Still holding Grass Kop with the Queen's—General Buller leaves for England—Final withdrawal of the Naval Brigade, and our arrival at Durban—Our reception there—I sail for England—Conclusion.
Tuesday, 2nd October.—Grass Kop. Still here with the Queen's and my friends Major Dawson and Lieutenant Poynder. What an odd sort of climate we seem to have in South Africa. Two days ago unbearable heat with rain and thunder, and to-day so cold, with a heavy Scotch mist, as to make one think of the North Pole; so we are shivering in wraps and balaclavas, while occasional N.W. gales lower some of our tents. The partridges seem to have forsaken this hill, so poor "John" the pointer doesn't get enough work to please him; but his master, Major Dawson, when able to prowl about safe from Boer snipers, still downs many a pigeon and guinea fowl which keeps our table going.
Friday, 5th October.—We are all delighted to hear that Lord Roberts is appointed Commander-in-Chief at home; report says that he comes down from Pretoria in a few days to inspect the Natal battlefields and to look at his gallant son's grave at Colenso. I must try and see him if I can. One of our convoys from Vryheid reported to be captured on the 1st by Boers, the Volunteer escort being made prisoners and some killed; this has delayed the (p. 088) return of the Natal Volunteers who were to have been called in for good on that day.
Wednesday, 10th October.—Still we drag on to the inevitable end. The reported capture of a convoy turns out to be only a few wagons escorted by a small party of Volunteers who were unwounded and released after a few days.
This is a great week of anniversaries. Yesterday, the 9th, was that of the insolent Boer Ultimatum of 1899 which brought Kruger and his lot to ruin; to-day and to-morrow a year ago (10th and 11th October), the Boer forces were mobilizing at this very place, Sandspruit; and on the 12th they entered Natal full of bumptious boasting. They were going, as they said, to "eat fish in Durban" within a month, and many of them carried tin cases containing dress suits and new clothes in preparation for that convivial event. And they would have done so except for the fish (sailors) and the women (Highlanders), as they styled us, who, they said, were too much for them, combined I think with the Ladysmith sweet shop, which proved their Scylla with Colenso as their Charybdis.
Major Burrell of the Queen's was up here a few days ago and made a special reconnaissance to Roi Kop under cover of my guns; he told us many amusing stories of his experiences with Boer and foreign prisoners at Paardekop while sweeping up the country round there; one Prussian Major of Artillery had come in from Amersfoort and surrendered, saying he had blown up seven Boer guns just previously by Botha's orders. This German Major, it seems, was a curious type of man; waving his hands airily he would say that foreigners were obliged to come and join the Boers so as to study the art of war which only the English got any chance of doing in their little campaigns; this being so, he said, "Ah, I shall go back to (p. 089) my native land, then six months in a fortress perhaps, after that, sapristi, a good military appointment. Eh bien! what do you think?" He also said about our taking of Almond's Nek that Erasmus, who was commanding at Laing's Nek, had been told that we were turning his flank and was advised to send ten guns to stop us; he thought a minute and said "No, I will not send guns, it is Sunday and God will stop them." Perhaps the Prussian Major's veracity was not of the highest class, but this yarn if told to General Buller would no doubt interest him, because undoubtedly if the Boers had had ten more guns defending Almond's Nek we should have had considerable more difficulty in taking it. The following Natal Army Orders of 17th July, 1900, will show how considerately we dealt with the Boers and others in the foregoing operations in the matter of paying for supplies.
Supplies Requisitioned, Etc.
The following are the prices fixed to be paid for supplies requisitioned, etc.:
No bills will, however, be paid by supply officers or others until approved by the Director of Supplies.
Receipts will be given in all cases on the authorized form, and duplicates forwarded same day to Director of Supplies. The receipts will show whether the owner is on his farm or on commando.
Oat hay, per 100 bundles 15s. to 18s. according to quality.
Manna hay, " 10s.
Blue grass, " 3s.
Straw, " 7s.
Mealies, per 100 lbs 5s.
Potatoes, per sack of 150 lbs. 10s.
Milk, per bottle 6d.
Eggs, per dozen 1s. to 1s. 3d.
Fowls, each 1s. to 1s. 6d.
Ducks, " 2s. to 2s. 6d.
Geese, " 3s. to 3s. 6d.
Turkeys, " 6s. to 8s.
Butter, per lb. 1s. to 1s. 6d.
