August 2.—Reveillé at six. Harnessed up, and started out to join the brigade and its long column of prisoners, mounted on their ponies, and each leading another with a pack on it. We only went about seven miles (back towards the Nek), and camped at midday. I had been suffering from toothache for some days, and was goaded into asking the doctor to remove the offender. He borrowed a forceps from the R.A.M.C. and had it out in a minute. The most simple and satisfactory visit to the dentist I have ever had. No gloomy fingering of the illustrated papers, while you wait your turn with the other doomed wretches, no horrible accessories of padded chair and ominous professional plant; just the open sunny veldt, and a waggon pole to sit on! In the evening I got some 38th fellows to cook us some chupatties of our flour. They treated me to fried liver over their fire, and we had a jolly talk. It is said that we are to take the prisoners to Winberg, and then go to the Transvaal. Cold night; hard frost.
August 3.—Reveillé at six. Sunrise this day was peculiarly beautiful; a milky-blue haze lay in festoons along the hills, and through this the sun shot a delicate flush on the rocks and grassy slopes, till the farther side of the valley looked unreal as a dream.
Started at nine; marched as far as the inward end of the Nek, and camped. I got a splendid wash, almost a bath, in a large pond, in the company of many Boer prisoners, who, I am bound to say, seemed as anxious for cleanliness as we were. I talked to two most charming young men, who discussed the war with me with perfect freedom and urbanity. They dated their débâcle from Roberts’s arrival, and the use of flanking movements with large numbers of mounted men. They made very light of lyddite, and laughed at the legend that the fumes are dangerous. In action they leave all their horses in the rear, unwatched, or with a man or two. (Our mounted infantry leave a man to every four horses.) I asked if a small boy, who was sitting near, fought. They said, “Yes: a very small stone suffices to shelter him.” They talked very good English.
The right section have turned up and, I hear, are camped about two miles away. They have been a fortnight away doing convoy work, to Senekal, Winberg, and back. They brought us no mails, to our great disappointment. We have had no letters now since June 15th. Strange rumours come in about 40,000 troops going to China. A very cold night; I should say 15 degrees of frost.
August 4.—Did a rapid five hours’ march through the Nek, and back to Bultfontein, as part of the advance-guard. On the way we picked up the right section, and exchanged our experiences. They had had no fighting, but a very good time. They had distractingly luscious stones of duff, rum, and jam at Winberg, and all looked very fat and well. We camped, unharnessed, and watered at the same old muddy pool, muddier than ever. I visited an interesting trio of guns which were near us, in charge of Brabant’s Horse; one was German, one French, one British. The German was a Boer gun captured the other day, a 9-pr. Krupp, whose bark we have often heard. It has a very long range, 8000 yards, but otherwise seemed clumsy compared with ours, with a cumbersome breech action and elevating gear. The French one was a Hotchkiss, made by the French company, belonging to Brabant’s Horse—a smart little weapon, but not so handy, I should say, as ours. The British one was a 15-pr. field gun, of the 77th Field Battery, lost at Stormberg and recaptured the other day. It had evidently had hard and incessant use, and was much worn. Brabant’s Horse were our escort to-day, a fine, seasoned body of rough, wild-looking fellows, wearing a very noticeable red puggaree round their slouch hats. They are fine scouts, and accomplished marauders, for which the Boers hate them. Jam for tea, and milk in the tea—long unknown luxuries, which the right section brought with them. In the evening I went to a sing-song the 38th gave round their camp fire. It was very pleasant, and they were most hospitable to us.
