'They are wet with the showers of the mountains, and embrace the rock for want of a shelter.'—Job, xxiv. 8.
By this time we had begun to regard Krugersdorp as our base, and to look upon our returns to it as more or less getting home. But on this occasion there was to be no rest of any length. From the plum-bloom blue of the far Magaliesberg, General Clements' heliograph was twinkling and blinking for the remainder of his force and more mounted men. In addition to this Colonel Hicks took out a column. These and other deductions left Krugersdorp with a garrison of 300 men to man a perimeter of some ten or twelve miles, or, roughly speaking, just over fifty yards for each rifle. 'C' company, under Captain Pomeroy, W.I.R. (attached), and Lieutenant Molony, occupied Fort Craig; 'D' company, under Captain Clarke, R.M.L.I. (attached), and Lieutenant Marsh, held Fort Kilmarnock; and 'G' company, under its Captain and Lieutenant Smith, took over Fort Harlech. Major Rutherford took over this fort next day, as the captain of 'G' company had been appointed commander of the town guards and piquets and interior defences. Colonel Hicks had been ordered to Johannesburg to see General French, who informed him that he was to take command of a mixed force and march to the Losberg, there to dig up a large sum of gold, reputed to amount to nearly 100,000l.; after which he was to proceed south to the Vaal, and hold the drifts between Vereeniging and Rensburg.
(p. 183) Starting at midnight on the 10th-11th, the column marched till 6 a.m., covering fifteen or sixteen miles. The men then had breakfasts; and, after resting till mid-day, when they had dinners, started again for Orange Grove, the pass in the Gatsrand with which we were by this time so familiar. It was occupied by Boers, estimated at about one hundred in number, who offered considerable resistance, but who were finally shelled out of it, without loss on our side, though charged by a squadron of Carabineers with great dash. Having done about twenty-six miles, the camp was pitched at 6 p.m., outposts being, of course, thrown out on the adjacent hills.
Reveille sounded at 4.30 a.m., and by 5.30 the small column was on the way again. Their destination was plain enough this time, and very grim and formidable it looked in the broad light of day, considering the very small force which was about to attack it. Moreover, on this occasion it held something besides oranges. Advancing from the north in the direction of the spot from which we had advanced to the attack a few days before, Colonel Hicks made a demonstration as though about to attack the eastern peak, then, suddenly opening a heavy shell fire on the nek between the two, he launched his real attack against the other summit. Although the hill was held by a considerable number of the enemy, estimated at 500, these tactics proved eminently successful, for when they discovered the direction of the main attack shrapnel was bursting all over the nek along which they would have had to gallop to meet it, and they gave up the idea and evacuated the position, which fell into Colonel Hicks' hand with a loss of one man, who had the misfortune to be hit in no less than five places. A guide had been sent with the column who knew where the gold was, and a party was told off to dig it up and bring it in. The guide may or may not have known where the gold was, but he certainly did not know where it was then, and the search proved entirely (p. 184) abortive. He was a murderer under sentence of death, and was to save his life by showing the gold and ten buried guns.
The force started at 5 a.m. next morning for Lindeque Drift. There was a certain amount of sniping all the way, principally at the cavalry, who were riding wide on either flank, collecting cattle and burning straw and hay, in addition to guarding the flanks. Lindeque was reached at 5.30 p.m., a camp of our people being in view on the far bank of the river, with whom communication was opened by signal. The drift was very deep, but an orderly managed to get across with a letter. Orders also arrived from General French giving Colonel Hicks thirty miles of river to watch, which seemed a good deal, considering the paucity of the numbers at his disposal.
At 6.30 a.m. a helio message was received calling the column at once back to Krugersdorp, and a start was made for the return journey at 8 a.m. The Boers endeavoured all day to cut off the rearguard, but met with no success, the gunners shelling them whenever they got close enough to be unpleasant.
