Outbreak of the war—The Transport Service and despatch of Army Corps from Southampton—Departure of a Naval Brigade from England and landing at Capetown and Durban—I join H.M.S. Philomel.
During a short leave of absence in Scotland, after my return from Flag-Lieutenant's service in India with Rear-Admiral Archibald L. Douglas, that very kind friend, now Lord of the Admiralty, appointed me (5th October, 1899) to the Transport Service at Southampton, in connection with the embarkation of the various Army Corps for the war in South Africa. As the summons came by wire, I had to leave Stirling in a hurry, collect my various goods and chattels in London, and make the best of my way to Southampton. I reported myself at the Admiralty Transport Office on Monday the 9th, and at once commenced work, visiting certain ships with Captain Barnard, the Port Transport Officer, and picking up the "hang" of the thing, and what was wanted. Captain Graham-White, R.N., came down in the afternoon to take charge of our proceedings. From that date up to the 22nd, or thereabouts, we Transport Lieutenants simply had charge (p. 002) of certain vessels fitting out, and had to inspect for the Admiralty the many freight and transport ships which came in from other centres, such as London, Liverpool, etc., to be officially passed at Southampton; among others the Goorkha and Gascon, two Union Liners, came particularly under me, and I shall always remember the courtesy of their officials, particularly Captain Wait and the indefatigable Mr. Langley, who saw that we transport officers were well looked after on board each day. Everything in connection with this Line seemed to me during my time at Southampton to be very well done, and so our work went swimmingly.
Besides myself were Lieutenants McDonald, Nelson, and Crawford, R.N., as Transport Officers, and we co-operated with a staff of military officers under Colonel Stacpole, D.A.A.G., with whom we got on very well, so that we ran the work through quickly and without a hitch. Sir Redvers Buller left Southampton in the Dunottar Castle on the 15th October, and we all saw him off; in fact, McDonald and I represented the Admiralty at the final inspection of the ship before sailing. There was, of course, a scene of great enthusiasm, and many people were there, among whom were Sir Michael Culme Seymour, Alexander Sinclair his Flag-Lieutenant, and Lady and Miss Fullerton. All this time we were more than busy inspecting and getting ships ready up to the 22nd, when the departure of the First Army Corps commenced; we got away five transports that day within half an hour of each other, all taking some 1,500 men; they were, if my memory serves me, the Malta, Pavonia, Hawarden Castle, Roslin Castle, and Yorkshire; the next few days we did similar work from 8 a.m. till dark, getting away about three ships a day on an average.
During the week Commander Heriz, R.N., and myself, (p. 003) representing the Admiralty, inspected the hospital ships Spartan and Trojan before their start; they had been fitted out under the Commander's superintendence, and were perfect; in fact, one almost wished to be a sick man to try them! All these continued departures aroused great public interest; on one day we had the Commander-in-Chief (Lord Wolseley), Lord Methuen, Sir William Gatacre, and many other Generals; and on another the Duke of Connaught came to see the 1st Bn. Scots Guards off in the Nubia and gave them a message from the Queen; he came again a few days later to see his old regiment, the Rifle Brigade, off in the German, and he and the Transport Officers were photographed many times. I was told afterwards that my own portrait appeared very often in the cinematographs of these scenes, which were then very popular and were exhibited to crowded audiences in all the London and Provincial Music Halls and elsewhere. I was very pleased on this occasion to meet my old First Lieutenant of the Cambrian, now Commander Mark Kerr, R.N., who was also seeing the Rifle Brigade off with a party of relatives whom I took over the Kildonan Castle.
Here I may mention, to show the different rates of speed, that the German carrying the Rifle Brigade, actually arrived at Capetown some hours after the Briton (in which I myself left later on for South Africa), although it started ten days before us. I have very pleasant recollections of being associated with Major Edwards of the Berkshire Regiment in embarking the Reserves of the 3rd Bn. Grenadier Guards in the Goorkha, which ship I had been superintending for so long; I was able to get their Commanding Officer, Major Kincaid, two good cabins, for which I think he was much obliged to me. These Reserves were going to Gibraltar to pick up the main Battalions of (p. 004) their regiment which took part later on (3rd and 4th November) in Lord Methuen's actions at Belmont and Graspan.
