Wit Kop--Half the battalion goes on tour---Kaffir Kop--Clearing the country--Necessity for it--Mobile columns required--Kaalfontein Bridge--Rearguard attacked at Doornkop--The line blown up--A repairing expedition.
Everything was quiet in Lindley for a few days, and then, on the 3rd of October, the General sent for me at half-past nine at night and told me that he had ordered two companies of ours, under me, to proceed at five o'clock the next morning to Wit Kop, where, apparently, some of our mounted troops were in difficulties, having been engaged with the Boers most of the day.
The General also told me in confidence that he and some more troops were coming out to Wit Kop in the afternoon, and that we were to proceed on a tour round to the south and the west, and should probably be absent a week.
So next morning, A and H companies, under Major O'Grady and Captain Wisden, paraded at five o'clock and went out to Wit Kop, where we found Captain Lloyd and some of the 8th M.I., and Captain Driscoll and some of his Scouts. It appeared that a party of Driscoll's Scouts had gone out towards Kaffir Kop but had not returned, and it was feared that they had been cut off; during the previous day the few men remaining at Wit Kop had been somewhat heavily fired on by a party of Boers, forty it was estimated, who had crept up under shelter of a donga to within a few hundred yards of our men, and had opened a considerable fire on them. The party on the Kop were not strong enough to turn them out, but had answered the fire and sent in a report to the General as soon as it was dark enough for a messenger to travel.
With our two companies we occupied the Kop, and spent the day watching the surrounding country: Driscoll's Scouts went out and burned a farm, from which the enemy had appeared the previous day, and we sat on the Kop and stared through our field glasses at the open, undulating ground to the south-west, over which we could see some Mounted Infantry moving.
Idly we followed the movements of this little party, evidently a patrol, and we watched five of them, out in front of a few others, riding in extended order across a level space of grass, when suddenly we heard the ping-boom of the Mauser: instantly the patrol wheeled about and galloped back at speed, the firing of the enemy continuing for some moments. After a while we saw some of the enemy riding away and disappearing behind a rise in the ground, to reappear once more and ride off in the distance, a little clump of men, say twenty-five at the outside.
It seems that the Mounted Infantry patrol had noticed some men whom they were approaching, but took them to be the party of Driscoll's Scouts whose return we were all expecting, and so had unsuspectingly ridden towards them; with the unfortunate result that their officer, Captain Willsher, was killed, and one man wounded and taken prisoner.
This incident is only one case among very many, I am afraid, where similar occurrences have resulted in the death and capture of many men, owing to the constant disregard of the saying, "take nothing for granted," to which I have previously alluded; the reputation of the Boers for "slimness," or 'cuteness, has been added to by each of these incidents, which have really often been brought about by crass stupidity on our parts, not always by any clever smartness on the part of our enemies.
It was very sad to sit on the hill-top and observe all this going on in front of us, only about 2 miles away, and to know that we could do nothing; we had insufficient mounted men to chase the Boers, even if they had not already got a long start, and we had no guns with us. Captain Driscoll had had information that his patrol was returning, and had secured two prisoners, from whom information was extracted to the effect that Haasbrook's commando was then about 16 miles away to the south.
About five o'clock we saw, from the cloud of dust approaching from the north, that the remainder of the column was near at hand, and in about an hour they were halted and cooking their tea a mile away from us; the General had come up to the Kop just as the Mounted Infantry were burying poor Captain Willsher, and had received our reports, and then directed me to join the column with our two companies at seven o'clock.
On reaching the camp we found F, G, and the Volunteers, under the command respectively of Captain Gilbert, Lieut. Harden, and Captain Blake busily engaged at their tea; they were very anxious to hear what was going to happen, but all I knew was that we were to be ready to start at a quarter past seven, at which hour we went off on another night march.
After a couple of hours walk, there was a long halt at the top of a hill, whilst the country in front was reconnoitred by the mounted troops; it was bitterly cold and we could not keep warm, until, at last the men received permission to roll themselves up in the blankets which they carried on their belts.
Soon nothing was to be seen in the dim light but a long line of black figures stretched out on the road; the Camerons were in front of us and the battery in rear, so we were quite secure. After this long halt we moved on again, eventually encamping, towards half past ten, near a farm about 13 miles from Lindley. Out of this farm a Boer was pulled and made prisoner: he was making ardent love to a blushing Basuto damsel, when he was caught, and handed over to the guard.
