ADVANTAGES OF THE NAVAL BRIGADE—BAGGAGE WAGONS—BREAKING THE KLIP RIVER BRIDGE—ARRIVAL AT ELANDSFONTEIN— SURRENDER OF JOHANNESBURG—A NIGHT ON THE VELDT—MARCH ON PRETORIA.
IN more than one respect we were more fortunate than other units in the army. For one thing, we never had, whilst on the march, any outpost duty to do, and consequently, except for the few sentries over the camp, every officer and man had his full night's rest. Few people can realise what a difference this means. The infantry, for instance, would march as we did all day, and then some would have to spend the whole night on outpost duty, marching again the whole of the next day. We were also most fortunate with respect to our baggage. As our ammunition was of such enormous weight and took up so much room, not more than forty rounds could be carried in one bullock wagon, consequently when we had fired off forty rounds we had a spare wagon to use as we liked. By putting ammunition on every wagon, we were able to say, with truth, that all our wagons were ' ammunition wagons’ and, by reason of their being so called, they were never separated from us and put in the baggage train. Once, and once only, did we have trouble in this respect. It occurred when the army was approaching the drift over the Vaal River.
The order came for guns and ammunition wagons only to proceed across first. We, as usual, started off with all our following. A staff officer, seeing some doubtful-looking cases, stopped one of the wagons, and upon lifting up the hood of the tent saw numerous tables, valises, and other paraphernalia. Thereupon he remarked with wrath that this was not an ammunition wagon and could not proceed with the guns.
Whilst a heated argument was proceeding between him and our transport officer, our General galloped up and inquired the cause of the delay. On the staff officer explaining, the General said that all the Naval Brigade wagons went with the guns, whereupon the staff officer went off to report the matter to the Chief of the Staff, who evidently reported it to the Commander-in-Chief. The consequence of it all was that the latter held an informal review of our caravan as we passed along, with our General standing by his side explaining that all our fifteen wagons contained ammunition. AIl went well till the officers' mess wagon was reached. The tarpaulin had, unfortunately, slipped and exposed to view a large box labelled in unmistakable large letters ' Van Houten's Cocoa.' Lord Roberts perceived this, but, with a twinkle in his eye, merely remarked :
‘ Well, they mark it very funnily !'
It was a bitterly cold morning when we started off for the bridge across the Klip River. As there were prospects of fighting ahead, our heavy guns were sent on first after the advance guard.
There was only one bridge, and that a wooden one, of very ancient date, and it had not improved with years. However, it had been passed by the Royal Engineers as strong enough to bear our guns, and we started to cross without thought of any accident. The bluejackets' gun crossed first without mishap, though the ancient timbers gave forth an ominous groan. The marines' gun, coming next, had hardly got to the middle, when the left wheel disappeared completely through the bridge and the gun remained stuck fast, heeling over at an angle of forty-five degrees. Every one on the spot immediately offered suggestions, and at last the only possible thing to save the gun was started, namely, to cut away the remainder of the bridge and make a drift of the dibris. Luckily there was a hard bottom, and we worked from 7 till 11.30, and at last succeeded, amidst much cheering, and with the aid of sixty-four oxen and several hundred men, in getting the gun out. Meanwhile the advance of the whole of the 7th and 11th Divisions had been delayed. Firing was heard ahead, and as soon as the way was clear we all hurried on as fast as possible.
Very few people knew the way, and still fewer our destination. Consequently we got lost many times, and at last, after a very long and tiring day, arrived in camp at Elandsfontein at 7.30.
Several other parties thought that we were already in possession of Johannesburg, and some made their way there. The enemy, however, considered this rather premature, and took those who had entered the town—amongst whom were two war correspondents—prisoners ; but they did not keep them very long, as we found them again on entering Pretoria.
The bluejackets' gun, which had gone off to the front as fast as possible in hope of some fighting, smiled scornfully on the unfortunate marines' gun which they left behind them embedded in the remains of a bridge. They had to learn, however, and that day too, that there were worse misfortunes than that, for, after fruitlessly pursuing the enemy the whole day, they attempted to follow the field artillery back to camp at sunset. Now the field artillery can go where a naval gun—which weighs nearly seven tons—cannot, and this they found out to their cost, for going over a softish piece of ground about three miles from camp, the gun sank deep in, and as it was found impossible to extricate it, the gun's crew had to remain there all night, without food or blankets, and wait for daylight and extra oxen.
The 12-pounders, as usual, had gone on ahead under the Gunnery Lieutenant, and, by the mercy of Providence alone, were restored to us intact in the evening, as after a most adventurous day they had finished up by returning to camp vid the suburbs of Johannesburg, a town still in the hands of the enemy.
On Wednesday, May 80, we were all occupied till 11 A.M. in extricating No. 1 or the bluejackets' gun from its boggy resting-place. This having been done with much difficulty, we sat down to await events.
At about 10 A.M. some of the chief men of the town, under a flag of truce, came out of Johannesburg to interview Lord Roberts and ask his terms. He having responded that his terms were unconditional surrender of the town within twenty-four hours, the flag of truce retired, and we made preparations to bombard the town in case of refusal of our terms.
In the evening we heard that the town had surrendered, and we received orders to start at 10 next morning to join in the procession past Lord Roberts through the town. Accordingly at the time appointed we started off with only two ammunition wagons, leaving the rest of our impedimenta to follow on with the remainder of the baggage belonging to other units, in rear.
Passing along the Rand, we reached Johannesburg, after innumerable halts, at 2.30. On our way we passed several of the more important mines, all the employes of which gathered outside to look at and admire a spectacle the like of which they had never seen, and never would see again.
At 3 we marched past Lord Roberts, who had taken up his position, with the burgomaster of the town on his left, in the main square. A dense crowd of persons of every nationality thronged the streets, and we all met with a most hearty reception.
We marched drearily on and on, thinking that every minute we must be nearing our camping ground. Our Captain had been told to follow the field artillery, but, unfortunately, we missed them, and at sunset found ourselves alone on the veldt without a notion where to go. There was only one thing for it—to draw up the guns where we were, and wait for information. This we did. The Gunnery Lieutenant went off, and after falling over two wire-fences with no damage either to himself or his horse, found the proper camp some three miles back, but our Captain decided to stay where he was for the night.
Though we were well outside the outpost line, we found it absolutely necessary to make fires, searching the country all round for wood.
Our fires attracted other people, and by the morning we had quite a little camp of our own. We did not spend a pleasant night—it is very hard in South Africa in the winter to spend a pleasant night in the open when you have no extra covering and no food, and no one was sorry when day broke, and we made our way back to the main camp, some eight miles north of the town.
We stayed here that day and the next, during which time we collected many valuable mess stores out of the town at exorbitant prices, and a large quantity of badly-needed potatoes and vegetables from a neighbouring farm, also at a price.
Several of our officers visited Johannesburg, and all came back with magnificent ideas of the place, but with much more magnificent ideas of the excellent luncheon or dinner they had got there.On Whit Sunday, June 8, we started on the last part of our march on Pretoria. Leaving at 7, we marched twelve miles and encamped for the night at what is called the ' half-way house’ to Pretoria. We thought that the morrow would be the most important day of the war, with the whole Boer army holding its capital, and we hoped, on the surrender of the town, to find the President of the Republic standing on his stoep, ready to do homage to our Commander-in-Chief, and to acknowledge himself beaten. We were, alas ! sadly disillusioned.