IN THE RANKS OF THE C.I.V.
A NARRATIVE AND DIARY OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCES WITH THE C.I.V. BATTERY (HONOURABLE ARTILLERY COMPANY) IN SOUTH AFRICA
BY DRIVER ERSKINE CHILDERS CLERK IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
WITH A FRONTISPIECE
DEDICATED TO MY FRIEND AND COMRADE GUNNER BASIL WILLIAMS
I. THE "MONTFORT"
II. CAPETOWN AND STELLENBOSCH
III. PIQUETBERG ROAD
VIII. SLABBERT'S NEK AND FOURIESBERG
IX. TO PRETORIA
XII. A DETAIL
XIII. SOUTH AGAIN
IN THE RANKS OF THE C.I.V.
A wintry ride—Retrospect—Embarkation—A typical day—"Stables" in rough weather—Las Palmas—The tropics—Inoculation—Journalism— Fashions—"Intelligent anticipation"—Stable-guard—Arrival.
With some who left for the War it was "roses, roses, all the way." For us, the scene was the square of St. John's Wood Barracks at 2 A.M. on the 3rd of February, a stormy winter's morning, with three inches of snow on the ground, and driving gusts of melting flakes lashing our faces. In utter silence the long lines of horses and cloaked riders filed out through the dimly-lit gateway and into the empty streets, and we were off at last on this long, strange journey to distant Africa. Six crowded weeks were behind us since the disastrous one of Colenso, and with it the news of the formation of the C.I.V., and the incorporation in that regiment of a battery to be supplied by the Honourable Artillery Company, with four quick-firing Vickers-Maxim guns. Then came the hurried run over from Ireland, the application for service, as a driver, the week of suspense, the joy of success, the brilliant scene of enlistment before the Lord Mayor, and the abrupt change one raw January morning from the ease and freedom of civilian life, to the rigours and serfdom of a soldier's. There followed a month of constant hard work, riding-drill, gun-drill, stable work, and every sort of manual labour, until the last details of the mobilization were complete, uniforms and kit received, the guns packed and despatched; and all that remained was to ride our horses to the Albert Docks; for our ship, the Montfort, was to sail at mid-day.
Hardships had begun in earnest, for we had thirteen miles to ride in the falling snow, and our hands and feet were frozen. As we filed through the silent streets, an occasional knot of night-birds gave us a thin cheer, and once a policeman rushed at me, and wrung my hand, with a fervent "Safe home again!" Whitechapel was reached soon enough, but the Commercial Road, and the line of docks, seemed infinite.
However, at six we had reached the ship, and lined up into a great shed, where we took off and gave up saddles and head-collars, put on canvas head-stalls, and then enjoyed an excellent breakfast, provided by some unknown benefactor. Next we embarked the horses by matted gangways (it took six men to heave my roan on board), and ranged them down below in their narrow stalls on the stable-deck. Thence we crowded still further down to the troop-deck—one large low-roofed room, edged with rows of mess-tables. My entire personal accommodation was a single iron hook in a beam. This was my wardrobe, chest of drawers, and an integral part of my bed; for from it swung the hammock. We were packed almost as thickly as the horses; and that is saying a great deal. The morning was spent in fatigue duties of all sorts, from which we snatched furtive moments with our friends on the crowded quay. For hours a stream of horses and mules poured up the gangways; for two other corps were to share the ship with us, the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and the Irish Hospital. At two the last farewells had been said, and we narrowed our thoughts once more to all the minutiae of routine. As it turned out, we missed that tide, and did not start till two in the next morning; but I was oblivious of such a detail, having been made one of the two "stablemen" of my sub-division, a post which was to last for a week, and kept me in constant attendance on the horses down below; so that I might just as well have been in a very stuffy stable on shore, for all I saw of the run down Channel. My duty was to draw forage from the forward hold (a gloomy, giddy operation), be responsible with my mate for the watering of all the horses in my sub-division—thirty in number, for preparing their feeds and "haying up" three times a day, and for keeping our section of the stable-deck swept and clean. We started with very fine weather, and soon fell into our new life, with, for me at least, a strange absence of any sense of transition. The sea-life joined naturally on to the barrack-life. Both are a constant round of engrossing duties, in which one has no time to feel new departures. The transition had come earlier, with the first day in barracks, and, indeed, was as great and sudden a change, mentally and physically, as one could possibly conceive. On the material side it was sharp enough; but the mental change was stranger still. There was no perspective left; no planning of the future, no questioning of the present; none of that free play of mind and will with which we order our lives at home; instead, utter abandonment to superior wills, one's only concern the present point of time and the moment's duty, whatever it might be.
This is how we spent the day.
The trumpet blew reveille at six, and called us to early "stables," when the horses were fed and watered, and forage drawn. Breakfast was at seven: the food rough, but generally good. We were split up into messes of about fourteen, each of which elected two "mess orderlies," who drew the rations, washed up, swept the troop-deck, and were excused all other duties. I, and my friend Gunner Basil Williams, a colleague in my office at home, were together in the same mess. Coffee, bread and butter, and something of a dubious, hashy nature, were generally the fare at breakfast. I, as stableman, was constantly with the horses, but for the rest the next event was morning stables, about nine o'clock, which was a long and tedious business. The horses would be taken out of their stalls, and half of us would lead them round the stable-deck for exercise, while the rest took out the partitions and cleaned the stalls. Then ensued exciting scenes in getting them back again, an operation that most would not agree to without violent compulsion—and small blame to the poor brutes. It used to take our whole sub-division to shove my roan in. Each driver has two horses. My dun was a peaceful beast, but the roan was a by-word in the sub-division. When all was finished, and the horses fed and watered, it would be near 12.30, which was the dinner-hour. Some afternoons were free, but generally there would be more exercising and stall-cleaning, followed by the afternoon feeds and watering. At six came tea, and then all hands, including us stablemen, were free.
Hammocks were slung about seven, and it was one of the nightly problems to secure a place. I generally found under the hatchway, where it was airy, but in rainy weather moist. Then we were free to talk and smoke on deck till any hour. Before going to bed, I used to write my diary, down below, at a mess-table, where the lights shot dim rays through vistas of serried hammocks, while overhead the horses fidgeted and trampled in their stalls, making a distracting thunder on the iron decks. It was often writing under difficulties, crouching down with a hammock pressing on the top of one's head—the occupant protesting at the head with no excess of civility; a quality which, by the way, was very rare with us.
Soon after leaving the Bay, we had some rough weather. "Stables" used to be a comical function. My diary for the first rough day says:—"About six of us were there out of about thirty in my sub-division; our sergeant, usually an awesome personage to me, helpless as a babe, and white as a corpse, standing rigid. The lieutenant feebly told me to report when all horses were watered and feeds made up. It was a long job, and at the end I found him leaning limply against a stall. 'Horses all watered, and feeds ready, sir.' He turned on me a glazed eye, which saw nothing; then a glimmer of recollection flickered, and the lips framed the word 'feed,' no doubt through habit; but to pronounce that word at all under the circumstances was an effort of heroism for which I respected him. Rather a lonely day. My co-stableman curled in a pathetic ball all day, among the hay, in our forage recess. My only view of the outer world is from a big port in this recess, which frames a square of heaving blue sea; but now and then one can get breathing-spaces on deck. In the afternoon—the ship rolling heavily—I went, by an order of the day before, to be vaccinated. Found the doctor on the saloon deck, in a long chair, very still. Thought he was dead, but saluted, and said what I had come for. With marvellous presence of mind, he collected himself, and said: 'I ordered six to come; it is waste of lymph to do one only: get the other five.' After a short absence, I was back, reporting the other five not in a condition to do anything, even to be vaccinated. The ghost of a weary smile lit up the wan face. I saluted and left."
Our busy days passed quickly, and on the ninth of the month a lovely, still blue day, I ran up to look at the Grand Canary in sight on the starboard bow, and far to the westward the Peak of Teneriffe, its snowy cone flushed pink in the morning sun, above a bank of cloud. All was blotted out in two hours of stable squalors, but at midday we were anchored off Las Palmas (white houses backed by arid hills), the ill-fated Denton Grange lying stranded on the rocks, coal barges alongside, donkey engines chattering on deck, and a swarm of bum-boats round our sides, filled with tempting heaps of fruit, cigars, and tobacco. Baskets were slung up on deck, and they drove a roaring trade. A little vague news filtered down to the troop-deck; Ladysmith unrelieved, but Buller across the Tugela, and some foggy rumour about 120,000 more men being wanted. The Battery also received a four-footed recruit in the shape of a little grey monkey, the gift of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry. He was at once invested with the rank of Bombardier, and followed all our fortunes in camp and march and action till our return home. That day was a pleasant break in the monotony, and also signalized my release from the office of stableman. We were off again at six; an exquisite night it was, a big moon in the zenith, the evening star burning steadily over the dim, receding island. We finished with a sing-song on deck, a crooning, desultory performance, with sleepy choruses, and a homely beer-bottle passing from mouth to mouth.
