It was now drill continuously all day and every day. Sergeant-Major Oakes, of the Victorian Rangers, held a class of instruction for non-commissioned officers every morning, and during the day Lieut.-Colonel Kelly would read to us from the bridge extracts from Queen's Regulations and Military Law, specially impressing upon us those parts which referred to the first duty of a soldier, "obedience to orders." Every Sunday church parade was held on deck; the services were conducted by the Rev. Major Holden, who accompanied us as far as Beira. Everyone had a good word for the chaplain, who was always moving about among the men, providing them with all kinds of books and writing material, and his many kindnesses were greatly appreciated by all. He edited and published a paper on board named "The A.I. Register," which was a great success. The demand for copies was so large that the supply of paper ran out, and publication ceased after the first issue.
Occasionally we would have a shooting competition between the different squadrons; an empty box or fruit case would be dropped overboard as a target, and when it was about 200 yards away we would fire volleys at it. The results were watched by a party of officers on the bridge, and points were awarded for the best shooting. Almost every evening concerts were held on deck, a very fine piano having been given for the use of the troops by the Acting-Governor of Victoria, Sir John Madden. A phonograph was also much in evidence, and at times a boxing contest would also be indulged in.
When we began to steer north-west the weather became very hot, and consequently trying for the troops, being almost unbearable day and night. Beira Harbour was reached on the morning of 22nd May, 1900. The British gunboat "Partridge" came out and met us. We were all very anxious to know how the war was going, as we had not heard any news since leaving Melbourne. Mafeking had been relieved on the 17th, but there was still plenty to do. Pretoria had not then been occupied.
We anchored in the harbour, opposite the town. The "Armenian," with the New South Wales contingent on board, had arrived a few days before, and we were greeted with ringing cheers when we dropped anchor alongside.
As there was no pier, everything had to be landed in lighters. The horses were taken off in a kind of flat-bottomed barge 20 ft. square; a tug boat would take it within a chain or so of the land, and a team of Kaffirs would then wade in and seize hold of a rope and haul it on to the beach. Owing to the harbour being full of shipping, we had rather an exciting time on one of the lighters. In dodging among the other boats, we got foul of an anchor chain, and were cast adrift, starting off with the tide at a great rate. Our tug-boat, while manoeuvring round to pick us up, was run into by another tug. After much gesticulating and vociferating on the part of the Portuguese captains, we were taken in tow again, and eventually landed on the beach.
While we were waiting in the harbour, the "Manhattan" arrived with the South Australian, West Australian, and Tasmanian contingents; she afterwards returned to Durban and landed her troops there. The 24th being the Queen's Birthday, there was a great display of bunting in the bay. At night there were fireworks, and a patriotic concert held on board. We sang "Boys of the Bulldog Breed," "Tommy Atkins," and "God Save the Queen" till "lights out."
After landing at Beira, we encamped about half a mile outside the town, adjoining the Remount Depot, where over 2000 horses, principally Hungarian ponies, were paddocked. These ponies were real little beauties to look at, and many looked fit to win a Melbourne Cup, but rather fine for remounts.
Beira is a wretched little place, built on a narrow ridge of sand along the beach. The old part of the town is built principally of galvanised iron, with here and there standing out prominently a modern building of brick, roofed with red tiles. The streets are usually ankle deep in loose sand; narrow tramways are laid down along the streets, and townspeople and tradesmen have their own private cars, which are pushed along by Kaffirs. These cars take the place of vehicular traffic, cabs and rickshaws being conspicuous by their absence. The cars are a motley collection. Some are of very rude workmanship, pushed along by a couple of dirty and almost naked Kaffirs, while others are of a more modern and aristocratic type, being hooded and upholstered, and propelled by as many as four gaily-dressed Kaffir boys. The railway (of 2-fit. gauge) and trains were built on a miniature scale; it was quite amusing to see them going along. Judging by the way the wheels went round, the smoke and noise, one would think he was travelling at least 60 miles an hour, when in reality he was travelling about six.
At this time troops were being sent into Rhodesia, and the Chartered Company was laying down a broad gauge in place of the narrow gauge between Salisbury and Beira. The contractor had completed it as far as Bamboo Creek, a malaria-stricken swamp 90 miles inland from Beira, and I wondered why the broader gauge was not pushed on to Beira, as the traffic there had become very congested. From credible information I learned that the contractors were getting £1000 per day for taking the troops through the Portuguese territory, and doubtless had their own time to do it in.
It was scandalous that thousands of men, wholly unused to such a climate, should be kept for months in such an unhealthy district, where fever and dysentery were undermining the constitutions of hundreds of them.
Several corps of Australian Bushmen had arrived at Beira just a month before us, and had gone through to Marrandellas. Some time after, the following article with reference to them was written and published in an English journal:—
To say that they were extremely annoyed would be describing their feelings too mildly.
They were very savage; they forgot themselves slightly, and swore with force and originality. They cursed Rhodesia, they cursed fate, they cursed their various Governments, but mostly they cursed their Governments, for they are a very political people these Australians, weaned on manifestoes and reared on Parliamentary debates. They cursed their Governments, knowing by heart their weaknesses, and ever ready to attribute the non-success of any undertaking-be it political, social, or warlike—to the dilatory action of certain members of the divers Cabinets.
