Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, and the Front.


          Those who have never left England can form but a faint idea of a railway which runs through wildernesses, with here and there a small tract of cultivation. The flat plains are useless for engineering purposes in countries of drought and flood. So, in Natal, the single narrow line twists and curves, down and up gradients that an English engine would be helpless to ascend, round small ledges cut in the living rock of the hill, and anon plunging into some great rent which the puny hand of man has torn in the colossal mountain-side.
          Up above us, for hundreds of feet, tower the kopjes of Natal; below us, in the valleys, the cattle and buildings are almost invisible, so high are we above them. The small ledge along which we are steaming, just broad enough for the single line, is lost to sight round the sharp curve a little further on, only to re-appear on the hillside across the valley. All around Nature is in her greenest robe; the sheep wander on the plain, the Kaffirs at work in the fields stop as we rush past to look at us, the only element of war in so peaceful and happy a scene.
          A few hours, and what a change will be before our eyes! The quiet homestead will be replaced by charred and battered ruin, the kine in the pasture by the slain chargers of the battlefield left to rot upon the ground, and in place of the labourers cultivating Nature's gifts, the stern sentinel, whose every sense is strained to catch the first warning of the coming foe. And one pathetic feature will be added to the scene. What is it we see yonder, hid away under the bushes? It is a little group of long, narrow mounds, with here a rough wooden cross bound with a bit of rope, and there a few large stones, hastily collected, which mark the last resting-places of some of England's heroes.
          But to return to ourselves. On the way up to Pietermaritzburg the scenery, viewed from the railway, is remarkably fine. Here and there stand a few kraals, and less frequently a well-built farmhouse, with every sign of prosperity. We felt the cold somewhat in the open trucks as the day waned, but had too much to look at to allow it any thought. At Gilletts, a little station about three hours' run from Durban, we were presented with some hot tea by the ladies of the place - an hospitality which we fully appreciated. Let it be remembered, to the credit of these ladies, that they had done the same for every train-load of troops, except one or two at first, who had passed up-country during the war.
          At Inchanga, where we arrived at 6 p.m., a slice of bread and a mouthful of coffee were served out, and this, with the breakfast we had on board, was all the food we received that day. As our stomachs grew empty, I'm afraid some of us already began thinking with regret of the good food we had wasted on the way out.
          We ran into Pietermaritzburg station at 9.15 p.m., and quickly unloaded the baggage. There is one large platform here for passenger traffic, and the station is well supplied with the necessary conveniences of travelling, including large refreshment and dining-rooms, book-stall, lavatories, &c. The goods sheds adjoining are also on a very extensive scale.
          Having packed our luggage, we were marched into camp, and here supplied with a blanket each, and told off to our tents. As there were but four available, we averaged decidedly over twenty men to each tent. It was, too, our first sample of what Mother Earth is like in South Africa for a bed. We got hardened to it later on, but the first night we had very little sleep. Next morning we experienced drawing our own rations. A good number of Indians are admitted every day into camp; and from these fresh butter, salads, eggs, and fruits can be obtained at a reasonable figure when you have beaten the dealer down considerably. For a little time the ox and mule teams drawing the wagons were a novel sight, but we soon got used to our new surroundings.
          The camp - which occupies a large and healthy site on a hill-side - is composed of lofty wooden huts surrounded by enormous verandahs; but these were all in use as the base hospital. The troops were, in consequence, under canvas. During our first stay here there were a great many men wearing the blue hospital suit, some strolling under the trees, hoping to get back their strength lost in fighting the fever fiend; others, sitting on the banks by the roadside, could show wounds received in the many gallant attempts to accomplish the relief of Ladysmith; while, side by side with these, sat those who had suffered in the heroic defence of that town.
