WE FIRE OUR FIRST SHOT—SETTLE DOWN TO CAMP LIFE— OCCASIONAL FIRING AT BOER GUNS AND WORKING PARTIES FOR THE FIRST FOUR DAYS—GREAT BOMBARDMENT BY NAVAL GUNS AND HOWITZERS—BAD WATER AND SHORTNESS OF RATIONS—OUR NATIVE DRIVERS—SHEEP LOOTERS—MEMORABLE NIGHTS—ARRIVAL OF A POM-POM AND THE SIX-INCH HOWITZERS—FINAL ADVANCE MADE BY CANADIANS—SURRENDER NEXT MORNING—-GETTING GUNS ACROSS THE DRIFT—IN THE LAAGER—LOOTING—JOINED HEADQUARTERS NAVAL BRIGADE.
AT half-past four on Tuesday, February 20, ' Little Bobs' fired her first shell. It burst among the wagons in the centre of the laager, and we waited for the Boer guns to reply.
Now it is a strange fact that though our guns were well within their range and made a comparatively big target, they never once fired at them during the following seven days of desultory bombardment. They fired at intervals, during the first four days, at bodies of infantry, convoys and batteries, but were never polite enough to pay us any attention.
The 4.7's fired thirty-seven rounds of lyddite and common shell that afternoon at a range from 2,300-2,800 yards, but all the enthusiasm of the men had vanished. They had come on shore for a picnic, not to do ' damned prize firing' at wagons with nothing to reply to them. Honestly they were terribly disappointed. The only people in a good temper were the conductors, for in the plains below there was very rich pasture, and our starving oxen would now be able to regain ' condition.'
There was nothing to do but make our bivouac as comfortable as possible, so the wagons were drawn up in line, in rear of the guns, and tarpaulins stretched from one to another. In this way most excellent shelter was obtained, and, in addition, a big sail, used as a screen and shifted to wind'ard as the breeze veered, made the officers' mess quite cosy during the cold wet nights which followed.
To keep time in camp the brass cylinder of a 4.7 cordite charge was hung up on a tripod in front of the wagons, and the hours struck on it as on board ship—a most excellent ' bell' it made, too—much to the amusement of any soldiers who happened to be passing.
Meanwhile headquarters camp, with the remaining 4.7 and three 12-pounders, had taken up a very exposed position on the south of the river and only 1,800 yards from the nearest Boer trench. They fired at intervals and quickly received attention from the Boer riflemen, who for the next seven days kept up a most irritating ' sniping,' and unfortunately killed one bluejacket and wounded another.
Next day we amused ourselves by trying to persuade the Boer gunners to cease firing at a large convoy, slowly trailing into camp, and a field battery on the march, both at much longer ranges than we were. They were using black powder, so the guns' positions were very conspicuous at the moment of firing. Each time the plucky gunners fired, we plumped a big shell apparently right into the middle of their white smoke cloud, or burst a shrapnel over it, yet, hardly had the smoke cleared away before they would fire again. It required several of these ' hints' before they ceased to annoy our people with their shells.
[These three guns were afterwards found in position just below the crest of the river bank and most admirably protected by the contour of the ground.]
With nothing more exciting to do than this, our bluejackets relieved the monotony by paying casual attention to working parties, swarming like ants over a line of newly turned up ground, which marked a series of rifle pits, being extended into the open plain.
Once we fired a broadside—the little 12-pounder ‘ chipping in'—at a very energetic party, but they disappeared in their burrows directly they heard the shells coming, and long before they burst; after they burst, up would come their heads again, for all the world like rabbits in a warren. It was almost impossible to get at them unless a shell actually fell into one of their rifle pits, the chances of which happening were exceedingly remote.
Thursday, February 22.—At 8.30 A.M. a general bombardment took place and lasted during the whole day. All the naval guns (our three 4.7s being advanced to 2,200 yards), the 5-inch howitzers and several field batteries took part in it.
The lurid description of this day's work which we afterwards read when the English papers arrived, and which sent a feeling akin to repulsion throughout the whole civilised world, was rather more picturesque than accurate. Our guns were ordered to destroy one line of wagons, the 5-inch howitzers the other; two field batteries sprinkled the laager itself, and another battery turned its attention to the trenches on the banks of the river. There was no hurry, very little noise, and seldom did two big shells burst simultaneously.