(p. 090) Saturday, 13th October.—Many exciting things have crowded themselves into the last few days. The Boers who had slipped away from the Vryheid district are again moving north, and are reported in some force at Waterfal on the Elandsberg, 20° N.E. of us. They are said to have a Pom-pom and two Creusots; it seems to be the Wakkerstroom commando and Swaziland police, some 300 strong; the Ermelo commando has also moved on to the Barberton district. These commandos have been raiding cattle and horses every day, keeping well out of reach of our guns; many rumours of their intent to attack us at Grass Kop have been brought in but we are quite ready for them. This raiding has had the effect of bringing all the Dutch farmers and their sons flying back to their farms to look after their stock; they are highly indignant with the looters, have all surrendered and taken the oath at Volksrust, and ride up here to the foot of the hill every day with many reports and much advice about their former comrades' movements, and how to attack and kill them! Many old Dutch women have come also to the hill in tears over their losses from Boer marauders and say they are starving. All this gives Major Dawson and Lieutenant Poynder, Adjutant of the Queen's, a great deal of work and many walks down the hill to interview these people.
Our Naval camp has been strengthened by building stone sangars round our tents to prevent any risk of the enemy creeping up and sniping us in our sleep; still, with barbed wires round the hill, hung with old tins, and trenches and sangars to protect the position, we feel pretty safe, although the gallant Cowper of the Queen's has gone down with one company to reinforce Sandspruit and we miss him greatly.
To go back a few days, I must now mention that on the 11th October came a wire from Admiral Harris to (p. 091) Halsey telling him to arrange the return of our remnant of Naval Brigade to Natal as soon as possible, our brother officers and men who were with Lord Roberts on the other side having left Pretoria on the 8th and arrived at Simon's Town. This wire, as may be imagined, caused us much joy up here after a year's fighting, and I personally celebrated it with the Queen's by a great dinner on some partridges and pigeons that I had bagged down hill on the 10th.
To cap this telegram I received one forwarded on from Standerton next day: "Admiral, Simon's Town, wires, Burne appointed Victoria and Albert Royal Yacht; he should proceed to Durban whence his passage will be arranged." This came as a surprise to me, but at my seniority to serve Her Majesty once more on her yacht, where I was a Sub-Lieutenant in 1894, is a very great honour. I cannot well get away however just yet, as arrangements are being made for the relief of all guns by garrison gunners, and I am intent to "see it out," and indeed I must do so in order to turn over all the ordnance and transport stores and accounts for which I am personally responsible, and which after six months mount up a bit. I expect therefore to leave this hill and the front with our Naval Brigade next week, and then for "England, home, and beauty" once more. I shall hope, when able to do it, to revert to my gunnery line by-and-bye, as it has stood me in good stead in the past.
Monday, 15th October.—Another wire from Halsey, who is at Standerton, telling me he hoped to arrange for our leaving together on the 18th for Durban, so we are busy preparing, and I send off to-day my returns of ox transport, which show that out of 84 oxen we have lost 17 in action and otherwise. Old Scheeper, the Boer farmer at the bottom of our hill, whose son is Assistant Field Cornet (p. 092) with the Wakkerstroom commando, has sold me his crane and is making a cage for it. I shall take it down to Maritzburg and present it to the Governor (Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson), who has done me kindnesses in two parts of the world. I am also busy packing up my collection of Boer shells and relics of Colenso, Vaal Krantz, Almond's Nek, and Grass Kop. We may yet be attacked before leaving, as Boers were reported about ten miles off last night moving south along the Elandsberg. Sir Redvers Buller passed through Sandspruit on the 14th en route for Maritzburg and England, so it is quite on the cards that I may go home in the same ship which will be interesting.
Friday, 19th October.—Still not relieved. The railway line has been cut two nights running between Paardekop and Standerton, and about a mile and a half of it torn up, and this perhaps accounts for the delay. We hear that General Buller has had a great reception at Maritzburg as he deserves and that he goes on to Durban this week; he is undoubtedly the "Saviour of Natal," as they call him. The Governor accepts my Transvaal crane for his garden, so I shall take it down in the cage I am having made for it and leave it en route down at Maritzburg.
Saturday, 20th October.—Anniversary of Talana Hill. Sir Redvers Buller arrived to-day in Durban and had a great reception. All the newspapers praise him, and the earlier and difficult days of our rebuffs on the Tugela are wiped out in public opinion by subsequent brilliant successes. The General is, indeed, immensely popular with the army he has led through such difficult country and through so much fighting and marching. Very pleased to meet at Volksrust to-day Captain Fitz Herbert of the South African Light Horse who came out with me in the Briton a year ago. He was originally in the Berkshire (p. 093) Regiment, but joined the South African Light Horse at Capetown and was taken prisoner by the Boers at Colenso. His experiences with the Boers for four months as a prisoner were, he tells me, somewhat awful. The first week he was handcuffed and put in the common jail for knocking down an insolent jailer, and he had to live all his time on mealies, with meat only once a week. He shows the marks of all this and is quite grey.
