July 9.—A delicious, warm day. Reveillé at six. I am afraid it looks as if we were to be kept on this lonely hill-top for some time. It’s true we deserve a rest, for we have been on the move for some time; but I would much prefer to march on and see the last of De Wet. After campaigning, the routine of a standing camp seems dull and irksome. We have just shifted our camp a few hundred yards, bringing it to the very brow of the hill, which drops straight down into the valley. In fact, it is below the brow, and the horses are on a most awkward slant. The Munsters are camped just above us. Below, and about two miles away, lies Bethlehem, with hills behind it, and the mountain range mistily seen behind all. Unlike Lindley, this is the first time Bethlehem has been occupied by the British. Williams has just come in from a foraging expedition he was sent on. He got mealy flour for the battery, and a chicken for ourselves, and had had cigarettes and marmalade with the Lifeguards, who, with the whole of Hunter’s division, are camped near here. He also got some Kaffir bread from a kraal, a damp, heavy composition, which, however, is very good when fried in fat in thin slices. We ate our tea sitting on rocks overlooking the valley, and at dark a marvellous spectacle began for our entertainment, a sight which Crystal-Palace-goers would give half-a-crown for a front place to see. As I have said, all day long there are casual veldt-fires springing up in this country. Just now two or three began down in the valley, tracing fine golden lines in spirals and circles. The grass is short, so that there is no great blaze, but the effect is that of some great unseen hand writing cabalistic sentences (perhaps the “Mene, Mene” of De Wet!), with a pen dipped in fire. This night there was scarcely a breath of wind to determine the track of the fires, or quicken their speed, and they wound and intersected at their own caprice, describing fantastic arcs and curves from which one could imagine pictures and letters. The valley gradually became full of a dull, soft glow, and overhung with red, murky smoke, through which the moon shone down with the strangest mingling of diverse lights. Very suddenly a faint breeze began to blow in from the valley directly towards our camp. At once the aimless traceries of fine flame seemed to concentrate into a long resolute line, and a wave of fire, roaring as it approached, gained the foot of the hill, and began to climb it towards us. Watchful eyes had been on the lookout. “Drivers, stand to your horses,” was shouted. “Out with your blankets, men,” to our gunners and the infantry behind, and in an instant the chosen sons of Cork were bounding out of their lines and down the hill, and belabouring the fire with blankets and ground-sheets and sacks. They seemed to think it a fine joke, and raised a pæan of triumph when it was got under. “Wan more victory,” I heard one say.
July 10.—Slack day, most of it spent in grazing the horses. For this duty each man takes four horses, so that only half of us need go; but on the other hand, if you stay, you may come in for a “fatigue,” which it requires some insight to predict. Beyond that, our whole energies were concentrated on cooking our meals, raw meat only being served out. Williams and I borrowed a camp-kettle from the Munsters, and cooked our mutton with a pumpkin which we had commandeered. The weather is a good deal warmer. We are camped near the scene of a hard stand made by the Boers, dotted with trenches and little heaps of cartridge-cases, and also unused cartridges. I found one complete packet sewn up in canvas roughly and numbered. In most cases they are Lee-Metfords, and not Mausers. The Boers have, of course, captured quantities of our rifles and ammunition in convoy “mishaps” of various dates. Spent the evening in trying cooking experiments with mealy flour and some Neave’s Food, which one of us had. One longs for a change of diet from biscuit and plain meat, which, without vegetables, never seem to satisfy. Even salt has been lacking till to-day, and porridge has ceased. It was announced that a convoy was to leave for Kroonstadt the same night, taking wounded and mails, and I hurriedly wrote two notes. I am afraid we are here for some time. I wish I could hear from Henry.
July 11.—Reveillé at 6.30. Stables, grazing, exercise, and more stables, till 1.30, and grazing again in the afternoon. Sat up late at night over embers of cook’s fire, talking to a Munster sergeant about the last two days’ fighting and other experiences of his. They had thirty-two casualties on the second day, including four officers wounded. All sorts of rumours to-day: that we stop a month on this hill; that we go to Capetown on Friday; that we march to Harrismith and Durban in a few days, etc., etc.
