MARCHING UNDER DIFFICULTIES WITH GUN-WHEELS GIVING WAY —250 MILES IN FIFTEEN DAYS
WE had only just settled down after twenty-four hours at Krugersdorp when, about mid-day on July 31, orders arrived to entrain guns and wagons as rapidly as possible, but to leave the oxen behind. The last part was a blow, as we had utilised our long stay at Heilbron in perfecting the teams, and they were just about as good as they could be. We were ' all aboard' by 6 P.M., and started off shortly after, arriving at Kopjes Station, south of the branch line to Heilbron, at 11 A.M. the following day. The new oxen arrived that evening, and were a poor lot compared with those we had left behind. Crossed the railway and camped near to the 2nd Batt. Marched at 6.30 A.M. on August 2, fifteen and a half miles to Wonderpeusal, where we bivouacked between the 5th and some cavalry (18th). De Wet was holding a chain of kopjes running across a bight of the Vaal River, roughly from opposite Vredefort on the east to a big kop called Rhebok Kop on the west. On the following day, about 8 A.M., the Boers opened fire, with a 15-pounder, on the camp of the 1st Sherwood Foresters. As our oxen were grazing at some distance, five companies of the 5th were sent to drag the guns up to the top of the ridge. This they did at the doable, passing through a soft mealie-field on the way. After a little trouble in finding the range we burst a shell (shrapnel) right on top of the Boer gun, killing or disabling four of the gun's crew and smashing one wheel. (This we heard from an escaped prisoner.) On the night of the 6th De Wet broke away, crossed the river, and trekked off along the road to Zeerust. Away we all went: two cavalry brigades, one mounted infantry brigade, and the infantry. This was the beginning of a very heavy and trying march. On August 7 marched ten miles to Bloemfontein. No. 2 gun (which had been detached on the 4th) rejoined here. Shortly after bivouacking the armourer reported that one of the wheels of No. 1 gun was showing signs of weakness. After careful examination it was found that the web of the wheel was sheared at the point where it entered the boss for a distance of some two or three inches. This accident will be, perhaps, better understood if the wheel be considered as an ordinary wheel, the inner ends of the spokes of which had broken just where they enter the hub. It will be easily seen that, in the event of this shearing continuing right round, there would be nothing to prevent the whole wheel from falling over. The various bumps and strains incidental to trekking on South African roads would naturally tend to increase the damage. After consultation with the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, and Army Service Corps, it was decided to try and screw bolts into the boss on either side of the web to minimise the lateral motion. Our appliances were limited, but we borrowed a ratchet drill and a set of taps and dies from the Royal Artillery and set to work. Four bolts were put in and we marched at 6 A.M. on the 9th, fifteen miles through Parys to Modderfontein. On August 10, at 5 A.M., marched five miles to Lindeque Drift (Vaal River), where we were obliged to halt to allow the 2nd Cavalry Brigade baggage to cross. The river here was quite pretty, but we were more inclined for rest than scenery. Eventually the drift was clear at 1.15 P.M., and the guns crossed. The road down to the river was very steep, rough, and winding, and the first eighty or ninety yards of the river bed was dry, but very rough and stony; which did not tend to improve the damaged wheel. Several of the bolts (of which we had put in eight) worked out, and the opposite wheel was found to be going in the same way. The last fifty or sixty yards was through three or four feet of water—the men steering being frequently towed. One of them was heard to remark that ' it was about time they piped "Leadsman in the chains ! "' Then came a long and weary pull up a hill for over a mile. We bivouacked at Losberg, in all nineteen miles. The country for as far as one could see was all burnt. Put three more nuts in the gun-wheels, the armourer working till after 2 A.M. Marched again at 6 A.M. on the 11th. This was a day to be remembered. A strong head wind (force about 6-7) would have been sufficient by itself to make marching rather heavy work, and when this was accompanied by a steady stream of dust and the ashes from the burnt grass, it became almost intolerable. By the time we got in (8.30 P.M.) eyes were smarting, streaming, and almost closed, and the skin round both eyes and nostrils cracked and bleeding. However, it was eighteen miles more put behind us. Our troubles were not over for the day, as, when we were settling down for the night, most of the men's bedding, &c, being on the ground, we were warned by a cloud of smoke and a loud crackling that the grass (which just here was long and thick) had been fired to windward of us. Turned the weary sailors out, with bags, overcoats, &c, but the wind was too much for them, and the fire swept through the bivouac, much of the bedding being destroyed, and an ammunition wagon set on fire. This was extinguished before anything serious occurred, but the loss of bedding and partial destruction of leather gear was a nuisance. All the bolts on the wheels were found to have sheared or drawn, and the unfortunate armourer again spent a night at work, assisted by the gun's crew in spells. The bolts had to be taken from wagons or anywhere they could be found, and a thread made on them. An angle-iron was made after a fashion, by bending a bit of iron tyre in the cooking fire, and was bolted to boss and wheel. Captain Grant's reference to this indefatigable man may well be quoted here. Extract from Letter of Proceedings. Naval Brigade, Krugersdorp, August 28,1900. . . . ' I must bring to your notice the zeal and energy displayed during the march by Joseph Tuck, armourer's mate, of H.M.S. " Barrosa." It was due to his exertions that the guns could be taken along; every halt, day or night, being utilised by him, aided by the guns' crews, to repair, replace nuts, &c' . . .
