“Easy day at last,” says the diarist, “a mail came in to cheer us up; I got four letters and two or three papers.” We spent it in washing in the spruit, changing what clothes we could, and getting our horses shod. There was also a rifle inspection. In fact, everything was done on that day of rest that had not been done before owing to our eight days’ scramble. Among my letters was one containing a number of photographs which I had taken some months before, which had been developed at home. Some of them had come out very well, especially those taken on board ship. They were handed round and inspected by the whole squadron.
At mid-day the following day we started off on the trek again, doubling on our tracks back to the Magaliesberg, making not for Oliphant’s Nek, but for the other pass, the Magato Pass. It was very hilly country, thickly covered with trees of a larger kind than any we had yet seen in the Transvaal or Free State. There were a lot of Boers about Whether they were part of the same lot that we had been chasing I do not know. Sniping commenced in an orange grove, which some of our men went into, and the orange-men left the grove somewhat precipitately. This developed into a lot of rifle-firing in the hills around. We lined the bottom of the hill, and did not take a very active part, our role consisting in sitting on the ground, holding our horses, looking up at the hills, listening to the shooting, and waiting.
The Colonials, Brabant's Horse, Border Horse, Kaffrarian Rifles, Cape Mounted Rifles, our Boshof friends the Kimberley Mounted Rifles, and the Diamond Field Horse, all of whom had joined us the day before, did most of the fighting. The artillery also kicked up a merry din, and the howitzers blew chunks off the hillside with lyddite. While we were sitting there I spotted a man behind a rock, high up on the hillside, using black powder. I had noticed a puff of smoke coming regularly from that point for a long time, and kept my eye on it, and at last I saw the bright flash made by the sun shining on his rifle, and pointed it out to R. and some others. Some artilleryman must have seen it too, for after the next puff, a lyddite shell burst right on the exact spot where the unfortunate rifleman was ensconced. We all watched to see signs of movement, or a repetition of the puff of smoke. But I think there cannot have been much left of either the sharpshooter or his rifle. Soon after this, as we were still sprawling lazily, a bullet kicked up the dust exactly opposite No. 3 troop, and about five yards ahead. Jack H., who was always great on mementoes, immediately went forward and, after grabbing about in the sandy soil, found it and brought it back in triumph. Poor Jack H. was killed about nine months later. He was a most cheerful fellow, who was chiefly remarkable for a pair of very thin legs (he always used to say he had “a good leg for a boot! ”) and an immensely deep and powerful voice. When he laughed, the whole camp knew it. Later on the firing died away, and we were surprised by the arrival amongst us of a young Boer, riding his horse, blindfolded, led by a trooper, and carrying the white flag. I wished I could have snap-shotted him; several men suggested that I should, but alas! my films were all used up. He had come in to ask for medical assistance, as they had suffered considerably that morning (I thought of that man behind the rock), and no doubt they got it. There were about 30 Boer prisoners with us at the time, though I did not know it till that day when we camped. I went down our lines to nil my water bottle from the cart, and suddenly came upon them, squatting all together under a tree, smoking and talking to a Tommy mounting guard over them. I was much interested to see our friend the enemy at such close quarters. They were a ragged, swarthy crowd, exactly like the gipsies one may see trudging by the side of their caravans on any English country road. What struck me most was the extreme youth of many of them, though one could see the Dutch heaviness and phlegm already beginning to show itself in their young faces. I also noticed a melancholy little procession passing along the road leading out. of the camp: the burial of one of the Kaffrarian Rifles who had been shot in the fighting the day before.
We started the next day on our march to Mafeking to refit. It was time we did. I never saw a sorrier crew. Tunics patched, dirty, and torn; nether garments ditto; putties lost or worn threadbare; slouch hats that would have disgraced the dirtiest haymaker that ever tossed hay; and boots bursting out like the ripened bud. Indeed, I do not know which looked the more gipsified, Boers or British, for what with wrist-bangles and red neckerchiefs the English looked as dirty and picturesque a set of brigands as could be desired.
