Ventersburg--Kroonstad--Boer guns captured at Bothaville--Story of the action--To Lindley--Bad drifts and willing workers--Luxuries for the garrison--Their doings during October.
We remained several days in camp, and on the 1st of November a party was sent into Ventersburg to burn and destroy some of the houses; they were wretched little shanties, most of the better class houses in the town being left untouched. A number of prisoners were taken, and some of the residents were deported and sent off to the railway in our wagons.
It was our turn that day to find the pickets, some of which were a considerable distance away: about dusk it began to rain, and continued to do so, steadily and without intermission, for thirty-six hours, during which time we were practically prisoners, as the roads were too heavy for the wagons to travel.
We were to have moved at seven o'clock in the morning, but as the weather showed no prospect of clearing up, the General decided to remain; our pickets therefore, after a horribly wet night, were not relieved by the Camerons until about ten o'clock. The men must have had a wretched time on picket, and looked miserable when they came in, wet to the skin: however, an issue of rum, which was sanctioned by the General, was made to them as they arrived, cold and hungry, and soon everyone was cheery and making the best of it. The trouble was the cooking, and wretched were the meals the poor fellows had that day: some of them succeeded in making small fires inside the tents and boiling their canteens on them, but wood was scarce and wet.
By our inability to march on the 2nd we lost our chance of travelling to Kroonstad by rail: three trains were waiting for us at Ventersburg Road, but, owing to our non-arrival, they were ordered away by Lord Kitchener, and the result was we had another thirty miles to tramp.
The rain ceased early on the morning of the 3rd of November, and we were able to strike our tents (still soaked through), load our wagons with our sopping blankets, and move off towards the railway: as soon as we reached the high ground the road was firm enough, but in the neighbourhood of the camp, owing to the constant traffic and the trampling of animals, it was nothing but a sea of mud. We reached the station in good time, and camped, spreading out our blankets to dry directly we got in. Several trains arrived at the station that afternoon with supplies and troops on board: these latter were details and drafts proceeding up country to join their regiments, and among them were about a dozen of our men who had come up from Bloemfontein, and who eventually joined us at Kroonstad; they said there were numbers of men of our battalion still in the Rest Camp at Bloemfontein.
A day or two later I mentioned this to the General, who wired to the General at Bloemfontein, asking him to send up all officers and men of the Royal Sussex; but the latter General replied that he was very sorry he could not, as the men were urgently required for duty in the town; so the regiment had to go short-handed, while a lot of fat fellows were serving in Bloemfontein in the lap of luxury, getting every night in bed, and, many of them, drawing extra pay as well. There were numbers of civilian doctors, chaplains of all kinds, young staff officers, et hoc genus omne who each wanted a servant and a groom, or an orderly, and who had only to ask at the Rest Camp to get them.
It was said that General Kelly-Kenny once had a round up of all the idlers and others in Bloemfontein, and the story goes that quite a large number of soldiers were found in shops and hotels and bars, dressed in civilian clothes, and drawing good pay as shopmen and waiters.
On Sunday the 4th of November we marched out of Ventersburg Road once more, at half-past six in the morning; it was a charming day, and our march led us alongside the railway the whole time. All the parties of Militia guarding the line had been relieved by men of the Coldstream Guards who were on their way down country, but had been stopped to relieve the Militia and to furnish one or two new defensive posts near Holfontein.
I was sorry to see that the Guards had adopted the felt hat, which no doubt looks very nice and smart while it is new and retains its jaunty shape; but, after it has been out in the rain once or twice and the owner has slept in it on picket, the thing becomes a hideous shapeless object, a most unsoldierlike head covering, which, to be thoroughly appreciated at its worst, should be seen when worn in conjunction with a kilt and a khaki apron, as in the battalions of the Highland Brigade.
On our way we passed close to the spot where the train had been destroyed at night when we were at Ventersburg Road: the débris was still lying about, although, of course, the trucks had been removed. Most of the contents of the train were Hospital and Ordnance stores, so the ground was littered with the burnt fragments of iron bedsteads and other hospital fittings, with camp kettles, canteens, water bottles, drums which had contained rifle oil and dubbin, and all sorts of other articles. No trace had been left, of course, of the bales of blankets, clothing and boots, or of any of the Supply Stores such as biscuit, beef, etc.
Halting for the night at Geneva, we reached Kroonstad about half-past eleven on the 5th of November, and camped on our old spot below Gun Hill, where we remained no less than four days.
Volunteers had been called for to serve on the Mounted Infantry, and sixty of our men sent in their names, showing that the spirit of enterprise and adventure had not been knocked out of them by the long marching and the hardships that they had undergone; they went off by train the same evening to Pretoria, where the new bodies of Mounted Infantry were being organised.
