Malta--Orders for South Africa--The Pavonia--Cape Town--Port Elizabeth--Bloemfontein--Glen.
The senior regiment in the 1st Brigade in the 1st Army Corps at Aldershot and the first regiment on the roster for foreign service at the time war was declared in South Africa in 1899, we might fairly have expected to be one of the earliest regiments to embark for active service; but it was not to be. We saw our old friends in General FitzRoy Hart's Brigade--The Black Watch, the Welsh, the Northamptons--and almost every other regiment in Aldershot receive their orders to mobilise, and with heavy hearts we proceeded to pack Save our kits for--Malta!
Even in this festive island our ill luck seemed at first to follow us unceasingly, and, notwithstanding all our field training at Mellieha and the numerous occasions upon which we defended Naxaro against overwhelming hordes of invaders, still we were not among the chosen. Our old friends the Sherwood Foresters took themselves off also, via the Suez Canal, for the seat of war, with a nice fat draft of seasoned soldiers from their Second Battalion, and we were left lamenting, to troop the Colour on the Palace Square, and to go on guard with five nights in bed.
The very bad news which arrived soon after the opening of the campaign in Natal had a depressing effect on all of us, which soldiering in Malta is not calculated to remove, and any fresh news issued by Bartolo, the printer, was eagerly sought after. A glimmer of excitement was caused by the offer of His Excellency the Governor to the Secretary of State to provide a fully equipped company of Mounted Infantry from the troops in garrison, of which company the Royal Sussex hoped to form a large part; but in this again we were doomed to disappointment, as we were not even asked to send in our names.
Things were in this unhappy state--everyone with long faces and villainous tempers--when the New Year was ushered in and found us at Verdala Barracks. From there, towards the middle of the month, five companies were sent to the new barracks at Imtarfa and the other three were put out into various holes and corners at Zabbar, Salvatore and other undesirable residences. We all thought this was putting the climax on our misfortunes, but we little knew then that in another five days we were to be raised to the seventh heaven of delight by the news that we were at last selected to proceed to South Africa.
This welcome news was hurriedly brought out to the exiles at Imtarfa by Captain Aldridge, his face fairly beaming again, and shortly afterwards we heard that we were to go home to be mobilised for active service, and that we were to be relieved in Malta by the Royal Berkshire regiment. Immediately everything was hurry and bustle, and we were all writing to our friends and making our arrangements for a prolonged absence, except, alas, some of the younger soldiers, who could not reasonably expect to fulfil the conditions of being over 20 and having completed a year's service.
Shortly afterwards the glad tidings arrived that we were to mobilise in Malta, that our reservemen would join us there, and that we should proceed straight to the Cape.
On one occasion, whilst at Imtarfa, when an unusually stirring account of the battle of Colenso appeared in the Daily Telegraph, one of the officers went down to the Recreation Room at night and read it to the men. Mr. Bennett Burleigh, the writer of the vivid piece of word painting, would have been flattered if he could have seen the great crowd of men in the room, absolutely still and motionless, following with breathless interest the splendid description of the gallant behaviour of our gunners on this fatal day, when they bravely tried to work their guns within 600 yards of the enemy's riflemen, and the magnificent story of how young Roberts, Captain Congreve and others endeavoured to save the guns.
On the 16th of January after a prolonged field day over the rocks beyond the Victoria Lines, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., we marched off to Pembroke to execute the annual course of musketry, which we succeeded in doing in some of the most villainous weather which it has ever been a soldier's lot to experience. This concluded, back the five companies went to Imtarfa, being relieved by the other three from Headquarters; and now a constant succession of field days and route marches of a more or less interesting character opened for us and continued until the 12th of February, when the whole regiment was collected together on the Cottonera side of the water, and those who were not to go to the Cape were definitely weeded out.
Sir Francis Grenfell inspected the Battalion on parade at Zabbar Gate a day or two before we embarked, and was good enough to make some very complimentary remarks. The "Pavonia," a big Cunarder, which arrived early on the morning of the 19th of February with our reservemen on board and no end of our mobilisation stores, impressed us very favourably, and our liking for her as a comfortable ship increased with our acquaintance of her.
She was crowded with old comrades and new friends, both officers and men, and we gave each other a cheery reception--not quite so cheery, however, as the send-off from Chichester, which we had all heard about by the mail a few days previously, and regarding which a large amount of good natured chaff continued to pass for a long time. Many is the time since then that some of us have longed, and with some reason too, for one of the Mayor's famous pork-pies!
