And Heaven's artillery thunder in the skies?'
Taming of the Shrew.
Our camp, on this our third visit to Krugersdorp, was on the south-west side of the town. The 6th Brigade (General Barton's) was also in Krugersdorp, and had been for some time, so it was with somewhat mixed feelings that we heard we were to set out on the trek once more almost immediately. However, in the end the other brigade went out, with what result will presently appear. Krugersdorp was now surrounded by a large circle of forts and fortified houses. The perimeter of these defences was very large, not far short of twelve miles, but the positions themselves were well selected from a tactical point of view. As they were continually being strengthened, improved, and added to, in a few months' time it would have been very difficult for the Boers to have taken the place, provided a sufficient garrison remained in it. But this strength, or sometimes weakness, was a constantly varying one—about the middle of December sinking as low as 300—which of course was risking a good deal. Moreover, it was not until some time later, when the Officer Commanding Town Guards devised an inner series of defences, that the town could be said to be in any way safe from a midnight raid; and it was this, more than even the capture of the place, which seemed so likely to occur, when the banks and stores could have been cleared out in a few minutes, and the raiding party gone before any force could have been assembled to interfere with it. The town (p. 165) was, of course, full of spies and friendly enemies, ever on the look-out for any chance of getting a bit of their own back—and who could blame them?—but on the whole remained very quiet and well-behaved throughout the occupation.
The regiment's headquarters were destined to remain here for the rest of the campaign, with the exception of the three treks which form the subject of this chapter, and Krugersdorp will ever be identified with our name in South Africa in consequence. As we got to know its inhabitants better, and as they got to appreciate our men better, a kindlier feeling was generated on both sides, with which improved state of affairs the cricket and football we played with them had not a little to do.
General Barton moved off on October 5th, with much the same commission that General Hart had carried, and immediately came into contact with the enemy, the noise of the fight sounding loud in our ears, while from Captain Nelson's piquet the bursting shells and even some of the Boers could be plainly seen. The day before a flag of truce had come in with a letter, saying that one of our men was lying wounded in a farmhouse a little way outside the outposts; a waggon was sent out and brought him in, when he proved to be one of our mounted infantry, who had been wounded in Colonel Rochfort's dashing attack on a Boer laager near Pretoria. The Boers had looked after him as well as they could, and dressed his wounds according to their homely lights, and altogether played the game so far as he was concerned.
Next day still brought the sound of General Barton's artillery, and the right half-battalion under Major Bird went out as escort to two waggon-loads of ammunition for (p. 166) him. The General sent half-way to meet him, and our men got back all right about 6 p.m.
With the advent of summer the thunderstorms increased in frequency and severity, and it was no joke to have to suddenly jump up and hang on to the pole of one's tent to prevent it being blown away, with the uncomfortable knowledge that lightning has a partiality for running down tent-poles. We had one really bad experience in this way, to be narrated later, but nothing to touch the blizzard that struck the camp of the 5th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers near Mafeking, when sheets of corrugated iron flew about like packs of gigantic cards, and Colonel Gernon and Captain Baker, the Quartermaster, together with many others, sustained very serious injuries. Still, our share was bad enough, and quite spoiled the summer for a good many of us. The mornings would break clear, cloudless, and invigorating; but about 3 p.m. on about three days of the week, a bunch of cotton-wool clouds would appear from the south. As these rose higher and higher, they swelled into enormous piles of grand, rolling cloud-masses, like stupendous snow-clad mountains, whose bases grew black and ever blacker, until they would suddenly be riven by blinding flashes of flickering ribbons of lightning, and the air torn and rent by reverberating booms of awe-inspiring thunder.
Second Lieutenant Tredennick joined at this time. Second Lieutenant R. F. B. Knox should have arrived with him, but had to remain behind in Johannesburg, as he was seedy. The train they were in had been attacked by Boers near Heidelberg.
Rumour now began to be busy with General Barton's force, and on the 22nd an order came for General Hart to join him. We had just packed up, when an order came countermanding the move.
