An episode of Victorian military strategy II

And to get on with this sparkling account of action with a magnificent cast of characters introduced in the first installment – though just one of them – the one so highly regarded by his boss, Lord Lansdowne – appears here in his glory….

~~~~ The siege, although wearing and debilitating, was in some ways a gentlemanly affair. There was no cause, as at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny or the more recent investment of the Peking legations in the course of the Boxer Rising, for the defenders to fight with desperation in the grim knowledge that defeat would equate with a barbarous death at the hands of the opposition.

The Boers cooperated with an arrangement by which those of the garrison’s sick and wounded who were willing to go were taken to a hospital established behind the Boer lines. Shelling by the Boer guns was desultory, inaccurate, and caused few casualties among soldiers and civilians who had early dug themselves shell-proof shelters. The Boers, as practising members of the Dutch Reformed Church, did not shoot on Sundays. As people of regular habits they fired their artillery on weekdays only between breakfast-time and dinner, with time off for lunch and tea.

These comforting peculiarities aside, they were in any case as puzzled about what to do next as General Buller was about what to do on the Tugela. The Boers were superb guerrilla fighters but unaccustomed to siege warfare.

There was little serious fighting between besiegers and the besieged. The Boers once overran British outpost positions on a couple of hills. The British took the hills back again. A raiding party from the garrison attacked and spiked one of the more troublesome Boer long-range guns.

The main difficulties of the defenders came from disease, boredoom, dust, heat and hunger. The commonest diseases, their spread aggravated by poor diet and the sanitary inadequacies of the shell shelters, were dysentery and enteric. By February there were more than two thousand hospital cases, with a daily cluster of deaths. Those still on their feet showed the symptoms of weakness brought on by by malnutrition. Cricket and amateur theatricals, popular among the early days of the siege, no longer had any following whatsoever. The garrison survived and endured on hope.

The hope was raised, and frequently lowered , by heliographed messages from Buller, struggling interminably about eight miles away on the Tugela. His coded forecasts of victory, followed by baffled admissions of defeats, were interlarded with en clair summaries of interesting news from the outside world, sent with intent to improve morale by giving the garrison something to talk about other than their own predicament. At the beginning of February, even their small source of solace became temporarily inoperative. Rain and clud obscured the sun. The heliograph could not be used.

The break in communications added to the anxieties of the exhausted, undernourished defenders. It also led to an increase in speculation. Was Buller taking advantage of the bad weather to outwit the Boers? Low cloud and mist on the Boer-defended hilltops would surely help a surprise attack, or allow Buller slip part of his force through unseen. Talk about these possibilities was at its most intense when two days later the weather cleared. The sun came out. Within a few minutes the heliograph began to flash. Its message was awaited with uncontrolled excitement.

It was brief, of one sentence only. “SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE,” it said, “GOVERNOR OF BOMBAY, HAS BEEN MADE A PEER.”

Encouraged by this glad news the garrison returned hungrily to work, at which it continued doggily until the relief column finally broke through twenty-six days later.


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