TOWARDS PRETORIA—LUMSDEN’S HORSE SCOUTING AHEAD OF THE ARMY FROM BLOEMFONTEIN TO THE VAAL RIVER
Lord Roberts was so well satisfied with the results achieved by General Ian Hamilton’s division and the other columns operating south of Thaba ’Nchu on May 1 that he regarded all the strategical points in that direction as being securely held, and was therefore no longer anxious for the safety of the railway, on which future supplies for his army might be dependent after the exhaustion of those already collected at Bloemfontein. In these circumstances he determined on an immediate advance the day after Hamilton had cut the Boer chain in two at Houtnek. He accordingly sent General Pole-Carew’s division from Bloemfontein to Karree Siding, where their arrival was hailed by Lumsden’s Horse as significant of great things to follow, seeing that General Tucker’s brigade had been pushed forward to occupy the ground over which Mounted Infantry corps fought two days earlier. General Hutton’s brigade of mounted troops was ten miles west of the railway at Brakpan by Doorn Spruit, and General Ian Hamilton’s division had advanced from Houtnek to Isabellafontein, out-flanking the Brandfort range of kopjes. Thus, on the morning of May 3 De la Rey found his position seriously menaced, and after-events proved that he had no intention of making a stand there longer than was necessary for a rearguard action, by which he might delay the British advance and give his own main body time to withdraw all heavy artillery and stores. Threatened on the left by Ian Hamilton, and finding his right flank in danger of being turned by Hutton’s Mounted Infantry, De la Rey retired, and our troops entered Brandfort that afternoon. The Boers, however, had fallen back to a second position, being neither disorganised nor beaten, but only disinclined for close fighting, and until dusk they continued to show such a firm front that the mounted troops could do little against them. Colonel Lumsden sums up the situation briefly by the following entry in his official diary:
On the morning of the 3rd we left Spytfontein at daybreak with Colonel Henry’s brigade, and joined General Maxwell’s brigade (14th) at the foot of Gun Kopje, the place where Major Showers was killed. The Mounted Infantry, covering a front of some three miles, swept the country towards Brandfort, Infantry and guns following. A little desultory fighting occurred, driving in the enemy’s advance parties on to their first position, which we found at about 11 A.M. The guns and Infantry then came up and cleared the position in about an hour. During the action we were exposed to a good deal of shell fire, which fortunately did no harm, owing to the ground being soft and the shells burying themselves before bursting, if they burst at all.
At 12 the advance was made on their second and main position, about two miles off, and lying some five miles north-east of Brandfort. The enemy offered little resistance, confining themselves chiefly to long-range artillery fire. When the position was practically taken the Mounted Infantry were sent away to the right flank to make a wide turning movement with a view to cutting off the retreat of ‘Long Tom,’ who, however, catching them on a wide open plain, forced them to dismount for the attack. The dismounted men advanced some two miles in his direction, but dusk setting in it became evident that it was impossible to reach that position with daylight, and we were ordered to rejoin our horses and return to camp. This we reached about 8 P.M., having been in the saddle fifteen hours and covered quite forty miles. There had been no time during the day to feed the horses, which consequently felt the work very much. Our casualties were nil; but ten horses died from exhaustion.
To troopers in the ranks, however, it seemed a much more serious affair, as well it might, for on them fell the burden of an advance that tried their powers of endurance if it did not put a very severe strain on their nerves. One of them, writing rather for his own gratification than with the idea of helping to make history, gives a graphic picture of the movement out of camp in the darkest hour before dawn to join other troops, and then trot on through the ‘pitch blackness’ over ground on which stones seemed to have cropped up suddenly where no stones had been before, so that horses stumbled at every stride. Then, as it grew lighter, they saw that a whole army was with them, extending along a front that stretched for miles. Lumsden’s Horse halted under a hill near Ospruit, and British guns opened fire from its crest. At this point the trooper’s hasty notes become ruggedly picturesque as he describes the sequence of events:
