'None of us put off our clothes.'
Neh. iv. 23.
Now commenced a different phase of warfare. If, in the constant fighting of the Natal campaign, the regiment had been called upon to prove its fighting capabilities—a call to which their noble response earned them encomiums wherever they went—they were now to be called upon to prove another essential of the true soldier—their mobility. And well they proved it. Day after day, week after week, the tired, footsore, but stout-hearted column-of-route made its slow and wearisome way over the apparently limitless expanse of the swelling veld. And how monotonous that veld can be none can appreciate save those who have experienced its deadly sameness. Ahead, behind, all round, nothing but veld, veld, veld. No trees, no hills, no rivers, no lakes, no houses, no inhabitants! Here and there, perhaps, a miserable shanty of the sealed-pattern South African type: rough stone walls and corrugated-iron roof, a room on each side of the door, a narrow verandah—occasionally occupied by a quiet, peaceful-looking old patriarch, with a grey beard, and an air savouring rather of the pulpit than the sheltered side of a boulder—a scraggy tree or two, and a lick of water in a 'pan'—or pond as we should call it—hard by; a woman, some children, and a couple of goats; a few mealie cobs yellowing on the roof, and a scared, indignant, and attenuated fowl.
Alas! how those quiet-looking, quiet-spoken old gentlemen, open Bible on knee, deceived us. Oh, no! they had (p. 098) never wished for war. Fight? yes; they had fought, and surrendered, and taken the oath, and hoped never to fight again. Peace? yes; they wanted peace, and urged us to hasten on and conclude it. The same story everywhere: in the villages as in the solitary hamlets. A vast, empty, forsaken wilderness, with nothing more bellicose than a lean and hungry boar-hound or two. And yet for two long years to come this very country, over which the battalion trekked so peacefully, fifes and drums playing, officers out on the flanks shooting, mess-president cantering miles away in quest of eggs and their producers, was to be the scene of many a hard-fought fight and many weary nights of outposts. Indeed, it never really succumbed to the very end; the happy hunting-ground of the gallant De la Rey, it was a thorn in the side of our leaders up to the day the Delegates came in.
One day's march varied little from another. Up at dawn, and off after the scantiest of scrappy breakfasts. Good marching while the dew was on the grass, and the sun a welcome ally after the clear, crisp, frosty nights; soon, however, to get hot enough, until the welcome mid-day halt and meal, after which tighten up belts once more and on, and on, one horizon following another with wearisome regularity, and never a sign of the long-looked-for water, till at last, as the sun set behind our backs, its last rays would glint on the miserable 'pan' by whose side we were to halt for the night. And then what bitter feelings of depression and disgust when sometimes the fiat would go forth 'Water for cooking purposes only,' and one had to turn into one's blankets grimy, dusty, clammy, and miserable.
On May 31st, the regiment, having arrived at the railway, was told they would halt there next day. But on the morning of June 1st, the order was given for the column to march at 2 p.m. to Marigobo Pan, a distance of eight miles only, but (p. 099) quite ten by the route taken. The evenings soon close in at this time of year in South Africa, and it was almost dark when the column arrived. As it was a fine mild night, every one hoped to be allowed to bivouac, but tents were pitched after all, and naturally enough pitched anyhow.
In this matter of pitching tents, the battalion particularly prided itself. On arrival at the selected site of the camp the Sergeant-Major blew a whistle, when all those whose duty it was to assist ran towards him, the men to mark the tent-poles, bayonets in hand, and two others with the mekometer, to ensure a true right-angle. Every one knew his particular job, so no time was wasted, while the symmetrical lines obtained by the use of the instrument were a joy to the General's eye.
In the same way, whenever a halt was ordered, it was the regiment's custom to lay out their kits, mess-tins, belts, &c., in lines outside their tents. Each Colour-Sergeant had (p. 100) a ball of string, which was stretched between a couple of pegs; the kits were laid along it, the string was rolled up and pitched into a tent, and neatness and regularity prevailed without any extra trouble to any one. This neatness in camp, in addition to its other soldierly qualities, endeared the battalion in the eyes of General Hart, a soldier of the old school, to whom order and regularity particularly appealed.
On the 2nd the column made another short march to Greysdorp, where there were two or three good wells, but where the water in the pan was of a most peculiar green colour.
