Composition of the Brigade---Start from Glen—Transport arrangements--To Jacobsrust--Rations--Halts--Pickets--Tobacco--Tea.
The 21st Brigade was composed of four regiments, of which the Royal Sussex (under Col. Donne) was the senior. Next came the Sherwood Foresters, under Major Gossett (commanding in place of Colonel Smith-Dorrien, who was then in command of the 19th Brigade), who had under him a splendid body of men, the majority having served in their Second Battalion during the Tirah campaign. The experience gained in this war against the Afridis was extremely valuable to the officers and men, as the system of fighting adopted by the crafty Pathan bore many points of similarity to that carried out by brother Boer. The next regiment in the brigade in order of seniority was the Cameron Highlanders, commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Kennedy. This regiment was practically just off one campaign, as they had served in the last Omdurman expedition and had not left Egypt until ordered to the Cape. The men were in magnificent condition, hard as nails, and, throughout the campaign, they amply justified the opinion formed of them at first sight. The remaining battalion in the brigade was the famous regiment of the City Imperial Volunteers. They were, of course, men of fine physique, having been especially selected for their physical fitness and their soldierly qualities, and I think it has been allowed by everyone who has marched and worked in the field side by side with this battalion of citizen soldiers that their conduct and bearing has at all times been equal to that of the best infantry battalion in the Regular Army.
They had a cyclist section with them, but this was too small to be of any use except as orderlies, or despatch riders.
I think there is a great future before the cyclist soldier, and I should like to have seen a cyclist battalion, 1000 strong, employed in this campaign with the Mounted Infantry Brigades. There is one point I am quite positive about, and that is, that after having trekked over 1,500 miles in all parts of the country, from Pretoria to Bethulie, and in all weathers, I have seen no district, not even in the Caledon Valley, where cyclists in large numbers could not have been utilised in place of or in addition to Mounted Infantry.
The Brigade was commanded by Colonel Bruce Hamilton of the East Yorkshire regiment, who was promoted to Major-General before the conclusion of the campaign. General Hamilton has a long record of active and staff service, having taken part in the Afghan war, the Burma war, and campaigns in Ashanti and on the West Coast of Africa; one of his earliest experiences of active service being in the Boer War of 1881, when he was A.D.C. to Sir George Colley and was present at the historic fights of that campaign, Laings Nek and the Ingogo. He afterwards served on the Staff at Bombay and at Simla, and, at the time our battalion was at Aldershot in 1899, he was an A.G. to General Lyttleton's Brigade, eventually going out to Natal as an A.G. when the war broke out, and later receiving command of the 21st Brigade.
Major Shaw, the Brigade Major, belonged to the Sherwood Foresters and was in Malta with us in that regiment, with which he also served in the early part of the campaign in the Orange Free State, distinguishing himself at the capture of the bridge at Bethulie. The General's Aide-de-Camp was Lieut. Fraser of the Cameron Highlanders, who was afterwards assisted in his duties by Lieut. Clive Wilson of the Yeomanry. The Brigade Transport Officer was Major Cardew of the Army Service Corps, and the officer in charge of Supplies was Lieut. Lloyd of the same corps, who had lately returned from active service on the West Coast.
Our medical officer was Major Dundon, R.A.M.C., who had accompanied us from Malta, and who on board ship had inoculated a great many officers and men of the battalion against enteric fever. Major Dundon's own health, however, gave way, and he suffered so much from fever that he had to be admitted to hospital and sent down country, so that he did not afterwards return to the regiment.
On the 29th of April we started from Glen on our travels, but we did not move until one o'clock, as there was a good deal of work to be done first, leaving extra kit behind and issuing rations, of which we carried two days' supply in our haversacks and four days' on the wagons. Some of us have often, on after days when we were hard up for a bit of breakfast, looked back on this morning at Glen and wished we could lay hands on the piles and piles of biscuits which were thrown away by the men.
