July 2.—Reveillé 5 A.M. Harnessed up, and afterwards marched out and joined a column of troops under General Paget. We have with us some Yorkshire Light Infantry, Munster Fusiliers, Yeomanry, Bushmen, and the 38th Field Battery. Where we are going we don’t know, but I suppose after De Wet.[A]
[Footnote A: Without knowing it at the time, we were joining in General Hunter’s big enveloping movement, by which all the scattered commandos in this part of the Free State were to be driven into the mountains on the Basuto border and there surrounded. Paget’s brigade (the 20th) was part of the cordon, which was gradually drawn closer by the concentric marches of columns under him, and General Clements, Rundle, Boyes, Bruce Hamilton, and Hunter himself. The climax was the surrender of about 5000 Boers under Prinsloo at Fouriesberg on July 29, a success much impaired by the escape of De Wet from the fast-closing trap. For the sake of clearness I append this note; but I leave my diary as I wrote it, when our knowledge of events rarely went beyond a foggy speculation.]
(8.30 A.M.)—We have marched for about two hours to the top of a range of hills which surrounds the town; there is firing on the right and left, and the Infantry are advancing in extended order. Our right section has just gone into action. A big drove of wild-looking Boer ponies has come stampeding up to the column with some of our mounted men vainly trying to corner them.
(1.30 P.M.)—The battle is, as usual, unintelligible to the humble unit, but the force is advancing slowly, the Yorkshire Light Infantry and Munster Fusiliers on either hand of us. Our section is in action now. We have just taken our waggon to the firing line and brought back the team. The corporal’s horse stepped in a hole just as we were reaching the guns and turned a complete somersault. He is all right, but his was our second mishap, as the near wheeler fell earlier in the day, and the driver was dragged some yards before we could stop. The ground is very dangerous, full of holes, some of them deep and half-covered with grass. Another driver is up, but the former is only a bit shaken, I think. Our section has silenced a Boer gun in three shots, at 4200 yards, a good bit of work, and a credit to Lieutenant Bailey as a judge of range. The right section also cleared the kopje they fired at, but had a narrow escape afterwards, coming suddenly, when on the move, under the fire of Boer guns, of whose presence they were ignorant, the shells falling thick but not bursting. Bivouacked at four on the veldt. The Boers had retired from the line they held. A long ride to water after unharnessing; nothing much to eat. Williams and I have taken to ending the day by boiling tea (from tablets) over the embers of the cook’s fire, or on one of our own if we have any fuel, which is very seldom. How the cooks get their wood is a mystery to me. The Kaffir drivers always have it, too, though there are no visible trees. We always seem to sit up late, short though our nights are. A chilly little group gathers sleepily round the embers, watching mess-tins full of nondescript concoctions balanced cunningly in the hot corners, and gossiping of small camp affairs or large strategical movements of which we know nothing. The brigade camp-fires twinkle faintly through the gloom. A line of veldt-fire is sure to be glowing in the distance, looking like the lights of a sea-side town as seen from the sea. The only sound is of mules shuffling and jingling round the waggons.
The “cook-house” is still the source of rumours, which are wonderfully varied. There is much vague talk now of General Clements and a brigade being connected somehow with our operations. But we know as little of the game we are playing as pawns on the chessboard. Our tea is strong, milkless, and sugar-less, but I always go to sleep the instant I lie down, even if I am restless with the cold later.
July 3.—Reveillé at 4.30. Our section, under Lieutenant Bailey, started at once for a steep kopje looming dimly about three miles away. The right section, with the Major and Captain, left us and went to another one. We had a tough job getting our guns and waggons up.
(8 A.M.)—Just opening fire now. A Boer gun is searching the valley on our left, but they can’t see the limbers and waggons.
(8.30.)—The Boers seem to have some special dislike to our waggon. They have just placed two shells, one fifty yards in front of it, and the other fifty yards behind; one of them burst on impact, the other didn’t. The progress of a shell sounds far off like the hum of a mosquito, rising as it nears to a hoarse screech, and then “plump.” We mind them very little now. There is great competition for the fragments, as “curios.” It is cold, grey, and sunless today. Last night there was heavy rain, and our blankets are wet still. It seems the Boers are firing a Krupp at 7000 yards; our guns are only sighted up to 5000 yards, but we have managed to reach them by sinking the trail in the ground, and other devices.