July 12.—At breakfast, mealy porridge was served out with the coffee. It is eatable, but not pleasant without sugar. Williams and I got leave to spend the morning out, and walked to Bethlehem over the veldt. A rather nice little town, but all the stores shut, and looking like a dead place. It was full of troops. Some stores had sentries over them, for there had been a great deal of looting. We hammered at a store door, and at last a man came out and said he had nothing to sell. However, he gave us leave to look round, which we did with an exhaustive scrutiny which amused him. At first there seemed to be nothing but linseed meal and mouth-organs, but by ferreting round, climbing to shelves, and opening countless drawers, we discovered some mealy flour, and reproached him for his insincerity. He protested that it was all he had to live on, but at last consented to sell us some, and some mixed spices, the only other eatable he had, besides a knife and fork, braces and sponges. Then we tried another store. A crusty, suspicious old fellow let us grudgingly in, locked the door, and made the same protests. We were just going when I descried some bottles on a distant shelf. He sourly brought them down. They were Mellin’s Food for Infants, and we bought six at half a crown each; also some mixed herbs, and essence of vanilla. Then we made a house-to-house visitation, but only got some milk from an Englishwoman, who was so full of stories of Boer rapacity that she forgot our wants, and stood, cup in hand, complaining about eight ponies they had taken, while we were deaf and thirsty. The whole town had an English appearance. They all abused De Wet. No fresh supplies had come in for nine months, and the whole place was stripped. On the whole, we thought we had done pretty well, as we had half a sack of things, and another one full of fuel laboriously collected on the way back.
Rumours in the town were rife. All agreed we could do nothing till a supply-convoy comes in, now expected from Kroonstadt. We are fifty-four miles, across mountains, from Harrismith on the east, and seventy or eighty from Kroonstadt on the west. All supplies from the latter must come by ox-waggons over dozens of bad drifts, with raiding Boers about, and it is easy to see how an army might be starved before it knew it. We are very short now, I believe. It seems De Wet is ten miles off in the mountains, being watched by Broadwood’s cavalry, and as soon as we can move I expect we shall go for him. Grazing in the afternoon. Williams and I played picquet, lying by our horses. This is always rather a precarious amusement, as the horses have a way of starting off suddenly to seek “pastures new,” and you look up and find them gone, and have to climb rocks and view them out. We tie them all four close together, but there is generally one predominant partner who personally conducts the rest. In the evening we baked cakes of our mealy flour, adding Mellin’s Food, mixed herbs, vanilla, and fat, and fried it in a fatty dish. It was very good, and was followed by meat fried in mealy crumbs, and later on, some mealy porridge and Mellin mixed. We tried Mellin alone first, but it seemed thin. We read the directions carefully, and used the proportions laid down for infants over three months. I dare say it would have been all right had we been four months old, but being rather more mature, it seemed unsubstantial. Its main advantage is its sweetness. In this hungry life, one misses sugar more than anything.
July 13.—Reveillé 6.30, and grooming, while the infantry chaps sat up in their beds and watched us sarcastically. At nine, harness-cleaning for drivers, and grazing for gunners, but I have got a gunner who dislikes bare-back riding to do my harness while I graze. I am writing on the veldt; warm sunny day, pale blue sky—very pale.—Back to finish harness-cleaning. We always “grouse” at this occupation, as I believe all drivers do on active service. We don’t polish steel, but there is a wonderful lot of hard work in rubbing dubbin into all the leather. It is absolutely necessary to keep it supple, especially such parts as the collar, girths, stirrup-leathers, reins, etc. Grazing again all the afternoon. The horses have been on half rations of oats since we came here, so I suppose it is necessary. I was sitting writing by my horses, when a cart rattled by. Some one shouted, “Anything to sell?” It stopped, and there was a rush. In it was a farmer and a rascally old Yeomanry sergeant who had been buying bread for his men, and now sold us a loaf and a half for six shillings. There was no doubt about paying, and I got a third of one loaf, which we ate luxuriously in the evening. It was of mealy flour, and tasted velvety and delicious after eternal biscuit. We also organized a large bake of mealy cakes, which were a distressing failure, as the pan got red-hot. I am afraid food and eating have become very prominent in my diary. My only excuse is that they really are not disproportionately so, seeing their absorbing importance in the life of a soldier on active service, especially when he is far from a base and rations are short.
