EASTWARD TO BELFAST AND BARBERTON UNDER GENERALS FRENCH AND MAHON
After such a march, in which horses had become so emaciated by want of sufficient food to sustain them, and so leg-weary from incessant work under heavy burdens, that more than two-thirds of them were temporarily unfit for service, the corps naturally expected to get a long rest at Pretoria. Nearly every man needed it too, and welcomed the prospect of a little town life in touch with civilisation, where some luxuries might be enjoyed and experiences exchanged with comrades from other columns. Ragged and out at heels from being having marched long distances through tangled growth of rhenoster bushes and ‘wait-a-bit’ thorns to relieve their exhausted steeds, these troopers naturally looked forward to the chance of clothing themselves in comfort if the stores of Pretoria should be equal to that demand, or at any rate of waiting until articles of much-needed kit could be got up from the bases where these things had been left. Such expectations were natural enough in the case of men who began to think there would be no more need of their services, since Lord Roberts had expressed an opinion that regular warfare was nearly at an end. Circumstances seemed then to justify that view. Though De Wet was still at large, he did not count for much while his followers were scattered in all directions with little chance of coming together again. Botha’s forces, offering but a feeble resistance at any point, had been pushed further and further eastward by Generals French and Pole-Carew, operating in their front, and the army of Natal on their flank. Buller had fought his brilliant action at Bergendal, where Lord Roberts considered the success decisive, saying: ‘It was carried out in view of the main Boer position, and the effect of it was such that the enemy gave way at all points, flying in confusion to the north and east. Next morning Buller was able to occupy Machadodorp without opposition.’ Dundonald’s brigade of Irregular Cavalry had pushed on in pursuit of the Boers through mountainous country, where they made no stand against him. Buller, continuing his march, occupied Waterval Boven, where the prisoners released from Nooitgedacht joined him. President Kruger and other members of the late Transvaal Government were at Nelspruit preparing for flight across the Portuguese frontier; and General French was at Carolina, waiting only for reinforcements to make his swoop on Barberton by way of the last stronghold that remained in the enemy’s hands south of the Delagoa Bay Railway. It looked, indeed, as if Boer resistance on any organised scale must be near its final stage, and the thoughts of Lumsden’s Horse naturally turned towards home rather than to opportunities for gaining fresh distinction. Their hopes of immediate peace with honour were, however, doomed to disappointment. Before they had been in Pretoria many hours orders for a fresh move had reached them, and, instead of having leisure for relaxation or even a taste of civilisation’s comforts, they had to spend the next day in drawing from stores the outfit of which they were sorely in need and making other preparations for their march. Their Brigadier-General (Mahon) was to go in command of reinforcements for General French, and the troops placed at his disposal were M Battery Royal Horse Artillery, the 3rd Corps of Mounted Infantry, Queensland Mounted Infantry, New Zealand Mounted Rifles, 79th Company Imperial Yeomanry, the Imperial Light Horse, and Lumsden’s Horse. The order came to them in a form which left no doubt in any mind that there was still a man’s work to be done, and that they were about to take part in another important phase of the great Boer war. Therefore they put aside all vain regrets for the things that were just then out of reach. Disappointment gave place quickly to gratification at the thought that they were to see service under such a dashing leader as General French, who had never up to that time met the Boers without bringing them to action, and whose reputation rose higher after every enterprise undertaken by him, though he was not always allowed to take full advantage of a success by following up his beaten enemies. The Boers, who attributed every British success in the Free State and Transvaal to luck or to overwhelming numbers, had given to French the title of the ‘lucky General.’ They said it was by luck alone that he beat Commandant Koch at Elandslaagte before their reinforcements could come up. Luck, according to them, served him again in the hour of his secret withdrawal from Colesberg just before De la Rey’s plans for annihilation were complete, and yet again when he made his dash at interposing forces north of Modder River, and, striking at the very point where they were weakest, got through just in the nick of time, took their positions in reverse, and thus cleared a way for the relief of Kimberley. If all this can be called luck, then it is something to be a lucky general and goes a long way in justification of the faith that Napoleon placed in men who had that reputation. At any rate, no Boer commandos were very eager to get in the way of ‘lucky French,’ and whenever he was known to be operating on their flank they always thought it time to summon thither one of their own Generals most trusted for his ability to conduct a retreat. That luck fell more than once to De la Rey’s lot. In a recent conversation that redoubtable leader, the best fighting man of all on the Boer side, told the Editor of this History that it was he who opposed French at Driefontein after Cronjé’s surrender. He also had to fight all the rearguard actions up to the time of our crossing the Vaal, when he went off in hot haste for the purpose of intercepting Mahon’s column before it could reach Mafeking. Having been out-manœuvred there, he was called back to aid Botha outside Johannesburg, and entrusted again with the task of delaying French’s flanking movement by the defence of Klipriviersberg until the Boer guns and convoys could make good their retreat. Obviously they did not think it safe to trust anything to chance when our ‘lucky General’ was pressing them, but sent their wiliest tactician and most stubborn fighter to hold him in play while they cleared off. If any of them really believed in their capacity to beat French on equal terms—the advantage of ground being with them to counterbalance British superiority in numbers—an admirable opportunity offered in the mountainous ranges of the Devil’s Kantoor, where, Boer leaders had frequently declared, they would crush any force attempting to reach Barberton that way. If properly held, the positions there would have been almost impregnable. Few people to this day know the difficulties that French had before him when he concentrated his force at Carolina. The Boers knew all about these things. Every zig-zag track like a winding stair up the precipitous mountain-side was familiar to them. They knew also the object with which he was waiting to gather strength at Carolina, and they brought forces against him that were little inferior numerically to his own. Yet when at last he struck straight for almost inaccessible mountain passes, instead of making a wide detour to get round them, they were so paralysed by the ‘lucky General’s’ audacity that they let him have his way, which led by the nearest track to Barberton. This slight digression, however, anticipates events which may now be dealt with more fully in the narratives by Colonel Lumsden, his officers and troopers, whose experiences and observations are woven together in the following description of events in something like proper sequence:
We were by this time reduced to forty fit horses.
