A MARCH UNDER MAHON OF MAFEKING TO RUSTENBURG AND WARMBATHS—IN PURSUIT OF DE WET
To have served under two leaders of high reputation for ability in handling Irregular troops was a stroke of good fortune that did not fall to the lot of many Volunteer Corps in South Africa. Lumsden’s Horse had every reason to be thankful that the lot was theirs, and they appreciated it fully. In exchanging from the 8th Mounted Infantry Regiment to another column, of which Colonel Bryan Mahon was Brigadier, they did not forget the commander under whom they had served so long; but affection for him was happily consistent with out-and-out admiration for the officer to whose force they were transferred after leaving Irene. Both were thorough soldiers, having strong sympathies with Volunteers and a complete understanding of the peculiarities that distinguish them from Regulars. In other words, both were born leaders of men. Colonel Mahon, or General as he then was by local rank, had proved himself to be a commander of great dash and resourcefulness in his conduct of operations by which he won not only the affectionate confidence of his own troops, but also the respect of enemies who still speak with admiration of the young Cavalry officer who beat them at their own game by rapid flank movements on the way to Mafeking, and effected the relief of that beleaguered garrison in spite of all De la Rey could do to prevent him. In ten days he marched a distance of 230 miles through country destitute of supplies, where no other forces had disputed possession with the Boers since war began. He outwitted the cleverest of De la Rey’s lieutenants at Kraaipan by a night march which won his adversary’s admiration, and he took a great convoy of Cape carts and heavier transport full of provisions into Mafeking without having lost a single waggon. Describing that surprise at Kraaipan, when, after waiting in expectation of an attack by which Mahon should fall into the trap laid for him, the Boers suddenly realised that the British column had disappeared, one of their scouts said, ‘We did not get much rest, as somebody had to be on the look-out all night. Your laager was quite near to us, but we did not see or hear anything move. In the morning, however, the whole had vanished, and when it was too late to stop them we heard they were trekking away north-west towards a desert where nobody but Boers or natives would expect to find water. Your General must have had somebody with him who knew that country well or he would never have ventured there.’ The ‘somebody’ in this case may have been Colonel Frank Rhodes, the bearer of a name which is one to conjure with still among the native tribes of Bechuanaland. He was Mahon’s Intelligence officer, and information gleaned by him made the night march possible; but it was the young Brigadier who planned and carried it into execution at a time when his enemies thought they had him surely trapped. When a complete history of the campaign comes to be written, that march of Mahon’s for the relief of Mafeking will rank high among the most daring and successful operations. All this story was known weeks before the General himself arrived at Pretoria with the Imperial Light Horse, who had won fresh honours in that enterprise under a leader whose praises they never tired of singing. No expectation of being brigaded with such a famous corps under such a brigadier had occurred to Lumsden’s Horse when they left Irene. Indeed, they seem to have regarded themselves as an integral unit of the 8th Mounted Infantry up to the day when Colonel Ross, receiving orders for a movement southwards, went off with other corps of his command, leaving Lumsden’s Horse behind. Meanwhile, however, they had been placed for a time at the disposal of Colonel Hickman, under whom they took part in the brief operations already described towards Crocodile River, which were merely a reconnaissance for the more important enterprise to follow.
It will be remembered that Lord Roberts, about this time, had both hands fully occupied in keeping Botha at arm’s length in the east and stretching out his left with considerable force westward to ward off attacks by De la Rey and others who were causing General Baden-Powell much anxiety for the safety of Rustenburg, which he held with a very small number of troops. It would never have done to let the newly emancipated hero of Mafeking be subjected to another siege. Therefore, when he reported that a strong force was again threatening Rustenburg Lord Roberts determined to withdraw that garrison to Commando Nek, while the small force holding Lichtenburg was to retire upon Zeerust. Accordingly, General Ian Hamilton received orders to march to Rustenburg and bring Baden-Powell’s force back with him. At the same time Sir Frederick Carrington was directed to advance from Mafeking with his mounted troops to the assistance of Colonel Hore, who, with 140 Bushmen, 80 men of the Rhodesian Regiment, and 80 Rhodesian Volunteers, was at Eland’s River with a convoy of supplies for the Rustenburg garrison, and held up there by an intercepting body of Boers. This brief summary of the general situation is necessary to a clear understanding of the exigencies that necessitated General Ian Hamilton’s movement eastward along the Magaliesberg, and the reconnaissance immediately preceding it, in all of which important operations Lumsden’s Horse were actively engaged from start to finish. The force marched in three columns, Colonel Hickman’s being on the left, General Ian Hamilton’s in the centre, and Brigadier-General Mahon’s on the right, each being separated from the other by a rough range of hills which in places became quite mountainous.
All this range, sweeping round the hollow in which Pretoria lies, and then stretching away westward by irregular curves past Rustenburg to Eland’s River, is known as the Magaliesberg, and famed for the fertility of valleys that broaden out at its feet from many rugged kloofs. In peace-time it is the great tobacco-producing district of the Transvaal—a veritable garden, where orange groves, flourishing in wild luxuriance, sweeten the air with their fragrance, and brighten the landscape with the richness of their golden fruit. In war-time its commanding crests and narrow defiles formed a series of strongholds for the commandos that rallied round General De la Rey and by their daring raids gained a reputation as the best fighters of all Boers then in the field. Every Kaffir path by which scouts could move unseen was familiar to them. They knew every point from which wide views could be obtained in all directions, and every nook in which men might hide secure from observation, ready for a sudden attack if occasion should serve, yet having more than one way open for escape from any danger that might threaten them. General Baden-Powell with the relieved garrison from Mafeking had marched through a mountainous country and crossed the Magaliesberg to Rustenburg, meeting no opposition. The Boer forces belonging to that district had then more serious affairs to occupy them elsewhere. But after the fight at Diamond Hill, when General Botha retired to the Eastern Transvaal, De la Rey came back to his old haunts on the Magaliesberg, surprised a British post near Zilikat’s Nek, and began a series of operations by which he threatened to cut off all supplies from Rustenburg.
