Frere Camp, Saturday, Jan. 6 (Epiphany).--Up early to pack. Started at 8.30 on my bicycle (baggage in rickshaw) for the station. Many men and officers travelling, train full. But at last they put on an extra carnage and I got a compartment to myself--though others got in for short distances at intermediate stations. Colonel Gallwey, P.M.O., and his second in command, Major Babtie, were in the train, and I travelled part of the way with them. At Nottingham Road there were a lot of soldiers and Volunteers on the platform, and I talked to Livingstone, one of the officers of the Natal Field Artillery. At Highlands we met the down train, and the guard told me (what proved to be true) that there was a great fight going on at Ladysmith--that he had counted eighty guns in four minutes--that it had been raging from the middle of the night. At Estcourt we were stopped--had to change and stop for two hours. At length, after more long pauses, we reached Frere somewhere about 6. General Wolfe Murray had a message from General White--sent by heliograph--to say that the fight had been going on since 2.45. Enemy repulsed everywhere, but fighting still continued.
At Frere Mr. Hill, the chaplain, and Captain Yarde-Buller, A.D.C. to General Lyttelton, met me. Captain Buller had kindly brought me two pack-mules for kit and a pony to ride. But as I had my bicycle I did not need the latter, and as Hill also had one we bicycled together. The camp spreads everywhere, converting these silent hills and plains into a busy town. General Lyttelton and his three staff officers have their tents on a little kopje overlooking all the camp, and with their servants' tents behind. There are four bell-tents and a little square green tent, which the General tells me did service at the Church Congress in London, as our mess tent. Captain Buller has most kindly given up his tent to me, and gone in with Major Bailey (the Brigade Major); the other staff officer is Captain Wilson, a very festive person. I had to push my bicycle up the stony kopje, and soon had my kit out by the help of the General's soldier servant, and was ready for dinner. No more news from Ladysmith yet.
Sunday, Jan. 7.--Up at 5; at 5.45 Holy Communion in the Durban Light Infantry mess tent, which they call the "Crystal Palace," so spacious is it for these times. There were twelve or fourteen communicants--all officers. Hill had another celebration for the other brigade (General Hart's) directly after. Then I had a cup of tea, and at 7 there was the church parade, for this (the 4th) Brigade. Seeing that three out of the four battalions are English--the Rifle Brigade, the (3rd) 60th Rifles, the Durham Light Infantry--and the fourth (the Scottish Rifles) is Scotch, there is a very large attendance at the Church of England service. We rode to the hill on which the naval guns are, from which we could see the whole Boer position. We examined it carefully through glasses. There they were--the long line of hills and kopjes rising above the Tugela and towards the east on this side of it--Hlangwani--Fort Wylie just across the broken railway bridge--Grobler's Kloof--and all the unnamed points in the range. One could make out lines of intrenchment, where the earth had been thrown up, but not the sign of a Boer. They keep wonderfully out of sight with these big guns pointing at them. And the marvel of the battle of Colenso was that there was not a sight or a sound of the Boers till our men were within 500 yards or less, and then the whole hillside for a mile or two was ablaze with rifle firing. It is difficult to describe the feeling as one sees these familiar hills transformed into battlefields of memorable interest.
Then we rode back, and Murray cantered up to the helio station to see if there was any news come through as to yesterday's fight, while I rode slowly back to Lord Dundonald's camp. The heliographing is done from Ladysmith to one of the hills near Weenen and thence to Chieveley, as from the latter one cannot quite see the hills above Ladysmith. The news that came was not official; it was that the Manchesters and Devons had got into the Boers with the bayonet, and the two battalions of the 60th Rifles ditto. That the Boer losses were severe, ours slight. At 6 we had a voluntary service on this kopje. There were a good number present--looor so, including General Lyttelton. It is always easier preaching to men who come voluntarily, because one can count on a certain amount of interest and sympathy. And I daresay it requires a little courage to attend a voluntary service. Hill read the prayers, and we had several hymns. I preached from the second lesson: "When they saw the boldness of Peter . . . they marvelled and took knowledge," etc.
