NEARING THE GOAL—DISEMBARKATION AT CAPE TOWN AND EAST LONDON
Though something went wrong with the ‘Ujina’s’ engines, which had to be stopped twice for repairs in the Bay of Bengal, she covered the remaining fifteen hundred leagues or so in very good time, and, passing Madagascar during the misty night of March 18, was within sight of the South African coast by daybreak of the 24th, and at midday she anchored off Durban, being unable to get nearer that port than the troubled roadstead two miles from shore. Thus her time from the Hugli to Port Natal was just three weeks, and those on board had the satisfaction of hearing that the ‘Lindula,’ with A Company, must be still at sea, having left Durban for Cape Town only three days before the ‘Ujina’s’ arrival. The man who brought that good news had evidently acquired a Kaffir or Oriental habit of saying the things that are pleasant whether true or not. In sober fact, the ‘Lindula’ had gone a week earlier, and was by that time landing her troops at Cape Town. As nobody was allowed to land, Lumsden’s Horse did not get the exciting experience of being lowered in a cage from the troopship’s gangway to a tug plunging and tossing and wriggling among the ‘rollers’ twenty feet below. But they had an opportunity of seeing how the thing was done when a Transport officer came on board that way with an order for the troops under Major Showers’s command to disembark at East London. This officer was accompanied by three of the Natal Carbineers, who had been with Sir Redvers Buller’s force to the relief of Ladysmith, and whose thrilling tales of adventure were as welcome as a newly-discovered series of Arabian Nights’ stories might have been to men who had heard no news for twenty-one days. The general situation was not quite as those Carbineers described it, but their account of Boer resistance in Natal did not by any means convey the idea that war was nearly at an end, although rumour magnified Lord Roberts’s successes to the extent of placing him within a march or so of Kroonstadt at a time when his troops were still hung up at Bloemfontein waiting for food and transport. As B Company had heard of Cronjé’s surrender and the relief of Ladysmith before leaving Calcutta, it would hardly have surprised them to learn that the Union Jack was floating over Pretoria. To them the mere occupation of Bloemfontein seemed a comparatively small matter, so they at once turned and began to rend with keen sarcasm the croakers who had predicted that B Company at least would be too late for anything. Too late! Why, their orders were to disembark at East London, and did not that mean an immediate start for the front? One sanguine trooper in the gladness of his heart wrote, ‘We go on shore at 11.30 to-day, leaving for Bloemfontein by train about the same hour to-night, and expect to arrive in forty-eight hours. We shall probably train to Bethulie and march from there to Bloemfontein, about 120 miles.’ His faith in the marching powers of Lumsden’s Horse must have been great indeed if he thought they could trek 120 miles across unknown veldt after travelling from East London to Bethulie by rail, and all in the space of forty-eight hours. There is something very fascinating about that picture of troopers so eager to be at the taking of Kroonstadt (‘which, it would seem, will be a big affair’) that they would perform superhuman feats to be there in time. No admirer of Lumsden’s Horse would venture to suggest that a march of forty leagues in less than two days was beyond the compass of their powers, but the man must be brimful of hope who could believe that there would be any time left for marching, or any inclination to march left in the men, after a South African railway, working under war pressure, had done with them. But in fact there was no such need for haste. B Company was quite in time for the ‘big affair’ at Kroonstadt, though it took more than twenty times forty-eight hours in the getting there. Colonel Lumsden, going ahead with A Company to land in Cape Town, had still more reason for entertaining sanguine views, though in his case they were modified by a fuller knowledge of events. When in sight of Table Mountain he added a postscript to his letter: ‘Off Cape. Just got orders. May be in for Pretoria. Hope so.’ The two companies, however, were not fortunate enough to come together under one command until nearly a month later. Their fortunes as separated units must therefore be dealt with in somewhat disjointed form still. How A Company fared after casting anchor off Durban may be told in the words of a special correspondent pf the ‘Englishman’ who had joined the corps for active service:
