Bearer Companies--Retief's Nek--Artillery driving--Naauwpoort Nek--White flags--Golden Gate--Orders to take over surrender of five commandos--To Raats' Farm--The Boer laager--Surrender of arms and horses--Organisation of prisoners--The Commandants--Basuto visitors--Destruction of ammunition.
During all the time we were between Bethlehem and Retief's Nek we had been away from the Bearer Company and the Field Hospital, and had only one ambulance with us to perform the necessary duties of both of these units. When leaving Bethlehem, our doctor, who was then a civilian of the New South Wales Hospital, tried to get an ambulance to accompany the regiment and the battery, then en route to Meyers Kop; but he met with considerable opposition to his request from the Bearer Company authorities, who apparently did not mind a whole battalion and a battery going off without transport for the sick or possible wounded, but hated having to give up one of their ambulances. The doctor had, eventually, to go to General Hunter and get an order from him before he could secure the wagon which was required.
The idea of separating or breaking up the unit was so distasteful that the request for a wagon was, at the time, compared to that of a battery commander being asked to break up the organization of his battery by sending one gun away with troops.
The comparison between a battery of the Royal Field Artillery and the miserable collection of half-a-dozen old ambulance wagons was too delicious for words, and will, no doubt, be appreciated by our gallant gunners! There is no branch of the army in which such a sacred regard for the everlasting red tape is evidenced in the field as in the Hospitals and Bearer Companies: "At all costs keep your wagons empty," should be their motto, which will be supported by many a footsore soldier, with ragged clothes and worn-out boots, who has been refused even a temporary ride in these vehicles.
At the time when we were in such trouble with our boots, and had to wear miners' highlows and anything that could be picked up in the shops, many a man might have been saved days and days in hospital by a lift in a wagon at the critical time: of course, the Bearer Company say at once, "We are not here to carry men with bad boots, our duty is to take wounded men from the scene of action to the Field Hospital," and decline to receive him: the Field Hospital say "We cannot take you unless you are handed over by the Bearer Company": the baggage master shouts at once, "Come off that blank wagon, don't you know you musn't ride on transport wagons?" and so the wretched man gets left behind by all.
There are two sides to every question, however, and all soldiers know that once a schemer obtains the slightest privilege from the hospital or the doctor, his example is immediately followed by crowds of imitators.
The practical advantages of the Bearer Company in the field are not very apparent, and the general who ordered the Field Hospital and the Bearer Company in his brigade to be amalgamated was a sensible man.
On the 25th of July at five o'clock in the morning we moved across to join the Highland Brigade camp, which was at Boshop Farm, a couple of miles away. Most of the Highlanders were out on the hills on the left of the pass, and only the Seaforth Highlanders were in camp: they also left about eight o'clock as there was an action going on. It seems that the Highland Light Infantry had attacked the hills on the left of Retief's Nek the day before, while we were making our attack on the pass; but the enemy were in great force, and resisted to the utmost the advance of the regiment, who, however, succeeded in getting a footing on the end of a ridge. In the early morning the pickets pushed on and occupied a prominent knoll, from which, as soon as it was light, a further advance was made along the ridge, which eventually led on to the range of hills on the left of the pass; once this was reached, all opposition ceased, and the Boers fled.
In the afternoon we moved to a new camp at the Nek itself: there was an enormous convoy to go before us, so we did not get into camp until dark: the Highland Brigade and ourselves, not to mention the convoy, were all jumbled together in the jaws of the pass. However in the morning the Highlanders and the convoy and most of the other troops went back again, and moved round by Boshop Farm towards Naauwport Nek, whilst we were ordered to remain with a battery and some Yeomanry and guard the pass. After the usual pickets had been posted, we moved to a new camp, somewhat better sheltered from the bitter cold winds; and here we remained in peace a couple of days.
A very fine example of what our artillery can do in the way of driving was seen during our short march from Boshop Farm to Retief's Nek, the day after the battle. Two guns of Major Simpson's battery, the 81st, were with the rear guard, and had moved to the summit of a hill, which they vacated at dusk, then proceeding to camp; the guns were under a young subaltern, and took a bee line from the hill to the camp in the distance. The hill was very steep, and near the foot of the slope, which they went down with all breaks on, was an outcrop of smooth rock, about fifteen or eighteen feet wide, running round the hill like a belt, and as steep as the roof of a house. Perfectly unconcerned, the young officer rode at this slippery place, and, without an instant's hesitation, shoved his horse across it, the intelligent animal sinking on his haunches and sliding to the other end on his iron-shod hoofs.