Monday, Jan. 8.--Colonel Byng told us that his men had been having a little chaff with the Boers through the heliograph. Our men asked them whether they preferred an assault, and whether they would rather have Cecil Rhodes or Winston Churchill as President, and begged them not to dig those trenches too deep or they would get through to England, etc., etc. Mr. Ruskin is right in "The Crown of Wild Olives ": war is just a big exciting game with all these light-hearted young officers. After dinner the rain began, and it poured. It is very funny work being in a tent in a storm, which makes such a deafening clatter on the canvas all round, and where there are drops dripping all about the place. I put my waterproof over my bed to keep it dry, while I investigated as to the driest parts, and moved books, etc., out of range of the drops, and made all as snug and tight for the night as I could. It dripped less when the canvas was once well wetted, and I slept excellently; and as it was still raining hard in the morning, there was less inducement to get up early. The man brought my tub at 5.30, but I stayed in bed till 7.
Tuesday, Jan. 9.--When I looked out, the camp of the Scottish Fusiliers just below us in the plain looked like a lake, and the 60th not much better. Poor chaps!--when one thinks of fifteen or sixteen privates in one tent with only a waterproof sheet and a blanket, one feels a very luxurious person with a tent all to oneself. But it is wonderful how little they seem to surfer. Exercise keeps them warm, though all their clothes are wet.
When I went down to the hospital I had almost to wade through small rivers, and constantly to splash through ground as wet as the sand-pools on the shore at low water. On my way back the little river here--the Blauwkrantz--was a sight. As I crossed before, the stepping-stones were quite covered and I had made use of the new Trestle Railway Bridge which the Engineers built to take the place of the iron bridge totally wrecked by the Boers. But on my way back the river had become a turbid flood, and two wagons were stuck in the middle, with the mules and oxen in a regular mess all down the middle of the stream. Natives were loosening them and bringing them out one by one, and then were getting ropes fastened to the cart and the wagon. A soldier was sitting quite unconcerned in his big overcoat on the cart already half overturned, and I expected every minute to see him capsized into the flood, and unable to swim in his coat. However, I believe he got out safely. In the afternoon we went down to see the Engineers make a pontoon bridge across, as it was doubtful whether all the wagons could get through. It is difficult to picture the enormous activity and business of a camp like this--hundreds of wagons, thousands of oxen and mules with all their native drivers, hospitals (four camps of tents here), engineers, gunners, ordnance, supply pack (alone having hundreds of wagons drawn up in long lines along the hill), traction engines, and a dozen other departments, besides all the regiments. After the Royal Engineers had got four pontoons out, it seemed that the river was falling so fast that it was unnecessary to go on.
The orders have come. I am attached to the 5th Division, of which General Lyttelton's Brigade now forms part, and we are to start for a night march to Springfield on the Tugela--the probable site of the next great battle--to-morrow night. We are to start at 6. It is seventeen miles, and they say it will take us nearly seventeen hours--so slowly does a column move. May we be saved from a pouring wet night!
Wednesday, Jan. 10.--Packed up all our effects at Frere for the night march. There is something almost uncanny in the way in which a populous city suddenly reverts to bare and solitary veldt. Yesterday, after the rain, the whole countryside was teeming with thousands ploughing through the mud, crossing and recrossing and swarming over the whole broad plain, and this evening we sat on our little hill looking down on the empty veldt, except for the long snake-like line of wagons, wagons, wagons, each with their eighteen oxen, and then ambulances, ammunition columns, engineers' carts, pontoon wagons, etc., etc. One cannot realize what an army in motion means until one sees it. The whole long day they have been passing. It was a lovely night when we started, with a bright moon a little past the half but still twilight. When we had reached the top of the hill where Sir Charles Warren had been dining on the veldt, there was a halt. The orderlies held our horses, and I chatted with Sir C. Warren, and then with some of the men. The latter seemed rather surprised at my coming with them. Then at last the long train got in motion again and we were off in earnest. The General (Lyttelton) and his A.B.C. (Duller) and his Brigade Major (Wilson) and his D.A.A.G. (Bailey) and I, and then two local guides and a young signalling officer--Northey of the Durham Light Infantry--formed our party.