The reservemen, especially those of Section D, were a fine lot, and made one's heart swell with pride to think that at last the reward of years of parades and routine would be reaped, and that a battalion of thoroughly seasoned soldiers, second to none serving Her Majesty, was to have an opportunity of showing what it could do in the field.
Major Scaife, who had been left at home on the sick list when the battalion embarked for Malta, but who had succeeded in passing a medical board, was on the "Pavonia," as well as Captain Gilbert and Lieut. Wroughton, of the Second Battalion. Both these had been attached to this Battalion for duty during the campaign; so also had Captain Blake of the Third Battalion, who had volunteered for duty as a subaltern. Lieut. Harden, who had been promoted into the regiment from a West India Battalion and had already seen considerable service on the West Coast of Africa, and Lieut. Gouldsmith from the Depôt, with four new officers, 2nd Lieuts. Paget, Anderson, Montgomerie and Leachman, had also come to join. These latter young officers were to purchase their experience somewhat dearly as after events proved, but luckily with no fatal results to themselves.
The send-off of the battalion from Malta, although not equalling in magnificence that accorded to our reservemen by the generous citizens of Chichester, was no less cordial. The battalion concentrated in Margharita Square and marched to the Bakery Wharf, the scene of endless similar departures, played down by the band of the 3rd Royal West Kent regiment and by the civilian band of Cospicua. We embarked about mid-day, but remained in harbour that night to complete the loading of the mobilisation stores and also to embark the Malta Company of Mounted Infantry, which some weeks before we had been so chagrined at our inability to join. This company was commanded by Captain Pine-Coffin of the Loyal North Lancashire regiment, and he had with him a fine lot of men of the Derbyshire, North Lancashire and Warwickshire regiments.
At half-past ten on the 20th of February the screw made its first revolution on its long journey, and we were fairly moving at last. The Baracca and the fortifications overlooking the harbour were crowded with people to see us off, and there was a scene of great enthusiasm as we slowly steamed past St. Elmo, the bluejackets on the ships in harbour giving us cheer after cheer.
Between Malta and Gibraltar a great many stowaways turned up, some of them having succeeded in bringing their full kit on board. Unhappily for them the "Pavonia" called in at Gibraltar in obedience to signals from the shore, the Malta authorities having telegraphed ahead; so our friends were hunted up and taken ashore, terribly dejected at their ill-luck. One or two, however, were 'cute enough to hide again, and this time succeeded in coming with us all the way.
The voyage was a slow and uneventful one. Absolutely nothing occurred to vary the monotony or to increase the speed. The "Pavonia," although an Atlantic liner, was not by any means the flyer that we had anticipated, and performed all her duties with deliberation even to coaling. This was carried out in a slow and stately manner in two days at St. Vincent, many of our men, who volunteered for the purpose, being utilised in assisting, owing to the dearth of coolies. Crossing the line on the 8th of March we had the usual visit from Father Neptune, who arrived on board about 7 p.m., and proceeded to hold his court according to ancient custom, when numbers of his young subjects were presented to His Majesty in due form and greeted by him in proper sea style.
During the voyage every endeavour was made to give the men exercise and to keep them in condition, no easy matter with such a large number of men on board and so little room. However parades were held every day, and signalling and semaphore classes were kept going, which relieved the monotony a little. When we could not think of anything else for the moment it was always easy to have a round-up amongst the kit bags or a worry around the helmets on the lower deck! The band played on deck pretty often, and so the weary time passed slowly away until the 20th of March, when Table Mountain was at last sighted. We should never have believed it possible that it was to be our fate to remain six days at anchor, but such was the fact. The number of ships--mostly with troops, but many with horses, cattle and coal--lying in the harbour was prodigious, and we had of course to wait our turn before going into the docks. This we did on the 26th, and we were enabled to give the battalion a run ashore in the shape of a route march. Passing through the streets of Cape Town we excited a good deal of comment owing to our strength, which was over 1,200 and caused people to think we were two battalions. A certain amount of liberty was accorded the men to go ashore which they were not slow to avail themselves of, though they took no undue advantage of the permission. Numbers of men seized the opportunity to remit various sums to their families at home, and a draft, one amongst several, for over £242 was sent to the Depôt on account of these small remittances. The Depôt authorities sent out these sums to the families, but for some idea best known to themselves, informed them that the money was part of a subscription from officers and men, which led to endless correspondence, as the families immediately with one accord wrote and demanded to know what had become of their husbands!