The 15th proved to be almost a repetition of the day before, the enemy hanging persistently on the flanks and rear of the little column, but showing no signs of any desire to make their closer acquaintance. Indeed, that morning Colonel Hicks had prepared a small surprise for them which fully realised his anticipations. Whenever columns were moving about it was the invariable custom of the enemy to at once occupy the vacated camping-ground in search of any odds-and-ends that might have been left about, but more especially ammunition, which used to drop out of our men's pouches in surprising quantities, in spite of the most stringent orders on the subject. On this occasion the Colonel left a small party in ambush when he moved off, with the result that when half-a-dozen Boers began rummaging about in the camp they were suddenly invited to hold their hands up, a (p. 185) request which they had of necessity to comply with, one of them being a Field-Cornet and a man of some local importance. A halt was made in sight of Randfontein, on the slopes of which a column, under Colonel the Hon. Ulick Roche, could be seen proceeding in the direction of Krugersdorp. Next day was Dingaan's Day, and rumour stated that the Boers under De la Rey, flushed with their victory over Clements, were going to attack Krugersdorp.
The column marched the remaining fifteen miles by 2.30 p.m. next day without seeing any sign of the enemy. During the six days they had been away they had marched 102 miles, skirmished with the enemy nearly every day, taken a strong position by a fine example of tactics, captured a good many prisoners, and brought in a large quantity of cattle, sheep, &c.: a very fine six days' work.
Since May 30th the headquarters of the battalion had marched well over 1200 miles. On three occasions it had exceeded thirty miles in twenty-four hours—the record, of course, being the thirty-eight miles in sixteen hours from Klerkskraal to Pochefstroom in September. But the most wonderful part of its work was the strange immunity it experienced from any of the determined attacks which were so constantly being made on other columns. Whether it was good or bad luck, good or bad scouting, whatever it was, the fact remained that with the exception of the almost daily scrapping and sniping, which constant use had made to appear as part of the day's work, no action of any importance came our way in spite of the countless marches and counter-marches we made to bring one on. With the solitary exception of the afternoon at Frederickstadt, when the Boers dropped a few shells into our camp, and the two following days, when General Liebenburg paid a similar attention to the detachment left behind on the hill, we had not been under shell-fire.
In the meantime, the disaster to General Clements at (p. 186) Nooitgedacht had drawn all eyes to the state of Krugersdorp, which with its small garrison seemed to offer a tempting bait to De la Rey, and column after column arrived to assist in repelling the assault which was threatened for Dingaan's Day. Before the reinforcements arrived the General had taken every sort of precaution; amongst others, arresting most of the principal inhabitants of the town, and holding them as hostages. The festival, however, passed without incident, and the tide of men and horses, guns and waggons, which had reached a record height in the history of the town, soon began to ebb once more, and then everything settled down to the quiet, peaceful state of affairs which almost always characterised Krugersdorp. The band played in the market square, and concerts were arranged in the town hall, while the General set a fine example to his troops for their guidance in his treatment of those of our late enemies who had observed their oaths of neutrality, as a large number of them most religiously did. Ever foremost in aggressive tactics in the field until the enemy was overcome, the General adopted a policy of conciliation at other times which undoubtedly had far-reaching effects as regarded the conduct of the inhabitants of Krugersdorp.
On December 19th, 400 men of the regiment, under Major Bird, started off to join the force under General French which was going to sweep the Eastern Transvaal, very much on the same lines that the various columns had been sweeping the Western Transvaal. Their special duty was to act as a baggage-guard to the various mounted corps, a duty which they shared with a battalion of Guards. Their lives for the next two or three months were very much the same as they had been for the previous two or three months, though they covered an even greater number of miles, and, owing to the rains and thunderstorms of the South African summer, experienced an even harder time. It is the custom to speak in terms of high praise of the climate of South Africa, but (p. 187) if the British Army had been consulted on the subject after some of these treks, it is doubtful if their vocabulary would have been large enough to enable them to thoroughly ventilate their opinions. The fact is that the spring, summer, and autumn are ruined by the desperate storms which are of such common occurrence at those times of year. There are, it is true, four winter months of glorious weather: fine, frosty, starlit nights, and clear days of brilliant sunshine when the heat is never unpleasant. But of these four months, two are completely ruined by the high winds which sweep the broad veld, and which, in the vicinity of the mines, fill the air with minute particles of gritty dust from the waste-heaps, penetrating eyes and nostrils, throats and lungs.