The Boer artillery replied, and it became rather a hot corner. Shells burst all round us and over our heads. We were retired and lay down. Then moved to the right, gave over our horses to the even numbers, and moved forward on foot, extending to some ten paces apart. So we advanced, sometimes mounted, sometimes on foot—always extended. Then lay down, then advanced again, and lay down—all in long parallel lines, Lumsden’s Horse being on the extreme right, or nearly so. The Infantry marched in beautifully regular and even straight lines, apparently quite indifferent to the Boer guns that now opened on them and made good shooting too. The shell fell all amongst those Infantry, but when the dust cleared nobody seemed to be down, and the line went on unmoved. Then some shells came in our direction, but either fell short or whistled over our heads doing no harm; yet we were retired a bit. Then a pom-pom of ours came into action and silenced the Boer guns. This was all straight ahead. Meanwhile a gun opened across our front at some Boers, whom we could see plainly retreating on the right. They replied until the pom-poms behind us opened on them. Then they bolted and were chased by some Mounted Infantry who came up on our flank. Again we advanced on foot and got near the big kopje. Then Colonel Lumsden rode up, called for the horses, and ordered us to advance and join other corps of the 8th Mounted Infantry in a flank attack. Off we went at a trot, and then, extending to intervals of ten paces, advanced towards the kopje in front of us at a walk, but still mounted. Suddenly there was a bang, and a few seconds later a shell burst dead on for our centre, but some 200 yards short. After a brief pause a second shell burst 100 yards nearer, and then another, the fragments of which kicked up the dust all round us. This we discovered was what Cavalry called ‘being out to draw fire.’ Still we advanced. Bang went the gun again, and there was a cloud of dust followed by a tremendous report not twenty yards from Clifford, Cayley, and me. Iron whizzed over our heads, but nobody was hit. Our horses plunged and wheeled round, and, seeing everyone was off, we did not stop either. Halted and dismounted at a farmhouse lower down near a stream, where the company assembled. Then handed over our horses, and, advancing again, with lots of others on foot, trudged a weary two miles, when a Boer Maxim opened on us; but though the bullets swept ground between the front line and ourselves, they did no harm. When darkness began to fall the order came for us to retire, and, our horses being brought up, we rode back over dykes and sluits and boggy places in the pitch black. Nobody knew the way, but, seeing lights on our right, we made for them, and got into camp about 7 o’clock. Not a bad day’s work, having started at 3 A.M. with nothing whatever in the way of food to start on. Tied our nags up. Everybody too tired to boil a kettle, or even light a fire. Ate half a biscuit and some bully-beef and turned in. The left half-company having come back to camp comparatively early, got into a hen-roost and made great store of fowls, turkeys, and ducks. Heard that two foreign officers had been taken—one German and one Russian—who said it was useless going on, as the Boers would not stand and would not fight. So ended the Battle of Brandfort.
Colonel Lumsden takes up the narrative at this point in an official report to the executive committee, and without attempting to describe the general operations he gives a clear outline of events in which his corps took a prominent part, leaving details to be filled in by troopers according to their various views, and they give some realistic sketches, not only of the actions but also of the men under fire. In Colonel Lumsden’s epitome of a day when the troops were supposed to rest and gain fresh vigour for a forward movement, there is a meaning that could not have been better expressed than it is in this short sentence:
On the 4th we halted, with no food for horses and only biscuit for the men.
On the 5th, when the enemy were driven from a strong position on the banks of Vet River, we had a long dragging day, most of the march being done on foot to ease our tired horses, and with little hope of finding any enemy in front of us, though away on our flank the artillery on both sides were hotly engaged. At about 2 P.M. we suddenly got the order to change direction to the left and head for Vet railway station, which the enemy held in force. We crossed the Vet river, where Boer commandos had been making a stubborn stand, and soon found ourselves among our Infantry. Shortly afterwards our guns opened fire and our Infantry came into action, while the Mounted Infantry were sent round by our right—northwards—to intercept, if possible, the retreating enemy. It was a race for the same drift again among the Mounted Infantry, and we got there first. Crossing the river, we were told to push forward as fast as possible and seize a kopje two miles off which commanded a somewhat deep valley on the left, up which the enemy were retiring. As it was supposed to be a race between us and the enemy for the kopje, we had not the time to make a thorough reconnaissance before approaching, with the result that our scouts arrived at the kopje only some 600 to 700 yards before us, and the enemy had a charge at us at 800 yards. We immediately opened out and took cover behind the bund of a tank fifty yards in rear, and, dismounting, opened fire on the kopje and silenced it. We were unable to stay there, as the enemy from the valley were galloping up on our left under the cover of the kopje, so I gave the order to my sixty men to mount and retire on our supports, who were now coming up a quarter-mile in rear. We were only just in time, for, as we were mounting, the Boer pom-pom treated us to a ‘belt’ the shells of which came fair into the middle of us.
The supports now opened fire with two pom-poms and 200 men, and the enemy retired, leaving us free to return to camp, which we reached at 7 P.M.—another long day of quite thirty miles. Our casualties were only one scout killed when reconnoitring this kopje. This was Private A.K. Meares, who was shot through the heart, and whom we buried the following morning.
