WE rested on our laurels for a few days, each commando camping immediately behind the position which it had held during the battle.
Ladysmith was soon completely invested; on every hill and kook lay a force of riflemen, and there must have been nearly ten thousand thus tied down who could have been put to far better use.
The breather remained fine, and we divided our time between watching the beleaguered garrison build forts and breastworks against our ultimate reception, and riding about the rear foraging for supplies.
After a while we of Pretoria received orders to move forward to occupy a hill named Bell's Kop, facing a murderous-looking English construction that had gone up within the last few days. We rode out before light one morning to take up our new position, which, we were informed, was to be held by us as part of the cordon that was being drawn round the town. When we heard that this was to be our permanent abode, all hands turned to building shelters against the weather, and generally making our camp habitable. Neighbouring farms were laid under tribute and plundered of everything that could be turned to account. My brother rejoined us here. He had had enough of gunnery for the time being, and our native boy Charley also entered appearance, beaming with delight at having tracked us down. He travelled on foot all the way from the Transvaal border, and although several times arrested as a spy, he had talked and argued his way through until he found us. Needless to say, he was received with open arms, as we were once more able to turn over to him our duties of cooking, carrying water, horse-guard, etc., so my brother and I settled down to a life of ease, spending our time in sniping at the English outposts, or in riding to the neighbouring laagers.
Camp life was a pleasant existence. There were no drills or parades and, except for night picket and an occasional fatigue party to the railway depot to fetch supplies, there were no military duties. Our commando received many fresh drafts, and after a while varied from one thousand to fifteen hundred men, but discipline was slack, and there was a continual stream of burghers going home on self-granted leave, so that we never knew from day to day what strength we mustered.
Although we nominally stood under command of General Maroola and his brother, we seldom saw anything of them, for they lived at the head laager miles away, and to all intents and purposes we were a law unto ourselves.
Both Maroola and Swart Lawaai were incompetent as leaders, but they were true men nevertheless. They sacrificed all they possessed, and when, later in the war, they were deserted by their men and bereft of all authority, they remained in the field as private soldiers, until the end.
We settled down to a stationary life, and if occasionally time hung heavily on our hands, conditions were otherwise comfortable enough. Our boy Charley proved a capable freebooter, and thanks to his foraging expeditions into the hills among the Zulu kraals where, he made play with his descent from Chief Moshesh, our larder flourished and our mess was the envy of the rest of the camp.
After a week or two, tents were served out, and my brother and I shared one with the five good friends of our corporalship with whom we had kept company ever since leaving home. They were Charles Jeppe, a mine-surveyor, Robert Reinecke, Walter de Vos, Frank Roos and Samuel van Zijl, Civil Servants, but they were all killed before long.
So quiet were things around Ladysmith, that, as time went on, many burghers got ox-wagons brought down from their farms, and some even had their wives and families with them, which tended further to increase the spirit of inactivity that was gaining on the commandos.
However, reports from all fronts were good, and we deluded ourselves into believing that everything was as it should be and, so far as my brother and I were concerned, we thoroughly enjoyed the business of besieging Ladysmith, and making regular excursions to see the guns fired into the town.
We went once every week to look up a Norwegian uncle of ours, named Theodor Thesell, serving with a Free State commando on the west side of the cordon. He had settled near the Vaal River many years before, and had been commandeered for service very much against the grain, as he held that we were bound to be defeated. I was surprised to see in what good part the burghers took his outspoken comment on their chances, but the real fighting Boer is ever a tolerant, good-natured follow, and my uncle suffered no inconvenience for his views. Once, while we were chatting to him on a kopje occupied by a port on of the Kroonstad men beyond the Klip River, a considerable English mounted force moved forward to attack, or at any rate to demonstrate, before this position. Their guns unlimbered within range, and opened a cannonade, and their horsemen made as if to come at us. At the first alarm, the Kroonstad men ran from their tents, and directed such a hot fire that the cavalry wheeled round and galloped off; the guns were hooked up, and what looked like the promise of a lively battle fizzled out in a few minutes. Several shells had burst overhead, but as we were well sheltered behind rocks, we thought little of it until we found, when the affair was over, that three men had been killed and half a dozen wounded, quite close to us.
