GATHERING CLOUDS—A CHEEKY ULTIMATUM—WAR—FORMATION AND DEPARTURE OF THE FIRST NAVAL BRIGADE—SIMONSTOWN TO STOBMBERG—A SUSPECTED SPY—LIFE AT STORMBERG—EVACUATION OF THAT TOWN.
DIRECTLY the Suzerainty Question was raised by the South African Republic it was felt that war was inevitable, and after the Bloemfontein Conference war clouds began quickly to gather.
Throughout South Africa there was intense excitement, more perhaps in Cape Colony than in loyal Natal, for here the outspoken and braggart opinions of the large section of disloyalists added to it.
At Simonstown, the headquarters of the Cape Squadron, little else was talked of; war, and the chance of a Naval Brigade being required, being the sole topics of conversation wherever naval men were gathered together. And, down in our hearts, we fervently hoped that the Republics would not ' back down' and that we should be given a chance to help wipe out 'A Certain Stain.' Nobody who has not lived in South Africa knows what that stain meant to every Englishman.
In England on October 7, 1899, 25,000 men of the First Class Army Reserve were called out, and from Pretoria two days later President Kruger issued his cheeky ultimatum to H.M. Government, containing the following demands and giving until 5 P.M. on October 11 for reply:
1. That all questions in dispute shall be settled by arbitration, or such amicable way as may be agreed;
2. That troops on the Transvaal borders shall be instantly withdrawn;
3. That all reinforcements which have arrived in South Africa since June 1 shall be removed from the country;
4. That H.M. troops now on the high seas shall not be landed in South Africa.
This meant war in bitter earnest, and H.M. Government replied, regretting these peremptory demands, which were impossible to discuss; and as the Transvaal Government stated, in their note, that a refusal to comply with these demands would be regarded as a formal Declaration of War, the British Agent at Pretoria was instructed to withdraw.
On October 12 commandoes poured across the Natal frontier, and, on the other side, Boers derailed and destroyed an armoured train patrolling the line south of Mafeking.
Troops were but few in number; some were hurried up to Kimberley just in time, and with the enemy arrogantly proclaiming their determination to drive every Britisher into the sea by Christmas time, the Navy was asking to be allowed to furnish a brigade to stem the tide of invasion. On the 18th, orders came down to Simonstown for two 12-pounders with full field guns' crews of bluejackets to be held in readiness to proceed to Cape Town. The Royal Marines began to think that they were to be left out, but happily this was not to be, for on the following day the orders were amended, and as many marines as could be spared were to form the gun escort of the first Naval Brigade.
Then commenced a general bustle all round. Time was short and many things had yet to be done.
The two senior officers detailed to land—one in command of the whole Brigade and the other of the Marines—were ordered by the G.O.C. to attend at Cape Town, to arrange details and receive confidential instructions.
Khaki clothing, not then supplied to the Navy, was obtained from the Ordnance Stores at Cape Town, piled into and on top of cabs, hurried to the station and sent down by rail to Simonstown.
The officers met to discuss final matters and arrange personal business, khaki was issued, also military great coats, to the bluejackets, all equipment was got ready, and marines' belts, pouches, and rifle slings were scrubbed and dyed a colour meant to be khaki, but not quite, with permanganate of potash.
Some stout men, for whom no khaki could be found large enough, tried the experiment of dyeing their white clothing a coffee colour. The result may best be left to imagination. However, everything eventually was arranged and on October 20 the Naval Brigade landed from H.M.S. 'Doris' (flag), 'Monarch' (guardship), 'Powerful' (from China, homeward bound), and ' Terrible' (to China, outward bound). There was tremendous enthusiasm in the fleet. All hands on board manned and cheered ship, and a hearty reply was given from every boat as it pulled ashore laden with its khaki-clad bluejackets, stokers, and marines. Inside the dockyard the Brigade was formed up for inspection by the Bear-Admiral Commanding the Station, who made a short address, and specially confided the care of the guns to the marines, saying, ' The corps must prevent them at all hazards from being captured. With such an escort, I rest assured that if the guns don't come back, no bluejackets or marines will come back either.'
