Boers retreat during the night--Elandsrivier station--Through the Boer positions--To Pretoria--Off again--Irene---Bad state of clothing and boots--Difficulty of repairing the latter--To Springs--Clothing and stores obtained from Johannesburg.
During the night the Boers vacated their position absolutely, so on the 13th June we made an early start, and the Brigade moved round to the south-east in a circular direction and then headed east to Elandsrivier station. On the way we passed some low hills on the south which had been held the day before by the enemy, and we saw the place, at the foot of the hills, where their horses had been standing, apparently for many hours. These were the horses which had been seen by the General, but which it was too dark for our shells to reach. The ground was also strewn with Mauser cartridge papers and boxes, showing that they must have refilled their bandoliers at this place before starting. Their final position at Diamond Hill was plainly visible, due north of this spot, the intervening ground being flat and open veldt; and it was, possibly, very wise of them to have retreated during the night, and not exposed themselves to the risk of being caught with open country in their rear and no cover for miles.
Elandsrivier is a small roadside station, with no town or houses near. The Boers had done all the damage they could, smashed the water-tank and pump, broken into the booking-office, looked into the safe with the aid of a hammer and cold chisel, and written a notice for us on a sheet of paper which we found pinned to the wall.
It was written in pencil and ran as follows:
"Sorry not to have found here the price of a ticket to St Helena.
DE VAN DER MERWE, Lieut.-Colonel Commanding the Potchefstroom Infantry. Elandsrivier, 12th June, 1900."
Possibly Colonel De Van der Merwe has, ere this, been provided with a free passage to the island he mentions!
The Camerons rejoined us on the 14th, having been detained with their baggage and the convoy all this time, and having to their great sorrow missed all the fighting.
On the next day, the 15th of June, the Brigade moved off towards Pretoria, passing on the road the Diamond Mine, and entering the defile which had formed part of the main Boer position on the 12th. This defile had been, seemingly, held in great force by the enemy, and it was somewhere on the right of the defile that they had had their gun in position: the defile, which was the main road to Pretoria, wound in and out, the track threading its way among the hills for some considerable distance.
About half way through we passed a farm with a large dam, and here there were numerous indications of the recent presence of a large body of Boers with their wagons, as the ground was covered for some space with hoofmarks, remains of fires, cartridge papers, etc. This laager had been immediately in rear of the final Boer position, which we passed, black and frowning, on our left; from the front it was steep and impassable and covered with huge rocks; on top, the hill sloped to the rear, and the descent on the enemy's side was easy, so that the position presented many points in favour of the Boers.
On either side of the defile, or pass, at this point were huge ravines covered with black rocks, running up into the hills: one of these ravines on our left was recognised as being the one which had lain between us and the enemy, and just beyond it was the hill which we had occupied.
We were now just clearing the defile, and the position revealed itself to us in all its massive strength: on the right it ran back for miles, a huge wall of rock, black and glistening, and rising almost sheer out of the plain, but with a low glacis of grassy veldt in front; on the left the position was more in the nature of a range of grass covered hills, with some broken ground and a few isolated kopjes in front. This was the ground that we had manoeuvred over on the two previous days, and, having now passed through the Boer position in two places, we were quite at a loss to understand why they did not make a better stand, and we thought ourselves very fortunate in having escaped with the moderate loss that we had experienced.
The road to Pretoria wound off to the right, and passed for some miles at the base of this precipitous range of rocks, which continued to run in a northerly direction towards Pretoria.
We camped at night at the foot of these hills, at a farm called Schwartz Kopje; from here the range became lower and lower until it merged into the hills round Pretoria.
Around us were many farms, and some country houses belonging to Pretoria people, whilst a few miles to the north lay the railway line, and a large distillery at a spot called Eerstefabrieken.
Lord Roberts wired to the War Office on the 14th of June as follows:--
"As I telegraphed yesterday from our outposts 15 miles east of Pretoria, the Boers evacuated their position during the night of the 12th. They had paid so much attention to strengthening their flanks that their centre was weakly held, and as soon as this became evident on the 12th I directed Ian Hamilton to attack.
"He moved against Diamond Hill with the Sussex, Derby and City Imperial Volunteers, supported on his left by the Guards' Brigade under Inigo Jones.
"It was grand seeing the way our men advanced over difficult ground and under heavy fire. The casualties were, I am thankful to say, less than 100--a very small number considering the natural strength of the position that had to be carried. Our seizure of Diamond Hill caused the Boers to feel that they were practically surrounded, and this resulted in their hasty retirement. They were being followed yesterday by some of our mounted troops.