Steadily, the drivers followed in succession, the horses repeating the example of their leader and sliding down with taut traces, the gunners clutching on to the drag ropes in rear, slipping and cursing and falling in a heap at the foot of the slope, the heavy weight of the limber driving it forward and tearing the ropes out of their hands. And so they all got down without mishap and continued on their way to camp.
The ground behind the pass was very open for a considerable distance, the hills enclosing a grassy fertile valley, with a farm at the upper end and a spruit running across to the south: the farm was deserted, although all the furniture and a good deal of wheat and oats had been left.
On the left of the pass and sheltered in several ravines, which ran deep into the hills, the horses of the Boers had been kept waiting, apparently about a day, while the owners were busy with their Mausers amongst the hills; from the marks there must have been several hundred men employed in defending Retief's Nek alone. On the second day of our halt, a lame Boer with his rifle and bandolier crept up openly to a picket at the farm and surrendered himself; it seems that he had been fighting against us on the Nek, but had slipped among the rocks when retiring and had sprained his ankle.
Orders were received to move off towards Naauwpoort Nek, so we left on the 27th of July and marched round past Boshop Farm, which was still used as a hospital (there being one or two cases which could not be moved to Bethlehem as the others had been), and along a very bad road for some twelve miles to a place called Hebron. The Bedfords, who had been at Slabbert's Nek, followed us up the same day and told us about the fight at Slabbert's Nek, where they had had to storm the position, meeting with some opposition, but eventually carrying the hill without much loss to themselves. They had then remained to secure the pass, as we did at Retief's Nek, and had camped on a hill, making with great labour a road up the heights for the guns and the wagons. This had just been finished when orders were received to join us and proceed to Naauwpoort Nek; so the unfortunate Bedfords had to drag their wagons and guns down again late in the evening, and march most of the night, so as to arrive at Retief's Nek before we started; altogether, they had an uncomfortable time for a few days.
Continuing our march next day, we passed on the left Little Spitz Kop, which we afterwards heard had been cleared in gallant style by the Camerons who had passed that way some days previously, and were now busy watching Naauwpoort Nek. We also passed the spot where the Highland Brigade had bivouacked the day before, opposite the Nek; but our little column still pushed on, over several bad drifts, until dusk, when we camped at Groendraai, having trekked fully 15 miles.
On the road we passed a deserted winkel, full of mealies and sheepskins, which had been broken into by some of those who had preceded us. A winkel is a small roadside store, with a stock, mostly suitable for Kaffirs, of clothes, cheap jewellery and rubbish generally, which the owner of the winkel disposes of in exchange for wool, sheepskins, mealies and other things: we met the manager of this place the next day coming back to look after his property.
Next day, the 27th of July, we trekked off again, and about mid-day joined General Bruce Hamilton, with whom were the Camerons; the Highlanders had been clearing the hills with which we were surrounded, and even then we could hear firing occasionally. After a while our battalion was sent out to clear and occupy a large, flat-topped kopje, which rose straight out of an extensive valley. This kopje turned out to be unoccupied, and, leaving B company on picket there, the battalion moved on to camp.
The next day was a peaceful one; there was, however, a good deal of excitement about, which we could not fathom: several flags of truce were sent out by the General in various directions, and every one was wondering what it all meant. The battalion went out also, and C company, under Captain Wroughton, was despatched to climb to the top of, and picket, a perfectly awful hill, a long distance away, and a fearful climb.
It took them a long time even to reach the foot of the hill, and longer still to climb up the steep slope; we watched them through our glasses, tiny specks moving slowly, very slowly, up and up, and then disappearing over the sky line. As soon as they had reached the summit, A and D companies, under Major O'Grady and Lieut. Ashworth, Major Scaife being again baggage master, proceeded along the valley, protected on the right by Captain Wroughton's presence up the hill, and on the left by B company, still on picket on the kopje we had occupied the previous night. A and D moved straight out about two-and-a-half miles to their front, where there was an isolated, conical-shaped kopje with a flat, straight spur running off to its right and joining it to the hills further on. To this flat spur the two companies were directed to proceed, and to remain there until ordered to withdraw.
