Landing—Green Point Camp—Getting into trim—My horses—Interlude— Orders to march—Sorrows of a spare driver—March to Stellenbosch— First bivouac—A week of dust and drill—The road to water—Off again.
“March 4.—Sunday.—Green Point Camp.—This is the first moment I have had to write in since last Tuesday. I am on picket, and writing in the guard-tent by a guttery lantern. “To go back:—On Wednesday morning, the 28th of February, we steamed slowly up to a great deserted quay. The silence struck me curiously. I had imagined a scene of tumult and bustle on the spot where troops in thousands had been landing continuously for so long. We soon realized that we were to supply all the bustle, and that practical work had at last begun, civilian assistance dispensed with, and the Battery a self-sufficient unit. There was not even a crane to help us, and we spent the day in shoving, levering, and lifting on to trucks and waggons our guns, carriages, limbers, ammunition, and other stores, all packed as they were in huge wooden cases. It was splendid exercise as a change from stable-work. Weather melting hot; but every one was in the highest spirits; though we blundered tediously through the job, for we had no experience in the fine art of moving heavy weights by hand. I forgot to take note of my sensations on first setting foot on African soil, as I was groaning under a case of something terribly heavy at the time.
“We worked till long after dark, slept like logs in the dismantled troop-deck, rose early, and went on until the afternoon of the next day, when we landed the horses—of which, by the way, we had only lost four on the voyage—harnessed up some waggons to carry stores, and were ready. While waiting to start, some charming damsels in white muslin brought us grapes. At about four we started for Green Point Camp, which is on a big plain, between the sea and Table Mountain, and is composed of soft white sand, from which the grass has long disappeared.
“Directly we reached it, the horses all flung themselves down, and rolled in it. We passed through several camps, and halted at our allotted site, where we formed our lines and picketed our horses heel and head. Then the fun began, as they went wild, and tied themselves in strangulation knots, and kept it up all night, as the sleepless pickets reported.
“After feeding and watering, we unloaded the trucks which had begun to come in, ate some bully-beef and bread, and then fell asleep anyhow, in a confused heap in our tents. Mine had thirteen in it, and once we were packed no movement was possible.”
For two more days we were busily employed in unpacking stores, and putting the materiel of battery into shape, while, at the same time, we were receiving our complement of mules and Kaffir drivers for our transport waggons. Then came our first parades and drills. Rough we were no doubt at first. The mobilization of a volunteer battery cannot be carried out in an instant, and presents numberless difficulties from which infantry are free. Our horses were new to the work, and a few of us men, including my humble self, were only recent recruits.
The guns, too, were of a new pattern. The H.A.C. at home is armed with the 15-pounder guns in use in the Regular Field Artillery. But for the campaign, as the C.I.V. Battery, we had taken out new weapons (presented by the City of London), in the shape of four 12-1/2-pounder Vickers-Maxim field guns, taking fixed ammunition, having practically no recoil, and with a much improved breech-mechanism. They turned out very good, but of course, being experimental, required practice in handling, which could not have been obtained in the few weeks in the London barracks.
On the other hand, the large majority of us were old hands, our senior officers and N.C.O.’s were from the Regular Horse Artillery, and all ranks were animated by an intense desire to reach the utmost efficiency at the earliest possible moment. My impressions of the next ten days are of grooming, feeding, and exercising in the cool twilight of dawn, sweltering dusty drills, often in sand-storms, under a blazing mid-day sun, of “fatigues” of all sorts, when we harnessed ourselves in teams to things, or made and unmade mountains of ammunition boxes—a constant round of sultry work, tempered by cool bathes on white sand, grapes from peripatetic baskets, and brief intervals of languid leisure, with al fresco meals of bully-beef and dry bread outside our tents.
Time was marked by the three daily stable hours, each with their triple duty of grooming, feeding, and watering, the “trivial round” which makes up so much of the life of a driver. As a very humble representative of that class, my horses were two “spares,” that is, not allotted to any team. Much to my disgust, I was not even provided with a saddle, and had to do my work bareback, which filled me with indignation at the time, but only makes me smile now. My roan was always a sort of a pariah among the sub-division horses, an incorrigible kicker and out-cast, having to be picketed on a peg outside the lines for his misdeeds. Many a kick did I get from him; and yet I always had a certain affection for him in all his troubled, unloved life, till the day when, nine months later, he trotted off to the re-mount depot at Pretoria, to vex some strange driver in a strange battery. My other horse, a dun, was soon taken as a sergeant’s mount, and I had to take on an Argentine remount, a rough, stupid little mare, with kicking and biting propensities which quite threw the roan’s into the shade. She also had a peg of ignominy, and three times a day I had to dance perilously round my precious pair with a tentative body-brush and hoof-pick. The scene generally ended in the pegs coming away from the loose sand, and a perspiring chase through the lines. I had some practice, too, in driving in a team, for one of our drivers “went sick,” and I took his place in the team of an ammunition-waggon for several days.