One of the scouts who was with young Meares when they reconnoitred the kopje describes that episode with convincing directness, and incidentally records a very gallant action on the part of Lieutenant Pugh, as if it were the most commonplace occurrence. Following is his version of the affair given in extracts from a private letter:
By 2 in the afternoon we were fairly in touch with the enemy, and an artillery duel commenced. After some time our fire grew too hot for the Boers, and they retired with their guns. We had been sent forward to try to turn the Boer flank, and our section, No. 4 B, was ordered to seize a kopje which was supposed to be unoccupied. We, of the advanced party, cantered up to within 250 yards of the enemy’s sangar, and then they opened on us, but I must say they made very bad shooting; we had got within 200 yards of them before turning to retire, and yet only one man was hit. We were all in line, about twelve of us, in skirmishing order, when the Boers opened fire, and when the order to retire reached us we went back as fast as we could. Meares—the man who was killed—and I were going in the same direction, and as his horse was dead done, and had already fallen once during the day, I reined up so as to get near him in case of need. I was just a little ahead of him and kept glancing round to see how he was doing. In looking after him I quite forgot my own horse, and then I don’t know what happened. All I know is that half an hour afterwards I found myself breathless, holding one of our officer’s stirrup-leathers and running for dear life. My horse, it seems, got into a hole and came down an awful crash on top of me. The others thought both the horse and I had been shot. Almost immediately after this Meares went down, shot through the heart from the back. Both our horses righted themselves, and galloped back to the section. I lay stunned for half an hour, and then, as I have told you, I staggered up to No. 2 section, who were covering our retreat. I believe I was making straight for the Boer line of fire, when one of our officers shouted out to me and gave me his stirrup-leather to hold as I came up to him. I was so completely done after a short run that he got off his horse and gave me a lift on it. Lieutenant Pugh was the man. It was dark by this time, and as we had driven the Boers off we retired to our camp. I picked up my section again, and found my horse, who was badly cut about the head. My face was in a lovely condition—one eye closed, and my cheek, forehead, and nose one big bruise, and my head was splitting with pain. It was a providential escape, and if I had not fallen I should surely have shared Meares’s fate.
In the simple phrases of another trooper who relates with more fulness the circumstances in which Trooper A.K. Meares met his death there are some pathetic touches:
We had several severe engagements, in one of which I am sorry to say young Meares was shot dead while his company (B) were retiring from a very large force of Boers with a few guns. It was altogether a sad affair, as his brother Willie was riding next him. Being in extended order, however, they were fifty yards or so apart, and Willie knew nothing about his brother being hit till he got into camp and found who was missing. It was then some men said they had seen him fall off his nag, but could tell no more. Willie went with a party next morning and found his brother dead. The bullet-wound was right over his heart. He was buried there. What makes it all the more pathetic is that young Meares was the only man hit that day, no one else getting a scratch.
Though the Boers made a brave show up to the last, disputing every position a hold of which gave them any advantage, the resistance offered by them to Lumsden’s Horse was only an expiring effort. Their right flank had by that time been turned by other corps of Mounted Infantry, among whom the Colonials vied with each other for distinction, and at nightfall, when Australians with a machine gun had come up to relieve Lumsden’s Horse, the enemy retired, leaving a Maxim gun and twenty-six prisoners in our hands. Again, however, they had carried off all their heavy artillery and equipage, although General Ian Hamilton had that afternoon got possession of Winburg and was threatening their rear. The events of following days are summarised briefly by Colonel Lumsden in his official report:
Next morning, the 6th, saw us away at daybreak back for the yesterday’s battlefield and towards the rising sun. We could see clearly how clever had been the Boer plan of attack and how nearly they had caught some of us. We followed up their tracks for many miles, halted at noon for an hour, continued scouring the country—this time north—and eventually headed west, arriving at dusk at our new camp near Smaldeel, having advanced only three and a half miles after marching thirty.
Away at dawn on the 7th, and, heading north, tramped many a mile on foot, striking the railway between Vet and Winburg a few miles from Vet, and continuing north some distance. We halted for two or three hours, and then retraced our steps to a camp near the railway, reaching it after dusk.
On the 8th our regiment did flank guard for the Infantry during a march of twenty miles, saw innumerable buck, and commandeered twenty remounts on payment.