As we came in sight of Durban everybody was expecting that some official would dash on board directly he knew it was Lumsden’s Horse, to order us off down the coast, and that in a minute we should be steaming hard for our destination. But it happened otherwise. When fairly close in we signalled to the Coastguard station what ship we were and what she contained. Then a deep silence settled over things. Lots of shipping lay at anchor there, and every ship except ours had a steam launch calling upon it. But we, waiting with beating hearts, had no one to pay us a visit until a great puffing, rolling, important-looking tug bore alongside, churned up the blue water into white foam, dropped a tiny boat, and in a jiffy a blue-suited, gold-braided gentleman was on board and the tug had gone away over the waters. So we thought that meant orders to bring us ashore. But, alas! it was only a pilot come aboard to have a buck with the captain. Then, while we waited and waited, our signalling class set to work, and an energetic waving of arms and little flags elicited the reply from neighbouring ships that Ladysmith had been relieved. They also confirmed the news, which we had received at the Sandheads, of Cronjé’s surrender. Close by lay H.M.S. ‘Terrible,’ from which a naval contingent had been sent with her big guns to reinforce Sir Redvers Buller on the Tugela, and our first sight of one of the consequences of war was a launch full of wounded Bluejackets returning to their ship after relieving Ladysmith. While we lay peacefully swinging at anchor a great white ship flying the Stars and Stripes and Union Jack steamed slowly out of the harbour, and swung off to the left. As she passed a big transport the troops on board broke into ringing cheers, and when she neared us those with glasses read her name. It was the ‘Maine’ full of wounded soldiers from Sir George White’s gallant garrison. She went right round the harbour, visiting all the ships with troops. Last of all she came to us, and as she passed by, and we could see the white-aproned nurses and the bandaged figures with pale faces we gave them three times three, and still cheered again for the plucky ladies who had come all the way from America to care for our wounded. The poor chaps aboard did their best to answer our cheers, and then the ‘Maine’ steamed away down the coast on her way home to England.
However, the long-delayed hookum came at last, and a great shout broke forth when it was announced that we were ordered to proceed to Cape Town. We sat down to dinner at 7.30, and as we toasted Ould Oireland because ’twas St. Patrick’s Day, the ‘Lindula’s’ anchor heaved, and the screw that for twenty days had toiled without ceasing began its unremitting task again. When morning broke we had steamed well down the coast, passing the lights of East London in the night. Ten miles away was the seashore, bare, and uninteresting, but still the Africa that we had come some six thousand miles to argue about with the redoubtable Boers. And now we had to reckon with a foe that used no weapons nor fought with hands. This was Mother Ocean, who must have been troubled in her mind, for her breast heaved and tossed, and our good ship rolled until—well, better change the subject. The coast slipped by, and on the forenoon of the 20th we sighted afar off the flat top of Table Mountain. Steaming across the wide mouth of Simon’s Bay we saw hundreds of sharks—brown brutes that scooted away, showing a black fin, as the steamer ploughed her way through the waves. Then rounding the Point we sailed into Table Bay, and dropped anchor with a grand feeling of satisfaction that the voyage had ended. Journeying by sea is pleasant enough when you do it first class by P. and O., but when you go no class at all, and sleep on the deck, and get turned out before 5, and spend a big part of the day clearing out horse stalls or cooking your own food, and enduring lots of other discomforts, it’s no catch at all; and it was with intense relief we took our place among the lines of troopships in Cape Town harbour. And what a sight it was! Ships! ships! ships! And everywhere more ships! And most of them transports. From great 10,000-ton White Star Atlantic liners down to little coasters like our own ‘Lindula.’ All around us were vessels full of troops. Every hour or two a new one came in, or one weighed her anchor and steamed slowly by into the dock to disembark her living freight. Other ships were crammed from stem to stern with cattle, sheep, horses, leaving barely enough room on deck to turn the wheel. Vessels were packed like herrings in the harbour: so thick did they lie in places you could hardly see the water for ships. There we waited, and next morning the Health Officer came on board and gave us pratique, which meant a clean bill of health and freedom to land. Another day of waiting for the pilot. Then after a great rush and scurry collecting kit we slowly slid into harbour. And, lo and behold! it was Cape Town—Africa at last.
Disembarking is not a pleasant pastime, especially when 150 men have had three weeks in a ship during which to lose and mix up their belongings. But the order to clear out and make room for another ship was given, and had to be obeyed in a hurry. So we said good-bye to the ‘Lindula.’ Poor thing, she had done her best for us, though in her we lost four of our chargers and two transport ponies, a big proportion of our total of 180 animals, but nothing like the number that died on some other ships. A transport lying near us with Imperial Yeomanry lost 39 out of 450 in a three weeks’ voyage—nearly all from pneumonia.
Our orders were to proceed to Maitland Camp, some four miles to the north of Cape Town, and thither we marched, leading the horses, which of course were hardly in a fit state to ride. However, the walk seemed to do them good, and after a week in camp, with good feeding and gentle exercise, they picked up condition rapidly.
