Escorting the prisoners--Authority of the Commandants--Strength of the commandos--Biddulph's Berg--Senekal--Sardines--Winburg--Release of old men and boys--Remainder of prisoners entrained.
The battalion camped on the 31st of July at Klerksvlei, but next day moved about three miles further on with a view of forming a guard to the prisoners, whose laager had then been established at Korfshoek. The march was commenced on the 2nd of August, when the laager with the battalion as escort, together with the Mounted Infantry and the guns, returned to Klerksvlei, proceeding the next day to Weltevreden, a long weary march of 15 miles. There was a halt of a couple of hours on the road after we had gone about 5 or 6 miles, as we met the Highland Brigade on their way to Harrismith. Some Mounted Infantry were also encountered on the look-out for horses: and we smiled as we saw them select some that had been handed over to us as useless the day before. However, we said nothing. We got off again at last and marched back on the road by which we had come from Naauwpoort Nek. We halted once for a couple of hours to enable the wagons to cross a drift, and took the opportunity to have some food, and to water and graze our animals. At this spot, with a strongish breeze blowing, one of our companies, lying on the grass, seized the occasion to start a grass fire, which spread like a flash and necessitated our moving; endeavours were made to turn the course of the fire or to put it out, but without avail, so we had to inspan and trek pretty smartly. On our road we passed the site of our former bivouacs, and marched on for another few miles before camping at Weltevreden. Next day we were afoot at eight o'clock, but halted a good many times during the day, principally at drifts, of which there were several, and also on two occasions to allow the Eighth Division, under General Rundle, to pass us on their way to Harrismith. The troops of the Eighth Division were much interested at the sight of the Boer prisoners riding along, a huge column of 1,500 men; and I think the burghers themselves were also impressed at the sight of the numerous troops we passed on our way, first the Highland Brigade and then the Eighth Division.
We bivouacked that night below Little Spitz Kop, a wretched place for a camp--bad water out of a dirty sluit, and the whole neighbourhood as black as your hat as the result of a grass fire.
The 5th of August was a terribly long day; we started at seven o'clock and trekked along steadily for mile after mile, halting at mid-day for a couple of hours to refresh man and beast, and eventually reaching Bethlehem at six in the evening, just after dark.
Stringent orders had been issued by General Hunter with regard to the safety of the prisoners, and these were read to commandants and explained by them to their burghers; the prisoners, however, were quite resigned to their fate, and I myself was sure that none would be missing when we arrived at our destination; and in this I was quite correct, as afterwards was proved. The burghers were at all times quite under the thumb of their commandants, whom they looked up to with unswerving fidelity and supported with implicit obedience; thus when they were informed that the commandant himself would be held responsible in the event of any man of his commando deserting, there was little doubt in my mind as to their compliance.
The battalion furnished a cordon of sentries round the Boer camp that night; they were relieved next day by the Bedford regiment, whom we found in camp next to us. There was a halt for the troops that day, but there was not much rest for us in the Boer laager, as there was a good deal of organising to do which there had been no opportunity of carrying out before. Seeing that the five officers under me were all very busy, the General decided to attach five more for duty, and they came and reported themselves during the day. This was a great addition to our administrative staff, as it enabled two officers to be apportioned to each commando, one of whom paraded and rode with the mounted men on the march daily, whilst the other rode with the wagons and superintended everything connected with them: by this means we were enabled to get things done with some regularity and precision, especially as Captain Tufnell volunteered to look after the whole of the wagons and Cape carts when in camp and on the march, while Captain Wroughton undertook the duties of Quartermaster and superintended the ration question: of these two tiresome jobs, I am not sure which was the most worrying.
The five officers who joined us were Lieut. Willett, of our regiment, and Lieuts. Greenwell and Veasey of the Bedfords, 2nd Lieut. Lord Murray of the Camerons, and Lieut. Henderson of the City Imperial Volunteers. The services of Sergeant Flynn and Drummer Briggs were also lent to us to facilitate issuing orders and carrying messages.
The first thing to do was to have a proper roll call of the commandos; we had had no opportunity before then of doing this, although the adjutants of each commando had prepared rolls of their men, so a careful muster was taken by the officers, the numbers of the prisoners proving to be as follows:--
Commandant Jonker - 239 burghers.
Commandant Crowther - 379 burghers.
Commandant Joubert – 190 burghers.
Commandant Du Plooy – 227 burghers.
Commandant Potgieter 512 burghers.
To these had to be added four men who were sent down by the Provost Marshal, and seven had to be deducted, who were admitted to hospital in the town, making a net total of 1,544.