Then came the tropics and the heat, and the steamy doldrums, when the stable-deck was an "Inferno," and exercising the horses like a tread-mill in a Turkish bath, and stall-cleaning an unspeakable business. Yet the hard work kept us in fit condition, and gave zest to the intervals of rest.
At this time many of us used to sling our hammocks on deck, for down in the teeming troop-deck it was suffocating. It was delicious to lie in the cool night air, with only the stars above, and your feet almost overhanging the heaving sea, where it rustled away from the vessel's sides. At dawn you would see through sleepy eyes an exquisite sky, colouring for sunrise, and just at reveille the golden rim would rise out of a still sea swimming and shimmering in pink and opal.
Here is the diary of a Sunday:—
"February 11.—Reveille at six. Delicious bathe in the sail-bath. Church parade at ten; great cleaning and brushing up for it. Short service, read by the Major, and two hymns. Then a long lazy lie on deck with Williams, learning Dutch from a distracting grammar by a pompous old pedant. Pronunciation maddening, and the explanations made it worse. Long afternoon, too, doing the same. No exercising; just water, feed, and a little grooming at 4.30, then work over for the day. Kept the ship lively combing my roan's mane; thought he would jump into the engine-room. By the way, yesterday, when waiting for his hay coming down the line, his impatience caused him to jump half over the breast-bar, bursting one head rope; an extraordinary feat in view of the narrowness and lowness of his stall. He hung in a nasty position for a minute, and then we got him to struggle back. Another horse died in the night, and another very sick.
"Inoculation for enteric began to-day with a dozen fellows. Results rather alarming, as they all are collapsed already in hammocks, and one fainted on deck. It certainly is no trifle, and I shall watch their progress carefully. I can't be done myself for some days, as I was vaccinated two days ago (after the first unsuccessful attempt), in company with Williams. We went to the doctor's cabin on the upper deck, and afterwards sat on the deck in the sun to let our arms dry. After some consultation we decided to light a furtive cigarette, but were ignominiously caught by the doctor and rebuked. 'Back at school again,' I thought; 'caught smoking!' It seemed very funny, and we had a good laugh at it.
"It is a gorgeous, tropical night, not a cloud or feather of one; a big moon, and dead-calm sea; just a slight, even roll; we have sat over pipes after tea, chatting of old days, and present things, and the mysterious future, sitting right aft on the poop, with the moonlit wake creaming astern."
Inoculation was general, and I was turned off one morning with a joyous band of comrades, retired to hammocks, and awaited the worst with firmness. It was nothing more than a splitting headache and shivering for about an hour, during which time I wished Kruger, Roberts, and the war at the bottom of the sea. A painful stiffness then ensued, and that was all. My only grievance was that two dying horses were brought up and tied just below me, and dosed—lucky beasts—with champagne by their officer-owners! Also we had the hose turned on us by some sailors, who were washing the boat-bridge above, and jeered at our impotent remonstrances. In two days we were fit for duty, and took our turn in ministering to other sufferers.
We were a merry ship, for the men of our three corps got on capitally together, and concerts and amusements were frequent. They were held al fresco on the forward deck, with the hammocks of inoculates swinging above and around, so that these unfortunates, some of whom were pretty bad, had to take this strange musical medicine whether they liked it or no, and the mouth-organ band which attended on these occasions was by no means calculated to act as an opiate. Of course we had sports, both aquatic and athletic, and on the 18th Williams and I conceived the idea of publishing a newspaper; and without delay wrote, and posted up, an extravagant prospectus of the same. Helpers came, and ideas were plentiful. A most prolific poet knocked off poems "while you wait," and we soon had plenty of "copy." The difficulty lay in printing our paper. All we could do was to make four copies in manuscript, and that was labour enough. I am sure no paper ever went to press under such distracting conditions. The editorial room was a donkey engine, and the last sheets were copied one night among overhanging hammocks, card-parties, supper-parties, and a braying concert by the Irish just overhead, by the light of an inch of candle. We pasted up two copies on deck, sent one bound copy to the officers, and the Montfort Express was a great success. It was afterwards printed at Capetown. Here is an extract which will throw some light on our dress on board in the tropics:—
THE FEBRUARY FASHIONS.
By our Lady Correspondent.
"I don't often write to you about gentlemen's fashions, because, as a rule, they are monstrously dull, but this season the stronger sex seem really to be developing some originality. Here are a few notes taken on the troopship Montfort, where of course you know every one is smart. (Tout ce qu'il y a de plus Montfort has become quite a proverb, dear.) Generally speaking, piquancy and coolness are the main features. For instance, a neat costume for stables is a pair of strong boots. To make this rather more dressy for the dinner-table, a pair of close-fitting pants may be added, but this is optional. Shirts, if worn, are neutral in tint; white ones are quite demode. Vests are cut low in the neck and with merely a suggestion of sleeve. Trousers (I blush to write it, dear) are worn baggy at the knee and very varied in pattern and colour, according to the tastes and occupation of the wearer. Caps a la convict are de rigueur. I believe this to spring from a delicate sense of sympathy with the many members of the aristocracy now in prison. The same chivalrous instinct shows itself in the fashion of close-cropped hair.
"There is a great latitude for individual taste; one tall, handsome man (known to his friends, I believe, under the sobriquet of 'Kipper') is always seen in a delicious confection of some gauzy pink and blue material, which enhances rather than conceals the Apollo-like grace of his lissome limbs.
"At the Gymkhana the other day (a very smart affair), I saw Mr. 'Pat' Duffy, looking charmingly fresh and cool in a suit of blue tattooing, which I hear was made for him in Japan by a native lady.
"In Yeomanry circles, a single gold-rimmed eye-glass is excessively chic, and, by the way, in the same set a pleasant folly is to wear a different coat every day.
"The saloon-deck is less interesting, because less variegated; but here is a note or too. Caps are usually cerise, trimmed with blue passementerie. To be really smart, the moustache must be waxed and curled upwards in corkscrew fashion. In the best Irish circles beards are occasionally worn, but it requires much individual distinction to carry off this daring innovation. And now, dear, I must say good-bye; but before I close my letter, here is a novel and piquant recipe for Breakfast curry: Catch some of yesterday's Irish stew, thoroughly disinfect, and dye to a warm khaki colour. Smoke slowly for six hours, and serve to taste.
* * * * *
Here is Williams on the wings of prophecy:—
OUR ARRIVAL IN CAPETOWN.
(With Apologies to "Ouida.")
"It was sunset in Table Bay—Phoebus' last lingering rays were empurpling the beetling crags of Table Mountain's snowy peak—the great ship Montfort, big with the hopes of an Empire (on which the sun never sets), was gliding majestically to her moorings. Countless craft, manned by lissome blacks or tawny Hottentots, instantly shot forth from the crowded quays, and surged in picturesque disorder round the great hull, scarred by the ordure of ten score pure Arab chargers. 'Who goes there?' cried the ever-watchful sentry on the ship, as he ran out the ready-primed Vickers-Maxim from the port-hole. 'Speak, or I fire ten shots a minute.' 'God save the Queen,' was the ready response sent up from a thousand throats. 'Pass, friends,' said the sentry, as he unhitched the port companion-ladder. In a twinkling the snowy deck of the great transport was swarming with the dusky figures of the native bearers, who swiftly transferred the cargo from the groaning hold into the nimble bum-boats, and carried the large-limbed Anglo-Saxon heroes into luxurious barges, stuffed with cushions soft enough to satisfy the most jaded voluptuary. At shore, a sight awaited them calculated to stir every instinct of patriotism in their noble bosoms. On a richly chased ebon throne sat the viceroy in person, clad in all the panoply of power. A delicate edge of starched white linen, a sight which had not met their eyes for many a weary week, peeped from beneath his gaudier accoutrements; the vice-regal diadem, blazing with the recovered Kimberley diamond, encircled his brow, while his finely chiselled hand grasped the great sword of state. Around him were gathered a dazzling bevy of all the wit and beauty of South Africa; great chieftains from the fabled East, Zulus, Matabeles, Limpopos and Umslopogaas, clad in gorgeous scarlet feathers gave piquancy to the proud throng. Most of England's wit and manhood scintillated in the sunlight, while British matrons and England's fairest maids lit up with looks of proud affection; bosoms heaved in sympathetic unison with the measured tramp of the ammunition boots; bright eyes caught a sympathetic fire from the clanking spurs of the corporal rough-rider, while the bombardier in command of the composite squadron of artillery, horse-marines, and ambulance, could hardly pick his way through the heaps of rose leaves scattered before him by lily-white hands. But the scene was quickly changed, as if by enchantment. At a touch of the button by the viceroy's youngest child, an urchin of three, thousands of Boer prisoners, heavily laden with chains, brought forward tables groaning with every conceivable dainty. The heroes set to with famished jaws, and after the coffee, each negligently lit up his priceless cigar with a bank-note, with the careless and open-handed improvidence so charming and so characteristic of their profession. But suddenly their ease was rudely broken. A single drum-tap made known to all that the enemy was at the gates. In a moment the commander had thrown away three parts of his costly cigar, had sprung to his feet, and with the heart of a lion and the voice of a dove, had shouted the magical battle-cry, 'Attention!' Then with a yell of stern resolve, and the answering cry of 'Stand easy, boys,' the whole squadron, gunners and adjutants, ambulance and bombardiers, yeomen and gentlemen farmers, marched forth into the night.