Next day, however, another order came to the same (p. 167) effect, but detailing Colonel Hicks to command the column. Though small in point of numbers, it would have been hard to have picked a better one in point of quality. A finer body of horsemen, or one more adapted to the work in hand, than Strathcona's Horse it would be impossible to conceive. Without making any invidious comparisons, it is only just to say that these Canadian troops appeared to us to have no superiors, while the truly magnificent way in which they literally brushed away the opposition, on the morning we joined hands with General Barton, was a sight to be remembered.
The regiment was entrained, but did not get off till about 5 p.m., our departure being marked by a peal of thunder which made even those who declared themselves fond of such phenomena nearly jump through the roof of the guard's van. We only got as far as Bank Station, as the line was reported infested with the enemy, and it was important that we should not be blown up. Indeed, we had scarcely arrived there, when a loud explosion—fortunately behind us—proved the activity of our watchful foes. After making teas we bivouacked in the train.
The regiment reached Wolverdiend next day, in the course of which the remainder of the force assembled, preparations being made for an early start next morning.
Fearing that information would get through, the Colonel gave orders that the column would start at 6 a.m., but at the same time issued confidential orders to officers commanding units that he really intended to start at 3.30 a.m. Unfortunately, however, it rained so hard all night that it was impossible to start until 5 a.m. Colonel Hicks sent Strathcona's Horse out to the front and left flank, while Brabant's Horse took the right flank and front. The Essex Regiment supplied the advance-guard, while one company (p. 168) of the Dublin Fusiliers acted as rearguard and escort to the waggons. In this order the force approached a low line of bush-covered hills, which separated them from General Barton. These hills were occupied by two or three hundred Boers, who had been detailed to check our advance. On arrival within rifle-range of the hills, Strathcona's Horse made a dash right at them, the effect of which was so imposing that the enemy immediately resigned all idea of resistance, and bolted as hard as they could go. With this range of kopjes in our possession, the rest was plain sailing, and we marched on to the hill on which the larger part of General Barton's force was posted. The column had barely arrived when a fierce rifle-fire broke out in front. It was impossible to see what was going on, as the hillside was covered with thick mimosa bush, but that a fierce fight was raging in our close proximity was very evident from the prolonged and heavy fire, in which the pompoms soon began to take part, while the naval gun and smaller field-pieces joined in. Colonel Hicks, accompanied by an officer of the Dublin Fusiliers, then climbed some little way up the hill in the direction of the 4·7, and there a sight met their eyes which was seldom seen in this war. The plain at their feet, stretching from the railway west to the village of Frederickstadt, was covered with flying Boers—Boers flying on their feet, a most unusual occurrence with them. As they fled across the open veld in full view, they were pursued by every variety of missile. In one spot, seven Boers were running side by side. The officer with Colonel Hicks had just drawn his attention to them, when a shell from the naval gun burst in the air behind them, and a second later tore up the ground all round. Five fell at once; the other two staggered on a few paces and then fell also, all seven being afterwards found stone-dead. It was all over in a very short time, and then the stretcher-bearers began to come in with their patient, gruesome burdens, and (p. 169) the prisoners arrived under escort, to be handed over to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers for safe custody.
Then we heard the story of the fight. General Barton's position, which he had occupied for some days, extended along a line of low hills, the two main features of which were divided by a valley running back at right angles to the railway into the Gatsrand, the general line of the position being parallel with the railway. The station was held and used as a hospital, while the hill on which General Barton's camp was situated extended down to the railway, and was the nearest point to the river. For some days the Boers, under De Wet, had been gathering round this position, and the force had been subjected to a constant shell-fire and the intermittent attentions of a particularly aggressive and unlocatable pompom. Under the railway, about midway between General Barton's two main positions, ran a small, dry donga. Into this underfeature De Wet had ordered about 200 men on the night of the 24th-25th. The first indication of their presence was a somewhat foolish attempt made by them to capture some mules. Unaware of their numbers—and truly the situation was such that any one could be pardoned for not grasping it at once—a company or part of a company was sent forward to dislodge them and clear up matters. The Boers allowed them to approach quite close, and then annihilated them. It was now very evident that the donga was held in force, and, as the General was aware by this time of the arrival of Colonel Hicks' column, he launched a vigorous attack. This was the heavy firing we heard on our arrival. After offering a slight resistance, some of the enemy surrendered, the remainder flying on foot as already stated to their horses, which they had left amongst the trees near the river. It is not often the Boer leaves his horse thus, and it offered strong presumptive evidence of their confidence in their ability to rush the position, in accordance with De Wet's intention.
