Evacuation of Lindley--Regiment split up--Major du Moulin's detachment--Men mounted at Bethulie--On convoy--The chase of De Wet--Strydenburg--Colesberg--Edenburg--A vast convoy-- Bloemfontein--Smithfield--Action at Commissie Bridge--the Fighting Column--Raw Yeomen--Deep Dene Drift--Jammersberg Bridge--Springfontein.
The wearisome stay of the Regiment in Lindley came to an end in January, 1901. On the 13th of that month the filling in of the entrenchments was begun, and orders to evacuate the town were finally received on the afternoon of the 20th. The piquets were sent out as usual, but by 9 p.m. the town was cleared, and the force (consisting of the Royal Sussex, two companies of the Bedfords, and Col. Munro's column) started for Kroonstad. There was great confusion at the drift outside the town, several lines of wagons converging on it in the dark; and by dawn only 3 miles had been made. The secret, however, had been very well kept, and the Boers had no inkling of the departure of the troops until well on into the morning of the 21st. They then harassed the rear, but made no other use of their considerable numbers, and the force reached Kroonstad practically without incident.
Here the regiment was split up, and B, E, and H companies were sent up the railway to Heilbron. From Heilbron they trekked to Frankfort and back with Col. Williams' Column, assisting in the evacuation of that place; and they then railed with Head Quarters down to Norval's Pont, where the railway from Cape Town crosses the Orange River, and enters the Orange River Colony. They relieved the Essex Regiment there, taking over the piquets on the hills north of the river; subsequently detachments were sent to Donkerpoort, and to Providence Siding, further up the line.
On June 3rd these Companies were relieved by Militia, and sent to join various columns, all men who would ride ultimately reaching the Sussex column. Head Quarters remained at Norval's Pont till July, when they were moved, first to Springfontein, and then (December 6th) to Bethulie, on the Port Elizabeth line. Col. Donne had previously gone to Kroonstad as Commandant of that place.
To return to January, 1901--A, C, D, F, and G companies entrained at Kroonstad on the 25th of that month, under Major du Moulin, for Ventersburg Road; and from there they moved out as escort to an ox convoy on the evening of the 27th. The weather was appalling--very heavy rain lit by vivid flashes of lightning, that showed men and oxen in a sea of mud. Progress soon became impossible, and the column halted, waiting where it stood for dawn. The crossing of Zand River on the 29th gave great trouble, the huge convoy taking fifteen hours to complete it. Smaldeel was reached on the 30th, and there the convoy was left, the five companies entraining for Bethulie, where a great concentration was taking place in view of De Wet's intended raid into Cape Colony. On reaching Bethulie, the kit was reduced to one blanket and one waterproof sheet per man, great-coats and tents being returned to store.
A bad railway accident involving several trains took place here on the 1st of February. The Sussex men turned out, and cleared the line after the greatest exertions. Trucks had to be broken up, and great pieces of them dragged out of the railway cutting by main force.
Want of mounted men was being most keenly felt at this time, and General Lyttleton (who was at Bethulie) suggested that the Regiment might provide the mounted escort required for a convoy. The idea was enthusiastically taken up; many more men volunteered than could be mounted. By the 7th of February an M.I. Company of 120 men had been organised under Lieut. Harden and 2nd Lieut. Leachman; and in addition to these, a number of men of C, D and F companies were mounted, and left under their own officers.
The scenes that ensued during the two or three days, which were all that could be allowed for training, had their humorous side. Many of the men had never had anything to do with a horse before, and hardly knew one end of it from the other. However, they stuck to their mounts nobly--as long as they could. On one of the first treks, an officer, coming under the eye of the authorities, and wishing to show off the accomplishments of his men, gave the command "Trot!" The result was a surprise to all parties. With a thundering of hoofs, a mob of galloping horsemen swept past the officer, scattered the authorities, and disappeared in clouds of dust. They knew how to start their horses--but had not yet learned the art of stopping them.
Great difficulty was experienced in getting saddlery. This had to be obtained locally, and the stuff in the town turned out to be mere rubbish. Some more serviceable equipment was got from the Mounted Infantry, but, when the detachment moved out on February 9th in charge of a convoy, many of the men were using blankets as saddles, and looped putties as stirrups.
The horses supplied were also very indifferent. A large proportion had been cast by the columns for sore backs and wrung withers, from which they had hardly recovered. However, all obstacles were surmounted, and the convoy, consisting of some 300 ox wagons, crossed the main line at Prior's siding on the 10th of February, and reached Philippolis on the 11th, after marching that day 24 miles.