Some Boer tobacco was kindly sent to us by the Major, and was very welcome, for ‘baccy has been very scarce, and you see fellows picking the wet dottels out of the bottoms of their pipes and drying them in the sun for future use. Matches also are very precious; there are none to be got, and they are counted and cared for like sovereigns. The striking of a match is a public event, of which the striker gives previous notice in a loud voice. Pipes are filled, and every second in the life of the match is utilized.
July 14.—We came back to camp after the last spell to find that the gunners had shifted the lines to the bottom of the hill, on a dismal patch of burnt veldt. We dragged and carried our harness and kit down the rocks, and settled down again, after the usual fatigues connected with change of camp. Everybody very irritable, for this looked like a long stay, but after tea the word went round that we were off next day, to our great delight. We are sick of this place.
July 15.—We harnessed up at 6.30, and at 9.30 climbed to the top of the hill again, a hard pull for the horses. Then marched off with an escort of Highlanders, and halted on what it seems is the Senekal road, near to the site of our last camp after the battle. Here we joined our own right section and a large convoy with sick and wounded, besides the transport for our own brigade, which had mustered there too. They say we are going with the convoy to Senekal, which is quite unexpected, and a doubtful prospect. It seems to be taking us away from De Wet, and promises only hard marching and a dull time. We marched about ten miles entirely over burnt veldt, a most dismal country. There was a high cold wind, which drove black dust over us till we were all like Christy Minstrels. Camped at five.
July 16.—Reveillé at six. There was a deficiency in the meat ration, and at the last moment a sheep’s carcase for each sub-division was thrown down to be divided. Ours was hacked to bits pretty soon, but raw meat on the march is a great nuisance, as there is no convenient place to pack it, and very likely much difficulty in cooking it.
1.15.—Marched from eight till one over very hilly country, mostly burnt. It seems there are Boers about; their laager was seen last night, and I believe our scouts are now in touch with them. The pet of the left section, a black and white terrier named Tiny, has been having a fine hunt after a hare, to the amusement of the whole brigade. She is a game little beast, and follows us everywhere. Jacko, of the right section, rides on a gunlimber. We passed a farm just now which was being looted. Three horsemen have just passed with a chair each, also picture-frames (all for fuel, of course), and one man carrying a huge feather mattress, also fowls and flour. Artillery don’t get much chance at this sort of game.
(2 P.M.).—Firing began on the right, and we were trotted up a long steep hill into action, bullets dropping round, but no one hit. In front are two remarkable kopjes, squat, steep, and flat-topped. We are shelling one of them.[A]
(4.30 P.M.).—This is the warmest work we have had yet. Our waggon is with the guns, unhooked, and we and the team are with the limbers in rear. There is no shelter, for the ground is level. Boer guns on a kopje have got our range, and at one time seemed much interested in our team, for four shells fell in a circle round us, from thirty to forty yards off. It was very unpleasant to sit waiting for the bull’s-eye.
(4.35 P.M.).—We have shifted the teams a bit, and got out of the music. To go back: we have been in action all the afternoon, shelling a kopje where the Boers have several guns. It is a wooded one, and they are very difficult to locate. They have a great advantage, as we are on the open level ground below, and they have been fairly raining shells round us. Fortunately most of them burst only on impact, and are harmless, owing to the soft ground, outside a very small radius; they seem to be chiefly segment shell, but I saw a good many shrapnel, bursting high and erratically. The aim was excellent, and well-timed shrapnel would have been very damaging. Still, we have been very lucky even so, only one man wounded, and no guns, waggons or horses touched. Once, when trotting out of action, a shell burst just beside our team—an excellent running shot for the sportsman who fired it! It made a deafening noise, but only resulted in chipping a scratch on my mare’s nose with a splinter. She thought she was killed, and made a great fuss, kicking over the traces, etc.; so that we had to halt to put things straight.
