July 23.—Harnessed up at 4.30, and marched out in a raw, cold fog, all wet, but very cheerful. While halting at the rendezvous to await our escort, there were great stories of the night, especially of a tempestuous scene under a big waggon-sheet crowded with irreconcilable interests. We marched straight towards the mountains, ten or twelve miles, I suppose, till we were pretty close up, and then Clements’s two great lyddite five-inch guns came into position and fired at long range. They are called “Weary Willie” and “Tired Tim,” and each is dragged by twenty-two splendid oxen. We soon moved on a mile or two farther, crossed one of the worst spruits I remember, climbed a very steep hill, and came into action just on its brow, firing at a distant ridge. All this time the infantry had been advancing on either flank in extended order.
(3.30 P.M.)—We and the 38th and the cow-guns, as they are called, have been raining shell on the Boer positions and on their guns. The situation, as I see it, is this: we are exactly opposite the mouth of the nek, stretching back into the mountains like a great grass road, bordered with battlements of precipitous rock, which at this end—the gate we are knocking at—swell out on either side into a great natural bastion of bare rock. On these are the Boer trenches, tier above tier, while their guns are posted on the lower ground between. It looks an impregnable position. The Royal Irish, I hear, are attacking the right hand bastion; the Munsters, I think, the left, and there is a continuous rattle of rifle-fire from both.
Our teams, waggons, and limbers, have been shell-dodging under the brow of the hill. They have fallen all around us, but never on us. One, which I saw fall, killed five horses straight off, and wounded the Yeomanry chap who was holding them. We have shifted position two or three times; it is windy, and very cold. A new and unpleasant experience in the shape of a pom-pom has come upon the scene. Far off you hear pom-pom-pom-pom-pom, five times, and directly afterwards, like an echo, pom-pom-pom-pom-pom in your neighbourhood, five little shells bursting over an area of about eighty yards, for all the world like a gigantic schoolboy’s cracker. The new captain of the unlucky 38th has been hit in two places by one.
At the close the day was undecided; the infantry had taken some trenches, but were still face to face with others, and fire was hottest at sunset. But I believe the pom-pom was smashed up, and a big gun silenced, if not smashed. We bivouacked where we were, but desultory rifle-fire went on long after dark.
July 24.—Reveillé at five. Directly after breakfast we took our waggon back to the convoy to fill up with shells from the reserve. All the artillery, including ours, took position again, and began hammering away, but not for long, as the Boers had been evacuating the whole position in the night, and the last of their trenches was now occupied. I believe the Royal Irish have lost heavily, the Munsters only a few. We got away, and marched through the nek, up and down steep grassy slopes, and through the site of the Boer laager. I was struck by its remarkable cleanliness; I thought that was not a Boer virtue. We halted close to the emplacement where one of the Boer guns had been yesterday. There was a rush to see some horrible human débris found in it. I was contented with the word-pictures of enthusiastic gunners, and didn’t go myself. From the brow, a glorious view opened out. The nek, flanked by its frowning crags, opened out into an immense amphitheatre of rich undulating pasture-land, with a white farm here and there, half hidden in trees. Beyond rose tier on tier of hills, ending on the skyline in snow-clad mountain peaks. You could just conjecture that a “happy valley” ran right and left. After the scorched monotony of the veldt it was a wonderful contrast. We camped just where the nek ends, near an empty farm, which produced a fine supply of turkeys, geese, and chickens. The Captain, who has charge of our commissariat, never misses a chance of supplementing our rations. Williams was sent to forage, and for personal loot got some coffee and a file of Boer newspapers, or rather warbulletins, published in Bethlehem, and roughly lithographed, chiefly lies, I expect.[A] The Boers have retired south, deeper into the trap. Poultry was issued, and the gunners and drivers of our waggon drew by lot the most amazing turkey I have ever seen. It had been found installed in a special little enclosure of its own, and I fear was being fattened for some domestic galaday which never dawned. It was prodigiously plump.
[Footnote A: Here is an extract, since translated, from one of these precious “newspapers,” which ought to be one day edited in full. It is a telegram from General Snyman at the Boer laager at Mafeking, dated March 2, 1900, when the famous siege had been going on for five months and a half. After some trivial padding about camp details, it concludes: “The bombardment by the British (sic) is diminishing considerably. Our burghers are still full of courage. Their sole desire is to meet the enemy!” This is only a mild specimen of the sort of intelligence that was allowed to penetrate to a remote farm like this at Slabbert’s Nek, whose owner was now fighting us, probably, to judge from these documents, in utter ignorance of the hopelessness of his cause.]