(12.30 P.M.)—A long halt here, with nothing doing. The Boer gun has ceased to fire, and we call it “silenced,” possibly with truth, but the causes of silence are never quite certain. As far as I can make out, it was on the extreme left of their position, while our main attack is threatening their centre. It is raining hard, but we have made a roaring fire of what is the chief fuel in this country, dry cowdung, and have made cocoa in our mess-tins, from a tin sent me a month ago; also soup, out of the scrapings of Maconochie tins.
——. What seemed likely to be a dull day turned out very exciting. About two a staff officer came up with orders, and we marched down from our kopje and attacked another one[A] (which I made out to be their centre), taking up several positions in quick succession. The Boers had a gun on the kopje, which we dislodged, and the infantry took the position. (About 2.30 it began to rain again and poured all the afternoon in cold, slashing torrents.) We finally went up the kopje ourselves, over a shocking bit of rocky ground near the top, fired on the retreating Boers from there, and then came down on the other side. Soon afterwards came an old story. It was about five, and had cleared up. A staff officer had said that there were no Boers anywhere near now, and that we were to march on and bivouac. We and the Munsters and some Yeomanry were marching down a valley, whose flanks were supposed to have been scouted, the infantry in column of companies, that is, in close formation, and all in apparent security. Suddenly a storm of rifle-fire broke out from a ridge on our right front and showed us we were ambushed. The Munsters were nearest to the ridge, about 600 yards, I should say. We were a bit further off. I heard a sort of hoarse murmur go up from the close mass of infantry, and saw it boil, so to speak, and spread out. Our section checked for a moment, in a sort of bewilderment (my waggon was close behind our gun at the time), but the next, and almost without orders, guns were unlimbered and whisked round, a waggon unhooked, teams trotting away, and shrapnel bursting over the top of the ridge in quick succession. All this time the air was full of a sound like the moaning of wind from the bullets flying across the valley, but strange to say, not a man of us was hit. Some of them were explosive bullets. The whole thing was soon over. Our guns peppered their quickest, and it was a treat to see the shrapnel bursting clean and true along the ridge. The infantry extended and lay down; some Yeomanry made a flank move, and that episode was over. It might have been serious, though. If they had held their fire undiscovered for ten minutes longer we might have been badly cut up, for we were steadily nearing the spur which they occupied. It is right to say, though, that our Lieutenant, having doubts about the safety of the place, had shortly before sent forward ground-scouts, of whom Williams was one, who would possibly have been able to warn us in time. Needless to say, it was not our duty to scout for the column.
[Footnote A: The name of this kopje was Barking Kop, I believe, and we have since always applied it generally to the fighting on this day.]
It was nearly dark now, a burning farm ahead making a hot glow in the sky, and we moved off to join the rest of the column with its unwieldy baggage-train and convoy, and all camped together, after the usual tedious ride to water horses at a muddy pool. They had had a very hard day and had done well, but were very tired. On days like this they often get no water till evening. A feed is ordered when a free interval seems likely, but the chances are that it is snatched off, and their bits thrust in again, half-way through. When we got in and rejoined our right section, all were full of a serious mishap to the 38th Field Battery, with which they had been acting on the left flank. Both were in action in adjoining fields, when a party of Boers crept up unseen and got within fifty yards of the 38th guns, shooting down men and horses. The 38th behaved splendidly, but all their officers were killed or wounded, a number of gunners, and many horses. Two guns were for a time in the hands of the Boers, who, I believe, removed the tangent sights. It appears that the M.I. escort of the Battery, owing, I suppose, to some misunderstanding, retreated. The situation was saved by Captain Budworth, of our Battery, who collected and brought up some mounted infantry, whether Yeomanry or Bushmen I am not clear about. They beat the Boers off, and our teams helped to take the guns out of action. We came off all right, with only one gunner slightly wounded.
I was desperately hungry, and only coffee was issued, but later a sheep’s carcase turned up from somewhere, and I secured a leg, and Williams some chops, which we promptly laid as they were on one of the niggers’ wood fires and ate in our fingers ravenously. The leg I also cooked and kept for to-day (I am writing on the morning of the 4th), and it is hanging on my saddle. I was rather sleepless last night, owing to cramp from a drenched blanket, and got up about midnight and walked over to the remains of one of our niggers’ fires. Crouching over the embers I found a bearded figure, which hoarsely denounced me for coming to its fire. I explained that it was our fire, but that he was welcome, and settled down to thaw. It turned out to be a sergeant of the 38th Battery. I asked something, and he began a long rambling soliloquy about things in general, in a thick voice, with his beard almost in the fire, scarcely aware of my presence. I can’t reproduce it faithfully, because of the language, but it dealt with the war, which he thought would end next February, and the difference between Boer and British methods, and how our cavalry go along, heels down, toes in, arms close to side, eyes front, all according to regulation, keeping distance regardless of ground, while the Boer cares nothing as long as he gets there and does his work. He finished with the gloomy prophecy that if we didn’t join Clements tomorrow we should never “get out of this.” Not knowing who or where Clements was, I asked him about the affair of that day, and produced a growling storm of expletives; then he muttered something about the Victoria Cross and driving a team out of action, asked the way to his lines, to which I carefully directed him, and drifted off in the opposite direction.
