'It is vain for you to rise up early.'—Ps. cxxvii. 2.
Having been for a month at Heidelberg, we had begun to quite make it our own, and felt as if we should finish the war where we were. And although there were still any amount of commandoes in the field, we could scarcely be blamed for thinking that the back of the business was broken, and that a few weeks, or at the outside months, must see us returning to England. Well, we reckoned without our host, or rather the hosts of Messrs. Botha, De Wet, De la Rey, & Co., and if we made a mistake we made it in good company.
The Colonel had never ceased fortifying and improving Dublin Hill, and there is no doubt that at the end of July his efforts had resulted in a very sound and efficient post.
Everything pointed to peace and quiet when, late on the afternoon of July 27th, the ominous 'order' call broke the stillness of the crisp wintry evening.
'Come for orders! Come for orders! Hurry up, hurry up; come for orders!'
Who, that soldiered through those long weary months, but must remember that infernal call? For it was characteristic of the war, and owing, doubtless, to the immense tract of country over which it was waged, that not only the rank and file, but even the officers, with one or two exceptions, knew little or nothing of what was going on. Consequently one never knew what the next minute would bring forth, and waited accordingly with ears at tension for the strains of the bugle, whose notes might portend nothing or everything.
(p. 122) On this occasion they were the prelude to one of the most stirring periods in the history of the war—the first great De Wet hunt. It is beside the purport of this volume to discuss the advantages of British infantry pursuing mounted Boers. It has often been maintained that the result of such an apparently hopeless hare-and-tortoise sort of procedure would have been successful on this occasion but for the fact of the unblocking of Olifant's Nek. On the other hand, there are not wanting many who are equally prepared to argue that, although this bolt-hole being open may have facilitated the guerilla's escape, that astute leader would easily have found some other nook or cranny quite sufficient for his purpose had it been shut; while, if the worst had come to the worst, from his point of view, he could, at the sacrifice of his waggons and guns, have dissolved his commando in the night, only to unite again at some more suitable and less column-infected time and place.
At the time we knew nothing of all this; all we knew was that some big move was in progress, for, as we neared the railway next day, train after train steamed through, reminiscent of the vicinity of Epsom on a Derby Day, but that was all. Where we were going, when we were going, why we were going, were all questions quite beyond our ken—not to be answered, indeed, until some days later, when an officer on General Hunter's Staff told us what it was all about.
Our march to the railway on the 28th was a long and trying one, variously computed at from twenty-one to twenty-three miles. Whatever its exact length may have been is immaterial; it was the method in which it was conducted that was so desperately trying. After the usual sketchy apology for a breakfast, the column moved off with the Somersets as advance-guard, and 'F' and 'G' company of the Dublins as rearguard. From a variety of causes the progress was uncommonly slow, and, no halt being made of greater length than a few minutes, the men of the rearguard (p. 123) had a trying time, for any one who has marched behind a column of waggons, &c., miles in length, knows that one practically gets no halt at all from these five-minute snatches, owing to the necessity of continually closing up. It was quite dark when the rearguard hove in sight of the passing trains, and then, to make matters thoroughly uncomfortable, some half-dozen waggons stuck firmly in a snipe-bog, scarcely a mile from their destination.
It looked uncommonly as if the unfortunate rearguard would have to bivouac in that miserable marsh. As everybody was pouring with perspiration from their endeavours with the waggons, and as it was beginning to freeze, while there was no chance of getting at great-coats, blankets, or food unless the waggons came out, out they jolly well had to come—and came. It was ten o'clock before the men got anything to eat, and 11.30 p.m. before our arrangements for the night were completed. Our invaluable French 'chef' had kept some hot soup for the rearguard, and seldom was soup more appreciated than by those famished and frozen warriors.
(p. 124) We now heard that we were going south, and going south by train, and that at all events was something to look forward to. At least it was a change—something to look forward to with anticipation; and certainly it is something to look back upon with a certain amount of amusement, but at the time that railway journey was certainly the reverse of comfortable.
