Geneva--Kroonstad--New boots and sore feet--Bothaville--A strange souvenir--The town destroyed--Kroonstad again--Home remittances.
At Geneva we received orders to detrain one company there, and to send one to Boschrand, one to Holfontein, and one to Ventersburg Road; there were plenty of trains running both ways by this time, so the companies were quickly got off, H to Boschrand, A to Holfontein, and G to Ventersburg Road, while F company remained at Geneva. In the orders it was stated that our baggage and rations would be sent down, but we did not expect to see them that day, and were not disappointed when they did not arrive until the next morning.
However, the men had all had their rations for that day issued to them, and they also had a blanket each, and we at Geneva, or, rather those who were not on picket, made ourselves snug under some tarpaulins: luckily, it was rather a warm night. I am afraid many men that day had had nothing much to eat after breakfast time; it is a curious thing that the majority of soldiers never learn to economise their rations or to keep a bit in hand. In this particular case, each man had been issued overnight with a tin of Maconochie's rations, a particularly tasty kind of food, and a relief after much trek ox; but, although we had started at the early hour of half past four in the morning, yet numbers of rations had been eaten and the tins thrown on the line, even inside the station; as we steamed away the few men who had not already finished were busy at their tins.
Geneva was not really a station at all, only a siding, with not a drop of water procurable, except that brought in a tank by the train daily, which tank was not always full. There were a couple of empty tanks at the station, which we filled and kept in reserve, as there was no knowing when the line might again be blown up and communication interrupted, and ourselves forced to drink water out of puddles.
On the 13th of October the Volunteer company passed us in the train going down to Bloemfontein, preparatory to being sent home. They were of course in the highest of spirits, and there was great cheering as the train left the station. They had done well while with the battalion, and had throughout carried out their duties in the field excellently. There were not many men left to go away, only forty-seven, but there were ten more at Lindley, and many others in various hospitals in the country. All day long trains were going down south, and on most of them were Volunteers of many regiments--all in a great state of glee. On Sunday, the 14th of October, we returned to Kroonstad, the train leaving Ventersburg Road about two o'clock in the afternoon, and collecting the companies as it came up the line. We went back to our old camp, and the next day had an opportunity of fitting ourselves out with clothes and boots from the Ordnance stores. No less than 180 pairs of new boots were issued to men of our four companies, and other clothing, socks and shirts to those who wanted them.
It is a curious point in our military administration that on service where boots and helmets, coats and trousers, are issued free, shirts, socks, and drawers, which it is just as necessary to renew, are charged for. This system causes a considerable amount of extra work in the field, as the men have to be charged in their accounts--not to mention that it is not a fair charge to make against a man who is wearing out his clothes in the field and on duty of the severest nature.
It was believed about this time that after a stay of a day or two at Kroonstad, we should move back to Lindley, the convoy of 180 ox-wagons having been loaded and ready for us for some time. Thus there would have been an opportunity of breaking in, by wearing them in camp, the new boots which we had just received, and the marches to Lindley, being fairly short ones, could have been managed without serious disablement.
When, however, the Brigade orders arrived that evening, it was discovered that, far from going to Lindley, we were to proceed in the opposite direction. Camp was to be quitted at half-past five next morning, and the troops were to cross both spruits to the south, and to be at a point on the Bloemfontein Road by seven o'clock, taking with us four days' rations and two days' forage for the animals. It was a terribly long march that day, and the unfortunate men with new boots, thus unexpectedly called upon to march fully 20 miles, suffered considerably, and many were unfit to march for several days, and had to be carried on wagons. Next day was a shorter march of 12 miles to a place called Nels Farm, where we pitched our tents and remained for another day, whilst the cavalry and the mounted troops went out and destroyed the farms in the neighbourhood, belonging to Boers out on commando. There was an unfortunate occurrence that day, when one party of Mounted Infantry fired at another party, thinking they were the enemy, and shot a poor fellow through the body, wounding him dangerously.
There have been several cases of this sort of thing during the campaign--due to one or two causes: the similarity in dress of our men and the Boers, induced first by the absurd fondness in our troops for wearing any headgear except that with which they are provided; and secondly by the habit among the Boers of securing military clothing from the trains they at times have looted. Another reason is the fondness our men have--perhaps due to their over-eagerness and the want of experience of young officers--for opening fire on the enemy, or what is thought to be the enemy, at extreme ranges--any distance from 800 to 3,000 yards--at which it is almost impossible to tell friend from foe.
