On 12th October we got a wire saying K.R.R. MJ. were to concentrate at Middelburg to join Colonel Benson's column. This was the best news I could have had for my birthday, as I had felt the four months' drudgery at Lydenburg very much. We moved off at 12 next day with an ox convoy and all our kit, doing double marches and killing thirty oxen, and reached Machadodorp in three days, and Middelburg in three more. The weather was glorious, and the fact of having three of our own Companies collected together for the first time, combined to make it an enjoyable march. Very little time at Middelburg on 18th to get everything done, but now we are all more or less ready, the Company as strong and as well turned out as I have seen it in the five years I have known it The Company is three officers and 130 men strong; the Battalion, under Eustace, 350 strong. The Column, about 2000 strong, is composed of three squadrons of Scottish Horse. 3rd M.I., the Buffs, four guns of the 84th Battery, and two pom-poms. Printed standing orders in this Column, and everything much stricter; still, if we know what is wanted, we shall get on all right.
Sunday, October 20th.—Celebrated Talana day by starting our trek with Benson's Column and the first Regimental Battalion M.I. ever formed. Did fifteen miles to Driefontein south-west of Middelburg. Left at 6, got in at 12, and dined with Murray (Black Watch), who was at Talana on General Symonds' staff, and is now in command of the 2nd Scottish Horse.
Monday, October 21st—Stayed at Driefontein, collecting information, a busy day for us, as we found all picquets—five posts three miles out, and two night-posts. Went to a farm with Reggie Seymour and got twelve very wild chickens. Several Boers in distance, about four miles southwest. Posted two night-picquets.
Tuesday, October 22nd.—Colonel Benson having gone on over night with 3rd M.I. and Scottish Horse, we came on with convoy seven miles to junction of Olifants River and Steenkool Spruit. Was on left with three sections. Got in about 11. Colonel Benson got in about 1 p.m., having caught thirty-seven Boers, cattle and sheep.
His system of information under Wools Sampson is splendid, and he acts on it, which is the secret of his success. The Boers call him "the mad Englishman," and say there is nothing simpler for them than to dodge other columns, but Benson's column frightens them, and they won't sleep within thirty miles of it knowingly.
A terrible storm about 4 p.m., hail-stones as big as racquet balls, stampeded all the horses; luckily all ours were knee-haltered and grazing near us, so we got them all back. The other corps lost about 100 between them. A wet night made things very uncomfortable, most of the tents and shelters having been blown down.
Wednesday, October 23rd.—Went out northeast with Company and Scottish Horse in search of stampeded horses, as far as last camp. Got nine horses and caught one Boer, seeing two more. We ought to have got all three Boers, but scouts went wrong. It cleared up in afternoon and gave us a chance of getting dry.
Thursday, October 24th.—An easy day. At 5 p.m. got notice of a night march, baggage and infantry to come on next morning to Rietkail, seventeen miles south-west Left at 6.30 p.m. A clear moonlight night The idea was to round up 200 Boers, said to be twenty miles off. Marched all night, mostly at a walk, with occasional halts and leads. Moved in sections, undulating over the veldt and avoiding sky lines. At 1.30 we halted, and those who were not too cold, slept, while our native scouts went on. About 3 a.m. we pushed on again, and as day dawned about 4 a.m. we broke into a trot; then, forming a long line—one company K.R.R., one 3rd M.I., and one Scottish Horse, with remainder of corps in support—we galloped on about five miles, but the Boers had heard of our coming, and cleared. The Scottish Horse came on them in distance, but, thinking they were our own people, left them alone till too late. It was a long gallop after a long march, but our horses, with exception of two or three, kept up well. I did not quite like the risk of letting men get out of hand till I could see what was on. The 200 Boers were there right enough, but we did not get to close quarters. We had a few casualities, including our doctor killed (Robertson), only just arrived in the country, poor chap. We halted till about 8 a.m. at a farm (Witbank) eight miles from our new camp. We could see the Boers waiting and watching on high ground about four miles off. I felt pretty sure they would bother the rear guard, so when we were told off for that duty I knew the K.R.R. M.I. were going to be tested. My Company and Lynes' were the two rearmost companies. The moment the guns left, the