Two Years At The Front With The Mounted Infantry
Being the Diary of Lieutenant B. Moeller
With a Memoir by Lieut.-Colonel L. R. C. Boyle, H.A.C.
London: Grant Richards
The following Diary of two years' service at the front in South Africa, ended by the lamented death of its writer, was penned by Lieutenant Bertie Moeller for his parents' perusal alone—jotted down in the midst of warfare, often in the saddle or on the veldt, without arriere pensee—and is only now published as a memorial in response to the solicitations of friends and comrades.
Eleven years in the Honourable Artillery Company, he showed such zeal that he soon received his commission. Indefatigable in his work for his corps, the Army List of January ft1899, contains the following statement:
'Second-Lieutenant B. Moeller, having passed in all subjects, is entitled to the letter " Q " in the Army List.'
(Authority, War Office, S. W.)
In December, 1899, he volunteered for the corps of Mounted Infantry in the C.I.V. Regiment formed by the Corporation of the City of London, and acting as Adjutant to Lieutenant-Colonel Cholmondeley, his exertions greatly promoted the rapidity with which the corps of the Mounted Infantry prepared to sail on January13 from Southampton. Landing in South Africa, he went through the various engagements under Lord Roberts, which culminated in the great march to Pretoria. Then General Mackinnon got him attacked to the jtk Mounted Infantry, under Colonel Bainbridge, where he saw some of the severest fighting in the campaign.
Lieutenant Moeller's services were so thoroughly appreciated that he was selected by Lord Roberts for the honour of a commission, in the 2nd Middlesex (Duke of Cambridge's Own), a circumstance specially mentioned by His Majesty King Edward VII. when speaking, as Prince of Wales, at the Guildhall, on the occasion of the C.I.V. Banquet, in these words:
'Colonel Mackinnon . . . speaks in the highest terms . . . of Lieutenant Moeller, of the Mounted Infantry, who is to be congratulated on having been given a commission in the regular army, but who will prove a great loss to this regiment.'
In January, 1901, Lieutenant Moeller was commissioned to form the company of Mounted Infantry of the 2nd Middlesex Regiment, and, attacked to the 14th Mounted Infantry, he took part in the great drives under Generals French, Bruce-Hamilton, and others.
It was in one of the last of these, on December 19, 1901, that he met his death.
The little column of 250 men had been riding all night, when at dawn they came in conflict with a party of about 500 Boers, dressed in khaki. Lieutenant Moeller, having got his men in safety, was riding off, when he saw a wounded trooper, who had surrendered, being treacherously shot by the Boers. He rode to his assistance, but was quickly surrounded. He emptied the six chambers of his revolver, and threw the empty weapon in the face of the enemy, before he fell, mortally wounded, from his horse.
They carried him to Standerton, where he lies amongst his fallen comrades.
Lieutenant Moeller was twice mentioned in despatches, and was recommended for special promotion.
Should this simple Diary fall into the hands of any outside the circle of his comrades and friends, will they make allowance for the fact that the writer was a soldier and not a penman?
The proceeds of the sale of this volume will be devoted to the assistance of disabled soldiers.
MEMOIR OF LIEUTENANT MOELLER
There is a word in the English language which those who best knew him believe aptly describes the character of the late Lieutenant Moeller, the subject of this brief memoir. That word is 'thorough.' In its highest sense it implies strenuousness, devotion to high ideals of duty, moral courage combined with physical valour.
It is more than probable that these great qualities, which were undoubtedly possessed by Bertie Moeller in a more than ordinary degree, would have been unrecognised to their fullest extent but for the South African Campaign, in which, to the deep regret of all who knew him, he met an early death. But long before the war, or any thought of war, his brother officers in the Honourable Artillery Company recognised in him a desire to live up to these ideals, and were confident that, should the occasion arise, young Moeller would play his part with credit to himself and honour to his regiment. As events turned out, this confidence was neither unjustified nor misplaced.
Bernard Moeller was born in 1872, the son of Felix Moeller, a merchant in the City of London.
His earlier years were passed in preparation for the commercial career in which it was expected his life would be passed. Like Robert Clive, extraordinary events drew him from the desk to the battlefield at a moment's notice; but, unlike Clive, he had so trained himself in the rudiments of war that few of the young civilians who, with him, suddenly found themselves engaged as belligerents in a campaign were equally fitted for the responsible duties they were called upon to perform.
In 1891, when nineteen years of age, he joined the Honourable Artillery Company as a private. This ancient regiment still keeps up the custom of electing its officers from those who in the ranks and as non-commissioned officers have proved themselves fit for command. Young Moeller soon proved he was so fitted, and in 1896 he became a Second Lieutenant, three years later being promoted to Lieutenant.
