MARCH FROM BLOEMFONTEIN—TAKE UP POSITION BEYOND WATERWORKS—JOIN 9TH DIVISION AND MARCH TO WINBURG—PROCEED TO HEILBRON FIGHTING MOST OF THE TIME—VERY SHORT OF PROVISIONS — CONVOY UNDER LORD METHUEN ENTERS HEILBRON—EVACUATE HEILBRON AND ENTRAIN TO KRUGERSDORP.
BEFORE leaving Bloemfontein the Naval Brigade was divided into two sections.
Grant's two 4-7's formed one of these, and at daybreak, April 28, we descended Naval Hill—the guns being lowered down by hand—and marched due east in the wake of the Highland Brigade. We bivouacked at Klip Kraal (21.5 miles), trekked again at 6 A.M., crossed Koorn Spruit, and had a very stiff pull up the steep and stony sides of Mamena Kop, at the top of which the two guns were placed in position about three hundred yards apart.
De Wet, after his failure at Wepener, was being hustled northward, and we hoped to be able to bar his retreat or damage him as he broke through the Bloemfontein-Ladybrand line.
Four days later the doctor was ordered by telegram to return to Simonstown. The propriety of this move was hardly apparent to the uninitiated, as it left us without either doctor or medical staff of any sort. However, there was no help for it; so the medicines and medical comforts were turned over to another officer, who received them with some misgivings, but with a perfectly open mind as to their various uses, and we were left doctorless.
On the 30th the guns were lowered down the hill again—we were becoming quite adept at this—and marched ten miles to Waterval Drift. The road led along a razor-backed ridge which sloped sharply away on either side to a depth of fifteen to twenty feet. The road itself was in places only nine and a half feet wide, and the gun wheels spanned seven feet; so there wasn't much ' to veer and haul on.' However, this was safely passed; but, unfortunately, in crossing the drift the Gape boy leader, instead of taking his oxen straight on, followed the curve of the road. The result was that the bight of the team was pulled out straight, and, in spite of the helm being hard a-port, No. 1 fell into a deep ditch and capsized on to the near wheel. With the assistance of the Royal Engineers and our escort of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders it was again on the march in twenty minutes.
The Naval Brigade halted at this drift for two nights, and, as the guns were in position, of course it necessitated sleeping at them ; and very cold work it was.
On May 2 we moved off at 6 A.M.. and marched to Fairfield (18 miles) in company with the 9th Division, under Sir Henry Colvile, which formed the eastern column in the advance northward from Bloemfontein.
Shortly before arriving at Fairfield a considerable rifle-fire broke out, and a scout galloped in to report that the right flanking party was engaged. Two battalions were extended, and the two naval 4.7s ‘ stood by.'
However, it turned out to be a spirited engagement between our mounted infantry and a patrol of the 21st Brigade. The former claimed the victory, having killed a horse belonging to their temporary enemies.
Found here the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, 19th and 21st Infantry Brigades. These all moved off next morning, as did the field battery. We marched at 9.30 A.M. ten miles to Papjei's Ylei.
On the 4th we marched at 6 A.M., and at 9 came up with the advance guard and scouts, who had located the enemy in position on a very large and steep kop known as Baboon Kop, which lay just to the right of the line of march. This position the Highland Brigade attacked under cover of our fire. We shelled the position heavily, and, from information gained from prisoners, got pretty well among them (one shell was said to have killed and wounded thirty odd). The Highland Brigade were delighted at the slight loss sustained, as the place looked like another Magersfontein. We bivouacked for the night, having marched ten miles.
Marched on the two following days eleven miles and thirteen miles to Winburg, crossing some nasty drifts on the way. Here the guns were placed in position to the north-east of the town. We remained here fifteen days until May 22, on which day we marched with two battalions (the other two having preceded us to Ventersburg) and the divisional troops. The strength of the naval detachment and its belongings was now as follows: Officers, 3; seamen and stokers, 50; conductors, 8; natives, 42; wagons, 13; carts, 3; guns, 2 (4.7); horses, 7; trek-oxen, 290; ammunition (4.7), 570 rounds.
We marched nineteen miles to Zand River, and on the 23rd fifteen and a half miles to Roode Kraal, where the other two battalions rejoined. On the 24th and 25th we marched eighteen and sixteen miles respectively. A certain amount of opposition was encountered on these days, but as the 4.7’s did not actually come into action it is not necessary to go into details. On the 26th we marched at 6.30 A.M. along a bad road with numerous spruits. (The small drifts through these spruits were always more troublesome than the larger ones through rivers.) At about 10.30 the enemy were found to be in position on a high ridge lying right across our front, which we proceeded to shell at 8,700 yards. The infantry made a turning movement, and this, in conjunction with our fire, proved to be too much for the Boers' nerves, and away they went. The Eastern Province Horse suffered some loss, as on the previous days, and there were some casualties among the infantry. We then resumed the march to Lindley, the enemy engaging us on the right flank for the greater part of the day. Bivouacked to the north of the town, after marching sixteen miles.
May 27.—A very cold and windy day. The rearguard were engaged immediately on leaving Lindley, and were so for most of the day. Just before sunset we crossed Rhenoster Spruit, about two and a half feet deep and icy cold—rather a bore just before getting in. One of the ammunition guard, an A.B., was this day run over by an ox-wagon. It was loaded to about five thousand pounds with ammunition, the road was hard, and the front wheel passed over his right ankle and left leg below the knee, yet without breaking any bones!
