Major-General Lord Dondonald — I take a detachment to Acton Homes—looting—a kaffir kraal—an uncomfortable position—the Upper Tugela magistracy — Dr Jones — a nervous magistrate — under the shadow of Spion Kop — a long patrol — well rewarded—a useful cup.
March 11.—As I have now undergone the novel experience of detachment duty, I feel 1 must devote a small chapter to more of my doings while on patrol sixteen miles west of Ladysmith. Among the orders issued last Thursday by Sir Reclvers Buller was that Lord Dundonald, commanding our brigade of irregular cavalry, was to be Major - General (local rank). The promotion had to be celebrated, and the T. M. I. were the first to honour the new General by inviting him to dinner, when Colonel Thorneycroft, in his usual dashing manner, proposed our guest's health, and we sang " For he's a jolly good fellow." Next morning I was company orderly officer,—a duty which only entailed an early rise to see the horses counted, the forage drawn, and the horses taken out to water. Having seen this done at G a.m., I was wondering what to do next, when I received orders at 11 a.m. to take a detachment of thirty men from my company to join Farquhar, who had preceded me the previous day with sixty men to Acton Homes, about twenty-two miles west of Ladysmith, the scene of Lord Dundonald's successful action some weeks ago. I was to take tents, two days' rations and forage, and to report myself to Farquhar, with instructions that he should fall back to this side of Venter's Spruit. I believe this was due to a rumour that the Boers were in some strength in his vicinity, and he was hardly strong enough to stand up to them if he was attacked in so distant and detached a position. I was more than delighted at the order, for I was already getting bored with the idleness of a standing camp, and the persecution by the South African fly was almost unbearable. It was a case of flies in your nose, flies in your mouth, flies in your bed, and flies in your bath : the jam you ate was made of flies; the fresh fruit was destroyed by flies; we had roast fly, boiled fly, and drowned fly—in fact, it was fly everywhere from the fly! And still another reason for joy had I that I was going on detachment; for was it not my first opportunity of having even this humble command on active service, and didn't I hope for some slight adventure or some little incident which might furnish a report ?
At 2 p.m. I marched out with twenty-nine men, one sergeant, and one corporal, and after consulting map and compass, I found myself with the D company detachment at 7 p.m. at Acton Homes. Farquhar was on the point of leaving his somewhat isolated post, owing to rumours that the Boers were in some strength in the vicinity, and he didn't care to risk a surprise with so small a force and be blamed for not acting on his information. So after unsaddling for a couple of hours and getting a bite of food in a farmhouse, whose tenant, Mr Coventry, a good stamp of English colonist, had jnst turned up from Ladysmith, where he had been all through the siege, we marched back through the still moonlit night and bivouacked on the open veldt about 11 p.m., five miles nearer Ladysmith, where we now are. It was an uncommonly cold night, but without taking off anything we wrapped ourselves in our blankets and slept till the morning sun began to steam the dew from our damp clothes. A cup of tea, owing to the absence of firewood, was with difficulty procured with the assistance of an ant-heap as oven ; but I had some biscuit among my rations, and we did ourselves as well as soldiers do when on active service. Our next move was to find a suitable position for our camp, and by 7 a.m. we had decided on this one, and were hard at work measuring it out, pinning down the horse lines, and pitching the tents at correct and equal distance, " according to regulation." Some tinned bacon, very nasty, was served out about twelve, but I preferred biscuit and jam, and then I was allowed to take over the catering arrangements for our " seven officer mess." This is no sinecure, but it amuses me, and last night we had only three bottles of beer left and very little of anything else. An urgent appeal to our mess-president in the standing camp has rectified this, and a Scotch cart has come in laden with food and drink. Meanwhile, yesterday afternoon I went out to forage, and after calling unsuccessfully at several kraals, I came to a deserted Dutch rebel's farm which had the appearance of having been visited by robbers—or looters, shall I call them ? Now it is strictly contrary to military law to loot, but no soldier can resist an appeal, be it from a goose or a pig, to move to more civilised quarters where better rations are obtainable than in a deserted farmyard! So I promptly complied with their request, and after an amusing hunt successfully landed a fine young porker and a dozen geese, and carried them off on the waggon which I had brought with me, leaving a receipt for the goods in the farmhouse ! On my way back I stopped at a rather more important - looking kraal than I had yet seen, and was met by a Christian Kaffir (a Christian Kaffir, I am told, always wears clothes !), who allowed me to inspect the interior of his home—much to the amusement of his almost naked wife, and several little black picaninnies who preferred the garb of nature, and who bade fair to rival Cetewayo's stoutness even at this early age ! The Kaffir promised to bring us in milk and eggs whenever he had any, and then 1 rode home.
