A wintry ride—Retrospect—Embarkation—A typical day— ”Stables” in rough weather—Las Palmas—The tropics— Inoculation—Journalism— Fashions—”Intelligent anticipation”—Stable-guard—Arrival.
With some who left for the War it was “roses, roses, all the way.” For us, the scene was the square of St. John’s Wood Barracks at 2 A.M. on the 3rd of February, a stormy winter’s morning, with three inches of snow on the ground, and driving gusts of melting flakes lashing our faces. In utter silence the long lines of horses and cloaked riders filed out through the dimly-lit gateway and into the empty streets, and we were off at last on this long, strange journey to distant Africa. Six crowded weeks were behind us since the disastrous one of Colenso, and with it the news of the formation of the C.I.V., and the incorporation in that regiment of a battery to be supplied by the Honourable Artillery Company, with four quick-firing Vickers-Maxim guns. Then came the hurried run over from Ireland, the application for service, as a driver, the week of suspense, the joy of success, the brilliant scene of enlistment before the Lord Mayor, and the abrupt change one raw January morning from the ease and freedom of civilian life, to the rigours and serfdom of a soldier’s. There followed a month of constant hard work, riding-drill, gun-drill, stable work, and every sort of manual labour, until the last details of the mobilization were complete, uniforms and kit received, the guns packed and despatched; and all that remained was to ride our horses to the Albert Docks; for our ship, the Montfort, was to sail at mid-day.
Hardships had begun in earnest, for we had thirteen miles to ride in the falling snow, and our hands and feet were frozen. As we filed through the silent streets, an occasional knot of night-birds gave us a thin cheer, and once a policeman rushed at me, and wrung my hand, with a fervent “Safe home again!” Whitechapel was reached soon enough, but the Commercial Road, and the line of docks, seemed infinite.
However, at six we had reached the ship, and lined up into a great shed, where we took off and gave up saddles and head-collars, put on canvas head-stalls, and then enjoyed an excellent breakfast, provided by some unknown benefactor. Next we embarked the horses by matted gangways (it took six men to heave my roan on board), and ranged them down below in their narrow stalls on the stable-deck. Thence we crowded still further down to the troop-deck—one large low-roofed room, edged with rows of mess-tables. My entire personal accommodation was a single iron hook in a beam. This was my wardrobe, chest of drawers, and an integral part of my bed; for from it swung the hammock. We were packed almost as thickly as the horses; and that is saying a great deal. The morning was spent in fatigue duties of all sorts, from which we snatched furtive moments with our friends on the crowded quay. For hours a stream of horses and mules poured up the gangways; for two other corps were to share the ship with us, the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and the Irish Hospital. At two the last farewells had been said, and we narrowed our thoughts once more to all the minutiæ of routine. As it turned out, we missed that tide, and did not start till two in the next morning; but I was oblivious of such a detail, having been made one of the two “stablemen” of my sub-division, a post which was to last for a week, and kept me in constant attendance on the horses down below; so that I might just as well have been in a very stuffy stable on shore, for all I saw of the run down Channel. My duty was to draw forage from the forward hold (a gloomy, giddy operation), be responsible with my mate for the watering of all the horses in my sub-division—thirty in number, for preparing their feeds and “haying up” three times a day, and for keeping our section of the stable-deck swept and clean. We started with very fine weather, and soon fell into our new life, with, for me at least, a strange absence of any sense of transition. The sea-life joined naturally on to the barrack-life. Both are a constant round of engrossing duties, in which one has no time to feel new departures. The transition had come earlier, with the first day in barracks, and, indeed, was as great and sudden a change, mentally and physically, as one could possibly conceive. On the material side it was sharp enough; but the mental change was stranger still. There was no perspective left; no planning of the future, no questioning of the present; none of that free play of mind and will with which we order our lives at home; instead, utter abandonment to superior wills, one’s only concern the present point of time and the moment’s duty, whatever it might be.
This is how we spent the day.
