ADVANCE FROM ELANDSLAAGTE TO GLENCOE—VERY HARD TREKKING —HALT AT GLENCOE—ADVANCE TO NEWCASTLE—FROM THERE MAKE A FRUITLESS MARCH TO UTRECHT AND BACK—FINALLY HALT AT DE WET'S FARM.
ON Wednesday, May 9, after our long spell of inactivity, the Natal Field Force commenced a general advance, and from that time until June 24, when I returned with most of my men to H.M.S.’ Forte,' we had no cause to complain of inactivity.
The Boers, after raising the siege of Ladysmith, had fallen back to a position of immense natural strength in the Biggarsberg, a range of bold hills stretching across the apex of Natal.
From this they had to be driven, and, to do it, General Buller commenced a wide turning movement to the eastward, sweeping across Sunday's River and through Helpmaakar to Dundee. At the same time the division under General Hildyard crossed Sunday's River near Elandslaagte, and protected Buller's left flank during his advance, working round to the west and clearing the country through Weasel's Nek and Waschbank and, forcing his way through the beautiful pass of Glencoe, to Glencoe itself.
As Hildyard advanced and secured positions, the naval 12-pounders followed him and occupied advantageous ground to cover his flank. Thus two crossed Sunday's River on May 18 and the remaining two followed next morning.
The two 4.7 guns which were in position on Battle Hill(the scene of the first battle of Elandslaagte) formed the last unit to leave, which they did on the 17th, with their escort of Natal Volunteers. We were very glad to be on the move again, as the long idle camp-life had told very much on the health of the men, oxen, and horses. This at once commenced to improve, despite the extremely hard work that followed for the next five or six weeks. All tents and heavy baggage were left behind and never pitched again till we got to Volksrust, in the Transvaal, on June 18.
Our first point was Wessel's Nek, where, on our arrival at 2 P.M., we received orders to go on to Waschbank.
It was fair trekking, but one or two very bad dongas had to be crossed, and we didn't arrive in camp till 10.30 P.M., when we were most hospitably received and fed by Major Manifold, R.A., whose bivouac adjoined the ground we occupied.
A pretty place this, and most grateful we and our oxen found the river, which flowed alongside and enabled us to give the oxen a good drink next morning, before our start at 7 A.M. for another very long and hard trek, but a very beautiful and extremely interesting one, up through the Pass of Glencoe. We passed enemy's camps still warm, so to speak, and gun positions that, if held, might have kept an army at bay indefinitely, but every Boer had cleared out. General Buller's arrival at Helpmaakar had started them, and by the time he got to Dundee they were off to the Drakensberg, as fast as they could get.
It was ' collar work' for most of the way, and the Brigade was halted at a stream for two hours in the middle of the day to graze and water the oxen. A halt of less than this is useless, as oxen must be out-spanned—they cannot either eat or drink while in-spanned—and as they had had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours, and then only a brief ' snack,' they had plenty of leeway to make up.
We had a very stiff afternoon's trek, across a drift, and then up the long steep hill that terminates on the heights of Glencoe. We arrived at the top about 6 P.M., and the animals certainly could not have done it but for their midday halt. Even here they were not to have much of a rest; just time for a drink of muddy water and a mouthful of excellent grass, and then on again at 8 P.M. to a place called Hatting Spruit, only seven miles or so, but the oxen were pretty well' played out,' and we didn't get to the top of the long hill, where we were to bivouac, till midnight.
We started on again next morning for Danhauser, but when about half-way were stopped by a most optimistic messenger from General Buller, who informed us that we held Laing's Nek and the tunnel, so we were turned back and marched to Glencoe again that night, everybody declaring the war was over. However, it turned out, like so much more of our information, to be merely a stretch of the imagination. They had seen, not held Laing's Nek, and had ample opportunity of gazing their fill at it for the next month.
We were really turned back, I think, because General Buller was apprehensive about supplies for so large a force, and we therefore halted at Glencoe for two or three days, all the Naval Brigade wagons being requisitioned to bring up supplies.
