Richard Harding Davis
AFTER the defeat of the Boers at the battle of Pieter's Hill, on February 27th, or Majuba day, there were two things left for them to do. They could fall back across a great plain which stretched from Pieter's Hill to Bulwana Mountain, and there make their last stand against Buller and the Ladysmith relief column, or they could abandon the siege of Ladysmith and slip away after having held Buller at bay for three months.
Bulwana Mountain is shaped like a brick and set on the side, blocking the valley in which Ladysmith lies. The railroad track slips around one end of the brick, and the Dundee trail around the other. It was on this mountain that the Boers had placed their famous gun, Long Tom, with which they began the bombardment of Ladysmith, and with which up to the day before Ladysmith was relieved, they had thrown 3,000 shells into that miserable town.
If the Boers on retreating from Pieter's Hill had fortified this mountain with the purpose of holding off Buller for a still longer time, they would have been under a fire from General White's artillery in the town behind them and from Buller's naval guns in front. Their position would not have been unlike that of Humpty Dumpty on the wall, so they wisely adopted the only alternative and slipped away. This was on Tuesday night, while the British were hurrying up artillery to hold the hills they had taken that afternoon.By ten o'clock the following morning from the top of Pieter's Hill you could still see the Boers moving off along the Dundee road. It was an easy matter to follow them, for the dust hung above the trail in a yellow cloud, like mist over a swamp. There were two opinions as to whether they were halting at Bulwana or passing it, on their way to Laing's Neck. If they were going only to Bulwana there was the probability of two weeks' more fighting before they could be dislodged. If they had avoided Bulwana, the way to Ladysmith was open.
Lord Dundonald, who is in command of a brigade of irregular cavalry, was scouting to the left of Bulwana, far in advance of our forces. At sunset he arrived, without having encountered the Boers, at the base of Bulwana. He could either return and report the disappearance of the enemy or he could make a dash for it and enter Ladysmith. His orders were “to go, look, see," and avoid an action, and the fact that none of his brigade was in the triumphant procession which took place three days later has led many to think that in entering the besieged town without orders he offended the commanding General. In any event, it is a family row and of no interest to the outsider. The main fact is that he did make a dash for it, and just at sunset found himself with two hundred men only a mile from the “Doomed City." His force was composed of Natal Carbiniers and Imperial Light Horse. He halted them, and in order that honors might be even, formed them in sections with the half sections made up from each of the two organizations. All the officers were placed in front, and with a cheer they started to race across the plain.
The wig-waggers on Convent Hill had already seen them, and the townspeople and the garrison were rushing through the streets to meet them, cheering and shouting, and some of them weeping. Others, so officers tell me, who were in the different camps, looked down upon the figures galloping across the plain in the twilight, and continued making tea.
Just as they had reached the centre of the town, General Sir George White and his staff rode down from headquarters and met the men whose coming meant for him life and peace and success. They were advancing at a walk, with the cheering people hanging to their stirrups, clutching at their hands and hanging to the bridles of their horses.
General White's first greeting was characteristically unselfish and loyal, and typical of the British officer. He gave no sign of his own incalculable relief, nor did he give to Caesar the things which were Caesar's. He did not cheer Dundonald, nor Buller, nor the column which had rescued him and his garrison from present starvation and probable imprisonment at Pretoria. He raised his helmet and cried, “We will give three cheers for the Queen!" And then the General and the healthy ragged and sunburned troopers from the outside world, the starved, fever-ridden garrison and the starved, fever-ridden civilians stood with hats off and sang their national anthem.
The column outside had been fighting steadily for six weeks to get Dundonald or any one of its force into Ladysmith ; for fourteen days it had been living in the open, fighting by night as well as by day, without halt or respite; the garrison inside had been for four months holding the enemy at bay with the point of the bayonet; it was famished for food, it was rotten with fever, and yet when the relief came and all turned out well, the first thought of everyone was for the Queen!
It may be credulous in them or old fashioned, but it is certainly very unselfish, and when you take their point of view it is certainly very fine.
