"More khaki," sniffed a bored but charming lady, as she glanced at a picture of the poor Yeomanry at Lindley, and then hastily turned away to something of greater interest. I overheard the foregoing at the Royal Academy, soon after my return from South Africa, last May, and thanked the Fates that I was in mufti. It was to a certain extent indicative of the jaded interest with which the War is now being followed by a large proportion of the public at home, the majority of whom, I presume, have no near or dear ones concerned in the affair; a public which cheered itself hoarse and generally made "a hass" of itself many months ago in welcoming certain warriors whose period of active service had been somewhat short. I wonder how the veterans of the Natal campaign, the gallant Irish Brigade, and others, will be received when they return? "Come back from the War! What War?"
And yet in spite of this apathy, "War Books" keep appearing, and here is a simple Yeoman thrusting yet another on the British Public. Still 'twere worse than folly to apologise, for qui s'excuse, s'accuse.
The present unpretentious volume is composed of letters written to a friend from South Africa, during the past twelve months, with a few necessary omissions and additions; the illustrations which have been introduced, are reproductions in pen and ink of pencil sketches done on the veldt or in hospital. The sole aim throughout has been to represent a true picture of the every-day life of a trooper in the Imperial Yeomanry. In many cases the "grousing" of the ranker may strike the reader as objectionable, and had this record been penned in a comfortable study, arm-chair philosophy might have caused many a passage to be omitted. But the true campaigning atmosphere would have been sacrificed.
As the Sussex Squadron of Imperial Yeomanry was, in popular parlance, "on its own" till the end of May, the letters dealing with that period have been excluded. However, a brief account of the doings of the Squadron up to that time is necessary to give continuity to the story, so here it is:
THE SUSSEX YEOMANRY.
The Yeomanry is a Volunteer Force, and as is generally known, was embodied in Great Britain during the wars of the French Revolution. History records that at the period named, the County of Sussex possessed one of the finest Corps in England. Autres temps, autres moeurs, and so from apathy and disuse the Sussex Yeomanry gradually dwindled in numbers and importance, until it eventually became extinct. Then came the dark days of November and December, in the year eighteen-hundred-and-ninety-nine. Who will ever forget them? And who does not remember with pride the great outburst of patriotism, which, like a volcanic eruption, swept every obstacle before it, banishing Party rancour and class prejudice, thus welding the British race in one gigantic whole, ready to do and die for the honour of the Old Flag, and in defence of the Empire which has been built up by the blood and brains of its noblest sons. The call for Volunteers for Active Service was answered in a manner which left no doubt as to the issue. From North, South, East, and West, came offers of units, then tens, then hundreds, and finally, thousands, the flower of the Nation, were in arms ready for action. The Hon. T. A. Brassey, a Sussex man, holding a commission in the West Kent Yeomanry, applied for permission and undertook, early in February, 1900, to form a squadron of Yeomanry from Sussex. The enlistment was principally done at Eastbourne, as were also the preliminary drills. We went into quarters at Shorncliffe where we trained until the last week in March, when early, very early, one dark cold morning, a wailing sleepy drum and fife band played us down to the Shorncliffe Station, where we entrained for the Albert Docks, London. There the transport "Delphic" received us, together with a squadron of Paget's Horse (the 73rd I.Y.), and soon after noon the officers and troopers were being borne down the river, and with mixed feelings, were beginning to realise they were actually off at last. Many, alas, were destined never to return.
It is more amusing than ever, now, to recall the remarks of cheerful, chaffing friends, who indulged in sly digs at the poor Yeomen previous to their departure. At that time, as now, "the end was in sight" only we had not got used to it. It was a common experience to be greeted with, "Ha, going out to South Africa! Why it'll be all over before you get there," or "Well, it'll be a pleasant little trip there and back, for I don't suppose they'll land you." Subsequent experience of troopships has dispelled even "the pleasant trip" illusion. Another favourite phrase, was "Well, if they do use you, they'll put you on the lines of communications." Sometimes a generous friend would confidentially ask, "Do you think they'll let you start?" And one, a lady, anxious on account of gew-gaws, observed, "Oh, I hope they'll give you a medal."
Eventually the slow but sure S.S. "Delphic," having stopped at St. Helena to land bullocks for Cronje, Schiel and their friends, disgorged us at Cape Town. Our anxiety as to whether the war was over was soon allayed, and we gaily marched, a perspiring company, to Maitland Camp. Here amid sand and flies we began to conceive what the real thing would be like. An extract or two from letters written while at that salubrious spot may serve to give an idea of the life there:
"This place is a perfect New Jerusalem as regards Sheenies, every civilian about the camp appearing to be a German Jew refugee. They have stalls and sell soap, buns, braces, belts, &c., and so forth. Every now and again a big Semitic proboscis appears at our tent door, and the question 'Does anypody vant to puy a vatch' is propounded."