The native kraal has been often described, but is well worth a visit. The one I entered on hands and knees was typical of cleanliness, with its hard, polished cow-dung floor like asphalt, its neat grass mats, and the hollowed fixed dish in which the natives crush their mealies. The number of tinned goods round the walls bore evidence that the owner was by no means impecunious; but 1 was particularly struck with the exterior, which, as you know, is made entirely by the women's hands of the long grass so abundant throughout the country.
The patrol Farquhar sent out came in without any information of importance, except that Villiers, the officer in command, had called at a Dutchman's farm, whose loyalty he was by no means certain of, but with whose daughter he has apparently fallen in love! Instead of making Sunday a day of rest, we received orders to proceed to the magistracy, about fifteen miles away, see the magistrate, and note if all was quiet in the neighbourhood, and our western flank and communications under the Drakensberg not threatened by any Boer commandos. I was told off for this duty, with sixteen men from my company, and Farquhar himself came with me. This was all arranged last night at dinner, which we had in Farquhar's tent, as it was the first night we had felt the cold. It was blowing a gale, and we had no mess tent. Our dinner consisted of tinned soup (excellent), pork cutlets from the pig, which died a few minutes after its arrival (!), and stewed chickens which had been bought for 9d. each the previous day. The whole we washed down with beer or tea, and by 8.30 p.m. we were all in bed. It was a horrid cold damp night, and my servant had selected the lumpiest bed he could find in the limited area of ground my tent covered. The result was that I rolled off one mound on to my tent-pegs, and having extricated myself from that position I rolled myself off into my pail of water, which was waiting for me to wash in next morning! 1 can't say I enjoyed my night, but I didn't take off my clothes, as I had to be up at 4.30 a.m. to start at daybreak on this patrol. It was about the vilest morning I remember—a thick damp mist, a cold raw wind, and a drizzling rain ; but by 5 a.m. I had swallowed a cup of coffee and eaten a boiled egg and some dry bread, and was in my saddle.
We had an uneventful ride out, but the morning improved considerably, so that by the time we reached the magistracy at Upper Tugela I was quite dry again. A nice deserted place we found! The court-house, jail, post-office, and other cottages had their windows and doors broken in, and interior looted. The store, or hotel as it is called, was unoccupied except by an Indian coolie, who told us his master had gone away, and the only residents we could find were Dr Jones and his wife, who gave us the heartiest invitation to breakfast. He was expecting the magistrate, Mr Giles, back that morning, so we hoped to get all the information we required over the best pot of tea, the richest butter, the newest baked bread, the freshest eggs, and the most excellent jam I have ever discussed. Dr Jones and his wife, who, by the way, come from the north of Ireland (I think their home is called King's Castle, Dunglass), live in a charming little red brick house, with a verandah running round three sides of it. At the back are capital stables and a surgery, and fenced in adjoining the house are several acres of good flower and vegetable garden. Dr Jones has only been there a year, but already the peach-trees are nine feet high, and the pumpkins, tomatos, and cucumbers growing in profusion. The doctor's wife gave us some violets and mignonette as a memento of our visit. Her husband had gone through quite an exciting time, a Boer commando under Erasmus having visited their house towards the end of October and vainly endeavoured to make him sign a paper to say that he was a Dutch subject, and that the land and house belonged to the Free State ! Having flatly refused to turn traitor, although assuring them of his neutrality as a doctor, he was marched off to Harrismith and thrown into prison. At one time it was seriously debated whether he should be shot, but better counsel prevailed, and his poor wife was left to mourn his absence for a whole month, when he was liberated on parole and returned home. When we arrived the doctor was extracting: a tooth from an old Zulu woman; and with some pride he showed me the two boxes he had found in which the dynamite had been stored that was used by the Boers for blowing up the local bridge over the Tuffela. He had also the whole of the electric coil with which it had been fired, and he purposed making flower-boxes out of the cases and trailing a creeper over the wires! Many interesting stories Mrs Jones told us of the Boers and their visits, but they never entered her house nor commandeered what belonged to her.
