Heidelberg--The ladies' flag--Surrenders--Useless rifles--A duck hunt--Grass fires--Villiersdorp--Frankfort--Reitz--A Boer farm.
We left Springs on the 22nd of June, and had a march of about ten miles before we reached our next camp, Grootfontein. This we found to be about eight miles from Heidelberg, which we reached fairly early the next day, the Cavalry and the Mounted Infantry having gone on in advance and having come into contact with several strong parties of the enemy.
Just outside the town we were met by some ladies in a carriage, who had come out to meet the British troops, and who had brought a most gorgeous banner, all worked in silk by hand, with a portrait of the Queen on one side and the Union Jack on the other, together with an inscription, embroidered in white silk, "Presented to the Royal Sussex Regiment by the Ladies of Heidelberg, 23rd June, 1900."
Of course, the name of the regiment was left blank at the time the banner was presented, but the ladies stitched the name in that afternoon. It seems that they had been working hard, embroidering this flag in secret, for several months, and had determined to present it to the first British regiment to enter the town after the Boers had been driven out; and as luck would have it, it was our turn to lead the Brigade that day.
The ladies explained all this while the regiment halted by the roadside, and then the colonel thanked them in the name of the regiment, saying we would always keep the banner in the regiment in remembrance of the loyalty of the ladies of Heidelberg. Then the band struck up and we marched off to camp, the Sergeant-Major carrying the flag at the head of the battalion, and we all cheering the ladies as we passed them. They were greatly pleased at this, and stood and watched us go by, smiling and waving their hands; while we, all in rags and tatters, with dirty, hairy faces and worn out boots, grinned amiably in return.
We remained four days at Heidelberg, most of us being accommodated in the railway goods sheds, and in some tents which we found there; the Derbyshire were in some small empty houses, and the Camerons in tents, the C.I.V.'s being put up in the engine shed. There was now leisure to issue the clothing which I had bought in Johannesburg, and which was sadly needed; and we had time to wash ourselves and our clothes, and to clean up a bit--not before it was needed.
Extract from Divisional Orders, 25th June, 1900.
"A telegram has been received from the F.-M. C. in C. heartily congratulating Hamilton's force on the occupation by them of the important town of Heidelberg and on the dispersal of the enemy from its vicinity. In this telegram the F.-M. desires Lieut.-Gen. Ian Hamilton to remain quiet in Heidelberg until his broken collar bone is set, when he will rejoin his force. Meanwhile Lieut.-Gen. Sir Archibald Hunter is ordered to take over temporary command, and Gen. Hamilton, much as he regrets his enforced separation from his troops, cannot refrain from congratulating them in passing under the orders of so distinguished a leader as his friend Gen. Hunter."
The Brigade Canteen opened at the railway station, and in three days sold out the whole of the enormous stock brought from Johannesburg; the profits of this canteen up to the date of leaving Heidelberg worked out to £186 15s. 9d., which was divided among the battalions of the Brigade and the battery, the former receiving £44 16s. 4d. each, and the latter £7 10s. 5d.
Heidelberg is the prettiest little town that we have seen in these colonies, and the most English; there is quite a large population, and a large colony of Hindustanis working on the railway, which is an important line, as it connects Johannesburg with Natal. The bridges and culverts had been destroyed by the Boers before leaving, so that trains could not run up to the town just yet from the west, but had to wait outside, some miles away.
Quite a large number of Boers had come in to surrender their arms and to take the oath of allegiance, but I am afraid that this was, in many cases, merely an empty form; in this town, as in others, many of the rifles brought in were old and valueless. The older rifles, which were of all kinds and patterns (Westley Richards, Enfields, Martinis and many bearing no maker's name, merely the seller's), must have been splendid and costly weapons in their day. There were many quaint old shot guns, besides several of the earlier patterns of breech loading rifles, such as Whitworths, Spencers and Remingtons, many of which were rusty, damaged and out of order.
Every man over 16 and under 60 in the colony had been compelled to purchase a Mauser rifle from the Boer Government at a cost of £3. 7s. 6d., so that if he did not return it to us when he surrendered, he must have either disposed of it or hidden it for use on some future occasion, by himself or his friends.