After the 27th October the transport ships left Southampton in ones and twos, and we were not so hard pushed; in fact, the work was becoming rather monotonous, till, on the evening of the 2nd November, our Secretary, Mr. Alton, R.N., rushed up to me with a wire telling me to be prepared immediately to leave for the Cape. I was very pleased, and thought myself extremely lucky to get out to the scene of war with a chance of going to the front; and after saying a hurried good-bye to all my friends I left Southampton on the 4th November in the Briton; my father saw me off and gave me some letters of introduction; Lord Wolseley also kindly wrote about me to Sir Redvers Buller; all my old colleagues of the Transport Service gave me a most cordial send-off, and we steamed out of the docks about 7 p.m. in heavy rain, which did not, however, damp the enthusiasm of hundreds of people who waited to see the last of us. In saying farewell to the Transport Service I could not help thinking how much courtesy and assistance we transport officers received from the captains and officers of all the ships under our inspection, and how much we admired their keen feeling and hard work in the interests of the public service. I hope this may be recognised when war rewards are given.
Our voyage was a good one, being calm enough after the first day, and all going well up to Madeira (where I landed for the sixth time) as well as on the onward voyage in which we went through the usual routine of ship life until we arrived at the Cape on Monday, 20th November. The Bay was full of transports, and they seemed still to be pouring in every hour; we did not hear much news (p. 005) except that Ladysmith was still safe, and we at once entrained for Simon's Bay, a pretty train journey of about an hour and a half, where the fleet were lying. Now commenced the bad luck of the Brigade "wot never landed," we all got drafted to various ships instead of going to the front in a body as we had hoped and expected, and my lot was to join the flagship Doris. Much to our disappointment a Naval Brigade had been landed the day before our arrival for Lord Methuen's force; we ourselves were therefore regarded for the moment as hardly wanted, and the Admiral was, we were told, dead against landing any more sailors. So we were both afflicted and depressed. I had, however, a pleasant time on the Doris, and found myself senior watch keeper on board. At night many precautions were taken in the fleet; guards were landed in the dockyard with orders to fire on any suspicious boat, and a patrol boat steamed round the fleet all night up to daylight with similar orders; we ourselves often went on shore for route marching and company drill and had a grand time.
I may mention, in passing, that all the bluejackets who were landed at Simon's Bay for shore duty were fitted with khaki suits, viz., tunics and trousers and hat covers, drawn from the military stores. With the trousers the men wore brown gaiters, and each man was provided with two pairs of service boots; they all wore their white straw hats fitted with khaki covers and looked very workmanlike in heavy marching order. The Marines also wore khaki and helmets, and had stripes of marine colours (red, blue and yellow) on the helmets to distinguish the Corps. Each batch of bluejackets that were sent to the front, about twelve men in a batch, was allowed two canvas bags to hold spare clothes and other gear, and took three days' provisions and water. The haversacks were all (p. 006) stained khaki with Condy's fluid, and the guns were all painted khaki colour.
We saw a great many people at Capetown, and while there, Colonel Gatcliffe, Royal Marines, the head Press censor, told Morgan and myself a lot of instructive facts about the work at the Telegraph Offices, and how all foreign telegrams in cipher to South Africa giving news to the Boers, as well as those from them, had been stopped. Some 300 telegrams sent after Elandslaagte by Boer agents at Capetown had been thus suppressed. When we saw Colonel Gatcliffe he was busily engaged passing telegrams, which had to be read and signed by him at the Telegraph Office before they were allowed to be despatched.
All went well at Simon's Bay until November 24th, when we heard of Lord Methuen's fight and heavy casualties at Belmont, followed soon by news of the heavy loss (105 killed and wounded) incurred by the Naval Brigade at Graspan chiefly among the marines. I think that the general idea in the fleet was admiration for our comrades and gratitude to Lord Methuen for giving the Navy a chance of distinction; but I am told these views were not shared by our Chief. A force of forty seamen and fifty marines were now ordered off to the front at once to fill up these casualties. Naturally we all wanted to go, but the Admiral could not send us and drafted us off to various ships, my own destination being H.M.S. Philomel, then at Durban, which I reached in the transport Idaho, a Wilson Liner. We had on board a Field Battery and other details with six guns and 250 horses. I was much interested in the horses, who had a fine deck to themselves and were very fit; they were in fact 'Bus horses, and very good ones.
There were some Highland officers and others on board who had been wounded and were now going back to Natal (p. 007) after recovery; they told us how cunning the Boers were in selecting positions; one saw nothing of them, they said, on a hill but the muzzle of their rifles; they are only killed in retreat; they pick out any dark object as a man, such as a great-coat, training their rifles on it so as to fire directly he rises and advances. One of the officers told us how he saw at Elandslaagte a Scotchman who had been put by the Boers in their firing line with his hands tied behind his back because he had refused to fight for them; apparently the man escaped uninjured and was taken prisoner with the rest after the fight by our Lancers, swearing when liberated many oaths of vengeance on the Boers. Colonel Sheil told one of our officers, Commander Dundas, who was in charge of him and other prisoners on board the Penelope at Simon's Bay, that the only fault of our men was their rashness, and our Cavalry did not, he said, throw out sufficient scouting parties, missing himself and others on one occasion by not doing so; the Boers had not reckoned, he said, on Naval guns being landed, and placed great reliance on European interference. In his opinion, the war would be over the moment we entered Boer territory, and everything seemed at the moment to point to this conclusion. These Boer prisoners, who were all got at Elandslaagte, talked English well, and appeared, by all accounts, to have a good feeling and respect for the English, but they were very down upon the capitalists and others whom they blamed for the war.
