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.
With this proposal Buller temporized and communicated it to Lord Roberts, who sent an encouraging message to White, in which he asked the garrison to accept his congratulations for its heroic defence and expressed his regret at the delay of the relief and his hope that the term would not be the limit of possible endurance; though he fully expected that his own operations in the Free State would before its expiration relieve the pressure on Ladysmith. Buller doubted Lord Roberts’ forecast and preferred to “play his hand alone,” and nothing came of the proposed break out of Ladysmith. White in his acknowledgment of Lord Roberts’ message said that by sacrificing most of his horses, he could hold out for six weeks.
There was good reason to believe that by this time the besieging force numbered not more than 4,000 men, who, however, could be reinforced in a few hours from the 16,000 burghers standing up to Buller on the Tugela. The enfeebled garrison was, however, not in a condition to act against the attenuated cordon from which a constant bombardment was maintained. As the month of February wore on, the news of Lord Roberts’ entry into the Orange Free State infused more hope into the garrison than the too familiar sound of Buller once more in action on the Tugela, and so little was expected of Buller that the lull in the fire during the Sunday armistice on February 25 was interpreted as another repulse; and the rations which had been increased, when a message came that he would be in Ladysmith on February 22—which he soon found was a too confident expectation—were again reduced. The darkness before the dawn was very black. The news of Paardeberg reached Ladysmith on the afternoon of the 27th; towards sunset next day Dundonald marched in. White endeavoured to organize a column to pursue the commandos retreating before Buller, but found that the toll of war had been paid so heavily by the Natal Field Force that little more than the strength of one company in each battalion was fit for service.
Not the least of the trials undergone by the Ladysmith staff were the heliograms from the Tugela and the constant surprises of the déchiffrage. Sometimes pessimistic, sometimes the reverse and frequently trivial, there was scarcely an occasion on which they were helpful. The troubles of the relieving force figured largely in them.