Having reconciled ourselves to the inevitable we settled down to a regular daily routine - stables, morning and night, standing to arms at 3 o’clock in the morning, fatigues and other duties. Those early morning parades meant that we saddled our horses and either rode them around town or sat alongside them until dawn. We were awakened each morning by the sentry on duty who passed along our lines of tents and called “Show a leg, chaps,”. On one memorable occasion, I thought I had heard the summons, and after pulling on my field boots, took my saddlery from its rack, and started on my way to the horse lines. I then became aware of the fact that I was the only man about and awoke to the realisation that I had been walking in my sleep! I quickly slunk back to my tent without having been observed by any of my comrades.
The monotony of our existence was relieved by inter-regimental sports contests -usually cricket matches or athletics, which took place usually on Sundays, on which days our enemy seldom if ever shelled the town.
Another distraction was the publication daily, by a literary-minded comrade, of a lively and witty newspaper called the BMR Gazette, which brought news to us “via the Balloon man.” In its issue of the 26th November, 1899, it reported, inter alia, that the channel squadron of the British Navy had been ordered to proceed forthwith to within four miles of Pretoria and demand the immediate surrender of that Town! The Editor of the newspaper was no mean poet and artist, and was able to produce clever and interesting skits about individuals. It is a great pity that copies of the publication were not carefully preserved. That remark applies equally to another publication called “The Ladysmith Gazette” which emanated from another source.
As is usual when men are gathered together in camps there were plenty of rumours afloat. One such was spread on the 11th November, 1899, and related that General Joubert the Commandant of the Boer Army, had appealed to the British for the loan of ammunition and a supply of Crepe! That was followed by another on the 24th December that France had declared war on England.
Although we were, supposedly, completely surrounded by the enemy, we frequently received letters from parents and friends at home. They were brought to us by friendly Bantu runners who were able to pass through the Boer lines at night. I still have a letter received from my mother. We were also enabled to communicate, by the same means, with relatives and friends down south.
At the risk of being regarded as presumptous and over-confident in our powers, I feel impelled to record here that we often wondered why there were so few excursions against enemy positions by our forces. It is an historical and indisputable fact that the attack on Gun Hill and the destruction of its Long Tom was permitted only after persistent exhortations by the late Colonel W. Royston, Commandent of the Natal Volunteers. The fact that the Boer gun had been left practically undefended goes to prove that the enemy had been lulled into a sense of false security by our lack of enterprise, thereby enabling them to spare men to oppose Buller’s advance. We felt that more activity of an aggressive nature on our part might have eased the pressure on our Relief column.
It would be idle to deny that at times we became despondent about our prolonged encirclement by the enemy. But we were comforted and encouraged by the sound of heavy gunfire which reached us from the direction of Colenso on the 14th December and continued at intervals for weeks afterwards. That indicated that something was being done about our relief. It was on the 20th January, 1900, that, while grazing our horses on the southern outskirts of Ladysmith, we saw British shells exploding on the summit of Spion Kop, and heard distinctly the sound of rifle fire from the same source. At the same time we saw hundreds of wagons trekking away from the Ntabmnyama range of hills, of which Spion Kop is its eastern extremity, towards Van Reenen’s Pass, and the Transvaal. We were satisfied that Spion Kop had been captured and that the enemy was retreating. We returned to Camp believing that, as the terrain between Spion Kop and Ladysmith was open countryside, and undefended, it was only a matter of a few hours before Buller’s army reached us. Imagine our disappointment when, next morning, we saw the enemy’s wagons trekking back to Spion Kop, and no sign of our forces anywhere! As a result we were again compelled to tighten our belts and await the Relief Force. This did not reach us until the 28th February, 1900.
On the 4th March, 1900, I, with ten other convalescents of the Border Mounted Rifles, was granted three weeks sick leave of absence. We set out on our journey at 5 p.m. on an empty oxwagon that was going south, and reached Colenso early in the morning of March 5th. When descending the heights above Colenso we saw some of the trenches and stone fortifications of the Boer positions which had straddled the road. They appeared to me to be almost impregnable. Judging by the shell holes and bullet marks on the rocks the position had been very heavily attacked by our forces. From Colenso we travelled by rail to Pietermaritzburg, where I was met by my uncle and two girl cousins, at whose home I spent the night. It was then that I occupied a bed for the first time since we mobilised at Ixopo on the 29th September, 1899. Unfortunately it was furnished with a feather mattress and having become accustomed to lying on hard ground I found it impossible to fall asleep. After tossing and turning for hours I finally left the bed, wrapped myself in blankets and was soon sound asleep on the floor.
