We left Hoopstad the following day with a convoy 6 miles long, starting at 3 a.m. en route for Bothasville, leaving a garrison at the former place. Trekking along the east bank of the Vaal River we constantly had the trees and bushes of the Transvaal in sight whilst riding on the Free State soil. On the evening of the third day after leaving Hoopstad we got to a wide, shallow ford or drift called Commando Drift. Here the orders were that the 37th and 38th squadrons should cross the river for the night, leaving the main body on the Free State bank, so at noon when we got to the drift we crossed. There was a high, steep bank down which we had to manoeuvre our horses before we could reach the water, and while waiting my turn to start the descent I was able to get a snap-shot of those who were already crossing the Vaal. I labelled it, “Yeomanry crossing the Vaal.” I think we were nearly the first I.Y. to do so. We off-saddled on the far side and turned the horses out to graze. I was grazing guard, and we (three of us) had some difficulty in rounding, up stragglers and keeping the herd together owing to the broken and wooden nature of the country. We found some deserted Kaffir huts, which we entered, and I took a few “curios,” among other things being a rather cleverly made basket of dried grass. This I strapped to my saddle, but in me subsequent caperings of my nag (the young bay afore mentioned), with whom I had a tussle soon after, it fell off, and though I hunted high and low for it all the rest of the afternoon, I could not find it.
When we and our horses got back to camp we found that some young and lusty pigs had been slain, and were to be served out to the men that evening, whereat we were overjoyed, especially when on the still night air we heard the welcome sound of frizzling pork, and sniffed the equally welcome odour of the same. We slept well after our feast in spite of the bitter cold, which we were now beginning to feel at night pretty severely.
The next morning we were up before dawn and recrossed the river, to find that the column had gone on and that we were the rearguard. After a day and a half’s march we got to Bothasville, the night of 24th May, and at 3 o’clock we were all assembled on parade in honour of the Queen’s birthday, and addressed by Lord Methuen. He concluded his speech by promising tots of rum to each man to celebrate the occasion. After many cheers and raising of hats and rifles, we were dismissed.
“N.B.—The 38th never got that tot of rum; whether others did or not I don’t know.”
Momentous entry in Diary.
May 24th. Reached Bothasville. First found some lice. Parade at 3 for speech, and says we are to drink the Queen’s health in rum, but we do not get it
We remained at Bothasville that day. Some of our men went down to hospital with enteric at this place, E. T. among them.
On May 25th we had reveille at 3, marching at 4. We trekked on towards Kroonstad, comfortably warm by day but frozen at night.
Expressive entry in Diary.
May 25th. Reveille at 1.45 a.m. Marched and touched Kronstad at 7 o’clk. Hardly any troops there. Off-saddle outside town during the afternoon. Had to shift our camp to H—1 on opposite side of town. On line guard at night Very cold.
N.B.—Remembering our troubles on that hillside I can forgive our diarist his name for our camp. The wonder is how he managed to write at all.
“Kronstad, May 30, 1900.—We arrived here yesterday after our fortnight’s rather trying march from Boshof, and the first, thing that happened on our arrival was the appearance of two big mail-bags, with two Peterborough papers for me (April 14 and 21) and my first parcel, containing the two very things I wanted most, chocolate and a warm woollen waistcoat. I can tell you I was absolutely thankful when I saw the latter. The cold at nights is so bitter and searching that we can hardly sleep, lying in the open as we do, and one does not get warmed through again by the sun until 10 or 11 in the morning. Besides, we now always have reveille at 2 or 3 in the morning when on the march, and on two days at 1.45; grubbing about, saddling up, and groping for your things with numbed fingers in the dark, and awful cold. It is far worse than English cold; it seems to get right into you.
“There were ten degrees of frost last night, and they say that this is only the beginning of it. I ride with a pair of socks on my hands for gloves, but a couple of pairs of thick woollen gloves or mittens would be the first things I would ask you to send me. I am also badly in need of thick underclothing.
