The railway north—Yesterday’s start—Travelling made easy—Feeding horses—A menu—De Aar—A new climate— Naauwport—Over the frontier— Bloemfontein—A fiasco— To camp again—The right section—Diary days— Riding exercise—A bit of history—Longman’s Hospital—The watering-place—Artillery at drill—A review—A camp rumour—A taste of freedom—A tent scene.
From my diary:—
“May 20.—Sunday.—I write this on the train, on the way up north, somewhere near Beaufort West; for the long-wished day has come at last, and we are being sent to Kroonstadt, which anyway is pretty near to, if not actually at, the front. Our only fear is now that it will be too late. All day the train has been traversing the Karoo, a desert seamed by bare rocky mountains, and without a sign of life on it, only vast stretches of pebbly soil, dotted sparsely with dusty-green dwarf scrub. But to go back. We started yesterday. All went smoothly and simply. At eight, kit was inspected; in the morning, bareback exercise; at twelve, tents struck; at 12.30 dinner; at one, ‘boot and saddle.’ When we were hooked in and mounted, the Captain made a splendid little speech in the incisive forcible voice we had learned to know so well, saying we had had for long the most trying experience that can befall a soldier, that of standing fast, while he sees his comrades passing him up to the front. He congratulated us on the way we had met that experience. There had been no complaining or slackness in our work on that account. He hoped we would have the luck to go into action, and his last advice to us was ‘to keep our stomachs full and our bellies warm!’
“Then we marched to the station, unharnessed, packed harness, boxed the horses, put the guns and waggons on the trucks, and were ready. But the train didn’t start till about eight o’clock in the evening. One box was reserved for kickers, and you should have seen their disgust when they found nothing to bully! We had, and have, a vague idea that the journey was to last about a week, so Williams and I bought a large box of provisions and a small paraffin stove. Accustomed to delays, we quite expected no engine to turn up or something like that, but finally a whistle blew and we were off, and a delirious shout went up, and then we all sighed with relief, and then got doubly merry, shouting vain things over a long untasted beverage, whisky and water. One hears so much about the horrors of war that I scarcely dare to describe the men’s accommodation on board this train. It is strange, but true, that I have never travelled more comfortably in my life, and probably never shall. Most compartments have only four men to them, and by great good luck, and a little diplomacy, Williams and I have one to ourselves, though we form our mess with the four chaps in the next one. Now the beauty of it is that no one can get into our train, so, if you get out at a station, you need have no fear of finding a nurse with twins in your special corner seat. You live without these terrors, and have room to stretch, and sleep, and read, and have meals, with no one to ask you to show your ticket. In fact, things are reversed; we are not herded and led, and snubbed by porters and officials, but the train belongs to us, and we ignore them.
“We sat up late last night, and then Williams and I slept in great comfort, though it felt quite odd to have something between one and the stars. It’s true there was a slight break, caused by the door being flung open, and sacks of bread being hustled in from the outside. But a soldier’s training takes no account of these things, and you instinctively jump out half-dressed, and help to shovel more sacks in, you don’t know why, or what they are. Being woken up, we got on to the platform over an intervening train, and sent cables home from an office standing invitingly open. Then to bed again. Later, in my dreams, I was aware of a sergeant and an irascible little station-master coming into the carriage with lanterns and throwing most of the sacks out again, which it seemed had been annexed feloniously by our Captain, at the last station, in his zeal to keep our ‘stomachs full.’ I was glad to get rid of the sacks, as they filled our carriage up completely. The train has to stop for about three-quarters of an hour or less, three times a day, for feeding and watering the horses. The first stop to-day was about 6.30 A.M. We tumbled out in the delicious fresh air, and formed into pre-arranged feeding and watering par-ties. I am on the feed party of our subdivision, and we climbed like beetles up the sides of the trucks, which are open, and strap on the nose-bags. Then we washed at a friendly tap, and had our own breakfast which the cooks had cooked—coffee and porridge. Then we climbed back and took off nose-bags, and then the train went on. At this station we ‘commandeered’ a splendid table in the shape of a large square tin advertisement of a certain Scotch whisky, and played whist on it after breakfast. The train wound slowly through a barren stretch of brown plain and rocky wild. Stations happened now and then, little silent spots in the wilderness, their raison d’être a mystery, no houses, roads, or living things near, except a white tent or two, and some sunburnt men in khaki looking curiously at us. There are troops in small bodies all up the line in this ‘loyal’ colony. At one station the Kimberley mail caught us up, and the people threw us magazines and biscuits from the windows. All engines and stations were decorated with flags in honour of the relief of Mafeking, the news of which came through yesterday. A hospital train bound to Capetown also passed, with some pale faces and bandaged limbs in evidence.