A General Order, complimenting the troops on their marching, endurance, and general conduct, was issued this night (11th), and a special issue of rum ordered. Great joy, which was somewhat discounted by the final paragraph : ' Reveille will sound at 2 A.M., the force will march at 8.'
12th.— Marched at 8 A.M., arriving at Welverdiend (on the Klerksdorp line) at 9.45 A.M., fourteen miles. Found here the Cavalry, Mounted Infantry, and Smith-Dorrien's Brigades, so we had come along a steady pace. No. 1 gun was now staggering like a drunken man, the wheels describing a sort of figure 8 in the air. It was decided to leave it with a Gunner, R.N., and seven men, for repairs, which were carried out at Pretoria. The remainder of the brigade moved on to Blaauwbank, six miles. August 18.—Marched five miles, crossing the Mooi River (four feet deep and very cold), and bivouacking at 8 A.M. TO our horror No. 2 gun was found to have taken the same complaint in the wheels as No. 1, and was accorded the same treatment. The G.O.C.'s only comment was,' You've got to bring it on.' Marched again at 11 A.M. to Schoolplaatz, in all fifteen miles. We were still pretty close behind our friend De Wet, in spite of sore feet and weary animals. He was engaged by Lord Methuen only twenty miles away, and we continually passed indications of his being hard pressed, in the shape of abandoned transport, dead beasts by the score, &c.August 14.—Resumed the march at 7.30 A.M. fifteen miles to Klip Krantz, arriving at 8.45 P.M., and marching again at midnight, thirteen and a half miles to Rietfontein, where most of as went to sleep on arrival. De Wet, who was for the time supposed to be absolutely cornered, had escaped through Oliphant's Nek. Shifted camp in the afternoon, two and a half miles, to better water. On the morning of the 16th received orders to go to the relief of Colonel Hoare's force, which was held up on the Eland's River. Marched at 8 A.M., but, after going three miles, intercepted a cyclist orderly (C.I.V.) who was taking orders to the various columns to go to various places, some to Pretoria, us to Krugersdorp, and so on. We accordingly returned to Rietfontein, but apparently were wrong in so doing, as we started off again at 1 A.M. (17th) along the same road. Halted at Tweefontein at 9.45 A.M. after covering twenty-one miles. Marched again at 2 P.M., but, after three miles, were ordered by heliograph to proceed to Krugersdorp. Bivouacked at Tweefontein, having marched twenty-seven miles since 1 A.M. The left gun-wheel was now sheared for all but about two inches. Captain Grant was obliged to tell the General that it was unsafe, and to ask permission to place the gun on a wagon. After some consideration this was agreed to, on the understanding that we were to mount and fire the gun inside of an hour, if required. This was a great relief, as the last few days had been like a bad dream - one had been so constantly on the look-out for even small stones and holes, which might make the damage worse. Marched on the 15th six miles to Leeuwfontein. On arrival the trail of the carriage was sunk about a foot. A wagon was emptied and backed over the trail with the wheels on either side of it. A purchase was hooked to a strop round the dessel-boom of the wagon, and to a pendant toggled through the gun; a few rollers on the floor of the wagon completed the arrangements, and the gun was drawn out of the cradle and on to the wagon without difficulty. August 19.— Marched at 6 A.M. seventeen miles to Vlakfontein. The mounting, thus lightened, got along very well, the men steering reporting that she was 'rather quick on the helm.' There were many jests from the soldiers about' guns with sore feet riding on wagons,' and so on. August 20.—Marched seventeen and a half miles to Cypherfontein. The enemy annoyed us a little this day on the right flank and rear, and on the left front. August 21.—Marched nineteen and a half miles to Rietfontein, and on the 22nd eleven miles to Krugersdorp, arriving about noon, very glad too. This completed 250 miles in fifteen consecutive days. On arrival at Krugersdorp No. 2 gun was placed in the hands of a local firm for the necessary repairs, which consisted of casting new bosses and placing a circular plate on either side of the fractured webs. Bolts were then placed through bosses, plates, and webs, and riveted over. No. 1 gun had, in the meanwhile, been repaired at Pretoria, and rejoined on August 28. The number of oxen lost on the above march was sixty-one (several more never recovered), but there was not a single case of sickness among officers or men. On August 29 General Hart's column again started on the trek. No. 2 gun, being still under repair, was left behind with a lieutenant, thirteen men, four wagons, 280 rounds, and the necessary oxen, boys, &c. The repairs to the wheels of this gun being completed, the carriage was brought up to the camp on the afternoon of September 8, the wagon containing the gun being placed in the same relative position as described when dismounting. A pickaxe was buried and ' backed' by another at some twenty yards from the mounting; the purchase being hooked to these and to a pendant through the gun, which was mounted and ready for firing in seventeen minutes, the only people employed being the men and ' boys' attached to the Naval Detachment. This operation was watched with great interest by officers and men of the garrison. The gun was then placed in position, covering the heights to the north of the town. A few minor operations took place near this post during the time that the gun was attached to General Barton's force, but not of sufficient importance to be worth describing.