The total strength of the detachment under Major du Moulin at this time was 12 officers and 558 rank and file. This included two companies of the Royal Irish Rifles, which were attached.
Striking down into the Colony, two days were taken up in crossing the Orange River at Sand Drift, where many columns had collected, the river being in flood. The water on the Drift was five feet deep in places, so that the wagons were awash. The bottom was sandy, and the track had constantly to be changed. A steep bank of heavy sand on the south side added to the difficulties. The constant rain at this time was very trying to the troops; the roads were knee-deep in slush, the camps became marshes, and, as there were no tents, wet blankets were the order of the day.
By the 17th the line was again reached at De Aar. Here more men were mounted, Lieut. Ashworth having brought up a further instalment of saddlery, and on the next day a start was made with a full convoy for Britstown, to the west of the railway line.
At this time De Wet had crossed the Orange River with his raiders, had reached Britstown, and had been headed off to the west in the Strydenburg direction. A large number of columns had been thrown into the Colony to deal with him, and the convoy under Major du Moulin was to serve the Northern section of these. It reached Britstown on the 20th, after some fighting; for it was actually ahead of the columns, and the Boers only evacuated the town as the convoy came up.
An average trek of 20 miles a day brought the convoy to Strydenburg (by way of Prieska) on the 23rd of February, hot on the trail of the Boers, whose recent camps were found at farms along the road. Maxwell's column was already in the town, and Munro's arrived with the convoy. Bethune's column was in rear. De Wet, who could not recross the Orange River on account of the floods, lost on this day a 15 pr., a pom-pom and 100 men, captured by Plumer.--The return journey of the convoy to Paau Pan, on the railway, was completed on the 26th.
The long marches to and from Strydenburg were wearisome and hot. Day after day the convoy plodded on, while the Karoo country stretched all round, brown, dusty, waterless, and quite flat. There was little sign of life--a few sheep, perhaps, a few ostriches, and a very occasional farm. The scrubby bush was most trying to the horses' legs. A "pan" here and there promised relief to the thirsty men and beasts, but the water as often as not turned out to be salt.
De Wet managed to cross the River on the 28th of February, and the column's next piece of convoy work consisted in taking 100 ox wagons and 19 mule wagons from Orange River Station to Colesberg, a distance of 100 miles. This was done in the remarkably quick time of six days, making an average of 17 miles a day in spite of bad weather. As 2½ miles an hour is fast for an ox wagon, this entailed eight hours a day actually on the move. The convoy reached Colesberg on the 8th of March, after a trek that formed a delightful contrast to the preceding one. The road led through a green and smiling country, lying among its hills by the Orange River. It was the season of fruit, and there was a great abundance of all kinds. Colesberg itself was a pleasant and friendly town, behind which rose the towering sides of Coles Kop. It seemed impossible that a gun should have been taken to its summit, but the feat had been accomplished, and the gun was there. A signal station on the top maintained helio communication within a radius of 30 or 40 miles, and exchanged occasional messages at 70 miles or more.
On the 10th of March the force under Major du Moulin started by rail for Edenburg. The men were not yet very skilled at entraining horses, and one company omitted to look to the bolts of the door on the far side of its truck. A few miles from Colesberg, a telegram overtook the train to say that horses were dropping out. The side of the truck had swung open, the train was going slow, and, looking back, three or four horses could be seen careering about the veldt. The door was quickly secured, and the train went on.
Soon after passing Norval's Pont, the train again came to a standstill. A swarm of locusts was on the rails, and the wheels of the engine could get no grip. The men had to turn out, and throw sand in front of the engine till the swarm was passed.
The country south of Dewetsdorp and east of Edenburg is intersected by a series of long ridges from two to five hundred feet in height, between which lie valleys and plains of irregular shape, often many miles across. At this time these valleys were full of stock of all kinds, the inhabitants were on their farms, and the local commandos, under Commandant Brand and others, had lived undisturbed upon the fat of the land. The size of the country, and the power of splitting up possessed by the commandos, made it extremely difficult to get at the latter. An effort was therefore made to cut off their supplies, and General Lyttleton's columns were turned into the district to clear it. Major du Moulin started from Edenburg with a convoy of 152 wagons for these columns on the 13th of March, reached Dewetsdorp on the 16th after some sniping, and on the 21st handed in at Bloemfontein 2,000 horses, 5,000 cattle, and 80,000 sheep collected during the week. A number of refugees were also brought in. The Boers had been engaged at Geluk on the 19th, two of them being killed and three wounded. Some South African Light Horse had been attached, to assist the escort of the convoy.