The men have little that is good to say of Maitland Camp. It is a place stale, flat, unprofitable, and altogether accursed. When we arrived the wind blew a hurricane, and setting up the tents was a task to try a Stoic. Once they were up the sand crept in at every crevice and lay thickly on everything, especially butter and food of every sort. Men went to sleep, or tried to, with the feeling that the bit of the earth on which they lay must surely be swept into the next world ere morning broke. But day dawned and we were still in Maitland Camp, with the rain pouring in torrents and turning the sand and earth into mud puddings, which clogged and wetted and dirtied every scrap that belonged to us. However, the third day recompensed us, for the sun shone hot and bright, and a gentle breeze wafted delicious scents from the woods of eucalyptus and fir trees all around. Boys came to us with delicious grapes, great bunches weighing one to two pounds apiece, each grape being as large as a pigeon’s egg and as full of juice and flavour as fruit can be.
Of Cape Town we saw very little, but liked that little much; only the price of things is terrible, and it seems much more serious parting with shillings than with rupees. Lumsden’s Horse had many eyes for the beautiful, and while declining to play the part of Paris in deciding on rival charms, they wax eloquent when their theme is the sex which, as one gallant trooper says, has done much to make this world the habitable place it is. In Cape Town the ladies are charming to look at. They dress just as they do at home in summer, and their cheeks are rosy, and they are altogether delightful to look upon. But still it matters little whether the cheeks be pale or rosy, we are all ready to back our ladies of India against any in the wide world for kindness and every other feminine attribute.
Having inspected our transport, the Army Service Corps officers at Cape Town approved of our carts, and reported favourably on them to Lord Roberts; but at the same time stated that they considered a team of two ponies inadequate to draw the load we had designed through sandy tracts, and suggested two leaders to each cart, an increase of 200 lb. in the load, and a decrease in the number of carts. The Chief of the Staff having approved of this suggestion, we handed over to the military authorities twenty ponies (not our best) and ten carts, and harness complete, receiving in exchange seventy-six mules, with harness, and twelve Cape boys to assist as drivers, so that when B Company arrives our united transport establishment will consist of thirty-six carts and two water-carts, with two mules as wheelers and two ponies as leaders to each cart, and there is little doubt that we are as well provided with transport as any troops in the field—indeed, much better than most. The Remount Department in Cape Town were very good to us, and replaced not only our losses on the voyage, but a number of horses which on landing appeared unfit for service, giving us in all twenty-four chargers. The animals cast in Cape Town were old and unlikely to get into condition for a long time, if ever they did so. Our Calcutta purchases and horses brought by troopers themselves are nearly all doing well. In place of those we had lost on the voyage—six or seven altogether—Government gave us thirteen fine Australian cobs, which were told off as remounts for the Ceylon Contingent. But, the latter having been mounted in the meantime by the military authorities and sent to the front, their horses were very properly handed over to us. In Cape Town we found it necessary to make several purchases to supplement equipment and replace losses. These consisted of grass nets and picketing pegs for the horses, and vel-schoen and canvas water-bags for the men; besides stores amounting in all to about 150l. worth.
Unfortunately, we have to leave four men in hospital. Sergeant Lee Stewart, whose illness was mentioned in the last letter, is much better, but greatly debilitated from the trying time he has had. He has hopes of joining us later. Another bad case is that of K. Boileau, from Behar, who was attacked with pneumonia and was very ill indeed at one time. However, we have good reports of him, and hope to hear in a few days that he is all right again. Shaw, of the Assam Contingent, and Doyle, of the Transport, are also in hospital from trifling ailments, and they ought soon to be able to join us. Many of the men are suffering from cuts and sores on hands and feet, which do not seem to heal up as fast as they ought. Hickley, who was pretty bad when the last letter went, is now all right again, but Daubney has still to be careful of his broken collar-bone. When we arrived at Cape Town we at once heard we were to proceed to Bloemfontein, to join Lord Roberts, as speedily as possible. But the movement of large bodies of troops with supplies caused a block on the railway, and we were delayed eight days. The wait, however, did the horses good, and they picked up hand over fist at Maitland Camp.
All these details, when looked at in the long perspective where more recent events show up sharply and perhaps a little out of focus, may seem insignificant as objects seen through the wrong end of a telescope. At the time of occurrence, however, they had an importance that impressed itself on the minds of men to whom nearly every incident of active service was then a novelty. And the historian’s duty in such a case is rather to reproduce impressions than to preserve an exact proportion. Moreover, some incidents that may appear trivial by comparison with great episodes, or with decisive actions on which the fate of an army hung, were potent in shaping the fortunes of Lumsden’s Horse as one small unit of a mighty whole, and in this respect, if for no other reason, they are worthy to be chronicled. It is the story of Voltaire’s miller and the King of Prussia. What a division is to the general in chief of an army corps a company is to the regimental commander, and, for Lumsden’s Horse, the smallest adventures of their own comrades had an interest which the civilian reader may perhaps begin to share when he comes to know more of them.
