THE ARMY MARCHES FIVE MILES AWAY FROM THE LAAGER AND HALTS—THREE DAYS LATER AN ADVANCE IS MADE—THE NAVAL BRIGADE GET THEIR GUNS INTO POSITION—BATTLE OF POPLAR GROVE—MARCH TO POPLAR GROVE AND HALT —ADVANCE OF THE WHOLE ARMY IN THREE DIVISIONAL COLUMNS—THE NAVAL BRIGADE ADVANCES WITH THE CENTRAL COLUMN—RECORD MARCH OF THIRTY-FOUR MILES TO DOORNBOOM IN TWENTY-SIX HOURS—JOINED BY NORTHERN DIVISION AND MARCH TO VENTER'S VLSI—JOINED BY THE SOUTHERN DIVISION AND MARCH TO FERREIRA SIDING—CAMP AT BLOEMFONTEIN—SEVEN WEEKS AT BLOEMFONTEIN—OCCUPATION OF NAVAL HILL—TYPHOID FEVER—REORGANISATION OF THE NAVAL BRIGADE—DEPARTURE IN SECTIONS—RECORD OF DISTANCES MARCHED.
Thursday, March 1.—Two days after the surrender of the laager the whole army marched five miles to the eastward to get away from the appalling stench of decomposing animals and to be nearer a good water supply.
A halt was made for five days, during which time the Boer position, thrown across our road to Bloemfontein, was thoroughly reconnoitred, and all preparations were made for the general advance.
It was here that a congratulatory telegram from the Lords of the Admiralty was received and read at a special parade of the Naval Brigade. Another incident, much less pleasing, was the advent of an Artillery staff officer, who took an inventory of our guns, ammunition, and transport, preparatory to the Royal Garrison Artillery, even now landing at Gape Town, taking them over. This event caused much despondency. On several evenings severe thunderstorms raged, and on one occasion the thunder cracking and crashing over head, and the vivid lightning incessantly playing round the top of the kopje, above our bivouac, were very remarkable, if not awe-inspiring.
As our wagons were crammed with explosives, lyddite, cordite, and black powder, the approach of a storm always lent additional interest to the discussions as to what would happen if one was struck. The more ' scientific' assured the remainder that nothing would happen, but the ' remainder' nevertheless had an uncomfortable suspicion that the result would be a big hole in the ground, the sole remaining evidence of the Naval Brigade—despatched elsewhere.
On March 5, three 12-pounders were sent across the river to join the Highland Brigade on the north bank (the fourth had bulged and been sent back to Simonstown to be repaired), and the four 4.7s were ordered next day to take up a position on an isolated kopje 7,000 yards from the Boer centre. Grant's two were ordered to the summit, the other two to the right shoulder, none, however, to show themselves till daybreak next morning.
Several Boer guns had been located, and even now we could see, from the top of this kopje, the enemy's working parties swarming round several gun epaulments on a flat-topped hill in the centre of their position. We thought they were strengthening their defences, little dreamed that they were actually hastily hauling away their guns, and looked forward with great keenness to the morrow.
The first thing to do was to make a road up which to haul the guns, and our men quickly set to work with crowbars, picks, and shovels, undermining the bigger boulders and heaving them aside. They had been grievously disappointed with their Paarde-berg ' show,' and now, with the hope of to-morrow's honourable duel, worked as few had seen bluejackets work before. By the time the sun went down they had made a road to the top, the big rocks rolled neatly to the sides and the big holes they left filled with small stones. In three hours a kopje, as typically rough and boulder-strewn as any, had a broad turnpike road running up it, conspicuous for miles.
' How about the blooming sappers now ?' said a sweating bluejacket as he viewed his handiwork, whilst the sick-berth steward tied a bit of ‘ stuff' where four hundredweight of rock had 'jabbed a bit' out of his thumb.
The guns were hauled up just below the crest and our day's work was finished.