At Glen our transport was issued to us; there were nine wagons altogether, but as it was impossible to obtain mules, our four ammunition carts, which we had brought out from home with us, and the great casks of harness, had all to be left behind. We had no water-carts either, except the one which had been lent to the detachment at Ferreira, and which, under the circumstances, it was thought advisable to retain. We should also have had led mules to carry ammunition, the medical panniers and the signalling gear, but none were available for this purpose; so all this gear had to be loaded on the nine wagons, which were pretty full in consequence.
One wagon was allowed to every two companies to carry blankets, great-coats, cooking pots, ration baskets, etc. Our nine companies thus took four and a half wagons, leaving the same number to carry all the miscellaneous gear, the officers' kits, the ammunition, entrenching tools, and two days' rations, besides the reserve ration of bully beef.
It always struck us as being somewhat ironical having to carry a reserve ration of bully beef while on the march, as the country was full of cattle, which could have been driven in if required. If the worst had come to the worst we could, in an emergency, have eaten the trek oxen, which were quite as tender as the slaughter bullocks.
The company wagons were terribly overloaded; each company was about 120 strong, so the wagons had to carry 240 blankets and waterproof sheets and 240 great-coats, besides the other impedimenta.
As time went on, Major Cardew succeeded in getting us other wagons, and some small carts were picked up at farms and utilised to carry our reserve ammunition, the signalling gear, the doctors' boxes and the tools; but the difficulty was to find animals to draw these carts. There were plenty of carts at the farms, but the only beasts that we could get were such stray mules as we encountered on the road, or which were found in camp. They were mostly quite unfit for work and had been abandoned on that account, but, anyhow, we had to put them in harness and get what work we could out of them until we found better ones.
Each large wagon was drawn by ten mules, and looked after by two black boys as drivers, and one soldier as wagonman, who applied the brake when necessary. The wagons were large and heavy, and the wheels too light and spidery to stand much rough usage; and each wagon was cumbered with a huge box or driving seat which must have weighed at least one hundredweight, the use of which was not very obvious.
All wagons, and indeed all the transport carts, and the guns too, were fitted with the South African brake, which is applied or taken off by means of a hand-wheel at the back of the cart. These powerful brakes are very necessary owing to the steep descents sometimes met with, and the erratic behaviour at all times of the mules. These animals gave much trouble at first, but soon, with hard work and scanty feed, became more docile.
The native drivers had been enlisted evidently because they were natives, not on account of what they knew about mules or oxen. Many of them were quite ignorant of how to treat the mules, and flogged them all day without cessation, until at last the use of long whips was forbidden.
The mules suffered a good deal from the want of water on the march. They will not drink before about eight o'clock in the morning, and by that time we were on the road usually, and there was no opportunity, until we arrived at our destination, of watering the animals. This was a pity, as they would have travelled much the better for it. Sometimes we had a rest of a couple of hours in the middle of the day, when the animals were allowed to water and graze; but more often the exigencies of the campaign would not allow of our halting for long.
Some of the artillery baggage wagons were of the old box pattern which, it is understood, was condemned in 1881, after the first Boer war, as being quite unsuitable; but now they appeared again. The artillery used to mount a driver on the leading mule of the team and this plan seemed to have many advantages. There is always much trouble in starting a team of mules, as the natural perversity of the animals prevents them from all pulling at once and together, until they are fairly started.
To humour the wretched beasts it is sometimes necessary to get men to give the van a shove along, so that the ten mules, when they find the wagon moving, get at once into their collars and step out together in the most docile fashion. Give a mule a slight ascent in the road in front of him and the extraordinary creature is in his element at once, and puts all his weight into his work; but on level ground or on a down grade, a good deal of attention is necessary to keep the traces taut and the mules from hanging back and getting their legs over them.
We crossed the river by a footbridge and marched about eight miles to Klein Ospruit. The baggage wagons had some adventures at the drifts and did not arrive till fairly late, so that we had some trouble sorting out our kits and other property in the dark.
