THE START FROM BLOEMFONTEIN—LOSE THE WAY AT NIGHT—CROSS THE MODDER—MARCH TO BRANDFORT—ATTACHED TO 11TH DIVISION—A SHEEP INCIDENT—A TIRING MARCH—ARRIVE AT SMALDEEL.
' AN orderly for the captain’
' All right! what is it ? ' came the captain's voice from the mess tent.
Orderlies were so numerous, and generally brought such uninteresting intelligence, that we were very agreeably surprised to hear an exclamation issue from our captain's lips on reading it—an exclamation which meant that the message was at least of some interest.
'We start to join in the advance at five this evening, and march to join the main body at Brandfort.'
Thank goodness! For six long weeks we had been stationed on a hill, some three miles to the north of the town, appropriately called ' Naval Hill,' and for that time had been fighting a much worse enemy than the Boers—enteric fever, which had devastated our ranks, and there was not an officer or man who was not delighted at the prospect of the move.
Two 12-pounders under the Gunnery Lieutenant and another lieutenant, assisted by a midshipman, had started off the day before, and we were left at Bloemfontein with two 4.7s, one manned by bluejackets, the other by marines, two 12-pounders, and all the headquarter staff of the Naval Brigade, which included the Captain, the Commander, the Doctor, the Major of Marines, the Paymaster, and numerous smaller fry.
It was one o'clock when orders were received, and in a few minutes the camp was in a state of confusion with preparations for starting. The two 12-pounders were to be left behind—who was to stay with them ? They might be going on some more important business —though they did not as things turned out—so the junior Major of Marines was left in charge with the Scotch officer from the Victorian navy, a lieutenant R.N., and a subaltern R.M.L.I., the guns' crews, and half a company of marines. The remaining bluejackets and marines started packing their kits and loading the wagons.
By five o'clock everything was in readiness—oxen inspanned, wagons loaded, and kits packed up, all the heavy baggage being left behind to be stored in the town.
It was very nearly dark when the advance guard started, and nobody knew the way. However, with great confidence we commenced our march, and everything went well for about half a mile, when No. 1 gun endeavoured to take a short cut by jumping a deep donga, which delayed us about an hour, as we had to drag it out again backwards and get it on the main road. The main road ran round ‘ Naval Hill’ and we had to branch off across the railway over a siding. The unfortunate No. 1 gun missed the turning, and having made nearly a complete circle of the hill, at last got across the railway. After many inquiries from every one, we met on the road, No. 1 gun having gone some two miles out of its way.
Once with our heads turned in the direction of the Glen—which is supposed to be about fifteen miles from Bloemfontein, but distances are very elastic in South Africa—we went straight ahead, and marched on almost without a halt till 1 A.M., when we came across the remainder of our Brigade drawn up by the side of the road, and were told that we were now within a mile of the Modder River, which we should cross at daylight; till then we could lie down.
It was very cold and the three hours' rest did none of us much good, and we were not sorry to get on the move again at 4.30, about half an hour before daylight.
Guided by two colonials with black feathers in their hats, we made for the Modder. How many times had we crossed and recrossed that dirty stream! Only once more should we cross, and that on our way home!
The drifts over the numerous rivers in South Africa were not made for spans of thirty-two oxen. An ox is not an intelligent animal even when everything is plain sailing; but when you are in difficulties the intellect vanishes entirely, and he becomes more of an obstruction than a help. Consequently we took some time to get the guns over, and the escort of marines, who facetiously called themselves the ' extra span’ did most towards pulling them up the other side.
We went on, rested for three hours, then on again, arriving at Karee Siding at 5 P.M. on May 8. Starting again at 4.30 the next morning, we marched on till 8 P.M., when we camped outside Brandfort. Here we found our two 12-pounder guns and the whole of the main force of Lord Roberts's army, which had occupied the village on the day before after a short but merry fight.
Brandfort is a small and uncomfortable-looking place—one main street, two hotels, and the usual large church placed in the centre of the usual church square, the church being the only building of any size.
We were naturally anxious to learn to which Division we were to be attached, so our captain mounted his charger—named Charles I.; there was a Charles II., but he generally had a sore back—and started off to report himself and make inquiries. By a stroke of the best fortune he met on his way Lieut.-Gen. Pole-Carew, who was then in command of the 11th Division. The General accompanied our captain to headquarters, and, by insisting that his Division sorely needed guns of a large calibre, got us attached to him. To say that we were pleased hardly expresses our feelings accurately. We had been with Pole-Carew ever since leaving Orange River, before he got command of the 9th Brigade, and the more we saw of him the more we liked him.