July 25.—Wednesday.—Reveillé at six. Started at 8.30, at the outset crossing a very awkward drift. It was a sort of full dress crossing, so to speak, when all the officers collect and watch the passage. We dived down a little chasm, charged through a river, and galloped up the side of a wall. One waggon stuck, and we had to lend it our leaders. There was a strong, cold wind, and we kept on our cloaks all day; a bright sun, though, in which I thought the brigade made a very pretty spectacle in its advance, with long streamers of mounted troops and extended infantry on either flank. About one, our section was ordered to march back some miles and meet the rearguard. On the way we passed Hunter and his staff, and his whole brigade, followed by miles of waggons, which we halted to allow to pass, and then followed. They might have discovered they wanted the rearguard strengthening a little sooner, for the road was very bad, and our horses had a hard job. The united brigades camped at sunset. Rumours rife, and one, that De Wet has cut the line near Kroonstadt, seems really true. Very cold.
July 26.—Reveillé at 6.30. We waited for orders all the morning, with the horses hooked in ready. While sitting by my team I had my hair cut by a Munster, and an excruciating shave. Rumour is that the Boers have been given till two to surrender. Rumour that they have surrendered. Stated as a fact. Rumour reduced to story that the town of Fouriesberg (five miles on) has surrendered. Anyway, some British prisoners have escaped and come in. Grazing in harness for the rest of the day.
July 27.—Reveillé at 5.15. Hooked in and waited for the whole convoy to file by, as we are to be rearguard. It took several hours, and must be five or six miles long. It was a heavy, misty day, and some rain fell. Started at last and marched up the valley, which narrowed considerably here, under the shadow of beetling cliffs, for about eight miles, with incessant momentary halts, as always happens in the rear of a column. Suddenly the valley opened out to another noble circle bounded by mountains on all sides, some wearing a sprinkling of snow still. Here we came to the pretty little town of Fouriesberg, and joined the general camp, which stretched as far as you could see, thousands of beasts grazing between the various lines, and interminable rows of out-spanned waggons. At night camp fires twinkled far into the distance, and signals kept flashing from high peaks all round. An officer has been telling us the situation, which is that the trap is closed, the Boers being surrounded on all sides; that they are expected to surrender; that it will be a Paardeberg on a bigger scale—the biggest haul of prisoners in the war.
Some commandeered ham was served out, and we fried ours over the cook’s fire with great success. I may say that the service mess-tin is our one cooking utensil, and the work it stands is amazing; it is a flat round tin with a handle and a lid. It is used indiscriminately for boiling, frying, and baking, besides its normal purpose of holding rations.
July 28.—Reveillé at six. After waiting in uncertainty for some time we were left, with the Staffords from Hunter’s column, to guard the town, while the other troops moved off. We camped just outside the town, and there was a rush for loot directly, of course only from unoccupied houses, whose rebel owners are fighting. Unhappily others had been there before us, and the place was skinned. But we got a Kaffir cooking-pot, and a lot of fuel, by chopping up a manger in a stable. My only domestic loot was a baby’s hat, which I eventually abandoned, and a table and looking-glass which served for fuel. But we found a nice Scotch family in a house, and bought a cabbage from them. There was a dear old lady and two daughters. Williams dropped two leaves of the cabbage, and got a playful rebuke from her. She said he must not waste them, as they were good and tender. By the way, we bought this cabbage with our last three-penny bit. We had sovereigns, but they are useless in this country, for there is no change. These people told us that they had been ten months prisoners (at large) of the Boers. Their men had gone to Basutoland, like many more. They had been well treated, and suffered little loss, till the advent of the conquering British, when forty or fifty hens were taken by Highlanders at night.
A lovely warm afternoon, and for a wonder freedom till four, the first spell of it for weeks. Went to a puddle some way off, near a Kaffir kraal, and washed. Some women came with calabashes for water, and I tried to buy the bead bangles and waistlace off a baby child, but failed. Then I invaded the kraal for meal and chickens, but failed again. I never thought, when I visited Earl’s Court a year ago, that I should look on the African original so soon. Round mud hovels, with a tall plaited-straw portico in front. Most of the men look like worthless loafers; the women finely-built, capable creatures.
Heavy firing has been going on all day, mostly with lyddite, on our side, by the sound. You can see the shells bursting on the top of a big kopje.
This is a funny little place: pleasant cottages dotted round in desultory fashion, as though the town had been brought up in waggons and just tipped out anyhow. Half the houses are empty and gutted; we are all going to sleep in houses to-night. There has been a row about looting a chemist’s shop; our fellows thought he was away with the Boers, but he turned up in the middle. There were some curious bits of plunder.