Boers came on at a gallop, our men and horses coming under fire from the very first. Not to make a long story of it, we kept on retiring and holding positions, while the Boers thrust right gallantly, some firing at us, while more kept working round. Our men did splendidly, the chief difficulty being to get them to retire when one wanted them to. In these shows it is the getting away that one must attend to as much as the fighting; I should often have liked to hang on. The Boers were coming right on in the open, sometimes only 250 yards off, so that then we had the advantage; but their turn always came when we retired, and we had many exciting retirements. Our luck was very good, we only lost eight horses, and had one man hit in two places, but not seriously (Allen—this is the third man of the name in my Company we have had hit). Unfortunately Bircham's 4th Battalion Company got into difficulties, and had Troyte and Crichton wounded. Troyte was left out with three men in the hands of the Boers, so that we don't yet know if it is a bad wound. This Boer commando seems to be under Groeblar, Erasmus, and Trichard. They had collected with a view to making a night-attack on Benson's column, which had been causing them great annoyance. We both were on our way to attack each other, and our Kaffir scouts met about twelve miles from camp. Whoever they were, they came on against superior numbers, and in the open, with great boldness. Both Murray, who went right through on the Natal side, and Colonel Benson, who has been through everything since Magersfontein, agreed that they had never seen them so bold. Colonel Benson was much pleased with the way our men did, and several complimentary remarks were made. Got back to camp about 5 p.m. very tired after a long outing. Slept jolly well.
Saturday, October 26th.—A welcome day of sunshine and rest. Hear Troyte is being well looked after by Boers. Boers say they had a bad time of it yesterday.
Sunday, October 27th.—An early start. Took right flank with half Company, Seymour and Watson on left flank of second line (ox-transport, which left 4.30.) Whole first line left 5.30. A few Boers on my right, but they kept a long way off. We camped at Kaffirstad, which found us on the flank at a farm full of geese and chickens, which we cleared. On getting into camp at 12, heard Seymour had had a nasty time, his scouts just saving him from a very clever ambush. Poor Egan, one of my best men, shot through liver, and three horses shot All seem to have done very well, especially Seymour, Corporal Brindley, and Egan, who, when his horse was killed and himself shot, stuck to his rifle and ran back 100 yards to warn them. In afternoon went out farm-clearing, so we had a long day. Went to see Egan who was very bad, but quite plucky. Told him he had saved his section. He said, " Someone must stop the bullets." This is the second time he has been hit. We are on rear guard to-morrow and are certain to be worried.
Monday, October 28th.—Left Rietkail camp at 4.15 a.m. to relieve out-posts. At first it was very difficult to see what the direction of the next march was to be. We were spread out over nearly five miles, and I had a lot of hard work in getting all my men in right positions, and making it clear to each when and how to retire, all the more as there was a difficult spruit to be crossed and I was not very clear myself. There were Boers visible from all my posts, but luckily they did not press on much at first. A delay from a waggon breaking down might have been a bore. Three miles on we got stopped in a fairly good position, as the waggons were sticking at a difficult drift A lot of Boers came on on our left flank (my right rear).
We had to hold on a long time, and some of the firing was at pretty close quarters. We were lucky again, and got away with only one horse hit. There were said to be quite 200 under Groebelar. I only saw about seventy myself; a few followed us right up, but the rest went off towards Bethel. I am quite sure the only way to cope with them is to have a lot of columns under one good man, and to work them into a corner of blockhouses.
Got into camp about 3 p.m., a bit tired ; heard poor Egan was dead; chose a place for grave and made a sketch to mark the spot Had to read the service myself. Poor Egan, he was one of my best men, and when one looked at him one knew he would do a lot for one.
Tuesday, October 29th.—Remained in camp here, and was glad of the rest Some of our horses are done up, and all the men have had hard work. This morning firing began early, 5.30; the day-picquets found by 3rd M.I., having two men hit and two taken. Boers had to be driven off by 3rd M.I., who saw about 200, evidently intending to follow us up.