Our stay in Pretoria, as we had heard it would be, was only a short one. The day after arriving in camp we were served out with new kit, of which we were sadly in need, most of the men being in a very ragged condition indeed. General Mahon was to proceed to Carolina and join General French’s division there, leaving General Ian Hamilton’s division, to which we were no longer attached. It rained heavily the night before we started, and as we marched at daybreak there was no time to dry our blankets, which were simply sopping wet.
Our total muster on parade was—A Company 17, B Company 24; in all, 41 rank-and-file. The balance of nearly 100 men, under Captain Beresford, were to follow on receipt of remounts, and overtake us if possible. This hope was soon knocked on the head, for while headquarters started with General Mahon for Barberton, the remainder were sent to Machadodorp, which they reached without much adventure a fortnight later. Notwithstanding their repeated attempts to join us, their wishes were not acceded to, the country being considered too dangerous for a small party to move alone. On the 31st we reached Bronkhurst Spruit, memorable in the Transvaal as the spot where British troops, under Colonel Anstruther, were badly cut up in the last war, while marching, all unconscious that war had been declared against the Transvaal. On September 1 we passed Balmoral and camped at Elandsfontein. On the 2nd, near the Transvaal and Delagoa Bay coal-mines, a French gentleman was good enough to communicate the latest Boer lie. It was that China was sending a million of troops to invade England. The country about here is very treacherous, with many swamps which unwary troopers may not see until they are floundering in mire, where their horses sink to the girths. Our camp that night was at Reitspruit, six miles from Middelburg.
The next day we passed Middelburg, which proved a grievous disappointment, for there was absolutely nothing in the way of provisions procurable, and camped at Reitpan. The weather was very hot, the sun striking down with great force during the middle of the day. General Mahon had adopted the plan of off-saddling and halting for two or three hours during the heat of the day, instead of marching steadily from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. with short halts of ten minutes every now and then. This gave man and beast a thorough rest, and the opportunity was always taken of making tea and coffee, and partaking of this with the inevitable jam and biscuits. The horses, too, had a good feed of oats, which were served out in the morning and carried in our nosebags. Captain Noblett got a nasty touch of the sun two or three days before arriving at Middelburg, and the doctors decided that he ought to go into hospital there, being quite unfit to continue on the march. We were very sorry to lose him, as he was one of our most popular officers. Speaking for No. 2 Section B Company, anyhow, I know they swore by him to a man. We heard afterwards that he had gone to Durban for a change, and it is to be hoped he will soon be back again with us. The fourth day’s march brought us in contact with General Hutton’s line of communications, and we were apprised of the annexation of the Transvaal. With this good news we buoyed ourselves up, and brought a dreary march to a close at Wonderfontein. The Boers are whimsical at names, but have surpassed themselves with Wonderfontein, for the wonder of it is where to find the fountain? Speculation was rife, as the pools of water we saw were so putrid that the horses, though they had done thirteen miles from the last halting-place, would not drink till accident disclosed a tiny spring in a bed of sand, just deep enough to fill a coffee cup at a time. Here was the wonder, and, eureka! we had struck it. The 5th was an eventful day, for when we had marched eastward three miles a heliogram from a contingent of 90 Canadians on the line of communications solicited help, as they were hard pressed by 300 Boers near Pan station, where they had been fighting since daybreak. Files about and canter was the order, and we went back some six miles to their aid, but the enemy had beaten a retreat after capturing a small post, where they crept up through a dense fog and surprised the helpless picket. We returned to Wonderfontein, and General Mahon, in consideration of the call made on us, very generously ordered an issue of a quarter of a pound of bully-beef and a biscuit. ’Twas lunch à la South Africa, and much appreciated. Thus refreshed we continued on our march for some five or six miles, and camped for the night. Such a night we have never had. The wind blew a perfect hurricane, and it was bitterly cold. On the 6th the brigade reached Carolina, and we were in expectation of seeing a town where we could renew our diminished stock of provisions, but, alas! Carolina in Africa is very different from the Carolina of the song—
South Carolina is a sultry clime, Where the niggers work in the summer time, Massa in the shade would lay, While we poor niggers work all day.
With us it was not summer time, but Massa had to lie on the bleak veldt and pretty hungry too. We found General French in camp near by us, with two brigades. A foreign commando of Austrians and Italians was said to be in the neighbourhood, and we hoped to become better acquainted with it later on.
Carolina is a small uninteresting sort of place, more a village than anything else, the houses being small and built of corrugated iron. It is about the windiest place I have ever been in. We were there nearly a week, and it blew a hurricane almost all the time. One day it rained as well, and this made it horribly cold—the chilly blast cutting into one like a knife. Even the hardy Cape ponies, who had never before in their lives known what it was to be blanketed, had to be covered up that day.
Another of the charms of this delightful place is that it is most dangerous to send horses out grazing on the surrounding veldt, as there is a low poisonous bush which grows pretty plentifully on it, to eat which is almost certain death. We found this out by bitter experience, losing four or five horses before we left.
