Right half battalion to Ventersburg town--Back to the railway--Rain--Boers blow up the line and burn train---The armoured train upon the scene--To Bloemfontein--Off again--To the waterworks--An invasion of Kaffirs--Thaba N'Chu--Zamenskornst--Meeting with the left half battalion--An abortive round-up--Senekal--Lindley--Picket attacked.
On the 25th of August, when the left half battalion left Ventersburg Road, I was directed by the General to proceed to Ventersburg town with a miniature column consisting of our right half battalion, B, C, D, and E companies: one company of the Derbyshire who had joined the Brigade at Bethlehem, and had remained with us ever since in the hope of some day rejoining their regiment: four guns of the 76th Field Battery, under Captain Moloney, and some of the Malta company of Mounted Infantry, under Lieut. Attfield, together with our baggage and seven days' rations.
Full of spirits at the prospect of getting a look-in at a fight on our own, we marched off at two in the afternoon towards the range of hills in the distance: having seen the ground before, it was easy to take the ever necessary precautions of picketting the hills on the right and left of the road by mounted men sent on in front, so as to cover our guns and baggage from the fire of an overzealous enemy; when we had passed safely, these pickets dropped down and formed our little rear guard, and so we reached the town about seven o'clock and reported to Colonel White. We camped in and around the school house, which a thoughtful staff officer had got ready for our reception, sticking lighted candles all round the large schoolrooms.
Colonel White was going out in the direction of the enemy the next day with all the troops in the town, so we had to take over the pickets and hold the town until his return. Disappointed at losing our chance of a fight, we consoled ourselves next day by moving into various empty houses, as it was possible we might have to remain in Ventersburg. The town was a small one, but was used as a halting place and rendezvous by the Boers, who found many sympathisers among the residents. It was well situated and easily protected, and would have made pleasant quarters for a half battalion as a permanent garrison; it would have afforded the Boers one town less in which to assemble and hatch plots and make descents on the railway line at Holfontein, only 12 miles away.
We were fated, however, to move again, and at eight o'clock next day, the 27th of August, my small column returned to Ventersburg Road: in the distance to the north, we espied a huge cloud of mounted men, wagons and Cape carts, with whom we opened communication by helio, finding them to be Colonel Le Gallais' force, bound for the town we had just left.
On reaching the railway station about mid-day we found that General Bruce Hamilton and the remainder of our Brigade had gone, and that most of the other troops had also moved. Next day, Colonel Le Gallais' force, and also Colonel White's, arrived and camped near the railway station, so that Ventersburg Road was pretty well crowded, and with all the horses, mules and bullocks was rapidly becoming anything but sanitary.
We had a very unpleasant time on the 29th of August; all the afternoon it rained steadily, and by night the place was a swamp and our camp a wretched sight; as many men as could be stowed away in sheds and under verandahs at the station were sent there, and the rest of us lay in our dripping bivouacs and put up with the drenching rain and soaking water under us as best we could. Fortunately, the rain stopped in the early morning, but our camp was a sight: in the middle of a lake about two feet deep was the bivouac of two men, my servant and my groom, who had rigged up overnight an excellent shelter of fencing wire and blankets, under which they were secure from rain, but not from the flowing stream which soon surrounded them; numbers of mules and bullocks died during the night, and their swollen carcases poisoned the air for some days, until they were dragged off to their cemetery, where they were laid out in rows, and reminded us, every time the wind blew, of the unfortunate ending to their existence.
During these days and the next four or five, a constant succession of trains laden with remounts for the cavalry and Mounted Infantry, and occasionally with enormous loads of supplies, passed up north, day and night.
Orders were received for all details of the 21st Brigade to proceed to Bloemfontein, but White's and Le Gallais' troops had to go first, with their horses and their transport of Cape carts: this took three days to complete, and we were to follow when sufficient trains should arrive.