Thursday, October list.—The ox-convoy under Eustace left Sieferfontein camp at 4.30 a.m., a place about forty miles south of Brug Spruit, on east railway line, and about thirty-five miles north-east of Standerton on Natal line. Lynes' company and Bircham's, three companies Buffs, two guns 84th Battery, and a pom-pom as escort. The intended march was to Onderwacht, twelve miles due north. At 5.30 a.m. the remainder of the convoy, under Colonel Benson, left, with 3rd M.I., two guns and pom-pom as rear guard, the remainder, Scottish Horse, Buffs, and two K.R.R. companies M.I., were with the convoy as escort and on flanks. Our two companies were in advance of the one convoy, and in rear of the other. The second convoy overtook the first at a bad drift two-and-a-half-miles after starting, so that my company was in the centre. We had no particular orders, but were available where required.
Our rear guard and its pom-pom were very soon at work; at 5 a.m. they were shooting, and there were evidently plenty of Boers in that direction. When we had gone about two-and-a-half miles I could see there was something going on on our right flank about two miles out. Both the right flank guards of the two convoys were doing a bit of shooting and a lot of galloping about The high ridge they were on was about two miles to our right, and was one of those which it is so difficult to know whether to hold or not. In this case it was held, but weakly.
I said, "Surely those are Boers," but Watson and Sergeant Rowat did not think so; it was quite impossible to say for certain. Presently there was a good deal of shooting, and the right flank guard of the first convoy came galloping in to the advance guard. One of my signallers, who had been attached to Bircham on the right flank, came up and rather excitedly told me that Bircham had been wounded and his section driven in by the Boers, who were right up to him. I had no orders from anyone, so I sent Watson up to Eustace with half a company to report to him, telling him at the same time that I had no orders from Benson to do so. I let Colonel Benson know at the same time.
Just about this time (7 a.m) rain and very cold wind came on, and there was a thick mist. They were shooting on three sides, and it was altogether unpleasant. I went up to see Eustace to try to find out what was going on, and found him as much in the dark as myself. He asked me to go and reinforce a height on our left, on which they seemed to be hesitating, and which it was important to hold, as the convoy was parked below it I was to try and find out what was going on and let Eustace know. When I got there, dismounting most of the men to hold the hill, I pushed on with a few scouts and found the hill all clear, but saw about 160 Boers moving slowly and unconcernedly away in two clumps about one mile off. This was, as I found out afterwards, the same party we had seen earlier, two miles to our right. They had swooped down in the mist, collared a few of Lynes' scouts, and were now on our left. They were mostly dressed in cavalry cloaks and slouch hats, and got right up, shouting " Stop !" before the mistake was seen. Eyre, whose section got cut off, had a narrow escape himself, while his horse was shot. Lynes, who did well, got his men back to a farm, which he held and shot from. His horse was killed, shot in two places, and he himself hit on the knuckles.
Soon after I got up, Colonel Benson, who was always where there was any shooting, came up with a pom-pom. I told him what had happened. There was no doubt now that there were a great many Boers all round us. There was a thick mist, and the waggons were getting bogged at the drift behind us. It was a difficult position, but it did not seem to worry Colonel Benson in the least. He halted on the high ground and got his waggons together, while we all waited and got very cold and wet When we did advance the infantry went out in front, while the mounted troops were drawn in.
The rear guard under Major Anley, Essex Regiment, was doing a lot of shooting, having to wait for two bogged waggons. They must have been having a nasty time of it.
About 11 a.m. it began to clear. About three miles from the drift, six from the start, the Scottish Horse were sent to help the rear guard, and three of my sections sent to support the advance guard, while my No. 1 section was left as escort to the guns. About a mile on I saw some of Lynes* men in front of me dismount and shoot from a ridge, so I galloped at once with a section, and coming up on their right we were in time to receive and give back a few long-range shots at about sixty Boers who were retiring in the open.