          Owing to the crowded condition of the tent, several of us slept in the open for the first time. Soon after dark we gathered up our blanket, overcoat, Balaclava cap, with haversack or helmet for pillow, and sallied forth to find some quiet and secluded spot in which to spend the night. About 1 or 2 a.m. we would awake to find a nice drop of rain - as one of our comrades called it - descending, and that our bedding was already tolerably damp. Seizing our blanket, &c., we promptly made tracks for the nearest verandah, where we spent the rest of the night.
          But these minor trials were not to trouble us for long. Greater hardships awaited us, and we quickly learned to look back to our stay at Pietermaritzburg as a happy and comfortable time. Orders were received for us to be ready by Wednesday, April 11, for the front. Our kitbags, after we had extracted such necessities as we could take with us from them, were sent into store; and this, as after events proved, was the last we were to see of the larger part of our belongings.
          At 10 p.m. 100 rounds of ammunition per man were served out; and with our spare shirts and socks rolled in our overcoat, and one or two rifles in our haversack, we fell in, all our baggage, consisting of just what we had about us, ready to take the field. Rain was falling at the time, and continued to do so all night, which, as we traveled in open trucks, greatly added to the general discomfort. The regulars of the battalion we were going to join, who were at the base, bade us an affectionate farewell, and wished us better luck than they had had, as most of them were wounded. We marched to the station, and took our seats in the carriages, where we promptly began to make ourselves as snug as possible for the long journey before us.
          The engine whistles, and off we go into the rain and darkness, leaving behind the last glimpses of peace and plenty. Before us, in the night, lie starvation, cold, and heavy fatigue; but of this we are as yet ignorant.
          As morning broke we found ourselves on the famous battle-fields around Tugela. Here, on our right, we pass the wreck of the armoured train reminiscent of the engagement when Winston Churchill, the war correspondent, so nobly distinguished himself. A little further on, and we see the spot where the heroic son of as great a military leader as England has ever seen finds a resting place in the ground on which he covered himself with glory - I refer to Lieutenant Robert's grave. It stands close to the railway track, and beside him lie several more who fought and died in their country's cause on that great day. A little beyond this we run through the small town of Colenso, on over the temporary bridge across the Tugela, and then winding in and out amongst the hills on which the Boer entrenchments still remain, we get some idea of the enormous magnitude of General Buller's task. For miles the stone walls and trenches run along the front of these precipitous hills, and on every vantage point is prepared a place from which some sharp-shooters can fire down upon the attackers. Not a bush or tree but, peering through the branches, you perceive the little half-circle of stones piled up, waist-high, beneath it, from which some sniper could pick off our men on the flat plain across the river. Now and again a few horses lay decaying on the ground; here a few ragged tents still stand fluttering in the wind, and there the broken wagon cumbers the ground, a now useless wreck.
          Presently we whisk round the shoulder of a steep kopje, and from our height up the hillside look down upon the scene of that fruitless attempt our enemy made to flood Ladysmith. Half-way across the river stands this gigantic dam, but it was never completed. Many and many a time the quiet valley we were now running up had resounded in a thousand echoes, as some well-planted shell from our Ladysmith guns, at one fell blow destroyed the labours of many hours. And here the work stands, even as the labourers threw down their tools on the last day of relief. The bag, half-filled, shall never be completed for the purpose for which it was assigned. The same hand shall never again grasp the rusting spade; but for many years this partly-built wall will stand as a memento of the time when Britain's supremacy was threatened, but in vain.
          On through the narrowing ravine, and out again, we dash upon the plain, and on our view bursts the grand amphitheatre where the greatest of modern fights was fought, and the bravest of men stubbornly held out, hoping almost against hope until relief came. There, before us, lies this famous place of which we have heard so much - Ladysmith, the impregnable - while British hearts defended it. The little clusters of graves are getting more frequent now we near the scenes where the heaviest engagements were fought and won. We run into the large station and look about us. Things are not so bad as we thought. There are still some houses in a whole condition; the station has not suffered either. But here and there can still be seen traces of the Boer shells.
