The next day, Tuesday, last day of July, we had a late “revally ’’ for a change, and did not get up till 6.30. I woke at about 5, by force of habit, I suppose, and wished I could follow the example of the old sailor who, when he had retired from the service, paid a boy sixpence a week to come and call him at 6 every morning, and say, “The captain wants you on deck at once, Mr. Jones,” to which Mr. Jones would reply with great gusto, “Tell the captain to go to ! ” and turn over and go to sleep again.
We settled in camp, expecting a day off with nothing to do, when at about 9.30 heavy guns were heard 5 or 6 miles away, in the direction of Smith-Dorrien’s column. Immediately all was bustle and hurry, and we saddled up sharp, having really learned to do it quickly by this time. We found the Boers about 5 miles out, very much scattered about the country, and soon discovered that they had two guns; whether they were the same lot we had against us two days before I don’t know. The 38th went on, along the right of a long, low ridge, and the 37th advanced parallel to us on the left side. They fired one or two shells at us, or perhaps at the people behind; anyhow they dropped pretty wide of us. Part of the time I was a No. 3, holding my own and three other horses. I dragged the jaded animals close up under the lee of the stony ridge, while the troop went forward. On looking towards the enemy’s position, I saw one of their guns at the top of a kopje. I first noticed a black dot, and on watching it I saw a puff of white smoke rise up from it, then over came the shell. I hoped we should not have to stop still there much longer, as we were on the wrong side of the ridge, and the long line of bunches of four horses offered a splendid target, especially as the gun was within a mile of us. However, the oncoming artillery appeared to be more tempting to the Boer gunners, and several shrapnel burst over them as they trotted to the front along the level without a vestige of cover; but the gunners never changed direction by so much as an inch. The guns kept their distance - and dressing perfectly, and not a man or horse was hit, at least while I was watching them.
In a few minutes our men came running back to their horses, and we all mounted and pushed on with the guns. By this time the Boers had ceased fire with their guns, and could be seen in full retreat upon the plain. One or two of them were captured in the bushes close by. Among them was a villainous-looking half- breed, with a beautiful sporting Mauser. He swore on his honour, and goodness knows what besides, that he had not been shooting with it, and five minutes afterwards a neat little pile of empty cartridge cases was discovered where he had been lying.
Our guns swung into position, and forthwith ensued some more pretty artillery practice. The Boers knew their business, and offered an amazingly difficult target by spreading out all over the plain in different directions. Our gunners picked out twos and threes, and it was wonderful to see how they followed them about at that distance, for the range must have been 2000 yards at the least by this time. You would see two black dots scurrying away in the distance, and a gun would be slewed round on to them. “Bang-whee-oo-oo ” went the shell, and a moment later the two dots would be obscured in a cloud of red dust, perhaps struggling out and on again, perhaps down to earth. I saw a pom-pom turned on one of the Boer guns which was left somewhat behind. It could not leave the road as the horsemen could, so had to keep more or less in a straight line, which, of course, made it a better target. The pom-poms showered shells round it, kicking up clouds of dust, and almost obscuring it from view; but the driver stuck to his post most gallantly, and, looking through our glasses, we could see his bent back as he sat on the limber slashing at his mules; and though left far behind by his comrades, he succeeded in getting himself and his gun well out of range and the inferno of shell-fire. We found two niggers dead on the field; presumably they had been driving the Boer guns. I do not know whether any Boers were killed; anyhow, they never left their own dead behind if they could possibly help it. On the way back Chesham rode a little way with our squadron, talking to B., and I heard him say loud enough for all to hear, “Yes, I think we shall be home for a little partridge shooting!” so, of course, it got all over the camp that we were going home in September.
1st August was my birthday, and I was, appropriately enough, on fatigue, and spent the first day of my majority hewing wood for the squadron fire. R. went down into the town to see what could be bought, but found all the stores closed.
The following day six of us were on outpost all day. We started at 4.30, a very frosty morning, and rode about 2 miles down the Klerksdorp road, where we tethered our horses, and stamped up and down on the hard road to keep warm till the sun rose. Then we lit fires, got water from a farm near by, where a Boer was ploughing placidly with a team of oxen as though there was no such thing as a “rooinek " within a thousand miles of him, and spent a very lazy, pleasant day, smoking, sleeping, reading magazines and letters. We returned to camp at dark, and found that the rest of our men had been out all day escorting some guns in a “reconnaissance in force ” and had just got back. There was again a sharp frost that night, the grass being stiff and white with hoarfrost in the morning. We had bread served out to us for the first time since we had been on trek, a quarter of a loaf per man. It was hard and black, and I think most of us preferred the biscuits, which we had really got quite keen on. To-day the camp was agog with the news that de Wet was on the hills 8 miles away, with 3000 men, 2000 of whom were fighting men, and that we were to watch his movements and give chase when an opportunity presented itself. This was one of the few reports that turned out to be a correct one. There was a small stream running close by the camp, and the next day, being at rest all day, we managed to get a lot of washing done. I washed two “grey-back” shirts, some socks, and a pair of putties. At night we heard read out in orders that the 38th were to escort a party of telegraphists 10 miles back along the line towards Bank station to repair the wires.