“At 1.30 we stopped again for feed and water, and when we went on our mess sat down to the following lunch, which I think does credit to our catering powers.
Cold Roast Fowl, with Stuffing.
Bully Beef, with Mustard.
Desserts Variés. Chocolate. Ginger. Bonbons. Oranges.
“I wrote the menu out in French first, but it seemed not to suit.
“All the afternoon the same desolation, like pictures one sees of the moon’s surface. About six, water and feed at Beaufort West, and horses led out, trucks mucked out, and tea served out. “The night was very cold; in fact, the climate is quite different on these high table-lands. I woke up about six, looked out, and saw, just opposite, the legend DE AAR, which for the first time seemed to connect us with the war. We stopped a moment, and then moved on through lines of tents, loaded waggons, mountains of ammunition, etc. Then I saw a strange sight, in the shape of ice on puddles and white hoarfrost. Soon out on the broad, brown veldt, far-distant hills showing finely cut in the exquisitely clear air. Such an atmosphere I have never seen for purity. The sun was rising into a cloudless sky from behind a kopje. The flat-topped kopje is now the regular feature. They are just like miniature Table-mountains, and it is easy to see how hard to capture they must be. Water, feed, and breakfast at a tiny roadside place, with the inevitable couple of tents and khaki men. We were at whist when we steamed up to a big, busy campstation, the Red Cross flying over a dozen big marquee tents, and a couple of hundred sorry-looking remounts (by the look of them) picketed near. This was Naauwport. We stopped alongside a Red Cross train full of white, unshaven faces—enterics and wounded going back to the base. They were cheerful enough, and we shouted inquiries about one another. They were unanimous in saying we were too late, which was very depressing news, but I don’t suppose they knew much about it. We washed ourselves in big buckets here. As we were steaming out I saw a long unfamiliar sight, in the shape of a wholesome, sunburnt English girl, dressed in short-skirted blue serge, stepping out as only an English girl can. She was steering for the Red Cross over the tents, and, I daresay, was nursing there. Off again, over the same country, but looking more inhabited; passed several ostrich farms, with groups of the big, graceful birds walking delicately about; also some herds of cattle, and a distant farm or two, white against the blue hill-shadows. Soon came the first visible signs of war— graves, and long lines of trenches here and there. At a stop at a shanty (can’t call it a station) a man described a fight for a kopje just by the railway. Coleskop was in view, a tall, flat-topped mountain, and later we steamed into the oft-taken and retaken Colesberg Junction, and were shown the hill where the Suffolks were cut up. All was now barren veldt again, and the strangeness of the whole thing struck me curiously. Why should men be fighting here? There seemed to be nothing to fight for, and nothing behind to get to when you had fought.
“May 22.—Tuesday.—As I write we are standing just outside Bloemfontein; cold, sunny morning; the Kaffir quarter just on our right, a hideous collection of mud houses with tin roofs; camps and stores on the left; boundless breadth of veldt beyond; the town in front under a long, low kopje, a quiet, pretty little place.
“We reached the frontier—Norval’s Pont—at 6 P.M. yesterday, and after a long delay, moved slowly out in the dark, till the shimmer of water between iron girders told us we were crossing the Orange river. Once off the bridge, a shout went up for our first step on the enemy’s country. Then all went on the same. We made ourselves comfortable, and brewed hot cocoa, for all the world as though we were travelling from Boulogne to Geneva. The only signs of hostility were the shrill execrations of a crowd of infant aborigines.
“We woke up to a changed country. The distances were still greater, low hills only occasionally breaking the monotony of flat plain, but the scrub had given way to grass, not verdant Irish grass, but sparse, yellow herbage. Anthills and dead horses were the only objects in the foreground, except eternal wreaths and tangles of telegraph wire along the tracks, and piles of sleepers, showing the damage done, and now repaired, to line and wire. The same pure crisp air and gentle sunlight.
