HEKPOORT, September 5th, 1900.
We've stood to our nags (confound them!) We've thought of our native land; We have cussed our English brother, (For he does not understand.) We've cussed the whole of creation, And the cross swings low for the morn, Last straw (and by stern obligation) To the Empire's load we've borne.
Monday, September 3rd. Reveillé at three o'clock, and coming after a few days of welcome rest in the camp by the Pretoria Racecourse, a camp resembling a vast rubbish field with the addition of open latrines, we naturally felt more annoyed than when on the march, hence these idle rhymes. On Sunday, after a short Divine Service, at which our major presided, we had to fall in and draw remounts. Hence "Reveillé," "Saddle up and stand to your horses!" I chose rather a good mount in the horse corral, but as the sergeants had the privilege of choosing from those we drew, I lost it, and so abandoned any intentions of trying to secure another good one. There is no attempt on these occasions to see that the right man has the right horse: it's "Hobson's choice." Even at Maitland camp, where I drew my first mount, no such attempt was made, the consequence being that I, scaling about 13-st. or more with my kit on, and heaven only knows what with my loaded saddle, drew when my turn came a weak little mare, which I had to stick to, to our mutual disadvantage, while lighter men drew bigger and stronger horses. Only a few days ago I received amongst my mails a letter from my sister, who inquired, "How is your horse?" Which one? "Stumbles" is not, "Ponto" is not, "Juggernaut" is not, "Diamond Jubilee" is not, "Bête Noire" is not. My present one, which I have not named, is, and I sometimes wish he wasn't. When I drew him at a venture, I vainly hoped he was not like other horses, especially that Argentine. Well, apart from stumbling and reverentially kneeling on most inopportune occasions, I have not much fault to find with him. To-day is our first day on this fresh jaunt (we are to join Clements), and already more than half the horses dished out to us seem played out. You see they have all passed through the Sick Horse Farm, and I presume are really convalescents. They dragged us along at the commencement of the day, and we had to drag them along at the end, which may sound like an equal division of labour, but which, in my opinion, it is not. However, to be very serious, our lives might have to depend upon these brutes at any moment, apart from the fact of our necks being perpetually in danger on account of their stumbling propensities. Still apart from the inconvenience of having to bury one, I fancy there would not be much concern on that count. We have halted at Rietfontein which is a mile or so from Commando Nek. Here is a large A.S.C. depôt, from which columns working in the district can draw supplies. It has been quite a treat to have tea by daylight.
Tuesday, September 4th. 'Nother three o'clock reveillé! Passing by Commando Nek we were surprised at the difference since we were here about a month ago. Then the trees were bare, nearly all the veldt burnt and black, and the oat fields trodden down. Now the trees are wearing o' the green, and the once blackened veldt has assumed a verdant and youthful appearance, while the oat fields remind one of home, almost. For this is the Krugersdorp District, which we like so well, though, alas, the orange groves are on the other side (north) of the Magaliesberg. A strange thing happened after passing our old camping ground (of about a month ago) at Commando Nek. Instead of recognising familiar landmarks and houses, everything seemed strange and new to me. Said the man on my left in the ranks, "There's the farm where those Tommies got the porkers." To which I remarked vacantly, "Oh!" Then, further on, "Haven't the oats come on in that field?" Again, I helplessly "Er--yes." Then, "I wonder if they've got any fowls left in that shanty over there?" I, dissembling knowledge no longer, at last observed, "Really I don't understand it. I can't remember this place a bit." To which my neighbour replied, "Don't you remember coming this way when we were leading those Argentine remounts?"
Those Argentine remounts! All was explained at last. Of course, I saw and remembered naught save those awful brutes.
We caught Clements up at ten o'clock--encamped to our joy--so here we are with "piled arms," "saddles off," and "horses picketed." As we came into camp we heard once again the Mausers of the snipers afar off. We have rigged up a sun shelter and have just dined, our "scoff" (Kaffir for "grub") being bread and bully beef.
First Yeoman: "I say, is this bully beef American?"
Second Yeoman: "No, 'Orse-tralian, I believe."
Wednesday, September 5th.
"The peaches are a-blooming, And the guns are a-booming, And I want you, my honey, Yus, I do."