As to the carnage among the huddled-up Boers, one bluejacket was shot through the head, and it is quite possible that this was the only casualty on either side. We, with our big ships' telescopes, could almost recognise the features of any man moving about among the wagons, and never saw a single human being till after the bombardment, for they and their women were snugly ensconced below the river banks, in pits amply sheltered from shrapnel and naval shells. The howitzers might have dropped shells among them if this had been desired, but no attempt whatsoever was made to kill men.
This, by itself, was not very interesting work, but the bluejackets added to their zest by making a match with the howitzers, whose target was a long line of wagons close to the trenches on the plain ; ours another line of white-tilted wagons near the river.
They scored first—their shooting was marvellously accurate—setting fire to their line well to wind'ard, with lyddite. Our men, though handicapped by using common shell, did not care to have -their eyes wiped' by mere ' shore-going gunners,' and were very delighted, a quarter of an hour later, to see flames burst out from the centre of a big group of wagons which they had been steadily plugging; and our flames and smoke soon made a braver show than the howitzers' fire. All the afternoon those two fires were kept going, the rivalry between the sailors and soldiers being very keen. If our fire seemed to be dying down, another ' common' would stir the flames to life again, and whilst they burnt fiercely an occasional shrapnel from the 12-pounder proved an effectual warning to prevent any efforts to extinguish them.
However, there is no doubt that on this day the howitzers won the ' rubber’ for they presently started another fire, lower down the line, and had two going at once, till the evening thunderstorm swept up the sky and put them all out. Then we ' piped down' and went to supper.
If any one person was to be pitied that day, it was the occupier of the sea-sick balloon which swayed and reeled incessantly all day long and ' flag-wagged' the results of the shooting.
All through the day the rest of the Naval Brigade were under a heavy ' sniping' fire, and, as previously mentioned, one man was shot through the head.
The water-question now assumed serious proportions. The river was our only source; and decomposing, swollen carcases of horses and oxen floated down interminably from the laager; we knew the Boers were defiling the river above us, and we also knew that enteric fever was raging amongst them. When drawn from the drift, water was the colour of, and almost as thick as, ship's cocoa, and of unpleasant odour. When boiled, with a pinch of alum to precipitate the mud, the comparatively clear water remaining gave to the tea or coffee it was afterwards used to make, only the taste of mud.
Food also was comparatively scarce, not fresh meat, it is true, but biscuits, sugar, jam, tea, and coffee, of which we received less and less every day. The fresh meat was trek-ox, and so unpalatable and hard was it, that we soon gave up cooking it in slices, and converted it into soup, after passing it through a mincing machine.
The Naval Brigade was, however, certainly better fed than the rest of the army, and this was due, not only to the smallness of our numbers, by which we often picked up tit-bits which would not be sufficient for a battalion or a battery, and so were not served out to them, but also to the fact that our men seemed to adapt themselves more readily to varying circumstances, to forage more for themselves, and to be better able to cook what they received than could the soldiers.
Every man in the Navy has, of necessity, to be a sufficiently good cook, whilst a soldier does not have the same opportunity to learn, and therefore to gain experience in making a little go a long way.
Every day on the return of the wagon from the supply depot in the main camp, the first anxious inquiries were for the convoys expected from Kimberley, and our anxieties were much relieved when they gradually commenced to arrive. One of the first of these was the convoy we had met outside Jacobsdal, captured by French at Klip Kraal, and on its way with wounded to Modder Camp, now returning loaded with provisions from Kimberley. It arrived at Paardeberg on the 26th, and our wagon brought back that afternoon four days' rations in reserve, though these rations were calculated at half rations for biscuit and one-third for tea, coffee, and sugar, whilst the native drivers, who previously had received these ' groceries,' now only had a certain amount of flour issued to them. They accepted the inevitable with very little grumbling; in fact they behaved, all the time, most remarkably well, and their loyalty to us, their cheerfulness under fatigue, and their intense hatred of the Boers, were most marked. Whilst at Paardeberg they spent every day on the top of the kopje watching, in excited groups, the effect of our shells, and afterwards their evident enthusiasm at the prospect of our guns coming into action was most pleasing to see.
A large flock of sheep used to graze in the plain beneath, and the bluejackets kept a watchful look-out for stragglers. If one was seen to stray—though perhaps a couple of miles from camp—two or three would wander innocently in its direction, get between it and the flock and then commence to stroll back to camp. Naturally the sheep widened the gap between itself and the flock, till, self-evident fact, a time would come when it was so far removed that no one could suspect its ownership. The guileless bluejackets (the stokers—good luck to them!—were the most successful criminals) seldom returned without it. Their invariable explanation was that’ it had followed them into camp,' but this was a very elastic term and included, perfectly correctly, those occasions on which the unwilling animal was towed in by a piece of rope; less accurately when it was pushed from behind by one and towed by the ears by another; and still less accurately, perhaps, when, as often happened, it was too dead beat from ' following' them so far, and was brought in on their shoulders.
