We were off for the front at last, and I shall now, making a few necessary alterations, transcribe my diary, as I wrote it from day to day and often hour to hour, under all sorts of varying conditions.
June 21.—7 A.M.—I am writing this on the seat of a gun in an open truck on the way by rail to Kroonstadt. I have been trying to sleep on the floor, but it wasn’t a success, owing to frozen feet. Now the sun is up and banishing the hoar-frost from the veldt, and the great lonely pasture-plain we are travelling slowly through looks wonderfully pleasant.
But I must go back.
Yesterday afternoon things looked profoundly settled. I walked down to town with a lot of clothes, and left them to be washed by a nigger, and also left my watch to be mended. But when I got back to “stables” it was announced that we were to leave for Kroonstadt that night. There was great joy, though I fear it means nothing. It’s true De Wet and some rebels have been giving trouble round there, and even held up a train, and captured a battalion of militia not long ago; but I believe it’s all over now. It was soon dark, and camp had to be struck and horses harnessed in the dark. I got leave, ran down to town and fetched up my unwashed clothes, and put most of them on there and then. There was the usual busy scene of packing kit, striking tents, drawing rations, filling water-bottles; the whole scene lit up by blazing bonfires of rubbish. In leaving a camp no litter may be left; it has to be left as clean as the surrounding veldt. At nine hot coffee was served out, and at 9.45 “boot and saddle” went. Harnessing in pitch dark is not very easy, unless you have everything exactly where you can lay your hand on it.
We marched down to the station, and unharnessed near the platform in a deposit of thick mud. Entraining lasted all night, the mules and buck-waggons giving a lot of trouble. Some exciting loose-mule-hunts round the station in the dark. Hours of shoving, hauling, lifting, slamming. At last all was in but ourselves. There were evidently no carriages, so we hurriedly shovelled our kit and ourselves into the open gun-trucks, squirming into cracks and corners; and at 6.30 A.M. to-day, with the sun just topping the distant veldt, the whistle blew, and we started. It was a piercing frosty morning; but we were all so tired that we slept just as we were. I found myself nestling on the floor of a truck (very dirty), between a gun-wheel and the three foot high side with feed-bags for pillows. Cold feet soon roused me, and I got up on to the gun in the sun, and saw we were slowly climbing a long incline through the usual veldt and kopjes, only more inhabited looking, with a tree and a farm or two. A lovely scene with the sun reddening the veldt in the pure crisp air. I smoked a cigarette in great content of mind. Soon shapeless heaps of blankets began to move down the trucks, muffled heads blinked out from odd corners, and gradually the Battery woke, and thawed, and break-fasted on biscuit and bully beef. We have said good-bye to bread.
We rumbled slowly on all the morning, past the same sort of country, with dead horses and broken bridges marking Roberts’s track, and at Brandfort stopped to feed horses, which, by the way, is a nasty dangerous game when you are dealing with closed horse-boxes. You have to climb through a small window, get in among the horses, and put the feeds on as they are handed up. The horses are not tied up, and are wild with hunger. You have simply to fight to avoid being crushed or kicked in that reeking interior, for they are packed as thick as possible.
At Vet River we got the first news of fighting. Boers under De Wet had been breaking bridges, and cutting wires. A very seedy-looking Guardsman gave us the news, and said they were cold and starving; and they looked it. What regiment was there? “Oh, we’re all details ‘ere,” he said, with a gloomy shrug. At Zand River infantry were in trenches expecting attack. A fine bridge had been blown up, and we crossed the river, which runs in a deep ravine, by a temporary bridge built low down, the track to it most ingeniously engineered in a spiral way. An engineer told us they had had hard fighting there a day or two ago. We reached Kroonstadt about dark; but remained outside all night, supperless and freezing.