The magistrate did not turn up, but as we were riding home we met him. He had taken us for Boers, and in his hurry to escape had got into a hole in the river which he was crossing and was wet through. He seemed very nervous, feared Boer raids, and hoped we would move nearer to them in order to restore confidence among the loyal farmers and natives.
We got back from our thirty miles' ride about 3 p.m., and I have just had my first bath since Thursday, though I am still un-shaved, as my razors won't cut and there is no barber in camp !
March 12.—I am giving the men and horses of my detachment a rest to-day, as we have done nearly seventy miles during the preceding two days and nights; and having discovered a man with a razor—not a barber—I have commandeered him, and have just undergone the torture of a shave. The man, who is in charge of the ambulance, is full of apology ! Nothing of importance has occurred, but we got a Natal paper of March 10—really wonderful, though what has happened between March 3 and 10 we are left to surmise. Anyway, we have heard of Lord Roberts's second victory at Osfontein, and it almost looks as if the back of the rebellion were broken. I made quite a good haul last night—a stray horse having wandered into our lines, which I have promptly appropriated. The Kaffirs are bringing us in milk and eggs and chickens every morning, so we can't grumble at our position ; but though patrols are being sent out daily, the absence of the Boers from this neighbour-hood, and the inactivity of Buller's force in Ladysmith, makes the ordinary camp life uncommonly dull. Our usual hours are—reveille at 6 ; breakfast, 7.30; kit or arms' inspection during the morning; watering and grazing the horses at 9 a.m. ; lunch at 1 p.m. ; an excursion or an idle afternoon ; stables and nosebags at 4.30 p.m., when the horses, having again been watered, are brought back to the lines; change of guard, 6.30 p.m. ; dinner at 7 p.m., and to bed at 9 p.m. Of course, all this varies according to circumstances, and if it is your turn for patrol duty you start at sunrise, 5 a.m., and probably return at dusk; while if you arc orderly officer, you have to visit the guards' vedettes and outposts two or three times by day and night.
Our forage and rations come in daily from the standing camp in Ladysmith, and so long as these are regular and we are not shifting our camp, everything is most comfortable—though the flies have a disgusting knack of finding you out when you have been in camp twelve hours. If you can find Acton Homes on your map, you may be able to realise the neighbourhood of which I am writing. Our camp is within sight, and almost under the shadow, of the north-west end of Spion Kop, or Schwartz Kop as the Dutch call it. I have now had a good look at two sides of the country round Ladysmith—the southern from Chieveley, Colenso, and Pieters, and the western from Acton Homes and Upper Tugela. Both the approaches have the river as a natural defence, and on either side the innumerable kopjes and hills would give one an immediate impression that they were impregnable—in fact, that any one holding these spruits and passes could do so for ever and aye from an attacking force. That we have got through the enemy's defence at last speaks volumes for British pluck, but that our success was assisted by the withdrawal (not from defeat but by design) of the Boer forces is a fact which cannot be gainsaid.
