Bloemfontein--Men and officers waiting there--Kroonstad--The Brigade re-fitted--Wasted comforts--Shopping for the canteen--Famine prices--Traders' profits--Ventersburg road--Half battalion to Winburg--Winburg attacked--Capture of Commandant Olivier--Bloemfontein--Ladybrand--Leeuw River Mills.
I went down in the train with the last batch of prisoners as far as Bloemfontein, as the General wished me to go to the Ordnance stores, and see what could be done about bringing up clothing, boots and other stores for the men, who were now in rags again and very badly off for boots. Several officers from the Brigade had been sent down at various times for this purpose, and I, with these officers and what stuff we could get, was to meet the Brigade at Kroonstad on the 20th of August.
Leaving Winburg about mid-day, the train reached our destination about half-past six, and there we quitted it, seeing the last of our friends, the Boer prisoners: they were lively enough and, all the way down, had looked with interest at the Militia battalions guarding the line and the bridges, and at the various entrenchments thrown up by them, and at the fortifications of biscuit boxes and barbed wire at each place. At Brandfort they met plenty of friends and evident sympathisers, who had apparently been allowed on the platform to see them, but at Bloemfontein the train stopped outside the station, and then ran through without stopping at the platform.
I stayed a couple of days in Bloemfontein and found all the other officers there; they had succeeded in getting all the ordnance stores they wanted and were ready to return, but could not get permission to do so; however, a visit to the D. A. A. G. soon settled that, and the next trouble was to get all the trucks, which had been loaded at the Ordnance siding, attached to a train and despatched.
The Assistant Director of Railways, Captain Nathan, R.E., was an old friend of mine, and arranged to have the trucks put on to a train on the 18th of August, by which we also arranged to leave. There was a most serious congestion of traffic at that time: rows and rows of trucks were waiting, and had been waiting for some time, for an opportunity to be despatched up country; there were no less than fourteen trains of remounts passing forward, and these, of course, had to receive precedence over others; the mails also had been waiting for days. There was the greatest strictness observed as to who travelled and why, and the contents of each truck were carefully examined to see that no private stores were loaded on it, and even the carriages were examined, just before the trains started, by the Railway Staff Officers. I had tried to get some Canteen stores shipped; four cases of tobacco, which were urgently wanted by the men, I had even brought down to the station, and I succeeded in smuggling one on to a truck. There was plenty of room in the guard's van and lots of space upon several trucks upon which troops were travelling, but the guard was a surly Dutchman, an uncivil brute, who started the train as the three cases were actually being loaded; so they had to be dropped on to the line and left behind, to be eventually sent up by ox wagon, which cost the Brigade Canteen no less than £5.
The streets of Bloemfontein were a curious sight in the daytime, crowded with soldiers of every imaginable regiment, and full of staff officers, whose red tabs on their collars had procured for them the designation of "rooineks," or red necks, which is the sneering nickname the Boers have had for years for British soldiers. I saw more than one man of the Royal Sussex, who seemed in no anxiety to rejoin; several others had got hold of jobs which kept them away from the hard work and danger of marching and fighting, and put extra pay in their pockets.
The rest camp was crowded with soldiers, all perfectly well and fit for duty, and waiting to go up country and rejoin their regiments; many of them had been waiting for weeks; there were officers, too, in dozens, and all had the same tale to tell--they had been stopped at Bloemfontein on their way up country, and had been ordered to remain and do garrison duty indefinitely.
It is a severe blot on the administration of the Line of Communications that such a state of matters should be allowed to exist; that regiments at the front should have been kept short-handed of both officers and men, while numbers of both ranks were loafing about the streets of Bloemfontein, or spending hours picking up weeds and placing white stones in rows in the Rest Camp. Not only did this happen in Bloemfontein, but the larger towns, such as Winburg and Kroonstad, were all full of unattached soldiers whose regiments were at the front. If these men were required for purposes of defence, it seems curious that a battalion or a half battalion could not have been detailed instead of an incongruous mob.
