THE BRIGADE RECONSTITUTED LEAVES FOB DE AAR AND JOINS LORD METHUEN'S KIMBERLEY RELIEF FORCE—BATTLE OF BELMONT.
THE force was reconstituted, more guns and more bluejackets were taken, the whole of the force being made up to something like 400 of all ranks—half of these being marines ; four 12-pounder 12-cwt. guns on improvised mountings (Scott's), with guns' crews, stokers for stretcher-bearers, and a medical staff.
The same tremendous enthusiasm was shown on this day as on October 20. The Rear-Admiral inspected us on the lawn of Admiralty House and wished us God-speed; a south-easter blowing with unaccustomed vigour gave us a final send-off, and we left to join Methuen's Kimberley relief force in the highest spirits.
The whole town and dockyard turned out, and with drums beating and colours (if we had them) flying we marched gaily to the station, entrained for Cape Town, being cheered all along the route, and left at 9 P.M. that night for De Aar. Shortly after leaving Beaufort two trains collided and blocked the line, and as our Commanding Officer had orders to get on to Lord Methuen as quickly as possible, he decided to transfer all our train load into another train about half a mile ahead. It was a tough job, lot the men, splendidly helped by a squadron of South African Light Horse, worked with a will from 10 P.M. till 2 A.M. and did it, and we proceeded. The collision looked a suspicious affair, but it was quite impossible to apportion the blame. Probably Boer sympathisers were about. All necessary precautions were again taken to guard against surprise, or to resist an attack, and we arrived at De Aar without further incident. RUM was again regularly issued, and was a very cheering addition to our mid-day meal.
Lord Methuen waited for the arrival of the Naval Brigade at Witteputs before making his advance on Belmont, where a hard fight took place on November 23, in which the Guards and Northumberland Fusiliers behaved splendidly and suffered heavily, and the Naval Brigade came under fire for the first time during the war. The Naval Brigade was delayed marching with the force on account of the late arrival of its transport, and the night march that followed was a particularly trying one. All baggage of officers was cut down to 85 lbs., swords were left behind, and much of the men's gear packed in a railway truck as base luggage. One officer's horse, with brand-new saddlery, &c., bolted and was never seen again. The horse was loot, so probably it was a judgment. At 8.80 P.M. the Naval Brigade column, somewhat resembling a long gipsy caravan, was finally mustered and got under way, the mules being very troublesome, wagon loads heavy, and drivers not quite
experienced yet in their work. After some time two wagons got hopelessly stuck in the heavy going, and the rear guard of one company of marines was left to bring them along as well as possible. It seemed a hopeless and endless task, but by dint of hard work and perseverance the column did eventually reach the camp at Belmont, where water was very welcome. A night march with obstinate mules is a very trying experience. The Naval Brigade was fortunate enough to come into action and under fire, but did not have very much to do in the fight. The going was very heavy and in places very rocky for the 12-pounder guns on improvised, dockyard-built wooden mountings. The weather was very hot; and mules and men were much distressed and dead beat after this trying night march and fight.
A short description of this action taken from Captain Prothero's despatches is interesting.
‘I marched out of Belmont by road in company with Colonel Hall's battery of Field Artillery. After clearing Belmont kopjes, we turned off the road on the open veldt; day was just dawning, and we could see the top of the line of kopjes held by the enemy. We were then advancing towards the centre of his position, over very rough ground intersected with dykes. This tried our gun-mountings very severely. Unfortunately, one gun capsized, but was soon righted, and I was relieved to find that there was no damage done, and that the dockyard work stood the test so well.
On proceeding to higher ground, a view of the Boers' position was then obtained—a long line of kopjes, which looked very much higher at dawn of day than they really were, the light being very bad indeed, and the sun coming up behind the kopjes cast dark shadows, which made it very hard to distinguish any object. In addition to this there was a mist round the lower part of the kopjes. Firing was now going on in our front, the Boers evidently having been repulsed. Colonel Hall here turned away to his left, and to the left of the Boer position, on the understanding that I should take up a position across the railway line on higher ground, and he would soon communicate with me.
This I did, but had great difficulty in taking my heavy ammunition wagons and guns across the railway line, finally succeeding. I here brought the battery into action to try the range of the extreme depth of the Boer position, but after firing a range-finding shot, and not seeing it pitch, I limbered up. . . .
I then turned to the left between two kopjes, and found the Boers on the rear kopje, firing upon advancing infantry. I immediately got the battery into action, and at 1,700 yards shelled the Boers, who were firing on our troops, the practice being excellent.
The Boers were very soon silenced and retreated.
I received orders from the General to take my guns, if possible, on to a low kopje, about eight hundred yards from my front, so as to shell the retreating Boers from their position.
I limbered up, and advanced as quickly as possible over very rough ground, and advancing well ahead myself to survey the kopje. I found, when I arrived on top, that it was impossible to take wheels over it, so reluctantly had to give it up. Here my officers, men, and mules were almost dead beat, and the battle over.
Having watered my mules, I returned to the camp with the remainder of the troops.’
A. E. MARCHANT.