I was again on Observation Hill, watching. Nothing had changed, and there was no sign of movement. The Boers rode to and fro as usual, and their cattle grazed in scattered herds. Now and then a big gun fired, but I could see no bursting shells, and the sound seemed further away. I crossed the broad valley to Leicester Post. Our cattle and horses were trying to pick up a little grass there, while the howitzer and automatic “pom-pom” shelled them from Surprise Hill. “Pom-poms” are elegant little shells, about five inches long, and some with pointed heads were designed for the British Navy, but rejected. The cattle sniff at them inquisitively, and Kaffirs rush for a perfect specimen, which fetches from 10s. to 30s. For they are suitable presents for ladies, but unhappily all that fell near me to-day exploded into fragments.
The telescope on Leicester Post showed me nothing new. Not a single man was now to be seen on Spion Kop or the rest of Taba Nyama. At two o’clock the evil news reached us. The heliograph briefly told the story; the central hill captured by the British on Wednesday afternoon, recaptured at night by the Boers, and held by them ever since. Our loss about five hundred and some prisoners.
It was the worst news we have yet received, all the harder to bear because our hopes had been raised to confidence. It is harder to face disappointment now than six weeks ago. Even on biscuit and trek-oxen we can only live for thirty-two days longer, and nearly all the horses must die. The worst is that in their sickness and pain the men could hardly resist another assault. The sickness of the garrison is not to be measured by hospital returns, for nearly every one on duty is ill, though he may refuse to “go sick.” The record of Intombi Camp is not cheering. The total of military sick to-day is 1,861, including 828 cases of enteric, 259 cases of dysentery, and 312 wounded. The numbers have slightly diminished lately because an average of fourteen a day have been dying, and all convalescents are hurried back to Ladysmith. The number of graves down there now is 282 for men and five for officers, but deaths increase so fast that long trenches are dug, and the bodies laid in two rows, one above the other. “You see,” said the gravedigger, “I’m goin’ to put Patrick O’Connor here with Daniel Murphy.”
Sunday, January 28, 1900.
From my station on Observation Hill I could see a new Boer laager drawn up, about six miles away, at the far end of the Long Valley. Otherwise all remains quiet and unmoved. Three or four distant guns were heard in the afternoon, but that was all.
On the whole the spirit of the garrison was much more cheerful. We began to talk again of possible relief within a week. The heliograph brought a message of thanks from Lord Roberts for our “heroic, splendid defence.” Every one felt proud and happy. The words were worth a fresh brigade.