The Mafeking relief column was met on the way, and very hard and serviceable they looked, while several officers met old friends, amongst others Prince Alexander of Teck, whom we had known at Maritzburg before the war.
A longish march of nineteen or twenty miles on the 3rd, with a halt midway, brought us in the evening to a place called Barber's Pan, somewhat superior to the generality of these places. There was a certain amount of water in the pan, but brackish and unpleasant to drink. Round it were scattered some half-dozen houses, but the most remarkable thing in connection with it was the sunset. As the light faded, a mist rose from the veld, which after a few minutes began to change colour, until at last it settled down to a most beautiful shade of light green. None of us had seen anything similar before, nor did we ever see anything like it again.
A march of about fourteen or fifteen miles on the 4th brought us to a most uncomfortable camp. On the way, Captain Fetherstonhaugh (acting Adjutant since Captain Lowndes was hit at Talana) rode off some distance to a flank to try and get some supplies. He returned with a great story of his reception by crowds of women and one or two men; the latter stated they had been reluctantly compelled to fight against us at Modder River, on pain of (p. 101) being shot, but that their sympathies were entirely with us, &c. They even gave him a pound of butter. And we believed this story at the time.
But, for that matter, who would not have been taken in? Every one coming up the line brought better and better news. Lord Roberts was close to the capital, and, thought we in our simplicity, that of course must end the war. No one guessed there was extra time—two solid years extra time—to be played. So we enjoyed the butter, and said they were sensible people after all, and hoped we'd be in time for the siege of Pretoria.
The next day's march was a pleasanter one than usual, the halts being better arranged, with the result that the troops and transport got into camp quite as early as they would have done under the ordinary circumstances, but very much fresher and fitter. The fact is, staff officers do not understand marching. They go tittuping gaily past long straggling columns, passing the time of day cheerily to friends, and momentarily halting to deliver some ironical knock to acquaintances on the subject of their transport, or their sections of fours, or something of the sort. But the regimental officer, who foots it alongside his company, he understands marching right enough. He will tell you when the going is good, and when it only looks good; he will tell you the effects of five-minute halts, and how much benefit the closing-up rear of the column derives from them; he will tell you when a steady, swinging pace is being set that the men could keep up for ever; and he will also tell you when some long-legged officer in front is going four miles an hour, till some one suggests it is too fast, and he sinks into a slow and tiring two and a half. Colonel Hicks commanded the column on the 5th, and let us march our own way, with the beneficial results already recorded.
And that cheery rumour about Pretoria. French (p. 102) reported to be there, and Mr. Kruger gone off with a couple of millions. What did we care about the latter? We should not have got any of it.
Another short march of a little over ten miles brought us to a camp where there was actually a stream. Here the men got the chance of a much-needed bathe, and how they enjoyed it! Every one, in fact, was in excellent spirits, for the news about Pretoria turned out to be true, and though some of us were disappointed at not being up in time to share in the triumphant entry into the capital, the majority were all for England, home, and beauty.
On the 7th we arrived at Lichtenburg, a small town or village that was to see some heavy fighting later on in the war. On the present occasion all seemed most peaceful. The houses were of the stereotyped South African pattern, with the invariable half-stoep, half-verandah running half-way along their fronts. Clear streams of water ran coolly and pleasingly by the sides of the streets, shaded by the ubiquitous weeping-willow. There was nothing to be bought, and no one to be seen, however, and those of us who went into the town next morning were very soon satisfied, returning to camp minus the various articles we had set forth to buy. It was interesting, however, to see the Boers handing in their rifles and taking the oath of allegiance.
Captain MacBean, who was now on General Hunter's staff, turned up here, and dined with the regiment, and very glad we were to see him. He gave us all sorts of news, too, which we were very deficient of, as the system of daily bulletins had not then started.
After having halted for the 8th and 9th, we resumed our desert march on the 10th, but only made some ten miles. It was most bitterly cold all the way.
The next day proved far pleasanter, and another short, easy march of about ten miles saw us in camp by 1.30 p.m.
(p. 103) On the 12th we made a march of sixteen miles. We were then within about thirty-three miles of the railway from Johannesburg to Potchefstroom, and, when a wire came ordering us to do it in two days, we thought a lot of the task, whereas a few months later we were doing that distance in one day, and, curiously enough, almost in the same neighbourhood.
