Chapter VII. Ladysmith Besieged

On the 30th, the Boers being now in force on many of the hills around the town, and having inflicted the first annoyance upon Ladysmith by cutting the conduit that brought down the water-supply to the town from a reservoir among the hills, and so forced it for the future to depend upon a few wells and the muddy water of the river, it was determined to make an effort to drive them back and to gain possession of some of the hills from which it was now evident the town would stand a risk of being bombarded. Hitherto there had been considerable apathy in taking measures for keeping the enemy as far as possible out of range. A few redoubts thrown up during the last week and strongly held would have been invaluable, but it seemed to be considered by the military authorities that the siege could be but a short one, and that the Boers would speedily be driven off by the troops now pouring into Durban.

An effort was now to be made to repair the consequences of this remissness and to drive the Boers off the positions they occupied, and it was hoped that if a heavy blow were dealt them they would draw off altogether. The forces of Joubert, Meyer, and the Free Staters were now all within a distance of a few miles, and were all to be beaten up. Their central position was on a hill afterwards known as Signal Hill, and on this they had already planted a forty-pounder gun. A force composed of six companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, four and a half of the Gloucesters, a mountain battery and a troop of Hussars started at midnight towards a hill known as Nicholson's Nek, occupied by the Free Staters. Major General Hunter with a brigade of infantry, three batteries, and a small cavalry force were to attack Meyer's commando to the east, while General White, with two infantry brigades, French's cavalry, and six batteries of field artillery moved against Joubert's force on Modder Spruit. It was hoped that the Boers, if defeated, would find their retreat barred by the force that had stated early for Nicholson's Nek. All were well away from the town before daylight broke.

At five o'clock in the morning the guns spoke out, and were at once answered by the Boer artillery, and the roar of fire soon became general. General White's central column was screened by a ridge near the railway, and the big gun on Signal Hill directed its fire partly against the town and partly against the cavalry which could be seen by them in rear of the column. As only a few of the Volunteer Horse had been ordered to accompany the attacking force, Chris and his companions took up their position on an eminence that afforded a general view of the battle, and here a large number of the townspeople also gathered. The general plan of operations was that the two movable columns should form a rough arc of a circle and, driving in both flanks of the Boers, sweep the whole force before them.

"They have a great many guns," Peters said, as the rattle of the machine-guns and the thud of quick-firing one-pounders joined the continuous fire of several Boer batteries and the deeper roar of their big gun, "and they seem to be in greater force than was supposed, for I can make out large reinforcements coming up to them from behind."

Our artillery were first placed about four thousand yards from the Boer position, but as this was on higher ground than that occupied by our guns our fire did not appear to be effective. They were therefore moved forward some distance, supported by two battalions of the Rifles and the Dublin Fusiliers. The infantry force with them pushed forward rapidly and gained a crest from which they threatened to take the Boer position on Signal Hill in rear; but the Boers, very strongly reinforced, moved to meet them, and heavy fighting took place, until the enemy's force became so strong that they not only checked the further advance of the brigade, but threatened it on both flanks. Two batteries went to their assistance, but even with this aid they could not continue their advance, pressed as they were by greatly superior numbers and harassed by the fire of the Boer field batteries on the hill.

At other points our advance was opposed as hotly. Nowhere were our infantry gaining ground. The enemy had not wasted their time, but had thrown up intrenchments on the steep hills they occupied, and from these shelters maintained a terrible fire, while their numerous machine-guns swept the ground with a hail of bullets and shells. On such ground the cavalry were useless, and the range of the Boer guns was much greater than that of our own.

"It seems to me," Chris said, "that instead of gaining ground we are losing it. We can't see at all what is going on, but certainly the firing seems nearer than it was."

All had thought the same though none had cared to suggest such a thing.

"Hurrah! there is a train coming in," Field said. "I heard they were expecting a party of sailors with naval guns. They would be useful just at the present moment. Let us go down and see, we can make out nothing from here."

