A fruitless expedition--The Brigade goes off--The Volunteers with them--The garrison--Residents--Defences--Communications--A prisoner--A night attack--A complimentary order--No soap--Cordite spills--A trap that failed.
On the 15th of November the General made a dash from Lindley at a Boer laager, which was supposed to be about 7 miles out on the Reitz road, on the other side of a huge kopje easily visible at a considerable distance.
B, C, D, E, and G companies of our battalion were engaged in the operation: we paraded at half past two in the morning, and, with half a battalion of the Camerons, two companies of the Bedfords, two guns, a pom-pom and Rimington's mounted troops, moved cautiously forward and occupied the hill about dawn--only to find the birds flown, and no signs of their nest. It was particularly disappointing to us, as we were the leading troops in the column, and were in hopes of being able to follow the example of Major Lean's little force at Bothaville; but the enemy had gone the night before, having got wind of our intentions. We remained a few hours on the top of the large kopje, while the cavalry reconnoitred out in front; there were a few scattered Boers about, but not many. We marched back to the town about mid-day, pretty well tired out; not with the distance, which was only 14 or 15 miles, but with want of sleep--for we had been nearly eleven hours on our feet.
The next morning the General and the Brigade went off, leaving us in sole possession of that important town, and trade centre, Lindley: once, but only for a short time during a somewhat hurried visit paid by Mr. Steyn, the capital of the Free State. Unfortunately for the town, Mr. Steyn's business was of such a peculiar character that he was compelled to transfer the seat of Government to other and less important places than Lindley.
With the Brigade went Captain Hopkins, who, to the loss of the Royal Sussex, was proceeding to join his new regiment. Our two young aspirants for fame on the staff, Lieut. Villiers and Lieut. Nelson, also went off, and with them the remainder of the Volunteer company, to whom the following farewell order was issued by the Colonel.
Extract from Battalion Orders, 16th of Nov., 1900.
"In bidding farewell to Lieut. D'Olier and the Volunteer company of the Royal Sussex Regiment, Lieut.-Colonel Donne wishes to express the feelings of all ranks in the First Battalion at losing such good comrades in many a long march and hard fought action. They will go home to Sussex carrying with them the proudest insignia of this campaign--the memories of Welkom Farm, Zand River, Doornkop, Capture of Johannesburg, Capture of Pretoria, and the hard fought battle of Diamond Hill on the 11th and 12th of June; the subsequent march south to Heidelburg and Bethlehem, the operations in the Caledon Valley, the brilliant action at Retief's Nek, and the surrender of the Boer forces at Golden Gate--these are records they can well consider as second to none of the Volunteer companies in South Africa.
"But these marches and victories have not been achieved without grievous losses to mourn. Their best of leaders and bravest of men--Sir Walter Barttelot--fell gallantly leading them to the attack on Retief's Nek. His sterling worth as a soldier will live long in the records of the regiment. He gloried in fighting for his country, and his death at the head of his Volunteer company will serve not only as a pathetic incident in the campaign, but as an illustrious example for all time to the Volunteers of Sussex; it will knit more firmly together in the bond of esprit de corps all the battalions of the Royal Sussex as one great county regiment.
"Whilst the path of the Volunteer company is towards home, that of the First Battalion is outward bound, far out into the British Empire for many a long year; but we shall never forget the comradeship which has been cemented on the fields of South Africa in 1900. All Sussex will welcome her citizen soldiers who have shared our hardships, and added fresh glory to our old flags, which will shortly find their resting place in the County Cathedral. We wish them a speedy and safe return home after work so well accomplished. We wish them the hearty reception that we know awaits them in the old country, and long life to enjoy the honour of having served in this memorable campaign."
The garrison left in Lindley on the departure of the Brigade comprised our battalion, two companies of the Bedfords under Captain Rowe, two guns of the 39th Field Battery under Lieut. Harrison, the Five-Inch gun, two companies of the 15th Battalion of Yeomanry under Lieut. Shepherd-Crosse, and a few of Brabant's Horse under Lieut. Friedlander. Lieut. Lloyd, the Supply Officer, had gone with the Brigade, but had left his Sergeant-Major behind with an enormous mountain of stores of all sorts, as we were rationed up to the 15th of the next month, January. Lieut. Goodman had been left also to look after the transport: the hospital and medical arrangements were supervised by Major Ritchie, of the R.A.M.C., who had been some time in Lindley, and who had under him Civil Surgeons Barr and Twigg, Captain Knapp, the medical officer of the Cape Mounted Riflemen, and Lieut. Duncan of the R.A.M.C. There were a good many men in hospital belonging to various corps, and the large church in the centre of the market square, which from the first had been used as a hospital, was nearly full; there had been one or two deaths from enteric.