This trek into Bloemfontein from Dewetsdorp was a truly remarkable one. The convoy had grown so enormously in taking over the captures of the various columns, that it was no less than 10 miles long. Sometimes the rearguard did not leave one camping ground until two hours after the advanced guard had reached the next. The rearguard had a very difficult job. The great masses of sheep were very slow, and often a kopje had to be held until it was difficult to get away in the face of the Boer snipers, who constantly harassed the rear. This sniping continued right up to the outposts of Bloemfontein.
Here a great change was noticed in the look of the troops in the town. Instead of the torn and dirty uniforms of Lord Roberts' advance, neat new Khaki was to be seen all round, while at the Club starched collars and red tabs seemed the rule.
At Bloemfontein Capt. Montrésor joined the column, and there the Royal Irish Rifles left it. The weather continued extremely bad, the heavy rain causing the greatest discomfort to the troops.
Entraining for Springfontein, the force started thence with another convoy for the east of the line on the 27th of March. There were then under Major du Moulin 12 officers and 375 men of the Royal Sussex, of whom 250 were mounted; and a section each of the 39th and 85th batteries R.F.A.
The convoy was constantly sniped; but a trap laid by the Boers near Leeuwfontein failed, the widely extended flank guards getting in their rear without being conscious of the fact. The want of a pom-pom was very much felt, as the guns could not leave the convoy.
Smithfield was reached on the 30th, and some cycles found there formed the nucleus of a cyclist section, subsequently elaborated under Lieut. Crawley-Boevey. From Smithfield a four days' trek brought the convoy to Bethulie, after destroying by the way a Boer supply depôt, with ovens for the baking of bread, at Gryskop. Near the same place D company (under Capt. Montrésor) found itself in a warm corner at a farm to which it had been sent foraging, and lost four horses killed and three wounded. The guns, however, galloped up, and the Boers retired under a heavy fire.
Smithfield was reached on the return journey on the 7th of April, and Edenburg on the 10th. At the latter place, prisoners, refugees and stock were handed in.
While trekking, the Mounted Infantry furnished the advanced and rear screens, and the flank guards, the latter keeping well out. The order of march of the remainder was as follows:--
Advanced Guard:-- Section R.F.A. 1 Coy. Infantry in wagons (when available).
Main Body:-- 1 Coy. Infantry in Cape Carts. Baggage Column, R.A. leading. Supply wagons (mule). Ox wagons. Refugee wagons and ambulances.
Rear Guard:-- Section R.F.A. 1 Coy. Infantry in wagons (when available).
The company of Infantry at the head of the main body was used as a species of mounted (or rather carted) infantry; on the convoy being threatened, the Cape carts were turned in the required direction, and galloped across the veldt, disgorging their occupants at points of vantage. All the mounted men were thus freed for more important duties further afield. Each Cape cart contained one or two boxes of ammunition, and thus acted as ammunition reserve for any other troops who came up.
In April, General Lyttleton gave up command of the Southern District of the Orange River Colony, and on doing so published the following order:--
The Officer Commanding 1st Royal Sussex Regt.
Lieut. General Lyttleton desires me, before he leaves this command, to convey to you his appreciation of the very efficient manner in which the men of your Battalion, under Major du Moulin, have carried out the arduous duties of escort to convoys, on which they have been frequently employed.
They have been admirably trained and handled by that Officer, who has singular qualifications for that sort of work, and O.C.'s of columns in the field have reported in high terms on them.
General Lyttleton hopes that his good opinion may be conveyed to all ranks, in Battalion Orders, or in whatever way the Commanding Officer thinks best.
A. J. M. MacAndrew, Capt. Edenburg, for C.S.O. April 12, 1901 Genl. Lyttleton's Force.
A convoy of 120 wagons was again taken out to Dewetsdorp on the 11th of April, 250 I.Y. and 50 South African Light Horse (all freshly raised) being added to the escort. Dewetsdorp was cleared of inhabitants, and also all the farms along the route; and a vast body of refugees was brought in on the return to Edenburg, many having been handed over by the columns. There was a good deal of sniping during the trek, in which one man was severely wounded. A bicyclist of the advanced guard had been captured, with his machine, on the first day out. The man was of course set free: the bicycle was recovered months afterwards in a farm some distance away.