Glad to be doing something they went down the hill. As they reached the station they saw a large detachment of sailors at work detraining some twelve-pounders and two large quick-firing guns. Teams of oxen were brought up, the sailors harnessed themselves to ropes, and with tremendous exertions one of the guns was taken up to an eminence, and at eleven it opened fire. It was but just in time. In steady order the columns were retiring with their faces towards the Boers, answering shot for shot, carrying off their wounded as they dropped, in spite of the terrible rifle fire and the roar of the Boers' batteries; but as soon as the first naval gun opened fire, amid the cheers of the townspeople, the situation was changed. The first two shells burst close to the Boer big gun, the third in the midst of the artillerymen, and it was some time before its fire was resumed. In the meantime the sailors had turned their attention to other Boer batteries which the field artillery had scarcely been able to reach, and one by one these were withdrawn over the crest.

At one o'clock Colonel Hamilton's brigade, which had hitherto been lying behind the crest they first occupied, in readiness to repel any counter- attack the Boers might make, now moved out and took up their position to cover the retirement of Hunter's column and Howard's brigade, and although the Boers pressed hotly upon them they held their ground steadily until their comrades had all reached their camp, and then marched in unhindered by the enemy, whose big cannon had now been finally silenced by the naval gun and their batteries for the most part obliged to retire.

After seeing the naval gun open fire Chris had gone down to speak to Captain Brookfield, when he met two soldiers of a mountain battery carrying an injured comrade. They took him into the hospital and then came out. Their shoulder-straps showed them to belong to the mountain battery that had gone out with the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters, of whom nothing had been heard, though occasionally, in momentary intervals of fire, the sound of distant musketry could be made out in the direction of Nicholson's Nek.

"How are your party getting on?" he asked.

"We don't know anything about them, sir," one of the men said, "except that they have been heavily engaged since daylight. I am afraid that they are in a tight place."

"How is it you know nothing about them?"

"It has been a bad job altogether," the man said. "We were marching up a steep valley with only room for us to lead two mules abreast; we were in the rear of the column. Suddenly a boulder came rolling down the hill and some shots were fired. In a moment the mules stampeded. One or two began it, kicking and plunging and squealing like wild beasts, then the others all set to. There was no holding them? it was almost pitch-dark, and before one could say 'knife' they were tearing down the road we had come up. There was no time to stop, and those who were lucky jumped out of their way, those who were not were knocked down and trampled on. As soon as they had gone those of us who were not hurt set off after them and looked for them everywhere, but only two or three were caught. Where the rest went I don't know, but I hope that they got into the enemy's line of fire and were all shot. At last we gave it up as a bad job and went back to bring in the fellows who were hurt. I think most of them are in now. We have been a long time, for Thompson's leg was broken and one of his arms, and, I expect, most of his ribs, and it hurt him so to be moved that we have had to stop every two yards." "It is a bad business indeed," Chris said; "and of course all your guns are lost?"

"Every one of them, and what is worse, all the reserve small-arm ammunition is lost too. The mules carrying them were with ours, and as the fighting up there has been going on ever since, I am afraid the infantry must have pretty well used up their last cartridges."

It was not until the next day that the extent of the calamity was known, when a Boer came down with a white flag asking that doctors might be sent up. The little column instead of, as had been hoped, surprising the Boers had itself been ambushed, being suddenly attacked by two strong parties of the enemy. They at once seized a little eminence, threw up a breastwork of stone, and defended themselves successfully until the ammunition was entirely exhausted, and a hundred and fifty had been killed or wounded. The Boers had, by taking advantage of every bit of cover, crept up close to them, and a murderous fire was poured in. The two regiments asked Colonel Carleton, who commanded them, to allow them to charge with their bayonets and cut their way through. He consented to allow the desperate attempt to be made, and the men were in the act of fixing bayonets when someone raised a white flag, and the Boers standing up advanced to receive the surrender.