Sunday, 21st October.—A wire at last ordering us to leave on Wednesday for Durban. Off I went, therefore, to Volksrust to close my ordnance accounts with my middy, Mr. Ledgard, from Paardekop, who had met me with his papers. Hard at it since the 15th, turning over stores, making out vouchers, answering wires, and writing reports.
Tuesday, 23rd October.—I gave over my guns here and at Paardekop on Sunday to Lieutenant Campbell and Captain Shepheard, of the Royal Artillery, and to-day we are all busy packing, and doing the thousand and one things one always finds at the last moment to do. As we are off at 7 a.m. to-morrow, to catch the mail train at Sandspruit, the Queen's are giving me a farewell dinner to-night, while Bethune's Horse are dining my men. Rundle, French, and Hildyard are reported to be closing in all round in a circle (this place being the centre), and 5,000 Boers within the circle are being gradually forced slowly in towards us. The many men who come in to surrender report that the main body will be obliged either to surrender or to attack us somewhere to get a position. I wired yesterday to General Hildyard, who is at Blood River, sending my respects to him and his Staff on leaving his command, and I received a very kind reply to-day: "I and my Staff thank you for your message. I am very sorry not to have seen you before you leave, but I hope (p. 094) you will tell your gallant officers and men how much I have appreciated their cheerful and ready assistance while with me during the campaign."
My men have to-day hoisted a paying-off pennant with a large bunch of flowers at the end of it. This looks very fine and is greatly admired in camp. Much to our surprise we had a little excitement in the afternoon as the Boers round us bagged a patrol of Bethune's Horse, and on coming within shell fire to drive oxen and horses off from Parson's farm, my beloved gun in this position was brought into action by the Garrison Artillery under Lieutenant Campbell (who had taken over from me on the 21st), four shells bursting all round the marauders and scattering them at once.
Later on the Boers sent Bethune's captured men back to Grass Kop, having shot their horses and smashed their rifles before their eyes. Poynder and the Major gave me a big farewell dinner, and we all turned in early this evening expecting an attack during the night, but nothing happened. So next morning, the 24th, we got under way, with our paying-off pennant streaming in the wind from a wagon, after saying good-bye (amid cheers and hand-shakings) to all our kind military comrades and friends at Grass Kop. I was more than sorry to leave the Queen's.
I won't describe the journey down at length; the entraining at Sandspruit and meeting all the rest of the Brigade; the farewells and cheers and "beers" from the Queen's; and the false bottle of whisky handed to Halsey by Colonel Pink, D.S.O., which I could not get him to open on the way down. We saw Reeves, R.S.O., at (p. 095) Charlestown, and many other old friends, and ran through to Durban by 8 a.m. on the 25th. Unluckily, I and the middy were in a carriage from Maritzburg in which we couldn't get a wash, so one's feelings at Durban may be imagined when we got out dirty and tired, and saw a large crowd of officers and the Mayor of Durban and others ready to receive us on the platform. What a welcome they did give us! The speeches, the cheers of the crowd, the marching through the streets, and the breakfast, I leave an abler pen than mine, the Natal Advertiser, to describe: sufficient to say, I felt very proud of our men who looked splendid, hard as nails and sunburnt, in fact, men; and Halsey surpassed himself when he was suddenly turned on to return thanks to the Mayor in the street, and later on at the breakfast. The witty and appropriate speech also of Colonel Morris, Commandant, will make him to be remembered by the men of the Naval Brigade as the "Wit of Durban," and not the "Villain of Durban," by which title he described himself.
Here is what the Natal Advertiser says of the day's proceedings:—
Among the first of the "handy men" who, with their 4.7 guns, went to the front, were those of H.M. ships Philomel and Tartar. Though in many of the reports H.M.S. Terrible's men got the credit of the work done, the duties were equally shared by the two other contingents from the cruisers. On October 29th, twenty-nine men of the Tartar left Durban, and on November 11th, thirty-three men and two officers of the Philomel were entrained to Chieveley. These men went forward to the relief of Ladysmith, and had to face many hardships and many a stiff fight. To-day the last of them returned from the front. Out of the twenty-nine men of H.M.S. Tartar that went forward, only eighteen returned; and out of the thirty-three men and two officers of H.M.S. Philomel twenty-three men and two officers came down. These losses speak eloquently of the tasks performed, and the hardships endured. (p. 096) Of those who could not answer the roll-call this morning, some have been killed in action, others died of disease, while a few have been invalided. After the men of the Powerful, the Terrible, and the Naval Volunteers returned, the Philomel and Tartar contingents were kept at their posts, and, even on their return they had trouble at Grass Kop and Sandspruit. The officers in charge of the men were Lieutenant Halsey, Lieutenant Burne, and Midshipman Ledgard.
