NEARING PRETORIA—IN ACTION—SURRENDER OF PRETORIA—BOER SHELLS AND MARKSMANSHIP—TRIUMPHAL ENTRY—MARCH TO SILVERTON—CAMP SHELLED—NIGHT MARCH.
STARTING at 6.30 A.M. on June 4, we marched steadily on till noon, when we reached the Six-Mile Spruit, south-west of Pretoria. For some time we had heard the sound of big guns to our front, and we momentarily expected to come into action.
After proceeding for about another two miles, we came to the bottom of a steep hill. At this point all transport, and all the units ahead of us, stopped, and we went up the hill at our best pace, with the guns and two ammunition wagons. On reaching the crest, our two 4.7 guns were ordered into action, and hardly had we moved outwards to allow room for the oxen to sweep round when we were greeted with several pom-pom shells from the enemy's position. One looked round to see what damage had been done, and to one's surprise saw, apparently, none; but our Commander, who was mounted and placing the guns, came riding back and called out to two men to help him off his horse—then we saw that he had been badly hit in the foot with a pom-pom fuse.
The guns got quickly into action with no more casualties, and we started firing at our opponents.
From the top of the hill we had an excellent view of all the surrounding country, a long, low range of hills on our left on which the Boers had several guns, and two of the far-famed Pretoria forts to our right front.
For the first hour we were very much annoyed by several ' Zarp' or Johannesburg police, who had stationed themselves behind a stone wall some seven hundred yards to our front and were sniping us continually, but luckily doing no damage except to two of the 12-pounder mules, who were hit. A few rounds of shrapnel from our guns and a battery of Royal Artillery soon, however, sent them away.
The Boer artillery fire now got rather heavy, but all their shells, luckily for us, passed over our heads and buried themselves among the great mass of ambulances, baggage wagons, &c, which were behind us. We kept replying, but it was very difficult to fix the position of the opposing guns.
One fort was well within our range, and several well-directed shots sent columns of sand flying out of it. The Boers had, however, carefully removed all their guns and ammunition, and had evacuated it. We found this out afterwards. One of our principal endeavours was to hit the railway station and thus stop any trains. This was extremely difficult, and it would have been a very lucky shot to have been successful, as we had no knowledge of its whereabouts except that it was somewhere some two thousand yards behind the nearest fort! We ascertained afterwards that we very nearly accomplished our object, several shells just going over and burying themselves in some gardens beyond, much to the surprise of the inhabitants.
On the enemy's fire slackening, our infantry advanced, and our 12-pounder guns also started to take up a position under cover of the stone wall lately occupied by the Boers. Here they proved most useful, entirely silencing the guns from the range of hills on our left. The infantry advanced steadily, and by sunset had gained a great advantage. We all bivouacked in the positions we occupied at dusk.
It was a curious thing, but our guns, especially the large ones, always offered, apparently, a most tempting bait to every owner of a cinematograph or camera. Whenever we were in difficulties, if we were fast in a bog, or delayed in a drift, or had broken a bridge, then was the moment for every camera within a range of two miles to make its appearance and fix its penetrating eye on us. The same happened when in action, but one bold photographer at least got more than he bargained for this day. He had arrived, early in the fight, with a cinematograph, and requested the officer in charge of the marines' gun to let him know when he was going to fire, as he wanted to take the gun firing. The officer gave some orders and then turned round to the photographer. Meanwhile some Boer shells had come whizzing close over our heads, and all the officer saw was the photographic machine standing disconsolate and the operator in full flight to the rear of the column !
At 10 o'clock that night Pretoria surrendered, and we all made preparations for a triumphant entry into the town next morning. We heard, also, much to our disgust, that Botha, the Boer commandant, had managed to effect a retreat from the town with the larger part of his army, and a large supply of ammunition and stores.
During this short fight we had ample opportunity of observing the effect of the Boer shells. It was just the same as we had found before. They were nearly all segment shells with a very small bursting charge, and therefore did nothing but bury themselves in the ground when they landed in sand or other soft substance, but when they fell on stony or rocky ground used to scatter their segments in every direction.
