Kroonstad--The Road to Lindley--Drifts--Lindley--Heilbron-- Elysium--The Vaal at last.
The day after the Zand River fight we had a long rest, and did not start on the march again till after mid-day; and a terribly long march it was, the Brigade not getting into camp till considerably after dark. It being our turn to be advanced guard, we had to find the pickets as soon as we arrived in camp. The worst part of all night marches is the slowness of the pace; the troops creep along with frequent halts, either to rest or to reconnoitre the road, and what appears to have been a twenty mile march, has in reality not been more than half that distance.
On the 12th May we started off after breakfast at about nine o'clock, with another long march of 17 miles before us; but this one was done in good style, as we halted for three hours in the middle of the day to rest and cook a meal. Eventually we fetched up in our new camp, a few miles outside Kroonstad, about six in the evening.
This town is, after Bloemfontein, the largest and most important in the Orange River Colony; it is well situated on the main line of railway, and is a popular resort in the summer owing to the boating on the river. There is one large hotel and several smaller ones, some large stores and the usual public buildings--landrost's office, post and telegraph office, bank, etc. The Boers had on their retreat done considerable damage in this town by burning the goods shed at the railway station, and by blowing up the railway bridge; but the latter was the most serious by far, as the loss of the goods shed did not affect the military situation in the least. The bridge was a fine lofty structure with huge stone piers and enormous steel girders; two of the piers were blown to pieces, and we found the girders hanging down into the water. There is another large railway bridge about a mile away, but luckily the Boers made no attempt to destroy it.
Our engineers were soon on the spot, and at the end of a few days (certainly under a week) had found and repaired the old deviation which was in use before the bridge was built, had made a low bridge of sleepers over the drift, and had trains running without any more trouble. These old deviations exist at every river where there is now a bridge, and were made years ago when the line was building; so that all our engineers had to do when a bridge was blown up, as they were at Glen, Vet River, and many other places, was to find the deviation, clear out the weeds, lay the rails, and repair the line where it required it; and trains were running again in, probably, a day or two. One great drawback, however, was the want of engines and rolling stock, as the Boers had removed all they could take away up country, and we could not get nearly enough engines and wagons from the Cape railways to satisfy our requirements.
There were a few supplies left in the town, and a wagon load was bought for the regimental canteen, most of the contents, milk, jam, tobacco, matches, sugar and eatables generally, being sold out the same afternoon. The Staff Officer for Supplies had been round the town before our canteen people got in, and had collared nearly all the tea and sugar; but we managed to get a good quantity. After having been on three-quarter rations for the best part of a fortnight, our men were quite ready to buy any amount of foodstuffs, especially tea and sugar.
Two days did we halt here and enjoy our well earned rest, but on the 15th of May we were off again on the road to Lindley--and such a road! Even now, after many months, one remembers as in a nightmare that cursed road to Lindley, with its ever recurring drifts and its messages--"The General wishes you to send a company to the drift to assist the baggage," or to repair the road, or to pull wagons out of the mud. The drifts were the steepest and the worst that we experienced in perhaps all our trekking. The full distance to Lindley was about 48 miles, but, the first march being only a short one, we made the last two average over 15 miles each, both of which had more than their proper allowance of drifts.
It might be as well at this stage of the proceedings to describe what a bad drift looks like to an unprejudiced and impartial mind.
A drift is really a crossing place over a river, which latter is called a sluit, if it has water in it, or a spruit if it is dry; and whether the drift is easy or difficult for wagons to cross depends on the banks and the bottom. Thus, a shallow drift gives no trouble at all; but if the banks are steep, the mules and oxen go down one side with a run, even if the brake be well screwed up on the wagons, and invariably get mixed up at the bottom, getting their legs over the traces and pole chain: or perhaps one is pulled down, when there is much confusion and delay. If the bank is very steep on the other side, fatigue parties have to come and push the wagons up by main force, or else a team of bullocks is brought from another wagon and hitched on in front of the team which is in difficulties. Even then there is more delay, as the business is to get all the thirty or thirty-six oxen to pull simultaneously; and to induce them to do this, half a dozen drivers with their enormous two-handed whips, like huge fishing rods, flog the wretched animals unmercifully, yelling and screaming all sorts of insults in Basuto at the trembling beasts.