“Revally ” at 6, and a leisurely start. When we had got well out of the town, it struck me what a small party we were—50 mounted men, and one waggon and ammunition cart, but no gun of any sort The road was parallel to the line, and our party spread itself out on either side, keeping the waggon and ammunition cart in the centre. No. 3 was on the left, and three men, of whom I was one, were on the extreme left advance. No. 2 was on the centre advance, and No. 1 on the right After going about 5 miles we came to a farm, and as I was the nearest to it, I rode up to the front door and asked if they had any eggs or chickens. Some niggers came out, among them a cheeky brute dressed in European style with a straw hat. He said he had no chickens or eggs, and as I could not see any, and had no time to stop and look, I was giving it up as a bad job, though I knew they were almost sure to have them concealed somewhere. I asked him if he had anything eatable whatever. They all consulted for a moment, and then one went into the house and brought out about a stone of loose mealie flour in a sack. I said, “How much ? ” “Oh, all right, we give you,"
said he. I was surprised at this, but soon saw his reason. As he was handing the flour up to my saddle, he began to try and pump me, asking, with an oily smile, if the English were coming out of Potchefstroom, and whether we had any guns with us. “It was on the tip of my tongue to hit him over the head,” as the Irishman said, with the flour sack, but I bethought me that this would give the game away rather, so I merely vouchsafed the information that this was the advance guard of a large force with several guns coming out of the town, and rode off. I had a canter before I caught up my three companions, and when I did so, found that we were separated from the road and- our main body by a long, high, rocky ridge which ran parallel with the road. We had gone about 8 miles altogether through the bush, when, on coming to a slight rise overlooking a level stretch of country, I noticed, about 2 miles off, a small farm building, about 300 yards from the ridge, on our side of it. Nothing very extraordinary in itself, but what caused me to look again was the sight of several mounted men galloping about in its immediate neighbourhood, some away from it, and some towards it, and some circling about it, all kicking up a great deal of dust They grew in numbers, and from 10 to 20 soon became a hundred or more. I had lost my field glasses, and so closed in on E., my next neighbour, and pointed them out, saying I thought they were Boers, as their movements were so erratic. Numbers of them now appeared to be making for the ridge. “Rot” said he, “they are Smith-Dorrien’s men,” for we knew that general was somewhere in the neighbourhood. Not being convinced, however, I rode across to the corporal and told him. He also had a squint through his glasses and admitted that they looked suspicious, but thought that they must be Smith-Dorrien’s men. However, he sent the third man across, through a gap in the ridge, to report the presence of mounted men ahead to Captain B, who was with the main body on the other side, and, of course, could see nothing of what was going on on our side of it. He merely sent back a message telling us “to keep a sharp lookout and line the ridge,” whatever that meant, and so the whole lot went quietly on. The waggon was not halted to allow the ground in front to be reconnoitred, and all seemed gentleness and peace. We proceeded so for another mile, we on the left seeing many more men making for the ridge, and then, no movement, a deserted farmhouse, a plain, and silence. Suddenly, on topping another slight rise, we saw a sight which made us pull up short and get behind whatever cover in the way of bushes there was available. At a distance of 400 or 500 yards from us, standing quietly at the foot of the ridge in small groups, was a line of Boer ponies, left there by their masters, who were waiting for us on its summit This was the first and last time we were behind the Boer firing line unbeknownst to brother B.
The next moment they opened fire on our party on the other side. Not wanting to get cut off, we put our horse’s heads for the nearest gap in the ridge and went to look what the rest of the 38th were doing. The advance guard, waggon, and ammunition cart were falling back down the road, and the whole squadron was the next minute making for the ridge. The waggon continued its headlong career back to Potchefstroom, the bullets kicking up the dust all round it. By this time the Boer fire had got into full working order, and things were pretty hot Some one rode after the ammunition cart and compelled the nigger in charge to bring it back, much to his disgust, no doubt. A score of men were left on the ridge at a point where he had ridden through, while the rest rode back 200 yards or so, and took up their position on the ridge there. Retreat may not seem to have been very valorous, but we had only 40 odd men in the firing line, and were out-numbered three to one, and, besides, there was no object in staying to let them get round us. They had by this time come .up, and were among the bushes we three had just left, and were peppering us on the ridge, both from there and from the ridge itself. We remained on the ridge, firing into the bushes along the top for a few minutes, and then, when the party who had ridden back were fairly ensconced in their position, hastily mounted and galloped back along the foot of the ridge. The enemy closed up behind pretty quick, and as we sped along the bullets dropped amongst us, and whizzed past our ears in their usual uncomfortable fashion. They were using all manner of scratch weapons, to judge by the reports and sounds of the bullets, Mausers, Martinis, sporting rifles of all kinds, including elephant guns, whose big leaden ball made a weird, buzzing sound, though, presumably, they did not carry very far.
When we were in position further down the ridge again, the other men came past us, and so the game of leap-frog went on, each lot “jumping over” in turn, constituting rather a pretty rearguard action, differing from other rearguard actions only in the fact that there was no main body.
The Boer fire gradually slackened, and at last, after arriving at a place on the ridge, we found there was no one to fire at. So, letting off a few parting shots into the bushes for luck, we mounted and rode quietly back towards Potchefstroom.
1. A horse shot (G.’s of No. 2 troop).
2. Load of blankets on the waggon perforated in several places.
3. A bullet through the cook’s saddle, very near the cook’s leg.
This was the first skirmish we had had in which I knew for certain that I had been the first to spot the enemy. During the action Sergeant A. had sent his batman (servant) galloping back to the town at full tilt to tell the general we were surrounded and cut off, and I had seen his rapidly-retreating form vanish down the high road. He went back the 8 miles to the town as hard as he could, and rode straight up to the general’s tent. His lordship- was quite calm, and when T. had told his story, he regaled him on bread and cheese. The rest of the Xth I.Y. and some guns were ordered out at once. There was a great rush for horses, and I believe our friends the 37th established a record in saddling-up. They came post haste along the road, ready to do or die, but were much surprised, after having come out about 2 miles, to meet the massacred heroes walking quietly towards them, none the worse for being “cut up.” The gallant sergeant (who afterwards got a commission in the R.A.) got a good “telling off” from B. afterwards for taking things into his own hands in that manner.