The first march from Carolina took us over a ridge by Nelspruit, where we witnessed a very pretty engagement. The enemy had taken up a position on top of a hill crossed by three deep ravines at right angles to our line of advance. This was stormed by the Suffolk Infantry while we acted as escort to the guns, which shelled the enemy severely as they left the shelter of the last ridge. When turned out of their last stronghold they retired by ones and twos under severe shrapnel fire at 1,500 yards’ range, which gave us an object-lesson in Mounted Infantry tactics. At Carolina, with General French and his Cavalry, we halted two days, and resumed our advance on Sunday the 9th. We had heard that the Boers were in the vicinity, and it was not long before we met them. For about six miles we marched across the absolutely flat veldt, and then with extraordinary suddenness the scene changed, and we found ourselves among steep and rugged hills. Here was ideal country for the Boers to fight in, and they speedily let us know of their presence. They had taken up a strong position among rocks and piled-up boulders on the further side of a hollow some 3,000 yards across. ‘Lumsden’s,’ together with a part of a squadron of the 18th Hussars who, like ourselves, had been unable to get remounts in Pretoria, so that their numbers were reduced about 60 per cent., were escorting the guns. M Battery R.H.A. swung ‘action front’ and had opened fire in next to no time, the whole battery and also two 15-pounders being placed in line along the ridge and all pounding away at the rocky kopje, or rather series of kopjes, from which the Boers were firing at our Infantry (the Suffolk Regiment), who now opened out, and, advancing to within good rifle range, took what cover they could find and engaged the enemy. It was a grand sight watching the play of the guns, and cheer after cheer rang through the lines as each shot fell in rapid succession right in among the Boers, scattering them like startled sheep. The guns did splendid work; the range was accurate, and the shells perfect. But a grander sight still was to watch Tommy advancing: he does it in a most casual way, with his rifle slung at ease over his shoulder. You see individuals in khaki stumbling over rocks and boulders, then a thin line of khaki in the distance, then nothing, for Tommy is resting; the thin khaki line again becomes visible as he proceeds in the coolest manner in the world, till the order to fire is given. Nothing is then visible, but the sounds of volley after volley and independent firing tell you the Infantry are in the thick of a fight. As the Mounted Infantry advance through the gaps in their lines, Tommy cheerily calls out, ‘Let ’em have it ’ot, mate.’ Having placed our horses in a nullah out of the way of stray bullets—one or two of which came whistling overhead—we had nothing to do but watch the progress of the fight, and a capital view we had, especially of our artillery in action; the enemy had no guns in position here, so our guns could devote themselves to shelling the rocks among which the Boers were lying; the boulders afforded them excellent cover, and they stuck to it exceedingly well. The weak point in their position lay in the fact that the cover of which they had taken advantage was half-way down the near side of the slope, so in the event of their being forced to retire they would have to ride (or run) up three or four hundred yards of bare hillside before they topped the ridge. For about five hours the fight continued. By this time our Infantry had got comparatively close, and the Boers decided not to wait for them. Suddenly they were seen issuing from the dip where their horses had been hidden in twos and threes and batches of various sizes, and scattering up the hillside. With the naked eye one could see little black dots streaming away in all directions; it looked for all the world like a disturbed ants’ nest. The guns now redoubled their exertions, loading and firing all they knew, the shells dropping in every direction among the retreating Boers. In retiring they had to go down to the bottom of the dip, where they had left their horses, and up the slope on the other side—a distance of about 300 yards, I should say. When once they got to the top of this slope they were more or less safe, as they could take cover among the rocks there and get away to the hilly country beyond. But while going up the slope they were quite exposed to the fire from our batteries. General Mahon was there in person, giving instructions to the officer in charge of the guns, which were kept playing on the spot as fast as the gunners could load and fire. Watching through glasses we could see three or four bowled over; they must have had an uncomfortable ride until they topped the ridge, though probably not many were hit, as we know from our own experience how ineffective even a well-directed shell fire often is. However, on crossing over we found where one dead Boer had been hastily buried, also a dead horse and other signs that our shell fire had not been without results. A long-range 15-pounder of the Boers now came into action, and for about an hour before sundown shelled our convoy at extreme range without doing any damage. Throughout the day the Cavalry had been engaged on our right and had suffered some casualties. Our brigade had had half-a-dozen or so; one of the Imperial Yeomanry was killed and two were wounded, and three of the Imperial Light Horse were wounded.
In the afternoon we advanced and occupied the position previously held by the Boers, who had retreated some distance. They had a long-range 15-pounder with them, and they treated us to a few shells; but these went high over our heads, and burst a long way behind without doing any damage. Shortly after this, as it was getting dark, we camped for the night. As we were preparing to camp the Boers shelled our convoy with a Long Tom they still possess, but their shells fell wide and were harmless. We camped for the night at Buffalo Spruit. The casualties were nine wounded Scots Greys, one wounded Imperial Horse; Boers about fifteen killed, wounded unknown. The 10th was an uneventful day, but on the 11th Lumsden’s Horse supplied an outlying picket consisting of our entire strength. Through some error the picket manned the wrong kopje, and as they could not be found next morning were reported as captured. We turned up, however, late in the day at the camp on the Komati River, and followed rapidly in the track of the advancing troops. We were now on half-rations, with De Kaap Mountains looming before us, the roadway being in places as steep as one in eight, and the enemy strongly posted along the summit. On the 12th the advance was made at 5.30 A.M., and by 9 A.M. M Battery was again pounding away.