If there is mud or water at the bottom of the drift, the difficulty is increased enormously, as the banks become slippery. It is doubtful which are the worst animals to have in your wagon when crossing a bad drift, mules or bullocks. The mules generally get mixed up with the harness, but on the other hand, when once they are started pulling all together, they certainly do tug all they know, and need no more incentive than a row of men on each side of the path yelling at them. Bullocks, however, are faint-hearted and difficult to manage, as they will lie down when they have had enough of it, and nothing will induce them to pull when they think they cannot do any good. There is one good point about bullocks, and that is that if they can only be induced to lean into their yokes, all together, their enormous bulk and weight will move anything. The greatest abomination of all in a drift or on a road is sand, as that causes trouble with both mules and bullocks; and our worst drawback has been the native drivers, as, owing to the enormous number of wagons in use by the troops, the supply of good drivers ran short, and any coolie was accepted. It was the same with the conductors, or civilians in charge of wagons, who were all supposed to be experienced transport riders; but one little man confided to me that he was nothing more or less than a baker out of employment!
The Boers, when trekking with their wagons under ordinary circumstances, take things very leisurely at drifts, and hitch on an extra team at once if there is the slightest sign of trouble; but this, although the best plan, wastes a lot of time, and we never had any time to spare on the march.
Lindley, like most of the towns we visited, is situated in a hollow, and on topping a rise in the ground we saw it at our feet. It is a small town, but has given more trouble than any other in the colony, as it and the neighbourhood has been nothing more than a hotbed of rebellion for months; in fact since we first entered it, when the majority of the surrounding burghers took the oath of allegiance and surrendered what old guns they had--of no use even to scare crows with. It is built on the same river, the Valsch, that runs past Kroonstad, and in its most palmy days contained only a few hundred inhabitants.
On the 19th of May General Ian Hamilton issued the following information in the Winburg Column Orders of that date:--
"With the occupation of Lindley, the provisional seat of the Free State Government, the first part of the task allotted to the Winburg Column has been accomplished to the satisfaction of the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief.
"The next task allotted to the Column is to lead the advance northwards and to capture the important town of Heilbron."
Our entry into Lindley was entirely unopposed, and we camped a mile south-west of the town, about four o'clock in the afternoon of the 18th of May. There was an immediate rush into the town of all those who could get passes in search of bread, besides butter and other delicacies to ameliorate the condition of the regulation biscuit, which by this time had become harder than usual. However, the Canteen cart got private information, and secured a cask of butter and several boxes of eggs, which were duly sold to the men of the regiment early next morning. There was nothing else procurable in the town, except a little fresh bread.
After a day's rest at Lindley, we trekked off again on the 20th of May, starting at seven o'clock; and fortunate it was that we did start so early, as there was a considerable amount of firing on the rear guard, and a fairly lively action going on until about midday. We were with the main column in front of the baggage, and had of course to regulate our pace by the rear guard; but we heard afterwards that as they were leaving the neighbourhood of the town they were followed up by a large number of mounted Boers, whose presence was not expected by the Mounted Infantry forming the screen in rear of our troops; these Boers pressed our men rather closely, one or two of the Mounted Infantry, who found themselves hung up at a barbed wire fence, being captured, and a few men being wounded. There were some narrow escapes, Lieut. Lloyd, the Supply officer, having to ride all he knew to get clear, and the mess cart belonging to the Mounted Infantry being abandoned; the men in charge had only just time to take out the ponies and bolt for their lives.
We did not get into camp until after dark, and the baggage was later still, as there was a nasty drift over a sluit at the entrance to the camping ground; fires had to be lighted to show the wagons the way across. The 19th Brigade and some of the Mounted Infantry camped a few miles lower down, where there was another drift over the same stream.
After a march of seventeen miles, on the 21st of May, we found Heilbron in front of us; and the next day, after a short spell of ten miles, we camped to the south-east of the town, such as it is. Heilbron comes distinctly under the category of "one horse" towns, notwithstanding that it is connected by rail with important cities, and hopes in due course of time to have its railway prolonged to Bethlehem; but until that happy occasion Heilbron is vegetating. It is a Mark IV town of the usual pattern--Dutch Reformed Church in the middle of the square, one or two melancholy streets stretching slowly away at right angles to each other, a hotel, conspicuous for the entire absence of anything which, in happier climes, constitutes refreshment for man and beast, a despondent-looking shop or two with a large stock of lemons, medicines, sheep dip and ironmongery, and some tired-looking inhabitants holding up the door-posts of their houses.