At five o'clock the next morning the column marched towards Kaffir Kop, about 6 miles, where we halted until the next afternoon at three, the mounted troops going out to clear the country. This step had become necessary at this stage of the war, and was in accordance with Lord Roberts' orders, in places where disturbances continued. It was distasteful work, but entirely justified by the circumstances.
It was probably never contemplated by anyone that, after occupying the chief towns in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, after seizing the railways, dispersing the enemy's forces and driving a large number into Portuguese territory, after despatching over 16,000 prisoners to far away islands, after visiting all the towns in each colony, taking the surrender and receiving the allegiance of many thousands of burghers, these same burghers, many of them, would rise again and carry on a guerrilla warfare which could have but one ending.
When Burma was captured and annexed in 1886, after the occupation of Mandalay, a similar state of matters prevailed for several years, armed bands of dacoits roaming the country in all directions; they were eventually suppressed by the salutary process of quartering garrisons in all parts of the country, and forming numbers of small, mobile, flying columns, largely composed of mounted men, who moved, at a moment's notice, against any Boh, or leader, who appeared in the neighbourhood, and hunted him till he fled or was captured.
By this means, combination was rendered impossible, and the appearance of any force of the enemy was the signal for prompt action being taken against it by every one of the mobile little columns which might be within call, commanded, as these columns often were, by young and dashing officers selected for their energy and zeal. It was for this reason that the latter part of the campaign in Burma in 1885-6 has been called the "Subalterns' War."
Something similar to this procedure was about this time necessary in the Orange River Colony, but the paucity either of mounted troops, or of remounts, delayed the formation of such columns as would be necessary, say for instance, in the case in point on the 4th of October, to recover rapidly the 16 miles which separated us from Haasbrook's commando, and to engage him.
After despatching great droves of cattle and sheep to Lindley, we proceeded in a circular sweep towards the west of that town, and cut the Kroonstad road at Kaalfontein Bridge, which we crossed on the 9th of October, moving beyond it a few miles and camping at Quaggafontein. This place was only a couple of marches from Lindley, to which we expected to return on the 11th of October; in fact we had to be somewhere by that date, as we had only two days' rations left.
Next morning, to our astonishment, the column headed off to the west instead of to the east or north-east as we expected; there was only one conclusion to draw--Kroonstad was our destination, and we were not sorry either, as we wanted a new outfit of clothes, boots, and such other articles as tobacco, matches and soap, which are sometimes almost as necessary as a new pair of trousers.
Our half battalion was on baggage and rear guard that day, H company bringing up the rear of all; a couple of miles from camp the road opened on to a great expanse of rolling veldt, which stretched away in front of us for some miles, to a kopje covered with low trees standing near a drift.
After crossing the drift, there was a farm on the left with several houses, which had been burnt by the Highland Brigade, but in which some women and children were living, temporary roofs of corrugated iron having been erected. Rounding the end of the kopje, which was called Doornkop, we saw, shut away in a recess, another farm house which had been similarly treated: H company had reason afterwards to remember this farm house.
The advanced guard passed over Doornkop, and the remainder of the troops followed along the road and proceeded some distance, halting for the usual ten minutes about a mile and a half beyond Doornkop, where the veldt was level and open like that which we had left behind us.
Whilst the main body was sitting about, resting, Colonel Kennedy, of the Camerons, came up to me and said he thought he heard firing in the direction of the rear guard. We listened, and I distinctly heard our old friend the Mauser; so I rode back to see what was going on. Meeting a breathless man with an incoherent message about Captain Wisden being surrounded (which we found that officer had never sent), I shouted for another company to come back, and rode on until Doornkop and the Valley in which it stood came into view.
The Volunteer company, under Captain Blake, came up in extended order and opened fire on the kopje at a range of 2,000 yards, afterwards advancing somewhat down the slope so as to get within closer range. Captain Gilbert, whose company was marching just in front of Captain Wisden's, had already sent one half-company off to rising ground on the right, and had taken the other to a similar position on the left, so that I had no apprehension as regarded our flanks.
The kopje being rather beyond effective rifle fire, I sent Coleman, my groom, riding back to the column to ask the senior officer to send me a gun from the battery. Evidently not caring to assume the responsibility of so weighty a matter, he sent Coleman on to the General, who was quite two miles away, so that by the time the gun had arrived the opportunity for its use had gone; as the Boers disappeared directly we showed that we meant business.
It might be as well to state here that after this little episode, and to avoid the chance of any similar useless delays on future occasions, the General invariably ordered one gun to accompany the rear guard so as to be handy in case it was wanted.
