I had just been given a remount. He was a very young bay horse, and did not at all like the heavy cavalry saddle on his back and much less a rifle scraping against his flank. He had evidently hardly ever been ridden before, and I had considerable difficulty in mounting him at first Afterwards I rode him about outside the camp with a rifle to get him used to his kit. This was about a week before we left Boshof. The first day we trekked about 15 miles, and encamped for the night at Driefontein. The next day we made a very early start, having reveille at 1 a.m., and by early afternoon had done over 20 miles, the field telegraph laying wire behind us. We caught a Boer at daybreak. He was doubtless questioned as to the proximity of his friends; whether or no any information was extracted from him I can’t say. I had by this time discovered that my horse was a very unpleasant one for long-distance riding at a slow pace; he was so young, nervous, and fretful (though having no vice) that, do what I could, I could not get him to walk. Mile after mile he would prance and mince along in little, short, dancing steps, all spring and fire, in a manner very agreeable to any one untrammelled with rifle and ammunition, but most exhausting to a soldier on the march, who is obliged to go a certain pace in a line with others, and whose rifle, bandolier, and bayonet, not to speak of nosebag with its 10 lbs. of corn, and the rest of the bag of tricks, are all dancing a ponderous jig in time to his horse’s steps. Probably a good gallop for a mile or two would have cured him, but that, of course, I could not get.
We rested that afternoon. I heard Lord Chesham say that we had better get all the sleep we could, as we were likely to want it very soon, so I guessed that something unusual was going to be done. As soon as I had fed my horse and myself I made my way to the Shropshires’ lines to have a yarn with Sydney T. Finding him sleeping peacefully by his saddle, I decided not to wake him, and went back to my own quarters and did likewise.
We (i.e., the Yeomanry and some guns) started that night at 6 o’clock, having heard we were to surprise Hoopstad, 30 miles off, and try to capture a commando of Boers who were occupying the place. This was the first real night’s march we had done, and everybody was in the highest state of excitement at the idea. The moon was about half-full, so we had plenty of light. The first half of a night march is always, I think, the most trying. We pressed on at a great rate, and about midnight the order was sent round, “pipes out,” and “no smoking." (We were to get pretty familiar with this formula afterwards.) We were by this time too tired to talk, and no sound broke the swish, swish of the horses’ hoofs through the grass but the faint clink and rattle of mounted men moving slowly along.
One mile in every three, off we had to get and walk. We grumbled a lot at this—”Didn’t know we were foot-sloggers,” or “nice ride we’re 'aving, ain’t we?” (in a bitterly sarcastic tone), etc, but it was a great saving to our horses, and our commanders, not knowing what hard work might lie before us, were quite right to spare them as much as possible. So we staggered on half asleep, dragging our tired animals behind us. My little bay needed no dragging, but the long march had sobered him down and he condescended to walk along like a sensible quadruped, and I forgave him his “hop-hopping” of the preceding two days. How glad we were when, after each twenty minutes of stumbling over the uneven veldt, there came the welcome sight of men halting and mounting in front of us, and when we too were able to clamber back into our saddles and, turning round, see the dim figures clambering into theirs behind us. Soon after three in the morning a halt of half an hour was called, and a tot of rum per man was served out It was by this time beginning to be bitterly cold, and some men foolishly lay down and went to sleep. I say foolishly, because we all knew that the halt was to be only a short one, and of course there was no question of blankets being obtained. The consequence was that, whilst most men sat up or half lay back in their saddles on the ground, stretched their legs, sipped their rum, got a thorough good rest, and were ready to start again on the word “saddle up,” the unfortunate sleepers had to be kicked up out of the first profound slumber of exhaustion, and awoke stiff with cold and far more tired than when they lay down. Some of the officers made a better (?) use of the time afforded them, and, by way of fortifying themselves against cold and fatigue and preparing for the coming struggle, absorbed rather more of the contents of certain flasks they had brought with them than perhaps was quite necessary under the circumstances. Indeed, however sleepy No. 3 troop had been up to now, the subsequent performances of their gallant troop-leader were quite enough to keep them all awake and in fits of silent laughter for the remainder of the march.
No sooner had we started off again, and this gentleman had resumed his place at the head of his troop (we were marching in line, but in close order), than we perceived that something was wrong. He swayed and lurched about in his saddle in the most extraordinary way and was soon obviously fast asleep. Every now and then, on feeling himself plunging forwards over his horse’s neck (he was a first-rate horseman), he would wake up and recover himself for an instant, but most of the time he slumbered whilst instinctively retaining his seat. Meanwhile his horse—a good one and a fast walker—finding that he was allowed to go his own pace, would soon carry his master far ahead and get mixed up with the next troop. This happened so often that at last the men in front let him go through them just to see how far he would go. So poor old M. nodded and lurched his way into the rear troop of the 39th squadron, who happened to be in front of us, and on colliding with one of the men, and momentarily waking up, “Who the h— are you? You’re not No. 3. Get back to your own troop,” snaps M. angrily, and he is asleep again before he discovers his mistake.
He is funnier still when we dismount. Hanging on to his reins like grim death, he struggles manfully on, tumbling down over everything there is to tumble over, especially ant-hills, but never letting go of the reins. On one occasion he fails to regain his feet and is complacently dragged along, with outstretched arms and legs, till some one collars his horse and gives him time to get on his feet again.