Although nothing was more improbable than that the auxiliary forces should ever be called upon to serve at the front, Bertie Moeller believed, and acted up to his belief, that what was worth doing at all was worth doing well. The British Army—a commission in which, for various reasons, seemed completely out of his reach—was nevertheless his ideal—the noblest of lives, the grandest of professions. If becoming an officer in the regular army was denied to him, he would, he argued, at least learn what those officers learnt and know what they knew.
The dream developed into reality, reality into passion, and the acquisition of military knowledge became the all-absorbing object of his life. Nothing was left undone, no branch of military science left unexplored. Tactics, fortification, military law, organization and equipment, surveying, musketry, and riding, were one by one studied and mastered.
Nor were his commercial and social duties during these years neglected. It was during the hours of relief from the constant strain which is inseparable from assistance in the conduct of a large business that his studies were pursued. Burning the midnight oil too fiercely is not always conducive to the lightness of mind and gaiety of spirit which make a man a genial companion. But young Moeller was the best of companions. Cheerful and happy, but never boisterous, he enjoyed life as a healthy young man of his age should enjoy it, and as a natural consequence contributed to the enjoyment of others.
Never so happy as when on parade, he was told off to train the young non-commissioned officers and prepare them for examination—a work which has been of lasting benefit to the battalion, for the non-commissioned officers are the backbone of the auxiliary forces, perhaps even more so than in the regular army. There were no more worlds to conquer—at least, so it seemed in the circumscribed vista of his horizon. But events were taking place in a far-distant portion of the Empire which were destined to divert into other and newer channels all his preconceived ideas of life, and give him the one great object of his ambition—a commission in the regular forces of the Crown.
Talking to an officer of superior rank a few months before the outbreak of the war, Moeller asked what chance there was of his being able to obtain a commission in the regular army. As much chance as you have of flying to the moon!' was the unstudied reply. Within the year he was already in the army, and within three years this officer was hourly dreading the news that his wounds had resulted in death.
Rare indeed are the cases in which opportunity combines with merit to satisfy the laudable cravings of a noble ambition. To young Moeller the opportunity came, and he was not the man to let it slip.
In 1899 the Boers of the Transvaal threw down the gauntlet, and challenged the British Empire to put forth its strength.
The startling events in the earlier months of the campaign are still vivid in the memory of all. Three columns operating on parallel lines, each commanded by a General of acknowledged reputation, had been roughly handled and their advance checked. It became apparent that more troops would be required to bring the campaign to a decisive issue. Without panic the Empire set to work to supply them. Reluctantly the War Office accepted the services of the auxiliary forces, which they had previously refused, and the Lord Mayor of London undertook to equip and supply a battery of quick-firing guns, a company of Mounted Infantry, and a battalion of Infantry.
Bertie Moeller at once volunteered, was posted to the Mounted Infantry, and, accompanied by his only brother, left London in January, 1900. His diary immediately commenced, and was kept up to within a few hours of his death.
The C.I.V.—or, as they came to be nicknamed, the 'Lord Mayor's Own'—were not long in having their ears tuned to those sounds which are music to some, nerve-shattering to others, and dangerous to all.
On February 4 he enters in his diary:
We were enlisted early in January, and we shall be up at the front within five weeks of enlistment, 7,000 miles from home, and all a good fighting lot.
It is the fashion to belittle the services of the Volunteers, but the record was no mean one, and shows the excellent spirit and indefatigable zeal which pervaded all ranks.
As a Mounted Infantryman Bertie Moeller was where he would wish to be—well in advance. To that arm was entrusted the duty of scouting for the army in the now famous march through Bloemfontein to Johannesburg and Pretoria. It was anxious and responsible work; the enemy were by no means disheartened or demoralized. They took advantage of every opportunity to act on the aggressive. It was impossible to tell if, when they made a stand, it was a feint or determination to bring on a general engagement. There was the danger of being drawn into an ambush, and, on the other hand, excessive precaution would check the advance of the largest army ever commanded by an English General. The responsibility of, in the first instance, determining these questions devolved on the mounted troops.
The name or the exploits of young Moeller were rarely mentioned in the papers; but this was inevitable. His work was mainly in that part of the field where the bullet of the enemy is a far more frequent guest than the pen of the despatch-writer. He was, moreover, too junior in rank, and far too ignorant of the art of self-advertisement, to gain much press notoriety in a campaign in which over 1,000 officers were killed in action or died of wounds or disease.
He was twice mentioned in despatches, the last time after he had already died of his wounds, and had been recommended for promotion to the rank of Captain, to which his age and exceptional services gave him special claim.