We headed off towards the railway main line on the 23rd of May, and camped that afternoon at a place called Spitzkop.
Next day, the Queen's Birthday, the band turned out at reveillé and played "God Save the Queen," causing the greatest outbursts of cheering from the other regiments, which was taken up and continued by the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry. That day we marched to the railway and struck it, and then trekked off, some miles north, to the neighbourhood of Elysium, where we camped on a great rolling plain, extending for miles in every direction. The march was an unpleasant and a lengthy one, as the whole surrounding country was either a burning grass fire or a place where there had been one, and we walked over dust and ashes, which parched the mouth and interrupted the breathing. In many places on the veldt the grass grows in small clumps, somewhat isolated from each other, and although this looks pleasant enough to walk upon, you soon find that these little grassy bunches put you out of your stride and upset your balance time after time. This is, if anything, rather worse than when the grass has been burnt off.
The following Brigade Order was published on the 26th of May:--
"The G.O.C. wishes to express his appreciation of the fine spirit and excellent marching shown by the troops composing the 21st Brigade since it was formed at Glen on April 29th 1900. Since then the Brigade has marched 250 miles, and the effect of this long and rapid march has been that the enemy has been unable to complete his preparations for defence, and has been repeatedly compelled to retreat in front of us after a weak resistance. The force is now a few miles off the Vaal River and not 50 miles from Johannesburg, and the Major-General is sure that every man of the 21st Brigade wishes to share in the entry into that town, and that every possible effort will be made by all ranks to attain that object."
After starting on that day, the 26th of May, we halted for several hours to enable a part of Lord Roberts' main column to pass us, so that our baggage should not become intermingled. We were crossing their path, which led them to the north, while we were heading north-west.
The country is marvellously open between the the railway and the Vaal River; not a tree was to be seen, hardly a farm--nothing but endless rolling veldt as far as the eye could reach, covered with grass. There was no view, nothing to rest the eye or give the fatigued brain a little relief. As soon as a gentle rise was topped, the same expanse was to be seen in front, with some slightly rising ground in the far distance, from which the same view of interminable veldt would, in due time, be procurable.
After many, many miles of this sort of travelling, we at last saw, from the top of a rolling down, a silvery streak winding in and out on our left front, fringed with a few scattered green bushes.
At once everyone's spirits rose, and we stepped out briskly, and, sure sign that camp was near, all the men began to chatter; and with reason too, for was not this silvery streak the great Vaal River, dividing us from Paul Kruger's territory, and would not we be over it before we halted? Certainly we would; we would get that far at any rate; no more camping for us till we had secured a sound footing in the Transvaal, which we had come so many thousand miles to see and conquer.
A couple of hours afterwards, under a setting sun, we were at the drift, and what a sight was there! We were fording a crossing at a shallow bend of the river, and it had been necessary to cut down the banks and improve the approaches, so that the wagons might have some chance of getting over. Meantime the south bank was crowded with wagons and vehicles of all kinds, guns, baggage-wagons, Cape carts, water-carts, ox-wagons, ammunition-carts, mule-wagons, drawn up in long rows, patiently waiting their turn to be dragged and pushed across.
The infantry troubled themselves not the slightest about all this, but passed stolidly down to the water's edge, stripped off their boots and socks by companies, and stepped gingerly into the eighteen inches of dirty water. On their left, within a few feet, was an endless succession of wagons streaming across; a little further down was a wagon with ten jibbing and obstinate mules, who had got into deep water and heeded not the yells and whip cracks of their two black boys, themselves unwilling to go further into the water than they could help. On the farther side fires were being lit to show the drivers what was land and what was water, and superhuman efforts were being made to keep the wagons moving ahead up the steep, rocky bank so as not to block the road.
Never was there a more weird military scene. Every nigger was yelling like a fiend, and cracking his whip like mad over the flanks of his wretched animals, soldiers were shoving at the wheels of every wagon, Staff officers, cool and collected, were dispersed at intervals directing operations, the worried baggage-master, dancing with rage, was using the most dreadful language on a jutting bank, and the infantry, with their boots slung round their necks and their socks in their pockets, were trying to avoid the sharp stones of the bottom.
So it continued without intermission till about midnight, by which time nearly all had been got across. Our footing in the Transvaal was gained.
 December, 1900.