By the way, this General Clements seems to be a myth, and the talk now is of Rundle and Ian Hamilton, who are supposed to be getting round De Wet from other quarters, while we drive him up this way into their arms. It is said we are going to Bethlehem. I forgot an important event of the evening in the arrival of a bag of mails, parcels only, brought by a convoy from Kroonstadt, which has just come in. To my delight I got one with a shirt and socks (which I at once put on over the others), cigarettes (a long exhausted luxury), Liebig, precious for evening soup, and chocolate, almost too good to eat for fear of getting discontented. We are on half rations of biscuit, which means three, and a tin of Maconochie each, a supply about enough to whet your appetite for one meal in a life like this, but it has to last the day of about seventeen hours. The ration is issued the night before, to eat as we please, and, of course, there is coffee soon after reveillé, and tea in the evening. There is a cupful of porridge also with the coffee, paid for by deduction from our pay, so that one starts in good fettle. I don’t know why the whole column shouldn’t get fresh meat every day, for the country is teeming with cattle, which are collected and driven along with the column in huge herds. Many of the farmhouses are smoking ruins, the enemy, after annexation, being rebels according to law, and not belligerents; but it seems to me that such a policy is to use a legal fiction for an oppressive end, for it is quite clear that this part of the Orange River Colony has never been conquered.[A]
[Footnote A: I leave this as I wrote it, but drivers are not politicians, and doubtless there were special circumstances, such as treachery, concealed arms or sniping, to justify what at the best must be a doubtful policy; for a burnt farm means a desperate farmer.]
July 4.—Wednesday.—Up at five after a bitterly cold night, but there was a long delay before starting. We are rear-guard to-day. Just before leaving an infantry man shot himself while cleaning his rifle. There was a little buzz and stir, and then all was quiet again. He was buried in half an hour.
A dull day’s marching. After about ten miles we halted to water horses and rest. While watering, the Boers sent over a futile shell from a big gun. On return we unhooked and grazed the horses. Things looked peaceful, and there was a warm sun, so I ventured to unstrap my kit-roll and spread my blankets out to dry. They were still wet from the rain of two nights ago. I had scarcely spread them out when “Hook in” was shouted, and back they had to go, half-folded, in a perilously loose bundle. (You can never count on five minutes, but it’s worth trying.) At about 4.30 we and the 38th Battery trotted ahead about a mile and a half, and began shelling a ridge; but I think it was soon abandoned, for shortly after we limbered up and camped with the rest of the brigade, which had followed us. I am “stableman” to-day for three days. On the march this involves drawing sacks of forage from the Quartermaster Sergeant in the early morning and late evening, and serving out the oats to the drivers of the sub-division. It is not so irksome a duty as in a standing camp, but has its trying moments; for instance, when drivers are busied with bed-making or cocoa-cooking in the evening, and are deaf to your shouts of “D drivers, roll up for your feeds!” a camp-cry which has not half the effect of “Roll up for your coffee!” or, more electrical still, “Roll up for your rum!”