But as the first cold chill of dawn begins to creep over us the effect wears off, and “Richard is himself again.” Now all is excitement and expectation, and everybody feels wide awake and fresh. The long march behind us is forgotten, and even the horses seem to realise that something is going to happen at last. Soon a halt is called to allow the guns to come up. Up they come at a walk, no clattering and shouting of orders, but a steady, composed, and dignified mass of guns, limbers, horses, and men, advancing leisurely until on a level with ourselves, who are standing dismounted watching them, and then, “Halt! ”—seen but not heard, and they silently close up and wait for events. “Roll coats ” is the next order; and in spite of the biting early morning air, off come our greatcoats, and every one is on his knees, hastily rolling them before strapping them in front of the saddle. You cannot go into action in a greatcoat.
It is just now beginning to get light, and 1000 yards ahead can be seen the spire of a church and a cluster of whitewashed dwellings —Hoopstad at last! Then comes the word “mount,” and we are off at a canter. Randall has his helmet on hind side before, and some officer considers it needful at such a moment to tell him to put it on properly! We have only been three months in the country, and the coils of red tape have not yet been quite shaken off. All the mounted men and guns are now making for the town at a gallop; more mounted men and guns have gone on ahead, and are making for the far side of the town in a wide sweep. It is now quite light, but no movement can be seen in the town; it lies with an air of injured innocence in the cold, grey morning light We are now at a deep “drift,” which we have to cross before reaching the town. We close quickly up from our open formation, and stream down into the narrow ford, down one steep bank and up another. Now, brother Boer, if you want to knock some of us over, you will never have a better chance! But no! the crackle of Mauser fire which we expect does not come, and we canter gaily close up to the outlying houses, halt, and watch the rest of the mounted men closing in upon the town from all sides. Not a shot is fired. We dismount and take stock of one another, while staff and other officers and some Yeomanry ride into the town to see what sort of a “bag” we have got. What a curious lot we look! The combination of dirt and cold in a man’s countenance is always so much more disagreeable to see than dirt and heat; each man’s eyes, too, have a curious sort of staring, protruding look, from want of sleep, I suppose.
Colonel Lawson sends in some men to “get all the porridge they can” for us—we are indeed ready for anything hot. It is now 6 o’clock; we have been twelve hours on the march, with only one break; distance travelled, 30 miles; net result at present, nil. We learn that the commando “got wind of our coming,” in the way that Johnny Boer always managed to do, and has flown. The porridge- seekers return empty-handed, and after stamping about with our hands in our pockets, trying to get warm, for a few minutes longer, we mount and ride off to the other side of the town, where we off-saddle and fix on a camping ground.
“We hadn’t camped outside the town half an hour, however, but as Eden and I were standing on a slight rise outside the camp by a group of officers—‘crack-uph,’ and a bullet sang over our heads.” (No one who has not heard a Mauser shot will be able to realise the curious double report.) “No one took the slightest notice, however; the man was firing from some bushes about a mile off; he fired two more, and then shut up. Cheek, you know! Then 36 of them, with two generals, calmly came in and gave up their arms the same afternoon. Every day lots more come in. They drive into the town in Cape carts, flying the white flag. This morning, when Eden and I went in, there was a whole crowd of them leaning on their rifles and chatting amongst themselves while waiting for their turn.
“I told you I found my camera again, or rather it was found for me. After dropping off my saddle on the veldt on the march to Boshof, I got it back three weeks later from the man who picked it up.
“We have a huge convoy with us; it stretches for miles and miles along the road. Each waggon has sixteen bullocks to pull it, driven by screaming blacks who wield whips with lashes sometimes 30 feet long, with which they can single out any part of any bullock and fetch him three or four terrific stingers. We want a big convoy considering the column is 15,000 strong.” (This was the common report but it could not have been more than about 8000 or 10,000.) “2000 of these are I.Y. and the rest, except a few batteries of artillery, are infantry. There are Dublin and Munster Fusiliers, South Wales Borderers, Loyal North Lancashires, etc., etc., etc., but we three regiments of Yeomanry are the only mounted men he (Methuen) has got We do all the advance guard and scouting work on trek, so we are useful enough. We do not form ' guards of honour ’ for Cronje, etc., at Cape Town, like the C.I.V.
“I hope you are all well and flourishing; I am. I am sorry to leave here so soon, it is a much healthier place than Boshof at present. There was a regular ring of dead horses, mules, etc., lying unburied round the camp there, and the place was unsavoury to a degree. The war can’t last long now; you see this is all part of the general advance up the country. We are taking town after town, and I don’t think the Free State wants to fight any more.
“I enclose two new Free State stamps and a Kruger 3d. bit, a ‘tikkie ’ as they are called out here. I also enclose a bit of a Free State newspaper showing what stuff they write. On the door of the farmhouse where I found it was a paper stuck, with the following legend in English : ‘Please feed my chickens and turkeys and don’t forget the lame duck. If you do I shall be very cross!!’ evidently put up by the little girl of the house on leaving her home. There wasn’t a thing on the farm when we were there.”
Interesting item from my friends Diary.
May 19th. Reveille 6. Horses out to graze. Had wash in Vet River, also washed clothes. As watering horses saw Boers coming in to surrender, under white flag. About 60 came and gave up their arms.