The junction of the Natal Field Force with Lord Roberts’ Army— The advance through the Northern Transvaal—The Battle of Belfast—General Buller’s last trek—Lydenbeig—Pilgrim's Rest —General Buller’s farewell.
A halt was made at Standerton till June 30; the countryside was scoured in all directions, and prisoners, cattle, and forage were brought in. On the 30th a column under Sir Francis Clery marched from Standerton up the railway-line towards Heidelberg. Dun-donald’s Brigade accompanied this force, leaving the South African Light Horse at Standerton, while Brocklehurst’s Brigade, with Bethune’s Mounted Infantry, held the line up to that point. Dundonald’s Brigade now consisted of Strathcona’s Horse, who had joined at Paardekop, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, and four guns of ‘A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery, with one pom-pom (Strathcona’s); it was followed by the Fourth (Light) Brigade, 63rd Battery, one section of an ammunition column, two field howitzers (from 86th Battery,) and two 5-inch guns.
On July 1 Wachout Spruit was reached. An attack was made on the right dank, but was easily repulsed by Strathcona’s, who received their baptism of fire, with a section of ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery in support. Captain Howard, of Strathcona’s, was captured here, owing to mistaking slouch-hatted Boers for his own men.
Clery’s force met with constant opposition, of no serious nature, however; but, still, a number of Boers were always in front and on either flank of the column, and had to be dealt with by the mounted troops. As General Clery was moving with a very large convoy, the flanks were much extended, and an attack from the rear had always to be guarded against; so the work thrown on the mounted men was arduous, and resulted in three or four casualties every day. These casualties would have been more but for the use of machine-guns with the advanced and flanking parties, which cleared away Boer sharpshooters as no dismounted men in small bodies could have done. Greylingstad was reached on July 3, and a halt was made near a disused gold-mine. As we arrived, the high chimney of the mine began smoking with some vigour; this was said to have warned the enemy, who now took up a position on Van Tonder’s Kop.
On July 4 Vlakfontein, a station midway between Greylingstad and Heidelberg, was moved on. Vlakfontein village is quite a small place, consisting of about a dozen corrugated-zinc-roofed buildings, mainly occupied by railway employes, and a local hotel store, notable at the time for its lack of provisions. The country round is mainly flat, but the railway-line is commanded by several well-defined ridges of hills. The portion of railway-line in the vicinity of Vlakfontein has on many occasions been the object of attack and destruction by the Boers. Between Vlak-fontein and Greylingstad the line passes in a gorge through a tortuous and dangerous ridge of hills. Lord Dundonald moved along the line to join hands with Major-General Fitzroy Hart at Heidelberg. A short but brisk engagement with the enemy occurred on this occasion; they were driven to the surrounding hills. Previous to their retreat, however, the Boers succeeded in so materially damaging the line that it took some days to set it right again, many bridges and culverts being blown up and the track torn up for many miles.
It was on this day that one of the most striking examples of native heroism that I have ever observed took place. An unarmed native scout, one of Dini-zulu’s picked warriors, lent by him as chief of the Zulu tribe to the British Government, while out scouting with a body of Strathconas Horse approached a Boer farm near the railway. From the farm was flying a white flag, and notwithstanding this the enemy, who were hiding, fired a volley from the building. A trooper’s horse was shot dead as the man was riding away. The brave Zulu turned, and, rapidly galloping back and jumping from his horse, assisted the dismounted trooper to mount his own horse, and, whipping it up with his sjambok, followed the now mounted man on foot amid a hail of bullets from the enemy and the cheers of the soldiers who saw the brave action. Both escaped, and the Zulu was specially complimented by the General in Army Orders. Had he been other than a native, it is probable that he would have obtained the Victoria Cross for his gallantry.
Two days later, July 6, the enemy made a most determined attack from the range of hills near Vlakfontein on a convoy and on some troops escorting General Buller, who was passing by on his way to see Lord Roberts at Pretoria.
General Buller had come by train as far as Grey-lingstad, and, owing to the damage done to the line, had to ride from that station nearly to Heidelberg. Whether the enemy had any intelligence of his presence is impossible to say, but as he passed on his way they made a most determined assault on his little column, bringing their guns and pom-poms into action. Two guns of ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery, under Lieutenant Eden, promptly turned out of bivouac at Vlakfontein, and an interesting duel took place. Two high-velocity Boer guns and a pompom had taken up a position on the flank to enfilade the passage of the convoy, and began firing. Lord Dundonald at once ordered Lieutenant Eden’s two guns forward, and at short range he engaged one of the Boer guns and the pom-pom, which were together, with the result that the Boer high-velocity gun was put out of action and six gunners working it were killed and wounded, whilst we lost but one man killed, one wounded, and five horses. It was an exciting duel while it lasted, but the Chestnut Troop was too much at close quarters for the Boer gun [Our field-guns could always knock out any Boer guns, provided they got within range].
While the railway was being repaired, the force was split up into small parties appointed to guard the line. Numbers of Boers living in the vicinity came in daily to take the oath of neutrality, driving into camp in their light Cape-carts, or ‘spiders,' as they are called, all flying white flags. Captain Phillips, R.E., Lord Dundonald’s Provost Marshal, had quite a busy time of it, seated at his camp-table to receive rifles and ammunition, and making out the necessary ‘declaration' forms for these burghers to sign. Very remarkable was the nondescript array of weapons brought in—old flint-locks, percussion-cap muzzle-loaders, Martini-Henrys — the Mauser alone being the rarest and most conspicuous by its absence.