Colonel Lumsden continues his diary:
Two days after our return to Pretoria from the reconnaissance under Colonel Hickman the 8th Mounted Infantry received orders to entrain at 4 A.M. for Wolve Hoek, the station next south of Vereeniging; but at the station the order as far as we were concerned was countermanded, and we were told to return and report to General Mahon. His instructions were that we should remain in our present camp and fall in as rearguard when his column marched off for Rustenburg on August 1. The morning of that day, therefore, found us in rear of the baggage of his column, which was moving to Rustenburg, north of the Magaliesberg Range, to the relief of Baden-Powell, while General Hamilton proceeded up the valley south of the Magaliesberg. Mahon’s brigade was unique in its composition, consisting almost entirely of Volunteer Mounted Infantry—viz., Imperial Light Horse, Lumsden’s Horse, New Zealand Mounted Infantry, Queensland Mounted Infantry, a regiment of Yeomanry, two squadrons 18th Hussars (the squadrons that were captured after the battle of Talana), and the M Battery R.H.A.—in all about 1,500 strong.
Firing began two miles out of Pretoria, and pom-poms and guns played merrily all day, clearing the range which divided the two columns. We camped twelve miles out. The plan for next day subsequently transpired to have been that General Hamilton should make a frontal attack and drive the enemy off the high ground, where they had taken up a position, near Zilikat’s Nek, while our brigade, making a wide movement, to the right, was to cut off the retiring foe from the Schwartz and Roode Kopjes, to which they were expected to retreat. Apparently something went wrong with the arrangements, for Hamilton, attacking before we got into position, lost some twenty men and the Boers escaped.
The point at which General Hamilton made his attack was from the south side of the Magaliesberg range near Uitval Nek, which the enemy held strongly. As General Mahon’s brigade was moving along the north side of those precipitous ridges through a country thick with scrub, no communication could be kept up between the two forces, and Hamilton, whose march was unimpeded by natural difficulties, had not allowed sufficient time for his colleague to cover the treacherous ground through which many tributaries of the Crocodile River run their devious courses. On getting touch with the enemy, whose position he had located, Ian Hamilton went for them at once, a portion of Cunningham’s brigade making as if for a frontal attack, while two companies of the Berkshire Regiment, led by Major Elmhirst Rhodes, gallantly escaladed the steep cliff overlooking the pass from its eastern side. Hamilton’s losses in this fight amounted to forty killed and wounded before the Boers could be dislodged; but as soon as they found that their position was under fire from above, where the Berkshires had gained a footing, the enemy fled, abandoning their waggons and horses. Unfortunately, delayed by the obstacles already mentioned, Mahon’s mounted troops did not come up in time to take any part, otherwise but few of the enemy could have escaped. A correspondent of the ‘Times of India,’ taking up the story a day after this fight, when General Mahon’s force had got through the denser bush country into a more smiling region only to find that the enemy had disappeared, writes:
The valley we were passing through was well watered and cultivated, and in some places fairly thickly wooded; much pleasanter country for travelling through than the bare monotonous veldt of which we had seen so much in the Free State. We passed many snug farmhouses, also several flourishing orange groves. At one place there were acres of orange trees simply laden with fruit, and as they were going to waste we were allowed to help ourselves. The oranges were very fine and beautifully ripe; one man from each sub-section was allowed to go and gather them, and in a few minutes came back literally bulging with them—haversacks, nosebags, pockets, &c., overflowing, the little tangerines being especially appreciated. Some of the Australians were so enchanted by this valley that they doubted whether there could be another such in all the world. That night we were all aroused to assist in putting out a veldt fire, which had approached uncomfortably close to the camp; owing to a high wind and the fact that the grass was particularly long and dry, it was much fiercer than is usually the case. However, we set to work with blankets and beat it out where it was too threatening, and then burnt a ring round the camp, effectually stopping its progress. A Boer spy was caught in camp that night. He had a pass on him showing that he had taken the oath of neutrality, and he had expansive bullets in his bandolier. He was shot next morning.
Progress was naturally very slow, owing to the difficult nature of the country and the fact that the hills had to be very carefully scouted. We were rearguard that day and saw no fighting ourselves, but the scouts in front evidently soon put up the Boers, as we heard rifle shots being exchanged constantly, and every now and then our guns shelled the retreating enemy.
I may mention here that the Imperial Light Horse formed part of the Mounted Infantry in General Mahon’s brigade. This was the first time we had come across this famous corps, which had done such splendid work during the war, and a very fine body of men we thought them. Possessing a knowledge of the language and in many cases of the country, they are most useful as scouts, and General Mahon fully recognised that fact during the whole march, as he gave them plenty of work to do. Besides this, they were old friends of his, having been under his command with the Mafeking Relief Column, and they have been with him ever since. Ian Hamilton, we heard afterwards, had met with a pretty stubborn resistance from the Boers in his valley, where, as had been anticipated, their main body was opposed to him, and he had several casualties. We only advanced about twelve miles that day. Next day the driving process recommenced, Lumsden’s Horse during the greater part of the time occupying a very high kopje, from which we were ordered to keep a bright look-out and to hold it if attacked. It was a devil of a climb (the horses were kept below), but the view from the top almost compensated us for our trouble. This part of the country was certainly the best we had been through so far; beautifully wooded in many places, and dotted all over with farms and orange groves. The oranges were simply delicious, especially the tangerine variety, and we took full advantage of the opportunity afforded us of having our fill of them, each man eating as many as he could on the spot, and carrying away a nosebagful with him.
Evidently the Generals had orders to adopt strong measures in cases of farms harbouring Boers, or from which any sniping might be done, or in which ammunition might be stored, as it was a daily occurrence for two or three of them to be fired and rased to the ground. Looking into the next valley from our high perch we saw a huge camp below which we at first took to be a Boer laager, but we found out afterwards it was Ian Hamilton’s force, which had advanced quicker than we had, and had encamped for the day.
We had got to Commando Nek that night, and heard that the Boers from the centre valley had already slipped through. This was unfortunate, but could not be helped, as we could not push on farther than we did without risking the sacrifice of many valuable lives. I think we were informed that the enemy numbered about 600, and that their main body had got away some time before, leaving behind a few snipers to keep us in check. This is their usual method of proceeding, and a very sound one it is.
