Piquetberg Road—A fire—Kitless—A typical day—A bed— ”Stableman”— Picket—A rebel—Orders for the front, with a proviso—Rain—An ungrateful patient—”Bazing”— Swimming horses—My work—The weather—A blue letter.
When I woke up on the morning of the 22nd of March, the legend “Piquetberg Road” was just visible on a big white board opposite the carriage. So this was our destination. There was a chill sense in every one of not having got very far towards the seat of war—indeed, we were scarcely eighty miles from Cape-town; but our spirits were soon raised by the advent of some Tommies of the Middlesex Militia, who spoke largely of formidable bodies of rebels in the neighbourhood, of an important pass to guard, and of mysterious strategical movements in the near future; so that we felt cheerful enough as we detrained our guns and horses, harnessed up, and marched over a mile and a half of scrub-clothed veldt, to the base of some steep hills, where we pitched our camp, and set to work to clear the ground of under-growth. We were at the edge of a great valley, through which ran the line of railway, disappearing behind us in a deep gorge in the hills, where a little river ran. This was the pass we were to help to guard.
Below in the valley lay a few white houses round the station, a farm or two dotted the distant slopes, and the rest was desert scrub and veldt.
Now that the right section had parted from us, we had two officers, Captain Budworth commanding, and Lieutenant Bailey; about sixty men, two guns, two ammunition waggons, and two transport waggons, with their mules and Kaffir drivers, under a conductor. Our little square camp was only a spot upon the hill-side, the guns and horse-lines in the middle, a tent for the officers on one side, and a tent at each corner for the men. Here we settled down to the business-like routine of camp life, with great hopes of soon being thought worthy to join a brigade in the field.
The work was hard enough, but to any one with healthy instincts the splendid open-air life was very pleasant. Here are some days from my diary:—
“March 23.—Marching order parade. Drove centres of our sub-division waggon.
“I have got a saddle for my own horse at last, and feel happier. Where it came from I don’t know.
“I am ‘stableman’ for three days, and so missed a bathing parade today, which is a nuisance, as there is no means of washing here nearer than a river some distance off, to which the others rode. While they were away there was an alarm of fire in the lines of the Middlesex Militia, next to ours. Bugles blew the ‘alarm.’ The scrub had caught fire quite near the tents, and to windward of us. There were only four of us in camp, one a bombardier, who took command and lost his head, and after some wildly contradictory orders, said to me, ‘Take that gun to a place of safety.’ How he expected me to take the gun by myself I don’t know. However, the fire went out, and all was well.
“I forgot to say that on the day we left Stellenbosch, a mail at last came in, and I got my first letters. They came by the last mail, and we have evidently missed a lot. Also a telegram, weeks old, saying Henry (my brother) had joined Strathcona’s Horse in Ottawa and was coming out here. Delighted to hear it, but I shall probably never see him.
“By the way, I am parted from all my kit at present. Having had no saddle, I have been used to put it on the transport waggon of our sub-division, but this went with the other section for some inscrutable reason, or rather didn’t go, for it was wrecked by a train when crossing the line. I heard vaguely that the contents were saved and sent on with the right section, but am quite prepared to find it is lost. Not that I miss it much. One wants very little really, in this sort of life. Fortunately I kept back my cloak and blanket. A lovely night to-night: Williams and I have given up tents as too crowded, and sleep under the gun; to-night we have built a rampart of scrub round it, as there is a fresh wind.
“March 28.—Marching order parade at eight. I was told to turn out as a mounted gunner, which is a very jolly job. You have a single mount and ride about as ground-scout, advance-guard, rear-guard, etc. We had a route-march over the pass through the mountains, a lovely ride, reminding me of the Dordogne. We came out into a beautiful valley the other side, with a camp of some Highlanders: here we fed and watered ourselves and horses and then marched home. My kit turned up from Matjesfontein.
“It strikes me that I have given very few actual details of our life and work, so, as I have got two hours to myself, I will try and do it more exactly.
“Reveillé sounds at 5.30, and ‘stables’ at six, with the first gleam of dawn; horses are now fed, and then groomed for half an hour. From this point the days differ. Here is the sketch of a marching order day, from a driver’s point of view. To resume, then:—From 6.30 we have half an hour to pack kits, that is to say, to roll the cloak and strap it on the riding saddle, pack the off saddle with spare boots and rolls made up of a waterproof sheet, blanket, harness-sheets, spare breeches, muzzles, haynets, etc., and finally to buckle on filled nose-bags and our mess-tins, and strap horse-blankets under the saddles. His stable-kit and the rest of a driver’s personal belongings are carried in four wallets, two on each saddle.
“At seven, breakfast—porridge, coffee, and bread, and sometimes jam. Our tent has a mess-subscription, and adds any extras required from the canteen. But we always fare well enough without this, for the Captain thinks as much of the men as of the horses, and is often to be seen tasting and criticizing at the cooks’ fire.
“At 7.30 ‘boot and saddle’ sounds, and in half an hour your horses have to be ready-harnessed and yourself dressed in ‘marching order,’ that is to say, wearing helmet, gaiters, belt, revolver, haversack, water-bottle, and leg-guard.