On July 11 General Clery’s force returned to Greylingstad, at which place two 47 guns were mounted on the hills over the line and left with a garrison. The main body left camp at 8 a.m., Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry leading, and proceeded to Vitpoort with a view to attacking the Boer laager behind Van Tonder’s Kop. Dundonald, reconnoitring to the north, got in touch with the enemy, who retired, firing the veldt on their way. On the following morning the pursuit was taken up, and the enemy were perceived in force at Platkop. Strathcona’s Horse, who were in advance, found themselves in a ‘hot corner,’ and sustained some casualties. Owing to some mistake, their pom-pom gun, under Lieutenant Magee, got cut off and surrounded, and would perhaps have fallen into the enemy’s hands but for the gallantry of the Canadians, who, loosing their lassos, charged the awestricken Boers, brandishing the long ropes in their faces until the gun-team had got about. Dundonald at once reinforced with Thorneycroft’s, and brought ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery into action at a range of 1,350 yards under what might be fairly styled a ‘hellish’ rifle-discharge. A well-directed shrapnel-fire was brought to bear on the whole crest, and soon the enemy fled, pursued by our mounted men. The guns limbered up and joined in the pursuit. Some three miles further on, the Boers, about 1,500 strong, were seen galloping across a wide valley to the north, and now the Chestnut Troop came into action and made some good shooting. Again the guns limbered up and the chase continued. Some six miles further the enemy went helter-skelter over a ridge, the advance to which lay across a level plain.
At this juncture a message was received by the Horse Battery stating that their services were wanted, as a large Boer convoy was within range 'just round the corner'. Up went the guns, through smoke and dust, among Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, and suddenly, when the scouts were within 500 yards of the crest, they were greeted with a terrific rifle-fire. Not having any cover, the scouts were forced to fall back on the guns, which, owing to excusable eagerness, had been pushed on nearer to the scouts than usual, so that at 1,500 yards’ range bullets were spitting all round us. Two gunners being shot, one on each side of me, I had to jump from my horse to succour them. Pit! pit! whit! pit! pit! whit | the bullets simply seethed around, richochetting off the guns and wheels. The command 'Action front!’ was scarce audible above the din, though it was shouted loudly. In a second the guns were ‘laid' and shrapnel was searching the crest. Simultaneously Strathcona’s historical pom-pom and Dundonald’s Colts came into action from either flank, enfilading the enemy’s position, and Thorneycroft’s men were directing a steady rifle-fire from around the guns. The enemy, unable to stand this concentrated fusillade, fired the veldt, and retired under cover of the smoke.
A curious incident now occurred. The enemy opened fire from either flank with a high-velocity gun and a pom-pom upon the very crest that they had abandoned, evidently thinking that it had been occupied by us; this must have given their retreating comrades a pretty hot time, to say the least. Night was falling fast, and as we were a long way from our main body, Dundonald s Brigade did not pursue further; his casualties amounted to eleven killed and wounded, while the enemy were known to have buried eight Boers, and natives reported that a number of wounded had been removed to Bethel.
From Platkop General Clery led us on a 'personally conducted tour' eastward across the Waterval River, near which Sergeant A. H. L. Richardson, of Strathcona’s Horse, won the Victoria Cross when thirty-eight of his regiment were engaging eighty of the enemy. After the order to retire had been given, Sergeant Richardson rode back under fire to pick up a wounded trooper whose horse had been shot, and brought him to a place of safety. This gallant officer, the first Canadian to win the V.C., was afterwards presented with a purse of £3,000 by his fellow-Canadians. General Clery now decided to move on Bethel, where the enemy were reported to have prepared an ugly position for us, but on July 20 orders were received from Lord Roberts directing us to move on Heidelberg again, as it was imperative that the line of railway from Durban to Pretoria, along which the food supply to the capital was now being forwarded, should be protected. This sent us all upon another ‘circular tour,' with its attending discomforts—frosty bivouacks on cold Mother Earth, ice to the thickness of three inches on the solitary pools (our sole water supplies), which prevented us from watering our horses until after 9 a.m., and morning fogs, under cover of which we were continually sniped. I must say that continuous ambushes, close volleys, and fogs give one the ‘jumps' as nothing else can, and surely no greater relief can be experienced by the trekker than to behold the open county ahead once more when a fog clears off. Having posted Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry on the railway in scattered posts between Standerton and Heidelberg, Lord Dundonald rapidly marched back to the former place, where we one add all joyfully filled up our private supplies from the Field Force Canteen. This admirable institution was organized by Major (now Lieut.-Colonel) Morgan, A.S.C., and throughout the Natal campaign and hereafter Major Morgan will have to his credit a debt of gratitude that none but a medical officer can ever fully appreciate. By placing such facilities for obtaining food in reach of officers and men, the Major did more than can ever be realized to build up our constitutions and baffle the common enteric fever.
From Standerton we marched to Paardekop to join General Buller, who was mobilizing a large force for the great northern advance on Machadodorp in combination with Lord Roberts from Pretoria. This force consisted of the troops who had gone through the siege of Ladysmith (now quite fit again, and desirous of wiping out old scores), formed into a division under General Lyttelton, General Brocklehurst's Cavalry Brigade and that under Lord Dundonald; General Burn-Murdoch’s Cavalry Brigade being left to watch the Natal borders, and Bethune's, Thorneycroft's, and Gough’s Mounted Infantry appointed to guard the line from Volksrust to Heidelberg.