August 5.—Reveillé at five. Harnessed up; but some hitch ahead occurred, and we unhooked, watered, and grazed. Finally started about 8.30, and made a rapid march as advance guard, of about fourteen miles, with only momentary halts. Country very hilly; steep, squat, flat-topped kopjes and several bad drifts. We camped about 1.30 near five small houses in a row, with the novel accessory of some big trees—probably a town in large letters on the map. It appears the convoy has halted some way back for the four midday hours dear to the oxen. The rest of the column came in at dusk. A warm night. Every night in camp you may hear deep-throated choruses swelling up from the prisoners’ laager. The first time I heard it I was puzzled to know what they were singing; the tune was strangely familiar, but I could not fix it. It was not till the third night that I recognized the tune of “O God, our help,” but chanted so slowly as to be difficult to catch, with long, luxurious rests on the high notes, and mighty, booming crescendos. Coming from hundreds of voices, the effect was sometimes very fine. At other times smaller groups sang independently, and the result was a hideous noise. I wonder if the words correspond to our tune. If so, every night these prisoners, who have staked and lost all in a hopeless struggle, sing, “O God, our help in ages past.” This is faith indeed.
August 6.—Bank Holiday.—At 6.45 we started as advance-guard again, and marched for five and a half hours, with only a halt or two of a few minutes, to Senekal. The country gradually became flatter, the kopjes fewer and lower, till at last it was a great stretch of arid, dusty plain. It seemed quite strange to be driving on level ground, after endless hills and precipitous drifts. We and Brabant’s Horse were advance guard, and clattered down in a pall of blinding white dust into a substantial little tin-roofed town, many stores open, and people walking about in peace (the ladies all in black). Full of soldiers, of course, but still it was our first hint for months of peace and civilization, and seemed home-like. One of the first things I saw was a jar of Osborne biscuits in a window, and it gave me a strange thrill! The convoy and prisoners follow this evening. The column is miles long, as besides our own transport, there are all the Boer waggons, long red ones, each with some prisoners on it and a soldier. Also scores of Cape carts, with a fat farmer in each. There was a wild rush for provisions in the town by our orderlies and Brabant’s. They got bread, and I bought some eggs and jam on commission. After camping and unharnessing, I had a good wash in the river, an orange-coloured puddle. I wonder how it is that by some fatality there is always a dead quadruped, mule, horse, or bullock, near our washing places. We don’t mind them on the march; they are dotted along every road in South Africa now, I should think; but when making a refreshing toilette they jar painfully. Kipling somewhere describes a subtle and complex odour, which, he says, is the smell of the great Indian Empire. That of the great African Empire in this year of grace is the direct and simple one which I have indicated. In the evening we had a grand supper of fried eggs, jam, chupatties, and cocoa. This meal immediately followed tea. We made our fire in the best place for one, an ant-hill, about two feet high. The plan is to hack two holes, one in the top, another on the windward side, and to connect the two passages. There is then a fine draught, and you can cook both on the top and at the side. Inside, the substance of the hill itself gets red-hot and keeps a sustained heat.
Recipe for jam chupatties.—Take some suet and melt rapidly in a mess-tin, over a quick fire (because you are hungry and can’t wait); meanwhile make a tough dry dough of flour and water and salt; cut into rounds to fit the mess-tin, spread with jam, double over and place in the boiling fat; turn them frequently. Cook for about ten minutes. A residual product of this dish is a sort of hard-bake toffee, formed by the leakage of jam from the chupatties.
Brabant’s Horse left in the night.
August 7.—A bitterly cold, windy day. Marched for several hours over a yellow, undulating plain and camped, near nothing, about 12.30. After dinner I walked over to a Kaffir kraal and bought fuel, and two infants’ copper bangles. I was done over the bangles, so I made it up over the fuel (hard round cakes of prepared cow’s dung), filling a sack brim-full, in spite of the loud expostulations of the black lady. They were a most amusing crowd, and the children quite pretty. I also tasted Kaffir beer for the first, and last, time. Kaffir bangles abound in the Battery. In fact, you will scarcely see a soldier anywhere without them. The fashion is to wear them on the wrist as bracelets. They are of copper and brass, and often of beautiful workmanship. The difficulty about collecting curios is that there is nowhere to carry them, though some fellows have a genius for finding room for several heavy bits of shell, etc. Empty pom-pom shells, which are small and portable, are much sought after; and our own brass cartridge, if one could take an old one along, would make a beautiful lamp-stand at home. Rum tonight.