On Saturday night just after midnight, or rather on Sunday morning, I was awakened by hearing three dull explosions, evidently at some distance; and in a few minutes, Lieut. Bellamy came running up to say he thought the line had been blown up. As this might have been merely the preliminary to an attack on the railway station, with its great piles of stores, four patrols, each consisting of a section under an officer, were sent out at once in the direction of the explosions, with orders to communicate with the two pickets which we furnished to the north and north-west, and then to move round in a circular direction and to return to camp; when they came back other patrols were sent out and kept going until dawn. Soon, reports began to come in: Lieut. Ashworth, who was on picket well out to the north, reported that a train had passed him going north; that he had heard the slow panting of the engine going up the incline at Holfontein, about 5 miles off, followed by the explosions and a few rifle shots, after which all was still; but that the glare in the sky showed that the train had been set on fire.
This glare increased in intensity, and soon the fireman of the engine arrived, followed in a while by the guard and another railway employé, a passenger, who were brought in by the pickets, and told us the whole story. It seems that on the train reaching the top of the bank, there was an explosion of dynamite in front of the engine, upon which the driver applied the vacuum brake; he then tried to run back, but, after climbing the hill, he had no steam left to blow off the vacuum and so release the brakes, and then, hearing another explosion in rear, he and the fireman jumped and ran, the former going north and the latter south. The guard and the passenger told a similar story, and added that the Boers fired a few shots at the engine and the guard's van, from a distance of about 300 yards to the right of the line, apparently with the intention of driving off the trainmen, in which they succeeded; and they then set the train on fire. It was full of medical and Ordnance stores and forage.
Very fortunately, Captain Nanton, R.E., the Deputy-Assistant Director of Railways in this district, happened to be in the station with his armoured train, and dashed off as soon as the reports reached us, after entraining some of the Derbyshire as escort.
This armoured train, which usually lived at Kroonstad, but occasionally rushed up and down the line, was a queer looking object; the engine was in the middle, sheathed all over in boiler plating; at one end was a box car, also covered in plating, with a Maxim gun in it and a crew of men to work it; there were loopholes for the machine gun and for rifle fire. There was another car behind the engine, upon which were mounted two Naval quick-firing 12-prs., firing a huge brass cartridge.
This weird-looking train puffed away rapidly, as Captain Nanton was anxious to try and save some of the wagons, if possible, from the wrecked train, and the platelayers from down the line, having come in on their trolley, went off also. At early dawn, Captain Pine-Coffin with all his available Mounted Infantry went out, and sent in reports later to say that he was following on the tracks of about twenty mounted Boers, who had ridden from the train in the direction of Ventersburg town, which Colonel White's force had left only a couple of days before. Pine-Coffin followed up these tracks until they separated, and led off in many different directions, when, further pursuit being hopeless, and the enemy having at least six hours start, he returned to camp.
Later in the day, Captain Nanton returned with his armoured train, dragging one truck full of half-burned rubbish, and the engine of the defunct train, which was covered with a nice assortment of bullet holes, but was unharmed, though technically "dead," as the fires were out.
The stories of the fireman and the guard were correct, the line having been blown up in two places, and practically the whole train destroyed by fire, only one wagon being saved: the burning wagons had been dragged into a convenient siding and the line repaired, so that the trains which had accumulated at Ventersburg Road were enabled to go off in turn, but only up till dusk, as, after this, it was not considered advisable to run trains during the dark hours of the night.
Some details of our regiment and some of the Camerons (nearly a company), turned up on the 2nd of September and were attached to us, and next day our trains arrived, and, after shipping off the battery, the section of the R.E., the hospital wagons and the Derbyshire men, we followed in the last train. The whole of the baggage wagons and the ox wagons proceeded by road to Bloemfontein, under charge of Captain Wroughton and Lieut. Pearce.
Our train reached Smaldeal a little after six o'clock in the evening: there we had to remain all night, but there was plenty of coal about, so we made ourselves comfortable, sleeping by the side of the train.
General Allen was at Smaldeal with a small garrison at the station, which is the junction with the line running to Winburg.