On August 7 Sir Redvers Buller moved out, and marched from Paardekop towards Amesfoort, eighteen miles distant; outside the latter town he fought a very stiff general engagement against Botha, who was heavily entrenched with eleven guns on the heights. This position the Boer Generalissimo was stated to have expressed his ability to maintain against the whole British Army. The boast proved fallacious. General Buller’s centre consisted of General Walter Kitcheners Seventh Infantry Brigade and General Howard’s Eighth Infantry Brigade, Dundonald’s cavalry covering the left and Brocklehurst the right of the advance, and thoroughly securing both flanks and driving the enemy before them. Early in the day Dundonald became seriously engaged, and his Horse Artillery on one occasion had a ‘target’ such as seldom fell to their lot in the war, when the Swaziland Police, whom the Boers considered one of their toughest commandos, attempted a charge in close formation. The Chestnut Troop got their range to an inch, and, pounding their opponents with shrapnel, caused them to retire, leaving many dead on the field. While our heavy artillery under Colonel Parsons, C.R.A., was bombarding the Boer centre with lyddite, Dundonald got his opportunity. Sweeping round their right flank, he enfiladed it completely with his horse battery and riflemen, causing them to abandon it and break in confusion towards their left flank, which was being hemmed in by Brocklehurst; seeing this, they retreated, mainly towards Lake Chrissie and Wakkerstroom. In Amesfoort we found the Swiss ambulance under Dr. Schtiter, who, by their own request, were given a safe transit through our lines to Durban; they were 'fed up' with the Boers, so they said, and longed to get home. Buller next advanced on Ermelo, one of the so-called Boer capitals, and, amid a sandstorm, Dundonald entered that place on the 11th, and the infantry followed the next day.
On August 14 Carolina was occupied by a squadron of Strathcona’s Horse after a brisk skirmish, and the same day some of Brocklehurst s Brigade joined hands with French's scouts from Middelberg. On August 15 Buller’s force reached Twyfelaar, and received orders from Lord Roberts to halt until he was ready for the advance on Belfast On August 21 we marched from Twyfelaar to Van Wyk’s Vlei, meeting with considerable opposition from the enemy, who were in large numbers, with guns. On the 23rd Geluk was reached, and here we had a pretty stiff engagement, in which the Liverpool lost some seventy men. In the vicinity of Geluk a Boer farm was burnt by orders, as a wounded Gordon Highlander was treacherously shot dead from it while endeavouring to drag himself to the farmhouse for help.
On August 24 General Pole-Carew, with the Eleventh Division, occupied Belfast, with a total of sixteen casualties.
Early the following day (25th) Lord Roberts arrived at Belfast and held a council of war, at which Generals Buller, French, and Pole-Carew were present. As it was evident that the main Boer Army was pitted against us, two alternatives presented themselves:
1. To hold the enemy in front with one force, while another operating from the south turned his left Hank.
2. To hold the enemy in front as before, while another force operating from the north-west turned his right flank.
The first alternative was abandoned, as the country, being very broken and irregular, was most unfavourable for a turning movement from the south-east. The second was decided upon, and for this purpose Lord Roberts directed that General French, with two brigades of cavalry, should advance to Laken Vlei, six miles to the north of Belfast, thus threatening the enemy’s right flank and his line of retreat on the northwest to Lydenberg. General Pole-Carew, with the Eleventh Infantry Division and Colonel Henry’s Mounted Infantry, was to advance along the Lydenberg Road and support General French. General Buller was to retain the Boer left about Geluk, and finally to assault the enemy’s centre about Bergendal and Dalmanutha.
On August 26 General French moved from Geluk, twelve miles south of Belfast, on his passage north, and after an eighteen miles’ march reached Laken Vlei in the evening. General Pole-Carew moved along the Lydenberg Road in his support, but owing to heavy opposition made but little progress. General Buller occupied the enemy’s attention near Geluk, and succeeded in driving back the Boers from some strong positions they were holding at the south-east of Belfast, to within four miles of the railway between that town and Dalmanutha; having achieved this object, his force marched towards Waai Kraal. The enemy, perceiving us on the move, made a most determined attack on our rear guard, which consisted of the Third Mounted Brigade (Lord Dundonald’s), ‘A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery, Inniskilling Fusiliers, Devons, and four quick-firing 12-pounders. This action was quite exciting while it lasted, the Boers attacking most boldly, but under a heavy artillery and rifle fire they had to retreat time after time. The attack spread all along the line of advance, and soon all the force and its guns were in action, changing their positions as they marched along the ridge which led to their destination. The enemy had two Long Toms in action, as well as many smaller guns and pom-poms. We had but few casualties, and these were all from bullets; the artillery practice of the enemy on this occasion only equalled the composition of their shells. We bivouacked in the dark on a bleak, barren, rocky kopje, and as the tail of the rear-guard (the Devons) came in, a large force of Boers tried to rush them, but were driven off at very close quarters by the 21st Battery Royal Field Artillery opening magazine-fire, which must have caused very many casualties.
The dawn of Monday, August 27, issued in a glorious day. As it became known to the troops that Lord Roberts had placed the Natal Field Force in the post of honour for the day, the utmost enthusiasm and gratification prevailed in all ranks. The Commander-in-Chief, in selecting the Natal Army to make the frontal attack on the centre of the enemy’s position on this, the day of the battle of Belfast, paid it the greatest compliment possible. And 'Tommy' of Natal knew it; he appreciated it, and was on his mettle. How he played his part the day will show.