We were now on the hill, which was destined to become a very warm spot, and the scene of the hardest fighting on both sides that I have seen this war. At the time of our arrival on this spot, about noon, it was the position of the left of the advance guard. Eventually at sunset, which still found us there, it had become the right rear of the column, and three thousand yards away.
Eustace came up soon after I had got there and said, " We are going to camp somewhere near here. You are to hold this hill, while I take Lynes on the hill to the right, beyond." He left one gun with me, with orders for it to wait till relieved by the other two in the rear. Luckily it did not do so. There was on the top of this hill a cup-shaped hollow, with a grand view to the front and a fair view to the rear, an ideal position for one of the picquets round the camp, whieh we should, in the ordinary course of events, have had to find. We made a note of this at the time.
The Boers to our front had cleared away some distance, but, looking to our rear, I saw there was something important going on, what it was it was impossible to make out. Facing the rear—one-and-a-half miles half-right (i.e. on left flank of the column)—there were over 300 mounted men making slowly to a farm. I rushed to the gun and told the sergeant to shoot, which he did, the shell falling just beyond the farm. Then I saw what were certainly some of our men, further from the column than those I had fired at; so, thinking I had made a mistake in firing, I told the sergeant to stop. There was the greatest difficulty throughout the day in distinguishing our men from Boers, and this difficulty was greatly increased by the use of these beastly slouch hats and black overcoats.
Suddenly there was very heavy firing in the rear. The 300 mounted men at the farm shot out and extended at a very fast gallop, joining hands with about 700 mounted men to the rear, all shouting, shooting, and thrusting. There must have been 1000 of the finest Boers in the country charging the rear guard. Soon I saw this flood mix with the infantry and come right on and on up to the two guns, a mile in the rear and below me. My gun kept firing away, but seeing the flood still coming on I sent it away, and lined out my men in the best positions available, pointing out what to fire at, and telling them we must hold our hill. There were, besides the hollow before mentioned, one or two good places of the same kind, though smaller. Wonderfully soon we were under a heavy fire ourselves, and shooting back steadily and hard. It did one good to see how steady the men were.
The Boers, who had originally retired in front of us, were now coming back, so on three sides of us there were Boers. I joined Watson, Sergeant-Major Rowat, and five men in the hollow before alluded to. Quoting Lychenburg, of the 18th Hussars, I said, "Now, men, we are in a jolly tight hole, but a jolly good hole, and we are going to make the most of it" I should say this was about 12.30 p.m. We shot a lot at first, but very soon the Boers got our range, and shooting became dangerous. Very soon, to my awful grief, the Sergeant-Major—poor Rowat, the best N.C.O. in the army—fell back, hit through the head and apparently done for. While we were attending to him several shots came right in, and we had to keep down, taking careful stealthy shots at the heads we could only occasionally see on a ridge about 250 yards off and slightly below us. Soon Cherriman was hit in three places. Curiously enough this man was hit the same day two years ago at Lombard's Kop. None of these were dangerous wounds.
Livesay, my late servant, did splendidly, shooting back and talking to the Boers he was shooting at—"Would you ?" " I see you my friend," " Take that," and such like comments. About an hour after we began reinforcements came up, Seymour bringing up some more of the Company. Right well they faced the bullets, and it was here that we lost poor Sergeant Wayman and Corporal Brindley, and other very valuable lives. Three companies of the Buffs also came up, but having fifteen casualties they retired, and thus forced some of my men, who had no cover, also to retire. Reggie Seymour, B. Seymour, and three men joined us in our hollow. There was hardly room for us all now, but we were glad of their ammunition. Very soon poor Reggie and Corporal Oglesby were hit We cut Seymour's coats open (I never saw a fellow with so many clothes on), and were relieved to find it was a clean wound—arm broken, same place as mine, but a clean wound. Livesay set the arm very well with two scabbards. All this time we kept up an occasional shot and accounted for a horse or a Boer.