One has to see the country oneself to realise what an easy thing it is for a few men well placed to keep a large body back. We send out our scouts, and immediately they are fired on. We shell the places from which they have been shot at. After this has gone on for some little time we advance again, and so on. Progress is very slow, and meantime the bird has flown. As I say, one has to be out in the country to understand properly what difficulties the attacking party has to contend against. With the numberless examples before them of our men blundering into traps and being slaughtered and having to surrender through going at things baldheaded, as they say, our Generals have learned caution. Then, on the other hand, the slow progress enables the enemy to get away. ‘What can do?’ ‘Horns of dilemma!’ as our Babu friends would say.
Then, again, the Boers know the country thoroughly, and when hard pressed the Commandant simply tells his men to scatter and appoints some meeting place further on. His convoy scatters likewise, and all, travelling by three or four different routes, arrive at the rendezvous in due course. We, on the other hand, have to follow the beaten path, and are always being hung up for hours by our convoys getting stuck in drifts, &c. It is not to be wondered at that the Boers, possessing these advantages, so often elude us.
General Ian Hamilton’s column came through the Nek next day, and, joining hands with General Mahon, proceeded towards Rustenburg, in which direction the Boers had fled, and where Baden-Powell was said to be surrounded and unable to get away. Horses and men fared very well just then, the former getting plenty of oat-hay commandeered from the hostile farms we passed, and green barley and oat-grass in the fields at the midday halts; and the latter securing fowls, geese, sucking-pigs, &c., which were very plentiful in Kaffir kraals and farmhouses. During the two days it took us to reach Rustenburg we expected to get in touch with the enemy at any moment, but they did not come up to the scratch, and we entered the town unopposed on August 5.
It appears that, hearing of Ian Hamilton’s approach, the Boers abandoned the kopjes surrounding Rustenburg and relieved the pressure on Baden-Powell, who, having heard in the meantime that General Carrington, working with a small force in the country between Rustenburg and Mafeking, was in danger of losing his convoy, had moved out to his assistance.
The actual position was that Colonel Hore, marching with a convoy of supplies from Zeerust to Rustenburg, and, finding his way barred by a greater force than he could hope to cope with, and his retreat also cut off, had entrenched himself at Eland’s River. There he waited for the relieving force under General Carrington, which never came nearer than within sound of the Boer guns, and unfortunately the Rustenburg column also stopped short in its attempt to relieve Colonel Hore, who had to fight it out for a week or so longer against enormous odds that might have overwhelmed his force but for the magnificent determination displayed by Australian Bushmen and Rhodesian Volunteers. The failure of that attempt at relief is briefly described by Colonel Lumsden, whose diary also summarises subsequent operations in pursuit of De Wet in the following passages:
Next day we expected a well-earned rest, but Mahon’s brigade was lent to strengthen General Baden-Powell’s force, which was to move at daybreak next morning to assist Colonel Hore, who was known to be in difficulties in the direction of or beyond Eland’s River (one of the many streams bearing that name in the colony). This entailed a sharp ride of fifteen miles, which brought us to Eland’s River and within hearing of the cannonading, but no further. On the bank of the river was a small group of officers, prominent among them being General Baden-Powell, and by his side were Colonel Plumer and Major Baden-Powell. We found the great man seated on a rock, surrounded by his Staff, and sketching hard with both hands! Most of us had not seen him before, so it can be imagined how glad we were to have the opportunity of getting a good look at England’s popular hero at the moment. We were also delighted at the idea of being under his command, if only for a short time. We had a better view of him on the way back, and he appeared to be very fit and none the worse for his Mafeking experiences.
While waiting here to rest and water the horses we heard big guns firing in the direction in which Carrington’s force was situated, and expected momentarily to be ordered to advance; but after some time we were told that Baden-Powell had tapped the telegraph wire and learned from Carrington that he had repulsed the Boers and had got his convoy away safely, and that he did not require our assistance. I am afraid, however, that the wrong source must have been tapped, and that a false message, intended to deceive, must then have come, not from Carrington, but from the wily Boers. After two hours’ rest we returned to Rustenburg for the night, having apparently accomplished nothing in particular, except a march of thirty miles all told. Rustenburg was then evacuated, and the whole of General Hamilton’s division concentrated near Commando Nek, resting there one day. We then went to join the De Wet hunt with Mahon’s brigade in front, and in spite of only a little skirmishing advanced somewhat slowly. On the 15th we came into touch with the eight Generals who were pursuing De Wet on an organised plan from the south towards Oliphant’s Nek. We were supposed to have been in time to cut off De Wet and prevent him going north to Oliphant’s Nek, but were unfortunately too late, and all we could do was to join the others and follow him up. The next evening we were in touch with the rearguard and in sight of the Nek.
The following morning we escorted the big guns to within range of the Nek, took our position on the hills on the right, and watched the Infantry make the attack. It was a very pretty sight from our position, but the resistance was slight, so, going through the Nek, we reached Rustenburg for the third time and spent the night there, our laager being well supplied by way of a change with turkeys and fowls poached from local preserves. Away again next morning Pretoria-wards, reaching Sterkstroom at 4 P.M. the next day. Hardly had we off-saddled, with visions of a raid on a field of sweet potatoes in view, before we received orders to again saddle up and march at 5 P.M. after De Wet, who was reported just in front of us. From 5 till 11 our weary horses struggled on through the darkness. We bivouacked for the night within three miles of Commando Nek, hoping, as we had often hoped before, to get De Wet next morning. Long ere day broke we were up and away again, only to find that De Wet’s force had gone north along the river towards Roode Kopjes, which we reached at daybreak with still no signs of the enemy. On the right bank of the river and a mile off were some low rocky kopjes covered with scrub, on the left a series of high but broken hills. We, as advance guard, took up our position on the latter as the Boer convoy was trekking away in full view across the open from the shelter of the former, and just out of range of the twelve pom-poms. The temptation was great to push on in pursuit, but our General was luckily wiser and preferred to reconnoitre across the river before implicating the guns and main body in what turned out to be a most difficult drift. We from our position looked on while the New Zealanders on the right crossed the drift and, spreading out, advanced to the broken ground. We had just made up our mind that all was clear, and that the General had been culpably slow, when a frightful fusillade burst out on the unfortunate reconnoitrers from a range of fifty yards. There was nothing for it but to race back as hard as they could, leaving six casualties behind, two of which resulted fatally. The coup having failed, and horse and man being incapable of more, we all returned to the previous night’s camp. At 6 A.M. on the 20th we reoccupied the same kopjes, forced the passage of the river, and with little further resistance got into the open country five miles beyond. We then marched through bushveldt to Zoutpans, Warmbaths, and Waterval, back to Pretoria, with very little to record in the ten days so occupied, the only interesting feature being the peculiar country known as bushveldt, best described as a sea of stunted thorn trees (familiarly known as toothpick trees), with an undergrowth of coarse grass, no roads, but tracks of heavy sand which delayed the Transport very much. Scouting was practically impossible, as it was very difficult to get horses through the formidable thorny scrub, while vision was limited to thirty yards.
