August 16, continued.—We started at 4 P.M., and had a most tedious march for about four miles only, with incessant checks, owing to the badness of the ground, so that we arrived long after dark at the camping-ground in indifferent humour. We had followed a narrow valley in a northerly direction. Most of the transport waggons, including our own, stuck in a drift some way back, so that we had no tea, and the drivers no blankets to sleep in (gunners carry their kit on the gun-carriages and limbers and ammunition-waggons). However, I got up at midnight and found the kit-waggon had arrived, and got mine; also some tea from a friendly cook of the 38th, so I did well.
August 17.—Reveillé at 4.15. Started at five, and to our surprise marched back about a mile and a half. Picked up the rest of our buck waggons on the way, and halted for a hurried breakfast at dawn. Then marched through what I hear is called Wonder-boom Port, a narrow nek between two hills, leading due north, to judge by the sun. We forded a girth-deep river on the way. The nek led out on to a long, broad valley, about six miles in width, bordered on the Pretoria side with a line of steep kopjes, and on the north by low brown hills. Long yellow grass, low scrub, and thorny trees, about the size of hawthorns; no road, and the ground very heavy.
(2 P.M.)—We are halted to feed. There is some firing on the left front. Had a good sleep for an hour. Later on we went into action, but never fired, and in the evening marched away behind a hill and camped. The Wilts and Montgomery Yeomanry are with us, and at the common watering-place, a villainous little pool, with a steep, slippery descent to it, I recognized Alexander Lafone, of the latter corps. I walked to their lines after tea, found him sergeant of the guard, and we talked over a fire. We had last seen one another as actors in some amateur theatricals in a country town at home. They had been in action for the first time that day, and had reported 500 Boers close by. A warm night. Quite a change of season has set in.
August 18.—A big gun was booming not far off, during breakfast. A hot, cloudless day. Started about 8.30, and marched till twelve, crossing the valley diagonally, till we reached some kopjes on the other side. A pom-pom of ours is now popping away just ahead, and there is a good deal of rifle-fire.
(3.15.)—The old music has begun, a shell coming screeching overhead and bursting behind us. We and the convoy were at once moved to a position close under a kopje between us and the enemy. Shells are coming over pretty fast, but I don’t see how they can reach us here. A most curious one has just come sailing very slowly overhead, and growling and hiccoughing in the strangest way. I believe it was a ricochet, having first hit the top of the kopje. When it fell there was a rush of gunners to pick up the fragments. I secured one, and it turned out to be part of a huge forty-pounder siege-gun shell. Such a gun would far out-range ours, and I believe the scouts have not located it yet, which explains our inactivity.
(3.30.)—Our right section has gone into action, and is firing now. Some wounded Yeomen just brought in. One of them, I’m sorry to say, is Lafone, with a glancing wound under the eye, sight uninjured. We camped at five, and unharnessed. It seems the Yeomanry lost ten men prisoners, but the Boers released them after taking their rifles.
