FROM BELFAST TO KOMATI POORT. FROM THE DIARY OF LIEUT. E. P. C. BACK, R.N.
AFTER the occupation of Belfast, and the arrival there of the Naval Brigade under Captain Bearcroft, extensive operations were put on foot for driving the scattered remnants of the organised Boer forces, still holding the remainder of the Delagoa Bay line, either into the mountains or across the Portuguese frontier.
To effect this the 11th Division (Guards' and 18th Brigades), being the centre of three columns, commenced the eastward march on August 26, and was accompanied by a small, highly mobile Naval Brigade, consisting of two ' long' 12-pounders under Lieutenant Back, of H.M.S.' Monarch.'[This brigade consisted of Lieut. Back, R.N., Lieut.-Com. Colquhoun, Royal Victorian Navy, Mr. Cunningham, midshipman, and thirty-six men. The transport included three mule- and three ox-wagons and a water-cart, fifty-eight mules, and fifty-four oxen. To look after these was a Colonial conductor (Mr. Duggan), and twelve ' Cape boys.']
The mounted infantry and the Guards pushed forward that afternoon from Belfast, and hardly had debouched from Monument Hill when they were received by a heavy rifle and pom-pom fire from ridges in their front and a rooky valley on their right.
The two naval guns, waiting behind to protect the rear of the column, were hurried forward to support the 85th Field Battery; but the range of the hollow below, whence came the firing, was so short that they were of little use, with their flat trajectory, and fired but few rounds. Bullets were flying very thickly. By dusk the Guards had made but little headway, and all night intermittent sniping went on, under cover of which, however, the enemy slipped away.
At daybreak a Boer 6'2-inch commenced dropping his big shells with great accuracy on the ridge occupied by the Division, and the two naval guns were ' called away ' and advanced half a mile to help the 5-inch battery keep him quiet. This they presently managed to do, after expending forty-one rounds, fired at extreme elevation at a range of 9,000 yards, and thereby straining their improvised carriages considerably.
The enemy showed every sign of stubbornly contesting the advance, till the sound of heavy firing to the eastward indicated that Buller was in touch with them and fighting his way toward Machadodorp. With their left and rear thus both threatened, they gradually commenced to give way along their whole line, and the advance was resumed, the naval guns at first covering the rear and the long baggage train, and afterwards pushing ahead and occupying a commanding position to cover the advance.
Finally the Division halted at Eland's Kloof for the night. An early start was made next morning, and, after a most remarkable and memorable march through the mountains, clothed in mist, and along steep and very rocky roads cut out of the steep sides, Helvetia was reached at noon and a junction with Buller effected.
Range after range had to be crossed; and it was an exceedingly striking sight, when at the summit of one of them, to see the road winding along the valleys and up the opposite mountains, covered, as far as eye could reach, with the snake-like, crawling supply columns.
Broken-down wagons and refractory or worn-out teams caused frequent obstructions; but the naval guns, with their powerful teams of ten mules, travelled at a great pace, and, helped frequently, both up- and down-hill, by the escorting company of Guards, managed to keep up with the head of the column.
In fact, so well to the front were they that when during the march a pom-pom suddenly opened on French's cavalry, they were able promptly to silence it and compel the Boer rear-guard, retiring sullenly on Lydenburg, to give ground.
After arriving at Helvetia the Division was left in comparative peace, and the following day marched southward to the railway again, and bivouacked on the high ground overlooking Waterval Onder station.
From Nooigedacht (the next station along the line) the British prisoners were already streaming over the hills towards the camp, and the little Naval Brigade was very proud of having taken even a small share in their release.
For eight days the Division remained here whilst Boiler was completing his turning movement to drive the Boers towards the frontier, and during this time one of the 12-pounder carriages, strained by the stress of high-angle firing and the wear and tear of rough roads, was replaced by a new one sent from Belfast. The wooden portion was ' sprung' close to the axle. It might have lasted, but it was safer to replace it; so the armourer ' took off his coat,' and in a few hours had fitted the old wheels and axle to the new carriage and remounted the gun. Armourer's Mate Smithfield (his name deserves recording) was simply invaluable. On one occasion he reforged a gun axle. He repaired wheels, wagons — even mended railway trucks; and whether as armourer, blacksmith, wheelwright, or carpenter, there was nothing he could not do, and do well.
It was from a saloon carriage in the siding here that Mr. Kruger had issued his edicts, paper money, and unstamped gold discs—’ dumps,' they were called. Several of these were obtained; and the simple (or wily) Frenchman, who kept the hotel, also parted with a few ‘ blue-backs,' which he felt sure ' would be paid in full.'
Meanwhile Buller had cleared the country to the north, and French was scouring the mountainous district to the south of the railway. So, the flanks being secured, the Division and the naval guns advanced along the railway on September 11, reaching Godwan's River, twenty miles to the east, two days later, though not before the railway bridge had been destroyed.
Leaving the railway next day and marching south-east along the Barberton road, an exceedingly arduous climb of ten miles brought the Division to Kaapsche Hoek, a little village perched in the mountains, where a welcome supply of bread was obtained, and from which a magnificent panorama of the combined operations could be seen.
