On leaving Beira we embarked on the German mail-boat "Kronprinz" for Durban, calling en route at Delagoa Bay, where we remained four days discharging cargo. About 2000 tons were put off, consisting principally of tinned beef; a few lighter loads of stuff, probably munitions of war, were prohibited, and had to be put again on the boat. The number of gunboats lying in the harbour gave it the appearance of a naval station; several European nations were represented there.
This harbour is one of the finest on the east coast, the river being navigable for big shipping for nearly twenty miles. The town of Lorenzo Marques, prettily situated on rising ground on the north side, is a flourishing little place, and likely from its natural advantages to become in time the first port of commerce on the east coast. When the low-lying swamps in the neighbourhood are drained and reclaimed, malaria will no longer be dreaded, and European children will be able to grow up there with rosy cheeks.
Our pleasant voyage to Durban was marred by a tragic incident on board. One day, after the German Band had been playing as usual from the saloon deck, a bandsman who had received a slight reproof, hastened to his cabin and blew his brains out with a revolver. The incident appeared to cause but a momentary flutter; the corpse was wrapped in canvas and weighted and dropped overboard, almost before it was cold. Next day the matter was forgotten.
Durban was reached after a run of eight days. The sea was too rough to cross the bar into the harbour, and we all were well shaken as we were swung over the side in baskets on to a tender, which took us off to the landing stage.
We were now transferred to the "Persia," an ancient and rickety-looking transport, which was lying alongside the wharf. I believe she had broken her propeller shaft when taking her first load of troops to Africa; she looked as if she had been at the bottom of the sea for fifty years, and had been suddenly hauled up and set off when the war broke out. She was a splendid exhibit from the War Office, whose administrators seemed to us to consist of a number of gilt-and-tasselled drawing-room knights, sitting with their feet on velvet pile to consider the binding of a blue book or to unwind a fresh piece of red tape.
On board the "Persia" there were about 500 other invalids on their way home; the accommodation and food were in keeping with the rest of the boat. We remained at Durban for nearly a week, and were allowed to go ashore during the day; much of my time was spent in "rickshaw" rides. The "rickshaw" boys, with their grotesque head-dress of feathers and horns, are fine specimens of the Zulu native; when touting for hire they fairly besiege a prospective fare, pirouetting and capering round in most striking attitudes, at the same time informing you that "Me good boy, boss!" One will go a little better with, "Me very flash boy, boss!" and start kicking up his heels and shying halfway across the road and back again. When one is selected, the others with ejaculations of disappointment return to their stands, ready to charge the next passer-by.
On Sunday a party of us drove round the Berea to Umgeni, a very pretty little pleasure resort situated among the hills, and much patronised by Durbanites; the scenery there was picturesque and pleasing, much of the country being covered w ith sugar plantations and orange groves. The Berea, a chain of hills at the back of the town, is the "Toorak" of Durban; splendid mansions and pretty villas peep from gardens of luxuriant tropical growth, and look out upon the town, the harbour, the Bluff, and the open sea beyond.
Leaving Durban, we arrived at Capetown after a five days' trip, which was the roughest and worst we had experienced. The "Persia" was a very narrowly-buiit boat, and rolled considerably, and a great sigh of relief went up from many hearts when Lion's Head and Table Mountain were sighted; we did indeed pity the poor fellows who had the ill-luck to be invalided home in such a boat.
We landed at South Arm Quay, and were drafted to the different hospitals. I was among those who went to Green Point Military Hospital, which was situated at the back of the racecourse. The racecourse was also being used as a camp for Boer prisoners of war; several thousands were quartered there.
On reception at the hospital, my kit and clothing were taken into store, and I was provided with a blue hospital suit, and was told I must not go outside the hospital grounds. The rules savoured very much of prison life, and I longed to get away from the place. The following day the medical officer came to me, and inquired my port of destination, as it was intended to ship us to Australia by the first outgoing boat. I informed him that I had no wish to return home just yet; my knee had greatly improved since leaving Rhodesia, and I would probably be fit for duty again in a few weeks. I requested to be sent to the Australasian Depot at Maitland camp. This request was granted, and two days later I was sent there. Though still very lame, I was able to get about and assist the sergeant-major with the camp duties of the depot.
Shortly afterwards the depot staff was reorganised, and I was appointed quartermaster-sergeant, an appointment which was in no way a sinecure. I had more than I could do, and with an assistant was always kept busy equipping drafts of troops for the front, attending and providing clothes to invalided men at the military hospitals at Woodstock, Wynberg, Green Point, and Rondebosch.