The road to Barberton slopes gradually up from the plains round Carolina for about 3,000 feet, if I remember right, when it takes a sudden upward turn for about a couple of miles before reaching the top of De Kaap Mountains, over which it winds, and then descends again about 2,000 to 3,000 feet, the town being situated in a hollow surrounded by hills on all sides. The last bit of a couple of miles or so is what is called the Devil’s Kantoor. The gradient is about one in four, as far as I could judge, and this will give some idea of the job our Generals had to tackle if the Boers elected to hold this place, as it was reported they were going to do. It was simply an ideal place to defend, and they were said to have a Long Tom in position—so things generally looked uncomfortable, to say the least of it. Scouting that day looked like being an even poorer game than usual. Anything but a demoralised force would have made a strong stand in such a position. The main advance was against its front, while the Cavalry executed a turning movement to the right, with such effect that the position was gained almost without a shot. The climb was terrific. So bad was it that 12-pounders only just managed to get up with double teams, and all the baggage had to be left at the foot of the hill. The troops, however, pushed on to the top, only to witness a heart-rending sight. On the range opposite, at about 8,000 yards, was a high laager half a mile square, a dense mass of cattle and waggons, out of which the latter were seen streaming away towards Swaziland. Between us and them lay a deep valley, while the road curving round to the left was commanded by three guns, rendering serious attack in that direction inadvisable. The Imperial Light Horse made a gallant attempt to get round, but were not strong enough. We all looked to see the 6-inch gun come up and play havoc with the laager, but the naval officer in command declared his oxen unable to bring the gun up the precipitous ascent, leaving us the mortification of seeing the enemy escape under our very eyes. It was some gratification, however, to eventually capture twenty-five of their ‘buck waggons,’ many thousand sheep, and some oxen.
By the time we had dragged up our guns and got them into position the fugitives were out of range, as a few shells sent in their direction proved; but the captured waggons contained stores of various kinds, sugar, flour, &c., and this made a welcome addition to our commissariat, which was running very short of supplies. It took four days to get the whole of the Transport up the Devil’s Kantoor. During this time the bulk of the division halted, as they could not move without supplies.
To form some estimate of the difficulties of transport up these mountains, I would mention that the Boers were confident that we could never get our convoy and guns up, for among them the steepest part is described as a place where, if a leading team of oxen come to a stop they are hurled back on to the waggon. To clear these mountains in four days reflects the greatest credit on that much-abused department, the Transport. Sergeant Power, of Lumsden’s Horse, excelled on the occasion, for, fearing he could not possibly get the troopers’ blanket-carts up that night, he unloaded the carts and used the mules with pack saddles, thus enabling Lumsden’s Horse to sleep with blankets when the rest of the brigade were blanketless, poor fellows! In such circumstances it needs no telling that we went to sleep supperless, as our rations were at the foot of the mountain and the troops on its summit. Directly the road was clear General French with two Cavalry brigades advanced rapidly, and, leaving the Boers, who were retreating southwards, alone, he pushed on to Barberton, some fifteen miles distant. Guided by one of the Imperial Light Horsemen, he avoided the road down into the plain in which Barberton is situated (which road—so it is said—the enemy were quite prepared to defend), and using a bridle-path across the hills, supposed to be impracticable for horses, he descended suddenly on the town and captured it without opposition. The enemy were completely surprised and fled, leaving fifty-seven engines with rolling-stock standing in the station, a large quantity of stores, and 10,000l. in specie. The day following General French’s occupation of the town a Boer convoy consisting of fifty waggons walked in under the impression that it was still in their hands! General Mahon’s brigade, with the Infantry, were left to guard Homolomo while the convoy came up. The gradient was something like one in four, so you can imagine what a business it was getting the heavy waggons up. Twelve and fourteen horses were required to get the lighter guns up, while the naval gun had eighty oxen harnessed to it, and many a poor beast fell out and died under the strain. On the third day we continued our march; all day we were descending, gradually leaving the hills behind, until we eventually came out into an enormous plain, the Kaap Valley. Here we halted and waited for the Transport, who had had another trying day. We had descended 3,000 feet during the day, and the difference in temperature was most noticeable. In this part of the country the hot weather is just beginning; the nights are quite mild and the sun at midday is scorching. On Sunday the 16th we marched to within a couple of miles of the town and camped. It is a straggling little place built close under and partly on the lower slopes of a spur of the Kaapsche Berg. This is a well watered part of the country, and fruit growing appears to be a paying industry, Pretoria and Johannesburg being markets where—in normal times—any quantity of fruit is easily disposed of. On the fruit farms here we noticed several old Indian friends—viz., plantains, pineapples, and papiya. When we got into Barberton we found that General French had gone on towards Komati Poort, on the Portuguese border, in which direction the Boers had fled, and we heard shortly afterwards that about 3,000 of them had taken refuge in Lourenço Marques, having given up their arms and destroyed a number of their big guns before crossing the border.
Barberton is quite an Indian town in many respects. Not only is the Madrassi native common, but mango, banana, loquat, fig, and other Indian fruit trees abound. East Africa seems to my mind to be the Indian coolie’s Eldorado, for not only does he wax fat and opulent, but he abandons his Indian garb and struts about in that of Western civilisation. He does not get on well with the Kaffir, but has pushed himself forward, and now occupies a higher position among white men than he would presume to in India.