"That very night the bloody battle was fought which sealed the fate of the Transvaal—and the dashing colour-sergeant nailed England's proud banner on the citadel of Pretoria."
* * * * *
About once every week, it was my turn for stable-guard at night, consisting of two-hour spells, separated by four hours' rest. The drivers did this duty, while the gunners mounted guard over the magazines. On this subject I quote some nocturnal reflections from my diary:—"Horses at night get very hungry, and have an annoying habit of eating one another's head-ropes reciprocally. When this happens you find chains if you can, and then they eat the framework of the stall. If you come up to protest, they pretend to be asleep, and eat your arm as you pass. They also have a playful way of untying their breast-pads and standing on them, and if you are conscientious, you can amuse yourself by rescuing these articles from under their hind feet."
The days were never very monotonous; variety was given by revolver practice, harness cleaning, and lectures on first aid to the wounded. At the same time it came as a great relief to hear that we were at last close to the Cape.
From my diary:—
"February 26.—Heavy day at stables. Land reported at eleven; saw through forage-port a distant line of mountains on port beam, edged by a dazzling line of what looked like chalk cliffs, but I suppose is sand. I am on stable-guard for the night (writing this in the guard-room), so when stables were over at four I had to pack hard, and only got up for a glimpse of things at five, then approaching Table Bay, guarded by the splendid Table Mountain, with the tablecloth of white clouds spread on it in the otherwise cloudless sky. I always imagined it a smooth, dull mountain, but in fact it rises in precipitous crags and ravines. A lovely scene as we steamed up through a crowd of shipping—transports, I suppose—and anchored some way from shore. Blowing hard to-night. I have been on deck for a few minutes. The sea is like molten silver with phosphorescence under the lash of the wind.
"February 27.—Tiresome day of waiting. Gradually got known that we shan't land to-day, though it is possible still we may to-night. Torrid, windless day, and very hot work 'mucking out' and tramping round with the horses, which we did all the morning, and some of the afternoon. News sent round that we had captured Cronje and 5000 prisoners; all the ships dressed with flags, and whistles blowing; rockets in evening, banging off over my head now, and horses jumping in unison. Shall we be wanted? is the great question. We are packed ready to land any minute."
CAPETOWN AND STELLENBOSCH.
Landing—Green Point Camp—Getting into trim—My horses—Interlude— Orders to march—Sorrows of a spare driver—March to Stellenbosch— First bivouac—A week of dust and drill—The road to water—Off again.
"March 4.—Sunday.—Green Point Camp.—This is the first moment I have had to write in since last Tuesday. I am on picket, and writing in the guard-tent by a guttery lantern.
"To go back:—On Wednesday morning, the 28th of February, we steamed slowly up to a great deserted quay. The silence struck me curiously. I had imagined a scene of tumult and bustle on the spot where troops in thousands had been landing continuously for so long. We soon realized that we were to supply all the bustle, and that practical work had at last begun, civilian assistance dispensed with, and the Battery a self-sufficient unit. There was not even a crane to help us, and we spent the day in shoving, levering, and lifting on to trucks and waggons our guns, carriages, limbers, ammunition, and other stores, all packed as they were in huge wooden cases. It was splendid exercise as a change from stable-work. Weather melting hot; but every one was in the highest spirits; though we blundered tediously through the job, for we had no experience in the fine art of moving heavy weights by hand. I forgot to take note of my sensations on first setting foot on African soil, as I was groaning under a case of something terribly heavy at the time.
"We worked till long after dark, slept like logs in the dismantled troop-deck, rose early, and went on until the afternoon of the next day, when we landed the horses—of which, by the way, we had only lost four on the voyage—harnessed up some waggons to carry stores, and were ready. While waiting to start, some charming damsels in white muslin brought us grapes. At about four we started for Green Point Camp, which is on a big plain, between the sea and Table Mountain, and is composed of soft white sand, from which the grass has long disappeared.
"Directly we reached it, the horses all flung themselves down, and rolled in it. We passed through several camps, and halted at our allotted site, where we formed our lines and picketed our horses heel and head. Then the fun began, as they went wild, and tied themselves in strangulation knots, and kept it up all night, as the sleepless pickets reported.
"After feeding and watering, we unloaded the trucks which had begun to come in, ate some bully-beef and bread, and then fell asleep anyhow, in a confused heap in our tents. Mine had thirteen in it, and once we were packed no movement was possible."
For two more days we were busily employed in unpacking stores, and putting the materiel of battery into shape, while, at the same time, we were receiving our complement of mules and Kaffir drivers for our transport waggons. Then came our first parades and drills. Rough we were no doubt at first. The mobilization of a volunteer battery cannot be carried out in an instant, and presents numberless difficulties from which infantry are free. Our horses were new to the work, and a few of us men, including my humble self, were only recent recruits.
The guns, too, were of a new pattern. The H.A.C. at home is armed with the 15-pounder guns in use in the Regular Field Artillery. But for the campaign, as the C.I.V. Battery, we had taken out new weapons (presented by the City of London), in the shape of four 12-1/2-pounder Vickers-Maxim field guns, taking fixed ammunition, having practically no recoil, and with a much improved breech-mechanism. They turned out very good, but of course, being experimental, required practice in handling, which could not have been obtained in the few weeks in the London barracks.
On the other hand, the large majority of us were old hands, our senior officers and N.C.O.'s were from the Regular Horse Artillery, and all ranks were animated by an intense desire to reach the utmost efficiency at the earliest possible moment.
My impressions of the next ten days are of grooming, feeding, and exercising in the cool twilight of dawn, sweltering dusty drills, often in sand-storms, under a blazing mid-day sun, of "fatigues" of all sorts, when we harnessed ourselves in teams to things, or made and un-made mountains of ammunition boxes—a constant round of sultry work, tempered by cool bathes on white sand, grapes from peripatetic baskets, and brief intervals of languid leisure, with al fresco meals of bully-beef and dry bread outside our tents.
Time was marked by the three daily stable hours, each with their triple duty of grooming, feeding, and watering, the "trivial round" which makes up so much of the life of a driver. As a very humble representative of that class, my horses were two "spares," that is, not allotted to any team. Much to my disgust, I was not even provided with a saddle, and had to do my work bareback, which filled me with indignation at the time, but only makes me smile now. My roan was always a sort of a pariah among the sub-division horses, an incorrigible kicker and outcast, having to be picketed on a peg outside the lines for his misdeeds. Many a kick did I get from him; and yet I always had a certain affection for him in all his troubled, unloved life, till the day when, nine months later, he trotted off to the re-mount depot at Pretoria, to vex some strange driver in a strange battery. My other horse, a dun, was soon taken as a sergeant's mount, and I had to take on an Argentine re-mount, a rough, stupid little mare, with kicking and biting propensities which quite threw the roan's into the shade. She also had a peg of ignominy, and three times a day I had to dance perilously round my precious pair with a tentative body-brush and hoof-pick. The scene generally ended in the pegs coming away from the loose sand, and a perspiring chase through the lines. I had some practice, too, in driving in a team, for one of our drivers "went sick," and I took his place in the team of an ammunition-waggon for several days.
Abrupt contrasts to the rough camp life were some evenings spent with Williams in Capetown, where it already felt very strange to be dining at a table, and sitting on a chair, and using more than one plate. Once it was at the invitation of Amery of the Times, in the palatial splendour of the Mount Nelson Hotel, where I felt strangely incongruous in my by no means immaculate driver's uniform. But how I enjoyed that dinner! Had there been many drivers present, the management would have been seriously embarrassed that evening.
Wildly varying rumours of our future used to abound, but on March 14, a sudden order came to raise camp, and march to Stellenbosch. Teams were harnessed and hooked in, stores packed in the buck waggons, tents struck, and at twelve we were ready. Before starting Major McMicking addressed us, and said we were going to a disaffected district, and must be very careful. We took ourselves very seriously in those days, and instantly felt a sense of heightened importance. Then we started on the road which by slow, very slow, degrees was to bring us to Pretoria in August.
My preparations had been very simple, merely the securing of a blanket over the roan's distressingly bony spine, and putting a bit in his refractory mouth. As I anticipated, there had been a crisis over my lack of a saddle at the last moment, various officers and N.C.O.'s laying the blame, first on me (of all people), and then on each other, but chiefly on me, because it was safest. Not having yet learnt the unquestioning attitude of a soldier, I felt a great martyr at the time. The infinite insignificance of the comfort on horseback of one spare driver had not yet dawned upon me; later on, I learnt that indispensable philosophy whose gist is, "Take what comes, and don't worry."