July 5.—We were up at 4.30, but as usual had to stand by our horses for over an hour, freezing our feet in the frosty grass before starting. Harnessing up with numbed fingers in the dark was a trying job. My harness sheets were stiff as boards with frozen dew, and I had to stamp them into shape for packing. I had a warm night, though. My bed is made thus: I place the two saddles on end, at the right distance for the length of my body, and facing inwards, that is, with the seats outwards; I leave the horse-blankets strapped on underneath them, as there is not much time to re-fold and re-strap them in the morning, and my head (pillowed on two feed-bags filled overnight for the early morning feed) goes in the hollow of one saddle, between the folds of the blanket, and my feet in the hollow of the other. The rest of each set of harness is heaped behind each saddle, and when the harness-sheets are spread over each set there is enough for the ends to lap over and make a roof for the head, and also for the feet. Then I wrap myself in my two blankets, and if an oatsack is obtainable, first get my feet into that. My waterproof sheet serves as counterpane. It is not wanted as a mattress, as no dew falls till the morning, and the ground is dry at bed-time. After rain, of course, it has to go beneath one. The great point is to keep your blankets as dry as you can, for, once wet with dew or rain, they remain wet, since we both start and arrive in the dark, and thus cannot count on drying them. It is a good plan before turning in to see that the horses in the lines near you are securely tied up, as it is vexatious to be walked on in the night by a heavy artillery horse; also to have all your kit and belongings exactly where you can lay hands on them in the dark. At reveillé, which, by the way, takes the shape of a rude shake from the picket of the night (there is no trumpet used in campaigning), you shiver out of your nest, the Sergeant-Major’s whistle blows, and you at once feed your horses. Then you pack your off-saddle, rolling the ground-sheet, blankets, and harness-sheet, with the muzzles, surcingle-pads, hay-nets, etc., and strapping the roll on the saddle. Then you harness as fast as you can (generally helped by a gunner), make up two fresh feeds and tie them up in nose-bags on the saddle, and put on your belt, haversack, water-bottle, and other accoutrements. In the middle of this there will be a cry of “D coffee up!” and you drop everything and run with the crowd for your life to get that precious fluid, and the porridge, if there is any. You bolt them in thirty seconds, and run back to strap your mess-tin on your saddle, put the last touches to your harness, and hook in the team. Of course we sleep in our cloaks, and wear them till about eight, when the sun gets strength. Then we seize a chance to roll them at a halt, and strap them in front of the riding saddle.
To return to to-day. It has been very inconclusive and unsatisfactory. We have marched about twelve miles, I think, with some long halts, in one of which we unhooked and rode to a pool some distance off to water horses. I have been fearfully sleepy all day. Two guns of the 38th Battery have joined us, and we march as a six-gun battery under Major McMicking. They have no officers fit for duty, and our Captain looks after them. In the evening some shrapnel began bursting on a ridge ahead, and we went up and fired a bit; but I suppose the Boers decamped, for we soon after halted for the night. It is said that the mythical Clements is now one march behind us, our scouts having met to-day, and that Bethlehem is three miles ahead, strongly held by De Wet. Other mythical generals are in the air. I am getting used to the state of blank ignorance in which we live. Perfect sunset in a clear sky. One of the charms of Africa is the long settled periods of pure unclouded sky, in which the sun rises and sets with no flaming splashes of vivid colours, but by gentle, imperceptible gradations of pure light, waning or waxing. And as for rain, when it is once over it is thoroughly over (at this season, at any rate). This night the darkness was soon lit up by a flaming farm. All desperately hungry, when it was announced that an extra ration of raw meat was to be served out. If I can’t cook it, shall I eat it raw? To-morrow’s ration is a pound of fresh cooked meat, instead of the eternal Maconochie. It was drawn to-night, and looked so good that I ate half of it at once, thus yielding to an oft-recurring temptation. Orders for reveillé at seven. Great joy.
July 6.—Reveillé was marked by a Boer shell coming over the camp, followed by others in quick succession, real good bursting shrapnel, a rare thing for the Boers to possess, but they came from a long range and burst too high. Nobody took the least notice, and we went on harnessing and breakfasting as usual. It is strange how soon one gets a contempt for shells. In about half an hour the firing stopped. We hooked in, but unhooked again, and rode to water. There is some delay; waiting for Clements, perhaps. I write this sitting by my horses in a hot sun, with the water frozen to a solid lump in the bottle at my back, through the felt cover, and after being under a harness sheet all the night. Had a jolly talk with some Paddies of the Munster Fusiliers, about Ireland, etc. They were miserable, “fed up,” but merry; that strange combination one sees so much of out here. They talked about the revels they would have when they got home, the beef, bacon, and stout, but chiefly stout. We have already learnt to respect and admire the infantry of our brigade, and I think the confidence is mutual. (Starting.)
(4.30).—We have had a hard day’s marching a long distance out on the right flank. There is a biggish battle proceeding.
I think Clements’s brigade has joined ours, for our front is some miles in length, with the wavy lines of khaki figures advancing slowly and steadily, covered by artillery fire. The 38th are with us. We have been in action several times in successive positions, but the chief attack seems to be on a steep conical kopje in the centre, behind and below which lies Bethlehem, I believe. It is just dark, but heavy rifle-firing is still going on in front. One of our gunners has been shot in the knee. We camped near our last firing position, but waited a long time for our transport and its precious freight of cooks and “dickseys” (camp-kettles). Williams and I ruthlessly chopped down parts of a very good fence, and made a fire with the wood and a lot of dry mealy stalks, which burn furiously. Then we and Ramsey cooked our meat in our mess-tin lids, and made cocoa with water which Ramsey fetched from some distance. It was a thick brown fluid, and froze while we were waiting to put it on, but it tasted excellent.
