“Sat., 20th.—On Mill. Rest of squadron went out at 4 a.m. with infantry and a gun to shell the houses and any Boers visible. Fired six or eight shells. Infantry supposed to have knocked over three by volleys. Came back about 9. Dined, or rather supped, at Central. On stable guard, 3rd relief. Gun fired from Signal Kopje at 11, having been trained on farm during day.
“Monday, 22nd.—In quarters. Saw footer match. When got back found some one had sneaked my sole remaining piece of soap (Pears’ shaving stick). ‘What? No soap? So he died, and she, very imprudently, married the barber,’ etc., etc. Now I am indeed desolate. None to be bought Hardly any to be borrowed or stolen. ‘Wind up’ about an expected attack.
“Tues., 23rd.—In quarters. Was invited to spend evening at Mrs. Ackhurst’s after dining at Mills’, but all had to stand to on account of Delarey’s supposed attack on town at night Was one of inlying picket, i.e., slept ready to go out at a moment’s notice. Ten of us.
“Wed., Apl. 24.—No attack. Wind fairly up everywhere. Whole of 43rd out in various trenches and houses. I was with nine others at V. de S.’s house at east end of town. Sentry down by spruit amongst long grass and bushes. Awful place. If they came they would be right on him before he could look round, as could have heard nothing because of noise of spruit and frogs croaking. Also, on retiring he had to run back 50 yards in open; no chance at all. Slept in barn. On from 11—1 midnight Took off hat and stood stock-still the whole time without moving, and listening for all I was worth. Again from 6—8 in the morning. Large otter came flopping leisurely down a narrow tributary to the spruit, in about two inches of water, not two yards from where I stood. Didn’t see me. I didn’t shoot under circumstances. No attack.”
Letter of same date. — “…. Losses sustained being six hats and one spur, my sole remaining one…. It is time we were relieved. Bread rations have been cut down, and there is no more fresh meat. Not one man in twenty has a lucifer match to his name, and for three weeks no soap has been obtainable. One or two men have bits left, and one has to cadge a lick off them for a wash. Some one kindly walked off with a bit I had been long saving up. One chap was exhibiting about half a dozen pipefuls of English tobacco in a tin yesterday. ‘There my boys, what do you think of , eh? I suppose you all love me now. Just found it out. What ? ’ etc., etc. How he got it I can’t imagine. • The Boers are collecting round here in anticipation of the column coming through. …”
“Frid., Apl. 20.—In quarters. Mail in. No letters.”
No entry in diary for nearly a month.
Letter written 3th May.—“We shelled a Boer convoy and about 70 Boers trekking along 3 miles from the town yesterday.
“The final for the football cup (given by a jeweller in the town) was played off yesterday. D Coy., N. Lancs, won it. I merely offer this last for the sake of information, as I cannot expect you to be deeply interested as to whether C or D Coy. proved the victor. That finishes the football. Now they are going to start cricket, just as the cold weather is beginning. Rum way of doing things, but I believe the reason was they could get no cricket balls through from Mafeking, so had to start football.”
Another written 12th May.—“We have actually received home orders, and are to proceed down country as soon as relieved. Also that a relieving column will be here in the course of a fortnight or even a week. We are very busy here now with pick and shovel digging trenches and bomb-proofs on A kopje.
There is some column quite close, within 5 miles of us. I saw the dust they made on the march rising up behind the hills to-day from the kopje. It is generally rumoured here to be Babington, but I think Methuen is more likely. We are out in loop-holed houses or sleeping in the trenches three nights out of four now, I suppose because the commandant thinks the relieving column might push the Boers into us in the course of their evolutions. Signal Kopje, where the N.Z. Battery and their two guns are stationed, is very active just now, and keeps banging away at Boer pickets, suspected farmhouses, and anything and everything inimical in fact, all day, and generally lets off one as a kind of ‘surprise packet’ in the middle of the night ... I have absolutely no tobacco, and am in a general state of destitution, but so is everybody else. No; by the by, some atrocious cigarettes, 9<L for a packet of ten, came through from Mafeking the other day, and I bought four packets. They are simply villainous. They are called the ‘Settler ’ cigarette, and certainly deserve their name. But they are better than nothing. All the morning I have been picking and shovelling, and now (afternoon) I am going for my daily bathe. Sunday to-day, but no church for us, as it begins at 7.30, and we have to turn out with rifles, bandoliers, and blankets at 8.”