"Hamilton speaks in high terms of the three battalions above mentioned, and of the admirable manner in which the 82nd Field Battery covered the advance, the good work performed by De Lisle's Mounted Infantry, and the valuable assistance afforded by the Guards' Brigade."
Next day we made our second entry into Pretoria, this time from the East. The place was full of troops, the Guards' Brigade, 19th Brigade, and others being camped close to us on the east of the town. On Sunday, the 17th, and the next day, we remained in camp, but spent a good deal of time roaming over the town, and buying bread and whatever else we could find to eat. Although the first day was Sunday, the Canteen people found out that the worthy shopkeepers of Pretoria were not averse to turning an honest penny, and were mostly inside their shops, like spiders in their webs, waiting for business--but only, of course, through the back door. The Canteen laid in a good stock, although at famine prices, but in the afternoon the District Commissioner ordered the shops to be opened, so that the troops could buy what they wanted. This thoughtful act was productive of much benefit to the rank and file.
Too much rest, however, has always been an unknown quantity to the 21st Brigade, so the next morning we trekked again, and, going through part of the town, we were all pleased to find that Lord Roberts had come out in the early morning to see us go by. The band struck up the march past, and we all looked our best and strode onward as though we had only just landed. There is one point about Lord Roberts which every man on that column realised, and that is the power of the veteran Commander-in-Chief to see more in a glance than most men in a prolonged stare. There were few men in the battalion who did not catch the Field-Marshal's piercing eye as we went past, and each felt that his innermost thoughts were being ferreted out. General Kelly was by his chief's side, and looked very pleased to see his old regiment, and to hear the familiar old tune.
We reached Irene in good time, and found there Captain Mackenzie and about a hundred men, mostly lame ducks: they had been left at Irene when we were there last in order to escort a battery by rail to Vereeniging, and had now returned, having completed this duty.
Unfortunately for them they had missed all the fighting of the 11th and 12th round Diamond Hill, but their turn was to come in good time. A large number of soldiers of all regiments, released prisoners, were at Irene employed in repairing the railway line. The Boers had blown up the bridge some time previously, but it was an easy matter to make a diversion, and the traffic was not stopped for long.
From Irene, Captain Wroughton and myself were sent on by the General by train to Johannesburg, with orders to buy canteen stores and some clothing for the men, and to rejoin at Springs in two days time. As regards clothing, the men were pretty well in rags, and their boots were in tatters. The khaki serge, with which the reserve men had been provided, was shoddy of the worst quality, and wore out with the greatest rapidity: the City Imperial Volunteers, who were all dressed, or rather undressed, in it, were a piteous sight: in fact they were so badly off that many of them had bought themselves tweed and moleskin trousers in Pretoria, to cover their nakedness.
The khaki drill lasts much longer, and has the advantage of being washable: besides, it keeps the dust out much better than the serge, or rather shoddy, and it possesses the further advantage of being all of one colour: it was a common sight to see men in serge with coats and sleeves, or pockets, of quite different shades, while, as for trousers, they were all the colours of the rainbow. Khaki drill is, of course, not so warm as the shoddy, but the addition of cardigan jackets and drawers enables men to suit themselves as to warmth. We had never received the warm coats issued to many regiments; we could not have carried them if we had, as we were so short of transport; but De Wet had collared all our clothing, boots and mails at Rhenoster. By the way, the British soldier, no matter how generous he may be to an enemy, will never forgive De Wet for destroying all the mails on that occasion, as the harm that was done and the uneasiness that was caused to thousands of friends at home was inflicted on the unfortunate writers of the letters, not on the soldiers to whom they were addressed.
As regards boots, we were in a terribly bad way; the incessant marching and want of grease, which we had no means of carrying, and the absence of any means of executing slight repairs had played the deuce with them. Our shoemakers were always at work in camp, whenever there was a halt for a day; but leather and other materials were not easily procurable, and we should have needed at least twenty-five men to cope with the work in the time available: nor is any provision made for carrying tools and leather in the wagons. On every march quite a number of men, who had no boots, had to be carried on wagons, and I have often seen men walking along with no boots at all, merely their putties twisted round their feet. Nothing could be done, either, to improve matters: boots were not to be had, although in every town a demand was at once made for all the boots in the shops. Those produced were either Bond-street shoes, or else miners' boots, which are not intended for walking in, as a number of our officers and men, who tried them, found to their cost.
It seems such a farce to establish shoemakers' shops in peace time, when there are hundreds of civilian cobblers to be had, and then, immediately a regiment goes on service and the shop would be of some benefit, to close it.
