LANDING OF THE BRIGADE AND ARRIVAL AT THE FRONT
DURING the early part of November '99, shortly after the outbreak of war, the' Terrible,' ‘ Powerful,'’ Forte’ and ' Thetis' lay at the outer anchorage off Durban, whilst the 'Magicienne’ 'Philomel’ 'Racoon’ and ' Tartar' were snugly moored in the inner harbour.
The ‘ Powerful’ having sent her Brigade to Ladysmith, steamed back to Simonstown, and to the remaining ships was entrusted the defence of the town itself.
With Ladysmith invested, and Boer commandoes sweeping south across the Tugela, there was not ' much time to be lost, so a large number of officers and men were landed from their ships, with 4.7s and 12-pounders, on Scott's mountings, and many machine guns. In all thirty guns were in position by November 8, forty-eight hours after the arrival of the ' Terrible’ whose Captain, Percy Scott, became commandant of the town, and organised the defences.
During November a few small detachments of bluejackets had been sent north—a few of the ' Tartars'—to work a 7-pounder in an armoured train; Lieutenant James and some more ‘ Tartars ' with two 12-pounders for the defence of Maritzburg; Lieutenant Halsey with some ' Philomels' and two more 12-pounders for the same place, allowing James to move forward to Frere ; and Lieutenant Steel eventually followed with some men of the ' Forte' and the same armament, for the defence of the railway at Mooi River.
Every one who had been eagerly looking forward to a trip up country, imagined sadly that this was all the Navy would be called upon to do, and felt somewhat chagrined that no more active share in the fighting would fall to his lot.
However, we were not to be all disappointed, for about 2 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, November 26, a signal was made from the Commandant to Captain E. P. Jones, of the ‘ Forte,’ ordering him to proceed at once to the front in command of a Naval Brigade to be attached to the Ladysmith relief column.
What a Sunday afternoon that was !
Two hours later amid much excitement we landed at the Point, finding a hundred men of the ' Terrible' under Commander Limpus waiting for us with two 4-7's and four 12-pounders. These, their stores and ammunition having been stowed on railway-trucks, we steamed across to the town station, and, after a tedious delay of an hour, the two special trains containing the Naval Brigade started north, amidst a scene of great enthusiasm, continued at every little station we passed.
At Pine Town, where we halted after crawling nearly a thousand feet above sea level, the kind-hearted inhabitants offered the rather hungry and extremely thirsty bluejackets ' buns and flowers.' In exchange they wanted cap-ribbons and buttons, but. as we were ' flying light' and had not a surplus of these articles, the worthy souls had to be disappointed.
Three hours after leaving Durban, Inchanga, 2,500 feet up, was reached, and here a halt of an hour was made for supper, water-bottles were filled, and on we went again, very much on the alert, for the two trains were very valuable, the country north of this swarmed with Boer sympathisers, and the sharp railway curves, running along the precipitous sides of the hills, gave every opportunity to the most timorous train-wrecker.
Arriving at Maritzburg at midnight, orders were given that only the big guns were to go forward to Frere, and that the 12-pounders were to be left behind. Eventually they saw as much fighting as the bigger guns, but at the time the disappointment of their crews was intense.
This order necessitated the shifting of guns and ammunition from one train to another, and a busy hour and a half's work it was in the dark, sorting everything into the right trains.
After plenty of hard swearing it was accomplished and the lucky 4.7s were again on the road by 1.30 A.M.
At Mooi River, which was reached early next morning, things became more interesting, for only a day before marauding Boers had been seen in the neighbourhood.
Estcourt was reached by 9 A.M. Very hungry, we successfully raided the station restaurant, and returned to our train smiling and content, for this was probably the last good meal we should have for some time to come, and we had done justice to it. But when two hours had gone by, and the train was still’ as you were,' we began to think we were not getting much ‘ for'arder,' and chafed irritably at the delay, for away in the direction of Ladysmith heavy firing could be distinctly heard, and we felt sure something in the way of a fight was being missed.
Then along came a telegram, ordering us to remain at Estcourt—a horrible disappointment which, added to the discomfort of having baked and broiled in a siding in a hot railway carriage under a burning sun all the morning, seriously tried our angelic dispositions. There was nothing to do but pitch our tents, which was done, close to the railway, and, as it rained heavily that night, we were washed out, not having yet mastered the intricacies of trench digging round them.
Estcourt was crowded with troops, and the long khaki 4.7s on their trucks were the admiration of the Tommies, whose opinion was that’ they were the boys for the Boers.'
While we remained here troop-trains rolled up from the south in incessant streams and rolled along northwards to the front. On the morning of November 29 orders came to move on, so camp was struck, the gear replaced on the trucks, an engine appeared from somewhere or other, and hauled the Naval Brigade to Frere sixteen miles away.
At last we breathed freely—we were now actually ' at the front.'