General FitzRoy Hart, who had commanded the Brigade in which we served when at Aldershot, marched in with his Brigade of Irish troops the day after we arrived at Heidelberg, and encamped on the opposite side of the hill to us. We were greatly interested at seeing them proceed to pitch tents, when we poor wretches had been sleeping out on the veldt for months, and had every prospect of continuing to do so for some time to come--a prospect, I may as well say at once, which was realised to the full, as we did not receive tents until the 13th of November.
On the 26th of June the Brigade marched out of Heidelberg and trekked away south, accompanied by an enormous convoy of about 180 wagons of supplies, which retarded our progress considerably. We camped that evening at Bierlaagte, a pleasant little farm belonging to an English company and managed by an Englishman, where there was a large dam in the centre of a big depression in the hills, which afforded plenty of water to the transport animals. There were a few duck on this water, but what with Major Cardew on one side and Capt. Gilbert on another, and a crowd of men throwing stones on the other two sides, those duck had an unhappy time, and had to bow to the inevitable. There were other amusements on this occasion besides duck shooting; we were just seeking our bivouacs when we got orders to turn out and protect the camp against another enemy, which was approaching rapidly from the south east. This was an enormous grass fire, which was roaring and flaming and throwing out immense clouds of smoke about a mile away. Driven by a strong breeze, the fire, which extended over a wide front, was travelling towards us at an alarming rate; the whole Brigade turned out, formed line just beyond the limits of the camp, and lit small fires in hundreds. By judicious fanning and with the aid of the in-draught, these small fires soon joined hands and roared away to meet their friend in front. When the two fires did meet there was a most tempestuous greeting, and then they both disappeared and all was over. Our manoeuvre was most successful, and we slept peacefully, without any fear of being burnt in our beds.
It is astonishing what an amount of damage these grass fires can do when they flash over a camp: rifles are charred, belts and clothes scorched, harness destroyed, rations ruined, and animals severely burned; and all by a wretched little flicker of flame running across the grass.
Frequently these fires are caused by carelessness, and, as a rule, the mounted scouts in our front got the credit of starting them; but the result to the country was terrible at this time, July. There wasn't a patch of grass, from Reitz to Winburg, for miles on each side of the road, and the wretched transport animals suffered terribly from the want of grazing.
Villiersdorp was reached at seven in the evening on the 29th of June, after a tiring march of 17 miles, during which the battalion was convoy escort to the 180 wagons, which contained our supplies for 14 days.
This escort duty is a wearisome business, as the ox wagons are always the last to start; and although they travel at a good pace--quite as fast as infantry want to march--yet even one drift is disastrous to thoughts of getting into camp reasonably early. As a rule, the wagons move four or even eight abreast on open country; but once a drift is reached, single file is very often the only means of crossing, and this means a long wait for the escort. If the drift is a bad one, and double teams of bullocks have to be used to get each wagon across, the loss of time is very great.
Villiersdorp is a tiny little town on the banks of the Vaal, situated in a hollow of the ground, where it is not seen until one is quite close upon it. There are a few stone houses and a shop, but the town is, as yet, quite in its infancy, although like Topsy, it will grow in time. Anyhow the designers of the place have left lots of room, as the town is well laid out, with wide streets and plenty of elbow room. I sincerely trust that the very first job that the Town Council of Villiersdorp set about, will be the construction, over the drift, of a first class, man's size, doubled bottomed and copper fastened bridge of the most expensive quality, so that future generations of tired foot soldiers may not have to lug heavy wagons up and down banks.
On arrival we camped on the Transvaal side of the stream, as it was late; but the ox wagons started crossing at daybreak, so that by mid-day nearly all of them were over. They were followed by the Brigade baggage, and at three o'clock in the afternoon the troops moved across the Vaal once more, and led off to our camp, six miles out. The last time we crossed the Vaal was on our entry into the Transvaal on the 26th of May; now, just over a month later, we recrossed it and moved into a part of the Orange Free State, or Orange River Colony, as it should be called, which had not hitherto been traversed by our troops.
Frankfort was reached next day, the 1st of July, and here we remained a couple of days to rest the transport animals. It is a larger town than Villiersdorp, but not nearly so important as Heidelberg, and apparently does a trade with the surrounding farmers in wool and hides--as is the way with most of the small towns in this colony, whose raison d'être is apparently exchange and barter.