June 22.—I walked about most of the night, and got an engine driver to squirt some hot water into a mess-tin to make tea with out of tablets. In early morning a train disgorged a crowd of men who had been prisoners with the Boers at Pretoria, some ever since the first battle. When Roberts came they all escaped, under shell-fire from the Boers as a final congé. They were a most motley crew, dressed in all manner of odd clothes. At 7 P.M. coffee and porridge, and at 7.30 orders came to detrain and harness up sharp, the sections to separate again. Then followed a whole series of contrary orders, but we ultimately harnessed up and hooked in; the right section marched away, and soon after we of the left section did so too, about two o’clock. About three miles off, after climbing a long hill, we unlimbered the guns in a commanding position, and remained there till dark, in the close and fragrant neighbourhood of about twenty dead horses. I believe we had something to do with some possible or probable fight, but what, I don’t know. A very dull battle. We marched back at dark, and bivouacked near the town, close to some Lancers. Of course tents are said good-bye to now. I slept by my harness, very cold.
June 23.—I woke early and chatted to the Lancers’ cook over a roaring wood fire till reveillé. Orders came to start at two, as part of the escort of a convoy going to Lindley, distant about fifty miles east. Something real to do at last. Quiet morning; sewed buttons on. At one “boot and saddle,” and at two we started and joined the convoy, a long train of ox-waggons, with some traction engines drawing trucks. Our officers are Captain Budworth (in command) and Lieutenant Bailey, just as at Piquetberg Road. The troops with us are some Buffs Militia, Yorkshire Light Infantry, Australian Mounted Infantry (Imperial Bushmen Contingent), and some Middlesex Yeomanry. Went through the rambling white desolate town, forded a broad river, mounted a steep hill, and came out on the open, rolling veldt. Here we halted till near sunset, waiting for some waggons, and many and eager were our speculations on what was in store for us on this first step into the field of war. For the first time we saw and talked to infantry on the march. Our escort (there is always an escort for guns) is a company of Buffs, lean, stained, ragged, and very blasé about this journey which they have made twice before. They are short of most things, and pitifully clad. I saw two with no breeches, only underpants. All say they are “fed up,” a phrase always used out here to mean “sick and tired of the war.” The Bushmen seem a pleasant set of fellows. It is their first campaign too.
When the truant waggons came up we marched on a few miles, following the road, which is just a hard track across the veldt, and bivouacked for the night, the out-spanned waggons ranged in rows in a rough square, as far as I could see, but it was very dark, and we had plenty to do ourselves. After unhooking, we drivers had a long ride over the veldt to a watering-place, losing the way in the dark two or three times. It was late when we got back to camp, guided by the fires. We unharnessed, fed the horses, swallowed some tea and biscuit, and laid down as we were to sleep.
June 24—Sunday.—Up at 3.45 A.M. and harnessed; very cold. We started at five, in the dark, and marched over rolling switchback veldt till 9.30, and then halted to let the convoy oxen get their day’s graze and chew. Unharnessed our horses. Coffee and porridge. I went on fatigue to fill water-bottles at a filthy pond, and afterwards laboriously filtered some in a rather useless filter, which is carried on the gun. The water was so foul that the filter had to be opened and cleaned every four strokes.
At 12.45 we harnessed up and started again. I am writing now at one of the periodical halts, when every one dismounts. A soft, mild sunset is laying changing tints of colour on the veldt, rose, amber, fawn, with deep blue shadows. When I speak of veldt I mean simply grass-land, but not a hint of green in it. The natural colour at this season is buff, with a warm red undertone. When the setting or rising sun catches this the effect is exquisite.
There is a rumour that a Boer patrol has been sighted, and a prisoner captured. I believe there is no doubt that De Wet and his force are between us and Lindley, and will have a shot at this convoy. We were warned that we might be attacked to-night. At dark we bivouacked, and, soon after, our right section, under the Major, whom we parted from at Kroonstadt, marched in. They had been sent out with a relief column to Honing Spruit, where a train had been attacked and the troops in it hard pressed. The Boers cleared off just before the Battery came up, which then had followed and overtaken us. Another bothersome hunt after water for the horses in the dark. All we could find was a stagnant pool, which ought to poison those that drank of it. Some more troops also joined the column. Colonel Brookfield (M.P.) is in command of the whole force.
