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Chapter 13

THE SIEGE OF LADYSMITH


Monday, October 30th, 1899, is not a date which can be looked back to
with satisfaction by any Briton. In a scrambling and ill-managed
action we had lost our detached left wing almost to a man, while our
right had been hustled with no great loss but with some ignominy into
Ladysmith. Our guns had been outshot, our infantry checked, and our
cavalry paralysed. Eight hundred prisoners may seem no great loss when
compared with a Sedan, or even with an Ulm; but such matters are
comparative, and the force which laid down its arms at Nicholson's Nek
is the largest British force which has surrendered since the days of
our great grandfathers, when the egregious Duke of York commanded in
Flanders.

Sir George White was now confronted with the certainty of an
investment, an event for which apparently no preparation had been
made, since with an open railway behind him so many useless mouths had
been permitted to remain in the town. Ladysmith lies in a hollow and
is dominated by a ring of hills, some near and some distant. The near
ones were in our hands, but no attempt had been made in the early days
of the war to fortify and hold Bulwana, Lombard's Kop, and the other
positions from which the town might be shelled. Whether these might or
might not have been successfully held has been much disputed by
military men, the balance of opinion being that Bulwana, at least,
which has a water-supply of its own, might have been retained. This
question, however, was already academic, as the outer hills were in
the hands of the enemy. As it was, the inner line -- Caesar's Camp,
Wagon Hill, Rifleman's Post, and round to Helpmakaar Hill -- made a
perimeter of fourteen miles, and the difficulty of retaining so
extensive a line goes far to exonerate General White, not only for
abandoning the outer hills, but also for retaining his cavalry in the
town.

After the battle of Ladysmith and the retreat of the British, the
Boers in their deliberate but effective fashion set about the
investment of the town, while the British commander accepted the same
as inevitable, content if he could stem and hold back from the colony
the threatened flood of invasion. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,
and Friday the commandoes gradually closed in upon the south and east,
harassed by some cavalry operations and reconnaissances upon our part,
the effect of which was much exaggerated by the press. On Thursday,
November 2nd, the last train escaped under a brisk fire, the
passengers upon the wrong side of the seats. At 2 P.M. on the same day
the telegraph line was cut, and the lonely town settled herself
somberly down to the task of holding off the exultant Boers until the
day-supposed to be imminent -- when the relieving army should appear from
among the labyrinth of mountains which lay to the south of them. Some
there were who, knowing both the enemy and the mountains, felt a cold
chill within their hearts as they asked themselves how an army was to
come through, but the greater number, from General to private, trusted
implicitly in the valour of their comrades and in the luck of the
British Army.

One example of that historical luck was ever before their eyes in the
shape of those invaluable naval guns which had arrived so dramatically
at the very crisis of the fight, in time to check the monster on
Pepworth Hill and to cover the retreat of the army. But for them the
besieged must have lain impotent under the muzzles of the huge
Creusots. But in spite of the naive claims put forward by the Boers
to some special Providence -- a process which a friendly German critic
described as `commandeering the Almighty' -- it is certain that in a very
peculiar degree, in the early months of this war there came again and
again a happy chance, or a merciful interposition, which saved the
British from disaster. Now in this first week of November, when every
hill, north and south and east and west, flashed and smoked, and the
great 96-pound shells groaned and screamed over the town, it was to
the long thin 4·7's and to the hearty bearded men who worked them,
that soldiers and townsfolk looked for help. These guns of Lambton's,
supplemented by two old-fashioned 6·3 howitzers manned by survivors
from No.10 Mountain Battery, did all that was possible to keep down
the fire of the heavy Boer guns. If they could not save, they could at
least hit back, and punishment is not so bad to bear when one is
giving as well as receiving.

By the end of the first week of November the Boers had established
their circle of fire. On the east of the town, broken by the loops of
the Klip River, is a broad green plain, some miles in extent, which
furnished grazing ground for the horses and cattle of the
besieged. Beyond it rises into a long flat-topped hill the famous
Bulwana, upon which lay one great Creusot and several smaller guns.
To the north, on Pepworth Hill, was another Creusot, and between the
two were the Boer batteries upon Lombard's Kop. The British naval guns
were placed upon this side, for, as the open loop formed by the river
lies at this end, it is the part of the defences which is most liable
to assault. From thence all round the west down to Besters in the
south was a continuous series of hills, each crowned with Boer guns,
which, if they could not harm the distant town, were at least
effective in holding the garrison to its lines. So formidable were
these positions that, amid much outspoken criticism, it has never been
suggested that White would have been justified with a limited garrison
in incurring the heavy loss of life which must have followed an
attempt to force them.

The first few days of the siege were clouded by the death of
Lieutenant Egerton of the 'Powerful,' one of the most promising
officers in the Navy. One leg and the other foot were carried off, as
he lay upon the sandbag parapet watching the effect of our fire.
'There's an end of my cricket,' said the gallant sportsman, and he was
carried to the rear with a cigar between his clenched teeth.