In all other respects, however, Barberton is a very English town, and owes its origin to the De Kaap Goldfields. It was here that the Boers housed the women and children who were sent to them from Johannesburg and Pretoria, and in consequence every house in the town is packed full of these refugees. It was also at Barberton that the Dorset Yeomanry and the remaining British prisoners were confined after their removal from Nooitgedacht; at present the improvised place of confinement is being used as a prison for the Boers themselves. The latest official bulletin announces the complete demoralisation of the Boer army, which is termed a rabble, and speculation is rife as to the probable date of our disbandment. Last night (22nd) it was announced in orders that anyone desirous of joining the Pretoria Police at 10s. a day could do so at once; the chances of a commission at the end of three months were held out, but only four names were given in. The majority intend going to England. A very few have decided to remain in Africa, while some twenty or thirty, chiefly coffee planters from Southern India, are returning to India. The summer is on us, and the days are very hot—102° in the shade. We have no tents, but the ingenious ones erect a bivouac of blankets supported on posts and rifles as a shelter from the sun. Yesterday a cricket match was played between French’s and Mahon’s brigades, resulting in an easy win for the latter. Sergeant Pratt represented Lumsden’s Horse in Mahon’s team.
Another correspondent writes:
Besides the usual camp duties, we had to supply outlying pickets and patrols turn about with the other Volunteers and Regular regiments. Twenty or thirty of us used to be sent out to a post five or six miles out in the morning. From these posts we sent out patrols, forage parties, &c., during the day, and outlying pickets at night. One of these posts was situated right on the top of one of the hills beyond the town. It was a tremendous climb, and took most of us at least an hour to get to it. Lugging blankets, coats, and rations up there was no joke, and I am glad to say we only had to do it once during our stay.
There was a beautiful wood, with a nice mountain stream running through it, about a mile and a half from camp, where we used to send our horses down to graze and water, and we always took the opportunity of having a delightful bathe or of washing clothes, at which we were by this time becoming experts. A daily bath was a luxury we had not been accustomed to before for months, so we appreciated it accordingly. After our bath we lounged under the shade of the trees till it was time to take the horses back to camp again. Grazing guard in these circumstances was rather a favourite duty, as up in camp it was fearfully hot, our only protection from the sun being small blanket shelter tents, which were not really much good. These tents were made out of two blankets, or a blanket and a waterproof sheet. The blankets and waterproof sheets served out to the Army have eyelet-holes on both sides and at the ends, so one can put up a tent very easily and quickly, all the materials required being a few pegs (easily cut from an old biscuit-box or from any other wood which may be obtainable), a little string, and a couple of rifles, these last forming the supports at either end.
Owing to the great heat, we move the position of our camps once a week. What with dead horses and cattle the air is absolutely putrid, and ’tis a precaution most imperative. On the march the foul smells encountered are terrible, owing to the number of dead horses and cattle lying on the highway. From Pretoria to Balmoral we passed as many as two or three hundred carcases in different stages of decomposition. The very water is often polluted, and considerable inconvenience is the consequence. In a previous letter I incidentally mentioned veldt fires, but at the Crocodile River camp it was our luck to be in the thick of one, and that at midnight. We had made the camp at sundown, and as darkness set in we were enraptured with the pyrotechnic display of the surrounding kopjes on fire. It was a magnificent sight, though awful. By 10 P.M. the camp was hushed in slumber except for stable pickets, when the wind shifted and blew the flames towards the camp. Gradually the veldt near us took fire, till at midnight we were completely surrounded. The roar was appalling, while myriads of insects filled the air. The situation was one needing immediate action, as every moment was precious. ‘Stand to your horses and saddle up,’ were the orders anxiously given. All was confusion—men hurriedly folding up blankets, &c., Kaffir boys running about conducting oxen to inspan, bodies of men running towards the fast approaching flames carrying blankets to beat them down. In the midst of all a patrol of the 18th Hussars were seen completely cut off from the camp and surrounded with flaming veldt. A rush was made, and hundreds of blankets soon cleared a space, and the patrol emerged, the horses showing every sign of terror. It was an anxious time, but in half an hour all was safe, and the flames had been successfully diverted from their course of destruction. Such a fire in the back veldt it would have been impossible to cope with. On the western veldt these fires destroy complete herds of cattle annually, and are much dreaded.
One day at Barberton four of us were on observation post when four Boers came along the road; they were immediately challenged and told to show their passes, which they did; they then sat down to rest alongside us. One of them, named Meyers, could talk English perfectly, and when he found we were of Lumsden’s Horse he said he had escorted one of our fellows from Ospruit to Pretoria a prisoner, and shared two bottles of whisky. He then told us the Boers knew exactly, when we were at Spytfontein, how many men went on picket every night, and how many we were all told. He also said on April 30 the brigade adjutant rode up within twenty yards of him. He shouted to Williams to surrender, and he shouted back, ‘I am damned if I do,’ and galloped off; Meyers fired all his magazine at the English officer, but missed him. Lieutenant Williams has since been killed at Bothaville.
Barberton was simply crammed with stores of all sorts, the Boers having used it as a supply depôt for some time past. It was a great treat being able to get luxuries in the shape of extra sugar, tea, coffee, sweets, &c., again after such an age, and at reasonable rates too. Pretoria was entirely denuded of these things, and I remember hunting without success round the whole town for sugar the day before we left on our last march. Matches were not to be had there at any price, whereas here we could buy them at sixpence a dozen boxes. I think we appreciated these more than anything else. We had felt the want of them tremendously during the past two or three months. English tobacco, unfortunately, was unobtainable, so we had to content ourselves with the Boer variety—a very poor substitute, I think most of us agreed, though I dare say when one got accustomed to it one would prefer it. Personally I never want to see or smell the beastly stuff again.
Barberton itself is a small gold-mining town situated at the bottom of De Kaap Mountains, and more or less surrounded by hills. On the hills forming its background are the various mines which were opened out when gold was first discovered here. Then came the rush of the Rand mines, and Barberton was left standing. The roads leading to these mines wind up and round the hillsides, and must have taken months and months of hard work to complete, I should think. The houses are built of wood and roofed with corrugated iron for the most part, and are very small. One wonders how people manage to exist in them in the summer months, when the temperature is almost if not quite as high as it is in India, and damp to boot.