August 19.—Sunday.—Reveillé at four. Some days are very irritating to the soldier, and this was a typical one. We harnessed up and stood about waiting for orders for five hours. At last we moved off, only to return again immediately; again moved off, and after a few minutes halted; finally got more or less started, and marched five or six miles, with incessant short halts, at each of which the order is to unbuckle wither-straps and let horses graze. This sounds simple, but is a horrible nuisance, as the team soon gets all over the place, feet over traces, collars over ears, and so on, if not continually watched and pulled about. When it is very hot and you are tired, it is very trying to the temper. At one halt you think you will lunch. You get out a Maconochie, open it, and take a spoonful, when you find the centres tying themselves up in a knot with the leaders. Up you get, straighten them out, and sit down again. After two more spoonfuls, you find the wheelers playing cat’s-cradle with the centres’ traces. Perhaps the wheel-driver is asleep, and you get up and put them right. Then the grazing operations of the leaders bring them round in a circle to the wheelers. Up you get, and finally, as the fifth spoonful is comforting a very empty stomach, you hear, “Stand to your horses!” “Mount!” You hurriedly stuff the tin into a muzzle hanging from the saddle, where you have leisure to observe its fragrant juices trickling out, stick the spoon under a wallet-strap, buckle up wither-straps, and mount. At the next halt you begin again, and the same thing happens. It is a positive relief to hear the shriek of a shell, and have something definite to do or interest you. About two the 38th fired a few shots at some Boers on the sky-line, and then we came to Waterval, where we camped and watered. The Petersberg railway runs up here, and this was a station on it, with a few houses besides. Its only interest is the cage in which several thousand English prisoners were kept, till released by Roberts’ arrival. I visited it on the way to a delicious bathe in the river after tea. It is a large enclosure, full of the remains of mud huts, and fitted with close rows of tall iron posts for the electric light, which must have turned night into day. It is surrounded by an elaborate barbed-wire entanglement. In one place was a tunnel made by some prisoners to escape by. It began at a hole inside a hut, and ran underground for quite forty yards, to a point about five yards outside the enclosure. Some of our chaps passed through it. In a large tin shed near the enclosure was a fine electric-lighting plant for lighting this strange prison on the open veldt.
This morning the Captain came back, to our great delight. He had been away since Winberg, getting stores for us at Bloemfontein. He brought a waggon full of clothing and tobacco, which was distributed after we had come in. There were thick corduroy uniforms for winter use. If they had reached us in the cold weather they would have been more useful. It is hot weather now; but a light drill tunic was also served out, and a sign of the times was stewed dry fruit for tea. The ration now is five biscuits (the full ration) and a Maconochie, or bully beef. Only extreme hunger can make me stomach Maconochies now. They are quite sound and good, but one gets to taste nothing but the chemical preservative, whatever it is. We have had no fresh meat for a long time back, but one manages with an occasional change of bully beef or a commandeered chicken.
The camp is a big one, for infantry reinforcements have come in, and two cow-guns. August 20.—There was no hour appointed for reveillé overnight, but we were wakened by the pickets at 2.30 A.M. At once harnessed up, and marched off without breakfast. Went north still, as yesterday, following the railway. Dawn came slow, silent, and majestic into the cloudless sky, where a thin sickle of waning moon hung. It was a typical African dawn, and I watched every phase of it to-day with care. Its chief feature is its gentle unobtrusiveness. About an hour before sunrise, the east grows faintly luminous; then just one arc of it gradually and imperceptibly turns to faint yellow, and then delicate green; but just before the sun tops the veldt there is a curious moment, when all colour fades out except the steel blue of a twilight sky, and the whole firmament is equally lighted, so that it would be hard to say where the sun was going to rise. The next moment, a sharp rim of dazzling gold cuts the veldt, and in an instant it is broad day. The same applies to sunset. There are no “fine sunsets” here, worthy of Ruskinian rhapsodies; they are just exquisitely subtle transitions from day to night. But, of course, directly the sun is below the horizon, night follows quickly, as in all countries in these latitudes. There is very little twilight.
(9.30 A.M.)—The country we cross is studded thickly with small trees. About 6.30 the enemy’s rifle-fire began on our front. Our side at first answered with pom-poms, Maxims, and rifle-fire, but our guns have just come into action. The enemy’s position appears to be a low ridge ahead covered with bush.—I fancy they were only a skirmishing rear-guard, for after a bit of shrapnel-practice we moved on, and had a long, tiring day of slow marching and halting, with scattered firing going on in front and on the flanks. The country must demand great caution, for the bush is thick now, and whole commandos might be concealed anywhere. The Wilts Regiment (some companies of which are brigaded with us) lost several men and an officer. We camped on an open space just at dark. Watering was a long, tiresome business, from buckets, at a deep, rocky pool. There were snipers about, and a shot now and then during the evening.