The guns' crews fell in at 4 A.M. and ran the guns into position as the sun rose, expecting to be very warmly greeted by the enemy directly they appeared on the sky-line ; they were again disappointed.
Two hours later, Lord Roberts and his staff being close to the guns, one of the headquarters 4.7's fired a ' starting gun’ the signal for the cavalry to sweep round the Boer left flank, which rested on six little kopjes in front of as.
The shell burst half-way up One-Tree Hill below the epaulment and every one waited anxiously for a reply. None came: their big guns had been taken away during the night.
' Little Bobs' and ' Sloper,' personally directed by the Field Marshal, then fired two shells at the anthills, and the second, going a little high, burst behind them. This was a lucky shot, for, helter-skelter, a couple of hundred Boers or more came racing along for dear life from among them, and disappeared over the ridge of some high ground in the rear. The two guns followed them with a ' common ' and a ' shrapnel,' bursting the last high up in the air to give it a chance, for the fuses do not act at such a long range.
‘That will tickle up our mounted infantry,' smiled a staff officer standing by ; and they no doubt' heard it' as they galloped in pursuit; but it did them no harm.
This was the last shot fired by the naval 4-7's, but the three 12-pounders on the other side of the river came in for a very warm half-hour. They were busily shelling the retreating Boer transport when a Krupp gun on the shoulder of One-Tree Hill opened fire, and, catching them in the open, drew their attention away from the wagons. Whilst they were engaged with this gun, another, on the top of a very high hill forming the extreme right of the enemy's line, began pitching segment shells into them; and in action, both on their right and left fronts, they were very busy. Though the Boer shells damaged a wagon, they neither killed nor wounded any one.
These two Krupps performed the only creditable action that day, for they kept up their plucky fire in face of tremendous odds, and, though eventually they had to abandon the guns, these artillerymen saved the whole of their transport.
The Presidents of both Republics were on the field, but, as is well remembered, even their influence and entreaties could not stay the flight of the commandoes.
The battle of Poplar Grove was all over by noon— a magnificent spectacle, but almost bloodless till the evening, when some pursuing cavalry ran up against a pom-pom.
The Naval Brigade was promptly ordered to follow the army to Poplar Grove—twelve miles away, according to the map, but it took us eight hours to do it, under a broiling sun, progress being very tedious over the soft veldt, into which the gun wheels, broad though they were, continually sank, and the gun oxen, much distressed by the great heat, only managing a mile and a half to two miles an hour.
The heat was great, the pace irritating; and when it is remembered that we had been on our feet since 4 A.M. our fatigue will not be thought surprising.
The whole army marched in three columns till the second line of trenches the Boers had prepared was reached. Here the two columns, furthest from the river, had to converge into the track of the third, down rather a steep incline. Naturally at this point there was much confusion and a vast deal of cursing before we could all go on.
Grant's guns waited at the top, whilst we watched patiently for a gap in the road below in which to squeeze them; but in vain; so the order was given to run the first gun down—and run down it did, nearly lurching over its own oxen, and everything below scattering in front of it. A subaltern of artillery, very angry, rode up and motioned the gun back, shouting,' Ho, there ! You're blocking my ammunition column!' ' Blocking it ?' said the ' Barrosa's ' lieutenant soothingly, 'I'm not going to block it. I'm only going to cut it.' And cut it he did; and the poor young subaltern soon saw a quarter of a mile of Naval Brigade in the middle of his column.
He, however, learnt a lesson, and now knows that it is really useless to argue with five tons of 4.7 gun and carriage, bumping down a steep slope, and quite out of control. How the men stuck to the limber pole was marvellous. They were seldom on their legs, yet, directly the gun reached the road, they put the helm hard over and brought her round at right angles to her down-hill course. Failing this the gun would have trundled into a deep mud pool—and possibly stopped there.