A general feeling of restless expectation pervaded the little town, which for months had been so sleepy, and we longed for an attack, or for something, no matter what, to happen, to relieve the monotony.
About this time an auction of Flowerdew’s effects was held, the money to be sent to his people. There were seven boxes of matches, which went for 2s. 6d. each. I got one of these, a tape measure, and a comb.
Somewhere about 15th May we had another midnight escapade, which was to be our last meeting with brother Boer. We went out at midnight, the whole of the 43rd, except those on guard and on A kopje, and started on a march of 7 miles through a pass between the hills to the N.-W. of the town. A mile or so on the other side of this it was known that a picket of about 16 Boers was always stationed, on some kopje by a farm belonging to a loyal colonist in the town. It was proposed to surround and capture this picket at dawn. As soon as we got near the pass, all pipes were put out and no conversation permitted. We got through without mishap and commenced the descent. The country was very bushy and the very thing for surprises. We were guided by the son of the owner of the farm, who knew the exact spot where the Boers would be. As we approached the farm, we were formed in single file and picked our way cautiously and on tiptoe along the narrow path which wound between the trees. After going like this for a short time, we were all conscious of a strong and unmistakable smell of pigs! Soon after we caught sight of the farm, showing bright in the moonlight among the bushes. We went past this, over a drift, and found ourselves confronted by a long, low ridge, or rather, terrace, flat-topped and stony, and leading on to further heights beyond. It was on this terrace, by a clump of trees, that the Boers were. Beyond the top of this was a thick wood, as we saw afterwards, into which it seemed to me that men could easily escape if pressed from our side. However, we lined the bottom of this, and, leaving three men at one end of it, who crept up to the summit with bated breath and lay down, the rest went on along the bottom, then, a few yards further on, three more were dropped, and so on till it came to my turn. Three of us felt our way cautiously up on hands and knees, stopping every few seconds to listen, and then crawling on again till we lay along the edge of the plateau. We lay about ten yards apart on our faces and tried to make out where the Boers were. I should mention that our force consisted of 25 I.Y., about 15 N. Zealanders, and three or four nigger police. I had been lying there what seemed about a quarter of an hour, when I heard a slight scuffle, and, looking up, saw Ford, our corporal, struggling with a man who was remonstrating 'with him in a hoarse stage whisper. It turned out to be one of the niggers, who had sprung from nobody knows where, and whom F. thought was a Boer and tackled accordingly. “No, no, baas,” he was saying, “me not Doochman, me black man,” etc., etc., and poor old F. was so dumb-foundered when he discovered his mistake that he could only ejaculate, “Rz-markabie, most remarkable! ” which he kept saying at intervals for the rest of the morning. The moon went down, and it got very cola as the dawn drew near. I was perfectly stiff and numb with cold and very sleepy, and could hardly feel my rifle. Then suddenly, just as it was getting light enough to see trees and rocks distinctly, we were galvanised into complete wakefulness by the sharp crack of a Mauser, apparently just over our heads. Then more firing along the hill to the right, but whether from the Boers or British we couldn’t tell. We hadn’t the ghost of a notion what was happening. No bullets came our way, and we fired a few rounds at the place where the Mauser flashes had come from. Soon after, the word was passed along to get down the hill to the bottom again, and we found ourselves retiring along the path we had come. We three were left as rearguard in the drift, while the others went on towards the pass. We kept low behind the bank of the spruit, because the Boers had evidently caught sight of us, and kept up a desultory fusillade at the drift, the bullets all going much too high. When we judged we had remained long enough, we crossed the river and dashed up the steep bank on the far side, fully expecting a parting volley as we emerged, but none came. We nearly lost our way in the bush, but at last found the path, and a sharp trot soon got us up within sight of the main body. But all the way back to the pass we kept a sharp lookout, stopping every now and then and looking back. When we got back to Zeerust the story we heard was something like this:—An officer with the attacking party, just as it began to get light, sent a note by the farrier to the other officer at the other end of our ridge. It was, of course, a very risky thing to do, just as our plan was nearing its fulfilment, and endangered the success of the whole undertaking. The man did not know the country; he did not know where exactly the other officer would be; and, anyhow, any one stirring just at that time ran a very great risk of being seen by any Boers who happened to be awake, and so of giving the whole show away. The result was that the messenger, stumbling about in the dark, came right up to the Boer picket, and actually trod on one of the prostrate forms. The man started up, and spoke something quickly in Dutch. The Yeoman, realising his mistake, rushed back the way he had come, banging about among the rocks, and making a fine clatter with his ammunition boots, and the half-awakened Boer promptly let fly at him. This was the first shot which we had heard. Some of the Boers opened fire, and some apparently tried to escape down the hill, and ran right on to one of our parties of three, who immediately held them up. At first they threw up their hands, but seeing how few were their enemies, one lifted his rifle and fired, and two others ran back. Our men fired in reply, and Hastings (one of the three) told me he was almost sure he saw one of them go down. That was all we knew at the time, but the next day a scout came in with the information that three of them had been killed, one of them having died on the way to a village called Heidelberg, and five wounded. We had no casualties. We also got a few cattle while we were on the other side of the pass, and the niggers drove them in.