After the Queen everyone else had his share of the cheering, and General White could not complain of the heartiness with which they greeted him. He tried to make a speech in reply, but it was a brief one. He spoke of how much they owed to General Buller and his column, and he congratulated his own soldiers on the defence they had made.
“I am very sorry, men," he said, “that I had to cut down your rations. "I promise you I won't do it again."
Then he stopped very suddenly and whirled his horse's head around and rode away. Judging from the number of times they told me of this, the fact that they had all but seen an English General give way to his feelings seemed to have impressed the civilian mind of Ladysmith more than the entrance of the relief force. The men having come in and demonstrated that the way was open, rode forth again, and the relief of Ladysmith had taken place. But it is not the people cheering in the dark streets, nor General White breaking down in his speech of welcome, which gives the note to the way the men of Ladysmith received their freedom. It is rather the fact that as the two hundred battle-stained and earth-stained troopers galloped forward, racing to be the first, and rising in their stirrups to cheer, the men in the hospital camps said, "Well, they're come at last, have they?" and continued fussing over their fourth of a ration of tea. That gives the real picture of how Ladysmith came into her inheritance, and of how she received her rescuers.
One cannot expect an entombed miner to be as demonstrative over his relief as are the men who come to his rescue. He has been living on the ends of candles, and drinking the black water in the crevices of the coal. He is starved, choked with fire-damp, bruised in body, living with his mouth to some fissure for a whiff of free air. The men coming to his release are the picked men of the mine, vigorous, eager, filled with the strength of their purpose, working in desperate half-hour shifts, hacking, crushing, pulling down, cheered as they descend by the crowd at the pit's mouth, cheered again and cared for as they are drawn up in the basket, exhausted and breathless. They are inspired by the fact that they are fighting and racing with death, but the man lying imprisoned under the timbers hears the blows of their picks dully, he has ceased to feel or to care. And at last, when the pick's point breaks through the wall of his tomb, it is not the man lying exhausted at the bottom of the shaft who rejoices, but it is the men who have saved him who shout and cheer.
On the morning after Dundonald had ridden in and out of Ladysmith, two other correspondents and myself started to relieve it on our own account. We did not know the way to Ladysmith, and we did not then know whether or not the Boers still occupied Bulwana Mountain. But by following the railroad track, we were sure of a reliable guide, and we argued that the chances of the Boers having raised the siege were so good that it was worth risking their not having done so, and being taken prisoner.
We carried all the tobacco we could pack in our saddle-bags, and enough food for one day. My chief regret was that my government, with true republican simplicity, had given me a passport, typewritten on a modest sheet of notepaper and woefully lacking in impressive seals and coats-of-arms. I fancied it would look to Boer eyes like one I might have forged for myself in the writing-room of the hotel at Cape Town.
We had ridden up Pieter's Hill and scrambled down on its other side before we learned that Dundonald had raised the siege himself. We learned this from long trains of artillery and regiments of infantry which already were moving forward over the great plain which lies between Pieter's and Bulwana. We learned it also from the silence of conscientious, dutiful correspondents, who came galloping back as we galloped forward, and who made wide detours at sight of us, or who, when we hailed them, lashed their ponies over the red rocks and pretended not to hear. They were unselfishly turning their backs on Ladysmith in order to send the first news to the paper of the fact that the “Doomed City” was relieved. This would enable one paper to say that it had the news “on the street" five minutes earlier than its hated rivals. We found that the rivalry of our respective papers bored us exceedingly. We condemned it as being childish and weak of them. London, New York, Chicago, were only names, they were places thousands of leagues away: Ladysmith was just across that mountain. If our horses held out at the pace, we would be--after Dundonald--the first men in. We imagined that we would see hysterical women and starving men. They would wring our hands, and say, “God bless you," and we would halt our steaming horses in the
Market-place, and distribute the news of the outside world, and tobacco. There would be shattered houses, roofless homes, deep pits in the roadways where the shells had burst and buried themselves. We would see the entombed miner at the moment of his deliverance, we would be among the first from the outer world to break the spell of his silence; the first to receive the brunt of the imprisoned people's gratitude and rejoicings.
