We were indeed glad to return to the civilisation of Middelburg after three months' continual trekking, and thoroughly enjoyed the comforts of a standing camp, with its tents, field-force canteen, letters, papers, news, bread, etc., to say nothing of respite from the reports of guns and Mausers, and from being constantly on the alert There were many other columns at Middelburg, just returned from most successful operations to the north of the line, and one seemed to see or hear of every friend one had ever known. There was much news to exchange. Things seemed to be going well everywhere, and the end appeared to be in sight.
We got busy at once, re-fitting and re-horsing, for what some thought was to be the final move against the Boers. Our one hope was that we should be left with Colonel Campbell's Column, for however much we had " groused " at the continual rain, and however sick we had at times felt of the war, we had, even at the darkest moments, realised that we were extremely well off. But the hope which Colonel Campbell had expressed, that "all the units would again serve under his command," was not to be fulfilled, for on May 2nd my Company got sudden orders to move to Lydenburg to do garrison duty, and, starting next day with Lynes and R. Seymour, arrived there about May ioth. I myself got leave to go to Pretoria, where I drew stores and equipment for my Company, and the dent1st drew four teeth for me.
Being unable to get a convoy up to Lydenburg from Machadodorp, I spent some time between Pretoria, Middelburg, and Machadodorp, collecting stores and horses, and on May 23rd I got twenty volunteers of the Special Service Volunteer Company K.R.R. under Captain Coakley. These men we fitted out with horses and equipment and took to Machadodorp, where we spent the time of waiting for a convoy in training them in riding and M.I. duties. They had come from various London Volunteer Battalions at a time when men were badly wanted, and brought an infusion of keenness which had a good effect. . They were good shots, too, and picked up the work quickly. Some found the work harder and less glorious than they had expected, but the majority stuck to it well, and the fact that they had seven casualties before they left shows how well they did their share.
The 2nd of June found us still at Machadodorp waiting for a convoy, It was the coldest day I remember " ever or anywhere." There were many columns trekking on the high veldt to the south of the railway line at this time, and I expect many who were with them will remember the cold of that day. We had all expected great things from these columns, but something seemed to have gone wrong somewhere. We got no news, and they got no Boers.
Friday, June 7th.—We started with a large convoy and a fair escort to join the company up at Lydenburg. The customary rumour that Ben Viljoen was going to attack our convoy in the Badfontein Valley, seemed more probable than usual, so that the precaution was taken of sending Colonel Benson's column up at the same time.
We arrived at Lydenburg on the nth, my detachment of volunteers marching in with all the appearance of old mounted infantry hands, well turned out and in every way a credit to the Company. Unfortunately I got malaria in the Badfontein Valley, and had to go to hospital on my arrival at Lydenburg. The fever developed into jaundice, which laid me up for ten days.
This complete rest, after a year's hard work without a pause, did me good, so that on the 23rd, when I came off the sick list, I was all the better able to take over the Company and resume work.
Sunday, June 23rd.—I found the Company was getting hard work, and work of a most trying kind, for the garrison was small, and the precautions taken against attack were extreme. Besides the day-picquets, grazing-guards, escorts to convoys and fatigues on the defences, half our men and an officer were on picquet each night. By day a picquet would be sniped, or a stray cow driven off by a Boer, and the whole Company turned out; by night a shot from some sniping Boer or jumpy sentry frequently turned the whole garrison out. There was all the hard work and risk of being with a column in the field, with none of the chances of getting your own back. No wonder I found the Company longing to get back to Colonel Campbell.
During my absence one man, Private Redmond, had been killed by a Boer sniper while watering his horse; another man had had three bullets through his clothes without being hit.
Wednesday, July 2nd.—We got orders to trek with Colonel Park's column, which was at Lydenburg. We left at 2 a.m. on the 3rd, a cold moon light night, with two days' rations—my Company 115 strong, but very badly off for boots, which we had been unable to obtain. The scheme, which was to have given us Commandant Moll and 200 Boers fell through, because the Boers got warning of our intentions; so that when we reached Kruger's Post we found the place empty. There was a little sniping, but the Boers in these parts are poor fighters compared to those of Carolina and Ermelo. We brought in the wife of President Schalk Burgers, and returned on the 4th, our only casualities being three horses hit.
Saturday, July 5th.—Lynes, Coakley, and fifty men again left with Colonel Park's Column on a nine days' trek, returning on the 14th, having accomplished little owing to the difficulties of the country.
