We arrived at Southampton at about 10 a.m., and embarked immediately afterwards. The ship was the “Norman,” a liner carrying first-, second-, and third-class passengers, and our regiment which, at its full strength, numbered 500 men. There was a dense crowd at the docks to watch our departure, notwithstanding the fact that it was snowing hard. A cornet-player amongst the crowd enlivened the proceedings by his rendering of “Home, Sweet Home,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and other ballads of a suitably melancholy character.
At 1 p.m. we adjourned to our various messes for our first dinner on board ship. This consisted of a block of corned beef of astonishing hardness, which was served at 1 p.m., and one potato per man, which was served at 1.30.
We weighed anchor at 3 and steamer slowly down Southampton Water, amid the cheers of the half-frozen assemblage of friends and relatives who lined the shore.
The next stages of our journey will be best described by extracts from letters written home at the time:—
“Feb. 10, 1900.—I now went down and had another look round. I found that the whole of our lot were stuffed into a sort of bare hold, as tight as herrings in a barrel, with a pen at each end for kit bags, which were thrown into them.
“Eight bare tables to seat sixteen men each; hooks in the ceiling for hammocks over the tables. It dawned on me that we were to eat, sleep, and live in this low-roofed, stuffy place. Thinks I, ‘ This place will be as close as a pig-stye, and no cleaner, by and by.’
“Tea: Tea and bread and butter.
“The ship had no motion yet Walked about deck for a bit, and went to bed soon after. Worst fears realised; we are slung, man to man, close up to the roof, over the tables. The hooks were 9 inches apart, and on the least movement of the ship all the hammocks jostle each other.
“Ship at anchor a long time in the night.
“Sunday, Feb. 11.—Turned out at 6.30 a.m. Ominous lurch—another; ship in free motion.
“Breakfast, after rolling up hammocks with blankets inside them, and pitching them in pens, on top of kit bags.
“Breakfast: Coffee, minus milk and sugar; bread and butter. Felt squeamish, but ate a good breakfast. Went up on deck, and, in company with others, was ill. Began to feel very bad; went down below; ill; came up; ditto; sea very rough; strong wind dead against us.
“Lay down. Dinner: Soup. Men ill all round . . .; tremendous waves; ship rolling and pitching; very cold; nowhere to sit on deck, and couldn’t go below.
“Tea—crawled below and had a cup of tea and got into hammock. . . . Very rough at night; frightfully close; no ventilation; portholes had to be closed. Hammocks awful; must try and sleep on deck if can get leave.
“Monday, Feb. 12.—Crawled out at 6.30 a.m. . . . went on deck; stood with the others, drenched with spray, and soaked halfway up to the knees when she shipped a wave. Two horses died and were slung overboard. Very cold and windy; lay down when not sick. Well looked after by Courage: gave me soup at dinner. Loathed ship, every one in it, and the sea! On back all the afternoon. Courage gave me a drop of tea, slung hammock, and me into it. Slept a bit.
“Tuesday, Feb. 13.—Crawled out … to stern of ship; seas mountainous, ship making hardly any headway, and thirty-six hours behind time though at full steam, and plunging like mad.
“The crew said it was their roughest passage for four years; decks swept by waves about every five minutes. Captain Lawson’s horse died and was slung overboard. Order given out that no one was to get from one end of the ship to the other by deck passage (between cabins and rail, about 5 feet wide) for fear of being swept overboard. Never heard of order, and tried to walk along it to get from bow to stern; got half-way when a wave came along from the bow right on top of me. Saw it coming, and clung on to rail like grim death. Got off with thorough drenching, which freshened me up a good deal, though had to remain in wet clothes as could not get at kit bag. Two men fell and broke their legs on slippery decks in space of two hours. Saw one being temporarily splinted on deck; desperate job in the state of weather.
“Still ill. ... In evening put to bed by Courage and Eden; lay absolutely immovable.
“Wednesday, Feb. 14.—Awoke dizzy, but not sick; went on deck immediately (we always slept in our clothes) and felt quite differently.