There were many dismal faces among those left behind, nothing but cheerful smiles on the faces of those chosen as they formed 'fours' and wheeled through the dockyard gates on their way to the station.
The Brigade was composed as follows:
Commander Ethelston of H.M.S. 'Powerful' in command.
Major Plumbe, R.M.L.I., of H.M.S. 'Doris' 2nd in command.
9 Naval officers.
7 Marine officers.
290 N.C.O.'s and men of the Royal Marines.
The guns were two 12-pounder 8-cwt. guns on ordinary field mountings.
The road to the railway station was packed with an enthusiastic, cheering crowd of friends and well- wishers. At the station the Brigade entrained for Gape Town, and so well had the secret been kept, no one knew what was to be the destination of this force. There were many conjectures; not a few men said, in sorrowful tones, that they were only going to Cape Town, to be stationed in the Castle for garrison duties, and so release some soldiers for duty up country. The scene all along the line was splendid. Thousands of people turned out and waved and cheered vociferously. At Cape Town (Salt River Junction) a staff officer boarded the train, gave orders, printed and otherwise, the engine whistled and started for where ?
All necessary precautions were taken against surprise, and orders issued in case of being attacked, blown off the line, or otherwise rudely interfered with. After proceeding for many miles it gradually became known that the destination might be De Aar. The trip went along splendidly and smoothly with little or no excitement. Arrangements had been made for the issue of rations, &c, and, to the joy of every one, Rum was to be issued daily. It required some tact and patience on the part of all concerned to shake the men together, comfortably and well, and it speaks well for their discipline that no man had to be pitched into for any fault. Keen to do their duty to the utmost and thoroughly and sincerely loyal to their officers, it was very difficult to find fault with them, though naturally the unusual conditions under which they found themselves tended to get them a little ' out of hand ' at first. On the route we got occasional items of war news. The telegram announcing the victory at Glencoe met us at one station and was received with round after round of cheering and much enthusiasm.
The country until the Great Karroo is reached was very picturesque, but there are no words to describe the desert. A never-ending tract of waterless and treeless country, with an occasional house, apparently put there by mistake. Beaufort West, a town of importance, with many sympathisers of the Republics, was passed, and eventually De Aar was reached. A large depot was being formed here, and one could not help being struck with the fact that it was a place very exposed, and open to attack and capture. One amusing incident occurred on the train. It was reported that a man speaking with a foreign accent was seated on the engine, and would give no satisfactory account of himself or of his movements, nor would he produce his pass or permit to travel on the line. It soon became known amongst the men that he was a spy. There couldn't be a doubt of it, &c, &c.
An officer interviewed him, could get no explanation from him, and promptly had him placed in a luggage van, handcuffs on, and a sentry mounted with orders to shoot him if he attempted to escape. Eventually it was discovered that the foreign spy was a German boasting of an English name, who was travelling up and down a certain section of the line as railway and traffic superintendent.
Staff officers on the line could not give us any information as to our destination, and all conversation with civilians was forbidden and men kept in the train.
From De Aar the train was sent eastwards with a pilot engine to look out for pitfalls. The Commander attached himself for duty as amateur engine-driver and look-out man to this pilot engine, and at the end of the journey when we reached camp it was hard to distinguish him. He was as black as a chimney-sweep. The experience had been a trying one.
It was reported that we might be attacked or blown up, and there was great keenness amongst the men to be ready and under fire and get in their first shot at ' they Boers.'
On the way to Stormberg Junction, which was now known to be the Naval Brigade's destination, we passed through Naauwpoort Junction, an important place held by half a battalion of the Berkshire Regiment, and which the Boers ought to have occupied at once.
We saw a number of refugees at Naauwpoort, who had been sent out of the Orange Free State, and they looked very miserable and depressed, and asked many awkward questions as to our doings, movements, and destination. Secrecy was the order of the day, and even then it was hard for the men not to talk.