With the incident thus delicately touched upon by Colonel Lumsden an irresponsible trooper deals more at large in a way that enables us to understand the troubles by which some commanding officers were beset when their men, unlike Lumsden’s Horse, did not think it necessary to go through the formality of paying for what they took. Writing from Smaldeel, the trooper says:
Yesterday we went fairly straight, but about two or three miles too far, and had to come back; but we caught a young Boer leaving his farm with a rifle and ammunition, and we got another at the farm. The farm was looted of all its live-stock. The Colonel stopped it when he came up, but all the poultry was taken. Our men paid for everything. Kruger has told all these people that their farms will be burned and all the women taken prisoners. I think they were rather relieved when we left. One woman said her husband had come back three weeks ago and died of wounds, and they said the Free-Staters had lost terribly. They never hear officially, as they keep the deaths dark, but almost every farm has lost at least one man. In one we passed there were three widows. They are rather nice people and can nearly all speak English, and are rather nice-looking. We have fifty-one horses sick—about half with pink-eye and the other half sore backs and lame—but we make it up by degrees. Yesterday we collected eleven and the day before about the same, but in the night they got away. We also brought along 200 sheep and some cows; the sheep we have given over to the brigade, except about twenty for our own use. We carry with us to-morrow two days’ rations and four on the carts in case the transport don’t come up. McMinn and Francis, of my section, got lost leading sick horses. McMinn has attached himself to another brigade, but nothing has been heard of Francis.
The self-restraint exercised by soldiers who left untouched the stores and paid for all the live-stock they took at every farm where women and children had been left by the retreating Boers will be appreciated by all who know what it is to march and fight day after day on short rations. Though Lumsden’s Horse laid in that store of supplies, it did not last them many days, as we gather from a continuation of the Colonel’s diary:
On the 9th the usual daybreak start, our men with two days’ biscuits and one day’s feed for horses, but the officers with only some chocolate, as we relied on our mess cart being up. We were with the main body this day, till we neared the crossing of the Zand River at the Virginia Siding railway bridge, which had been blown up the day before, and at this point our companies were detached on each side of the drift to prevent a surprise. We heard General Hamilton having an artillery duel with the foe some miles off on our right, while on the left we saw the Mounted Infantry dislodging the enemy’s advance parties, the war balloon with Lord Roberts and Staff being near the drift itself. We received orders to concentrate and move away to the left, and on the far side of the river to join our corps—the 8th Mounted Infantry—on doing which we were immediately sent into action dismounted, firing at 1,500 yards, while the enemy’s pom-pom shells flew whistling over our heads as they aimed at our guns behind us. Our corps here got its first definite order, and that was, ‘Keep touch with the enemy at any cost.’ As this came from Lord Roberts direct, we proceeded to obey it to the letter, with the result that we were under shell and rifle fire for the remainder of the day. Having got well ahead of the rest of our brigade, in following up ‘Long Tom,’ which halted and fired on us at intervals, we kept running into the enemy’s supporting Infantry, whom we only managed to discomfit thoroughly when we got at them with our Maxim on the open hillside. Our losses were only two horses wounded. We were severely shelled several times, but we escaped casualties through being widely extended and also through the faulty bursting of the enemy’s shells. On one occasion ten shells burst among us within five minutes. About 3 P.M., in company with Colonel Ross, I went to endeavour to get some support, and brought up one company of Loch’s Horse, one company Tasmanians, and one company South Australian Rifles, afterwards meeting General Hutton with a battery Field Artillery, which promptly went into action on our left flank and shelled the Boers, who were then retiring. Unfortunately, our force was much too weak to attempt to follow them in the open. Had it not been so it was the opinion of General Hutton and Colonel Ross that we might have captured the whole of them—some 1,500, with a couple of guns. Dusk had then drawn on, and, having lost touch with our brigade, we marched under General Hutton’s orders to a camping ground seven miles off in the direction of Kroonstad, arriving about 9 P.M., without food for men or horses, and there was no firewood within miles.
The troopers had each little else but dry biscuit, the officers faring hardly any better.
Another correspondent writes of this affair:
We had a very pretty fight at the Zand River, and were within an ace of taking two of the enemy’s big guns. To begin at the beginning. We had marched the previous day from our camp near Smaldeel to within about five miles of the Zand River. On our arrival there we heard that the Australians and Oxfords had been having a skirmish with some Boers at the bridge, and had seized a train of stores, but were forced to retire. Starting at daybreak in the second line of Mounted Infantry, we got across the drift all right, and drove the Boer outposts back. We sat on the further side of the river for about an hour, watching them bring up two big guns on to a kopje about three miles off, and wondering when we should be shelled. Presently we were ordered off on a flank movement, and after trotting some miles came in touch with the enemy. We dismounted, and moved up a valley with good cover, the pom-poms following. They drove back the Boer riflemen and presently silenced a gun, which had been amusing itself by shelling our led horses, but luckily without effect. We mounted again and started for a two-mile gallop to get up with their gun, but it had disappeared. Making a flank movement round the shoulder of the position they had occupied, and pushing on some distance, we found them again, or rather they found us first. Their gun got our range beautifully, but every shell seemed to fall and burst between the horses. Of course we were widely extended. Retiring, we dismounted and then advanced on foot, but their rifle fire and shell fire was too hot; so again we tried to out-flank their position. A Company and half of B Company advanced, and we climbed a small kopje with a deserted Kaffir kraal on top; Loch’s Horse, some of the Australians, and the West Riding Mounted Infantry went round and took up a position further along the ridge. We sat there for nearly two hours under a terrific shell fire, till it dawned on us to move below the brow. For the first half-hour they landed shell after shell (40-pounders) right into the middle of us; luckily, very few burst properly. If they had fired shrapnel, which bursts in the air, or lyddite, we should all have been blown off the top. They then let our horses have a few shots, and killed two and wounded three. In the meantime urgent messages were being sent for our artillery, or at least the pom-poms that generally come with us, but unfortunately they could get nothing but a walk out of their horses, and the Boers quietly trekked away. We ought to have had them with the greatest of ease, as we were well round them on two sides and a brigade was moving somewhere on the third. If the Artillery had got up in time we could easily have moved round the fourth side. We tried to keep in touch with the Boers when they retired, but it soon got dark and we had to stop.