It was getting very hot before we left early in October, and the old familiar limp feeling which began to pervade all ranks brought back memories of hot weather in India. Barberton is essentially a British town, and until lately, when the Boers used it as a city of refuge for their wives and families, the inhabitants were practically all British by blood if not by birth. The community must have been a fairly rough one in the old days, and one can imagine many wild orgies taking place among the miners, more or less cut off, as they were, from civilisation. Fruits of all sorts grow here, Indian as well as English—plantains, gooseberries, oranges, lemons, strawberries—and vegetables too. Beautiful oat-hay for our horses was obtainable in the fields for the first week or so that we were in Barberton.
You will be sorry to hear of the death from enteric fever at Johannesburg Hospital of Private M. Follett, the elder of the two brothers—planters—who joined with the Mysore contingent. Since then, I regret to say, we have had another death from disease—that of Private J.H. Maclaine (Surma Valley Light Horse), who died of acute pneumonia in Pretoria Hospital. Transport Driver Martyn some months ago was run over and badly injured. We are sorry to hear that he has since died of the injuries he then received. One way and another a good many have left the regiment. A certain number of those left behind, sick and wounded, have been unable to rejoin the regiment and have been invalided home, among them Privates Cooper and Butler, from Madras, both of whom were taken ill at Kroonstad, the former suffering from pneumonia and the latter from pleurisy; also Private Bewsher, from Mysore, who was wounded in the knee at Elandsfontein station two days before the surrender of Johannesburg.
Our ten days at Barberton gave a welcome rest after many weary marches. The time was enlivened with dances and hunting with buckhounds for the officers and cricket for whoever could be spared. It was here that Colonel Lumsden had his unfortunate accident. He was riding back in the dark from afternoon tea at a neighbouring camp, and, being deceived by the light of a picket fire, rode straight into a nullah. The picket, luckily for him, heard the noise of the fall, and by the light of a candle went in search, finding horse and man prostrate. The horse was dead and Colonel Lumsden insensible. The good fellows, however, did their best, and, taking him up to the fire, discovered by his badges that he belonged to Lumsden’s Horse. One of them came into our camp to report, bringing us the information about 11 P.M. The doctor and ambulance immediately proceeded to the scene of the accident, and, patching him up temporarily, took him away to the Boer hospital in Barberton. By the light of day it appeared wonderful that anyone could have escaped death from such an accident. The nullah may almost be described as a fissure in the ground some 15 feet wide and 29½(measured) deep. The only thing that saved our Colonel’s life was that the horse evidently alighted on his feet, taking the brunt of the fall himself and paying the penalty with his life; this was shown by the fact that the saddle was not injured in any way.
Colonel Lumsden writes of this incident in a letter from Barberton Hospital dated October 1, 1900:
Well, eight days ago I visited town, and was riding back to my camp at dusk when my charger, a splendid paced and mannered Cape horse, simply cantered right into a donga 30 feet deep, breaking his neck in the fall, while I lay by his side bruised and insensible.
Luckily for me, some pickets were close by and heard the smash. Recognising me by my badge, they went to my camp and brought our doctor and adjutant to the spot. They took me to our camp for treatment, and in a few hours’ time our doctor, with the assistance of troopers who volunteered to carry the stretcher, conveyed me into the Barberton Club, the temporary Boer hospital, ours being both full up. The Boer doctor and nurses have been kindness itself to me, and have done everything in their power to make me comfortable. How I escaped with my life my usual good luck only knows. I was bashed, cut, and bruised, but not a limb or a bone broken. Four days ago I nearly snuffed out from a flow of blood from my nose and mouth, but fortunately it was stopped in time, and I really believe did me good, as I had too much blood in my system. Now, more than enough about myself. I am on the right track, and hope to be with my men in a few days more. I follow on with the hospital train the day after to-morrow, and pick them up at Machadodorp, for which place they leave to-day. There we pick up Captain Beresford with 100 of my men. They stayed at Pretoria a day beyond us to get remounts, came on with my friend General Cunningham’s Infantry Division, and were never able to rejoin us, we being in advance with General Mahon’s Mounted Brigade.
Months afterwards, Colonel Lumsden, by the following tribute, showed that he had not forgotten those who had tended him with so much care:
To incidents which I have already related of kindly treatment at the hands of Boer doctors and nurses I may add another of which I was on this occasion the recipient. I awoke the morning after my serious accident feeling very stiff and sore, and found myself lying in the general ward amid wounded Tommies and Boers. I must have been insensible for nearly twelve hours. Next day Dr. Powell, our regimental doctor, wished to remove me to one of our own hospitals, but Dr. Bidenhamp, the Boer doctor, offered to give me a small room to myself if I remained, which I gratefully accepted, and could not have wished for better care or attention than I received at his hands and those of his assistant, Mr. E.E. Haumann. I have also to thank very gratefully Sister Alma Meyer, of Grosvenor House, Stellenbosch, for the kindly treatment she accorded me, as well as two Dutch sisters from Holland who were assisting her in the hospital and acting nobly to Briton and Boer alike; and I take this opportunity of acknowledging with sincere thanks their careful treatment and kindness to me during the ten days I was their patient.