Indeed, it was clearly our duty to the papers that employed us that we should not send them news, but that we should be the first to enter Ladysmith. We were surely the best judges of what was best to do. How like them to try to dictate to us from London and New York, when we were on the spot. It was absurd. We shouted this to each other as we raced in and out of the long confused column, lashing viciously with our whips. We stumbled around pieces of artillery, slid in between dripping water-carts, dodged the horns of weary oxen, scattered companies of straggling Tommies, and ducked under protruding tent-poles on the baggage-wagons, and at last came out together again in advance of the dusty column.
“Besides, we don't know where the press censor is, do we?" No, of course we had no idea where the press-censor was, and unless he said that Ladysmith was relieved, the fact that 25,000 other soldiers said so counted for idle gossip. Our papers could not expect us to go riding over mountains the day Ladysmith was relieved, hunting for a press-censor. “That press-censor," gasped Hartland, “never is where he ought to be." The words were bumped out of him as he was shot up and down in the saddle. That was it. It was the press-censor's fault. Our consciences were clear now. If our papers worried themselves or us because they did not receive the great news until everyone else knew of it, it was all because of that press-censor. We smiled again and spurred the horses forward. We abused the press-censor roundly--we were extremely indignant with him. It was so like him to go off and lose himself on the day Ladysmith was relieved. “Confound him," we muttered, and grinned guiltily. We felt as we used to feel when we were playing truant from school.
We were nearing Pieter's Station now, and were half way to Ladysmith. But the van of the army was still about us. Was it possible that it stretched already into the beleaguered city? Were we, after all, to be cheated of the first and freshest impressions? The tall lancers turned at the sound of the horses' hoofs and stared, infantry officers on foot smiled up at us sadly, they were dirty and dusty and sweating, they carried rifles and cross belts like the Tommies, and they knew that we outsiders who were not under orders would see the chosen city before them. Some of them shouted to us, but we only nodded and galloped on. We wanted to get rid of them all, but they were interminable. When we thought we had shaken them off, and that we were at last in advance, we would come upon a group of them resting on the same ground their shells had torn up during the battle the day before.
We passed Boer laagers marked by empty cans and broken saddles and black cold campfires. At Pieter's Station the blood was still fresh on the grass where two hours before some of the South African Light Horse had been wounded and their horses stampeded.
The Boers were still on Bulwana then? Perhaps, after all, we had better turn back and try to find that press-censor. But we rode on and saw Pieter's Station, as we passed it, as an absurd relic of bygone days when bridges were intact and trains ran on schedule time. One door seen over the shoulder as we galloped past read, “Station Master's Office-Private," and in contempt of that stern injunction, which would make even the first-class passenger hesitate, one of our shells had knocked away the half of the door and made its privacy a mockery. We had only to follow the track now and we would arrive in time--unless the Boers were still on Bulwana. We had shaken off the army, and we were two miles in front of it, when six men came galloping toward us in an unfamiliar uniform. They passed us far to the right, regardless of the trail, and galloping through the high grass. We pulled up when we saw them, for they had green facings to their gray uniforms, and no one with Buller's column wore green facings.
We gave a yell in chorus. “Are you from Ladysmith?” we shouted. The men, before they answered, wheeled and cheered, and came toward us laughing jubilant. “We're the first men out," cried the officer, and we rode in among them, shaking hands and offering our good wishes. "We're glad to see you,” we said. “We're glad to see you," they said. It was not an original greeting, but it seemed sufficient to all of us. “Are the Boers on Bulwana?” we asked. “No, they've trekked up Dundee way. They took Long Tom down yesterday. You can go right in."
We parted at the word and started to go right in. We found the culverts along the railroad cut away and the bridges down, and that galloping ponies over the roadbed of a railroad is a difficult feat at the best, even when the road is in working order.