Towards the close of the campaign our battalion must have had several hundred men scattered about in various places: many of them were employed in hospitals and at offices and in all sorts of ways, but directly any attempt was made to get them back, many men were reported as "unfit to march." The conclusion I came to was, that these men must either have been discharged before being fully recovered, or else their detention at other than their proper duty was being winked at by certain officers for their own convenience.
Leaving Bloemfontein at six o'clock in the evening, our train had run only about 15 miles before a truck succeeded in getting off the rails; this was caused by a bale of blankets falling from a wagon on to the line and getting under the guard rail of the axle and grease box, which lifted the wheels and shoved them to one side: however, by the aid of two iron slides carried on the engine for the purpose, we were soon up again on the line and on our way to Kroonstad, which we reached the day before the Brigade was due. There was still a good deal to be done in getting the stores carted up to camp, but, with some trouble, this was managed by the next morning, when the Brigade arrived. The stores were unpacked, and the men were soon issued with some clean shirts, socks and boots, while some cases of comforts, sent out by people at home, were eagerly opened and their contents distributed. The articles which were most appreciated were drawers, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs and writing sets, which were all really useful; but, unfortunately, the contents of many bales and boxes consisted largely of Tam o'Shanters and knitted garments, which the men had no means of carrying, except on their backs; and they had quite enough on them as it was with rifle, equipment, 100 rounds of ammunition, blanket and two days' rations. After a man had once been issued with a soft cap and a cardigan jacket, he did not want another; and the quantity of these articles, in proportion to other things, sent out by the kind and thoughtful donors at home was unfortunately large.
Among the bales of ordnance stores were many containing warm khaki overcoats of the Indian pattern, but as our transport was so limited we had to return these useful garments, having no means of carrying them.
As the Brigade was likely to proceed on the trek again, it never having been known to rest more than two or three days at a time, the opportunity was taken to fill up the Brigade Canteen wagons with stores, and a small party went shopping with a traction engine and three trucks and bought all they could get; as usual the shopkeepers, some English, some German, declined to part with any quantity of their stock, which they were, of course, hanging on to in the hope of prices rising, and I had to obtain an order from the District Commissioner to compel them to sell, though at enormous prices--eighteenpence for a tin of milk or a pot of jam, and other things in proportion.
As luck would have it, I succeeded, at my next visit to the town, in discovering the exact profit which these firms had made out of the Brigade Canteen over this transaction, and as all this talk about stores and prices serves to show how an English soldier is treated by his affectionate countrymen on his arrival in a beleaguered town, this must be my excuse for harping so long on one string.
There was an enterprising man who had arrived from Bloemfontein with several wagons full of stores, which he sold equally to the few merchants in Kroonstad. On the very day and at the time delivery was being made, I turned up with my traction engine and trucks and my order from the District Commissioner, and purchased most of these stores, nearly all the cases being handed over at the storehouse of the enterprising man. The prices I was charged by the various storekeepers were those fixed as the selling prices in the shops; the prices the traders paid to the enterprising man I was afterwards fortunate enough to drop upon, and I found that in every case the profits were enormous, averaging over 36 per cent., and ranging from 75 per cent. for sardines to 20 per cent. for jam and milk.
Since our last stay in the town Kroonstad had developed strong breezes, which fetched up clouds of dust and hordes of flies from the Remount Depôt, and poured them both unceasingly into our camp. The 21st of August was a particularly dusty day, and we were not so very sorry, therefore, when in the evening orders were received for us to be off again: some of us, this time, went by train, as one half battalion was to proceed by rail and the other by road, marching with all the wagons and carts of the Brigade, to Geneva Siding, about 15 miles down the line.
The first party to move was the right half battalion, composed of B, C, D and E companies, under myself: they paraded at eleven o'clock in the evening and marched to the station, and waited there for some time, after loading the first line transport and some guns--the 76th Battery of the Field Artillery; we eventually made a start about three o'clock in the morning. On arrival at Geneva I found there the General and the Camerons, who had proceeded by an earlier train, and was then directed to proceed to Ventersburg Road in the same train, and to remain there until the arrival of the General. So we steamed off again, enjoying, as we knew the other half battalion would also do, the new experience of sitting in a train and being dragged to our destination.
