Project Canterbury

My Diocese during the War

Extracts from the Diary of
the Right Rev. Arthur Hamilton Baynes, D.D.
Bishop of Natal

London: George Bell, 1900.

Chapter XIII. Incidents of Camp Life

Spearman's Hill is a magnificent spot. Gently ascending from the south, one suddenly finds oneself at the edge of its crest, looking down on the plain of the Tugela some 800 feet immediately below; then, five miles away, a low range of kopjes; and beyond them a rolling plain extending amid broken hills for seventy miles to where in the north one can see Indu-meni, the mountain at Dundee, round which General Yule retreated, and, more to the west, the long wall of the Drakensberg, with its quaint castle-like ramparts. The steep face of the hill towards the Tugela is covered with thick bush--not the usual bush of the mountain districts of Natal, the stink-wood, yellow-wood, and sneeze-wood, as the indigenous trees are not very euphoniously called, but the bush of the hot river valleys--mimosa, with its tufts of yellow, sweet-smelling flower, now in full bloom, and aloe, with its spiky leaves and its flower like a red-hot poker. To know the joy of a tree and its shade one needs to have a few weeks of camp life in such places as Chieveley and Frere, where there is not a tree to relieve the awful glare of the sun, to ward off from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. what Browning calls "those sunbeams like swords," places in which one simply longs for sunset.

So the morning on which, after a memorable night march, we reached Spearman's, after breakfasting with Lord Dundonald, whose brigade had occupied the position the day before, I strolled with much delight down the bush-covered slopes to enjoy a pipe amid the welcome shade, and pass half an hour till a friend had had his breakfast and could fulfil his promise to point out to me all the features of the Boer position opposite us.

It was here that an amusing incident happened. When my pipe was done I returned from the bush and emerged from it over the crest of the hill just where a "Colt" gun was stationed. This was a new thing to me, and I was curious to examine it. I got into conversation with the young soldier who was evidently in charge of it, and while we were talking a sergeant came up. He took advantage of the first lull in the conversation to ask me if I could tell him who was the chaplain with this division. I told him the name, and then he asked me with great apparent interest where the gentleman had been last stationed. I said, "Well, I think it was Colchester--but why?--do you know him?" "No, sir, I can't say I do; but perhaps you could tell me the name of one of the other chaplains." Getting interested in this "anxious inquirer," who was so concerned to find a chaplain whom he knew, I told him what I could, but even so he did not seem satisfied. I felt that there was more behind, something on his mind. And then he said, "And might I ask your name, sir?" I told him I was the Bishop of Natal, and then he said, "Well, you must excuse me, sir, but we have to be very careful." And then at last it began to dawn on me that his great interest was hardly of a religious character, but that as I had appeared from the direction of the enemy, suddenly emerging from the bush leading up from the Tugela valley, and as I had shown a suspicious interest in his own Colt gun, which I doubt not was as the apple of his eye, he was not at all sure that I was not a Boer spy who had come on the chance of applying a dose of gun-cotton to his pet gun. And I heard afterwards from the young officer with whom I had been in conversation that even after this the sergeant watched me uneasily till he saw me sit down at the table with Lord Dundonald, and then at last he thought he might shift the responsibility for so suspicious a person to the General of his brigade.

I say "the young officer," but that is not strictly correct, and here I may pause to give a "tip "to those numerous young gentlemen from all over the world who flock to South Africa just now with the one ambition of getting to the front and being taken on in some capacity as fighters. This particular young man belonged to that class, as I afterwards ascertained, and happening to come out in the ship which brought this Colt gun, he made a point of studying it and making friends with its guardians, so that when they landed he was somewhat of an expert in its use. On the strength of this he managed to get permission to accompany it to the front, and, being a good fellow (that is half the battle), he was taken on by Lord Dundonald. And in time his chance came. At a reconnaissance at Colenso he was working the gun when a Mauser bullet scratched him all down the back, another made a hole in the sleeve of his coat, and a third went through his leg just above the ankle. Fortunately, none of the wounds were serious, but they were painful at the time, and as, in spite of this, he stuck to his gun, Lord Dun-donald was so pleased with him that I hear he is likely to get a commission. It is no doubt a rare thing for a man who has no status, who has had no training, who is not even a private or a trooper, to become an officer, but there are no limits to the possibilities in war time, and "Fortune favours the brave."