June 25—(My birthday).—Up at 4.15 A.M. Off at 5.15, as part of the advance guard of the column, the Bushmen and Yeomanry scouting far ahead, and the infantry on either flank in a widely extended line. We all admired the steady regularity of their marching, heavily weighted as they were. Our own gunners also have a good deal of walking to do. “Dismount the detachment” is the order at all upgrades, and at difficult bits of the road. Drivers dismount at every halt, however short, but on the move are always safe in the saddle. We marched over the same undulating land, with occasional drifts and spruits, which are very hard on the horses. The convoy behind looked like a long sinuous serpent. Watered at seven at a farm. Williams was sent out to forage, and bought a sheep for 15s., chickens at 1s. 6d., and a turkey. Gunners were sent out to pillage a maize field. Then we marched on some miles to the top of a steep ridge looking down upon a lower plain, the road crossing a deep ravine at the bottom by a big steel bridge. We took up a commanding position at the top, overlooking the bridge, so as to cover the convoy while it descended and crossed. An attack seems likely,—a curious birthday treat!—4 P.M.—Nothing has happened. An interminable procession of ox and mule-waggons files down the pass; it is a much larger convoy than I thought, and must have received additions since we started. At this rate we shall be ages getting to Lindley.
One no longer wonders at the slowness of an army’s movement out here. The standard of speed is the trek-ox, lurching pensively along under his yoke, very exacting about his mealtimes, and with no high notions about supreme efforts, when he has to get his waggon out of a bad drift. He often prefers to die, and while he is making up his ponderous mind he may be blocking up a column, miles in length, of other waggons in single file. We talk of the superior mobility of the Boers; but it puzzles me to know how they got it, for oxen and mules are their standards of speed too, I suppose.
At dark, when all had passed, we followed ourselves down an abominably dangerous road, and over the bridge to camp, which looked and sounded like a big busy town, scintillating with fires and resonant with the yells of black drivers packing their waggons.
June 26—Eight A.M.—We are in action, my waggon at present halted in the rear. We harnessed up at 3.45 this morning, and marched some miles to the top of another hill, overlooking another plain, a crescent of steep kopjes on the left, occupied by Boers. The convoy halted just as a spattering rifle-fire ahead struck on the still morning air (it was just dawn), and the chatter of a Maxim on the left flank. We were all rather silent. A staff-officer galloped up, “Walk,—March,” “Trot,” rang out to the Battery, and we trotted ahead down the hill, plunged down a villainous spruit, and came up on to the level, under a pretty heavy fire from the kopje on our left. For my part, I was absorbed for these moments in a threatened mishap to my harness, and the dread of disgrace at such an epoch. My off horse had lost flesh in the last few days, and the girth, though buckled up in the last hole, was slightly too loose. We had to gallop up a steep bit of ascent out of the drift, and to my horror, the pack-saddle on him began to slip and turn, so I had to go into action holding on his saddle with my right hand, in a fever of anxiety, and at first oblivious of anything else. Then I noticed the whing of bullets, and dust spots knocked up, and felt the same sort of feeling that one has while waiting to start for a race, only with an added chill and thrill.
The guns unlimbered, and came into action against the kopje, and we and the limbers trotted about 300 yards back, and are waiting there now. A gunner and a driver slightly wounded, and some horses hit. One bullet broke our wheel-driver’s whip. Our shrapnel are bursting beautifully over the Boer lines.
(Later.)—We have just taken our waggon up to the firing line, and brought back an empty one with our team.
(Later.)—We have been back to the convoy, and refilled the empty waggon from the reserve, and are back again. The Boers seem to be dislodged from the ridge, and infantry have occupied it. I hear some Boers made for a farm, but we plumped a shell right into it, and they fled. The convoy is now coming on, and crossing the drift with discordant yells. Infantry and mounted infantry pressing on both flanks. Our guns have taken up another position farther on. The Captain asked after the broken whip, and told us we could not have gone into action better. He has been riding about all day on his stumpy little Argentine, radiant and beaming, with his eternal pipe in his mouth!