“At eight ‘hook in’ is ordered; teams are hooked together and into the guns and waggons. ‘Mount the detachment’ and gunners take their seats. ‘Prepare to mount’ (to the drivers) followed by ‘Mount,’ ‘Walk March,’ and you are off. We always go first to the watering-place, a sandy pool in the river, unhook and water the horses. Then we either march away, and drill and exercise over the veldt, or go for a route-march to some distance. The weather is always hot, and often there is a dust-storm raging, filling eyes, ears, and mouth, and trying the temper sorely.
“We are back at camp about 1.30, form our lines again, between the guns and waggons, unharness, rub down horses, and then have dinner. There is fresh beef generally (that unlovely soldiers’ stew), and either rice, duff, or, now and then, stewed quinces, which are very common in the country. We can buy beer at a canteen, or, better still, draught ginger-beer, which is a grand drink. At three ‘stables’ sounds, with grooming first, and then (I am choosing a full day) harness cleaning; that is to say, soaping all leather-work, and scouring steel-work. Harness-cleaning is irksome work, and, as far as appearances go, is a heart-breaking task, for the eternal dust is always obliterating every trace of one’s labour. I have none of my own to look after yet, but help the others.
“At 4.30 or five ‘Prepare for water’ sounds. You put a bridoon on one horse, and, if you are luxurious, a blanket and surcingle to sit on, lead the other, and form up in a line; then ‘file right’ is the order, and you march off to the watering place, wearing any sort of costume you please. And very slight and negligé some of them are. In the cool of the evening, this is a very pleasant three quarters of an hour. After watering comes the evening feed, followed by tea at six o’clock, and then the day’s work is done.”
The evenings in that climate are delicious; we could sit in our shirt-sleeves until any hour, without any perceptible chill in the air, playing cards, or smoking and talking, or reading by a lantern. Williams and I found picket a great resource; and many a good game of whist have I had sitting in a crowded quartette in our ramshackle battery Cape-cart, with an inch of candle guttering among the cards.
Most of us slept in the tents, but I preferred the open, even in dust-storms, when choosing a site required some skill. The composition of a bed was a question of sacks. There was one very large variety of chaff-sack, which was a sleeping-bag in itself; with this and your blanket and cloak, and under the lee of some forage or scrub, you could defy anything. The only peril was that of a loose horse walking on you.
On some afternoons we were quite free till the stable-hour at four. Till then we could bask in camp, or go for a bathe in the river, where there was one splendid deep-water pool, whence you could hear the baboons barking on the hill-sides, and see the supply trains for the front grinding heavily up the pass.
Rumours of a move never lost their charm. At first we used to take them seriously, but gradually the sense of permanence began to pervade our camp. Solid tin shelters rose for the guard and the sergeants; a substantial tin canteen was erected close to the lines by cynical provision-dealers. Those visionary rebels declined to show themselves; nobody attacked our precious pass; and, in short, we had to concentrate our minds upon the narrow circle of our daily life.
A recurring duty for drivers was that of “stableman.” There were two of these for each sub-division, who were on duty for the whole day in the lines. Their function, in addition to the usual duties, was to draw forage, watch the horses, and prepare all the feeds in the nose-bags, ready for the drivers. The post was no sinecure, for in addition to the three standard oat feeds, there was oat straw to be put down after dinner, and, at eight o’clock at night, a final supper of chaff, except for invalids, who got special feeds. A list of these was given you generally at the last moment, and it was a test for your temper to go round the lines on a windy night, lighting many futile matches, in order to see the number on the off fore hoof, so as to hit off the right ones. There was generally a nose-bag missing at this stage, which was ultimately found on a C horse (my sub-division was D), and then there was a lively five minutes of polite recrimination. At 8.30 the nose-bags had to be taken off, and muzzles put on—canvas affairs with a leather bottom, strapped on by the head collar—as a preventive against disease from the chill morning air. Every man, after evening stables, was supposed to leave his muzzles on the jowl-piece of his horses, but a stableman was quite sure to find two missing, and then he would have to scour the tents, and drive the offender to the lines to repair his neglect; then he could go to bed. Another extra duty was that of picket at night, which came round to gunners and drivers alike, about every ten days. “Two hours on and four hours off” was the rule, as on all sentry-duty. I rarely found the night watches long. There was plenty to do in watching the horses, which are marvellously ingenious at untying knots, and in patrolling the camp on the look-out for imaginary rebels. By the way, the only live rebel I ever saw was the owner of a farm, near which we halted during one sultry dusty route-march. He refused to allow us to water our horses and ourselves at his pond, defying us with Lord Kitchener’s proclamation enjoining “kind treatment” of the Dutch!