We could not get off as early as we expected to on the 29th. The first train started all right, but owing to the amount of work to be done in getting kit over a small drift that lay between our bivouac of the night before and the station, the second train did not follow it till 3.30 p.m.
After this the difficulty of dispatch increased with each succeeding train, until when it came to entraining reluctant horses and still more reluctant mules practically in the dark, for there was no other light but the dim glimmer of two candle-lamps, the task became herculean, and required an infinity of patience and tact. The General and his staff having gone by the first excursion, the task of bringing along the remainder of the column devolved on Colonel Hicks, with Captain Fetherstonhaugh as his staff officer. They did not complete the entraining until the early hours of the 30th, and then only to find the line blown up in front of them. The fact that no disaster occurred here was owing to Colonel Hicks' determination not to try to get through that night, as he clearly foresaw what actually took place, and that there was nothing to prevent the enemy blowing up the line.
It is necessary now to turn our attention to the second train, which conveyed most of the regiment, under command of Major Bird. Some forty men with their arms and accoutrements were told off to each open truck, necessitating the tightest packing, which, however, had a beneficial effect in so far as it took off the worst part of the constant succession of jerks and jolts which the journey consisted of. But everybody was full of fun, and the men as merry as crickets at the (p. 125) change from the long days of uninteresting 'foot-slogging' and the prospect of a brush with the elusive De Wet.
The officers—about twenty in number—travelled in the guard's van, on the floor of which they made themselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
After passing Vereeniging and duly admiring the excellent work of the sappers, the mess-president proposed that they should sample the hampers he had provided for them. This was carried unanimously, but at that moment the train began to slow up, and, anxious to see every new place, we determined to wait until the train started again, and then enjoy our dinner in peace and comfort.
The sudden explosion of a shell from 'Long Tom' in our midst could not have had a more demoralising effect than the news which greeted us when we came to a standstill. It arrived in the shape of a telegram from the General, ordering the officers to ride in the trucks with the men, and to keep a sharp look-out for attacks from both sides. So there was no chance of any dinners after all, and all our visions of chicken and tongue, whisky and sparklets, and a hot cup of tea or (p. 126) chocolate resolved themselves into a lump of chocolate out of one's haversack and a pull at one's water-bottle. The mess-president proved himself a man of resource on this trying occasion. With hunger gnawing at his vitals he saw a beautiful dinner laid out in a waiting-room for some staff officers. Unable to satisfy his comrades he saw no reason why he himself should go unsatisfied, and in the three or four minutes occupied by the engine in watering he hastily bolted a fine plate of roast beef and potatoes, not omitting a bottle of beer standing hard by, and jumped into the train at the last moment, thanking his astonished host and friend, Major Hickie of the 7th Fusiliers, as the train moved off into the darkness.
Anything more cheerless than the remainder of that night journey it would be hard to conceive. In the first place, when there are forty men in an open truck, it is very difficult to find room for two more. In the second place, it was bitterly cold, and a pitch-dark night. In the third place, the even-money chance of a slab or two of gun-cotton on the line ahead was not a pleasing one to contemplate. In the fourth place, the men were ordered to 'charge magazines,' and to spend several hours jolting along with the cold barrel of a loaded rifle poking one in the ribs, or insinuatingly tucking itself into the nape of one's neck, could by no stretch of imagination or fire-eating ambition be called comforting. However, there was one fine piece of news at any rate to act as a compensation, the surrender of Commandant Prinsloo and three or four thousand men to General Hunter.
