MARCHING EASTWARDS ALONG THE RAILWAY—A LUCKY FIND— NEARING BELFAST—JUNCTION WITH BULLER—DISPOSITIONS FOR ATTACK—THE BATTLE.
ON Friday, the 27th, we had a long day's march and encamped at Brugspruit, a station on the Delagoa Bay Railway. We heard that our stay here was likely to last some time, and were rather disgusted, as we were very anxious to push on eastwards as quickly as possible. We had an excellent camp here, and a very fine, commanding position for our guns, overlooking the colliery owned by Mr. Howard, who had been so instrumental in assisting the officers, who had escaped from Pretoria, to make their way to the coast. We were also rather lucky in making large additions to our mess stock, for the Paymaster— always an energetic officer—discovered a small store some five miles off, where beer and other useful and scarce commodities could be purchased. We were the first to find the store, and bought the goods at extortionate prices; the next day, some other officers discovered the place, and also discovered some ammunition hidden in it, so they took as much beer, &c, as they could find, and only had to pay less than English prices for their stock to the Provost-Marshal, as the store had been taken over by him, and the owners made prisoners for having contraband goods in their possession. However, we did not grieve much, for beer, even at 3s, a pint, was cheap then. Some of us went out buck shooting while at this camp, but with very little result, except that once we were mistaken for Boers, being some way outside the lines, and nearly shot by some Australian mounted infantry.
On Friday, August 8, we were off again, marching that day to Oliphant's River, and then on again to Middelburg next day, a distance of about twenty-five miles in all. On arriving there we encamped one mile to the east, but moved our guns into position next day on a kopje about four miles north-east of the town. The position was a very good one, as we had a good commanding view all round, but it was not the most comfortable place to live in, as the cold wind— there always was a wind up there, and it always was cold—blew sand and dust in every direction. While we were here, a mounted patrol was told off for scouting purposes, and put under the command of our Captain. They were consequently known as ‘Bearcroft's Horse,' and an adjacent fort will also carry his name down to posterity, for the party of Guards who built it put on the outside in large white stones—‘ Fort Bearcroft.'
The town of Middelburg was about the same size as an ordinary English village, and, in common with nearly all the other towns we had passed through, contained nothing worth buying or stealing. There was one large store, the owner of which rejoiced in the name of ' J. Chamberlain,' and this had been looted by the Boers (perhaps on account of the name!) and the owner had fled for safety. There we found many useful cooking utensils, musical instruments, linoleum, knives, forks, &c., which we made use of; also a complete cooking range, which was a great luxury to us, as we were able to roast our joints for a change, instead of the eternal boiling in a pot. We continued our cricket here to wile away the time, and had many exciting and successful matches, our pitch being the high hard road to Lydenburg, which was not at all bad, but the outfielding was a little trying among tropical ant-heaps and large stones. However, we defeated a company of Scots Guards, our Highland escort several times, and many others.
On Friday, the 17th, we were ordered to move one gun to a position west of the town, so the marines' gun went. Here they found a nice sheltered camp, and an old magazine, which was promptly turned into an officers' mess and was most comfortable. On Monday, the 20th, both guns were relieved by 5-inch siege guns, and we went back to our old camp and waited for orders to ' trek.'
Those orders arrived on the Wednesday, and we left at 7 A.M., extremely glad to be once more on the march, for, at every halting-place, Rumour had it that the Naval Brigade would go no further, and we feared that one day Rumour would speak the truth.
On Wednesday we marched to Rietpan, a short march of only ten miles, and next day reached Wonderfontein, so-called from a large pan which was always dry; but then most names of places in South Africa end in ' fontein,' and it does not necessarily follow that you will find water there.
Here we picked up the Guards' Brigade, and early next morning advanced slowly on Belfast, which position, commonly known as Dalmanutha, Bergendal, or Belfast, the enemy were holding in force. Unfortunately, at about 8.30 A.M., NO. 1 gun got stuck in a bog. It was really remarkable, but if there was a soft piece of ground anywhere for miles round, one of our guns was certain to find it, and stick in it. No. 2 gun luckily escaped, and as no amount of whip lash, or Kaffir bad language, would induce the oxen to move the gun, which was gradually sinking lower and lower, No. 2 gun went on and left a party of engineers, the Captain, Commander, and gun's crew to solve the difficulty of getting the other gun out of the mud. At 11 A.M., we reached the position on top of the hills overlooking Belfast, and here found that the enemy were in strong force, the mounted infantry in front of us having to retire hastily. On the advanced posts of the enemy retiring on their main position, we moved on to the railway station, where we met our other gun, which had been extricated with much difficulty, and encamped there, in biting cold weather, for the night.