After this the laws of war permitted no further defence, and the men, half mad with fury at the situation in which they were placed, threw down their rifles and were made prisoners. This was at two o'clock in the afternoon, after the rest of the force had returned to Ladysmith; and thus some nine hundred men fell into the hands of the Boers. Apart from this the loss was comparatively small considering the heat of the engagement. The day's work had been altogether unsatisfactory; no advantage whatever had been gained beyond the discovery of the Boers' position, and their unexpected strength and fighting powers, and it was evident that the force at Ladysmith was unable to drive off the enemy unaided, and must undergo a siege until the arrival of a relieving army. There were provisions calculated to last for two months, and no one doubted that long before that time General Buller would arrive to their rescue. So confident had the military authorities been, that not only had no defensive works been thrown up, but they had omitted to send the women and children, and the men unfitted to give active assistance, to the rear.

On the following morning the scouts held a council of war.

"Now," Chris said, "we have to decide the all-important question. It is quite certain that the town is going to be besieged, and I should say that the siege will last for some time, as nothing can be done to relieve them until a lot of troops arrive from home. We have shown at Dundee and Elandslaagte that our fellows can drive the Boers from their kopjes, but a force arriving to relieve Ladysmith would have to fight its way through a tremendously mountainous district, and to capture at least eight or ten such positions. At Dundee and Elandslaagte the Boers had only a few guns, and the big one from Pretoria had not arrived, nor had they time to fortify themselves. It is certain, therefore, that it will require a very big force to fight its way in here, especially as the Tugela has to be crossed, and the Boers will of course destroy the bridges.

"It may be a couple of months before the place is relieved. Of course the question is, Shall we stay here or go? I don't think we should be of much use here; indeed, I don't see that cavalry would be any good at all, whereas if a portion of the Boers push south we may be very useful in our own line of scouting. Still, this is a question for you to decide. You chose to make me your commander when at work, but we should all have an equal voice in a matter of this sort."

There was little discussion; all were of their leader's opinion that it was best for them to leave. The prospect of a long siege in which they could take but little active part was not a pleasant one, and it was decided at once that they should leave.

"Very well," Chris said. "Then I will go in to Captain Brookfield and ask his permission to go. Now that we are in camp with him he must be consulted."

They had since Elandslaagte taken their places as a part of the Maritzburg Scouts, and had been drilled for some hours each day. They were already favourites among the corps, who were proud of the work they had done, and being a pleasant set of lads their uncouth appearance, which had at first been viewed with much disfavour by many of their comrades, had been forgiven. Chris went to the commander's tent and laid the matter and their decision before him.

"I think that it is just as well that you should go, Chris," the officer said; "and indeed I was on the point of telling you that we are all leaving. For myself I cannot understand why the cavalry should be kept here, and indeed I know that it is their opinion also, and that they have asked the general to let them leave. However, he has decided to keep them. I am sure it is a mistake. Before the siege is over forage is sure to run short, and half the cavalry will be dismounted before the end comes. However, I have seen him and pointed out that as scouts we should be useless here. He has given me leave to go, but has requested me to join the first troops that come up the line. When we are once away I shall give you leave to act altogether independently of us, which will I am sure suit you better than being kept for weeks perhaps at Colenso or Estcourt. Another thing I will do. General Yule was speaking to me only yesterday of the manner in which your party defeated and cut up more than double your number, and how you and three of your party went into the Boer camp at Talana and ascertained their strength for General Symons. I expect that General Buller will come on here, as it is certainly the most serious point at present. I will ask Yule to give you a letter of introduction to him, it will be useful; and I have no doubt that he will give you a free hand, as I have done. I should not call upon General Buller in that rig-out, if I were you. I have heard he is somewhat of a martinet at the War Office, and we know that they have a very poor opinion of volunteers there."

