THE great blow, so suddenly and skilfully delivered by the Boers at Baakenlaagte, would in any of our small wars have been looked upon as a national calamity, but in a war on so large a scale as this one it was merely an incident. After five very busy days spent in re-fitting, time was called, and the column, which had scarcely recovered from the shock, was, without so much as a pat on the back, again dispatched, into the arena. It was this time commanded by Colonel Colin Mackenzie with a new staff.
The two lost guns were replaced by two 12-pounders of longer range, and the place of the Buffs was taken by the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The rest were as before, except that Major Bramley, of the 19th Hussars, took command of the Scottish Horse, while they and the 3rd M.I. and we ourselves started with reduced numbers and much handicapped by losses in officers and N.C.O.'s.
The full diary which I kept during the next three months of the wanderings of this column by day and night might convey some idea of the monotony and worries of this stage of the war. But I should be sorry to inflict on anyone a fraction of the boredom which we ourselves went through, so I will only record briefly the chief events.
During the night of November 11th there was a heavy thunderstorm at Brug Spruit, and three men of the Cameron Highlanders were killed by lightning in their tent On the 12th we left Brug Spruit with General Bruce Hamilton, who had taken over the command of the seven columns which were to operate in the Eastern Transvaal Moving to Bombardy, twenty two miles south-south-west of Brug Spruit, and not far from Baakenlaagte, we waited there until the 18th, covering the advance of the S.A.C. blockhouse line, which ran north and south from the Eastern to the Natal railway.
During this halt I took 150 men over to Baakenlaagte for the purpose of communicating by heliograph with other columns. We started at 3.30 a.m., and got into communication with Colonel Allenby's and Colonel Campbell's columns. It was a long day, but an interesting one. As I rode over the ground I thought how splendidly our men had there behaved, especially Sergeant Ashfield and his twenty men, and regretted that no encouragement had been given them.
November 21st found us at Yservarkfontein near Bethel, the scene of another fight we had had under Colonel Benson. All the columns under General Bruce Hamilton were concentrating near Bethel. On the 22nd I rode over with Eustace to Bethel, and lunched with Colonel Campbell. Besides the Colonel's Column, there were here those of Colonels Allenby, Rawlinson, and Stewart. We heard at Bethel that that night there was some big move on, so leaving at 3.30 we hurried back, arriving at 5 p.m., and found that orders had just been issued for the column to be re-organised in three columns:—
Column A. Fit men and horses, 10 per cent spare horses, two days' rations, no transport.
Column B. Light transport with rations, escorted by infantry and men with weak horses.
Column C. Heavy baggage, infantry, and sick horses.
At 6 p.m. the mobile column " A " got orders to start at 7.30 p.m., and I left in it with my Company, nearly ninety strong.
This idea of large bodies of mounted men, ready to go for a time without transport, was what we had long hoped to see carried out We were all ready to face any discomforts in order to gain some real advantage, and started off at 7.30 that night, about 4000 mounted men; I for one, at any rate, being full of hope. I felt very sleepy after the long day, and had the greatest difficulty in keeping awake and sitting on my horse. Soon after starting we were joined by the other columns, and we all moved along the same road in an easterly direction.
Night-marches had with Colonel Benson been a specialty. Before starting each man was told the object of the march, so that all started keen. At every drift, wire fence, or other obstacle there was a staff officer to superintend. The column was frequently halted, and straggling reduced to a minimum, and connection was always systematically kept up. No dogs, no talking or smoking, no rattling of wheels or accoutrements was allowed. On this occasion, with a large force, these precautions were especially necessary, but possibly owing to the size of the force, there was considerable confusion.
On several occasions I had the whole of my Company strung out as connecting files, and we found the greatest difficulty in keeping touch, owing to the dark, even with each other. The leading column forged ahead without waiting, and stray men from columns in the rear kept pushing up from behind. There were many drifts, and the ground was boggy after the heavy rains. At one drift a long range 12-pounder gun got stuck. Men from all columns came crowding up, and soon there was chaos. Men were shouting " Hullo! who are you ?" " What corps is this ?" " Where are the Greys ?" " Have you seen anything of the iSth Hussars?" "Who the devil are you?" and so on, and it was not possible to right this confusion before dawn.