All day on the 8th and 9th of November, troops, mostly mounted, had been coming in from the west, and on the latter date, to the great delight of everyone, eight of the enemy's guns were brought in and parked in the market square, together with a large number of prisoners, who were handed over to a guard of the troops in garrison. These were the outcome of a most successful surprise of a Boer commando carried out near Bothaville on the 6th of November.
The guns were a varied lot: there was a 12pr. belonging to U battery and lost by them at Sanna's Post, many months before; there was a 15pr. which had belonged to the 14th Field Battery; two Krupp 9prs. in splendid condition; a Vickers-Maxim, or pom-pom; a one-pounder quick-firing Krupp, a Maxim with a portable tripod stand, and a large quantity of ammunition.
The successful capture of all these guns, prisoners, ammunition and wagons was largely due to our old friend, Major Lean, of the 5th M.I., and after a good deal of questioning (for, like all good soldiers, he was reluctant to talk about his own achievements), the story of the fight was extracted from him.
It seems that Le Gallais' force of Mounted troops, mostly Mounted Infantry, with U Battery, R.H.A., were near Bothaville, when intelligence was received of the presence of a Boer laager in the neighbourhood; so Major Lean with a few men of his own corps, all dismounted, went out one night to reconnoitre. They had to ford the river, the water reaching up to their waists, and then went on for some distance, until Major Lean observed some horses hobbled close to them: thinking this very curious, he went on a little further, and then saw, behind an ant heap, what looked like the head and shoulders of a man: without an instant's hesitation he dashed forward and yelled to the man, "Hands up!"
To his astonishment several other men rose and put up their hands, and he discovered that he had inadvertently held up an entire Boer picket. Handing over the prisoners to his men, he and his party went on cautiously, and on coming to the summit of a rise in the ground saw the whole Boer laager at their feet. The party was discovered, and a heavy fire opened on them at once; but the thirty men of the Mounted Infantry spread out under cover, and devoted themselves to preventing the Boers from inspanning their oxen into the guns and wagons. Word had been sent back to Colonel Le Gallais, who came up rapidly and joined in, U battery opening fire on the Boer guns at a range of 400 yards, but from the other side of a ridge, firing by indirect laying. The Boers answered the fire from their guns, and an artillery duel was in progress for some little time. A message had been sent back to General Knox, who, however, was out of reach, and also to Colonel De Lisle, who was some eight miles away; and the latter with his men came up rapidly, travelling the whole distance without drawing rein. They moved so as to envelope the flanks, but on their approach the enemy fled, leaving a large number of killed and wounded, and a considerable number of prisoners (114 in all), twenty-eight of whom were dressed in the blue uniform of the Staats Artillerie.
Unfortunately our loss had been severe, the gallant and dashing Le Gallais, Lieut.-Colonel Ross of the Durham Light Infantry, and two other officers having been mortally wounded, and seven officers severely wounded, while eight men were killed, and twenty-six wounded; but the success was great, and the rout of the Boers complete. They left the whole of their guns, wagons and Cape carts, and fled on their horses, some not even waiting to saddle up first. The prisoners said that De Wet and Steyn had both been with the laager, but that they had fled directly the firing commenced.
There is no false pride in the Boer commandants, nor any ridiculous notions about sticking to the ship and remaining with their comrades, who follow them so faithfully. Steyn possibly thought that it was time to move the seat of Government to some other place, Hoopstad for instance--probably the only town in the Free State which has not at some time or other been honoured with the designation of the capital of the Free State.
General Knox returned with the troops to Kroonstad soon afterwards, and received many congratulations on his success; at this time there were no less than four Generals in the town--General Knox, General Charles Knox, General Bruce Hamilton and Lieut.-General Kelly-Kenny, who was passing through on his way to Natal, and was just in time to see the captured guns.
It had been at one time rumoured that De Wet was waiting in the neighbourhood with the intention of making a dash at our convoy, while on its way to Lindley; and it was known that many Boers had been seen travelling north, while De Wet himself had been hanging about on the west of the railway. This disaster to his force and the loss of all the guns he had, not to mention his wagons and ammunition, completely upset his little plan, and spoilt our prospects of a fight.
We had been counting upon this, and had even settled that De Wet was to attack us as we passed over Doornkloof; but now there was no chance, unless the enemy round Lindley were to concentrate and give us a show before we reached that town.
The mail arrived just before we left, and we saw in the Gazette that Lieut. Hopkins had been promoted Captain in the Manchester Regiment in recognition of his gallantry at Retief's Nek, when he and two men were recommended for the Victoria Cross. Lieut. Hopkins was now the youngest Captain in the army, as he had hardly completed two years' service.
We left Kroonstad early on the morning of the 10th of November, and moved over to the other side of the drift to the north of the town, about a couple of miles away, where we concentrated.
