With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter XX. Ladysmith
It was exciting work as the mounted horse under Lord Dundonald rode along. As far as could be seen from the various points in our possession the passage was clear, but experience had taught how the Boers would lie quiet, even when in large numbers, while scouts were passing close to them. At Colenso Colonel Long had sent two mounted men on ahead of his battery. They had been permitted to pass within a hundred yards of thousands of Boers among the bushes on the river bank, and had even crossed the bridge and returned without a rifle shot being fired or a Boer showing his head. And it was on their report that there were apparently no Boers in the neighbourhood that the batteries were pushed forward into the fatal trap prepared for them. So Chris and his companions, at the rear of the colonial cavalry, trotted along ready at a moment's notice to swing round their rifles for instant action. They watched every stone and clump of bushes on the slopes of the valley for any foe that might be lurking there, and who at any moment might pour out a rain of bullets into the column. Very few words were spoken on the way, the tension was too great. They knew that Ladysmith had telegraphed that the Boers appeared to be everywhere falling back. But a few thousands of their best fighting men might have remained to strike one terrible blow at the troops who in open fight had shown themselves their superiors, and had driven them from position after position that they believed impregnable. However, as one after another of the spots where an ambuscade would be likely to be laid passed, and there were still no signs of the enemy, the keenness of the watch began to abate, and the set expression of the faces to relax. Then as the hills receded and the valley opened before them a pleasurable excitement succeeded the grim expectation of battle. The task that had proved so hard was indeed fulfilled; the Boers were gone, and the siege of Ladysmith was at an end. As they emerged from the valley into the plain in which Ladysmith is situated, there was an insensible increase of speed; men talked joyously together, scarcely waiting for replies; the horses seemed to catch the infection of their riders' spirits, and the pennons of the Lancers in front to flutter more gaily. Onward they swept, cantering now until they approached the town.
Then men could be seen running towards the road; from every house they poured out, men and women, some waving hats and handkerchiefs, some too much overpowered by their feelings for outward demonstrations. As the columns reached this point they broke into a walk, and answered with ringing cheers the fainter but no less hearty hurrahs of those they came to rescue; and yet the troopers themselves were scarcely less affected than the crowd that pressed round to shake them by the hand. They had known that provisions were nearly exhausted in the city, and that for some time past all had been on short rations; but they had not dreamt of anything like this. It seemed to them that they were surrounded by a population of skeletons, haggard and worn, almost too weak to drag themselves along, almost too feeble to shout, their clothes in rags, their eyes unnaturally large, their hands nerveless, their utterances broken by sobs. They realized for the first time how terrible had been the privations, how great the sufferings of the garrison and people of Ladysmith. For the soldiers were there as well as the civilians. There was little military in their appearance; there was no uniformity in their dress, save that all were alike ragged, stained and destitute of colour.
Could their rescuers have seen them, themselves unseen, a few days earlier, they would have been even more shocked. Then the listlessness brought about by hope deferred, and of late almost the extinction of hope, weakness caused by disease and famine, had been supreme; and had the Boers had any idea of the state to which they were reduced, a renewal of the attack of the eth of January could hardly have failed of success. The last few days, however, had revived their hopes. They had learned by the ever-nearing roar of the cannon that progress was being made, and for the past four days had from elevated points near the town been able to make out the movements of our troops on the positions they had captured. They had seen the Boers breaking up their camps, carrying off their stores either by waggon across the western passes or by the trains from Modder Spruit. They had seen the cannon being withdrawn from their positions on the hills, and felt that their deliverance was at hand.
Through an ever-increasing crowd the column moved on.
From barrack and hospital, from dwelling-house and the dug-out shelter- caves on the railway bank people flocked up. Sir George White and his staff, the mayor, and the town guards, every officer and soldier, joined in the greeting. But no stay was made. After a few minutes' talk with Sir George White, Lord Dundonald gave the order, and the cavalry moved forward, and as soon as they were free from the crowd trotted on at a rapid pace in hopes of overtaking the retiring Boers, and glad that the scene to which they had looked forward with such pleasant expectations was at an end. There had not been a dry eye among them. None could have witnessed the sobbing women, the men down whose cheeks the tears streamed uncontrolledly, and have remained himself unmoved.