We had reveillé at a more Christian-like time this morning (4.30), and moved out as supports to our other troop (Devons), who were advance party. We number eighteen Sussex men, all told, in our ranks, and are led by Mr. Stanley, a Somerset I.Y. officer, who on our last trip was in charge of the Ross Gun Section, which consisted of two quick-firing Colt guns. After bare trees, dry veldt and dusty tracks, it is a real treat for one's eyes to see this fine district assuming its spring garb. Through the bright green patches of oats and barley we rode, past peach trees and bushes in full bloom, sometimes through a hedge of them, the pink blooms brushing against one's cheek. Then we came to a bend of the Crocodile River, with its rugged banks covered with trees and undergrowth, and the water rushing swiftly along between and over the huge rocks in its bed. This we forded at the nearest drift, the water reaching up to the horses' bellies. The general idea was for us mounted troops to clear the valley, and the infantry the ridges of kopjes. We were soon being sniped at from the right and the left, by, I presume, numerous small parties of Boers, and after riding about a mile were dismounted behind a farmhouse, and took up a position on the banks of the Crocodile. The scene was truly idyllic. Below us the river in this particular place was placidly flowing, the various trees on its banks were bursting out in their spring foliage, and birds were twittering amongst them: indeed, one cheeky little feathered thing came and perched on a peach tree covered in pink blossom close by and piped a matin to me, and there was I, lounging luxuriously in the deep grass, a pipe in my mouth, a Lee-Enfield across my knees, and a keen eye on the range of kopjes opposite. Truly, the spring poet's opportunity, but alas, beyond the few lines with which I have dared to head to-day's notes, I could do naught in that line. Soon our artillery began throwing shrapnel on the top of the objectionable height, and, later, the Mausers began to speak a little further on, and that has been the day's game. I don't know our losses yet, but we have undoubtedly had some. Our crowd had a horse killed, of course. We had a good deal of visiting to do, calling at this farm and that, and inquiring if the "good man" was at home. This is the usual scene:
Farmhouse of a humble order. A few timid Kaffirs loitering around, also a few fowls and slack-looking mongrels. Gentleman in Khaki rides up, and in the door appear two or more round-faced women wearing headgear of the baby-bonnet mode, dirty-faced children in background.
G. in K.: "Where is your husband?"
Women: "Niet verstand."
G. in K.: "Where is your brother?"
Women: "Niet verstand."
G. in K.: "Is he on those kopjes, potting at us?"
Women: "Niet verstand."
G. in K.: "Have many Boers been past here?"
Women: "Niet verstand."
G, in K. (After more interrogatories and more "Niet verstands"): "Oh, hang it, good-bye."
Women (in distance): "Niet verstand."
Verily, the "niet verstand" or "no savvee" game is a great one out here.
(Later.) Our casualties were three Northumberland Fusiliers killed and eight wounded, one of our Fife comrades shot in the chest, also three Roughriders hit, and a fair percentage of horses knocked.
Thursday, September 6th.--Reveillé at four o'clock, and off at daybreak. We soon came into action, some of our fellows on the right flank getting it particularly hot. Our little lot wheeled and dismounted behind a farmhouse, and, wading through a field of waving green barley, under fire, took up a position amongst the growth on the near bank of the river, from which we let off at some sangars on the top of a kopje in front. After a while we returned to our horses, mounted, rode away to our right, crossed the river, dismounted behind a rise in the ground, and proceeded to occupy some kopjes nearer the enemy, who had retired. Some fine sangars were on the hill we occupied, and so we were saved the trouble of building any. The one I found myself in was a very comfortable and secure affair as regards rifle fire. As, of course, Mr. Boer does not show himself over much, we had not much to pot at, therefore I made myself as comfortable as possible on the shady side of the sangar, and pulled out one of my numerous pocket editions of Tennyson (recently acquired in Pretoria) and indulged in a good, though occasionally interrupted, read. To a stranger at the game, I should imagine that my behaviour at times would have appeared incongruous, for while perusing the "Lotos-Eaters" and "Choric Song," the man on my right would now and again interrupt me with, "There are some, have a shot at 'em!" Whereupon I would arise and fire a round or so at the distant dots, and then sink down again and resume the sweet poesy, ignoring as much as possible the constant bangings of villainous cordite in my ears, right and left. Soon we moved on to another position, the Northumberlands taking up our old one. The next one was in a stone enclosure, which contained a large number of goats and kids. This was not so pleasant, as the sun was high, and the place odoriferous.