The time went quickly, but the ammunition went quicker, and after two hours or so it began to give out. We had been throwing what we could spare, tied up in handkerchiefs, to a party close to us. About this time Casey, Pedrick, and Baker came up with ammunition, the two former flat on their stomachs. Casey came right in to us ; the others lay very flat under the crest. Baker came up at a run in the open and drew a very hot fire, dropping flat, killed as I thought at the time, beside Corporal Rowles, who was under a bit of cover six yards away.
We had lots of ammunition now. At one time it looked as if the Boers were retiring, and we fired more and with less caution, but we soon found there were some excellent marksmen still on the ridge, so resuming our former tactics we kept down and fired more carefully. The Boers kept coming back in twos and threes. We thought they must just have gone to get more ammunition, but heard later that it was Louis Botha with a sjambok who kept sending them back. We must have hit some of these. There was soon a large number of Boers collected on the old ridge, and we again had to lie very doggo. The incessant crack of their rifles was very loud, and at times it was difficult to believe they were not within twenty yards of us.
About this time our guns from camp opened fire on the ridge the Boers were on. But to our horror our own pom-pom and a captured gun, dropped shells very near us. One shell in our little cockpit would have sent all fourteen to glory. I sent Pedrick, who was still lying about twenty yards off under the ridge, to crawl back and tell them that it was us they were turning the pom-pom on to. Later I sent Corporal Rowles back from his place to say that I could hang on, but wanted food, ammunition, and water, and that there were quite enough Boers to rush us if they tried it; also that I had four wounded. While they were away the pom-pom placed four shells just to our left, then four just to the right, and then a lot in the middle. There was a groan from the good Livesay, and he fell back with a lot of blood about the head. I got a field-dressing, and to my great relief found it was only three splinters, and that the wounds were not bad. I tied him up, so now we had five out of action. There were still R. Seymour, Watson, five men, and myself. We began burrowing with swords. I feared a shell, but said to myself, " If it does come it will be fate, and it can't be helped." We afterwards found that our camp was 3000 yards off, and it was impossible for them to see us. We were isolated, and it was getting dark. We had been in our cockpit on the top of the hill the whole afternoon, and the Boers, who evidently wanted the hill, were collecting in good numbers. There were over 300 of them within 300 yards of us, and I was sure they would rush us at dark. I gave out that we would let them come right on up to within six yards and shoot as many as we could. I had two rifles, one carbine, and my Mauser pistol, all full cock and loaded, so that I could not complain of my battery.
At this crisis Pedrick got back to his old place and shouted, " Major Eustace says you are to retire at once, and he will cover you with the guns." At first we were against leaving the wounded, but remembering that Eustace knew they were there when he sent us the order, we decided to try it
Now retiring was no easy matter. We had to come out of our cockpit, and however flat we crawled we were bound to be shot at. The first three got away unnoticed, probably owing to the failing light We said good-bye to Seymour and others, and then took our turn. I crawled out flatter than any pancake, and wriggled along at a great pace, bullets spattering round me. Just behind I heard a cry, and looking round saw poor Scrimshaw bowled over. Watson got up and ran, and I said to myself, " If a long-legged chap like that don't get hit, why should I ?"—so I got up and ran like the wind, with 'crack' 'crack' all round me. I was delighted to find all the party, except Scrimshaw and two others cut off beyond us, were safe. The Boers, when they saw what we were up to, had stood up and fired, any number of them. Seymour told me later they were on him almost immediately we left We had taken all the bolts of our rifles and the remaining ammunition with us, so we did not leave them much. But unfortunately I left my helmet and pipe, which I have had all through the war, also my haversack with my notes on rear guards. Louis Botha will smile when he sees them. He has taught us something of rear guards to-day.