To the north-east, fifty miles away, Buller's heliographs were flashing among the Lydenburg mountains, whilst to the south-east, where lay Barberton, nestling at the foot of the Swazi mountains on the other side of the Kaap valley, French's columns could be seen winding their way through the passes.
The 18th Brigade were left behind, and, with the Guards, the only infantry remaining with Pole-Carew, the march into the valley was resumed.
It was all down-hill that day; and very trying it was too, for the bluejackets had to be on the drag-ropes nearly all the time, in several places the road being so steep that in spite of drag-ropes, brakes, and drag-shoes the guns and wagons skidded down.
The main road was left two days later, and, marching nearly due east and cutting a road through thick bush, over ground very rough and strewn with boulders, the Barberton branch line was reached at North Eaap station. Avoca was reached next day, a large number of locomotives and rolling stock being captured; and two days later, after difficult marches of ten and seven miles along disgusting roads, and after crossing numerous bad spruits, which tried the gun-wheels severely, the little force bivouacked at Kaapmuiden Junction, the Naval Brigade sharing the capture of more rolling stock and vast quantities of flour—most of which, however, had been saturated with paraffin and burnt; some was still on fire.
In nine days the naval 12-pounders had marched ninety miles, traversing a series of mountain ranges, and requiring constantly the most careful seamanship to get them safely up and down the steep roads. They had 'shown the way’ to the heavier 6-inch guns, and even kept ahead of their old friends the 85th.
So good had been the pace that the supply column had dropped far astern, though the few naval ox-wagons, acting independently, generally managed to crawl into bivouac in time to replenish the small amount of mule forage carried with the guns. The naval mules thus received full rations up to the last day of the march, and reached their destination in capital condition. The oxen, however, did not fare so well. Excessive heat and scarcity of pasture killed a third of them.
After only one night's rest the column pushed on twenty miles towards Komati Poort through the Crocodile Valley—a wide, open valley, hot, stifling, and suggestive of malaria, covered with thorn, scrub, and occasional bright yellow fever-trees. On each side were ranges of low-lying hills, their outlines blurred and indistinct in the stifling mirage—altogether a most undesirable country, and almost waterless.
The naval guns happened to be leading the artillery, and to the bluejackets fell the work of clearing the thick thorn bush from the track, which had probably not been used for twenty years or more. To make matters worse, many spruits had to be crossed, and it was frequently necessary first to fill these with stones—a job sufficiently arduous under a hot sun. Every one was pretty well fagged out by the time the bivouac was reached.
A march of seven miles brought the column to Hector Spruit station next day, and the first traces of the utter disorganisation of the Boer army were found here, for in the river bed were many damaged guns and vast quantities of abandoned stores.
Leaving the river the following morning (September 28), and striking right across country, Komati Poort, twenty-six miles away, was reached at 10.30 A.M. on the 24th.
The last fifty-four miles from Kaapmuiden had been done in four days, the 144 miles since leaving Waterval Onder in thirteen—splendid going, when the difficulties of road and climate are considered; and the travel-stained guns and their crews were only too glad of a rest.
The great railway bridge was intact, and for miles on each side of the line leading to it were scattered the abandoned and partially destroyed stores, arms, and ammunition of the main Boer army, which the previous day had fled over the Portuguese border.
An enormous amount of rolling stock blocked the line. Many of the trucks, filled with mealies, flour, sugar, and coffee, had been burnt or were still burning, and the heat thrown out by these made the atmosphere almost intolerable,
Here, also, damaged and useless, was the ' Long Tom,' which had so persistently harried the advance, and which certainly deserved a better fate.
For six days the little Naval Brigade remained at this sultry place, and then camp was struck for the last time, the transport handed over to the Army Service Corps, and the guns and ammunition stowed safely on trucks down by the station.
A half-drunken man who described himself as an engine driver raised steam in one of the captured engines, and at noon, October 1, after taking leave of General Pole-Carew, the Naval Brigade, which had the honour of helping to cut off the enemy's communication with Delagoa Bay, and had brought its guns further east than any other naval guns, started on its way back to the sea.
The funny little train, with six oddly assorted trucks and its dilapidated, crazy engine, had only crawled three miles before it came to a standstill, as steam could not be kept up.
The stoker stretcher-bearers, glad of an opportunity for displaying their professional knowledge, quickly discovered that the tubes wanted sweeping, manufactured substitutes for brushes, swept them clean, and after a time on went the engine again.
But a steep gradient proved too much for it, and, to the amusement of the soldiers in the train, the Naval Brigade,’ as one man,' jumped overboard, and with a shout of ' Shove her up, mates!' literally pushed the train up that hill.
A more serious accident occurred later on; for, whilst rounding a very sharp curve near Hector Spruit, another train was seen shunting in the station, and the engine-driver, knowing he had to do something in emergencies like this, opened out full steam and released the brakes, instead of doing the very opposite.
There was a crash. Several trucks were telescoped, and another, up-ending, fell back on two men (Royal Engineers), killing one and badly injuring the second.
It took two hours to clear the line, the never-failing drag-ropes proving most useful, and then the journey west was resumed.
Pretoria was reached at 9 A.M., October 5, without further incident, the little train jolting along by day and resting at night.
At Pretoria the brigade was absorbed into Headquarters Naval Brigade, recently recalled from Barberton and Belfast.