Early in the morning General Buller made the following dispositions: The Second Cavalry Brigade (General Brocklehurst), ‘A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery (Colonel Burrows), 53rd Battery Royal Field Artillery (Major Gordon), two pom-poms, and the Fourth Divisional Mounted Infantry (Major Stewart), were sent forward to the left to cover the line of advance, and at the same time to throw their left forward to the north across the Belfast- Dalmanutha ridge, so as to obtain such an artillery position as would more or less enfilade Bergendal Kopje and the slope of the ridges to its north, thus preventing any attempt to reinforce these positions from other ridges to their north, while an infantry assault was being made on Bergendal itself from the south. These movements were excellently carried out, and some time before mid-day a heavy enfilade fire was being poured on the enemy from our extreme left from carefully selected positions by ‘ A ’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery and the Fourth Divisional Mounted Infantry. This fire inflicted great loss on the enemy, and must have contributed considerably to the success of the day’s operations. While it was in progress, the Seventh Infantry Brigade, under General F. W. Kitchener, moved forward under cover of the rolling slopes facing Bergendal on the south, detaching on its way the 1st Manchester Regiment, which entrenched on the eastern crests of this ridge [Hereafter indicated as 'Gun Ridge'].
Under cover of this battalion the artillery took up positions along the summit of the ridge in the following order from right to left:
Two 12-pounders, 10th Mountain Battery.
Two 47, 6th Company Royal Garrison Artillery (Western Division). Two 5-inch, 16th Company Royal Garrison Artillery (Southern Division).
Two 12-pounders, 2nd Company Royal Garrison Artillery (Western Division).
61st Howitzer Battery Royal Field Artillery.
Two 12-pounders, Royal Garrison Artillery.
21st Battery Royal Field Artillery.
The 42nd Battery Royal Field Artillery, from an entrenched position on the right of the Manchester, were able to prevent any movement of the enemy to reinforce his left from the south, and 'A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery were able to prevent any reinforcing on his right from the north. This latter object was also much assisted by two 47 naval guns posted on Monument Hill at Belfast, which Lord Roberts, who was watching the engagement, had ordered to co-operate. As battery after battery took its allotted place in this long line of guns and went into action, the cannonade became terrific, and about 11 a.m. the fury of the fire was at its height The whole Boer position was bombarded for a time, but after a while a small kopje beside Bergendal's Farm became the target of a converging artillery-fire. This kopje, which lay some 300 yards to the west of the farm, was a peculiar one, and was occupied in force by the Z.A.R. Police [The South African Republic Police, or, as they were more popularly known, the Zarps, were considered the flower of the Boer army] who were provided with a pom-pom. It was formed by a conglomeration of huge boulders, affording some three acres of excellent cover, and, rising abruptly from the plain, formed an exceedingly strong natural fortress. Some 500 yards north of this kopje was the enemy’s main position, heavily entrenched with men and guns. The ground which intervened between this kopje and General Buller’s position sloped away gently in all directions, affording no cover of any sort to advancing troops for at least 2,000 yards.
Towards mid-day General Kitcheners brigade, having advanced up the valley behind and under cover of Gun Ridge, deployed, and took up the following positions: 2nd Gordons in front of the 21st Battery Royal Field Artillery, with the Inniskillings to their left front and facing Bergendal’s Farm from the southwest, on the left of the Inniskillings the Devons, and to their left the 1st Rifle Brigade. All these regiments were accompanied by their Maxims. One company of the Rifle Brigade formed a connecting link with the 4th Divisional Mounted Infantry of General Brocklehurst’s Brigade on the left. For three hours our artillery bombarded the enemy’s position with lyddite and shrapnel, which kept up an incessant hail on his trenches. The howitzer-fire was particularly effective, as was also that of our infantry, who were lying down, lining the crest lines in front of the guns.
Notwithstanding this, the Boer fire was extremely hot; shower after shower of rifle bullets, Maxim bullets, and shells swept Gun Ridge, and kept dropping into the valley behind, causing no little damage among our transport and artillery horses. When all the troops were in position, and as it became evident that a frontal attack would carry the day, General Buller turned all his artillery on the centre of the Boer position: big guns and small guns, ‘ cow ’ guns and Maxims, all fired a salvo. A truly terrific and awful roar rose in the air, which must have been audible from Pretoria to the sea, as for several minutes shell after shell hurled itself against Botha and his men. Simultaneously General Kitchener ordered his infantry to assault Lieutenant-Colonel Metcalfe, who had moved the 1 st Rifle Brigade from under cover of the ridge from which our guns had been firing (Gun Ridge), and had placed his battalion across the main east and west ridge, on which Bergendal’s Kopje stands, assaulted it from the front and west Lieutenant-Colonel Payne, who had moved the Inniskilling Fusiliers down the face of Gun Ridge, assaulted the flank of this kopje' from the south. The 1st Devons supported the left centre, and the 2nd Gordons the right. At the moment of starting to descend Gun Ridge, the leading companies of the Inniskillings were met by a heavy and accurate pom-pom and rifle fire, which staggered them for a second, but on they pressed without delay. Still the Boers hold their ground. In amongst them rush the infantry. Our artillery cease for a moment to adjust their sights and load with time shrapnel. Bayonets glitter as the infantry double across the plain. The Boers stand up in their trenches emptying their rifles to the last moment But they are doomed. Assailed in front by the Rifle Brigade, assailed in flank by the Inniskillings, their cause is hopeless. The majority break and fly, some on horseback, some on foot, and a band of some twenty or thirty Z.A.R. Police are made prisoners. The rest fly, and upon them our guns turn with a vengeance. All our field batteries vie with each other to see which will get in the most rounds. Time shrapnel is burst with beautiful and most accurate precision over the fugitive band that breaks north across the railway-line. Men on foot and men on horses caught in that hail are seen to stumble and fall. The Boer retreat is marked by huddled forms. From the left flank the Second Cavalry Brigade ‘stand to their horses,’ and, mounting, press in hot pursuit. ‘A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery limbers up; away they follow. As we pass over the battlefield the guns have to zigzag widely in their headlong pace, for scattered all along our course lies many a dead or wounded Rifleman, with pale or piteous face, as the gun wheels go by. Bergendal's Kopje is reached and passed, and on a ridge to its north-east, among the trenches recently occupied by the enemy, 'A' Battery comes into action once more and firing is resumed.