The operations are described in fuller detail by correspondents of Indian papers, whose interesting records of events in which they took part need to be dovetailed together for the sake of a connected narrative. It is necessary, however, to say here by way of introduction that after accomplishing its mission in the relief of Rustenburg and the withdrawal of that garrison General Ian Hamilton’s column became involved by force of circumstances in a series of intricate operations with other columns moving from east, west, and south with the object of catching the wily De Wet between them. One correspondent thus describes the march out of Rustenburg:
It having been decided to abandon the town, the night was spent in destroying a lot of Boer ammunition and rifles of every description which had been stored in the gaol. There was a constant succession of reports as the cartridges exploded, and it sounded exactly as if a smart general engagement was taking place. The next day, the 7th, Rustenburg was completely evacuated, and the four brigades marched back on their way towards the Crocodile River. Those of the inhabitants who had claimed British protection also moved out with our convoy, in addition to whom were forty Boer prisoners, including Piet Kruger, Oom Paul’s son, under escort. As our progress was considerably retarded by the large convoy it was despatched at night on the 8th to a situation of safety. Each brigade was then operating separately, though supporting each other, with Mahon’s as a flying column. The next morning the Australians had a brush with some sixty Boer snipers, but the main body made a dash for Uitval Nek, only to find that the enemy had again anticipated our arrival and had bolted. Getting through Commando Nek on August 9, we rejoined Ian Hamilton, who was encamped on the other side. This was the largest camp we had been in so far. There must have been quite 15,000 men there, including troops from many parts of the world. All General Baden-Powell’s as well as General Mahon’s column were Irregulars, so that with General Ian Hamilton’s Regulars we were perhaps as representative a gathering as has ever camped together. Englishmen, Highlanders, Welshmen, and Irishmen, Australians (of all sorts), Canadians, New Zealanders, Tasmanians, Imperial Yeomanry, ‘Lumsden’s’ from India, and Colonials from all parts of South Africa, the Imperial Light Horse, the Rhodesian Regiment, some of Montmorency’s Scouts, &c., were present.
The New Zealanders gave a sing-song that night, the visitors sitting or standing round a huge log fire and the performers occupying the centre. It was an excellent show, several very good men taking the boards, or rather the veldt. The finale was a march round by some of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with pipes and drums playing. Our entertainers, I must not forget to mention, supplied the crowd liberally with rum, a much-appreciated drink among Tommies and Volunteers alike. Mixed with sugar and water and taken hot it is hard to beat, and has kept off many a fever, I am sure, in wet weather. I may mention that rum was only rationed out very occasionally, except in extremely bad weather, when we generally got it daily. Rum nights, needless to say, were hailed with delight, and shouts of ‘Roll up for your rum’ would be heard all round the camp.
Here the sequence of events may be appropriately interrupted for the sake of some amusing incidents and anecdotes told by another correspondent, who, in connection with this great gathering of troops in our camp near Commando Nek, writes:
After considerable practice the amateur cooks could make a savoury repast out of very little. If there was a garden about we grubbed up some vegetables, with which even the trek-ox served out in Government rations made an excellent stew. It was our fortune this night, however, to be better provided for by a lucky chance. While engaged in drawing the meagre rations and arguing with the Quartermaster-Sergeant over details of ounces and pennyweights, that had come to be regarded by us as very important matters, we suddenly espied a great scurry going on about a mile away, crowds of men rushing after what we at last made out to be a small deer. In and out it went among patrol tents, horses, saddles, carts, and guns. Frantic efforts were made in vain to catch it; men left whatever they were doing to join in the chase, rolling over in their endeavours to be first. Everybody threw something, and many dangerous missiles came hurtling through the air. But the deer ran on and suddenly turned our way. We also missed it by yards, and the shouting crowd swept by, losing sight of their quarry presently, and not knowing whither it had gone. A man of ours happened to be lying rolled up in his blanket asleep. The din roused him, and just as he was beginning to move the buck rose for a leap over his body. He caught it in the outspread blanket and kept it there. So the game came to our mess after all by sheer luck. On the strength of it we invited our very good friends and next-door neighbours, the Bushmen (Queensland Mounted Infantry) to dine with us that night, and soon after sunset they came round to our fire. Very good fellows they were, and a very genial dinner we had. Our guests brought their own stew, which was excellent, and their coffee too, with which to eke out our supplies. One of our men produced some good cheroots afterwards, and we sat on into the night, smoking, sipping coffee, and telling stories, the hills all around being lighted up with lines of veldt fires and the sky illuminated by a glorious full moon. Some of the Bushmen’s stories against themselves were most amusing. They had as good a name as anybody for horse-stealing and cattle-lifting. One of them told us gravely that when he was walking one day through another regiment’s lines a sergeant spotted him and gave the order ‘Stand to your horses.’ He said he was so overcome by the ‘compliment,’ that he could hardly acknowledge it. On another occasion, at a midday halt, when the ‘cow-gun’ teams were brought back from watering, the distracted officer in charge found one of the fattest and best oxen was missing. He only just discovered it in time to save its life and deprive the Bushmen of a feast. They told us many tricks for changing a horse’s marks, brands, colour, and general appearance, so that no man might know his own horse thus transformed, and I looked anxiously towards my own chestnut quite expecting to find that he had either been taken away to the camp of our neighbours or ‘faked’ practically before my own eyes. Others joined our circle as the moon rose higher. The whole camp seemed in excellent spirits. Sounds of revelry, wafted on the still night air, reached us from many a camp-fire; snatches of song, broken anon by outbursts of cheering; elsewhere uprose the strains of the Highland pipes. Rumour is busy that we are to join in the chase after De Wet, who is breaking away north. We wonder as we roll into our blankets when will be our next day of rest.
