Well, what now ? Was I to go on ? Was I well enough? Was it worth while after such a bad start ? At this time it looked as if the war was about over, and I felt it was late in the day to " chip in." At the same time I was very keen to see a little more soldiering, so I made up my mind to join Colonel Alderson's Mounted Infantry if possible. This I could have managed easily enough by myself, but being reluctant to leave the men who were with me at Dundee, I decided to try and get them with me.
It was not till late on June 6th that the 3000 odd prisoners out at Waterfall, ten miles north of the town, were released. They, and the Cavalry Brigade which released them, were shelled by the Boers, and the released prisoners kept on arriving all that night in driblets in considerable disorder. Having run and walked the whole distance in their weak state, they arrived much exhausted. They had no rugs, no food, no shelter, and were altogether in a bad way. Still they were free, keen to go on with the war, and ready to undergo any hardships. There were about sixty men of my regiment, many of whom had been wounded at Talana. It was touching to see these poor chaps, mostly in rags, so pale and starved, so pleased to see their officers again, and though quite unfit, so keen for another chance.
But they got little encouragement The army in Pretoria was busy with its own work. It had anxieties on all sides. The supplying of 30,000 men by a long and threatened line of communication, the taking over of the towns of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the continual fighting with the Boers who had rallied under Botha, meant that little attention could be paid to the prisoners of war. Thus it was for a week they were kept camped in the open on the race-course, short of food and clothing, and no rugs to keep out the extreme cold.
There seemed to be a feeling with some in Lord Roberts' army that the large number of prisoners of war was a disgrace, and that cases of surrendering had been unnecessarily frequent This feeling was, I think, to a certain extent shared at home. And yet, the number of our men taken prisoners was not excessive compared to that in former civilised wars, while it seemed not to be realised that the-altered conditions of modern warfare make surrendering more excusable. Mistakes and inexperience were sometimes the cause of surrenders, but in the very great majority of cases it was simply " bad luck," and in no case that I know of was want of courage ever the cause. The feeling referred to did however exist, and one officer in a high position informed us that " if he had his way, the whole lot of us would be strung up."
A court of enquiry was held on each case of surrendering, and on June 10th I went before my Court. When I had stated my case, and the circumstances under which I was taken, the President asked me "why I had not offered any resistance?" I answered that being under the Red Cross Flag, and only half conscious at the time, I was unable to offer resistance. This officer surrendered himself, with all his men, very shortly afterwards.
Of our sixty men, only about half were passed by the doctor as fit for service. Those who were fit were re-armed with the only weapons available, Martini Henry rifles from the Boer Arsenal. The idea was to send them down country and employ them on the lines of communication, where they could refit and recoup. But in the meantime that sportsman De Wet was astride of the railway line, and communication was interrupted, so that we were kept hanging about doing nothing.
About this time I recovered my diary for 1899, which had been picked up by a Boer on our evacuated camping ground at Dundee, and kept by him as an interesting memento of the war. It had been carefully studied by the Boer Intelligence Department, and each reference to the Boers marked with a blue cross, the more important ones with several crosses.
On June 17th I was suddenly ordered to go with seven other infantry officers, in charge of over 300 dismounted troopers from various cavalry regiments, to reinforce the garrison at Klip River Bridge and Station, which were threatened. Discipline is never at its best among " details " on active service, so with cavalry details short of N.C.O.'s, under infantry officers, it is small wonder that entraining took a long time, and that I found things different from what I was accustomed to.
Armed with Martinis and Lee Metford rifles and carbines, we reached Klip River, south of Pretoria, after a cold and wet three hours in cattle trucks, and were dumped down in the mud and pitch darkness with no idea of the lie of the land. If I learned nothing else that night I learned that the cavalry trooper is master of very strong language, and, as Kipling says, he is "no plaster saint"
No Boers came, and when daylight arrived we saw that the garrison, the Irish Rifles, had made splendid trenches. They must have thought our arrival a mixed blessing, for they could have held the place by themselves for days. We were joined here by Colonel Carleton, R.I.F., with the dismounted men of the M.I. Among them were the men who had been with me at Dundee, so I got transferred back to them. After two days, as no Boers came, we all left for Kroonstad, O.R.C.
