I decline the risk—fellow-passengers—the tail end of a fight—gross neglect—Lovat's Scouts—retaliation —Colonel Spens—the Herts Yeomanry—a unique incident—Kent Regiments—Theodore Brinckman—pro-Boers as railway servants—a protest—the pioneers and Royal Lancaster Militia — Major Lumley — a sudden halt.
June 18.—You would think my record of adventure ought to have ceased when Lord Roberts entered Pretoria, but the events of the last few days have been so exciting, and so full of novelty and interest, that I take up my pen once more to describe my journey home through the practically conquered countries of the Transvaal and Orange River Colon}7. I had delayed my departure from Pretoria for a few days, with a view to going across to General Buller for the ' Morning Post,' but the activity of Christian de Wet in the newly named colony, the absence of authentic information of Buller's exact whereabouts, and the fact that the railroad was cut and communication by telegraph interrupted, made me pause before risking a third capture by riding 150 miles from Vredefort to Botha's Pass. That was my intention, thanks to Mr Battersby of the 'Morning Post.' But the big fight which was to end the war at Eerste Fabrieken was still in progress and going so satisfactorily, and a despatch announcing a great victory in the Free State over De Wet had just been received, that I decided on home instead of more adventure, and set off on Wednesday morning, June 13, at 8 a.m., in an open coal-truck in company with Captain Wester, the Swedish military attache.
We expected a roughish journey, but never anticipated the experiences we underwent. Our first stage brought us to Irene, where the line had not then been quite repaired, so out we got and carried our luggage (mine consisted of two wooden boxes full of miscellaneous treasures, a Wolseley valise containing some clothes, and a bundle of rugs) for about half a mile to another train, where we were fortunate enough to find a third-class compartment without any windows! We started again about 10 a.m. for Elandsfon-tein, with the cheery information that we might possibly get on to Vereeniging, but certainly no farther! On our way we were delayed at Zuurfontein for two specials to pass us going up to Pretoria from Johannesburg with the Gordons and some artillery. These reinforcements, coupled with the fact that I had that morning at 6 a.m. seen two batteries gallop through the town in the direction of Eerste Fabrieken, somewhat belied the official information that all was going well—information which I received from a friend on Lord Roberts's staff, who told me as I was starting that communication with Bloemfontein had just been re-established, that De Wet had been smashed up, and that that night would probably see the complete surrender of Botha's forces at Eerste Fabrieken.
We reached Elandsfontern, however, without incident, having a chat here and there with the troops on the lines of communication, including Lumsden's Horse (a fine body of men from India), and various railway staff officers, some of whom had been selected from my quondam fellow - prisoners. At Elandsfontein an extremely stout and still more uncivil station-master ordered us out, and we had to wait till five before the train for Vereenioinp; started. It was a great joy to find we could reach that place, but it was more than doubtful if we should get any "forrarder" that night, so we replenished from the refreshment-room the few stores we had brought with us, and there found two more adventurous travellers on the platform — Mr Hutton, Reuter's correspondent, whom I had last met at Ladysmith, and Dick Liebert, an old friend of mine, both of whom had come from Johannesburg. Liebert had been doing good and voluntary work with Murray Guthrie in the military parcels office. Our party was still further reinforced, before we started, by a ' Black and White' artist, and by one or two officers of Roberts's Horse, who had been allowed to resign their commissions and go home. Captain Wester, too, found a
friend and fellow - countryman going down, Lieut. Erland de Kleen, an officer in the Swedish artillery, who had also come out for military purposes. A little party of eleven, we tucked ourselves as best we could into open Trucks and a third - class compartment, and reached Vereeniging about 8 p.m. without incident. The staff officer there was not at all inclined to let us proceed in a "construction" train which was just departing for Vredefort Road, but on showing our passes we were permitted to go as we pleased, the only stipulation being that one of two covered trucks was not to be used, as it contained some Boer prisoners and their guard. The other we found already seized, and while half was full of railway sleepers with which the " construction " train was loaded, the other half was strewn with blanketed human forms — most of them being "gentlemen in khaki ordered south." Wester and I were both lucky to find corners in this crowded horsebox; but I do not know which of us was the more to be sympathised with next morning—he so stiff from his cramped, all-night sitting, or I from a violent cold due to the draughty open grating near which I had to lie with a bag of letters for the Secretary of State from Lord Roberts as my pillow.
With the dim morning light, almost frozen with the intense cold, I regarded the scene on the floor of that horsebox with curiosity. A ludicrous one it was! Whilst I was scrutinising and " palling" up to my fellow-passengers, I noticed the forms of two more stowaways on the top of the sleepers near the roof. One proved to be Captain Maxwell, A.D.C. to Lord Roberts, who was carrying the mails I had unwittingly used for my pillow, but on being assured they were safe he went to sleep again. It was too dark to see the " deviation " made over the Vaal, and we reached Vredefort Weg about 5 a.m., and soon proceeded down the line to the railhead, where the sleepers and Basutos whom we had picked up en route were being eagerly awaited by the engineers.