On November 3rd a strong cavalry reconnaissance was pushed down the
Colenso road to ascertain the force which the enemy had in that
direction. Colonel Brocklehurst took with him the 18th and 19th
Hussars, the 5th Lancers and the 5th Dragoon Guards, with the Light
Horse and the Natal Volunteers. Some desultory fighting ensued which
achieved no end, and was chiefly remarkable for the excellent
behaviour of the Colonials, who showed that they were the equals of
the Regulars in gallantry and their superiors in the tactics which
such a country requires. The death of Major Taunton, Captain Knapp,
and young Brabant, the son of the General who did such good service at
a later stage of the war, was a heavy price to pay for the knowledge
that the Boers were in considerable strength to the south.

By the end of this week the town had already settled down to the
routine of the siege. General Joubert, with the chivalry which had
always distinguished him, had permitted the garrison to send out the
non-combatants to a place called Intombi Camp (promptly named
Funkersdorp by the facetious) where they were safe from the shells,
though the burden of their support still fell of course upon the
much-tried commissariat. The hale and male of the townsfolk refused
for the most part to avoid the common danger, and clung tenaciously to
their shot-torn village. Fortunately the river has worn down its
banks until it runs through a deep channel, in the sides of which it
was found to be possible to hollow out caves which were practically
bomb-proof. Here for some months the townsfolk led a troglodytic
existence, returning to their homes upon that much appreciated seventh
day of rest which was granted to them by their Sabbatarian besiegers.

The perimeter of the defence had been divided off so that each corps
might be responsible for its own section. To the south was the
Manchester Regiment upon the hill called Cęsar's Camp. Between
Lombard's Kop and the town, on the north-east, were the Devons. To
the north, at what seemed the vulnerable point, were the Rifle
Brigade, the Rifles, and the remains of the 18th Hussars. To the west
were the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, and 5th Dragoon Guards. The rest
of the force was encamped round the outskirts of the town.

There appears to have been some idea in the Boer mind that the mere
fact that they held a dominant position over the town would soon
necessitate the surrender of the army. At the end of a week they had
realised, however, just as the British had, that a siege lay before
both. Their fire upon the town was heavy but not deadly, though it
became more effective as the weeks went on. Their practice at a range
of five miles was exceedingly accurate. At the same time their
riflemen became more venturesome, and on Tuesday, November 7th, they
made a half-hearted attack upon the Manchesters' position on the
south, which was driven back without difficulty. On the 9th, however,
their attempt was of a more serious and sustained character. It began
with a heavy shell-fire and with a demonstration of rifle-fire from
every side, which had for its object the prevention of reinforcements
for the true point of danger, which again was Cęsar's Camp at the
south. It is evident that the Boers had from the beginning made up
their minds that here lay the key of the position, as the two serious
attacks-that of November 9th and that of January 6th-were directed
upon this point.

The Manchesters at Cęsar's Camp had been reinforced by the 1st
battalion 60th Rifles, who held the prolongation of the same ridge,
which is called Waggon Hill. With the dawn it was found that the Boer
riflemen were within eight hundred yards, and from then till evening a
constant fire was maintained upon the hill. The Boer, however, save
when the odds are all in his favour, is not, in spite of his
considerable personal bravery, at his best in attack. His racial
traditions, depending upon the necessity for economy of human life,
are all opposed to it. As a consequence two regiments well posted were
able to hold them off all day with a loss which did not exceed thirty
killed and wounded, while the enemy, exposed to the shrapnel of the
42nd battery, as well as the rifle-fire of the infantry, must have
suffered very much more severely. The result of the action was a
well-grounded belief that in daylight there was very little chance of
the Boers being able to carry the lines. As the date was that of the
Prince of Wales's birthday, a salute of twenty-one shotted naval guns
wound up a successful day.

The failure of the attempt upon Ladysmith seems to have convinced the
enemy that a waiting game, in which hunger, shell-fire, and disease
were their allies, would be surer and less expensive than an open
assault. From their distant hilltops they continued to plague the
town, while garrison and citizens sat grimly patient, and learned to
endure if not to enjoy the crash of the 96-pound shells, and the
patter of shrapnel upon their corrugated-iron roofs. The supplies were
adequate, and the besieged were fortunate in the presence of a
first-class organiser, Colonel Ward of Islington fame, who with the
assistance of Colonel Stoneman systematised the collection and issue
of all the food, civil and military, so as to stretch it to its
utmost. With rain overhead and mud underfoot, chafing at their own
idleness and humiliated by their own position1 the soldiers waited
through the weary weeks for the relief which never came. On some days
there was more shell-fire, on some less; on some there was sniping, on
some none; on some they sent a little feeler of cavalry and guns out
of the town, on most they lay still -- such were the ups and downs of
life in Ladysmith. The inevitable siege paper, 'The Ladysmith Lyre,'
appeared, and did something to relieve the monotony by the
exasperation of its jokes. Night, morning, and noon the shells rained
upon the town until the most timid learned fatalism if not bravery.
The crash of the percussion, and the strange musical tang of the
shrapnel sounded ever in their ears. With their glasses the garrison
could see the gay frocks and parasols of the Boer ladies who had come
down by train to see the torture of the doomed town.

