Newspapers occasionally reached Ladysmith and two special limited editions were printed during the siege. These were the “Ladysmith Lyre” and “The Bombshell“.
In Ladysmith the telegraph and telephone could not be used to communicate outside the town after the Boers had cut the lines, but proved invaluable by keeping General White in touch with his outlying posts, in particular during the battle of Platrand.
Invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the telephone was in its infancy during the War and consequently not too advanced. However, General White was connected to his perimeter defences by this instrument which proved invaluable at the battle of Platrand.
The Boers also used the telegraph, telephone, heliograph, bicycles and searchlight to good effect, even using the latter to interrupt messages from General Buller to General White. Their laagers that encircled Ladysmith were connected via a telegraph system organised by Captain Paul Paff from the Boer Engineer section.
On 27th October 1899 a section of the Royal Engineers Telegraph Battalion arrived in Durban from England bringing with it fifteen miles of air lines, eight miles of cable and three complete sets of equipment to set up offices. They set off for Ladysmith the same day arriving there on 29th just in time for the battle of Ladysmith.
On the 29th December 1899 the Post Office announced that it would keep all letters in safe custody until the railways reopened and biscuit tins were used as post boxes at the different camps. These were cleared daily by bicycle orderlies who took the mail to the general Post Office. From early on in the siege stamps became unavailable. A mobile printing press produced post cards and greeting cards.
The Heliograph can probably be traced back to Roman times. It operates by reflecting the sun’s rays from an adjustable mirror to another point where the message is read by an expert of the Royal Engineers. By moving the mirrored table it is possible to send messages long distances using the Morse code system of dots and dashes. The heliograph was set up in early December 1899 proved invaluable in keeping Generals, Buller and White up to date with the latest news from “outside”.
The instrument reached its peak efficiency during the Anglo Boer War, with speeds of up to 16 words per minute. Depending on the size of the mirror (there were 3-inch, 5-inch and 10-inch mirror heliographs in service with the British Army), the heliograph had a range of nearly 100 miles.
Cloudy days were boring ones for the inhabitants since no news could be received from Monte Christo Hill where Buller had his Heliograph station.
As the Relief army were approaching Ladysmith, the signal officer Captain John Cayzer attempted to establish contact with the garrison but because the Boer operators had been intercepting messages, Cayzer devised a test to ensure that he had contact with the British and not the Boers. He asked the receiving operator to locate Captain Brooks of the Gordon Highlanders who was an old friend and to ask him for the name of Captain Cayzer’s country home in Scotland. Brooks was at first a little confused but eventually produced the correct answer thereby allaying Cayzer’s original fears.
On one occasion the only recipient of a heliograph message was a Boer heliograph team. They flashed back, “Will be with you tomorrow”. The British reply was not repeatable.
Another heliograph message from a Boer, clearly a cricket fan, signalling Ladysmith on the 101st day of the siege saying “101 not out”. The reply from the 1st Battalion Manchester’s was “still batting”.
For night communications the British used Naval searchlights equipped with leaf-type shutters for keying the beam into the Morse code form. During the siege the “light” form of communication namely the searchlight and heliograph, were the only contact with the outside world. The louvre shutter design of the searchlight was the brainchild of Captain Percy Scott RN, who also designed the wheeled carriage for the 4.7 inch Naval Guns. Cloudy days were boring days for everyone as no news could be received from the Relief force.
On one occasion the Boers asked the British signallers whether they considered one Long Tom to be equal to ten field guns. This was a reference to the British capture of guns on Gun Hill and the Boer capture of ten British guns at the Battle of Colenso.
Another anecdote refers to a signal from the British to the Boers which read, “God help you when you get to Pretoria”. The reply is purported to have been, “He will”.
There were several cine-photographers that recorded the events of the war. Among them Bennet-Stamford, Joe Rosenthal and Edgar Hyman but the most famous was a man called Dickson who covered Buller’s campaign in Natal using the Mutograph camera. This was a large cumbersome device driven by electricity from accumulators.
The above photograph is part of the Relief Force march through Ladysmith with Dickson’s Cart in the foreground. Dickson was the first to use this medium at the battle of Colenso.
Several “fake” movies were made after the event such as “The Boers shelling a Red Cross tent” and “British gunners winning a Victoria Cross”, both of which were produced in Blackburn, England. Two other films, one of the Boer cavalry and the other of English Lancers in action, were made in the United States of America after the war.