No stirring episodes or dramatic incidents marked the army’s farther advance towards a stronghold which the Free State Boers had declared that they would defend to the last. Colonel Lumsden deals with this part of the operations briefly in the following notes:
Dawn on the 10th saw us in the saddle again on the move for Kroonstad. The leading sections were constantly in touch with the enemy, and sometimes under heavy shell fire, from which Corporal Kirwan received a scalp wound not very serious. After a long and weary march we halted at nightfall near a farm, where we were lucky enough to get some Indian corn for the horses and a few sheep for the men.
We made an early start on the 11th for the expected big fight at Kroonstad, it having been reported on the previous evening that the enemy were strongly posted five miles on our side of the town.
We advanced for ten miles with the utmost military precaution, only to find that the enemy had vacated the position, leaving Kroonstad undefended. Lord Roberts marched in at 3 P.M., followed by the Guards and the rest of the Infantry, the mounted troops flanking both sides of the town. We occupied heights on the left, and halted there for the night, changing ground next morning to our present camping ground, a mile distant, where, with the rest of the army, we are waiting for supplies for horses and men, before a forward movement towards Pretoria can be made.
The halt has been a welcome one, as our horses are fairly done, and I doubt if I could mount 150 men to-morrow, and a few more weeks’ work like that of the last would reduce the numbers to 100. We are leaving a dozen horses to-day as unfit to march, and shot six yesterday. Cast horses wander about all over the veldt and lie dead in the river or any other quiet place, and fatigue parties are ceaselessly at work burying the bodies.
You can form no idea of the condition of our horses, and, but for the fact that we have been able to commandeer and get remounts en route, we should have half our corps dismounted. We have lost quite seventy-five horses already. I have stated officially that we require immediately seventy-five remounts more, and these we expect to get this afternoon. Mrs. Barrow’s ‘Molly Riley’ looks like a bathing-machine horse, and I fear is on her last march.
The men are all very well and in good spirits, are most efficient cooks, and if allowed would rank high as looters; but orders against this are very strict, and our men pay liberally for anything in the shape of foodstuffs wherever procurable.
The office department has been rather upset by the loss of Sergeant Fraser, of the Bank of Bengal, who was Paymaster and Secretary, but I have replaced him by Graves, of the same bank, who is working up arrears as quickly as possible. He is a very willing and intelligent young fellow, and will soon have things straight again when he gets a few days’ halt, but it is impossible to do much on the line of march.
The troops were not all so punctilious as Lumsden’s Horse in the matter of prompt payment for things commandeered, and a good story was told of one brigade at Kroonstad, whose commander, in despair of being able to check irregularities, issued an order that loot was ‘not to be carried openly on the saddle.’ Our soldiers, however, had not then been reduced by hardships and scant fare to the necessity of providing for themselves at all costs. Some pitiful cases of unauthorised commandeering were reported in connection with later operations, when columns moving rapidly through several districts had to draw supplies from Boer farms and give receipts for them in lieu of cash payments. Detached parties driven to straits for want of food did not hesitate to adopt the means they had seen employed by responsible officers, but took care to leave no trace by which they could be identified. An officer who had to investigate these cases told me of one receipt given to a Boer widow. It ran thus: ‘Being without rations and hungry, we have taken all this poor woman had of live-stock and food. She asks for a receipt. I give it. God help her!—ALLY SLOPER.’ To the credit of British military administration, it must be said that this document, though irregular, was accepted as genuine, and duly honoured by payment in full.