After breakfast my friend (Murray of the Black Watch, Lord Dundonald's A.D.C.) took me to a point of the hill from which we could get a simply splendid view of the Boer positions. When you have been, as at Chieveley, in a position from which nothing can be seen of the enemy, it is distinctly refreshing to be on a hill from which he can be overlooked. With a good glass we could see all his devices. Beginning on our right, where the range of hills extending from Colenso (called Doornkop, I gather from the papers) falls to the plain, we could see large numbers of mounted Boers trekking in twos and threes westward, evidently having got news of our move, and coming to reinforce the trenches opposite us here. Then came a line of kopjes about 200 feet high, which we learnt afterwards to call "Vaal Kranz "; then, with a slight break, Brakfontein, a hill slightly higher than the rest of the range, and standing a little forward, like the bastion of a fort; then the lowest point of the ridge over which the road passes from Pot-gieter's to Ladysmith; then the lower shoulders ofSpion Kop; and then, quite on the extreme left, Spion Kop itself, with its three summits, the first a pointed one, the second two round hummocks. (In all the maps Spion Kop is marked about five miles too far to the west, and this has confused all the accounts of the fighting. Writers have tried, quite hopelessly, to rewrite the descriptions with the maps, and the result has been dire confusion. Spion Kop should be close to the bend of the river immediately west of Potgieter's Drift.) From Doornkop on our right to the southern slope of Spion Kop on our left was a circuit of half the horizon. The whole of this was well fortified: trench after trench the whole way round, and in many cases the trenches double or treble, and across the Lady-smith road an immense trench, extending from a donga on the one side to a donga on the other, about 200 yards or more in length. Here and there on the prominent points of the hills were gun emplacements--some of them, indeed, obviously dummies to attract our artillery fire, but others looking more like business. But another advantage of this position was the view it afforded towards Ladysmith. From time to time we could see shells burst which must have been fired by our friends in Lady-smith at the Boer guns on Lombard's Kop and Umbulwana. I felt sure we must be within heliographing range of some part of the Lady-smith defences. That same afternoon I was on the top of that part of Spearman's Hill which has been called Mount Alice; and though the signallers had been attempting to find Ladysmith all the morning and the afternoon before in vain, they still persevered, and I pointed out to them where I expected to get a reply. All at once, while I was talking with them, a flash appeared, but a good deal further west than the spot I had indicated. I felt sceptical about it. Often before now we have got into communication with the Boers instead of our own people. So we proceeded to put test questions to the signallers at the other end. We asked who was the signalling officer. The answer came back, "Captain Walker." That was right, but Mr. Bennet Burleigh, who came up at that moment, was still more sure than I had been that the flash was too much to the west to be our own people. He was still not satisfied, and thought the Boers might quite well know the name of Captain Walker. So we asked next, "By what ship did you travel with Mr. Bennet Burleigh? "and the answer came back at once, "By the Grantully Castle, when you were on your way to Madagascar." That settled the point beyond all dispute, to our great delight. We had a long and informal chat with our friends at the other helio. They asked us if we could hear the bombarding, as they were at that moment under shrapnel fire, and we must not therefore be surprised if they knocked off work suddenly at any moment. Curiously enough, we could not hear a sound. They were intensely eager to hear all about our movements, and where we were signalling from, and what the hopes of a speedy relief were. We answered as much as we dared. But, of course, we could not be sure whether any Boers on the line of the flash were reading our messages, so we had to leave the most interesting bits of news to be sent later by a cipher message. Meanwhile, as no official messages were going through for the time, I was able to take advantage of the helio to send several private messages through to friends in Ladysmith. I was able to tell one man that his wife and family had landed safe in England. To another I mentioned the fact that we were very badly off in a building operation for want of £1,000 which he had, along with others, made himself responsible for. Curiously enough, I got no answer to this. Perhaps he thought that to be shelled daily, and fed on bully-beef for three months, was public spirit enough without being asked for £1,000; or perhaps he did not get the message, for I heard soon after that he was down with fever, poor man.

The application of science to modern warfare is certainly one of the most interesting parts of the campaign; and your respect for the grimy-looking gentlemen in khaki enormously increases when you find that, so far from being a mere "absent-minded beggar," one is an expert in signalling, and another is a telegraphist, and another accomplished in the knowledge and practice of ballooning. However fast a column advances, the telegraph wire is still well to the front. Just outside my tent was a two-wheeled cart. On it was a big roller from which the wire had been unrolled as we proceeded. It is dropped along the veldt quite casually, but there are no accidents. Your horse trips in it sometimes, but neither he nor the wire is any the worse. And then follow the Royal Engineers with poles, and very soon the line is quite an orthodox affair properly mounted on black and white poles like a barber's sign. Meanwhile on the same telegraph cart at the end of the wire there is a small machine which keeps buzzing its all-important messages in a pertinacious and garrulous way. And at night the telegraph clerk sleeps with this instrument to his ears. But he must be an expert in sleeping too, to be able to get any rest under such circumstances, with this still small voice like an uneasy conscience uttering its insistent message.