Next day we marched to Schanz Kraal, a short march over grassy veldt. The Volunteer company had the honour of being the first to come under the enemy's fire on this occasion, as they were plugged at by one of the Boer guns whilst they were acting as escort to our battery. The shells, however, dropped short and did no damage. The 1st of May saw us up at 6.30, and on the tramp on an exceptionally long march to Jacobsrust, or Steynspruit as it is sometimes called. The weather was the most charming that could be wished for, a true South African day, and, had the march been 12 miles instead of the 18 or 19 that it actually was, we should have been better pleased. Arriving on the top of a nek, or dip in the hills, we saw a huge plain in front simply covered with troops, all dismounted and resting. These were Broadwood's Cavalry and Ian Hamilton's Mounted Infantry, and, after a while, they moved off in advance of us, we following in an hour's time and reaching Jacobsrust just before dusk.
Our first business on arrival in camp each day was to see to the provision of wood and water for cooking purposes, no easy matter in a treeless country like the Orange Free State. When there were trees, wood parties were sent out under an officer, and sometimes wooden fencing posts were brought in from round the fields. Later on, when we moved further North and wood became more scarce, men used to pick up these fencing posts on their march home into camp, but, as they never knew where camp was to be until they reached it, sometimes they were let in to carry these logs of wood for miles. Occasionally, but very seldom, a few small houses were ordered to be destroyed, and in that case the troops were allowed to take the wood out of the doors and windows, floors and ceilings. This did not often happen, though, as great precautions were always being taken not to do any unnecessary damage or to alarm the people of the country needlessly. A better substitute for firewood was also found, under the guidance of stern necessity, to be dried cowdung, and towards the close of the campaign the men used this in preference to wood, as it was easier to get and lighter to carry.
Whilst the wood and water parties were out, there was nothing more to be done except to wait until the wagons arrived with the blankets. This was a matter, sometimes of minutes, sometimes of hours, and it was in order to guard against any possible delay in the movements of the wagons that every man was ordered to carry, in addition to a blanket, two days' rations of tea, sugar and biscuit, and one day's ration of meat in his haversack and canteen, which were regularly replaced when consumed. Thus every man had in his possession the wherewithal to make a meal, either in the middle of the day when a halt took place with the intention of allowing the men to cook, or on arrival in camp.
The meat ration was driven with us in the form of slaughter oxen, and immediately on arrival in camp the butchers, who rode on a wagon and did not have to walk, set to work and killed sufficient oxen to supply the Brigade. It is said that sometimes the butchers killed a tough old trek ox by mistake for a young heifer, but this statement is, I am sure, a libel. The butchers were allowed to sell the liver, heart, head, etc. of the bullocks and sheep killed, at a certain fixed price; so, when the slaughtering was going on, there was sure to be a small crowd of would-be purchasers waiting.
Sometimes when the Brigade arrived late in camp the issue of rations would take place several hours after dark; but as every man had that day's rations carried on his person in addition to the next day's groceries and biscuit, there was not really anything to complain about, except the inconvenience, which was unavoidable. Many men did not at first, however, realise that they had two day's biscuit in their haversacks, and used to eat it all, or most of it, on the first opportunity. There came a time, also, when, without notice, flour was issued for the second day's ration, and our improvident friends were fetched up with a round turn.
Owing to the difficulties of transport and to the fact that every mortal thing had to be carried with us--the country furnishing nothing but cattle and forage--the ration question was always a troublesome one to the regimental officer. No doubt it is an awkward thing issuing fresh meat on the march, but what could be done? Preserved meat could not be carried owing to the weight, and so the trek ox had to be cut up and served out at no matter what hour. No doubt the pound-and-a-half of meat, when cut up into portions, looked very small, and was often so uninviting, that many of the men threw away their meat ration, such as it was. Personally I do not think that the meat ration issued in this way is nearly large enough, and it might with advantage be doubled at the very least. By the time the bone, scraps, skin and dirty pieces are cut away from a portion of meat representing the rations of a section calculated at three pounds per man, and this again is subdivided into each man's little chunk, it will be found that what was originally considered as three pounds has dwindled to a pound-and-a-half or less. The Boer prisoners, whom we rationed, laughed at the idea of existing on the soldier's ration of a pound-and-a half of meat, and complained to the General and got more.