(Later.)—We marched on a few miles, and bivouacked, while the whole convoy slowly trailed in, and formed up in laager. This operation, and the business of posting the troops for the night, is horribly tedious. It has to be done in the dark, and one is continually mounting and dismounting, and moving on a bit, and making impossible wheels round mules and waggons. Probably we get too small a space allotted, and the horses are all jammed together in the picket-lines, causing a vast loss of temper at unharnessing. After unharnessing and feeding horses, which you have to look sharp about, or you will miss coffee, every one crowds round the cook’s fire, and looks with hungry eyes at the pots. Coffee or tea, biscuits and tinned meat, are served out. You are ravenous, as you have lived on chance scraps during the day. Then you make your bed, stretching your blankets behind your harness, standing a saddle on end, and putting a feed-bag behind it for a pillow. Next morning’s feeds have first to be made up, and then you sleep like a log, if you can, that is. I generally have to get up at least once, and walk about for the cold. Fellows who are lucky enough to have fuel make small fires (an anthill provides a natural stove), and cook soup, but it’s hard to spare the water, which is as precious as gold in this country. Besides, drivers are badly placed for such luxuries; their work is only begun when camp is reached, while gunners can go off and find beds under waggons, etc. It is the same all day, except, of course, in action, when the gunners have all the work. At all halts we have to be watching a pair of horses, which have manifold ways of tormenting one. To begin with, they are always hungry, because they get little oats and no hay. One of mine amuses himself by chewing all leather-work in his reach, especially that on the traces, and has to be incessantly worried out of it. The poor brutes are standing all the time on rich pasture, and try vainly to graze. They are not allowed to, as it involves taking out big bits, undoing wither straps, etc., and you have to be ready to start at a moment’s notice. There are thousands of acres of rich pasture all about, vast undeveloped wealth. Farms are very few and far between; mostly dismal-looking stone houses, without a trace of garden or adornment of any sort. There was a load off all our minds this night, for the H.A.C. had at last been in action and under fire. All went well and steadily. My friend Ramsey, the lead-driver of our team, brushed his teeth at the usual intervals. I don’t believe anything on earth would interfere with him in this most admirable duty. He does it with miraculous dexterity and rapidity at the oddest moments, saying it rests him!
June 27.—Up at 3.45 and harnessed, but it was almost dawn before our unwieldy convoy creaked and groaned into motion. We are rearguard to-day, with some Yeomanry, Australians, and Buffs, but just now we were ordered up to the front, trotted past the whole convoy, and are now in action; limbers and waggons halted behind a rise. The Boers have guns in action to-day, and a shell of theirs has just burst about 400 yards to our right, and others are falling somewhere near the guns ahead. It seems to be chiefly an artillery duel so far, but a crackling rifle fire is going on in the distance.
(Midday.)—The convoy is closing up and getting into a sort of square. We have changed positions several times. Shells have fallen pretty close, but have done no damage. Some of them burst, others only raise a cloud of dust. We are already getting used to them, but the first that fell made us all very silent, and me, at any rate, very uncomfortable. Later we relieved ourselves by a rather overstrained interest in their probable direction and point of impact. We were standing waiting, of course, with no excitement to distract our minds.
(2 P.M.)—A curious feature in the scene is the presence of veldt fires all over the place, long lines of dry grass blazing. Possibly the Boers start them to hide their movements. The Boers evidently want this convoy; they are right round our rear and on both flanks; all our troops are engaged. The convoy is being moved on, and my section is left as rear-guard. The smoke of burning grass has blotted out the sun, and it is cold. The sun is a red ball, as on a foggy day in London. Shells have ceased to fall here, but a hill on the left is being heavily shelled by the enemy, and the infantry on it are in retreat.
