Ordered home—Back to the Battery—Good-bye to the horses—The charm of the veldt—Recent work of the Battery—Paget’s farewell speech— Hard-won curios—The last bivouac—Roberts’s farewell—The southward train—De Wet?—Mirages—A glimpse of Piquetberg road—The Aurania— Embarkation scenes—The last of Africa—A pleasant night.
September 27 was a red-letter day. News came that all the C.I.V. were going home on the following Monday. I was overwhelmed with congratulations in the barrack-room. I exercised the Captain’s Argentine in the afternoon, and visited the station, where I learnt that the Battery had been wired for, and had arrived, but was camped somewhere outside.
On the next day I got another charwoman-clerk appointed, said good-bye to my R.A. friends and the Captain, who congratulated me too, and was free to find the Battery and rejoin. After some difficulty, I found them camped about four miles out, close to the C.I.V. Infantry. It was delightful to walk into the lines, and to see the old familiar scenes, and horses, and faces. Every one looked more weather-beaten and sunburnt, and the horses very shaggy and hard-worked, but strong and fit. My mare had lost flesh, but was still in fine condition. The Argentine was lashing out at the others in the same old way. Tiny, the terrier, looked very weary and travel-stained after much forced marching, which she had loyally undergone to the last. Jacko had not turned a hair.
Williams turned up with “Pussy” in a lather, having been hunting for me all round Pretoria. We ate bully-beef and biscuit together in the old style. I took my pair down to water for the last time, “for auld lang syne,” and noticed that the mare’s spine was not the comfortable seat it used to be.
Then the last “boot and saddle” went, and they were driven away with the guns and waggons to the station, and thence to the remount depôt, to be drafted later into new batteries. Ninety-four horses were handed over, out of a hundred and fourteen originally brought from England, a most creditable record.
The camp looked very strange without the horses, and it was odder still to have no watering or grooming to do. In the evening, the change from barrack-room to veldt was most delightful. We made a fire and cooked tea in the old way, and talked and smoked under the soft night sky and crescent moon. Then what a comfortable bed afterwards! Pure air to breathe, and plenty of room. I felt I had hardly realized before how pleasant the veldt life had been.
The Battery had done a great deal of hard work since I left; forced marches by night and day between Warmbad, Pynaar’s River, Waterval, Hebron, Crocodile River, and Eland’s River; generally with Paget, once under Colonel Plumer, and once under Hickman. They had shared in capturing several Boer laagers, and quantities of cattle. When they left the brigade, a commando under Erasmus was negotiating for a surrender, which was made a day or two later, as we afterwards heard. Altogether, they had done very good work, though not a round was fired. I only wish I could have been with them.
One thing I deeply regret missing, and that was Paget’s fare-well speech to us, when all agree that he spoke with real and deep feeling. One of our gunners took it down in shorthand, and here it is:—
“Major McMicking, Officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the C.I.V. Battery,—
“Lord Roberts has decided to send you home, and I have come to say good-bye and to express my regret at having to part with you. We have been together now for some months, and have had rough times, but in its many engagements the C.I.V. Battery has always done its work well. Before my promotion I commanded a battalion, and I know what a heart-breaking it is to lead gallant fellows up to a strong position unsupported by artillery; and I made up my mind that, if ever I had a separate command, I would never advance infantry without an artillery support. I was fortunate enough to have your Battery with me, and it is very gratifying to know that everything we attempted has been successful. Owing to the excellent practice made by your guns, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been the cause of great saving of lives to the Infantry, and at times the Cavalry. I am sorry to lose you, and I shall miss you very much. There is more hard work to be done; and you cannot realize what it is to me to lose a body of men whom I knew I could always rely upon. There are many episodes, some of which will remain a lasting memory to me. One in particular I might refer to, when, two days after leaving Lindley, two companies of Munster Fusiliers came unexpectedly under heavy rifle-fire at short range; your guns coming smartly into action, dispersed the enemy with a few well-directed shrapnel. It was one of the smartest pieces of work I have ever seen. On another occasion, outside Bethlehem (I forget the name of the place),[A] when in a rear-guard action with De Wet, you advanced under a heavy cross-fire of shrapnel, when you rendered splendid service, and saved Roberts’ Horse by silencing two guns and smashing a third. On that day not a single life was lost on our side. On still another occasion, outside Bethlehem, under heavy shell-fire from five guns in a strong position, the steadiness with which your guns were served would have done credit to the finest troops in the Empire. There are other incidents that I might mention, but these three occur to me specially at the moment. You are returning home, to receive a hearty welcome, which you undoubtedly deserve, and I hope you will sometimes think of me, as I certainly shall of you; and now you can tell your friends what I think of you. I wish you a safe and pleasant voyage. Good-bye.”
We shall also tell them what we thought of him. There was not a man of us but liked, admired, and trusted him—as I know did his whole brigade. And that he trusted us, is an honour we shall not forget.