We were left as escort to the gun; we got it out and pushed on, and as the sun rose I could see clouds of mounted men in front of us. There were a few Boers in the distance, and there was a little shooting going on. I had no idea what was happening, or what was intended, but in the end, after a march of thirty-five miles, we camped at De Witte Krans on the Klein Olifants River, thirty miles east of Bethel.
On November 23rd, in the afternoon, Colonel Campbell rode over from his column and saw our men, telling them he u was glad they had done so well at Baakenlaagte." This, coming from our own Colonel, was very much appreciated. The next night also was wet and cold, and we felt it all the more from being short of blankets and rations. We started back rather miserable, and marched five miles on the road we had come by, joining our "B" column, which had reached this point after great difficulties with its transport Eventually we returned to our " C99 column near Bethel, and arrived there on the 27th, glad to get back to the comparative comforts it afforded, but disappointed at the poor results of our labours. After this the columns again separated. We trekked to Carolina, where we arrived on December 2nd, having made several night-marches and expeditions en route, but with poor results. At Carolina we got a convoy from Wonderfontein. We got into touch with Colonel Fortescue's column, and heard that Louis Botha with 1800 men was at Klipstapel, about fifteen miles off; that he had tried to make them attack our column, but that his burghers, having had enough fighting at Itala and Baakenlaagte, had refused.
On the 4th we started for another night-march. The ground was difficult and the night dark, but the column, being anxious to surprise a farm before dawn, did not go slowly in front. At a boggy spruit I waited behind to superintend the putting out of connecting files. When this was done I cantered up to the head of my connecting files, and found that the corps in front had galloped on, and that we had lost touch. I galloped off into space, and was lucky in finding the troops in front about half-a-mile on. I got the leading file into touch, but just then, unfortunately, my old grey galloped into a barbed wire fence, and came head over heels on top of me, doubling me up and rolling on me in that position. The doctor came up and helped me, but there was no ambulance, so that by the time the rear of the column came up I had to decide between being left on the veldt ten miles from Carolina, or doing at least another twenty miles on horseback. I decided on the latter course, and had a most unpleasant experience. The column caught one waggon and 100 cattle, but no Boers, and at 12.30 on the 5 th we got back to Carolina, where I was laid up for four days. From the 9th to the 14th we were continually on the move, making long marches by day and by night, cooperating with Fortescue's column to the north and with those under General Bruce Hamilton from Ermelo. These operations resulted in considerable captures of Boers and stock. On the 15th we returned to Carolina. Four men (Livesay, Cherriman, Allen, and Shepherd), who had been wounded with Colonel Benson, rejoined us here, quite mended, and ready to try their luck again.
On the 17th went out with Woodmass (19th Hussars) to signal; got shot at, but no damage on either side. Our transport was at this time reduced to a minimum. All spare men and kits and all sick horses were left at Carolina, which now became our base. The men's kits were limited to one blanket (on horse), one waterproof sheet, one great coat, one pair socks, shirt and drawers (on waggon); 150 rounds were carried by each man. The saddles were stripped, and eight boxes of ammunition were carried on the waggons. Besides this supply I always had in my Company two boxes (2200 rounds) of ammunition on a pack-horse.
The hard work, and especially the constant night-marches, told on the horses, and many of our most hardy ones gave out We were now reduced to eighty men mounted and forty dismounted. The rest of the battalion only numbered ninety all told, so that the 25th M.I. was reduced to the strength of one strong company.
