On the March--Formations--Protection--Necessity of Mounted Troops--Engagement at Welkom Farm--Capture of Winburg--Soldiers and their Boots--Naval Guns.
In order to enable the force to be concentrated, the 21st Brigade halted on the 2nd of May at Jacobsrust, continuing their march the following day to Isabellafontein. The names of some of the farms are very curious and depend greatly on local conditions. The thick-skulled Boer farmer when he first arrived and selected his farm lost no time in dubbing it with a title, which, in after years, appears somewhat incongruous and confusing, as numbers of farmers hit upon the same happy idea of naming their locations Klipfontein, Doornberg, or Leeukop; and the result is that there are hundreds of places in the Orange River Colony with the same name--Doornkops are as common as dirt, whilst Deelfonteins, and farms called Modderfontein, or Muddy Spring, are quite numerous. Then, again, the settler, instead of naming his farm from the physical properties of the land or the quality of the water, frequently called it after his vrouw, so that one often came across farms called Ellensrust, for instance. Many others are named after animals, such as Hartebeestefontein, Wildebeeste Hoek, or Quaggafontein, while others are called Welkom Rust or Wonderfontein, the meaning of which is apparent.
The farms are all fenced with barbed wire, of generally three strands, with posts of wood or, more usually, of big slabs of quarried stone. These wire fences were of course a great hindrance to all mounted men and had to be cut in all directions.
On the march we used to move in column of fours, unless the veldt was broad and open, when we still kept our fours but moved the companies out to the right and left, so that we were really in a column of double companies moving in fours to a flank. This was a very good and simple formation, since the companies could open out or close in to the centre without difficulty, and at any time they were all handy and ready to move in any direction without the slightest delay. The battalion seldom or never moved in column of companies, as it was found that this was the most tiring formation of all in a long march, especially when the men were carrying a full kit. This full kit consisted of rifle, with magazine charged; haversack, with one day's complete rations and one day's issue of tea, sugar and biscuit; canteen and water-bottle; sidearms and equipment with 100 rounds of ammunition; and a blanket, strapped on the waistbelt at the back. All this totals up a good load, but there was nothing that could have been dispensed with, the blanket, which was most cumbersome and unwieldy, being really as necessary as anything.
The officers wore equipment the same as the men, and nearly all of them carried a rifle or a carbine. This was a most necessary precaution, as there is no doubt the enemy invariably directed their fire on the officers, and of course anyone seen to be dressed differently to the men, or not carrying a rifle, would be immediately spotted by the Boers. I asked some of the prisoners this question when we were escorting them from the Golden Gate, and they said at once that they always concentrated their fire on those who appeared to be the leaders.
The advanced flank and rear guards were always found by the mounted troops, who kept well away from us; as indeed they ought to, if they intend to keep the column beyond rifle shot of the enemy, which may be taken as fully 2,000 yards, or about a mile and a quarter. It will easily be seen what a farce a flank guard of infantry must be, unless it can move at such a distance from the column as will enable it effectually to protect that column, without hampering it or checking its progress. On the other hand, if the flank guard gets too far away from the column, it is liable to be cut off itself, whilst if it remains too close in, it does no good and merely masks the fire of the main body. It is a difficult question to answer--how is a column to protect itself in these days of long range rifle fire unless it has mounted men?
I saw a column on the march once which consisted of an infantry battalion with its full complement of transport and with a couple of guns, with their wagons, and the way the flank guards were put out was a study in how not to do it. Imagine an enormous rectangle, stretching along the road and extending about 200 yards on each side of it, the ends and sides of this rectangle being composed of men moving in single file and about three or four paces apart. Inside this rectangle was the main body, the baggage and the guns; and it is easy to conceive that, owing to so many men being used to form the ends and sides of the rectangle, there were hardly any left to make up the main body or to act as a reserve, while, from the formation adopted, nothing could be done by the men forming the sides, except to lie down if they were attacked. I never saw a more hopeless instance of slavish adherence to the drill books and utter want of common sense and adaptability to the conditions of service in this country. The commanding officer, who was a Staff College man, has since been badly stellenbosched.