Cape Town is a fine city and contains some splendid public buildings, whilst its situation at the foot of Table Mountain is magnificent. The suburbs at Green Point and Wynburg are excellently laid out, and it is very pleasing to see the way trees are planted in the streets, and how open spaces are encouraged. The electric trams are splendid, and many of the battalion amused themselves by riding on the top of a car as far as it went and coming back again. There is no better way of seeing a town.
The streets were crowded with soldiers of all sorts. Every kind of corps, Horse, Foot and Artillery, was represented, not only of the Regular Army but of Colonials also. Here were Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, men from India and Ceylon, men from Malta, men from the West Indies, men from Natal and all parts of South Africa, and crowds of adventurers and dare-devils from every quarter of the globe, who had enlisted in various local corps. Not only the Army, but the whole British nation, owe to Mr. Kruger a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, inasmuch as the South African war has brought about such a reorganisation and betterment of the Army and such a magnificent outburst of patriotic feeling among our vast colonies as could never have been excited by any other means. The ordinary individual who remains in England all his life or potters about the Continent cannot, unless he is a man of an open mind and phenomenal intelligence, grasp the enormous size and resources of our colonies such as India, Australasia, the Cape Colonies and Canada, and it has remained for Mr. Kruger to compel this fact to become startlingly patent to the minds of many men, both at home and out in the Colonies, who had never given any attention previously to the subject.
On the 30th March orders were received to proceed to East London to disembark there, as apparently the traffic on the Cape railways was congested to a degree, and some of it must be diverted on to the East London line. So we steamed out again, passing round the Cape of Good Hope in the afternoon and arriving on the 2nd of April at East London, where we lay off the harbour, as we drew too much water to pass over the bar and enter the channel.
Captain Pine-Coffin and his Mounted Infantry were the first to disembark, and were followed by A, B, and C companies under Major O'Grady. F, G, and H companies under Major du Moulin were the next to land on the 3rd of April, and were followed by Headquarters and D and E companies the same evening. Each of these parties were entrained on successive days with their kits and rations and ammunition, and were despatched up country, meeting with great demonstrations from the residents along the line. Some ladies at Fort Jackson were kind enough to turn out late at night and provide tea for us, than which nothing could have been more acceptable. A run of about eighteen or nineteen hours brought us to Bethulie Bridge, where the fact that we were actually at the enemy's country became as evident as a slap in the face when we saw the railway bridge with its piers destroyed and its enormous arches blown into the river. The Railway Pioneer regiment, a local corps composed mostly of railway men and miners, was hard at work making a diversion over the road bridge, which, luckily for us, had been saved from the enemy by Major Shaw and Lieut. Popham of the Sherwood Foresters a short time previously.
The road bridge had had a line of rails laid along it, and trucks were pushed over one by one, as the bridge was not strong enough to bear the weight of an engine. This method of procedure was slow, but the advantages of a through line were enormous; and considerable precautions had to be maintained to guard against the likelihood of any further disaster, since it was possible at any time that the enemy might try and blow up the sole remaining bridge over the river, and it was, therefore, needful to take especial care. Each party of troops arriving detrained in succession and marched over the river about a couple of miles to the railway station, where, in due course, they were entrained and despatched up country.
Head Quarters and D and E companies, however, remained for some little time at Bethulie, relieving the Royal Scots on picket, and performing the usual garrison duties. Alarms were several times raised that the advance of a party of Boers, bent on wrecking the bridge, was imminent, and all the troops stood to arms and reinforced the pickets; but nothing further was ever heard.
At last, on the 20th April, these two companies started on their march to join the remainder of the battalion, which about this time was concentrating at Ferreira, a siding on the railway a few miles south of Bloemfontein. However after marching about 60 miles, and reaching Edenburg at the end of a long and trying tramp of fully 24 miles, orders were received to go on by train to Bloemfontein; and on arriving there the two companies were sent on at once to Glen, which they reached early on the 27th of April. Headquarters had detrained at Ferreira in passing, and had joined the remainder of the battalion.