At Cape Town Colonel Lumsden got the first news of B Company since leaving Calcutta. They had been ordered to East London to disembark there, and entrain at once for Bethulie, ‘right in the Orange Free State,’ as Colonel Lumsden remarked, adding, ‘So they bade fair to get there before us, despite our week’s start. But our latest news of them is that they have stopped at Queen’s Town, and we know no more of them except that they had a most successful voyage.’
A corporal of the Surma Valley Light Horse, however, supplies the necessary information. He tells how he went with an ambulance fatigue party, to which, among others, Dr. Woollright had been told off as an orderly, in charge of Trooper Seymour Sladden, who was very bad and had to be taken on shore at East London before the company knew its probable destination. From a little jetty that juts out from the wooded banks of the Buffalo River they drove in an ambulance with the sick man up those steep winding roads past the luxuriant Queen’s Park, with its odorous gum-tree groves, to the hill top. There they carried Sladden ‘into a nice clean hospital and left him in charge of kindly nurses, where everything looked very comfortable.’ Then, somehow, they managed to miss their officer and made inquiries for him in vain at Deel’s Hotel, with the result that when the corporal and his comrades reached the landing-stage they found to their ‘extreme joy the crew gone and no way of getting off to the ship, so returned to the hotel and had dinner. Afterwards very sleepy and went straight to bed, and slept like a hog. First time in bed for many weeks, and found it comfortable indeed.’ Other non-commissioned officers and troopers of B Company carry on the narrative in notes that diverge frequently and wander off to alien topics, so that for the sake of coherence they must be dovetailed together here in proper order, each chronicler in turn taking up the story. When those troopers who had not begun to realise the enormity of breaking leave returned to their ship early in the morning of March 27, they met with quite an ovation, which does not seem to have been disinterested, seeing that they were supposed to have brought off with them fruit, cigarettes, and other delicacies much in request. What they had would not have gone far to satisfy the cravings of a whole company for some change from bare rations. News that orders had come for Lumsden’s Horse to disembark, however, put everybody in high spirits at the prospect of being allowed to go on shore with freedom to forage for himself. But they reckoned without their host—the military commander—whose instructions brooked no delay. Kits had to be packed in a hurry while the ‘Ujina’ was being towed on a flowing tide across the troubled bar into port, where she moored alongside the railway wharf. Horses were then got on shore, but only to exchange cramped stalls for cattle-trucks, where they had still less room for movement. At this task the troopers toiled and sweated all through the fiercest heat of a summer noon, learning another lesson and not liking it much. Unaccustomed to such work, many got their toes trodden on by horses rushing down the steep gangway or narrowly escaped more serious injury before every fretful animal could be coaxed or lifted into the crowded trucks. Then there were saddles, kits, heavy baggage, and ammunition to be landed, and so without leisure for a single meal the troopers worked on far into the night. It was nearly 11 o’clock before the last section took its place in the train. ‘Something attempted, something done, had earned a night’s repose’; but there was little chance of getting that, packed together as they were nine or ten in a carriage. Time must have softened the impressions of these discomforts on the mind of one trooper, who, some days later, wrote:
We left East London on March 28 by rail en route for Bethulie, where it was intended we should quit the railway, mount our horses, and trek to Bloemfontein.
East London turned out in force to see us off. Little boys and girls (some of the latter not so very little, after all) were very keen to get hold of our shoulder badges as mementoes, and, needless to say, the susceptible ones of our corps were unable to resist the entreaties of the fair ones, and daylight showed a vacant place on many a shoulder-strap. This badge-collecting seems to be a great hobby out here just now; one boy showed me a belt simply covered with badges, which he had secured from the men of the different regiments that had passed through. We travelled in second- and third-class carriages, ten men in each, but it being quite cool we were not uncomfortable.
Another correspondent, whose experiences were evidently not so pleasant, takes a less roseate view. He says hard words about the South African war method of standing men, some forty-five or so in a cattle-truck, encumbered with heavy coats, rifles, and other baggage—a leaky roof, and no sides.