The trumpet blew reveillé at six, and called us to early “stables,” when the horses were fed and watered, and forage drawn. Breakfast was at seven: the food rough, but generally good. We were split up into messes of about fourteen, each of which elected two “mess orderlies,” who drew the rations, washed up, swept the troop-deck, and were excused all other duties. I, and my friend Gunner Basil Williams, a colleague in my office at home, were together in the same mess. Coffee, bread and butter, and something of a dubious, hashy nature, were generally the fare at breakfast. I, as stableman, was constantly with the horses, but for the rest the next event was morning stables, about nine o’clock, which was a long and tedious business. The horses would be taken out of their stalls, and half of us would lead them round the stable-deck for exercise, while the rest took out the partitions and cleaned the stalls. Then ensued exciting scenes in getting them back again, an operation that most would not agree to without violent compulsion—and small blame to the poor brutes. It used to take our whole sub-division to shove my roan in. Each driver has two horses. My dun was a peaceful beast, but the roan was a by-word in the sub-division. When all was finished, and the horses fed and watered, it would be near 12.30, which was the dinner-hour. Some afternoons were free, but generally there would be more exercising and stall-cleaning, followed by the afternoon feeds and watering. At six came tea, and then all hands, including us stablemen, were free.
Hammocks were slung about seven, and it was one of the nightly problems to secure a place. I generally found under the hatchway, where it was airy, but in rainy weather moist. Then we were free to talk and smoke on deck till any hour. Before going to bed, I used to write my diary, down below, at a mess-table, where the lights shot dim rays through vistas of serried ham- mocks, while overhead the horses fidgeted and trampled in their stalls, making a distracting thunder on the iron decks. It was often writing under difficulties, crouching down with a hammock pressing on the top of one’s head—the occupant protesting at the head with no excess of civility; a quality which, by the way, was very rare with us.
Soon after leaving the Bay, we had some rough weather. “Stables” used to be a comical function. My diary for the first rough day says:—”About six of us were there out of about thirty in my sub-division; our sergeant, usually an awesome personage to me, helpless as a babe, and white as a corpse, standing rigid. The lieutenant feebly told me to report when all horses were watered and feeds made up. It was a long job, and at the end I found him leaning limply against a stall. ‘Horses all watered, and feeds ready, sir.’ He turned on me a glazed eye, which saw nothing; then a glimmer of recollection flickered, and the lips framed the word ‘feed,’ no doubt through habit; but to pronounce that word at all under the circumstances was an effort of heroism for which I respected him. Rather a lonely day. My co-stableman curled in a pathetic ball all day, among the hay, in our forage recess. My only view of the outer world is from a big port in this recess, which frames a square of heaving blue sea; but now and then one can get breathing-spaces on deck. In the afternoon—the ship rolling heavily—I went, by an order of the day before, to be vaccinated. Found the doctor on the saloon deck, in a long chair, very still. Thought he was dead, but saluted, and said what I had come for. With marvellous presence of mind, he collected himself, and said: ‘I ordered six to come; it is waste of lymph to do one only: get the other five.’ After a short absence, I was back, reporting the other five not in a condition to do anything, even to be vaccinated. The ghost of a weary smile lit up the wan face. I saluted and left.”
Our busy days passed quickly, and on the ninth of the month a lovely, still blue day, I ran up to look at the Grand Canary in sight on the starboard bow, and far to the westward the Peak of Teneriffe, its snowy cone flushed pink in the morning sun, above a bank of cloud. All was blotted out in two hours of stable squalors, but at midday we were anchored off Las Palmas (white houses backed by arid hills), the ill-fated Denton Grange lying stranded on the rocks, coal barges alongside, donkey engines chattering on deck, and a swarm of bum-boats round our sides, filled with tempting heaps of fruit, cigars, and tobacco. Baskets were slung up on deck, and they drove a roaring trade. A little vague news filtered down to the troop-deck; Ladysmith unrelieved, but Buller across the Tugela, and some foggy rumour about 120,000 more men being wanted. The Battery also received a four-footed recruit in the shape of a little grey monkey, the gift of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry. He was at once invested with the rank of Bombardier, and followed all our fortunes in camp and march and action till our return home. That day was a pleasant break in the monotony, and also signalized my release from the office of stableman. We were off again at six; an exquisite night it was, a big moon in the zenith, the evening star burning steadily over the dim, receding island. We finished with a sing-song on deck, a crooning, desultory performance, with sleepy choruses, and a homely beer-bottle passing from mouth to mouth.