A story is told of General Smith-Dorrien which is very characteristic of that gallant officer and worth repeating.
It seems that on one occasion, somewhere in South Africa, the officer commanding a certain battery of artillery was somewhat chary of getting too close to the enemy: perhaps he was thinking of his horses.
Getting tired of finding the battery to be always out of effective range, the General sent an order that the battery was to be brought up to where the 19th Brigade flag was planted. So the Major limbered up and advanced his battery up to the General, who promptly galloped on, flag and all, another 600 yards nearer the enemy, where he stuck his flagstaff into the ground and waited for the battery to carry out their orders, to come "up to where the flag was!"
On the 4th May, whilst on the march northwards, we had our first experience, as a battalion, of shell fire at the engagement of Welkom Farm, or Wellow as it is sometimes called. The brunt of the fighting was borne by the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry, but the enemy dropped several shells in our direction, two of which burst at the head of the battalion, but luckily did no damage. The battalion had advanced in column of companies, extended of course, in support of the mounted troops, who were manoeuvring on our front and on our left. To our right and left front the hills converged and were held by the enemy's riflemen, who were, however, out of range. A couple of companies were detached to guard our right flank, moving parallel with us and keeping the enemy behind his cover, whilst a couple more advanced against the hills on our left front, which had by this time been cleared by our cavalry, not before they had come under shell and pom-pom fire and had experienced a few losses. One of our men, was severely wounded on this occasion.
After climbing the low hills on our left front, we sat and watched the remainder of the Brigade coming along, and waited until the Cavalry had scouted some miles to our front before we finally left our position.
A very good view was obtainable from this hilltop, and it was disgusting to have to sit still and watch the Boer convoy trekking away in a north-easterly direction and about 4 miles off. We could see the wagons and long lines of bullocks distinctly, and little specks, which were probably mounted men, darting about up and down the road. However, nothing could be done to stop them, and so they slowly passed out of sight.
It was very interesting to see, watching from the top of the hill, one of the other regiments of the Brigade advancing in attack formation, in column of companies extended about ten paces; and, even at the very great distance they were away, it was curious to notice how the officers and section commanders showed up in the intervals between the long extended lines. They were, of course, in their proper places and only a few paces in rear of their sections, but, even two miles away, one could recognise the black speck in front of the centre of the company, and the other tiny atoms moving along in rear of the half-companies and sections.
There is no doubt it is a sound principle that, when extended, officers, supernumeraries and buglers should invariably march in the extended line amongst the men, from whom, if this is done, they are practically indistinguishable. The companies and sections can just as well be controlled from the ranks as from any other position half a dozen paces in rear, and the reduction in the size of the objective which the enemy is looking at is worthy of consideration.
During the afternoon we went on to the farm near the river and there camped, but after this long day's work we still had the pickets to furnish, and sent out several companies to the hills to the north and west of the camp for this purpose. However, picket duty, except for the slight extra marching entailed, is no great hardship on a fine night when wood and water are plentiful, and one has always the consolation of knowing that some other regiment will be on duty the day after.
Winburg was reached on the evening of the next day after a long and tiresome march. We camped near the railway station, and found the piles of wooden sleepers very easily split and very useful for our fires. The town is situated at the end of a branch railway which joins the main line at Smaldeal Junction, about 20 miles off, and which will in time, no doubt, be prolonged to the north-east and connect with Senekal, which is distant about 34 miles. Winburg is a small town of the usual description--Church in the middle of the market square, a couple of small hotels, two or three decent-sized general stores and a few small houses. The railway makes a curious curve when entering the town, and runs round three parts of a circle before it finally pulls up at a tiny station.