At daybreak, five o'clock the next morning, we continued our journey, passing on the veldt our wagons trekking along. We stopped an hour at Brandfort to cook our breakfast, after which we went on, passing Glen, our original starting place several months before, and reaching Bloemfontein about the middle of the day.
Having wired to say we were coming, we were expected, and the A.D.R. and the R.S.O., and various other officials with half-a-dozen letters after their names, were waiting for us, and, best of all, had provided wagons; so there was no delay in loading up our baggage, ammunition and rations, as there had been on the first visit to Bloemfontein of our battalion.
Now, we thought, at last we shall have a few days' peace in the comfortable tents of the Rest Camp, and we all made plans how we were to spend our days; many of the men were allowed passes that very afternoon to go into the town, and it was as well they went when they had the chance, as that night we were off again!
At half-past seven that evening, I received orders for our half battalion, the battery and the hospital wagons to move as soon as possible to the Waterworks, about 22 miles. Nothing was said about transport, so I had to race off and find General Kelly-Kenny, who told me to apply to Colonel Long (at the other end of the town) for wagons. The General also said that it was possible the Waterworks might be attacked at dawn, and our assistance might be required, so that the sooner we got there the better. The men of the Camerons were to go with us, but not the details of the Derbyshire, who were to remain.
After seeing Colonel Long and being passed on by him to the Divisional Transport officer, I managed to get authority to procure wagons from the Rest Camp; so I went off there, and asked for all they could spare and a water cart, which, after some demur as to the number of wagons, they promised to send up. About half-past ten these arrived at the Rest Camp where we were quartered, and after loading up we started; luckily, there were plenty of wagons, so we were able to relieve the men of the blankets they carried on their backs, and also to load the wagons lightly--the mules had a long march before them and had already done a full day's work.
There was a good moon, so we trekked along steadily until three o'clock in the morning; when the moon disappeared, and we halted where we were, posted pickets and got out our blankets, and had a couple of hours' sleep. Up again at dawn, we loaded our wagons with the blankets and moved off by half-past five; we reached a suitable spot near Bushman's Kop about eight o'clock, when we halted a couple of hours for breakfast, but were off again by ten o'clock, eventually reaching the Waterworks, in very good style, after a long tramp of 22 miles, at half-past one in the afternoon.
The next day's march was a short one of merely 8 miles to a pan, filled with very dirty water, which was all we had. Things looked lively that night, as the pickets brought in a Boer prisoner, who turned out to be one of our own wagon drivers; he had gone out of the lines to a farm, without permission, and probably to give information. Naturally he protested his innocence, but he was put in charge of a sentry, and warned that on the first bullet being fired into camp by the enemy, he would be shot dead by the sentry; luckily for him, the night was a peaceful one, although our camp was invaded--not however by the enemy. Soon after midnight we heard a sentry calling out repeatedly in a mild sort of way "Guard, turn out!", and then we saw that he was one of the picket sentries, who had found himself suddenly overwhelmed by an advancing mass of Kaffirs, jabbering, chattering, and understanding no known language, but steadily moving on with their bundles.
In vain the sentry tried to stem the rushing tide of natives, but he might as well have tried to stop a house, so he retreated backwards, feebly yelling for assistance, and on arrival in camp the Kaffirs were stopped.
However, at cock crow the infernal jabber and chatter commenced again; they were Basutos, who had been working on the railway and were now going home, all with plenty of money to spend on wives and cows, which they told us was their intention.
Twice during the night mounted men had arrived with orders, the upshot of it all being that we were to march as far as Israelspoort, about 6 miles further on, and to remain there, holding that position, until General Hunter and his escort, who were coming up behind, should have passed; the baggage, however, was to go on into Thaba N'Chu.