On our way down we passed Holfontein, where were some troops guarding the bridge, and, a few miles further on, we reached the spot where, some weeks previously, a train had been held up at night by the Boers, an officer and a few men who were in the train being taken prisoners and the train looted and burned. The officer was bringing up some stores for the General, which, of course, were looted; but a few of the Boers paid for their recklessness, as they found some liquor, got drunk, and were easily captured, about eight or a dozen of them, by the Mounted Infantry from Ventersburg Road, who rode out on hearing the explosions of dynamite.
They were too late, however, to save the train, which was burning fiercely; many wagons of biscuits, beef and other supplies were burned clean out, only the iron frames of the wagons and thousands of blackened and empty tins being left on the line. Some of the wagons, thrown off the line, and tons of empty tins, showed us, as we passed, where the incident had occurred.
We reached Ventersburg Road about seven o'clock, and found some troops there under command of Lieut.-Colonel White, R.A.; the permanent garrison was composed of the Malta Company of Mounted Infantry, under Captain Pine-Coffin, who had come out with us on the "Pavonia," and a company of the Buffs Militia, under Captain O'Grady, a cousin of our Major of the same name. We camped outside the station, and bye-and-bye the General arrived, with the Camerons, followed about six o'clock by our Head Quarters and the other half battalion.
Ventersburg Road, a little roadside station, boasted only a couple of sheds besides the usual station buildings, water tank and goods shed; everything, however, was strongly entrenched and defended; a huge Supply Depôt had been established, and the boxes and the bags were utilised to form protection for the garrison, an interesting sight being a machine gun mounted on a pyramid of sacks of oats. The Supply subordinates had made themselves comfortable inside houses built of biscuit and beef boxes and roofed with tarpaulins, but the valuable sacks of oats, bags of mealies, sacks of sugar and other stores were pitched about anywhere, and were rotting and mouldering away on all sides; four bags of costly sugar were utilised to form steps up to a water tank, and were, of course, ruined with wet and mud; the enormous goods shed, which would have held the whole stock of the more valuable Supply stores then going to waste in the open, was full of bales of wool belonging to Boer farmers, of which the greatest care was apparently being taken by the railway authorities, while valuable food supplies were being ruined. The responsible man was a Corporal of the Army Service Corps, who was some time afterwards placed under arrest for selling rum and stores to the Boer residents and sympathisers in Ventersburg; they had run out of supplies, and thus replenished their larder. On our next visit, some time later, we brought with us the Brigade Supply officer, Lieut. Lloyd, whose energy was only equalled by his capability; and he very soon had things put shipshape, the wool bales fired out of the shed, and everything done Bristol fashion, as they say at sea.
The water supply of Ventersburg Road was its chief drawback: the Boers had damaged the water tank and the pumping engine, and had blown up the windmill pump, throwing it across the platform, where it remained for weeks; the only other source of supply for water was a spruit, about 2 miles away, to which water carts had to be despatched daily, and where all animals had to be taken to water.
The ground in the neighbourhood was level for a considerable distance to the west and east, rising somewhat to the north and dropping to the south. In the distance on the east were some hills about 7 miles away, and beyond them about 2 miles lay Ventersburg town, a hotbed of Boers and their friends, and a place of assembly for all the rebels in the surrounding country; it was only equalled by Bothaville, another town on the west side of the railway, and about sixty miles off.
On the afternoon of the day we arrived, I accompanied the General on a reconnaissance, carried out by all the mounted troops available towards Ventersburg town; we rode out to the hills outside the town, and the General went on with a small escort, returning in about an hour: there was a nasty piece of country between the hills and the town, which, however, the Mounted Infantry assured me, could easily be turned from either flank.
Our Head Quarters and A, F, G, H, and the Volunteer companies left Ventersburg Road station at six o'clock in the evening on the 25th of August by special train, arriving at Winburg a little after three o'clock; they detrained at once, and received orders to move at five o'clock with the Cameron Highlanders, the 39th Field Battery, and the 5th Mounted Infantry to relieve Colonel Ridley and the Queenstown Volunteers, about 120 men, who for three days had been surrounded at Helpmakaar Farm, some twelve miles to the north-east of Winburg. On arrival there it was found that the Boers, after summoning the garrison to surrender at seven o'clock that morning, had made off; so the force, together with the beleaguered garrison, returned to Winburg, arriving there about seven in the evening, and bivouacking to the east of the railway station.