This brings me back to Spion Kop, where one of our greatest reverses took place. Had this hill been properly held—I mean, had those who took it so gallantly been adequately supported by artillery and other forces—the key could easily have been inserted into the door of Ladysmith. Lord Dundonald's strategic flank attack from Acton Homes was deserving of more notice than it received; and if the Harrismith road to Ladysmith had been utilised as our line of attack when we took Spion Kop, not only would Ladysmith have been relieved very soon after January 24 instead of February 28, not only should we have been spared the loss of 110 officers and 1400 men during the last fifteen days' fighting before the relief, but we should have cut off the routed Boers by the very roads they have escaped us—the one we are now guarding to Harrismith via Oliver's Hoek, and that which leads to Van Reenen's Pass. Instead of this, the Boers left us day by day between February 15 and 28, fighting a splendid rearguard action, till on February 28 we marched into Ladysmith, only to find that the Boers had removed all their stores, waggons, and guns in an orderly retreat. Now we are sitting still, while they are being given time to re-entrench themselves. I don't profess to be a general, but why not follow up a retreat, and strike and strike again in the hour of victory ? I can see what it all means. Lord Roberts is going to relieve Natal, not General Buller. Perhaps it is as well.
March 14.—Forty-five miles' patrol yesterday ! A baking sun and a horse dead ! Such is my report; but it was not a fruitless ride, for after calling on Mr Richardson,—an old Haddington man, who tells many a good story of the present Lord AVemyss when he was Lord Elcho,—I paid a visit to several deserted Dutch farms, and discovered hidden away 150 sacks of mealies, 3 bags of wheat, and 20 sacks of potatoes, of a value of quite £200, which should now become Government property. At any rate, I put a native policeman on as guard, and our rebel Dutch will at least have to pay this fine for their eon-duct. Down the banks of the Tugela I rode, after thoroughly searching Oliver's Hoek and Koodoo passes; and after resting the horses for an hour at the magistracy at Upper Tugela I got home at 7 p.m., having been over thirteen hours in the saddle. I am afraid the horses were a bit knocked up : one died close home of horse - sickness, a disease which often kills a horse (as in this case) instantaneously, and four others had to be led into the lines. I expect, after this, our camp will have to be moved farther west, as we are really too far away to thoroughly guard the district I was in; but f gleaned a good deal of information from Mr .Richardson (who has been at Woodstock farm with his daughters over thirty years), from Kaffirs, and by means of my glasses. I don't think the Boers will venture far from their strongholds in the Drakensberg ; but there is no doubt they are there, that they have four guns in the Tintwa Pass, and strong laagers in the Free State just at the top of the Koodoo and Oliver Hoek passes. Most of the farmers who have not run away are quite loyal, but there is one " gentleman" we have got our eye on and mistrust.
To-day is an idle day, and we have now got the telephone connected to the main camp, so we shall be able to save messengers at an}^ rate. I have had to send one man of my company in under arrest for threatening to strike and using insubordinate language to his non-commissioned officer; but there are always cases of this kind in every regiment, and take this corps throughout, from the short time I have been with them, I have found them a really hardy, rough, daring, and fine lot of men, just suited for the work they have to do, and a credit to our Colonial-raised forces. The greatest difficulties I have to contend with are the horses' sore backs. This is a perpetual worry, which has to be dealt with promptly or we should soon be infantry instead of mounted infantry. The heat is intense.
It may amuse you to know we have commandeered a large deal table and six chairs from a rebel farm close by for our mess; but of course these will be returned when we leave this camp. You would laugh if you saw me fill my cup with my morning cocoa, then use it for shaving-water, then wash my teeth out of it, and then use it again for lunch ; but that's how we do things in the T. M. I. ! I have just got a note from the main camp, saying we are going to have sports and races on Saturday, and a "sing-song" in the evening, and asking me to recite; so I suppose I shall have to run 100 yards and trot out the "Absent-minded Beggar" and the "Women of Britain" for the doubtful benefit of the brigade.