August 21.—We harnessed up at four; but waited till seven to move off. This is always tiresome, as drivers have to stay by their horses all the time; but of course it is necessary that in such a camp, with the enemy in the bush near, all the force should be ready to move at an early hour. The nights are warm now, but there is a very chilly time in the small hours. We marched through the same undulating, wooded country, crossing a brute of a drift over a river, where we hooked in an extra pair of horses to our team. In the summer this must be a lovely region, when the trees and grass are green; very like the New Forest, I should think. We had a long halt in the middle of the day, and then marched on till five, when we camped. We waited till eight for tea, as the buck-waggons had stuck somewhere; but I made some cocoa on a fire of mealy-stalks. I forgot to say that Baden-Powell has joined the column with a mounted force and the Elswick Battery, and is now pushing on ahead. I hear that Paget’s object is to prevent De Wet from joining Botha, and that Baden-Powell has seized some drift ahead over which he must pass. Fancy De Wet up here! An alternative to Maconochie was issued to-day, in the shape of an excellent brand of pressed beef.
August 22.—Reveillé at 3 A.M. for the right section, who moved off at once, and at 3.45 for my section. We started at 5.30, and marched pretty quickly all the morning to Pynaar’s River, which consists of a station on the railway, and a few gutted houses. A fine iron bridge over the river had been blown up, and was lying with its back broken in the water. We camped here about one, and thought we were in for a decent rest, after several very short nights. I ate something, and was soon fast asleep by my saddle; but at three “harness up” was ordered, and off we went, but only for a few hundred yards, when the column halted, and after wasting two hours in the same place, moved back to camp again. One would like to know the Staff secrets now and then in contretemps like this; but no doubt one cause is the thick bush, which makes the enemy’s movements difficult to follow. Rum to-night. We went to bed without any orders for reveillé, which came with vexatious suddenness at 10.45 P.M. I had had about two hours’ sleep. Up we got, harnessed up, hooked in, and groped in the worst of tempers to where the column was collecting, wondering what was up now. We soon started—no moon and very dark—on a road composed of fine, deep dust, which raised a kind of fog all round, through which I could barely see the lead-driver’s back. The order was no talking, no smoking, no lights, and we moved silently along under the stars, wrapped in darkness and dust. Happily the road was level, but night marching is always rather trying work for a driver. One’s nerves are continually on edge with the constant little checks that occur. The pair in front of you seem to swim as you strain your eyes to watch the traces, and keep the team in even draught; but, do what you can, there is a good deal of jerking into the collar, and narrow shades of getting legs over traces. Once I saw the General’s white horse come glimmering by and melt into the darkness. About 3.30 A.M. lights and fires appeared ahead, and we came on the camp of some other force of ours, all ready to start; soldiers’ figures seen silhouetted against the dancing light of camp fires, and teams of oxen in the gloom beyond. A little farther on the column stopped, and we were told we should be there two hours. We fed the horses, and then lit fires of mealy-stalks, and cooked cocoa, and drowsed. At six our transport-waggons came up, and we got our regular breakfast. Then we rode to water, and now (August 23) I am sitting in the dust by the team, writing this. There was a stir and general move just now. I got up and looked where all eyes were looking, and saw a solitary Boer horseman issuing from the bush, holding a white flag. An orderly galloped up to him, and the two went into a hut where the General is. The rumour is that a thousand Boers want to surrender.—Rumour reduces number to one Boer.
In the end we stopped here all day, and what in the world our forced march was for, is one of the inexplicable things that so often confront the tired unit, and which he doesn’t attempt to solve.
The camp was the most unpleasant I ever remember, on a deep layer of fine dust, of a dark, dirty colour. A high wind rose, and eyes, ears, mouth, food, and kit, were soon full of it. Roasting hot too. There was a long ride to water, and then I got some sleep behind my upturned saddle, waking with my eyes glued up. To watering again and evening stables. The wind went down about six and things were better. None of us drivers had blankets, though, for the kit-waggon had for some reason been left at Pynaar’s River. However, I shared a bed with another chap, and was all right.