Whilst on the march it was impossible to make any other arrangement than that each man should be responsible for his own cooking. This was necessary in consequence of the liability of any man to go off on picket, on guard, or on any duty where he might be detached from the bulk of his comrades. The utmost that the company cooks could do to be of benefit was to occasionally boil the water for the tea and let each man make his own brew. Not that he could make many brews out of his ration; far from it. In a laboratory, no doubt, carefully weighed rations of tea will make a certain quantity of quite a respectable drink, but in the field when the soldier has to carry his tea, tied up in a bit of rag, it certainly does not go far enough, and the man has to drink water, with every possibility of enteric supervening. Again, tea made in bulk as in military kitchens at Aldershot is quite a different matter to the same article made in a canteen out of the miserable pinch which constitutes one man's ration for one day. Similar arguments apply to the coffee and sugar; in fact the whole question of rations in the field needs revision. What we would have done without the Brigade Canteen which the General started, I do not know; but the quantity of tea, sugar and foodstuffs generally sold in that institution was only limited by the amount that could be purchased in the towns.
On the march, the column usually halted at the regulation intervals of time as prescribed in the drill books, of five minutes after the first half-hour's marching and ten minutes on the completion of each succeeding hour. There is some slight modification needed in this regulation, as experience gained in marching, not only in South Africa, has shown: the first halt is not long enough and should be at least ten minutes or even longer, to enable men to fall out if they wish it. After that, the halts should be for five minutes on the completion of each half-hour's marching.
A full hour is too long to continue moving, carrying the heavy weight that men do on the march, and a few minutes rest after half an hour's walking is better than a long spell after an hour's march. The weight of the blanket and the other equipment on the shoulders, which may not appear to be great on first putting it on, soon reminds one of its presence, and the half-hourly halt enables the men to sit down and relieve their aching shoulders.
According to the regulations the proper place for the stretchers of a battalion is for all of them, with their stretcher-bearers, to move in rear under the medical officer, but common sense points to each stretcher being always kept with its own company.
In South Africa, movements were so extended and companies so far apart, sometimes, that the stretchers would have been useless if kept together; and it is much more reasonable for the two men to go with their company, wherever it might be, on picket or baggage guard, or escort to guns, or any similar duty.
All regiments did not do this, however; and once during the mid-day halt, we were much amused at the antics of a very military Volunteer doctor, who was in charge of a squad of stretcher bearers, and was trying to move them off with due decorum and a proper observance of their importance. After falling-in and telling-off, they took up and laid down their stretchers several times, just to wake things up a bit, and then they received the order--"Stretcher party, r-r-right--form!"
This not being satisfactory, the doctor exclaimed "As you were! Now on the word 'Right'! the right hand man turns to the right, the remainder at the same time making a half-turn in the same direction," etc., and he delivered the order again; upon which, this intricate manoeuvre being executed to his satisfaction, the whole party solemnly moved off, followed by the smiles of our men and a few muttered remarks, such as "'e must 'ave thought 'e were in 'Ide Park"!
When our baggage wagons arrived in camp they were unloaded at once, and the rolls of blankets and great-coats taken off to the sections that owned them. The men then proceeded to erect their bivouacs, if they were particular, or to spread their blankets on the ground, if they were tired.
Sometimes it was our duty to furnish the pickets to protect the camp during a halt, and when this was the case the companies used to go off, as soon as they arrived in camp, to the spots pointed out by the Brigade Major, and make themselves comfortable there until daybreak the next morning; when either they were relieved, or else the column marched off and the pickets followed behind as a rear guard. The wagons used to go out to the pickets, if they were any distance off, with their blankets and great-coats; but if they were at all close to camp, as they frequently were, then the men used to carry out their bundles themselves. As a rule, we camped in a hollow close to water, which was either in a dam or a spruit (small stream), and the pickets were posted in prominent places on the surrounding hills. We had early learned to consider these pickets as really defensive posts, put out to hold certain prominent features, with a view to preventing the enemy from occupying them with guns and riflemen and from annoying us in camp, and not as outpost pickets with their visiting and reconnoitring patrols by day and night.