Advancing down the slope, and still keeping up a fire to keep the enemy under his cover, we came shortly into view of H company. They had, upon being suddenly greeted with a shower of bullets from their rear, discreetly dropped into a donga which, fortunately, lay almost at their feet, and, safe in the security of this cover, had opened a smart fire upon the trees and rocks of the kopje. Not a man of the enemy could be seen, but they could see our men, as a poor fellow of H company, moving from one part of the donga to another, received a bullet in his head and dropped immediately. The Cape cart which carried the officers' mess property stuck in the drift across the small donga, the ponies jibbed, and no persuasion would induce them to move, so the cart was emptied, the harness cut up, and the ponies turned loose--all this being done under a dropping fire from the enemy.
As soon as the shelling was over, H company withdrew, bringing their dead with them, the companies resumed their former positions, and the march was continued. We halted that night at Welgevreden, where the Camerons, being on duty, threw out the usual pickets.
Next morning, the 11th of October, we continued our march, starting at eight o'clock. When about to withdraw, one of the pickets of the Camerons was fired on by some snipers of the enemy. The few mounted men with us who had been advanced guard the previous day had been kept back to carry out the duties of rear guard on this occasion, and on their approach the snipers fled, and we were annoyed no more that day.
Kroonstad, about 11 miles distant, was reached about eleven o'clock, and we camped just beyond No. 3 General Hospital and under Gun Hill. During the day tents arrived for us, and we pitched these, hoping to remain a few days to enjoy them, after having slept in the open for so long--some of us since the 6th of April, but all of us since the 29th of that month, when we left Glen--altogether about five and a half months. Many of the men, however, preferred the fresh open air to the tents, and rigged up their bivouacs as usual.
Late on the night of the 11th of October I received orders to proceed to the railway station at four o'clock the next morning, with a day's rations, but without baggage. The Volunteer company was to remain in camp, as it was expected that they would shortly receive orders to proceed to Bloemfontein, at which place we had heard that all the Volunteers were being concentrated previously to their departure for England.
At the station we were entrained in empty coal trucks, with our water-cart, horses and mules, besides about twenty men of the Royal Engineers, and a quantity of reconstruction material, tools, rails, sleepers and such like, and a break-down gang of natives.
Some reports had come in from down the line which the Staff Officer showed me. The officer commanding at Holfontein reported the line was blown up between the Gangers' Hut No. 60 and Ventersburg Road Station, and that the enemy were too strong for our patrols to encounter them. The officer commanding at Boschrand reported that a number of explosions had been heard on his left, and that the cavalry had been sent out and had fired one volley at the enemy.
One of the hospital trains--full of patients--had been waiting all night to proceed at dawn, but this was now impossible, and the sick men had to spend another day cramped up in the train.
We steamed off as soon as it was light enough--about half-past four--to see our way, and proceeded down the deviation and past the Remount Camp--full of Indian sowars and native syces, or horsekeepers, who waved their hands to us as we went by--until we reached Boschrand Station. The officers were all in the trucks with their companies, and all had been warned to be on the look out for sudden orders, and to be mighty sharp about jumping out of the trucks and at once extending and lying down, should they be ordered to do so. It was quite possible that the train might be attacked when winding along the broken country and numerous kopjes near Boschrand. Luckily this was not necessary, and we steamed along beyond the station to the top of a rise in the ground, where the train pulled up.
Here was the scene of the explosions heard during the night, and a nice lot of damage had been done too. The line was blown up in no less than seventeen places, at the junction of the rails, with heavy charges of dynamite, the cardboard boxes in which this explosive had been carried lying about in several places.
The Boers had chosen the junction of the rails as the places at which to deposit the charges of dynamite, as two rails would then be rendered useless, their ends being blown up in a curve, in some cases to a right angle, and the steel sleepers also destroyed. The railways in this colony are laid on stamped steel sleepers with the chairs bolted on to them, into which the rails are fixed by steel keys driven in from one side, so that, although it may be an easy matter to lay the line, it is a difficult job to remove a damaged rail, jammed in the chairs by an explosion, in order to replace it by another.
One company of our battalion was sent out on picket to the right and left, up to the summit of the rising ground, from which a clear view could be obtained for some miles, and the remainder were directed to stay in the train, which might have to steam back at any moment. The men of the Engineers were out of the train and at work, coolly and deliberately, each man at his own particular job, before we had done looking about us.
The Engineer officer informed me that the damaged rails would all have to be removed and replaced by new ones, and that all the broken sleepers, a large number, would have to be dug up and others put in their places; a gang of native labourers were already at work fetching rails and sleepers from the trucks, while the Engineers were clearing away the ballast and exposing the rails to another party, who prized up the rails with crow-bars and burst them out of the chairs with sledge hammers.