"It is terrible," Chris said to Sankey, who was riding next to him. "I could not have imagined anything so dreadful as their appearance. I did not realize what it was like when, two or three months before I left Johannesburg, I read in Motley's book about the war in the Netherlands of the state of things in Leyden when the Prince of Orange burst his way through to their rescue, and of the terrible appearance of the starved inhabitants, but now I can quite understand how awfully bad it was. It must have been even worse then. Here there were some rations distributed--little enough, but some. There the people had nothing but the weeds they gathered, and boiled down with the scraps they could pick up. There they died in hundreds of actual starvation; it cannot have been quite so bad here. But as we see, though there has been just enough food to keep life together, that has been all, and it has been from disease brought on by famine, and not by famine itself, that they have died. Then, too, shells were always falling among them, and at any moment they might be attacked. I expect that anxiety and fever have had as much to do with it as hunger."
"Yes, Chris. You know, when we were grumbling sometimes at not being employed in the fighting, we have wished we had stopped in Ladysmith, and gone through the siege there; now, one can thank God that one did not do so. We have pictured to ourselves everyone actively employed, the vigilance at all the outposts, the skirmishing with the Boers who crept up too closely, the excitement of repelling their attack, and all that sort of thing. It is all very good to read about, but now we know what it really meant one sees that we were a pack of fools to have wished to be there."
"Yes; I suppose one never knows what is g'ood for one, Sankey. Now as I look back I think that we have been extraordinarily fortunate. We have had some fights, just in the way we had expected, and, thanks principally to our being so well mounted, we have done very well. We have lived well; I don't say we have not had a certain amount of discomfort, but of course we expected that. What I am most pleased at is that not one of us has been killed, and only a few of us wounded, the only serious one being Willesden, and he is fairly on the way to recovery. For boys we have done a very good share, and I expect that now we have driven the Boers back here, and Kimberley has been relieved, and there is a tremendous force gathering on that side, it will soon be over."
"Yes, I think with you, Chris. And I fancy that the others are all beginning to long for the end of it. I should say that those whose people have gone to England may stop on for a bit, but the rest of us will go to our friends at Durban or the Cape, at any rate for a time, till we see how things go. We know that Lord Roberts has got Cronje surrounded and shut up. I expect that is one of the reasons that the Boers have been moving from here. The Free Staters will certainly wish to get back to defend Bloemfontein, and the Transvaal people must feel that it is no use stopping here when their own country will be shortly invaded."
"Yes; I expect that is the reason for their shutting up as suddenly as they have done after fighting so hard for the first five or six days of our advance."
On arriving at Modder Spruit it was found that the last train had left an hour before; they pushed on, however, until a smart fire from a hill in front of them, which was evidently held in force, broke out suddenly, and two cannon from another eminence joined in. Having thus discovered that the Boers were not entirely evacuating the country, but intending to defend the Biggarsberg, at any rate until a strong force came up, Lord Dundonald returned to Ladysmith. In the afternoon General Buller rode over attended by only one or two of the staff. He stayed but a very short time, to learn from General White the state of affairs, and then returned.
"Do you think that we shall pursue at once, sir?" Chris asked Captain Brookfield.
"Not at once, Chris. Practically, as you see, there is not a soldier here fit to carry arms, nor a horse fit for work, and I should say that it will be a month before General Buller can reckon upon any assistance from the garrison. As to his own army, I expect he will keep the main portion round Chieveley. No doubt he will bring the greater part if not all the garrison of Ladysmith back to Frere and Estcourt, both to get them out of the pestilential air here and for convenience of feeding them. The civilian population will leave, of course, as soon as they possibly can. I should think that Buller will leave in garrison here an infantry brigade, part of the cavalry, and two or three batteries, and this with the sick who cannot be moved, will be about as much as our transport will be able to manage until the railway bridge is repaired and the line put in running order. Till that is done there is no possibility of a general advance; and indeed there will have to be a great accumulation of stores here, as this will then become our base instead of Chieveley.
"No doubt a great deal will depend on how things are going on the other side. Now that Roberts has as good as captured Cronje and his force he will of course advance to Bloemfontein and occupy it. He will then be no more able to advance farther than Buller can--in fact, less able. Our line of railway is secured, and we can be fed by it; but at present we have not crossed the Orange River from the south, and the railway between that and Bloemfontein is in the hands of the Boers, and we know that they have blown up the bridges across the river. Until these are restored, and the line secure in our hands, Roberts's army will have to live on the stores that they have brought with them. Then the work of forming a base depot from the coast will begin, and it needs something enormous in the way of provisions and carriage to supply an army of sixty or seventy thousand men, all of whom must as they advance be fed from Bloemfontein.