“Good breakfast: weather much warmer. Sun out, and gale gone down. Parade in morning, and a sorry lot we looked. Not much ‘Imperial’ about us! Uniforms discoloured by sea water, etc.; several still sick in hospital, and all looked a bit haggard. ‘ Norman ’ riding easier, and hardly rolling at all. All invalids lying about the deck in rugs and chairs; heard that at one time yesterday it took us five hours to make 3 knots.
“I am sitting right in stern, over the churning screw. Sea calm, weather warm. Ripping! Everybody sitting or lying about, reading, or writing home, etc. She is going at full speed now to make up for yesterday. Hear we can get a hundred oranges for a shilling. Probably great exaggeration, but anyhow shall lay in large stock. Fruit very cheap there; not allowed to land, however.
“There has been much grumbling at our accommodation, naturally, but I shall try and sleep on deck to-night, and that will be much better. Food begins to improve, too; we had porridge, marmalade, and haddock for breakfast; besides, there is a dry canteen where we can buy things … Things begin to look much better now. ... I have eaten enormously to-day to make up. Real bad seasickness is no joke, I can tell you, and we had such rough weather. I don’t know what I should have done without Courage and one or two other chaps, who weren’t bad. They did everything for me. C. was at the Red Lion with me. . . .
“Feb. 17.—It is ‘ot! A grand sun, and hotter or quite as hot as our midsummer.
“Last Thursday we called at Madeira: we sighted it early in the morning, and gradually came up to it. It was very hazy at first, but got gradually clearer, and soon we saw its principal
town, Funchal, where we were to anchor. It looked awfully pretty: hundreds of white houses scattered all over the side of the hill of which the island mainly consists. I should think the town stretches for 3 or 4 miles or more, the houses gradually growing fewer in number and more scattered.
“When we got near and anchored, crowds of boats shot out from the shore with Portuguese in them, gesticulating and shouting. They were mostly little boys in a nearly naked condition, who wanted to dive for pennies. They are clever little brats, hardly ever miss a coin: you throw it, and they stand up in the boat and watch it for a bit, and then dive down and grab it
“Then the fruit boats came out, absolutely chock full of oranges, bananas, figs, apples, and native fruits. I bought an enormous quantity, as did every one else, and wherever you looked you saw nothing but baskets of oranges, etc.
“All this while the ship was coaling, with barges of coal alongside, and every one was covered with dust. I took one or two photos at this place, particularly of a young Portuguese who climbed up to one of the davits on the top deck of all—the boat deck—and dived into the sea for a shilling. He did it three times, and I snap-shotted him.
“A British gunboat was lying in the harbour, and a boat from her, with a sub-lieutenant and a few men, came and inspected us. The young officer looked very smart, and bossed about a bit The ship had a name pronounced ‘Curacoa.’ We stayed there about six hours, and then up anchor and away.
“The day after we passed Teneriffe on our left, and Las Palmas on our right 'starboard’ or ‘larboard’ or ‘port’ or something. Teneriffe looked magnificent; a huge misty peak, 14,000 feet high, towering up into the sky, about 15 or 20 miles away. We went comparatively close to Las Palmas, and I thought of your letter probably awaiting me there: I hope they will send it on. (They never did.)
“We also passed another small island, very close, on our left, soon after. We went within about 2 miles of it, though it did not look more than a few hundred yards off, like the great Norwegian crags.
“I think it was called Gomora, or some such name; anyhow, one of the Canaries. I wish I had a map, so as to follow our course. It was a great pity we had that gale at the beginning; the captain had leave to make a record passage, and I believe he would have, had the weather been as it is now.
“Soon after we left Madeira one of the engines broke down, and we went very slowly with only one till the other could be put right; but we made up for lost time yesterday, when she went over 400 miles.
“ … It is quite calm now, and one can hardly believe that the old boat has been chucked about as she was. It was very exciting below—plates flying down the tables, and one’s soup suddenly rushing out of the plate, under one’s very nose.