The first portion of the trek was, however, spent in the country that General Hart had been operating in. The following account of some of their hardships and privations is given by Lieutenant and Quartermaster Burke:—
With General Knox's Brigade in the sweeping movement by General French on the eastern side of the Transvaal. Detail of a few orders as showing the hardships the troops suffered through bad weather and scarcity of food.
Brigade Orders. 'Witcomb, 8.2.01. Owing to the late arrival of the convoy, the force will go on 2/3 biscuits.'
This all the time we were marching daily and fighting.
16.2.01. Our force reached Piet Retief.
Brigade Orders. '20.2.01. The following will be the scale of rations until further orders:—2 ozs. rice, 4 ozs. jam, ½ lb. mealie meal, 1-½ lb. meat. No coffee, tea, biscuits, vegetables, or salt.'
Orders received from General French:—'Convoy under General Burn-Murdoch is terribly delayed by swollen rivers and bad roads. The Pongola is fifty yards and the Intombi 300 yards wide. You must use your utmost resources to economise food, and so meet this unfortunate state of affairs, (p. 188) which will assuredly last till the weather improves. No forage for horses and mules. Send parties for food to search out as far as ten miles. Kaffirs to receive 1l. in gold for a bag of mealies, or a heifer for five bags.'
21, 22, 23.2.01. 1 oz. jam, ½ lb. mealie meal, 1-½ lb. meat, nothing else.
24, 25. Same.
26. No jam, ½ lb. mealie meal, 1-½ lb. meat, nothing else. I paid a shopkeeper at Piet Retief 2s. 6d. for a quarter-handful of salt.
Brigade Orders. 27.2.01. By General French: 'O.C. units will take steps to let the troops know how highly their spirits and bearing under the privations they are suffering from bad weather and short rations are appreciated by the Lieutenant-General Commanding.'
27.2.01. Burnt mealie cobs issued for coffee.
Telegram from Lord Kitchener to General French, Piet Retief, 28.2.01:—'Explain to the troops under your command my admiration of the excellent work they have performed, and the difficulties they have overcome.'
8.3.01. Full rations, first issue since 14.2.01.
To show that the troops, besides suffering from frightful bad weather (constant rain for a month), had to work hard, the following results are shown.
General Orders. The following results of our operations since 27.1.01, is published for officers and men:—
Boers, killed, wounded, and captured, 393; surrendered, 353. Total accounted for, 746.
Cannon taken, excluding a maxim, 4.
Rifles, 606. Ammunition, 161,630.
Horses and mules, 6504. Trek oxen, 362.
Other cattle, 20,986. Sheep, 158,130.
Waggons and carts, 1604.
Mealies and oat hay, over 4,000,000 lbs.
H. Burke, Lt.
(p. 189) Colonel Hicks now set every one to work improving the various posts round Krugersdorp, setting a fine example to all by the interest he took in the work, and showing his thoroughness by the attention he devoted to even the most trivial details. He also took infinite pains to make Christmas as pleasant as he could for every one. The regiment was, of course, very much split up in the various forts and fortified houses, but headquarters still remained till the end of the year in our old camping-ground.
On the very last day of the year an escort of forty men returning to Krugersdorp had a near shave of being cut off; they lost four men captured, and would assuredly have lost more but for the prompt action of Major English, who went out from Kilmarnock with twenty men to help them in.
So ended 1900. It had been a hard year for every one, but one and all had done their best, and no sign of failing spirits was visible anywhere. It was difficult to see anything like an end to the campaign, however, for the process of attrition, which now seemed the sole solution, was necessarily a slow one, and considerably interfered with by the various 'regrettable incidents' that occurred from time to time in the huge theatre of the war. These not only assisted our indomitable foes with extra supplies of clothing, arms, ammunition, &c., but also had the effect of keeping up their morale.
On January 4th, 1901, the 400 men under Major Bird passed through on their way to Elandsfontein, but nobody knew about the move in time to go up to the station and see them.