At dark we got into camp, and I and the laconic one, or diarist, were sent out to get green forage. It was pitch dark, and we got separated. Hearing each other’s shouts, we stumbled on for more than a mile on a most beautiful wild-goose chase. We got to some sort of a building, and found, not forage, but wood galore. We sneaked back to camp independently, laden with fuel, and never heard any more about the green forage. Supplies now began to give out, and from now onwards we had no tea or coffee. Next day my old Argentine gave out. He had been very staggery the day before, and had refused to keep up with the troop, now diminished by about one-half, as the horses had given out, and the men had to walk. We would start off at the beginning of the day all right, and then gradually drop behind, and by the end of the day’s march, H. S. G. and horse would be right at the tail- end of the convoy, and travelling at the rate of about 1 mile per hour. To-day, after struggling along for about 5 miles, I sometimes on his back and sometimes essaying to lead him (when he would stop and refuse to go on till I mounted him), the poor brute at last stopped dead in the middle of the road, with infantry and convoy streaming by, and refused to budge. How we ever got into camp I don’t know. I loosened his girth and rested him for a long time, and persuaded him somehow to come in. But every ounce of spirit had been knocked out of him, and he had to be handed over to the vet. What was done with him I don’t know. He had stood the work extraordinarily well for an Argentine, and had lasted me for more than a month since I got him at Krugersdorp. I like to imagine him enjoying a green old age on some Boer farm, filling his great gaunt body with the corn and maize he so ardently desired and so well deserved. I am afraid, however, that it is more than likely he became food for the vultures. Henceforth I was a “footslogger.” My saddle and bridle were fetched away on the waggon; I joined the army of spurred plodders, straggling along the road, now among the infantry, listening to their jokes and grumbles, and now wandering far from the dusty convoy on the flanks, halting every now and then to eat biscuit and bully, and to admire the scenery. “There were 12 or 13 from the 38th besides myself, and we had a ripping time. We put our rifles on the waggon, took our day’s grub in our nosebags, and sloped along as we pleased, halting where we liked, and as often.” I found two Scotch I.Y. foot- slogging, and as we discovered we had mutual friends in Edinburgh, we journeyed together. One day they asked me to come to tea that evening on arriving in camp. The sky looked very heavy, but at the appointed hour I turned up in their lines at “Saddle Villa” where they had prepared a gorgeous tea. I was astonished to see what they had raised, as we were very short. Extra supplies of biscuits, tea, condensed milk, tinned butter, jam, and tinned potted meat lay spread out in tempting array on a towel between two saddles, and we did full justice to the good things displayed. Our feast was a little interfered with by a downpour of rain, which came just as we reached the biscuit and jam stage, and I had to run hurriedly from Saddle Villa with a biscuit spread with that delicacy, while my hosts shoved the things under cover and hastily rigged up a shelter with a mackintosh sheet. I determined to return the compliment whenever I got the chance, but, strange to say, that was the last I ever saw of my two friends. Whether they got horses and rejoined their troops or not I don’t know, but I should think this was very probable. One day, as we got nearer to Zeerust, we came upon the best orange farm that we had yet struck. The mounted men apparently were not allowed to stop, but we independents saw our opportunity and immediately made a rush for the farm. A stream with high banks, dark and almost hidden by thick, overhanging foliage, separated us from the grove, and some men rushed up one bank and some another in search of a bridge. I got left by myself and decided to wade across, partly so as to get quickly to the grove, and partly because I was very hot with walking in the sun, and the prospect of a splash in cool water, clothes or no clothes, was distinctly attractive. I had no putties, and on stepping into the water found that it did not come up to my knees. I then made for the orange trees and found a few men were already there; but the “rush” had not yet come, and there were plenty of oranges left. I filled my nosebag to the very top and rejoined the convoy, laden with spoils.
On 21st August we heard that we were going to relieve Colonel Hoare and his bushmen who had been held up at Elands River for ten days. Kitchener and a column were also there when we arrived, so whether we relieved the Australians or he did I don’t know. Here we saw the C.I.V.’s for the first and last time. I went and had a look at the camp where the gallant Colonials had stood out against the large force of Boers, with many guns, who bombarded them on the hills round the camp for over a fortnight. It was a ghastly sight. It was a perfectly open place, and on the top of a low plateau, with trees and kopjes all round it. Hastily thrown-up earthworks and trenches marked the edges of the plateau, and the rows and rows of dead horses and oxen showed the desperate nature of the fusillade to which they haa been subjected. It was said that 700 of their 1000 horses had been killed, either by shell or rifle fire. They had to keep quite still all day under the broiling sun in their trenches, as the first movement brought a shower of rifle bullets to the spot. All night they worked furiously at their trenches, but the Boers gave them no rest, and shelled them even in darkness.
The next day we camped about 2 miles from Zeerust, in a thick wood by a stream of beautifully clear water. It was quite the most picturesque camp we had ever been in. It was a pleasant sight at night to see the fires lit among the trees and bushes, with the men sitting cross-legged or lying round them smoking and chatting, and hearing the gentle hum of the camp, and the occasional snort of a horse, and the ripple of the spruit close by. The next day the column moved off about 9, but before we started we had an exciting time with a veldt fire, which started in some lines near us and quickly spread up to us. All had to saddle up in double quick time and get horses and kit out of the way, and then attack the fire with sacks. It was beaten out in our immediate neighbourhood, but higher up the camp, where the grass was longer, they never got it out, and simply had to gather up their belongings, inspan tne waggons, and flee before it I was given an old spare horse, recovering from a sore back, on which to ride into the town, I suppose because they wished me to make a really effective entry. This was my first acquaintance with the little village of Zeerust, or Coetzee’s Rust or Rest, so called from a farmer named Coetzee, who made it his stopping place and headquarters for hunting expeditions into the western Transvaal, and presumably was the first to build a house there. Little did I think as I urged my noble animal into a walk up the main street with the troop that I should later on have to spend six weary months there. Just as we crossed a drift in sight of the town our eyes were gladdened by the sight of a maiden in a bright summer dress, standing by the side of the road, offering something for sale from a tray slung from her neck. They were Three Castle cigarettes, and I should say that the way her stock was cleared out was about the quickest on record. On the second day of our stay here a convoy came in from Mafeking, and a party was sent out through the hamlet of Jacobsdaal to that of Ottoshoop to meet it.
On the 25th the order was given out that every man was to make a list of the things he required to complete his kit, both for himself and his horse. After our hard marching during the last few months, the lists sent in were in some cases pretty long ones, especially as at Frederikstad, before entering Potchefstroom, and at other places where there had been veldt fires, some of the men had had blankets, overcoats, etc., burnt.
On the 26th we resumed our march, “revally” being at 4.15 for that and the next two days; and on the 28th, late in the afternoon, we arrived within two and a half miles of Mafeking, having camped at Leow’s Farm (pronounced Low) at mid-day. We could see a cluster of the usual tin-topped houses on the plain in the distance, which we knew was Mafeking.