“It wouldn’t be half bad here if only we had more room: the food is good, and plenty of it, with the exception that they give us no drink at all at dinner, but kindly sell beer at 6d. a bottle. The other grievance is that they allow us so little room: there are 65 of us crowded into a kind of hold affair 10 yards long by 5 wide, and we are only allowed on the part of the deck round where the hatches of this hold open, and along one deck passage, with no seats or anything to sit down on. The passengers (first-, second-, and third-class) have the two upper decks and the poop deck over the stern reserved for them. We used to be allowed on the poop, but have been kicked out since. There are about 500 of us, so you can imagine how crowded we are.
“Yesterday we passed the hospital ship ‘ Princess of Wales ’ (nie the * Midnight Sun ’ in which we went to Norway), full of wounded from the Cape. She looked just the same as when ____ and I were on her, only she was painted white all over. . . .
“I am very glad I slipped some flannels into my kit bag: I believe I am the most comfortable man here. Every one says they wish they had thought of bringing some, instead of having to wear regulation trousers all the time. We are allowed to wear anything we like, apparently. If you are not mess orderly, i.e.t have not got to wash up and clean up the mess generally (as I have at present), you get your time pretty well to yourself. There is sometimes a parade for inspection of hammocks and kit bags, or doctor’s inspection, in the morning, which may last one or two hours; and some days we have an hour’s Sandow’s exercises— Lawson’s lot only—by way of keeping us warm and out of mischief.
“I am looking forward to landing very much, though it is very decent on board here; but, at least, there will be plenty of room in Africa! I don’t mind the hard work, but I do mind hard work cramped up in a small and dirty space.
"One of the poor fellows who broke his leg in that storm was put ashore at Madeira. We had raised £40 for him before he left. He was bandaged and swathed up in a kind of crate and lowered into a boat; you could see nothing of him but his head and one hand as he lay in the boat Everybody cheered as he was rowed away, and he wagged the only movable part of him—his hand—ferociously in response.
“These Portuguese are brutes. One of them who was hawking fruit on board tried to cheat some of our men, or steal a purse (I don’t know which), and he was just scrambling over the side when he was grabbed and hauled back, after a long struggle, by three or four of our men. After a heated argument, and many kicks, he was finally hoofed off the ship; but we had not done with him yet As soon as he got back to his boat and his friends, he proceeded to lay in a store of coal from one of the barges, and several of his compatriots in other boats did likewise; then, when we had forgotten all about it, and the ship was preparing to move off, he and the rest commenced a fusillade from their boats of lumps of coal, right where we were thickest, and several people got rather nasty hits. The man next me was just looking up to see what all the fuss was about when a lump of coal caught him a tremendous whack on the back of his hand. ‘ My ’and’s bust,’ he said, jumping down, but it was found on examination that there were no bones broken, but only badly bruised. We replied pretty effectively with empty bottles, oranges, and nard apples, and it was quite an exciting, if not exactly a friendly, farewell.
“Sunday.— . . . Church parade is just coming on. There was none, of course, last Sunday, as chaos reigned supreme. Before we went Mrs. Lawson gave each man a leather writing-case, and I am using mine now. This pencil is supposed to be indelible.
“The two B.’s are on this ship with me, and are already as brown as berries; they seem to be getting on very well.
“I saw a flying fish at Madeira for the first time in my life. It is about the size of a mackerel, and flew like a bird about a foot above the surface of the water.
“The Duke of Westminster is on board. He is a young chap of two- or three-and- twenty, and is going to be A.D.C. to Sir Alfred Milner at the Cape.
“Friday, Feb. 23.—It is hotter still now; we crossed the line the day before yesterday.
“I have been so lucky as to get on the staff of signallers—‘flag-wagging’ with the Morse code. There are about a dozen for the whole ship, and four from our company. I told them I had been through a course of it at school, and to my surprise I found my name read out. We get extra work signalling, of course, but we are supposed to be excused all fatigue work and parade. (N.B.—We very rarely were.)