In this case, again, the veldt was alight everywhere, but it was only short grass, and we could trot safely through the thin lambent line of flame. I’m afraid we shall be short of ammunition soon. We started yesterday with only one hundred rounds per gun.
Can it be that De Wet has got round here, and that we are up against his main position? What is happening elsewhere I don’t know. There are a lot of cavalry, Yeomanry, infantry, etc., about somewhere, but here we seem alone with a small infantry escort, and no sound but the opposing guns. It shows how little a single Tommy sees or knows of a fight.
At dark we marched away about a mile, and bivouacked. Williams and I minced our meat in one of the battery mincing machines, and made a grand dish of it over the cook’s fire. There was a red glare over half the sky to-night, as though a Babylon were burning. It was only a veldt-fire.
July 17.—Tuesday.—Reveillé at six. Our horses are grazing, harnessed. We are waiting for the Staff to say if this is a good position. It appears that De Wet retreated in the night, and went towards Lindley, which will complete the circle of the hunt. Our sections are separated again. The right, under Lieutenant Lowe, has gone on with the convoy to Senekal, and we and the 38th Battery (who have now fresh officers), and most of the brigade, have taken up a position just under one of the remarkable kopjes I spoke of, and are told we shall stay here four days. I suppose we are part of some endeavour to surround De Wet, but the whole operations seem to get more obscure. He has played this game for months in this part of the Free State, and is no nearer capture. Thinking over it, one’s mental state during a fight is a strange paradox. I suppose it arises from the nature of my work, but, speaking for myself at least, I feel no animosity to any one. Infantry, no doubt, get the lust of battle, but I don’t for my part experience anything like it, though gunners tell me they do, which is natural. One feels one is taking part in a game of skill at a dignified distance, and any feeling of hostility is very impersonal and detached, even when concrete signs of an enemy’s ill-will are paying us noisy visits. The fact is—and I fancy this applies to all sorts and conditions of private soldiers—in our life in the field, fighting plays a relatively small part. I doubt if people at home realize how much in the background are its dangers and difficulties. The really absorbing things are questions of material welfare—sordid, physical, unromantic details, which touch you at every turn. Shall we camp in time to dry my blankets? Biscuit ration raised from three to three and a half! How can I fill my water-bottle? Rum tonight! Is there time for a snooze at this halt? Dare I take my boots off to-night? Is it going to rain? There are always the thousand little details connected with the care of horses and harness, and all along the ever-present problem of the next meal, and how to make it meet the demands of your hunger. I don’t mean that one is always worrying about such things. They generally have a most humorous side, and are a source of great amusement; on the other hand, they sometimes seem overwhelmingly important. Chiefly one realizes the enormous importance of food to a soldier. Shortage of sleep, over-marching, severe fighting, sink into insignificance beside an empty stomach. Any infantry soldier will tell you this; and it is on them, who form the bulk of a field force, that the strain really tells. Mounted men are better able to fend for themselves. (I should say, that an artillery driver has in the field the least tiring work of all, physically; at home, probably the heaviest.) It is the foot-soldier who is the measure of all things out here. In the field he is always at the extreme strain, and any defect of organization tells acutely and directly on him. Knowing what it is to be hungry and tired myself, I can’t sufficiently admire these Cork and Yorkshire comrades of ours, in their cheerful, steady marching.
By the way, the General was giving orders close to me this morning. He said to our Major, “Your guns are the best—longest range; go up there.” So the Lord Mayor is justified; but the special ammunition is a great difficulty. This, however, is only a matter of organization. As to the guns themselves, we have always understood that the pattern was refused by the War Office some years ago; it would be interesting to know on what grounds. They are very simple, and have some features which are obvious improvements on the 15-pr.
There was a serious alarm of fire just now. There is a high wind, and the grass is unusually long. A fire started due to wind-ward, and came rushing and roaring towards us. We drivers took the horses out of reach, and the gunners and infantry attacked it with sacks, etc. But nothing could stop it, though by great efforts they confined its width, so that it only reached one of our waggons and the watercart, which I don’t think are damaged. No sooner well past than fellows began cooking on the hot embers.—Stayed here all day, and unharnessed and picketed in the evening.