We passed through Capetown and its interminable suburbs, came out on to open rolling country, mostly covered with green scrub, and, in the afternoon, formed our first regular marching camp, on a bit of green sward, which was a delicious contrast after Green Point Sand. Guns and waggons were marshalled, picket-ropes stretched between them, the horses tied up, and the routine of "stables" begun again.
It was our first bivouac in the open, and very well I slept, with my blanket and waterproof sheet, though it turned very cold about two with a heavy dew. A bare-backed ride of thirteen miles had made me pretty tired.
The next day we were up at five, for a march of eighteen miles to Stellenbosch. At mid-day we passed hundreds of re-mount ponies, travelling in droves, with Indian drivers in turbans and loose white linen. Half-way we watered our horses and had a fearful jostle with a Yeomanry corps (who were on the march with us), the Indians, and a whole tribe of mules which turned up from somewhere. In the afternoon we arrived at our camp, a bare, dusty hill, parching under the sun.
We passed a week here, drilling and harness cleaning, in an atmosphere of dust and never-ending rumours.
Here are two days from my diary:—
"March 18.—Still here. Yesterday we rose early, struck tents, harnessed horses, and waited for orders to go to the station. Nothing happened: the day wore on, and in the evening we bivouacked as we were in the open. The night before we had great excitement about some mysterious signalling on the hills: supposed to be rebels, and the Yeomanry detachment (who are our escort) sent out patrols, who found nothing. To-day we are still awaiting orders, ready to start in half an hour, but they let us have a fine slack day, and we had a great bathe in the afternoon. Ostriches roam about this camp, eating empty soda-water bottles and any bridoon bits they can find. Three times a day we ride bareback to water horses at the re-mount depot, passing picturesque Indian camps. Williams and I are sitting under our ammunition waggon, where we are going to sleep: it is sunset and the hills are violet. A most gorgeous range of them fronts this camp.
"March 19.—Worse than ever. No orders to start, but orders to re-pitch tents. Delays seem hopeless, and now we may be any time here. Cooler weather and some rain to-day: much pleasanter. Only two tents to a sub-division, and there are sixteen in mine, a frightful squash. Long bareback ride for the whole battery before breakfast; enjoyed it very much. Marching-order parade later. Argentine very troublesome: bites like a mad dog and kicks like a cow: can't be groomed. To-day she tried to bite me in the stomach, but as I had on a vest, shirt, body belt, money belt, and waistcoat, she didn't do much damage, and only got a waistcoat button and a bit of pocket!"
We were uncommonly glad to receive definite orders on the 20th to move up country. The Battery was to be divided. The right section to go to Matjesfontein, and the left section, which was mine, to Piquetberg Road. Nobody knew where these places were, but we vaguely gathered that they were somewhere on the line of communications, which, rightly or wrongly, we thought very disappointing. For two more days we stood in readiness to start, chafing under countermanding orders, and pitching and re-pitching of tents, so little did we know then of the common lot of a soldier on active service.
We were to go by train, and the right section under the Major started about midnight on the 20th, and we on the next day, at four o'clock.
Guns, horses, and waggons were entrained very quickly, and just at dark I found myself in a second-class carriage, one of a merry party of eight, sitting knee-deep in belts, haversacks, blankets, cloaks, and water-bottles. We travelled on till midnight, and then stopped somewhere, posted guards, and slept in the carriages till dawn.
Piquetberg Road—A fire—Kitless—A typical day—A bed—"Stableman"— Picket—A rebel—Orders for the front, with a proviso—Rain—An ungrateful patient—"Bazing"—Swimming horses—My work—The weather—A blue letter.
When I woke up on the morning of the 22nd of March, the legend "Piquetberg Road" was just visible on a big white board opposite the carriage. So this was our destination. There was a chill sense in every one of not having got very far towards the seat of war—indeed, we were scarcely eighty miles from Capetown; but our spirits were soon raised by the advent of some Tommies of the Middlesex Militia, who spoke largely of formidable bodies of rebels in the neighbourhood, of an important pass to guard, and of mysterious strategical movements in the near future; so that we felt cheerful enough as we detrained our guns and horses, harnessed up, and marched over a mile and a half of scrub-clothed veldt, to the base of some steep hills, where we pitched our camp, and set to work to clear the ground of undergrowth. We were at the edge of a great valley, through which ran the line of railway, disappearing behind us in a deep gorge in the hills, where a little river ran. This was the pass we were to help to guard.
Below in the valley lay a few white houses round the station, a farm or two dotted the distant slopes, and the rest was desert scrub and veldt.
Now that the right section had parted from us, we had two officers, Captain Budworth commanding, and Lieutenant Bailey; about sixty men, two guns, two ammunition waggons, and two transport waggons, with their mules and Kaffir drivers, under a conductor. Our little square camp was only a spot upon the hill-side, the guns and horse-lines in the middle, a tent for the officers on one side, and a tent at each corner for the men. Here we settled down to the business-like routine of camp life, with great hopes of soon being thought worthy to join a brigade in the field.
The work was hard enough, but to any one with healthy instincts the splendid open-air life was very pleasant. Here are some days from my diary:—
"March 23.—Marching order parade. Drove centres of our sub-division waggon.
"I have got a saddle for my own horse at last, and feel happier. Where it came from I don't know.
"I am 'stableman' for three days, and so missed a bathing parade to-day, which is a nuisance, as there is no means of washing here nearer than a river some distance off, to which the others rode. While they were away there was an alarm of fire in the lines of the Middlesex Militia, next to ours. Bugles blew the 'alarm.' The scrub had caught fire quite near the tents, and to windward of us. There were only four of us in camp, one a bombardier, who took command and lost his head, and after some wildly contradictory orders, said to me, 'Take that gun to a place of safety.' How he expected me to take the gun by myself I don't know. However, the fire went out, and all was well.
"I forgot to say that on the day we left Stellenbosch, a mail at last came in, and I got my first letters. They came by the last mail, and we have evidently missed a lot. Also a telegram, weeks old, saying Henry (my brother) had joined Strathcona's Horse in Ottawa and was coming out here. Delighted to hear it, but I shall probably never see him.
"By the way, I am parted from all my kit at present. Having had no saddle, I have been used to put it on the transport waggon of our sub-division, but this went with the other section for some inscrutable reason, or rather didn't go, for it was wrecked by a train when crossing the line. I heard vaguely that the contents were saved and sent on with the right section, but am quite prepared to find it is lost. Not that I miss it much. One wants very little really, in this sort of life. Fortunately I kept back my cloak and blanket. A lovely night to-night: Williams and I have given up tents as too crowded, and sleep under the gun; to-night we have built a rampart of scrub round it, as there is a fresh wind.
"March 28.—Marching order parade at eight. I was told to turn out as a mounted gunner, which is a very jolly job. You have a single mount and ride about as ground-scout, advance-guard, rear-guard, etc. We had a route-march over the pass through the mountains, a lovely ride, reminding me of the Dordogne. We came out into a beautiful valley the other side, with a camp of some Highlanders: here we fed and watered ourselves and horses and then marched home. My kit turned up from Matjesfontein.
"It strikes me that I have given very few actual details of our life and work, so, as I have got two hours to myself, I will try and do it more exactly.
"Reveille sounds at 5.30, and 'stables' at six, with the first gleam of dawn; horses are now fed, and then groomed for half an hour. From this point the days differ. Here is the sketch of a marching order day, from a driver's point of view. To resume, then:—From 6.30 we have half an hour to pack kits, that is to say, to roll the cloak and strap it on the riding saddle, pack the off saddle with spare boots and rolls made up of a waterproof sheet, blanket, harness-sheets, spare breeches, muzzles, hay-nets, etc., and finally to buckle on filled nose-bags and our mess-tins, and strap horse-blankets under the saddles. His stable-kit and the rest of a driver's personal belongings are carried in four wallets, two on each saddle.
"At seven, breakfast—porridge, coffee, and bread, and sometimes jam. Our tent has a mess-subscription, and adds any extras required from the canteen. But we always fare well enough without this, for the Captain thinks as much of the men as of the horses, and is often to be seen tasting and criticizing at the cooks' fire.
"At 7.30 'boot and saddle' sounds, and in half an hour your horses have to be ready-harnessed and yourself dressed in 'marching order,' that is to say, wearing helmet, gaiters, belt, revolver, haversack, water-bottle, and leg-guard.
"At eight 'hook in' is ordered; teams are hooked together and into the guns and waggons. 'Mount the detachment' and gunners take their seats. 'Prepare to mount' (to the drivers) followed by 'Mount,' 'Walk March,' and you are off. We always go first to the watering-place, a sandy pool in the river, unhook and water the horses. Then we either march away, and drill and exercise over the veldt, or go for a route-march to some distance. The weather is always hot, and often there is a dust-storm raging, filling eyes, ears, and mouth, and trying the temper sorely.
"We are back at camp about 1.30, form our lines again, between the guns and waggons, unharness, rub down horses, and then have dinner. There is fresh beef generally (that unlovely soldiers' stew), and either rice, duff, or, now and then, stewed quinces, which are very common in the country. We can buy beer at a canteen, or, better still, draught ginger-beer, which is a grand drink. At three 'stables' sounds, with grooming first, and then (I am choosing a full day) harness cleaning; that is to say, soaping all leather-work, and scouring steel-work. Harness-cleaning is irksome work, and, as far as appearances go, is a heart-breaking task, for the eternal dust is always obliterating every trace of one's labour. I have none of my own to look after yet, but help the others.
