THE POTCHEFSTROOM COLUMN
ON the afternoon of August 29, No. 1 gun ('Little Bobs') of Grant's Brigade with 300 rounds of ammunition left Krugersdorp with General Hart's Potchefstroom Column, composed of two and a half battalions of infantry, a composite company of mounted infantry, and a field battery.
By the evening of the 30th the force had only marched ten miles, rain having delayed the start each day and the roads being very bad. The gun ' hung up' once in the soft ground and was dug out with difficulty.
August 31.—Marched ten miles to Waterpan and found the enemy holding a position near the Johannesburg waterworks, which they had unsuccessfully attacked during the morning. They were dislodged without difficulty, the 4.7 firing two rounds at short range.
On September 1 we marched to Jackfontein, halted there for three days to clear the district of all food stuffs, wagons and cattle, and marched through the night of the 3rd to Leeuwport. Arriving here at daybreak' news came that some Yeomanry were in a tight place four miles to the west, so No. 1, the field guns and some infantry moved out at 1 P.M. to relieve them. Thirteen rounds were fired, the enemy driven off, and the little force returned, but the Boers came back again, on some ridges to the north, and had to be cleared off, camp not being reached till the evening. No. 1 had fired twenty-four rounds during the day.
On the 5th we marched eight miles to Woolstadt, the gun being in action off and on for the greater part of the day. Fired fifteen rounds and found a few Boers dead, including their commandant Theron.
The force arrived at Welverdiend on the railway early September 7 after a long night march, drew fresh supplies and left again the following night, clearing the country round Klerksdaal.
September 9.—At dusk the force split up into three sections and, marching by different routes and at different speeds, started off to surprise Potchefstroom. B column, to which the naval gun was attached, marched thirty-seven miles during the night, the bluejackets taking turns to ride on the ammunition wagons, and arrived off Potchefstroom at 8 A.M., finding the more mobile A column already surrounding the town. They had reached their destination before daylight and posted pickets round it. At daybreak the enemy tried to escape, a few managing to run the gauntlet successfully. Of the remainder some were wounded and the rest turned back into the town and surrendered.
Our gun having been placed in position to command the town, the infantry advanced and took possession of it, capturing about eighty prisoners besides a quantity of arms, &c.
The 11th was occupied in a house-to-house search, and all people having any munitions of war were made prisoners and their places confiscated. The bluejackets took part in this proceeding and enjoyed it immensely. The following night, leaving a small garrison, we marched along the Ventersdorp Road, but halted soon afterwards, for Boers were ahead. Starting off at daylight, we soon sighted them and fired eleven rounds after them at long range. They bolted, and we marched on into Fredericks tad—sixteen miles—and halted for a week, transferring prisoners and captures to the railway, getting provisions from Welverdiend, and fifty rounds of ammunition from No. 2 gun at Krugersdorp.
The gun was in action on two occasions whilst here, firing three rounds on the 14th, and thirty-five rounds on the 17th. On the latter afternoon, the enemy got a gun up behind a ridge, nearly four thousand yards off, and began dropping shells among the transport. We found great difficulty in locating it, but eventually saw the flash of the discharge, quickly got the range, and dropped a lyddite shell almost on top of it. The gun (or guns) shortly afterwards bolted, leaving behind many empty brass 12-pounder Krupp cases.
On the night of the 19th we marched westwards, twelve miles to Witpootje. Boers were swarming all round, and before getting into camp in the morning the 4-7 fired seventeen rounds, was at it again after breakfast, moving out to help some Yeomanry in a difficulty in a wood, and again in the afternoon helped turn the enemy out of a comparatively strong position, punishing them severely as they fled. Seventy-one rounds were fired during the day.
Next morning the Boers had come back to the ridges, but fled in front of the force when it advanced.
In the afternoon we came across quite a number of Boers in an open plain, but unfortunately, when hastening to take advantage of their exposed position a shell jammed in the gun after the second round, and by the time it was shifted the opportunity was gone. The Boers retired slowly in front of us all day.
On the 22nd great efforts were made to surprise a laager, but it succeeded in getting away. We fired five rounds, and one long shot was said to have killed and wounded twelve; marched thirty-seven miles in twenty-five hours and had only a few prisoners to show for our labours.
On the 25th the little column returned to Potchefstroom, which the Boers had reoccupied after the withdrawal of our little garrison. As we neared it we saw them leaving, and hauled down their flag which they had left flying over the court-house.
Orders were then received to return to Krugersdorp, which was reached after four marches on September 80.
The Potchefstroom column had marched 810 miles in twenty marching days, and No. 1 gun had fired 187 rounds, 22 common, 64 shrapnel and 101 lyddite. Only one man had fallen out and gone sick during the march.
On October 2 'Little Bobs' and 'Sloper' were turned over to the Royal Garrison Artillery, and by 8 P.M. all that was left of Grant's Brigade—the men and their personal equipment—was entrained and left for Simonstown, arriving there without incident on the 7th.
In transmitting the Field Marshal's orders, General Hart wrote wishing Commander Grant and the little brigade good-bye, adding: ‘.. . Well assisted by your subordinates, you have overcome serious campaigning difficulties with a ponderous gun which has deservedly become the terror of the enemy.'
So ends the story of our performances, which cannot be finally concluded without a few remarks. As to the general behaviour and deportment of our men, the extract from Captain Grant's despatches given below is almost sufficient. It is enough to say that the hardest work and greatest discomfort count for nothing when one remembers the cheery spirit in which the work was always carried out. The men never forgot what Service they belonged to.
Extract from Commander Grant's final despatch :
... I have much pleasure in reporting that the spirit, endurance, and behaviour of the officers and men throughout the campaign has been beyond praise. Work, often under conditions of great hardship, requiring endurance and spirit to a very high degree, has been met throughout with the greatest spirit and oheeriness, and the smartness, discipline, and soldierly qualities displayed will, I am sure, be ever remembered to their credit and to that of the Naval Service. In no single instance has Lieutenant Fergusson ever had to bring a man before me for any crime, neglect of duty, slackness, or any other offence whatsoever, and this for a period of nearly nine months. The marching powers displayed by the men have been to me a revelation. . . ,
Finally it most be said that the discomforts and annoyances incidental to any campaign were mini-mised as far as possible by the extreme kindness we met with from the sister Service; in which remark every one who was with our guns will concur.
Summary of Marches, &c.
Days:. MILES Average per day.
From Bloemfontein to Winburg. Days: 8. Miles: 95.5. Average per day: 11.94
From Winburg to Heilbron. Days: 8 (consecutive). Miles: 127. Average per day: 15.9
After De Wet. Days: 17. Miles: 265 Average per day: 15.6
Potchefatroom Column. Days: 20. Miles: 310 Average per day: 15.5
Total: Days: 63. Miles: 797.5 Average per day: 15
In the De Wet chase 250 miles were marched in fifteen consecutive days, giving an average of 16.7.
The longest marches were 37 miles in 18 hours and 37 miles in 25 hours. Three marches were between 30 and 40 miles. Five marches were between 20 and 30 miles. Twenty-eight marches were between 15 and 20 miles.On the twenty-five occasions on which these two guns were in action (counting the whole of Paardeberg as one, though it extended over eight days) between 500 and 600 rounds were fired.