Maitland camp was situated about five miles from Capetown, on the left side of the Salt River, opposite the Observatory; it was the cavalry and artillery depot of the district, which included the South African Mounted Irregular Forces and all oversea colonials. The latter when off the veldt were the most difficult of any troops to deal with; when at the front they would fight and fight and face grim death without the quiver of a muscle; but it was almost a hopeless task to try to make them conform to ordinary barrack-room discipline. I had from 100 to 150 of these men under me, yet it was impossible to get more than a few on parade for camp duties.
I was often compelled, though I did it with great reluctance, to place a number of these men under arrest for insubordination; the effect it had on them was not worth the trouble. The only time I could rely on getting a full muster was at "pay parade," which was most religiously attended. On one occasion the camp regimental sergeant-major required a number of men and instructed me to parade every available man at once. I immediately went to the Australians' quarters and shouted, "Fall in for pay!" This had the desired effect. I secured about fifty, and handed them over to the regimental sergeant-major, to the surprise and disappointment of many sick, lame, and tired "soldiers of the King" who had been disturbed from their afternoon's naps. Vengeance upon me was mooted, and "tossing in a blanket" suggested. They had been grievously taken in; their annoyance passed off, however, and in a few days I had the intense satisfaction of taking them to the docks and embarking them for home. Old scores were then forgotten, and as the tender put off they gave three cheers for their sergeant-major, an honour which greatly amused me and was as much appreciated.
These men were not altogether to blame; they should never have been sent to Maitland, which was a duty camp. They had been crowded out of the hospitals as soon as convalescent, and sent there to await embarkation, instead of being sent to a convalescent depot. They absolutely refused to mount guard or do picquet and fatigue duties. During this time the bubonic plague was raging in Capetown, and a plague camp was established near Maitland. One day the New South Wales Mounted Rifles arrived in camp from up-country, and while waiting to embark for home were ordered to furnish guards for the plague camp. A non-commissioned officer refused to do this duty, and was court-martialled and sentenced to three months' imprisonment, which he underwent at the Castle Military Prison, Capetown.
This punishment was, I suppose, merited for insubordination; but these men had been fighting nobly and well at the front, and on the eve of their departure for home should not have been called upon to do duty at an infectious disease camp. The day following they would probably be rushed on to a crowded transport, and scandals similar to that of the "Drayton Grange," where men died like rotten sheep from an infectious disease, were inevitable; even a dreaded plague might be scattered broadcast wherever they might land.
During the plague scare at Capetown a case occurred in the men's quarters at the Australasian depot. It happened at a most inopportune time, and the results were disastrous. Preparation had been made to despatch a batch of invalids home; everything was in readiness, the men had their kits packed, and were being put through a medical examination prior to leaving camp, when one man, a New South Wales Artilleryman, was found to have symptoms of plague. This necessitated the whole of the men being quarantined and removed from their quarters. A camp under canvas was formed near the bank of the Salt River; the men were extremely annoyed, and vented their spite on the offending huts. They armed themselves with sticks, stones, and a couple of axes, and raided their late quarters. They smashed every window, broke down the doors, tables, and forms, and hacked and hewed at the iron walls. In a few minutes the place was almost demolished, and it was intended to finish up by setting fire to the ruins, but progress was stopped by the arrest of four of the ringleaders. These were called upon for the amount of the damages, which was paid without a murmur. The men afterwards wrecked a newspaper office in Capetown, the journal published there having passed disparaging remarks on their previous actions at Maitland, and on Australians generally.
The Canadians were attached to the Australasian depot. These men were some of the finest irregular soldiers that ever carried a rifle. There were miners from Klondyke, hunters from the backwoods, troopers from the Northwest Frontier Police, and included were some of the "hardest cases" that the land of the maple leaf ever produced; these were past-masters in the use of unique expletives, and for downright and original profanity it would hardly be posible to find their equal. An officer would remonstrate with his men in most candid terms, but for all this they were the men above all others for a tight place or a desperate enterprise, and they rigidly adhered to the rule of never allowing their enemies to trouble them a second time.
The following poem appeared about this time in "The Navy IIlustrated":-
Oh, bitter blew the western wind and chilled us to the bone, From mountain top to mountain top it made its weary moan, While we, Strathcona's Horse, rode on, in silence and alone.
The darkness closed around us like a monk's hood gathered tight, It pressed upon our eyeballs, sealing up the sense of sight, And mocked us with false flashes of a brain-begotten light.
With straining at the silence grew our hearing thunder-proof; The moaning blast in vain flung back its echo from the kloof, The very ground on which we rode struck dumbly to the hoof.
