1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
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Here it may be  as well to review the geographical position of this now famous place. Ladysmith, as a position for purposes of defence, is very badly situated
. It lies in the cup of the hills, and stony eminences command it almost in a circle.  Towards the north is Pepworth's Ridge, a flat-headed hill fringed at the base with mimosa bushes. North-East is Lombard's Kop, which is flanked by a family of smaller kopjes. South of this hill and east of Ladysmith is a  table-headed hill called Umbulwana. South of this eminence runs the railway through the smaller stations of Nelthorpe and Pieters towards Colenso. To the west of Pepworth's Ridge is Surprise Hill, and other irregular hills which  rise from four to five hundred feet on all sides. The place ~ watered by the Klip River, which enters the valley between the hills on the west, twists gracefully in front of the town, and turns away among the eastern hills before  making its way to the south. The position, commanded as it was on every hand, was not an enviable one, but the glorious fellows who had fought in two brilliant engagements were in no wise disconcerted.

Yet all were on the alert,  for the Boers had now closed in round the town, and an engagement was hourly expected. A little desultory fighting took place, but when the British troops advanced, those of the Orange Free State at once retired towards the border.  The town, however, was somewhat harassed for want of water, owing to the Boers having cut off the main pipes. The inconvenience was merely temporary, as the Klip River, which runs through the main position, was fairly pure, and  there were wells, which could be made serviceable. A captive balloon was inflated by the Royal Engineers, and was used for the purpose of making observations, much to the annoyance of the Dutchmen, who had securely perched  themselves at points of vantage on the surrounding hills. They were at this time on the north and east, having laagered south-east of Modder Spruit and Vlaak Plaats, some seven miles from Ladysmith, and were preparing to arrange a  closely-linked chain of earthworks that should effectually surround the garrison. An exchange of shots now and then, however, was all that took place for a while between the contending parties, though both sides were evidently  gathering themselves together for some definite move. The situation was thus described by a captive in Ladysmith,

"Saturday and Sunday have passed without any demonstration being made by the enemy. The camp has again assumed  its condition of readiness and watchfulness. On Saturday afternoon it was rumoured that General Joubert, with the commando encamped at Sunday River, was experiencing difficulty in transporting the 40-pounders across the spruit,  which was swollen after the heavy rains. Small parties of Boers are constantly on the alert, and are harassing the British outposts.

"Scarcely a day passes without the outlying pickets being fired upon. The latest reports  say that the enemy are gathered in considerable force on Dewdrop Farm.

"Great excitement has been caused in the Artillery camp by the capture of a supposed spy, who was caught in the act of tampering with the guns. The man  had eluded the vigilance of the sentry, and had opened the breech of one of the 15-pounders when he was noticed. He was promptly arrested. When asked what he was doing, he said he was a lieutenant in the 18th Battery. Questioned  further, he contradicted himself and said that it was quite by accident that he opened the breech. He admitted that he belonged to Johannesburg. He was marched off in custody of the guard. The sequel of the story has not been made  public.

"No camp followers are followed, and all here have been ordered to leave. The enemy are now undoubtedly closing round Ladysmith. A large commando is reported to be on the Helpmekaar road, and a large camp has been  formed between the Harrismith Railway Bridge and Potgieter's Farm. The camp on Dewdrop Farm extends for four miles. The enemy have an exceptional number of waggons. The Boer patrols are very venturesome; they have approached within  three and a half miles of the town, and one party actually removed carcasses ready dressed for consumption from within the slaughtering lines."

The prospect was far from cheering, particularly as Sir George White was well  aware that his field-guns were ineffective against the powerful guns of position which the enemy were handling with unpleasant dexterity. At this critical period the united forces of Ladysmith and Glencoe only amounted to some  10,000 men, more than half of whom were infantry. The General, however, put the best face he could on the matter, telegraphed home for big guns-and waited!