This may be economical, as the Major said, but on a wet blustry night, when buckets of rain, mixed with soot from the engine, are falling, it is not a style of travelling that conduces to comfort. Then there is still another African style—namely, ten men with rifles, &c., in a third-class carriage meant to hold eight only. Both of these methods we sampled on our way up to Bloemfontein. And right glad I was when we had done with it, and took to the saddle. Some, however, confessed to having slept very well that first night in such strange circumstances, tired out as they were by hours of previous toil, though they woke next morning very cold, with nothing to eat but one loaf, which ten men divided between them.
They had eyes for the picturesque as well as for the agricultural possibilities of a country where Nature does much and man apparently very little, except to stroll about watching the cattle graze and the crops grow, unless he happens to be a Kaffir, which makes all the difference. Chiefly, however, Lumsden’s Horse must have been struck by the barren, rocky kopjes that seemed to spring suddenly in the midst of fertility and rise range behind range, stretching away to the mountains, which looked so near that it was impossible for imagination to measure the breadth of intervening plains. As one of them wrote, acquaintance with this country for the first time ‘made us realise the fearful odds that Buller had to tackle’; and no doubt many other troopers went on fighting fanciful battles against a wily enemy who, driven from one position, would gallop off to occupy another kopje still more formidable, and so prolong that imaginary fight, while the train, like a British column, wound its slow way through tortuous defiles. Lumsden’s Horse, however, had eyes for other things also, as a candid chronicler admits in his simple narrative, which may now be allowed to run its uninterrupted course:
At several stations on our way there was the usual crowd of ‘loyal’ ladies of mature age, and the still larger crowd of schoolgirls. The people seemed very glad to see us. There was a lot of cheering and waving of handkerchiefs and pleasant greetings at every station. They gave us cigarettes and cheroots, and some men were seen to be sporting bows of red, white, and blue when we left—little attentions from some fair hands in return perhaps for Lumsden’s badges, of which many shoulder-straps were by that time bereft.
Early next morning saw us at Cathcart, where we stopped about two hours, and took the opportunity to water and feed our horses. There is a nice little inn here, and we went down in a body and indulged in delicious bread, butter, and milk. Oh, such a contrast to the same articles of diet in India! The weather at this time of the year is nearly perfect, the air being fine, dry, and invigorating; to the eye wearied by the flatness of the plains of India the undulating country, small hills and green valleys between, is very refreshing; but what strikes one, more especially in the Free State, which we marched through later, is the desolateness of the country, miles and miles of veldt dotted here and there with small houses. Cattle-farming seems to be the principal thing they go in for here, but the farmers say that, what with rinderpest and drought, it is very disheartening work. The cattle are very fine, and strike us especially coming from India, where one sees such miserable specimens. About midday we arrived at Queen’s Town, and were very much disgusted to hear that Lord Roberts had wired down that we were to detrain and go into camp, as he needed all the horse-waggons and cattle-trucks for carrying remounts (several thousands of which were collected at Queen’s Town) to troops at the front. The camp is situated about two miles from the railway station, but they have run a siding into it, so that the carriages containing ourselves and our horses were simply detached from the rest of the train and we were run into the camp. We did not take long in detraining and picketing our horses; the poor brutes were simply delighted to get on firm ground again, and when let loose indulged in all sorts of antics—rolling on the grass, kicking up their heels, and larking like colts, to show appreciation of their freedom. As our tents had not arrived yet, we were obliged to sleep out in the open; but, knowing this would be a matter of course sooner or later, we made no bones about it. Unfortunately it came on to rain at night, and this made things generally uncomfortable. The mufflers so kindly knitted for us by the ladies of Calcutta proved simply invaluable; with these, Balaclava caps, and greatcoats on, we made ourselves perfectly comfortable. There were about twelve men of the Army Service Corps stationed here, and, with the proverbial hospitality of Tommy Atkins, they very kindly supplied us with hot cocoa and coffee, and offered to put up as many as possible of us in their tents. We found several of the Queensland Mounted Volunteers encamped here, also a part of the Militia Battalion of the Cheshires awaiting marching orders like ourselves. Next day our tents arrived, and we were soon quite settled down, ten men in a tent—a bit of a squash, but all right when one gets accustomed to it.
There they may be left for a time chuckling over the good story of a Militia regiment whose officers complained to Major Showers that they could not stand the language of which Lumsden’s Horse made such free and frequent use at ‘stables’ and other daily duties. Of course that language was only the mildest of mild Hindustani put into terms of endearment with certain genealogical references that sounded mysterious to the uninitiated.
Hindustani for ‘order.’