The battalion bivouacked on the hill, and threw out outposts. (p. 170) To them was also assigned next morning the intensely unpleasant duty of shooting three prisoners who had been tried and found guilty of showing the white flag and afterwards resuming their fire. 'G' company, being the nearest piquet to the place selected for the execution, was detailed to carry it out. The casualties on our side had been about forty-one killed and wounded, while twenty-four Boers were killed, sixteen wounded, and twenty-six taken prisoner.
After remaining at Frederickstadt on the 26th, orders came for our return to Krugersdorp on the 27th. We had an uneventful march to Wolverdiend, and there entrained, reaching our destination late in the evening. The officers, as usual, rode in the guard's van, and, as these trains used to bump and jolt in the most unpleasant manner, we made ourselves as comfortable as we could in a sort of 'zariba' composed of our valises and a number of large packages sewn up in sackcloth. Our feelings when we later on discovered that these packages were corpses may be left to the imagination.
We returned to our last camp, and set to work to make it (p. 171) more comfortable, running up wood and corrugated-iron shelters for stores, officers' mess, &c. We were also kept perpetually busy in building more forts and improving those already in existence. Captain Romer gave his name to a work which he erected and on which he expended much time, pains, and ingenuity. Posts and piquets also had to be held on all the principal roads into the town. Captain Nelson, R.M.L.I., in command of one of these, one afternoon shouted to two men who were driving through his posts to stop. Unfortunately for them, they paid no attention and drove on, so he seized a rifle and fired, killing one of the occupants stone-dead, an exemplary lesson to the inhabitants to make them understand that outposts were not posted for amusement.
General Clements' column was now stationed at Krugersdorp, and we saw something of Captain MacBean, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, his Brigade-Major. Alas! poor MacBean; he was killed a few days later, standing close beside his General, at the battle of Nooitgedacht. A universal favourite, and one of the most popular officers in the regiment, he was also probably the ablest. Passing brilliantly into and through the Staff College, he went on to the Egyptian Army, taking part in all the principal actions up to and including the battle of Omdurman, receiving a D.S.O. in recognition of his services. In the present campaign he had commenced the war as a Brigade-Major, later on serving on General Hunter's staff, and now transferred to General Clements', who had the highest opinion of his capabilities. Amongst many other accomplishments he was one of the best bridge-players in the service. There is little doubt that if he had been spared he would have risen to the highest rank. He was gazetted to a Brevet-Majority after his death.
On November 15th Lord Roberts inspected the regiment, and congratulated them on the work they had done, afterwards speaking to Major English and telling him how highly he had thought of the Zuikerbosch affair. It is these little (p. 172) acts of kindness and remembrance that make all the difference, and their effect is much more far-reaching than those who confer them often imagine. One only does one's duty, of course, but yet one is only human, and it is very pleasant to feel that that duty has been appreciated.
Captain Lowndes, the adjutant, who had been home after his severe wound at Talana, now rejoined the regiment, and took over the adjutancy from Captain Fetherstonhaugh. That officer had filled the post with marked zeal and ability for over twelve months, and was the only officer who was present with the Headquarters of the battalion from the start of the war without being wounded.
On November 16th the regiment formed part of a column, ordered to march off and scour the veld, though our destination was, as usual, shrouded in mystery. The night of the 15th-16th however, precluded any possibility of carrying out the intended early start, as the rain descended in torrents, deluging kits and country. At about 2 p.m., however, a start was effected, and all went well till a small drift was reached, when the 'cow-gun,' which had taken the place of our old and tried friend, the Naval gun, stuck hopelessly. Colonel Hicks fell out 120 men and put them on to the drag-ropes. Their first pull was too much for the rope, which broke, with the inevitable result that the whole 120 were deposited on the veld, on the broad of their backs. Another and a stouter rope was produced, which proved itself equal to the strain, and with a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together, the heavy weapon was dragged on to terra firma, and the march resumed, a halt being made for the night about eight or nine miles out, and almost on the historic site of Doornkop.