Shortly after 8 o'clock this morning a crowd began to assemble at the Railway Station, awaiting the arrival of the down mail train. On the platform were: the Commandant, Colonel Morris, the Mayor (Mr. J. Nichol), Commander Dundas, of H.M.S. Philomel, the Deputy Mayor (Mr. J. Ellis Brown), Lieutenant Belcombe, Mr. W. Cooley, Surgeon Elliott, and Paymaster Pim. About 100 men of H.M.S. Philomel, under Sub-Lieutenant Hobson, were drawn up in a double line outside the station. The train was a trifle late in arriving, but as soon as it drew up, the warriors were marched outside. A ringing cheer from a crowd of nearly 1,500 welcomed them as soon as they took up a position and were called to attention.
The Mayor addressed them, and, on behalf of Durban, offered them a hearty welcome back. These men, he said, had been entrusted to go to the front to defend the Colony, and they had done it well. They were among the first in the field and were the last to leave, and he felt sure they had done their duty faithfully, honestly, and well. (Applause.) They might be relied upon to do that in any part of the world, wherever or whenever called upon. They were looked upon as the "handy men," the men who had done the greatest portion of the work during the campaign. They and their guns saved the situation. Even when they were marching down, he understood they had had some fighting. On behalf of Natal, he thanked them for what they had done through these trying times. (Applause.)
Lieutenant Halsey, replying, said that after forty-eight hours in the train it was difficult for them to take a reception like this. The men and officers of the Brigade had done their duty, and would do it again if called upon. (Applause.) They were glad that they had been able to do anything in the fighting line, and they thanked the Mayor for the kind welcome (p. 097) extended to them. He called for three hearty cheers for the Mayor.
The crowd joined in the response, and raised another for "Our Boys." Lieutenant Halsey called for cheers for the Naval Volunteers, who had helped the Brigade so ably during the war.
The concourse of people had now greatly increased, and the Post Office front was thronged. The Brigade were given the word to march, and cheers were raised again and again until the men turned out into West Street. Headed by the Durban Local Volunteers' Band, the Philomel and Tartar men marched along to the Drill Hall. They were followed by Captain Dundas' piper, two standard bearers, and their comrades of the Philomel. At the Drill Hall arms were piled and the men again fell in, the band playing them along to the Princess Café, where they were entertained. The Mayor, the Commandant, Major Taylor, Mr. J. Ellis Brown, and Mr. E. W. Evans received them. At the order of the Commandant one khaki man sat between two white men, the comrades of the warriors being dressed in their white ducks. At the order of the Town Council Mr. Dunn had provided a most substantial breakfast, to which the men did full justice.
The loyal toast having been duly honoured.
Colonel Morris proposed "Our Guests," and said he did not know why the "villain of Durban" should be called upon to take up this toast, or why the honour of proposing it had been conferred on him. He begged to tell them, for the information of those fellows who had just come down from the front, that he was the "villain of Durban." (Laughter.) He meant that if any of these chaps were out after 11 o'clock at night he would find for them nice accommodation in the Superintendent's cells. There was a long time between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., and he trusted they would not get into trouble. The villain of the piece had to propose the health of these fellows who had come down from the front. (Cheers.) Now, these Navy fellows, if they could do so well on land, how much better could they not do at sea? (Cheers.) They knew how Jack had fought in the old days of Trafalgar, St. Vincent, and at other great battles, and if they had to fight again they might depend upon it that Jack the "handy man" was just as good to-day as he was then. (Cheers.) Jack had proved himself a splendid fellow ashore, and he wondered (p. 098) what any of the landlubbers would do at sea. (Laughter.) The sea was a ripping good place to look at, but from his point of view he would rather be on land. (Laughter.) Anyway, Jack did not like the land; he preferred to be on sea. Therefore, when at home on the sea Jack would do a hundred times better than he had on shore. (Cheers.) He recommended any people who thought of fighting them on sea to take care what they were going against. He did not believe that the British Navy was to be beaten here or hereafter—(cheers)—and he was positively certain, from what he saw of the Navy when they were at the front, that those who went to look at them would say, "No, we will not play the game with you on the water." He was positively certain that they would all be admirals in time. (Laughter.) That was if they only waited long enough (cheers), and if they did not come across the "villain of Durban" they would be all right. He wished them all thundering good luck, and he was sure that every one of them would grow younger, because he did not believe any naval man grew older. When they got their feet on board again they would feel like chickens. He hoped they would all see the dear old country soon. (Applause.) If they did not see it soon they would see it later on. (Laughter.) Now, if they came across an enemy at sea he knew exactly what would happen, and what they would read in the papers—that the enemy had gone to the bottom of the sea. (Laughter.) He dared say the Navy would be able to respond to the toast. He did not know their capacities for talking, but Jack was never hard up for saying something when he was called upon to do so. Again he wished them jolly good luck. (Cheers.)