Chris smiled. "Volunteers have done good service at the Cape before now, sir, and have shown over and over again that a man can fight just as well in plain clothes as if he were buttoned up to the chin in uniform; and as the Boers are themselves nothing but volunteers, I should think that before this war is over the War Office will see its mistake."

"I should think so indeed, Chris, but at present they have certainly not woke up to the fact. I see by the telegrams that the London Scottish and the London Irish have both volunteered almost to a man for service here, and that they have not even had a civil reply to their application. I tell you, lad, this war is going to be a big thing, and before it is over we may have both militia and volunteers out here, and perhaps troops from the colonies. I heard that some of the Australian colonies have already offered to send bodies of mounted men, and that our government are ordering out a larger number of men than was at first intended. I hear this morning that at Kimberley and Mafeking fighting has begun. On the 24th Kimberley made a successful sortie, and on the 25th a general attack on Mafeking was repulsed. The fact that both these places are beleaguered, and that we have again been obliged to fall back here, and are likely to be cut off altogether, has evidently stirred them up, and they begin to understand that it is going to be a much bigger affair than they expected.

"I wrote to your mother yesterday at Durban, and told her that I intended to leave while it is still possible. Of course you have written; but I told her of the flattering way in which General Yule had spoken of the doings of you and your party, and said that I hoped she would not be anxious, for it was quite evident that you were able to take good care of yourselves. My letter was in answer to one she wrote to me from Durban, begging me to keep you from undertaking what she called 'mad-brained business', and expressing some regret that you and the others had been allowed to form a separate corps, instead of being under the command of an experienced officer like myself. I told her that I thought that you would have less chance of coming to harm in scouting work than if you had to work in a regular way as the general ordered. If this sort of fighting--I mean, of attacking in front every position the Boers choose to take--goes on, our numbers will very speedily dwindle away.

"The fact is, as far as we colonials can see, the regulars do not as yet understand fighting the Boers. Nothing could be more splendid than the behaviour of the troops, both at Dundee and Elandslaagte, but in our humble opinion neither fight was necessary; and if Talana was to be attacked, it should have been done by marching the troops round the hill and taking it in the rear. In that case the Boers would have bolted without firing a shot. That it could have been done is shown by the fact that the cavalry did it, and encountered no difficulty on the way. Again, at Elandslaagte the object of keeping the road open would have been equally well attained if, after driving them out of the station, we had taken up a strong position there and waited for them to attack us. Therefore, Chris, I think that fighting in our way--that is to say, in Boer fashion--and trusting to skill as much as to shooting, you will be running a good deal less risk than you would in fighting under British generals in British fashion. We shall go off quietly this evening. We must keep a bright look-out on the way, for the trains have been fired upon, and at any moment the Boers may pull up the rails and block the roads altogether."

Two hours later all was ready for a start, and just before sunset the corps rode out of Ladysmith. They kept a sharp look-out as they went, but saw no signs of the enemy, and crossing the Tugela by the bridge near Colenso, halted there for the night. Here Captain Brookfield reported his arrival to the officer in command of the troops, and on the following day Chris and his friends rode on to Estcourt. They had seen some parties of mounted men in the far distance, but none had come near them, and as the military authorities were well aware of the Boers being in the vicinity, there was nothing to be gained by scouting. But it was now decided that they were in advance of the point that any large number of the enemy were likely to reach, and might therefore strike across the country and resume what they considered their regular work. They added to their stores several articles whose want they had felt, had slits made in the waterproof sheets, and covers sewn on to close the holes when they were used for tents, and had some triangular pieces of the same material made to buckle on so as to close the rear of the tents, which had before been open to the wind and rain. They had employed much of their spare time in training their horses and in teaching them to lie down when ordered, and thus share the shelter taken up by their masters, behind rocks or a wall.