"The Government ought never to have sent us up here at all," a Queenslander spoke with great earnestness, "if they wanted us to see any fighting. Got to Beira in April, now it's June, and-"
They were "out of it." Pretoria was occupied. This was the news which had spread the wave of pessimism over a little wayside camp on the Bulawayoroad-a camp on the fringe of the long white road, which wound south and dipped north.
The Sabakwe River trickled through the land, a stone's throw from the white tilted waggons drawn tailboard to pole to form a rough laager, and the heavy-eyed oxen stood knee-deep in its sluggish waters.
North, or rather north-east, several nights away, was Marran-dellas. South of that, and far, was Beira, and it was two months ago since they had left. Two months, and Mafeking had been relieved, Johannesburg entered, Pretoria occupied. Therefore the Bushmen, who dreamt not of Eland's River, and to whom Zeerust was a name in a gazetteer, grew despondent.
"Do you think there is a chance of fighting, sir?"
I could not answer the Victorian who asked, nor did 1 have the heart to reprove the Tasmanian who swore.
"Well," remarked the Queenslander, "all I can say is, that if we don't see any fighting it will be a shame." He qualified shame. "We didn't come out here to be piffled through this country." There was an adjective before country'. "If I wanted to admire scenery I'd have stayed in Queensland. If I wanted gold I'd have gone to Rockhampton. As for land, well, if any of you fellers want land I'll sell you a run of 6000 acres of the best land in the world."
They are peculiar, the men who are holding Eland's River; they are not soldiers as we in London know soldiers; they don’t like shouldering arms by numbers, and they vote squad drill "damn silly." They are poor marching men, for they have been used to riding; they ride firmly, but not gracefully. The horses they prefer are great, rough, upstanding brutes that buck themselves into inverted Vs when they are mounted, and stand on their hind legs to express their joy. The Bushman will ride a horse for a hundred miles without thinking it anything extraordinary, and bring it in in good condition, but he cannot go for a couple of miles without galloping the poor brute to death. He is very careful how he feeds his mount, and would sooner go without food himself than his dumb friend should be hungry, but it takes a troop-sergeant-major and three corporals to make a Bushman groom his horse.
They are very patient, these men; their training makes them so. They have learnt to sit by waterholes and watch sheep, dividing their time between week-old papers and day-old lambs. Politics interest them; wars—ordinary every-day war that does not call for their active interference—interest them; but the price of wool interests them more than all these things. Russian famines distress them, Indian plagues alarm them, but the blue staring sky and the rain that comes not make lines round their eyes, and puts grey into their beards.
They have got their own method of going out to fight, and that method is as distinct from that of the regular Tommy as Tommy's is foreign to the C.I.V. Tommy goes forth to battle in a workmanlike manner. He seldom writes farewell letters, but grabs a hunk of biscuit, gives his water-bottle a shake to see how much he has got, buckles on his pouches and bayonet, and, with the instinct bred on a dozen barrack squares, smooths the creases out of his stained khaki jacket. Then he picks up his rifle and eyes it critically, jerks back the bolt and
squints up the barrel—Tommy, the workman, is careful of his tools— pushes back the bolt, mechanically snaps the trigger, fixes his helmet firmly on his head, and steps out to join his company.
The C.I.V. when I knew him first was somewhat self-conscious. His rifle was clean, his bandolier was ready to put on, his coat was nicely rolled, his putties were evenly fixed; long before the fall-cin bugle sounded he was ready for parade-for he was very keen. When the bugle sounded he picked up his rifle, not carelessly, as did his brother of the line, but reverently and with care. He adjusted his broad-brimmed hat, he patted his bayonet to see if it was there, and went out to face the pock-marked trenches with the proud consciousness that at the worst he would make a picturesque casualty.
The Bushman knows his rifle as the city man knows his walking-stick. He feels neither contempt nor awe for it. It is a commercial asset, a domestic property. Perhaps he keeps his wife in dresses by shooting kangaroos; perhaps he keeps himself in whisky by tracking wallabies. His equipment is scanty. He has a bandolier, perhaps a pouch, possibly a mess-tin, certainly a "billy." When the parade-call goes he falls in with his fellows, and numbers off from the right somewhat sheepishly. On parade he is a unit and has to do as he's told, and he isn't quite used to submitting his will to those of others in authority.
He wheels round awkwardly. If he makes a slip he causes his horse to buck to cover his confusion.
He is off, and he feels easier. Then comes the splitting up of his squadron into little independent patrols, and he breathes freely, for with a couple of kindred spirits on a scouting trip he is a man once more with a soul of his own. He sees most things and acts quickly. Before the "ping" of the sniper's bullet has died away he is off his horse and under cover. Then, if the sniper is an intelligent man, he won't move about much, for when a Bushman has located his quarry he can lie quite still for an hour at a stretch, his cheek touching the stock, his finger resting lightly on the trigger.
These are the men who are holding Eland's River—men who live on "damper" and tea-men whose progress through Rhodesia was marked by many dead horses and much profanity.
They wanted to fight badly. They prayed that they might get into a tight place. Their prayer is answered.
If you knew the Eland's River garrison you would not pity them, you would rejoice with them.