The convoy, a large one as usual, of about 200 wagons, was waiting for us; the column of troops was not a very large one, consisting only of the Camerons and ourselves: but we had a considerable number of mounted men under Lieut.-Colonel Rimington, besides three guns of the 39th Field Battery, under Captain Brock, and one pom-pom; the Colonial Division was to follow us up as soon as they arrived at Kroonstad.
We camped at night at our old spot, Welgevrede, where H company took the opportunity to erect a fence round and to turf over the grave of Private Shutton, who was killed on the last occasion of our coming this way.
The column moved the next morning at five o'clock, our half battalion with a gun and some Yeomanry being rear guard; there was a long halt just before reaching Doornkloof, while the mounted troops searched the surrounding country: and then the convoy and the baggage were passed over and parked on the open ground on the other side of the kloof. Remembering how our rear guard had been sniped when passing through once before, we took special precautions this time, keeping the pickets out until the convoy had moved again, and giving the latter a good start before our last company left the top of the kopje. Not a Boer was to be seen, so we trekked on in peace, and camped once more at Quaggafontein, leaving that place at five o'clock the next morning. There were three bad drifts to cross on the way, and at one of them we had some hours' hard work. We were advanced guard, and seeing how impassable in its then state the drift was, our companies were set to work in reliefs making a roadway across the mud and slush. There was a broken-down wagon at the drift, the bottom of which we utilised, to the horror of Major Cardew, the Brigade Transport Officer, filling in the space with stones and earth. The Camerons came up soon, and some of them were told off to bring more stones so as to make a solid roadway; yet in places the terribly heavy, narrow-wheeled wagons sank to their axles each time, and there was hard work getting them over, what with the bad driving of the natives and the half wild state of the bullocks.
It was wonderful how the men worked, and how willing they all were to do their utmost to help matters on; there was no shirking or loafing about, but real solid work going on. Of course, we all knew that the sooner the job was got through and the wagons across, the earlier we would get into camp; but, apart from that, the willing cheerfulness to follow the lead of their officers has always been a prominent characteristic of Sussex men.
While we were busy, the Colonial Division overtook us and passed to the front; they were only a small force, composed of the Cape Mounted Riflemen and their four gun battery, but they were a fine smart lot of men, looking splendid soldiers.
We had a rest of an hour or so while the convoy was being got over, and started again about mid-day. Alongside the road ran the field telegraph wire, which had been dismantled for miles by the Boers, the wire being carried off and the poles broken; with an eye to their camp fires, the men soon began to pick up these poles and carry them along with them, so that we reached camp more like a regiment of dismounted Lancers than tired-out infantry: Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane was nothing to it!
Before reaching camp at Palmeitfontein we saw troops on the sky-line, and eventually found that they were two companies of our other half battalion, two of the Bedfords, and a gun, the whole under Lieut.-Colonel Donne, who had come out to meet us in case of any opposition among the hills between Quaggafontein and Lindley; there were some Boers about, but a few shots from the pom-pom made them scurry off.
The convoy got under weigh the next morning, at earliest dawn, and trekked the six miles which separated us from the town; and the troops followed a few hours later. Having got permission from the General, I rode on ahead to make arrangements about opening the Brigade Canteen as early as possible; the garrison of Lindley were very badly off for luxuries such as milk, jam and the like, and there had not been a box of matches or a bit of soap in the town for many days. Having secured five wagons at Kroonstad, by the good nature of Captain Atcherly, of the Divisional Staff, and other officers, it had been possible to load these up and bring them along with us for the beleaguered garrison, starving for cigarettes. A house had been secured and fitted up as a shop on our last visit to Lindley, the pioneer sergeant having painted the words, "Canteen, 21st Brigade," in enormous letters over the roof on both sides; they will remain for years as a memorial of our visit. Here the five wagons were off-loaded, the contents stacked inside the shop, and sold in limited quantities all that day and all the next day to the long queue of men at the door, patiently waiting their turn to get inside. About £1,500 worth had been bought in Kroonstad, the traders this time, all smiles and bows, tumbling over each other and quoting lower and lower prices each day, in their eagerness to sell. Of this lot, quite £1,000 worth was sold in three days--of course only to soldiers.
Pay had been issued to our men and to the Camerons, so they all had lots of money to spend: having managed to secure a safe in Bothaville, advantage had been taken of the opportunity to bring out in it £1,000 in gold for the use of the half battalion which had remained in Lindley.
So now the whole battalion was together again, and we had a great deal to talk about, and plenty of news to give: the departure of the Volunteer company, the capture of the eight guns and the death of Le Gallais, and our own adventures during the time we had been away, forming topics of conversation for a long while. We had gone off for a seven days' trek, and had returned at the end of six weeks; we had been constantly on the move, we had been on six occasions under fire, and we had marched 278 miles.