"At 4.30 or five 'Prepare for water' sounds. You put a bridoon on one horse, and, if you are luxurious, a blanket and surcingle to sit on, lead the other, and form up in a line; then 'file right' is the order, and you march off to the watering place, wearing any sort of costume you please. And very slight and neglige some of them are. In the cool of the evening, this is a very pleasant three quarters of an hour. After watering comes the evening feed, followed by tea at six o'clock, and then the day's work is done."
The evenings in that climate are delicious; we could sit in our shirt-sleeves until any hour, without any perceptible chill in the air, playing cards, or smoking and talking, or reading by a lantern. Williams and I found picket a great resource; and many a good game of whist have I had sitting in a crowded quartette in our ramshackle battery Cape-cart, with an inch of candle guttering among the cards.
Most of us slept in the tents, but I preferred the open, even in dust-storms, when choosing a site required some skill. The composition of a bed was a question of sacks. There was one very large variety of chaff-sack, which was a sleeping-bag in itself; with this and your blanket and cloak, and under the lee of some forage or scrub, you could defy anything. The only peril was that of a loose horse walking on you.
On some afternoons we were quite free till the stable-hour at four. Till then we could bask in camp, or go for a bathe in the river, where there was one splendid deep-water pool, whence you could hear the baboons barking on the hill-sides, and see the supply trains for the front grinding heavily up the pass.
Rumours of a move never lost their charm. At first we used to take them seriously, but gradually the sense of permanence began to pervade our camp. Solid tin shelters rose for the guard and the sergeants; a substantial tin canteen was erected close to the lines by cynical provision-dealers. Those visionary rebels declined to show themselves; nobody attacked our precious pass; and, in short, we had to concentrate our minds upon the narrow circle of our daily life.
A recurring duty for drivers was that of "stableman." There were two of these for each sub-division, who were on duty for the whole day in the lines. Their function, in addition to the usual duties, was to draw forage, watch the horses, and prepare all the feeds in the nose-bags, ready for the drivers. The post was no sinecure, for in addition to the three standard oat feeds, there was oat straw to be put down after dinner, and, at eight o'clock at night, a final supper of chaff, except for invalids, who got special feeds. A list of these was given you generally at the last moment, and it was a test for your temper to go round the lines on a windy night, lighting many futile matches, in order to see the number on the off fore hoof, so as to hit off the right ones. There was generally a nose-bag missing at this stage, which was ultimately found on a C horse (my sub-division was D), and then there was a lively five minutes of polite recrimination. At 8.30 the nose-bags had to be taken off, and muzzles put on—canvas affairs with a leather bottom, strapped on by the head collar—as a preventive against disease from the chill morning air. Every man, after evening stables, was supposed to leave his muzzles on the jowl-piece of his horses, but a stableman was quite sure to find two missing, and then he would have to scour the tents, and drive the offender to the lines to repair his neglect; then he could go to bed. Another extra duty was that of picket at night, which came round to gunners and drivers alike, about every ten days. "Two hours on and four hours off" was the rule, as on all sentry-duty. I rarely found the night watches long. There was plenty to do in watching the horses, which are marvellously ingenious at untying knots, and in patrolling the camp on the look-out for imaginary rebels. By the way, the only live rebel I ever saw was the owner of a farm, near which we halted during one sultry dusty route-march. He refused to allow us to water our horses and ourselves at his pond, defying us with Lord Kitchener's proclamation enjoining "kind treatment" of the Dutch!
As the days passed without orders for the front, impatience and disappointment grew. We were fit and well, and were not long in reaching the standard of efficiency which carried us successfully through our campaigning later. We used to "grouse" vigorously over our bad luck, with what justice I do not pretend to say; but no one who has not experienced it, can understand the bitterness of inaction, while the stream of reinforcements is pouring to the front. Scraps of news used to come in of the victorious march of the army northward, and of the gallant behaviour of the C.I.V. Infantry. Companies of Yeomanry used to arrive, and leave for destinations with enticing names that smelt of war, and night after night rollicking snatches of "Soldiers of the Queen" would float across the valley from the troop-trains, as they climbed the pass northward.
As early as April 15th, the word went round that we were under orders to go to Bloemfontein—"as soon as transport could be ready for us."
"April 15.—Amid great delight the Captain to-day read a telegram saying we are to go to Bloemfontein as soon as the railway can take us. We had just come in from the ride to water in drenching rain and ankle deep in mud, but a great cheer went up. The railway limitation is a rather serious one, as I believe the line is in a hopeless state of block; but we'll hope for the best. The rainy season has begun in the most unmistakable fashion. It has poured so far in buckets for twenty-four hours; I slept out last night, but daren't to-night; outlying parts of me got wet, in spite of the waterproof over me. Thank goodness, we have good boots, gaiters, and cloaks. We rode to water at eleven in various queer costumes, and mostly bare legs, and afterwards dug trenches through the lines. The rest of the day we have been huddled in a heap in our tent, a merry crowd, taking our meals in horrible discomfort, but uproarious spirits.
"I still have the roan, but have lost the Argentine and got a bay mare instead; it's not a bad animal. There was a false alarm of glanders the other day. One of the gun-team had a swollen throat, but it turns out to be something else. I was told off to help foment him with hot water the night it was discovered. He kicked us all, and completely floored me with a kick in the chest, which didn't hurt happily. Yesterday I had to take him down to the station and foment him from the kitchen boiler of the station-master's wife. I enjoyed it, as I had plenty of rests, and the station-master's wife made me delicious tea, served to me by a sweet little white-frocked girl. By the way, on the road to water the other day a caravan full of people stopped us, and small maidens went down the line, giving us apples and cigarettes and cakes."
Little we understood that ironical "railway" proviso of a harassed general staff. We had been reviewed the day before, and the good practice of our guns had been praised by the inspecting officer. Now was our chance, we thought. Nevertheless, we had to live on that guarded "order" for another month.
But in spite of our disappointment I believe all of us will look back with real pleasure to that time. There was no monotony in the life, thanks to our officers, who continually introduced variety into our work. "Marching order" days were the commonest; but there were others of a lighter sort. On one day we would go for a long expedition in drill-order with the guns, taking cooks and our dinner with us, and have what we used to call a picnic by some pleasant river-side. On another the guns would be left at home, and we would ride out for exercise, often through the pass, which led through a lovely ravine to a pretty little place called Tulbagh, where there was another small camp of troops. Sometimes "bazing" was the order, a portmanteau-word describing a morning spent in grazing the horses, and bathing ourselves. My diary of April 8th says, "Yesterday about twenty of us went out to practice swimming with horses. We rode about seven miles to a deepish river, stripped, off-saddled, and swam them across. Some wouldn't do it at all, but most of them swam across and back. You buckle the rein up short and leave him alone. It's a very queer motion at first. One of those I took declined to go in, in spite of half a dozen chaps goading him on in various ways, and finally bolted away over the veldt, carrying me naked. He soon came back though. The horses have got the habit now of sticking together, and if they get loose in camp never leave the lines. It is a nuisance sometimes, if you have to act as a single mount, and ride away on some errand. My Argentine greatly resents such a move, and tries to circle like a clockwork mouse. She has grown as fat as a pig, though some horses are doing poorly. The oats are of a very bad quality."
That brings me to my horses and my own work. We all of us changed horses a good deal in those days, and I and the roan had several partings and re-unitings. As a spare driver, my own work was very varied, now of driving in a team, now of riding spare horses, and occasionally of acting as a mounted gunner. Williams was a regular mounted gunner, his mount being a wicked, disreputable-looking little Argentine (called "Pussy" (with a lisp) for her qualities), to whom he owed three days in hospital at one time from a bad kick, but whom he ended by transforming into as smart and peaceable a little mount as you could find. My own chance came at last; and when about the end of April one of our drivers was sent home sick, I took his place as centre driver of an ammunition waggon, and kept it permanently. I said good-bye to the roan and Argentine, and took over a fine pair of bays.
My chief impression of the weather is that of heat and dust, but there were times when we thought the dreaded rainy season had begun; when the camp was a running morass, and we crouched in our tents, watching pools of water soaking under our harness sheets, and counting the labour over rusted steel. But it used to pass off, leaving a wonderful effect; every waste oat seed about the camp sprouted; little green lawns sprang up in a single night round the places where the forage was heaped, and the whole veldt put on a delicate pink dress, a powder of tiny pink flowers.
By the middle of May we began to think we had been forgotten altogether, but at last, on the morning of the 17th of May, as we were marching out to drill, an orderly galloped up, and put a long blue letter into the Captain's hand. We had seen this happen before, and our discussions of the circumstance, as we rode along, were sceptical, but this time we were wrong.