The trek was resumed next morning under more favourable auspices, but these soon proved a delusion and a snare. The column was making for a pass in the Gatsrand, not far from (p. 173) the waterworks, known to be in the enemy's occupation, when at about 11 o'clock a violent thunderstorm broke directly overhead. Marching along, soaked to the skin, with a lightning-conductor in the shape of a rifle over one's shoulder, was not conducive to steady nerves, but so dense was the rain that it had, at all events, one beneficial effect, for the Boers holding the pass left their positions and took shelter in some farmhouses, with the result that they were very nearly captured by our cavalry, who, indeed, succeeded in taking possession of the pass without opposition, the enemy, taken completely by surprise, having only just time to jump on their horses and gallop off. Getting the 'cow-gun' over the pass, however, was no easy matter, but it was eventually accomplished, and after a march of about sixteen miles, the force halted for the night in rather a pretty camp, on a farm known as Hartebeestfontein.
The column marched to Klip River, about seventeen miles, next day, arriving there about 5 p.m. The rearguard was sniped at the whole way by our friends of the day before, but (p. 174) without effecting much damage. A cavalry brigade under Brigadier-General Gordon was here on our arrival, and an exchange of troops took place, we receiving some Greys and Carabineers in exchange for half a battalion of South Wales Borderers.
A halt was now made for a day, most of us taking the opportunity to get a bathe in the river.
Leaving Klip River on the morning of the 20th, we marched back in the direction whence we had come two days before, and were soon engaged with the enemy's snipers, of whom we captured one; but they had the best of the argument, as they killed two of our column. One of these poor fellows had very bad luck: he had received a letter at Klip River only the day before, telling him he had come into a sum of money, sufficient to enable him to retire and spend the remainder of his days in peace and quiet.
Nor was the day to prove uneventful for the rest of us. About 1 p.m. it began to cloud over, and presently to rain; this soon turned into hail, of the variety which one is accustomed to at home. This was at first refreshing, and one would pick up the cool hailstones—they were about as big as peas—and eat them, and the rattle they made on the helmets was quite musical. When they grew to the size of gooseberries, and began to sting, they provided less amusement, shoulders being shrugged up and necks arched to obtain as much protection as possible. The unfortunate dogs, of which a variety invariably turned up with every column, howled with pain, and the cattle and horses grew very restive. But soon the stones, driven by a gale of wind, increased to the size of cherries and strawberries, with occasional jagged lumps of ice an inch in diameter. As there seemed no particular reason why they should not run through the whole gamut of the orchard, and rival plums, peaches, and melons, and as there was no earthly chance of obtaining a vestige of shelter of any kind, men began to wonder what was going to happen (p. 175) next, with an occasional sharper-than-usual belt between the shoulders or on the boot to quicken their fancy. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the horses were controlled, but the stones providentially grew no larger, though the storm continued. The entire country-side was a rolling mass of ice nearly over the tops of boots. Runnels and rivulets became roaring torrents, roads became rivers. When the storm eventually subsided the transport of course could not go another yard, and camp was pitched where we were. The carpet of hailstones in the tents slowly melted into mud, and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Several kids and lambs we had with us were killed by the stones. Not one of us had ever been out in such a storm before, but, as those who had not been on 'the Natal side' confidently predicted, those who had been declared that this was mere child's play to the hailstones they had seen there.
What became of the Boers we never knew: up to the commencement of the storm we had been merrily sniping away at each other at extreme ranges, but during and after it they entirely disappeared, so entirely that even next day we never got a sign of them, and concluded they had all been drowned.