On the 7th March, 1900, the 19th anniversary of my birth, I and several convalescent men of the Richmond Troop of Natal Carbineers, travelled by train to Richmond. On arrival there we found the station platform crowded with relatives of the Richmond men waiting to welcome their boys home. As they were strangers to me and particularly because my clothing had become tattered and torn by rough usage, I decided to avoid publicity by leaving the railway coach on its opposite side, and made my way unobserved to the Richmond Hotel in town, which was the starting point of the horse-drawn Post Cart to Ixopo. To reach the Hotel I had to pass the Richmond Government School, where the School’s cadet Band had been paraded to give a musical welcome to the Richmond men. As I passed, to my intense discomfort and embarrasment, the Band played “See the conquering hero comes.” That was, I think, the most embarrassing moment of my life and I shall never forget it. From Richmond I travelled by Post Cart to Ixopo, and thence to “Claybrook” my home farm, where there was a very happy reunion with my parents and other members of our family - a fitting climax to mark the end of my 19th birthday. It is interesting to record here that, although my normal weight had previously been 10 stone (140 lbs.) it had decreased to 7 stone (98 lbs.) by the time I arrived home!
My period of leave having expired, I left home on the 24th March, 1900, to rejoin my regiment, which was then in a camp near Highlands, in the Natal Midlands. We were there supplied with new uniforms and other articles of equipment and on the 3rd April, 1900, the Regiment moved in heavy marching order, to Estcourt. From Estcourt we were conveyed by rail to Ladysmith, the railway line having been restored. We were thus enabled to see signs of the heavy fighting that had taken place at Hart’s Hill and Pieter’s Hill, between our Relief force and the Boers. All along the Tugela Heights the country was riddled with shell holes and the stone barricades of the enemy defences were plastered with bullet marks. We marvelled how our troops could overcome such strong positions. We saw, also a few miles below Ladysmith, the remains of the sandbag dam wall which had been built by the enemy across the Klip River in an attempt to flood our cave shelters in the banks of the river in town.
On 4th April, 1900, we, together with the Natal Carbineers, the Imperial Light Horse, South African Light Horse (the Sakabulas) and Thornycroft’s Mounted Infantry, were formed into a Mounted Brigade under the command of General Lord Dundonald.
It was not until the 12th May, 1900, that we commenced our advance towards Dundee. Fortunately, the enemy, who had established themselves along the Biggarsberg Range, offered very little resistance to us. They adopted “Burnt Earth” tactics by taking away with them all livestock and destroying all forms of foodstuff, along our lines of advance. Our first halt after reaching the summit of the Biggarsberg, was on the well known farm “Beith” a few miles south of Dundee. On arrival there I spotted a solitary muscovy duck in the farmyard. The prospect of a good meal of fresh fowl, after a long spell of Bully Beef and hard biscuits, created a temptation that was too strong to be resisted. I consequently gave chase after the duck which retreated towards a pond full of muddy water. I had almost succeeded in capturing it when I tripped over the bottom strand of a broken down fence and fell head first into the murky waters of the duck pond and had the mortification of seeing another fellow secure the booty. In other words he got the duck and I the ducking, plus a most uncomfortable night in the cold air of the Biggarsberg. Another story of a like nature, which unlike mine, may not have the impress of truth! It goes like this: During the war, a column of British troops was passing through a sheep farming area, and strict orders had been issued that in no circumstances must the livestock of loyalist farmers be interfered with. One day a Tommy strolled out of camp to a nearby hill, where he came across a solitary sheep grazing. Having subsisted for a long time on bully beef and seeking a change of diet, he caught and killed the sheep. At that moment the Colonel of the Regiment appeared on the scene and demanded an explanation. On the spur of the moment Tommy proceeded to stab the carcase saying the while “I’ll teach you to bite me, you brute.” I cannot vouch for the truth of that story.
We passed through Dundee on the 15th May, 1900, where a few straggling Boers surrendered to us. On the 16th May we were at Glencoe Junction, which place must have been hurriedly evacuated by the enemy because we found in the Railway Goods sheds numbers of tents, mauser rifles and ammunition, and quantities of food supplies - including many muid sacks of delicious Boer rusks, which we consumed with great relish.