The Boers were sufficiently numerous, aided by their strong positions
and excellent artillery, to mask the Ladysmith force and to sweep on
at once to the conquest of Natal. Had they done so it is hard to see
what could have prevented them from riding their horses down to salt
water. A few odds and ends, half battalions and local volunteers,
stood between them and Durban. But here, as on the Orange River, a
singular paralysis seems to have struck them. When the road lay clear
before them the first transports of the army corps were hardly past
St. Vincent, but before they had made up their mind to take that road
the harbour of Durban was packed with our shipping and ten thousand
men had thrown themselves across their path.

For a moment we may leave the fortunes of Ladysmith to follow this
southerly movement of the Boers. Within two days of the investment of
the town they had swung round their left flank and attacked Colenso,
twelve miles south, shelling the Durban Light Infantry out of their
post with a long-range fire. The British fell back twenty-seven miles
and concentrated at Estcourt, leaving the all-important Colenso
railway-bridge in the hands of the enemy. From this onwards they held
the north of the Tugela, and many a widow wore crepe before we got our
grip upon it once more. Never was there a more critical week in the
war, but having got Colenso the Boers did little more. They formally
annexed the whole of Northern Natal to the Orange Free State -- a
dangerous precedent when the tables should be turned. With amazing
assurance the burghers pegged out farms for themselves and sent for
their people to occupy these newly won estates.

On November 5th the Boers had remained so inert that the British
returned in small force to Colenso and removed some stores -- which
seems to suggest that the original retirement was premature. Four days
passed in inactivity -- four precious days for us -- and on the
evening of the fourth, November 9th, the watchers on the signal
station at Table Mountain saw the smoke of a great steamer coming past
Robben Island. It was the 'Roslin Castle' with the first of the
reinforcements. Within the week the 'Moor,' 'Yorkshire,' 'Aurania,'
'Hawarden Castle,' 'Gascon,' Armenian,' 'Oriental,' and a fleet of
others had passed for Durban with 15,000 men. Once again the command
of the sea had saved the Empire.

But, now that it was too late, the Boers suddenly took the initiative,
and in dramatic fashion. North of Estcourt, where General Hildyard was
being daily reinforced from the sea, there are two small townlets, or
at least geographical (and railway) points. Frere is about ten miles
north of Estcourt, and Chieveley is five miles north of that and about
as far to the south of Colenso. On November 15th an armoured train
was despatched from Estcourt to see what was going on up the
line. Already one disaster had befallen us in this campaign on account
of these clumsy contrivances, and a heavier one was now to confirm the
opinion that, acting alone, they are totally inadmissible. As a means
of carrying artillery for a force operating upon either flank of them,
with an assured retreat behind, there may be a place for them in
modern war, but as a method of scouting they appear to be the most
inefficient and also the most expensive that has ever been
invented. An intelligent horseman would gather more information, be
less visible, and retain some freedom as to route. After our
experience the armoured train may steam out of military history.

The train contained ninety Dublin Fusiliers, eighty Durban Volunteers,
and ten sailors, with a naval 7-pounder gun. Captain Haldane of the
Gordons, Lieutenant Frankland (Dublin Fusiliers), and Winston
Churchill, the well-known correspondent, accompanied the
expedition. What might have been foreseen occurred. The train steamed
into the advancing Boer army, was fired upon, tried to escape, found
the rails blocked behind it, and upset. Dublins and Durbans were shot
helplessly out of their trucks, under a heavy fire. A railway accident
is a nervous thing, and so is an ambuscade, but the combination of the
two must be appalling. Yet there were brave hearts which rose to the
occasion. Haldane and Frankland rallied the troops, and Churchill the
engine-driver. The engine was disentangled and sent on with its cab
full of wounded. Churchill, who had escaped upon it, came gallantly
back to share the fate of his comrades. The dazed shaken soldiers
continued a futile resistance for some time, but there was neither
help nor escape and nothing for them but surrender. The most Spartan
military critic cannot blame them. A few slipped away besides those
who escaped upon the engine. Our losses were two killed, twenty
wounded, and about eighty taken. It is remarkable that of the three
leaders both Haldane and Churchill succeeded in escaping from
Pretoria.

A double tide of armed men was now pouring into Southern Natal. From
below, trainload after trainload of British regulars were coming up to
the danger point, feted and cheered at every station. Lonely
farmhouses near the line hung out their Union Jacks, and the folk on
the stoep heard the roar of the choruses as the great trains swung
upon their way. From above the Boers were flooding down, as Churchill
saw them, dour, resolute, riding silently through the rain, or
chanting hymns round their camp fires -- brave honest farmers, but
standing unconsciously for medięvalism and corruption, even as our
rough-tongued Tommies stood for civilisation, progress, and equal
rights for all men.