And no man spake, nor dared so much as loose his tethered tongue. Which else in fevered agony from blackened lips had hung, But now, with limpet grip compelled, to cheek and palate clung.
Strathcona's Horse had never borne the fear mark on their brow; The oak sap was their blood—the thews, the supple maple bough; Their swords were fashioned from the share that shod their prairie plough.
Then why those white, drawn faces? Why those breasts that strain and heave? Those eyes that see but darkness? And those tongues that parch and cleave? It was the tale the Zulu scout brought southward yester eve.
It was the same old tale—the farm, the false white flag, the foe; And four good British lads that fell where murder laid them low. Strathcona's Horse their purpose knew-the morning, too, should know.
On! on! there's twenty miles and more between us and the prey. And still the scout, with bleeding feet, directs our weary way, And still our eyes strain eastward for the coming of the day.
A dark ravine, whose beetling sides o'erhang the path we tread- A faint grey line, a spot of light, with shimmering haze o'er-spread— A wreath of smoke—the farm, the farm, six hundred yards ahead.
But see—the Zulu lied. God bless that faithless, perjured black! Those British lads died not, but live. On yonder chimney stack Behold, wrapped in the morning mist, our flag, the Union Jack!
Strathcona's Horse rode forward with a swift Canadian swing, Their hearts with joy o'erflowing, and the teardrops glistening—Ping! Halt! What was that? Hell's fury! 'twas the Mauser's deadly ring.
Oh, fathomless the treacherous depths within the Boer breast! It was the foe had raised that flag above their devil's nest, While stark and stiff four corpses lay where murder bade them rest.
Strathcona's Horse rode forward, though there fell both horse and man; They spake no word, but every brain conceived the selfsame plan: Through every vein and nerve and thew the self-same purpose ran.
What though the Mausers raked the line, and tore great gaps between? What though the thick clay walls stood firm, the ambushed foe to screen? There was a deed to do, whose like the world had seldom seen.
They stormed the palisades, which crashed beneath their furious stroke; The doors with staves they battered in, the barricades they broke- And then they bound the fiends within, with Mausers for a yoke.
Swift to the ending of the deed, yet only half begun, The daylight grows: there's bloody work still waiting to be done— Six corpses swing athwart the face of God's own rising sun.
Bury in peace our own dear dead;—then comrades, ride away; Yet leave a mark that all may know, who hitherward shall stray, Strathcona's Horse it was that paid a visit here to-day.
'Twas thus Strathcona's Horse left Vengeance sitting by her shrine, Where six accursed corpses broke the grey horizon line, Their flesh to feed the vultures, and their bones to be a sign.
I also extract the following from a South African paper published in April, 1901"A member of Strathcona's Horse writes to me of the gratification felt by that body at having been the first regiment to be presented with the King's colours in recognition of services rendered on the field of battle. It is described as a Union Jack of silk, trimmed with gold, and having gold tassels, and at the top of the staff a gold crown surmounted by a lion. To the flagstaff is fixed a silver plate, engraved with a crown and this inscription:—'Presented by His Majesty the King to Lord Strathcona's Corps, in recognition of services rendered to the Empire in South Africa—1900.'"
On one occasion, when embarking invalids for Australia on board the "Persic," which was lying in the roadstead in Table Bay, I met several old acquaintances. I had been in conversation with them down below for about ten minutes, when to my great consternation I felt the vibration of the engines, and found that the "Persic" was on her way to Australia. I rushed to the bridge and called the captain, and informed him of my predicament; he stopped the boat, which by this time had passed outside the breakwater, and hailing a sailing smack that happened to be passing, I, with no little difficulty, got on board and was landed at the docks again. A man never knows his fate; what seemed to me then to be a stroke of ill-luck may have been a visit from my guardian angel in disguise, for, as subsequent events proved, it would perhaps have been better for me if the "Persic" had carried me away unawares to Australia.
After being about four months at Maitland camp, I as anxious to rejoin my regiment. My knee, to all appearance, was perfectly well, and I had got rid of my lameness, though during this time I had not attempted to ride a horse. Then Lord Roberts was about to come to Capetown to embark for home, and I was selected to form one of the escort to meet him on his arrival. As soon as I began to take mounted exercise my knee again became troublesome, and my eagerness to take part in the reception cost me another three months' limping.
Some time after this the camps at Maitland were closed, and the Cavalry, Artillery, Irregular and Imperial Yeomanry troops were concentrated at the Military Camp on the Green Point Common. The common was once a beautiful grassy down, but the traffic of a large camp had so ploughed it up that it was knee deep in loose sand, and the wind, almost constantly blowing, carried sand with it everywhere.