The railway north—Yesterday's start—Travelling made easy—Feeding horses—A menu—De Aar—A new climate—Naauwport—Over the frontier— Bloemfontein—A fiasco—To camp again—The right section—Diary days— Riding exercise—A bit of history—Longman's Hospital—The watering-place—Artillery at drill—A review—A camp rumour—A taste of freedom—A tent scene.
From my diary:—
"May 20.—Sunday.—I write this on the train, on the way up north, somewhere near Beaufort West; for the long-wished day has come at last, and we are being sent to Kroonstadt, which anyway is pretty near to, if not actually at, the front. Our only fear is now that it will be too late. All day the train has been traversing the Karoo, a desert seamed by bare rocky mountains, and without a sign of life on it, only vast stretches of pebbly soil, dotted sparsely with dusty-green dwarf scrub. But to go back. We started yesterday. All went smoothly and simply. At eight, kit was inspected; in the morning, bareback exercise; at twelve, tents struck; at 12.30 dinner; at one, 'boot and saddle.' When we were hooked in and mounted, the Captain made a splendid little speech in the incisive forcible voice we had learned to know so well, saying we had had for long the most trying experience that can befall a soldier, that of standing fast, while he sees his comrades passing him up to the front. He congratulated us on the way we had met that experience. There had been no complaining or slackness in our work on that account. He hoped we would have the luck to go into action, and his last advice to us was 'to keep our stomachs full and our bellies warm!'
"Then we marched to the station, unharnessed, packed harness, boxed the horses, put the guns and waggons on the trucks, and were ready. But the train didn't start till about eight o'clock in the evening. One box was reserved for kickers, and you should have seen their disgust when they found nothing to bully! We had, and have, a vague idea that the journey was to last about a week, so Williams and I bought a large box of provisions and a small paraffin stove. Accustomed to delays, we quite expected no engine to turn up or something like that, but finally a whistle blew and we were off, and a delirious shout went up, and then we all sighed with relief, and then got doubly merry, shouting vain things over a long untasted beverage, whisky and water. One hears so much about the horrors of war that I scarcely dare to describe the men's accommodation on board this train. It is strange, but true, that I have never travelled more comfortably in my life, and probably never shall. Most compartments have only four men to them, and by great good luck, and a little diplomacy, Williams and I have one to ourselves, though we form our mess with the four chaps in the next one. Now the beauty of it is that no one can get into our train, so, if you get out at a station, you need have no fear of finding a nurse with twins in your special corner seat. You live without these terrors, and have room to stretch, and sleep, and read, and have meals, with no one to ask you to show your ticket. In fact, things are reversed; we are not herded and led, and snubbed by porters and officials, but the train belongs to us, and we ignore them.
"We sat up late last night, and then Williams and I slept in great comfort, though it felt quite odd to have something between one and the stars. It's true there was a slight break, caused by the door being flung open, and sacks of bread being hustled in from the outside. But a soldier's training takes no account of these things, and you instinctively jump out half-dressed, and help to shovel more sacks in, you don't know why, or what they are. Being woken up, we got on to the platform over an intervening train, and sent cables home from an office standing invitingly open. Then to bed again. Later, in my dreams, I was aware of a sergeant and an irascible little station-master coming into the carriage with lanterns and throwing most of the sacks out again, which it seemed had been annexed feloniously by our Captain, at the last station, in his zeal to keep our 'stomachs full.' I was glad to get rid of the sacks, as they filled our carriage up completely. The train has to stop for about three-quarters of an hour or less, three times a day, for feeding and watering the horses. The first stop to-day was about 6.30 A.M. We tumbled out in the delicious fresh air, and formed into pre-arranged feeding and watering parties. I am on the feed party of our subdivision, and we climbed like beetles up the sides of the trucks, which are open, and strap on the nose-bags. Then we washed at a friendly tap, and had our own breakfast which the cooks had cooked—coffee and porridge. Then we climbed back and took off nose-bags, and then the train went on. At this station we 'commandeered' a splendid table in the shape of a large square tin advertisement of a certain Scotch whisky, and played whist on it after breakfast. The train wound slowly through a barren stretch of brown plain and rocky wild. Stations happened now and then, little silent spots in the wilderness, their raison d'etre a mystery, no houses, roads, or living things near, except a white tent or two, and some sunburnt men in khaki looking curiously at us. There are troops in small bodies all up the line in this 'loyal' colony. At one station the Kimberley mail caught us up, and the people threw us magazines and biscuits from the windows. All engines and stations were decorated with flags in honour of the relief of Mafeking, the news of which came through yesterday. A hospital train bound to Capetown also passed, with some pale faces and bandaged limbs in evidence.
"At 1.30 we stopped again for feed and water, and when we went on our mess sat down to the following lunch, which I think does credit to our catering powers.
R.B.S. Emergency Soup. Cold Roast Fowl, with Stuffing. Bully Beef, with Mustard. Whiskied Biscuits. Desserts Varies. Chocolate. Ginger. Bonbons. Oranges. German Beer. Cigars. Cigarettes.
"I wrote the menu out in French first, but it seemed not to suit.
"All the afternoon the same desolation, like pictures one sees of the moon's surface. About six, water and feed at Beaufort West, and horses led out, trucks mucked out, and tea served out.
"The night was very cold; in fact, the climate is quite different on these high table-lands. I woke up about six, looked out, and saw, just opposite, the legend DE AAR, which for the first time seemed to connect us with the war. We stopped a moment, and then moved on through lines of tents, loaded waggons, mountains of ammunition, etc. Then I saw a strange sight, in the shape of ice on puddles and white hoarfrost. Soon out on the broad, brown veldt, far-distant hills showing finely cut in the exquisitely clear air. Such an atmosphere I have never seen for purity. The sun was rising into a cloudless sky from behind a kopje. The flat-topped kopje is now the regular feature. They are just like miniature Table-mountains, and it is easy to see how hard to capture they must be. Water, feed, and breakfast at a tiny roadside place, with the inevitable couple of tents and khaki men. We were at whist when we steamed up to a big, busy camp-station, the Red Cross flying over a dozen big marquee tents, and a couple of hundred sorry-looking remounts (by the look of them) picketed near. This was Naauwport. We stopped alongside a Red Cross train full of white, unshaven faces—enterics and wounded going back to the base. They were cheerful enough, and we shouted inquiries about one another. They were unanimous in saying we were too late, which was very depressing news, but I don't suppose they knew much about it. We washed ourselves in big buckets here. As we were steaming out I saw a long unfamiliar sight, in the shape of a wholesome, sunburnt English girl, dressed in short-skirted blue serge, stepping out as only an English girl can. She was steering for the Red Cross over the tents, and, I daresay, was nursing there. Off again, over the same country, but looking more inhabited; passed several ostrich farms, with groups of the big, graceful birds walking delicately about; also some herds of cattle, and a distant farm or two, white against the blue hill-shadows. Soon came the first visible signs of war—graves, and long lines of trenches here and there. At a stop at a shanty (can't call it a station) a man described a fight for a kopje just by the railway. Coleskop was in view, a tall, flat-topped mountain, and later we steamed into the oft-taken and retaken Colesberg Junction, and were shown the hill where the Suffolks were cut up. All was now barren veldt again, and the strangeness of the whole thing struck me curiously. Why should men be fighting here? There seemed to be nothing to fight for, and nothing behind to get to when you had fought.
"May 22.—Tuesday.—As I write we are standing just outside Bloemfontein; cold, sunny morning; the Kaffir quarter just on our right, a hideous collection of mud houses with tin roofs; camps and stores on the left; boundless breadth of veldt beyond; the town in front under a long, low kopje, a quiet, pretty little place.
"We reached the frontier—Norval's Pont—at 6 P.M. yesterday, and after a long delay, moved slowly out in the dark, till the shimmer of water between iron girders told us we were crossing the Orange river. Once off the bridge, a shout went up for our first step on the enemy's country. Then all went on the same. We made ourselves comfortable, and brewed hot cocoa, for all the world as though we were travelling from Boulogne to Geneva. The only signs of hostility were the shrill execrations of a crowd of infant aborigines.
"We woke up to a changed country. The distances were still greater, low hills only occasionally breaking the monotony of flat plain, but the scrub had given way to grass, not verdant Irish grass, but sparse, yellow herbage. Ant-hills and dead horses were the only objects in the foreground, except eternal wreaths and tangles of telegraph wire along the tracks, and piles of sleepers, showing the damage done, and now repaired, to line and wire. The same pure crisp air and gentle sunlight.