From their high elevation, both of our parties could see, in the valley beyond, but at a very great distance, numbers of Boer wagons trekking in all directions, evidently in a disorganised kind of way: they were, of course, quite out of range, even of our cow gun, which had accompanied the Camerons from Bethlehem, and was now in camp.
In the afternoon, we withdrew our pickets and proceeded to camp, which we did not reach until the late afternoon, the pickets having taken a long time to withdraw. We found the camp had been moved about a mile to a new site on the far side of the drift; the wagons and the convoy had amused themselves during the day by crossing this drift, which was fairly good but terribly steep on the ascending side, necessitating double teams of oxen. Earlier in the day, before we started, we had sent our empty wagons across the drift to a place opposite our camp, and just on the other side of the spruit: we had carried our bundles of blankets and other baggage across by hand, and loaded them on the wagons, so our wretchedly weak and overworked mules had a rest that day.
The next morning, the 31st of July, we marched off again towards Golden Gate: the Mounted Infantry, who were in front, carried white flags, which were also borne by those on our flanks, and it seemed as though an armistice had been declared. However, no information was given to us, so we trekked on steadily until the afternoon, when the General, who had ridden on in front some miles, sent back word to the Colonel to say that he wanted to see Major du Moulin.
So I rode off, followed by the usual chaffing remarks about canteen jam and other things, and found the General about 4 miles ahead at Klerksvlei, with his staff and escort. There, he gave me orders to ride on to Raats' Farm, about 4 miles further on, and to receive the surrender of five commandos. This was news indeed, so accompanied by Lieut. Bellamy, who was then assistant to the Provost Marshall, with a few of his mounted Police, an orderly with a white flag, and one or two other officers, I hurried off at once, as the sun was beginning to drop towards the horizon, and there was an immense amount of work to be done, and very little time to do it in.
The General had told me some of the particulars of the surrender, which was entirely unconditional, with the reservation, granted by General Hunter, that private property should be respected, and that each burgher should be allowed a horse to ride to his destination, wherever that might be; and he instructed me to take over the arms and ammunition at once and to remove the horses for the night.
We rode on for some three or four miles over grassy veldt, huge ranges of hills on the right and left closing in on us as we advanced further; they appeared to meet in front of us, and, in fact, did close together to within 600 or 800 yards, forming the redoubtable Golden Gate. Across the mouth of this pass ran a deep spruit with steep banks; this was Klerks Spruit, and it was crossed by a terribly steep and bad drift, almost impassable for ox wagons, and entirely so for mule wagons, which would have had to be unloaded.
After almost meeting, the ranges of hills bore away again from each other, enclosing broken and hilly ground, which formed the outskirts of the mountains shutting in the famous Caledon Valley, at the northern entrance to which we now found ourselves; just beyond the drift was a farm, a substantial, well-to-do farm of considerable area, with a large orchard and several outhouses. This was Klerksvlei, owned by Mr. Solomon Raats, and it was around this farm in all directions, as far as one could see in the fast fading light, that the Boers were encamped: the whole neighbourhood was covered with men, horses, wagons and bullocks.
It was with a distinctly weird feeling that I rode into the heart of the enemy's laager and drew up on a slight rise of ground, just outside the farm: a small party of Mounted Infantry had followed us, and these now closed up behind and dismounted.
I sent for the five commandants, who soon appeared, each surrounded by a small crowd of retainers; and to them I gave instructions that each commando was to be formed up immediately, in order that the arms and bandoliers might be collected and that the horses might be counted.
There were several officers present, who had accompanied me, either on duty or as spectators with the General's permission, so that I was enabled to provide an officer to attend to the surrender of the arms and other matters of each commando. This was a business which took some considerable time, as each commando mustered about 300 to 350 men, and the rifles and bandoliers had to be brought up one by one and stacked in wagons. After all had been given in, the horses and ponies, a wretched lot of crocks, were handed over to men of the Mounted Infantry and led to the other side of the drift, where Major Lean's corps of Mount Infantry, the well-known 5th M.I., took over charge and formed a cordon round them.