“I was on guard the other night in the stem. My duty was to ‘report quietly to the officer on the bridge’ in case of fire; and in case of man overboard, to release a catch and pull a lever, to let drop a life-buoy and a storm-light to bum in the sea.
“By the way, we had an alarm of fire last Wednesday afternoon, and there was a great excitement. All the troops paraded and stood at attention on the boat deck; and after standing there, wondering what was up, for five or ten minutes, we heard it was only a false alarm after all, or at least a rehearsal to see if everything worked well.
“We passed an ocean liner two nights ago; that, and the ‘ Princess ’ hospital ship, are the only two vessels we have seen since getting well away from England, except, of course, at Madeira.
“Yesterday I was leaning over the side, next one of the first-class cabin windows, when a lady looked out and gave me about sixteen bananas.
“The wind has got up again now, and it looks as if we should have some more rough weather, as she is pitching a bit
“Sunday, Feb. 25.—There has been quite a little sea on for the last day or two. A good many men have been inoculated for enteric on board, but I am going to wait till we get to Cape Town as they do not look after them well on board. Some of them have been awfully bad, and they are lying in hammocks down in this stuffy little place, all amongst us, and nobody hardly ever comes near them to look after them properly. Two of our lot tried to get up in the night out of their hammocks, and both fainted; one lay there for more than half an hour till somebody found it out, so I am jolly well going to wait till I can get to a decent bed in a hospital, with something like nursing. I don’t see the fun of lying down here like a rat in a hole.
“We are very anxious to know what the news is—of course, while I am writing this, you know the latest. Speculations are rife as to whether Ladysmith has been relieved or not
“Signalling is no sinecure—we have from 10 to 12 in the morning, sending and receiving messages, and from 2 to 3 in the afternoon. I can send fast enough, but I find the reading what some one else sends is the hard part, but it is all a matter of practice. … We paraded and were inspected in heavy marching order by Lord Chesham to-day.
“Troopship 63, ‘Dictator,’ March 2, 1900. — ... Our proceedings have been most strange and unexpected. We arrived at Cape Town early on Wednesday morning; Table Mountain showed up clear, with part of the town underneath it—white, or light-brown houses. We lay outside for a good time, and a steam launch came off to us, and a man shouted out—‘ Cronje has surrendered, and all his crowd.’ You can guess at the cheering that followed.
“Well, we had tremendous hard work landing our kit and everything; and then we had a long time in which no one seemed to know what was going to happen, or what we were going to do next. Then we paraded, and were told that we were going to stay there in the ship till next Saturday or Monday, and then sail to East London. So all the kit bags were carted back; there was of course no arrangement made for messing or anything, and we had cleared everything out, expecting to go off at once, to camp at Maitland. So you can imagine the confusion.
“We snatched a dinner somehow while kit bags were being brought on, and hundreds of niggers rushing about coaling the ship, and more niggers unshipping the mail and cargo. Everything was inches deep in coal-dust, and every one seemed to vie with the niggers in blackness of face and hands. I looked in the glass, but the Kaffir who glared back did not seem to recognise me.
“Well, after about an hour of this, we were told that we were to disembark again, and embark at once on No. 63 Trooper, lying right the other side of the harbour. So we had to lug all our kit back again, and once more make preparations for departure. By this time chaos reigned supreme; officers were absolutely unrecognisable, and no trace of khaki colour could be detected in our uniforms, but only a dull coal tint. In the middle of this came the news that Ladysmith had been relieved! The scene and sounds that followed baffle description. Every steamer in the harbour (and there were hundreds) gave vent to furious blasts on its foghorn, flags were up every rigging in a trice, and gunboats lying outside the harbour sent off rockets or let off guns for about twenty minutes; in fact, it all went on for about this time, and the din was something deafening. I bet that the Boer prisoners on board the gunboat, and old Cronje, who had been also brought down with a lot of his staff, felt pretty bad.
“After this we had a long time to ourselves, - and could look about. I took two photos of Table Mountain, and one of our men getting ready on deck. It was lovely and hot; all the ladies who came to the boat were in summer dresses, and one or two Regulars or Colonial troopers, sauntering about, regarded us critically. In the afternoon we marched round and installed ourselves on No. 63.