The diary which is now published pretends to no literary or historic merit. It was written in letters to his mother in snatches of leisure from almost ceaseless duty, with little, if any, time for revision. Its charm lies in its candid unpretentiousness, its breezy cheerfulness, more redolent of the sea than the land forces, and its truthful record of daily work in the field. It brings the story of his life to within a few hours of his end —an end which many might envy, and which he himself would have been the last to deplore.
On the evening of December 18, 1901, a small force of 214 Mounted Infantry were told off to make a night march and surprise some farms twenty miles away, which were reported to be harbouring the enemy. It was part of a combined movement over a large area, in which Generals Spens and Plumer were taking part.
Of all the operations of war, night attacks are the most difficult and dangerous. Their object is surprise. Surprise necessitates secrecy and noiseless celerity. It is well known that the Boers were marvellously adept in gaining information of any contemplated movement of British troops. On this occasion they were not at fault, and appear to have been as well aware of his intentions as the General himself.
In night attacks there is, moreover, always a danger of panic, due not so much to fear as to the impossibility of detecting friend from foe, and the high state of tension of men's nerves when darkness and stillness combine to make precaution doubly necessary. Columns are liable to become separated and detached, and on more than one occasion have been known to fire into each other in mistake for the enemy. For these reasons it is essential that the officer in command of the advanced guard should be cool and collected, rapid in decision, not prone to panic, and, above all, should enjoy the absolute confidence of his men.
No greater compliment could have been paid to young Moeller than that on this night-march he was given the advanced guard, on whom not only the success of the operations, but the lives of their companions, depended.
In command of about fifty men, Moeller moved off at 11 p.m. In the height of the summer it would doubtless have been a brilliant starlight night, throwing shadows from the kopjes and high hills in the background, which might easily hide a large force of the enemy. A profound stillness, broken only by the tramp of hoofs and champ of bits; orders given in whispers; no talking, and smoking absolutely prohibited. Scouts and flanking parties, with their connecting files covering the advance, guarding from surprise—every precaution taken that experience and common-sense could devise to insure success.
The young officer, proud and exultant in his pride of place, riding with the main body of the advanced guard, keen, alert, and responsive to every sound. The hours passed slowly in the monotony of the long ride: but at length, by early dawn, the farms are in sight, and all is so far well.
The main body closes up: a hurried consultation, the detachment broken up into four groups, a simultaneous charge, and the farms are won. The quarry had flown; information in some mysterious way had cast its shadow before, and only a few Boers, cattle, and Cape carts were captured. But the object of the march had been accomplished, and the party was preparing to return to camp, when a dozen or so of Boers suddenly broke from the concealment of a donga and rode off rapidly to the right. The whole party started off in pursuit, and this seems to have been a well-planned ruse to lead them to destruction. The horses, done up after the night-march, were unequal to the contest, and the Boers easily outpaced them.
Halting on a ridge overlooking a wide track of country, the men dismounted, the heliograph was unpacked in order to open communication with Plumer. The sun was already well above the kopjes, a slight mist rising in the lower levels; all Nature was awakening, another day had dawned—the last to many a lad scarce out of his teens, whose young life was that day to ebb slowly away.
The videttes reported a group of horsemen leisurely advancing from the right front. They were dressed in khaki, many wearing helmets. Glasses were turned on them. Plumer's men, no doubt, was the satisfactory verdict; but, anyhow, British troops extended in squadrons, the officers in front walking their horses. Nearer and nearer came the group, but no cause for suspicion arose in the minds of men or officers. Nearer yet—within speaking distance now—and soon they would be clasping hands, many of the men, no doubt, rising to give them welcome.
Great God of battles and of mercy, what is this! The khaki-clad group leap from their horses and pour a murderous fire at close range upon their unsuspecting victims. Volley after volley is poured on the devoted band before they have time to recover their amazement and consternation.
Their leaders are soon struck down; dazed and giddy, men struggle to rise, only to receive more ghastly wounds; pools of blood trickle through the dry veldt grass as some poor lad sobs himself through the very portals of eternity. A few hurried shots in return, and then a dash for safety. Nothing for it now but flight or surrender.
Forming the rearguard with his detachment, Lieutenant Moeller was about a quarter of a mile away to the left. In such awful times horses and men alike seek safety in the sympathy of their fellows. It was on this small nucleus of men, still compact and well in hand, that the scattered remnants thundered down and found relief. There were many still within the danger zone, and an attempt was made to rally and cover their retreat.