Then came the tropics and the heat, and the steamy doldrums, when the stable-deck was an “Inferno,” and exercising the horses like a tread-mill in a Turkish bath, and stall-cleaning an unspeakable business. Yet the hard work kept us in fit condition, and gave zest to the intervals of rest.
At this time many of us used to sling our hammocks on deck, for down in the teeming troop-deck it was suffocating. It was delicious to lie in the cool night air, with only the stars above, and your feet almost overhanging the heaving sea, where it rustled away from the vessel’s sides. At dawn you would see through sleepy eyes an exquisite sky, colouring for sunrise, and just at reveillé the golden rim would rise out of a still sea swimming and shimmering in pink and opal.
Here is the diary of a Sunday:—
“February 11. —Reveillé at six. Delicious bathe in the sail-bath. Church parade at ten; great cleaning and brushing up for it. Short service, read by the Major, and two hymns. Then a long lazy lie on deck with Williams, learning Dutch from a distracting grammar by a pompous old pedant. Pronunciation maddening, and the explanations made it worse. Long afternoon, too, doing the same. No exercising; just water, feed, and a little grooming at 4.30, then work over for the day. Kept the ship lively combing my roan’s mane; thought he would jump into the engine-room. By the way, yesterday, when waiting for his hay coming down the line, his impatience caused him to jump half over the breast-bar, bursting one head rope; an extraordinary feat in view of the narrowness and lowness of his stall. He hung in a nasty position for a minute, and then we got him to struggle back. Another horse died in the night, and another very sick.
“Inoculation for enteric began to-day with a dozen fellows. Results rather alarming, as they all are collapsed already in hammocks, and one fainted on deck. It certainly is no trifle, and I shall watch their progress carefully. I can’t be done myself for some days, as I was vaccinated two days ago (after the first unsuccessful attempt), in company with Williams. We went to the doctor’s cabin on the upper deck, and afterwards sat on the deck in the sun to let our arms dry. After some consultation we decided to light a furtive cigarette, but were ignominiously caught by the doctor and rebuked. ‘Back at school again,’ I thought; ‘caught smoking!’ It seemed very funny, and we had a good laugh at it.
“It is a gorgeous, tropical night, not a cloud or feather of one; a big moon, and dead-calm sea; just a slight, even roll; we have sat over pipes after tea, chatting of old days, and present things, and the mysterious future, sitting right aft on the poop, with the moonlit wake creaming astern.”
Inoculation was general, and I was turned off one morning with a joyous band of comrades, retired to hammocks, and awaited the worst with firmness. It was nothing more than a splitting headache and shivering for about an hour, during which time I wished Kruger, Roberts, and the war at the bottom of the sea. A painful stiffness then ensued, and that was all. My only grievance was that two dying horses were brought up and tied just below me, and dosed—lucky beasts—with champagne by their officer-owners! Also we had the hose turned on us by some sailors, who were washing the boat-bridge above, and jeered at our impotent remonstrances. In two days we were fit for duty, and took our turn in ministering to other sufferers.
We were a merry ship, for the men of our three corps got on capitally together, and concerts and amusements were frequent. They were held al fresco on the forward deck, with the hammocks of inoculates swinging above and around, so that these unfortunates, some of whom were pretty bad, had to take this strange musical medicine whether they liked it or no, and the mouth-organ band which attended on these occasions was by no means calculated to act as an opiate. Of course we had sports, both aquatic and athletic, and on the 18th Williams and I conceived the idea of publishing a newspaper; and without delay wrote, and posted up, an extravagant prospectus of the same. Helpers came, and ideas were plentiful. A most prolific poet knocked off poems “while you wait,” and we soon had plenty of “copy.” The difficulty lay in printing our paper. All we could do was to make four copies in manuscript, and that was labour enough. I am sure no paper ever went to press under such distracting conditions. The editorial room was a donkey engine, and the last sheets were copied one night among overhanging hammocks, card-parties, supper-parties, and a braying concert by the Irish just overhead, by the light of an inch of candle. We pasted up two copies on deck, sent one bound copy to the officers, and the Montfort Express was a great success. It was afterwards printed at Capetown. Here is an extract which will throw some light on our dress on board in the tropics:—
THE FEBRUARY FASHIONS. By our Lady Correspondent.