July 18.—Reveillé at six, and harnessed up; but did nothing all the morning but graze the horses, and at twelve unharness and groom them. I believe we have to take it in turn with the 38th to be in readiness for instant departure. Firing is heard at intervals. We are, I believe, about twenty miles from Senekal, eighteen from Bethlehem, and thirty from Lindley. We call the place Bultfontein, from a big farm near, where the General has his head-quarters. Water is bad here; a thick, muddy pool, used also by cattle and horses.
There has been some to-do about the sugar, and we now draw it separately ourselves, two ounces, and find it goes further. There is enough for the morning mealy porridge, which is very nasty without it.
July 19.—Reveillé at six. Harnessed up. Cleaning lines, and grazing all the morning. Grazing is now practically a standing order in all spare time. I believe it is necessary for the horses; but it acts as an irksome restraint on the men. When not on the move, we have the three stable-hours as in a standing camp, and often “grouse” over them a good deal; but the horses are certainly in wonderfully good condition with the care taken of them. The weather is warmer. Frost at night, but no dew; and a hot sun all the windless, cloudless day.
Visited a pile of loot taken by some 38th men, and got a lump of home-made Boer soap, in exchange for some English tobacco. It has a fatty smell, but makes a beautiful white lather. They had all sorts of household things, and a wag was wearing a very piquante piece of female head-gear. In the afternoon I got leave away, and washed in the muddy pool aforesaid. It seems odd that it can clean one; but it does. On the way back found a nigger killing a sheep, and bought some fat, which is indispensable in our cooking; if there is any over, we boil it and use it as butter. We cooked excellent mealy cakes in it in the evening. “We don’t know where we are” to-day; we had mutton, rice, and cheese for dinner!
July 20.—Harnessed up as usual at dawn, and “stood by” all the morning. The rumour now is that De Wet never went to Lindley at all, but only a small commando, and that he is at Ficksburg, fifty miles away on the Basuto border. What an eel of a man!
Clements’s brigade arrived to-day from somewhere, and is just visible, camped a few miles away. The biscuit ration was raised from three to four and a half to-day. Five is the full number. Rations are good now. Cooked mutton is served out at night, and also a portion of raw mutton. Drawing rations is an amusing scene. It is always done in the dark, and the corporal stands at the pot doling out chunks. It is a thrilling moment when you investigate by touch the nature of the greasy, sodden lump put into your hand; it may be all bone, with frills of gristle on it, or it may be good meat. Complaints are useless; a ruthless hand sweeps you away, and the queue closes up. Later on, a sheep’s carcass (very thin) is thrown down and hewed up with a bill-hook. There is great competition for the legs and shoulders, which are good and tender. If you come off with only ribs, you take them sadly to the public mincing machine, and imagine they were legs when you eat the result. A rather absurd little modicum of jam is also served out, but it serves to sweeten a biscuit. There is rum once a week (in theory). Duff at midday the last few days. It is difficult to say anything general about rations, because they vary from day to day, often with startling suddenness, according to the conditions of the campaign. I was on picket this night, a duty which is far less irksome when in the field than when in a standing camp. Vigilance is of course not relaxed, but many petty rules and regulations are. There is no guardtent, of course, in which you must stay when not on watch; as long as it is known where you can be found at a moment’s notice, you are free in the off hours. You can be dressed as you like as long as you carry your revolver.
By the way, I have lost my C.I.V. slouch hat long ago. It came of wearing a very unnecessary helmet, merely because it was served out. That involved carrying the hat in my kit, and it is wonderful how one loses things on the march, in the hurried nocturnal packings and unpackings, when every strap and article of kit must be to your hand in the dark, or you will be late with your horses and cause trouble. My great comfort is a Tamo’-Shanter, which I wear whenever we are not in marching order.