At about three we were relieved by a Northumberland picket, and returned under a sniping fire to where the camp had been pitched. Then the fun commenced. A rather distant bang, whis-sh! over our heads; and from amongst the infantry blanket shelters a cloud of earth spouted up, and a small batch of men cleared off from the vicinity of the explosion. It was amusing to see the niggers throw themselves into trenches by the roads and fields. Then came another and yet another shell, without any more effect than making a hole in a tent, and the men of No. 8 Battery Field Artillery (and No. 8 is a deuced smart Battery, by'r leave) dashed out from their lines, pushing and dragging their guns, while the "4.7 gentleman" began moving his long beak in the air as though sniffing for the foe. "Give 'em hell, boys!" we cried to the busy gunners, as they dashed by us, working at the wheels and drag-ropes, but the Naval man spoke first, "Snap--Bang!" and back the gun jumped in a cloud of smoke; and presently, far away, from the crest of the kopje under suspicion, a cloud of brown arose, and later came the crack of the explosion. Meanwhile the Boers went on pitching shells into our camp, and we got the order to retire behind a kopje with our horses till it was decided what to do with us. Having done this, the shelling soon ceased, and later we were taken back to camp, where we off-saddled, picketed our horses, and settled down to tea. And then bang! whish! crack!! bang! whish! towards us the enemy's shells came again. They had got two guns in position, and were working them hard. We were getting some of our own back, for the shells we picked up were 15-pounder ones, of British make. Our Naval gun barked back viciously at them, and so did the field guns, but the enemy were firing with the red and dazzling setting sun, behind them, and shining directly in our fellows' eyes, who were blazing apparently at poor old Sol, and cussing him and the wily Boer in a manner by no means ambiguous. I know not whether we did them any harm or not; certainly they shifted their positions once or twice. As regards ourselves, it seems beyond belief, no damage was done. The enemy could not even boast of the bag which the Americans achieved at Santiago--that famous mule.
[Illustration: Oliver Twist on the Veldt.
Pember, of the Sussex, asking for an extra allowance of tea, at the cook-house, while the camp is being shelled by the Boers, at Hekpoort.
(Persuasively) "It may be your last chance, Cookie!"]
HEKPOORT. Saturday, September 8th, 1900.
I fancy I stopped in my last near the end of a rather long-winded account of the shelling we experienced at the hands of Brother Boer, on Thursday evening last. To conclude that day's events, we finally shifted our horse lines a bit and turned in, spending a night undisturbed by the distant booming of the Boer guns or the ear-splitting cracking of our 4.7. The next day we returned to our old lines, and settled down for a good day's rest, as we heard that Clements was waiting for Ridley to come up.