The invading force, the numbers of which could not have exceeded some
few thousands, formidable only for their mobility, lapped round the
more powerful but less active force at Estcourt, and struck behind it
at its communications. There was for a day or two some discussion as
to a further retreat, but Hildyard, strengthened by the advice and
presence of Colonel Long, determined to hold his ground. On November
21st the raiding Boers were as far south as Nottingham Road, a point
thirty miles south of Estcourt and only forty miles north of the
considerable city of Pietermaritzburg. The situation was
serious. Either the invaders must be stopped, or the second largest
town in the colony would be in their hands. From all sides came tales
of plundered farms and broken households. Some at least of the
raiders behaved with wanton brutality. Smashed pianos, shattered
pictures, slaughtered stock, and vile inscriptions, all exhibit a
predatory and violent side to the paradoxical Boer
character.[Footnote: More than once I have heard the farmers in the
Free State acknowledge that the ruin which had come upon them was a
just retribution for the excesses of Natal.]

The next British post behind Hildyard's at Estcourt was Barton's upon
the Mooi River, thirty miles to the south. Upon this the Boers made a
half-hearted attempt, but Joubert had begun to realise the strength of
the British reinforcements and the impossibility with the numbers at
his disposal of investing a succession of British posts. He ordered
Botha to withdraw from Mooi River and begin his northerly trek.

The turning-point of the Boer invasion of Natal was marked, though we
cannot claim that it was caused, by the action of Willow Grange. This
was fought by Hildyard and Walter Kitchener in command of the Estcourt
garrison, against about 2,000 of the invaders under Louis Botha. The
troops engaged were the East and West Surreys (four companies of the
latter), the West Yorkshires, the Durban Light Infantry, No.7 battery
R.F.A., two naval guns, and some hundreds of Colonial Horse.

The enemy being observed to have a gun upon a hill within striking
distance of Estcourt, this force set out on November 22nd to make a
night attack and to endeavour to capture it. The hill was taken
without difficulty, but it was found that the gun had been removed. A
severe counter-attack was made at daylight by the Boers, and the
troops were compelled with no great loss and less glory to return to
the town. The Surreys and the Yorkshires behaved very well, but were
placed in a difficult position and were badly supported by the
artillery. Martyn's Mounted Infantry covered the retirement with
great gallantry, but the skirmish ended in a British loss of fourteen
killed and fifty wounded or missing, which was certainly more than
that of the Boers. From this indecisive action of Willow Grange the
Boer invasion receded until General Buller, coming to the front on
November 27th, found that the enemy was once more occupying the line
of the Tugela. He himself moved up to Frere, where he devoted his
time and energies to the collection of that force with which he has
destined, after three failures, to make his way into Ladysmith.

One unexpected and little known result of the Boer expedition into
Southern Natal was that their leader, the chivalrous Joubert, injured
himself through his horse stumbling, and was physically incapacitated
for the remainder of the campaign. He returned almost immediately to
Pretoria, leaving the command of the Tugela in the hands of Louis
Botha.

Leaving Buller to organise his army at Frere, and the Boer commanders
to draw their screen of formidable defences along the Tugela, we will
return once more to the fortunes of the unhappy town round which the
interest of the world, and possibly the destiny of the Empire, were
centering. It is very certain that had Ladysmith fallen, and twelve
thousand British soldiers with a million pounds' worth of stores
fallen into the hands of the invaders, we should have been faced with
the alternative of abandoning the struggle, or of reconquering South
Africa from Cape Town northwards. South Africa is the keystone of the
Empire, and for the instant Ladysmith was the keystone of South
Africa. But the courage of the troops who held the shell-torn townlet,
and the confidence of the public who watched them, never faltered for
an instant.