Once or twice ghostly forms on horseback loomed suddenly out of the blackness of the veld, momentarily lit up by the glare from the engine. On each occasion they shouted some warning, but what it was nobody could make out. Our engine-driver fully expected to be blown up, and had taken the bit between his teeth, cracking on at a pace that stirred up the living contents of the trucks (p. 127) behind him, until if any one of them had had a spare morsel of fat on him, he must inevitably have been churned into butter. Carrying on at this rate, we soon arrived at our destination, a small station called Kopjes. And when very shortly after our arrival two or three dull explosions in the direction whence we had come signified that the line had been blown up right enough, our gratitude to the engine-driver was considerably increased. Nor did his solicitude for our welfare end even then, for having effected his object, he said we could have as much boiling water out of the engine as we liked, and in less than sixty seconds we were drinking steaming hot chocolate, and returning grateful thanks to our host. If any one class more than another deserved special recognition during this war, it was the railway staff—the drivers, stokers, and guards. It is no exaggeration to say that during the whole war no train was ever run at night but that these men did not run the risk of being blown sky-high, in addition to all the other incidental dangers of their hazardous calling.
(p. 128) The break in the line necessitated our waiting some two or three days at the station, until the remainder of the column got through. When it was at last assembled, we marched off due west, towards the sound of heavy firing in the distance. A march of fourteen miles brought us within sight and almost within range of a long, low line of kopjes, and here, we were informed on our arrival, was the famous guerilla chief, surrounded—so we were informed—at last, and only awaiting the arrival of our column to be finished off altogether. Without going so far as some of the subalterns, who on hearing he was surrounded seemed to anticipate the sight of De Wet in the middle of a sort of cock-pit, with the British forces sitting round, there still seemed a considerable number of sufficiently large gaps in the chain of columns and brigades slowly and ponderously extending round either flank of the Boer position. The firing we had heard had been from the Boer guns, they having shelled the Derbyshire Regiment out of their camp, which had been pitched imprudently close to the harmless-looking kopjes. Needless to say, there was not a move of any sort to be seen, and how on earth three or four thousand men managed to conceal themselves so absolutely must ever remain a marvel. True, their camp was beyond the crest-line, but it is certain they had outposts and sentries on the look-out, and these must of necessity have been posted where they could see us; but certain it was we could not see them, carefully as telescopes and Zeiss glasses swept every inch of the hills.
Unfortunately we had to leave eighty-nine men behind at the railway, as they had no boots, a serious matter with every probability of a stiff fight on our hands: for General Hart's orders were to prevent De Wet going south; to attack, if necessary, to make him go north, but not to allow him to go in any other direction. This being so, our object was effected, as will appear later on.
Another and equally sudden interruption to a meal took (p. 129) place on August 1st. Marshall's Horse, a Colonial corps of whom we saw a good deal, had gone out on a reconnaissance in the morning, and had some scrapping with the enemy's patrols, &c. But now word suddenly came that they were surrounded, and in a tight corner. Hastily dropping knives and forks, we fell in almost at the double, and, though somewhat struck by the incongruity and apparent anomaly in the fact of our cavalry being surrounded by the Boers when we had been distinctly informed that it was we who were surrounding them, set off as hard as we could lay legs to the ground. After marching between four and five miles, well within the hour, we met the doctor of our mounted corps, who said he had been taken prisoner and released, and that there was no necessity for going any further, as our friends had beaten off our enemies and were on their way back. So back we trudged too, meeting on the way what most of us thought was a squadron of cavalry, but which turned out to be Brigadier-General Little's cavalry brigade. The sight of the attenuation of this force afforded us food for reflection, and made some of us begin to understand a little how it was that, in spite of our magnificent paper forces, we still found such difficulty in rounding-up our foes.
The next three or four days were uneventful. Lord Kitchener arrived and took over the chief command of all the forces, which now really seemed to be closing in on De Wet. The noose was being drawn tighter and tighter daily, and the Boers' position became more and more precarious. What would have happened but for Lord Kitchener's arrival it is hard to say, as General Hart, ever impatient of passivity, a very Ney for pertinacity of attack, personal bravery, and confidence in his troops, was undoubtedly on the eve of launching an attack. But in the light of the succeeding events, it is clear now that such an attack would have been premature and ill-timed. In the event of its non-success—and we had a very small force to carry it out with—the (p. 130) general operations would have been completely ruined, for we being the Southern force, there would have been nothing to prevent De Wet going south. In the event of success it would merely have meant that the Boers would have slipped away north two or three days sooner than they did, when, seeing that our arrangements to intercept them were not even then complete, an earlier start would have enabled them to carry out their retreat with even greater ease.