On the 18th Lynes went sick, and did not return. I was myself, like the horses, beginning to show signs of wear, and began to think about a change. On the 19th we got news which filled us with hope. Botha was said to be at the Lakes south of Carolina. General Bruce Hamilton, with columns under Rawlinson, Plumer, Williams (Clements?), and Wing (who had succeeded Colonel Campbell, invalided), was going to attack him at dawn, while our column with Fortescue's, together about 900 mounted men, was to head him off from the north. We left just before dark (sixty of our men had been out all day) feeling quite keen and hopeful. The horses were as light as possible, the men only being allowed one blanket, and carrying 150 rounds of ammunition. Each company had a Scotch cart, with eight boxes of ammunition and three days' groceries. The roads were heavy, and the carts got into difficulties. We had a long way to go before dawn, and did not wait for them. They were abandoned, and three of them (including ours) were taken by the Boers next morning. About 11 p.m. the moon set, and a storm coming on, it got very dark. It was impossible to tell whom one rode next to, so that at dawn the Scottish Horse, 3rd M.I., and Riflemen were all mixed up. I had just sorted my men with difficulty when we got the order to trot, then to gallop, and before I could stop it there was a stampede and chaos. I followed the stampede to a farm, whence we heard shooting in all directions, and didn't know what was going on. All turned out well in the end; we took five wounded and eighteen un-wounded prisoners, and a lot of horses and cattle. We had surprised Smit's commando at Lake Ban-nagher. Owing to the rain they had had no one on the look out; 120 had got away. I thought it was a pity we had not surrounded the farm quietly. However, everyone was well pleased with what we had got, and we only knew of one of the Scottish Horse wounded and five missing. But poor Bram-ley, a great friend of mine, was one of the five missing. He had galloped on ahead with a few men, and got separated in the early morning mist. After taking one Boer prisoner, he was himself given no chance and shot from behind. He was reported missing for three days before we heard of his fate. This was the second good commanding officer lost by the Scottish Horse within two months. We heard later that this commando had intended moving at 3 a.m., but had put it off owing to the bad weather. Louis Botha had left that night with the intention of going north. We made a short halt at Lake Bannagher, and after getting what breakfast we could in the heavy rain, moved back in good spirits, though cold and wet, to Both-well on Lake Chrissie. The sun came out about 10 a.m. and dried and warmed us ; we got a lot of pigs and chickens on the way. We camped on the same ground where General Smith-Dorien had been attacked.
On December 21st, after a thirty-seven mile march, we had hoped to be able to rest our horses, but it was not to be, for at 9 a.m. next day the Colonel got news of a Boer convoy which was reported to be trekking westwards, and by 9.30 all available mounted men were off after it. Our battalion luckily was advance guard, and about 11.30 a.m. we sighted the convoy about six miles off. I felt sure we should catch the convoy, but that the horses must suffer. We moved quickly, trotting and leading alternately, till we got to the point where we had first viewed the convoy. A few Boers shot at us, and I was told to reinforce White's Company and push on. This we did together, and were very soon on the rearmost waggons, which were stuck in a drift. A few shots did not delay us; we pushed on and spread panic into the Boers, who fled, leaving waggons and families, cattle and horses to their fate. We galloped on and on, past gesticulating families, broken-down waggons, and Boers waving their arms excitedly like windmills in token of surrender. We left all these to be dealt with in rear and pushed on. Once a Boer is on the run keep him on the run, was one of my maxims.
At last, however, after a nine-mile gallop, my pony was about done, and I only had four men up with me, so planting ourselves on a ridge, only one mile from the Klein Olifants River, between the Boers and a thousand of their cattle, we sat down, lit our pipes, and waited till more people should come up. Two or three Boers fired shots; we ran one down as he was shooting, but most of them cleared without firing. Soon, more men coming up under Eustace, they pushed on. There were only a few light carts left. Eustace pushed on well, and got all but two of the remaining carts, also a few more prisoners. I could count sixty Boers escaping; there were quite enough to make it unpleasant for Eustace, with twenty-five men on beat horses, should they rally; so I sat down and watched, thinking I could do more good in the rear with fresh horses than in the front with beat ones if Eustace was followed up. We must have covered forty miles, and many of the horses were quite done for. Colonel Mackenzie decided to camp at Shapkraal, where the main part of the captured convoy was.
Seeing Eustace returning unmolested, I started back, and about three miles on found Colonel Mackenzie, who was very much pleased with the way our men had done. Everyone was pleased with our success. The total was a good one— twenty-three Boers, twenty waggons and twenty carts, besides many vehicles destroyed, about 2000 good cattle, and lots of trek oxen, horses and mules.
I had always been sceptical about the large hauls of waggons and stock so often reported in the papers, and it was hard to see how the Boers could hide so many waggons and such quantities of stock with so many of our columns at their heels, but in this case it was genuine enough.