December 8th was marked by a gallant exploit on the part of the
beleaguered garrison. Not a whisper had transpired of the coming
sortie, and a quarter of an hour before the start officers engaged had
no idea of it. 0 SI SIC OMNIA! At ten o'clock a band of men slipped
out of the town. There were six hundred of them, all irregulars, drawn
from the Imperial Light Horse, the Natal Carabineers, and the Border
Mounted Rifles, under the command of Hunter, youngest and most dashing
of British Generals. Edwardes and Boyston were the subcommanders. The
men had no knowledge of where they were going or what they had to do,
but they crept silently along under a drifting sky, with peeps of a
quarter moon, over a mimosa-shadowed plain. At last in front of them
there loomed a dark mass -- it was Gun Hill, from which one of the
great Creusots had plagued them. A strong support (four hundred men)
was left at the base of the hill, and the others, one hundred
Imperials, one hundred Borders and Carabineers, ten Sappers, crept
upwards with Major Henderson as guide. A Dutch outpost challenged, but
was satisfied by a Dutch-speaking Carabineer. Higher and higher the
men crept, the silence broken only by the occasional slip of a stone
or the rustle of their own breathing. Most of them had left their
boots below. Even in the darkness they kept some formation, and the
right wing curved forward to outflank the defence. Suddenly a Mauser
crack and a spurt of flame-then another and another! 'Come on, boys!
Fix bayonets!' yelled Karri Davies. There were no bayonets, but that
was a detail. At the word the gunners were off, and there in the
darkness in front of the storming party loomed the enormous gun,
gigantic in that uncertain light. Out with the huge breech-block! Wrap
the long lean muzzle round with a collar of gun-cotton! Keep the guard
upon the run until the work is done! Hunter stood by with a night
light in his hand until the charge was in position, and then, with a
crash which brought both armies from their tents, the huge tube reared
up on its mountings and toppled backwards into the pit. A howitzer
lurked beside it, and this also was blown into ruin. The attendant
Maxim was dragged back by the exultant captors, who reached the town
amid shoutings and laughter with the first break of day. One man
wounded, the gallant Henderson, is the cheap price for the
best-planned and most dashing exploit of the war. Secrecy in
conception, vigour in execution -- they are the root ideas of the
soldier's craft. So easily was the enterprise carried out, and so
defective the Boer watch, that it is probable that if all the guns had
been simultaneously attacked the Boers might have found themselves
without a single piece of ordnance in the morning.[Footnote: The
destruction of the Creusot was not as complete as was hoped. It was
taken back to Pretoria, three feet were sawn off the muzzle, and a new
breech-block provided. The gun was then sent to Kimberley, and it was
the heavy cannon which arrived late in the history of that siege and
caused considerable consternation among the inhabitants.]

On the same morning (December 9th) a cavalry reconnaissance was pushed
in the direction of Pepworth Hill. The object no doubt was to
ascertain whether the enemy were still present in force, and the
terrific roll of the Mausers answered it in the affirmative. Two
killed and twenty wounded was the price which we paid for the
information. There had been three such reconnaissances in the five
weeks of the siege, and it is difficult to see what advantage they
gave or how they are to be justified. Far be it for the civilian to
dogmatise upon such matters, but one can repeat, and to the best of
one's judgment endorse, the opinion of the vast majority of officers.

There were heart burnings among the Regulars that the colonial troops
should have gone in front of them, so their martial jealousy was
allayed three nights later by the same task being given to them. Four
companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade were the troops chosen, with a few
sappers and gunners, the whole under the command of Colonel Metcalfe
of the same battalion. A single gun, the 4·7 howitzer upon Surprise
Hill, was the objective. Again there was the stealthy advance through
the darkness, again the support was left at the bottom of the hill,
again the two companies carefully ascended, again there was the
challenge, the rush, the flight, and the gun was in the hands of the
stormers.

Here and only here the story varies. For some reason the fuse used for
the guncotton was defective, and half an hour elapsed before the
explosion destroyed the howitzer. When it came it came very
thoroughly, but it was a weary time in coming. Then our men descended
the hill, but the Boers were already crowding in upon them from either
side. The English cries of the soldiers were answered in English by
the Boers, and slouch hat or helmet dimly seen in the mirk was the
only badge of friend or foe. A singular letter is extant from young
Reitz (the son of the Transvaal secretary), who was present. According
to his account there were but eight Boers present, but assertion or
contradiction equally valueless in the darkness of such a night, and
there are some obvious discrepancies in his statement. 'We fired among
them,' says Reitz. 'They stopped and all cried out "Rifle Brigade."
Then one of them said "Charge!" One officer, Captain Paley, advanced,
though he had two bullet wounds already. Joubert gave him another shot
and he fell on the top of us. Four Englishmen got hold of Jan Luttig
and struck him on the head with their rifles and stabbed him in the
stomach with a bayonet. He seized two of them by the throat and
shouted "Help, boys!" His two nearest comrades shot two of them, and
the other two bolted. Then the English came up in numbers, about eight
hundred, along the footpath' (there were two hundred on the hill, but
the exaggeration is pardonable in the darkness), 'and we lay as quiet
as mice along the bank. Farther on the English killed three of our men
with bayonets and wounded two. In the morning we found Captain Paley
and twenty-two of them killed and wounded.' It seems evident that
Reitz means that his own little party were eight men, and not that
that represented the force which intercepted the retiring
riflemen. Within his own knowledge five of his countrymen were killed
in the scuffle, so the total loss was probably considerable. Our own
casualties were eleven dead, forty-three wounded, and six prisoners,
but the price was not excessive for the howitzer and for the MORALE
which arises from such exploits. Had it not been for that unfortunate
fuse, the second success might have been as bloodless as the first.
'I am sorry,' said a sympathetic correspondent to the stricken
Paley. 'But we got the gun,' Paley whispered, and he spoke for the
Brigade.

Amid the shell-fire, the scanty rations, the enteric and the
dysentery, one ray of comfort had always brightened the
garrison. Buller was only twelve miles away -- they could hear his
guns -- and when his advance came in earnest their sufferings would be
at an end. But now in an instant this single light was shut off and
the true nature of their situation was revealed to them. Buller had
indeed moved... but backwards. He had been defeated at Colenso, and
the siege was not ending but beginning. With heavier hearts but
undiminished resolution the army and the townsfolk settled down to the
long, dour struggle. The exultant enemy replaced their shattered guns
and drew their lines closer still round the stricken town.