I watched the weather anxiously, for it had been raining in the Drakensberg on and off all the afternoon, and this time of the year thunder-storms are the rule rather than the exception. When it got quite dark we saw very frequent lightning to the west, and as it lit up the sky one could see a heavy rain-storm passing by us. The question was, would it reach us? For now I discovered we had parted with our baggage for an indefinite time, and we had only what was on the saddles to trust to for one night at least. It is an eerie thing marching in the dark or intermittent moonlight through a country where the enemy may appear at any moment. True, we had a whole brigade in front; but that would not prevent the mobile Boers from making a dash at our flank or sniping from the hills. Then the edge of the storm caught us. It came with a sudden blast of wind and a deluge of rain. It is impossible to keep one's knees and feet dry on horseback in spite of waterproof, and I was soon pretty wet. We had constant little stops, owing to wagons sticking, and the horses instinctively turned their backs to the storm. In a few minutes, what with the hundreds of wagons and the trampling of horses and men, the road was a sea of mud, and the moon being hidden it was dark. Imagine that great silent, rumbling, crawling line miles and miles long, ploughing slowly and laboriously through the mud. We had two drifts to cross, where there was much delay. At the second a temporary wooden bridge had been made for the men to cross, about 150 yards east of the road. We all rode over the grass amid the chaos of wagons (many of them General Hart's, now outspanned), and sat on our horses while the infantry battalions filed over, and then we rode back and through the ford. The mud on the steep slope of the opposite bank was churned up three feet deep in places, and the prospect of wagons getting through got less and less.
Soon after this second drift we reached the place (Pretorius Farm) where we were to bivouac till daylight. There was nothing to distinguish it from the veldt around, the farmhouse being a mile or two away. There is no knowing what you can do till you try. To be landed at midnight, after a wet and muddy ride, on a hillside of wet long grass, without other equipment than you have on, and to have to sleep (or lie awake) there for five hours of the coldest part of the night with things already wet through, would seem at ordinary times a thing simply impossible; but when you try you find it is not. However, they were indulgent to me. They got the General and me a stretcher each out of an ambulance wagon, and they had brought a waterproof sheet on a pack-pony (which fortunately I had asked them to requisition for me). The stretcher is canvas on two poles, lifted by a sort of castors just off the ground (about an inch). Imagine us now a black mass on the ground--an army laid flat--the 60th Rifles as a dark square mass below, and the Durham Light Infantry, a dark square mass above, with an aisle between of about eight yards; and just opposite this aisle, and about twenty yards from the regiments, our little company of five.
Our cook, Sergeant Cox, got some materials from our pack-pony, and set to work to make a fire and warm some soup. We had had nothing since afternoon tea. It took some time to make the fire, and when the soup was heated it was so hot in metal mugs that one had another long wait. I was sleepy then and could have gone off comfortably; but by the time the soup was despatched I was wide awake again. However, at last I did get off to sleep, wrapped in a big waterproof sheet to keep myself warm like a wet compress; but I woke again very soon and was shivering. I knew that would not do. I was afraid of rheumatism or pneumonia; so I got up and walked up and down. The other fellows were snoring heavily close by, and I envied them. Twenty yards away was a sentry marching up and down, so I went up to him and asked him not to challenge me as I was walking to get warm. The grass was very wet, but wet does not matter if only you can keep warm. My walk was limited, as I did not want to go beyond my sentry and get into another one. But after an hour of pacing to and fro wrapped in my waterproof sheet I got up a glow. It was a lovely starlight night (the moon had set). It was strangely weird-- a solitary figure pacing up and down beside those dense masses of sleeping men and praying for them. Then I lay down again, but could not sleep. I lay looking at the stars. Before daylight, at the first gray streaks of dawn, the men began to move about. We had been told to be ready to start again any time after four, when Sir Charles Warren sent us word.
Thursday, Jan. 11.--It was a lovely morning, and except for having no sleep I was happy. The country beyond Pretorius Farm towards Springfield on the Little Tugela opened out and was fine, as the Drakensberg was full in view. We had a ten minutes' halt on a farm (not a house) called Kirk Plaats. Then on again: our long, snake-like train winding along before and behind. At last we reached Springfield Bridge (about eight or ten miles, I think). This spans the Little Tugela, and we don't quite know why the Boers did not blow it up. The conjecture is that the neighbourhood being mostly Dutch, they refrained in consideration of the convenience of the farmers. Originally we were only to march thus far; but news had come in that Lord Dundonald had gone right through to Potgieters--a hill overlooking the big Tugela--unopposed, and had taken the punt at the crossing. So it was left to General Lyttelton's discretion whether he should go straight on to support Lord Dundonald. Murray (A.D.C.) met us and told us where they were, and at the bridge we found Graham with Irregular Cavalry and Colonel Burn Murdoch with his ist Royal Dragoon Guards. The latter had gone on early to hold the bridge.
