NO. 2 GUN LEFT AT BELFAST—NO. 1 GUN MARCHES WITH FRENCH TO BARBERTON—DIFFICULTIES ON THE WAY—HAND OVER GUN TO R.F.A. AND RETURN TO PRETORIA BY RAIL—SEVERAL ADVENTURES—REJOINED BY OTHER DETACHMENTS—INSPECTED BY LORD ROBERTS—RETURN TO SIMONSTOWN.
THE next few days were employed by the crews of both guns in building gun emplacements, and by some officers in journeying to Waterval Boven in search of stores to replenish our almost empty larder The latter were very successful, securing Quaker oats chianti, and butter—the latter a great luxury which we had not seen for some considerable time. On their journey back from there, they travelled with our prisoners escaped from Nooitgedacht, several of whom were clothed in all sorts of weird costumes. To one of the latter, dressed in short knickerbockers, a sweater, and socks, a sergeant called out, 'What time's the kick-off ?' The ex-prisoner did not appreciate the jest.
On the morning of September 5, orders were received for No. 1 gun to trek to Carolina. No. 2 gun and crew, under the Major of Marines, remained at Belfast, taking up a position and entrenching themselves on Monument Hill. Here they remained until the gun was turned over to the army, and the
Naval Brigade returned to Pretoria en route for Simonstown.
Starting on the morning of the 5th with No. 1 gun. we were given an escort of Brabant's Horse, in addition to our own escort of Black Watch, which had been with us since Johannesburg, and marched to Van Wyk's Vlei, where we joined Colonel Spens's battalion and a squadron of the 18th Hussars.
On reaching Carolina, we found it a small town, much the same as Middelburg and others, and boasting a doctor, two or three stores, a bank, a good water supply, and the usual church in the middle of the usual square.
On Sunday, September 9, having repaired the brake-blocks, which sadly needed it, we were on the move again, being under the command of General French, with the 1st and 4th Cavalry Brigades, Mahon's Brigade, and an infantry brigade under Colonel Spens. Early in. the day we were in difficulties, as we missed the right road and got into a dense fog, which, besides keeping us in semi-darkness, was exceedingly cold. We also did a thing we had done before occasionally—namely, got held fast in a bog, which delayed us half an hour. However, we picked up the main column in safely and at 11.30 A.M. outspanned.
Shortly after noon the R.H.A. battery became engaged with the enemy, but our infantry brigade advancing soon drove them off, with only one casualty on our side. At 4 P.M. we moved on and occupied the hill lately occupied by the Boers and here encamped for the night.
Next day we moved on again and crossed the three drifts of Buffelspruit, and on the following evening encamped opposite Taval Kop, where the Boers were supposed to be in force.
Next morning. September 12, Gordon's 1st Cavalry Brigade, with 100 mounted infantry, worked down to the south of the enemy's position, whilst the remainder of the force threatened from the southwest. The 4.7 was brought to a small kopje and laid for a 'nek' where the Boers were reported to be, Gordon meanwhile attacking from the southeast.
General French, who was on our kopje, at 7.45 A.M. received a message from General Gordon that he had captured one of the enemy's laagers, and at eight o'clock we were ordered to advance. At 10.30 we came to a small kopje and found a battery of Royal Artillery firing at the nek occupied by the Boers. The infantry advanced shortly afterwards, and the Boers, as usual, vanished. We saw, however, several of their wagons slowly trekking up a steep hill, unfortunately out of range; they had, though, to abandon about half a dozen of them later on.
The road up the 'nek' was so steep that only treble-spanned ox-wagons could go up, so that it took some days to get the whole force to the top. General French and the 1st Cavalry Brigade went on ahead into Barberton, where he liberated several captured officers and some men of the Duke of Cambridge's Own Yeomanry, and found fifty-two locomotives, all in fairly good condition. The whole of the little column halted at Nelsburg, at the top of the nek.