The attack by the infantry just described was a most gallant one. It was made without the assistance of any cover whatsoever, and the moment Bergendal's Kopje was carried the Rifle Brigade, who had their gallant Colonel wounded leading the charge, and who were now led by Major G. Cockburn, D.S.O., rushed the plateau and carried all before them. They were supported by the Devons, who had come up on the left, and the Gordons and Inniskillings, who joined in on the right. While the honours of the day rest with the gunners, those of the assault belong to the Rifle Brigade, as they had to attack a part of the enemy’s position over a bullet-swept plain which afforded no shelter. The carrying of such a position, held as it was by resolute men of the stamp of the Z.A.R. Police, will for ever remain present to the minds of those who witnessed it as the most gallant feat of arms in the battle of Belfast. Brocklehurst’s Cavalry Brigade and the Seventh Infantry Brigade followed the enemy for over three miles towards Dalmanutha, when, owing to the extremely rocky nature of the ground and the lateness of the hour, further progress was not possible for the present. The success of the day's action was decisive. Its effect was such that the enemy gave way at all points, flying in great confusion towards the north and east, towards Lydenberg and Machadodorp. Except, however, for one gun, a pom-pom, complete with its mules and ammunition, which the Rifle Brigade captured on Bergendal's Kopje, the enemy got all their artillery away. This was not surprising, as all their other guns were so scattered, and were at such distances away on the hill-tops, that it was impossible for us to reach them.
On reaching Bergendal’s Farm, I was detailed by Colonel Allin to assist the wounded, of whom there were some 150 of our men and about two dozen Boers. The empty, shrapnel - riddled farmhouse itself was immediately turned into a temporary hospital, and alongside it, within fifteen minutes after the battle, Major Brannigan, R.A.M.C., pitched his field hospital [This is an example of what a mobile field hospital can do in modern warfare]. Among the Boer prisoners was the Commandant of the Z.A.R. Police, who informed his captors that his experience on the kopje was 1 frightful and undesirable/ After the wounded were comfortably cared for, I had an opportunity of visiting the kopje. It presented a terrible example of what the severity of modern shell-fire can do. Among the dead was the Field-Cornet of Johannesburg. Lord Roberts arrived on the field during the afternoon, and congratulated General Buller on the day’s operations, as carried out by the Natal Army.
Early next morning, the 28th, Lord Dundonald took up the pursuit, and cleverly drove the Boers from ridge to ridge towards Machadodorp. We got past Dalmanutha Station unopposed; but soon after the fighting began it became manifest that the Boers were fighting a rear-guard action, freely using two-guns and a pom-pom. Lord Dundonald’s artillery, the Chestnut Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, was. constantly in action, and Major Birdwood got severely wounded in one of these checks. We were in Machadodorp at mid-day, and, without giving the enemy a moment’s rest, pressed on up to the hill-tops to the east of the town. The road up these hills is very steep, and it falls as rapidly again on the other side, crossing an open space, and then climbs straight up a second hill; the top of this second hill thoroughly commands the first ridge. This was an ideal position for a rear-guard, and though we could see the road as it climbed to the second ridge crowded with retreating waggons, etc., such a fire was opened on us in our exposed position on the first ridge from the second and commanding one that it was impossible to do anything—at any rate, until we were joined by the infantry, who were marching along, with their usual pluck and endurance, behind. The Boers had some six guns, including one 47 howitzer and one or more Long Toms, which fired shrapnel with alarming accuracy. The force therefore remained for the time in possession of the first heights. Before long came the heavier guns, 5-inch and 12-pounder quick-firers, and the Gordon Highlanders. These guns quickly silenced the fire; but it was now nearly dark, and we were gljid to water the horses, who were thoroughly done up, and get a little rest ourselves.
Early next morning we were up again, and soon found that the Boers had once more gone in the night. Helvetia lies at the top of this second ridge, and arriving there, we turned south towards Waterval Onder. General French’s cavalry now came up from the extreme left of the advance, and as his column passed through our camp it received a most enthusiastic reception. French’s baggage column consisted of the most nondescript assortment of vehicles that one can imagine—Cape-carts, dogcarts, phaetons, and even busses, all captured from the Boers in his many engagements. From Waterval Onden General Buller took Dundonald’s Brigade to Helvetia, whence at an early hour on the 30th we started to release the British prisoners at Nooitgedach. Reaching the heights over this hamlet, we saw the prisoners streaming back up the railway-line, having released themselves, the enemy having retreated towards Komati Poort.