"May 24.—Thursday.—I write in our tent on the plateau above Bloemfontein, and will go on where I left off on the 22nd. To our utter disgust, after standing for hours in a siding of the station, chatting to all sorts and conditions of the species soldier, the order came to detrain. We drivers took the horses first to water, and then picketed them on an arid patch of ground near the station, where the gunners had meantime brought the guns and waggons. It was now dark, and there were no rations served out; very cold, too, and we had no kit, but it wasn't these things we minded, but the getting out instead of training on. 'Kroonstadt' is redolent of war, but, 'Bloemfontein' spells inaction. However, there was no help for it. We slept on the ground, and precious cold this new climate was. I hadn't my Stohwasser blanket, and spent most of the night stamping about and smoking. At reveille next day rations were still lacking, but we all trooped off to a tin hut and had tea, given by an unseen angel, named Sister Bagot. 'Boot and saddle' sounded at nine, and we marched off to the camp, about two miles away. There was a very nasty ravine to cross, and we had to have drag ropes on behind, with the gunners on them, to steady us down the descent. I was driving centres as usual, and saw the leaders almost disappear in front of me. At the bottom we crossed a stream, and then galloped them up the other side. Soon after we passed through Bloemfontein, a quiet, dull-looking place, like a suburb of Cape Town, mounted a long hill, and came out on to another broad plain, kopjes in the distance, and tents dotted far and wide. The first moving thing I saw was a funeral,—slow music, a group of khaki figures, and the bright colours of a Union Jack glinting between.
"Our right section, that is, the other half of the Battery, from which we had been separated ever since Stellenbosch, had trained on a day ahead of us, and were now already encamped, so we marched up and joined our lines to theirs, pitched our tents, and once more the Battery was united. And what a curious meeting it was! Half of them were unrecognizable with beards and sunburn, as were many of us, I suppose. What yarns we had! All that day, in the intervals between fatigues, and far into the night, in the humming tents. Jacko was with them. He had been lost on the journey, but came on by a later train very independently."
We all had a presentiment of evil, and, as it turned out, we were kept nearly a month at Bloemfontein, while still reports of victories came in. Yet news was very scarce, and had we known it, the period was only just beginning, of that long, irregular warfare, by which the two provinces had to be conquered, when the brilliancy of Roberts's meteoric march to Pretoria was past. We were to take our small share in work as necessary and arduous as any in these latter stages of the war.
Meanwhile we were now a complete battery, and worked hard at our drill as such, though there was very little to learn after our long training in Cape Colony. We kept our spirits up, though the time was a depressing one. Mortality was high in Bloemfontein at that time, in spite of the healthy, exhilarating climate. A good many of us had to go into hospital, but we were fortunate enough to lose no lives through illness.
Here are some extracts from my diary:—
"May 24.—Queen's Birthday.—The guns went to a review, and got high praise for their turn out. The rest of us exercised on stripped saddles, trotting over bare flat ground, with sparse grass on it, the greatest contrast to the Piquetberg Road country.
"In the evening Williams and I and some others wandered off to try and get a wash. We prowled over the plain and among the camps asking the way to water, and carrying our towels and soap, and finally stumbled over a trough and a tap. The water here is unfit for drinking, and we are forbidden to drink it except boiled.
"May 28.—Riding exercise again; a long and jolly ride round the country. Half-way we did cavalry exercises for some time, which, when every man has a led horse, and many two of them, is rather a rough game. I was riding Williams's Argentine, Pussy, a game little beast, but she got very worried and annoyed over wheeling and forming fours and sections. Directly we got back and had off-saddled we fell in, and one out of four was allowed to go down to town and see the Proclamation of Annexation read. I was lucky enough to be picked, tumbled into proper dress, and hurried down just in time. The usual sight as I passed the cemetery, thirteen still forms on stretchers in front of the gate, wrapped in the rough service blanket, waiting to be buried. I found the Market Square full of troops drawn up, and a flag-staff in the middle, with a rolled-up flag on it. Soon a band heralded the arrival of the Governor, Colonel Pretyman, and the Staff-officers. Then a distant voice began the Proclamation, of which I couldn't hear a word except 'colony' at the end, at which every one cheered. Then the flag was unrolled, and hung dead for a minute, till a breeze came and blew out 'that haughty scroll of gold,' the Royal Standard. Bands struck up 'God save the Queen,' a battery on a hill above the town thundered out a royal salute, everybody cheered, and I was standing on British soil. I saw not a single native Dutchman about, only crowds of the khakied of all ranks and sorts. After this little bit of history-making I hurried back to the commonplace task of clipping my mare's heels, an operation requiring great agility on the part of the clipper.
"For a 'stableman,' as I am now, the evening is rather a busy one. At seven you have to make up the feeds for the last feed; at 7.45 put them round the harness-sets behind the horses; at eight feed, for which all hands turn out; at 8.30 take off nose-bags and put on muzzles; and after that make up another feed ready for early next morning. You can't finish before 'lights out,' and have to go to bed in the dark, to the loudly expressed annoyance of your neighbours in the tent (I sleep in a tent these nights), on whose bodies you place the various articles of your kit while you arrange your bed, and whose limbs you sometimes mistake for materials for a pillow, when you are composing that important piece of upholstery.
"May 30.—Wednesday.—In the afternoon Williams and I went to visit a friend in Langman's Hospital. Bloemfontein is a town of hospitals, red crosses flying at every turn. The mortality is high, even, I was surprised to hear from our friend, among sisters and hospital orderlies. Out of six sisters in his hospital, which seemed a very good one, four had enteric at the time, and one had died of it. I was on picket duty this night, and had a lively time chasing loose horses in the dark. A new sort of head-rope we are using seems very palatable to the horses, as they mostly eat it for supper, and then get loose.
"May 31.—Out at riding exercise we came to a fortified kopje, where we dismounted, and were allowed to examine a beautifully made trench running round the top, very deep, and edged by a wall of stones arranged to give loopholes. Some one found a Boer diary in the dust, the entries in which seemed to alternate between beer and bible reading. We always water at the common trough, the last thing before return. Such varieties of the horse species you could see no where else; thick, obstinate little Argentines, all with the same Roman noses and broad, ugly heads; squab little Basuto ponies, angular skeletonesque Cape horses, mules of every nationality, Texan, Italian, Illyrian, Spanish; here and there a beautiful Arab belonging to some officer; and dominating all, our own honest, substantial 'bus and tram horses, almost the only representatives of English horseflesh. There are always a few detached horses stampeding round ownerless, or limping feebly down with a lost, hopeless look in their eyes, tripping at every step over a tattered head-rope, and seeming to belong to nobody and care for nothing. We always ride down in strict order, each man leading one or two.
"June 3.—Marching-order parade. We had a good morning drill over what is perfect artillery country, with just the right amount of excitement in the shape of ditches to jump, and anthills, which are legion, and holes to avoid. I am delighted with my pair, which are both very fit now; and our waggon team has been going very well.
"June 4.—Riding exercise and sham-fight; an enemy supposed to be attacking a convoy. Being in the convoy, I haven't a clear idea of what happened, but only know we were kept dodging about kopjes, and bolting across open places uncaptured.
"June 5.—Another field-day, with guns and waggons, before Colonel Davidson, the Brigadier of Artillery here. We went out to some distant kopjes, and went into action at two different points. I believe the shooting was very good; they had targets of biscuit-tins stuck up on the kopjes. Some of you who read this at home may not know how artillery work, so I may as well roughly sketch what happens on these occasions. There are four guns and five waggons. A waggon is built on the same plan as a gun, that is, in two parts, the waggon-body and the waggon-limber, the limber being in front, and having the pole for draught, just as the gun-carriage and the gun-limber form the two parts of the 'gun.' Both waggon-body and waggon-limber carry ammunition, as does the gun-limber. There are four gunners on the gun, and four on the waggon. When suitable ground has been selected by the Major, and thoroughly scouted first by the mounted gunners, the order is given to advance into action. The guns trot up in line; 'Action front, right about wheel' is given, and each swings round, thus bringing the muzzle of the gun to the front. The limber is then unhooked from the trail of the gun, and the teams trot back with the limbers to the rear, leaving the guns to be worked by the gunners. At the same time the signal is sent back to the waggons, who, meanwhile, have been halted in the rear, if possible under cover, to send up two waggons. Two are told off, and they trot up to the firing line. 'Halt,' 'Unhook!' The wheelers are rapidly unhooked, the team trots back again to the rear. Presently two more are called up with more ammunition. These do the same thing, but after unhooking trot round and hook into the other two (now empty) waggons, and trot them back. The empty waggons are refilled from the mule-waggons, which follow the battery with the reserve shells, and their black crews and all. 'Limber-supply,' that is, use of the shells in the gun-limber, is only ordered in the last resort or in exceptional cases. Finally, when the firing position is to be changed, the gun-limbers trot up; 'Limber up' is given. The gun is hooked to the limber, and the re-united machines trot away to the new position, followed by the waggons. In some cases, too, when the waggons come up to the firing-line, they only leave the waggon-body there, trot away with the limber, and come back and 'limber up' later, in the same way as the gun. It all depends on how much ammunition is wanted. Of course, there are many variations of movement, but this is an average specimen.