“May 24.—Thursday.—I write in our tent on the plateau above Bloemfontein, and will go on where I left off on the 22nd. To our utter disgust, after standing for hours in a siding of the station, chatting to all sorts and conditions of the species soldier, the order came to detrain. We drivers took the horses first to water, and then picketed them on an arid patch of ground near the station, where the gunners had meantime brought the guns and waggons. It was now dark, and there were no rations served out; very cold, too, and we had no kit, but it wasn’t these things we minded, but the getting out instead of training on. ‘Kroonstadt’ is redolent of war, but, ‘Bloemfontein’ spells inaction. However, there was no help for it. We slept on the ground, and precious cold this new climate was. I hadn’t my Stohwasser blanket, and spent most of the night stamping about and smoking. At reveillé next day rations were still lacking, but we all trooped off to a tin hut and had tea, given by an unseen angel, named Sister Bagot. ‘Boot and saddle’ sounded at nine, and we marched off to the camp, about two miles away. There was a very nasty ravine to cross, and we had to have drag ropes on behind, with the gunners on them, to steady us down the descent. I was driving centres as usual, and saw the leaders almost disappear in front of me. At the bottom we crossed a stream, and then galloped them up the other side. Soon after we passed through Bloemfontein, a quiet, dull-looking place, like a suburb of Cape Town, mounted a long hill, and came out on to another broad plain, kopjes in the distance, and tents dotted far and wide. The first moving thing I saw was a funeral,—slow music, a group of khaki figures, and the bright colours of a Union Jack glinting between.
“Our right section, that is, the other half of the Battery, from which we had been separated ever since Stellenbosch, had trained on a day ahead of us, and were now already encamped, so we marched up and joined our lines to theirs, pitched our tents, and once more the Battery was united. And what a curious meeting it was! Half of them were unrecognizable with beards and sunburn, as were many of us, I suppose. What yarns we had! All that day, in the intervals between fatigues, and far into the night, in the humming tents. Jacko was with them. He had been lost on the journey, but came on by a later train very independently.”
We all had a presentiment of evil, and, as it turned out, we were kept nearly a month at Bloemfontein, while still reports of victories came in. Yet news was very scarce, and had we known it, the period was only just beginning, of that long, irregular warfare, by which the two provinces had to be conquered, when the brilliancy of Roberts’s meteoric march to Pretoria was past. We were to take our small share in work as necessary and arduous as any in these latter stages of the war.
Meanwhile we were now a complete battery, and worked hard at our drill as such, though there was very little to learn after our long training in Cape Colony. We kept our spirits up, though the time was a depressing one. Mortality was high in Bloemfontein at that time, in spite of the healthy, exhilarating climate. A good many of us had to go into hospital, but we were fortunate enough to lose no lives through illness.
Here are some extracts from my diary:—
“May 24.—Queen’s Birthday.—The guns went to a review, and got high praise for their turn out. The rest of us exercised on stripped saddles, trotting over bare flat ground, with sparse grass on it, the greatest contrast to the Piquetberg Road country.
“In the evening Williams and I and some others wandered off to try and get a wash. We prowled over the plain and among the camps asking the way to water, and carrying our towels and soap, and finally stumbled over a trough and a tap. The water here is unfit for drinking, and we are forbidden to drink it except boiled.
“May 28.—Riding exercise again; a long and jolly ride round the country. Half-way we did cavalry exercises for some time, which, when every man has a led horse, and many two of them, is rather a rough game. I was riding Williams’s Argentine, Pussy, a game little beast, but she got very worried and annoyed over wheeling and forming fours and sections. Directly we got back and had off-saddled we fell in, and one out of four was allowed to go down to town and see the Proclamation of Annexation read. I was lucky enough to be picked, tumbled into proper dress, and hurried down just in time. The usual sight as I passed the cemetery, thirteen still forms on stretchers in front of the gate, wrapped in the rough service blanket, waiting to be buried. I found the Market Square full of troops drawn up, and a flag-staff in the middle, with a rolled-up flag on it. Soon a band heralded the arrival of the Governor, Colonel Pretyman, and the Staff-officers. Then a distant voice began the Proclamation, of which I couldn’t hear a word except ‘colony’ at the end, at which every one cheered. Then the flag was unrolled, and hung dead for a minute, till a breeze came and blew out ‘that haughty scroll of gold,’ the Royal Standard. Bands struck up ‘God save the Queen,’ a battery on a hill above the town thundered out a royal salute, everybody cheered, and I was standing on British soil. I saw not a single native Dutchman about, only crowds of the khakied of all ranks and sorts. After this little bit of history-making I hurried back to the commonplace task of clipping my mare’s heels, an operation requiring great agility on the part of the clipper.
“For a ‘stableman,’ as I am now, the evening is rather a busy one. At seven you have to make up the feeds for the last feed; at 7.45 put them round the harnesssets behind the horses; at eight feed, for which all hands turn out; at 8.30 take off nose-bags and put on muzzles; and after that make up another feed ready for early next morning. You can’t finish before ‘lights out,’ and have to go to bed in the dark, to the loudly expressed annoyance of your neighbours in the tent (I sleep in a tent these nights), on whose bodies you place the various articles of your kit while you arrange your bed, and whose limbs you sometimes mistake for materials for a pillow, when you are composing that important piece of upholstery.
