We were destined to have rather an eventful march. Our objective was now Heilbron. We were to go there to relieve some Highlanders who were shut up there under Colvile and reduced to starvation rations. The column had by this time got tire nickname of the “Beecham’s Pills column,” because we “relieved without pain! ” And, to tell the truth, we were getting a little tired of rushing off to extricate people from the holes into which they had got themselves. The second day after leaving Lindley we had been marching all the morning, and at noon halted, outspanned and fed, camping peacefully on the rolling veldt One or two of us, however, had not much time to spare, as we were sent on “ration fatigue” down to the Army S.C., which was encamped nearly a mile from our lines. My special portion, with another man, was to hoist sides of trek-ox, freshly killed, from the A.S.C. stores to our own waggon, a proceeding which I never was very fond of, as one gets one’s self covered with gore, which was not pleasant when water for washing purposes was scarce. So by the time we had got back to our lines with our meat, etc., it was nearly time to move off, and, seeing others leisurely saddling up, we began to do the same. We were sitting on the ground holding the reins, with our “clobbers ” Tying all about, and suspecting no evil, when suddenly “boom! ” We all looked round in the direction of the sound, and had just time to see a puff of white smoke slowly rising from the side of a kopje about two miles away, when “whe-w-oo-oo, whiz, plump,” and a shell alighted right in our lines. The 38th I.Y. forsooth! when there were acres and acres of camp where it might have gone. We were highly honoured by the distinction, but rather uncomfortable. “Lie down, 38th!” yelled some one, and “b-o-om” came another one. It burst bang among men and horses, not ten paces from me, luckily under ground. Louth, from Castor, was knocked clean down by the wind as it thumped into the ground close by him, but unhurt. Not a man or horse was hurt, but I can tell you we didn’t take long in saddling up and clearing out from that place. I didnt, I know! They sent a few more, but very wide of us. Our artillery replied in a very half-hearted way, and by the time we had re-formed behind a rise in the ground it was too dark to do any more.
That night the guards were trebled, and instead of three of us, there were nine line guards, whereat there was much “grousing” at “officers’ nerves being shaken,” etc. R. and I were on that night, but, alas, for the deceitfulness of men, although three were supposed to be on the lookout at once, our trio (R., B., and self) arranged for two of us to slumber while the third watched, and so to take turns. In the event of the orderly officer putting in an appearance, the sleepers were to be waked and instantly put on an air of extreme watchfulness. This plan worked beautifully, and we managed to screw in a fair night’s sleep.
After this we had fighting every day till we got to Heilbron. The kopjes on which the Boers lurked were on the right of the road, and flanking parties had to be kept out all along the route to keep them off.
One day we would hold a small hill for hours, firing at 1000 yards range, and the next we would be advance guard, and ride on ahead on the level road before much shooting was done. The flankers got most of the shooting, but it was mostly all long range and the casualties were not heavy. I used to take my camera off the saddle sometimes when we dismounted and crawled about the kopjes to try and get snap-shots of our men in action, but I found it sucn a nuisance to hold when doubling about with a rifle in one hand and having to pull it out of its case and replace it, etc., in between our advances, and ran so great a risk of losing it, that I soon gave up the attempt and kept it fastened to the saddle. About half-way between Lindley and Heilbron is Spitz Kop, a high peaked hill, dominating several miles of the road. On this the Boers had perched the gun that had given us our baptism of shell fire a short time before. We soon had our second experience. We were going at a walking pace, in open order, over a bit of heavy ground planted with mealies, when “whir-rr-oo-oo” came a shell into the middle of the squadron, beautifully aimed but quite harmless, as it did not burst but plunged with a sullen thud into the sandy ground, kicking up a cloud of dirt and dust, but hurting no one. We were coming over from one kopje to another on the flank of the convoy, and the gun was fired from about 2 miles further out We continued at a walking pace, and the shells kept coming over and into us. Our men knew it was about 1000 to i that we would not be hit, but all the same we could not help ducking in the saddle as the confounded things came over. The noise alone is rather alarming, and it appears to each man that the shell is making directly for him. This gun also caused some confusion by putting several well-placed shells on to the road among the convoy, and we heard afterwards that the general himself had had one or two near him.