To-day, at sea, as I write this (28th November), a S.E. breeze makes it delightfully cool. Indeed, I found the climate of Capetown, although the hot weather was beginning, delightful; a regular champagne air and a very hot sun, yet altogether a nice dry heat which quickly brought all the skin off my face at Simon's Bay after one (p. 008) day's march with the Battalion up the hills. I expect to find Natal much damper, and no doubt it will be very wet and cold at night in the hill country.
Thursday, 30th November.—The wind which has been blowing in our teeth has now moderated, so we may reach Durban earlier than we hoped, as we are only about 300 miles off. I watched the battery horses being exercised and fed this morning; they are mostly well accustomed to the ship's motion, but it is amusing sometimes to see about a dozen stalwart gunners shoving the horses behind to get them back to their stalls and eventually conquering after much energy and language, and after desperate resistance on the part of the horses; these old 'Bus horses are strong and fit, and have very good decks forward and aft for their half-hour exercise each day; while they are exercising, their stalls are cleaned out and scrubbed with chloride of lime. It is most interesting to watch their eagerness to go to their food, for they are always hungry!
Friday, 1st December.—We arrived at Durban at 5 a.m. and anchored in the roadstead. In the Bay are H.M.S. Terrible and Forte; also a Dutch man-of-war, the Friesland, a fine looking cruiser; there are also eleven transports at anchor. Inside the Bay are the Philomel (my ship) and Tartar, besides a lot of other transports, including my old friend the Briton. Durban is a striking place from the sea; very green and cultivated, and with rows of houses extending along a high ridge overlooking the town. It all looks very pretty and one might fancy one's self in England. A strong breeze is blowing, so it is quite cool. An officer from the Forte tells us that Estcourt is relieved and that the Boers are massing south of Colenso ready for a big fight. Our army have apparently to bridge some ravines before advancing. The guns of the Forte and (p. 009) Philomel are at Estcourt with landing parties. Commander Dundas and Lieutenants Buckle and Dooner join the Forte and I join the Philomel. Tugs came out at 1 p.m. and took us in over the bar; we passed close to the Philomel and were heartily cheered; then we went alongside the jetty, where staff officers came on board with orders. Commander Holland (Indian Marine) is here in charge of Naval transport and is an old acquaintance, as we met last year at Bombay. I got on board the Philomel without delay and found myself Captain of her, as her Captain (Bearcroft) had gone to take the Flag-Captain's place with Lord Methuen's force, and Halsey, the First Lieutenant, was at Estcourt with some 12-pounder guns. About thirty men of the Philomel are on shore under two officers, and one of her 4.7 guns is up at Ladysmith. I hear that all guns north of Pietermaritzburg are under command of Captain Jones, R.N., of the Forte; and, in fact, all the ships here at present, viz., the Terrible, Forte, Philomel, and Tartar, have landing parties at the front.
I reported myself to Commander F. Morgan, senior officer of the Tartar, who was pleased to see me as he is an old friend, I having served with him in 1894 in the Royal yacht (Victoria and Albert), from which we were both promoted on the same day (28th August, 1894). I also called on the Commandant of Durban, Captain Percy Scott of the Terrible, at his headquarter office in the town. I found him busily engaged in making-up plans and photos of Durban, as well as his designs for field and siege mountings for the 4.7 and 12-pounder guns, to forward to Admiral Douglas, my late Commander-in-Chief; he showed them to me, and ordered me to take over command of the Philomel for the present. I have met a lot of old friends, and find the ship itself clean, smart, and comfortable. (p. 010) The weather is changeable and very hot. Captain Scott has ordered martial law in the town, and everyone found in the streets after 11 p.m. is locked up. The story goes that Captain Scott himself was locked up one night by mistake!
Tuesday, 5th December.—Captain Scott sent on board a kind letter from the Governor of Natal (Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson) who has spoken to Sir Redvers Buller about me. An early advance is expected on Colenso, and it seems on the cards that some strategic move will soon be made to outflank the Boers and commence relief operations on behalf of poor Ladysmith.Footnote 1: General Sir Owen Tudor Burne.