And the rumours were true for once. Not many hours elapsed before Mahon’s brigade, with the remainder of Hamilton’s force, was on the move southward and westward through Commando Nek into Rustenburg again, and then away north-east, still pursuing into the bushveldt the elusive force which they took to be De Wet’s. As a matter of fact, De Wet had already left this force. He, personally, did not quit the Magaliesberg range, but, doubling back with a small band of trusty followers the day after his passage of Oliphant’s Nek, he slipped through a neighbouring poort, and so got at once in rear of his pursuers. They were thenceforth on the heels of a fresh force, which De la Rey had detached to serve as a will-o’-the-wisp. All these facts the Editor has learned from the lips of General De la Rey himself recently. The next rest did not come for several weary days, owing to circumstances that are described by other correspondents in the following letters:
After a day’s rest (General Baden-Powell being left behind with a small force to guard Commando Nek) the division advanced again in a south-westerly direction to try to cut off De Wet, who was being driven north by Kitchener, Methuen, Smith-Dorrien, Hart, and Broadwood. We encountered a small body of fifty Boers, but a few shells sent among these soon dislodged them from the kopje on which they had taken up a position, and we did not see them again.
We got to a place called Hekpoort the next day, and here it was decided to convert Mahon’s brigade into a flying column, which meant that we were to travel without any Transport, each man being served out with three days’ rations, which he carried with him. This column was to work independently of the rest of the division and be ready to start in pursuit of De Wet at a moment’s notice, should we get news of him.
Leaving Ian Hamilton to follow on slowly by another route, Mahon’s brigade marched at daybreak on the 12th, we acting as advance scouts. The country hereabouts is very hilly, and affords excellent cover for the wily sniper, so scouting was not all ‘beer and skittles.’ Visions of grouse moors at home were naturally strong upon some of us that day, and one’s thoughts ran irresistibly to parallels between the driving of grouse and our attempts to round up De Wet. One was constantly on the qui vive, expecting to be shot at any moment, as the enemy were known to be about. Nothing happened, however, and the next few days were spent in loafing along, doing about ten miles or so, in momentary expectation of getting in touch with De Wet. But this gentleman’s movements were as erratic as usual, and it was evidently impossible to get any reliable information as to his exact whereabouts. It was known that he was being driven towards Oliphant’s Nek by Lord Methuen and the others mentioned above, and it would appear that the proper course to have pursued was to have held this pass, which was the only possible avenue of escape left to De Wet, and wait for him there, instead of wandering about more or less aimlessly, as we were doing. This could very easily have been done, one imagines, with a small portion of the large force at General Hamilton’s disposal, and why it was not tried is an unsolved mystery to a great many of us up to the present. As far as an outsider can see, a very serious blunder was committed here, and we apparently lost a chance of bringing the war to a speedy conclusion. Had De Wet been caught, Botha would probably have surrendered, and the other commandants would have followed suit.
As it was, however, we moved along slowly, the monotony being broken now and again by an exchange of shots between our scouts and scattered parties of Boers on the adjacent hills. About midday on August 13 Lumsden’s Horse were detached from the main body and sent off to the flank to reconnoitre, and on our way met a party of the Imperial Light Horse who had been sent out to burn a farm situated in a hollow among some hills from which the Boers had been sniping. The officer in charge of the Imperial Light Horse party requested Captain Noblett, under whose command we were, to keep us on the top of the hill to prevent surprise while he and his men went and destroyed the farm. This was done, but for some reason or another the Imperial Light Horse officer changed his mind and did not burn the farm. While on the hill we were told by some Kaffirs that the enemy (about eighty in number) had left a few moments before; seeing our scouts coming over the hill, they had fled precipitately. We went down to the farm after the Imperial Light Horse party had gone on, and had hardly left it to return to the main body again when we saw a small party of Boers on the hill on our right, and these were doubtless the men referred to by the Kaffirs we had spoken to. Instead of going by the road we took a short cut across the veldt, as it was rather late and we wanted to get back to the main body before nightfall. It turned out afterwards that it was as well we did so, as on the way we heard firing on our right, and on approaching to see what it was all about saw that the road led through a deep hollow among some low hills in which the Boers had taken up their position. Had we taken the road we should have walked right into the trap which they had evidently laid for us, and should have got slaughtered. The firing we heard was an exchange of compliments between these Boers and some dozen Australians who had also been sent out on reconnaissance duty, and who had posted themselves on a hill opposite. Finding that they did not want any assistance, we pushed on and joined the brigade again at about 5 o’clock, camping shortly afterwards. It is interesting to note that the spot we camped at was the one that heard the first shots fired during the Jameson Raid. The Boer sangars still exist, and were occupied that night by Lumsden’s ‘outlying picket.’ Having no Transport, we had to depend on whatever we had in our saddle-bags, and were consequently on rather short commons; and the horses, too, fared badly, poor beasts, having to subsist mostly on what grass they could pick up on the veldt and on such oat-hay and mealies as we could get out of the farmhouses we passed. The latter were very few and far between in that part of the country. Next day we continued our march in the same direction, and both flanking parties engaged the enemy’s snipers on several occasions. The Imperial Light Horse reported having killed one Boer and wounded four others. On the 15th we acted as advance guard, and had not proceeded far when we found ourselves wound up with five brigades—viz., Lord Kitchener’s, Lord Methuen’s, General Hart’s, Smith-Dorrien’s, and a column under Colonel Pilcher—that had all been co-operating with us, bent on surrounding De Wet. But the Boer leader of a lost cause proved as slippery as ever, and had again escaped viâ Oliphant’s Nek towards Rustenburg. The valley we had passed through was mainly occupied by English and German farmers, who complained bitterly at the constant visits of English and Boer troops, as sympathy of any kind with either cause got them into hot water with the other side, and the Boers are past masters as looters. The good people of Rustenburg were in a like predicament, hence its evacuation. We heard at a store here that De Wet had passed through the previous day with our men in close pursuit. Later we were informed that he had got through Oliphant’s Nek, which he had found unoccupied, and that now the place was strongly held by the Boers.
In the evening I understand the various Generals got into consultation, and it was decided that General Ian Hamilton should advance with his division to attack the Nek and continue the chase after De Wet, while Lord Kitchener and the others were, I believe, to proceed to the west of Rustenburg, where the Boers under De la Rey were again giving trouble.