It was a very welcome halt in some ways, for several of our wagons were sadly in need of going into ' dock,' and we were now able to fit new wheels, and have repairs done in Dundee, which abounds in wheelwrights' shops, as, indeed, does every village in this country.
Here Steele got thrown off his fiery steed one day and was laid up with ' concussion,' Burne had just recovered sufficiently from his fall at Elandslaagte to take charge of his own guns again, and Lilly turned up from sick-leave, having walked all night from Waschbank, with Massey Dawson, to catch us up.
We left Glencoe again on the 23rd, and marched to Danhauser, getting there at midnight, a long wearisome day with the usual amount of dongas and spruits to cross.
On the 26th, the wagons of the various units having returned, we went on to Ingagane and the following day to Newcastle, which place, in common with all the others we had passed, had been wrecked wantonly by the Boers. There were still, however, a few houses not much damaged. It is a pretty little town with picturesque surroundings and the grand Drakensberg mountains overlooking it.
We crossed the river and camped in some fields on the other side, with plenty of water close at hand and splendid grazing, and hoped we should have a chance of recuperating the oxen. But no! we had scarcely settled down when orders were received to advance next morning across the Buffalo River, with another Brigade, to march to Utrecht and capture it. We crossed at a place called Wool's Drift, where a handsome stone bridge had been erected between the Transvaal and Natal, this having been the dividing line, and were now in that part of Zululand which had been annexed to the Transvaal.
We camped for the night just on the other side, and our 12-pounders were posted on various hills around to protect the camp.
This is a fine river, and the easy access to good water was a great boon to us, as we generally had to make shift with little and bad, and frequently had to drive the oxen many miles to get even that. We were also lucky in getting a good many eggs here, and a few vegetables, these latter being perhaps the greatest luxury, for the compressed vegetables served out by the Commissariat did not seem to satisfy the craving for fresh ones.
From this camp we could see a ' Long Tom' mounted on a hill close to Laing's Nek, and occasionally throwing shell into General Clery's camp close to Mount Prospect.
Next morning we moved on to a bivouac about five miles out of Utrecht, near a fine Dutch farm. We did not arrive till after dark, and had to send the oxen a long way back for water. The farm had a cordon of sentries round it, and was as jealously guarded and taken care of as the crown jewels. Even our horses and oxen were not allowed to be watered on the farm, although two rifles and a little ammunition had been found there, after the old man had declared that he had none.
I strolled over early next day, and the old 'vrau' graciously sold me four fowls for about double the price she had ever got before, and also gave me some coffee. They all talked English, and the girls told me they had been taught it in the schools at Utrecht, where they were educated.
Nearly all the books—hymn books, 'Ancient and Modern,' &c.—that I picked up in this house were in English.
The parson of Utrecht was there, and I had an amusing discussion with him about the war. He seemed to think, or pretended to think, that it was very unfair that sailors should come up-country against them.
I was obliged to take a wagon at this place, giving a receipt, as usual, for the value, and when my A.D.C. went with the conductor and a team to bring it away, the old rascal grumbled very much and wanted more money. The midshipman said to him,' Look here! what do you think your countrymen would do if they came to an English farm and wanted a wagon ? ' He laughed and said,' Oh, yes, I know; but then they are very bad men.'
This farmer made a 'good thing' out of us, quite 100 per cent, on everything he chose to sell.
The following day we all advanced to the capture of Utrecht, but had no fighting, for the landdrost came out and surrendered the town. We posted notices on the church and returned to our bivouac near the farm, and next day trekked back to Wool's Drift and thence to De Wet's Farm, north of Newcastle, where we arrived two days later.
From Wool's Drift we started off Steele, into Newcastle, with a couple of oxen in a gun limber, to fetch some gun-wheels we were expecting, mails, and anything he could pick up. It was very amusing to see the start. The oxen, not accustomed to work in couples, were ' all over the shop,' and the last I saw of them was going full tilt over a hill in the opposite direction. However, he turned up at De Wet's Farm all right a couple of days afterwards, laden with mails, wheels, and other valuables.