Another ridiculous anomaly, which will hardly be believed, is that in the Artillery, the drivers, who never walk, carry two pairs of ankle boots, one on their feet and one on their saddles; but, in the Infantry, who never ride, only one pair of boots is allowed, those on their feet!
The advance on Pretoria had been so rapidly executed that the railway was occupied, day and night, in bringing up food for the troops, and had absolutely no room for stores, clothing, boots, or even, for some time, for the mails.
On the 20th of June the battalion left Irene, and marched about 14 miles to Vlakfontein, bivouacing near the head quarters of the East Rand Exploration Company: the evening was enlivened by the biggest veldt fire experienced, as yet, during the campaign. With a strong wind blowing, it came down on the Brigade camp at such a pace, that although steps were taken to burn a fire guard along the hill above the camp, when the fire was about a mile and a half away, yet the zone was completed only just in time; indeed several carts had to be hurriedly removed to places of security.
Next day the march was continued through the usual undulating country; on the way a vast pan, or depression in the ground more or less full of water, was passed: it was fully a mile across, and, although at the time nearly dried up, it gave us an idea (for it was the first that we had come across in the course of our wanderings) of what these enormous natural reservoirs must be in the rainy season.
On the right flank, large numbers of tall chimneys and mining shafts could be seen about eight miles off, which proved to belong to the coal mines of Boksburg and Brakpan. These must be most prosperous centres in times of peace, but just then only one or two gave signs of being at work, and probably they were only pumping to keep the water within limits.
This 21st of June was eventful from the fact that it brought the first rain which the battalion had experienced since leaving Glen; and as all our notable events were heavily scored and immense successes, so was this thunderstorm. Rain and hail came down in torrents, followed by a fall of snow, which was more interesting than pleasant; and the unfortunate battalion, which on this day was on baggage and rear guard, reached its camp at Springs wet and wretched after a tramp of about fourteen miles.
Fortunately the weather cleared up, and this, with a plentiful supply of coal procured from the railway station, completely altered the complexion of affairs; and, as is usual with soldiers (particularly on service), in half an hour all trouble was forgotten.
The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry was in garrison at Springs: they formed part of General Smith-Dorrien's Brigade, which was on the line of communications between Pretoria, Johannesburg and the Vaal; they had fixed themselves up in the large engine shed at the railway station, and were quite settled down, with bugle calls and other camp comforts.
Springs is purely a railway station, there being no town or village, or anything of that kind; in course of time this little station will find itself on the direct line, via Middleburg, to Delagoa Bay, as the branch line, which already exists, to the coal mines at Springs is undoubtedly on the direct road between Johannesburg and the main line at Middelburg; this new line will save a considerable journey round by Pretoria, and will enhance the importance of Johannesburg, bringing it into direct communication with the sea.
Captain Wroughton and I, when we left the battalion at Irene, had a long journey to Johannesburg: we started at half past six in the evening and, although the usual run by train is about two hours, the distance being only 24 miles, yet we did not get into the Park station until 1.30 a.m. Later in the day we went round to the larger shops, and bought stores and tobacco for the Brigade canteen to the value of about £1,500. We were lucky to be able to buy about £350 worth of English tobacco, at such a price as enabled it to be sold retail at 8s. a pound, the usual price in the shops in Johannesburg being 12s. a pound; but we had been told of a Bonded Customs store in Johannesburg, in which was a large quantity of tobacco belonging to Boer dealers, whose property had been confiscated; this was being sold by our Government to the British troops, so we decided to purchase a large quantity.
We then went round to the wholesale clothing merchants to try and buy shirts, trousers and socks for the men of the Brigade, and were fortunate in finding a large quantity in a store owned by Lazarus and Jacobson; we took all the shirts they had and all their stock of socks, and that of another large firm close by. The trousers were very fancy articles: they were mostly of moleskin and corduroy, cut in the approved coster pattern "saucy over the trotters," and we took all that we could find large enough to fit our men. We visited several other large warehouses, but could find no more of the articles we wanted. At the railway goods station we had some trouble with the stationmaster, who was a new hand. He was a sergeant in an Infantry regiment, who, of course, tried to introduce red tape into the matter, and kept back the cases, two whole truck loads of them, saying that they were officers' mess stores and that we must pay freight first; all this trouble with the train starting in half an hour, and the Brigade leaving Springs, the other end of the line, the next morning. However, this stationmaster listened to reason eventually, and we got away at last, only two hours late, and arrived at Springs during the night. Early the next morning the stores were transferred to ox wagons, and went on with the Brigade.