On September 1 we commenced our advance on Lydenburg, Badfontein being reached on this day. Brocklehurst’s cavalry, pushing ahead, seized the bridge over the Crocodile River, and Dundonald occupied Kopje Aileen, which commanded the valley. On September 2 we all had a most exciting day. Dundonald s Brigade left camp at daylight to clear the way for the main advance. Badfontein Valley is enclosed by a precipitous amphitheatre of hills. 'Bimbashi’ Stewart s Mounted Infantry acted as advance guard. Two miles from camp opposition was met with from the range of hills which shuts the valley in on the north. A Boer pom-pom opened the day; four guns of 'A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery were sent forward to silence it, the other two guns being kept behind to protect the flanks. Hardly had we come into action when the whole Boer crescent of hills started blazing.
In front appeared two immense puffs of smoke, which left us in no doubt at all as to the presence of two 6-inch guns there. Almost immediately another opened from the right front, and a 47 howitzer put in his claim from the left. These, with the original pom-poms and some small guns, covered the whole position of the brigade with a plaster of shrapnel and other shells. There was no real cover of any kind, and the only thing to be done was to get right out of the way, and take advantage of the ground in trying to gain any slight shelter available. Strathcona’s Horse were on the flanks mostly, and the South African Light Horse and Stewart’s Mounted Infantry deployed along a donga well to the front, which was positively the only true cover there. Even this was most unfortunately searched by the high-angle shrapnel of the howitzer. Lord Dundonald at once galloped his brigade forward in open order, and, occupying some kopjes in front, got his men right into the bed of a river for cover. Further progress by our main body was impossible without great loss, and as the enemy’s position could be turned by Ian Hamilton’s force, should it advance from Belfast through Dulstroom, the point had to be decided by Dundonald whether to retire across the open for four miles by day under the fire of powerful guns, in full sight of the Boers, or wait until night, and slip out of the kopjes and riverbed in the darkness. He decided to stay where he was. The Boers during the course of the day fired three ox-waggon-loads of shells, or, in other words, a weight of 12,000 pounds of iron. Only one man was killed and thirteen wounded on that day. If he had retired during the daytime along the open valley, there can be no question but that he must have lost heavily, and the moral effect of such a retirement would have been most damaging. Few would have believed that a full brigade of cavalry could conceal itself so effectually and sustain such trifling loss through a whole day with 96-pound shells bursting all over it, but so it was.
Soon it became necessary to remove the horses of the four guns, and these were sent away. The other two guns were out in the open behind, with their horses at any rate partially concealed from view by a single row of eucalyptus-trees, about 50 yards long, belonging to a neighbouring farm, with a convenient little stream of water running along behind.
And such was the position from 11 am. until it was dark enough to make it safe to move again. Quite deserted as the plain was, one would have thought not a soul was near at first sight A remarkable example was given of the accuracy of the shrapnel of these 6-inch guns at an immense distance.
As the evening sun set over the western hills, it showed up the harness of the artillery horses behind the trees. In a moment the 6-inch guns turned on, and before anything could be done, two shrapnel shells burst right over the heads of these horses, killing nine and wounding eight. The men, being between the horses, were covered partially, and only two were hit That same night orders were issued with a view to making a flank attack on the Boer position. The advance was to be made by General Ian Hamilton’s force, and General Brocklehurst’s Brigade of Cavalry was to join Hamilton for that purpose. With Brocklehurst was one section of the Chestnut Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, under Lieutenant Weber. This brigade left Badfontein at 5 a.m., and marched, vid Helvetia, to the top of some hills to the north-west of the latter place, where they got in touch (by lampsignalling) with General Hamilton at Swart Kopjes.
On September 6 they came up with General Hamilton’s force, which included Smith - Dorrien’s Brigade. The whole of this march was over some of the roughest country in the Transvaal, with the worst roads. But little opposition was offered by the Boers, or the force could not possibly have done it. As it was, both horses and men were tired out, and it was only by the greatest effort that the guns could be got up the hills. After the meeting of Hamilton and Brocklehurst, the force moved on, with cavalry well in front, along a river to a gorge, in which any opposition would have made advance impossible. But little was offered, and the cavalry debouched safely in the Lyden-burg plain at the further end of the pass. Near Lydenburg they came under artillery fire at a very long range from some hills on the other side of the town. Lydenburg was occupied by a small detachment, and the main body of the force bivouacked some distance off.
On the 7th the town was occupied by both forces, General Bullers troops coming by the direct road from Badfontein, which they found evacuated. In the afternoon, while in the town, we had a very unpleasant bombardment from the top of the hills to its east, where the Boers brought two or three Long Toms into action. They bombarded merrily for some time, but no one seemed to get hit, and eventually it grew dark. But little damage was done to the town, in spite of the enormous target offered. Lydenburg was a pretty little place, well stocked with provisions, quite unsuited to its name of Town of Mourning, given it by the old ‘ Trek' Boers, as the place where their men died from the fever which they contracted during their wanderings in the bush veldt, always a most unhealthy place in the summer, and lying not more than ten or fifteen miles away from Lydenburg.
On September 8 the Boer position outside the town was attacked. The 6-inch guns opened in the morning, but, as they saw the attack developing, they retired. There was a good deal of opposition. The infantry attack was made by General Smith-Dorrien’s troops and General Walter Kitchener’s. The 20th Battery got some attention from the Boer pom-poms in the centre, and the 1st Gordons [It is remarkable that on this day the two battalions of the Gordons were side by side] had the misfortune to get a 6-inch shrapnel shell right into the midst of one of their companies as it was debouching from a spruit (six miles away from the gun that fired it), which killed and wounded eighteen of their men. Otherwise there were but few casualties, and by night the hill was in our possession. During the attack General Brocklehurst had guarded the right, and had been pressing on the Boer left, while Lord Dundonald was on the left.