There was at this time only a limited supply of rolling stock, and we travelled, eighteen officers, in a very dirty cattle truck. The train was drawn by a donkey engine, which had to pull up very frequently to boil water, often halting for twenty minutes at places most undesirable from a tactical point of view, and giving De Wet, who was in the neighbourhood, some excellent opportunities. Colonel Bullock, with another train-load of released prisoners, was just behind us. We arrived at Kroonstad early on June 22nd, after thirty-six hours in the train.
Soon after our arrival we heard guns, and got the news that Colonel Bullock's train had been held up by De Wet at Honing Spruit, fifteen miles off. About 7 a.m. the Boers, 1000 strong, with three guns, surrounded Colonel Bullock with his 400 released prisoners, and on his refusing, as he had done once before at Colenso, to surrender, the Boers, well out of range themselves, opened a heavy fire from all directions, which fire they kept up till 1 p.m., when a relieving force arrived from Kroonstad. There was no cover to be had. The Boers were bursting shrapnel with great accuracy from one of our guns taken at Sanna's Post, and our men had to lie flat without even firing, because they found that they could not, with their obsolete Martinis, make the Boers " lie down," whilst each shot they fired made a cloud of smoke which drew a hail of bullets. They did not, however, intend to be taken prisoners again, and though called on several times to surrender, stood their ground well until relieved. Poor Hobbs, of the West York, and five men were killed; one officer and seventeen men wounded. Of the detachment of thirty K.R.R. under Sergeant Bennewith, two were killed and one wounded.
We were very glad indeed to get to Kroonstad, which was at that time the most advanced base for Ordnance, Army Service Corps, and Remounts. We were tired of being shifted about from place to place, a ragged untidy mob, with little resemblance to soldiers, many men without boots or uniform, others carrying striped Kaffir blankets and bundles over their shoulders like tramps, and all armed with obsolete Martinis. We were a good " side show " for a war correspondent to describe, but the prospect of getting re-armed and re-equipped cheered everyone up, and with the improved scale of rations the men got visibly better.
At Kroonstad we found every variety of soldier, Regulars, Yeomanry, A. and S. Highlanders' Militia, C.I.V., Artillery Volunteers, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and S. African Colonials* There was a rush for everything, and the huge packing cases which kept coming up from the coast, as fast as a single line and limited rolling stock could bring them, were very soon emptied. Lord Kitchener was on the spot to put things straight
In the general scramble of refitting, I was very successful, and by July 1st had my twenty-two men completely fitted out in everything, and had secured twenty-five good cobs with saddles, etc, complete. But the result of this keenness was, that instead of being sent up to join Colonel Alderson and General Hutton as I had hoped, we, being the first ready, were packed off with Grouchy and twenty-five men Leicester M.I. to Vredefort Road to do duty on lines of communication. We got orders at 1 p.m. to start at once. By 3 p.m. we had entrained horses and men. With the help of a donkey-engine (much riddled with bullets) after several stops to boil water, and after pushing it ourselves up a gradient which it could not negotiate, we eventually reached Vredefort Road (fifty miles) at 11 p.m.
I was in some ways disappointed at not getting to the Mounted Infantry under General Hutton, who were about to continue the big advance against Botha to the east—but perhaps we were hardly fit yet for such work, and were all the better for the chance we got of recouping at Vredefort.
Colonel U. Roche, whom I had known in India, was in command of the Vredefort garrison, which consisted of three Companies of South Wales Borderers, two guns 60th F.B.R.A., and our fifty M.I. He gave me the best breakfast I had had for a very long time—porridge, eggs and bacon, fresh milk, and butter and eggs. It may seem trivial to mention this, but after being deprived of these things for so long this breakfast was a great event for me.