All save the guests rose, and led by the Commandant's stentorian voice, sang "They are Jolly Good Fellows."
Chief Petty Officer Munro returned thanks on behalf of his comrades, and said that the reception had been quite unexpected. They had had very hard times, and they had had very good times. They had done what they did willingly—(applause)—and they were ready to do the same thing again for Her Majesty and the Empire, and also to uphold the good old name of the Navy. (Cheers.) He advised the fellows to keep out of the clutches of the Commandant, for from what he saw of him he thought it would be better. (Laughter.) When nearly twelve months ago (p. 099) they landed at Durban, the people were a bit more excited than they were to-day.
Lieutenant Halsey asked the men to drink to the Mayor and Council of Durban. Everybody outside knew, he said, how kindly Durban was looked upon. Durban was one of the best places in the station—(applause)—and it was on account of the wonderful way everything was managed by the Mayor and Council. (Cheers.)
The toast was pledged with enthusiasm, and the Mayor said they were proud to have them here, and to entertain them.
The men then fell in again in Field Street, and marched off to the Point, the Durban Light Infantry Band playing "Just a little bit off the Top" as a march.
The Philomel and the hospital ship Orcana had been dressed for the occasion, and a number of their comrades assembled at the Passenger Jetty and cheered them on arrival. They were afterwards conveyed to the cruisers.
Among the Navals who returned from the front this morning is a little canine hero, "Jack" the terrier, which has shared their fortunes throughout the war. When they left Durban ten months ago a little fox terrier followed them. While at the front he never left them, although he was not particular with whom he fed or what kind of weather prevailed. The firing of a 4.7 gun did not discourage him, and through the booming of big guns and the rattle of musketry he stuck by his adopters. Through every engagement he went, and has come back bearing an honourable scar on the head—shot by a Mauser bullet. The men, needless to say, idolise the little hero, whose neck is decorated with a large blue ribbon from which is suspended a Transvaal Commemoration Medal.
After inserting this account, there is, perhaps, nothing more to be recorded except to say how grateful we all felt to the Mayor and people of Durban for the kind and indeed magnificent reception they gave us; and we could not but add our thanks to Commander Dundas of the Philomel, to whose energy and good will, as senior Naval Officer, the success of the reception was greatly due.
(p. 100) Tuesday, 30th October.—After saying good-bye to many old friends of the Philomel, and others, and undergoing lunches and dinners (of which the most amusing and lively one was with Captain Bearcroft of the Philomel who led the Naval Brigade under Lord Roberts and whom I was glad to have met before sailing) I got on board the Tantallon Castle, finding Commander Dundas on board and coming home in the same mail. We left Durban on a beautiful day, and I was glad to find myself in possession of a large cabin. And so I must end this long and rambling Journal on seeing the last of Natal, merely adding that we had rather a rough passage, after touching at Port Elizabeth, up to Mossel Bay, a most picturesque place on account of the towering peaks and ranges of hills running close to the coast-line. We reached Capetown on the 5th November, and I found Table Mountain and the general view much more striking than I had previously thought. We had to wait here till the 8th November, when we finally bid farewell to South Africa which with every beat of the screw gradually faded from view into the dim shadows of an interesting past.
While the revolving wheel of life bears one on to other scenes and toils, with dear old England looming once more on the horizon, we leave South Africa behind with the problem of the war still unsettled, and with desultory but fierce fighting still going on. But let us hope that the shadows will lift, and that the glory of a rising sun will eventually dim and absorb the sea of blood which has submerged that wonderful and hitherto unfortunate land. The lines from the "Light of Asia"—
"Om Mani padme Hun, The sunrise comes,
The dew-drop slips into the shining sea"—
express, I think, the hope of every British heart for South Africa, as they do that of my own.
Footnote 5: Poor Poynder! I was dreadfully sorry to hear he died of enteric at Kronstadt just a year after this event; there was never a nicer chap or a better soldier, and it's hard lines losing him.