Nearly the whole of the rifles with which the Boers were armed were Mausers: there was an occasional Lee-Metford, captured from our troops in Natal, usually, and perhaps a Martini or two. The ammunition was carried in bandoliers of every imaginable shape and pattern, mostly home made; but some of the burghers preferred cartridge bags of leather or canvas. Many revolvers had been surrendered, but these were mostly weapons taken from prisoners, such as R.A. drivers or A.S.C. men, and were as a rule out of order.
It was considerably after dark that evening before the horses had been got away, and there remained several wagons piled up with rifles; there were bullocks in plenty, so these wagons were soon on the move across the drift and into the Mounted Infantry camp under a guard. The commandants informed us that there were many Boers out in the hills to whom information had been sent of the surrender, and who would come in the following morning and give up their rifles. Meantime, there was nothing further to be done that night, so a guard was mounted on the farm, where Lieut. Bellamy and myself were remaining; and the other officers and the Mounted Infantry went back to camp, taking to the General a brief report from me of what had been done.
Old Mr. Raats was very civil, providing a room and preparing supper for us and looking after our horses; there were quite a number of Boers staying at the farm also, among them being six or seven of the biggest men that I had ever seen; they were very tall, enormously broad shouldered and stout in proportion, and quite filled the dining room at the farm when they all came in at once.
The Boer laager was not all composed of fighting men by any means; there were large numbers of non-combatants--women, children and Kaffirs, hangers-on who attended to the feeding of the commandos or drove sheep and cattle, and other nondescripts who did not belong to any commando, but who accompanied the Boers, all the same. Then there were a number of what they called "trek Boers;" these were Boers with their families, cattle, wagons, horses and all their belongings, who had quitted their farms and were moving or trekking with the commandos; these men had some splendid wagons and teams of magnificent oxen with them.
There were many Boers who spoke perfect English, and among them in particular two wearing the Red Cross badge; these two stated that they belonged to the Identity Department of the Red Cross Society, and produced papers in proof of this. One of them, Mr. Nelson, informed me that their duties were to remain with the commando to which they were attached, and to keep a list of any men killed or wounded, forwarding a copy to Pretoria when an occasion offered.
This system appears to have been the only means by which any record was kept of the casualties among the Boers, but the killed and wounded were so few that no doubt it worked well enough.
There was a parson, or predikant, also accompanying the commandos. He was, of course, not a fighting man, but was very loyal to his own folk, and, when we asked him what he would have done if any fighting had taken place, he replied that under ordinary circumstances he helped to look after the commissariat arrangements, but that if we had attacked the camp he would have taken a rifle at once and assisted as well as he could to defend his country. We assured him that his sentiments did him credit.
For several hours that night the Boers collected in groups round their camp fires, singing hymns, and it was late before everything was quiet, and we were able to sleep. Mr. Raats had provided us with the guest chamber of his house, and this room was fully furnished in the most elaborate style, including even a bath. Our first step had been to throw up the narrow window and ventilate the room as much as possible; we should have preferred to sleep in the open, but as we had no kit except what we stood up in, this was not advisable.
Soon after daybreak the next morning the collecting of rifles was proceeded with: numbers of Boers came crowding in from the hills around, eager to surrender their arms and ammunition, and in a few hours we had accumulated a large heap on the ground. The ammunition we filled into bags and loaded on wagons, but the rifles were placed in a great pile and burned, as we had no means of carrying such a large number: they were rendered quite useless, as the barrels were made soft by the heat, and all the foresights, backsights and other attachments were melted off.
The Boers told us that they had left nine or ten wagons, mostly loaded with rifle ammunition, on the road about 3 miles off; the bullocks had been taken away by the Harrismith commando, and the wagons were left there with a few Boers in charge; they also said the road was terrible, and that it would take a long time to bring in the wagons, even if bullocks were sent out for this purpose.
A report to this effect being made to the General, the Engineer officer, Lieut. Evans, was sent out to destroy the wagons. This was done during the day by blowing them up; unfortunately, owing to some Kaffir putting a bag of powder in close proximity to the fuse, a premature explosion took place, and the old sergeant of the R.E. section, Sergeant Munn, was somewhat seriously injured, while Lieut. Evans himself was cut about a good deal.