The morning of the 28th was very cold; ten degrees of frost at 8 A.M. Got under way about 9, and marched till 10.30, when we were ordered to come into action on the left of the road. Had a great race with the field battery. Our way of taking the gun's muzzle first saved a great deal of time when coming into action. The ' voorloeper ' understood the order 'Action front' as well as any one, and was taught to turn his leading bullocks sharp round and double (in both senses) the team back. As the last pair turned the wire span slackened and was unshackled. The gun, being already pointing in the desired direction, was all ready for action when unlimbered. The enemy were holding a high ridge on the opposite side of a valley. We shelled this heavily and drove them out, the infantry then advancing over it. We were told to bring our guns on as quickly as possible, which we did. Just as we topped the ridge (the first Boer position) shell began falling pretty thickly all around us from two guns down in the valley beyond. After about a quarter of an hour of this we got their range and cleared them out, moving No. 2 gun four hundred yards to the front. Fighting was by this time pretty general round all points of the compass. The Highland Light Infantry were engaged in front, and the Seaforths were moved to the right flank to resist a considerable body of Boers who were trying hard to get in from that direction. The latter were very determined, and the Seaforths had to be reinforced. The rear-guard (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) were also heavily engaged, and keeping up a tremendous rifle fire. Half a battalion Black Watch were engaged on the left flank, the remaining half being with headquarters and naval guns. Even the Royal Engineers company were acting as infantry, and were engaged on the left rear. The 4.7s were in action up to 4.30 P.M., firing as opportunity offered, though not as freely as we should have liked, the G.O.C.'s orders as to economy of ammunition being most stringent. At 5 P.M. we bivouacked for the night, much in the places where we finished fighting. Things were looking rather queer, as we were practically surrounded, eighteen or nineteen miles from our objective (Heilbron), and on one-third rations. Our oxen were showing signs of the heavy marching and insufficient food, poor brutes !
The next morning was again extremely cold. We marched at 6 A.M., NO. 1 gun remaining in position while the column crossed a drift, and moving on with the rear-guard. No. 2 gun was advanced about three miles, and was then placed in position until No. 1 came up. The guns were moved alternately all day (a plan which proved most effective in keeping the enemy at a respectful distance), coming into action several times. About 10 A.M. the enemy opened with three guns from the right flank, throwing shell with considerable accuracy among the transport and right flank-guard. Both naval guns came into action, and silenced the opposing guns temporarily. They did not open fire again until 8.30 P.M., by which time the transport had crossed the dangerous open ground. We did not get into camp until after dark, the last few miles being weary work, a thick cloud of fine dust which hung to a height of five feet above the ground making the march very distressing for man and beast. We lost fifteen oxen from our guns and wagons on this day alone, and forty-two since leaving Bloemfontein, replacing them as opportunity offered. Bivouacked at Heilbron at 7 P.M., having marched eighteen miles or over. This made 128.5 miles in eight days, with fighting on five days, three being general engagements. Our ' marching in' state was the same as on leaving Winburg, with the exception of the one injured man.
On June 2 it was decided to dig pits for the guns. This work was carried out by the Royal Engineers, the pits being respectively thirty and twenty-six feet in diameter (No. 2 gun, having a wooden trail, required a larger space than No. 1). The bluejackets were started digging ' ready magazines’ two in each pit. This was done by cutting down through the ground to the floor of the pit for a distance of three feet at right angles to the circumference; then, turning at right angles, a further cutting of three and a half feet was made. The cutting was roofed over with railway sleepers sunk below the level of the berm and covered with earth. The work was very laborious, as the ground was extremely stony, the picks having to be reground twice a day. Blistered hands became universal; but the sailors worked with a will, and in two days the guns were in their new position and forty-eight rounds in each pit. The pits were connected by a trench ninety yards in length and four feet in depth. By this time the enemy were entrenched on the surrounding heights, but did not make any more actively offensive movements. This was probably due to the fact that they could not open fire on any portion of our force without risk of damaging the town—a proceeding from which they have always been averse.
On June 20 No. 2 gun was moved out in company with the Seaforths, two companies Highland Light Infantry, two guns Royal Field Artillery, and mounted details, to cover the entrance of a convoy escorted by Lord Methuen. After marching three and a half miles to the north-west we sighted Methuen's force about twelve miles off, and between us and them we saw a considerable force of Boers in position on two steep kopjes, between which the road to Heilbron ran. The ridges of these were lined by Boers, who appeared to be watching the convoy so intently that they were quite oblivious of what was going on behind them. We were at very long range, but could not get closer, as the ground fell away sharply in front of us, and we should have lost sight of them by going on; so tried a round of common at 9,000 yards, which appeared to land fairly in the middle of them. The scene for the next few minutes was most amusing. They mounted and galloped to the right, but another shell scattered them in all directions. If we had only been close enough to use shrapnel we could have inflicted heavy loss. They were more numerous and closer together than we ever saw them in the open, either before or after. However, we kept them moving and accounted for a certain number, and the much-needed convoy marched in without opposition amid the cheers of the rather hungry garrison.
During the remainder of the halt at Heilbron nothing of special interest occurred. Various reports as to the movements of the enemy (usually accompanied by corroborative details re De Wet with x men and y guns) kept us fairly busy, a gun being always moved out to cover troops going in or out, convoys, &c.On July 27 orders were received to evacuate Heilbron. The job of entraining our guns, wagons, bullocks, &c, was fairly arduous, most of it being carried out through a dark, cold night. The Naval Brigade was spread over several trains, as the trucks were not always of a suitable description. Meanwhile the enemy were closing in, and when the last of the Naval Brigade left (the last train but one), were not two miles away. They did not molest us, the fact of our having a ' leading resident’ on each train perhaps accounting for this policy of noninterference (the one on our train was praying aloud when it started). A most unpleasant journey brought us to Krugersdorp. It rained and blew and was very cold. An open bogey-truck, with an inch or so of coal dust in it, which gradually turned into a black mud, can not be recommended as a comfortable conveyance.