Early next morning, Saturday, May 5, at 4.30 we started off again, one unit of the army advancing on Pretoria.
Having got into our position we waited for the order to advance. Whilst waiting, the Commander-in-Chief, followed by the whole of the Headquarter Staff, passed by. No one could mistake him, dressed though he was in a ' coat, British warm’ and without a single medal ribbon on his khaki jacket, and no one could help feeling proud of serving under him. As he passed he stopped, inquired how the men were, made a cheery remark, and went on again. It was by small, thoughtful acts of this kind that he endeared himself to every officer and man in his command.
For seven and a half hours, in all the heat of a South African sun, we marched on, accomplishing about fifteen miles, and at 1 P.M. halted, outspanning our oxen to feed them. Both officers and men had dinner, and then, as we were not to move on till 8 P.M., disposed themselves for a short sleep. Our hopes for rest were, however, rudely dispelled by the appearance of a sergeant and two troopers from the Provost-Marshal—Major Poore, of cricketing fame. The sergeant asserted that the Naval Brigade had not only captured, but had moreover slain and eaten, twenty sheep which belonged to a neighbouring farmer, who, in a great state of ire, was demanding redress and compensation. Our Captain asserted that such a thing was impossible, and immediately started on a tour of inspection. Hard as it is to believe, the carcases and remains of seven unfortunate animals were found in close proximity to the wagons; thereupon, in the presence of the sergeant and the two troopers, the whole Brigade was ' fallen in,' and the delinquents were requested to stand forward. No one moved. The Captain then addressed us in scathing terms, and stated inter alia that it was his firm intention of requesting Lord Roberts to spare from his army such a crew as we, and of returning us without delay to our ships. For a monetary consideration of 10s. per sheep, however, the irate sheep-owner was pacified, and the incident closed.
Hardly had we recovered from the effects of this accusation of sheep-stealing when the boom of guns was heard, and an A.D.C. came up to tell us to move forward as quick as possible, as the enemy were holding the Vet River about four miles to our front. We started off full speed (about three miles per hour), and in spite of a limber being broken in crossing a drift—the said limber being full of most curious kinds of projectiles in the shape of jam, tinned milk, &c.— and one gun getting stuck in a morass, whence it was extricated with much difficulty and the help of nearly a whole regiment of Guards, we managed to get into action about 4.30. The artillery fire was very heavy—a battery of R.F.A. on our left having a most unpleasant time. They are fine fellows, the Royal Artillery. There, with shells falling all around them, they stood and served their guns with as much coolness as if they were practising on the range at Lydd—an example of magnificent fire-discipline. It was only owing to the mercy of Providence that the whole battery was not exterminated, for the guns had been carefully placed close to a line of wire rails, the range of which the Boers had certainly fixed beforehand. We started firing at some opposing guns, which were very well masked, on the north side of the river, the Guards' Brigade lying down in extended order in advance of the guns, ready for the signal to advance. Fortunately a general advance was not necessary, for towards sunset the enemy retired, as they found themselves in danger of being cut off from the flanks. We bivouacked on the ground for the night.
Starting again at 5 A.M., the whole of the army converged on one point—namely, the drift over the Vet River. Consequently we took till 1. P.M. to cross over. There is nothing calculated to raise anger in the breasts of staff officers more than getting a large army across one drift. Every unit wishes not only to cross among the first, but to get its baggage and impedimenta along with it, and the correspondents use every artifice in their power to prevail over the officer on duty to allow their Cape carts to cross over, out of turn. At this drift there was an officer who was the essence of good nature, but even his anger rose when one correspondent, who had managed to get his ' breakfast' Cape cart across early, then endeavoured to induce the officer to allow his (luncheon' and ' dinner' carts to cross before all others! Having arrived at the other side we marched on till we reached the small village of Smaldeel, a straggling hamlet, the only important building of which is the railway station. We were all fairly tired when we neared our camping-ground, but none more so than the major's horse, who showed such disinclination to proceed any further that at one point he slowly and gracefully subsided into a sitting position, leaving the senior officer of marines in a position at once undignified and untenable.We stayed at Smaldeel two days—May 7 and 8— a halt made luxurious by the washing of clothes and persons. Here again the effects of the Bloemfontein enteric epidemic made themselves manifest, several men going to the field hospital, among them the lance-corporal of the officers' mess, who, to the regret of every one, died shortly afterwards.