As the days passed without orders for the front, impatience and disappointment grew. We were fit and well, and were not long in reaching the standard of efficiency which carried us successfully through our campaigning later. We used to “grouse” vigorously over our bad luck, with what justice I do not pretend to say; but no one who has not experienced it, can understand the bitterness of inaction, while the stream of reinforcements is pouring to the front. Scraps of news used to come in of the victorious march of the army northward, and of the gallant behaviour of the C.I.V. Infantry. Companies of Yeomanry used to arrive, and leave for destinations with enticing names that smelt of war, and night after night rollicking snatches of “Soldiers of the Queen” would float across the valley from the troop-trains, as they climbed the pass northward.
As early as April 15th, the word went round that we were under orders to go to Bloemfontein—”as soon as transport could be ready for us.”
“April 15.—Amid great delight the Captain to-day read a telegram saying we are to go to Bloemfontein as soon as the railway can take us. We had just come in from the ride to water in drenching rain and ankle deep in mud, but a great cheer went up. The railway limitation is a rather serious one, as I believe the line is in a hopeless state of block; but we’ll hope for the best. The rainy season has begun in the most unmistakable fashion. It has poured so far in buckets for twenty-four hours; I slept out last night, but daren’t to-night; outlying parts of me got wet, in spite of the waterproof over me. Thank goodness, we have good boots, gaiters, and cloaks. We rode to water at eleven in various queer costumes, and mostly bare legs, and afterwards dug trenches through the lines. The rest of the day we have been huddled in a heap in our tent, a merry crowd, taking our meals in horrible discomfort, but uproarious spirits.
“I still have the roan, but have lost the Argentine and got a bay mare instead; it’s not a bad animal. There was a false alarm of glanders the other day. One of the gun-team had a swollen throat, but it turns out to be something else. I was told off to help foment him with hot water the night it was discovered. He kicked us all, and completely floored me with a kick in the chest, which didn’t hurt happily. Yesterday I had to take him down to the station and foment him from the kitchen boiler of the station-master’s wife. I enjoyed it, as I had plenty of rests, and the station-master’s wife made me delicious tea, served to me by a sweet little white-frocked girl. By the way, on the road to water the other day a caravan full of people stopped us, and small maidens went down the line, giving us apples and cigarettes and cakes.”
Little we understood that ironical “railway” proviso of a harassed general staff. We had been reviewed the day before, and the good practice of our guns had been praised by the inspecting officer. Now was our chance, we thought. Nevertheless, we had to live on that guarded “order” for another month.
But in spite of our disappointment I believe all of us will look back with real pleasure to that time. There was no monotony in the life, thanks to our officers, who continually introduced variety into our work. “Marching order” days were the commonest; but there were others of a lighter sort. On one day we would go for a long expedition in drill-order with the guns, taking cooks and our dinner with us, and have what we used to call a picnic by some pleasant river-side. On another the guns would be left at home, and we would ride out for exercise, often through the pass, which led through a lovely ravine to a pretty little place called Tulbagh, where there was another small camp of troops. Sometimes “bazing” was the order, a portmanteau word describing a morning spent in grazing the horses, and bathing ourselves. My diary of April 8th says, “Yesterday about twenty of us went out to practice swimming with horses. We rode about seven miles to a deepish river, stripped, off-saddled, and swam them across. Some wouldn’t do it at all, but most of them swam across and back. You buckle the rein up short and leave him alone. It’s a very queer motion at first. One of those I took declined to go in, in spite of half a dozen chaps goading him on in various ways, and finally bolted away over the veldt, carrying me naked. He soon came back though. The horses have got the habit now of sticking together, and if they get loose in camp never leave the lines. It is a nuisance sometimes, if you have to act as a single mount, and ride away on some errand. My Argentine greatly resents such a move, and tries to circle like a clockwork mouse. She has grown as fat as a pig, though some horses are doing poorly. The oats are of a very bad quality.”
That brings me to my horses and my own work. We all of us changed horses a good deal in those days, and I and the roan had several partings and re-unitings. As a spare driver, my own work was very varied, now of driving in a team, now of riding spare horses, and occasionally of acting as a mounted gunner. Williams was a regular mounted gunner, his mount being a wicked, disreputable-looking little Argentine (called “Pussy” (with a lisp) for her qualities), to whom he owed three days in hospital at one time from a bad kick, but whom he ended by transforming into as smart and peaceable a little mount as you could find. My own chance came at last; and when about the end of April one of our drivers was sent home sick, I took his place as centre driver of an ammunition waggon, and kept it permanently. I said good-bye to the roan and Argentine, and took over a fine pair of bays.
My chief impression of the weather is that of heat and dust, but there were times when we thought the dreaded rainy season had begun; when the camp was a running morass, and we crouched in our tents, watching pools of water soaking under our harness sheets, and counting the labour over rusted steel. But it used to pass off, leaving a wonderful effect; every waste oat seed about the camp sprouted; little green lawns sprang up in a single night round the places where the forage was heaped, and the whole veldt put on a delicate pink dress, a powder of tiny pink flowers.
By the middle of May we began to think we had been forgotten altogether, but at last, on the morning of the 17th of May, as we were marching out to drill, an orderly galloped up, and put a long blue letter into the Captain’s hand. We had seen this happen before, and our discussions of the circumstance, as we rode along, were sceptical, but this time we were wrong.