August 8.—Reveillé at six. Off at 7.30. Another march over the same bare, undulating plain. About eleven we passed a spruit where there was a camp of infantry and the 9th Field Battery, who told us they came out when we did, but had only fired four rounds since! Near here there was a pathetic incident. A number of Boer women met us on the road, all wearing big white linen hoods; they stood in sad groups, or walked up and down, scanning the faces of the prisoners (we were with the main body to-day) for husbands, brothers, sweethearts. Many must have looked in vain. The Boers have systematically concealed losses even from the relatives themselves; and one of the saddest things in this war must be the long torture of uncertainty suffered by the womenfolk at home.
We camped at twelve near a big dam, and unharnessed, but only for a rest, resuming the march at about three, and halting for the night about ten miles farther on. A profligate issue of rations—five biscuits, four ounces of sugar (instead of two or three), duff and rum again. A lovely, frosty night, the moon full, delicate mists wreathing the veldt, hundreds of twinkling camp-fires, and the sound of psalms from the prisoners’ laager.
August 9.—In to-day’s march the character of the country changed, with long, low, flat-topped kopjes on either side of us, and the road in a sharp-cut hollow between them, covered with loose round stones—a parched and desolate scene. After about ten miles we descended through a long ravine into Winberg, with its red-brick, tin-roofed houses baking in the sun. We skirted the town, passing through long lines of soldiers come to see the prisoners arrive, and out about a mile on to a dusty, dreary plain, where we camped. We were all thrilling with hopes of letters. (Winberg is at the end of a branch of railway, and we are now in touch with the world again.) Soon bags of letters arrived, but not nearly all we expected. I only got those of one mail, but they numbered thirteen, besides three numbers of the Weekly Times, and a delightful parcel from home. I sat by my harness in the sun, and read letters luxuriously. It was strange to get news again, and strike suddenly into this extraordinary Chinese imbroglio. It appears the war is still going on in the Transvaal, and the rumour is that we shall be sent there straight. Among other news it seems that the H.A.C. are sending the Battery a draft of twenty men from home, to bring us up to strength. I heard from my brother at Standerton, dated July 21. He was with Buller; had not done much fighting yet; was fit and well. There was a disturbance just at dusk, caused by a big drove of Boer ponies, which were being driven into town, getting out of hand and running amok in the lines of the 38th. Wrote a letter home by moonlight. Very cold, after a hot day. I should think the temperature often varies fifty degrees in the twenty-four hours. Some clothing served out; I got breeches and boots. I wish I could get into the town. There are several things I badly want, though, as usual, the home parcel supplied some. August 10.—We were rather surprised to hear we might move that day, and must hold ourselves in readiness. We all much wanted to buy things, but there was no help for it. Had a field-day at button-sewing and letter-writing. At eleven there was harness-cleaning, and I was sadly regarding a small remnant of dubbin and my dusty girths and leathers, when the order came for “boot and saddle,” and that little job was off. In the end we did not start till three, and marched with the whole brigade nine miles, with one five-minute halt, through easy country, with an unusual number of clumps of trees, and camped just at dusk, near a pool, unharnessed and watered. There was a curious and beautiful sight just before, the sun sinking red into the veldt straight ahead, and the moon rising golden out of it straight behind us. It seems we are bound to Smalldeel, a station on the main line, now eleven miles off. We left all the prisoners at Winberg. Some chaps bought schamboks, saddle-bags, and spurs from them, but being stableman, I hadn’t time. I write this by moonlight, crouching close to a fine wood fire, 10 P.M. Well, I shall turn in now.