Cover from view was as much to be desired as protection from bullets and possible shell fire, and every man was told off to his own little position some distance away from the next man. Permanent objects like sangars and walls in exposed positions might serve to draw the enemy's fire more than was desirable, so, to deceive him, other positions were whenever possible utilised. At early daybreak every man stood to his arms for a while, watching especially points from which fire might be opened by the enemy. Cordite being smokeless, we, of course, never knew where the enemy actually was concealed, and could only fire at likely places, in the hope that he was there and that our bullets would make him keep his head and rifle safe under cover. Double sentries, especially at night, were of course an absolute necessity, and signalling communication was invariably maintained between the pickets and the camp, both by day and by night.
In the field there ought to be a weekly issue of tobacco, which should be considered as part of the rations: it is impossible, sometimes for weeks on end, for the men to purchase tobacco for themselves, and the loss or absence of this luxury is very severely felt. Tobacco is certainly procurable at some of the Supply Depôts at the bases, on payment, and twice during the nine months of our wanderings an issue was made to those companies which had money on hand with which to pay for it; the amounts which were due from the individual men were then charged through their accounts and, after a good deal of clerical labour, the transaction was concluded.
Owing to the greater necessity for carrying food, our Supply wagons usually had no room to carry tobacco; so that it was not often, in fact only twice, as has been said, that it was procurable.
The price was very inconvenient too; in a land where copper coins are unknown and the smallest coin is a "tikky," or threepenny piece, to charge 1s 4d. for an article means that there is always trouble over the change, which is increased if only half the quantity is asked for.
Smoking before food has been taken as productive of eventual thirst. It is extraordinary how men will smoke at all hours of the night, in fact whenever they are awake; but it is a practice which ought not to be allowed on the march, as the effects are surely felt later in the day when the heat and consequent thirst rapidly increase: this engenders drinking, and the water bottles are soon emptied before there is any chance of replenishing them.
Undoubtedly, men require careful training and education in these little matters, and, if they are properly attended to, as a result a long march may be comfortably carried out and the men brought in to camp in good physical form, not exhausted to the last stage, as they frequently are.
Our water supply when we were on the march was usually procured from the spruits or streams, but in the Orange River Colony we frequently had no other water than that procured from pools, more or less stagnant, and of a dirty yellow colour from the suspended impurities. The section of the Royal Engineers with our Brigade had a couple of hand pumps in their carts with the picks and shovels, explosives and other things that they carry in the field; and these pumps, immediately on arrival in camp, were fixed up at the water supply, and a sentry posted to keep off cattle and to see that the water was not contaminated by men washing in it.
Whilst on the march there was very little sickness from bowel complaints. No doubt the constant daily exercise in the magnificent climate and the excitement combined to render the men somewhat innocuous to the attentions of the enteric microbe, or, more probably, the water that we drank had not, up to then, been poisoned with these germs, although it was dirty enough in all conscience.
What with the constant smoking and want of self control, men usually drank a good deal of water on the march and during the day in camp or on picket: were the ration of tea increased in the field, as it might well be, to three times the present quantity, men would drink considerably less water on service and would save themselves a good deal of sickness. Men will not go to the trouble of preparing boiled water for their bottles; but if they have sufficient tea to spare, they will often fill up their bottles with it.
There is nothing better to drink on the march than cold tea: it is an excellent mild stimulant, it is a gentle aperient, and it is also a febrifuge in a small way, besides being somewhat astringent: it clears the brain, too, and leaves a clean taste in the mouth. Veldt water, on the other hand, besides being a breeding establishment for the germs and microbes of nearly all the diseases under the sun, is nasty to look at, horrid to smell, and disgusting to drink: it invariably pours out in the form of sweat if the weather is at all warm, and it clogs the mouth and tongue with a mawkish taste which speedily requires more water to remove it.
Why the microscopic ration of tea should be increased on the same day by equally minute portions of coffee and cocoa has always been a puzzle. The advantage and necessity of varying the drink ration is understood, but why issue three kinds in one day, instead of tea one day, coffee the next, and cocoa the third? At the best of times the men had no place in which to stow the small portions of each of these articles which comprised the daily ration, and were, perforce, compelled to wrap each lot up in bits of rag and carry them in their haversacks.
Ration baskets were provided in which one day's groceries could have been carried in bulk by each company, but, as an order had been issued for each man to carry his own, these baskets proved to be useless lumber.