The next day General Ian Hamilton marched away, and with Brocklehurst’s Cavalry Brigade and the Rifle Brigade left at Lydenburg, Buller’s army went forward, much reduced in numbers. He had with him Dundonald’s Brigade (South African Light Horse and Strathcona’s Horse, Stewart’s Mounted Infantry, and 'A’ Battery, Royal Horse Artillery), the 53rd and 61st Field Batteries, the Devons, 2nd Gordons, and 1st King’s Royal Rifles. From the top of the hills over Lydenburg the road goes straight down across a deep valley and up another steep ridge. On the top of this strong opposition was met with, two pom-poms and a gun being turned on, and a good deal of rifle-fire. 'A' Battery Royal Horse Artillery came on and brought five guns up to the top, and later the sixth, which had temporarily stuck on the hill. No sooner had they appeared than whole belts of pom-pom shells seemed to burst right into the guns; others, passing over, fell among the horses and waggons drawn up some distance back. Several horses were killed and wounded, and there were a few casualties amongst the men. The horse guns worked steadily all the time, searching the Boer position, and, with the 53rd Battery on their left, silenced the enemy's fire.
The force again advanced, meeting with opposition all the way; eventually we came to the top of the Mauchberg, and here we saw the whole Boer Army. With this sight one seemed to forget it was really war. We had viewed our quarry, and the thing became at once a hunt Regardless of whatever fire might be turned on us (for we saw their 6-inch guns), everyone was standing up, shouting ‘ Tally-ho P and men could be seen climbing up to the highest part of the hill, to see better the events which might take plftce in the next hour. The Horse Artillery guns were hurried up as quickly as possible—even the tired-out Chestnut Walers seemed to know something was up—but, alas 1 the road was out of range for field-guns, and our heavy guns were too far behind. The Boers had a very strong rear-guard, which would have probably caused heavy losses had we climbed down Hell's Gate, the precipitous pass which led to the Devil's Knuckles below, and even when there we would have had to cross several hundred yards of open before beginning to be on even terms with our adversaries. It was already getting dark, so further advance was too risky.
On the 10th at dawn the heavy guns were in position, and were exchanging shots with the Boer Long Toms from the top of the Mauchberg. The enemy had still kept their heavy guns on the Devil’s Knuckles to protect their rear-guard. No better position could have been chosen. They were partially protected from sight by a rise in the ground, with a slope behind down which they could easily retire if hard pressed, and a mile of open country in front of them, which contained the only approach. They could with impunity stop a little longer and fire off their last taunts at us as we stood there shouting in impotent rage, ‘So near, but yet so far!’ Even then Dame Fortune tantalized us with her games. As a big team of oxen came up to retire their last Long Tom, every man at our guns nerved himself to the utmost to do what was required. A shell from one of our 5-inch guns hit the pole-chain just as the team began to get into draught. The dead oxen were removed, the ends of the chain tied together, and the whole great clumsy thing started once more. One can imagine the excitement of the moment, the shouting of the Kaffir drivers, and the feelings of those gallant Boer gunners as they saw gun after gun turned on them, and heard each shell coming, perhaps to pitch just where they were! But they did their work well, and Long Tom got away, notwithstanding Strathcona’s went after them and poured in a heavy rifle-fire.
On September 11 the main force went down Hell's Gate, leaving a force up at the top, and we found our way past broken waggons, deserted ammunition-carts, and other traces of hurry and retreat to Devil’s Knuckles, along the very road we had watched with such eager eyes a few hours back. Some troops were sent down into the Sabie valley, and some went along the road to Spitz Kop. Dundonald’s Brigade went to the former place, but was ordered up again in the evening to bivouac for some days at Devil’s Knuckles, while Buller went on himself with some of his force to Spitz Kop. The day was spent in harassing the enemy, and when the last gun of the Horse Artillery toiled, weary, into camp about midnight, right glad were we to get a rest Until the 21st a halt was made to get up supplies. On that date all connecting posts between Devil's Knuckles and Lydenburg were withdrawn, and we marched down the hill to Twafontein, in the Sabie River Valley. The line of communication was now via Waterval Onder and Spitz Kop.
On the 25th Buller’s force joined us from Spitz Kop, and with full supply column we advanced next day north-north-east towards Pilgrim’s Rest. At Burgher’s Pass, by Mac Mac, we met with some opposition, but while the Boers kept up a fire on the pass from in front, the Devonshire Regiment from the left attacked the right flank of what Boers were there, and by 5 p.m. the pass was in our possession, the Devons being on the top, and the rest of the force bivouacking where they were at Geelhuikboom. We had eight casualties in all.
On the 27th we marched on at 6 a.m. up Mac Mac Mountain, along a bad road, to the top of the pass; from this down the valley, camping four miles short of Pilgrim’s Rest The hamlet of that name was invaded, and found to be full of most welcome stores of food, wine, etc., and we were regaled with some fresh vegetables—indeed a find. The road out of Pilgrim’s Rest wound up a fearful hill, which was crowned with rocky boulders commanding the road for miles. The Boers, knowing the strength of this position, meant to stand here, but they were circumvented by Dundonald, who on the night of the 27th started the South African Light Horse up a bridle-path some miles to the left of the road, and seized the heights. Reinforcing rapidly with his brigade, he took the Boers in flank and drove them off the plateau commanding the road, which he held that night, and enabled the troops to come up on the following day without any opposition. Then Buller’s force marched to Morgenzou, which they occupied.