I had hardly unsaddled, however, when the sergeant-major came round and told half-a-dozen of us to saddle up and go out with the two guides (civilians, British farmers, who are with this column and know the locality). So we flung on our saddles, and slipping on our bandoliers, mounted and set out in our shirt sleeves (mark that!) with our guides in their civilian togs (mark that!). From these individuals we gathered we were off cattle-lifting, the Boers having left some in a kloof about a couple of miles south of the camp. With jocular allusions to our last quest of a similar nature (the laager near Rustenburg) we smoked and trotted along, comfortable in our shirt sleeves after so much of the usual marching order. Following, came four "boys" to drive the cattle home. We soon reached our objective. The "boys" were sent into the kloof, while we dismounted a little way up the stone-covered kopje on the right, and leaving a couple to look after the gees, the guides and the remainder of us started to climb the heights and cover the "boys" if necessary. Soon a rifle report was heard, and then another. The guides said it was a picket of ours firing on us in mistake from the kopje on the left, and suggested that one of us should work round and let them know who we were. Most of us argued that the report was a Mauser one. However, the guides prevailed, and I was deputed for the job, when the "boys" came running in breathless and told us pantingly that Boers had been sniping them. So seeing that it would be impossible under the circumstances to lift the cattle, we retired on our horses, mounted and moved off. And then the beggars, who had evidently moved up closer, gave it to us fairly warm, and we had to open out and break into a gallop in the direction of the camp. We were about clear of the Mausers and riding through some bush, when, suddenly above a stone wall not a hundred yards in front of us, helmets and heads appeared, also glistening rifle barrels, which pointed, oh no, not on the kopje behind, but on us. [This is where the civilian clothes and shirt sleeves came in.] An officer shouted "Don't fire! Don't fire!!! Down with those rifles." This order was obeyed reluctantly, then "Who are you?" "Friends! Yeomanry!" "What Yeomanry?" "Sussex." "All right." They proved to be a picket of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Then we crossed a drift, our horses nearly having to swim, and finally reached camp. This morning (Saturday, September 8th) our squadron and the Fifes had to go back about half-a-dozen miles to meet Ridley. Our troop acted as advance party. It was rather an interesting sight to see the two parties meet; the advance of Ridley's force was Kitchener's Horse. When we met, we halted and chatted, waiting for orders. As we did so, the merry snipers started a desultory fire, which gradually became more rapid. Several suspected houses in the vicinity, whose owners had, as usual, taken the oath of neutrality and broken it--Punica Fides will have to give way to a new phrase, Boer Faith--were then burnt down. War is not altogether a game, it has its stern aspect. The women and children were loud in their lamentations as the red flames blazed and the dense smoke rolled away on the fresh breeze which was blowing. They cursed us and wept idle tears, but they had their own dear friends, husbands and sons, to thank after all, as nearly all the sniping in this lovely valley is being done by the farmers who live in it. We brought about 25 Boers in camp with us, either suspected or to save them from temptation. To see them, with their roll of blankets, saying good-bye to their weeping families would have touched anything but the hardened, homesick heart of a "Gentleman in Khaki," for he knows full well that the simple peasant in this, as in other localities, usually combines business with pleasure by sniping you in the morning and selling you eggs in the afternoon, as our troop leader puts it.
Sunday, September 9th. A late reveillé (6 o'clock). A lovely, lazy day in camp, during which I have been stewing fruit, smoking, and, alas, my bad habits still cling to me, perpetrated for my own amusement a little rough-and-ready rhyme, which I have the temerity to enclose. We had a short service, at which our O.C. Major Percy Browne, a real good man, presided. Ridley, who works with Clements, the same as Mahon did with Ian Hamilton, has with him Roberts' Horse, Kitchener's Horse, some Australians, the 2nd and 6th M.I., some artillery and two pom-poms. We advance to-morrow.
Into our camp, from far away, Somebody's darling came one day-- Somebody's darling, full of grace, Wearing yet on his youthful face, Soon to be hid by a stubbly growth, The fatted look of a life of sloth. Thus to our camp, from far away, Somebody's darling came one day.
Parted and oiled were the locks of gold, Kissing the brow of patrician mould, And pale as the Himalayan snows; Spotlessly clean were his khaki clothes. It was a cert', beyond any doubt, Somebody's darling had just come out.
Wond'rous changes were quickly wrought. Somebody's darling marched and fought. Somebody's darling learned to shoot, Somebody's darling loved to loot; Somebody's darling learned to swear, And neglected to part his hair.
After riding and marching weary leagues, Somebody's darling was set on fatigues-- Set on fatigues for dreary hours, Thinking of home, its fruits and flowers. Somebody's darling's ideals were quashed; Somebody's darling went unwashed.
Somebody's darling cussed sergeants big, Somebody's darling killed a young pig: Then dressed and trimmed it ready to eat, First of many a butcherly feat; Somebody's dear caring naught for looks, Joined the army of amateur cooks.
Somebody's darling drank water muddy; Somebody's darling saw men all bloody; Somebody's darling heard bullets fly; Somebody's darling saw comrades die; Somebody's darling was playing the game,-- Thousands and thousands were doing the same.
Somebody's darling rose long before morn; Somebody's darling went tattered and torn; Somebody's darling longed for a bite, Half-baked by day and frozen by night. Somebody's darling received Mails sometimes, And his joy was beyond my idle rhymes.