Ruling passions are strong even when one is at death’s door, and I cannot help recalling a sporting bet I had with my kind friend Sister Alma. It took the usual shape of a bet with a woman—gloves—and I laid her a dozen pairs to nothing that the war would be over by Christmas, which not only I but many high in authority fully believed it would. We were passing Durban on our way back to India during the second week in December, and, taking the then situation, I looked upon my bet as lost and bailed up. One of my subalterns, who was landing there to return to the seat of war, kindly carried out my commission, and forwarded the gloves to the winner, from whom I received a prompt acknowledgment, with the usual remark that women are always right, and I believe they are! At least, I never attempt to contradict them, and yet I am a bachelor.
Colonel Lumsden being in hospital, and debarred, therefore, to his regret, from leading the corps in a march for which it had already been detailed, Major Chamney took temporary command, and a few days later received orders to hand over horses and proceed by train to rejoin the other detachment under Captain Beresford at Machadodorp. This uneventful stage of the campaign is thus described by the correspondent of an Indian paper serving with Lumsden’s Horse:
Prior to this the Imperial Light Horse had left Mahon’s brigade, and we heard that they too expected to be disbanded shortly. General Mahon made them a speech before they left, praising them highly for the good work they had done while with him, and saying how sorry he was to part with them.
On October 1 we handed over nearly all our horses to the New Zealanders, keeping only such of them—four or five, if I remember right—as had been brought from India and come right through the whole show. Four others also were kept for the doctor’s cart, the horses he had before being played out. But the experiment did not turn out a success, as the first time they were put into harness they bolted and there was a general smash-up. The leaders broke away and vanished into space, and were never seen by us again; and the wheelers got mixed up in the traces and upset the cart, damaging it hopelessly in their struggles to get free. The doctor was thenceforth cartless, I think, and the implements of his trade had to be carried in one of the Transport carts.
After giving over our horses we were marched into town, and camped close to the station for the night. The Transport, with the heavy luggage and led horses, were to leave next day by road for Machadodorp, for which place we too were bound. The rest of the regiment, under Captain Beresford, had been stationed there for some time. Next morning we proceeded to the station and loaded our saddle, baggage, and a few of our small Transport carts into open trucks, into which we ourselves afterwards scrambled, the train moving off immediately. There was not overmuch room, but we were not particular, and this did not very greatly bother us. After proceeding about sixteen miles we had to get out and walk to Avoca, a railway station about three miles further on, as, owing to the Boers having smashed up a bridge here, the train was unable to get across. Waggons were awaiting us, into which we loaded the baggage, &c., also making use of the Transport carts we had brought with us.
On arriving at Avoca we heard that an accident had occurred further up the line, and we should not therefore be able to go on till next day. We camped in the open, and spent a wretched night, as it rained incessantly, and by daybreak everything was sopping wet. Hearing next morning that we would not be leaving for some hours, several of us foraged round and found an empty hut, in which we took shelter, as the rain still continued, and made ourselves very fairly comfortable. There was any amount of firewood about, so we were able to semi-dry our blankets, &c. When the train came in at midday it was found that there was not room for more than about fifteen of us, besides the saddles, baggage, and Transport carts.
At Kaapmuiden we got on to the main line from Komati Poort to Pretoria. This junction presented a really woeful sight. The Boers had evacuated the place in great haste, throwing away stores, &c., galore, principally large quantities of flour, which had been rendered useless by sprinkling it with kerosine, making it smell horribly and totally unfitting it for consumption. Whole trains had been burned as they stood on the lines, and an idea of the terrible conflagration may be gathered from the fact that the rails under the wheels were buckled down by the terrific heat.
Captain Taylor, in one of his amusing reminiscences, pays a tribute to the work done by Infantry soldiers:
Tommy certainly is the most wonderful all-round man, and quite prepared to do anything he’s asked. A whole company of Infantry being converted into mounted troops by such an order as ‘A company of —— Regiment will be Mounted Infantry’ was at one time quite usual, but they were fair troops in a month. One saw him making bridges and diversions for the same with the old jokes and quaint oaths; or doing butcher, baker, slaughterer, tailor, bootmaker, farrier, and all the thousand-and-one things he is taught. But he fairly surprised me at Barberton.
There we had suddenly arrived with a division of Cavalry ‘in the air.’ Within a week we had sent our Cavalry as far as Kaapmuiden—the point where the Barberton branch line meets the main one from Pretoria to Komati Poort. Our Infantry had repaired the numerous bridges and culverts, and we were entrained and taken back to Machadodorp by train. Every station-master was a junior British officer, the pointsman Tommy, engine-driver Tommy, who also worked the telegraphs, was stoker, bridgemaker, platelayer, wheelgreaser, &c. There were a few accidents, but not many, and a smash was only a joke. No wonder we are hard to beat.
The trooper correspondent did not look at things quite in that light, but perhaps he was travelling less luxuriously, and the humorous side of the situation did not strike him so forcibly:
It was raining all the time, so things generally were not at all cheerful, and the prospect of travelling for several hours in open trucks under these conditions did not help to raise our spirits. However, it was not so bad after all, as we stretched a huge tarpaulin propped up with sticks, rifles, and boxes, over the truck we were in, which was piled up to the top with the baggage, and managed to keep the rain out in this way. The rest of us were to follow on by the next train. We even managed to get up a game of whist, and this, with the perusal of such literature as we had with us and occasional snoozes helped to pass the time. We stayed that night at Crocodile Poort station, it not being considered safe to travel after dark. It stopped raining at 10 P.M., so, getting out of the truck, we built a huge fire and dried our blankets and boiled the inevitable coffee. We slept in the open, as it was quite fine then; but the dew was so heavy during the night that everything got sopping wet again by the morning. We started again at 9, but made very slow progress, as we had long waits at various stations on the way.
