WAITING AT MODDER RIVER FOR REINFORCEMENTS—CAMP LIFE— DAILY BOMBARDMENTS—AMUSING INCIDENTS— SAND-STORMS— INTOLERABLE THIRST— ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE OF GRANT'S GUNS—ARRIVAL OF LORD ROBERTS—A GENERAL ADVANCE— RELIEF OF KIMBERLEY—CRONJE HURRIES AWAY FROM MAGERSFONTEIN, AND THE NAVAL BRIGADE MARCHES TO JOIN LORD ROBERTS AT JACOBSDAL.
THE Kimberley Relief Force was checked, but this was probably a blessing in disguise, for had Lord Methuen been successful, he was hardly strong enough to hold the whole railway line, and might have had his communications cut, before sufficient supplies could have been hurried into the town. The army now settled down on the Modder and waited for reinforcements — a weary two months. All the naval guns were placed in position on December 14, north of the river, near a ganger's hut and close to the railway, and at dawn next day opened fire on the trenches for three hours. We could see the enemy very distinctly, and he quickly replied, landing a few shells near the infantry and field artillery who were demonstrating.
The daily bombardment and exchange of shells went on for a long time, and eventually the naval force was much split up, being sent to detached positions on the outpost line. Thus one 4.7, after the arrival of a second from Simonstown, was placed south of the river on the right rear, two 12-pounders on the extreme right on the north bank, all in emplacements and with small Marine escorts.
One morning the ganger's hut, and the guns near it, came in for a heavy bombardment. Without previous warning three or four Boer guns opened a very heavy, well directed, and sustained fire on them for an hour. Thirty or more shells fell within a radius of a hundred yards round them and the hut, and extraordinary to relate, did no damage whatsoever, except to the two dogs which had attached themselves to the Brigade, one of them being killed and the other injured. It reminded us of the mule at Matanzas in the Spanish-American war.
An amusing thing occurred that morning. When the bombardment commenced the officers were at breakfast in the hut, and one, slightly deaf and more hungry than the others would not take shelter—our guns were not replying—in the railway cutting close by. Presently he came to the door, filling his pipe with a self-satisfied expression of having made a thoroughly good breakfast, when a shell burst not ten yards from him. He then sauntered back to the 'cutting' merely remarking, 'I heard that,' and evidently congratulating himself on the fact that he was not so deaf as he thought.
Two officers tried to pass the uncomfortable hour in this cutting by trying to play picquet. It was a funny game to watch and listen to. One would perhaps be declaring his hand when the warning sound of a shell coming along would be heard. ' Tierce to a Queen, three; fourteen aces. I say old chap that one's coming pretty close.' Crash would come the shell, burst in the ground above us or go singing overhead. ' That's all right, now where had I got to,' and the hand would be counted again, but that game was sadly interfered with; no one could ever remember whose deal it was or what the previous score was, so eventually it was abandoned— a great pity, for it provided a good deal of amusement—for the others. A naval search-light now arrived, worked by bluejackets, and each night kept up her constant beam-wagging to Kimberley, giving her the news of the outer world, whilst in return the Kimberley light spelt out on the clouds the names and condition of patients in hospital, wounded or ill. The midshipman in charge died of enteric and the one sent up to replace him died also.
Previous to the war the banks of this river had been favourite spots for picnics from Kimberley, on account of their beautiful shade. Now, after an army had been encamped there for a few weeks the whole camp was one arid waste. Not a living thing could move without raising a cloud of white sandy dust Batteries, field and horse, trotting out for exercise; regiments marching in and out from the outpost line; staff officers and orderlies galloping in every direction, countless horses and mules, kicking and squealing on their way to and from water, innumerable A.S.C. wagons, all were hidden in the clouds of dust they raised. In pure sport, whirlwinds—sand devils they were called—little and big, coiling and twisting, and ever growing larger and larger, whirled their way through the camp at all hours of the day, carrying up corkscrew columns of dust which could be traced a thousand feet or more into the sultry blue sky above. Three days out of five, to break the monotony of existence, regular sand-storms, walls of sand dust, rushed through the camp blowing down tents, stampeding animals and filling everything with sand. On the approach of one of these we would take refuge in our tents, with door flaps closed and curtains fastened down, whilst the air inside filled with sand and the tent shook and swayed. It was a morning's work after one of these to clear the sand away.
Thirst here—for the first fortnight at any rate— was almost intolerable, for water was very scarce, and what we got had to be boiled first, and was a long time cooling. Indeed, the most valuable personal property was a man's canvas water cooler, and life would have been almost intolerable without one.
For two hours after sunrise and for two before sunset, the heat of the sun moderated, and a cool bracing breeze blew through the camp, bringing with it a keen sense of the enjoyment of living and a feeling of perfect health. It was during these hours of the day that the 4.7's dropped lyddite into the Magersfontein trenches, for then the grim shoulder of this hill stood out clearly from the plain, the trenches and watering parties could be plainly seen through the big naval telescopes, and there was no mirage to dazzle the captains of the guns.
On January 2 the general monotony was relieved by the news of Pilcher's capture of rebels at Sunny-side, and six days later a reconnaissance in the direction of Jacobsdal was made, the Orange Free State frontier being crossed for the first time. Meanwhile our strength had dwindled, enteric and other fevers ' of sorts' had accounted for many, and bluejackets were so scarce that one of the 4.7's was handed over to the Royal Marine Artillery—to their great pleasure and pride.
Early in February Grant's two 4.7's arrived and after a few days were sent down to Enslin.
On the 8th Lord Roberts himself arrived in camp and immediately things began to hum.
First went Grant's guns, then Dean's two 12-pounders, and by the 12th the Guards' Brigade and the 9th Brigade alone remained with Lord Methuen.
On the 12th the South African Field Force invaded the Free State, three days afterwards Jacobsdal, the Boer base for their Magersfontein position, was captured, on the 16th Kimberley was relieved and the day previously Cronje evacuated Magersfontein and trekked hurriedly eastwards.
As soon as the evacuation was known Lord Methuen advanced and occupied the position. It was a great disappointment to the Naval Brigade not to be allowed to go over these trenches, in front of which we had been sitting for so long, but orders were received to march to Jacobsdal to join in the general advance, so on the 17th the remaining two 12-pounders and the 4.7's started off, nearly all our personal gear having to be left behind.
On the 18th Jacobsdal was reached, and Grant's guns were found there, very proud of having made several brilliant marches and of having kept well up with the infantry.
Dean's guns were still ahead, chasing Cronje.A. E. MARCHANT.