“May 30.—Wednesday.—In the afternoon Williams and I went to visit a friend in Langman’s Hospital. Bloemfontein is a town of hospitals, red crosses flying at every turn. The mortality is high, even, I was surprised to hear from our friend, among sisters and hospital orderlies. Out of six sisters in his hospital, which seemed a very good one, four had enteric at the time, and one had died of it. I was on picket duty this night, and had a lively time chasing loose horses in the dark. A new sort of head-rope we are using seems very palatable to the horses, as they mostly eat it for supper, and then get loose.
“May 31.—Out at riding exercise we came to a fortified kopje, where we dismounted, and were allowed to examine a beautifully made trench running round the top, very deep, and edged by a wall of stones arranged to give loopholes. Some one found a Boer diary in the dust, the entries in which seemed to alternate between beer and bible reading. We always water at the common trough, the last thing before return. Such varieties of the horse species you could see no where else; thick, obstinate little Argentines, all with the same Roman noses and broad, ugly heads; squab little Basuto ponies, angular skeletonesque Cape horses, mules of every nationality, Texan, Italian, Illyrian, Spanish; here and there a beautiful Arab belonging to some officer; and dominating all, our own honest, substantial ‘bus and tram horses, almost the only representatives of English horseflesh. There are always a few detached horses stampeding round ownerless, or limping feebly down with a lost, hopeless look in their eyes, tripping at every step over a tattered head-rope, and seeming to belong to nobody and care for nothing. We always ride down in strict order, each man leading one or two.
“June 3.—Marching-order parade. We had a good morning drill over what is perfect artillery country, with just the right amount of excitement in the shape of ditches to jump, and ant-hills, which are legion, and holes to avoid. I am delighted with my pair, which are both very fit now; and our waggon team has been going very well.
“June 4.—Riding exercise and sham-fight; an enemy supposed to be attacking a convoy. Being in the convoy, I haven’t a clear idea of what happened, but only know we were kept dodging about kopjes, and bolting across open places uncaptured.
“June 5.—Another field-day, with guns and waggons, before Colonel Davidson, the Brigadier of Artillery here. We went out to some distant kopjes, and went into action at two different points. I believe the shooting was very good; they had targets of biscuit-tins stuck up on the kopjes. Some of you who read this at home may not know how artillery work, so I may as well roughly sketch what happens on these occasions. There are four guns and five waggons. A waggon is built on the same plan as a gun, that is, in two parts, the waggon-body and the waggon-limber, the limber being in front, and having the pole for draught, just as the gun-carriage and the gun-limber form the two parts of the ‘gun.’ Both waggon-body and waggon-limber carry ammunition, as does the gun-limber. There are four gunners on the gun, and four on the waggon. When suitable ground has been selected by the Major, and thoroughly scouted first by the mounted gunners, the order is given to advance into action. The guns trot up in line; ‘Action front, right about wheel’ is given, and each swings round, thus bringing the muzzle of the gun to the front. The limber is then unhooked from the trail of the gun, and the teams trot back with the limbers to the rear, leaving the guns to be worked by the gunners. At the same time the signal is sent back to the waggons, who, meanwhile, have been halted in the rear, if possible under cover, to send up two waggons. Two are told off, and they trot up to the firing line. ‘Halt,’ ‘Unhook!’ The wheelers are rapidly unhooked, the team trots back again to the rear. Presently two more are called up with more ammunition. These do the same thing, but after unhooking trot round and hook into the other two (now empty) waggons, and trot them back. The empty waggons are refilled from the mule-waggons, which follow the battery with the reserve shells, and their black crews and all. ‘Limber-supply,’ that is, use of the shells in the gun-limber, is only ordered in the last resort or in exceptional cases. Finally, when the firing position is to be changed, the gun-limbers trot up; ‘Limber up’ is given. The gun is hooked to the limber, and the re-united machines trot away to the new position, followed by the waggons. In some cases, too, when the waggons come up to the firingline, they only leave the waggon-body there, trot away with the limber, and come back and ‘limber up’ later, in the same way as the gun. It all depends on how much ammunition is wanted. Of course, there are many variations of movement, but this is an average specimen.