The farmers bring in the wool, mealies and hides, and the dealers take them over at a price--not too high, you may depend--and serve out clothes, agricultural implements and other things in exchange. The dealer ships off his lot of wool down to the railway, and eventually to the large firms at the coast, who send him consignments of stores in exchange, and so the game goes on merrily. The ox wagons which take the hides and wool down to the railway bring back stores, building materials and so on; thus there are no empty wagons wasting their time trekking about the country. Most of the shops in a town have the inscription--"Wolkoper, Allgemene Handlaar"--which may be interpreted as "Wool-broker, General Dealer,"--and most articles required on a farm may be purchased there. On market day farm produce, bullocks, cows and other animals are sold or exchanged: every town, however small, has its market square, and its bell, and its day when the farmers come in and sell their stuff and talk politics and drink too much whisky.--The C.I.V.'s left the Brigade on the 4th of July and proceeded with a convoy to Heilbron; they never rejoined the Brigade again.
Leaving Frankfort on the 4th of July, the battalion had a terribly bad time with the convoy, as we were on guard over it on that day, and there was one of the worst sandy drifts in South Africa to be crossed, three miles out of Frankfort. If there is one kind of drift which is worse than another it is the sandy one; wet drifts are no trouble, except that the mules stop in the middle to drink and take their own time in starting again: rocky ones can be cleared: muddy ones can be repaired: steep ones can be cut down, but for sandy drifts there is no cure except brute force to haul the wagons out of the sticky, clinging sand.
Although to the next camp we had only eight or nine miles to go, and we started at eleven in the morning, yet we did not get into our bivouacs at Rietfontein until exactly twelve hours later, and then it had been freezing since seven o'clock that evening. However, that good old soldier Pearce, the Quartermaster, who had got in fairly early, had started fires and boiled water for the men's tea, although he had to take all the wood off the biscuit boxes for fuel. We thought at the time that that day's work was pretty well a record, but it was to be beaten hollow by one or two days which we experienced afterwards.
The next was also a long day's work, but good going over the veldt, although there was lots of it, as we tramped a good twenty miles before settling down for the night. Scarcity of water was the reason of this long march: we had halted for a couple of hours at mid-day, and went on again with the intention of reaching water, so we had to stick to it and trek away until we did come to water. Major Shaw, the Brigade Major, did a fair amount of galloping that day, looking for water, and no doubt his pony, if he is still alive, has not forgotten the 5th of July.
However, the next day compensated us for our hard work, as we had a short march of merely ten or eleven miles, which, with a halt at mid-day for a couple of hours, brought us into camp about four o'clock. There is no doubt that, where troops are marching with a big convoy, it is a wise thing to give the infantry a rest of a couple of hours in the middle of the day, as it enables the convoy to close up, to water and feed, and to get a short rest too. Transport animals travel all the better after being watered and after having had a short rest, and it is a sound policy to do this, as the column travels all the faster afterwards. The Boers, when they are trekking, water their animals much more frequently than we do, and they often made the remark to me that we were killing our bullocks by not giving them a rest. On all marches the pace of the column undoubtedly depends on the rate at which the slowest wagon travels, and matters should, therefore, be arranged with regard to that fact. Apart from considerations of safety, it is not sound to see the troops trekking away into camp with the convoy sprawling along the road, and with the rear guard clustering behind the last wagon.
Another short march fetched us into Reitz, at mid-day on the 7th of July: half the battalion and two guns were sent to occupy a farmhouse at the foot of a hill, about a mile and a half away from the town--but such a farm house! The doors and windows were gone, the ceilings and floors had been wrenched away, part of the corrugated iron roof was gone, and several of the rafters had been cut off short with saws, so that the rest of the roof was in rather a dicky condition. This mass of ruins rejoiced afterwards in the select name of "Joe Muggins' Farm."
All Boer farms are more or less similar, and the buildings and outhouses are practically identical in their shape and general appearance. First of all there must be one or more dams which contain the water supply for the cattle, and which are usually constituted so as to drain a considerable area of watershed. A few trees are sometimes planted to bind the embankment, but as a rule the burgher does not bother about improving his property by arboriculture, but contents himself by growing an orchard of peaches and apricots, and by planting a number of eucalyptus trees round his homestead. This is indispensable in every well-conducted farm.