Somebody's darling was sniped one fierce day, An ambulance jolted him far away; Somebody's darling had got it bad, Somebody at home would soon be sad. Somebody's darling grew worse--then died. And--that was the end of Somebody's Pride.
DELAREY GIVES US A FIELD DAY.
Monday, September 10th, 1900.
We had reveillé at 3.30, and moved off as advance party before dawn. It was not long before we got into action. In less than a mile from our camp we found frère Boer, who made his presence known to us in the usual way, that is, with his Mauser, Express, Martini-Henry, or elephant gun; of course, the first is his usual weapon. Not to be too long-winded, we carried ridge after ridge of kopje for several miles. On one occasion the enemy and ourselves rushed for the top of two different kopjes, wherefrom to pepper one another. We only just had time to take cover in a sangar as they opened fire from the opposite hill. Their bullets buzzed and whistled over us, bringing down twigs from a tree just by me, and striking the stones with a nasty sound. Later, the infantry (Worcesters), advancing from behind, began firing over us at the enemy; indeed, for a little time, we were very uncertain whether they were not mistaking us for t'others. Anyhow, their bullets came most infernally close, and necessitated our taking careful cover from the missiles in rear as well as those in front. At last we came to the enemy's main position, which was a fine natural one, and our artillery came into play--we resting for a bit, and the infantry forming up to advance under their fire. Then hell got loose. Bang, bang, bang went our field guns; boom went the 4.7; pom-pom-pom-pom-pom went the Vickers-Maxims; rap-rap-rap-rap-rap-rap went the Maxims; bang, bang went their field guns; up-um, up-um, up-um went their Mausers; crack, crack went our rifles. Imagine the above weapons and a few others, please, all firing, not so much to make themselves heard at the same time (they did that), but to destroy, kill and maim, and you can guess it was hard for a poor tired beggar to sleep. I was fagged out, and when we rested while our gunner friends had their innings, laid down in the blazing noon-day sun, and, with a stone for a pillow, half-dozed for an hour or so. I was roused by a comrade to look in front of me, it was a wonderful sight. About a mile-and-a-half of the Boer position was a blackened line fringed with flame and smoke, but they were still determinedly trying to stop our infantry from occupying a long kopje in front of them, and answering our guns with theirs. That night was almost a sleepless one, for though dead fagged, we all had to do pickets on the ground we had won. The next morning Delarey had disappeared, but we know we shall meet him again.
It is a fine sight to see British infantry advance. With rolled blanket, and mess-tin a-top, filled haversack, the accursed "hundred-and-fifty" pulling at his stomach, pipe in mouth, and rifle sloped (butt up as a rule), Mr. Thomas Atkins of the Line goes leisurely forward. I do not know yet what the casualties were. Of the Worcesters who passed us, one poor fellow was shot through the head, and about ten wounded; we had none, save a nag shot by Roberts' Horse in mistake.
[Footnote 5: The hundred-and-fifty rounds of ammunition which always have to be carried by Thomas Atkins.]
BURNT TO DEATH.
HEKPOORT. Thursday, Sept. 13th, 1900.
We returned to this, our old camp, yesterday, and are resting here for a day or more, one never knows for certain how long these rests will last when out on the war path. Yesterday (the 12th) we had a fairly late reveillé, and then, acting as advance guard, returned hither by way of a valley running parallel with this, and through which Ridley advanced when we had our little scrap with Delarey at Boschfontein, on Monday last. By-the-bye, I was yarning, while washing at a stream near here this morning, with some Worcesters, who told me they had five killed and fifteen wounded on that day. Two poor fellows were found burned out of all recognition on the charred veldt the next day. They had been left wounded and had been unable to crawl away from the blazing grass. The valley we passed through yesterday was, in parts, more charming than this. One little village, called Zeekooe, was a particularly pleasant spot, the houses being half-hidden by the white pear blossoms, the pink peach, and the various green foliages of the trees, for this is Spring, when "the young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," and here am I ----, well, well!! Even my old foe, the two-inch thorn bush, has assumed a light-green muslin bridal veil. All this bursting into leaf is most refreshing, to me at least, and I doubt not no less welcome to the noble Boer sniper, who now gets more cover than was possible a month ago. As we left camp, he was sniping away merrily, and about as ineffectively as usual. When we crossed the kopjes to get to this valley we came by way of a fine mountain road. Sheer down below us rushed the river Magaliz, crystal clear, splashing and bubbling over the big rocks in its bed, with weeping willows dipping down from amidst the thick undergrowth on its banks, while now and again a garden from a farm near ran to its edge, with vivid patches of young oats and lemon trees. On arrival in camp, we heard that some Boers had been discovered in some undergrowth, by a stream on our left flank, so we set off, and beating it got six armed.