“I don’t often write to you about gentlemen’s fashions, because, as a rule, they are monstrously dull, but this season the stronger sex seem really to be developing some originality. Here are a few notes taken on the troopship Montfort, where of course you know every one is smart. (Tout ce qu’il y a de plus Montfort has become quite a proverb, dear.) Generally speaking, piquancy and coolness are the main features. For instance, a neat costume for stables is a pair of strong boots. To make this rather more dressy for the dinnertable, a pair of close-fitting pants may be added, but this is optional. Shirts, if worn, are neutral in tint; white ones are quite démodé. Vests are cut low in the neck and with merely a suggestion of sleeve. Trousers (I blush to write it, dear) are worn baggy at the knee and very varied in pattern and colour, according to the tastes and occupation of the wearer. Caps à la convict are de rigueur. I believe this to spring from a delicate sense of sympathy with the many members of the aristocracy now in prison. The same chivalrous instinct shows itself in the fashion of close-cropped hair.
“There is a great latitude for individual taste; one tall, handsome man (known to his friends, I believe, under the sobriquet of ‘Kipper’) is always seen in a delicious confection of some gauzy pink and blue material, which enhances rather than conceals the Apollo-like grace of his lissome limbs.
“At the Gymkhana the other day (a very smart affair), I saw Mr. ‘Pat’ Duffy, looking charmingly fresh and cool in a suit of blue tattooing, which I hear was made for him in Japan by a native lady.
“In Yeomanry circles, a single gold-rimmed eye-glass is excessively chic, and, by the way, in the same set a pleasant folly is to wear a different coat every day.
“The saloon-deck is less interesting, because less variegated; but here is a note or too. Caps are usually cerise, trimmed with blue passementerie. To be really smart, the moustache must be waxed and curled upwards in corkscrew fashion. In the best Irish circles beards are occasionally worn, but it requires much individual distinction to carry off this daring innovation. And now, dear, I must say good-bye; but before I close my letter, here is a novel and piquant recipe for Breakfast curry: Catch some of yes terday’s Irish stew, thoroughly disinfect, and dye to a warm khaki colour. Smoke slowly for six hours, and serve to taste.
Here is Williams on the wings of prophecy:—
OUR ARRIVAL IN CAPETOWN.
(With Apologies to “Ouida.”)
“It was sunset in Table Bay—Phoebus’ last lingering rays were empurpling the beetling crags of Table Mountain’s snowy peak—the great ship Montfort, big with the hopes of an Empire (on which the sun never sets), was gliding majestically to her moorings. Countless craft, manned by lissome blacks or tawny Hottentots, instantly shot forth from the crowded quays, and surged in picturesque disorder round the great hull, scarred by the ordure of ten score pure Arab chargers. ‘Who goes there?’ cried the ever-watchful sentry on the ship, as he ran out the ready-primed Vickers-Maxim from the port-hole. ‘Speak, or I fire ten shots a minute.’ ‘God save the Queen,’ was the ready response sent up from a thousand throats. ‘Pass, friends,’ said the sentry, as he unhitched the port companion-ladder. In a twinkling the snowy deck of the great transport was swarming with the dusky figures of the native bearers, who swiftly transferred the cargo from the groaning hold into the nimble bum-boats, and carried the large-limbed Anglo-Saxon heroes into luxurious barges, stuffed with cushions soft enough to satisfy the most jaded voluptuary. At shore, a sight awaited them calculated to stir every instinct of patriotism in their noble bosoms. On a richly chased ebon throne sat the viceroy in person, clad in all the panoply of power. A delicate edge of starched white linen, a sight which had not met their eyes for many a weary week, peeped from beneath his gaudier accoutrements; the vice-regal diadem, blazing with the recovered Kimberley diamond, encircled his brow, while his finely chiselled hand grasped the great sword of state. Around him were gathered a dazzling bevy of all the wit and beauty of South Africa; great chieftains from the fabled