General Joubert now expressed his opinions on the causes of the war. His  ideas, published in the German journals, were of interest as showing the sentiments of the opposite camp

"It was evident to our Government after the Jameson raid, that Great Britain would be forced in time by various sordid  elements into a war of extermination with the Boers. It was equally clear that this danger could only be averted by armaments on a most extensive scale. We were conscious that the impending war of annihilation would incur the  sharpest condemnation on the part of the other European Powers, but history had taught us that not one of these Powers would be roused to intervene in our favour. In these circumstances we had to rely on our own strength.

"By indefatigable zeal and heavy sacrifices to augment our forces, and yet to secrete them from the observation of the British-these were the objects of our noblest exertion. Well, we succeeded, and hoodwinked the British.  Spies were permitted to obtain glimpses of our obsolete artillery, but until the war was on the point of breaking out they had no suspicion of the formidable extent of our stores of modern material.

"We counted on the  unreliability of the British announcements concerning their own preparedness, and attended as little to their cries of "To Pretoria!"as did the Germans in 1870 to the Parisian boasters who shouted "A Berlin!' Without  completely denuding her colonies of troops, Great Britain cannot possibly despatch more than about 85,ooo men to South Africa. Of this imposing force, only half will be available for the chief battles. It may be possible for Great  Britain to effect the landing in various places of these troops by the middle of December. I estimate, however, that the losses in prisoners, killed, sick, an4 wounded will amount in the meantime to some 10,000. There will thus  remain 75,000 men.

"Even should we fail to prevent the junction of the British troops under Sir Redvers Buller and be compelled to retreat, the British army would become from natural causes so debilitated that it would  represent a force for operative purposes not exceeding 35,000. The remainder would have to be employed in protecting lines of communication extending some 700 miles.

"Our lines of dep6ts, on the contrary, are in home  territory. They are constructed at regular distances in three directions, and barely 500 men are necessary to cover them. Excellently-organised communications have been established between them, and if any one of them be seriously  threatened, the stores-if rescue be impossible-will be destroyed.

"Moreover, defensive warfare-to which we need not think, however, of resorting for a long time to come-is fraught with far greater advantages to us than  offensive operations. With a change of terrain there will be a change of tactics. In Natal and the south we have to deal with unfamiliar conditions. On the high plains of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State we shall be  at home, and the British will meet opposition from us and from Nature at every step of the way, and at all times be prepared for action on two or three fronts. In this way will be developed a guerilla warfare of a most  inconceivably bloody character, such as the British will be unable to endure for more than a few months."

General Joubert then protested that the Boers were fighting merely for the freedom of their own "narrower"  Fatherland, and not with a view to the destruction of British preponderancy in South Africa. He acknowledged the bravery of the British soldiers, hut imagined that hardships and deprivations would so demoralise them that they would  be unable to hold out against an enemy superior in numbers.

"In these circumstances," he continued, "do not accuse me of boasting when I frankly say that victory will be ours. Every one of us is filled with

the  same conviction and unshakeable faith in God, that He will remain as true to us in this as in former wars, and that He will not allow the blood shed and to be shed in this struggle, that will probably last yet a year, to extinguish  us and our children."

The inhabitants of Ladysmith had almost begun to accustom themselves to the promiscuous arrival of shells at odd hours throughout the day, when General Joubert hit on the happy idea of varying the  monotony of the daily routine by making the night into a "lurid inferno "-the term is borrowed from the Boers. Now no sooner were the besieged wrapped in slumber than boom! bang! a shower of 94-pound shells was launched  into their midst. In an instant all was confusion. Strange forms, some weird, some grotesque, all terrified, fled from their beds and hung hovering in gardens and verandahs, uncertain whether to believe their eyes and ears. The  nights were mostly dark, and from the black ridges occupied by the enemy came with a swish and a roar red tongues of flame and the spitting, splitting fury of bursting steel, which produced in the mind of those who had recently  been folded in the arms of Morpheus a sensation as of fevered nightmare or threatened madness. But the sturdy soon attuned themselves to the terrific reality, though for some days, while the midnight cannonading continued, many of  the more nervous were well-nigh distraught. The bombardment was accounted for in different ways. Some said it was to celebrate a victory over the advance-guard of Hildyard's brigade, others declared that the firing had been  attracted by some companies of the Liverpool Regiment who had gone to cut firewood, and were visible in the gleams of the moonlight. This midnight uproar continued for several days with more or less vigour, and then it languished,  possibly from economy, possibly because the Boers themselves desired to sleep. On the 18th Dr Stark, a naturalist who had come to Natal to study birds, was killed as he was standing near the door of the Royal Hotel, a shell having  descended through the roof and come out by the door.