          Our stay, however, is but a short one. A fresh engine picks us up, and we are on the move once more. Now, as we run through the town, we get a better view of the damage down. Although some weeks have elapsed since the siege was raised, there are still sufficient signs to show us how terrible it must have been for those - more especially women and children - who were beleaguered here.
          Out again beyond the town we speed, and in a short time steam into Elandslaagte station. Here, on our side, the line at last terminates. We detrain, form up, and march to the East Surrey Regiment's camp, which lies away to the east of the railway about three-quarters of a mile. A cheer from these war-stained veterans greets our arrival, a hearty welcome, and what, as we have had nothing since 5 p.m. the previous day, and it is now 3.30 in the afternoon, we are glad to see, namely, a sample of the bully beef and biscuits and a drink of tea.
          Only two days before, the camp had been shelled and forced to retire, and it was now placed under cover of a slight rise in the ground. We pitched our own line of tents, and were soon comfortably quartered. The site of the camp was not so healthy as it might have been. It was close to the spot over which the Lancers charged the day General Yule reached Ladysmith from Dundee, and the ground around was thickly strewn with the remains of scores of horses killed in the victorious engagement. The air, in consequences, was somewhat highly perfumed, and the Lancers' charge was called to our minds every time the breeze came from the north.
          On Saturday, 14th, we were employed for some time building sangars (a breastwork of stones) and digging trenches, and in the afternoon were marched to the Sunday River for a bath and washing purposes. One section of the company took their arms with them, as the river was beyond our outpost lines, and these had to keep watch whilst the others bathed, being in their turn relieved. We overstepped the mark as regards time, and there was some anxiety in camp about us, but we arrived safely back about 7 p.m. Next day - Easter Sunday - we took our first turn at outpost duty, mounting guard on the naval guns and elsewhere, and heard the distant booming of Boer cannon. With the aid of the telescope, we got a first glimpse of our enemy, hard at work at their trenches on the Biggarsberg Mountains.
          As to our commissariat, we were pleasantly surprised to find that tinned meat was not used in standing camp; also that beer was obtainable at 3d. per pint. Fresh beef was issued daily to the cooks, who stewed it with the allowance of potatoes, compressed vegetable, rice, or onions, making a fairly palatable dinner. Fresh bread was also issued at the rate of 1lb. per man per diem. All water had to be brought into camp in carts drawn by half-a-dozen mules, and for the first time we experienced a difficulty in procuring a good wash. Canteen prices were extremely heavy, Kop's ale being 9d. per bottle, and biscuits, &c., very expensive luxuries. Coming fresh from the base, we noticed the immense difference between the soldier in the field and in the barracks. At Maritzburg we left them smart, shaved, and clean, with well polished buttons and boots; here, those doing the active service stood about, ragged, bronzed, and bearded men, with the rough glow of strength and health in the weather-beaten faces, and with many an industrious patch upon their threadbare khaki; glad to have sound boots on their feet and clothes on their backs, if possible; but when half the sole was gone, and their uniforms were in rags, by no means discouraged, often enduring long and toilsome marches, with little or no food; these were the true British soldiers. The drawing-room officer would have looked in vain for the smart military step, the glitter, and polish, and cleanliness but our heroic commander, General Buller, knew that, well or ill, defeat or victory, these men could be depended upon, and formed the flower of his army.
          Our company quickly assumed the same vagabond appearance, taking their place and doing their turn of duty with the regular soldiers. Shortly after our arrival an order was issued to the effect that -
"The Volunteer Service Company just arrived will henceforth be known as 'I' Company."
And as such we were designated as long as we were with the battalion.
          Here, also, we caught a glimpse of our immediate commander, General Clery, but became far more familiar with his face as we passed him many a later day, watching the troops march into camp after a long tramp; and every one of his men would be in before he thought of rest for himself.
          On Easter Monday, 16th April, sports were held during the day, and in the evening an open-air concert took place within reach of the enemy's guns; several or our men sang. A heavy shower broke up the entertainment rather early but what there was of it was a great success.
          Next morning we began our first march.


© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.