On the 23rd May I was on C post, when about mid-day sounds of guns firing from the south-west reached us. Leaving the sentry we ran across to A kopje, only a few hundred yards, whence we could get a good view. The boom of the guns grew louder, and soon we were able to distinguish the shells bursting and hear the distant rattle of Mausers and Lee-Enfields. Then we knew that the convoy was coming in at last. As we watched the road for the first sign of the troops, a tiny cloud of dust was seen advancing rapidly along the road between the trees, and soon the figure of a furiously-galloping horseman appeared, a mere black dot, surrounded by a whirlwind of dust He came up to the outposts and disappeared behind W. kopje, and we saw him no more. The firing died away, night fell, and we returned to the town, all agog for news. What we heard was hardly satisfactory. The man whom we had seen was a nigger, who had ridden through the Boers, and brought the news, so we were told, that the convoy was being attacked, and all or most of it, together with its escort, were in the hands of the Boers! With this depressing information we had to rest content till the morrow. We then received a modified version. The convoy was coming in via Lobatsi and had been attacked on the way. The escort was formed of a few infantry, some brand-new I.Y. fresh from England, and two guns. Half the convoy had got in safely, but the Boers had got the other half and 40 prisoners.
This was a little better. In the morning the 43rd were once more paraded, horses being raked up from anywhere and everywhere, and set out to recover the convoy if possible, or anyhow to see what had really happened. We were accompanied by a few of the officers and men of the new Yeomanry who had come in the day before. Half-way out to the drift where the waggons were supposed to have been lost a halt was called. Near where
we were stood two of the green ones, talking. Their backs were to us, and the one nearest us had hitched his arm jauntily through the reins, and stood gassing away in his new £2 2s. yellow boots, creaking Stohwasser gaiters, and general spick and span get-up. His horse also looked annoyingly new and fresh, and a bulging saddle-bag depending from the saddle on the side nearest us was a sore temptation to old campaigners. So also evidently thought some of our men nearest to it, for they proceeded quietly to open it and abstract the potted meat and other good things it contained, devour them, and put back the empty tins, and obligingly fasten up the now considerably lightened valise. What that young “orficer boy” said when he came to open it at lunch time I dread to think. It must have seemed to him a hard, cold world.
We resumed our march, and I found myself with the advance, and expecting to meet the Dutchmen every minute, but no Dutchman appeared. When we got near the drift all was still. Here the road ran along a narrow valley, with hills on each side and thickly wooded, so we left the road and went up the hills on either side, advancing on foot, and having our horses led in the rear, to guard against surprises. On arriving at the drift, a sorry sight met our gaze. There lay the “captured” convoy, half in and half out of the drift. All the teams of the waggons had gone, and the waggons themselves lay about the road and in the spruit, some still standing, others upset, with their contents scattered all over the road. No attempt had been made to move them, and the things on the road lay as they had fallen. There wasn’t a Boer in the place. We led our horses down and began to inspect the goods, with the intention, I regret to say, of taking a few of them as souvenirs of the occasion, when up came a sergeant with an eagle eye on the good things, and ordered us all up to the ridges on either side of the drift to watch for any snipers. So we hastily grabbed what came handiest and retraced our steps up the kopje. On arriving on top we inspected the spoils. Imagine the shock to my modesty, no less than the disappointment to a mere male who had hoped for tobacco or edibles of some sort, to find, on ripping open my parcel (a fat, white one of goodly proportions), a bundle of ladies’ stockings! We had struck a wrong waggon, and all our ill-gotten gains were of a haberdashery description. Other men got braces, socks, shirts, etc., but long, thin black stockings!