There were a few civilians in the town: it seems the Boers allowed each business house in the towns to leave either the owner or the manager in charge, all the other assistants having either to go on commando or to pay a heavy fine. Of course those of them who were British subjects cleared out altogether; but the unfortunate owner of the shop, if he was in possession of burgher rights, gained by long residence in the country, was in rather a fix, and saw every prospect of losing his money either way. One of the merchants in Heilbron provided a case in point: he was an Englishman with burgher rights, and, when war was looming in the distance, he went to Cape Colony, leaving his manager in charge of the store. The Boers under their rule exempted the manager from service, but sent the owner a notice to turn out and join his commando; no notice being taken of this by the man, a fine of £500 was inflicted, which the unfortunate trader had to pay, and did pay, because if he had not done so the Boers would have distrained on the goods in his shop, and would have probably taken several times the amount of the fine.
There was a branch of the National Bank in Lindley, and the manager and a clerk had remained throughout all the troubles, and the various occupations and evacuations by our troops and the Boers: the Boers always respected the Bank, and gave no annoyance whatever.
Several families of doubtful loyalty had been removed by General Bruce Hamilton, and taken away with the Brigade; their property in Lindley was respected, however, in view of their return. One or two of those who were left made themselves useful to us and added to their own income by making up the men's rations of flour into loaves. It will hardly be believed that the greater part of our bread ration was flour only, while at Kroonstad thousands of boxes of biscuits were being used to form houses for the supply subordinates to live in.
The town and the vicinity were in a filthy state after so many mounted troops, cattle and horses had been quartered there; but after a while it was gradually cleared up, and the carcases of the dead bullocks and mules left behind by the Brigade dragged away or buried. The river was a disgusting sight, with dead bullocks strewn about from one end to the other, half in the water: still some men did not mind, but bathed frequently in the deeper pools.
From its situation, in a hollow, surrounded by extensive hills, the town needed a good many pickets to adequately protect it; there were three permanent posts to the north and four to the south, each consisting of an entire company, and some furnishing subsidiary posts in the neighbourhood, on roads or prominent spurs. Each post was well defended, and in some a reserve of rations and water sufficient for three days' consumption was stored; there was, it need hardly be said, extra ammunition kept by each, and all were defended by earthworks or stone sangars on prominent points, the tents being pitched in each case so as to be out of the line of fire, should the enemy take it into his head to snipe at long range at the pickets.
The remaining three companies of the infantry were quartered on the three sides of the town to act as a reserve, and also as a second line of defence, should the Boers penetrate the picket line and rush into the town. The pickets were relieved every ten days or so, and their positions changed, as the sentry work at some was harder than at others. The men were allowed into the town to go to the Canteen or the Soldiers' Club during the afternoon; it was quite 40 minutes' walk to some of the pickets, so that most of the men usually remained at home.
The two guns of the battery were quartered on the outskirts of the town, but the five inch gun was kept in its gun pit on No. 2 picket to the south, where it dominated a very large tract of country. On one occasion it was taken at night to the opposite picket, about 4 miles away, whence it very much astonished some Boers who were wandering about in front at a distance of no less than 6 miles.
The Yeomanry and a few men of Brabant's Scouts were utilised to furnish a picket by day on the top of Tafelburg, a high square-crowned kopje, about 3 miles to the north-west, from which an extensive view could be obtained; and a couple of mounted men were kept by day at some of the pickets, in case of necessity, to carry messages or go after suspicious passers-by. All the pickets were in signalling communication with each other and with headquarters in the town; sometimes helio messages were received from Bethlehem, about 35 miles to the south-east, whose garrison was apparently similarly situated to ourselves; and occasionally, at long intervals, a runner arrived from Kroonstad with microscopic messages--usually containing news, unimportant to us at all events, such as the state of the Czar's health, but very little information as to how things were going on with regard to our move to India, about which we were most concerned.
Occasionally a few of the mounted men would go out at night, and surround a farm or two in hopes of catching a few Boers who might be indulging in the unwonted luxury of a night's rest in a bed; but only once did they meet with any success, and then they caught a solitary Boer who gave us a deal of trouble to look after. Lieut. Harden and Lieut. Montgomerie had the honour of catching this sportsman, who seemed to have been a fighting Boer from the yarns he told with regard to the fights in which he had taken part; but most of his stories had to be taken cum grano salis.
On the 3rd of December, however, the Boers treated us to an alarm about half-past nine at night: they crawled up a donga which ended in a short outcrop of rocks within four hundred yards of one of the detached posts then occupied by B company. The rocks afforded splendid natural cover in capital positions for firing from, and the Boers, about a dozen of them, opened a smart fire at the eight men occupying the small defensive work, who, nothing loath, replied with vigour, blazing away at the flashes of the enemy's rifles. One Boer must have been hit, as some blood was found on the grass the next day. The enemy fired about 500 rounds, judging from the cartridge cases lying in little heaps behind the rocks, and our men got rid of about the same number. One or two of the Boers had the impertinence (it was nothing less!) to try and stalk the picket by dodging up towards them from post to post of a line of fencing which ran in their direction; but, coming to a gap where one or two posts were missing, their hearts failed them, and they went no further. None of our men were hit, but the stone loopholes and the parapet of the post were splashed with bullet marks in five or six places.