After the roll call was concluded the burghers were directed to give up all property belonging to the Free State or to the British Government, and this order resulted in a most miscellaneous collection of articles being made, comprising tents, waterproof sheets, entrenching tools, bayonets, military clothing of all kinds which had been looted from the Derby Militia, and from the trains which had been held up and wrecked by De Wet; saddlery and telescopes taken from the Yeomanry who surrendered at Lindley; and hundreds of smaller articles, Gladstone bags, tin uniform cases, water bottles, haversacks, ration baskets, signalling panniers, books, canteens and equipment, which had all at one time belonged to the Derby Militia.
There was very little property belonging to the Orange Free State, with the exception of a few tents and some waterproof sheets; we were careful not to receive anything which might be considered as the private property of the burghers, and the whole day long numbers of these simple minded men came to us, bringing all sorts of articles, and asking if they could retain them.
In any case each Boer was allowed to keep a blanket for himself and one for his horse, a water bottle and a waterproof sheet; and we did not interfere with the clothing they were wearing, much of which was our khaki serge, with many overcoats and khaki warm coats.
Some of the wagons, which were covered in and suitable for the purpose, were sent over to the hospital to assist in carrying the sick and wounded.
During the afternoon the commandants were received by General Hunter at his quarters in the town, where they drank coffee, and, with the assistance of an interpreter, made the polite and cautious remarks usual on such occasions.
A few horses were exchanged for some in the Mounted Infantry, but all those which were of the slightest use had already been taken. At night our custom was for all horses, after watering, to be taken to the Mounted Infantry lines, where they were fastened together in huge rings, under a guard, the Boers going back to their lines and coming at daybreak again to receive their animals. Any possibility of our friends taking French leave during the night was thus precluded.
The commandants were warned and directed to inform their men that any insubordination would be severely punished, the offender being placed under a guard and compelled to walk instead of riding; and the commandants were held personally responsible that none of their men attempted to escape.
During our subsequent march to the railway, prisoners were constantly being received in twos and threes from the Provost Marshal, and a large number, some seventy-five, of the remainder of those who had surrendered to General Hunter at Fouriesburg, were handed over to us on one occasion.
The morning of the 7th of August saw us out of Bethlehem for the second time and tramping along the well-known road to Meyer's Kop, over which some of us had already marched three times.
Bethlehem looked better by daylight than it did when we left it in the dark on the 16th of July; it is a large town and, as is usual, well laid out with a fine church in the middle, but it would be a good deal prettier if the indolent Boers could be persuaded to plant a few more trees. It is a curious trait in the Boer character that, notwithstanding their Dutch origin, they do not appear to care in the least for flowers, or trees, or gardening of any kind.
In the teeth of an icy cold wind, which raised clouds of dust, we tramped along, past Sevastopol, and our old friend, Meyer's Kop, to Bester's Farm, a few miles beyond the latter place, and continued our march the next day and the next in similar fashion, halting at each mid-day for a couple of hours.
On the road we passed the redoubtable Biddulph's Berg, which had been some time previously the scene of a severe action, where a battalion of Guards was heavily engaged and suffered from a very large number of casualties, over 150, I believe. They had a terrible experience in this action which has happily seldom occurred in warfare before; the grass was very long and dry, and there was a breeze blowing from the rear, where a number of people were watching the fight; these individuals were seen to drop matches on to the dry grass, and the consequent fire was soon beyond their power to extinguish. Rapidly the flames grew and spread to the right and left, and rushed, fanned by the breeze, straight down upon the unfortunate Guardsmen, extended and carrying on the attack upon the enemy in front: there was no escape, and the roaring flames swept like a rolling torrent down upon the soldiers, scattering them in all directions and scorching them severely: worse than this, the wounded, of whom there were a considerable number lying in the long grass, were badly burned and suffered terrible agony: it was a truly dreadful experience.
On the 9th of August we reached Senekal, crossed the drift, and camped just beyond the town; the opportunity was here taken to buy what food could be purchased, for the Brigade Canteen; but there was little to be had, and that was at famine prices.
Captain Wisden, however, struck what shopmen call a "line" of sardines, in which he invested largely for the Officers' mess, and which proved to be the worst possible kind of fish that had ever been put in a tin. How the wretched animal had existed when it was alive was a marvel, as it consisted, seemingly, of one huge backbone and little else; but no doubt the bad oil, into which it was put when it was tinned, brought about a speedy death and released the poor creature from its sufferings! Captain Wisden will never hear the end of this, and all our officers will in future beware of that particular brand of sardines.
Senekal is a small and neat town at the foot of a huge kopje, and was occupied, when we passed through, by the other half battalion of the Bedfords: it is the scene of one of the mishaps to the Yeomanry when Major D'Albiac was killed and a number of others killed, wounded, and taken prisoners; through great negligence they had not searched or occupied the kopje, which frowns over the little town at a distance of a few hundred yards, and from here the Boers suddenly opened fire on the men walking about down below, and shot Major D'Albiac, a well-known man, who had been in the Royal Horse Artillery, as he rushed out of the hotel.