We joined General Ian Hamilton that evening, and next day the whole force marched in the direction of Oliphant’s Nek and got within a few miles of it by about 4 that afternoon. As it was so late, and the place was said to be so strongly held, General Ian Hamilton decided on deferring his attack till next day. Before we camped for the night the advance scouts got into touch with the enemy, and we heard several exchanges of shots going on in front. Shortly afterwards we were moved up in support, and stayed till dark, after which we went back to camp, which had been pitched about two miles off, leaving a strong mounted picket behind. Lumsden’s Horse alone supplied forty men. Writing about picket duty reminds me that it was particularly trying during this march. Since leaving Pretoria we had been supplying forty or fifty men nearly every night—i.e., about 50 per cent. of our number. This duty we hated more than any other. One did not mind hard work all day if one’s nights in camp were undisturbed; but to come in at dark and hardly have time to off-saddle before being ordered to fall in for outlying picket was simply ghastly. On some occasions we went out without any food or drink, and if, as often happens, the post was a long way off and difficult to find in the dark, one’s fellow messmen were unable to take anything out. Whenever possible, however, bully-beef or Army rations and biscuits were served out to the picket before it marched off, and when this was done things were not so bad.
The Boer camp fires were seen quite distinctly on the hills close to where our pickets were, and from the number of these we judged that the report that the Nek was strongly held was not an exaggerated one. It is naturally a grand place to defend, and could be made almost impregnable, I should think, with its high commanding kopjes on either side. Besides which, it was said to have been strongly fortified by Colonel Kekewich some time before. We naturally thought, therefore, that we should have a hard nut to crack next day. Just before dawn, however, a spy who had been sent into the Boer camp returned with the news that they had been on the move all night getting away their baggage, &c., and that they would not offer any very great resistance to our passage—probably just enough to allow their convoy ample time to get away. This man, by the way, while returning from the Boer camp ran into our outlying picket, and, not being prompt in replying to the sentry’s challenge ‘Who comes there?’ he very nearly got shot.
The report that most of the Boers had stolen away turned out to be correct, as after a few hours’ shelling to clear the way for our Infantry the latter advanced practically unopposed, the casualties on either side being very few, and we got through the Nek about 11 A.M. We saw some very pretty artillery practice, two 5-inch guns coming into action at a range of three or four miles quite close to where we stood.
As De Wet was said to have gone off in the direction of Rustenburg we pressed forward, got outside that town in the afternoon, and camped there for the night once more.
Evidently fresh news of the ‘wily’ one was received, as next day (August 18) we started back the way we had come and halted in the afternoon, as if for a long rest, at Sterkstroom, some miles west of Commando Nek. We had hardly been in camp an hour when the order came for Mahon’s brigade to saddle up and march at once, the object being to intercept De Wet, who was reported to have taken up a position near the Crocodile River. We did a long weary march, the weariness being accentuated by the fact that we were not allowed to smoke or speak above a whisper. We halted about 10.30 and camped at a place called Bokfontein, about five miles west of the Crocodile. I presume it was not thought advisable to advance any closer for fear of blundering into the enemy unawares, and thus giving them the chance of getting away under cover of darkness. With all these precautions and preparations we naturally thought we were really there or thereabouts this time. Once again, however, we were baffled of our prey, which we heard next evening had got away in a north-easterly direction.
We arrived at Commando Nek at 6 A.M. on the 19th, and it was then decided that Mahon’s brigade should reconnoitre the kopjes north of and directly opposite to the Nek, and this we proceeded to do. General Ian Hamilton had not come up then. On approaching the position we found that there were two ranges of kopjes lying east and west (each range being divided again into several little groups of hills), and through these there was a passage leading to the open country beyond.
A squadron of the Imperial Light Horse was sent out to scout, and they presently put up some Boers, but a few shells sent among these soon drove them back again. Lumsden’s Horse were then ordered to gallop forward and occupy the first group of kopjes on the western ranges. We had hardly got into position when we saw a large convoy of Boer waggons making its way, as fast as the oxen could be goaded to travel, from the kopje on the east to the plains beyond, and towards another range of kopjes further north. We immediately sent back word to General Mahon, and he at once ordered the guns to be brought up, and a few shells were sent after the convoy. Unfortunately, however, we only had a battery of 12-pounders with us, and by the time they got into position the convoy had a long start and our shells fell short. General Mahon reluctantly decided that it would be unsafe to follow the convoy with the small force at his disposal, as the Boers had no doubt left a sufficient number of men behind on the eastern and western ranges of kopjes to cover its retreat. These kopjes completely commanded the plains beyond, and had we gone on we should have been absolutely at their mercy and should have been very roughly handled indeed.
Besides which, I fancy General Mahon’s orders were merely to reconnoitre the position and not to run his neck into any kind of noose. Abandoning all idea of pursuit, therefore, General Mahon then proceeded to examine the eastern range of kopjes from which the convoy had started, and where he suspected there might be a Boer laager. To effect this purpose he sent out the New Zealanders as scouts. They were allowed to approach within fifty yards without molestation, when all of a sudden the klik-klok of Mausers was heard all along the ridge, and an officer and three men were seen to fall. The former died next day, poor fellow. After this the scouts returned. From our position on the kopjes on the left we saw the whole thing distinctly. A party of New Zealanders, before this happened, were examining a farmhouse, and while they were inside one of their horses got away. The farmhouse was quite close to the hill from which the Boers were firing, and when the retirement took place the unfortunate man who had lost his horse would have been left had not one of his comrades very pluckily ridden forward and caught the animal, which was grazing close by, and thus enabled its owner to get away. The plucky scout, however, stayed to take up, behind his saddle, another man, whose horse had been killed, and they also managed to get clear off, notwithstanding that they were being shot at all the while. Captain Taylor, our Adjutant, who was looking through his telescope at the time, said it was the neatest and coolest thing he had ever seen. It was now getting on in the afternoon, and, the purpose for which, as I presume, we were sent out being complete, the order to retire was given, Lumsden’s Horse being instructed to act as rearguard, and occupy the kopjes where they were posted, till the guns and the rest of the troops had got away. This we did, and we heard afterwards from the men in charge of the ambulance which was left behind to bring in the wounded that we had hardly left the kopjes we had been on all day when the Boers occupied them. We got back to our camp at Commando Nek late in the afternoon, and stayed there for the night. This was the most irritating action we have yet been in, for the Boer convoy was at our mercy, but we were not numerically strong enough to attack it. It thus slipped away under our very noses. Baden-Powell was at Commando Nek and Ian Hamilton a day’s march in rear.