Men on limping horses, themselves scarce strong enough to keep their saddles, riding a race for life against a cheering and exultant enemy, with all the odds against them. Limping men, shattered in nerve and broken in limb, struggling and floundering in the front until some friendly bullet put an end to their sufferings; others, more fleet of foot, unhorsed, but as yet untouched, taking cover and firing rapidly to check the advance, and again retiring hurriedly to some fresh position. It was a terrible moment, and one calculated to shake the nerves of the stoutest and most experienced. In less time than it takes to describe it, one-fourth of the entire force had been wiped clean off their regimental muster-rolls, and the end was not yet.
There is courage which can bear physical torture with Spartan fortitude; there is courage which can, when necessary, steel itself to witness the sufferings of others with apparent indifference and composure; but in times of disaster, when bullets are whizzing through the air, spitting the ground into miniature furrows, and bolting men are bowled over like rabbits, it requires courage, both moral and physical, of a high order to exercise the cool judgment and rapid decision which alone can save the situation, and even then may fail.
Hang on now, you gallant Yorkshire and Middlesex boys, if you love the honour of your regiment and value the lives of your comrades. Your safety lies in flight, but glory and, alas, death are the rewards of your valour and devotion.
With that sublime faith in his officer, the product of discipline and experience, which is part of Tommy's creed, and which, thank God, is rarely misplaced, the boys hung on. Opening fire so soon as their front was cleared, the onslaught was checked, and many a man owes his life to-day to that gallant stand.
But it could not last—ammunition was getting low; the victorious enemy were vigorously closing on the small group. It was time to be up, and to retire, and that as rapidly as possible. It was at this moment that young Bertie Moeller received the wounds that four days later closed an exceptionally brilliant career. He had come out of the ordeal unscathed, he had shown cool, well-calculated judgment at a moment of intense anxiety and excitement, and his reputation as a leader of men could never hereafter be challenged. He gave the order to mount and gallop. Looking back, he saw to his horror a wounded lad, with his hands up in token of surrender, treacherously shot by Boers. It was more than his pent-up agony could stand. ' You cowards!' he shouted, and, dashing forward, fired his revolver at the assailants. He was immediately surrounded by thirteen or fourteen of the enemy.
Death, yes, but surrender never! Emptying his revolver and charging into their midst, he flung the empty weapon into the face of the nearest, and as they opened fire fell from his horse wounded and bleeding to the ground.
It was only an incident, and there were many such in the last stages of a campaign which a high legal dignitary has described as ' a war that is not a war' whatever that may mean. But these incidents are described and discussed over camp - fires in lonely bivouacs, and become treasured memories to others than those only who witnessed them; they add to the list of actions, already long, which shed lustre on the British arms; they excite the admiration and emulation of faltering spirits in the hours of danger; they are retold to cheer drooping spirits amidst scenes of agony and distress which ever march hand-in-hand with glory; they give an example of courage and devotion which strikes deep down into the souls of men, and makes them better for the striking; they are the answer, if answer be needed, to those who claim that the noble youth of this country lack the qualities of their forbears.
The young officer was carried into camp, and moved next day to Standerton. But his case was hopeless, and on December 23 his struggles were over and his end peace. He was buried with military honours in the small churchyard, surrounded by many of his comrades.
His bones rest in a far-off grave, but his memory lives in the hearts of those who on the field of battle had learnt to appreciate his sterling worth. In many a modest London home, in many a Northern hamlet, there are those who shared his labours, his sufferings and privations, and who love to tell the story of how the gallant Bertie Moeller lived to gain the affection of his comrades, and died the death of a hero and a soldier.
LIONEL R. C. BOYLE, Lieutenant-Colonel, H.A.C.
March 16, 1903.
WITH THE CI.V. M.I.—THE JOURNEY FROM SOUTHAMPTON TO CAPE TOWN
FROM CAPE TOWN TO PRETORIA, UNDER LORD ROBERTS
UNDER COLONEL BAINBRIDGE WITH THE 7TH MOUNTED INFANTRY; FIGHTING AT BETHLEHEM, NAAUWPOORT NEK, GOLDEN GATE, COX'S FARM, HEILBRON
WITH THE MOUNTED INFANTRY COMPANY OF THE MIDDLE SEX REGIMENT ATTACHED TO THE 14TH MOUNTED INFANTRY
TREK UNDER GENERAL ALDERSON
DRIVES UNDER GENERAL FRENCH WITH FIFTH CORPS FROM PRETORIA TO DUNDEE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
SKETCH OF OBSERVATION-POST AND PATROL DUTIES, APRIL 12, 1900
SKETCH SHOWING THE ATTACK ON BRANDFORT
FIGHTING ROUND BETHLEHEM, JULY, 1900
PLAN OF BATTLE NEAR COX'S FARM, KIEFFONTEIN
SKETCH OF MAJUBA, ETC., DRAWN AT UMBANA
SKETCH OF POSITIONS DECEMBER 19, 1900
ON THE VELDT