"June 10.—Sunday.—I and Williams are stablemen, and the rest have gone to church parade. We have just had an icy wash with far-fetched water in an old ammunition box. The weather has turned very cold again at nights, with considerable frost. I have been sleeping out again though since the first week of our coming here, finding snug lairs under the quartermaster's stores. We have marching order parades most days now, and are pretty hard-worked. Yesterday we were reviewed by General Pretyman, together with another field-battery and a pom-pom battery. We trotted about in various formations, and the guns went into action once; and that was all. Our guns got into action quicker than either of the regular batteries. A message was communicated to us by the General from Lord Roberts, saying we must not be disappointed at not having gone to the front; that there was plenty more work to be done, and that meanwhile we were doing very useful work in helping to guard this place. I am afraid we are not very sanguine, but we never entirely lose hope, and a wild idea that this review and the other day's inspection might be preliminary to an order to go up, cheered us up a lot for the time. Camp rumours, too, are just as prolific and as easily swallowed as before. Latterly there have been all sorts of mysterious reports about the Boers having got behind Roberts, re-taken Kroonstadt and cut the railway, massacring various regiments, whose names change hourly. A camp rumour is a wonderful thing. Generally speaking, there are two varieties, cook-shop rumours and officers' servants' rumours. Both are always false, but there is a slightly more respectable mendacity about the latter than the former. The cooks are always supposed to know if we are changing camp by getting orders about rations in advance. Having this slight advantage, they go out of their way to make rumours on every sort of subject. How many scores of times the cooks have sent us to the front I shouldn't like to say. Officers' servants of course pick up scraps of information from their masters' tents; in the process of transmission to the battery at large the original gets wide variations. We are often just like kitchenmaids and footmen discussing their betters. You will hear heated arguments going on as to the meaning of some overheard remarks, and the odd thing is that it no longer seems strange.
"June 13.—... The moon was full this day, and to see it rising sheer out of the level veldt was a thing to remember. For ten minutes before there is a red glow on the horizon, which intensifies till a burning orange rim shows above, and soon the whole circle is flaming clear of the earth, only not a circle, but seemingly almost square with rounded corners. Round its path on the veldt there is a broad wash of dusty gold. A lot of us came out of the tents, and were spell-bound by the sight. Every evening the sun goes down plumb into the veldt out of a cloudless sky, and comes up just so in the morning. While he is gone it is bitterly cold now, always with hard frost, but in the middle of the day often very hot. I have never known such extremes of temperature before.
"June 16.—Yesterday was a red-letter day for me and Williams. We got leave off afternoon stables, getting gunners to water and groom our horses, and had from after dinner till 8.30 P.M. to ourselves. That was the first time I have ever missed duty from any cause whatever since I enlisted on January 3rd, so I think I deserved it. We started off, feeling strangely free, and hardly knowing how to use our freedom, for two hours is the longest interval from work one usually gets. We determined to visit the Irish Hospital Camp, where four of our chaps were sick. The Irish Hospital came out with us in the Montfort, so we knew them all. We hired a carriage in the town(!) and drove the rest of the way feeling like lords. We had a long talk with the invalids, who were mostly doing well, in most comfortable quarters, large roomy tents, with comfortable beds, and clean white nurses going about. Pat Duffy turned up as a hospital orderly, looking strangely clean. The air was heavy with rich brogue. Later we strolled off, and shopped and shaved in the town, had afternoon tea, and then went to a hotel and wrote letters till 6.30, when we dined in magnificent style, and then sauntered back, feeling as if an eternity had passed, and lay down in the dust to sleep.
"June 17.—Sunday.—A night and day of rain, in spite of the fact that everybody was clear hitherto that the rainy season was over months ago. Exercise at eight, and a smart trot round the country warmed horses and men, for it is very cold. Meanwhile, the horse lines had been shifted, for they were ankle-deep in mud. Once or twice in the day we were called out to rub legs, ears, and backs of the horses.
"I am now lying on my back in our tent on a carefully constructed couch of sacks, rugs, and haversacks, with a candle stuck in a Worcester sauce bottle to light me. Most of us are doing the same, so the view is that of the soles of muddy boots against strong light, the tentpole in the middle hung thick with water-bottles, helmets, and haversacks, spurs strung up round the brailing, faces (dirty) seen dimly in the gloom beneath. Some write, some sew, some read. One is muttering maledictions over a tin of treacle he has spilt on his bed (he thought it was empty and stuck a candle on the bottom); one is telling stories (which nobody listens to) of happy sprees in far-off London. The air is thick with tobacco-smoke. Outside there is a murmur of stablemen trying to fit shrunk nose-bags on to restive horses, varied by the squeal and thump of an Argentine, as he gets home in the ribs of a neighbour who has been fed before him."
On the day after this was written our long period of waiting came to an end with orders to go at once to Kroonstadt.
We were off for the front at last, and I shall now, making a few necessary alterations, transcribe my diary, as I wrote it from day to day and often hour to hour, under all sorts of varying conditions.
June 21.—7 A.M.—I am writing this on the seat of a gun in an open truck on the way by rail to Kroonstadt. I have been trying to sleep on the floor, but it wasn't a success, owing to frozen feet. Now the sun is up and banishing the hoar-frost from the veldt, and the great lonely pasture-plain we are travelling slowly through looks wonderfully pleasant.
But I must go back.
Yesterday afternoon things looked profoundly settled. I walked down to town with a lot of clothes, and left them to be washed by a nigger, and also left my watch to be mended. But when I got back to "stables" it was announced that we were to leave for Kroonstadt that night. There was great joy, though I fear it means nothing. It's true De Wet and some rebels have been giving trouble round there, and even held up a train, and captured a battalion of militia not long ago; but I believe it's all over now. It was soon dark, and camp had to be struck and horses harnessed in the dark. I got leave, ran down to town and fetched up my unwashed clothes, and put most of them on there and then. There was the usual busy scene of packing kit, striking tents, drawing rations, filling water-bottles; the whole scene lit up by blazing bonfires of rubbish. In leaving a camp no litter may be left; it has to be left as clean as the surrounding veldt. At nine hot coffee was served out, and at 9.45 "boot and saddle" went. Harnessing in pitch dark is not very easy, unless you have everything exactly where you can lay your hand on it.
We marched down to the station, and unharnessed near the platform in a deposit of thick mud. Entraining lasted all night, the mules and buck-waggons giving a lot of trouble. Some exciting loose-mule-hunts round the station in the dark. Hours of shoving, hauling, lifting, slamming. At last all was in but ourselves. There were evidently no carriages, so we hurriedly shovelled our kit and ourselves into the open gun-trucks, squirming into cracks and corners; and at 6.30 A.M. to-day, with the sun just topping the distant veldt, the whistle blew, and we started. It was a piercing frosty morning; but we were all so tired that we slept just as we were. I found myself nestling on the floor of a truck (very dirty), between a gun-wheel and the three foot high side with feed-bags for pillows. Cold feet soon roused me, and I got up on to the gun in the sun, and saw we were slowly climbing a long incline through the usual veldt and kopjes, only more inhabited looking, with a tree and a farm or two. A lovely scene with the sun reddening the veldt in the pure crisp air. I smoked a cigarette in great content of mind. Soon shapeless heaps of blankets began to move down the trucks, muffled heads blinked out from odd corners, and gradually the Battery woke, and thawed, and breakfasted on biscuit and bully beef. We have said good-bye to bread.
We rumbled slowly on all the morning, past the same sort of country, with dead horses and broken bridges marking Roberts's track, and at Brandfort stopped to feed horses, which, by the way, is a nasty dangerous game when you are dealing with closed horse-boxes. You have to climb through a small window, get in among the horses, and put the feeds on as they are handed up. The horses are not tied up, and are wild with hunger. You have simply to fight to avoid being crushed or kicked in that reeking interior, for they are packed as thick as possible.
At Vet River we got the first news of fighting. Boers under De Wet had been breaking bridges, and cutting wires. A very seedy-looking Guardsman gave us the news, and said they were cold and starving; and they looked it. What regiment was there? "Oh, we're all details 'ere," he said, with a gloomy shrug. At Zand River infantry were in trenches expecting attack. A fine bridge had been blown up, and we crossed the river, which runs in a deep ravine, by a temporary bridge built low down, the track to it most ingeniously engineered in a spiral way. An engineer told us they had had hard fighting there a day or two ago. We reached Kroonstadt about dark; but remained outside all night, supperless and freezing.
June 22.—I walked about most of the night, and got an engine driver to squirt some hot water into a mess-tin to make tea with out of tablets. In early morning a train disgorged a crowd of men who had been prisoners with the Boers at Pretoria, some ever since the first battle. When Roberts came they all escaped, under shell-fire from the Boers as a final conge. They were a most motley crew, dressed in all manner of odd clothes. At 7 P.M. coffee and porridge, and at 7.30 orders came to detrain and harness up sharp, the sections to separate again. Then followed a whole series of contrary orders, but we ultimately harnessed up and hooked in; the right section marched away, and soon after we of the left section did so too, about two o'clock. About three miles off, after climbing a long hill, we unlimbered the guns in a commanding position, and remained there till dark, in the close and fragrant neighbourhood of about twenty dead horses. I believe we had something to do with some possible or probable fight, but what, I don't know. A very dull battle. We marched back at dark, and bivouacked near the town, close to some Lancers. Of course tents are said good-bye to now. I slept by my harness, very cold.