front of the Royal Hotel. Dr. Stark was killed. The enemy resumed the bombardment at midnight. Several shells burst in the town, and three men of the Imperial Horse were wounded.
Nov. 20th.—More midnight bombardment. Our batteries replied with great vigour and effect. Six men of the Gordon Highlanders were wounded.
Nov. 21st.—Renewed shelling, and four men wounded. Our scouts brought in word that the Boers in considerable numbers were moving to the south of Ladysmith.
Nov. 22nd.—Several shells burst in the town, and a policeman was killed. Seven men were wounded.
Nov. 23rd.—A general and furious bombardment. Our batteries were kept hard at work in reply. We had one man killed and five wounded.
Nov. 24th.—Another lively artillery duel. The Boer aim was good. British casualties—two killed, eleven wounded.
At Ladysmith preparations were made for the siege by deep entrenchments, and provisions were doled out carefully. Imitating the soldiers, some of the inhabitants lived more or less in caverns, burrowed in the earth by the Klip river, like water rats, leaving these dark retreats at night for their beds at home.
The imprisoned inhabitants were looking to the reinforcements that had begun to arrive at Durban, where the increase of population had suddenly amounted to 25,000. The British force in the country had now reached 20,000—a figure that was soon to be doubled. To prevent the bringing in of help the Boers damaged the railway in several places.
Other burghers, for no practical purpose that is apparent, raided the adjacent Basuto and Zululands. Among the incidents was an attack at Estcourt on an armoured train sent out by General Hildyard. Several men were killed and others wounded and were tended by a Scotch doctor commandeered by the burghers for the purpose.
The enemy occupied the hills for many miles with the view of preventing our advance.
On Nov. 3rd, General Brocklehurst, taking the 18th and 19th Hussars, with a Volunteer Cavalry and a battery of mounted Infantry, operated against the enemy on the Maritzburg road, about 50 miles to the south.
At midday General Brocklehurst, reinforced by the 5th Dragoons, Royston's Horse, and two batteries, drove the enemy from all his positions, shelled three guns into silence, and headed 1,000 Boers from the Maritzburg road. The Imperial Light Horse pressed too far into a gully, and were extricated by the 5th Dragoons. All got back safely under a heavy fire. Pomeroy, of the Dragoons, pluckily rescued a dismounted trooper, bringing him out of the fire zone. The dismounted work by Royston's Horse and the mounted Infantry was excellent. The casualties were slight and the moral effect good.
The enemy had been shelling the town. Their artillery was handled splendidly, but the effect was not great.
The enemy took advantage of a flag of truce to introduce an artillery officer disguised as an ambulance driver with wounded into the town, to observe how the ranges proved. Subsequently, after the loss of many men the Boers retired four miles from danger.
On the 18th of November Bethune's Horse, a mounted Infantry regiment 500 strong, were the first relief party sent from Durban to proceed to Ladysmith. They were mostly Rand Volunteers, and on coming into action suffered severely. As a set off to these resident volunteers, the Boer commanders published a proclamation calling on the Dutch farmers in the Colonies to assist them and promising payment for all supplies requisitioned. This manifesto of President Steyn's was sometimes enforced by impassioned orations, and appeals to the religious instincts of their co-religionists. Counter proclamations were issued by the British, warning the Queen's subjects against acts of disloyalty and informing the predatory burghers that compensation would be demanded for all the damage to property they were committing. .
The Free Staters did another thing that it seems difficult to approve. They issued from Bloemfontein slips, in the Basuto language, containing fabrications as to British defeats, and asking the chiefs to allow the natives to reap the Boer crops. According to report, in both States, the inflammatory harangues of the Boer leaders were often based upon wilful deception as to the progress of the war.
In the first three weeks of the siege, 2,6So shells fell into Ladysmith, mostly into the town, the camp being quite apart from it. The " Long Tom" (a Creusot gun, of 5-9 inches and a range of 10,000 yards) was the most formidable weapon of the enemy.
To break the monotony of the bombardment—(you may get used to anything) — a comic paper was started, of which facsimiles have been printed in this country. The production shows that a variety of fun can be made out of the gruesome business of human slaughter and the miseries of a long siege. There were also cricket matches and entertainments.
Mr. Barnard, proprietor of the Railway Hotel at Ladysmith, arrived at Estcourt, having eluded the Boer outposts by riding along Kaffir paths during the night. He stated that " Long Tom" continued to shell the town. Its fire was very annoying, and none of our artillery was apparently able to cope with the Boer siege guns. One of the enemy's shells carried away the dining-room of the Royal Hotel, and another hotel was smashed by a shell while several persons were at dinner. The diners, however, escaped unhurt.
A brilliant little performance was, on Nov. 5, achieved by the armoured train which left Estcourt to reconnoitre the line towards Ladysmith. It carried two companies of the Dublin Fusiliars, under Captain Romer.
Close to Colenso the enemy were sighted near the line in considerable force. The Dublins at once opened a brisk fire, to which the Boers replied. Their fire, however, was quite ineffective, and, as they were suffering loss they quickly retired.
For some time they were lost to sight, but as the train cautiously advanced they were seen to be moving round on the left flank, with the object, it was presumed, of taking the train in the rear.
To avoid this the train retired. It was seen that the Boers had no intention of attacking, but were in full retreat over the road bridge.
Immediately the Boers were perceived to be retiring, a strong detachment left the train and entered the town, while the train itself advanced slowly to the station. Several volleys were poured at long range into the still retreating enemy.
Our men succeeded in entering Fort Wylie, and brought back four waggon loads of shell, provisions, and stores.