Major King, of General Hunter's staff, now arrived in camp with a Boer prisoner, one of Prinsloo's staff. The latter was being sent through with a message to De Wet, informing him of the full magnitude of the Boer surrender at Golden Gate, and advocating his own relinquishment of further operations. They went through to the Boers' position, and were courteously received, but General De Wet declared it was impossible for him to think of giving up now, as he had President Steyn with him. Nobody believed in the excuse, and its purport is somewhat difficult to understand, but it ended the conference, and Major King and his prisoner returned to camp.
Major English, whose eye had proved troublesome and kept him behind, now rejoined the battalion, to everybody's gratification, for the publication of Lord Roberts's army order, which took place at this time, had made us all very proud of him and his men.
On the 5th an order was given to send out a small force, consisting of two companies of the regiment, a pompom, and a troop of Marshall's Horse, to a point five miles N.N.E. of the camp, in order to fill up a somewhat big gap between General Hart and the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. 'B' and 'G' companies, under an officer of the regiment, with Captain Nelson, R.M.L.I., and Lieutenants Smith and Molony as subalterns, and Lieutenant Nek of Marshall's Horse, were selected, and started as soon as the men's dinners were finished. General Hart rode out later on, and, catching this force up, (p. 131) selected a site, and gave orders to the officer commanding it to dig himself in, promising that the pompom, which had not turned up, should be sent on.
In the meantime the remainder of General Hart's force also started digging, a very different state of affairs to his premeditated attack a couple of days earlier.
The detachment sent out patrols on the morning of the 6th to see if they could draw the enemy's fire, with strict injunctions to content themselves with doing so and then withdraw. This they soon succeeded in doing. On their return they passed a farmhouse, and received information that an important Boer General was in the habit of sleeping there sometimes. Visions of a capture of De Wet inflamed the minds of some of the younger officers, and on the night of the 6th-7th Captain Nelson and Lieutenant Smith, with a few picked men, made a raid on the house. However, they found nobody but womenfolk, and returned empty-handed.
Next day commenced our memorable pursuit. De Wet and his merry men had slipped away over the ford bearing his own name as neatly as a cherry-stone from between finger and thumb, and, with their heads turned north, were to give us, and many another converging column like us, the hunt of our lives. The regiment started at 11.30 and only halted at dusk, some three miles from a range of hills on which rumour said the Boers were going to stand and fight it out to the bitter end, even if the whole British Army came against them. 'B' and 'G' companies did not get in until 9 p.m., as, in addition to having an extra five miles to march, they had some trouble with their waggons.
We marched all day on the 8th in an easterly direction along the left or southern bank of the Vaal River—a long, tiring, uneventful trek. Expecting momentarily to see our prey delivered over to us, our spirits sank lower and lower as the day dragged on with no sign of any Boers. There was the usual aggravating little drift to be negotiated at 6 p.m. (p. 132) only half a mile short of our camping-ground for the night, but eventually we got all the waggons over, and men and officers obtained something to eat. This proved one of the coldest nights of the winter, and there was ice instead of water in most of the water-bottles next morning when reveille went at 3.30 a.m.
Starting at 5 a.m. we again went steadily on till 6 p.m., making well over thirteen hours without food. We skirted round the south of Parys, a name which appealed strongly to a good many of us, and suddenly heard the welcome sound of heavy firing not very far ahead. The column halted, and word soon came that this time our pains were really to be rewarded; the Boers were only six miles ahead, and Lord Methuen was engaged with their rearguard. All signs of hunger and fatigue at once disappeared, the regiment started trekking off once more, instinctively 'stepping out' as they went. The guns still thundered invitingly just ahead, and as we topped each fresh horizon or rounded the slope of the next kopje we all expected to see our prey close in front. But it was not to be. As the afternoon wore on the sound of the guns died away, until at last we came to a halt at dusk in a sort of amphitheatre among the low hills. Too tired to want much food, the men sank down with the delightful nightcap that reveille might again be expected at 3.30 a.m.