This was all work which numbers of our reserve men, who had been employed as platelayers on the railways at home, could well undertake, so I asked for volunteers to come and work; as is always the case with our men, no matter what they are asked to do, volunteers came forward in large numbers; but only about fifty men were required, who set to work forthwith. In four hours thirty-four damaged rails had been taken up and replaced by new ones, and fifty-four new sleepers had been put in position, and the line was safe enough for our train to pass, after which the native gangs would complete the work. During this time our men had been allowed out of the train by parties in succession to cook their food for breakfast, the company on picket being relieved also for this purpose. We had some telegraph men on board the train, but as they had brought no instrument, the wire could not be tapped, and the railway authorities in Kroonstad could not be informed of the progress of the work until we reached a station.
The damage had apparently been caused by quite a small party of Boers, there being the spoor, or track, of one ox wagon, a couple of Cape carts, and about twenty men on horseback; they had apparently gone off in the direction of the hills lying to the west, towards Bothaville. About eleven o'clock work was concluded, and we proceeded rapidly to the next break, passing on the way the station at Geneva.
The next break was found to be beyond Holfontein; here the damage consisted in four pairs of rails with the sleepers attached having been removed bodily, one pair having been turned over preparatory to being removed, all the bolts and nuts of the fish plates for quite 600 yards broken off, all the telegraph wires dragged away, and the posts, without exception, dragged down and broken and the insulators smashed.
This was the greatest damage that had, as yet, been carried out in this neighbourhood, already famous for the numerous raids on the line. The nuts of the fish plate bolts, four to each rail, had been smashed off with heavy sledge hammers by men who were acquainted with the work, not by ignorant farmers, and to execute this job by night and over an extent of line 600 yards long meant the breaking of no less than 480 bolts. The rails, thus capable of being disconnected, were lifted in pairs with the sleepers, deeply embedded in ballast, still attached, and were turned over on their backs, thus forming a sort of sledge; four pairs had been dragged away by bullocks over a ditch and across the veldt, one pair having been taken more than half a mile away, and the others being about 200 yards from the line. To lift these rails, even with the iron telegraph poles, which had seemingly been used as levers, must have taken at least sixteen powerful men to each pair of rails; apparently the Boers intended to remove more than the five pairs of rails which they had shifted, or else they would not have smashed so many of the fish plate bolts. This was the least damage that was done, and although we could not then replace such a large number, it was of little consequence; there were no expresses likely to thunder along at forty miles an hour, and the track was quite safe for a day or so as it was without bolts.
Having seen the damage done, the next thing was to repair it, but this did not take long; putting a company out on picket on each side of the line, we got another company to work on the rails lying out on the veldt, and, with a long and thick rope that was in the tool van, G company, and afterwards A, soon towed the rails back again (although it was a stiff pull even for 80 men), turned them over and lifted them into their places, where the Engineers soon put them right. Some of the sleepers had to be replaced by others, but as regards the telegraph line and posts, we could do nothing; no less than eight wires, one of them a copper telephone wire, had been removed bodily, and the posts smashed as far as the eye could reach.
It will be easily understood what an interruption this caused, not only to the railway traffic but to the communications with Cape Town: however, telegraph operators were at work everywhere, and a temporary line was rigged up that day; but it was a long time before all the wires could be renewed.
The Engineers and our men were not long repairing the rails, and in about half an hour we were on the move once more towards Ventersburg Road, in full sight of which was the next, and luckily the last, break; in this one the line had been blown up in two places, necessitating two new rails being laid, but for fully 200 yards or more the fish plate bolts had been broken off as before; for 120 yards the rails had been disconnected and torn asunder, apparently with the intention of dragging them away over the veldt, and for no less than a mile and a half all the telegraph posts had been torn down (evidently by teams of bullocks) and smashed, and the wires dragged away: every insulator was broken in pieces.
As all this 120 yards of line had to be relaid, the work took us longer than at the last break; but in about an hour and a half it was done, and away we steamed back again to clear off the line and let the trains pass, which were by now jammed at Kroonstad and Ventersburg Road on both sides of us. At about three o'clock we reached Geneva.
After all, very little real damage had been done, and a very short cessation of traffic caused, as by two o'clock that afternoon trains were running again; and even in the case of a serious break to the line, such as the destruction of an important bridge, there was always an alternative line, that through Natal, by which supplies could be procured.
 Private C. Shutton, H company.