Topic: BW - Boer War
Our War Letters
The Town and Country Journal, 23 December 1899
[From: The Town and Country Journal, 23 December 1899, p. 21.]
The following piece is an extract from The Town and Country Journal, 23 December 1899, pp. 21 - 22.
OUR WAR LETTERS.
(FROM "'TOWN AND COUNTRY JOURNAL" SPECIAL ARTIST AND WAR CORRESPONDENT. )
LIFE AT THE FRONT.
NATAL'S NARROW ESCAPE.
BOER WOMEN SPIES.
ESTCOURT, November 10. - After seventeen days of weary waiting, in absolute ignorance of the happenings In South Africa, we are at last at Durban - picturesque, easy-going Durban, with its semi-Oriental population, its rickshas, and its debilitating fever-laden heat. Not alongside, though, for all the wharfage accommodation is required for her Majesty's service, and nothing so commonplace as a merchantman or a mere passenger ship can obtain a berth for love or money.
In vain did our genial captain implore, cajole, fume, and storm in turn. Even the promise to evacuate the berth the moment it should be required by the Imperial authorities availed him nothing, for Durban is in the hands of naval and military potentates, and martial law is as immutable as the law of the Medes and Persians. It is no game of bluff this time. Riding at anchor, the Terrible, the Forte, the Thetis, and the Spartan, (the latter converted into a hospital ship) are pitching lazily in the open roadstead about a mile distant, and almost abreast of the Bluff lighthouse, their pennants streaming, and the good old flags flapping lazily astern. Plying to and from Capetown are others of H. M. ships conveying wounded and prisoners, and stores and forage for the troops that are sadly needed, and will arrive when that tardy machine - the British War Office - commences to work in earnest. We signal for a tug, but the ball is up at the semaphore at the Bluff, and our flags seem likely to blow to shreds before our request is complied with.
At last, after two hours' pitching and plunging, the Natal, a well-found Government tug, is seen crossing the bar, over which the white-crested breakers are tumbling in the sunlight. It is alongside, and we are dumped overboard in the basket that takes ten at a trip, and will comfortably hold about half that number. Her head is turned away from the good ship Wilcannia, which has carried us so comfortably, albeit so slowly, from Australia.
A ringing cheer for the captain and officers, and the few passengers left to continue the journey and we steam shorewards. "'Got to wait for the call," snaps the Natal's skipper when we mildly suggest that we are not on a yachting cruise – and wait for a call it is, the little craft gaily bobbing about the while off the Bluff like a bladder in an artesian bore. At last the call drops, and making a graceful curve to the south'ard, we run straight for the narrow opening between the wooden break-waters. A squish, a plunge, and an equilibrium-destroying bump, and we are inside and moored in a twinkling. After the elements, we have to settle with the Customs. Firearms have to be registered and stamped, cameras, saddles, etc., passed and paid for. Then hey for a gliding, exquisitely comfortable ricksha, and a cool, fresh shower before a tardy lunch. At the port are more signs of the despotic reign of the War Minister. Kaffir boys are howling and croning over iron-bound cases of ammunition, blue jackets are superintending the transit of stores, and everywhere, blended with the gay colouring of native dress, the horned and bewinged - ricksha "boys" and the white turbaned coolies, is seen the quiet-toned, business-like khaki uniforms of officers and men shouting orders and hurrying to and fro.
Thanks to that confounded call, we just missed a eight worth seeing, the significance of which will strike everyone, An hour before .we landed a company of 250 gunners and bluejackets from the battleships had rattled through the town, accompanied by no fewer than 35 guns, 18, 12-pounders, four 4.7 in 46-founders, one 9-pounder; one 9 pounder, two Nordenfeldts, and nine Maxims. There were four bullock - wagons with big guns and ammunition, and one waggon with the carriage of the biggest gun, which was carried in a trolley. These were followed by 13 trolleys of ammunition, with a gun trailing behind. The procession extended fully a mile, and marched to the inspiriting strains of the band from H.M.S. Terrible, which was stationed at the Town Hall. The guns were mounted on the hills at Berea, the fashionable suburb, and along the way to Umbilo, while others were sent by rail to Umgeni. In fact, Captain Scott, of the Terrible, who has succeeded Colonel Bethune as commandant of the port, has made arrangements to command the whole line from Tugela Drift downwards, a this would be the probable route of raiding Boers.
That the occupation of Natal was the enemy's original intention they now make no secret of. And had they started hostilities about a week before they did they would have done it. It was a fine strategic move, it would have carried the brunt of the fighting beyond their own territory, and to have dislodged them we should have been compelled to destroy Maritzburg. That they did not do so was no fault of ours.
On arrival at the hotel we received the first authentic account of the fighting that had taken place while we were on the water - how there
had been some very hard fighting; how two whole British regiments had disappeared; how the force 22,000 had been driven from Glencoe, leaving numbers of horses and enough provisions for 20,000 men for months; and how the Gordons and the Imperial Light Horse wiped out Majuba at Elands Laagte; all of which, of course, you know.
Owing to she very strict censorship of all press messages, the people of Durban were perhaps kept in more complete ignorance of the details of the fighting than were the people in Australia. For every press message was subjected to the closest scrutiny, and even letters were opened if it were suspected that they contained details of the war. No cypher code was allowed to be used across the Natal telegraph lines, and even code addresses were prohibited. Everything was absolutely under Control of the military.
Natives were all expected to be out of the streets by 9, when all the public houses closed, and any European out after 11 who could not give a satisfactory account of himself got into serious trouble. The inspired cable messages were of the most meagre description, and the authorities were absolutely dumb. One thing, however, was certain. The Boers had completely surrounded Ladysmith, and had cut White's force off completely.
The nearest point to the fighting it was possible to get at present was Estcourt, and to Estcourt, as fast an the train would carry me, I accordingly went. Here was stationed a force of about 3,000 men, eagerly awaiting reinforcements to relieve Ladysmith, and General Gatacre was expected in about four days. Everything was quiet when I arrived, but shortly after a prolonged cannonading could be heard further up the line.
The voice of "Long Tom" could be distinctly heard, answered by the deeper boom of the 54-pounder from the Powerful, which, after fruitless attempts to mount it on sleepers, had at last been accommodated with a concrete bed. The firing was continuous for some hours, and it was estimated that a big artillery duel bard been fought.
A somewhat startling development was reported to have occurred the other day. A young lady, a, leader of fashion, in Maritzburg, and the daughter of a Boer millionaire, was said to have been arrested with dispatches for the enemy concealed about her. And it is whispered that during the season several Boer ladies had held open house in the Natal capital, which is a favourite holiday resort for the burghers, and had pumped our gallant officers to their hearts' content. This, however, is mere rumour. It is anticipated that little will be done before General Gatacre arrives, when one of the bloodiest battles ever seen in Africa will probably take place.
(Evidently at the last General Buller decided to go to Natal himself, instead of sending General Gatacre. Ed.)
Further Reading:Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Our War Letters, Town and Country Journal, 23 December 1899