Israelspoort was the place where Ian Hamilton's column had their first taste of fighting in April; a poort is a spot where the road passes over a neck or saddle in a ridge, and this particular one was commanded by huge kopjes on either hand. These were occupied by Mounted Infantry pickets, whom we relieved; and we sent on our baggage and waited for General Hunter, who arrived just after mid-day, and, after chatting a while, went on; we followed later, reaching Thaba N'Chu and camping at the eastern end of the town about two o'clock in the afternoon.
The town is a small one, situated in a recess among high hills which shut it in, but at some distance, on three sides; like Ventersburg and Bothaville, the surrounding district is a turbulent one, and there have always been restless Boers in the neighbourhood, who have frequently threatened the Waterworks and Bloemfontein.
Our Colonel had been left in command of the town, while the other half battalion marched to the relief of Ladybrand; the troops under him were not numerous, consisting only of half a battalion of the Bedfords, a battery and some Mounted Infantry.
Our wagons and a huge convoy arrived on the 10th of September, and with them, in addition to Captain Wroughton and Lieutenant Pearce, came Lieut. Montgomerie, who had been shot in the leg at Retief's Nek, but had since recovered, and now rejoined for duty. On the next day all the wagons, except our proportion, went off by road to join the Brigade, and we also received orders to march, at half-past nine that night, at which hour the moon was expected to show up.
It was a lovely night and the march was only a short one of about eight miles, but it took us four hours, all the same, as we had to wait occasionally to allow the lagging convoy to close up. Starting again at half-past nine in the morning we marched until mid-day, when we halted for an hour and a half, and eventually reached camp at Zamenskornst about three p.m. after a tramp of 17 miles.
All the troops which had marched to the relief of Ladybrand were camped on the opposite side of the spruit, including our other half battalion, who, of course, came and laughed at us for having missed all the hard marching they had had into Ladybrand. There was a wide, sandy spruit between the two camps, and the ox convoy started at early dawn, about three o'clock, to cross this: after them went our mule wagons and the battery and all the details, telegraph people and so on, so that the battalion, which furnished the rear guard, did not have to move until half-past seven.
The mounted troops comprised men of the Mounted Infantry of several Corps--Brabant's Horse, Rimington's Scouts, Kitchener's Horse--and there were also representatives of many other regiments, both regular and irregular, as General Hunter and his staff accompanied us, with interpreters and servants, guides, escort and men in charge of their baggage wagons.
At the entrance to camp at Allendale, about 12 miles away, there was another sandy drift, which tried the bullocks very much: two paths had been made, but of course it is unnecessary to state that whenever the drivers could manage to cross their tracks and create a block or a collision, they invariably did so to the great delight of the baggage master, for whom, sometimes, the English language was not sufficiently copious, and who had to fall back on Hindustani.
However after much delay the last wagon was got across, and the rear guard passed on into camp, which was not far off. We all turned in early, as at midnight we were to start again: it appears that the enemy were among the hills, which formed an excellent position at Doornberg, lying in the centre of a triangle formed by the three towns of Winburg, Ventersburg and Senekal, and was easily accessible from either, both from our point of view and from that of the enemy. Winburg was occupied by our troops, but the other two towns had not been consistently held throughout the campaign, and the enemy were able, therefore, to use these towns to some extent as bases.
The operation upon which we were now engaged was an extensive "round up," to use a Bush phrase, which exactly expresses what we were about to do. There were columns, each preceded by clouds of mounted troops, coming from the north, the east and the south, and we were in great hopes that at last we had got the enemy properly cornered, as it did not seem possible for him to escape anywhere, the country being open rolling veldt all round the position which he was occupying at Doornberg.
Having, therefore, a rough idea of the plans upon which we were working, we were prepared for some long marches, and we were not disappointed. Leaving Allendale at midnight, on a moonlight and starry night, we marched off to the north: as bad luck would have it, we were following a battery, which is an annoying thing on a night march, when, as everyone knows, each unit has to keep touch with the troops in front so as not to lose distance.
