CROSS THE ZAND RIVER—THE 12-POUNDER UNMOUNTED BATTERY —THE MORNING TUB—KROONSTAD—THE GOOSE INCIDENT— OUR SERGEANT-MAJOR—MARCH FROM KROONSTAD—CROSS THE VAAL—OUR DOGS—COLD WEATHER.
SETTING off again on May 9 from Smaldeel, we arrived next day at the Zand River. Here the enemy were again holding the passage, but again, on finding that their flanks were in danger, they hastily retired. Our large guns only fired half a dozen rounds apiece. The story reached us afterwards that the last two shells fired from them disabled one of the Boers' guns, killed seven men and wounded countless others. Unfortunately, we were never able to verify this or similar tales. Our 12-pounder guns crossed the river in hot pursuit—the mules keeping up a steady trot. This was excellent for the officers, who were mounted, and for the mule drivers, but for no one else attached to the guns, for they all had to run alongside, and a South African sun, together with a dense dust, are not calculated to improve any one's ' wind.' Consequently they did not catch the enemy, or even get to sufficiently close range to open fire upon them.
After crossing the drift with the usual amount of annoyance and trouble at Virginia siding, we marched steadily on for the next two days.
It is easy enough to sit down and write now about marching ' steadily’ on, but at the time one would often have given all one's possessions for one long drink, and it made one positively ill to consider how many unnecessary whiskies and sodas one had had, in the good days gone by, while now even the dirtiest water was at a high premium. We were unfortunate in one way and fortunate in another. Unfortunate because, owing to the necessity of our oxen having to be fed, we had to halt for three hours in the middle of the day, and consequently it was nearly always dark by the time we arrived at our camping ground— but fortunate because, during this three hours' halt, we got our dinners in comfort, and generally a wash for the cleanly ones. While talking of washing, due credit should be given to one of the senior officers. Hardly a day passed without his being able, by bribery or other means, to obtain a bucket of water and have his bath, and when in camp every morning he might be seen before breakfast, though there might be one of those cold, searching Transvaal winds, and the thermometer during the night had registered 15° of frost, stripped to the skin and enthusiastically soaping himself. Until you, dear reader, have been obliged to have your bath in the open in mid-winter, you will never realise to what extent an Englishman will sacrifice himself to cleanliness. This officer had an apparently sure antidote to pneumonia or other ills, in the shape of a small ' tot ‘ of whisky taken internally before and after washing! We others, not sufficiently stimulated by the example of our noble Captain, used to gaze at our water in disgust, and turn sorrowfully away, putting off the evil to a warmer day.
After two days' marching we arrived on Saturday, May 12, outside Kroonstad. For a long time we had heard alarming stories of the grand line of defence the Boers were making about six miles to the south of the town. We had ample evidence of their good intentions, in the shape of half-finished earthworks, tools left behind, &c, but no sign of a Boer. An incident occurred outside the town worth recording. As to who was in the right and who in the wrong, the author will not venture an opinion.
Strict instructions had been issued about looting. Consequently our Gunnery Lieutenant in command of the 12-pounders impressed on his men that they would be most severely punished for any misdemeanour of this sort. Now there were two innocent geese swimming about on a pond—no farm or habitation was near, and the men looked upon them with avaricious eyes. They were speedily caught and killed, one by the 4.7's and one by the 12-pounders. As the bluejacket from the 12-pounders was bearing off his prize, he was pounced upon by the Lieutenant (G.), and, having received a severe address, was ordered to bury the bird. Another officer, who was of a more generous turn of mind in these matters, approached the man whilst he was in the act of covering the bird with earth, and, when about one inch of soil had been thrown on the carcase, suggested that it was buried sufficiently deep. As soon as the man's back was turned the corpse was promptly exhumed and carried off to the mess wagon.
If you wish to hear the opinion of the Guards' Brigade as to how the Naval Brigade did their catering, make a few inquiries amongst a certain regiment of Coldstream Guards. They once found a nice goose and hung it up. In the morning it had disappeared, but, marvellous coincidence, a goose (another one, of coarse), nicely plucked, was seen hanging on to one of the naval guns. The rage of the Coldstreamers was great, and they made many unkind insinuations.
On arriving outside Kroonstad we formed up for a procession into the town past the Commander-in-Chief, and our Captain, assisted by the Commander, the Major of Marines, and the Midshipman A.D.C., entered the town at the head of the Naval Brigade at 8 P.M. One officer was so much occupied in responding to the acclamations of the English inhabitants on the left, on entering, that he very nearly failed to perceive Lord Roberts on the right. However, he did so just in time, but had to turn so quickly that Charles I., his warrior steed, was nearly the cause of an unhappy contretemps, which was luckily escaped by the presence of mind of the Major. We marched through and encamped about three-quarters of a mile north of the town, the officers luckily securing two rooms in a cottage for messing.