Stormberg, an important railway junction, about fifty miles south of the Free State border, was eventually reached on Sunday evening, October 23, and it was a great surprise and pleasure for the Naval Brigade and Marines to have so especially cheery a welcome from the Berkshire Regiment—old friends and comrades of McNeill's zareba days in the Soudan. The manner in which the officers and men of this regiment treated us was beyond description. Nothing could possibly be kinder, and it was a sad parting when good-byes had to be said later on.
Every one was very glad to get into camp at last and put in a satisfactory sleep, for we had been working at tension during this train journey, and what with the crowding and jolting had got very little.
Now that camp was formed the hard work of daily routine camp life began.
The weather was bitterly cold at night and very hot by day. Every morning we stood to arms at four o'clock, shivering with cold and excitement, waiting for an attack by the Boers at dawn, but it never came. But we could not slack up a little bit. It was always present in one's mind how necessary it was to keep the men aware of the fact that they were on active service—conditions very different from those of peace. After the outposts were relieved, and mounted infantry sent out, a good deal of necessary shaking-together drill had to be done, working parties went away to dig and work on defences, washing parades were held as often as possible, if water and time permitted, and before dusk the night outposts marched away. These outpost duties fell very heavily on the officers and men, but were always performed cheerfully, willingly, and intelligently. The men were generally away from camp for twelve hours, and on arriving in camp were immediately detailed for other duties, and there was no taking off of boots and clothes except for washing, and even all parties sent away for washing took their arms with them and had a covering party on the look-out for the slim Boer, who is an expert in the art of sniping from 'safe cover.
The Naval Brigade camp at Stormberg was pitched on a plain surrounded by high kopjes (or rocky hills), fairly well put into defence by Berkshires and the Naval Brigade. It is difficult for those who know the place to realise how the disaster to General Gat-acre's force on December 11 occurred. The Berkshire Mounted Infantry and infantry, from their experience of the country for some months, must have known every inch of the ground.
The country south of the Orange River is of very peculiar formation, and admirably suited to Boer tactics—Boers possessing, as they do, that most important qualification, mobility. Boers were known to be moving south near Norval's Pont and Bethulie, armoured trains were busily occupied, and the men of the Naval Brigade had many exciting times careering about with their mule guns. Probably this is the first time in the history of the Navy that muleteers have been borne on ships' books.
The excitement at Stormberg began to increase as soon as General Buller arrived at the Cape, and the Naval Brigade expected to be moved forward and take a part—a very prominent part too we fully intended it should be—in the general advance. Stores and provisions were piled into the place as quickly as possible, ready for expected troops. We now heard that the first Boer prisoners were to be put on board the 'Penelope' and others on the cricket ground at Simonstown. One day in camp we had a general alarm, turned out hurriedly, and then found out that it was only for practice—very necessary, of course, but disappointing, as we thought we were in for a fight.
After being in camp for nearly a fortnight, the Naval Brigade got sudden and hurried orders to strike camp and prepare to move. Now was our time, we thought, and every one worked his hardest to get things together quickly, and take them to the station as ordered. We felt certain that we were to move forward to fight some Boers who were known to have crossed the Orange River, and were supposed to be marching on Naauwpoort and Stormberg. Preparations had previously been made to provision the various fortified places round about, as we expected to be attacked at any moment.
On arriving at the station, we were grievously disappointed to hear that our movement was to be by train to the rear, probably to Queenstown, and when it was whispered that General Sir Redvers Buller had, for strategic reasons, decided to withdraw the troops from Stormberg, there was much regret expressed, and men were actually seen to be weeping from disappointment. Never was disappointment more plainly written on men's faces. It was some considerable time before the news leaked out that our destination was Queenstown, and we heard eventually that probably the disaster at Nicholson's Nek was the primary cause of this hurried evacuation of Stormberg.A. E. MARCHANT.