All troops open out on the march to a certain extent, which is greater than that fixed in the drill books, but which actual experience in marching shows is quite necessary; when, therefore, the head of a column of all arms on the march is halted for the usual ten minutes every hour, those in rear do not stop dead in their tracks as they should, but continue closing up until they have resumed their proper parade ground intervals.
This was exemplified on this occasion, when we tramped for two hours and fifty minutes without a halt, the early part of the march being a constant succession of checks, caused by the frequent "backing and filling" of the battery in front of us. Nothing is more annoying on the march than these checks, which throw you out of your stride and bring you up all standing, and nothing is more easily avoided by the common sense adoption of wider and more elastic intervals between units and companies.
About eight o'clock the column halted, as we were all staggering for want of sleep; so we had breakfast and slept and rested until half past two in the afternoon, when we continued on our way to Klein Saxony, about 2 miles short of Winburg.
With a couple of companies of the Composite Battalion, which had been formed of all the details attached to the Brigade, and some Yeomanry and two guns, I was detailed to look after the rear; and this small army of mine did not reach camp until half-past seven. We had a long rest, however, as we did not start the next day until the afternoon, at half-past one, when we proceeded on our way, skirting Winburg on the east and then marching in a straight line to Marais Farm, where we had once before camped, when with the Boer laager.
On the 17th of September, the Brigade moved off again, early in the morning, towards Doornberg, camping at Rooikraal, about 13 miles distant--very pleasant camp, with plenty of grass and good water, which we enjoyed after all the miles and miles of burnt up veldt we had trekked across since leaving Frankfort. The following morning we thought that the great closing in movement was actually taking place around the huge dark mass of flat topped mountain which we could see, lowering in the distance, on the other side of a smiling grassy valley, as we moved off at six o'clock, marching some 10 miles. We then halted under the lee of a razor-backed ridge, being careful not to show ourselves over the sky-line, and a few pickets and look-out men were posted. We could see, or thought we could see, an occasional mounted man on the hills opposite, but they must have been our own men; for we heard later that the Boers had escaped during the night out of the net which had been so carefully drawn round them, and had trekked off to the east.
It was said at the time that their escape was due to the laxity of a certain Brigade, operating from the east, who either did not move at all, or else moved too late, to shut in the Boers at the only loophole by which they could have cleared off. Finding a drift practically unguarded, or rather held by a ridiculously small force, without the support of the Brigade which it should have had, the Boers pushed through during the night successfully, and were miles away when dawn broke.
Disappointed, we camped at the spruit near by, and marched the following morning towards Senekal, camping about 11 miles from that town, on the same spot upon which we had camped on the 10th of August, when with the Boer laager. This was a disgusting camp, with remains of our dead animals strewn about, and water like pea soup, drawn from a succession of mud holes. During the march we had passed a Krupp ammunition wagon which the Boers had abandoned; the wheels of it being the only part made of wood had been burned by our Mounted Infantry, who were following up on the enemy's tracks.
Senekal was reached the next morning, the 20th of September, just as General Rundle's Division, the Eighth, was leaving; we camped to the east of the town and remained there for two days, making a long trek, however, of 14 miles on the 23rd towards Lindley. Our bivouac the next day was at Kruisfontein, which we reached after a march of about 12 miles; this place was a couple of miles south of Wit Kop, a huge, isolated flat topped kopje rising out of the plain and dominating the surrounding country. Towards this kopje we marched the following day and camped at its foot, the two companies remaining there until the next day, when the Brigade moved at six o'clock into Lindley, camping to the north of the town about a mile out on the Heilbron road and beyond the drift.
For two days we remained at Lindley, but the morning of the 28th saw us on the road again, marching towards Heilbron, one half of our battalion being baggage guard to the usual gigantic convoy and the other half being rear guard.
About two o'clock the advanced guard and the main body halted and camped, the convoy and the baggage guard closed up and we all settled down: and then we heard that we were all to return to Lindley the following day, as General Hunter had received orders to garrison most of the towns in his district, which comprised the north eastern portion of the Orange River Colony, and that a beginning was to be made by leaving the 21st Brigade at Lindley.