The line and the station buildings were untouched when we arrived, but no engines or rolling stock were left for us. The Boers had not long been gone when our cavalry entered the town and demanded its surrender, but our horses were too much done up for the mounted troops to continue the pursuit. The Boer forces were so very mobile--as they naturally would be when moving about in their own country and acting always on the defensive--that to allow our mounted troops to get too far in front and away from the infantry would have been a tactical error. It might have resulted in the separation of our columns and their attack in detail by the Boers, who would then have had a great advantage.
The battalions in the Brigade were ordered to be weeded out of all men unable to perform steady and continuous marching, and we accordingly had to leave a goodly number of lame ducks behind in charge of Major Panton. Some of them had bad and worn-out boots, ruined, most likely, by the salt water on board ship, and by the want of dubbing but the large majority were suffering from sore feet, caused in nine cases out of ten either by badly-fitting boots or by want of attention to the feet. These had occurred in spite of orders and warnings without number, but it seems impossible to get the soldier to pay any attention to his feet.
There is not a medical man or a pedestrian who will not say that it is absolutely necessary to change the socks frequently and to wash the feet invariably at the end of a march. There is not a soldier in the service who will not insist that this practice softens the feet and leads to blisters and subsequent falling out.
Until some very drastic measures are introduced preventing men from receiving boots too small for them, and legislating for their better preservation and for proper cleanliness of the feet, our army will never be able to march any better than it does at present. The man to blame is the man who wears the boots, but he cannot be brought to see that, or to listen to words of experienced men who were marching with soldiers when he was in his cradle. The agonies which some men will endure from a badly-fitting boot are beyond belief. I have seen, in Ireland, a man draw out his foot, covered with blood, from his boot, after a 5 miles' walk, and be unable to march for weeks afterwards.
The pluck and endurance and indomitable perseverance shown by men with ill-fitting boots proves devotion worthy of a better cause, but it has been a marvel to me for the last twenty years, why bitter experience has never taught the foot soldier to wear boots large enough for him. It is a well-known fact that after some marching has been done, a larger size in boots is required, as the feet swell and need more room; but the soldier, with an 8-2 foot when he joins, will go on asking for 8-2 boots until doomsday, and will have a grievance if he is compelled in the field to wear a pair of 9-3's, as he should be.
Whilst on the march we were compelled to resort to individual cooking, since every man carried his own ration, and this practice worked well, although a great deal of time was taken up by each individual which might have been better employed in sleep or rest. The men seemed to be always cooking; what with looking after the fires, collecting wood and mest, or dried cow-dung, and fetching water, the whole camp seemed to be perpetually moving round their camp fires, frying and boiling until a very late hour at night. The issue of flour instead of biscuit was responsible for a great deal of the time wasted in cooking. Some of the companies used to arrange for the cooks to prepare, in the camp kettles, hot water for the men to make their own tea, but it was impossible to arrange to cook the meat in this way, as each man had his own portion served out to him by his section commander.
Many men cooked and ate their scrap of meat in the early morning, others finished it off at the mid-day halt, whilst a great number threw away their little bit of tough trek ox rather than carry it all day, steaming and jostling about in a smelly canteen, or wrapped in a dirty piece of rag and crammed into a haversack, cheek by jowl with some tobacco and a pair of socks, perhaps.
This canteen was the only cooking pot the men had, although in the course of time many of them procured tin cans, the Australian "billy," to assist in making their tea or coffee. The canteen is not an easy thing to keep clean at the best of times when it is in constant use, and we had no opportunity of replacing those which wore out by the constant cooking.
We had to thank De Wet for this. One of the trains which was wrecked by him contained many thousands of new canteens which, months afterwards, could be seen lying by the side of the line, reduced to their original factor of sheet iron.
After leaving Welkom Farm the rearguard was overtaken by the Highland Brigade, who were following in support to our Brigade; with them were two of the famous 4.7 naval guns, manned by a party of bluejackets--at least the men wore straw hats, but the rest of their kit was the same as ours.