On another occasion, while my brother and I were returning from a call on the Commandant-General at the head laager, we were overtaken by darkness, and heavy rain coming on, we tied our horses in the shelter of some trees and, seeing a mule-wagon standing near with a canvas sheet drawn over it and pegged down on either side for a tent, we lifted a flap and crawled into a corner where we slept snug and warm all night. When we woke at daybreak a man on a camp stool with a mug of coffee in his hand was eyeing us appraisingly, so we unrolled ourselves and went forward to explain our use of his quarters. It was Mr Smuts, the State Attorney, my father's colleague on the Executive Council. He was here on some Government business, and, after a hearty laugh at our impudence, he ordered coffee and breakfast for the pair of us. Afterwards he became a fighting General, and I was to see much hard service under him in the Cape Colony nearly two years later.
I also recovered my little Basuto pony that had been lost near Dundee. I found him tethered to General Joubert's own wagon in the head laager, and I had an angry scuffle with some dispatch-riders, before I was able to undo the head-rope and take him away with me. The Commandant-General was absent and they promised me all sorts of pains and penalties when he returned, but I knew that among the Boers, ownership of a horse is almost sacrosanct, so I carried him off in triumph.
When next I met General Joubert and asked him how he came by my horse, he said that the pony was found straying on the void by one of his staff; and that he had kept the little animal more as a pet than anything else.
The British now and then shelled our camp, upon which we would take cover at the first sign of trouble, and the damage was generally confined to a riddled tent or two, and perhaps a few horses injured. During one of these squalls our native boy was hit, and for weeks afterwards he walked about proudly displaying a fragment of metal taken from his side.
At this time I was sent for to give evidence in Pretoria against a man who had stolen money and clothing, which my father had given him to take down to my brother and myself. I travelled up by goods train and the man was put in gaol. I was in Pretoria for only two days. Before returning to Natal, I walked with my father from his office in the morning and we touched at the State School where a number of captured British officers were confined, one of whom had asked for an interview. We passed through the sentries into a large classroom where he was playing games with his fellow-prisoners. His name was Winston Churchill, a son of Lord Randolph Churchill, of whom I had often heard. He said he was not a combatant but a war-correspondent, and asked to be released on that account. My father, however, replied that he was carrying a Mauser pistol when taken, and so must remain where he was. Winston Churchill said that all war-correspondents in the Sudan had carried weapons for self-protection, and the comparison annoyed my father, who told him that the Boers were not in the habit of killing non-combatants. In the end the young man asked my father to take with him some articles which he had written for a newspaper in England and if there was nothing wrong with them to send them on via Delagoa Bay. My father read portions of the articles to us at home that evening, and said that Churchill was a clever young man, in which he was not far wrong, for soon after the prisoner climbed over a wall and escaped out of the Transvaal - how, I never heard.
When I got back to Ladysmith all went on as before, and only once during the first month of the siege did we indulge in any military operation. This was a movement against the fort opposite us, the same work that the English had built at the time of our arrival while we stood looking on. It lay eleven hundred yards away, across a level plain, and was known as the Red Fort, and I had spent many moments sniping at it.
Towards the end of November some three hundred men were ordered to attack it at dawn.
Our commando had of late been receiving reinforcements of inferior quality, mostly poor-whites from the burgher-right 'erven', the slum quarters of Pretoria, a poverty-stricken class that had drifted in from the country districts after the great rinderpest epidemic of 1896. They had become debased by town life, and had so little stomach for fighting, that their presence among us was a source of weakness rather than strength. The attacking force was drawn chiefly from these newcomers with Isaac Malherbe's corporalship, and one other of our better corporalships added to stiffen them. We left camp before daybreak, and assembled in a dry watercourse at the foot of Bell's Kop. From there we were to cross the intervening thousand yards of open, and rush the Red Fort at dawn.
Owing to various delays it grew light before we emerged from the spruit, and the soldiers must have observed some movement, for they opened fire before we could make a start. Assistant Field-Cornet de Jager was in charge of the undertaking He was a poor-white himself, but a stout-hearted old warrior none the less, and seeing that we were discovered, he ordered us to advance, himself leading the way. Isaac Malherbe and his men followed, as did the other corporalship, but the remainder refused to budge from behind the safety of the bank. With de Jager at our head, about fifty of us ran forward, coming under heavy rifle-fire as we went. Visibility was still poor, so that we covered about four hundred yards without loss, until we reached a slight outcrop of rock, where we paused to take breath, and finding that we were not supported called the attack off. The net result of our efforts was that, having got thus far, we could go neither forward nor backward, as the sun was over the horizon by now, and to advance or retire over the level bullet-swept zone was too risky, so we made the best of it by lying in the blazing sun without food or water for the next ten hours.