July 7.—Reveillé at 3.45. We marched out about a mile and waited for the dawn.
7 A.M.—At first dawn firing began, and we went into action at once, as did the whole line of infantry. A tremendous fusillade of shells and bullets is now being poured upon the position in front, and chiefly on the central conical kopje. My waggon is halted, waiting to go up. The sun is just getting strength, warming our numbed feet, and spiriting away the white frost-mantle that the land always wears at dawn.
(3 P.M.).—Guns, Maxims, and rifles hailed lead into the Boer trenches for a long time, and then the infantry seized them, and the Boers retired. The practice of the 38th and our guns seemed to me to be very good. We have also a five-inch lyddite gun (Clements brought it), which sent up huge clouds of brown dust where the shell struck. We have now advanced over very heavy ground to the late Boer position, halted, and ridden some way to water down a precipitous slope, into a long, rocky hollow. From this point the country seems to change entirely to steep, rocky hills and hollows, rising and increasing to the whole Drakensberg range, which is blue and craggy on the sky-line. They say the Boers have evacuated Bethlehem with a baggage train three miles long. I don’t know why we are not following them up. Perhaps the mounted infantry are. Our horses are done up. It was cruel work spurring and lashing them over heavy ploughed land to-day.
July 8.—Rest at last. It is Sunday morning, and we are all lying or sitting about, bathed in warm sunshine, waiting for orders, but it seems we shan’t move today. My blankets are all spread out, getting a much-wanted drying, but what I chiefly want is a wash. I have had three imperfect ones since leaving Bloemfontein and one shave, and my boots off for about ten minutes now and then.
(3 P.M.).—Nothing on to-day. I have had a wash in a thimbleful of water, and shaved, and feel another man. They gave us an hour of stables, but the horses certainly needed it, as they never get groomed now, and are a shaggy, scraggy-looking lot. I’m glad to say mine are quite free from galls and sore backs. As one never sees their backs by daylight, it is interesting to get a good look at them at last. They are very liable to sore backs (partly owing to the weight of the military saddle), if there is any carelessness in folding the blanket beneath the saddle. It has been a real hot day, and yet there was thick ice on the pool we watered at this morning.
As to yesterday, it appears that De Wet and his army effected a safe retreat, but our General was pleased with the day’s work, and congratulated us and the 38th. We put one Boer gun at least completely out of action, and it was captured by the infantry. The infantry lost but few that day, but rather heavily the day before, especially the Munsters. Paget is already very popular with us. We trust his generalship and we like the man, for he seems to be one of us, a frank, simple soldier, who thinks of every man in his brigade as a comrade. I understand now what an enormous difference this makes to men in the ranks. A chance word of praise dropped in our hearing, a joking remark during a hot fight (repeated affectionately over every camp-fire at night), any little touch of nature that obliterates rank, and makes man and general “chums” for the moment; such trifles have an effect on one’s spirits which I could never have believed possible, if I had not felt their charm. I wonder if officers know it, but it takes nothing for them to endear themselves to men.
It seems to be beyond doubt that our guns are a success, but their special ammunition is a source of great difficulty. We have stacks of it at Bloemfontein, but cannot carry much about with us, and of course the ammunition column with its fifteen-pounder shells is of no use to us. We have been short after every action, and have to depend on precarious waggonfuls, coming by convoy from somewhere on the railway. They say General Hunter and a division is concentrating here too, and a large force is visible in the valley, marching up. They are flooding us with fresh meat to-day, by way of a change. It is said that Paget has ordered a certain number of sheep and cattle to be slaughtered daily for the brigade.
(Later).—I had scarcely written the above lines when the order came to harness up at once. We did so, and were soon off; the sections separated, ours making for a steep hill about three miles away, on which we were ordered to take post. It was an awkward climb in the gathering darkness, with drag-ropes on the upper wheels, when moving along a very steep slope. A final rush of frantic collar work, and we were on a flat plateau, where we unlimbered the guns, so as to command the valley, and camped near them. I was on picket duty this night, and quite enjoyed it, though I had one three-hour spell at a go. It was warmer than usual, with a bonnie moon in a clear sky, a dozen veldt-fires reddening in the distance, mysterious mists wreathing about the valley beneath, and the glowing embers of a good wood-fire on which to cook myself some Maggi soup.