In consequence of this we marched right through Ventersdorp, to our regret, as it looked quite a nice place, and there was a regular trout-stream flowing past it, in which a bathe would have been most welcome. We did eighteen miles before halting.
As indicative of the curious state of the war even in these early days, General Hunter's experience at Vryburg was a good example. He had ridden on with only thirty cavalrymen to Ventersdorp, when suddenly some two hundred and fifty of the enemy appeared on the scene. Fortunately for the General, their only object was to give up their arms and take the oath.
Starting at 7.30 a.m. next day, we made short work of the march to the railway, which we struck at Frederickstadt, a place that many of us were destined to become very well acquainted with before we had done. It is rather prettier than most Boer villages, being situated on the pleasant little Mooi River, whose clear, rapid current reminded us of our home streams. There are a few trees in the vicinity, whilst on the further bank and beyond the railway rise the serrated, well-wooded, and extremely picturesque Gatsrand Hills.
There was only one man to be seen, peacefully hoeing his potato-patch. But if the men were scarce and polite, the same could not be said for the fair sex, who, despite the fact that their knowledge of English was only to be compared with our ignorance of Dutch, did not fail to let us know their opinions of things generally. Indeed, the mess-president, who had gone on ahead on a pony in search of (p. 104) farmyard products, had a battle-royal with an elderly Dutch lady who asked six shillings a dozen for her eggs.
We heard more detailed accounts here of the relief of Mafeking, and of the gallant part Major Godley of ours had taken in its defence, while Major Pilson and Captain Kinsman (also Royal Dublin Fusiliers) had assisted in the relief. As Carington Smith had arrived in Kimberley with the cavalry, we were able to claim representation in all three of the great sieges and reliefs of the war.
But a disappointment was in store for us all the same. The column did not move next day (the 15th), but although engine after engine came puffing up from Potchefstroom they all failed to bring the carriages which our aching legs made us so anxiously look for. We heard of the strike of forty engine-drivers at Potchefstroom, but as they had all been cast into durance vile, and the engines still continued to arrive, that could not have been the reason. However, any doubts we entertained were soon set at rest by an order to continue our march to Johannesburg next day.
(p. 105) Starting on the 16th, an uneventful march of twelve miles brought us to Wolverdiend, a place which had not then attained the importance it afterwards assumed.
It was another fifteen on to Blauw Bank Station next day. This march was remarkable in that it was the first occasion since this trek started that the column moved with any military precautions worth mentioning.
Leaving Bank, as it got to be called later on, we struck off from the railway, left shoulders up, in a bee-line for Johannesburg, the city of our dreams, which it was hard to believe was not paved with gold, if one listened to the reports of those who had been there before the war. After a short march of ten miles we halted at a farm called Gemsbokfontein, and looked with longing eyes at the distant ridge, peeping over which could plainly be seen the huge mine-chimneys, like sentinels along the hills, duly noting our arrival.
A fierce grass-fire broke out here, which necessitated the active co-operation of all hands, and all blankets, to oppose it, one too-adventurous officer getting rather scorched for his pains.
As we sat at lunch we could see General Mahon's mounted column ascending the long rise to Randfontein, on our left front, and heard they had gone to Krugersdorp.
'Krugersdorp! Where's that?' 'Let's look at your map,' and so on. Well, we undoubtedly knew where it was a few weeks later. Moreover, there must be Boers there, for had not a party on an engine come out that very day, and after destroying a small bridge, and firing a couple of shots, snorted their way back to the Dorp.
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers supplied the advanced guard on the 19th, and duly started for Johannesburg, but a message very shortly came ordering a left incline, and nominating Krugersdorp as our objective. It was disappointing, but General Mahon had reported the Krugersdorpers 'truculent,' and we had to make a demonstration. This we most certainly did, halting above the railway, just outside the town, and (p. 106) then—producing drums and fifes—forming up and marching through to 'St. Patrick's Day' and the 'British Grenadiers.' But, unlike the peaceful and amiable agriculturist, these townsfolk had no smiles of reciprocation to our advances, and we marched through long lines of scowling male faces, with here and there one or two of the fair sex, but also, alas! sombre to a degree.
After emerging on the far side of the town we passed the famous Paardekraal Monument on our right, and finally camped about half a mile further on. It appears it was a very close thing whether they opposed us or not, and the peaceful solution that eventually took place was largely due to the tactful intervention and determination of an Englishman, Mr. W. Bruce Honman, who had considerable influence amongst the Dutch.