Later on the 40 “prisoners ” were discovered. Forty new and shivering Yeomen sat on the top of a kopje, under the firm impression that they were surrounded, and would shortly die the death. They had spent the night piling up rocks to keep off the bullets, or the Boers, I don’t think they quite knew which, and had lain all night on the top, without food or blankets.
They could with difficulty be persuaded that they could now come down, and that there wasn’t a Boer within miles of them. The waggons were hauled out of the drift, teams hitched on to them, and the salvage was complete.
Letter, May 25, ’01.—“Just a line to say that the convoy came in yesterday. We went out to meet it. We are therefore revelling in luxuries and necessaries of all kinds. Lots of new Yeomanry have come in with it, presumably to relieve us. We shall probably get away with the returning convoy.”
That night we “details,” four or five in number, who had been attached to the 43rd (who now dubbed themselves “L.S.H.” or Last Sent Home), were told to pack up our traps and go to the camp on the west of the town formed by the new arrivals. In conversation that night with one of the Tommies who had formed part of the escort, he told me that the infantry had picked up eleven rifles dropped in the mud by the Yeomanry the day before. While lying in my blanket under a waggon I heard more grumbling and Billingsgate language from the Yeomen around me than I had heard for about a year. The country was bad, the weather was bad, the food was bad, the Boers were bad, nothing, in fact, since they landed appeared to have agreed with them, not even the 5s. a day they were getting from a grateful Government.
The next day, 26th May, we started off at dawn, and a few days’ trekking brought us to Ramathlabama, a small station about 20 miles from Mafeking. Our journey down country was uneventful. We occasionally stopped a night among other details, and hung round picking up what rations we could, which meant something more than our proper share, I am afraid. We did very much as we liked, and there were few to say us nay. We scandalised more than one smart sergeant-major who had not seen a shot fired since he had been in the country, and had spent his whole time under canvas in a comfortable camp. Most of these gentry were as full of red tape as they could be. We stopped a night at Mafeking, another at Kimberley, and another at De Aar. We finally arrived at Worcester, in Cape Colony, and found a large camp of men, all Yeomanry, who were waiting to go home. The next boat going was the “Hawarden Castle,” and we heard that we should not be able to go by it, as there was no room for any “details.” However, we had a sergeant with us from the 40th I.Y., and the sergeant was a pushing man. We all went and bombarded the head clerk or whoever it was who had charge of the trains, and asked if we could not go by the next one. I should say that, on arriving at Worcester, where we expected to find the rest of the Xth I.Y., we heard that they had sailed a week before. The officer shook his head sadly, and said we could not possibly go as the train was overcrowded as it was, and it was the last one to meet the "Hawarden Castle." However, we thought it out, and decided that the only plan would be to board the train, and so make room for ourselves. That night five dirty-looking "details," carrying rifles and kit, might have been perceived stealing down the line to the station. We "dossed down" in the ticket office, and when the train came in, made a rush for the guard's van. The train was backed to a siding by the camp, and the rest of the human freight scrambled in. There were more than 30 men with their kit in that guard's van, but it was only a 60-mile journey to Cape Town and we were not particular. The train drew up alongside the good white steamer, and after giving up our rifles and blankets, we trod the decks once more. While leaning over the side waiting to "up anchor and away," we saw a party of the new B. P. police who had just landed from England struggling into their new kit. One of them, in the middle of a fearful tussle with his waterbottle strap, looked up at us and said, " I guess you've got the best of this, mates." We guessed so too. We landed at Southampton on 24th June, exactly a month since we had left Zeerust.