August 24.—I am now cursing my luck in an ambulance waggon. For several days I have had a nasty place coming on the sole of my foot, a veldt-sore, as it is called. To-day the doctor said I must go off duty, and I was told to ride on one of our transport-waggons. This sounds simple; but I knew better, and made up my mind for some few migrations, before I found a resting place. With the help of Williams I first put myself and my kit on one of our waggons. Then the Major came up, and was very sympathetic, but said he was sending back one waggon to Pynaar’s River, and I had better go on that, and not follow the Battery. So I migrated there and waited for the next move. It came in a general order from the Staff that nothing was to go back. I was to seek an asylum in an R.A.M.C. ambulance waggon. So we trudged over to an officer, who looked at my foot and said it was all very well, but he had no rations for me. However, rations were sent for, and I got into a covered waggon, with seats to hold about eight men, sat down with six others, Munsters and Wilts men, and am now waiting for the next move. It is 11 A.M. and we have not inspanned yet, though the battery and most of the brigade have started. I hear the whole column is to go to Warm Baths, sixteen miles farther on.
We didn’t start till 1.30, and halted about five. They are very pleasant chaps in the waggon, and we had great yarns about our experiences. They were in a thorough “grousing” mood. To “grouse” is soldiers’ slang for to “complain.” They were down on their scanty rations, their hot brown water, miscalled coffee, their incessant marching, the futility of chasing De Wet, everything. Most soldiers out here are like that. To the men-calculators and battle-thinkers it doesn’t matter very much, for Tommy is tough, patient, and plucky. He may “grouse,” but he is dependable. It came out accidentally that they had been on half-rations of biscuit for the last two days, and that day had had no meat issued to them, and only a biscuit and a half. By a most lucky hap, Williams and I had the night before bought a leg of fresh pig from a Yeomanry chap, and had it cooked by a nigger. In the morning, when we separated, I had hastily hacked off a chunk for him, and kept the rest, and we now had a merry meal over the national animal of the Munsters. It was pleasant to hear the rich Cork brogue in the air. It seems impossible to believe that these are the men whom Irish patriots incite to mutiny. They are loyal, keen, and simple soldiers, as proud of the flag as any Britisher. At five we outspanned, with orders to trek again at the uncomfortable hour of 1 A.M. The Orderly-corporal left me and a Sergeant Smith of the Munsters to sleep on the floor of the waggon, and the rest slept in a tent. They gave us tea, and later beef-tea. The sergeant and I sat up till late, yarning. He is a married reservist with two children, and is more than sick of the war. They gave us three blankets between us, and we lay on the cushions placed on the floor, and used the rugs to cover us both. After some months of mother earth this unusual bed gave me a night-mare, and I woke the sergeant to tell him that the mules were trampling on us, which much amused him. These worthy but tactless animals were tethered to the waggon, and pulling and straining on it all the time, which I suppose accounted for my delusion.
August 25.—Saturday.—At 1 A.M. the rest tumbled in on us, and we started off for the most abominable jolt over the country. For a wonder it was a very cold night, and of course we were all sitting up, so there was no more sleep to be got. At sunrise we arrived at Warm Baths, which turns out to be really a health-resort with hot springs. The chief feature in this peculiar place is a long row of tin houses, containing baths, I hear; also an hotel and a railway station, then the bush-covered veldt, abrupt and limitless. Baden-Powell and his troops are here, and I believe the Boers are behind some low hills which lie north of us, and run east and west. Our cart halted by a stream of water, which I washed in, and found quite warm. Coffee and biscuits were served out. A lovely day, hot, but still, so no dust. The column stops here a day or so, I hear. We have been transferred to a marquee tent, where fifteen of us lie pretty close. The Battery is quite near, and Williams has been round bringing my blankets, for it appears the drivers’ kits have come on from Pynaar’s River. Several fellows came round to see me, and Williams brought some duff, and Ramsey some light literature; Williams also brought a Times, in which I read about the massacre in China. I’m afraid the polyglot avengers will quarrel among themselves. Restless night. I believe I shall never sleep well under a roof again. A roof in London will be a bit smutty, though.