August 11.—Reveillé at 5.45. We started at eight, and marched the remaining eleven miles in a blinding dust-storm, blown by a gale of cutting wind right in our faces. My eyes were sometimes so bunged up that I couldn’t see at all, and thanked my stars I was not driving leads. The worst march we have had yet. About 11.30 we came to the railway, and groped through a dreary little tin village round a station, built on dust, and surrounded by bare, dusty veldt. This was Smalldeel. There was a general rush to the stores after dinner, as we hear we are to entrain for Pretoria to-morrow. To-day we revolutionized our harness by giving up our off-saddles, our kit to be carried on a waggon. Some time before centre and lead horses had been relieved of breeching and breast-strap, which of course are only needed for wheelers. In the ordinary way all artillery horses are so harnessed that they can be used as wheelers at any moment. The off horse is now very light therefore, having only collar, traces, and crupper, with an improvised strap across the back to support the traces. Of course there are always “spare wheelers,” ready-harnessed, following each subdivision in case of casualties. As far back as Bethlehem we discarded big bits also and side-reins, which are quite useless, and waste time in taking in and out when you want to water rapidly, or graze for a few moments. The harness is much simplified now, and takes half the time to put on. The mystery is why it is ever considered necessary to have so much on active service, or even at home, unless to keep drivers from getting too much leisure. Several houses in this place have been wrecked, and many fellows slept under the shells. In one of them a man was selling hot coffee in the evening, at 6d. a cup. It was a striking scene, which I shall always remember—a large building, floorless and gutted inside, and full of heaps of rubble, very dimly lit by a couple of lanterns, in the light of which cloaked and helmeted figures moved. I thought of sleeping in a house, for it was the coldest night I remember; but habit prevailed, and I turned in as usual by my harness. The horses have got a head-rope-eating epidemic, and seemed to be loose all night.
August 12.—Sunday.—Reveillé at six. Harnessed up, and waited for orders to entrain for Pretoria. The 38th Battery have gone already, and the Wilts Yeomanry. A draft of twenty new men from England came in by train. They looked strangely pale and clean and tidy beside our patched and soiled and sunburnt selves. Marched down to station, and were entraining guns, waggons, horses, etc., till about four. The usual exciting scenes with mules, but it all seems routine now. Our subdivision of thirty men were packed like herrings into an open truck, also occupied by a gun and limber.
August 13.—I write sitting wedged among my comrades on the floor of the truck, warm sun bathing us after an Arctic night, and up to my knees in kit, letters, newspapers, parcels, boxes of cigarettes, chocolate, etc., for all our over-due mails have been caught up in a lump somewhere, and the result of months of affection and thoughtful care in distant England are heaped on us all at once. I have about thirty letters. It is an orgie, and I feel drunk with pleasure. All the time the train rolls through the wilderness, with its myriad ant-hills, its ribbon of empty biscuit tins and dead horses, its broken bridges, its tiny outpost camps, like frail islands in the ocean, its lonely stations of three tin houses, and nothing else beyond, no trees, fields, houses, cattle, signs of human life. We stopped all last night at Zand River. All trains stop at night now, for the ubiquitous De Wet is a terror on the line. To-day we passed the charred and twisted remains of another train he had burnt; graves, in a row, close to it. Williams and I slept on the ground outside the truck, after feeding and watering horses and having tea. It was an uneasy slumber, on dust and rubble, interrupted once by the train quietly steaming away from beside us. But it came back. We were off again at 4.30 A.M., a merry crowd heaped together under blankets on the floor of the truck. We ground slowly on all day, and halted for the night at Viljoen’s Drift, the frontier station.
August 14.—Sleepy heads rose from a sea of blankets, and blinked out to see the crossing of the Vaal river, and a thin, sleepy cheer hailed this event; then we relapsed and waited for the sun. When it came, and we thawed and looked about, we saw an entire change of country; hills on both sides, trees here and there, and many farms. Soon the upper works of a mine showed, and then more, and all at once we were in a great industrial district. At Elandsfontein, the junction for Johannesburg, we had a long halt, and a good breakfast, getting free coffee from a huge boiling vat.