We had hardly left the station when sounds of firing ahead of us were distinctly audible, and looking out into the cold grey dawn we discovered ourselves the unexpected witnesses of a fight. Shells were visible bursting on the left of the railway, and some mounted men and two guns, evidently our own, were galloping and being galloped about on either side of the line. To move on was impossible, and we got out to have a look at the proceedings, which proved to be the tail end of an attack on our engineers, which the Boers had made in the dead of night. Right in front of us was a burning waggon on a siding, and beyond it, across the line, lay a derailed truck. It was apparent that the news of De Wet's smashing up was a gross exaggeration, but information was difficult to obtain, till an officer on a trolly came down and ordered our train back to Vredefort Weg. From him we gleaned that Lord Kitchener was about two miles down the railway in Colonel Spens' camp at " Kopjes," with about 1500 men, and that Lord Methuen had a still larger force a few miles farther south. He told us that the engineers had been allowed to work without any covering party, and that while the night shift was busy on the bridge about 2 a.m. a heavy fire was opened on them from all sides at about 300 yards' range. Major Crompton, the well-known electrical engineer, who was in bed at the time in his carriage, and one or two other officers, had miraculous escapes, the engine, and their carriage which was next it, being literally riddled by bullets. He immediately ordered his men, who were almost all unarmed, to open out at ten yards' interval on either side of the line, whilst those with rifles were placed in the most favourable positions for defence. Most of the black men bolted at once. Lieut. Micklem, R.E., whose extraordinary work under Colonel Girouard throughout this campaign has called forth the army's admiration, was wounded in the foot, and eight others shared a similar fate, while one man was killed. The blacks lost eight killed and twenty-three wounded, and Major Crompton informed me subsequently that they bore their sufferings with the greatest fortitude. It was not till after we returned to Vredefort that the correct casualty list was made up, which showed five killed, thirty wounded, and nearly 400 missing (350 of whom were blacks). Since then, however, the majority have turned up. How the lines of communication should have been left so unguarded was a mystery to me. It is one of those neglectful oversights which are of such constant occurrence that, small as they may be, are undoubtedly the cause of continued hostilities by giving the burghers that " courage" of which so much has been made by the ' Volksstem' during the war.
The "construction" trains were brought in that night with the wounded and the engineers, many of whom are volunteers from our largest English and colonial firms, and who deserve the greatest sympathy in the undoing of their work by the want of proper military precautions and protection. No wonder they find it heartbreaking labour, these splendid men, without whose skill our forces could never have been in Pretoria, nor have been brought up from the various bases with their enormous and necessitous food and ammunition supplies.
To return to our journey. We had to remain all day at Vredeport Weg, but a convoy came in that evening, and we decided to move on by it if the train could not go next morning. During the day I found Lord Lovat and his scouts, who had just come in from Heilbron. I dined with Lovat in his camp, and heard of all his ghillies' doings. They haven't seen much fighting, but are a fine lot of men, and know how to use the telescope and how to stalk the foe from their previous experience on the "hull"! The South Wales Borderers were also at Vredefort—altogether about 800 men — but whether the commanding officer here or farther south was to blame for the previous night's incident I thought it better not to inquire!
The train did go next morning with an escort of scouts, and so did the convoy at the same time. Some of us elected to go by the latter, but Wester, De Kleen, and myself went on by the train, hoping the work would be quickly completed, and we should reach Rhinoster, or even Kroonstad, that afternoon. Not a bit of it! What was our astonishment and horror to find that, notwithstanding the experiences of the previous night, no guard had been placed over the bridge (which was all but ready for traffic), and that the Boers had deliberately come back during the night and burnt the entire structure down again! Comment on the whole business after my previous remarks would be superfluous. The spirit of retaliation, at any rate, invaded our men that morning, and we burnt down all the farmhouses in the vicinity of the railway, from which these depredations and guerilla incursions on our communications had undoubtedly been made. After looking at the ruins of the bridge, and eating some breakfast, we espied the convoy coming along; and leaving our bullet-riddled engine behind, we jumped on the waggons and continued our journey by road to Colonel Spens' camp at Rhinoster, which we reached about 1 p.m. that afternoon, Friday, 15th June.