The next three days were occupied in moving towards Winburg, two marches of 11 miles each, and the last of fifteen, into the town, which we reached about three o'clock in the afternoon. Each day we had halted for a mid-day rest, but the journey, although through open country, was not a pleasant one owing to the wind and the dust; the camping grounds also were filthy, as they had been used so frequently during the last few months, no water being procurable elsewhere: they were surrounded by dead mules, horses and bullocks: carcases littered each side of the road as well, between one camp and another.
So we were pleased to reach Winburg and to camp on the plain beyond the railway station, with the possibility of a few days' rest, and the chance of buying some bread--a commodity we had not seen in any quantity since leaving Pretoria in the middle of June. I foresaw, however, a good deal of work for myself and the ten officers with the Boer laager, as the burghers were to be handed over and despatched by train to Cape Town: they had not been told this or given any hint of their destination, and even now we were careful to say nothing further than that they were going off in the train; but, of course, the more intelligent of them quickly grasped the facts and fully imagined that they were bound for St. Helena: they had not, apparently, heard of Ceylon.
For the next three days there was very little rest in the Boer laager for any of us: the very afternoon of our arrival round came Major Maclaughlin and another officer of the Remount Department, who demanded all the horses and ponies: Captain Camilleri, one of the Transport Officers, also turned up and said he wanted all the Cape carts and most of the wagons: Major Cardew said all the saddles and harness were to go to the Ordnance Stores, and Major Orr, of the 18th Royal Irish, the Railway Staff Officer, had his little say, too, about the probable departure of the Boers, which was to take place as soon as trains could be made up.
We did not attempt to do much that afternoon, as the whole camp was overrun with visitors from the town and idlers of all kinds who came to stare at the Boers and ask us questions, which we had no time to answer. The first thing was to get off the horses and ponies, which were sent in batches to some cattle kraals near by; the animals belonging to the Commandants and Field Cornets, which had not been taken from them or exchanged during the journey, were collected together and sent separately to the same place, and by a little after dark we had got rid of all the horses and ponies, some 1,200 in number.
Next morning, the 13th of August, we were early at our work, and got all the saddles and harness together and laid out in rows, and collected any more Government property, tents and other things, which had been used on the march.
The drinking water was a long distance away, and the Boers were much amused at our forming some of them into water parties and marching them off, under a guard, to fetch water for their messes; they tramped off in fours, calling to each other and laughing, just like so many children.
After breakfast there was a muster parade of each commando, when the officers in charge called the rolls and ascertained that all their men were actually present: this was a long business and took some hours. The rest of the day was occupied in moving all the wagons and Cape carts to the outskirts of the camp, and closing in the commandos a good deal, so as to form a smaller circle for the sentries to guard; for, all this time, and in fact ever since leaving Bethlehem, the Boer laager had been surrounded by a cordon of sentries by day and night.
The following morning, such wagons, oxen and Cape carts as were of any use, were removed by the transport people, and the saddles and harness, about four wagon loads, taken away to the Ordnance stores: the burghers did not like this part of the performance as they had all written their names on the saddles, with what object goodness only knows, and were not at all pleased when some of them were called upon to come and load the saddles on to the wagons.
In the course of this day passes were given to the families, several of whom were still with us, and they were permitted to go to their farms with their wagons and oxen; the old men and the boys were also mustered, and a selection made of those to whom passes might be issued with the privilege of going to their farms and remaining there. A large number turned up, most of the men being old and feeble, and some of the boys being very young, so that we made a careful selection, rejecting all those whose appearance gave the impression that they were able to carry and use a rifle, and issuing passes to the remainder.
Altogether, there were no less than 105 permitted to go away, and they were sent off that afternoon: some of the boys and older men, who belonged to the Bethulie District, and who had no wagons, were provided with railway passes to enable them to get to their homes speedily.
Had it been known that the disturbance and guerilla warfare in the Orange River Colony would continue for so long after the dispersal of what might be called the Boer army, it is probable that not a single man, woman or child would have been permitted to go back to their farms; which, although their occupants had taken the oath of allegiance to the Queen, became centres whence horses, wagons and supplies of all kinds, besides information as to our movements, were furnished to the nomadic bands of insurgents who roamed the country.
That afternoon we succeeded in despatching Potgieter's commando, 477 strong, by train to Cape Town; the burghers fell in, with their blankets and rations, and marched down to the train (which had steamed up close to the camp), with all the regularity of soldiers; they were to travel under a guard of militia, who were ready waiting, and to whom we handed the Boers over as they got into the trucks.
They all seemed happy enough, laughing and chatting, and many of them waved their hands to us as the train steamed off.
The next morning another batch, over 800 strong, was sent off, and the remainder followed an hour later, bringing our connection with the Boer laager to a close.