(9 P.M.)—We reached Pretoria just at dusk, the last five miles or so being a very pretty run through a beautiful pass, with woods and real green fields in the valley, a refreshing contrast to the outside veldt. We detrained by electric light, and bivouacked in an open place just outside the station. I write this in the station bar, where some of us have been having a cup of tea. Paget’s Brigade are all here, and I hear Roberts is to review us to-morrow. A Dublin Fusilier, who had been a prisoner since the armoured-train affair at Estcourt until Roberts reached Pretoria, told us we “had a good name here,” for Bethlehem, etc. He vaguely talked of Botha and Delarey “dodging round” near here. We have heard nothing of the outside world for a long time, and as far as I can make out, the Transvaal has still to be conquered, just as the Free State has had to be, long after the capture of both capitals.
August 15.—I had gone to sleep in splendid isolation under the verandah of an empty house, but awoke among some Munsters, who greeted dawn with ribald songs. Harnessed up after break-fast, and marched off through the town, past the head-quarters, where Roberts reviewed us and the 38th. He was standing with a large Staff at the foot of the steps. The order “eyes right” gave us a good view of him, and very small, fit, and alert he looked.
“‘E’s little, but ‘e’s wise, ‘E’s a terror for ‘is size.”
I liked what we saw of the town, broad boulevards edged with trees, and houses set back deep in gardens; the men all in khaki uniforms, or niggers, but a good many English ladies and nurses. We marched to a camp on the top of a hill outside the town, and joined the rest of the brigade. A lovely view of the town from here, in a hollow of encircling hills, half-buried in trees, looking something like Florence in the distance. I can hardly believe we are really here when I think of the hopeless depression of June and May at Bloemfontein. Much to our disgust, we weren’t allowed to go down to the town in the afternoon. However, we visited a reservoir instead, where a pipe took away the overflow, and here we got a real cold bath in limpid water, on a shingly bottom, a delicious experience. After evening stables Williams and I got leave to go down to town. We passed through broad tree-bordered streets, the central ones having fine shops and buildings, but all looking dark and dead, and came to the Central Square, where we made for the Grand Hotel, and soon found ourselves dining like gentlemen at tables with table-cloths and glasses and forks, and clean plates for every course. The complexity of civilized paraphernalia after the simplicity of a pocket-knife and mess-tin, was quite bewildering. The room was full of men in khaki. Heavens! how hungry that dinner made me! We ordered a bottle of claret, the cheapest being seven shillings. The waiter when he brought it up paused mysteriously, and then, in a discreet whisper to Williams, said he supposed we were sergeant-majors, as none under that rank could be served with wine. Gunner Williams smilingly reassured him, and Driver Childers did his best to look like a sergeant-major, with, I fear, indifferent success. Anyway the waiter was easily satisfied, and left us the claret, which, as there were three officers at the table, was creditable to him. We walked home about 8.30, the streets all silent as death, till we were challenged by a sentry near the outskirts of the town, and asked for the countersign, which we didn’t know. There were muttered objections, into which a bottle of whisky mysteriously entered, and we bluffed it out. I have never found ignorance of a countersign a serious obstacle.
August 16.—Grazing most of the morning, during which I have managed to get some letters written, but I have great arrears to make up. Several orders countermanding one another have been coming in, to the general effect that we are probably to start somewhere to-day. The usual crop of diverse rumours as to our future. One says we go to Middelberg, another Lydenberg, an-other Petersberg. There seem to be several forces of Boers still about, and De Wet, who ought to become historic as a guerilla warrior, is still at large, nobody knows where. I only trust our ammunition-supply will be better managed this time. Anyway, we are all fit and well, and ready for anything, and the horses in first-class order. I forgot to say that I had to part with one of my pair, the riding-horse, a few days before we reached Smalldeel. He was taken for a wheeler in our team. I now ride the mare and lead my new horse, which is my old friend the Argentine, whose acquaintance I first made at Capetown. Hard work has knocked most of the vice out of her, though she still is a terror to the other horses in the lines. She looks ridiculously small in artillery harness, but works her hardest, and is very fit, though she declines to oats unless I mix them with mealies, which I can’t always do.