"As long as he is stationary there it is likely enough that the bulk of Joubert's army will cling to Natal, knowing well enough that before we shall be in a condition to move forward they can entrench their positions on the Biggarsberg and the Drakenberg until they are quite as formidable as those we have been knocking our heads against. I should not be at all surprised if it is a couple of months before Roberts is in a position to advance. Of course at present we have no idea what the plans are, but likely enough at least half the force here may be sent down to Durban, and then by water to East London, and from there to Bloemfontein by rail. It would be ridiculous for us to renew the sort of fighting we have been doing when the enemy are sure to clear out when Roberts crosses the Vaal, and Natal be thus freed without any further loss of life. Possibly the troops may not be sent round by sea, but will remain here until Roberts gets as far as Kroonstadt. Then, no doubt, a division will be sent down through Bethlehem to Harrismith, and so open Van Reenen's Pass, in which case the troops from here can go up by train to Bethlehem. At any rate, I am afraid that most of us will remain here for at least two months.
"You see, most of the colonial irregulars were enlisted for only three months, and that is up already, and no doubt a great many of them will not extend their time, and I don't suppose the military authorities will want them to do so. There is no doubt that while mounted men were invaluable in the fighting in Cape Colony, and will be so in the Orange Free State, they are of very little use in this mountainous country in the north of Natal--they are so many more mouths to be fed, man and beast, without any corresponding advantage. They have done splendidly where they have had a chance, and the Imperial Light Horse have suffered heavily, but as a whole I think that we should have been more useful as infantry than as mounted men. Infinitely more useful if, instead of being kept at the head-quarters of the army as we have been, for no possible reason that anyone can see, we had all been scattered over the country to the east, in which case we should have kept the marauding Boers from wandering about, should have saved hundreds and hundreds of loyal farmers from being ruined, and the loss of many thousands of cattle and horses, which will have to be paid for after the war is over. I do not think that there is a single colonist who is not of opinion that the way in which we have been kept inactive from the beginning of the war, instead of being employed as irregular cavalry should have been, in protecting the country, preventing the Boers from drawing supplies, and forcing them to keep in a body as our own troops have done, has been a stupendous mistake."
Chris repeated this conversation to his comrades. "I think," he said, "that if there is no chance of doing anything for another two or three months, we might as well break up. I have no doubt a good many of the Colonials will re-enlist. Numbers of them are working men, either from Johannesburg or belonging to Natal; they would find it very difficult to get work here, and the five shillings a day pay is therefore of the greatest importance to them. But it is different with us. We don't draw pay, we simply agreed to band ourselves together to have an opportunity of paying out the Boers for their treatment of us. At the time we agreed to that, we had no idea that they would invade Natal. Of course that was an additional inducement to us to fight. As loyalists, and capable of bearing arms, it would have been our duty, even if we had no personal feeling in the matter, to enlist to help to clear the country of the enemy who invaded it. Now that Ladysmith is rescued and there are certainly enough troops in South Africa to finish the business up, I do not see that it is our duty to continue our service. Anyhow, I have pretty well made up my mind to resign and go round to Cape Town. There I am almost sure to find my mother, and perhaps my father, for we know that they have expelled almost all the English remaining about the mines, and he may have been among them."
"I agree with you heartily," Sankey said. "At any rate, I should vote for our breaking up for the present. It will be beastly for us to have to stop here doing nothing for another month or two, and then perhaps, when Buller moves forward to join Roberts, to be told that the colonial force will no longer be required."
Twelve of the others expressed similar opinions. The friends of the eight who did not do so had returned to England. Carmichael was one of these. "Well," he said after a pause, "I do not say that you are not quite right, but I have no one to go to here. My people went home as soon as they reached Durban. If I were to join them I might hear when I landed that the war was just over, and that they had either started to come back again, or were on the point of doing so. I was born out here, and have never seen any of my relations in Scotland. Though I should like very much to spend a few months in the old country, it would not be worth while going home for so short a time; for I am sure my father will hurry back to his work at the mines as soon as Johannesburg is taken by us. I fancy all those who have not spoken are in about the same situation that I am."