Some men, cleanly dressed and rather pale. looking, met us and said: "Good-morning." "Are you from Ladysmith?" we called. “No, we're from the neutral camp," they answered. We were the first men from outside they had seen in four months, and that was the extent of their interest or information. They had put on their best clothes, and were walking along the track to Colenso to catch a train south to Durban or to Maritzburg, to any place out of the neutral camp. They might have been somnambulists for all they saw of us, or of the Boer trenches and the battlefield before them. But we found them of greatest interest, especially their clean clothes. Our column had not seen clean linen in six weeks, and the sight of these civilians in white duck and straw hats, and carrying walking-sticks, coming toward us over the railroad ties, made one think it was Sunday at home, and these were excursionists to the suburbs.
We came under the shadow of Bulwana with a certain sense of awe at its mere name. Even though abandoned, it seemed to possess the terrors of a fortress, deserted, but still grim and menacing. Its base was an eruption of trenches, a ploughed field in which each furrow ran at a tangent. Below these trenches swept the Klip River, a swift khaki-colored stream, which at the base of Bulwana was thrown sharply from its course by hundreds of fat sacks of earth, packed tightly and built up solidly into a mammoth dam. Work on this dam had been given up at an instant's warning. Thousands of the empty sacks lay on the bank in carefully arranged heaps. Others, already half filled, were standing in rows along the track, and the spades which had been used to fill them still stuck upright in the earth. The place looked as though the noonday whistle had just sounded, and the workmen had betaken themselves and their dinner-pails to the shade of the nearest trees.
We had been riding through a roofless tunnel, with the mountain and the great dam on one side, and the high wall of the railway cutting on the other, but now just ahead of us lay the open country, and the exit of the tunnel barricaded by twisted rails and heaped-up ties and bags of earth. It was our last obstacle, for as we rode around it into the river bushes we came out into the plain and left Bulwana behind us. For eight miles it had shut out the sight of our goal, but now, directly in front of us, was spread a great city of dirty tents and grass huts and Red Cross flags—the neutral camp—and beyond that, four miles away, shimmering and twinkling sleepily in the sun, the white walls and zinc roofs of Ladysmith.
We gave a gasp of recognition and galloped into and through the neutral camp. Natives of India in great turbans, Indian women in gay shawls and noserings, and black Kaffirs in discarded khaki, looked up at us dully from the earth floors of their huts, and when we shouted “Which way?” and “Where is the bridge?” only stared, or pointed vaguely, still staring.
After all, we thought, they are poor creatures, incapable of emotion. Perhaps they do not know how glad we are that they have been rescued. They do not understand that we want to shake hands with everybody and offer our congratulations. Wait until we meet our own people, we said, they will understand ! It was such a pleasant prospect that we whipped the unhappy ponies into greater bursts of speed, not because they needed it, but because we were too excited and impatient to sit motionless. For the last two hours they had known that something extraordinary was going forward, else why had they been led across open trellis-work bridges, and jumped down ravines, and kept at a gallop, while the rest of the army was crawling on at a walk? They, who at other times had to be beaten out of a walk, now scorned to trot; a gallop had become their natural gait.
In our haste we lost our way among innumerable little trees; we disagreed as to which one of the many cross-trails led home to the bridge. We slipped out of our stirrups to drag the ponies over one steep place, and to haul them up another, and at last the right road lay before us, and a hundred yards ahead a short iron bridge and a Gordon Highlander waited to welcome us, to receive our first greetings and an assorted collection of cigarettes. Hartland was riding a thoroughbred polo pony and passed the gallant defender of Ladysmith without a kind look or word, but Blackwood and I galloped up more decorously, smiling at him with goodwill. The soldier, who had not seen a friend from the outside world in four months, leaped in front of us and presented a heavy gun and a burnished bayonet.
“Halt, there," he cried. “Where's your pass?"