“This is a big place (for Africa), with direct train communication from the Cape; so stores should be here soon. Roberts has not left the place many days, as you will have seen, so the line has not been open long and absolutely nothing has come up yet; every shop and store in the place is closed, We are off again, probably to-morrow, 50 miles east, for some unknown destination. We never know where we are going to, and until we were three days from this place we had no idea where we were going. I was pleased to see a train puffing along, as we arrived on a hill overlooking the town at dawn. We all cheered, and the Tommies resting on the frozen ground by us started up and cheered too as they looked at it. It was the first sign of civilisation we had seen for many weeks, since we left Kimberley.
“But when the sun gets up we don’t get half a bad time on the march. We can’t do more than io or 15 miles a day because of the huge ‘supply column,’ or convoy, we ‘have with us, as the oxen have to stop and be out-spanned, and a long halt made at mid-day to enable them to graze.
“We are always out on the flanks or advanced guard. The miles of waggons stretching along the road, each with its team of oxen, is a wonderful sight—all driven by Kaffirs, and all organised and controlled by that wonderful A.S.C. (Army Service Corps). Then (when not stony) we can always get fowls and bread (sometimes) at the farms along the route. Chickens, is. each; turkeys, 2s. 6d. Eden and I had a chicken the other day; strapped him to my saddle, and when we got to camp, made a fire, plucked him, etc., borrowed a pot from the cooks, and boiled him for about 1 hours. We then sat on each side of the fire and tore him limb from limb (we had lost our knives) and devoured him, simply wolfed him, and drank his soup. . . .
“A parcel of films arrived by the last mail, which I was delighted to get. … My camera is quite celebrated in our troop. If anything worth snapping is seen, some one is sure to sing out, 'There’s your chance G.,’ and if I think it is a good one, out comes the camera and it is done! It hangs on the right-hand side of my saddle, so I can easily reach it.
“We left the Shropshires with a lot of other troops at Hoopstad, so I have not seen S. and L. very lately, but I believe they rejoin us here to-day. A report has been going about that French is in Johannesburg, but I don’t know if it is true. I don’t mind the life a bit, if it wasn’t for the cold, but that is awful. I was rather sick of it at Swartzkopjefontein, but I hadn’t got used to it then. Just fancy, in a few months’ time, nice comfortable long trousers, light boots, clean clothes, collars—I can hardly imagine myself! Please lay in a huge supply of food before I come, or I know I shall eat the house out, especially porridge and—well, everything seems so delightful in the abstract that I don’t know what to say. E. and I often torment each other on the march by laying out huge imaginary feasts. ‘Roast beef and potatoes! ’ he would say, and I would chime in with ‘peas and Yorkshire pudding!’ We feel pretty bad at that and laugh feebly, but when one of us remembers ‘thick brown gravy,’ we. both of us fairly collapse, and give it up before we get to the pudding.”
On the evening of the day of our arrival at Kroonstadt I sent off the above letter and a parcel of films, giving them both to an artilleryman to post, as he was going down to the town with letters. We lay and froze that night, and early next morning rose and saddled up. It was so cold that we had great difficulty rolling up our bedding, the waterproofs being frozen as stiff as a piece of tin, and our fingers numb and useless. The horses were in a terrible state, huddling and rubbing up against one another all in a heap, the whole night long, in the vain attempt to keep warm. Their hunger was painful to see, and at the first sign of the men rising and walking about, they began to stamp and paw the ground and pull at their reims with all their strength, neighing or rather screaming all the time, in their efforts to get at the nosebags which they knew were coming. When we had got our nosebags filled with the day’s corn, it was with the greatest difficulty that we could get them on the horses’ heads: directly you walked towards your horse with the bag he would toss up his head and carry on worse than ever. You would get it half on, and then he would throw his head violently upwards, in his frantic endeavour to get a mouthful of corn. I have more than once got a nasty knock in the face in this way.
“Lindley, June 4th.—Since my last letter, which I wrote at Kroonstad, we have had an easy four days’ march to this place. We heard rumours on the march that a British force was surrounded here, but we did not know anything for certain till we arrived within 2 or 3 miles from the town, when we heard firing from the hills around. I was with the led horses (riding one and leading two sick), and so I was not in the firing line at all; but we heard it all, and saw a good bit from where we were.