Lumsden’s Horse had their share of the privations that made commandeering a necessity, and even looting pardonable; and it is not to be wondered at if some among them regarded campaigning in anything but the roseate light that imagination had shed upon it before they left India. Yet, even at this time, their conduct in circumstances that tried the character of men individually and collectively won approval from such a soldier as Colonel Ward, C.B. (now Sir Edward Ward, K.C.B., Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War). Singling them out on the line of march, he asked what regiment they were, and seemed astonished to learn that they were Volunteers. In a letter to the Editor he says: ‘I was much struck with Lumsden’s Horse. They were very keen and excellent soldiers.’ After an exceptionally hard day one of them wrote:
We were in the saddle at 5 A.M., and did not bivouac till 8 P.M., and were under shell fire the greater portion of the day. We had two men and several horses wounded; and two or three horses killed. It seemed to me that our task always was to find where the enemy’s guns were posted, as we invariably drew their fire on us. It was a fearfully long day, and after fighting for ten hours we had to march for five, and when we bivouacked we had nothing but a few dry biscuits and a little jam to eat, but we were making coffee till midnight. We were up again at 6 A.M., and did an easy march to Kroonstad, where we commandeered two fowls, and, having been served out with fresh mutton, we did ourselves very well indeed. Some potatoes had been left in the farmhouse garden, and these fried in dripping made a feast for epicures. Next day we marched again, and, after skirmishing about the hills above Kroonstad, camped outside the town. It had been evacuated by Boer commandos the day before, and surrendered without a shot being fired.
Lord Roberts received quite an ovation as he marched in, but we only heard the cheers, as our corps was not in the town, but above it. We have now marched right across the Orange State from Bethulie to Kroonstad, and are wondering how much farther we shall go. There are all sorts of rumours about camp—some say Lumsden’s Horse are to garrison Kroonstad, others that we go on east to Harrismith, and others, again, that we accompany Lord Roberts to Pretoria. There have been days when but two men were left in the lines; all the rest have been on fatigue or duty of some sort. Our horses, it is true, have been overworked and underfed, but you will be able to form some idea of the effects of ‘pink-eye’ and other African diseases when I tell you that of the thirty men in our section alone who were well mounted when we started from India there are about five of us riding our own horses now, all the others have remounts; and our section is not the worst in this respect. My horse is doing me splendidly; except for a sore back for a few days, he has never been sick or sorry.
We have learnt to cook now, and can serve up chops, steaks, stews, and curries as well as any cook—when we can get the meat. We have been lucky lately in bivouacking near farmhouses, as we can commandeer chickens and sheep, paying for them when we are caught! We have, for the last few days, been getting to our camps after sundown, and by the time the fires are lighted and the meat ready to cook it is quite 9 o’clock. It takes an hour or so to cook, and the eating lasts longer, as the meat stands a deal of masticating. We seldom get to bed before 12, and are always ready by 5 o’clock, so you can imagine how invigorating the climate of this place is. It is bitterly cold at night and hot in the day, yet very few of our men are down with fever. It is a fine climate, but a fearful country. For miles and miles you see nothing but immense, undulating, treeless, waterless tracts of poor pasture-land. Here and there you find small ponds of dirty water, but whether it is rain-water dammed up or whether these are springs I have not yet been able to ascertain. The farmers here make their living by breeding cattle, and not by cultivation at all. We have marched from one end of the Orange State to the other, and I don’t suppose all the cultivation I have seen would cover ten acres. A year of drought or disease, I should think, would tell very heavily on farmers here.
Queen’s Town is the only town in Africa that I can really say I have seen; we either camped outside the other towns or merely passed through without having time to see them. We rode through Bloemfontein, and from what I could see of it it seems to be a large town built on the slopes of two or three converging hills, and fairly dirty.
Several of the towns we have passed consisted of half-a-dozen zinc houses, two at least of which are bound to be churches; of the remaining four, one will be a store and the rest dwelling-houses. But each dwelling-house is a township in itself. Even the ‘mild Hindu’ marvels at the number of people who live in one house, no matter how small it may be. There was a farmhouse near our camp at Bloemfontein, where we used to go sometimes to get a cup of coffee. This house had two rooms, each one about twenty-five feet square. It contained the following permanent residents—they said, they had visitors sometimes too—one old woman and three young ones and three young men and six children of sorts and sizes. One of the rooms was used as a kitchen and larder, so there was only one for general use. Needless to say, these people were Boers!
One trooper of A Company, writing to friends in Calcutta, has nothing but expressions of admiration for the behaviour of British Bluejackets, to whom he pays appreciative tribute in the following extract:
At Zand River, on the 10th, I was with the naval guns in action. It was simply grand to see the sailors work them. They were drawn up a drift in the Zand River by teams of thirty bullocks per gun, and opened fire from the top of the left bank on the enemy’s position at 7,200 yards range, and in five shots had blown up one Boer gun and knocked the whole shoot down about their ears. When the first gun was fired I happened to be quite near, although at one side of it, and the force of the explosion made me stagger as if a man were in a strong north-wester trying to make headway.