It was arranged that next day General Mahon’s brigade should make an attack on the position reconnoitred that morning, supported by Ian Hamilton, who was to join us again with the rest of his division. Lumsden’s Horse were to take up the same position as they had done the day before. The brigade marched out at 6.30 A.M. and were soon on the scene of the previous action. As instructed, we posted ourselves on the kopjes occupied by us the day before, and in the meantime scouts were sent out to discover whether or not the Boers were still about. The crack of Mausers soon decided this question, and the kopjes in front and on both flanks were then shelled for several hours. We were then ordered to leave our rocky perches and advance in skirmishing order to the attack. We soon arrived on the kopjes previously held by the Boers, but found no trace of these gentry, who had evidently played their usual game of leaving a few snipers behind to hinder our advance while their main body got away in safety. This effected, the snipers themselves vanished into space. There were no casualties on our side that morning, and I do not fancy our shells did much damage, as I did not hear of any dead or wounded Boers being found. It was about here that De Wet was supposed to have broken up his commando, leaving some 1,500 dismounted men to take refuge in the bushveldt, while he went off south with only 200 men. Meantime General Ian Hamilton came up with his troops, and the whole of us then advanced north, the direction taken by the fleeing Boers into the bushveldt, expecting a fight at any time, which did not come off. The going was extremely difficult, the soil being impalpable sand with thorny bushes growing so close together that at twenty yards objects could not be discerned. Water was only encountered at one spot, a farm in a valley. The occupants of the farm were a Boer woman and two little children; she weepingly informed us that the Boers had commandeered her husband the day before, and, as he had objected, they had taken him away in handcuffs. We made Zoutpans by sundown, completely jaded and worn out. At Zoutpans are the salt-mines, now at a standstill, as the company owning them have gone into liquidation, and the only house is that in which the manager, an Englishman, lives. A pool highly impregnated with salt was the only water near at hand, and on this men and horses had to do. The salt itself from these mines is only fit for cattle, as soda predominates in it. We had marched more or less in a circle. Next day we heard that De Wet had doubled back with 200 picked men to the Free State, leaving the rest of his force to join Grobler, who was then operating north of Pretoria. We were told that General Paget was coming up with a small force along the line of rail, and Baden-Powell, who had left Commando Nek, would advance parallel with and ten miles west of Paget, and that Ian Hamilton’s Division, then about twelve miles further west, was to co-operate with these two columns and keep Grobler from breaking back if possible.
We were now in what is called the bushveldt—i.e., country covered with low scrubby bushes. These bushes form excellent screens for the enemy, and scouting, therefore, is ticklish work. ‘You dunno where you are,’ as they say. Water was a scarce article, too—in fact, it was about the driest country we had been in so far. Passing a place called Stinkwater, we reached Swartzkop late in the evening, and camped there for the night near a large settlement of the Barotse tribe. The Germans have a mission in these parts; their church is only a large mud hut, but the missionary in charge has a following of no fewer than 2,000. We were told that night that General Ian Hamilton was going with his Staff to Haaman’s Kraal, a railway station about fifteen miles east, coming back the same evening, and that Lumsden’s Horse were to act as his escort. This promised a nice break in the monotony of the everlasting march, march, march we had been having lately, so those of us who had fit horses were much elated, the unfortunate ones, who had not, being correspondingly downcast. As arranged, we started for Haaman’s Kraal at daybreak next day, and our advance scouts had got quite six miles out when we were ordered to turn back and return to camp. Trooper Philip Stanley writes of an incident that occurred at a farm near the German mission, and which may help to explain how some of the wonderful yarns we so often heard about De Wet’s capture commenced.
We were catching the fowls in the houses round the church, and one particular black-and-white cock evaded all our endeavours. So somebody called him De Wet, and presently yelled out, as the poor cock was hurt by a stick or stone, ‘De Wet’s captured at last.’ Curiously enough, just at that moment a mounted man, a Hussar I think, was riding close past us on the road and heard the shout ‘De Wet’s captured at last,’ and I think must have spread the report, as when we got into camp, four miles on, about an hour and a half afterwards, we were at once told De Wet was captured at last, and I think they might that evening have added, ‘and eaten.’ Fresh instructions had evidently come from headquarters, and General Ian Hamilton was not going to Haaman’s Kraal after all. When we got back to our place we found the division moving off in a northerly direction, and so, after a few minutes’ halt to water our horses, we had to follow on as quickly as possible to regain our place in the column—i.e., on the flank of the guns. It was a very hot and dirty march, and towards the afternoon our position was changed to rearguard, which meant that we had to wait behind till all the stragglers and the whole of the Transport got into camp. In consequence we did not get in till 8.30 that night, and even then our troubles were not ended, as several of us were immediately ordered out on outlying picket. The different corps take it in turn to do rearguard as a rule, and, needless to say, it is not a popular duty at all. Generally the rearguard gets off supplying outlying pickets, but when short-handed, or when there are more posts than usual, they too have to bear their share of the burden.
The next day’s march (August 24) brought us to Warmbaths. As its name indicates, there are natural springs here. Some of the enterprising ones of the earth, taking advantage of this, have erected long rows of bathing houses supplied with every convenience, hot and cold water taps, &c., &c., and before the war broke out I understand they were making a good thing out of it. It was a great resort for invalids, I was told, and, being on the line of rail from Pretoria, it was quite the thing to spend a few days out there and take the waters. When we came in we found the baths entirely deserted, no one being left in charge of them.
There were any number of troops in the place when we arrived, Paget’s and Baden-Powell’s lot having come in the day before. They had had several brushes with the enemy under Grobler, and had driven them on to the hills beyond the town. As can easily be imagined, there was a regular rush on the baths, each room being in most cases engaged six deep. Many of us, in consequence, had to defer tubbing till next day, which we spent resting in camp. I was one of these. Oh! I shall never forget the luxury of that bath. I think I spent a whole hour lying full length in a tub of hot water, with just my chin above the surface. When one only gets the opportunity of bathing on rare occasions it is perhaps not surprising that one should wax enthusiastic over one such as this was. That we hadn’t been used to luxuries was fully demonstrated by the number of men who were suffering with colds the next day. We started again with Ian Hamilton on the evening of the 26th, leaving Generals Paget and Baden-Powell behind to settle with Grobler and his merry band, whom, as I have written above, they had already harried considerably. Our march was in the direction of Pretoria, and everybody in the column then heard for the first time that we were merely going there to refit and get remounts, after which we should be sent out in the direction of Middelburg. Alas! for our hopes that this was to have been our last trek.