The officer commanding the small force at Estcourt had at first viewed them with some suspicion, but Colonel Yule had purposely left open the letter with which he had furnished Chris, so that it could be shown to any officers commanding posts or detached forces, and its production now caused his cold reception to be converted into a warm welcome. Riding across country they met more than one farmer trekking with his cattle and belongings towards the ferry across the Mooi river. These reported that the Boers had overrun the whole of the country north of the Tugela, and that some parties had already crossed at the ferry on the road between Helpmakaar and Greytown. Fugitives had come in from the villages on the other side, and complained that the Boers were looting everywhere, and had driven off thousands of cattle and numbers of horses, and had everywhere wantonly destroyed the furniture and everything they could not carry off, in the farmhouses they visited.

A vigilant look-out was kept as the scouts advanced. On the second day after starting they encamped on a slight elevation near Mount Umhlumba, and early next morning they saw a party of some twenty Boers riding in a direction that would bring them within rifle-shot of their camp. All were at once on the alert.

"We will not go out and attack them," Chris said to the lads who were running towards their horses. "That would mean that though we might kill all of them, half of us would probably be shot. We will ambush them. Get the picket ropes loose and the bridles on ready for mounting, and then leave the horses in charge of the natives where we camped. They will be out of sight there. When you have done that take your places quietly among the rocks. Do you, Capper and Carmichael, put yourselves twenty or thirty yards apart; you are our best shots. When the Boers get within a thousand yards, which is as near as they will do if they keep the line they are going, open fire upon them and keep it up steadily, but not too fast. When they see that only two men are firing they will think that you are a couple of farmers whose place they have plundered, and who are determined to have their revenge. You are safe to hit some of them, and the others will decide upon wiping you out, and will probably leave their horses and crawl up in their usual style. When they get close it will be our turn. I don't think many of them are likely to get away."

His orders were carried out, and five minutes later the two rifles flashed out one after another. The Boers were riding in a clump. One was seen to fall, and the horse of another gave a violent plunge.

"Very good," exclaimed Chris, who, like the rest, was lying down behind a rock. "Don't fire too fast. Wait half a minute, and then each take another turn, one a little time after the other." The man who had fallen was instantly picked up by one of his comrades, and all rode off at full gallop, but before they could get beyond the range of the Mausers each of the lads had fired two more shots. No more of the Boers dropped, but the watchers, who had their glasses directed upon them, thought by their movements that two had been hit. The Boers, when the firing ceased, stopped, and for some little time remained clustered together. Then they took a long sweep round to a point where the ground was broken, and a shallow donga ran up in a direction that would bring them within a hundred yards of the position occupied by their hidden assailants. There they were seen to dismount, and, after some talk, leaving all the horses in the charge of one man, probably one of the wounded, they entered the donga. Its course was irregular, and once or twice the two lads were able to get a shot at them. The Boers did not return the fire but hurried past the exposed points. As they approached a head was occasionally raised above the bank to view the position, and then disappeared again. The ground between the camp and the nearest point of the donga was thickly strewn with boulders, with bushes growing between them. The lads had all shifted their position to this side.

"Don't open fire till I give the order," Chris said quietly. "We have got them now."

Except for a slight movement of the bushes, it would not have been known that the Boers had left the donga. Once or twice Capper and Carmichael caught a momentary glimpse of one of them, but held their fire, as Chris had said,

"Let them come within twenty yards, then both fire at once, whether you catch a glimpse of them or not. Thinking that your rifles are discharged, they will all jump up and make a rush. Then it will be our turn."

Presently a man's head was seen peering round a rock at about the right distance. Both the rifles cracked at once, and a Boer fell prone on the ground beyond his shelter. At the same moment there was a shout, and his comrades all sprang to their feet and rushed forward. A volley from the whole of the scouts flashed out. Twelve of the Boers fell, the others leapt back behind their shelters, and in turn opened fire.

"Keep in shelter!" Chris shouted. "They know now that we are two to their one, and will soon be making off."