" Kopjes" is just one of those delightfully fortified little camps that one fondly imagines but rarely sees. Of no great height, its position, nevertheless, commands the whole of the surrounding country, especially to the south, east, and west, and it was here the Boers had originally prepared the stronghold from which the unfortunate but gallant Derbyshire militia had been compelled to surrender a few days previously, after suffering severe loss. If I digress from my diary for a minute it is to tell you that the Derbyshires were detrained at Roodewal late one evening, and formed their camp not 500 yards from this position, which they were unaware was held by the wily Boer. Without any cover whatever, and against six guns, they fought for seven hours with the greatest gallantry; but no one coming to their rescue, they were compelled to surrender, and were then being marched about all over the veldt. It was the day after that Colonel Spens arrived with the Shropshires, four guns, and two companies of the Imperial Yeomanry (the Suffolks and Herts), and took up the position evacuated by the Boers. Lord Kitchener had gone south that very morning to Kroonstad and Bloemfontein, his object being to strengthen and rearrange the posts along the railway — a step which should have been taken far earlier than it was —and I found Colonel Spens in command of the camp. It was nearly ten years since we had last met in the racket courts, but he was more than kind, gave us lunch, and sent us with our kits and mails down to the railhead (the other side of Rhinoster bridge), there to await a train which was expected from Kroonstad that night.
After lunch, where I found Major Doyle, much altered by his beard, I went across to the Herts Yeomanry camp, where Sir George Arthur failed to recognise me in my prison clothes, and Lord Essex was busy writing a letter. I was delighted to see them, but the fact that I was going home did not cheer anybody very much, and there is little doubt many of our gallant volunteers are heartily sick of the campaign, and anxious to get back home. Here it was I learnt how the Boers had completely wrecked the railway station of Roodewal, and had burned eight waggon-loads of mails for the troops at the front. This latter act was a scoundrelly one, from which no good could accrue to them, but which must cause us the greatest annoyance and disappointment. I have since heard that De Wet's reason for burning the mails was to prevent his burghers reading the private correspondence, which it is said they were doing. I have, however, some doubt as to whether the burghers have had sufficient English education to support with any strength the reason for De Wet's malicious action. An officer named Watson, however, had a unique piece of luck whilst riding through the veldt, for he found uncharred and unopened an envelope addressed to himself, and containing his own cheque-hook!
I said good-bye and went down with the waggon to the railhead, passing on the way Lord Methuen and his force, who were moving up from Roodewal to the destroyed bridge south of Vredefort Road, and reaching the place where the " construction" train from Kroonstad was expected to pull up, found the line and bridges completely smashed and destroyed. Yet I was assured that if proper protection were afforded the engineers, the work would be completed in a couple of clays, and communication with Vredefort reestablished. If this has been the case it will have been a wonderful bit of engineering, the Spruit at Rhinoster being one of the worst I have yet crossed.
We laid ourselves down about 7 p.m. near the railway for a few hours' nap till the train arrived, and had the satisfaction of knowing that we were watched over by four companies of the Northampton^. The train came earlier than we expected, and I was roused from my sleep by a voice I knew well. It was one of the defenders of gallant little Mafeking, Lord Charles Bentinck, on his way up to join Ridley's Mounted Infantry, and carrying despatches to Lord Roberts. We gave him a mug of cocoa and some bread, and heard all the news he had to give us.
I got into the engineman's truck, which was already tenanted by two sleepy Scotchmen— the ex-driver and his stoker—but they bade me welcome, and on a stretcher bed, with my rugs piled on me, I slept till five next morning, when we found ourselves at Kroonstad. So far so good! We were still in time to catch the homeward mail, but it was 3 p.m. before we started again for Bloemfontein, in covered and open trucks. Meanwhile I paid a visit to the town—a miserable one, I thought, with a typical Dutch church in the centre of the chief square. I handed in a cable to the ' Daily Mail,' and a message I had been carrying for Mr Maxwell, the ' Standard' correspondent, and got a shave. Breakfast we had at the refreshment-room—a room full of interesting romance to me, as dinner had been my last meal there under the surveillance of the Orange Free State Government just after my capture, and the proprietor soon recognised me. Here, apparently, most of the officers of the garrison came to breakfast, and among them was a very old friend, Colonel Theodore Brinckman, in command of the 3rd Buffs Militia, Captain Campbell Preston, and Captain Boyd Cunningham, of the Argyll and Sutherland Militia. Brinckman, with his usual kindliness, asked us up to his camp, and there gave me the first bath I had had since Pretoria, and a complete change of underclothing and great-coat, as my Wolseley valise was left behind in the excitement at Vereeniging. We lunched with him also, and nothing could have exceeded his hospitality. It was a curious coincidence that the East Kent Yeomanry, the 2nd Buffs (East Kent regiment), and the Kent volunteers were also encamped all round, and we suggested that the name of Kroonstad should be changed to that of "Kentstad."