As for the revolver, I got into trouble with the Sergeant-Major this night for parading for picket without it. It was not worth while to explain that I had no ammunition for it; to take your “choking-off,” and say nothing, is always the simplest plan. I once had one cartridge given me, but lost this precious possession. I suppose there was some hitch in the arrangements, for our revolvers are only cumbrous ornaments.
There are three pickets and a corporal in charge; each of the three takes two hours on and four off, which works out at about four hours on watch for each, but less if reveillé is early. Personally I don’t mind the duty much, even after a long day’s march. On a fine still night two hours pass quickly in the lines, especially if one or two picket ropes break, and the horses get tied up in knots. If there is a lack of incident, you can meditate. Your head is strangely clear, and for a brief interval your horizon widens. In the sordid day it is often narrowed to a cow’s.
July 21.—The same old game; harnessed up and remained ready. There was a sudden alarm about three, and we jumped into our kit, hooked in, and moved off, only to return in a few minutes. The General possibly gave the order to see if we were ready. He reviewed us before we went back, and seemed pleased. I heard him admiring the horses, and saying there was plenty of work in them. “You’ve been very lucky after that shell-fire the other day,” he said.
A much-needed convoy turned up from Bethlehem to-day with ammunition for us. We took our waggon down in the morning and filled it. A box of matches per man was also served out. In the evening came the joyful news that we were to start tomorrow, two days’ fighting expected. Williams and I made a roaring fire of an ammunition box in honour of the occasion, and a grand supper of mealy-cakes and tea, and smoked and talked till late. Summing up our experiences, we agreed that we enjoyed the life thoroughly, but much preferred marching to sitting still. Both thoroughly fit and well, as nearly all have been since campaigning began. In numbers, I hear, we are twenty-two short of our full complement.
One thing that makes a great difference is that campaigning has become routine. One doesn’t worry over little things, as one did in early days, when one dreamt of nose-bags, bridoons, muzzles, etc., and the awful prospect of losing something important or unimportant, and when one harnessed-up in a fever of anxiety, dreading that the order “hook in” would find one still fumbling for a strap in the dark, in oblivion of the hot coffee which would be missed cruelly later. In a score of little ways one learns to simplify things, save time, and increase comfort. Not that one ever gets rid of a strong sense of responsibility. Entire charge, day and night, of two horses and two sets of harness, is no light thing.
July 22.—Sunday.—Reveillé at six. Boot and saddle at 7.30; started at 8.30—a lovely day. Marched out about three miles with the brigade, and are now halted. An officer has just explained to the non-coms, what is going to happen. The Boer forces are in the mountains east of us, whence there are only three outlets, that is, passes (or neks, as the Dutch call them), one at each corner of a rough triangle. British columns are watching all these, Hunter, Paget, Clements, and Bruce Hamilton. Ours is called Slabbert’s Nek, and to-day’s move is a reconnaissance in force towards it, without likelihood of fighting. The delay here has been to allow every column to get into position, so that when an attack is made there may be no escape from the trap. The trap, of course, is a very big one, one corner, I believe, being at the Basuto border. Something like a whole army corps is engaged. It is most novel and unusual to know anything about what one is doing. It makes a marvellous difference to one’s interest in everything, and I have often wondered why we are not told more. But I suppose the fact is that very few people know.
We halted while the mounted troops made a long reconnaissance, and then came back to camp. It clouded up in the evening, and about eight began to rain, and suddenly, with no warning, to blow a hurricane. I rushed to my harness, covered up my kit in it, seized my blankets and bolted for a transport-waggon, dived under it, tripping over the bodies of the Collar-maker sergeant and his allies, breathlessly apologized, and disposed myself as best I could. But the rain drove in, and there seemed always to be mules on my feet; so, when fairly wet through, I crept out and joined a circle at a great fire which similar unfortunates had built, where we cooked two camp-kettles full of mysteriously commandeered tea and porridge, and made very merry till reveillé at 4.30 in the morning.
[Footnote A: We were (as we heard long after) in action against De Wet’s rear-guard. He had escaped from the cordon just before it was drawn tight, with a small and mobile force, and was now in retreat towards Lindley. Broadwood’s cavalry pursued him, but in vain.]