We are much disappointed at being left out of the fighting to-day, but it’s only natural. We are only half a battery, and have no reserve ammunition, actual or prospective, for some time.
I have struck my last match. I have now to rely on cordite, which, however, only acts as a spill. You get a rifle cartridge (there are plenty to be got, the infantry seem to drop them about by hundreds), wrench out the bullet and wad, and find the cordite in long slender threads like vermicelli. You dip this in another man’s lighted pipe, when it flares up, and you can light your own.
In the evening Williams and I made a fire, and cooked our cabbage in our Kaffir pot, a round iron one on three legs, putting in meat and some (looted) vinegar. How good it was! It was the first fresh green food we had eaten since leaving England, and it is what one misses most. Two escaped prisoners of the Canadian Mounted Infantry came to our fire, and we had a most interesting chat with them till very late. They spoke highly of the way they had been treated. In food they always fared just as the Boers did, and were under no needlessly irksome restrictions. They said that in this sort of warfare the Boers could always give us points. They laugh at our feeble scouting a mile or two ahead, while their own men are ranging round in twos and threes, often fifteen miles from their commando, and at night venturing right up to our camps. In speed of movement, too, they can beat us; in spite of their heavy bullock transport they can travel at least a third quicker than we. Their discipline was good enough for its purpose. A man would obey a direct order whatever it was. They only wanted a stiffening of our own class of military discipline to make them invulnerable. They sang hymns every night in groups round their fires, “but are hypocrites.” (On this point, however, my informants differed a little.) They said the leader of this force was Prinsloo, and that we had not been fighting De Wet at all. It seems there are two De Wets, Piet and Christian. There was a rumour yesterday that Piet had been captured near Kroonstadt, though Christian seems to be the important one. But the whole thing is distracting, like constructing history out of myths and legends.
July 29.—Sunday.—Church parade at eleven. It is reported, and is probably true, that the whole Boer force has surrendered. If so we have missed little or nothing. About twenty prisoners came in in the morning, quaint, rough people, shambling along on diminutive ponies. In the afternoon Williams went foraging for the officers, and I visited our Scotch friends, the donors of the cabbage, who were very kind, and asked me in. The married son had just come in from Basutoland, where he had been hiding, a great red, strapping giant, with his wife and babies by him. He had originally been given a passport to allow him to remain neutral, but later they had tried to make him fight, so he ran away, and had been with a missionary over the border, whose house he repaired. It was pleasant to see this joyful home-coming.
Rations to-day, one biscuit and a pound of flour. How to cook it? Some went to houses, some made dough-nuts (with deadly properties, I believe). No fat and no baking-powder. Fortunately, Williams brought back from his expedition, besides fowls, etc., for the officers, some bread and, king of luxuries, a big pot of marmalade, which he bought from a pretty little Boer girl, the temporary mistress of a fine farm. Her father, she proudly explained, was away fighting us, “as was his duty.” Williams was quite sentimental over this episode. The Canadians came round to our fire again, and we had another long talk. They said there were very few Transvaalers in this army. The Free Staters hate them. The remains we found in the gun-emplacement at Slabbert’s Nek were those of Lieutenant Muller, a German artillerist. The Boers always had plenty of our harness, stores, ammunition, etc.
July 30.—After stables Williams and I went foraging in the town and secured scones, a fowl (for a shilling), another cabbage, and best of all, some change, a commodity for which one has to scheme and plot. We managed it by first getting into a store and buying towels, spoons, note-books, etc., up to ten shillings, and then cajoling and bluffing a ten-shilling bit out of the unwilling store-keeper. This was changed by the lady who sold us the fowl, an Englishwoman. On our return there was harness-cleaning, interrupted by a sudden order to move, but only to shift camp about a mile. This is always annoying, because at halts you always collect things such as fuel and meal and pots, which are impossible to carry with you. Of course this is no matter, if regular marching and fighting are on hand, but just for shifting camp it is a nuisance. However, much may be done by determination. I induced the Collar-maker to take our flour on his waggon; marmalade, meal, etc., were hastily decanted into small tins, and stuffed into wallets, and just before starting Williams furtively tossed the fuel-sack into a buck-waggon, and hitched up the Kaffir pot somewhere underneath. I strung a jug on my saddle, which, what with feed-bags (contents by no means confined to oats), and muzzles, with meat and things in them, is rather Christmas-tree-like. We marched through the town, and to the base of a kopje about a mile away, where preparations for a big camp had been made. It is confirmed that the Boers have surrendered en masse, and they are to be brought here.