The Boers had the great advantage of nearly always knowing the accurate ranges, and their shooting should without doubt have been better. We never had any range finders with us, and used to fire two or three trial shots to ascertain the distance. With practice we found we could judge within about two hundred yards of our proper range by the first shot, and always managed to go very near our mark by the third.
On our way to the town next morning, we passed over a large portion of yesterday's battle-field, strewn with empty cartridge-cases and other evidences of the fight. Our way lay through a most picturesque valley, with the great fort 'Klapperkop' towering over us on our right, and an immense range of hills on our left, features of the ground which showed us how strongly Pretoria was fortified by nature, and what a tough job we should have had if the Boers had attempted to hold their capital.
We neared the outskirts of the town at 1 P.M., and then the Naval Brigade made ready for the march past the Commander-in-Chief. On our left, as we went along, we passed the large Artillery barracks, which had been so recently evacuated by the enemy that some of the first of our troops to enter them found dinners half-cooked on the fire; then our way took us past the Model School, for so long the unde-sired abode of many of our officers.
Well-built houses, with charming gardens, lined the streets, and a flowing stream of water ran down both sides of the roadway.
We were sadly delayed on the way by several of the oxen striking altogether, lying down in the road, and refusing to get up again. Consequently there was a large gap between ourselves and the troops who had preceded us. On reaching the market-square we were greeted with the strains of ' A Life on the Ocean Wave' from the drums and fifes of the Guards, and all the released prisoners and other spectators who lined the streets or crowded the balconies of the Grand Hotel gave us a most hearty reception. The streets were kept by the Grenadier Guards, and Lord Roberts had taken up his position opposite the Covernment buildings and underneath the usual church. It was a dirty, dusty crew which represented the Navy at the entry into the capital of the Transvaal. None of us had had the chance of awash for some time, and among us all there was not a single suit of clothes that even a tramp would have condescended to accept as a gift. Our number was very small We had lost very many officers and men since the start from Orange River, in action and from sickness, and all that remained at this time, at the front, were roughly, a hundred bluejackets and seventy marines, with ten R.N. and four marine officers.
Having marched through the town, we encamped some two miles outside to the west. Our first want on arrival was food; our second, water. Having fed and washed ourselves, some of us went forth and inspected the town we had marched so far to take. Bo many descriptions of Pretoria have been written that it would be useless and out of place to attempt another; suffice to say, some of the officers managed to get as far as the Grand Hotel, where, having found a white tablecloth and inferior champagne at 255. per bottle, they rested content.
The Major of Marines, who had been left behind at Kroonstad to bring up ammunition and a company of marines, arrived next day; and three days after our entry we moved camp to Bilverton, some eight miles to the east of Pretoria.
The Boers, meanwhile, having evacuated Pretoria, had retreated along the railway line in this direction, and occupied the range of ridges which encircled the town at a distance of some twenty miles. Our camp was about seven miles by the railway from the opening or ‘ poort' in the hills through which the railroad ran.
On the day after our arrival here we were considerably surprised to hear the boom of a big gun about 11 o'clock, and to see a shell fall a hundred yards short of the Guards' camp, sending up volumes of dust and stones. Another and another succeeded, none luckily reaching the camp itself, but all falling about the same distance short. We hurriedly in-spanned our oxen and got into position, but before arriving there, the enemy's gun, which had come out of their lines on a railway truck, had retired. Several alarms occurred in the next two days, but nothing came of them. However, by their endeavouring to shell the camp they were unpleasantly close the whole time, and we were not sorry to receive orders on Sunday night—June 10—to make a night march that night or early next morning, to get into position unobserved, preparatory to a combined effort of the whole army to surround the enemy and cut off their retreat.Accordingly at 2.30 next morning, in inky darkness and cold unspeakable, we set off. The guns were bad enough to move by day, but when one could not see one's hand in front of one's face, the difficulties very nearly became impossibilities. We marched for three hours at the rate of nearly one mile per hour, and at 5.30 A.M. reached the ridge we were to occupy, and early in the morning commenced the engagement commonly known as ‘ Diamond Hill.'