Our tempers were terribly tried that day, for a little further on we came to a very soft patch in the road, in the middle of which a cursed foolhardy team of mules had obstinately stuck, and kept us waiting three-quarters of an hour, daylight gone, and our stomachs terribly empty.
At last the guns and wagons got over, fetched up somewhere, and we bivouacked in the dark, eased our bad tempers with sardines, biscuits, and the scrapings of a tin of jam, and soon fell asleep—for we were very weary.
We had been on our feet, in action with the guns or marching, nearly eighteen hours that day.
At Poplar Grove the army halted for two days, whilst forage came up for French's starving horses, and the dispositions for the march to Bloemfontein were being perfected.
There was good well-water to be obtained here, and we were much amused, whilst bathing in the exceedingly muddy Modder, to hear a conversation between two soldiers. One of these— a Highlander— having bathed, commenced to fill his bottle from the river, whereupon the other called out, 'Why, Jock, boy, there's any amount of good water, well-water, up there,' jerking his thumb in the direction of the water supply. 'Na, na, mon,' answered the Highland, ' this hae mair of a bite!' and went off with his treasure.
Saturday, March 10.—At sunrise the great army commenced its march of seventy odd miles to Bloemfontein on sadly reduced rations, and at three in the afternoon the Naval Brigade followed in the wake of the Central Division (the 9th), having the 6-inch howitzers and the ammunition and baggage columns astern.
A most luxuriant grazing country was soon reached, and our half-starved horses revelled in it.
At nightfall we passed the first inhabited farm we had yet seen, and, as we watered our horses in the dam alongside, looked curiously and not without suspicion at the lighted windows of the farm, and the blinds every now and again half drawn aside for the inhabitants to peep out.
After marching for seven hours a halt was called; we had a hasty meal and slept till two in the morning, marching off an hour later, and finally reaching the camp fires of the division ahead of us at sunrise, stumbling along a very treacherous road in absolute darkness. This was Dreifontein dam, nineteen miles from Poplar Grove.
Sunday, March 11.—At 9 A.M., after a halt of four hours and with water carts replenished, the march was resumed. The Naval Brigade was in high spirits, for it was rumoured that two long Boer guns were waiting for us, and we were wanted, badly wanted, to be up in time to attend to them. There had been sharp fighting here before our arrival and, even as we marched off, ambulance wagons were still searching for wounded, and burial parties were still busy on the top of a ridge.
Doornboom was not reached till evening (5 P.M.) ; there were no Boer guns; the sun was excessively powerful, the road fearfully hot and dusty, and the only thing that prevented the Naval Brigade from being exceedingly bad-tempered was the fact that since leaving Poplar Grove, twenty-six hours before, we had marched thirty-four miles, and been actually under way for seventeen hours. Every one imagined that this record for 'guns of position' was hard to beat.
At Doornboom, the Northern and Central Divisions joined hands, and there most have been close upon eighteen thousand men gathered round the dam.
Monday, March 12.—At 5.45 A.M. all were off again in a great hurry, both Divisions and miles of convoys, and were overtaken half an hour later by Lord Roberts, clean and smart as a new pin, as he cantered past with his staff.
After five hours' trudging along, the Naval Brigade halted for two hours to let the oxen graze, and give them a rest in the hot hours of mid-day. They were very lazy afterwards, and very many times during the afternoon required the aid of the marines, hauling on the drag ropes, to pull the guns through soft places.
Whilst we halted, the army marched on, and battalion after battalion, battery after battery, and supply columns, miles long, went slowly past us.
The infantry were in a very ragged and weather-beaten condition. Their clothes in rags and their boots worn out, the soles tied on with string, and some even walking with their putties wrapped round their feet, they went limping by. Their faces were black with the sand and sun, bearded and parched; their lips were swollen, cracked and bleeding; their eyes were bloodshot; but their heads were held high, and they had that grim determined expression which success, and the knowledge of their power and strength, alone could bring, and carry them, with empty stomachs, through the terrible marches under the burning sun by day, and those as terrible bivouacs in the rain and cold by night.