(4 P.M.)—We are slowly getting on, covering the convoy’s rear, the enemy pressing hard. Our guns are now firing over our dismounted troops. Williams has just ridden up. He has been orderly to the Captain; a shell fell just by his horse without bursting. I have been fearfully sleepy, and have snatched a few minutes of oblivion, during halts, on the ground by my horses, who are as tired as I am, poor beasts.
(Written later.)—The Boers, as it seemed to me (but what does one know?), had us in a very tight place, but they never pressed home their attack, and the convoy was rushed through the remaining seven miles to Lindley. We covered its retirement till dark, and then followed it with all speed. I shan’t forget those seven miles. They included the worst drifts of the whole journey, and getting up and down them in pitch-dark was unpleasant work and a pretty severe test of driving. Three mule-waggons of the convoy had to be abandoned at one place, but the rest of it reached Lindley safely, as did we. It was rather like making a port after a storm when the lights appeared and a bugle blowing “first post” was heard. We passed some silent houses, groped into an open space, picketed horses, chucked off harness, and slept by it, dog-tired. We had hoped for a good night’s rest, but, the last thing, orders went round for reveillé at four.
June 28.—It was icy cold at 4 A.M., and one’s fingers could hardly cope with straps and links. I had done one horse, when welcome orders came that my waggon was not wanted. So I sat by the cook’s fire and cooked in the lid of my mess-tin a slice of meat I had hastily hacked from an ox’s carcase at our last camp. Also some Maggi soup. About sunrise the limbers returned, having left the guns and gunners in position on a hill somewhere, where they shot at any Boers they saw, and were sniped at themselves. A slack day for the rest of us, and I had a good sleep. Of course we are all delighted that the days of waiting are over, and that we have had fighting and been of use. Everything has gone well, and without a single hitch, and we were congratulated by the Brigadier. As for De Wet, the plucky Boer who is fighting down here, now that his cause is hopeless, we have sworn to get him to London and give him a dinner and a testimonial for giving us the chance of a fight.
Of course the whole affair was trivial enough, and I don’t suppose will ever figure in the papers, though it was interesting enough to us. I should be sorry to have to describe what went on as a whole. I just wrote what was under my eye during halts, and to grasp the plan of the thing, when distances are so great and the enemy so invisible, is impossible. But, as far as I could see, it was pretty well managed. We had no casualties yesterday, chiefly owing to shells not bursting. The Infantry and Yeomanry had some killed and wounded, but I don’t know the numbers. Some of the Boer practice was excellent. Once we watched them shell some Infantry on a kopje, every shell falling clean and true on the top and reverse edge of it. The Infantry had to quit. But on the whole I was at a loss to understand their artillery tactics, which seemed desultory and irresolute. They would get our range or that of the convoy and then cease firing, never concentrating their fire on a definite point. Their ammunition too was evidently of an inferior quality. I saw no shrapnel fired. It is all very novel, laborious, exciting, hungry work, and perhaps the strangest sensation of all is one’s passive ignorance of all that is happening beyond one’s own narrow sphere of duty. An odd discovery is that one has so much leisure, as a driver, when in action. There is plenty of time to write one’s diary when waiting with the teams. One pleasant thing is the change felt in the relaxation of the hard-and-fast regulations of a standing camp. Anything savouring of show or ceremonial, all needless minutiæ of routine, disappear naturally. It is business now, and everything is judged by the standard of common-sense.