The chief recommendation of Lydenburg was its excellent polo ground, made by the Rifle Brigade in 1900, and when possible we used to play three days a week. This, and the arrival of convoys with mails, about once in three weeks, and an occasional night sitting up for Boers, were our chief interests. It is a nice enough place in itself, but we were cut off from the world; we were doing the drudgery of the campaign, and longed to get away ; so that when a call was made for volunteers for a corps of M.I. scouts, which was being formed at Middleburg, I volunteered with most of my Company.
About this time the plan of getting four M.I. companies of the regiment together, was beginning to take shape, so that I was not altogether disappointed when we heard that the scheme of M.I. Scouts had fallen through.
Friday, July 25th.—We got orders to hand over forty-three of our horses to the Liverpool Company of M.I. We had taken great trouble with our horses and much regretted this order, for the loss of the horses, besides being discouraging, meant that we could only find small escorts to the convoys—often, in my opinion, too small for safety.
Tuesday, August 13th.—The second week in August the local Boers, who had been very quiet of late, began to get more active. On the 13th we suffered a sad loss. At 7.30 a.m. Corporal Casey galloped in and reported that three men of one of our picquets, two miles east of the town, had been killed. This post had been chosen with much care. It was a difficult one to approach, but a picquet, once there, had an excellent position. The men had perhaps got over-confident from having gone some time without seeing a Boer, though they seemed to have taken the precautions ordered. " Be careful how you go out" were the last words said to them by Sergeant-Major Rowat as they left the lines that morning at 6.30 a.m. At 5.30 p.m. we had buried three of them.
The custom was for twelve men to go out to this post, six of them returning as soon as they had seen the picquet safely posted. On this occasion there was a high wind, and it seems that Humphries, Hawken, and Graham did not allow time enough for the flankers to get round. They dismounted, and walked through the rocks and long grass into an ambush. Though a dozen shots were fired, not one was heard by the rest of the party, owing to the wind.
When we arrived on the scene, Humphries and Hawken were lying dead in shooting positions, their rifles discharged, and Graham died very shortly afterwards in great pain. The Boers had only time to take the horses. Expanding bullets had been used. This loss of three very good men in such a way went as near raising ill-feeling between Briton and Boer as I have at any time seen during the war.
The next morning I went out with the picquet in force, and found about twenty Boers there, but they left in a hurry. We set fire to all the long grass, thinking it better that the cattle should go without than we should lose any more men in this Whitechapel way.
Monday, August 19th.—I left with twelve men for Middelburg to try and get horses, of which we were getting very short. Arriving at Middelburg on the 24th, and finding that they would give no horses to troops on lines of communication, I went on to Pretoria, which I reached on the 25th.
Travelling on the railway was much safer than it had been. At Uitkyk, the place with such a bad name nine months before, there was a small fort and garrison, the officers of which were playing golf. There were blockhouses all along the line, absolutely safe from rifle-fire, and surrounded by a network of wire. All the men had to do was to be alert. At one blockhouse, the scene of my adventure with the Commander-in-Chief's train, there were half-a-dozen men playing football. I thought to myself, "You wouldn't have done that six months ago, my boys!"
In Pretoria I saw many of those in authority, but could get no horses. The chances of our Battalion of M.I. being formed seemed very hopeful. I lost two more teeth, which made a total of eight pulled out during the war. It was some consolation to feel that there were eight less to have toothache in, but the problem of how to negotiate the ration biscuit was becoming a difficult one.
Returning to Middelburg, I managed, by asking till I became a nuisance, to get fifteen out of the fifty horses required, and left Machadodorp with Watson, who had come to join us, with a convoy on September 6th. The escort to this convoy was weaker than usual, and rumours were consequently stronger that we should be attacked in the Badfontein Valley. An attack seemed so probable that we stood by for a day at Shoeman's Kloof, awaiting reinforcements. Eventually we got to Lydenburg on September 9th without seeing a Boer.
The month of September dragged on, and the war seemed to make little progress. We at Lydenburg were constantly worried with rumours that Ben Viljoen, a special1st in night-attacks, was going to try us. Picquets were doubled and escort duties grew heavier. We longed for Ben to attack but he never came.
The rains began, and spring was coming on, the burned veldt began to get green; flowers, vegetables, and trees were coming to life, and Lydenburg was getting more beautiful each day. But with the return of spring the war was getting a new lease of life, and we knew that it must go on till at least next cold weather.
At the end of September, by way of diversion, we held some successful sports. All the people of Lydenburg were present, and many gave prizes for events.
In October, Eustace moved down to Middelburg to start a depot for the 25th K.R.R. M.I., which was now (on paper at least) a fait accompli. On the 7th two of our 4th Battalion Companies M.I., under Hope and Dalby, came into Lydenburg, having had some difficult fighting and a good many casualties with Colonel Park to the north of Lydenburg.