“March 31, Camp, Kimberley.
Excuse cramp, as I am in an awkward position for writing.
“Thank you much for your letters, four of which have arrived, and the Peterborough paper, which of course I am very glad to get, and which the other Peterborough men like to see. I remember I had not time to finish my last letter, but had to give it up hastily as it was. Since that we have had no end of adventures.
“Nine days ago we saddled up, and started from the camp very early. Ever since then, up to yesterday, we have been on the march out on the veldt, camping at night, and marching all the day, with a mid-day halt of one or two hours. We were told before we started that we were sure to get into action some time, but as day after day passed by and no Boers appeared, we got dead sick of the long marches and roughing it We were very near it once or twice, having to saddle up in a great hurry, and extend across the country, and send out scouts, who, by the way, were experienced men of the Cape Mounted Police; but the enemy, in every case, thought 'discretion the better part of valour,’ and made themselves scarce before we got up."
It was on this march that I first saw British artillery in war time. Accustomed as I was to the shining black guns, well-groomed horses, and smart men of me Royal Artillery at home, I hardly knew them for the same.
The men looked just like the carters, mounted on their unkempt cart horses, whom one sees in the country in England; rusty, muddy chains, and rain-sodden harness; and the guns themselves, painted khaki, and their wheels caked with mud, showed every sign of hard service.
“We surrounded a rebel farmhouse once, but the occupants apparently weren’t there, so we went away again. We passed three Boer prisoners, riding in front of two mounted police. They looked at us very downcastly.
“We saw a good many evidences of the war; Boer trenches, the galvanised iron all chucked about, made so snug. They used to lie down comfortably in them, and snipe away at Kimberley from about 2 miles off. Our route was out north of this place, and on the second or third day we got to Barkly West, a funny little place, wnere I managed to rescue a tin of jam from a man who had leave to go into the town. (We are never allowed in the town near which we camp, which is a great grievance, especially as they allow the 37th Company.) I rejoiced considerably at this, because the only food we got for breakfast, dinner, and tea was hard biscuit and bully beef. Bread is a luxury not to be thought of.
“We generally saddled up at about 4 a.m.; breakfast (?!), coffee and any biscuit you had over from yesterday, at 4.30; start at 5. The dawn usually broke about half an hour or an hour after we started. We would ride three- quarters of an hour, and walk, leading horses, for fifteen or twenty minutes. This walking astonishes me, and everybody else; we did not bargain for it, especially as you have to drag your horse and carry your rifle at the same time.
“I shall never forget some of those nights; it rained cats and dogs the first three days and nights, not like English rain, but a heavy, drenching, continuous downpour. Imagine hunting for your saddle and accoutrements on dark mornings, in the pouring rain (no tents of course, we lay on the veldt), and discovering them inches deep in mud, and your rifle buried in it too. After the second day I began to think I never should be dry again! ”
Some of the spruits we crossed on this march were very much swollen by the rain, and a farrier of the 37th Company was dragged down with his horse by the weight of his stock-in-trade and drowned. This happened just before we got to Barkly West.
On one of the dark, rainy nights above mentioned, I had my first experience of “outlying picket” Three of us, under a corporal, had to take out our blankets, and stumble out into the pitchy darkness, to a spot on the veldt about 500 yards from the main camp. It was while half-way through my “relief,” from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., that I saw a dark form on the ground, about 20 yards off, which I had not noticed before, and thought might be a man creeping towards me. I advanced cautiously up to it in a crouching attitude, and after challenging it and receiving no reply, I gave it a good prod with my bayonet. It proved to be only an ant-hill, which I had been prevented from seeing before by the cloudiness of the sky.
The narration of this cheered our drooping spirits somewhat next morning, as we staggered back at dawn to our marshy camp.
“But after that time the rain came seldom, and the sun, of course, being very powerful, soon dried us. None of us came to any harm, as you would be certain to do in England: you see, the air here is so marvellously dry, and the climate so warm, that you don’t catch cold.
“We generally went about 20 miles a day: yesterday we worked back to Barkly again, and then on to Kimberley. We saw the mines, 10 or 12 miles off across the veldt, the tall shafts standing out clear. Then we caught sight of tents, and it seemed like home again. The sick we had left behind us came out with water bottles to greet us.”
Most of the men were utterly done up, and our horses looked a sorry lot. I felt a good deal pulled down, and had an abscess between gum and cheek; but after a day’s rest I felt all right again. The men we had left behind were very anxious to hear of our doings, as they had heard many rumours to the effect that we had had “heavy fighting” and had been “badly cut up.”
It was on this march that we made our first attempt at outdoor cooking. The ration tea and coffee were cooked on the cook’s fire behind the waggon by the squadron cooks; but in addition to this many men, on arrival in camp, made private fires, both for drying and warming purposes, and to cook the cocoa, quaker oats, etc., which we had brought with us from the camp at Kimberley. In spite of the extreme dampness of the wood, and the inexperience of the men, after the first two or three nights most of the “troops” had at least two fires in their lines.
“We are here to-day and to-morrow (Sunday), and then we are off again on the same kind of ‘rebel-hunting ’ business to Boshof. From there, there is a rumour that we join Roberts’ left flank for Pretoria.”
This was so far correct, that we joined Methuen’s column, which afterwards formed the extreme left wing of Lord Roberts’ advance up the country, but we did not get to Pretoria!
“But I think the back of the war is broken and I give it another month at most.
“To-day (Sunday) news has come that a large force of Boers had occupied Barkly directly we left. As a matter of fact, though we didn’t know it, they were all round us while we were out and knew all our movements perfectly. Why they didn’t attack I don’t know.
“We strike tents to-day at 8 am. and go off at 5 p.m. I have learnt by experience what to take, and have stuffed my saddle-wallets full of food, and nothing else. By the way, I took, and am taking, my camera hung on the saddle. It survived, in its case, all the rain to which it was exposed. I took two or three photos, one of our camp after the rain, with little rivers rippling round all our possessions. If you are sending anything, what I should like would be a good lot of chocolate (not cocoa), which you cannot get here, and some ‘Pioneer ’ tobacco.”
On arriving in camp the last day of this march, I discovered, to my dismay, that my camera had dropped off the saddle on the veldt during the day’s march. Of course I never hoped to recover it
“As it never rains but it pours, some few days later I lost a ten-shilling bit, and, worst of all, my knife. . ..
“We went out this morning and surrounded a suspected farmhouse, but were met with the old story, ‘Hadn’t seen her husband for three months; didn’t know where he was.’ As a matter of fact, once when we did that, the ‘Vrow’ saying she had not seen her man for six months, we heard afterwards from a nigger servant that he was hiding in some scrub in the garden, with a rifle in his hand, all the time."