During the morning the officers whom the General had detailed to assist me reported their arrival: they were, Captain Wroughton of our battalion; and Captain Tufnell, Lieut. Lambton and Lieut. Key, all from the Mounted Infantry; these, with Lieut. Bellamy, gave us one British officer to each of the five commandos: but, as Lieut. Bellamy had to return to his proper duty as assistant Provost Marshal, Lieut. Bond was applied for in relief of him.
As soon as the officers arrived we were able to get the Boers into some sort of organization. Each commando had its Boer commandant, who had under him his adjutant and secretary, both of whom usually spoke English; and the remainder of the Boers were distributed under the orders of a certain number of Field Cornets, corresponding to our section commanders, who knew all about the men, and had rolls of them and other information.
The commandants themselves knew nothing about their men, their names or other details, but left all that to the Field Cornets.
The five officers were posted to the commandos as follows:--
To Du Plooy's Commando Lieut. Bond, vice Lieut. Bellamy.
To Potgieter's Commando Captain Wroughton.
To Joubert's Commando Lieut. Lambton.
To Crowther's Commando Lieut. Key.
To Jonker's Commando Captain Tuffnell.
Having thus a certain nucleus of organization to go upon, the officers went off, each to his own commando, to make themselves acquainted with their commandants and to ascertain the quantity of rations available, besides obtaining other information, such as the numbers of men, horses, wagons, Cape carts and bullocks, in each commando.
Of these commandos, that of Potgieter was the most important and the strongest in numbers, and the best looked after by the commandant and his Field Cornets; nearly all the burghers came from the Smithfield District, while those in the other commandos came from the districts of Bethulie, Thaba N'Chu and Winburg.
Jonker was not really a commandant, but, being the oldest Field Cornet, he was selected by us to organise and look after the burghers of the Harrismith commando, composed of those who had elected to surrender instead of going off with Olivier.
Commandant Du Plooy was the most respectable and reliable, as far as one could observe in the fortnight the Boers were under our charge; but all the commandants were men of standing and position, accustomed to be treated, as could be seen, with a good deal of deference by the burghers; they appeared to be all honourable men, and were most courteous in their address and manner of speaking on all occasions.
Commandant Joubert was a truculent old gentleman, who apparently failed to thoroughly grasp his position, and, while not exactly objecting to any orders which were given him, he showed his disapproval in other ways, and usually had a good deal to say on any matter that came forward.
General Bruce Hamilton rode over that morning and had an interview with the five commandants, and ascertained that they thoroughly understood the conditions upon which their surrender was accepted; these were, that each burgher was to be allowed a horse to ride to his destination, and that all private property was to be respected. The Boers had a great fear of being compelled to walk, and would have done anything sooner than go on foot, a thing to which they have never been accustomed. They were amazed at our infantry marching as they did every mile of the road, and frankly admitted that the Boers could have done nothing of the sort.
Lieut. Bellamy was busy all that day enquiring into the cases of the trek Boers and such other non-combatants as were willing to take the oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, or of neutrality, and to go quietly back to their farms: to these passes were issued and the people allowed to go off at once. This reduced the crowd of wagons very considerably, as nearly all of these burghers had one, if not more, wagons, and usually one or two vans or covered carts in which the womenfolk travelled, if they were well-to-do people.
Several of them had droves of cattle and flocks of sheep also. The remainder of the wagons, which were almost entirely those that had been captured from our convoys on different occasions, were loaded with the burghers' kits and with their rations of meal and some coffee. They said they had been out of tea and sugar for a long time, that the coffee was merely roasted beans and mealies, and that tobacco was almost unknown. However they had plenty of cattle, which largely made up for the absence of other food; as the Boer is a great meat eater, and, unlike other civilised people, can exist on meat alone for a considerable period.
There was one field gun amongst the wagons: this had belonged to U Battery, R.H.A., and had been captured by the Boers at Sanna's Post; several artillery ammunition wagons were also found, which, with some of the wagons which were loaded with gun and rifle ammunition, were all sent away to the General's camp.