Almost bringing up the rear of the army, our guns trundled over the veldt after them, and Venter's Vlei was reached at sunset after a most tedious da y but otherwise uneventful except for the laziness and weakness of the oxen. The distance traversed was only thirteen miles.
Here all three Divisions united, and the whole invading army with the exception of French's cavalry was assembled.
All along the line of march lay hundreds of dead and dying horses and mules. The latter would raise their heads with a piteous look at us as we passed, and too weak even to do this for many seconds their heads would fall back on the grass, and a shudder pass along their flanks, for they knew their fate as well as we did. One horse had damaged his back in a Boer trench. ' I've got orders to shoot him, sir, if he don't get up in an hour,' said the farrier. ' He's all right for a bit, when he gets on his legs.' This was just the opportunity the bluejackets loved. ' Eh, Tommy, what's gone wrong with 'im ?' they asked as they left the wagons and clustered round with an air of knowing all about horses. ' If he got on his feet we might get him on a bit,' they were told, so, off rifle and leather gear, and with ' 'Ere, mates, clap on; you and Bill, take 'old of 'is 'ed, and Nobby and me 'is tail, and 'eave all together.' 'Now lads, one, two, five! 'Eave!' and they put their backs into it, and nearly got him on his feet. Several times they tried with no better success, and by this time the wagons were a mile ahead, and they had to catch up with them; so, each man giving the poor animal a parting friendly pat on the head, they picked up their rifles and followed at the double. The pistol shot rang out before we had gone far.
On another occasion, whilst in camp, we officers noticed a bluejacket discover an ox, sunk in the muddy river bank and dying of exhaustion, unable to move. He gave it a kick to see if it was alive and sauntered off. ' Gruel brute,' we said,' he might let it die in peace.' Well, in a few minutes, back he came with a coil of rope and a few chums, and these four, and a soldier, worked hard for an hour, got the beast out, dragged it under the shade of a tree, and brought it water from the river in their hats. We were under a shady tree, and even then felt half suffocated by the heat. They were exposed to the full glare of the midday sun, had been working hard all the morning in the open, and were now supposed to be enjoying their hard-earned rest under a wagon.
Next morning the foreign attaches told us that Bloemfontein had been evacuated, that the line both north and south of it had been cut by General French, and that the two Republics were suing for peace. This news was not altogether welcome, for the great desire of every one was to give them a' damned good licking,' and if ' it was to be all chasing, and no fighting, it might'—every one said—' last for ever.'
It was a magnificent sight to see this huge army of nearly thirty thousand men start the last stage of its march to Bloemfontein. They had twenty miles to go, and they stepped out with seemingly inexhaustible energy.
The Naval Brigade followed at nine o'clock in company with the 6-inch howitzers, ‘ horsed' by oxen, and a carious sight it was to see the Royal Artillery men and their ox-spans, though, no doubt, not more curious to us than we were to them. We ran away from them easily over the soft veldt.
There was one difference between the two batteries. Their men walked stolidly alongside the guns, each in his proper station. Our men didn't. They learnt to drive as well as the natives, learnt the names of the individual oxen belonging to their especial wagon or gun team, could crack a whip with the best, and were almost able to pick out any particular ox with the lash, without touching any other. They copied the unearthly noises with which the Kaffirs stopped and restarted them, with great skill, and not only that but they took great pains to teach these natives the most fearful and effective oaths they knew. Thus, whilst at the commencement of the march the Kaffirs had exhausted their vocabulary of expletives when they came to ‘ verdomde Roinek' (not very complimentary to us certainly), they now had command of a vast store of ingenious combinations of oaths taught them by the bluejackets, which knowledge they were always proud of displaying, generally with the most incongruous effect. In three hours' time the 6-inch battery was ' hull down' astern, and we halted to rest and feed the oxen, marched on again two hours later, and bivouacked at half-past nine that night close to Ferreira Siding, only four miles south of Bloemfontein, and having marched sixteen and a half miles during the day—all across country.