“June 10.—Sunday.—I and Williams are stablemen, and the rest have gone to church parade. We have just had an icy wash with far-fetched water in an old ammunition box. The weather has turned very cold again at nights, with considerable frost. I have been sleeping out again though since the first week of our coming here, finding snug lairs under the quartermaster’s stores. We have marching order parades most days now, and are pretty hard-worked. Yesterday we were reviewed by General Pretyman, together with another field-battery and a pom-pom battery. We trotted about in various formations, and the guns went into action once; and that was all. Our guns got into action quicker than either of the regular batteries. A message was communicated to us by the General from Lord Roberts, saying we must not be disappointed at not having gone to the front; that there was plenty more work to be done, and that meanwhile we were doing very useful work in helping to guard this place. I am afraid we are not very sanguine, but we never entirely lose hope, and a wild idea that this review and the other day’s inspection might be preliminary to an order to go up, cheered us up a lot for the time. Camp rumours, too, are just as prolific and as easily swallowed as before. Latterly there have been all sorts of mysterious reports about the Boers having got behind Roberts, re-taken Kroonstadt and cut the railway, massacring various regiments, whose names change hourly. A camp rumour is a wonderful thing. Generally speaking, there are two varieties, cook-shop rumours and officers’ servants’ rumours. Both are always false, but there is a slightly more respectable mendacity about the latter than the former. The cooks are always supposed to know if we are changing camp by getting orders about rations in advance. Having this slight advantage, they go out of their way to make rumours on every sort of subject. How many scores of times the cooks have sent us to the front I shouldn’t like to say. Officers’ servants of course pick up scraps of information from their masters’ tents; in the process of transmission to the battery at large the original gets wide variations. We are often just like kitchenmaids and footmen discussing their betters. You will hear heated arguments going on as to the meaning of some overheard remarks, and the odd thing is that it no longer seems strange.
“June 13.—... The moon was full this day, and to see it rising sheer out of the level veldt was a thing to remember. For ten minutes before there is a red glow on the horizon, which intensifies till a burning orange rim shows above, and soon the whole circle is flaming clear of the earth, only not a circle, but seemingly almost square with rounded corners. Round its path on the veldt there is a broad wash of dusty gold. A lot of us came out of the tents, and were spell-bound by the sight. Every evening the sun goes down plumb into the veldt out of a cloudless sky, and comes up just so in the morning. While he is gone it is bitterly cold now, always with hard frost, but in the middle of the day often very hot. I have never known such extremes of temperature before.
“June 16.—Yesterday was a red-letter day for me and Williams. We got leave off afternoon stables, getting gunners to water and groom our horses, and had from after dinner till 8.30 P.M. to ourselves. That was the first time I have ever missed duty from any cause whatever since I enlisted on January 3rd, so I think I deserved it. We started off, feeling strangely free, and hardly knowing how to use our freedom, for two hours is the longest interval from work one usually gets. We determined to visit the Irish Hospital Camp, where four of our chaps were sick. The Irish Hospital came out with us in the Montfort, so we knew them all. We hired a carriage in the town(!) and drove the rest of the way feeling like lords. We had a long talk with the invalids, who were mostly doing well, in most comfortable quarters, large roomy tents, with comfortable beds, and clean white nurses going about. Pat Duffy turned up as a hospital orderly, looking strangely clean. The air was heavy with rich brogue. Later we strolled off, and shopped and shaved in the town, had afternoon tea, and then went to a hotel and wrote letters till 6.30, when we dined in magnificent style, and then sauntered back, feeling as if an eternity had passed, and lay down in the dust to sleep.
“June 17.—Sunday.—A night and day of rain, in spite of the fact that everybody was clear hitherto that the rainy season was over months ago. Exercise at eight, and a smart trot round the country warmed horses and men, for it is very cold. Meanwhile, the horse lines had been shifted, for they were ankle-deep in mud. Once or twice in the day we were called out to rub legs, ears, and backs of the horses.
“I am now lying on my back in our tent on a carefully constructed couch of sacks, rugs, and haversacks, with a candle stuck in a Worcester sauce bottle to light me. Most of us are doing the same, so the view is that of the soles of muddy boots against strong light, the tentpole in the middle hung thick with water-bottles, helmets, and haversacks, spurs strung up round the brailing, faces (dirty) seen dimly in the gloom beneath. Some write, some sew, some read. One is muttering maledictions over a tin of treacle he has spilt on his bed (he thought it was empty and stuck a candle on the bottom); one is telling stories (which nobody listens to) of happy sprees in far-off London. The air is thick with tobacco-smoke. Outside there is a murmur of stable-men trying to fit shrunk nose-bags on to restive horses, varied by the squeal and thump of an Argentine, as he gets home in the ribs of a neighbour who has been fed before him.”
On the day after this was written our long period of waiting came to an end with orders to go at once to Kroonstadt.