The hills and ravines around Raats' farm were full of cattle and mules grazing, so we sent a number of the Boers to bring them in and to inspan them into the wagons and Cape carts, as it was now necessary to shift our camp to a better site where the commandos could be separated somewhat. There was plenty of space about a couple of miles outside the Golden Gate, and in the afternoon each officer moved his commando and encamped it in a new spot.
Here the wagons, carts and horses were drawn up with some regularity, and the officers were enabled to check the numbers previously given in by the commandants, which were found to be substantially correct in every case.
Another important matter was the equalising of such rations as were in the possession of the Boers: stock was therefore taken by each officer, and Captain Wroughton arranged about the sharing of what flour and other stuff there was, and saw that the fat oxen were collected and put into a drove in charge of some of the burghers, until they were required for slaughtering.
During this day the battalion had been moved to the same spot upon which the laager was encamped: several pickets were furnished round the prisoners, and sentries placed on the roads leading in and out of the pass.
All the burghers paraded with their horses the next morning, so that those which were fit for use by the mounted troops might be taken, and others given in their place. An Artillery officer came down to select these horses, and from the way he went about the business, carefully examining each animal all round and passing his critical hand over fetlocks and back sinews, it was plain that he did not realise that he had about 1,200 horses to look through that morning. However, our time was precious, and we had plenty to do without meddling in other people's affairs, so the Artillery major was left to run his own show; it came to a climax a few hours afterwards, as we received orders to move before he had selected more than a few horses.
From that time on we were beset with people who either wanted another horse, or thought they saw their way to getting a better one. None of us had any peace; there was always someone who wished to exchange his horse for a better one, and on going down to the lines we were pretty certain to see several strangers "looking round," as they called it--but we soon knew what that meant. The Boer laager seemed to be considered a fair field for anyone to exploit, one officer going so far as to send his men down to take some of the Boers' blankets away from them!
A party of Basutos from across the border, which was only three or four miles away, came over to pay their respects to the General; they were a chief and his interpreter and a retinue of sorts. A more motley crew has never been seen; they were all mounted on ponies; the chief was an enormously fat young man, bursting out of a slate coloured tweed suit, and wearing a black pot hat; the interpreter was similarly rigged out in a suit of dittoes; but the retinue were equipped mostly with a simple tuft of feathers in their hair. Some of them had blankets, but, the day being close, they carried them strapped on to their saddles. Whilst the chief was making his salaams to the General the crowd of retainers strolled about, and eventually became such a nuisance that after the interview was concluded, the whole gang were requested to withdraw to their own territory.
The ammunition which could not be carried with us for want of the necessary transport was handed over to the Mounted Infantry and to our battalion to be destroyed. This was no easy matter, but some was burned and exploded, some buried, and a quantity thrown into the pools of water in the spruit.
Major Lean was very successful with five or six wagon loads of powder and ammunition which were given him to destroy; the powder was strewn broadcast over the ground, but the boxes of ammunition and the wheels and other woodwork of the wagons were piled, sandwich fashion, into a huge heap and set fire to just before leaving the camp. As the boxes burned the cartridges were exploded, and a terrific noise, like a general engagement or the last stage of the attack as practised at General's inspection, echoed and re-echoed among the hills for several hours. No doubt, a good many cartridges escaped destruction, but it was impossible in the time available to destroy the ammunition more thoroughly.
Amongst the Mauser ammunition which was given up in the bandoliers, there were many clips containing cartridges whose bullets were covered with bright green fat; this gave rise to the statement that the Boers had wilfully used poisoned bullets. This theory was regularly harped upon by some war correspondents in their letters, but a more disgraceful insinuation against our enemies never existed, nor one more erroneous from a musketry point of view.
It is quite plain to any unbiassed person that any grease which might be upon the bullet when it is placed in the chamber of the rifle would be completely wiped off during the passage of the tightly-fitting projectile through the barrel, from which it emerges as clean as when made, and bearing the marks of the grooving. Enquiries among the better class Boers regarding this rumour elicited the fact that many of them were in the habit of dipping the cartridges in fat prepared from bucks which they had killed, with a view to lubricating the chamber and barrel of the rifle: the buck fat, after exposure to the air, turned green; the Boers were much amused at the ridiculous conclusion at which these correspondents had arrived.