Meanwhile, A, B, and C companies had been having some adventures, B company having been fetched out of the train at Edenburg and ordered to place the little town in a state of defence, as the advent of the enemy was hourly expected. The Boers, however, failed to turn up, and B company was then, on the 6th of April, ordered off to Bethany, about 10 miles distant, where the company entrained, reaching Ferreira Siding late at night. They stayed here and took their share of picket duty until the end of the month.
A and C companies, under Major O'Grady, after dropping B at Edenburg, went on by rail to Bloemfontein, arriving there on the 5th April, and receiving orders next day to camp on a hill about 2 miles south-east of the railway station. This was in a dangerous neighbourhood, as about this time the Boers were threatening the Waterworks and Springfield, which is not far to the East; so a defensive work was laid out on this hill by the Royal Engineers, which these two companies amused themselves by erecting. Lord Roberts visited the site on the 10th of April and christened it "Sussex Hill." The usual picket precautions were taken by day and night, and the men were kept busy with pick and shovel; but a good deal of rain interfered with the work, which was not completed until the 17th of April, when orders were received to move to Ferreira and join the remainder of the battalion.
F, G, and H companies arrived at Bloemfontein on the 5th of April, but after waiting some hours were entrained and moved down the line about 6 miles to Ferreira Siding, where the pickets of the Royal Scots on Leeuberg and the surrounding kopjes were relieved, and a guard mounted on the bridge.
At Ferreira, close to our little camp, a brother of Mr. Steyn, the late President of the Orange Free State, had a sort of country residence, and we saw a good deal of him, as he and his wife were very civil in allowing the men to purchase bread, butter, and other things from their farm.
Mr. Steyn was a typical Boer, a fine, big man, with a long, black beard; he was a solicitor in Bloemfontein, and of course an educated man, who had travelled over England and the continent. Both he and his charming wife used to be astonished, or pretended to be astonished, at the never ending succession of troops daily passing their house on their way up to the front, and used to ask us where all the troops came from. We, naturally, did not give the show away, and explained carefully that there were lots more where they came from, and that there was our magnificent Indian army behind them again, only waiting to be called on.
Around the Steyns' farm French's cavalry had encamped during Lord Roberts' dash on Bloemfontein, just before entering the town, and there was ample evidence of the fact in the shape of dead animals and empty biscuit tins strewn for miles over the veldt.
Mr. Steyn had, of course, been made a prisoner by the first arrivals of our cavalry, but had taken the oath of allegiance, and had been given a special pass to enable him to reside peacefully on his farm and to prosecute his business in the town.
He was occasionally subjected to a good deal of annoyance, it is a pity to relate, from our own troops, and had several times to send over to our detachment and ask for a sentry to be posted on his house. The intruders were usually men of the Colonial forces who apparently thought they had a right to order meals to be prepared and fowls to be handed over at any time, and that they could remove Mr. Steyn's horses and wagons in defiance of the written permit to retain them which he used to show.
On the 7th of April B company arrived, and also a battalion of the Scots Guards and a squadron of Mounted Infantry. G and H companies went to Kaal Spruit during the night, and from that date to the end of the month the outposts were furnished by the Scots Guards and ourselves.
On the 21st of April A and C companies arrived from Sussex Hill, and a new camp was formed and tents pitched in anticipation of the arrival of the remainder of the battalion. The Volunteer company arrived somewhat unexpectedly early on the 24th, and went off to take their turn on picket the same evening. The Colonel and the regimental staff arrived the next day, and the battalion was then almost complete.
Orders were shortly afterwards received to proceed to Bloemfontein; at 3 p.m. on the 27th of April the seven companies left by road, and on arrival camped in the Highland Brigade camp just south of the town. The men's blankets and baggage had been sent by rail, and, as no transport could be procured until late, the blankets did not reach camp until nearly midnight. However the men were in tents, and the bivouac poles came in handy for making tea, no fuel of any kind being procurable in camp.
Lord Roberts, accompanied by Major General Kelly, who had served many years in the battalion, inspected us on parade the next day at 10 a.m. preparatory to marching off to Glen. This march, a long and tiresome one, gave us our first experience of the veldt, and we were not sorry to find ourselves at Glen after our 16 miles tramp. D and E companies were already there, and had camp pitched for us; our baggage, however, did not turn up until the early morning, so we had to put in the night the best way we could, under bags and tent walls, in the absence of blankets. The whole Brigade was camped here, and the next day we fairly started on our travels.