East, Zulus, Matabeles, Limpopos and Umslopogaas, clad in gorgeous scarlet feathers gave piquancy to the proud throng. Most of England’s wit and manhood scintillated in the sunlight, while British matrons and England’s fairest maids lit up with looks of proud affection; bosoms heaved in sympathetic unison with the measured tramp of the ammunition boots; bright eyes caught a sympathetic fire from the clanking spurs of the corporal rough-rider, while the bombardier in command of the composite squadron of artillery, horse-marines, and ambulance, could hardly pick his way through the heaps of rose leaves scattered before him by lily-white hands. But the scene was quickly changed, as if by enchantment. At a touch of the button by the viceroy’s youngest child, an urchin of three, thousands of Boer prisoners, heavily laden with chains, brought forward tables groaning with every conceivable dainty. The heroes set to with famished jaws, and after the coffee, each negligently lit up his priceless cigar with a bank-note, with the careless and open-handed improvidence so charming and so characteristic of their profession. But suddenly their ease was rudely broken. A single drum-tap made known to all that the enemy was at the gates. In a moment the commander had thrown away three parts of his costly cigar, had sprung to his feet, and with the heart of a lion and the voice of a dove, had shouted the magical battle-cry, ‘Attention!’ Then with a yell of stern resolve, and the answering cry of ‘Stand easy, boys,’ the whole squadron, gunners and adjutants, ambulance and bombardiers, yeomen and gentlemen farmers, marched forth into the night.
“That very night the bloody battle was fought which sealed the fate of the Transvaal—and the dashing colour-sergeant nailed England’s proud banner on the citadel of Pretoria.”
About once every week, it was my turn for stable-guard at night, consisting of two-hour spells, separated by four hours’ rest. The drivers did this duty, while the gunners mounted guard over the magazines. On this subject I quote some nocturnal reflections from my diary:—”Horses at night get very hungry, and have an annoying habit of eating one another’s head-ropes reciprocally. When this happens you find chains if you can, and then they eat the framework of the stall. If you come up to protest, they pretend to be asleep, and eat your arm as you pass. They also have a playful way of untying their breast-pads and standing on them, and if you are conscientious, you can amuse yourself by rescuing these articles from under their hind feet.”
The days were never very monotonous; variety was given by revolver practice, harness cleaning, and lectures on first aid to the wounded. At the same time it came as a great relief to hear that we were at last close to the Cape.
From my diary:—
“February 26. —Heavy day at stables. Land reported at eleven; saw through forage-port a distant line of mountains on port beam, edged by a dazzling line of what looked like chalk cliffs, but I suppose is sand. I am on stable-guard for the night (writing this in the guard-room), so when stables were over at four I had to pack hard, and only got up for a glimpse of things at five, then approaching Table Bay, guarded by the splendid Table Mountain, with the tablecloth of white clouds spread on it in the otherwise cloudless sky. I always imagined it a smooth, dull mountain, but in fact it rises in precipitous crags and ravines. A lovely scene as we steamed up through a crowd of shipping— transports, I suppose—and anchored some way from shore. Blowing hard to-night. I have been on deck for a few minutes. The sea is like molten silver with phosphorescence under the lash of the wind.
“February 27. —Tiresome day of waiting. Gradually got known that we shan’t land to-day, though it is possible still we may to-night. Torrid, windless day, and very hot work ‘mucking out’ and tramping round with the horses, which we did all the morning, and some of the afternoon. News sent round that we had captured Cronje and 5000 prisoners; all the ships dressed with flags, and whistles blowing; rockets in evening, banging off over my head now, and horses jumping in unison. Shall we be wanted? is the great question. We are packed ready to land any minute.”