Abrupt contrasts to the rough camp life were some evenings spent with Williams in Capetown, where it already felt very strange to be dining at a table, and sitting on a chair, and using more than one plate. Once it was at the invitation of Amery of the Times, in the palatial splendour of the Mount Nelson Hotel, where I felt strangely incongruous in my by no means immaculate driver’s uniform. But how I enjoyed that dinner! Had there been many drivers present, the management would have been seriously embarrassed that evening.
Wildly varying rumours of our future used to abound, but on March 14, a sudden order came to raise camp, and march to Stellenbosch. Teams were harnessed and hooked in, stores packed in the buck waggons, tents struck, and at twelve we were ready. Before starting Major McMicking addressed us, and said we were going to a disaffected district, and must be very careful. We took ourselves very seriously in those days, and instantly felt a sense of heightened importance. Then we started on the road which by slow, very slow, degrees was to bring us to Pretoria in August.
My preparations had been very simple, merely the securing of a blanket over the roan’s distressingly bony spine, and putting a bit in his refractory mouth. As I anticipated, there had been a crisis over my lack of a saddle at the last moment, various officers and N.C.O.’s laying the blame, first on me (of all people), and then on each other, but chiefly on me, because it was safest. Not having yet learnt the unquestioning attitude of a soldier, I felt a great martyr at the time. The infinite insignificance of the comfort on horseback of one spare driver had not yet dawned upon me; later on, I learnt that indispensable philosophy whose gist is, “Take what comes, and don’t worry.”
We passed through Capetown and its interminable suburbs, came out on to open rolling country, mostly covered with green scrub, and, in the afternoon, formed our first regular marching camp, on a bit of green sward, which was a delicious contrast after Green Point Sand. Guns and waggons were marshalled, picket-ropes stretched between them, the horses tied up, and the routine of “stables” begun again.
It was our first bivouac in the open, and very well I slept, with my blanket and waterproof sheet, though it turned very cold about two with a heavy dew. A bare-backed ride of thirteen miles had made me pretty tired.
The next day we were up at five, for a march of eighteen miles to Stellenbosch. At mid-day we passed hundreds of re-mount ponies, travelling in droves, with Indian drivers in turbans and loose white linen. Half-way we watered our horses and had a fearful jostle with a Yeomanry corps (who were on the march with us), the Indians, and a whole tribe of mules which turned up from somewhere. In the afternoon we arrived at our camp, a bare, dusty hill, parching under the sun.
We passed a week here, drilling and harness cleaning, in an atmosphere of dust and never-ending rumours.
Here are two days from my diary:—
“March 18.—Still here. Yesterday we rose early, struck tents, harnessed horses, and waited for orders to go to the station. Nothing happened: the day wore on, and in the evening we bivouacked as we were in the open. The night before we had great excitement about some mysterious signalling on the hills: supposed to be rebels, and the Yeomanry detachment (who are our escort) sent out patrols, who found nothing. To-day we are still awaiting orders, ready to start in half an hour, but they let us have a fine slack day, and we had a great bathe in the afternoon. Ostriches roam about this camp, eating empty soda-water bottles and any bridoon bits they can find. Three times a day we ride bareback to water horses at the re-mount depot, passing picturesque Indian camps. Williams and I are sitting under our ammunition waggon, where we are going to sleep: it is sunset and the hills are violet. A most gorgeous range of them fronts this camp.
“March 19.—Worse than ever. No orders to start, but orders to re-pitch tents. Delays seem hopeless, and now we may be any time here. Cooler weather and some rain to-day: much pleasanter. Only two tents to a sub-division, and there are sixteen in mine, a frightful squash. Long bareback ride for the whole battery before breakfast; enjoyed it very much. Marching-order parade later. Argentine very troublesome: bites like a mad dog and kicks like a cow: can’t be groomed. To-day she tried to bite me in the stomach, but as I had on a vest, shirt, body belt, money belt, and waistcoat, she didn’t do much damage, and only got a waistcoat button and a bit of pocket!”
We were uncommonly glad to receive definite orders on the 20th to move up country. The Battery was to be divided. The right section to go to Matjesfontein, and the left section, which was mine, to Piquetberg Road. Nobody knew where these places were, but we vaguely gathered that they were somewhere on the line of communications, which, rightly or wrongly, we thought very disappointing. For two more days we stood in readiness to start, chafing under countermanding orders, and pitching and re-pitching of tents, so little did we know then of the common lot of a soldier on active service. We were to go by train, and the right section under the Major started about midnight on the 20th, and we on the next day, at four o’clock.
Guns, horses, and waggons were entrained very quickly, and just at dark I found myself in a second-class carriage, one of a merry party of eight, sitting knee-deep in belts, haversacks, blankets, cloaks, and water-bottles. We travelled on till midnight, and then stopped somewhere, posted guards, and slept in the carriages till dawn.