There was a murmur of assent. "I don't say," he went on, "that I should care, any more than you do, to stop here for the next two months. The smell of dead horses and things is enough to make one ill. The water of the river is poisonous, for we know the Boers used to throw their dead animals in it on purpose. So I shall go down to Maritzburg and wire to my people where I am, and ask for orders. There remains, Willesden said the other day, still about L80 apiece at the bank, and I expect we shall get as much for the horses as we gave for them, so that we who have no friends here could live very comfortably for two or three months, or have enough to pay our passage home in case they send for us. I shall tell them to telegraph, so in a week after sending off my wire I shall get an answer."
The others who had no friends in South Africa expressed their intention of doing the same.
"I don't think we need bother about the horses," Chris said; "being such good animals, I have no doubt that there are plenty of officers in the cavalry regiments here who will be glad to buy them as remounts for the money we gave for them. That would save us all the trouble of getting them down by train to Maritzburg and selling them there. Well, then, as there are no dissentients, I will tell Captain Brookfield what we have settled."
"I quite agree with you," the officer said when Chris had told him of their intentions. "In the first place, it would be a serious waste of time for you to remain here. Still, that is of comparatively little consequence, but I do think that it would be a grievous pity for you to risk your lives further. You have done wonderfully good service. You have had an experience that you will look back upon with satisfaction all your lives. You have done your duty, and more than your duty. You have before you useful lives, and have amply shown that in whatever position you may be placed you will be a credit to yourselves and your friends. Therefore, Chris, I think in every respect your decision is right. It will be some relief to me, for to tell you frankly, when you started on that expedition to Komati, and the other day, when you all rode off to the farm, I felt that it would probably be my duty to write to some of your parents to tell them of your deaths. Therefore, by all means give me your resignations. I dare say that a good many of the men in my own and other corps will be leaving also; and in that case those who remain will, I should think, be formed into one strong regiment, which will be of a good deal more use than half a dozen small corps."
It was agreed among the party that as they had decided to go they might as well go at once.
"I hear," Chris said, "that General Buller is going to make a formal entry here on Saturday, and that the garrison will line the road. I don't know whether Dundonald's brigade will have anything to do with it; but if he does, Brookfield will certainly like to make a good show. So until that is over I won't do anything about the horses."
On the day appointed the garrison turned out to receive the general and the troops who had struggled so long and gallantly to effect their rescue, and the Devons, Gloucesters, Rifles, Leicesters, Manchesters, Liverpools, sappers, artillerymen, and the Naval Brigade marched out from their camps and lined the road as far as the railway-station, where the remnant of the cavalry brigade were drawn up. At eleven o'clock Sir George White, Sir Archibald Hunter, and Colonel Duff and his staff rode up and took their place in the front of the shattered tower of the town- hall. Here, too, Captain Lambton and many other officers took their place. Not far from these were a score of civilians who had not shared in the general exodus that had been going on from the day on which the town was relieved, but had delayed their departure in order to witness the historical scene. At last the head of the column was seen approaching. Lord Dundonald's men had ridden down on the previous day, and the mounted Colonial Volunteers had now the honour of forming the general's escort. They led the way, and after them came General Buller with his escort. The Dublin Fusiliers were placed at the head of the column in acknowledgment of the gallantry displayed by them in every fight; then came the men of Warren's, Lyttleton's, and Barton's brigades, with their artillery. Great indeed was the contrast between the sturdy, bronzed, and well-fed soldiers who cheered as they marched, many of them carrying their helmets on their bayonets, and the lines of emaciated men through whom they passed. These cheered too, but their voices sounded strange and thin, and many, indeed, were too much overcome by weakness and emotion to be able to add their voices to the shouts. The enthusiasm of the troops rose to the highest when they passed a group of women and children, who, with streaming eyes, greeted them as they passed.
The pipes of the Highlanders and the beating of drums added to the roar of sound. The contrast between the dress of rescuers and rescued was as great as their personal appearance. Sir George White's men had of late had but little work, and had prepared for the occasion to the best of their power, as if for a review at Aldershot. They had done what they could. Their khaki suits had been washed and scrubbed until, though discoloured, they were scrupulously clean. The belts, accoutrements, and rifles had all been rubbed up and scoured. On the other hand, the uniforms of regiments that marched in were travel-stained, begrimed with the dust of battle and the mud of bivouac, until their original hue had entirely disappeared. They looked as if they had at first been dragged through thorn bushes and then been given a mud-bath.
Captain Lambton rode forward to meet the sailors of the Terrible with the guns that had done such service, followed by the howitzers which had almost equally contributed to the final success of the operations. He was loudly cheered by the sailors, and the heartiest greetings were exchanged between him and their officers. Both in attack and defence the Naval Brigade had performed inestimable services.