There was, however, nothing to complain of on this score the day after, as sniping was carried on all the time. Though this form of fighting resulted in few casualties, it was destructive to peace and comfort and enjoyment of the scenery. It was interesting to notice what officers recognised when we arrived at places we had visited on previous treks, and instructive to note that it was almost always those who were addicted to sport and field-pursuits who were the first to pick up their bearings and the lie of the land. The force eventually encamped at the foot of the hill on which 'G' company had spent such a cold and miserable night when waiting for the transport to pass, two months before.
(p. 176) On the 23rd, the march took us up again through Orange Grove and on past Leeuwport Nek, moving along the south side of the main ridge of the Gatsrand, with three companies making the best of their way along their jagged peaks. Two of Roberts' Horse were hit on this march, one being killed.
The column reached Buffelsdoorn Pass on the 24th, after a spirited rearguard action, the brunt of which fell on the South Wales Borderers, who had several men and one officer hit. We remained in this pass for some days, sending out small expeditions among the adjacent hills, and erecting fortifications to cover the defile. It was in its way an important place, being within a few miles of Wolverdiend Station, and providing an excellent door through the rocky, serrated peaks of the Gatsrand into the broad plain which lay between them and the Vaal. Our camp was situated just on the north side of the pass, in a picturesque place, with easy access to the railway, and from a tactical point of view an excellent position.
Next day a convoy with nearly ten thousand cattle, sheep, &c., was dispatched to Wolverdiend, without seeing any signs of the enemy.
The night of the 25th-26th could scarcely have been worse; heavy rain, howling wind, and vivid and frequent lightning with its sonorous accompaniment, put sleep out of the question; indeed, at one period it became necessary to get up and hold on to the tents to prevent them being blown away. With the advent of dawn the forces of nature gave us a rest, our friends the enemy immediately filling their place. They opened fire from some kopjes to the east of the camp, and endeavoured to round up some of our cattle. The South Wales Borderers undertook to dislodge them, and speedily did so, the 'Cow-gun' joining in at long range as soon as the Boers evacuated their positions. Having disposed of man for the time being, Nature again rolled up in dense masses of magnificent clouds to the (p. 177) attack. The storm which followed was also one to be remembered; the lightning could be seen striking the ground in the close vicinity of the camp, and though no one was hit, we heard that two men of the regiment at Kaalfontein were not so fortunate, one poor fellow being killed and the other severely wounded. 'C' company, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was on piquet through both these night and day storms, and had, as may be imagined, an unenviable experience.
On the 27th, General Hart rode down to Wolverdiend to see Sir John French. While he was away, word arrived that a party of Roberts' Horse who were out scouting had been held up. Colonel Wilson—the senior officer in camp—detailed 100 Carabineers to go to their assistance, but they found the opposition still too great, so two companies of the regiment were sent out to reinforce them, while the guns opened fire from the summits of the hills. In the middle of the operations a thunderstorm joined in to swell the general din, under cover of which the Boers crept in round three sides of the force. There was never any question of their succeeding in cutting it off, but the boldness of their tactics was characteristic of the phase the war had now begun to assume. There was a good deal of rifle-fire on both sides, and the 28th Battery R.F.A., under its new commander, who had replaced our esteemed friend, Major Stokes, D.S.O., promoted to R.H.A., fired nearly one hundred rounds. What casualties the enemy suffered was not ascertained, but on our side there was only one, a man in Roberts' Horse being badly hit. Those of us who were not engaged sat among the rocks on the tops of the hills, whence a fine panoramic view of the skirmish was obtainable by the aid of telescopes and binoculars.
The 28th and 29th passed uneventfully, Captain Romer occupying the time in again demonstrating his architectural capabilities in the erection of a fort near the pass.