Large bodies of the enemy were now known to be in the neighbourhood, and a spy came in saying that it was an open secret among the Boers that Krugersdorp was De la Rey's objective as soon as a favourable opportunity should present itself. In spite of this it was difficult to make the danger of going beyond the outposts appreciated, and this (p. 190) resulted in the death of one of our men, Private Hyland, servant to one of the clergymen. It was supposed that the poor fellow had gone out in a cape-cart with the object of getting some flowers for the church; his body was found on the 8th simply riddled with bullets, as was also that of the Cape-boy who had driven him.
On the 10th, Major Pilson, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, one of the first officers selected to proceed to South Africa on special service before the war, arrived—not, unfortunately, to join the regiment, but the South African Constabulary.
On the 11th the enemy blew up the railway just beyond Roodeport, the first station out of Krugersdorp on the way to Pochefstroom. Lieutenant Marsh and twenty men of the regiment were sent out as escort to guard the Engineers who repaired it.
The storms continued to be very severe. Kilmarnock House was struck by lightning, and the sentry on guard at the Court House in the town sent spinning, fortunately only receiving a severe shaking.
On the 23rd the sad news of the death of Her Majesty Queen Victoria was made known to the troops, by whom it was received in deep and impressive silence.
A salute was fired by the Artillery on the 24th with plugged shell, to celebrate the Accession of King Edward VII.
At the end of the month General Hart left us. The regiment had been continuously under his command since the formation of the Irish Brigade; officers and men alike had learned to entertain a deep respect and admiration for their General, than whom no braver man ever went into action. He on his part loved the regiment, and fully appreciated the esprit de corps which permeated it, from the Colonel to the last-joined recruit. His farewell letter to Colonel Hicks, another on the subject of our camping arrangements, and his farewell order to his brigade, may all be found in the Appendix, and afford proof of his (p. 191) regard for his troops and the spirit which he breathed into them.
Colonel Groves took over command of Krugersdorp and its defences, and gave Colonel Hicks a free hand: he also rode round the inner defences with the commander of the town-guards and piquets, and arranged for their being made stronger also.
In spite of the presence of a good many of our columns, the enemy was very active all over the Magaliesberg and the Gatsrand at this time. It will be remembered that on the return from the Klip River trek, a party of the South Wales Borderers had been left to watch the Modderfontein Pass.
This small force was now surrounded and being fiercely attacked, and offering as determined a resistance. A force was hastily organized to proceed to their relief, under command of Colonel the Hon. U. Roche, of the South Wales Borderers. With half or more of the battalion away under Major Bird, we could only supply 180 men, under command of Captain Shewan, for this column.
They marched that night, and the following morning found all the hills for ten miles held by the enemy, Colonel Roche wiring in that the Boers were in too great force for his column to proceed. Indeed, the column had to fight hard enough to maintain its position and to save itself from being surrounded. General Conyngham, hastily gathering together another 500 men and a battery, marched off to reinforce Colonel Roche, but before they could get to the unfortunate post at Modderfontein, it had fallen to superior numbers. The Boers, who were under the command of General Smuts, sent in a flag of truce, giving notice of the capture of the post, stating that there were many British wounded, and suggesting that an ambulance and doctors should be sent out to them. This incident was very hard lines on a most gallant regiment, and in no way reflects adversely on them for one instant. They defended their position splendidly as long as (p. 192) defence was possible, and suffered greatly from want of water as well as from the enemy's fire. Colonel Roche reported that Captain Shewan and his men had done very well, and had held a hill on the left of his position, until he recalled them.
Colonel Hicks never for a moment remitted his exertions in the fortifying of the various posts and houses in the section of the command for which he was responsible, with the result that he very soon had them in a most efficient state. Ammunition, food, and water, in sufficient quantities to withstand a regular siege, were stored in each post, while the wire entanglements would have effectually precluded any attempt on the part of the enemy to rush them. Indeed, no precautions were omitted, and one began to enjoy one's sleep considerably more than had been the case for some months past.On the 7th, the headquarters of the regiment at last moved into Kilmarnock, a house which had belonged to a Mr. Burger, a brother of Mr. Schalk Burger, the acting President. Here they remained until the regiment left for Aden in January 1902