Behind the column came a large body of men in civilian dress. Their appearance was as unkempt as that of the troops, but among these there was no approach to military order, and yet their heroism had been in no way inferior to that of the troops. These were the stretcher-bearers, who had in every fight carried on their work of mercy under the heaviest fire, and that without the excitement that nerves soldiers to face danger. Many of them had fallen while so engaged, but this had in no way unnerved their companions, who had not only carried on the work during daylight, but had often laboured all night until the last wounded man had been found and carried down to the hospital. When the names of the heroes of the force that relieved Ladysmith are recounted those of the stretcher-bearers are worthy of a place among them.
After the troops had been dismissed and matters had settled down a little, Chris went over to the camp of the cavalry brigade, and spoke to the first officer he met. "I have come across, sir," he said, "to ask if any of you wish to buy remounts. The party to which I belong have twenty-five horses; they are exceptionally good animals, and cost us sixty pounds apiece last October. We furnished our own equipment. As we are all sons of gentlemen at Johannesburg, we did not much mind what we paid. Anyhow, we are ready to sell them at the price we gave for them."
"We all want remounts badly enough," the officer said. "Will you come in with me to the colonel?"
Entering the mess tent, where the colonel and several officers were standing talking, Chris's guide introduced him to them, and repeated the offer he had made. "Well, at any rate, Leslie," the colonel said, "you and Mainwaring may as well go down and look at the horses; it would certainly be a comfort to get remounts, for more than half of our chargers are gone, and the rest are skeletons. I can't ask you, Mr. King, if you would like to take anything to drink. I suppose it will be another ten days before we are in a position to be able to offer even the smallest approach to hospitality."
"I quite understand that, sir," Chris said. "In that respect we have been nearly as badly off at Chieveley. We have had plenty to eat and drink, but a cup of tea or chocolate has been the only refreshment we have been in a position to offer to a visitor, for the line has been so fully occupied with government transport that it has been next to impossible to get up any private stores. I am afraid that very little in that way can be brought up here until the bridge is repaired and the line in working order, for it is as much as the transport will be able to do to bring food enough from Chieveley for the troops and people here."
The two officers were more than satisfied with the appearance of the horses. On their report all their comrades went down, and eleven of the animals were at once taken; a visit to the camps of two other regiments resulted in the sale of the remainder. None of the officers was able to pay in gold, as the paymaster's department had not a coin left, though small payments were made to the men until nearly the end of the siege. Chris, however, readily accepted their drafts and cheques, as these could be paid into the bank at Maritzburg.
"That is all done," he said to his friends. "Now we will get rid of our remaining stores which the men brought up yesterday. I propose that instead of selling them we divide them into three and send them down to the three cavalry messes. I am sorry we have not a few bottles of spirits left, but the tea, and chocolate, and sugar, and so on, will be very welcome to them."
The six natives carried the things down, and brought back with them notes of warm thankfulness from the colonels.
"How about our saddles, Chris?"
"We can take them with us to Maritzburg. We can hand over the kettles and so on, and the waterproof sheets, to Brookfield's men who remain here, and the blankets can be given to the natives when we get there."
The next day, after a hearty farewell from Captain Brookfield and their comrades, who sent them off with a ringing cheer, the party started, marching by the side of one of the waggons that had brought up stores; in this they placed their saddles and blankets. When they arrived at Chieveley they had no difficulty in getting a place in a covered truck. In this they travelled to Maritzburg. Here they stayed for three or four days; then, after making a handsome present in addition to what they had promised to the natives, and further gladdening their hearts by giving them their blankets, Chris and those who were going down said good-bye to Carmichael and his party, with hopes that they would all meet again at Johannesburg before long. Three or four whose friends had remained at Durban stayed there, the rest took passage together for Cape Town.
At Maritzburg Chris had found a letter awaiting him from his mother, saying that his father had a fortnight before joined her there, as the Boers had commandeered the mines and had ordered him to leave, as he would not work them for their benefit and so provide funds for the support of the Boer army. She said that they intended to leave at once for England, and that he was to follow them when he gave up his work with the army. He therefore, with Field, Brown, and Capper, continued the voyage straight on to England, and joined his parents in London, where he enjoyed a well-earned rest, his pleasure being only marred by the necessity for telling the story of his adventures again and again to the relations and friends of his parents.