Kroonstad is quite a large town, with many large buildings. The magnificent railway bridge over the river had been blown down that morning—the handiwork of the Irish Brigade, and a very good job they made of it, too. The hotels had been left intact, with much valuable whisky in them, which the owners kindly let us buy at the absurdly cheap price of 12s. 6d. per bottle. There were very few foodstuffs obtainable, and what there were were quickly commandeered at market price by the Army Service Corps, but we managed to make several additions to our mess stock all the same.
We stayed at Kroonstad for eight days—from May 13 till May 21 inclusive. None of us were sorry for the halt, and we spent a very pleasant time, having a roof over our heads for meals and a certain amount of sport—of shooting which was fairly successful, and of fishing which was entirely unsuccessful—to amuse us.
Three or four more men went to hospital here with enteric, and we lost our only remaining marine artillery subaltern, who also developed enteric and had to be invalided home. The Marines' gun was consequently commanded by the Major, with a Subaltern, R.M.L.I., under him.
The sergeant-major of Marines was an Irishman to the backbone, and a source of endless amusement to both officers and men; not that he was not an excellent non-commissioned officer—far from it—but he had the Irish knack of mixing up his sentences. One evening he approached the officer on duty in a great state of excitement. 'Now, hav' ye a gon, sorr? There's a great big burrd a-sitting on the telegraph wires, exactly like a eagle!' The officer on duty went forth to slaughter the eagle, but retired disconsolate, as the ' great big burrd' was an owl! On another occasion, that necessary parade known as ' feet inspection' was held. Several men absented themselves. Shortly afterwards, the stentorian voice of the sergeant-major was heard in the camp:
' All those men who were not present this morning will parade at 5 P.M. to-night with their feet!'
On the 20th the Major, who had been left behind at Bloemfontein, arrived, bringing with him ammunition, much valuable whisky, and 50,000 cigarettes, the latter a present from some naval and marine officers in the Mediterranean. Needless to say they were much appreciated.
At 6 on the morning of the 22nd we started again. We marched twenty miles that day, halting at Honning Spruit for the night, seventeen miles the next day, and fifteen miles the next, when we reached Vredefort Road station; nothing of any interest occurred. The same can be said of the two following days. We went on with the same uninteresting marching and arrived on Saturday the 26th at the northern border of the Orange Free State. There is no doubt that the Free State is an uninteresting country. You may march for miles and miles without even seeing a Kaffir kraal, simply the same grassy undulating country; no sooner do you reach the top of one hill than another one, of exactly similar appearance, stares you in the face another couple of miles further on.
We had not even rumours of battle to stimulate us, but now that we were nearing the enemy's capital we hoped for, at any rate, the sight of our brother Boer, for we had not seen his back since we left Zand River, as he had not waited even for a rear-guard action of any size.
One source of amusement on the road was the chasing of any unfortunate hare which might get up and run for its life. Immediately, from every direction, dogs of every sort, size, and description appeared and started off in hot pursuit. We were very lucky in possessing a greyhound called ' Jack,' who was by far the fastest dog in the army; consequently many a hare found its way to our larder. Occasionally a buck would come running all through the column. Then helmets, rifles—anything—would be hurled at the unfortunate, terrified animal, who seldom got away.
We possessed another dog, by name 'Toby,' a black and tan terrier of sorts, who had been given to a midshipman by a barmaid, when the Naval Brigade was at Molteno. He followed us, attaching himself to the Marines, every inch of the way, and was taken home when we returned to the base. He had a vast reputation for bravery—it was even said, by some, that he led the Naval Brigade up the hill at Graspan, others asserted that he always bolted two miles without stopping, at the first shot.
On Sunday, May 27, we started off, as usual, at daylight and marched four miles through loose sand, which was, at places, quite two feet deep, and consequently made the going very bad, and at 10 A.M. crossed the Vaal River at Viljoen's Drift, and were among the first of the British Army to set foot on Transvaal soil. We went on through the town of Vereeniging and camped the other side.
As it was early winter then, we all felt the cold at nights very badly. Every morning, on waking up, one found one's waterproof sheet covered with frost, and breakfast, an hour before daylight in the open, was a feast unpleasant in the extreme.
On Monday we thought that we were going to have a shot at the enemy, as he was in position on some ridges to our left, but, as had happened many times before, as soon as we had prepared for action we were told that he had hurriedly left. That day we marched twenty-two miles and encamped for the night on the south side of Klip River.