JOINED BY THE REMAINDER OF THE NAVAL BRIGADE—SHORT RATIONS—ORDER AGAINST LOOTING—UNEXPECTED ORDERS TO MARCH—LEAVE JAC0B8DAL 9.30 P.M.—CONFUSION—MARCH ALL NIGHT—VERY WEARY WORK—BIVOUAC AT KLIP KRAAL DRIFT —LORD ROBERTS WANTS TO ' GIVE US A SHOW’—PUSH ON TO CLOCKFONTEIN—TRYING MARCH—TWENTY-SEVEN MILES IN TWENTY-TWO HOURS—MARCH TO PAARDEBERG NEXT DAY— PROGRESS THROUGH MAIN CAMP—FOUR GUNS ORDERED TO CROSS THE RIVER AND COME INTO ACTION.
Extracts from Diary. Saturday, February 17.— Still remaining at Jacobsdal, which is full of typhoid cases from the Magersfontein trenches. Late in the afternoon two 12-pounders from Modder Camp join company, reporting that the remainder of the Naval Brigade with two 4.7's is on its way, but the roads are very heavy, and the guns are coming along with difficulty, and may get stuck.
Everybody is asking whether Cronje can be ‘ headed’ Kitchener is after him along the north of the river, and we hear is in touch with his rear-guard. Tucker is keeping abreast him on the south bank, and, best news of all, French has relieved Kimberley and is coming down the Kimberley-Bloemfontein road, as fast as his worn-out horses can bring him, to try and prevent Cronje breaking away to the north'ard.
Food is very short, although there is only one Brigade left round Jacobsdal—half rations of biscuit and three-quarters tea and coffee. Only three cases of jam are left at the supply depot, though more expected to-morrow, if only the doubly worked oxen can crawl in from Modder Camp. Meanwhile the North Staffords, not having had jam for days,’ bag ‘ two cases. Our Commissariat Midshipman, a born diplomatist, happening to be on the spot, smooths down the ruffled A.S.C. sergeant distributing food. A.S.C. sergeant, who hates being bullied, and everyone else tries bullying, says he may as well have the third case as any one else. Midshipman and a couple of bluejackets manage to get it away between them— trust them for that.
Sergeant fancies there may be a ‘ tot' of rum left, just enough for our rations, so Midshipman promptly annexes that too.
Sunday, February 18.—At dawn the Headquarters of the Naval Brigade marched in with the remaining two 4.7's which had been hammering the Magersfontein trenches for so many weary weeks. Their carriages are not so good as ours, their wheels less broad, and they have no limbers, the ends of the trails being shackled to the rear of ox-wagons, and thus hauled along breech first.
At Divisions the Field-Marshal's order against looting was read for the first time, and the men thought it a huge joke till the punishment to be awarded to transgressors—' the first man caught .. . will be hanged '—sobered them, as well it might.
Quite unexpectedly, and whilst we were arranging for a good night 'in’ orders came to march, and punctually at 9.30 P.M. the united Naval Brigade with its four 4.7's, its two 12-pounders, and its escort of marines,' shoved off.'
Grant's guns led the Brigade, following in the wake of our old friends the 82nd, and 5-inch howitzer batteries, whilst behind followed a huge convoy and the main ammunition supply column of the army.
The moon had not yet risen, and in the pitchy darkness we failed to strike the proper road, and were for a short time mixed up in apparently hopeless confusion, till away on our left a torch flared up; the column jolted across towards it, sorting itself as it went, found the right road, and marched steadily on, the moon rising later and giving a splendid light.
Just before midnight the column swerved to one side and met a long convoy of wagons captured by French, and now on their way back to Modder Camp to take the place of the wagons captured from us at Waterval. Over the first few flew the red-cross, weird in the dusty moonlight, and the huddled-up figures they bore were the men wounded during the running fight with Cronje's rear-guard.
Midnight passed, and the dust grew almost unbearable, filling our eyes and nostrils, and parching our mouths and throats. As hour after hour went by, and still we went on and on, a great weariness seemed to come over the column, and, for the last three hours before daylight, men and beasts seemed to move automatically; men slept as they rode in saddle, on limber or wagon—many, in fact, as they even marched along.
In front of the naval guns, under the white dust cloud, were the two batteries, the rumble of their wheels, the jangle of harness and accoutrements, and the dull thud of hundreds of horse hoofs, half muffled in the soft sand, interminable and continuous. We could see the indistinct figures of men, with their great-coats turned up over their ears, and many with woollen night-caps on their heads, nodding and swaying from side to side as they clutched reins or limber rails in their sleep. Our own long-chased guns, white with dust, rolled along two abreast behind the labouring oxen, their big wheels churning the dust like water-wheels. In front of each a bluejacket guide plodded wearily along, wading through the soft sand. These two might have been asleep, so apparently aimlessly did they stagger; yet ever and again they would, with a wave of a hand to right or left, guide the guns from danger, the little Bushmen leaders of the ox-teams following their every motion.
Behind the guns were the limber numbers, four on one limber pole—’ Little Bobs''—for she was easy to steer, six on ' Sloper's,' much less handy, holding grimly to the cross-bars, and obliged to be awake, for at every yard an unevenness in the ground would jerk them from side to side as they clutched that steering-pole and steadied it amidships, and unless their attention was of the keenest, an unavoided obstacle might bring the gun to a standstill and break the trek-chain, or one wheel or both might sink into an unnoticed hole, and the whole column behind be stopped hall an hour or more whilst it was being dug out.