So the next morning, the 29th of September, back we went to Lindley, arriving about 11.15 a.m. The rear guard had marched back during the night, escorting the baggage of Colonel Le Gallais' troops, and experiencing great trouble with their wagons, three of which we found derelict on the road; we succeeded in tinkering up two of them and bringing them along with us.
General Hunter and Colonel Le Gallais left the same afternoon, and our Brigade took up its quarters on the east of the town, and threw out pickets on the hills surrounding the hollow in which Lindley is situated. In the afternoon about four o'clock, when A company, then on picket to the south west, was about to be relieved by B and E companies, who were then on their way out; a good deal of firing was heard from that direction, and I was sent up by the General to see what was the matter and to deal with it. Two guns and a pom-pom went out also, and on reaching the hill it appeared that one of the sentries of A company had been shot dead by some Boers who had ridden up within a few hundred yards, fired at him, and then ridden off to take up a position behind a rocky kopje (about 2,200 yards from one picket and 1,500 from the other), from which they kept up an annoying fire. Our men had occupied some trenches and sangars which had been made by our predecessors, Paget's Brigade, I believe, some time previously, and which were all of inferior construction and badly situated. Two of our men were in consequence soon hit, but the remainder kept up a continuous rifle fire on the enemy, invisible behind their kopje.
The guns and the pom-pom soon came into action against this rocky hill, and after a few shells the enemy's fire ceased.
The General had now come up, and the Boers, seeing a little group on the top of the hill, opened fire on us from a spur to our right front, which ran down to meet the rocky kopje alluded to above, and which apparently afforded the snipers a means of retreat secure from observation.
At 2,000 yards B company replied to this fire, and the Boers, moving further away, every now and then sent a few shots in our direction, which, however, failed to reach us, and struck the ground in front.
It was getting dusk, and the enemy were using black powder, so we were able to locate them, and kept them moving by our fire delivered at 2,500, and then at 3,000 yards, beyond which the Lee-Metford is not sighted.
And so this little incident closed, but unfortunately it had caused us three casualties.
Some time afterwards we discovered the reason of this attack; it appeared that the Boers had seen the column of Colonel Le Gallais and General Hunter's escort moving away from the town that afternoon, and had jumped to the conclusion that nearly all the troops had left Lindley; so they came on boldly, as they did on the occasion of our first departure from the town in May--but to be disappointed this time.
The Brigade now settled down in Lindley, the pickets entrenched their posts, and everything was done according to Cocker. A large convoy of those wretched ox wagons, after storing in the town all the rations they had been carrying, went off to Kroonstad with an escort supplied by the Camerons and the Bedfords; the sick and wounded were sent away by this convoy, and all the mule wagons which could be spared, the whole being in charge of Captain Wroughton.
However, in a couple of days the escort returned, bringing with them a five-inch gun, under Captain Massie, R.A., and we learned then that they had met General Hector Macdonald's Highland Brigade at Kaalfontein Bridge, about 20 miles out, and that he had taken on the convoy and sent the escort back with the cow gun and some mails for our Brigade.
A visit was also paid to Groonvlei, a farm about five miles to the north along the Heilbron road, with an escort, and several wagon loads of wood were brought in, there being none in the town.
Finding an empty house which was suitable for the purpose, a Soldiers' Club was started, under the management of Mr. Leary, the active and energetic padré who will always be remembered in our battalion for the way he looked after our casualties at Retief's Nek. Things were made as comfortable as possible, and tea and such eatables as could be got (except biscuit, which was studiously avoided) were sold in the evenings. Open air concerts of a rough and ready kind were regularly held on three evenings a week, cricket, football and hockey matches, and games such as quoits were played as often as could be arranged with the few materials, at hand, and preparations made to lighten the tedium of what promised to be a long stay in Lindley.
KILLED. Private G. Latter, A Company.
WOUNDED. Lce.-Corp. A. White, A Company. Private H. Beeney, A Company.