The guns had been rigged up on temporary field carriages, designed by some bold man, which would have made an official in the Royal Gun-carriage Factory turn ill with horror.
First of all came bullocks--about forty of them--dragging an absurd-looking gun, mounted on an equally curiously-made limber, with enormously broad wheels. This was dragged muzzle first, contrary to all precedent, with the gun pointing over the bullocks' backs. The trail was supported on a little low carriage with a boom sticking out behind like a tiller; and a tiller it was undoubtedly, for two bluejackets hung on to it, and, by shoving it to port or starboard, guided the gun in the proper direction.
Whilst in Winburg the following order was issued by General Ian Hamilton, commanding the entire force, which was henceforward called the Winburg Column:--
Extract from Brigade Orders. Winburg, 5th May, 1900.
"The G.O.C. Winburg Column has much pleasure in informing the troops under his command that he has received from the F.M. C.-in-C. in South Africa a telegram, in which Lord Roberts expresses his high appreciation of the good work recently performed by all ranks in the Winburg Column. His lordship has yet to hear of the further success achieved by the capture of Winburg. During the past thirteen days a portion of the Winburg Column has marched over 100 miles, fighting the enemy on nine separate occasions, and capturing two important towns. The other portion of the column has borne at least its full share of the very successful operations which have followed the battle of Houtnek. The G.O.C. cannot therefore but feel that his column has fairly earned, not only the praises of the F.M. C.-in-C., which are published separately, but also a day or two of comparative rest. In the same message, however, in which Lord Roberts expresses his high appreciation of the successes we have achieved, he directs us not to slacken our efforts for several days to come. The enemy is hurrying northwards to concentrate, and it is of nothing less than national importance that his movements should be impeded, and his guns and convoys if possible captured. Thanks to the good work which has already been accomplished, this column now finds itself better placed to carry out the Field-Marshal's wishes than any other portion of the troops under his command. The opportunity is a great one, and Gen. Ian Hamilton confidently appeals to the officers and men of the Winburg Column to make the very best of it, regardless of the fatigue and privation which will probably have to be undergone before success is secured."
The next day--the 6th of May--we made an afternoon march, together with the 19th Brigade, Smith-Dorrien's, and the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry, of about 9 miles, to a farm called Dankbarsfontein. The "fontein" in this instance belied its name, and instead of being a gushing spring of clear, sparkling water, which would have pleased the heart of Sir Wilfred Lawson, it was a succession of dirty puddles which would have created dismay among the ranks of the A.T.A. had there been any of their members left!
We remained a couple of days at this festive spot, but marched on the 9th of May to Bloomplaats. This was a well-to-do farm, with plenty of water and good grazing, and with a herd of half-tame buck which careered about all round the camp at 40 miles an hour, raising clouds of dust. Of course some sportsmen went out and stalked these frolicsome animals, and were followed by others, the result being that in a short time there was a good deal of indiscriminate shooting going on, and life hardly became worth living; so that these keen shikaris had to be fetched back. The amusing part of the show occurred later, when a Mounted Infantry picket, who were lying about on the look-out a mile or so away, had a shell dropped close to them by the Boers. They scattered with promptitude, and a few more shells came over in the same place. We could not see the Boer gun, which was fully two miles away, for a long time, but at last we caught the flicker of the sun on the breech block as it was swung into position.
In addition to all the firing at the buck every time they raced round our camp, there had been a good deal of desultory firing going on all the afternoon between the Mounted Infantry, who were on our right, and the Boers, who were holding some low hills some miles from us. We could see a few mounted Boers riding about now and then, but their guns were well concealed, and their men did not show themselves.
 Private D. Downer of A company.
 Major Panton ultimately succeeded in marching these men (drawn from all four battalions) up to Irene, where they rejoined the Brigade on the 9th of June, three days before Diamond Hill. They had covered 15 miles a day, acting as escort to a large ammunition column.