Firing commenced also against Captain Aldridge's picket, about a mile further off, where bullets came plunging through the tents, to the astonishment of the men there. These, however, quickly dropped into their places in the various sangars, and replied briskly to the enemy's fire, which, as could be seen by the flashes, was coming from a ridge over 2,000 yards away. After half-an-hour or so the firing dropped on both sides.
The remainder of us had, of course, turned out at once and got into our various positions. About half-past ten, everything being quiet, we turned into bed again. In a few minutes there was a furious clatter of about a dozen shots fired rapidly from the north-east, and later, two more outbursts of firing from the north; and as none of our pickets on that side had fired, we concluded the Boers were ending the evening's amusement by firing at each other, an original idea, and one that we hoped they would regularly carry out--if possible, without causing us to turn out also in the dark. We never heard the cause of this firing, and the only possible solution was that two parties of Boers must have met in the dark. There was, however, a very good reason for the sudden firing on the pickets to the east and north-east, as we found in the morning, when Swannepool, a loyal farmer living to the north-west of the town and some miles away, arrived in a furious passion, swearing vengeance against all and every Boer; and, when he had cooled down somewhat, announced that some Boers had held him up in the night, and had driven off all his stock, his cows, his bullocks and horses, and had taken away his Cape cart. Hinc illae lachrymae, he said, and we sympathised with him.
The few men of B company on the detached post were in a nasty corner for some time, and fully deserved the complimentary remarks which the Colonel made the next day, and which were published in battalion orders. They were as follows:--
Extract from Battalion Orders, 6th of December, 1900--
"The Commanding Officer wishes to express to Lance-Sergeant Ockelford and the eight men who defended the outpost of No. 1 picket, South, on the night of the 3rd of December, his approbation of their soldierly conduct in defending a small breastwork against a superior force of the enemy.
"An incident of this sort shows what a few men can do who are determined to hold their own, and the Commanding Officer has made a report of their creditable conduct to the General Officer commanding at Bloemfontein."
Our humdrum existence continued now for some little time, our days commencing by standing to arms at dawn (which was pretty early, usually between three and four o'clock), and concluding by our going to bed about eight o'clock in the evening. Almost every day there were cricket matches, and there were al fresco concerts three times a week. Beyond this mild form of entertainment, it cannot be said that we lived in an exciting whirl of constant pleasures.
Soap was at a premium; there was not a scrap to be had anywhere. All that the Brigade Canteen had brought had been commandeered by the Supply people for the use of the hospital, and, beyond a meagre issue of one ounce a man, the troops had had none for nearly two months. Matches were also conspicuous by their absence. The soldier is always a large consumer of this article, and spends a good deal of his time daily in striking matches and lighting his pipe; he was not, however, to be defeated by the absence of matches: some ingenious man had discovered that the thin sticks of cordite out of the cartridges made an excellent spill for lighting cigarettes or pipes at the fire, and, until the practice was peremptorily stopped, it became quite a fashionable pursuit.
Some of the Boers must have developed quite an affection for Captain Aldridge's picket, because, on the 8th of December, they fired a few shots about half-past nine in the morning at the men of the picket employed in repairing their sangars. To this fire E company disdained even to reply, and the disgusted Boers, finding their overtures received with apathy, rode off, six of them being observed passing through a gap in the hills quite 2,500 yards away.
On the night of the 9th, some of the mounted troops went out to lay a trap for a Boer picket which was in the habit of coming to a kraal, about three miles to the north and in full view of our pickets on that side; and a field gun was sent out early next morning to No. 2 picket to cover their retirement, if required.
The little plan failed, owing to the too eager and inexperienced Yeomen showing themselves just as the birds were entering the trap. There was a certain amount of shooting, however, as towards breakfast time our men withdrew; but it was all long range firing, which seldom harms anyone.
In front of the picket where the gun was posted was a splendid expanse of open country, with an occasional small kopje; and the whole panorama was backed by a range of hills, which limited the view to about five miles. Over this country were a few groups of Boers dotted, moving about aimlessly. One small party riding towards a donga, whence possibly they might have attempted to annoy our Yeomanry, were fired at by our gun at 4,500 yards: the shell sang through the still air and burst with a "ping" some hundreds of yards short. With one accord the four or five Boers mounted and spurred vigorously away, nor did they draw rein so long as they remained in sight.
(End of Colonel du Moulin's manuscript.)