The force then set out for Smithfield with a convoy, reaching that place on the 24th of April, after having had a brush with a party of Boers near Rietput the day before. The town was cleared, and all the ovens and cooking utensils found in the houses were destroyed. On the morning of the 26th, when the convoy moved on, the Boers attempted to hold Commissie Bridge over the Caledon River. A sharp engagement followed, during which 2nd Lieut. Thorne collected men from among the wagons, dashed across the bridge, and seized a kopje on the further side, thereby gaining a mention in column orders. The Boers were driven off, but followed the convoy almost to Rouxville, which was reached on the 27th of April; and from this date to the 20th of May the force under Major du Moulin was occupied in escorting a convoy between Aliwal and Rouxville, bringing out stores from the latter place, and returning with refugees and stock taken over from the columns working the district.
On the 20th of May orders were received from General Bruce Hamilton that the column was to clear the country north of Smithfield as a fighting column. The task of watching the trek ox plod slowly and gloomily through the dust was over, to the great delight of all ranks, and, with a roving commission, the column set out in a northerly direction. In addition to men of the Royal Sussex (5 companies M.I. and an Infantry escort), Major du Moulin had under him at this time a company of the Connaught Rangers M.I. and a section of the 43rd Battery, R.F.A.
On the 22nd a retreating Boer convoy was sighted--probably belonging to Brand's Commando, then at Rietput. On the 24th the baggage of the column was well sniped by some sixty Boers at Kopjeskraal, on the way to Vaalbank. What followed was characteristic of Major du Moulin's methods. The cooks and other duty men, together with the wagon escort in Cape carts, were immediately set to charge round the flank of the hill at a gallop, Cape carts and all. This was too much for the nerves of the Boers, who streamed away. The guns came into action, without, however, any luck, the retreating Boers having separated in all directions.
The work of clearing farms continued, two companies of M.I. being sent out daily on each flank for the purpose. In many cases the farms were found empty, with every sign that the occupants had just hurriedly left. Sometimes a room had been bricked up, in which a supply of grain or the family treasures were stored.
On the 3rd of June the line was again reached at Jagersfontein Road, in cold and snow. A trek northwards along the line brought the column to Edenburg, where a new batch of mounted men from the Regiment joined. The 30th and 31st Imperial Yeomanry were also attached, and the much-desired pom-pom (under Capt. A. A. Montgomery, R.A.) was obtained. Two guns of the 39th Field Battery were with the column.
This batch of Yeomanry consisted of men utterly raw and untrained. They knew nothing about the work, so that it was necessary to assign each Yeoman to a Sussex man for instruction. As the pay of the latter was only one shilling a day, while the Yeoman was receiving five shillings, the position was rather absurd. On the first day out a spare wagon was filled with stuff that the Yeomen had left in camp--saddles, blankets, ammunition, etc. While on trek they were constantly losing horses and rifles. A system of heavy fines, proportionate to their pay, was instituted for these offences. In one case it was strongly suspected that a horse had been shot and left, saddle and all, by its rider when out on flank guard--presumably because he had no turn for mounted work, and disliked his animal.
No doubt some of these men developed into useful soldiers. Under the circumstances, however, the process was an annoying and even dangerous one for their instructors.
On the 6th of June the column set out to the West of the line. Capt. Gilbert raided the farm of Lokshoek on the night of the 6th, and Capt. Montrésor that of Kranzhoek on the 7th, capturing 13 and 11 prisoners respectively. At Lokshoek was a laager of women and children, with Cape carts and wagons. During the following days this process was repeated elsewhere, with the result that on the return of the column to Edenburg on the 15th, 53 prisoners were handed in, besides many refugees and a large amount of stock.
In Army Orders of the 4th of June, Major du Moulin was granted the local rank of Lieut.-Colonel. He was subsequently awarded a brevet Lieut.-Colonelcy.
At Edenburg, Lieuts. Crawley-Boevey and Bond, and 2nd Lieut. Paget joined the column--the latter with 50 mounted men, who had been raised at Norval's Pont, and employed round Edenburg.
On the 18th, the column set out to the East of the line, and worked once more in the now familiar country south of Dewetsdorp. Parties were constantly sent out to surround farms at night on the chance of finding Boers. The enemy had, however, realised by this time the danger of sleeping under a roof.
The 25th of June provided a long day's work. The column was fired at in the morning at Koetzee's Post, some 300 Boers being among the hills west of that place. The troops turned into the hill, successfully forcing the difficult nek to Klip Huis. Fourteen Cape carts and two wagons containing women and children were captured, but the commando was in flight, and the mounted troops chased them as far as Helvetia, 12 miles off, getting back to camp at Klip Huis after eleven hours in the saddle without food. A signal lamp stuck up in camp helped the tired companies to find their way in.