Lord Dundonald being all right, General Lyttelton decided to halt from 11 (when we arrived) till 4, and then to go on three miles more to a farm we could see where there was water, and bivouac there for the night, going on early next morning. The sun was now terrible, and there was no shade. We made a tiny screen by tying our waterproof sheets to stacked rifles--just enough shade to get our heads under. There presently we had luncheon. Oh! the joy of "Sparklets"! I have lately invested in them, but they all have them. They make aerated water in a moment by discharging a little bomb full of gas into a bottle of water. Then we lay down under our little awning and tried to sleep. A strange sight--close to the road--under this improvised tent, a General and a Bishop full length upon the ground. Such extremities does war reduce one to. Again I was jealous of my neighbours--the General and Bailey both snoring, while I could not lose myself, and my head was bad again. At last I walked across the burning plain to the river--full, muddy, and rushing. The very sound was cooling, and there I found a woody little cliff with an overhanging rock, beneath which at last I had the shade I had longed for. How often now one feels the force of the Bible metaphor--"The shadow of a great rock in a weary land." I lay down there all by myself (though Tommies were bathing all up and down the river)--another boon among these constant crowds--and I really did doze for a few minutes. But then I found it was past 4, at which time the column was to start, and I feared I should be left behind. When I got up the river bank I saw the column winding along the road. The General had gone. However, an orderly was there with my pony. And the column moves so slowly that there is no difficulty in overtaking it. I rode some way with a young gunner officer, and then cantered on to overtake my General. There was another bad drift which was blocking the way, and the infantry regiments were all sitting down, waiting for their turn to cross. At last I reached the farm (Beyer's), owned by a Dutchman, who, though no doubt friendly to the Boers, had remained at home and not joined them. As soon as the tent was cleared, I got to bed--my kind friend Sackville-West had given me his camp-bed and two blankets. Friday, Jan. 12.--I had a good night, though we had to be stirring again at 3.30, as breakfast was to be at 4 in my tent. I had not taken off much, so I was soon dressed, and begged a wash from another tent basin. Lord Gerard, A.D.C., was also very kind to me. We had tea and biscuits. Several of them had tinned fish, and we were in the saddle again at 5. We had not a long march before us, only about six miles; but it was lucky the enemy had fallen back across the Tugela, as we had to pass between hills from which they could have destroyed us. The country was improving in appearance as we got on. General Buller has taken up his quarters at a farmhouse belonging to another Pretorius, said to be a prisoner (?) with the Boers. I rode on from there alone to the top of the hill, as I was most anxious to get the view we were told of right over the Tugela and the Boer lines. The hill slopes up gradually on this side with occasional trees, and drops abruptly with thick bush-covered sides into the Tugela beyond.
I found Lord Dundonald's camp and Murray on the top, and they kindly offered me breakfast. General Lyttelton and Lord Dundonald breakfasted too; and then I wandered into the bush on the steep side of the hill overlooking the Tugela, where I smoked my pipe. It is a most wonderful position. First of all, it is one of the most beautiful spots in Natal. This high hill, with its sides thickly covered with aloes, sugar-bush, and other semi-tropical plants, looks right down on the winding Tugela valley, and on to the high hills on the north side between here and Colenso (all held by the Boers). Then on all other sides it commands enormous landscapes--to the north you look down on a hazy plain (really hills and valleys) stretching right away beyond Ladysmith to the Indumeni above Dundee, standing out quite clear on the horizon, with Lombard's Kop and Umbulwana in the middle distance. To the west from north to south stretches the great range of the Drakensberg with the inaccessible peaks of the Mont aux Sources, and to the south the various ridges towards Estcourt and Maritzburg. It is an all-round view, with no interruption in any direction. Then, when Murray brought his telescope and explained the position, the interest grew more vivid and exciting. For there we could see (even through the telescope looking no bigger than ants) the Boers riding from the east to the west to occupy these new hills which we are threatening. I counted about 120 passing. Then, looking along the lower hills and kopjes which skirt the meandering river on the north, one could make out long lines of intrenchments, and could see the Boers at work in them with pick and shovel. At Colenso we could see nothing, but here with a good glass one can see line after line of earthworks and watch the Boers shovelling out the earth, and making rifle-pits and gun emplacements, and see them riding to and fro and standing and sitting on hill-tops watching us. It is a unique position thus to be able to look across the valleys and see your enemy and all his works. The part they seem to be giving their chief attention to is the road leading up from the drift. It first passes through some small kopjes, then emerges into a perfectly smooth and slightly inclined plain. Then it winds up between some more kopjes into large plains above. Once these are reached the road lies open and more or less flat to Ladysmith. But it is a terrible position for us. The river in its windings hems us in on three sides, while on the fourth side are fortified hills, and between the drift and the hills open ground where rifles would sweep the board.