The barbed-wire curse is great in this Eden-like valley, and when you consider that the advance mounted parties have to go straight ahead through fields and back gardens, the garden walls of which are invariably represented by barbed-wire fencing, you can comprehend that our work is more often than not, no easy matter, especially as wire-nippers are as rare as brandies and sodas, and even when possessed are not much assistance in surmounting the wide and deep irrigation cutting, which is often on the other side of the fence. Again, bogs are not infrequently come across--across, by the way, is hardly the word to use. Only a few days ago I was riding towards what I deemed to be a passable ford, when I met a Rough Rider (72nd I.Y.) coming back from it. I casually asked him if it was all right, to which he replied that it was a bit boggy, and then incidentally added, "We've just shot one of our fellows' horses that got stuck and we couldn't get out." Whereupon I took a more circuitous route, a proceeding which I did not regret, when later, I saw the poor, horseless Rough toiling in the broiling sun, his huge saddle covering his head and shoulders, after the tail of the convoy, in hopes of catching it and depositing his burden on a waggon.
THE INFECTION OF SPRING AGAIN.
I must apologise for the enclosed doggerel. Last night, round one of our fires, we were alluding to the various uses we have made of that deadly weapon, the bayonet, and it was suggested that I, as a Spring Poet, should record them in verse, hence the enclosed:--
THE BALLAD OF THE BAYONET.
(Sussex Yeoman loq.)
THE BALLAD OF THE BAYONET.
(Sussex Yeoman loq.)
Did I ever use the bay'nit, sir?
In the far off Transvaal War,
Where I fought for Queen and country, sir,
Against the wily Boer.
Aye, many a time and oft, sir,
I've bared the trusty blade,
And blessed the dear old Homeland, sir,
Where it was carefully made.
Then here's to the British bay'nit
Made of Sheffield steel,
And here's to the men who bore it—
Stalwart men and leal.
You notice the dents on the edge, sir,
At Bronkhurst Spruit they were done;
I was getting a door for a fire,
For out of wood we had run.
I was smiting hard at the door, sir,
Or rafter, I'm not sure which,
When I struck on an iron screw, sir,
And the bay'nit got this niche.
'Tis my mighty Excalibur, sir,
I've used it in joy and grief,
For digging up many a tater,
Or opening bully beef.
I have used it for breaking wire,
Making tents 'gainst rain and sun;
I have used it as a hoof-pick,
In a hundred ways and one.
Oh, how did the point get blunted, sir?
I was driving it home
As a picketing peg for my horse,
So that he should not roam.
I drove it in a little, sir,
And then in my haste, alas,
I stubbed the point on a rock, sir,
Some inches below the grass.
You ask if it e'er took a life, sir?
Aye, I mind the time full well;
I had spotted him by a farm, sir,
And went for him with a yell.
He tried to escape me hard, sir,
But I plunged it in his side,
And there by his own backyard, sir,
A healthy porker died.
But did I draw it in action?
You ask me roughly now.
Yes, we were taking a kopje,
The foe were on the brow.
We drew and fixed our bay'nits,
The sun shone on the steel;
Death to the sniping beggars
We were about to deal.
Has it e'er drawn human blood?
Yes, once, I grieve to say;
It was not in a battle,
Or any bloody fray;
'Twas just outside Pretoria.
The deed was never meant,
I slipped and fell on the point, sir,
'Twas quite by accident.
Then here's to the British bay'nit,
Made of Sheffield steel,
And here's to the men who bore it,
Stalwart men and leal.
And here's to the Millenium,
The time of peaceful peace,
When neighbours shall love each other,
And wicked wars shall cease.