The combatants were so close to each other that neither dared expose shoulder or head to take aim, and after the first shots fired at the Boers all remained quiet. Chris waited for three or four minutes, and then told four of the lads who were in the best shelter to crawl back, mount their horses, and ride out down the other side of the slope, and, after making a slight circuit, to gallop straight at the Boers' horses.

"The fellows may be some distance away already," he said, "as they may have slipped off directly they discharged their rifles. In any case there is no time to be lost in getting hold of their ponies, or at any rate in driving them off."

As two or three minutes again passed without a shot being fired by the Boers, Chris was in the act of calling off half the troop to watch the donga and fire at the Boers if they saw them running past the exposed points, when at this moment he heard the horses returning, and directly afterwards one of the lads he had sent off ran up to him.

"There are a whole lot of them coming round the other side," he said, "sixty or seventy of them at least. Some distance behind I can see a lot of cattle and waggons. I suppose they were making for home when they heard the firing." Just at this moment two or three shots rang out, telling that the surviving Boers were seen running down the donga.

"Never mind them," Chris shouted; "we are going to be attacked by a big party. Put down your rifles all of you, and pile the stones on the crest, so as to make a shelter, as quickly as you can. We shall have a few minutes. Those who are coming up can't know yet what the firing means." He ran up to the top. "They are not more than six or seven hundred yards away," he said, "and it would be better to fight it out here than to take to our horses. Some of us would certainly not get off without a bullet. You need not mind showing yourselves when they come up. They won't be able to make out what we are."

The Boers, indeed, reined in their ponies when they saw Chris appear on the brow of the eminence, and as a preliminary some of them rode off in both directions and endeavoured to ascertain the position. Those on the right soon caught sight of the clump of horses.

"They will soon know all about it," Chris said, as two of them galloped off. "We may as well teach them to keep their distance. Take your places behind rocks, and then open a sharp fire with your magazines. They cannot know how many of us there are here. Now, are you all ready? Yes? Well, then, set to work!"

In a moment an almost incessant rattle of musketry broke out upon the astounded Boers, who, turning their horses, scattered at full gallop to escape the hail of bullets; but more than a dozen had fallen before they were beyond the range of the Mausers and were fully two thousand yards away.

"I don't think we need stop," Chris said. "Fill up your magazines again, and then make for the horses." Directly the first party of Boers had been seen, Jack and Japhet had set to work taking down and rolling up the tents and loading the spare horses.

"Jump up," Chris said to them, "we are off. Mind you keep well with us. Now," he went on, as they rode off in a body, "we will do a little cattle raiding on our own account. Make for them, lads!"

With a shout they rode off at full gallop towards the great herd of cattle. As they approached, the Kaffirs who were driving them fled. Separating as they rode, waving their hats and shouting at the top of their voices, the lads dashed at the herd, who at once turned and went off at a rate that would have astonished animals accustomed only to small pastures and other enclosures.

"Don't press them too much," Chris had ordered before the band separated, "or they will break down. Listen for my whistle; when you hear it, Field, Willesden, Harris, and Bryan will follow up the herd with the Kaffirs and keep them moving, the rest will dismount, make their horses lie down, and open fire. That narrow valley we passed through yesterday afternoon will do to make a stand. It is about five miles away, head the cattle for it. The Boers won't be far behind us when we get there."

The enemy indeed had not noticed them leave the little kopje, as they were hidden by a slight fall in the ground where they descended, and it was not until they observed a commotion among the cattle that they perceived what had happened. Then, furious not only at the loss they had suffered, but at seeing their booty driven away, they mounted and pursued in hot haste. But the party had obtained a start of fully a mile, and the valley was reached by the fugitives while the Boers were still half that distance in their rear. Chris rode along until he came to a narrow and defensible point; the horses were taken a hundred yards on and made to lie down, and he and his sixteen companions then ran back and took up their positions among the rocks on each side of the track and the slopes above it.