All day long the army had been marching parallel to a range of low hills about four miles to the northeast, sweeping southwards to avoid them. This was part of the great turning movement which made the Boers, heavily entrenched there, hastily evacuate this position, and removed the last obstacle to the triumphant advance to Bloemfontein.
Close to Ferreira Siding was a big farm, and it was not too dark nor our men too weary to go off on a foraging expedition, from which they returned loaded with potatoes, mealies, tomatoes, and huge pumpkins. We practically had had no vegetables since leaving the ship six weeks previously, so it can be easily understood how thankful we were to get these.
Wednesday, March 14.—By some mistake the arrival of the Naval Brigade had not been reported at headquarters, and we missed the promised honour of taking part in the ceremonial ' entry' into Bloemfontein. Orders were received to march there next morning, and a ' wash clothes' and ‘ make and mend clothes' day was spent in ' smartening up' for the occasion, several shaving off their beards, and all scraping and scrubbing off the sand which had accumulated during the last month.
It was most pleasant to be once more close alongside a railway, and to know that it would shortly connect us with our base and all that that meant of stores, clothes, and food, so badly needed by every one. There it was, its rails glittering in the sun, going serenely southward, as if the life of an army was not entirely dependent upon it.
On leaving Enslin we had a certain amount of whisky in our mess-wagon, and as we saw this rapidly diminishing would cheer each other with the prospect of reaching the railway in a week, four days, two days, and now we had at last reached it. € Another week,' we said,' and it will be opened up, and discussed earnestly the chances a case of whisky -would have in running the gauntlet up the line. So long as it got past the militia, we thought, it would be all right; but would it? and the doubt threw a gloom over us. As a matter of pure history our first case did not.
Thursday, March 15.—At 5.30 A.M., a beautifully cool, bright and refreshing morning, we inspanned and trekked the last four miles of our long march, going over the ground at a great rate; and when, on reaching some high ground, we saw the town of Bloemfontein at our feet, we felt most exceedingly proud.
We bivouacked late that morning on a plain, south of the old fort, and close to the lunatic asylum and the Free State Arsenal.
This asylum had already been partially converted into a military hospital, and one of our first duties was to send there an officer from the 12-pounder battery. Our next, a more pleasant one, to send a bluejacket to reeve halyards to the flag-staff over Covernment House, which he quickly did, swarming up the pole.
Our next, the most pleasant of all, was to dine at the English Club, and our first whisky and soda, and our first dinner, with its white cloth, clean plates, and abundance of food, will remain long in our memories.
Bloemfontein.—The Naval Brigade quickly made itself as comfortable as sailors alone know how, and for the first few days we filled ourselves with good food, for the next two sorrowfully showed our tongues to the unsympathetic doctors, and on the seventh day —21st March—pulled ourselves together, painted the guns a most bilious and suggestive yellow, and were inspected by Lord Roberts, who, after thanking the Brigade for its services, called in front of him the doctors and their stretcher-bearers, and specially praised them—this proud distinction being probably unique in the history of the Navy. Among the few spectators was Admiral Maxse, who had been present, in the Crimea, at the last previous occasion on which a Field-Marshal had inspected a Naval Brigade on active service.
Next day the seamen and stokers belonging to the ‘ Powerful' left for home. The first fortnight was a very lazy time, with an occasional route-march in the early morning, to keep the feet hard, and plenty of football in the cool of the day, to fill up spare hours. Then, however, our dreamy security was rudely awakened by the Banna's Post affair, within earshot of the camp, and immediately the 12-pounders were ordered to the north of the town, the rest of the Brigade following two days later, and placing the four 4.7s in position on top of a kopje two miles north of the town. This hill became known as ‘ Naval Hill,' a name which it will probably bear for all time. It commanded a great stretch of country, and formed an admirable camping-ground, on which once more we proceeded to make ourselves comfortable, and soon had all the paths approaching and running through it carefully marked off with whitewashed stones. This whitewash brought great joy to the bluejackets, who described the camp as ' looking like a coastguard station,' and 'so homely.'