Of course it showed excellent discipline—we admired it immensely. We even overlooked the fact that he should think Boer spies would enter the town by way of the main bridge and at a gallop. We liked his vigilance, we admired his discipline, but in spite of that his reception chilled us. We had brought several things with us that we thought they might possibly want in Ladysmith, but we had entirely forgotten to bring a pass. Indeed I do not believe one of the twenty-five thousand men who had been fighting for six weeks to relieve Ladysmith had supplied himself with one. The night before, when the Ladysmith sentries had tried to halt Dundonald's troopers in the same way, and demanded a pass from them, there was not one in the squadron.
We crossed the bridge soberly and entered Ladysmith at a walk. Even the ponies looked disconcerted and crestfallen. After the high grass and the mountains of red rock, where there was not even a tent to remind one of a roof-tree, the stone cottages and shop windows and chapels and well-ordered hedges of the main street of Ladysmith made it seem a wealthy and attractive suburb. When we entered, a Sabbath-like calm hung upon the town; officers in the smartest khaki and glistening Stowassers observed us askance, little girls in white pinafores passed us with eyes cast down, a man on a bicycle looked up, and then, in terror lest eve might speak to him, glued his eyes to the wheel and “scorched” rapidly. We trotted forward and halted at each street-crossing, looking to the right and left in the hope that someone might nod to us. From the opposite end of the town General Buller and his staff came toward us slowly--the house-tops did not seem to sway--it was not "roses, roses all the way." The German army marching into Paris received as hearty a welcome. “Why didn't you people cheer General Buller when he came in?” we asked later. “Oh, was that General Buller?” they inquired. “We didn't recognize him." “But you knew he was a general officer, you knew he was the first of the relieving column?" “Ye-es, but we didn't know who he was."
I decided that the bare fact of the relief of Ladysmith was all I would be able to wire to my neglected paper, and with remorse started to find the Ladysmith censor. Two officers, with whom I ventured to break the hush that hung upon the town by asking my way, said they were going in the direction of the censor. We rode for some distance in guarded silence. Finally, one of them, with an inward struggle, brought himself to ask, "Are you from the outside? "
I was forced to admit that I was. I felt that I had taken an unwarrantable liberty in intruding on a besieged garrison. I wanted to say that I had lost my way and had ridden into the town by mistake, and that I begged to be allowed to withdraw with apologies. The other officer woke up suddenly and handed me a printed list of the prices which had been paid during the siege for food and tobacco. He seemed to offer it as being in some way an official apology for his starved appearance. The price of cigars struck me as especially pathetic, and I commented on it. The first officer gazed mournfully at the blazing sunshine before him ; “I have not smoked a cigar in two months," he said. My surging sympathy, and my terror at again offending the haughty garrison, combated so fiercely that it was only with a great effort that I produced a handful. “Will you have these?” The other officer started in his saddle so violently that I thought his horse had stumbled, but he also kept his eyes straight in front. "Thank you, I will take one if I may--just one," said the first officer. “Are you sure I am not robbing you?" They each took one, but they refused to put the rest of the cigars in their pockets. As the printed list stated that a dozen matches sold for $1.75, I handed them a box of matches. Then a beautiful thing happened.
They lit the cigars and at the first taste of the smoke--and they were not good cigars--an almost human expression of peace and goodwill and utter abandonment to jay spread over their yellow skins and cracked lips and fever lit eyes. The first man dropped his reins and put his hands on his hips and threw back his head and shoulders and closed his eyelids. I felt that I had intruded at a moment which should have been left sacred.
Another boy-officer in stainless khaki and beautifully turned out, polished and burnished and varnished, but with the same yellow skin and sharpened cheek-bones and protruding teeth, a skeleton on horseback, rode slowly toward us down the hill. As he reached us he glanced up and then swayed in his saddle, gazing at my companions fearfully. "Good God," he cried. His brother-officers seemed to understand, but made no answer, except to jerk their heads toward me. They were too occupied to speak. I handed the skeleton a cigar, and he took it in great embarrassment, laughing and stammering and blushing. Then I began to understand; I began to appreciate the heroic self-sacrifice of the first two, who, when they had been given the chance, had refused to fill their pockets. I knew then that it was an effort worthy of the V. C.