From there to Machadodorp is a most interesting and beautiful country. The line runs between two precipitous ranges quite Swiss in their magnificence, with a river running between the hills. Then to Waterval Onder, where the ordinary rails gave place to a cogwheel line up a steep climb.
We left again at 8 A.M. the following day, and passed through very fair scenery between that place and the next station, Waterval Boven. High overhanging kopjes on one side, along the bases of which the line ran, with a deep sort of cañon between, the Crocodile River flowing along its bottom, and a large square turret-like rock looking commandingly from the other. In one place the train ran quite close to the ‘cliff,’ as in the Darjiling Himalayan Railway in India, and almost under a huge mass of overhanging rocks. There are deep fissures in these rocks in many places, and they look as if they might get loosened and overwhelm us at any moment. We were told that in the rains sentries are posted at this place night and day to give timely warning should there be any signs of the rocks shifting. The incline, too, is very steep here, and only a few trucks at a time can be taken up. In our case eleven trucks were sent up at first, two engines being put on, one in front and the other behind. To prevent slipping, the hindermost engine had the usual cog-wheel arrangement working on a centre rail. Shortly after leaving Waterval Onder you get into a tunnel about a hundred yards long, I think. It is absolutely unventilated, so it can be imagined that the smoke from the engines, which, seated as we were in open trucks, simply poured down our throats and up our noses, very nearly suffocated us.
We stayed at Waterval Boven till 5 P.M., and then went on to Machadodorp, where we found the rest of the regiment, which was encamped there, under Captain Beresford. They had marched to this place from Belfast, where Lord Roberts inspected them. Here we were greatly undeceived. Instead of going on down country for home, as we expected, we received orders to equip, and furthermore to leave the old brigade we were so fond of under General Mahon, and join General French’s column in General Dickson’s brigade.
The men of Lumsden’s Horse arrived in the midst of a very heavy hailstorm. Like all true soldiers, they were ready to make a jest of discomfort, and seeing the company commander, whose name happened to be Jim, as he crawled under the shelter of his tente d’abri, they struck up the then popular music-hall chorus:
O lucky Jim, How I envy him!
Colonel Lumsden was at this time speculating on the chances that his corps might soon be ordered home, and in a letter to Sir Patrick Playfair, written while still in hospital, he says:
Ever since we entered Pretoria on June 5 and marched through it to Irene it has been even betting that the war might end any day or keep on with this kind of guerilla fighting till Christmas. It looks very like the latter now. I have discussed the matter frequently, while lying in my bed here, with Colonel Wools-Sampson, commanding the Imperial Light Horse, and Colonel Craddock, commanding the Australian contingent, both in Mahon’s brigade with myself. They fully hold my opinion that, although this unexpected delay comes harder on the Volunteer personally than was anticipated when he joined, yet it was all in the bargain. I also assure the men that Government looks upon the Colonial Volunteer movement as much too big a factor in this crisis to be ignored or undervalued, and that not one day beyond what is actually necessary shall we be kept in harness in this country. There is no doubt that the complete pacification or subjugation of this huge Colony is a much bigger question than we soundly tackled at the start, or were prepared to face. De Wet and Botha are harder nuts to crack than we imagined. I am extremely proud of and pleased with the doings of the corps, and I feel sure it has been worthy of its Honorary Colonel and its many friends and supporters in the land we hail from. How kind Lord Roberts has been to us and to me personally I can hardly state here.
Our good fortune in the way of obtaining commissions in the Regular forces speaks volumes on this point, besides other civil appointments already granted, to say nothing, I hope, of others in store when we disband. As regards the Transvaal Police, which a number of my men were keen to join when it started in June, I distinctly said, ‘No, until we are disbanded. If Government would say “Disband,” then I’ll do my best for you with commissions, &c.; but until then, No.’ The terms were 10s. per diem, horse allowance, and rations. Of course these were tempting to men playing a hard game on 1s. 2d. per day, but Government soon stopped enrolment, the New Zealand Government having declined to let their Volunteers join. I hear it is being opened again to a small extent, mostly for mechanics, but these are not the class I’ve got. What they mean really to do is to make the Transvaal and Orange River Police the soldiers of the immediate future, and take all the suitable Volunteers they can to back it up. A right good plan too, and I fancy they are only waiting for the opportune moment to do so.
As regards funds, I feel sure we shall end up well. I never lose a chance of buying little extras for the men in the way of Boer tobacco and tinned milk.
Any quantity of the stores for officers went astray, and heaps were given away to the men, &c. I can truly assure you the officers will not make much out of the hunt!
I don’t know what my movements will be—Calcutta or London, depending on that of the corps. At one period our orders were the latter, to be in the Colonial Volunteer Inspection by the Queen, but I fear it is too late in the day for that to come off, and that it will now be Calcutta direct for all that remain of us. Well, as you know, it is hard to beat in the cold season, and always enjoyable to me, so I don’t mind.
So ended the experiences of Lumsden’s Horse under Brigadier-General Mahon’s command. They had been with him two months in circumstances that try the mettle of men, whether officers or privates, and their devotion to him had increased day by day. In camp or in action he was always the same, never worrying himself or harassing his men. On the contrary, he more than once gave up his own rough shelter in a deserted house or hut so that his troops might have firewood for cooking their scant rations of tough mutton or horseflesh. Their confidence in him was unbounded because they said he never got them into a tight place without knowing how to get them out again; and they would have followed him anywhere. That was the feeling of all ranks in the brigade for their General. His confidence in them was equally firm. In a letter which the Editor has permission to quote, that distinguished leader writes: ‘Lumsden’s Horse served with me for some months, and a better lot of men and officers could not be found.’