We were soon quite reconciled to our new job, and settled down at once, rigging up shelters with railway waggon tarpaulins and corrugated iron. It was a great thing to feel that one had at last got a job, after such a long period of inactivity. The order and excellent arrangements of the S.W. Borderers, with their well turned out men, clean camp, field oven, etc., were a great contrast to the recent experience of chaos in camps of11 details."
It is a terrible thing to become a "detail" Whether officer or man, a "detail," once separated from his corps, is "nobody's dog," and he has nobody to take any interest in him, beyond getting as much dirty work out of him as possible. At this period of the war, once separated from his regiment, a man had the greatest difficulty in getting back to it, and almost every garrison had its quota of grumbling 14 details."
It was not long before we had our horses out and were exploring the country. A grand ride it was, that first ride, as I cantered or trippled in the keen morning air of the open veldt, breathing in health and spirits at every breath. What a glorious feeling it gave of being really free at last And with returning health a great keenness came over me. The war-worn used to smile at this keenness. Almost every morning I used to take what men were available, and, starting long before dawn, ride out to some good point of observation five to nine miles off, arriving there as the sun rose, in the hopes of getting in touch with the Boers. Often we saw nothing, but occasionally had better luck, and before very long we had collected two horses per man and as much transport as we needed in the shape of Cape carts. We had also a few prisoners.
As a full account of the many raids and ambushes we made during our stay at Vredefort would weary the most patient, I will not describe them.
On June 25th General Sir H. Chermside, who was commanding the line of communication, passing through in his armoured train, sent for me and congratulated us on good work done.
About this time De Wet, having crossed the line with 4000 men, was run to ground by Generals Ridley and Broadwood at Parys on the Vaal. On the other side of the Vaal were Lord Methuen and Lord Kitchener, and the capture of De Wet was looked upon as a certainty, if only the troops, which were being hurried up from the scene of Prinsloo's surrender, could come up in time.
I rode more than once with confidential despatches from Pretoria to General Ridley, and had a good look at the positions. General Ridley was sanguine, and said if I came out in about six days I should probably see the end of it. Later General Hart passed through Vredefort with troops, hurrying to help in completing the circle round De Wet. I asked him if he could not take me and my twenty men, and he said he would ask General Chermside; his last words to me as the train left were—" All right, I won't forget you."
A few days later guns were heard at daybreak, and it became known that De Wet had in the night made a new drift across the Vaal and again escaped. The Boers seemed to cross the railway line and blow it up whenever they wanted to, and the patrols we had to send out each night were quite unable to prevent it, though they did once succeed in shooting a horse and stopping one attempt
In August, owing to the rheumatism which the cold weather had given me in my wounded arm, I left for Cape Town on the recommendation of the Medical Officer. I was extremely sorry to say good-bye to Sergt. Hill, Farr.-Sergt. Kennedy, and the men who had been with me so long and who had done so well, but I promised them, if I did not go home, that I would get back to the Battalion, and get them back to it, if possible.
On August 19th I left Vredefort with Faulkner, sorry to part with my men and many other friends, but in high spirits at the idea of getting home, or getting back to the regiment with Buller. We made the journey to Bloemfontein in open coal-trucks; the days were lovely, and one did not travel at any great pace, so that it was a pleasant enough ride, and one got a good view of the country.
After a short stay at Bloemfontein, we left at 10 a.m. on August 21st in the ordinary fast mail train, a most comfortable saloon taking the place of the coal-truck.
From here onwards there seemed to be perfect peace in the country; and making the ordinary peace-time journey, with halts for meals at the restaurants, we travelled on without incident, and reached Cape Town on the morning of August 23rd, finding the rainy season in full swing, and the country a wonderful green, most refreshing after the dry veldt up-country.