The censor was at his post, and a few minutes later a signal officer on Convent Hill heliographed my cable to Bulwana, where, six hours after the Boers had abandoned it, Buller's own helios had begun to dance, and they speeded the cable on its long journey to the newspaper office on the Thames Embankment.
When one descended to the streets again there are only two streets which run the full length of the town and looked for signs of the siege, one found them not in the shattered houses, of which there seemed surprisingly few, but in the starved and fever-shaken look of the people.
The cloak of indifference which every Englishman wears, and his instinctive dislike to make much of his feelings, and, in this case, his pluck, at first concealed from us how terribly those who had been inside of Ladysmith had suffered, and how near to the breaking point they were. Their faces were the real index to what they had passed through.
Anyone who had seen our men at Montauk Point or in the fever-camp at Siboney needed no hospital list to tell him of the pitiful condition of the garrison. The skin on their faces was yellow, and drawn sharply over the brow and cheek-bones; their teeth protruded, and they shambled along like old men, their voices ranging from a feeble pipe to a deep whisper. In this pitiable condition they had been forced to keep night-watch on the hill-crests, in the rain, to lie in the trenches, and to work on fortifications and bomb-proofs. And they were expected to do all of these things on what strength they could get from horse-meat, biscuits of the toughness and composition of those that are fed to dogs, and on “mealies," which is what we call corn.
The town itself did not arouse one's sympathies. It straggles for a mile on either side of a wide dusty street. It consists of stone and corrugated-zinc shops of one story, a bare parade-ground, a court-house with a shattered bell-tower, and houses, also of one story and balanced by broad verandas, set back in gardens yellow with dust. It is an unlovely, un-homelike place, set when it rains in a swamp of mud, and when the sun shines smothered in a plague of dust. The dust is so deep that a wind is not needed to raise a cloud, a team of oxen can do that, a column of marching men. When several teams of oxen are kicking up the dust at the same time, it is not safe to ride faster than a walk for fear of bumping into some unseen obstacle. For a whole morning at a time, when the wind sweeps down the street, Ladysmith's main avenue is a choking yellow fog, through which you can see but twenty feet about you. And when the dust is settled, all that you see is so practical, hard, and ugly, that one almost wishes for the curtain of dust to rise again and hide it. On one side of the main street the shops run so close together that it is possible to walk for over half a mile under the shelter of their iron awnings, and this was the promenade and meeting place of the besieged people. Here the Tommies on leave from the camps walked and talked--here the Indian coolies sat crouched on their haunches--here the civilian colonials met to gossip and to abuse the relieving column and the British Parliament. For Tommy and the civilian, but for the excitement of the shells, it must have been a terrible and awful experience. The town offered hem no relief, no green and pleasant spot of retreat, nothing that was fresh, pretty, or restful. Its muddy Klip River ran between high bare banks, tunnelled with caves and bomb-proofs. Its streets offered mud or driving dust, its shops were barred and shuttered, public-houses showed mockingly unpolished bars and rows of emptied bottles, the plain outside was within the zone of fire, the encircling mountains suggested only comrades killed or comrades killing, or the stronghold of the enemy.
That first day in Ladysmith gave us a faint experience as to what the siege meant. The correspondents had disposed of all their tobacco, and within an hour saw starvation staring them in the face, and raced through the town to rob fellow-correspondents who had just arrived. The newcomers in their turn had soon distributed all they owned, and came tearing back to beg one of their own cigarettes. We tried to buy grass for our ponies, and were met with pitying contempt; we tried to buy food for ourselves, and were met with open scorn. I went to the only hotel which was open in the place, and offered large sums for a cup of tea.