For real repose I do not recommend inquirers to share the tent of a Brigade-Major, as I did for a week or two. He may be the most charming of men, as he was in this case, but as he is the General's ear (as an Archdeacon is a Bishop's eye) his nights are apt to be disturbed. You have at last just got off to sleep after waking suddenly several times with a start to ascertain whether rifle firing is going on, which you discover on investigation to be the flapping of a tent-rope or the dropping of rain upon the canvas. Just as the delicious unconsciousness is stealing over you, a hoarse whisper is heard outside, and as the Brigade-Major is a heavy sleeper, you have to reply to it; and then in comes a sergeant to tell him that No. 2 Picket reports that a number of Boers are moving eastward along the other bank of the river. An exciting whispered conversation takes place, which wakes you more effectively than a loud voice would have done. Then there is silence again when the necessary orders have been given, and once more you are trying to attain the joy of somnolence when another hoarse whisper makes you start up, and another messenger comes in with a telegram and a match has to be found and struck, and the message read and the answer decided on, and you have not the strength of mind to avoid a little talk on the new light it throws on the situation, and the possible moves that will be involved, and the question why General A. did not do this, and what in the name of fortune General B. was up to when he allowed the doing of that. And then, you and the Brigade-Major having quite satisfied yourselves how splendidly you would have managed the whole campaign and how it is all as plain as a pike-staff, you remonstrate with each other for doing so little sleep, and silence falls again upon the canvas walls just as they are beginning to become slightly luminous with the first rays of the dawn; and an hour later, even if the exigencies of the campaign have not aroused you, the flies will wake up, and sleep for another day will become impossible.

But after all, even with a Brigade-Major in it, a tent is a wonderful luxury, as you discover when you have had a night or two in the open, especially if the weather turns wet. That such a thing as attempting to sleep at all under such conditions is possible is a new and startling discovery. Ordinarily one would as soon have thought of trying it as one would of removing the roof of one's bedroom, and adjusting the garden hose so as to play upon one's counterpane. But you really do not know what you can do till you try, and I have not the slightest doubt that if it were absolutely necessary one would come to think even the garden hose did not greatly matter and could easily be dodged by a fertile brain and a Mark Tapley disposition.

But I have wandered far from my subject, which was the application of science to war in the matter of telegraphs and heliographs and balloons. The last-named has a peculiar fascination about it for the looker-on. I am told that its joys are diluted for the balloonist. First of all he may be the most seasoned old salt who ever scoffed at the horrors of the British Channel, but if there is any wind he will infallibly be sea-sick in the balloon. They say the motion is truly awful, as the captive balloon sways and swings and tosses and heaves.

Then you have to add to this initial discomfort the fact that you have to make observations of small objects at a distance of 2,000 to 10,000 yards, and in order to do this you need to get a firm rest for your telescope or field-glasses. Then you have to try to make memoranda on a map or elsewhere as to the enemy's position and trenches, and then further to try and keep up a polite conversation through a telephone with the world below--a world which is apt to be impatient for the news which you are assumed to possess in abundance from the upper regions. Add to this one more trifling inconvenience in the shape of the possibility of a bullet from the enemy, and you have the leading outlines of the balloonist's materials for happiness. It is not altogether wonderful if in this imperfect world tempers are sometimes ruffled under the unusual strain. Either the man above is sick and sorry, and feels a little chafed at the apparent want of sympathy from his impatient friend at the other end of the telephone; or the terrestrial friend, considering "such ire in celestial minds "unjustifiable, or such sickness inconvenient, fails in consideration for his colleague above.

I heard of such a quarrel one day, but without betraying secrets the situation lends itself to dramatic treatment. Presuppose a little preliminary friction between the terrestrial and the celestial telephonist and such conditions as I have described, and you can imagine some such conversation as this pas::ing up and down the wire: "Why don't you tell us where the Boers are? "" Why don't you move the cart to the east? I can't see over this hill, and I am getting horribly sea-sick." "If you are sea-sick, why don't you go to the leeward of the balloon instead of leaning over this way? or better still, why don't you come down and let me go up? ""You're a . . . and I'll tell you what when I come down." "If you say that again, I will cut the wire and let you go to Pretoria (various expletives from above). Look, here, I'm off; I've had enough of this." Voice from above excitedly: "I say, are you there? "Voice from below: "No, I'm not, and I am not going to be till you apologize." Voice from above: "Here, I say, lower away; these beggars have just hit me in the head with a Mauser bullet." Voice from below: "No, have they? I'm most awfully sorry, old chap; you've done splendidly and are a gallant fellow." (Ends in mutual congratulations and admiration.)