This was on our last day’s march to Heilbron. My troop was left as rearguard, and after hanging about on kopjes and rising ground long after the convoy passed and all sniping had ceased, we set our faces homeward, or Heilbron-ward.
By this time it was getting dusk and we could hardly see the road. The convoy and the rest of the column were quite out of sight and probably into the town, and a furious blast of cold wind right in our faces warned us that we were going to get a wetting. So we put on our greatcoats (which were perfectly useless for all rain-protection purposes, but served to keep us warm), and set our nags at a canter to get into camp as quickly as possible.
The rain came down presently, and though it was annoying to get wet through, yet it freshened up both men and horses after the long, hot day. By the time we came up to the camp it had stopped, and the Tommies had already got their tiny fires going and were busily engaged in frying their ration bacon (tinned), which commodity was served out from time to time as a treat, and was much appreciated, though we would turn up our noses at it at home, as it consisted mostly of very soft, almost melted slices of fat We threaded our way through the groups of shouting, laughing men (T. A., or any soldier for that matter, on arriving in camp after a long march, and engaged in lighting fires and cooking his well- earned repast, is always a perfect picture of simple-minded childish happiness) to our lines off-saddled, fed horses, got our blankets from the waggon, and then also turned our attention to the all-important question of tea, or supper, whichever you like to call it.
I don’t think there can be anything more picturesque than the sight of perhaps half a square mile covered with men crowded round camp fires at night. The dust-begrimed faces under their helmets, pushed forward into the firelight from a background of darkness, was always a fascinating sight to me. Of all those happy-go-lucky fellows, intent on their cooking, who haven’t a thought for to-morrow, or for anything else except the evening meal and their night’s sleep afterwards, how many will be doing the same twenty-four hours later? Not all, if the ragged, dark-skinned men, smoking their pipes and drinking their coffee round their camp fires in the fastnesses of the surrounding hills have anything to say in the matter.
That night we had jam and rum served out, both the invariable sequelae of “scrapping.” The occasion was also celebrated by the addition of an extra biscuit to our usual daily allowance of four, so that, indeed, we had nothing left to wish for. This may sound exaggerated, ye sons of civilisation who have never been really hungry in your lives, but I assure you that it is not. The soldier in war time becomes in many ways primitive man once more, and just as, thousands of years ago, his hairy ancestor, having brought down his quarry with bow and arrow and fed well thereon, laid him down to sleep by his fire in the forest with mind as untroubled as a babe’s, so does the modem khaki-clad warrior, when comfortably full inside, stuff his head between his saddle flaps, pull his blanket over him, and forgetting the hardships and the perils of the past twelve hours, and caring nothing for those of the next, drops into the profound and dreamless sleep of a tired but perfectly contented animal.
Next day we had time to look about us and see what sort of a place we had relieved. It was the usual South African village; clusters of low houses with corrugated iron tops. With its bright little verandah-fronted houses and sandy “streets,” it reminded me very much of an English seaside town.
Some of the Highlanders of the besieged garrison came and paid us a visit They had been reduced to one biscuit a day, and were very glad to see us. They had many tales of the war to tell us, and some of them had been through the carnage of Magersfontein. There was a big 4.7 gun in the place, and we went and had a look at it During the two days we were here we had new boots served out, got one or more mails that were due, and were paid up to date; so we were quite ready to start on our travels once more. Mr. de Wet was at his antics on the Kronstadt, Heilbron (or Vredefort) road, he here having blown up the bridge at Rhenoster River, and we made oft across the 20 odd miles of veldt towards Heilbron Road.