A record of the siege onwards until the break of the New Year centres
upon the sordid details of the sick returns and of the price of
food. Fifty on one day, seventy on the next, passed under the hands of
the overworked and devoted doctors. Fifteen hundred, and later two
thousand, of the garrison were down. The air was poisoned by foul
sewage and dark with obscene flies. They speckled the scanty food.
Eggs were already a shilling each, cigarettes sixpence, whisky five
pounds a bottle: a city more free from gluttony and drunkenness has
never been seen.

Shell-fire has shown itself in this war to be an excellent ordeal for
those who desire martial excitement with a minimum of danger. But now
and again some black chance guides a bomb -- one in five thousand
perhaps -- to a most tragic issue. Such a deadly missile falling
among Boers near Kimberley is said to have slain nine and wounded
seventeen. In Ladysmith too there are days to be marked in red when
the gunner shot better than he knew. One shell on December 17th killed
six men (Natal Carabineers), wounded three, and destroyed fourteen
horses. The grisly fact has been recorded that five separate human
legs lay upon the ground. On December 22nd another tragic shot killed
five and wounded twelve of the Devons. On the same day four officers
of the 5th Lancers (including the Colonel) and one sergeant were
wounded -- a most disastrous day. A little later it was again the
turn of the Devons, who lost one officer killed and ten wounded.
Christmas set in amid misery, hunger, and disease, the more piteous
for the grim attempts to amuse the children and live up to the joyous
season, when the present of Santa Claus was too often a 96-pound
shell. On the top of all other troubles it was now known that the
heavy ammunition was running short and must be husbanded for
emergencies. There was no surcease, however, in the constant hail
which fell upon the town. Two or three hundred shells were a not
unusual daily allowance.

The monotonous bombardment with which the New Year had commenced was
soon to be varied by a most gallant and spirit-stirring clash of arms.
On January 6th the Boers delivered their great assault upon Ladysmith
-- an onfall so gallantly made and gallantly met that it deserves to
rank among the classic fights of British military history. It is a
tale which neither side need be ashamed to tell. Honour to the sturdy
infantry who held their grip so long, and honour also to the rough men
of the veldt, who, led by untrained civilians, stretched us to the
utmost capacity of our endurance.

It may be that the Boers wished once for all to have done at all costs
with the constant menace to their rear, or it may be that the
deliberate preparations of Buller for his second advance had alarmed
them, and that they realised that they must act quickly if they were
to act at all. At any rate, early in the New Year a most determined
attack was decided upon. The storming party consisted of some
hundreds of picked volunteers from the Heidelberg (Transvaal) and
Harrismith (Free State) contingents, led by de Villiers. They were
supported by several thousand riflemen, who might secure their success
or cover their retreat. Eighteen heavy guns had been trained upon the
long ridge, one end of which has been called Cęsar's Camp and the
other Waggon Hill. This hill, three miles long, lay to the south of
the town, and the Boers had early recognised it as being the most
vulnerable point, for it was against it that their attack of November
9th had been directed. Now, after two months, they were about to renew
the attempt with greater resolution against less robust opponents. At
twelve o'clock our scouts heard the sounds of the chanting of hymns in
the Boer camps. At two in the morning crowds of barefooted men were
clustering round the base of the ridge, and threading their way, rifle
in hand, among the mimosa-bushes and scattered boulders which cover
the slope of the hill. Some working parties were moving guns into
position, and the noise of their labour helped to drown the sound of
the Boer advance. Both at Cęsar's Camp, the east end of the ridge, and
at Waggon Hill, the west end (the points being, I repeat, three miles
apart), the attack came as a complete surprise. The outposts were
shot or driven in, and the stormers were on the ridge almost as soon
as their presence was detected. The line of rocks blazed with the
flash of their guns.

Cęsar's Camp was garrisoned by one sturdy regiment, the Manchesters,
aided by a Colt automatic gun. The defence bad been arranged in the
form of small sangars, each held by from ten to twenty men. Some few
of these were rushed in the darkness, but the Lancashire men pulled
themselves together and held on strenuously to those which remained.
The crash of musketry woke the sleeping town, and the streets
resounded with the shouting of the officers and the rattling of arms
as the men mustered in the darkness and hurried to the points of
danger.