Halts were called at intervals to close up the convoy, and, short though these were, every one slept, and, the dust-cloud blowing away, the huge convoy showed out clearly in the brilliant moonlight, with its motionless teams of horses, mules, and oxen, and the dark figures of the men sleeping on the ground on each side of it.
Silence, almost ghostly in its intensity, would be only broken by the screaming of some poor mule in the agonies of sand colic, or the jangling of a trek-chain as one of our oxen sank to the ground.
Five minutes of sleep—sometimes longer—would go by, and then along came the order to advance. Men climbed listlessly into saddle, the rumbling of the artillery wheels recommenced, along rolled our guns, and in a minute the column would be again shrouded in its pall of white dust, obscuring the moon, blotting out those in front and behind us, and making it, at times, extremely painful to keep our eyes open.
The column seemed to wake up as the sun rose, and pushed on with renewed vigour, halting eventually at Klip Vaal Drift, a sandy patch in an angle formed by the Modder, at 6 A.M., having marched for nearly nine hours. We were very tired.
Whilst at breakfast and sitting round our stretcher, Lord Roberts and his staff cantered up. He wanted the Naval Brigade to push on another ten miles, for, said he, 'I have Cronje surrounded, and want to give you a show.'
But though the men were extremely eager to push on, the oxen were unable to do so till they had fed— they were already grazing in the scrub—so we had to stay sadly behind whilst the infantry and artillery went ahead. At two o'clock, however, we were off, and behind us trailed the main ammunition supply column, with an escort of 250 details and the marines. These latter acted as right flanking guard, and though extended to a hundred paces, their number was inadequate to cover more than a small portion of the three miles of wagons.
Small parties of Boers were reported hovering on this flank, and as the convoy was so precious it only halted once during the first three terribly hot hours, and then only for ten minutes.
As we marched along the sound of guns in action kept the men ‘ going,' but as the afternoon wore on, and at last there seemed no prospect of getting up in time that day, the long march the night before began to have its effect on them. Thick though their straw hats are, the sun seemed to scorch their very brains. The sand and dust, the worst and the hottest yet experienced, were terrible. Underfoot their feet sank just enough to be conscious of the extra weight as they dragged them out, hot and burning. Above, it filled their eyes, nostrils, ears, and mouth.
Their voices so hoarse as to be unintelligible, their eyes bloodshot, and their lips swollen and bleeding, they could get no cool water to drink, only the little they had left in their bottles, and that as hot as the sand itself.
The limber numbers had the worst time of it, for the gun wheels threw the dust straight into their eyes, and the sun blistered their hands, yet they had to hold on to those cross-bars. Every movement of the gun jerked them from side to side; an awkward turn or a bigger stone than usual would make the gun swerve, over would swing the pole, and very frequently one or more, sometimes all, would be knocked off their feet; but they seldom let go, and were dragged along till they scrambled to their feet again, for, come what might, that gun had to keep her course, and that limber-pole had to be under control.
They were not marching, mind you, at three or three and a half miles an hour, but at two and often less, taking short steps to keep pace with the oxen, so tired were these poor beasts, and so slowly did they haul in the scorching daytime. The bivouac was not reached till eight o'clock, and, extremely weary, we soon were asleep.
We had covered twenty-seven miles in the last twenty-two hours—a very fine performance for guns of position—having actually been under way for fifteen hours of this period.
February 20.—We woke refreshed at sunrise, marched on at 9.30, and five miles further on swerved round the foot of a kopje and came into view of our own main camp and saw the long lines of wagons which marked the.position of Cronje's laager.
Away went the Captain and Commander to report themselves at headquarters, and after them went the fat Midshipman, bumping along on his white horse, to return in half an hour with orders for Grant's guns, another 4-7 and one 12-pounder, to cross the river immediately, take up a position, and open fire on the laager as soon as possible.
‘The Boers have three Krupps and a pom-pom,' said he, with sparkling eyes, ‘ and we have to get within 8,000 yards of them—well within their range,' and as this news travelled along the Brigade it was very pleasant to see the men's faces light up with eager expectation.
The four guns quickly began jolting down the rocky road leading to the drift, and to reach it had to pass through the main camp, the soldiers pouring out of their bivouacs to see the naval guns go by and pass the time o' day with Jack; for Jack was the man who could knock an enemy's gun ‘ out of time' 8,000 yards away, where they themselves could not see it, though it could reach them all right with its shells; and here was the long khaki gun Jack could do it with; yes, and had done it, up Ladysmith way, would do the same for them, and now just off to practise up a bit on Cronje. So why shouldn't they show Jack they were glad to see him ?
And they did. '"Little Bobs," is it ?' they sang out, seeing the name on the leading gun. ' He'll give 'em snuff,' and ‘ Eh! Jack, got some o' that lyddite stuff?' was their general query, and ‘ Give 'em lyddite, Jack,' their usual advice, passing the word and waking their sleeping messmates with ' Here comes the Naval Brigade.'
A royal progress indeed it was. Into the river, out of it, and up the opposite bank the guns were hauled, under the eyes of an admiring group of foreign attaches. The water was up to the men's armpits,
but they took no notice of it, and when ' Sloper,' swerving violently, threw her limber numbers off their feet and several disappeared under the surface, they kept their hold, quickly regained their footing, and steered her triumphantly across.A mile further on, and when close to the ridge on which we were to take up position, our excitement was increased by hearing, for the first time, the horrid noise of a strident pom-pom, and seeing its spiteful shells bursting in the plain on our left—-300 yards away.