The buildings themselves are very ramshackle in design, the fact being that the farmer on his first arrival builds himself a hut, which, as he becomes a prosperous man, and his family increases with years, he adds to whenever an opportunity occurs. There is always, however, a bit of neglected garden in front of the house, with a step or two of stone leading up to the verandah or stoep. As a rule, small rooms exist on the sides of the verandah, whilst the sitzkamer or drawing-room opens on to it. This is a sealed-pattern room, and very funny to look into, as all are alike, varying only in the quantity of furniture crammed into it by the wealthy farmer. An American organ with perhaps a piano, of course hopelessly out of tune, is flanked by the regulation two arm chairs and six straight backed ditto, all carefully hung around with antimacassars. On the walls are crayon enlargements of photos of the master of the house and his vrouw, supported by lithographs of various crowned heads, and enlivened by coloured pictures from the Christmas numbers. The floor is covered with a carpet and a few skins, and a few odd tables rest in fixed positions, supporting some china ornaments and other little knick-knacks. The family Bible, containing the records of births, deaths and marriages, occupies a prominent position in the room.
The dining-room is close by, and is really the living room of the family, and, like the sitzkamer, is conspicuous by its want of ventilation. At meal times, the men of the family sit down first and are waited on by the ladies of the family, and by Kaffir servants in various stages of undress. After the biltong and stormbacks are finished, the women folk are permitted to see what they can find left to satisfy their appetites. Another prominent room in every Boer house is the guest chamber. Here everything is spick and span, and the furniture is complete in every detail, including a washing basin and a bath; but of course no self-respecting Boer would dream of spoiling his record by wasting such a lot of water. The kitchen usually contains an American stove, and has a brick oven built outside one end of the room. Of course, all baking has to be done on the farm, and lucky has been the soldier who has reached a farm before his comrades, and has been enabled to buy his loaf of bread.
Outside in the compound, various animals of the usual farmyard type, with a few guinea fowl, a peacock and perhaps an ostrich or two, roam at large. A large wagon shed with a loft above, a woolshed and one or two smaller storehouses comprise all the outbuildings. The ploughs and other agricultural implements, which by the way are universally of American manufacture, lie about everywhere.
At Reitz we remained from the 7th to the 13th of July, being occupied during the first two days in constructing some temporary defences on both sides of the town, which was commanded by large hills of some considerable elevation; these were held by our battalion, and upon them earthworks were constructed in prominent positions. The town is a small one of little importance, consisting of only a few houses: there were hardly any residents left on our arrival, and nearly all the houses had been emptied of their furniture, so our Head-Quarters companies were enabled to occupy them as billets.
The Highland Brigade, who had left the neighbourhood of Frankfort the same day as we did, and who had marched parallel to us, but at some considerable distance away, did not halt at Reitz, but continued on through the town on their way to Bethlehem.
The convoy wagons were emptied of their supplies, which were stored in various buildings, and a column, consisting of the Derbyshire and some Mounted Infantry, went off, under command of Col. Cunningham, to Heilbron. The Derbyshire have not been seen since in the 21st Brigade, as they shortly afterwards formed part of a Brigade of which Colonel Cunningham was given the command; as they are to remain in South Africa and as we are commencing a long tour of foreign service in India, goodness knows when we shall see this fine old regiment again.
At the Farm where A, E, F and G companies were stationed, we had a company and a half on picket daily; their posts were rendered more defensible, and huts were built with corrugated iron roofs for the pickets to sleep in at night, as it was still very cold in the early morning. Veldt fires were constantly blazing all round us, and one night, at eleven o'clock, E company had to turn out to save our two guns, which were established on the hill above us, from being burned out. It took E the best part of an hour to put out the dangerous part of this fire, and it had to be done by beating out the flames with blankets.
Continuous firing early one morning from one of the pickets turned us all out in alarm: the regimental staff galloped off to see what the enemy's strength was, and in what direction his attack was coming: the battery hurriedly harnessed their horses and got ready to move up the hill, when a message came down to the General to say that it was a false alarm. It turned out that the picket had seen a herd of buck quietly grazing, and thinking some venison would be a good thing for dinner in place of the usual trek ox, had first let off a volley at 800 yards and had then continued with independent firing for some little time!
A considerable number of burghers came in every day and surrendered their arms, taking the oath of allegiance also; but, as before, many of the guns and rifles sent in were worthless: several were of very weird patterns, with all sorts of curious backsights: one had flaps, sighted to a number of distances, fitted along the barrel from the breech to the muzzle; another had a hinged backsight leaf which ran in grooves from one end of the barrel to the other.