Hungarian horses were drawn and quartered by our lines, and saddlery served out. By-the-way, I have always flattered myself there was at least one good thing about the 69th Squadron I.Y., they had excellent saddles. The first time we turned out in full marching order was a terrible affair, and the following may help to convey an idea of the tout ensemble of an erstwhile peaceful citizen:
"Please imagine me as an average Yeoman in full marching order. Dangling on each side of the saddle are apparently two small hay-ricks in nets; then wallets full, and over them a rolled overcoat and an extra pair of boots. Behind, rolled waterproof-sheet and army blanket, with iron picketing-peg and rope, and mess-tin on top. Elsewhere the close observer mentally notes a half-filled nosebag. So much for the horse, and then, loaded with the implements of war, bristling with cartridges, water-bottle, field-glass, haversack, bayonet and so on, we behold the Yeoman. With great dexterity (not always) he fits himself into the already apparently superfluously-decorated saddle, and once there, though he may wobble about, takes some displacing.
"I really must remark on the marvellous head for figures that we Yeomen are expected to have. Read this. Comment from myself will be superfluous.
"My Company number is 51.
"My regimental number is 16,484.
"My rifle and bayonet, 2,502.
"The breech-block and barrel of the rifle are numbered 4,870.
"My horse's number is 1,388.
"There may be a few more numbers attached to me; if so, I have overlooked them."
En passant, I must mention we were with our proper battalion, the 14th, commanded by Colonel Brookfield, M.P., at Maitland. Eventually, thanks to the fact of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk being attached to our squadron, when we got the order to go up country we left the rest of the battalion behind at Bloemfontein, cursing, and proceeded by rail as far as Smaldeel, where we detrained with our horses and commenced treking after the immortal "Bobs."
His Grace's servant, rather an old fellow, did not seem to particularly care for campaigning, and, often, dolefully regarding his khaki garments, would sorrowfully remark, "To think as 'ow I've served 'im all these years, and now 'e should bring me hout 'ere. It does seem 'ard." I think a pilgrimage would have been more to his liking.
Our first experience of "watering horses" on the trek was both interesting and exciting, it occurred at Smaldeel.
"The horses we proceeded to water at once; I had the pleasure of taking two and of proving the proverb, re leading horses to the water. En route were dead horses to the right and dead horses to the left; in the water, which was black, one was dying in an apparently contented manner, while another lay within a few yards of it doing the same thing in a don't-care-a-bit sort of way. Regarded from five hours later, I fancy my performances with the two noble steeds in my charge must have been distinctly amusing to view, had anyone been unoccupied enough to watch me. Vainly did I try to induce them to drink of the printer's-ink-like fluid, water and mud, already stirred up by hundreds of other horses. When they did go in, they went for a splash, a paddle, and a roll, not to imbibe, and I had to go with them a little way, nearly up to my knees, in the mud. I have arrived at the conclusion that the noble quadruped is not an altogether pleasant beast. Still, I suppose he has an opinion of us poor mortals. In death he is also far from pleasant, as was conclusively proved when night came on, and a dead one near us began to assert his presence with unnecessary emphasis. Phew! It's all very well saying that a live donkey is better than a dead lion, but judging from my experience of dead horses, which is just commencing, I should say that the dead lion would prove mightily offensive."
The water in the Free State, as a rule, was most unsatisfactory. Marching in the wake of an army of about 50,000 men, however, one would scarcely expect water to remain unstirred or unpolluted. I always found my tea or coffee more enjoyable when the water for it was drawn by somebody else. Even though that comrade would jestingly call it "Bovril," and unnecessarily explain that the pool it came from contained two dead horses and an ox.
One more extract and I have done.
"Yesterday (Friday, May 25th) we got as far as Leeum Spruit. So far they had succeeded in getting the railway in working order, but there the scene was one of utter destruction, three or four bridges being blown up, and the rails all twisted and sticking up in the air. Hundreds of Kaffirs were at work getting things straight, which to any ordinary person would seem impossible.
"It is a marvellous sight to see the convoys toiling in the track of Roberts' army, the blown-up bridges and rails, and the deserted farms. Of course, some are still inhabited. It may interest linguists and admirers of Laurence Sterne to know that the language of the British Army in South Africa is the same as it was with our army in Flanders in Uncle Toby's days--of course, allowing for an up-to-date vocabulary.
"Sunday, May 27th.--Up with the unfortunate early worm, as usual. Our reveillé generally consists of a shout and a kick, as our bugle is not used. It seems hard to realise that to-day is Sunday, and while the church bells at home are ringing, or the service is in progress, we dirty, unshaven beings, who once had part in the far-away life, are either riding or leading our horses across the flat and, in many places, charred veldt, past blown-up bridges, torn-up rails, convoys leisurely drawn by languid oxen, demolished houses, bleached bones of oxen, horses and mules, as well as the so-often-alluded-to dead beasts known by Tommy as 'Roberts' Milestones,' and all that goes to war--glorious war. We are making a fairly long march to-day, as we hope to catch Roberts at last. Anyhow, to-night should see us at the frontier--the Vaal River."