Field glasses being no part of the equipment even of the higher non-commissioned ranks, how is a party of scouts to tell Mounted Infantry from Boers, except by waiting until they come near enough to distinguish?
Our troops are not sufficiently acquainted with what may be called advanced musketry to understand that a few scattered shots fired at a widely spread target, such as a mounted patrol of five or six men, at the extreme range of 2,000 yards, is worse than useless and a distinct waste of ammunition. The theory of musketry, the curve of the trajectory, and the power of the rifle generally, are points which are far less understood than they might be in our service, and receive as little attention as the important subject of estimating ranges or the no less necessary matter of firing at extreme ranges.
The weather was now becoming distinctly warmer, in fact at Nels Farm, the day we rested there, it was quite warm enough for most of us, and we were glad of the bit of protection afforded from the sun by the bell tents.
On the 19th of October, a warm, close day, we marched about 13 miles to the drift at Tweefontein, two companies being rear guard with a gun and 250 cavalry, who were kept at a good reasonable distance away from the main body, so as to afford us some protection from snipers. Many farms were passed along the road, most of them being burned or blown up; we were now in a local centre of rebellion, this district not having been visited by our troops for some months, and the Boers having swarmed back in crowds in consequence: they used the farms to lodge in, and obtained from them food and information as to our movements.
We camped that night on the near side of the drift, and at early dawn the convoy started moving across and parking on the other side; it was to remain there whilst the remainder of the column went on to Bothaville.
The Buffs Militia, four companies of whom had accompanied us from Kroonstad, were also to remain, together with 40 men of ours and some of the Camerons, as well as one gun from the battery and all the cavalry details; naturally the men still suffering from the new boots were told to remain, and Lieut. Thorne was instructed to take charge of our men.
Bothaville was only 8 miles away, and we soon reached it, and camped on a grassy slope, to the east of the town, running down to the river, which, at this spot, passes through high banks; there were still a few English people in the town, and a Nursing Sister, but most of the residents had either gone or left only their wives and families to represent them.
It was quite a small town, but contained a very fine stone house, quite out of keeping with the remainder, built by the late Government for the use of the Dutch minister. These gentlemen usually seemed fairly comfortable in every town which we had visited, with good houses and gardens and no rent to pay. They were men of much influence; most of them threw in their lot with their parishioners and went with them on commando, for which they can hardly be blamed. The Nursing Sister was very pleased to see us; she had been left behind with a patient by our troops on their last visit, three months before, and had been unable to leave the town since. A good deal of private property (including the valuable telegraph instruments, out of the post office) was found stowed away in the church in the hope that our troops would not touch anything--nor did we.
Two days we halted in this little town, and we enjoyed the rest very much; there was capital bathing in the river, and Captain Gilbert, Lieut. Boevey, and one or two more spent most of their time trying to coax the fish out of the stream, with some success.
As the Boers were still in the neighbourhood, and the mounted troops were out all day destroying the farms of those burghers of whom a good account could not be given, the picket duty was rather hard. Captain Gilbert went out one pitch dark night with a few men to surround some farms close by, which were occupied by pseudo-loyalists, and to try and catch any visitors who might be staying the night; but after some bad walking, falling over ant-heaps and into holes, they returned in the early morning, having visited three farms and drawn blank in each case.
There was a shop in the town with the usual miscellaneous collection of articles, and I was told that such articles as would be of use to the men might be removed; so a party from each company went round to look over the stock, which, however, comprised nothing much worth having. There were a few things, such as writing paper, penny note books, some shovels and other tools, which were useful, and which the men were allowed to take away: but most of the stock consisted of medicines, ironmongery, and some cheap drapery.
I saw one hairy old reserve man going out with a small bundle under his arm, so I collared him and asked, "What's this?"
He stammered a bit, got confused, and finally said: "Well, Sir, it's--it's--its some calico!"
"Let's have a look at it," said I, and it was slowly unfolded and held up; it, or rather they, were not calico by any means, but the finest linen, with lace frills.
"What on earth are you going to do with these?" I asked him. He got very red, and still more confused.