August 26.—Breakfast at seven. Told we were going to shift. Packed up and shifted camp about a mile to some trees; the other site was horribly smelly. Installed again in a tent. I have a hardened old shell-back of a Tommy (Yorkshire Light Infantry) on my right, and a very nice sergeant of the Wilts Regiment on my left. Some of the former’s yarns are very entertaining, but too richly encrusted with words not in the dictionary to reproduce. How Kipling does it I can’t think. The sergeant is a fine type of the best sort of reservist. He astonished me by telling me he had been a deserter, long ago, when a lad, after two years in the Rifle Brigade, where he was sickened by tyranny of some sort. He confessed, after reenlistment, and was pardoned. He had been fourteen years in his present corps, and had got on well. Opposite is a young scamp of Roberts’s Horse. Looks eighteen, but calls it twenty-two: his career being that he was put in the Navy, ran away, was apprenticed to the merchant service, ran away (so forfeiting the premium his parents had paid), shipped to the Cape, and joined Roberts’s Horse. I asked him what he would do next. “Go home,” he said, “and do nothing.” If I were his father I’d kick him out. He’s a nice boy, though. There are several Munsters, jolly chaps, and a Tasmanian of the Bush contingent, tall, hollow-eyed, sallow-faced fellow, with dysentery—a gentleman, and an interesting one. Williams has been here a good deal. He made some tea for the two of us in the evening, and we talked till late. I am on ordinary “camp diet,” which means tea, biscuit, and bully-beef or stew. They give us tea at four, and nothing after, so one gets pretty hungry. Some men are on milk diet.
August 27.—Monday.—My foot gets on very slowly. Veldt-sores, as they are called, are very common out here, as though you may be perfectly well, as I am, the absence of fresh food makes any scratch fester. Most entertaining talks with the other chaps in the tent. The Captain has been several times, and brought papers.
August 28.—This is a very free-and-easy field hospital; no irksome regulations, and restrictions, and inspections. A doctor comes round in the morning and looks at each of us. The dressings are done once in twenty-four hours by an orderly. He is a very good chap, but you have to keep a watchful eye on him, and see that he doesn’t put the same piece of lint on twice; yet you must be very tactful in suggestions, for an orderly is independent, and has the whiphand. An officer walks round again in the evening, pretty late, and says he supposes each of us feels better. This very much amused me at first, but, after all, it roughly hit off the truth. We are nearly all slight cases. Meals come three times a day, and otherwise we are left to ourselves. The food might, I think, be better and more plentiful. I have had the privilege of hearing Tommy’s opinions on R.A.M.C. orderlies, and also those of an R.A.M.C. orderly on Tommy, or perhaps rather on his own status and grievances in general. Inside the tent Tommy was free and unequivocal about the whole tribe of orderlies, the criticism culminating in a ghoulish story from my right-hand neighbour, told in broadest Yorkshire, about one in Malta, “who stole the —— boots off the —— corpse in the —— dead-’ouse.” Outside the tent a communicative orderly poured into my ear the tale of Paardeberg, and its unspeakable horrors, the over-work and exhaustion of a short-handed medical corps, the disease and death in the corps itself, etc. I conclude that in such times of stress the orderly has a very bad time, but that with a column having few casualties and little enteric, like this, he is uncommonly well off. His class has done some splendid work, which Tommy sometimes forgets, but it must be remembered that it had to be suddenly and hurriedly recruited with untrained men from many outside sources, some of them not too suitable. My impression is that they want more supervision by the officers. The latter, in this hospital, are, when we see them, very kind, and certainly show the utmost indulgence in keeping off duty men who are not feeling fit for work.
[Footnote A: In this new campaign Paget’s Brigade was, in conjunction with the forces of Baden-Powell, Plumer, and Hickman, to scour the district whose backbone is the railway line running due north from Pretoria to Petersberg. He was to occupy strategic points, isolate and round up stray commandos, and generally to engage the attention of the enemy here, while the grand advance under Roberts and Buller was taking place eastward.]