“Put up your money," said the Scotchman in charge, sharply. "What's the good of your money? Can your horse eat money? Can you eat money? Very well, then, put it away." The arrangements at this hotel were that each lodger drew his own rations from the military, and the hotel people cooked and served them. It was an interminable time before the food arrived, and on the second day my rations were four biscuits and an ounce of tea. The other lodgers proudly boasted of having lived on but one biscuit and a quarter a day, so the arrivals from the outside could not complain. On the third day some condensed milk arrived, and one man succeeded in obtaining a can of it. We watched it trickle out into his watery tea as though it were molten gold. A ration of "bully" beef, which was too tough to eat, was served to everyone, but sugar and soft bread were considered the greatest luxuries, and the most to be desired. The fortunate ones who got these used to convey them to the table in their hands and, when they had finished, carried away the little brown paper cones which held the brown sugar, and the broken crusts of bread. In the lack of vegetables we drank the vinegar out of the cruets. On the fifth day they brought in some flour and served out the first soft bread the soldiers had eaten in three months. The biscuit which is given the English soldier as a substitute .for bread does not compare with the hardtack served to our army. I found it exceedingly like dog-biscuit. On the fourth day a civilian appeared with a bottle of whiskey. He danced into the hotel with this, and all the other civilians who had lodged there during the siege charged upon him, and exhibited the first signs of enthusiasm they had shown. The man who had brought in the bottle was most generous, and gave us all a drink, but before he tasted his own he said, apologetically: “I am going to drink this to my mother. I promised my mother that if Ladysmith was relieved and we were all alive, I'd drink my first drink of whiskey to her. So you'll excuse me, please, gentlemen, if I don't drink this to the Queen." We were naturally shocked at his disloyalty, but as he had been so generous, some of us forgave him. A week later when the real food did begin to come in, many of the officers and men who were just out of hospital, recovering from enteric fever, ate so much and so hurriedly that I was told of as many as sixty who died of indigestion.
The great dramatic moment after the raising of the siege was the entrance into Ladysmith of the relieving column. It was a magnificent, manly, and moving spectacle. Sometimes it is difficult to cheer the result of a battle, for the victory that crowns the battle has carried with it death to many men, and worse to the women, whom it has sought out and struck through the heart as far away as Pretoria and London. As one of our navy commanders said when he sank the Spanish battleship, “Don't cheer, boys, they are drowning." But one can cheer without hesitation the rescue of men, women, and children from starvation and fever and death, and still have a cheer left for those who risked their lives to save them.
The arrival of the great column was the beginning of a love-feast of good feeling and thanksgiving which was celebrated in the main street of Ladysmith, and continued uproariously and gloriously for three hours. Nothing was lacking but the feast.
At the start it moved haltingly, the townspeople lacking the initiative, and for ten minutes the column marched past in as respectful a silence as would have greeted a funeral. General Buller alone received a welcoming cheer. The rest of the men, “lance, foot, and dragoon," passed between the lines of the garrison and the townspeople to no other accompaniment than the music of the Gordons' bagpipes and the whirr of the American biograph. This was not due so much to lack of feeling as to bad stage-management.
Sir George White, who was to review the march past, sat his horse just in front of the shattered courthouse, and directly opposite to the bagpipes. The result was that the eyes of the advancing Tommies were either so fascinated by the shell-holes in the tower of the court-house that they looked up over General White's head, or their ears were so charmed by the bagpipes that they turned their eyes toward the Highlanders, and so passed General White without seeing him. The bagpipes had also a very demoralizing effect upon the horses, so that at the very moment when the officers should have seen General White and given him a sweeping salute, they were so occupied in controlling their startled steeds that they also passed him by without being aware of his presence.
It was Colonel Donald, the Irish colonel of the Irish Fusiliers, who was the first to set matters right and to break the polite calm. He saw General White just as he had ridden past him and he saw his mistake at the same instant, and whirled about so suddenly that his horse drove back his own men. His enthusiasm made up for the apathy of the hundreds who had preceded him; his face shone with generous, excited hero-worship. He did not pause to salute. It was as though he thought such a perfunctory tribute from himself alone was inadequate for such an occasion and for such a man as General White.
So he stood up in his stirrups and waved his helmet and called upon his regiment. "Three cheers for General Sir George White!” he shouted, “Hip, hip, hip!" in a brogue as rich as his goodwill was generous. And his regiment answered to his call as it had done on many less agreeable moments, and the love feast began.