It will of course be understood that this little drama is entirely fiction; but it struck me as such a funny situation, a quarrel through a telephone between a man in the clouds and the man holding on to him below, that I was moved to draw upon my imagination. But the last episode is founded on fact, as one day our balloonist did actually get within rifle range of the Boer lines, and not only was the balloon hit, causing some loss of gas, but also the intrepid balloonist was grazed on the skull by a Mauser bullet. Bullet holes have very little effect on the balloon, and, curiously enough, for the very same reason that makes so many Mauser bullet wounds through vital organs so little harmful. The bullet is so small and makes so clean a puncture, that the skin closes down again like a valve and preserves the wound-channel from contact with the air.

One day a deserter came in from the enemy's camp--a Cape boy. He had been originally a tram driver in Durban, and had been in the Transvaal at work on a railway contract, and then had been commandeered by the Boers on the outbreak of war. He had never been a willing partisan, but when they made him work night and day in the trenches, his unwillingness took a more active form, and he seized the first opportunity of escaping and making his way to our lines. We cross-examined him at some length as to the Boer positions and plans. He told us there was a gun mounted on the shoulder of Spion Kop pointing right at us where we were then standing (which was cheering news), but that the Boers were afraid to disclose it for fear of having it put out of action by our big naval guns, and were keeping it in reserve for the time when we should attack. He knew a certain amount of English, and was evidently proud of his command of idiomatic and conversational language; and when General Lyttelton asked him how the Boers had treated him he answered quite naively and respectfully, evidently proud of his knowledge of how to speak to a General, "I had a couple of quid in my pocket and they took them away from me: in fact they took all my bloody things." It is a curious illustration of the way in which the English language is being taught to the subject-races of the Empire, especially when one thinks of the history of the word and remembers that it is a corruption of "By our Lady."

There was no need to testify "by our lady" that the Boers had taken all his things, for it is quite a common experience. The other day, near Colenso, a number of the South African Light Horse rather rashly went down to the Tugela to bathe, where the river was really in the possession of the enemy. While they were in the water a party of Boers stole round and got their clothes. They appeared to care less for prisoners than for boots and trousers; and the South African Light Horse had to return to Chieveley an exceptionally "Light Brigade."

Talking of clothes reminds me of what I heard of a Boer prisoner in Maritzburg the other day. He was wounded in the leg, and the doctor had to remove his trousers to dress the wound, and gave him instead a sleeping suit. He was very indignant, and said he had never slept without his trousers in his life. Even when they wear their own clothes the Boers are now difficult to distinguish from our own men, for not only are their slouch hats very like those adopted by our Volunteers and irregulars (and now I see, too, by the English Volunteers and irregulars), but also there is a general epidemic of khaki, the contagion of which has spread not only to their side but to the natives. My small Kaffir house-boy appears now on Sundays in a complete suit of khaki, brass buttons and all. And they say that even the horses are trying to follow suit. Whether the effort is conscious or involuntary there is no doubt about the fact that most of the Artillery and London omnibus horses are perceptibly changing colour under the influence of the South African sun. I have noticed that nearly all the bay horses have taken on a sort of yellowish tinge, and long ago all our wagons and gun-carriages, and even our scabbards, assumed the protection of the khaki tint, which is the nearest shade attainable to the prevailing tone of the veldt. It is curious to see the principle of mimicry, which plays so large a part in the defensive tactics of nature, thus consciously adopted by man. The other day I was sitting on a rock which was partly covered by a white lichen. I saw a small round lump of what appeared to be the same, but while I watched it it began to move, and on closer inspection it turned out to be a small insect--a beetle of a sort, covered with a tuft of something so exactly like the lichen, that in rest it was impossible to distinguish it. And the well-known stick insects which abound here are so absurdly like sticks, that identification is impossible until they move.

I have gathered together a few incidents on what may be called the lighter side of the war. And it is lucky that that side is so much in evidence at the front; the gaiety, the fun, the chaff, the good stories that one hears among officers and men do a great deal to mitigate the hardships and to relieve the strain. And humour is born of kindliness and good fellowship, and the presence of it among all ranks is only one more of the many indications that even in the horrors of war there are compensations; and looking back one feels that one has at such times seen human nature, if not at its best, yet certainly very far from its worst. The brightness, the gaiety, which mercifully are so pre-valent, are indications of hearts at ease; of consciences heightened by a sense of duty nobly done; of sacrifice gladly borne, of generous consideration for others, of a life which for the time at least is lifted to a higher level by the great calls made on it, and by the high ideals, always present, though never paraded, of patriotism, of heroism, and of self-surrender.

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