Three companies of the Gordons had been left near Cęsar's Camp, and
these, under Captain Carnegie, threw themselves into the
struggle. Four other companies of Gordons came up in support from the
town, losing upon the way their splendid colonel, Dick-Cunyngham, who
was killed by a chance shot at three thousand yards, on this his first
appearance since he had recovered from his wounds at
Elandslaagte. Later four companies of the Rifle Brigade were thrown
into the firing line, and a total of two and a half infantry
battalions held that end of the position. It was not a man too
much. With the dawn of day it could be seen that the Boers held the
southern and we the northern slopes, while the narrow plateau between
formed a bloody debatable ground. Along a front of a quarter of a
mile fierce eyes glared and rifle barrels flashed from behind every
rock, and the long fight swayed a little back or a little forward with
each upward heave of the stormers or rally of the soldiers. For hours
the combatants were so near that a stone or a taunt could be thrown
from one to the other. Some scattered sangars still held their own,
though the Boers had passed them. One such, manned by fourteen
privates of the Manchester Regiment, remained untaken, but had only
two defenders left at the end of the bloody day.

With the coming of the light the 53rd Field Battery, the one which had
already done so admirably at Lombard's Kop, again deserved well of its
country. It was impossible to get behind the Boers and fire straight
at their position, so every shell fired bad to skim over the heads of
our own men upon the ridge and so pitch upon tho reverse slope. Yet
so accurate was the fire, carried on under an incessant rain of shells
from the big Dutch gun on Bulwana, that not one shot miscarried and
that Major Abdy and his men succeeded in sweeping the further slope
without loss to our own fighting line. Exactly the same feat was
equally well performed at the other end of the position by Major
Blewitt's 21st Battery, which was exposed to an even more searching
fire than the 53rd. Any one who has seen the iron endurance of
British gunners and marvelled at the answering shot which flashes out
through the very dust of the enemy's exploding shell, will understand
how fine must have been the spectacle of these two batteries working
in the open, with the ground round them sharded with
splinters. Eye-witnesses have left it upon record that the sight of
Major Blewitt strolling up and down among his guns, and turning over
with his toe the last fallen section of iron, was one of the most
vivid and stirring impressions which they carried from The fight.
Here also it was that the gallant Sergeant Bosley, his arm and his leg
stricken off by a Boer shell, cried to his comrades to roll his body
off the trail and go on working the gun.

At the same time as -- or rather earlier than -- the onslaught upon
Caesar's Camp a similar attack had been made with secrecy and
determination upon the western end of the position called Waggon Hill.
The barefooted Boers burst suddenly with a roll of rifle-fire into the
little garrison of Imperial Light Horse and Sappers who held the
position. Mathias of the former, Digby-Jones and Dennis of the
latter, showed that 'two in the morning' courage which Napoleon rated
as the highest of military virtues. They and their men were surprised
but not disconcerted, and stood desperately to a slogging match at the
closest quarters. Seventeen Sappers were down out of thirty, and more
than half the little body of irregulars. This end of the position was
feebly fortified, and it is surprising that so experienced and sound a
soldier as Ian Hamilton should have left it so. The defence had no
marked advantage as compared with the attack, neither trench, sangar,
nor wire entanglement, and in numbers they were immensely
inferior. Two companies of the 60th Rifles and a small body of the
ubiquitous Gordons happened to be upon the hill and threw themselves
into the fray, but they were unable to turn the tide. Of thirty-three
Gordons under Lieutenant MacNaughten thirty were wounded.[Footnote:
The Gordons and the Sappers were there that morning to re-escort one
of Lambton's 4·7 guns, which was to be mounted there. Ten seamen were
with the gun, and lost three of their number in the defence.] As our
men retired under the shelter of the northern slope they were
reinforced by another hundred and fifty Gordons under the stalwart
Miller-Wallnutt, a man cast in the mould of a Berserk Viking. To
their aid also came two hundred of the Imperial Light Horse, burning
to assist their comrades. Another half-battalion of Rifles came with
them. At each end of the long ridge the situation at the dawn of day
was almost identical. In each the stormers had seized one side, but
were brought to a stand by the defenders upon the other, while the
British guns fired over the heads of their own infantry to rake the
further slope.

It was on the Waggon Hill side, however, that the Boer exertions were
most continuous and strenuous and our own resistance most desperate.
There fought the gallant de Villiers, while Ian Hamilton rallied the
defenders and led them in repeated rushes against the enemy's line.
Continually reinforced from below, the Boers fought with extraordinary
resolution. Never will any one who witnessed that Homeric contest
question the valour of our foes. It was a murderous business on both
sides. Edwardes of the Light Horse was struck down. In a
gun-emplacement a strange encounter took place at point-blank range
between a group of Boers and of Britons. De Villiers of the Free State
shot Miller-Wallnut dead, Ian Hamilton fired at de Villiers with his
revolver and missed him. Young Albrecht of the Light Horse shot de
Villiers. A Boer named de Jaeger shot Albrecht. Digby-Jones of the
Sappers shot de Jaeger. Only a few minutes later the gallant lad, who
had already won fame enough for a veteran, was himself mortally
wounded, and Dennis, his comrade in arms and in glory, fell by his
side.

There has been no better fighting in our time than that upon Waggon
Hill on that January morning, and no better fighters than the Imperial
Light Horsemen who formed the centre of the defence. Here, as at
Elandslaagte, they proved themselves worthy to stand in line with the
crack regiments of the British army.