You must imagine what followed. You must imagine the dry, burning heat, the fine, yellow dust, the white glare of the sunshine, arid in the heat and glare and dust the great interminable column of men in ragged khaki crowding down the main street, 22,000 strong, cheering and shouting, with the sweat running off their red faces and cutting little rivulets in the dust that caked their cheeks. Some of them were so glad that, though in the heaviest marching order, they leaped up and down and stepped out of line to dance to the music of the .bagpipes. For hours they crowded past, laughing, joking, and cheering, or staring ahead of them, with lips wide apart, panting in the heat and choking with the dust, but always ready to turn again and wave their helmets at the General.
Every component part of an army in being unrolled before us: the rumbling cannon, like great insects, caked with mud, the drivers saluting with their whips reversed; the lancers with naked spearpoints from which the pennons had long since been plucked away; the Indian coolies, veterans of many hill-fights in Malakand, guarding the ammunition-train and surveying their joyous comrades with unmoved, unelated, almost scornful eyes; the infantry, burdened with musket, pack, ammunition pouches, pots, pans, and precious faggots of kindling wood, but without colonels, commanded by captains, some of them with only five of the twenty-four officers with whom they had started toward Colenso. There were all the other arms of the service and the guns of the sister service on marvellously improvised gun-carriages, drawn by great oxen and surrounded by the “handy men” of the navy, no longer in “blue jackets," but in khaki and broad-brimmed, ragged straw hats. There were the ambulances and stretchers of the medical corps, than which there is none better, and even the “body snatchers," the stretcher-bearers, whom the men who had come in from the outside cheered mightily, much to the surprise of the garrison, who imagined we were mocking the unkempt, disreputable-looking un-uniformed mob. But we knew that the mob had followed close on the heels of the firing-line and had caught the wounded Tommy, even as he fell.
No men of Buller's column were so greatly ridiculed as were the unhappy refugee stretcher-bearers, and none were more genuinely admired. Each of them had made the red cross on his arm a red badge of courage and honor.
It was a pitiful contrast which the two forces presented. The men of the garrison were in clean khaki, pipe-clayed and brushed and polished, but their tunics hung on them as loosely as the flag around its pole, the skin on their cheek-bones was as tight and as yellow as the belly of a drum, their teeth protruded through parched, cracked lips, and hunger, fever, and suffering stared from out their eyes. They were so ill and so feeble that the mere exercise of standing was too severe for their endurance, and many of them collapsed, falling back to the sidewalk, rising to salute only the first troop of each succeeding regiment. This done, they would again sink back and each would sit leaning his head against his musket, or with his forehead resting heavily on his folded arms. In comparison the relieving column looked like giants as they came in with a swinging swagger, their uniforms blackened with mud and sweat and blood-stains, their faces brilliantly crimsoned and blistered and tanned by the dust and sun. They made a picture of strength and health and aggressiveness. Perhaps the contrast was strongest when the battalion of the Devons that had been on foreign service passed the "reserve" battalion which had come from England. The men of the two battalions had parted five years before in India, and they met again in Ladysmith, with the men of one battalion lining the streets, sick, hungry, and yellow, and the others who had been fighting six weeks to reach it, marching toward them, robust, red-faced, and cheering mightily. As they met they gave a shout of recognition, and the men broke ranks and ran forward calling each other by name, embracing, shaking hands, and punching each other in the back and shoulders. It was a sight that very few men watched unmoved. Indeed, the whole three hours was one of the most "brutal assaults upon the feelings" that it has been my lot to endure. One felt he had been entirely lifted out of the politics of the war, and the question of the wrongs of the Boers disappeared before a simple proposition of brave men saluting brave men.
Early in the campaign, when his officers had blundered, General White, that Colonel Newcome of today, had dared to write: “I alone am to blame." But in this triumphal procession twenty-two thousand gentlemen in khaki wiped that line off the slate, and wrote, "Well done, sir," in its place, as they passed cheering before him through the town he had defended and saved.
Copyright © Lewis P. Orans,