Even the novelty of such things, however, soon began to wear off, and under the depressing influences of life in a rest camp outside Kroonstad the trooper took a more gloomy view of things military, writing:
This place is like most of the so-called towns in South Africa, a mere cluster of tin huts with hardly a stone building in the lot. We, as usual, are not within a mile and a half of the town, and only one man per section of twenty-eight is allowed into it at a time. When you do get there, there is nothing much to buy or see, and prices are extremely high. Thank goodness, the climate at this time of year is just grand; at night it is very cold, and in the day warm, but never too warm unless one happens to be very hard at work. We seldom have any time to ourselves; even now, though I am writing letters, I am on duty with forty other men grazing the horses, about a couple of miles from camp. We are in a bad way for nags now, and very few of the Calcutta horses are left. It’s fun going out to commandeer things from the Boer farms, and it would make a person roar to see the different things different people choose to take. We are generally in a bad way for firewood, as this is practically a treeless country; so we break up chairs, beds, floors, doors, posts, rafters, and every blessed piece of wood to be got. Here as I sit on the side of a kopje I have a loaded rifle and cartridge bandolier on, and we are warned to stand to arms at any moment, as there are some wandering Boers about on the war-path who have cut the wires and played Old Nick with the railway and Bridges. It’s wonderful what good health men keep, considering the hardships they go through; we have not got a tent among the lot of us, barring those small servants’ tents used by the officers. Many among us have not even a change of clothes, on account of a golmal made in regard to our kit bags, which got left behind at a camp near Bloemfontein. Goodness knows if we shall ever see those bags again. At present I have only the clothes on my back and one extra pair of socks to my name. Many of us have started growing long beards, and I have a beauty, but it wants a little trimming. I had a bath about four days ago, the first for weeks, and please goodness I will have a swim before leaving this place, as there is a river here which, though rather full of dead mules and horses, is better than nothing at all. Yesterday three horses got stuck in the river and were drowned, and this morning when watering horses I saw three mules and another nag which belonged to our Maxim gun team panklagged, and I fear that they also have been lost. There is most awful ‘pank’ in some of the rivers and ponds, and on more than one occasion we have all but lost men when crossing or watering. I have had about enough of it, and so has everyone else. It does make a man feel creepy when he has shells bursting about all round, and Boer shells do burst, for all that is said otherwise. They make a noise in the air like a huge flock of ducks when they take a dive downwards in their flight; and the rifle bullets going past sound like a breeze playing in the branches of a tree. I have now been in three engagements, and I’m perfectly satisfied! I don’t mind it where there is some cover, and you can see your enemy; but when the bullets come from Lord knows where, it’s real tough bread and butter to chew. The day we lost so heavily the Boers were rifle firing at over 2,000 yards, and as they use smokeless powder it was impossible to see them.
In those closing sentences there is a realistic touch that tells of the weariness and heart-sickness from which soldiers invariably suffer in days of rest following a succession of hard marches and heavy fighting. When there is stern work to be done, or a foe to be faced, these men may succumb to sheer exhaustion without a word of complaint. It is only after a day or two of comparative inaction, when supposed, by a pleasant fiction, to be resting in camp, that they will confess to being tired of the whole thing, or, as Tommy expresses it, ‘fair fed up.’ A total change comes with the order for a fresh advance, and everybody welcomes it except, perhaps, the regimental commanding officer, who knows that his horses would be all the better if given more time to regain condition, and his men more happy if there were a chance of re-clothing them. But what do rags and tatters matter when days have to be spent in marching through clouds of red dust and night blots out all distinction between weather-stained khaki and the soil on which it is laid? Colonel Lumsden must have felt the care for such things heavy on him, but he gave no sign of it in the notes by which he summarised the renewal of operations and of hard work that was in inverse ratio to the number of words employed in describing it:
We halted at Kroonstad till the 22nd, and then moved out some four and a half miles to a fresh camp clear of the town ready to join Colonel Henry’s brigade, and to start marching early next morning. Nothing of interest occurred at Kroonstad, except that we were able to leave behind a number of worn-out horses. These were replaced by fifty-six Argentines, which arrived the day before we left in a sorry condition, suffering from the effects of forced marches made without food, except what they could pick up on the veldt.
The next three days were spent in long weary marches, reconnoitring the country in front of the main advance, for we had been transferred at Kroonstad from General Hamilton’s column to the troops selected to march with Lord Roberts. Just after the men had settled down in camp at sunset on the 24th, bugles sounded a single G, and, on hearing this signal, all troops joined in singing ‘God Save the Queen.’