Through the long day the fight maintained its equilibrium along the
summit of the ridge, swaying a little that way or this, but never
amounting to a repulse of the stormers or to a rout of the
defenders. So intermixed were the combatants that a wounded man more
than once found himself a rest for the rifles of his enemies. One
unfortunate soldier in this position received six more bullets from
his own comrades in their efforts to reach the deadly rifleman behind
him. At four o'clock a huge bank of clouds which had towered upwards
unheeded by the struggling men burst suddenly into a terrific
thunderstorm with vivid lightnings and lashing rain. It is curious
that the British victory at Elandslaagte was heralded by just such
another storm. Up on the bullet-swept hill the long fringes of
fighting men took no more heed of the elements than would two
bulldogs who have each other by the throat. Up the greasy hillside,
foul with mud and with blood, came the Boer reserves, and up the
northern slope came our own reserve, the Devon Regiment, fit
representatives of that virile county. Admirably led by Park, their
gallant Colonel, the Devons swept the Boers before them, and the
Rifles, Gordons, and Light Horse joined in the wild charge which
finally cleared the ridge.

But the end was not yet. The Boer had taken a risk over this venture,
and now he had to pay the stakes. Down the hill he passed, crouching,
darting, but the spruits behind him were turned into swirling streams,
and as he hesitated for an instant upon the brink the relentless sleet
of bullets came from behind. Many were swept away down the gorges and
into the Klip River, never again to be accounted for in the lists of
their field-cornet. The majority splashed through, found their horses
in their shelter, and galloped off across the great Bulwana Plain, as
fairly beaten in as fair a fight as ever brave men were yet.

The cheers of victory as the Devons swept the ridge had heartened the
weary men upon Cęsar's Camp to a similar effort. Manchesters, Gordons,
and Rifles, aided by the fire of two batteries, cleared the
long-debated position. Wet, cold, weary, and without food for
twenty-six hours, the bedraggled Tommies stood yelling and waving,
amid the litter of dead and of dying.

It was a near thing. Had the ridge fallen the town must have followed,
and history perhaps have been changed. In the old stiff-rank Majuba
days we should have been swept in an hour from the position. But the
wily man behind the rock was now to find an equally wily man in front
of him. The soldier had at last learned something of the craft of the
hunter. He clung to his shelter, he dwelled on his aim, he ignored his
dressings, he laid aside the eighteenth-century traditions of his
pigtailed ancestor, and he hit the Boers harder than they had been hit
yet. No return may ever come to us of their losses on that occasion;
80 dead bodies were returned to them from the ridge alone, while the
slopes, the dongas, and the river each had its own separate tale. No
possible estimate can make it less than three hundred killed and
wounded, while many place it at a much higher figure. Our own
casualties were very serious and the proportion of dead to wounded
unusually high, owing to the fact that the greater part of the wounds
were necessarily of the head. In killed we lost 13 officers, 135
men. In wounded 28 officers, 244 men -- a total of 420, Lord Ava, the
honoured Son of an honoured father, the fiery Dick-Cunyngham, stalwart
Miller-Wallnutt, the brave boy sappers Digby-Jones and Dennis, Adams
and Packman of the Light Horse, the chivalrous Lafone -- we had to
mourn quality as well as numbers. The grim test of the casualty
returns shows that it was to the Imperial Light Horse (ten officers
down, and the regiment commanded by a junior captain), the
Manchesters, the Gordons, the Devons, and the 2nd Rifle Brigade that
the honours of the day are due.

In the course of the day two attacks had been made upon other points
of the British position, the one on Observation Hill on the north, the
other on the Helpmakaar position on the east. Of these the latter was
never pushed home and was an obvious feint, but in the case of the
other it was not until Schutte, their commander, and forty or fifty
men had been killed and wounded, that the stormers abandoned their
attempt. At every point the assailants found the same scattered but
impenetrable fringe of riflemen, and the same energetic batteries
waiting for them.

Throughout the Empire the course of this great struggle was watched
with the keenest solicitude and with all that painful emotion which
springs from impotent sympathy. By heliogram to Buller, and so to the
farthest ends of that great body whose nerves are the telegraphic
wires, there came the announcement of the attack. Then after an
interval of hours came 'everywhere repulsed, but fighting continues.'
Then, 'Attack continues. Enemy reinforced from the south.' Then
'Attack renewed. Very hard pressed.' There the messages ended for the
day, leaving the Empire black with apprehension. The darkest forecasts
and most dreary anticipations were indulged by the most temperate and
best-informed London papers. For the first time the very suggestion
that the campaign might be above our strength was made to the
public. And then at last there came the official news of the repulse
of the assault. Far away at Ladysmith, the weary men and their sorely
tried officers gathered to return thanks to God for His manifold
mercies, but in London also hearts were stricken solemn by the
greatness of the crisis, and lips long unused to prayer joined in the
devotions of the absent warriors.

Arthur Conan Doyle