The story of the garrison of Lindley showed that they must have had a somewhat anxious time during our absence--ever on the look out, and entirely ignorant of what was going on in the Orange River Colony, or of what had become of the rest of the battalion and the Brigade.
When General Bruce Hamilton marched out of Lindley, on the 4th of October, he left Lieut.-Colonel Donne in command of the place, with the following troops in addition to B, C, D and E companies of our battalion:
Driscoll's Scouts, 70 men, under Captain Driscoll,
Three guns, 39th Battery, R.F.A., under Lieut. Maturin,
Half Battalion Bedford Regiment, under Major Hammond,
Half Battalion Cameron Highlanders, under Major Malcolm,
and that most comforting and reassuring weapon, the Five-Inch Gun, under Captain Massie, R.G.A. This gun, which has a range for shrapnel of 7,500 yards and for Lyddite shell of 10,500, was ensconced in a gun pit on a hill about 2 miles south of the town, from which it could, and did, dominate the country for miles round, and formed a moral and tangible support to reconnoitring, wood and foraging parties, who always knew that they had behind them this friend in need, at the sound of whose report even Boers would vanish like smoke.
On the 5th the garrison was reinforced by the arrival of about thirty men of the 7th M.I., under Captain Lloyd of the Lincolnshire Regiment, and about fifteen men of Brabant's Horse, under Lieut. Inglis.
Captain Garner, of Brabant's Horse, acted as Landrost, and Captain Green, who had lately resigned the Adjutantcy of the battalion, acted as Staff Officer during the period of Colonel Donne's command.
The garrison settled down to a quiet existence; an Amusement Committee had been formed, and various kinds of games were arranged for: football, hockey, golf and tennis were all engaged in as far as the rather limited supply of appliances at hand would allow.
The chief elements of excitement were found in the weekly wood parties; to get wood to any extent, it was necessary to go out to Groenvlei, or Green Valley, about 5 miles to the north-east. This farm was a regular oasis in the desert; it was in a pretty little valley, well wooded, through which a running stream, quite unlike the conventional spruit, wandered between old willows. Its situation, however, surrounded as it was by hills, made it a rather dangerous trap, and latterly most elaborate precautions had to be taken to ensure the safety of the wood parties: one or two other sources were tried for the wood supply, but other farms could furnish only two or three days' allowance, whereas Groenvlei was practically inexhaustible.
An occasional foray was made in a south-westerly direction to bring in mealies; these expeditions, and indeed all movements of troops outside the picket lines, brought to light small parties of Boers, who fired a large amount of ammunition to very little purpose--the only casualty being one man of Driscoll's Scouts, who was wounded on a wood party on November the 8th.
On October the 12th, 80 oxen were carried off by the enemy from in front of No. 1 north picket; the Boers fired on the native boys, who promptly bolted, and the enemy drove off the cattle before the picket could move out to the rescue. The scarcity of grass, and the large number of oxen left behind with the convoy, made the grazing of the cattle a very difficult question. However, stringent orders were given that the cattle were not to be allowed more than 800 yards outside the picket lines. Mounted men were also detailed daily to be under the orders of several of the picket commanders, to help the niggers with the cattle if necessary.
Yet in spite of these precautions another successful raid was made on the cattle in front of No. 1 south picket on October the 28th, and 150 head were carried off; in this case the boys and conductors were held to blame, and were severely dealt with by the Commandant.
From the 10th of October to the 8th of November native runners were sent off weekly to Kroonstad with reports to the Officer commanding there, but only two got through; two were known to have been captured by the enemy, and the remainder returned, generally after having been out a day and a night, declaring that they were unable to get past the Boer patrols. On the other hand, several native runners succeeded in reaching Lindley from Kroonstad; and returned there safely.
On the 5th of November orders were received from Lord Roberts to vacate the town, the troops to proceed to Kroonstad; but these orders were cancelled by others received three hours later, a second lot of runners having come through from Kroonstad in the one night, whereas the bearers of the previous despatch had been upwards of 48 hours on the road. Fortunately the second set of instructions were received before anything had been done in the matter.
On the 5th of November the Supply officer reported that he had sufficient rations to last the garrison at full issues until the 15th; but as no information had been received as to the probable date of the General's return, it was considered advisable to put the troops on three-quarter rations.
On the 10th, runners arrived from Kroonstad with information that General Bruce Hamilton would leave that day with a convoy, expecting to arrive at Lindley on the 13th, and with orders for Colonel Donne to move out on the 11th in the direction of Palmeitfontein, in order to lend the convoy assistance if required. The two forces accordingly met, as has before been said, and marched back to the town without incident.