We were expecting to be in action every day, but nothing was seen of the enemy till the 26th, when we came upon him at about 9 A.M. in the railway station near Viljoen’s Drift, half a mile from the Vaal River. There some time was spent in reconnoitring to find out the enemy’s strength, and when a few shells had been put into the station, turning out only a hundred Boers, we were too late to stop the train which had apparently been loading up there. It steamed unhurt over the Vaal bridge, which was immediately blown up.
A general advance of the 8th Corps was made dismounted, and the enemy driven back, so that at noon the whole brigade was over the Vaal, much to the delight of the manager of the mines, who had been in a state of great anxiety. He treated all officers to breakfast, and told us that the Boers had not expected our force for two days, and that the party just ejected by us had arrived that very morning with the intention of blowing up his mines. He estimated that one million sterling had been saved by our unexpected arrival.
Our only casualty during the day was Sergeant H.A. Campbell, slightly wounded.
At 5 P.M. we moved off to our new camp, guarding the Vaal bridge, with the promise of a sorely-needed halt next day.
From this brief chronicle nobody would suppose that the honour of reconnoitring and drawing Boers out from their hiding-places among the sheds and shanties of corrugated iron at Viljoen’s Drift Station had fallen to Lumsden’s Horse. Lieutenant Pugh, however, supplies the missing links in a private letter:
It was my section’s turn to do the scouting, and they did very well, getting information that there was a train and fifty men in the station this side of the Vaal. Two other regiments of Mounted Infantry each sent out an officer’s patrol of about fifty men, and each came back full split. One of their officers told my scouts that if they did not wish to be shot they had better clear, but Peddie thought this was not business; he, being in charge of the advanced scouts, went on till they were fired on and then halted. We had to wait for orders to advance for about half an hour, and saw the train steam out of the station and over the bridge and presently blow up one span. With a dash we could have caught the men and train, and probably saved the bridge, as we had two Maxims, and we could easily have driven the Boers off. We then crossed the river and drove their rearguard out of Vereeniging. They took the opportunity of burning a large store of mealies at the station. Our guns got into them well as they bolted across the plain. We had a very nice fight, and everyone is much pleased, even the Chief of the Staff.
Through all this advance, in which Lumsden’s Horse, with other corps of the 8th Mounted Infantry, reconnoitred ahead of the army, troopers who had been trained to field sports proved invaluable, and sometimes at least a match for the wily Boer. Nobody distinguished himself more by skill at this work than Corporal Percy Jones, whom Colonel Lumsden regarded as one of his best scouts, a man of great self-reliance, unfailing in resources, and with a very keen eye for a country, so that he never allowed the section of which he was leader to be entrapped or surprised. For repeated acts of daring enterprise he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and given the ‘Distinguished Conduct’ Medal. Others who, being selected for some specially difficult or dangerous duty, had on occasion distinguished themselves as scouts, or who, by actions of individual gallantry, won mention in despatches, with subsequent honours, were Trooper Preston (D.C.M.), Trooper H.N. Betts (D.C.M.), Trooper W.B. Dexter (D.C.M.), and Corporal G. Peddie. Trooper H.R. Parks, Sergeant Dale, Sergeant Llewhellin, and Corporal C.E. Turner also performed meritorious actions, for which they were mentioned in despatches.
Though little has been said of the privations endured by our soldiers during their forced marches from Kroonstad to reach the Vaal River before its steep sandy banks could be made formidable by entrenchments, as the Modder was, some troops suffered severely from want of sufficient food, and nearly all were on short rations. It is certain, however, that not many could have been so near the ravenous stage of starvation as a private in one colonial corps, of whose act a trooper of Lumsden’s Horse writes:
The day we crossed the Vaal River a very interesting thing happened; we were very hungry, and when we got to Vereeniging a dog was seen running away with half a loaf of bread in his mouth. Immediately a private darted out of the ranks and rode the dog down, took the bread out of his mouth, and ate it.
At last Lumsden’s Horse were on Transvaal territory. Another vaunted stronghold, which the Boers had declared they would defend to the last extremity, was in our hands, without even the semblance of a struggle for it. Generals French and Hutton had crossed the Vaal at important strategic points west of Vereeniging. All the most important drifts were thus held by us, and the ways open for British columns to enter the Transvaal without opposition. On the following day Lord Roberts, with his headquarters, moved across Viljoen’s Drift and issued a proclamation declaring that the Orange Free State had ceased to exist, and had become from that moment an integral part of the British Empire, to be known henceforth as Orange River Colony.