The pace had told, and the column had many stragglers missing. Only one of our horses broke down, and that was Goldie's, which had got horse-sickness. He was one of our best men, and pluckily caught a wild two-year-old colt from a Kaffir kraal, saddled it up, and after three falls and a few sniping shots from Boers, rode it nine miles and joined us at Shapkraal. Others less resourceful and less lucky had to walk many miles, while a few were surrounded by Boers, taken and stripped, one or two being hit. Our men were lucky, for besides other loot we recovered our Scotch cart with its three days' groceries, a sack of coffee, and tins of milk. There were taken with the convoy chickens, turkeys, and ducks, besides bags of mealie meal, so that they all fared splendidly.
The Boers, to lighten their carts, had thrown away all sorts of things, and there were men walking about in frock coats and top hats and other Boer clothes. We also recovered a note-book belong to Sergeant Ashfield, taken at Baakenlaagte, and a sword, probably Marsden's, taken at Dundee. I was on picquet that night with my Company; it rained, and a plague of mosquitoes and sand-flies helped one to keep awake.
The next day, December 22nd, we retraced our steps, camping at Lillieput, which we did not reach till 8 p.m., owing to difficulties with the captured waggons over the boggy ground. The total results of the operations were:—
December 20th.—6 Boers killed, 2 wounded, 15 prisoners, 56 cattle, 150 horses, and 150 sheep.
December 22nd.—1 Boer killed, 20 prisoners, 24 waggons, 25 carts, 1000 cattle, 160 horses, and 800 sheep.
Colonel Mackenzie issued the following in orders: " The O.C. Column congratulates all concerned on the operations resulting in the capture of the Standerton commando's convoy. The 25th M.I. under Major Eustace, and particularly Captain Crum's Company, contributed in a marked way to the day's success. The O.C. Column believes that to the fact of moving with stripped saddles, though it entailed hardships and discomforts on all ranks for two days, it was due that over thirty miles were covered after a thirty-mile march in so short a time as five hours."
December 25th, our third Christmas Day on service, was an uneventful day; it rained hard. My Company found the picquets, and we all got wet through. The turkey which we had captured with the convoy, and kept for this occasion, was unfortunately spoilt in the cooking. We spent the 24th and 25th at Klipstapel, the highest point in these parts, being at the source of the Vaal and Olifant's Rivers. There was an extensive view from it, and it formed a good central position for operations against Botha, who was at this time not far off.
On the 26th we left Klipstapel. As usual we were seen off the premises by a few Boer snipers, but had no casualties, and returned to Carolina, where I sent in my application for leave home. I was sorry to take this step, as I should have liked to have seen the war out; but I felt that it might go on for a long time yet, and did not think that I could last much longer without a change. I had never felt quite the same since Baakenlaagte; my teeth gave me continual trouble, and in wet weather I suffered a lot with my arm. I had done four-and-a-half years in the country, and was getting stale and war-worn. On these grounds, and for family reasons, I felt justified in applying for leave. This leave was forwarded by Eustace, and also by General Alderson, who kindly removed all appearance of malingering by his complimentary recommendations.
On the 27th we were joined at Carolina by Hope, Wake, Marsh, and twenty men with some horses. In the afternoon there was a big storm. A cow and a horse were killed by lightning only twenty yards from Colonel Mackenzie's tent, a native with them escaping unhurt
On the 30th, at 6.30 p.m., we got short notice to start on a fourteen days' trek at 8 p.m. We had no idea why or where we were going. We marched all night—by the stars I could tell we were going east-south-east—and continued our march till 12 next day, when we reached Holnek on the road to Steynsdorp. The waggons got in at 3 p.m., having done thirty-four miles in nineteen hours, which was, I think, a very big march for transport. Sergeant Ross had gone to Pretoria on duty, so again I had Corporal Thompson as senior N.C.O. Here was a man who began the war as a lance-corporal now doing the work of a sergeant-major, and doing it well, with no extra pay, no crown on his arm, but with all the cares and responsibilities of the more exalted rank. Such cases were common throughout the army.
It turned out that we had been sent to block drifts over the Umpilosi River, while General Bruce Hamilton, with all his columns, came up to us from the south. This duty we performed until January 6th, when we started back to Carolina. These operations were a success, and resulted in the capture of General Erasmus and over 100 Boers.