Whilst at Paardeberg the days were generally cloudless and intensely hot, but, as the sun sank, thunder-clouds of inky blackness gathered all round the horizon, and, ushered by a cold breeze, spread rapidly over the sky. A few heavy drops of rain and then the storm would burst, circling again and again round the kopjes which surrounded the laager, thunder and lightning continuous, and rain coming down in sheets. Our tarpaulins and wagons were generally sufficient to defy the rain, but the cold wind could never be altogether excluded; still our condition was luxurious compared with that of most of the soldiers, who had nothing to protect them but ' tentes d'abri,' made by lashing two or three waterproof sheets together and propping up the sides with sticks or rifles.
Our Marines also had no wagons to shelter them, and each night had to be on trench duty in rear of the guns, for the Boshof Commando, a thousand strong, was hovering near and threatened to attack.
In the intervals of crashing thunder the sniping, down in the river bed, half a mile away on our right, could be plainly heard. The sharp spit of a solitary Mauser would be answered by a volley from our trenches, and the occasional boom of a Martini showed that some old-fashioned Boer, probably perched in a tree fork, was sniping our ever-advancing trenches.
If the night happened to be still, and even firing had died away, the eerie cries of the many wounded animals down in the river bed wailed out through the darkness, cries which made one shiver.
On two of these nights, to add to the gruesome effect, salvoes were fired at intervals from previously laid groups of guns, the flames of the bursting shells making a magnificent spectacle, though probably the Boers were too close to thoroughly appreciate the spectacular effect, and there is no doubt were much demoralised by them.
At daybreak the atmosphere was always exceptionally clear, and there was no mirage to disturb careful aim. On these occasions the Boers frequently sniped the men at the guns and telescopes, though the range—1,800 yards on our side of the river—was too long for accurate shooting, and they hit no one. Early Sunday morning they could be plainly heard singing hymns, but varied their religious observances in the afternoon with some very heavy sniping, one old gentleman, in particular, lying down behind a dead horse and showing great diligence in this matter.
On the day before the surrender, the first of our pom-poms (1-pounder Maxims) to arrive in camp came into action, and its moral effect was quickly demonstrated. A shell or shrapnel from the naval guns, howitzers or field guns, bursting close to a trench-digging party, never kept them under cover for more than five minutes, but when the pom-pom let 'rip' among them, they disappeared in their trenches for thirteen minutes—we timed them—and then they bolted behind the river banks.
To show our strength, three field batteries came across the river and lazily sprinkled the laager with shrapnel, whilst, later still, the four 6-inch howitzers —newly arrived in camp—fired two salvoes. The noise of the explosion was so great that we imagined a magazine had blown up, and went to the top of the kopje to see. The whole laager was filled with the oily green curling lyddite smoke, and when this blew away they let fly another salvo, the four shells falling in a line across the laager at regular intervals. The sun had just set, and in the gloom the flames of the tremendous explosions seen through the green smoke made it a most ghastly spectacle, and we felt, for the first time, exceedingly sorry for the foolhardy people below us.
On this night the final advance was made down in the river bed, and to the Canadians [Surgeon (now Staff-Surgeon) G. M. Beadnell, R.N., accompanied them and was the first doctor to enter the laager and attend the Boer wounded.] fell the honour of finishing the eight days of dangerous sapping.
Intermittent firing used to go on every night, and always developed into a continuous crackle of musketry as day broke, owing to the dread the Boers had of being rushed from our trenches, at this time of day; but on this especial night a tremendous fusillade broke out at 8 A.M. down in the river, and the Gordons, extending in front of our guns, advanced towards the laager and fired volleys to distract the attention of the defenders.
Quickly the Boers replied, and every trench was outlined with little tongues and spurts of flame, and their bullets, badly directed at night, whistled over and among our guns and wagons in hundreds.
The firing died away as rapidly as it had commenced, burst out again at sunrise (when the Boers first discovered that the Canadians and sappers were almost on top of them), ceased, and white flags were shown as a token of unconditional surrender. The signalman brought the news down, and from the top of our kopje we saw a long column of unarmed Boers streaming towards the main camp. This was the anniversary of Majuba, and in honour of this curious coincidence and of our first big haul of prisoners Lord Roberts ‘ spliced the main-brace' throughout the whole army, issuing an extra ‘tot' of rum.