Hard by the camp of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was the Scottish Hospital, with its well - known flag defying the vilest sandstorm I have yet encountered in South Africa. I must say the commanding officer of the 3rd Buffs knows how to do a campaign comfortably, his tent being full of every little personal luxury imaginable. Much aplomb is due to the smartness and fitness of his regiment, who are credited with having done a very fine march of twenty-three miles from Dewetsdorf with a convoy which the enemy were in search of. We collected more mails, and pursued our southward course, confident our troubles were at an end, and that we should reach Bloemfontein late that Saturday night. The first part of our journey was full of interest, the wonderful deviations and "crib" work over the Walsh river forming a capital diversion in our troublous and long journey. We were stopped at Geneva siding for a passing train, and I got an opportunity of a chat with our engine-driver. His engine was also marked with bullet-holes, and he told me his train had been in the fight two days previously at Zand river, when on its way up from Bloemfontein. But more of this fight later. From him I gathered that the military authorities have left a quantity of Dutchmen in their positions on the line as stationmasters, signallers, &c.; and the greatest discontent and anxiety was manifested by the drivers—not only for their own personal safety, but also for that of their charges. Here, at this very Geneva siding, was a man whose duty it was to signal in each train by flag. He had not done so in our case, and had been acting-stationmaster for the Boers all through the war. At the next station— Ventersburg Road—was a stationmaster who, I was credibly informed by an eyewitness, sjamboked the refugees from Johannesburg on their way south, when they rushed to get water after an eighteen hours' cramped journey. This man, notwithstanding wires from Bloemfontein to stop the train the night of the fight I have already alluded to, tried all he could to get it on — whether for nefarious reasons or not I am unable to say; but the strongest suspicion rests on him. I have just quoted these two instances in the interests of the engine-drivers. It is really too bad that, with hundreds of capable loyalists anxious for work, men who are of Dutch origin and known sympathisers with the Boers should be retained in positions of such trust and vital importance.
At Ventersburg Road signs of De Wet's recent visit were not wanting, a huge fan-pump having been thrown right across one of the rails—not ours, fortunately; but when wTe had gone to bed, hoping to wake at the capital of the Orange River Colony, we were rudely disturbed at Zand river b}7 a voice asking for all our names, occupations, and destinations, and whether we were armed or not. Major Lumley, on General Tucker's staff, who was with us, was called out as senior officer to go and see the commandant of the station. We wondered much what was up. He came back with the news that we could not proceed that night, and that an attack was expected by Colonel Capper of the Pioneers, who was acting-commandant. Possibly, if all went well, we might be allowed to proceed after the mounted infantry had cleared the country in the morning. Here was a nuisance, and many were the speculations as to whether we should reach the Cape in time to join the Tantallon Castle. It appears that, two nights previously, the Boers had made a determined attack on the Pioneers, with whom were the Royal Lancaster Militia, and details of Imperial Yeomanry and Mounted Infantry. The attack had, however, been beaten off, the Pioneers and a company of the Royal Lancaster Militia having specially distinguished themselves.
We resigned ourselves to sleep again, but the feeling of insecurity and intense cold militated against this considerably, except in Major Lumley's case, whose voice was so frequently heard in his dreams that the rest of us were afforded a thoroughly interesting and amusing entertainment! First he sang, then he laughed, and then he seemed to be enjoying a fine hunting run. The major is a great epicure and gourmet, and no doubt these attributes, and want of exercise to suit his digestion, were the cause of his night vagaries!
Next morning, Sunday, we saw the Mounted Infantry go out and search the country, the expected attack not having taken place. I had a splendid opportunity of noting Colonel Capper's plan of defence. To him every credit is due, and the success he had achieved two nights previously should not be allowed to pass unrecognised by the authorities. A pioneer force of engineers is not supposed to fight, but it is quite evident it can do so when properly commanded; and that our militia arc as good as our regulars was shown by the grand bayonet charge the Royal Lancasters made during the battle.
"All clear" was reported, and about 8 a.m. we left the mighty Zand river deviation behind us and hurried on to Brandfort. Another long delay, but, having picked up General Allen, we proceeded on our journey to Bloemfontein, which we reached about 5.30 on Sunday night, On the way we stopped at Karee Siding for the General to disembark and to pick up three sick soldiers, to whom we resigned our places in the covered truck. Close to the railway are six neat little graves, marking the last resting - place of four gallant officers and six men of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, who fell in the honour of their country on the way up. We crossed, too, the great Modder river by means of the "deviation"—truly a magnificent piece of work—and in bidding farewell to one of the most interesting bits of the country, I could only do so with relief when I noted the whole way down the traces and results of our great British army's northward march. I found piles of letters at the club at Bloemfontein, had a chat with Lord Kitchener and General Wavell, who were both going north that night, slept in a dirty, uncomfortable hotel, called the Royal, and left Bloem-fon tern gladly behind me yesterday morning at 10 a.m., the first direct traveller from Pretoria to London, with nothing but visions of " Home, Sweet Home!" before me.