On the 28th of June some Boers successfully trapped a small flanking party at Mooifontein. The column had gone by Hex River, a pass some miles to the south; the baggage and escort were to cross the ridge by a road running close to Mooifontein farm. While the baggage was crossing the nek, a message was received by the Yeomanry Officer commanding the left flanking party that a Boer woman at the farm wished to be brought in to a refugee camp, and had asked for a wagon to take her and her boxes, which were ready packed. The Officer accordingly rode up to the farm, after passing the message on, and waited there with seven men of the Yeomanry and G company till a wagon should be sent back. It seems that the men paid more attention to catching chickens than to keeping a look-out. At any rate, as soon as the baggage was out of sight over the nek, some Boers, who were in hiding behind the farm, opened fire at the party point blank, killing three in the first volley and wounding two. The bugler only escaped, and missing his way, arrived at the camp of the column late at night. A party sent back of course found the farm unoccupied.
On the 29th of June a special company was organised under Capt. Montrésor to perform scouting duties, raids, and surprise visits to farms by day and night. The men were to receive a daily ration of rum, with an extra issue to those engaged in night work; while they were to be exempt from piquets and guards. One hundred men were easily obtained, and the "Raiders" came into existence.
On the 5th of July Lieut. Woodruffe was left with 14 men in ambush at Weltevreden, the camp of the night before, to wait for Boers, who were expected to visit the camp when the column had left, in the hope of picking up food or ammunition. Three Boers came along, one to the farm where the men were hidden. He would not surrender when challenged, but turned and galloped away, and so was shot.
Thirty Boers now opened fire upon the farm, and four of the horses of Woodruffe's party broke loose, delaying his retirement. His difficulties were further increased by one of the Yeomen with him, who became panic-stricken, and refused to mount. The Boers surrounded the small kopje upon which Woodruffe took up a position (not, however, before a boy had been sent back with a note to the column), and, working among the rocks, gradually closed in upon him. He was slightly wounded in the head, and one of his men (Weston) was hit. Things were looking rather black, when Lieut. Howes, I.Y., with 25 men of the rear guard, came back to his support, and the Boers retired with two killed.
On the 5th of July Dewetsdorp was raided in conjunction with Col. Rochfort, but the Boers were not there. They sent a letter by a released prisoner, saying they were sorry not to be at home.
Moving down to the Caledon River, the column arrived at Deep Dene on the 7th of July. There was no drift over the river at this point, and Col. du Moulin determined to make one. The banks, which were very steep, were dynamited, and horses and oxen were put to trample down and harden the loose deep sand of the river bed.
Great care had to be taken to avoid the quick-sands. Five small donkeys got involved in these, and sank lower and lower, in spite of all attempts to haul them out by ropes. They made the most pitiable noise in their terror, and ultimately had to be despatched, when little but their heads remained visible.
After enormous efforts, all the mule wagons were got across by 8 p.m., but the drift was found impassable for ox wagons; these, accordingly, moved on the following day up to Jammersberg Bridge, being shelled by another column on the way, and joined the mule wagons again at Wepener.
On the 10th of July, Col. Rochfort and Col. du Moulin, reconnoitring over Jammersberg Bridge with the Raiders (under Capt. Montrésor) and the pom-pom (under Capt. Montgomery), found seventy Boers holding the kopjes on the further side. Attacking at once, the hills were stormed on foot, and the Boers were turned out of their position and pursued for some miles. One prisoner was taken, and four saddled horses. Serjt. Nightingale was killed during the action, when very pluckily leading his section over the bridge.
The column was shortly ordered into Edenburg, and thence down the line to Springfontein, in order to operate on the west of the line. Orders had by this time been given that every man of the Regiment who was willing should be mounted, and join Col. du Moulin; and accordingly Major Church with the mounted men of H company, and Capt. Beale with those of the second Volunteer company, were waiting for the column at Springfontein. Major Church and the Volunteers had been trekking with Williams' and Byng's columns respectively.
 20 Prisoners, 9 Male Refugees, 41 Women, 124 Children, 6,179 Sheep, 337 Cattle, 136 Horses.
 100 prisoners, 30 male refugees, 300 women, 980 children, 400 black refugees, 30,000 sheep, 6,000 cattle, 300 horses.
 Pte. Pruce, E Company.
Prisoners of War 53 Rifles 4 Ammunition 500 rounds Dynamite 10 lbs. Horses 558 Ox wagons 36 Cape carts 30 Cattle 2052 Sheep 15000
Refugees. White men 3 women 131 children 467 Black men 2 women 7 children 70
 Pte. Boniface, of G Company, was killed there. On the same day Pte. Shorney, of H Company, was mortally wounded at Hex River.