It was dark when we got into camp. We put the ambulance on to the wounded, who got in about 2 p.m. When we got in we heard for the first time that it was Louis Botha and over 1500 men we had been competing with; also that Benson, Murray, Lindsay, Guiness, Lloyd, and many others were killed. Sergeants Ashfield and Wayman, Corporal Brindley, and seven of my good fellows all killed, and many more wounded, besides two guns taken. The news about the General had reached us when we got our ammunition. It was a terrible day, and on top of it Louis Botha was expected to attack us that night and follow up his success. A terrible storm came on, it was cold and wet, but we had no time to be depressed. Myself, somehow, except for my anxiety about Rowat, I felt easy in mind, and I felt sure that the white heather which had seen me through the day would see us through the night too. I was told to get my men out as soon as possible, and get them into sangars, which natives and coolies and the earlier arrivals in camp had been building. It was pitch dark and stormy; our post was the furthest away and nearest the Boers. No one quite knew where it was. We (forty men) slushed our way out, cold and wretched, about one-and-a-quarter miles, and after various enquiries at other posts, some of whom were afraid to speak above a whisper for fear of drawing fire, we found Corporal Thompson with about thirty of our men. There were only two small works dug, and no tools available, so I was very much annoyed; and leaving Watson in charge of Corporal Thompson's thirty, I brought all my forty back to the camp, turning into my bivouac to avoid the storm till the moon should be up. About 9.30 it cleared up, and the moon gave a good light, by which I was able to find four spades. With these we worked in reliefs the whole night, and by dawn had good cover for forty men. About an hour after dawn I got an order that the top of the hill must be held, and I was to go at once and entrench. This, after our exertions, was a bit sickening, and simply could not have been done if the Boers had been on the ridge beyond, as reported. However, we set to work with a will, and by 9 a.m. we had a splendid trench—a regular fort. Luckily the Boers, as at Ingogo in 1880, had missed their chance. We heard afterwards that Louis Botha did collect 1400 men for a night-attack, but at 3 a.m. they changed their minds.
We were by 10 a.m. ready for anyone, and hoped they would come. Colonel Wools Sampson had assumed command, and was much pleased with the way our fellows had dug. The Boers were said to be only four miles off, but I could see none— very different from yesterday.
The whole of the 31st the column lay low—it was like a man staggered by a blow. It was by no means beaten, it was ready to fight again, yet it was glad of a pause for breath.
When we looked round we realised what a heavy blow it had been. As I mentioned above, Colonel Benson—one of the most brilliant leaders the war had produced—was dead, together with the others named. The casualties had amounted to 280, besides the loss of those two guns.
The three officers of the Yorkshire Light Infantry M.I. and most of the Company had been wiped out, and the Scottish Horse had lost almost as heavily. In my Company one officer, four out of five sergeants, six corporals, and thirteen men had been hit—in all ten killed and fourteen wounded. Of the gallant Sergeant Ashfield's section, which had been left as escort to the guns, only three men escaped, and those three, who were holding the horses, had to be ordered back twice by a staff officer before they would leave their comrades. The other three sections had all lost their section-sergeants and many grand men besides.
The loss of a man like Sergeant Rowat, which we all feared, filled us with anxiety. The crowded hospital that day was a sad sight, and the doctors had more work than they could do. Many men died of their wounds, and among them we buried, near Colonel Benson at the farm, Private Tew, a good soldier. We had also lost our Company waggon with blankets and many important documents.
The day passed quietly—fatigue parties went out to bury the dead, and Boers were only seen at a distance. At night we were ready and alert in our sangars, but except for heavy firing from some of the infantry posts there was nothing to disturb us.
Friday, November 1st.—With October our anxieties ended. Scouts went out and found that Louis Botha had retired towards Ermelo. The country for miles was clear of Boers. About noon heliographs flashed to us from three different directions.
We had been relieved by Allenby, the ubiquitous De Lisle, and Colonel Barter—each of these columns had made splendid marches to help us. Sergeant-Major Rowat made a great improvement, and our Company waggon with most of the documents was recovered.
Saturday, November 2nd,—The next day we sent all our wounded with Colonel Barter's column to Springs, and our column, under Colonel Wools Sampson, trekked back to Brug Spruit, on the Eastern Railway, arriving there on the 5th.
Having had further trouble with my teeth, I got a day's leave, and riding in with the advanced scouts of the advance guard, arrived just in time to jump into a train for Pretoria, where I enjoyed for twenty-four hours the civilisation of Spruit's Hotel, and returned to Brug Spruit next night.