We were all naturally in good spirits after the big battle of Colenso; and after a couple days’ resting the men were in excellent form for some further fighting in company with their comrades under Colonel Blake, whom they fully expected would be allowed to rejoin us at this time. But much to the disappointment of us all, General Joubert would not allow Blake to leave his position, and, to add further to our disappointment, sent orders that we were to return at once to our old position outside Ladysmith – not a very cheerful or invigorating prospect in view of our former experiences there. However, there was nothing for it but to obey; and so in a couple of days after the glorious excitement of Colenso we were obliged once more to resume the monotonous and tedious work of laying siege to Ladysmith. A few desultory shots early in the morning – a few more during the afternoon – and a half-dozen parting shots before night fell, were all we had to remind us we were engaged in the great game of war, and not merely participators in a vast picnic outside the little town. Occasionally also at night there would be an alarm raised about a sortie party; but it invariably turned out that the alarm was a false one, much to the disgust of the boys, who, as I have said already in a previous article, could stand anything better than inaction, and were never in such good form and spirits as when there was plenty of stiff fighting to be done. But bad as were the week-days at this time, Sunday was infinitely worse, on account of the Boers’ aversion to breaking the Sabbath by firing even a single shot.
An incident which occurred at this period is worth referring to here, more especially as some British General, speaking in Trinity College a few weeks ago, mentioned it as an illustration of the superior “defensive tactics” of his countrymen during the siege. It will be remembered that during the first stages of the campaign a good deal of criticism was indulged in by superior British folk to the effect that the Boers would not or dare not fight in the open; that if they did they would be very soon made mincemeat of, and much more vain-glorious talk of this effect, some of which reached the Boers and caused considerable amusement. As a gentle bit of satire on this style of criticism, a waggish Boer gunner one day fired a shell into Ladysmith which had painted on its convex surface the query, “Why don’t you come out and fight us in the open?” It is quite evident from the aforesaid British General’s remarks that this was regarded as a deadly serious question from the Boer lines, instead of the joke it really was intended for; and the incident may very well be quoted as a striking example of the almost complete absence of humour from the British character.
Some time in November General Joubert gave General White permission to establish a hospital camp for his women and children quite close to Bulwana Kop, a proceeding which somewhat mystified us at the time, as the new camp was right over near the Boer lines, and thus afforded a good position from which to make observations of our movements. As the camp was visited nightly by numbers of British officers, it is fairly obvious that they must have acquired a good deal of useful information by the opportunity so unwisely afforded them.
As the season of Christmas drew near, the thoughts of the lads quite naturally began to dwell more deeply and fondly on the old homeland and the dear ones there; but as I have already written an account of our Christmas doings at Ladysmith in the Christmas number of the “Weekly Freeman,” there is no need that I should dwell further on the matter here, beyond saying that we made ourselves as happy as possible under the circumstances, and were all very much delighted at the Xmas gift of a flag sent us by the Dublin Transvaal Committee. In a future article I will have something more to say about that flag, and of the men who gallantly prevented it from falling into the hands of the enemy.
The observance of the great Christmas festival had the effect of enlivening the dull inaction of existence for the men; but when all the festivities were over they began to get restive again, as things grew more dull and monotonous every day, and as if to aggravate the situation and tantalise them still further we could plainly hear the sound of Buller’s big guns thundering away at the Boer lines down at Tugela. To give an illustration of the spirit of impatience that prevailed – I need only mention that hardly a day passed without five or six of the brigadiers stealing away in the direction of Colenso, where, after fighting for two or three days, they would return to the camp, more or less peaceful and satisfied for about another week. Such conduct was, of course, a serious breach of discipline; but Colonel Blake was quite powerless to prevent it, as the spirit of discipline all round among the commandoes was anything but strict, and constituted, I think, the most serious defect in the Boer army as an effective military organisation.
Things went on much in this fashion up to the 6th January, 1900, when the attack on the Platrand was made. The Platrand is a long flat hill, some 600 feet high, and situated to the south of Ladysmith. Its position made it of great strategic importance, as if the Boers could only have obtained possession of it the town would have been absolutely at their mercy. A determined attack was therefore decided to be made on it; and among the principal attackers were a few hundred Free Staters and Transvaal burghers, chosen from the Heidelberg, Harrismith, and Utrecht commandoes. The attack was most gallantly made, and the contest on the whole was the most stubborn that took place since the end of the previous October. The gallant burghers would unquestionably have gained possession of the hill, and thus led up to the surrender and capture of the town of Ladysmith, but for the unfortunate fact that General Erasmus did not send the necessary orders to some seven or eight hundred men who had come up specially from Colenso to take part in the attack. This failure, or neglect, of General Erasmus, was regarded as quite inexplicable at the time, and has practically remained a mystery ever since. The fight, however, was a marvellous one, and, considering their numbers, the attackers, led by the undaunted Villiers, accomplished wonders.
The part taken by the Irish Brigade in the affair was comparatively small and uninteresting. The Brigade received orders to support a few of Commandant Trichard’s field guns which had been despatched to the north of the town near the Pretoria commando. We reached our positions between 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning, and before the break of day we could hear the music of the burghers’ rifles rattling away towards the south. The Pretoria burghers held a position in a sluit some distance in our front, and made a desperate effort to storm an English fort, but, after a dashing and determined attack, they were compelled to retire. The field guns were then trained on the forts, the fire being directed over the heads of the lads from Pretoria, and, after a few shots, an English battery sent their shells flying amongst us, without, however, doing any serious damage. After their experience at Modderspruit, the Brigade had lost all respect for English shell-fire, and the whizzing of the rather invisible missiles but anything but a disconcerting effect. Firing was kept up vigorously until about 5 o’clock that evening, when we were ordered back to camp in the midst of a terrific rain-storm. From our point of view, the engagement was a most unsatisfactory on, as the men did not get a chance of using their rifles all the day; and the few hundred heroes who had made the desperate attempt on the Platrand to the south failed, unfortunately, through not receiving the support which should have been given them. The fact that the Boer losses in killed and wounded amounted to near 200 men, and that the English lost over 500, may give some idea of the severity of the fighting.
Another spell of inaction succeeded this sharp attack, with the result that the boys began to grow more impatient and discontented than ever. Our chief duty was in guarding Commandant Trichard’s guns; but this sort of duty was altogether too tame for the Brigadiers. We sent several petitions to General Joubert asking to be allowed to proceed to the front; but his invariable reply was that he could not spare any more men from Ladysmith. As a result of all this Colonel Blake and myself had, I think, the hardest time of our lives trying to keep the men in countenance and check.
It was a matter of no small astonishment to us all that General White made no attempt to break through the Boer lines with four or five thousand men and take General Botha’s small army in the rear, as sometimes that marvellous General had little over 3,000 men at his disposal to hold a frontage of over 20 miles. At no time did his greatest fighting strength exceed 6,000 men; yet, in face of this, General White pursued his policy of “masterly inactivity” with his enormous garrison, and has received all sorts of honours and decorations for doing so, while General Buller, whom the Boers recognised as the only fighting man of first-rate importance on the British side, was practically deposed, if not disgraced.