The 10th proved more or less a repetition of the preceding days. Starting at 5 a.m., we did not halt till well after dark, the waggons, kits, food, &c., not getting up to us till 10 p.m. Seeing that there was no chance of any other food, some bullocks were commandeered, and the men cooked them in little chunks in their mess-tins over the grass fires. Tired out as they were it was too cold to get any sleep without blankets, and long lines of melancholy soldiers could be seen standing along the edges of the grass fires, against which their figures were outlined in bold silhouette, and from whose scanty flames they endeavoured to get what little warmth they could. Everybody was wet through to the knee, a good many to the (p. 133) waist, while some were soused all over, for in the course of our march we had turned due north, and crossed the Vaal at Lindeque Drift. The river is very broad here, and split up into numerous small streams, in the wading of which many humorous incidents took place, owing to the slippery nature of the rolling stones in the bottom of the river. A rolling stone may not gather much moss, but it is undoubtedly capable of gathering a considerable quantity of slimy weeds, and when concealed by two or three feet of running water it offers about as precarious a footing as it is possible to imagine.
Winding our way through the low hills on the Transvaal side of the river, we at length emerged on to an enormous plain. The far horizon was bounded by the Gatsrand hills, with which, as with another detached clump of rounded kopjes on our left, known as the Losberg, we were destined ere long to become closely acquainted. As we finally turned in about 11 p.m. we heard reveille was not to sound till 4.30 a.m., but when some subaltern attempted a feeble joke about a 'Europe morning,' his effort met with nothing but silent contempt.
(p. 134) There is little doubt that any one who shared in that next day's march will never forget it. As we proceeded across the illimitable plain a strong head-wind began to blow, increasing in strength as the day wore on. De Wet had fired all the grass ahead of us, with the result that the air was laden with millions and millions of particles of minute ashes and sharp cinders. These soon filled eyes, ears, nostrils, throats, and lungs, until breathing became well-nigh impossible, and the agony caused by their penetration into our eyes almost intolerable. But woe to him who endeavoured to alleviate his distress by wiping his eyes with grimy hands. Such action merely had the effect of 'rubbing it in,' and so accentuating the misery and discomfort. The men very soon began to fall out in ever-increasing numbers. On one occasion Captain Nelson, R.M.L.I., was seen straggling off right away from the column. Lieutenant Bradford went after him and found that he was temporarily quite blind. At last, after hours of torment, we reached a pass in the Gatsrand, on the far side of which we halted, as night fell. A big grass fire almost immediately broke out, and as the grass was long and thick, and a strong wind still blew to fan it, things looked very ugly. The flames swept right through the camp, but luckily the tents were not up. But what would happen when they reached the guns and ammunition? What, indeed, might have happened, but for the gallantry of the gunners and naval detachment, it is hard to say. As it was the ammunition-waggons caught fire and were sufficiently charred to demonstrate the closeness of the danger. But, as ever, 'the handy-man' was to the fore, and with promptitude and courage, that could not have been excelled, managed to extinguish the flames.
And now for a wash—what, no water! No water, which, hungry and exhausted as they were, every one wanted even more than food. But, alas! it was too true, and after contenting ourselves with some liquid mud, flavoured with (p. 135) charcoal, called coffee, and some few mouthfuls of tough old trek-ox, liberally peppered with burnt grass, we only waited to hear that reveille was to be at 1.30 a.m. before sinking down to snatch what rest was possible. This delightful spot rejoiced in the refreshing name of Orange Grove.