After we had unharnessed, I got leave to go back to town and send a joint telegram home from a dozen of us. The battery has a telegraphic address at home from which wires are forwarded to our relations. The charge for soldiers is only 2s. a word, so a dozen of us can say “quite well” to our relations for about 2s. 8d. The official at the office said the wire was now open, but that he had no change. However, he produced 5s. when I gave him £2. It was a little short, but the change was valuable. He said that to pass the censor it must be signed by an officer, so I had to look for one. After some dusty tramping, I found a captain of the Staffords, saluted, and made my request. We were, I suppose, about equal in social station, but I suddenly—I don’t know why—felt what a gulf the service put between us. He was sleek and clean, and talking about the hour of his dinner to another one, just as if he were at a club. I was dirty, unshaven, out at knees, and was carrying half a sack of fuel—a mission like this has to serve subsidiary purposes—and felt like an abject rag-and-bone-picking ruffian. He took the paper, signed it, and went on about his confounded dinner. However, I expect mine rivalled his for once in a way, for when I got back one of the “boys” (nigger drivers) had cooked our chicken and cabbage, and we ate it, followed by scones and marmalade, and, to wind up with, black coffee, made from some rye coffee given us by one of our Canadian prisoner friends. I had met one of them near the telegraph office, and visited his quarters. Rye makes remarkably good strong coffee, with a pleasant burnt taste in it. The camp had filled up a bit, the Manchesters, Staffords and 2nd Field Battery, of Rundle’s division, having come in. We also played with flour and fat over our fire, and made some chupatties. The Captain had sent a foraging party out to secure fat at any price. Quite a warm night. A deep furrow passed near my harness, and I had a most comfortable bed in it.
July 31.—The first batch of 250 prisoners have come in, and are herded near. They are of all ages from sixty to fifteen, dressed in all varieties of rough plain clothes, with some ominous exceptions in the shape of a khaki tunic, a service overcoat, etc. Some seemed depressed, some jocular, the boys quite careless. All were lusty and well fed. Close by were their ponies, tiny little rats of things, dead-tired and very thin. Their saddles were mostly very old, with canvas or leather saddle-bags, containing cups, etc. I saw also one or two horses with our regimental brands on them. Some had bright-coloured rugs on them, and all the men had the same, which lent vivid colour to the otherwise sombre throng.
We watered and grazed near an outlying picket, and saw many prisoners coming in in twos and threes, and giving up their rifles. What will they do with them? They are nominally rebels since the 15th of June; but I doubt if a tenth of them ever heard of Roberts’s proclamation. Communications are few in this big, wild country; and their leaders systematically deceive them. Besides, to call the country conquered when Bloemfontein was taken, is absurd. The real fighting had not begun then, and whole districts such as this were unaffected. It seems to me that morally, if not legally, these people are fair-and-square civilized belligerents, who have fought honestly for their homes, and treated our prisoners humanely. Deportation oversea and confiscation of farms seem hard measures, and I hope more lenience will be shown.
In the evening Doctor Moon, of the Hampshire Yeomanry, a great friend of Williams, turned up, and had supper with us. We had no fatted calf to kill; but fortunately could show a tolerable menu, including beef and marmalade.
I was on picket this night. About midnight a lot of Boer prisoners, and a long train of their ox-waggons, began coming in. It was very dark, and they blundered along, knocking down telegraph posts, and invading regimental lines, amidst a frightful din from the black drivers, and a profane antiphony between two officers, of the camp and the convoy respectively.
In my second watch, in the small hours, a Tommy with a water-cart strayed into our lines, asking for the Boer prisoners, for whom he had been sent to get water. He swore copiously at the nature of his job in particular, and at war in general. I showed him the way, and consoled him with tobacco.
August 1.—Grazing and harness-cleaning all day. More prisoners came in, and also our old friends the Munsters, and General Paget. Rumours galore. We are going to Cape Town with the prisoners; to Harrismith; to Winberg; to the Transvaal on another campaign, etc. Definite orders came to move the next morning. In the evening an unusual flood of odds and ends of rations was poured on us; flour, a little biscuit, a little fat for cooking, diminutive hot potatoes, a taste of goose, commandeered the same day by the mounted gunners, a little butter from the same source, besides the usual sugar, cooked meat, and tea. Drawing from this cornucopia was a hard evening’s work. We also got hold of some dried fruit-chips, and as a desperate experiment tried to make a fruit pudding, wrapping the fruit in a jacket of dough and baking it in fat in our pot. The result, seen in the dark, was a formless black mass, very doughy and fatty; but with oases of palatable matter.