Twenty-five miles of bushveldt had to be traversed to reach the next camp, at Pienaar’s River—an eccentric stream, the meandering of which caused us considerable inconvenience in crossing and re-crossing it a dozen times during the march. We reached Pienaar’s River station that night and camped there. Starting again next day, we got to Haaman’s Kraal about midday, and halted there for two or three hours. We heard here that our mails (we hadn’t had any since leaving Pretoria at the beginning of the month, so expected a good pile) had been sent on from Pretoria to meet us, and they were a mile or two ahead. About a dozen of us were accordingly sent to get them. There were eight or ten bags for us, and we immediately ‘buckled to’ the pleasant task of sorting. It took us a good two hours’ hard work, and this will give some idea of the number of letters and parcels received.
Continuing our march, we reached Waterval station late in the afternoon and halted for the night. This, it will be remembered, was where the Boers kept our men whom they had taken prisoners, after they removed them from the racecourse at Pretoria. They were confined in long tin sheds placed in the middle of a large barbed wire enclosure, and this was lighted up by electric light all night, thus reducing the chances of escape to a minimum.
We marched at 4.30 next morning and at 10 o’clock arrived in Pretoria, where we camped on the racecourse. Shortly afterwards we were joined by Captain Clifford and the men (about twenty) who had been left behind at Irene owing to their having no horses, and also by several others who had been in hospital and were now convalescent. Among the latter was Regimental Sergeant-Major ‘Lump’ Marsham, who was looking remarkably well after all he had gone through. He had had some remarkable experiences; shot in two places (through the chest and right thigh), besides having a bullet through his haversack in our first fight at Houtnek, then being taken prisoner at Rhenoster River station, where he was on his way up to rejoin the regiment after leaving hospital, then having the pleasure of being present at the surrender of Prinsloo and three or four thousand of his men, and forming one of the guard which escorted them afterwards. We were all greatly pleased to have him back among us again.
We had had a trying time of it, and Veterinary-Captain Stevenson cast our horses wholesale, nearly two-thirds being cast in all. The men seem made of sterner stuff, and campaigning has only tended to make the majority fitter than ever, and only a very few are ill—a matter of the survival of the fittest. We have been working in co-operation with Baden-Powell’s brigade a good deal, and our desire to hear about him and to see him has been surfeited. The only hardship experienced on the march was want of good tobacco. Though the Magaliesberg tobacco is considered the best of Transvaal tobacco, and we could have obtained plenty of it, yet few among us have acquired a taste for it. It is positively vile, and an Indian cigar when smoked in a pipe is probably the nearest approach to it. Some more changes have taken place among us. Trooper Arathoon (Oudh Light Horse) has been granted a commission in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, Corporal Montagu-Bates one in the East Surrey Regiment, Trooper Partridge one in the Northumberland Fusiliers, and Trooper Douglas-Jones one in the Army Service Corps. Corporal Chartres has for some months been doing duty as Surgeon-Captain at one of our many hospitals. Trooper Follett died of enteric at Johannesburg, while quite twenty or twenty-five men have been invalided home. There is little doubt that a famine in the Transvaal will result from this war; foodstuffs are at a premium, while the expected crops have been all destroyed. In the large towns like Pretoria, Johannesburg, &c., bread is only baked from flour supplied by Government, and even then the prevailing price is a shilling for a pound loaf. Every-day necessities, such as tea, coffee, and sugar, are now hard to procure, while beet has risen to two shillings a pound; mealies (Indian-corn) for horses cannot be bought under threepence the pound. The beginning of a famine would thus be the precursor of the end of the war. Glancing at a map, one would be inclined to think places indicated in capitals and small capitals to be important towns; as a matter of fact each is but a cluster of houses, a store or two, the inevitable church, and an hotel. This is typical of places like Rustenburg, Heilbron, Middelburg, Carolina, &c. Kroonstad, Brandfort and Pretoria are but larger clusters, more hotels, and more churches. The latter certainly possess some really excellent public buildings; the private villas are charming, and suggest the otium cum dignitate, while the State artillery barracks are reputed to be the finest in the world. Johannesburg is the one town of the Transvaal, and can hold its own against the world. But it must not be forgotten that the Uitlander alone has made it what it is. As a sink of iniquity it has the unenviable distinction of ranking second only to San Francisco. Gambling saloons abut on to the streets, and at some gambling is restricted to gold alone. One can imagine what Johannesburg must have been under a corrupt Government, such as the one we have just displaced—the Rand, a succession of gold-mines, being practically suburban. Johannesburg sports a public-house at every fifty yards, and it is the refuse of the Rand that forms the nucleus of the band of outlaws and desperadoes known as the Irish Brigade alias Blake’s Ruffians. The very antithesis of this contingent are known as the Imperial Light Horse, who have been so highly complimented by Sir George White as constituting the finest fighting men in the world.
Very characteristic of the dashing and humorous leader under whom Lumsden’s Horse served in this march is the following story told by Captain Beresford:
I remember one very wet cold day when we were attached to Mahon’s column. While on the march a sergeant and two men were told off to go and forage for some provisions. Coming across a Boer farm, they helped themselves to a turkey or two and some poultry. Now, it happened that General Ian Hamilton the day previous had paid for what his men took, so the Boer was loud in his protestation, but all the satisfaction he could get from our men was, ‘The General will pay.’ General Mahon passing shortly after, the man presented his bill, which amounted to fifteen shillings. On seeing it the General made inquiries as to which corps the foraging party belonged to, and being told, sent for an officer of the corps and requested him to pay the bill; but as the officer had not fifteen shillings about him, the General very kindly lent him the money till he could obtain it from his brother-officers and men, who found out then that the General would not be universal provider.
Lord Kitchener’s force went to relieve Colonel Hore at Eland’s River.—ED.