“It is a regular troopship, not nearly so big as the ‘ Norman,’ but much more room for us, as there are no passengers, and so we are properly looked after. A decent place to wash , in, and not only three basins to 250 men, as there were on the ‘ Norman’; plenty of room to put kit bags, not all piled up on the top of one another, but so that we can get at them whenever we want to. It is only a four and a half days’ Voyage, but still, I am very glad we are better off.
”After we had got all the kit bags, etc., on board, we had tea, which consisted of half a loaf of bread each, treacle, jam, butter, and tea— I mean it was there, but hardly any one had any, as leave for Cape Town had been granted from 7 to 10 p.m., so everybody got leave and scooted off. I went with Cutsem, one of our four. It was about i miles from the docks to the town; everything was dusty and dry, and there is that peculiar kind of sandy, khaki look about the ground, and everything else, even people’s faces: I suppose it is the sun.
“The largest part of the population seems to consist of niggers, either black or dark brown. The first thing we did was to go and have a rare old hot wash, shave, and brush up, for which they charged 3s. (the barber said he believed he had shaved half the British army), but that is nothing! They charge is. for a bottle of beer, and other things according.
“Then we went on to the Hotel Mount Nelson, the best hotel in the town, having walked right through the town. Everything and everybody was, of course, in a wild state of jubilation; Union Jacks waved everywhere, and the streets were packed with people; every tramcar displayed several flags, and some were prettily decorated with electric lights. To hear those niggers cheer, and to see them rushing about and dancing, you would think that at the very least they were all just emancipated from slavery.
“The buildings are very fine here, and the streets wide and open, with big, well-lighted squares. It seems funny, but you see no poor white men: all poor are blacks, and the whites all seem well-to-do.
“So we got to our hotel and walked into the dining-room. (I forgot to say that we went there because Kipling is staying there, and C. had a letter of introduction to him.) We walked in, and to our surprise saw Lawson with a lot of other officers dining there. On looking round we found there was hardly any one but officers there—all in khaki, of course. We had dinner, which we thoroughly enjoyed, being the first decent meal since we left England. Cutsem had just handed his letter to a waiter to give to R. K. He was sitting on the verandah. Cutsem expected him to send for us. However, the time was getting short, and Kipling neither sent nor came, so we went on to the verandah and saw him. He was sitting on a bench talking to an officer. Cutsem refused to approach him unless he was by himself, so we had to go away, and never spoke to him at all. . . .
He is a dark man, with a dark moustache. We took a hansom back. The only thing that is cheap here is fruit. For id. you can get a great bunch of grapes which you would have to pay 6d. for at home.
“I went with Eden again this morning into the town, to see it by daylight. Khaki, khaki everywhere, ‘ nor any drop to drink ’ (no intoxicants were to be sold to soldiers); troops marching through the town, and hundreds, like ourselves, walking about. I sent off a postcard for you, and some cigarettes (probably vile) for G. I also am sending you a Times, because of the accounts of the war, and the general excitement. I was talking to an officer invalided down from Modder River. He says it is not half bad on the veldt, except for the dust. The food is better than on board ship, and, he said, as soon as you get on land, and up to the front, your troubles are over. He says this boat rolls most fearfully, being so high out of the water; and that, when the Dublin Fusiliers came across in her, there were 27 men absolutely unfit for duty when she arrived. He also said that he shouldn’t have been surprised if some of the poor chaps had died who were inoculated on board that awful ‘ Norman ’—one of them very nearly did, you know.
“Capt. G , who went on before us, was there to greet us on our arrival. He has been occupying himself, part of the time, in the best possible way, namely, by doing a bit of fighting.
He has a fine hat pin and a bandolier which he got from a Boer. He says all our troops fight, each man absolutely * on his own ’; each man gets behind his bit of rock or stone, and pops away at his leisure. A bell has just gone; I must finish. Just off!