The 12th of August. Shade of St. Grouse! At 3 a.m. we were on the move in bright moonlight and sharp frost, with a wind blowing which cut like a knife. After doing some sixteen or seventeen miles we arrived about 10 a.m. at Wolverdiend station—a large force of cavalry and infantry assembled there, moving out as we moved in. Camp was pitched, and a good meal cooked—our first respectable one for three days—and then—then came the order to start off again in the afternoon. Wearily we resumed that march, but even as we started the prospect was brightened by the sound of heavy guns ahead, on our right front. We finally bivouacked for the night on the most stony kopje in all South Africa. It was impossible to find a spot anywhere that did not consist of sharp, jagged rocks, rendering sleep, to any troops less tired than we were, an utter impossibility. A rumour credited Lord Methuen with again having brought De Wet to bay, and we were almost positively assured that next day would end our laborious march.
No less than ten mules were lost during the day, from utter exhaustion. Many a heart, weary in itself, ached yet more deeply for the sufferings entailed on the dumb animals.
Reveille at 2, off at 3, was our time-table for the next day. After proceeding some five or six miles, the force came to the pretty little Mooi River. The Colonel found an excellent place for us to cross it, compared to the spot where the Somersets were obliged to plunge in. A halt was called on the far side, and a scratch meal taken. While thus employed, some of our troops who had been De Wet's prisoners, amongst them a couple of our own men, came in. (p. 136) They had been with De Wet's rearguard, and told us that when Lord Methuen had shelled it the day before, they had managed to escape; also that the fire of Lord Methuen's guns had knocked over a Boer gun and exploded one of their ammunition waggons. They added that De Wet was in command of a very considerable force, and some distance ahead.
We presently resumed the pursuit, finally camping in some very desolate country, where the water was scarce and bad. Signs of over-fatigue and want of sleep were now becoming very apparent, a large number of men falling out and riding on the waggons. Poor fellows! they stuck it out as long as ever they could, but their socks gave out from the constant wettings, and they pitched them away, marching on in their boots until the pain of the raw chafes became too much to bear. There was never a grumble or complaint: a man simply asked to see his Captain, and respectfully said his feet had given way, and he must regretfully fall out. The officers knew it was true, and felt for their comrades whose emaciated kits precluded the possibility of a change. To (p. 137) such a state was the column now reduced that the General, who had ordered reveille for 2 a.m. the following morning, actually put it back till 6 o'clock.
The regiment acted as rearguard on the 14th, and did not start till 9 a.m., halting for a short time at mid-day near a blown-up Boer ammunition waggon. Every conceivable sort and kind of small-arm ammunition lay scattered around on the veld, and those who were keen on curios of this description made quite a collection of full and empty cases.
The battalion lost eleven more mules, the poor brutes simply falling to the ground from utter exhaustion, being perforce left where they lay. We arrived in camp at 5.30 p.m., and then for the first time, in at all events some of our lives, heard two reveilles in one day, the hated call blaring in our ears at 10.30 p.m. Starting at 12, we pushed on, belts tightened, teeth clenched, and simply determined not to give in. We were told that the cavalry brigades had De Wet at last at the foot of the Magaliesberg, only sixteen miles ahead. So on we went into the sheer and bitter night, more like ghostly shadows than anything else, as the spectral column wound its way through sleeping villages and over mile after mile of dark and silent veld. At last our eyes were gladdened by the sight of twinkling watch-fires on the slopes of some hills just ahead, and as the first signs of dawn began to become manifest, we sank wearily down to enjoy a few minutes' repose. But it was broad daylight when we woke, and alas! for all the hopes of the past eight days, the hills ahead were only occupied by our cavalry. Theirs had been the watch-fires of the dark hours of the night. The game was up, and we were told the first great De Wet hunt was over. Some one had failed to stop the earth; the fox had foiled his pursuers, and the various Generals reluctantly whipped off their hounds.