About five o'clock the next morning the camp was alarmed by rifle shots, and it soon became evident that an attack was being made upon the town: so the garrison all stood to arms. The half battalion of the Bedfords, who were at the station ready entrained to return to Ventersburg Road, were moved out in the train to a point north of the town nearest to a kopje upon which the main attack seemed to be directed by the enemy; two companies of the Camerons went up the hills, to the south-east of the town, to support the picket there, and A and F companies of our battalion went to the south-west of the town; these companies were sniped from some bushes on a small detached kopje to the south of the town, but one man only was hit on the heel of his boot; a few shells were also fired at the pickets east of the town by a gun, or a couple of guns, of the enemy's posted to the north-east. Two guns of our battery came into action between our bivouacs and the railway station, and dispersed some Boers who were gathered on the top of the detached kopje; and the firing then ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
Some Mounted Infantry were shortly afterwards seen coming in from the north escorting twenty-four prisoners, who were found to include Commandant Olivier and his three sons. These four had, unknowingly and unarmed, walked straight into the hands of three or four of our Mounted Infantry, who had bluffed them by pretending that the rest of their regiment was close at hand. The Commandant was in a furious rage when he realised how neatly he had been trapped.
It appeared that the Boers concerned in the advance upon the town were under Commandant Fourie and included also Commandant Haasbruck; the latter with his commando was to have made a simultaneous attack upon the south end of the town, but, matters at the north part of the picket line being brought to a head sooner than was anticipated, his attack was too late to be of any use. The Boers, it was ascertained, had tapped the telegraph wire, and intercepted an order to General Bruce Hamilton, to withdraw his troops to Ventersburg Road; so, when three trains containing Yeomanry, which had come in during the night of the 26th, steamed out again in the early morning of the 27th, the Boers mistook these for trains containing General Bruce Hamilton's force, and attacked the town, expecting it to be held by only the usual small garrison.
The column proceeded at noon on the 31st of August by train to Bloemfontein, where they arrived at eight o'clock in the evening, proceeding to the Rest Camp for the night, which they spent under canvas for the first time during the campaign. The next day orders were received to march at seven o'clock, the same troops as before being required to make a forced march to Ladybrand to relieve the garrison there, who had been shut up for three or four days; so the force marched to the Waterworks, a good 20 miles, passing the scene of the disaster at Sanna's Post. Next day the column marched to Thaba N'Chu, a long 19 miles, and camped to the west of the town; they moved next day at five in the evening, and, after a bad march at night, reached camp at Andriesfontein at two o'clock in the morning. After resting until three in the afternoon, the column proceeded to Zonderzorg, about 13 miles, marching again the next day at seven o'clock in the morning towards Ladybrand, where the Boers were found in position at Plat Kop on the left of the road.
But they retired discreetly before the fire of the 39th Field Battery and one of our pom-poms, and signal messages were received about 11 a.m. from Colonel White that he had reached Ladybrand with his Mounted Infantry; so the infantry column was then halted, and eventually returned to camp.
On the 6th of September the column marched at three in the afternoon to Leeuw River Mills. On parade, before marching off, the General addressed the troops, thanking them for the way they had supported him in the trying work of the past few days, during which they had borne fatigue and hardship without complaint, showing that they had set out determined, cost what it might, to do their best to relieve their comrades, beleaguered in Ladybrand. He ended by saying that they had travelled upwards of a thousand miles with him up to then, and that he hoped soon all would get a prolonged rest, when he would try and get tents for them; but he felt sure that, if circumstances demanded that they should still go on, they would continue to give him the support that they had all along cheerily given him, as long as their Queen required them.
On the 12th of September, a move northwards was made, the column halting at Brand's Drift Farm, and continuing next day as far as Zamen Konst, where they were joined by the right half battalion and the remainder of the Brigade. The left half battalion, since leaving Thaba N'Chu on the 2nd of September, had been under the command of Major O'Grady, Lieut.-Colonel Donne having remained at Thaba N'Chu in command of the troops at that station.