The New Year opened with a lively fusillade at 6 a.m., some Boer snipers coming up in the m1st and sniping into our camp.
On January 8th we returned to Carolina. On the 9th we found the picquets all round the camp, going out as usual half-an-hour before dawn. It was a very hot day till 3 p.m., when it became evident there was a storm coming. We got our horses in early from grazing, and had just watered and tied them up in the lines when the storm burst A blast of wind and dust, then rain and hail. I ran to the lines and got some men out to stop the horses from stampeding. We stood by them for a bit trying to quiet them, but the storm was too much for us. Hailstones and rain came down harder and harder, and for longer than I had ever seen. I never got such a hammering. We were driven back, and had to leave the horses to shift for themselves. My small tent was laid flat I crouched down in my oilskin and helmet, trying to save my neck and face at the expense of my hands. I got whack after whack on the knuckles and back from huge and sharp hailstones. I could just see that all the horses in camp were stampeding. No wonder, poor brutes; I would have stampeded myself if I had thought it would do me any good.
I fought my way backwards to the shelter of our mess tent, which was still standing. It was the fiercest of the many bad storms I have been in. Our men on Cossack-post had a bad time, with no shelter and most of their horses stampeded. After twenty minutes the hail gave place to a steady rain, and we all turned out to collect the horses. Watson was in great form, and worked like a trooper. Luckily there were two hours of daylight left, and a swollen river three miles from camp stopped the stampede, so that we recovered all but one of our horses, now reduced to seventy-three.
On the night of the nth I did my last night-march, I do not know anything more trying than night-marches. One goes on and on, struggling to keep awake when the road is easy, and struggling to keep touch when it is difficult Twenty-five miles is as much as you will do at a walk. If it is necessary to trot you are bound to have stragglers, and a straggler in the dark is as good as a man lost. At dawn one wakes up properly, and it is possible to get a good gallop out of the horses, but when the sun gets up, and it gets hot, men and horses begin to tire. You have shot your bolt, and though it may not have been successful it is not advisable to try it again. Certainly it is a mistake to try on your beat horses to catch Boers on fresh ones. You will leave behind you many stragglers, will lose many horses from exhaustion—and will not catch the Boers. When the time comes for retiring it is odds on your having a nasty rear guard action on beat horses. On this occasion the columns under Williams and Wing from Ermelo, and we from Carolina, after long and well-timed marches, arrived at dawn on Klein Olifants River and captured forty-two Boers. But not content with this, on our return journey, the Scottish Horse and two of our companies started galloping after fifty Boers. They went for a long distance, did no good, and lost many men taken prisoners (including Eyre), and many horses from exhaustion. ^
We returned to Kromkrans, where we heard we were to be attacked at night by Botha. We dug good trenches, but had not the good fortune to be attacked when we were ready.
On the 14th we returned to Carolina, where we found Bircham, recovered from his wound. My leave had been granted on medical grounds, so after handing over the command to Bircham on the 15 th, I said good-bye, to my great regret, to the oldest and best company of mounted infantry in the country.
Riding in to Wonderfontein, I took train to Middelburg. After a day or two there, and a short time in hospital at Pretoria, I found myself, on January 27th, travelling down in great comfort to Natal, en route for home, on the Princess Christian ambulance train.
Looking back on the war, and thinking of the "might-have-beens," many disappointments cropped up; but the joy of going home, with the feeling of having done one's share, outweighed all regrets, so that I travelled down from Pretoria with a lighter heart and far happier than I felt when, over two years before, I had travelled up on the same line in the Boer ambulance train. After a short stay at Howick with 1000 other invalids, I embarked on February 4th, 1902, at Durban, in the hospital ship s.s. " Avoca."
In my anxiety to get home I feared all sorts of mishaps, but the " Avoca" made no mistake, and on March 1st she did the 1000 invalids a real good turn by putting them down safely at Southampton Dock.
Thousands of men have come home from the war. Thousands of thousands rejoiced at the Declaration of Peace on June ist, and many thousands shouted themselves hoarse as they welcomed Lord Kitchener home on July 12th. Let me only say here that of all those thousands not one was more enthusiastic or appreciative than myself. All these things have been fully and frequently described. My only excuse for writing this story is that it may throw side-lights on the history of the war which might not otherwise be seen.