Immediately after the surrender our four guns were ordered to recross the river. This was a longer task than we imagined it would be, for the river had risen and made our original drift impassable, and the drift in the laager itself, by which we had eventually to cross, was a very bad one with steep treacherous banks. Besides, the gunners had to secure the three captured Krupps and the pom-pom, and these blocked the way for a long time, and one of our ammunition wagons also capsized. We spent four or five hours in the laager at the top of the drift, and all the ammunition wagons did not cross till next morning. Those left in charge of them will not easily forget that night, for it was too cold to sleep and the stench was appalling.
To keep themselves warm, they buried a Boer whose body had been lying all day long above the drift—the first dead Boer they had seen—and this made them warm and good-tempered; but they could not get away from the horrible smell.
Dead horses, oxen and sheep, mangled in a ghastly manner, lay in hundreds on the ground, two and three deep in places; limbs and fragments hung from the branches of trees, where they had been caught when hurled into the air by the big shells.
There was scarcely an undamaged wagon remaining, so effective had been our fire, and many were simply represented by a blackened and twisted heap of ironwork. The ground was strewn with scattered clothes, saddles, harness, and cooking utensils, and the whole ghastly evidence of destruction was so vivid that every one marvelled that the Boers had ‘ stuck it' so long. Bather more than four thousand had surrendered, the majority of them being Transvaalers. Cronje, his wife and staff, we heard, were to live on board the flagship ' Doris,' and we were much amused to imagine how those on board would receive the news and their very unwelcome guests.
We claim to have put the pom-pom out of action, it having been disabled by a hole in its water jacket— too big to be made by a 15-pounder shrapnel bullet— and which must have been the result of one of our 4.7 shrapnels.
We joined Headquarter Naval Camp in the evening, and early next morning the rest of the wagons came across.
We had made good use of our time in the laager (trust sailors for that), and next day many things appeared in camp—saddles, two ponies, plenty of harness, spurs, bits and stirrups. A wooden table had been discovered by our stokers, brought along on top of a wagon, and made a splendid mess table for the officers. A couple of bentwood chairs also appeared, enamelled iron and even aluminium basins, a mincing machine, many rifles, carbines and bandoliers—even a tent. Borne of the men's messes had well-fitted luncheon-baskets ; most of them had rugs and pillows; our native boys went in half-naked or in odd bits of discarded uniform, they came out in European clothes, boots, cotton shirts, ties, collars and all. Best of all, many sacks of flour were discovered, and, in fact, so many things useful or the reverse were obtained that for months afterwards something new was continually being discovered in the wagons, and at last, ‘ Oh, I picked that up in the laager' was the ordinary explanation to account for the otherwise unexplainable presence of many things. Three little chickens—little balls of yellow fluff—also had been found, and, being motherless, were taken care of by the bluejackets. They became great pets and went with us to Bloemfontein, being stowed in a kettle whilst on the march, hopping out directly we halted, and going chirping round the messes for food, returning to their kettle when tired, and waiting to be lifted back into it.
Our men had other pets: a wounded dog whom they carefully tended till he recovered and rejoined his proper master; another dog which had followed them from Modder camp and used frequently to catch hares and bring them back; a goat which lived on newspapers and tobacco; and a very wee, miserable lamb with sore eyes, which they used to bathe daily with warm water, and round whose neck they tied a ' Doris' ribbon.
We bivouacked at Headquarter Camp, but even now the whole Naval Brigade was not united, for the two 12-pounders, previously mentioned as having marched with Kelly-Kenny, and which had sustained much damage to their carriages during the pursuit of Cronje, had been sent back for repairs under the orders of a very energetic lieutenant of the Victorian Navy [Lieut.-Commander W. J. Colquhoun, eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Order]. Though ordered to return to Simonstown he, at his own initiative, went north to Kimberley, hurried through the necessary repairs and returned, having saved ten days at least, to rejoin the Naval Brigade before it left Paardeberg.It was this same officer who, during the pursuit of Cronje, and when ordered to get his gun into position on the crest of a kopje, found that the sides were too steep and rocky to haul it up in the usual way, so, with the help of some infantry standing by, he dismounted the gun, lashed it to a pole and thus carried it to the top, where it eventually opened fire with effect on the retreating enemy.