“The thing was this: Methuen pushed on from Kroonstad with the 3rd, 5th (S.’s), and 10th I.Y., to try and relieve the 400 Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Irish) Yeomanry, and other troops who were held up here. As a matter of fact, the Boers had bombarded and taken the place, with all the garrison, a few hours before we got there. When we did arrive, the tail-end of their convoy was to be seen disappearing amongst the hills, 5 miles the other side of the village, with a good many of their army; and they had left about 2000 men (or not so many, perhaps) behind, to keep us oft. The 10th and 3rd were sent on, but S.’s lot (5th) kept with the guns. Our lot came in for a tremendous dose. The enemy had the range to a nicety, and the bullets were dropping all amongst them as they advanced. One poor fellow in my section—M., of Tring, Bucks —was killed, and eight horses were snot. E. had his horse shot, and had to hold on to another man’s stirrup and run. He told me afterwards the bullets were pitching all round, between his legs and under his arms, etc.
“Captain B_____ had his horse, a nice English one, shot; and Lawson had a bullet through his coat, crossways, punching a hole in his pocket-book, and another went through his saddlebag, and through a tin of cocoa. All our men said it was a perfect miracle no one was hit except M.
“Rather a funny thing happened. They were lying as flat as they could get in the short grass, when Brown, one of the three Buckinghamshire brothers, looked indignantly round, saying, ‘Here, stop that! who hit me ? ’ thinking one of our men had thrown a stone or something at him for fun. As a matter of fact a bullet had passed through his helmet on the left side and must have gone about inch off his head. On the whole I don’t think I missed much. The beggars had burned the veldt all round for miles so that our khaki showed up clear against the black, and the ground over which they had to advance was absolutely devoid of cover. However, we got into the town only to And it empty of British, who had all been taken prisoners; 70 men were found wounded in improvised hospitals and a lot had been killed. They were the D.C.O. (Irish). It was a pity we did not get here in time. You see Colonel Spragge, who commanded them, sent word to Methuen that he could hold on till Saturday, whereas he surrendered on Thursday, and we arrived on Friday without the infantry, who had made a fine march of 44 miles from Cronstad in time to ' give us a hand,' as one Tommy said to me in talking it over afterwards. But they all arrived here the next (Saturday) morning. The Boers are quite close and keep sniping at our outposts all day. Have heard a report that Roberts is in Pretoria. S. here and well. E. seedy and left at Cronstad. Self well."
For account of siege and surrender of Lindley, see Conan Doyle's "Great Boer War," pp. 460-3. He, however, dismisses our march, and the fine performance of the infantry and the subsequent fighting round Lindley with the curt, " The more urgent message from the Yeomen at Lindley, however, took him on a fruitless journey to that town on 3rd June." It was 1st June, by the way, too.
We were encamped in a vilely uncomfortable spot on the side of a stony kopje overlooking the "town." M. was buried in the cemetery as soon as we got there. His is the right hand grave as you enter the gate. I went down the next day and took a photo of the grave and sent it to his people. His sister wrote to me later saying they were glad to get it, and also that they hoped one day to all go out and see it for themselves.
We were constantly annoyed by bands of snipers on the hills round the town which lies in a basin, and is at the mercy of the surrounding kopjes.
June 2nd. Reveille at 6. Go on outpost, and can see Boer post on our front. Eventually we get annoyed with one another, and result is a lot of sniping on both sides.
June 4th. Lord Loch (Chief of Staff) went to see de Wet, and asked him to surrender. Saddled up at mid-day in a hurry, but did not go out. Saddled up for night picket, but did not go.
Eden had a very narrow escape, being shot at while dismounted. He mounted hurriedly, but, as usual, could not get his brute of a horse to move.
It was one of those brutes we were getting used to, no heart at all, and required thumping with the spurs and the butt end of a rifle before it would stir, under-fed and exhausted with long marches as it was. At last, after frantic kickings and adjurations, he got it into a lumbering trot, and managed to get behind a hill, but he had a very disagreeable minute or two.
We had been at this camp about a day, when C____ came striding down the lines very excitedly, waving a paper, and saying that Pretoria had surrendered, the war was over, and we were all going home, and goodness knows what else! We hardly believed him, as he had so often cried “wolf” before; but this time the first part of his news anyhow was true. On the 5th we packed up and started to relieve Heilbron, where the Highlanders were shut up, leaving a garrison under General Paget at Lindley.
On Sunday (our last day there) we had service taken by the parson Yeoman of the 5th I.Y.