The change of life since we left Bloemfontein has been com¬plete; no tents, no washing, no undressing, only biscuit and tinned-meat for food, and not too much of that, very little sleep, etc.; but we have all enjoyed it, for it is the real thing at last. The lack of water was the only really trying thing, and the cold at night. We had fresh meat for supper this night from a sheep commandeered on the march, and weren’t we ravenous! Another very cold night, but the joyful orders for reveillé at 7 A.M. June 29.—”Stables” and harness-cleaning all the morning. In the afternoon we were sent to graze our horses outside the town with a warning to look out for sniping. As I write I am sitting un-der a rock, the reins secured to one of my legs, which accounts for bad writing. Lindley is below, a mere little village with a few stores, which nevertheless was for a proud week the capital of the Free State. For some time past it has been closely besieged by the Boers, and entirely dependent on one or two armed convoys like ours. The Boers have been shelling the town most days, and fighting goes on outside nearly every day. The day before we relieved it the Boers made an effort to take it, and our Infantry lost heavily. There was a garrison of about a thousand, I think, before we came. There is nothing eatable to be bought at any price, and no communication with the outside world, except by despatch-riders. I was talking yesterday to two Yeomanry fellows who had escaped from one of the Boer commandos. They had lived entirely on fresh meat, and were devouring dog-biscuit by our cook’s fire like famished terriers. They said they had been well treated.
June 30.—Not much rest was allowed us. Reveillé was at 4 A.M., with orders for our section, under Lieutenant Bailey, to march half-way to Kroonstadt again, as part of an escort for a return convoy carrying sick and wounded.
Started at five with Yeomanry, Bushmen, and Buffs, as before, but were delayed two hours outside town, waiting for some traction-engines, which puffed asthmatically at the bottom of a drift, unable to get up. Marched rapidly for sixteen miles (most of the country burnt by veldt fires), over the same difficult road, and (for a luxury) encamped while it was still light. Washed in a river with great zest. Fresh mutton for supper. Turned in with orders for reveillé at 4 A.M. But at 11.30 P.M. we were all awakened by “Come on, get up and harness up.” “Why, what’s the time?” “11.30.” However, up we got, not knowing why, tossed on harness, and started straight away back for Lindley, supposing they were being attacked. It was a hard march over those detestable drifts, in pitch dark and freezing cold, with one halt only of ten minutes. The centre driver has a trying time in bad places of the road, for at steep bits on the down grade, if the wheelers get at all out of control, he has the pole bearing down on him, either punching his horses and making them kick, or probing for vulnerable places in his own person. He has the responsibility of keeping his traces just so that they are not slack, and yet that the horses are not in draught and pulling the gun or waggon down. The lead-driver has to pick the road and, with one eye on the gun just ahead, to judge a pace which will suit the wheel-driver, who at such moments must have a fairly free hand. All three live always in a fierce glare of criticism from the gunners riding behind, who in their nasty moments are apt to draw abusive comparisons between the relative dangers of shell-fire and riding on a waggon. By the way, there is always a healthy antagonism between gunners and drivers. When one class speaks of the other there is generally an adjective prefixed.
July 1.—Sunday.—We marched into camp before dawn blear-eyed and hungry, to find to our disgust that there was no hurry after all. It seems an order had been received for the whole Battery to march away this morning, to join some column or other, so they sent a messenger to recall us. Meanwhile a countermanding order came to “Stand fast.” So here I am, at 8 A.M., sitting against my harness in the blessed sunlight, warm, fed, sleepy, and rather irritated. What is going to happen I don’t know. It’s no use writing the rumours.
(Later.)—A sudden order to harness up. Did so, and were all ready, when we were told to take it off again. It seems General Clements has come up near here with a division, and they want to finish off De Wet at once. A quiet day. I foraged in the town in the afternoon, but got nothing, though I heard of mealy biscuits at one cottage.
Later on we found a cottage kept by an Englishwoman, who gave us delicious tea at 6d. a cup, and again in the evening porridge at 6d. a plate. There was a number of mixed soldiers in there, all packed round the room, which was dark and smoky, and full also of squalling children. The way she kept her temper and fed us was wonderful. It is safe to say that nowadays one can always eat any amount at any time of day. The service biscuit is the best of its kind, I daresay, but not very satisfying, and meat is not plentiful. We have never yet been on full rations. Five is the full number of biscuits. We generally get three or four. Sometimes the meat-ration is a “Maconochie,” which is a tin of preserved meat and vegetables of a very juicy and fatty nature, most fascinating when you first know it, but apt to grow tinny and chemical to the palate.