It was good to be going home again; but I think every one felt half sorry that we were not to share in finishing the work before his brigade. The whole C.I.V. regiment was being sent home to-gether; but the Infantry, of course, had done the bulk of their work when we began ours. It was curious that this was the first occasion on which the three arms of the C.I.V., Infantry, Mounted Infantry, and Artillery, had been united under one command.
We spent the next two days in preparations for departure, in sorting of harness, sifting and packing of kit, and great burnings of discarded rubbish.
On the first of October, Williams and I walked into Pretoria to do some business, and try and pick up some curios. We had an exhausting conflict with a crusty old Jew, with whom we bargained for scjamboks and knobkerries. It was with great difficulty we got him to treat with us at all, or even show us his wares. He had been humbugged so often by khakis that he would not believe we were serious customers, and treated our advances with violence and disdain. We had to be conciliatory, as we wanted his wares, though we felt inclined to loot his shop, and leave him for dead. After some most extraordinary bargaining and after tempting him with solid, visible gold, we each secured a scjambok and a knobkerry at exorbitant prices, and left him even then grumbling and growling.
Scjamboks are whips made of rhinoceros’ hide. They take a beautiful polish, and a good one is indestructible. A knobkerry is a stick with a heavy round knob for a head, overlaid, head and stem, with copper and steel wire, in ingenious spirals and patterns. The Kaffirs make them. I also wired to my brother to meet our train at Elandsfontein. He had written me, saying he had been sent there from the Convalescent Camp, having the luck to find as his commandant Major Paul Burn-Murdoch, of the Royal Engineers, who was a mutual friend of ours.
I was on picket duty that night—my last on the veldt. The camp looked very strange with only the four lines of men sleeping by their kits, and a few officers’ horses and a little knot of ten mules for the last buck-waggon. It was an utterly still moonlight night, only broken by the distant chirruping of frogs and the occasional tinkle of a mule’s chain.
At seven the next morning we met the C.I.V. Infantry and Mounted Infantry, and were all reviewed by Lord Roberts, who rode out with his Staff to say good-bye to us. He made us a speech we were proud to hear, referring particularly to the fine marching of the Infantry, and adding that he hoped we would carry home to the heart of the country a high opinion of the regular British soldier, alongside whom we had fought. That we certainly shall do. He prophesied a warm reception at home, and said he hoped when it was going on we would remember one man, our Honorary Colonel, who would have liked to be there to march at our head into the city of London; “good-bye and God speed.” Then we cheered him and marched away.
At half-past twelve we were at the station, where the guns had already been entrained by a fatigue party. Ours was the first of three trains, and was to carry the Battery, and two companies of Infantry. Williams and I secured a small lair underneath a limber in an open truck, and bundled in our kit. The platform was crowded with officers and Tommies, and many and envious were the farewells we had. Kilsby, of T Battery, whom I had made friends with at the barracks, was there to see me off. At 4.30, amidst great cheering, we steamed out and began the thousand mile run to Capetown, slowly climbing the long wooded pass, under an angry, lowering sky. At the top a stormy sun was setting in a glowing furnace of rose-red. We hastily rigged some tarpaulins over our limber, and escaped a wetting from a heavy shower. We had managed to distribute and compress our kit so as to leave room to lie down in, and after dark we lit a lantern and played picquet. About eight we came to Elandsfontein, and there on the platform were my brother and Major Burn-Murdoch. The latter hurried us off to the restaurant—forbidden ground to us men as a rule, sat us down among the officers, and gave us a rattling good dinner, while our comrades munched their biscuits outside. De Wet, we heard, was ahead, having crossed the line with 1000 men, two nights ago, further south. We agreed that it would be a happy irony if he held up our train, the first to carry troops homeward—the herald of peace, in fact; and just the sort of enterprise that would tickle his fancy. Suddenly the train jerked off, and I jumped into my lair and left them. It was a warm night, and we sat under the stars on the seats of the limber, enjoying the motion and the cool air. About ten we pulled up at a station, and just after we had stopped, four rifle-shots rapped out in quick succession not far ahead. De Wet, we at once conjectured. In the darkness on our left we heard an impatient corporal turning out his sleepy guard, and a stir and clatter of arms. One of our companies of infantry was also turned out, and a party formed to patrol the line, outposts having reported some Boers tampering with the rails. The rest of the train was sound asleep, but we, being awake, got leave to go with the patrol. Williams borrowed a rifle from somewhere, but I could not find a weapon. They made us connecting files between the advance party and main body, and we tramped up the line and over the veldt for about an hour, but nothing happened, and we came back and turned in.
De Wet let us alone, and for five days we travelled peaceably through the well-known places, sometimes in the pure, clear air of true African weather, but further south through storms of cold rain, when Scotch mists shrouded everything, and we lay in the bottom of our truck, on carefully constructed islands of kit and blankets, among pools of water, passing the time with books and cards. Signs of war had not disappeared, and at every station down to Bloemfontein were the same vigilant camps (often with parties posted in trenches), more charred remains of trains, and ever-present rumours of raiding commandos.
One novel sight I saw in the interminable monotony of desert veldt. For a whole afternoon there were mirages all along the horizon, a chain of enchanted lakes on either side, on which you could imagine piers, and boats, and wooded islands.