Next morning, Lord Roberts arrived at Belfast Station, by train from Pretoria—the railroad having been repaired as we advanced—at 10 o'clock. We had been 'standing by' since early morning, with oxen inspanned and everything ready for a start, but shortly after his arrival received word that no further advance would be made that day.
Early in the afternoon General Boiler galloped in, having moved up in a northerly direction from Natal, and having just come within signalling distance of our column. General French arriving soon after, a conference was held in the saloon railway carriage, the headquarters of our Commander-in-Chief, to decide how to attack the apparently very strong position of Dalmanutha, held by the enemy. Roughly, the scheme was for our column to push home the attack from the centre, while General Buller operated on our right flank, and General French made a wide detour round the left flank of the enemy's position and endeavoured to cut off their retreat further east, and, at any rate, prevent them retiring on Lydenburg.
In the evening we received orders to be ready to move next morning. Accordingly at 8.30 A.M. next day we moved off and put our guns in position on the hill known as Monument Hill—so called from a monument erected on its highest point—which is supposed to mark the highest spot in the Transvaal. This monument, by the way, might have been with advantage destroyed by us, as it afforded an excellent mark for the enemy's fire, and during the next two days' engagement a hail of bullets fell continuously all round it. No. 1 gun was placed facing due north, while No. 2 gun faced due east and commanded the railway. Towards noon we were heavily engaged, but owing to the smokeless powder used by the enemy, it was extremely difficult to fix the position of their guns; also they, in a very wily manner, it is said, used to explode a pan of black powder in one place and fire their guns from a different position. Pompom shells and ballets were falling very thickly all round No. 2 gun, and it was very hard to retaliate for the reason stated above, also for the fact that the gun had to be fired from below the crest of the hill, for, had it been put in position on the top, the gun with its gun's crew would have offered such a large target to the enemy, that very few of the crew would have been left alive. At 3.30 P.M. orders were received for No. 2 or the marines' gun to move to the east of the railway; it accordingly moved off, but hardly had it gone half a mile when such a heavy shell-fire broke out, sending shells right into our wagons and camp, that General Stevenson ordered it to turn back and try to silence the fire.
On returning it opened fire again at the enemy's guns in the hills to our front, and the opposing guns soon were silenced. As it was now getting dusk and it was no good throwing away shells, both guns were ordered to cease firing, and the guns' crews were ordered to lie down under cover, for the bullets from the enemy's trenches were still flying about in rather an uncomfortable manner. It was while lying down like this and waiting for further orders that the Subaltern of Marines, who was in charge of the marines' 4.7, was severely wounded through the upper part of the thigh. Luckily the Fleet Surgeon was quite close, and he was bound up and carried to the ambulance wagon. Shortly after this the guns were taken back to camp, and we bivouacked at the base of Monument Hill for the night.
Next morning the bluejackets' gun crossed the railway and took up a position three-quarters of a mile south of the railway station, where it was greeted by a few bullets from some Boer snipers. Towards 10 A.M. firing commenced on our right, and our Captain, seeing that the guns under General Buller were shelling Bergendal Farm, ordered the gun into position and fire to be directed on the farm.
After a short time we noticed a heliograph flashing a message in our direction from behind Buller's batteries, and received orders not to shell the farm any more, as his infantry were advancing on it. Meanwhile, however, the Boers were dividing the attentions of one of their 'Long Toms' between General Buller's troops and ourselves, but without any effect, as all their shells fell about five hundred yards to our right rear.
During this time the Marines' 4.7, under command of the Major, was having a duel with another ‘ Long Tom.'
Towards 2 P.M. the enemy who had been occupying Bergendal Farm, and who mostly consisted of ' Zarps' or Johannesburg police, driven off by the magnificent advance of our troops, rode away as hard as they could—as many as were left. Instantly a scathing fire from our guns, some B.H.A. batteries in front of us, and all Buller's guns, was directed on them, and as long as they remained in sight a concentrated fire was poured in. Then the mounted troops advanced, and the battle of Belfast, as far as we were concerned, was ended.
' Toby,' the terrier, whose pluck had been often called in question, seemed intuitively to understand that this would be his last opportunity of for ever silencing traducers, and, to show his absolute contempt of danger, spent the day chasing shells. He would dash at the place where one had buried itself and excitedly commence to dig it up from the soft ground. His surprise at burning his paws with the hot pieces was most comical to see but experience did not damp his ardour in hunting for ' curios.'
On August 26 the Gunnery Lieutenant and his two 12-pounders were again detached, advancing with Pole-Carew's Division.