Most of the British daily newspapers of the time sent reporters out to South Africa to cover the War for their readers. Among them were H.H. Pearse of the “Daily News”, Henry Nevinson of the “Daily Chronicle”, Melton-Prior, an artist for the “Illustrated London News”, Leo Amery of the “Times”, George Steevens “Daily Mail” and MacDonald of the “Melbourne Argus”. The most famous of them all of course was Winston Churchill of the “Morning Post”.
CORRESPONDENTS OUTSIDE THE ROYAL HOTEL
On the 7th November 1899, George Steevens of the “London Daily Mail”, assisted by Maud, Maxwell and Lionel James, published “The Ladysmith Lyre”. Steevens was the prime mover and responsible for much of the humour. Further editions appeared on the on 30th November, 5th December and 15th December 1899. A second newspaper, the “Bombshell” was first published on 18th November 1899 by George Lines, the Town Clerk and both were intended to boost morale amongst the besieged army and the townsfolk. They also gave the correspondents an opportunity to play a part in the siege and give something back to the military in exchange for their protection. Both papers were raised with the intention of taking a lighthearted look at the War.
Lionel James sent three copies of all his reports out of Ladysmith by “Kaffir” runner and at least one of each got through to London. James’ report on the retreat from Dundee left Ladysmith just before it was sealed of and was the only report to reach the London offices. A special edition was printed for it.
The “Times” staff headed by Lionel James, were persons of consequence. With the English passion for regimentation, they all wore a toothbrush stuck in the band of their hats, as a sort of caste mark. If you were a Times man you wore a toothbrush; if you were not a Times man you didn’t dare do it. No, sir!” So said Richard Harding Davis in 1900.
Mr Hirst, of the Durban and Coast Poultry Club, kept and trained the best Yorkshire racing pigeons in Natal and shortly before the siege he moved 160 birds to Ladysmith. These birds were used to send news of the beleaguered town to the outside world. Thirteen were despatched to Durban and all arrived safely some five hours later after travelling a distance of 250 kilometres. A pigeon carried congratulations to H.R.H. Prince of Wales on the occasion of his birthday on 9th November 1899.
General White wishing to send a plan of the situation in Ladysmith to General Buller, had it photographed. Even then it was too large and heavy, so it was cut into four sections, each of which was entrusted to a different bird. Presumably all four pigeons were despatched together, for they arrived at the commandants office in Durban with an interval of 25 minutes between the first and last arrival.
On 31st October a request was sent by correspondent Lionel James to the brother of a colleague, Richard Goldman, in Durban to send a crate of carrier pigeons to Ladysmith. These were duly sent off but were captured by the Boers who sent a message into Ladysmith thanking “the Times correspondent for a basket of nice fat pigeons”. Obviously they ate them with great relish.
An Italian Electrical Engineer, Guglielmo Marconi, developed a theory that radio waves could be converted into electrical signals. By 1895 he had achieved contact with a receiving unit over a mile away. Within three years later he had managed to increase this distance to transmit signals across the English Channel.
The first attempt at wireless telegraphy in wartime took place in Pretoria during the second Anglo-Boer War. In August 1899 the Boer Republic placed an order with “Siemens and Halske” for six wireless telegraphy sets, at a cost of 110 Pounds Sterling. The sets were intended to provide communication in and around Pretoria. The aerials were some 36 metres high and Siemens guaranteed a range of nearly 15 kilometres. The sets never reached Pretoria as they were confiscated by Customs in Cape Town.
In spite of numerous experiments by the Royal Engineers, the wireless, as a means of communication, was not a success in Ladysmith. The Navy installed five sets and reasonable success was achieved on 13th April 1900, over a range of 85 kilometres. Unconfirmed reports stated that a connection had been made between Durban and Delgoa Bay, a distance of nearly 460 kilometres.
Wireless equipment – Siemans receiver
I have read in a diary by Captain Boys, Royal Engineers, who was in Ladysmith during the siege that his team made several attempts to get their wireless equipment working. This is contrary to all other views that I have read that wireless was NOT available in Ladysmith during the siege period. Brian Kaighin.
Post cards were sent from Ladysmith during the siege and some nice examples are available.