(p. 178) On the 30th a reconnaissance in force was made along the Gatsrand in a westerly direction, the left half-battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers acting as the infantry of the force. Moving along the summits of the hills in four lines of widely extended companies, they marched to within sight of Frederickstadt before they returned. Imagine exaggerated Pyramids of Cheops; imagine each block of stone carved by stress of weather into a thousand needle-points and ankle-twisting crevices; plant a dense growth of mimosa and other thorny scrub in every cranny and interstice. Take a dozen such pyramids, and do your morning constitutional over them, after the scrappiest of breakfasts at 5 a.m., and you will find twelve or fourteen miles quite as much as you care about. But the march was not devoid of interest, though we met with no Boers. Small buck, hares, and partridges were there in sufficient number to afford a good day's sport under other circumstances, while a profusion of various kinds of flowers afforded satisfaction to the eye, in strong contrast to the bare and barkless trunks (p. 179) of trees riven by the frequent storms that devastate these hills. In one place a most gruesome sight was met with. Under a small tree beside a tiny stream stood a three-legged cooking-pot, and round it lay three skeletons, with a scattering of shrapnel bullets to silently tell the story of the tragedy. Beside one body lay a Rifleman's haversack, an eloquent if speechless travesty on the fortunes of war, for undoubtedly they were the remains of Boers, over whose head a chance shrapnel must have burst months before.
A similar reconnaissance, but in the opposite direction, was made next day, resulting in one man being wounded. Convoys were also passing to and fro, and on the 2nd, Captain Fetherstonhaugh took over the duties of provost-marshal, temporarily, from Captain Thompson, of the Somersetshire Light Infantry, who had hurt his knee. Rumours of an early move also began to circulate, with the Losberg, the grim and solitary hill rising out of the plain to the south of the Gatsrand, as our probable destination. For some time past the Boers had used it as a sort of headquarters and rallying-place for their frequent raiding parties. Columns were now converging on it from all points of the compass, but as they could be plainly seen from its summit, the high hopes entertained in some quarters of rounding up a large number of the enemy were not shared by everybody.
Yet the start at 9 p.m. on the 3rd was sufficiently impressive. The officers were assembled, and had their several duties clearly pointed out to them, one peak of the hill being assigned to the South Wales Borderers and the other to the Dublin Fusiliers. To 'A' company of the latter regiment, under Major English, was given the honour of leading the attack, which was to be made at dawn next morning. Silently and with all due precautions the column slowly wound its way down the pass, like some gigantic boa-constrictor, and out on to the plain below. Whenever a farm (p. 180) was reached it was entered, and steps taken to prevent lights being shown or signals flashed: three Boers, booted and spurred, being taken in one. It was a perfect night for marching, all Nature hushed in deep repose save the loud-mouthed bull-frog; the moon set an hour before dawn, reminding one of Whyte-Melville's line:
'The darkest hour of all the night is that which brings the day.'
But dark as it was our objective could be seen ominously looming up—a lamp-black mass against the velvet softness of starlit sky. The movement had been admirably timed, and as day broke the two regiments advanced to the attack, the South Wales Borderers on the right, the Dublins on the left, while the artillery opened fire against the hillside between the two summits. But that was all. Not a shot was fired in return. Not a Boer was even seen. Nothing. Except, indeed, large quantities of most delicious and most acceptable oranges, after eating which the tired troops lay in the rain, which commenced to pour down, and slept peacefully till the transport came up.
Before we started next morning, a huge herd of blesbok suddenly appeared on the scene, wildly galloping about in every direction, being continually brought up by the barbed wire fences of the farms. A good many were shot, but it was cruel to kill them, or try to, with hard bullets, and many and many a beast must have got away badly wounded, whilst the indiscriminate manner in which the sportsmen fired in all directions was a source of danger, not only to themselves and the buck, but to the camp as well. One fine old fellow, with a good head, charged right through the camp, altogether eluding one regiment, in spite of every variety of missile, from cooking-pots to helmets, to finally fall a victim in another regiment's lines to a tent-pole. After which interlude the force marched to Modderfontein.
(p. 181) Next day a helio from Bank directed the column to make its way to that station, a party of the South Wales Borderers being left behind to watch the pass at Modderfontein, where they were to have a rough experience later on. The remainder of the force moved to Bank on the 7th, and marched again the same night for Krugersdorp, making a total distance of thirty-three miles in the twenty-four hours, a good wind-up to the three weeks' trek. An enormous number of cattle and sheep were brought in, but it was the end of the Pochefstroom column, which was now finally broken up into a number of small posts.
The regiment camped once more on the same site it had last occupied.