"Well, I'd like them, Sir, I want to send them to my girl!" he replied.
So he took them away, to despatch by parcel post, and I hope the young woman was pleased with her present--rather a curious one to receive from the scene of war.
Early next morning, at five o'clock, we were sent to burn and destroy certain houses in the town, which had been apportioned as our share of the work, the remainder being looked after by the Camerons and the men of the Royal Engineers. The church and manse, post office, Landdrost's office and about five or six other houses were not destroyed, but the mill was blown up by the Engineers. In several of the houses which were burned numerous small explosions took place, showing that cartridges were concealed somewhere; the principal house in the town, filled with English furniture, belonged to the man who owned the shop, and who was then fighting against us with his commando: so it was with no feelings of compunction that we watched the destruction of his home.
All the residents were provided with wagons to take themselves and their property into Kroonstad, and the town was vacated by one o'clock, when we all marched away to our new camp, about three miles distant. There we were joined by the convoy and the men we had left at Tweefontein; on the way we were sniped at, a few shots being fired at the cavalry rear guard, but no harm was done to anyone.
At six o'clock the next morning, on a lovely day, we marched off towards Beeste Kraal, which we reached before noon; we had now a very large convoy of wagons with us, in addition to the refugees' wagons and the baggage of ourselves, the Cavalry and the Mounted Infantry, the total making up a very long column.
It was our bad fortune the next day to be rearguard to this huge procession of wagons and carts, which was continually being added to as refugees joined us along the road from the adjacent farms; the march was a long one, 18 miles, and although we started at seven in the morning, the convoy was so slow that it was past two o'clock when we reached our camp at Driekopjes, or Three Hills. Numbers of farm houses had been burned along the road on both sides; one farm which we passed belonged to an Englishman, who was with us as a guide, and who had married a Dutchwoman: he had been compelled to leave the country and go to Cape Colony six months before, when the war broke out and all English subjects received notice to quit, and had only now come with the troops, to pack up what he could and bring it and his family along with us.
Driekopjes is within a short distance of the famous Rhenoster Kop, a favourite haunt of De Wet, who was very partial to the three hills which gave the place its name, as they commanded the country for miles round, and formed an excellent advanced position to the larger Rhenoster Kop, rising black and forbidding about three miles to the north. There is a diamond mine close to where we camped, with a couple of shafts and some houses--apparently only a small mine.
On the 26th of October we marched once more into Kroonstad, and a very pleasant tramp it was after our long day's duty as rear guard on the previous day; it was perfect weather and the road was good, and we were leading battalion of the column, so we stepped along briskly in great form.
After about six hours' march we found ourselves in the outskirts of Kroonstad and camping under Gun Hill, but to the west this time; many were the speculations as to how long we should remain and where we should next go to, as not one of us believed that we should go back to Lindley just yet; we had been too often sold before, and had come to look upon Kroonstad as the invariable forerunner of a dash somewhere down the line; next time we should, perhaps, go north for a change, as a commando was said to be assembling to the north of Rhenoster Kop. Colonel Le Gallais' mounted force had left us at Driekopjes and gone off to the north, and we fully expected to find ourselves next day in coal trucks steaming up the line.
For a wonder we did not move the next day or the next, and the men had a good opportunity of visiting the town. More clothes and boots had been issued to those who required them, and some pay served out also: it was a long time since they had drawn any pay, so every man had about a couple of sovereigns to spend in the shops, which were now all open, crammed full of stock of all kinds, with the owners cutting each others throats in their eagerness to sell to the soldiers; the price of everything was down to the usual rates and was falling every day, as one could see by the lists of prices outside each shop door. Very many of the men, it was pleasing to hear, went to the Army Post Office at the railway station, and bought largely of the postal orders for sale there, to remit some of their pay to their families.
It was a very great convenience to the men to be able to purchase these Postal Orders and thus send their money home themselves, and it was a great pity that the system was not introduced earlier in the campaign. Another great improvement would be the possibility of buying their postal orders on board the transports, as is done on the ships of the navy. In the beginning of the campaign the men used to bring me their money and ask me to send it home for them, as they could not do so themselves, and at various times I have forwarded to England, through the banks, drafts for over £500; this is a good record and reflects much credit on the men, and shows their consideration for their families.