The troops halted at Krugersdorp next day, and the town was formally taken over in the Queen's name, an impressive parade for that purpose being held in the market square. Each regiment furnished a Guard of Honour of 100 men. (p. 107) The Royal Dublin Fusilier Guard was under the command of Major English, with Captain Higginson and Lieutenant Haskard. It was extremely interesting for those of us who were not on duty to watch the faces of the large numbers of Boers, male and female, who watched this ceremony and the hoisting of the Union Jack. On the whole they took it extremely well, and for the most part behaved like brave men, who, having fought and lost, were content to make the best of the situation.
The trek commenced again on the 22nd, and this time we felt convinced our destination must be Johannesburg, as we were marching along the Witwaters Rand straight for it. A halt was made after some ten miles, at Florida, rather a pleasant sort of Saturday-to-Monday resort of Johannesburgers, with a nice lake and pleasant woods.
At last we seemed about to receive our reward, only to have our hopes dashed rudely to the ground. True, we marched to Johannesburg, and even through it, but only through the most miserable of its slums, seeing nothing of its fine buildings, nothing of the wealth and magnificence we (p. 108) had confidently expected. But, indeed, even the finest part of it was only a sorry spectacle in those days, and for many a weary month afterwards. Skirting the racecourse, we marched on to a spot some six miles from the town, near the house of Johan Meyer, a brother of Lucas Meyer. Colonel Hicks and Captain Fetherstonhaugh called on this gentleman, and got a lot of interesting information from him. His house was one of the finest we saw in the whole Transvaal, and from its site—at the head of a fine valley—commanded a magnificent view of the country almost as far as Heidelberg.
But, as some set-off to our disappointment and long, tiring march of fifteen miles, Captain Sir Frederick Frankland, who had gone on to Joh'burg, as it is universally called, to buy what stores he could, turned up just before dinner, not only with a large amount of provisions, but also with a case of excellent champagne, which he presented to the mess, God bless him! We were very proud of our noble Baronet that night, and he had to reply to the toast of his health over and over again.
Sergeant Davis, champion forager of the Army, also put (p. 109) in an appearance here, having met with no end of adventures and misadventures since the Colonel had sent him back to the Kimberley-Mafeking Railway. As usual, he had a fine lot of stores, and, also as usual, just what we wanted: baccy, chocolate, biscuits, sjamboks, stamps, etc., etc.
An uneventful march of fifteen miles, with a halt at Reitfontein, was only noticeable for a particularly cold night and the final splitting up of the Irish Brigade, the Connaughts and Borders being ordered to Pretoria.
On the 25th our long march came to an end with a twelve-mile step into Heidelberg. The band of the Derbyshire Regiment played us in, while our old friend, General Bruce Hamilton, rode out to meet us. We halted on a slope about three-quarters of a mile outside the town, which in its essential features is remarkably like Krugersdorp, the streets being lined with tall blue-gum trees, and the plan of course rectangular, with the usual market square in the centre.
There had been a fight here, and we found Captain Carington Smith again amongst the wounded; this time, as already mentioned, with a bullet through his other knee, but as cheery as ever, and smiling away at seeing us all again. Lieutenant Adrian Taylor, of the regiment, was also here, and very glad we were to see him once more. Like Captain Carington Smith he was detached from the regiment throughout the campaign, serving with the M.I., and was about a month later very severely wounded near Parys when De Wet crossed the Vaal with Lord Kitchener at his heels. Still another Dublin Fusilier met us at Heidelberg—Major Rutherford, Adjutant of the Ceylon Volunteers, who had come over in command of a detachment of that corps.
In addition to all these, General Cooper (our late C.O.) and his A.D.C., Lieutenant Renny, R.D.F., were also coming up from the south, while the 1st Battalion, who had helped to win Alleman's Nek, were not far off.
On arrival at Heidelberg we had marched just 300 miles (p. 110) in twenty-seven days, and although we had not pressed in any way, we had come along fairly well seeing that we were not bound on any specific object, such as the relief of a town, or the participation in a siege or battle. We averaged just over eleven miles a day, including halts at Lichtenburg (two days), Frederickstadt and Krugersdorp (two days), or just a shade under fourteen miles for each marching day.