From Glencoe Junction we marched in easy stages, without hindrance, to the Ingogo Heights where we camped on the site of a battle that was fought between the British and the Boers 1881. After having marched for weeks through comparatively waterless country, we enjoyed to the full the luxury of bathes in the clear waters of the Ingogo River. It was while we were at Ingogo, on the 30th May, 1900, that we were subjected to desultory shelling from the Boer guns at Laings Nek, but suffered no casualties. On the 6th June and again on the following days our artillery shelled Majuba and Phokwane Mountains and Laings Nek. On the 5th June 1900, a strong force composed of men of Thornycroft’s Mounted Infantry, a composite Regiment of Mounted men and some batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery, made a diversionary move towards Botha’s Pass. That evening we heard gunfire in that direction indicating that contact had been made with the enemy. Meanwhile, the area facing Laing’s Nek was occupied by British units - including ourselves - and there were sporadic exchanges of big gun fire with the enemy. On the 10th June, 1900, we advanced over the Laing’s Nek, on to Charlestown, without any opposition from the Boers, who had abandoned the position, presumably because they feared encirclement by the column that had marched via Botha’s Pass.
On the 14th June 1900, there was a conference between General Buller the Commandant of the Natal Volunteers (General Dartnell, the successor of Colonel W. Royston, who had died of disease shortly after Ladysmith was relieved) and the Commanding Officers of the Natal Volunteer units, when it was decided that we were to return to Dundee to await demobilisation as soon as the exigencies of war permitted.
We remained at Dundee for several weeks after we had assembled there. From that base strong patrols were sent out weekly to strategic points along the Buffalo River, the north eastern border between Natal and the Transvaal and there were frequent exchanges of fire between our Scouts and those of the enemy. It was during one of such affrays that Captain (later Lt. Col.) P.E. Foxon of the Carbineers was severely wounded.
While we were stationed at Dundee the Natal Volunteer Composite Regiment was formed. Its strength was approximately 300 men of our several Regiments who volunteered to continue to serve until war ended. Their main duty was to escort convoys of supplies between Dundee and Vryheid, a task which exposed them to considerable risk. One such attack took place at Scheeper’s Nek when the whole convoy and its escort was captured.
The Natal Volunteers were freed from their military duties and demobilised on 9th October, 1900. Thus ended my first experiece of soldiering. I think I can honestly say that, in spite of the many hardships we had endured many of us, including myself, would have been glad to continue service in the Army. With that end in view it was my desire to join the Imperial Light Horse, but before I could do so it was necessary for me to obtain the consent of the Natal Civil Service Board, because, shortly before our mobilisation I had been offered and accepted an appointment in the Civil Service. My application was turned down, however, and I was instructed to report myself as early as possible for Civil duty at, of all places in the world, the office of the Magistrate, Ladysmith! I assumed duty at that office on the 1st November, 1900, and was thus afforded leisurely opportunities to become more acquainted with the physical features of the Town’s outer defences that had been possible during the Siege.
I have omitted to record earlier in my story that during the fighting on Caesar’s Hill on the 6th January, 1900, I secreted the brand new Mauser rifle of a Boer casualty under a heap of stones on the battlefield. When I again visited the scene as a civilian I discovered, to my intense joy and surprise, that in spite of the fact that the scene of combat had, supposedly been cleared of all visible signs of battle, my trophy was still where I had hidden it! It was still free of rust and in first class condition. I subsequently obtained the authority of the Military High Command to retain possession of the rifle. The gun proved to be the most accurate firearm I ever possessed and gave me much pleasure in the hunting field.
At the commencement of my story I recorded my experiences as a soldier in the unhappy conflict between my countrymen, (that is the component races of the British Empire - of which Natalians were then a part) and the Burghers of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. I prefaced my narrative by remarking that I knew little or nothing about the root causes of that war and refrained from discussing its political aspects. I maintain that attitude today but feel impelled to pay tribute to the magnificent stand that our erstwhile enemies put up against the overwhelming forces which faced them. Up to the date of our mobilisation I, personally, had not consciously set eyes upon an Afrikaner. It was when we of the Highflats troop of the Border Mounted Rifles were taking refreshment in the bar of the Off Saddle Hotel in Ixopo, before starting on our long ride to Pietermaritzburg, that I heard a man say to one of our officers “Goodbye and good luck to you, old chap. I am sure that when you return you will say to me “Your countrymen put up a jolly good fight.” I learned afterwards that the man was named Keokemour and that he was an Afrikaner. How right he was!