This was done quite early, so that the main force was able to march along the valley in safety, through Pilgrim’s Rest, up the mountain-side, in the direction of Kruger's Post and Lydenburg.
The whole of the 29th was occupied in getting the main force, its guns and transport, up to the top. Every gun and every waggon required double teams or a double span of mules, the more willing among the latter being put in over and over again, until at last we were all safe up the hill. A halt was made on the 30th.
On October 1 General Buller’s force turned southeast, through difficult country, to Kruger’s Post. The road seemed interminable in its dulness and dust, and our rear-guard reached bivouac-ground long after dark, only to receive a severe shelling from some hills to the west What had happened was as follows: Buller’s force, marching in from Pilgrim’s Rest, had sent for a force from Lydenburg to come out and meet them at Kruger’s Post, about eight miles out from there, in a northerly direction. For this purpose General Brocklehurst’s Brigade had come from Lydenburg that morning, and ascertained that Kruger’s Post was unoccupied. It was therefore with a feeling of security that we marched in, tired and dusty, to the last-mentioned little hamlet. That feeling of security was, however, but ill-grounded. Hardly had the advance troops of Buller’s force come in and begun to settle down for the night, when away to the west came a flash, showing up bright in the dusk of the evening. It was followed by the well-known bang, whizzzzz, burrrrr! The camp was being shelled. All rest was now at an end, and it was necessary to pack up again and move elsewhere in the dark. Next day we marched quietly into Lydenburg, and found that joy of a trekker’s life—the English mail of the last week waiting for us. Since leaving Lydenburg on September 9, Dundonald’s Brigade had been called upon to do work never before done by a cavalry force in a mountainous tract, on rough ground, up steep hillsides, surmounted by precipitous cliffs, and along rocky valleys; but all difficulties were conquered.
At Lydenberg the story of the Natal Field Force practically comes to an end, for here General Buller gave up command of the grand Army of Natal, which was thenceforth absorbed in the general Army of South Africa.
On October 6 General Buller left Lydenburg, which was garrisoned by General Lyttelton, and proceeded on his journey home. He was accompanied as far as Machadodorp by Lord Dundonald’s Brigade. On the way back, the road along which we now retraced our footsteps told a very clear tale. I counted in the space of about three miles between 150 and 200 carcasses of animals that had fallen by the wayside, and how many more had been allowed to wander away and had died a few hundred yards off it is impossible to say. On October 8, at Machadodorp, we met General French, ready for his trek across to Standerton. There was some question of ‘ A ’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery going with him, but their horses were by now too 'beat’ after the tearing work of the last month amongst the Lydenburg hills. There were then no remounts at hand, so the best of the Chestnuts were given over to General French, and the remainder returned to the remount depot, there to get a month’s rest or so before beginning again. On the 8 th, also, Sir Red vers Buller came round and gave a farewell address to the various units he was leaving. To each regiment of Lord Dundonald s Brigade and to ‘A’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery he spoke a few words, saying good-bye and praising them for their work. Each regiment gave him a round of cheers, and surely never was so hearty a cheer given a General!
General Buller s progress from Lydenburg to Machadodorp was veritably a triumphant one. Along the line of communication every little post and every garrison turned out to wish him farewell. No stereotyped cheer was here; the hearty welcome that greeted him could only have come from most sincere hearts and throats. One is not surprised, for in the early days of the war Sir Redvers Buller had ever been at hand, ever mindful of his men, sharing their troubles and pleasures alike, though in those days it was mostly trouble. Later, when things went well, the sight of Sir Redvers Buller ever brought back to our minds those days of hard, stern fighting by which he saved Natal.
In the afternoon he went, and we all most willingly came down to give him a send-off at the station as he passed out of our lives.
Lord Roberts published the following special Army Order at Pretoria on October 10:
‘General the Right Hon. Sir Redvers Buller, V.C., G.C.B., K.C.M.G., having relinquished the command of the Natal Field Force, and being about to return to England, the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief cannot allow him to leave South Africa without thanking him for the great services he has rendered to his country while in command of that force, as well as for the ability with which he has carried out the operations while serving with the force under Lord Roberts' immediate command, which have resulted in the collapse of the Boer Army in the eastern portion of the Transvaal.
(Signed) Kitchener of Khartoum,
'Major-General, Chief of Staff.'
Lord Dundonald’s Brigade was now practically broken up. Thorneycroft’s were at Greylingstad, Strathcona’s went with French, Bethune’s had long been away near Standerton. Stewart’s Mounted Infantry had remained at Lydenburg, and only the South African Light Horse and the Chestnut Troop remained. On the nth, with orders to demobilize, we started for Pretoria. The Chestnut Troop was detrained again at Middelherg to change guns with 'G' Battery, who should take them to India, whither they were due to go. Lord Dundonald passed Middelberg on the 13th, and in a few kindly words wrote to say how he regretted not being able to say goodbye, and asking Colonel Paget to tell the men how much he had appreciated their work. On the 17th the South African Light Horse were ordered not to demobilize, and were sent to Standerton to begin fighting again. On the same day the Chestnuts came to Pretoria, where they were housed in the Staats Artillerie Barracks, and temporarily rehorsed from all directions to take part in Lord Roberts’ review at the annexation of the Transvaal on October 25, in which they led the army past the Field-Marshal.
On October 30 they started for home.
And so the Natal Field Force ceased to exist.