At Capetown I reported to the P.M.O., and was sent to the Claremont Convalescent Home, where sick officers were boarded and lodged free of expense. The place was full of convalescent officers, all trying to get home.
Finding that I should have to stay three weeks at this Home before I could even get a medical board, I applied to be sent to duty at once, and calling on Colonel Cooper, of the O.C. Troops, at the Castle, I got an order to report myself at the Camp at Green Point, and to join my regiment the next opportunity. But I was kept three weeks at Green Point Camp, and it was not until September 16th that I embarked for Durban. This long delay was irritating, more especially as my regiment was seeing interesting service at the time under Buller. However, I found many old friends at Capetown, Wynberg, and Symon's Town, besides other army friends. Having been reported in some Cape paper as killed at Talana, more than one old acquaintance came up and said, " Hello! I thought you were dead." The Kenilworth races were going on just as before, and many of the ponies running three years ago were still competing there, among them a famous old pony called "The Wake," formerly my property, and now fifteen years old.
I paid a short visit to Admiralty House at Symon's Town, during which the news arrived of Kruger's departure. A lovely drive round Table Mountain, dinners at the Mount Nelson Hotel, theatres, shopping, etc., besides an occasional court-martial on guard over Boer prisoners, and the time soon went, so that I sailed in the "Englishman" on September 17th all the better for my short return to civilization.
We left Table Bay at the same time as the S.S. " Kildonan Castle," full of invalids for home, and it was perhaps a little tantalizing to see this fine mail-boat, 10,000 tons heading homewards, while we, on our cattle-boat 4000 tons left in the opposite direction, heading further away from home. We had on board 500 men, mostly young Irish soldiers, just out from home. I did adjutant to this lot as far as Maritzburg, where we arrived on September 21st These men are probably excellent soldiers by now, but they were very raw material then, and I was glad to get away.
Escaping being commandeered as a "detail" at Maritzburg, I stayed there only one night. I dined with the Governor, Sir W. Hely-Hutchinson, so that I had an opportunity of telling him what good work Dr. Galbraith had done at Dundee.
At Newcastle, which was at that time a great trap for " details," I got stuck for two days. There were many here who had been trying for weeks to get back to their regiments, so that things looked bad for a bit. However, I met many friends here, and through one of them a wire came direct from General Lord Dundonald at Lydenburg applying for me.
I got to Pretoria on September 28th, after an interesting journey over the ground I knew so well The country was in a very unsettled state, and we were several times delayed, owing to the line having been tampered with. In Pretoria there was almost a famine, the Grand Hotel, where I stayed with Salmon, being unable to supply milk, butter, eggs, jam, matches, or indeed anything but rations. There was the usual crowd of waiters, there were clean table-cloths and well-laid tables, but there was very little to eat.
My journey from Vredefort to my regiment had been circuitous and extremely slow; many obstacles had to be overcome. However, from Pretoria to Lydenburg, I did what was at the time a record. After securing three good ponies, saddles, stores, etc., I had the good fortune to foregather with Colonel Birdwood on Lord Dun-donald's staff, who was returned, recovering from his wound.
We left Pretoria together, thirty-six hours after my arrival, in a special train with our horses and stores complete, and leaving a crowd of disappointed would-be travellers on the platform at Pretoria, we ran quickly through to Machadodorp without being sniped at, a thing unusual on this line; then, making double marches, we arrived at Lydenburg just as General Buller was returning there from Sabie's River, on October 4th.
Thus at last, after endless scheming and worrying, I had succeeded in getting back to the regiment I found the men of the battalion, with arms piled and accoutrements taken off, having their dinners and resting after a hard march. I pushed on, nodding to many a familiar face, past the grandest battalion of veterans I had seen during all my wanderings, to where the family circle of officers was, with Colonel Campbell sitting in the middle.
Back at last, and no longer a "detail," I was perfectly contented.