It grew ever more and more difficult to communicate with the relieving forces, as the Kaffir runners stood in fear of their lives, many having been killed during their  hazardous journeys. Shells from" Long Tom" and the new gun on Bulwana continued to cause horror in the daytime and to pursue uninterruptedly their mission of mutilation. The porch of the English Church was destroyed,  several rooms of houses wrecked, and splinters and flying fragments of brick and rock kept all who moved abroad in a state of suspense and mental anxiety. No! not alt. There was one imperturbable Scot who occupied a house between  the Naval guns and the Boer position, who watched the havoc played by the shells in his house or garden, and occasionally applauded with the remark, "Aye, aye! Lord, man, that wuz a hummin'-bird damned wed hatched!"

On  the 21st an inhuman action defaced the ordinary programme of warfare. As before said, the Town Hall had been turned into a hospital for sick, and this, by reason of its conspicuous clock-tower with the red flag flying above it,  made a convenient mark for the shots of the enemy. In spite of all remonstrances, the Boer commandant proceeded to batter the place with shell after shell, with the result that on one occasion the wing of the hall was destroyed,  fortunately without loss of life, and on another, a shell breaking through the roof, some nine poor patients were wounded and one killed. The General had chosen this way of expressing his annoyance that his proposed arrangements  were not complied with. He had insisted that the wounded should be taken to the neutral camp at Intombi, where they would have beep virtually prisoners. This could not be allowed, and therefore he was evidently determined, out of  spite, to make the life of the unhappy sick in the hospital a long-drawn agony. They were helpless, stricken in body and nerve, and the perpetual crashing of bursting steel, the rending of buildings in their vicinity, was almost  worse than the pang of actual death. Still, in spite of everything, the garrison bore up wonderfully and tried to put a good face on matters. A message sent out on the 25th of November, even showed signs of spurious jocosity. The  writer said, "Shells and flies very numerous, but the latter more annoying." There was a pathetic ring in the little pleasantry. In reality, valiant Lady-smith was beginning to droop with the suspense of hope deferred  that maketh the heart sick. The heat was getting terrific, and cases of fever were beginning to appear. The Doer firing was becoming more accurate, and their commandoes seemed to remain at their full strength, some 10,000. The  besieged. lost about seventy head of cattle-a terrible mishap at this crisis-and these could not, unfortunately, be recovered. A party went in pursuit of the valuables, but had to return worsted! The total casualties up to this  date were eight killed and twenty-three wounded. Searchlight for night-signalling began to be in continual use, and Sir George White, being fully acquainted with the plan of campaign, was preparing himself td co-operate whenever  the great hour and moment should arrive. The third big cannon, which had been christened "Franchise," now began to open fire on the tunnels in which the British were said to be concealed, and assisted actively in the  already murderous chorus. On the 29th, much to the joy of the community, a message from the Prince of Wales was received, thanking officers and men for the birthday congratulations they had succeeded in forwarding to him. Hopes of  speedy relief revived. It was known that General Clery had by this time some 23,000 men (including Natal Volunteers) coming to the rescue, and these, together with Sir George White's 9500 in Ladysmith, would, when the time for  junction should arrive, make a not insignificant total with which to meet the Boers. But the troops were beginning to grow somewhat restless and impatient for the hour when they should be let loose to settle their little account  with those outside. At this juncture Commandant Schalk Burger grew "slimmer" than even In order still further to cramp Sir George White, the Dutch general sent to him a crowd of some 400 coolies, on the score that they  were British subjects whom he could not feed. As it was impossible to receive any addition to the numerous mouths already inside the place, Sir George suggested their being sent on to Estcourt; so the little ruse was defeated.