It was a bitter disappointment. We had been so buoyed up by the promises held out to us. Every one had so (p. 138) thoroughly entered into the job, and plodded stolidly along; and all for nothing. Work which, if successful, would have lived in history, but which, being unsuccessful, was fated to be forgotten and ignored; and unsuccessful through no fault of any of the troops engaged in it. There was no General or Staff to blame: no regiment or department which could be hauled over the coals. No; some one had blundered, that was all. The point has never been exactly cleared up, and probably never will be, and there the matter ended.
'Lay not your blame on me: if you have lost him,
Why, I have lost him too.'—Othello.
So we turned over and fell asleep again, and woke up at 9 a.m. and had some breakfast, and were about to fall asleep again when the word came to fall in and march on to some other bivouac. The one we were in was good enough for us, but of course there was nothing for it but to obey, and we marched to a small village called Rietfontein. Here we heard that Colonel Hore's column was surrounded, and in a bad way, some eighty miles off, and that we were to form part of a small force, and make a forced march to his relief.
Accordingly the column marched at 8 a.m. next morning. After going about two miles, an order arrived saying we were to go back; and back we went—a somewhat profitless proceeding, but doubtless unavoidable. The remainder of the day was spent resting, but it was known that reveille was to sound at midnight, and that we were to make a big effort next day.
Starting at 1 a.m., and steadily tramping on till 9.30 a.m., we put twenty miles behind us. A halt was then made for a meal in rather a pretty spot, which actually boasted of some trees sufficiently large to afford shade, and under the foot of some well-wooded kloofs on our right. Resuming our march, we did some two or three miles more (p. 139) when word came that Colonel Hore was all right, having made a most gallant resistance and suffered many casualties, and that we were to go back the way we had come and march to Pretoria.
By the time we got back to our bivouac it was still early in the day, and we had already marched twenty-five miles. Five more mules had fallen dead, making a total of thirty-eight since we started on the 7th.
On the 18th we resumed our return journey, if return journey it could be called, since wherever we were going it was a hundred to one against its being the place we had come from. After a short trek we out-spanned for breakfasts, and an order was then given that we were to stay where we were and bivouac there for the night.
We moved to Vlakfontein next day, a distance of about sixteen miles, and the march quite uneventful. Rumour, however, pointed to Krugersdorp as our destination, and this must have been the exception that proves the rule, for on this occasion rumour proved right.
Another long and equally uninteresting march of eighteen or nineteen miles, only relieved by the arrival in hot haste of an indignant Marquis. It appeared he had been at a farm some two miles off on our left front, and had been offered some tea, which he had refused, and on leaving the house had been shot at by about a dozen Boers. What it was all about, or what he had been doing alone at this farm, and why the Boers should not shoot at him when he withdrew, none of us could quite make out. However, there were some Boers there, so the Colonel fired a few long-range volleys in the direction indicated, but declined to make a deviation with a view to reprisals.
Another eighteen miles on the 31st brought us to within about eight of Krugersdorp. About time too, for the men's boots were giving way badly, and scarcely one in ten had any socks.
(p. 140) The eight miles proved to be very long ones, however—longer than even Irish miles—and although we had made an early start, it was noon before we at last reached Krugersdorp for the second time. On this occasion we halted on a hillside just outside the north of the town, and beside a sort of small suburb on the further side of the creek.
Since leaving Heidelberg we had marched 289 miles. But of this distance 123 had been covered in the week during which we pursued De Wet, and 228 in the fortnight commencing August 7th. The longest distance covered in any one day had been the 25 miles on the day we turned. This marching was not done on roads it must be remembered, but across country, over hills, and through rivers, with frequent troubles with the unfortunate transport to overcome, and with very little food, and that of an inferior quality.
So ended our attempt on foot to catch De Wet on a thoroughbred. It was hopeless from the first, and yet went within measurable distance of succeeding, though even if we had rounded up some of his force at Olifant's Nek, it is very doubtful if De Wet himself would have been caught.