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A Handbook of the Boer War

000 men and 36 field guns to endeavour to join Buller


De

Wet's brief service in Natal came to an end before the investment, and in the light of his exploits elsewhere, it is interesting to speculate upon what might have happened if he had been in command of the attack on January 6. In all probability it would have succeeded. The Boers rarely failed when commanded by a resolute leader who knew his own mind and was able to impose his own will upon them. In isolated enterprises daringly conducted, they were usually efficient, and sometimes irresistible, but like most primitive communities in which the military instinct is individual rather than collective, they were incapable of forming themselves into a coherent and unified Army for action in mass. De Wet, in his _Three Years' War_, protests against the British theory that the burghers were only fit to engage in _guerilla_, which, possibly from ignorance of the meaning of the word, he seems to regard as an unworthy term of reproach; but the theory was in reality a grudging recognition of a suppressed factor in the problem of the war which the professors had overlooked. His own exploits go far to prove its soundness.

Like mariners adrift upon the ocean in an open boat, their food and their water dwindling hour by hour, who eagerly watch a white topsail or a faint wreath of smoke which seems for a time to be approaching, yet soon sinks beneath the horizon and leaves them alone upon the waste; the garrison of Ladysmith was cruelly tantalized by Buller's

fitful appearances on the Tugela. Again and again the boom of his guns growing clearer and clearer and his heliographs sparkling more distinctly deluded the defenders with the hope that the day of their deliverance was at hand. During the Spion Kop affair, the confidence was so great that for a day or two full rations were issued. The summit could be seen crowded with people on January 25 who surely must be Buller's men. Not so; they were the Boers who, to their astonishment, had found the summit unoccupied, and were burying the dead and collecting the wounded. The roar of war died away; was heard again from Vaalkrantz, soon to sink into silence on February 7, when Buller announced that the enemy was too strong for him. It was renewed at Hlangwhane, Monte Cristo, and Pieter's Hill, but former disappointments had made the garrison insensible to hope and it fell upon apathetic ears. When at last Dundonald's little band was seen approaching, the chilled and dazed soldiers of the garrison could scarcely realize that they were saved.

After January 6 the increasing sickness and the deficiency of food became the chief facts of the Siege. More than three-score horses were sacrificed daily to provide a meat ration for the garrison. The men slaked their thirst with the turbid water of the Klip River, and munched a makeshift biscuit made of Indian corn and starch. "Chevril" soup and potted horse were luxuries. At Intombi nearly 2,000 sick and wounded were lying without hospital diet or comforts.

On January 27 the situation was so grave that White, when he heard from Buller that the attempt on Spion Kop had failed, proposed as a last and desperate resource, but one which, at least, would not involve the moral effect of a surrender, to abandon Ladysmith, his sick and wounded, and his heavy guns, and with about 7,000 men and 36 field guns to endeavour to join Buller. Even if another Buller failure did not sooner doom the garrison he could only hold out until the end of February.


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