Starting from here on September 19, we came in for some very troublous times. In the forenoon the top of the ' chute’ which is very steep, was reached. On going down, several Gape carts capsized, and one of the wagons' took charge' for twenty or thirty yards and three oxen had to be shot in consequence—one poor brute having a horn torn off, another a leg broken, and a third his hind foot crushed. One gun wheel also gave us considerable anxiety. The next day the gun wheel broke down completely. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and an ingenious officer suggested using a spare wagon wheel; so after a short interval the gun made its way into Barberton, the largest town, outside the capitals, we had come across. We encamped two miles outside.
Several Scotch residents welcomed the advent of the British troops into Barberton with enthusiasm, and all sorts of entertainments were got up in their honour—dances, at which several officers and some charming Dutch ladies assisted and no introductions were needed, musical evenings, and a hunt.
The gun wheel, meanwhile, had been repaired, and the gun remounted, chiefly owing to the energy and resource shown by our armourer.
On Monday, October 1, orders were received to turn over the gun and ammunition to Major Taylor, R.A.; this was done, and on October 2 we bade farewell to Barberton on our return journey. We left by train, but on reaching Avoca had to walk a couple of miles, transhipping our gear, as the bridge had been blown up, and a new one had not yet been built. More troubles awaited us, as before we had got halfway to Kaapmuiden in the new train, the engine broke down, and we had to wait there till the morning, during the night being drenched to the skin by a bad storm. We reached Kaapmuiden in safety next morning, and breakfasted there. Going on, all went well till Witbank was reached. From here the engine-driver hoped to run through by night to Pretoria; but was stopped at the next station, Brugspruit, as the Commandant there had received information that the Boers were going to cross the line from north to south that night between Brugspruit and Balmoral. Our Captain wished to prevent this, and at 9.30 P.M, we left accompanied by a few mounted infantry and one company of the Buffs, and preceded by a ganger and trolley. After proceeding slowly for about three miles, we came to a ganger's cottage, and left here fifteen men under a N.C.O. Here the ganger, for some inexplicable reason, took the trolley off the line, and after proceeding about one hundred and fifty yards, there was a loud explosion and the engine was thrown off the line. The fireman was hurled out of the engine into a ditch, but only sprained his ankle slightly. On this happening, the ganger was sent back to Brugspruit to inform the Commandant and to ask for a gun, men were placed along the line in pairs on either side, and our sergeant-major with a party of marines was sent on ahead to establish communication with the company of Buffs in front. Next morning the breakdown gang arrived, and the engine was raised on to the rails again. Some Boers attacked the mounted infantry, but on being fired on by a 15-pounder which had been sent out, retired hastily. The overseer of the line (late of the C.I.V.) had gone on to Balmoral on a trolley and reported the line clear, but the train had hardly proceeded two hundred yards when it was blown up again. This time, luckily, no truck was derailed, and, after a new rail had been laid, it went slowly on again, but not before the overseer and the engine-driver (the latter very reluctantly) had gone over part of the line with the engine.
Alter spending a miserably wet night at Bronker's Spruit we reached Pretoria next day at 10 A.M., and were joined by the Major of Marines with No. 2 gun's crew from Belfast, and by the Gunnery Lieutenant with his 12-pounder detachment from Komati Poort, the Naval Brigade being once more complete, but without its guns.
That afternoon, drawn up outside the railway station, we were inspected by Lord Roberts, who made a pleasant little speech of farewell. The officers were then introduced to him, and the Brigade gave him three rousing cheers as he rode away with his staff. More cheers were given for General Pole-Carew, who was also present, and bade us good-bye; he was immensely popular with us, and, indeed, with every one else.
We left Pretoria at 12.45 that night, and proceeded on our journey back to Simonstown. We passed through Eroonstad next night, and at Bloemfontein picked up a large load of stores which had not yet been sent up to us. General Kelly-Kenny came to the station to say good-bye, and we passed quickly down the rest of the line.
At Wellington the men were entertained by the ladies of the town to breakfast, and at 2 P.M., October 12, we reached Simonstown, being received with great enthusiasm.