Khaki serge was now served out, and none too soon either, for the nights had already become cold and our cotton clothes had worn out. The tattered ship's straw hats and battered marines' helmets were also replaced by soft felt hats, on the turned-up brims of which the bluejackets embroidered an Admiralty foul anchor, and the marines a bugle—these two badges now being practically the only marks which distinguished the Naval Brigade from the Army.
On April 18 four 5-inch naval guns, on old army carriages—the' Weary Willies' of Colesberg—manned by garrison artillery men, crawled up the muddy sides of Naval Hill and relieved us, our guns being brought back to the camp in readiness for the impending advance northward. Meanwhile the scourge of fever had not spared the Navy, and the Brigade had to be reorganised on account of the casualties from sickness. Seamen gunners and able seamen were only numerous enough to man three 4.7s and the 12-pounders, and to their intense delight the fourth 4.7 was handed over to the marine artillery, no more to be ' escort,' but now to be ' gunners.'
The first move was made on April 21, when two 12-pounders were sent off with a column to try and out off the Boers, trekking back in hot haste out of the net spread for them round Wepener. They returned without having effected their purpose.
Three days afterwards Grant's guns marched eastwards with their old friends the Highland Brigade, and on May 2 the remainder of the Brigade marched northwards with Lord Roberts, leaving behind two 12-pounders to garrison Bloemfontein.
Our stay in Bloemfontein had extended over seven weeks, and few are likely to forget the long string of stretchers which morning after morning passed through the camp and wended their way down the hill to the field hospitals, with their burdens of fever.
Eighty-nine left the Naval Brigade in stretchers whilst at Bloemfontein, and no fewer than forty-nine of these were carried away during the last thirteen days, all suffering from typhoid, dysentery, or camp fever. The strength of the Brigade was under four hundred officers and men, and the moral effect on those left, who saw their messmates daily taken to hospital, was very great. Can it be wondered that each officer and man longed for the order to 'get under way' once more ?
Whilst the dread of typhoid and the constant succession of funeral parties are now the most striking as well as the most dismal recollections of Bloemfontein, probably, in a year or two, the remembrance of our stay in this town will only conjure pleasant memories of many jovial dinner-parties at the club, followed, as we smoked afterwards in the moonlit verandah, by the nightly ‘ tattoo’ the skirling of the Highland pipers, and the ' Last Post’ in the great market square outside it.
MARCH FROM ENSLIN TO BLOEMFONTEIN
Feb. 18 Enslin to Ram Dam 9 4.5
Feb 14 Ram Dam to Waterval Drift 15 6
Feb 16 Waterval Drift to Wegdrai Drift 12 5.5 (both within 25 hours)
Feb 16 Wegdrai Drift to Jacobsdal 6 2
Enslin to Jacobsdal = 41 miles.
Feb. 18 Jacobsdal to Klip Kraal Drift 15 6
Feb 19 Klip Kraal Drift to Clockfontein 12 5 (both within 22 hours)
Feb 20 Clookfontein to Paardeberg 4 2.5
Jacobsdal to Paardeberg = 81 miles.
Feb 27—Mar 6 Paardeberg to Osfontein 6
Mar 7 Osfontein to Poplar Grove 12 8
Mar 10 Poplar Grove to Dreifontein 19 10
Mar 11 Dreifontein to Doornboom 15 7 (both within 26 hours)
Mar 12 Doornboom to Venter's Vlei 18 9
MAR 13 Venter's Vlei to Ferreira Siding 16.5 8.5
Mar 15 Ferreira Siding to Bloemfontein 4 2
Paardeberg to Bloemfontein = 85.5 miles.
Enslin to Bloemfontein—Total = 157.5 miles.