At Beaufort West we dropped our “boys,” the Kaffir mule-drivers; they left us in a great hubbub of laughing and shouting, with visions before them, I expect, of a golden age, based on their accumulated wealth of high pay. We passed Piquetberg Road about midnight of October 6th. Plumbley, the store-keeper, was there, and the belle of the village was holding a moonlight levée at the end of the train. There was a temporary clear from the rain here, but it soon thickened down again. When we steamed away I climbed out on the buffers (the only way of getting a view), and had a last look at the valley, which our wheels had scored in so many directions. Tulbagh Pass, Bushman’s Rock, and the hills behind it were looking ghostly through a humid, luminous mist; but my posture was not conducive to sentimentality, as any one who tries it will agree; so I climbed back to my island, and read myself to sleep by a candle, while we clattered and jolted on into the night.
When I woke at dawn on October 7th we were standing in a siding at the Capetown docks, the rain coming down in torrents, and Table Mountain blotted out in clouds. Collecting our kit from sopping crannies and corners, we packed it and paraded at six, and marched off to the quay, where the Aurania, our home-ward transport, lay. Here we gave in revolvers, carbines, blankets, etc., were split up into messes, and, after much waiting, filed off into the fore part of the ship, descended a noisome-smelling funnel by an iron staircase, and found ourselves on the troop-deck, very similar to that of the Montfort, only likely to be much more crowded; the same low ceiling, with cross-rafters for kit and hooks for hammocks, and close-packed tables on either side.
More C.I.V. had arrived, and the quays were swarming with soldiers and civilians. Williams had decided to stay and see something of Capetown, and was now to get his discharge. There were a few others doing so also. He was discharged in form, and drove away to the Mount Nelson Hotel, returning later disguised as a civilian, in a long mackintosh (over his uniform), a scarf, and a villainous-looking cap; looking, as he said, like a seedy Johannesburg refugee. But he was free! The Manager of his hotel, which, I believe, is the smartest in South Africa, had looked askance at his luggage, which consisted of an oat-sack, bulging with things, and a disreputable-looking bundle.
At about three there was a great shouting and heaving of the crowd, and the High Commissioner came on the scene, and walked down the quay through a guard of honour which we and the Infantry had contributed to form, industriously kinematographed on his progress by a fat Jew. Several staff-officers were with Milner, and a grey-bearded gentleman, whom we guessed to be Sir Gordon Sprigg. Milner, I heard, made a speech some-where. Then a band was playing, and we were allowed half an hour off the ship. Williams and I had our last talk on the quay, in a surging crowd of khaki and civilian grey, mingled with the bright hats and dresses of ladies. Then bells began to ring, the siren to bellow mournfully, and the band to play valedictory tunes (“Say au revoir and not goodbye,” I thought rather an ominous pleasantry). We two said good-bye, and I squeezed myself up the gangway. Every inch of standing room aboard was already packed, but I got a commanding position by clambering high up, with some others, on to a derrick-boom. The pilot appeared on the bridge, shore-ropes were cast off, “Auld Lang Syne” was played, then “God save the Queen.” Every hat on board and ashore was waving, and every voice cheering, and so we backed off, and steamed out of the basin.
Sober facts had now to be considered. There were signs of a heavy swell outside, and something about “the lift of the great Cape combers” came into my head. We all jostled down to tea, and made the best of our time. There was no mistake about the swell, and a terrific rolling soon began, which first caused unnatural merriment, and then havoc. I escaped from the inferno below, and found a pandemonium on deck. The limited space allotted to the troops was crammed, and at every roll figures were propelled to and fro like high-velocity projectiles. Shell-fire was nothing to it for danger. I got hold of something and smoked, while darkness came on with rain, and the horrors intensified. I bolted down the pit to get some blankets. One glance around was enough, and having seized the blankets, up I came again. Where to make a bed? Every yard, sheltered and unsheltered, seemed to be carpeted with human figures. Amidships, on either side of the ship, there was a covered gallery, running beneath the saloon deck (a palatial empty space, with a few officers strolling about it). In the gallery on the weather side there was not an inch of lying room, though at every roll the water lapped softly up to and round the prostrate, indifferent bodies. On the lee side, which was dry, they seemed to be lying two deep. At last, on the open space of the main deck aft, I found one narrow strip of wet, but empty space, laid my blankets down, earnestly wishing it was the dusty veldt, and was soon asleep. It was raining, but, like the rest, misery made me indifferent. Montfort experience ought to have reminded me that the decks are always washed by the night watch. I was reminded of this about 2 A.M. by an unsympathetic seaman, who was pointing the nozzle of a hose threateningly at me. The awakened crowd was drifting away, goodness knows where, trailing their wet blankets. I happened to be near the ladder leading to the sacred precincts of the saloon deck. Its clean, empty, sheltered spaces were irresistibly tempting, and I lawlessly mounted the ladder with my bed, lay down, and went to sleep again.
[Footnote A: Bultfontein.]