The troops in the fort were very wide awake, forcing us to keep our noses glued to the ground to such an extent that we dared scarcely stir without bringing down a hail of bullets about our cars. A man named Anderson was shot through both legs, and Robert Reinecke of our tent pluckily carried him back to the spruit on his shoulders, the English firing all around him, until they realized that he was helping a wounded comrade, after which they left him to go in peace, and were even sporting enough to allow him to return to us without a shot fired.
We lay sweltering in the heat for the rest- of the day,-wishing ourselves well out of it, and the moment it began to get dusk we made a bolt, getting back over the plain without further casualties in spite of a hot fusillade. I had a lucky escape, for as we were nearing the dry course, I stopped for a moment to see whether anyone had been hit during the retirement, when a bullet grazed my throat, stinging like a hot poker and raising an angry weal. I was more startled that hurt, and quickly followed down into the spruit bed. Here we slaked our thirst from water-holes in the ground, after which we trudged home to find the balance of the assaulting column of that morning comfortably installed in camp, and I got the impression that they rather looked on us as fools for our pains.
The day after this typical piece of bungling I walked across-to Surprise Hill, an isolated kopje standing about six hundred yards to the right of our camp. Here the State Artillery had a howitzer gun in position which I often visited, to watch it bombarding the town. On this morning as I was returning through the bush-covered valley, I saw a man named Mike Hands walking ahead of me, leading a horse. As I was going forward to join him I was astonished to see a tall English soldier appear through the trees, his rifle at the ready. The soldier instantly fired at Hands, but hit the horse instead. The animal dropped and Mike fired. The soldier threw out his arms and fell back, and I found him dead with a bullet through his brain. How he came to be behind our lines was a mystery; possibly he had been scouting during the night, and had lost his way in the dark.
I was to know Surprise Hill better before long, but, in the meanwhile, camp life continued uneventfully. The besieged garrison contented themselves with shelling us at intervals, and, as they made no serious attacks, we assumed that they were marking time, for there was great activity on the south bank of the Tugela, twenty miles away, where the English Commander-in-Chief, General Buller, was massing troops to attempt the relief of Ladysmith.
He was reported to have forty thousand men with great numbers of guns, and on our side reinforcements had been brought from the Transvaal and Free State, and there were about fifteen thousand Boers holding the north bank of the river, from a point below Colenso Bridge to Spion Kop, many miles upstream. As for us around Ladysmith, we felt secure in the belief that whatever might happen on the Tugela, the troops in the besieged town at any rate would make no move, so picket and other duties were carried out in a very perfunctory manner.
During the daytime no guards were set at all, as there was always a sufficient number of men on the hill above amusing themselves with sniping to make sure of an alarm being given in case of need; and at night, although we went on outpost so close to the English sentries that we could hear them challenge each other, and sometimes exchanged shouted pleasantries with them, we did not take our watches very seriously.
We used to go on foot after dark in parties of twenty or so, and, on reaching neutral ground on the plain between ourselves and the enemy line, two men at a time would walk forward a short distance. Here they stood or sat on sentry-go while the rest of us pulled off our boots, spread out blankets and went to sleep until it was the turn of the reliefs. At daybreak we collected our belongings, and tramped back to camp in time for morning coffee, and thus far no untoward incident had ever marred these tranquil doings.
But this happy state was disturbed on the night of December 9th, for a detachment of two or three hundred soldiers came out of Ladysmith and, scaling Lombaardskop, destroyed the big Creusot gun 'Long Tom' standing there. The kop lay six or seven miles from our camp, so we heard nothing till next morning, but when we did, it gave us food for reflection, for it looked as if the pleasant immunity of our night duties was a thing of the past.
Our fears were well founded.
The next night Isaac Malherbe was to take out his corporalship to the usual spot on the plain. We mustered only twelve men, the remainder having been sent to the railway for supplies, and, as they did not get back before we had to leave, we started off without them for an eventful night.